THE CROWD EACH HEARD Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17;25-27
Have you clear memories of being in a crowd? One lady I spoke to recently
remembered as a child being taken into the streets of London amongst the
crowds on two occasions: VE day and the Queen’s Coronation. Last
Sunday I was at an open air service in a crowd of 80,000; 3,000 of whom
were brass band players! I was at the 2nd Ecumenical Kirchentag in Munich
and went with a small group from the MK Mission Partnership to run a stall.
It was an exciting and stimulating time and I will try and share a little
of my experiences and reflections with you. The theme was “That
you may have hope” (Damit Ihr Hoffnung habt). It was a hopeful time.
Today we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first followers
of Christ at the Feast of Pentecost. I have been struck, perhaps because
of my experiences in Munich, in particular with verse 6: the crowd gathered
...and each one heard their own native language (to abridge it somewhat).
I am struck particularly with this combination of being in a crowd and
yet the heightened sense of being an individual. When you are in a crowd
it can be at once exhilarating and frightening. It is exhilarating because
you are there with so many others for a common purpose. A football crowd
is there to cheer their team on. A festival crowd is there to enjoy their
favourite musicians or music. A demonstration draws people together to
try and put across something of deep concern. You are not alone –
many others share what you care about. And yet you can be aware of yourself
as an individual. If the crowd threatens to get out of control, or when
everyone is leaving, you can be anxious for your own safety, or that you
don’t lose your way home. So there is the experience of the many
and the one.
On the day
of Pentecost there were crowds in Jerusalem. They had most likely been
staying there since Passover and were perhaps going home after Pentecost
– the Jewish feast of Weeks (a harvest festival) 50 days or 7 weeks
Having come, some of them from many far parts of the then known world,
they made the arduous journey worthwhile staying for a length of time.
The crowds were from a bewildering variety of backgrounds, nationally,
linguistically and racially. But they were there with the common purpose
of observing important Jewish festivals. Amongst the crowds staying there
were also those few who had been followers of Jesus and were still meeting
together for prayer. Jesus had told them to wait. Now, at the festival
of first fruits, of harvest, the Spirit came upon them in a powerful,
new way. The energy of the Spirit (the sound of rushing wind and the flames
on each one of them) caused them to declare the praises of God in languages
known to all the visitors in the city around them. A crowd gathered, drawn
by the sound, bewildered and intrigued by the fact that ordinary Galileans
were now multi-lingual.
At the Kirchentag
It was great to be at the Kirchentag! Apart from running a stall to share
our MK form of ecumenism with Christians in Germany, there were many opportunities
to hear well-known speakers from different parts of the world. I heard
the Swiss theologian Hans Küng, a Namibian Lutheran bishop, a liberation
theologian from El Salvador and an English archdeacon from London. I watched
a rock band of disabled people; I rejoiced to see a whole group of sign-language
users signing the Magnificat; I stayed with a German Catholic family who
had offered hospitality through the organisation of the Kirchentag. I
enjoyed a Bavarian oompah band, cooked a curry for my host family, talked
and laughed on the city underground with my colleagues from MK and was
even held up by the ash cloud on my way back to England! There were 130,000
participants; ½ million involved in some way or other and 1,000’s
of speakers, organisers and helpers from the Scouting movement. I went
because I speak German and could help with the MK stall. But it is a strain
to be listening to complex discussions in a foreign language, and a relief
that there were headphone translations available and some sessions actually
conducted in English. Latin Taizé chants come into their own at
ecumenical gatherings anywhere in the world and were used in worship at
the Kirchentag, so I felt on familiar ground. But there’s nothing
like hearing about your faith in your own mother-tongue.
I imagine there was something like that going on for the crowds in Jerusalem
for their special festival. As devout Jews they would have understood
something of the Hebrew of their scriptures and no doubt got by as best
they could whilst staying in a foreign city. So imagine the wonder and
surprise as they heard God’s praises being spoken in each of their
own mother tongues! They were amazed that rough up-country Galileans were
somehow talking in perfect Parthian, Egyptian, Mesopotamian and all the
rest. Imagine the effect: God was speaking directly to the heart of each
one there after weeks of struggling in a foreign language! Moreover this
foreign language, Hebrew, was to them, the proper language for their religion.
So to hear spiritual things being talked of in their own mother-tongues
must have been wonderful. God really was speaking to the depths of their
own hearts. It was truly authentic! No wonder that it all seemed so crazy
that some thought the whole thing was the product of drink! Peter stood
up to explain and so we have the first recorded Christian sermon.
Whether it was in the 7 weeks since Jesus had risen and ascended, or whether
it was in more measured reflection over the years as the Church grew and
developed, I don’t know, but the apostles were beginning to realise
that it was all a fulfilment of what Jesus had promised. We read of this
promise in John’s gospel. “The Spirit of truth....will teach
you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Here
was that authentic voice, the inner voice, leading each believer, together
with the others. Here was the Spirit communicating with each, drawing
them together. God was speaking with them both in their being gathered
together and individually to their own hearts. They were encouraged in
their faith through the many and the one. What they understood was authentic
to each but a shared experience that drew them together.
and the one
That’s what my experience in Munich was like last week. It was a
joy to see Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant together – and I have
to say also Jew and Muslim: all were represented in the leaders, thinkers
and teachers contributing to the Kirchentag. The worship was designed
for huge crowds, but was imaginative, joyful, varied and meaningful. I
often found myself close to tears because, I think, I found it so moving.
I thought of you here, the 20 or 30 at Willen / the 12-15 or so at Cross
& Stable. We are part of a greater whole, but the faith of each individual
is just as vital.
I found it
authentic: there was space for real concerns to be expressed. I think
I have picked up a deep longing, at least in Germany, for Catholic and
Protestant to be allowed to share in the eucharist fully. Actually, it
appears something the Orthodox did might be providing a reconciling bridge.
The scandal of child abuse within the Church was confronted – the
secret years are at an end and people are finding the courage to express
their pain. Whilst we are rightly outraged by this wrong, and crimes must
be punished, one of the Presidents of the Kirchentag also said that we
suffer for the Church and with the Church in this particular crisis. The
Lutheran bishop, Margot Kässman, who had to resign because of a drink-driving
incident, led a Bible-study. She admitted her wrong and accepted the consequences.
Despite her loss of health, marriage and high office, she had not lost
her faith. Many found they could identify with her fallibility and honesty
and 6,000 gathered to listen to her. All these things seemed authentic
to me – about seeking to follow Christ in the messiness and complexity
of real life. It was a Pentecostal experience of the many and the one
and expressed the theme of hope. It was summed up in the final service
based on the Magnificat. In Mary’s individual song of joy is the
authentic voice of liberation: God has noticed me and through my openness
to him can bring about hope.
© Rev Paul Smith