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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.

The Gathered Crowd
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 after Passover.
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.

In Jerusalem
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.

Promise of the Spirit
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.

The many 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.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith



Risen Christ,
you have raised our human nature to the throne of heaven:
help us to seek and serve you,
that we may join you at the Father's side,
where you reign with the Spirit in glory,
now and for ever.