Saturday, May 30, 2009

Tongues of Fire and Rushing Heavenly Winds

Acts Chapter 2: The Coming of the Holy Spirit

The story of the day of Pentecost is one of those Bible stories which has the power to either inspire or perplex us...depending on what we believe about it.

For some Christians, it is the literal story of how God supernaturally intervened in the life of the early Christians; putting tongues of fire on their heads, and giving them an amazing, supernatural gift of being able to speak in other languages. Read at face value, it appears to be an outpouring of the Spirit of God, in the first of a series of dramatic signs and wonders.

Do you find yourself inspired by this story? Do you take it as evidence that the next time you are speaking to someone with another language - and you want to share the Gospel - that you can rely on God to suddenly give you the other person's language in which to speak?

Hmm...difficult isn't it? Because, of course, the reality is that I'd be surprised if anyone here really expects that to happen. It would certainly be a useful gift. If it was really available to us, then all the hard work of the Bible Society, translating the Bible into other langauages, would no longer be necessary. Before being sent off to foreign lands, missionaries would no longer have to spend two or three years of their life learning the language of the country to which they are going. Think what time would be saved!

Um...but, that's not how things happen, is it? That's not our experience of God, today, here and now. Of course, its entirely possible that this was a 'once in a world-history' opportunity - what theologians sometimes call a 'dispensation'. Perhaps God poured out this new gift just a sign that the language barrier erected at the Tower of Babel (see Genesis 11) would one day be torn down in the new Kingdom of God. But, I wonder whether a closer look at the text might give us a different perspective...

The first thing we should notice about this text is who wrote it. It was written by Luke, whom scholars agree was one of the last writers to put down on paper the stories about Jesus and the early days of the church. As such, he was writing many years after the events in question - and only a small portion of his writing contains his own personal experience (he seems to have accompanied Paul on some of his journeys). Most of what he wrote down were stories that had been told to him by other people...stories of amazing events which he didn't witness himself. And like 'the one that got away', we know what can happen to 'big fish stories'...

Scholars also agree that one of Luke's primary purposes in writing both his Gospel, and the Acts of the Apostles, was to show non-Jews that Jesus' message was meant for the whole world...not just the nation of Israel. So it should come as no surprise to read Luke's account of the day of Pentecost - and of how so many people from so many nations were present in Jerusalem. He even lists the different nations. But strangely, he puts the list in the voice of the crowd itself. The crowd says "We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites etc..." before going on to list all the different nationalities there. We certainly shouldn't read this part of the text as if it were a verbatim transcript of exactly what was said. Rather, Luke is using a story-teller's device ...he is getting across to the reader two essential parts of his story in one. First, that there were many nations present. Second that they were amazed at what they were seeing. But for dramatic effect, he weaves these two elements together, and puts them into the common voice of the crowd.

So, we can see from this that Luke is a story-teller... a dramatist, with a gift for making a story come alive. And that might make us wonder. What about the rest of this story? Can we be certain that what Luke describes...all these tongues of flame, this rushing sound from heaven, these multiple gifts of foreign language...can we be sure that this really happened exactly as Luke describes?

Well, I suggest to you that the evidence points us to a different conclusion. What evidence? Well, mainly...the evidence that Luke is quite obviously a great story-teller. He often throws rich theological ideas into his stories - as if those ideas had came out, fully formed, on the lips of the speaker. Take for example the glorious Song of Mary - the Magnificat - supposedly spoken by Mary immediately after the Angel (another story-teller's tool!) has given her the news of her pregnancy. No-one really expects that a teenage peasant woman who had never been to school (because school, then, was for boys only) would have been able to instantly compose and recite this rich theological lecture on the Kingdom of God, just off the cuff. No, it's a story telling device...a way of using story to point us to a much deeper truth than the story itself. In the case of the Magnificat, it's a story of God putting down the mighty from their seats, and exhalting the humble and meek...the story of God's heart for the poor and he meek, rather than the rich and the powerful. But what about Luke's other story of tongues of fire and rushing heavenly winds?

It's fun to speculate on the reality behind the story. Perhaps what really happened was something rather more like this ...

Chapter one of Luke's story tells us that the Disciples and a number of other believers - totalling about 120 people - were huddled together, for a number of days, awaiting the promised Holy Spirit. One can imagine the sort of conversations that would have gone on in such a situation. "What did Jesus mean? What is the Holy Spirit? When is He going to come? What will it be like? And, crucially, "What did Jesus say about the Spirit when he was with us?"

The conversation would have gone back and forth, over these days...each one remembering something of what Jesus had taught about the Spirit. Things like when he told them that he had to leave, in order for the Spirit to come. Things like the time when Jesus said that the Spirit was already in them (John 14.17 - "he remains with you and is in you"). They would have remembered that Jesus promised them that when the Spirit came, they would know that "I am in my Father and you are in me, just as I am in you" (John 14.19). They would perhaps also have remembered that Jesus, according to John's Gospel, had already given them the Holy Spirit, by symbolically breathing on them (John 20.22).

Perhaps as they contemplated these events, they came to the realisation that the Spirit of God was already in them and with them. Perhaps they I suggest we need to realise...that the Spirit of God is not some external force from Heaven, but is, instead, the very essence of our humanity. He is the "ground of our being" as the theologian Paul Tillich puts it. He is the life-force that the story of Genesis tells us was breathed into the nostrils of humanity. He is the energy of the universe, contained within the frail vessels of human bodies - bodies which St Paul called 'temples of the Holy Spirit' (1 Cor 6.9). All that was needed for the Spirit to 'come' was for this realisation to dawn in the minds of the Disciples and other believers.

It took them some time...many days...a wrestling with what Jesus had taught them (after all, they had often proved themselves to be a bit slow on the uptake of spiritual things!). But, eventually, I suggest...they got it. Suddenly, the light came on.

Wait a minute...'the light came on'. That sounds a bit like saying there was a light bulb over their you see in the cartoons when someone gets an idea. Maybe a tongue of fire? But, eventually, I suggest...they got it. Suddenly 'whoosh' hit them.

Wait a minute..." hit them." That sounds a bit like a rushing wind, doesn't it? Maybe the sound of a rushing wind from heaven?

I'm not being very subtle, am I?! But can you see what I'm suggesting? I'm suggesting that there is good scriptural evidence to demonstrate that this Pentecost story doesn't need to be read at face-value, as some sort of long distant supernatural event. Instead, this story can become OUR story too...

We too have the potential to realise that we are also temples of the Holy Spirit. We too have the potential for the light to dawn that we are already connected to the Divine Spirit of the Universe...that He already dwells in us. We too have the potential to realise that we are gods (with a small g), as Jesus himself pointed out in John 10.34. We are semi-divine beings, sparks from the divine flint, kindled with the atoms of earth to become walking, talking, Temples of the Holy Spirit. We too have the potential to realise that the purpose of the Spirit is to lead us into all truth (John 14.26) - the truth that we are made in the image of God (Gen 1.27)...the truth that, as St Paul said, we...all reflect the Lord's glory, [and] are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3.18).

There is much more that we could discuss about this. For example, we could think about all that stuff in Luke's story about the gift of speaking in other languages. But we've run out of time. You'll have to just continue this process of thinking about the story on your own. Let me just conclude with this thought...

I believe, and I hope I have argued, that the story of Pentecost need not perplex us. It need not lead us into wondering why we don't have the same gifts and abilities that are described in what, I believe, is a very poetic relating of a rather more ordinary event. Instead, the story - understood properly - has the power to inspire us. It can inspire us to see ourselves in a new light...a new tongue of fire. It can inspire us to realise just how connected to God we already are - and how connected to our neighbours, and friends, and our local community we all are. It can inspire us to go forth from today's service, as those first disciples went forth from their upper joyfully declare the Good News of the Gospel...the Good News that God loves us, and God wants us to become more and more complete, more and more like him, more and more the men and women he created us to be.



  1. Hi Tom
    I have thought long and hard over this post before replying, in order to reflect not only on what you are suggesting but how that makes me feel and what that suggests about the nature of God's intervention in the world.

    I have to confess that your general gist (as I have read it) bothers me enormously. Now whilst I would be the first to accept that later redaction and 'tweaking' has more than likely taken place since the actual events of the gospel. What I take from your sermon is that the whole dramatic and powerful interaction of God has been dummed down into a reductionist and somewhat receptionist understanding where God's activity is understood on our terms and by our own human thinking.

    If we simply dismiss this story as a reality (inspired by the Holy Spirit) just because we can't understand it, doesn't that simply mean that we can only have a god on our terms, where he fits neatly into our ability to understand.

    Again, you quote the magnificat as an unreliable story just because of the social class and context of the girl in question. What does this suggest about who God uses for his purpose (I certainly wouldn't be a priest if it were based upon the eloquence of men or of angels)
    Finally, if we take this approach with this part of scripture, how do we faithfully proclaim some of the other 'thin places' within the Christian story (Incarnation, miracles, death, resurrection etc etc?

    Isn't another reading of the this story, (without being a biblical literalist) as the Church teaches, that the dynamic power of God the Spirit did indeed descend on those folk, at that time and that we too should expect not only the still small voice of calm but also the possibility that God will act in larger than life (and comprehension) ways within our lives.

    A few words then spoke to me about the very real and ethereal nature of God

    St Symeon the New Theologian
    I know that the immovable comes down;
    I know that the invisible appears to me;
    I know that he who is far outside the whole creation takes me within himself and hides me in his arms, and then I find myself outside the whole world.
    I, a frail, small mortal in the world, behold the creator of the world, all of him, within myself; and I know that I shall not die, for I am within the life, I have the whole of life springing up as a fountain within me.
    He is in my heart, he is in heaven:
    Both there and here he shows himself to me with equal glory.

    PS love the blog and thank you for the opportunity to share some dialogue.

  2. Hi Phil,

    Thanks for taking the trouble to comment. I'm sorry that I don't have time to debate your points with you one by one - but I thank you for them (and for the careful language you have used.)

    I'm sorry to report, however, that on this occasion you haven't swayed me from my essential theory. I firmly believe that we religious people spend far too much time looking 'upwards' to some sort of heavenly head-master (who will punish or reward depending on how nicely we ask him). We focus on God 'out-there', who might touch us 'from there' (rather than God 'in-here' who touches us from in-here').

    After years of grappling with the God out-there, I have learned that he was 'in-here' all the time. I want to point to a God who is "the whole of life springing up as a fountain within me" - as you have so appropriately quoted from St Symeon the New Theologian.

    This sermon of mine, on which you have so kindly commented, is an admittedly provocative one. But I think it points (and only that) to something that is much truer, much deeper than the surface stories themselves.

    Keep on arguing with me though! I love it! I makes me think too!