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Pentecost 2022

Updated: Mar 18

Acts 2:1-4 (NIV)
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

I want to start by begging your indulgence, because I'm not going to begin with Pentecost, although I promise I will get there eventually. lnstead I want to begin by looking back to Easter, which is not a bad place to start really, given that Pentecost follows from the events of that weekend. Jesus ate a final supper with his disciples, at which he said he would soon leave them but promised to send the Spirit to help and to guide them, then he was arrested and killed. On the third day he returned to life and appeared to his closest friends, and for forty days after that he remained in the world and appeared to others of his followers, before he ascended to God with further promise that the Spirit would come and they would bear witness to the ends of the earth. The disciples returned to Jerusalem, where they spent time praying in the temple, and it was against this background that the events of Pentecost took place.


So the first Easter sets the context, but really I want to think back to this Easter, when I tweeted a picture of the table centrepiece I had created, which included a small posy of homegrown flowers and the mini Easter garden I had made at Messy Church. I captioned this with the words: "Our Easter centrepiece. The more horror I see in the world, the more I seek joy, not to ignore the horror, but because I believe joy will overcome it. A tiny Easter garden and a jam jar of flowers cut from the garden are a little sign of that." Mass shootings, unceasing war, spiralling poverty, ecological disaster...the horror doesn't seem to stop, and so the search for joy intensifies.


As part of my commitment to keep seeking joy amid horror, I have recently read Rutger Bregman's book 'Humankind: A Hopeful History', which puts forward the argument that people are fundamentally decent. Media in all its forms tends to focus on the exceptional, which mostly seems to mean the exceptionally bad, so it's easy to take a dim view of humanity, and even easier if you grow up in a faith tradition that emphasises our fallen nature. I winced as Bregman cited the Heidelberg Catechism, which declares that we are "totally unable to do good and inclined to all evil". He is right that Christianity has been permeated by a negative view of humanity, but my reading of scripture leads me in the opposite direction. We were made in the image of God and God said we were good, so our essential nature must still be defined by goodness, and I would rather speak of original blessing than original sin. Bregman likewise argues that a pessimistic understanding of humankind is unwarranted and even unhelpful. We are better than we think, and if we only realise that, we can be better still.


I have talked before about the power of stories to not only tell but shape our lives, and so it is important that we tell ourselves the right stories. For nearly seventy years, William Golding's 'The Lord of the Flies', in which a group of schoolboys are stranded on a desert island and soon run wild, ultimately turning to deadly violence, has put vivid imagery to the idea that in extreme circumstances most of us will turn feral. And yet when a group of schoolboys really was stranded on a desert island, in the Pacific Ocean in the 1960s, the story played out very differently. As Bregman narrates in his book, they dug a garden, hollowed out tree trunks to collect rainwater, created a badminton court and gymnasium, and kept a permanent fire. They set up a roster, working in the garden and kitchen and keeping watch in teams of two. Each day began with song and prayer, using a guitar fashioned from driftwood and wires salvaged from their wrecked boat. If the boys argued, they were sent to opposite sides of the island to calm down, before being brought back together to apologise. They maintained this way of life for more than a year before they were rescued. It may not be as exciting a story as 'The Lord of the Flies', but it is more hopeful, and most importantly it is more truthful.


So what can we do with this truth? I think a belief in the fundamental goodness of people can change how we relate to one another, especially how we relate to those who at first glance we may deem not to be good. It can make us more patient with those with whom we disagree, more persistent in campaigning for political and social change, more gracious in responding to those who do harm. And that in turn may lead to greater agreement, positive change, less harm. Bregman considers the prison system in Norway, where prisoners have private rooms and access to leisure facilities and work opportunities. The aim is not simply to prevent bad behaviour through punishment, but to prevent bad intentions through reform, and it works. The rate of reoffending is low and the number of former prisoners who find employment is high. As the warden of one of these prisons says: "Treat people like dirt and they'll be dirt. Treat them like human beings and they'll act like human beings." If we believe that people are fundamentally selfish or wicked, and we don't expect anything better, we probably won't get it. If we believe that people are always capable of doing good, and we give them the opportunity to do it, we will find that more often than not they do.


This may sound like naive optimism, but Bregman describes it as a new realism. He does not ignore the very real greed and cruelty that people are indeed capable of, but carefully demonstrates that on balance the good outweighs the bad. If you need more convincing, I do recommend the book, or I could happily talk about it for hours. As part of trying to maintain a balanced realism, Bregman considers why it is that our instincts for kindness and compassion do not always win out, and he suggests it is at least in part because of a kind of mismatch. After thousands of years living as nomadic hunter-gatherers, we made the switch to a farming culture and then began building cities, which made us possessive and suspicious in ways we had not been previously. Essentially, we created for ourselves a lifestyle which does not fit our nature. So do we need to resolve this mismatch by returning to that former way of life? Bregman thinks not, and we are probably too far removed to get back to it even if we wanted to. And this is where Pentecost comes in.


Well, this is almost where Pentecost comes in. We need to take one more detour first, back to the early chapters of Genesis and the Tower of Babel. Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.


In much the same way that I spoke a few weeks ago of the Garden of Eden as a kind of parable, written to tell us more about ourselves than our history, I understand this story as an attempt to make sense of why humans do not share a common tongue. I struggled for a long time with the idea that God would deliberately confuse our speech and sow division, and assumed that divine motive was being wrongly assigned to purely human action, but if Bregman’s mismatch theory is correct, then perhaps we might understand any role God played in the multiplication of language as an attempt to discourage us from building the vast and complex structures that seem to trip up our better natures.


With that additional context in mind, we do now come to Pentecost, which undoes the confusion of Babel, but not by returning to a single language. The crowd didn’t all suddenly understand Aramaic, but rather they heard the disciples speaking in their own tongues. Their diversity of speech was maintained, but blessed with a new unity of understanding. I don’t think we should underestimate how important that is. This affirmation of unity in diversity was one in the eye to the totalising imperialism of Rome, and it should be a refutation of contemporary forms of imperialism too. God is not building an empire in which all is brought into uniformity or else subjugated, but a kindom in which “the manifold wisdom of God is made known”, as Ephesians 3:10 has it. That world manifold means varied or multifaceted, suggesting the intricate nature of an embroidered pattern as in Joseph’s dreamcoat. The kindom of God is meant to be a kaleidoscopic riot of colour, and a cacophonous festival of noise, and that is exactly what we see at Pentecost. The church begins as a crowd of people of different cultures with different languages wearing different clothes and eating different foods. It is a holy chaos and a foretaste of eternity.


Of course the truth is that there were only so many people in Jerusalem because they had travelled to the city for the festival, and they would have gone home afterwards, back to communities of people who shared a culture and a language, who wore similar clothes and ate similar foods. But they did so knowing that they now shared something with people who were unlike them, and I suspect with a greater openness to others who were unlike them. I doubt any of the Christian communities that were founded by those first believers were as diverse as that Pentecost crowd, but we do know that the early church brought people together across barriers of gender and class and ethnicity in an entirely new way. At its best, the contemporary church continues to do the same.


I asked earlier if we needed to resolve the mismatch identified by Bregman and live out of our better natures by returning to our former nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and suggested that the answer was that this was both impossible and unnecessary. I think these stories of Babel and Pentecost show that we can heal by going forwards rather than backwards, that through the movement of the Spirit we can celebrate the differences that have arisen between us while affirming the common humanity that still unites us. Pentecost gives us a glorious vision of all peoples brought together to reveal the manifold wisdom of God, a vision we should continue to set before us as our greatest hope and our deepest desire. At times that vision may feel more like a dream, but it can be a reality. Because we are better than we think, and if we only realise that, we can be better still.

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