Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23
4.6.17 St Barbara’s
Rev Tulo Raistrick
This week will see a new government voted into power. It is an important point in our country’s history. For the first time in years, the policies being offered by the two main parties are radically different. And yet it is an election that has failed to stir much passion – possibly because up to a week ago there only seemed to be one likely winner, or because for many there is just a dissatisfaction in the quality of leadership being offered.
But for all the indifference or disappointment of the campaign, Thursday will matter. For it will decide who on Friday stands on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street and outlines their vision, their guiding principles for the next few years ahead, who will lead us through the extraordinary challenges of Brexit, a struggling NHS, a growing crisis in social care, a possible vote for Scottish independence, let alone the international challenges of an unpredictable and impulsive American president, terrorism and war, as the events of Manchester have all too tragically reminded us, and the plight of countries facing desperate poverty. On Friday, someone will stand and outline their vision and values for the way ahead.
Well, today, Pentecost, is a day when we remember another new beginning – far smaller in scale initially perhaps – but a beginning that has come to shape our world far more than any government, the beginning of the church. On this first day of the church we see some of the guiding principles, the vision, that will mark the church out over the next 2,000 years. Guiding principles that may be relevant to us as we come to cast our votes on Thursday.
There were many extraordinary events that took place on that first Pentecost in Jerusalem – the sound of the wind, the tongues of flame resting on the disciples’ heads – but as remarkable is the capacity of these uneducated disciples to start speaking in foreign languages they had never spoken before, communicating with a crowd of people gathered from all corners of the known world. People are bewildered, amazed.
Here is the Tower of Babel being reversed. Then, as the Bible tells it, humans tried to rival the power of God, as they tried to deny their need of him, and built a tower to demonstrate that. God simply overnight gave them all different languages each one incomprehensible to the other. Human kind’s grand project came to nothing, their plans, like the Tower itself, falling to rubble at their feet.
But now, here was a different event, the reverse of Babel. Here was God ensuring that people from any language, any culture, could hear and understand what was being said. The list of nations covers pretty much the corners of the known world – from the great Persian Empires in the East to Rome in the West, to Africa and Arabia in the south.
God is not confined to those from one nation. His Spirit descends in the most cosmopolitan, most multi-national context that one could imagine in the ancient world.
God, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, through the gift of His Holy Spirit is bringing the world together, is creating a new people that stretches across the whole world. He is reaching out to everyone.
That is the nature of the new community, the church, of which we are called to be part. Not an insular, inward-looking, preserving-our-own-interests type of community, but one that looks outwards, that embraces brothers and sisters from across the world. That is the vision that is proclaimed on this day of new starts.
As we vote on Thursday, our calling is not to vote just with our own interests in mind, or even just with the interests of this nation in mind, but to vote with the interests of the world-wide community in mind.
Not only is this group at Pentecost a new community where all are welcomed; it is a group that proclaims the gospel of salvation for everyone. Peter is not quite standing on the steps of Downing Street – this has more the feel of a group of enthusiastic and impassioned speakers attracting a crowd at Hyde Park Corner – but Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, proclaims one of the greatest truths that will shape the church for the next 2,000 years: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Salvation has come in Jesus Christ. We can know our sins forgiven; we can come into a relationship with Almighty God, through Him. The world has been changed for ever. And that saving grace is for everyone who calls on his name. The political mantras of this campaign have been “for the many, not the few” and “a country that works for everyone”. But here is a message that is genuinely for all. God’s grace reaches out, embraces, all who turn to him – the poor as well as the rich, the child as well as the adult. It is the good news offered to all.
Political parties, in their bid to win elections, target those voters most key to winning the most seats. Their policies are shaped to appeal to them more than anyone else. And canvassers target those areas where people’s votes matter most. I’ve been canvassed more at this election than any previous election because our own constituency is more open to change than it has been in many years. When I lived in a constituency where the same party was always voted in, I was never canvassed. My vote didn’t matter. But there is no such bias or preferential treatment with the Christian gospel – the offer of salvation is open to all.
As we come to vote on Thursday, we may want to be guided by the church’s commitment to a world-wide community, but also to a community that is open to all, not just those “who matter”. To ask not just how these policies will affect me, but how will they affect the poorest, the most marginalised in our communities? How will it affect those reliant on food banks? How will it affect those whose poor mental health cuts them off from the world around them? How will it affect those growing old and unable to pay for care? The Gospel is a Gospel for all. Will the way we weigh up who we vote for reflect that truth?
The Pentecost manifesto: All are welcome; all can be saved; and all can be used by God. One of the wonderful aspects of the story of Pentecost is that when God makes this new beginning, when he creates the movement that will change the world, he does so through people seemingly so unsuited to the task. As Galileans the disciples were looked down upon by almost everyone else – as country bumpkins, unsophisticated and uncouth. The amazement of the crowd is not just that they were being addressed in their own languages, but that it was Galileans of all people to be managing the feat!
And yet through them God does the most extraordinary of things. Peter quotes the prophet Joel – God’s Spirit will be poured out on all people – young and old, men and women, slaves and free – so that all may participate in the work of God. It was an extraordinary message.
Ever since, the Church has been at the forefront of bringing about change. It was Christians who set up the first hospitals, the first schools for all, the first hospices. Christians who led the campaign to abolish slavery, and who campaigned for the improvement of conditions in factories and prisons. Envisioned, empowered by God’s spirit, Christians have consistently made a difference in the world.
What was true then is true now. We too can be used by God, even in small ways, to make a difference. I have been so encouraged that as a church we have been able to enable the start of the Good Neighbours Project here in Earlsdon, and how we have contributed to the work of Toilet-Twinning – that generosity is a sign of God’s Spirit working among us – of us responding to the needs of others in our community and around the world. And next week we will hear about further ways we can support this work.
We know that whichever party gets elected on Thursday, they alone will not be able to address the enormous challenges we face. To think otherwise is to repeat the error of the tower of Babel. But the Church, equipped, empowered by the Holy Spirit, can make a significant difference. So let us be led forward by our Pentecost manifesto: All are welcome; all can be saved; all can be used by the Spirit of God.