Gathering the Scattered Ones

GENESIS 11.1-9 / Acts 2.1-21 / John 14.8-17

The Day of Pentecost

When we say, “Come, Holy Spirit” what do we think will happen?

What are we expecting?

What are we hoping for?

Perhaps a warm fuzzy feeling, maybe some divine inspiration, a little more confidence in our faith?

When the Holy Spirit came to the disciples on the Day of Pentecost he came with noise and fire and disruption.

He came with power.

It’s quite a violent image, unsettling, unexpected and designed to shake everything up.

And the disciples began speaking in other languages.

This is an odd sounding thing – God’s spirit bursts into the room and suddenly everyone is a language expert.

What was the point, you might think, what did it do for them?

But this miracle wasn’t for the disciples, to make them feel good or superior or show how great they were – it was for everyone else.

It was for people who didn’t believe or understand the gospel.

It was for people who might not even have heard of Jesus.

It was for the outsiders.

There were Jews from across the known world visiting for the Jewish festival of Pentecost – basically a harvest festival.

Maybe it was even their first trip to Jerusalem for some of them.

And now they were confronted with a group of local Jews talking away at them in their own language.

Babel Reversed

What was happening here was a reversal of the effects of the Tower of Babel.

As you may remember, the story in Genesis 11 goes that everyone spoke the same language and came together to build a huge tower to get as near as they could to heaven and get some fame and glory for themselves.

Their aim was to prove that they were equal to God and able to match him in power, showing that they didn’t need him.

They were also for some unexplained reason afraid of being scattered across the face of the earth and thought they could protect themselves by using their own power.

But God put an end to this by doing the very thing they were afraid of – he caused them to be scattered across the world by making them unable to understand each other.

In this way God limited their arrogance and proud ambition and placed limits on them.

And looking at how people treat each other given unlimited communication on the internet I think I see God’s point.

But the Day of Pentecost turned the scattering of humanity on its head.

By making it possible for people from all over the world to understand the disciples’ message the Spirit was reaching out and gathering into God’s kingdom everyone who wanted to come.

People who wouldn’t normally meet and who couldn’t understand each other were being drawn in by the power of the Spirit.

He was inviting them to gather together as one people belonging to God, united by a common language of love, forgiveness and understanding based on the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The Spirit was starting the process of bringing together the scattered people of the world and healing the nations.

And this is a process that’s still going on today.

In our world we’re divided by so many things – by race and gender and politics, by ideology and by creeds, by arguments and by long-running feuds.

And terrible wars are fought – we’ve been remembering this week the 75th anniversary of D-Day, a great day in that it was the beginning of the end for the Second World War, but also part of a very dark time in our history.

A New Hope

Yet, despite our ongoing divisions and problems, we see in the coming of the Holy Spirit a new chance for reconciliation, unity and hope.

A new beginning for humanity.

We can see the gathering power of the Spirit in churches where people of different ages, experiences, ideas, temperaments and backgrounds come together to try to live and worship as God’s people.

We can see it when people reach out to each other with repentance, forgiveness and understanding, not forgetting the past but also not letting it poison the present.

I saw this week a video of a meeting between two soldiers who fought in World War II, one English and one German, and they declared themselves to be friends, partners and brothers.

In such recognitions of our common humanity we can see hope for a better future.

We also see the Spirit’s power to bring people together when they try to understand those who are different from themselves, not being content to lean on stereotypes or prejudice but willing to listen and learn and break out of the bubble of those who are just like us.

And this is the power that’s at work within each one of us today.

We have access to the power of the Sprit – not to use for our own fame and glory, like the builders of the Tower of Babel tried to do, but to be part of God’s work in the world.

Our gospel reading reminded us that we’re given the Holy Spirit to be with us, to guide us, to remind us of the way of Jesus, and to enable us to do things for God – not just for our sake but for the sake of gathering into God’s kingdom all the scattered peoples of the world.

Just as those first disciples were given power to speak in other languages so that people from across the world could hear the gospel, we are given power to do the work that God has for us to do here and now.

We are given the power of the Sprit so that we can point to Jesus and through him to the Father, in the things we do and say, in how we live our lives, and in the ways in which we serve both God and the people around us.

And by pointing people to God we help to bring together scattered humanity into God’s kingdom, where all are united in love, joy and peace forever.

Holy Spirit

Ezekiel 36.8-12, 24-28 / Romans 8.1-17


The 1970s were a time of great liturgical change in the Church of England, with many different forms of service being tried out.
During this time, the then Bishop of Kensington is said to have turned up to lead a confirmation service which he began with the words: ‘The Lord is here.’


Being up to date with the latest liturgy, he was expecting the response, ‘His Spirit is with us’, but instead there was total silence.


He tried again, a little louder: ‘The Lord is here!’, but again there was no reply from the congregation.


So he said it a third time, even more loudly. When this once again failed to produce any response from the congregation, he turned to the vicar and said: ‘The Lord is here, isn’t he?’


To which the vicar replied: ‘Not in our book he isn’t’.


The Lord is here: his Spirit is with us.


We particularly remember this at Pentecost, of course, but the Spirit’s presence isn’t restricted to just that one day.


The Holy Spirit is described as being there before creation even began, sweeping like a wind over the waters of the void.


The Spirit dances through the whole story of creation and redemption, helping to create the world, speaking boldly through prophets, and whispering words of encouragement, guidance and warning to all the people of God.


The Spirit also equips us with different gifts, talents and skills as we’re knit together in our mother’s wombs and as we journey through life.


These are for using to help others, but also to fill our lives with beauty, joy and fulfilment, for God desires good things for us.


And the Spirit comes to us to make us children of God, to draw us into a closer relationship with the Trinity.


In our first reading today we heard God’s promise to his people.


That God would give new hearts that are more open to him, and would give his very Spirit, his very self, to guide us in his ways.


And Paul tells us in Romans that this promise is fulfilled.


That the Spirit has come to us to set us free.


This freedom is two-fold.


First, we are set free from sin and death.


It’s obviously not the case that we’re suddenly perfect and don’t have to face death, but through our faith in Jesus and accepting the gift of the Spirit guiding and helping us we’re no longer struggling alone to get everything right but have the power and forgiveness of God to help us.


Second, we’re set free to be children of God.


Free to approach God with confidence, knowing that we’re loved, that we belong, that we always have a place at God’s side.


This frees us from fear and gives us confidence to live out our lives as followers and brothers and sisters of Jesus.


So, with this in mind, let us always remember and be glad that the Lord is here, and his Spirit is with us.

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know?

2nd Sunday after Trinity /Proper 5 / Year B

Mark 3.20-35


Lady Caroline Lamb said of the poet Lord Byron that he was “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.

If this phrase had been around in 1st century Israel it would’ve been very useful to the enemies of Jesus.

They’re possibly scared of Jesus’ popularity or shocked at what seems to be outrageous behaviour – he’s been healing on the sabbath, casting out evil spirits, breaking rules and arguing with the authorities – and now look, huge crowds are following him.

He could stir them up to anything, to ignore all their carefully laid down rules, to upset the order of things, and he’s not even a proper religious leader.

Jesus is a threat to authority, an affront to law and order, and a dangerous subversive, with his healing people on the sabbath and talk of a new order of things.

And what better way is there to get rid of such a threat than to undermine it with a few words about being mad or bad?

So those who were threatened and upset by Jesus started spreading rumours that he was mad – dismissing his importance and undermining his credibility.

And then some of the religious authorities joined in the campaign against Jesus, announcing that he was in league with the devil, and therefore both bad and dangerous.

After all, in their eyes, the power that Jesus had could only come from God or the Devil, and it couldn’t come from God because God only worked in accordance with Scripture, while Jesus was breaking rules all over the place.

In this way they could justify stopping and containing Jesus, and even say it was for his own good.

But Jesus undermined their game by calmly pointing out the problem with their idea that Satan was fighting against himself.

When there’s a civil war it’s disastrous for that country – we only have to look at Syria to see that.

When members of a household start fighting among themselves it can lead to a family breaking apart.

In the same way, if evil is working against itself, then it’s weakening itself and is doomed.

It just doesn’t make sense to claim that evil is being driven out by evil.

In fact, evil is doomed but not because it’s in a state of civil war.

Rather, evil is doomed because Jesus is here and bringing in God’s kingdom.

All the things Jesus has been doing – all the healings, all the casting out of evil, all the preaching good news about freedom and forgiveness, his choosing of disciples to spread his message – all these things are signs that the kingdom of God is coming and breaking down the walls of the kingdom of evil.

But his enemies are holding on too tightly to the idea that God must work in particular ways, ways that fit with their own understanding and experience and beliefs.

There’s no room for God doing something new or surprising, as everything God does, has done or ever will do is neatly laid out for them in Scripture, tradition and scholarship.

Any change in that pattern doesn’t mean that God is living, active and doing new things, or that what they thought might not be 100% accurate.

Instead, new and different are labelled bad and wrong, and neatly dismissed or treated as dangerous, a tendency that still exists today.

Jesus’ opponents refuse to see the work of the Holy Spirit among them because it doesn’t look how they think it should, and end up labelling what is clearly good – the coming of God’s kingdom – as the work of the devil.

And this attitude leads them to the edge of the unforgivable sin – labelling the work of the Holy Spirit as the work of the devil.

The unforgivable sin has been debated and worried about a lot from the early days of the Church.

But there seems to be a general agreement that is not a case of a one-off misunderstanding of what God is doing, or just making a mistake.

If it was Paul would never have been able to become a Christian on the road to Damascus after strongly rejecting Jesus and persecuting his followers.

And Peter wouldn’t have been able to receive forgiveness and restoration to his position as the rock of the church after denying Jesus 3 times.

Rather, it’s a case of wilful, ongoing seeing and knowing what God is doing and deciding to label it as evil.

It’s not accidentally getting something wrong but rather constantly choosing to deny the signs of God at work among us.

It’s seeing all the good that God is doing but deciding to reject it and literally demonize it.

It’s persistently attributing God’s work to the devil with a stubborn resisting, rejecting and insulting of the Holy Spirit.

Many Christians worry that they might have committed this sin – but worrying about it is a good sign that you haven’t – because those who are genuinely trying to follow Jesus are unlikely to have such a hardened, ongoing hatred of God and rebellion against his work.

But what can we make of the idea that this sin is unforgivable?

Doesn’t this contradict the idea that God can and will forgive all our sins?

Well, I don’t think it’s the case that God won’t forgive but rather that it puts people in a position where accepting his forgiveness is impossible.

It’s rather like hanging off a cliff edge by your fingertips but refusing to accept help because you’re convinced that the person offering it is trying to kill you.

You would probably prefer to hang on hoping for someone else or even to just let go and take your chances if you’re convinced strongly enough of that person’s bad intentions.

Similarly, if a person is completely and persistently hardening their heart so that they see God as evil then they’re not likely to accept his offer of forgiveness and carry out the repentance needed to receive it.

It’s refusal to be forgiven that gets in the way – not reluctance from God.

For, as it says in 1 John 1, verse 9: If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

All that is needed is to turn to God, admit weakness and let the Holy Spirit carry us, instead of resisting him.

So let us not lose heart, or let guilt, worry and fear weigh us down, for we have a loving and forgiving God who longs to draw us ever deeper into his kingdom of goodness and love, if only we will turn to him.