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The Alternative Pentecost Acts 2:1-12 & John 15:26, 27 & 16:4b-15

According to one psychologist a child's personality is already formed at the age of nine months. He was asked how that could be since if they can't talk, they've no words to think with. The psychologist’s opinion was that you don't need words to think; babies remember sights and impressions and feelings. It’s difficult, once we have learned language to imagine not needing words to think. But then just watch a cat working out how to climb a tree! However, you can think much more complex thoughts when you have words. The Bible tells us that God thinks, communicates and loves. So when it says God made human beings in his own image, and told them to name the animals, it's describing the birth of language, the use of words to think, communicate and love.

According to one estimate, there are between six and seven thousand languages in the world, all mutually incomprehensible. There are great groups of languages, like the Indo-European, the Chinese and the Malay-Polynesian groups. In the Second World War, the Americans used Navajo Indians as their radio operators for secret messages, and the Germans never cracked the 'code', because it's quite unlike any other language in the world! If two people speak the same language, they can agree together to do good things, and to do bad things. The story of the Tower of Babel tries to explain why there are so many languages. The nations in the story all spoke the same language, and wanted to build a tower to conquer heaven, so God gave them many different languages, and the sound was a babble. The Tower of Babble.

Today we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit of God upon the followers of Jesus. It counts as the birth of the Church, when the disciples became apostles, when the followers of Jesus became the leaders of the Church and many joined this new movement. The rest of the book of Acts tells the story of how this new movement took root and began to develop a life of its own. It was a time when some of the fundamentals of our faith were worked out such as the importance of baptism for joining the Church, the ministry of deacons in serving the Church or the central place of the Scriptures in understanding God’s will.

But all of these things and others to do with being Church are the work and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Just over 100 years ago in 1906 the modern Pentecostal movement began in what was known as the Azusa Street Revival in San Francisco. Believers sought to imitate that first day of Pentecost when Peter and those who gathered with him spoke in tongues. Since then Pentecostalism has grown to be a world-wide family of churches, making up a quarter of the world’s 1 billion Christians. It is a significant and important part of modern Christianity, and in fact forms the fastest growing style of Christianity in Latin America, once a staunchly Catholic continent. We will be aware, I’m sure, of the different forms of Pentecostal congregations in Milton Keynes, some of them using our own church buildings.

Our response
Many of us may have come into contact with Pentecostalism in our own Christian experience. Obviously, those who are sitting here with us today, have either made a choice not to belong to a Pentecostal church, or have remained ignorant of their influence. The Pentecostal or charismatic experience is very attractive in many ways: it is exciting, immediate, spontaneous and popular. Worship is lively, miracles can be expected and people can seem confident about their faith in ways which seem very different from our own way of being Church. You may know some who call themselves “born again” Christians, or have been baptised in the Spirit and speak in tongues. Some of us may have had these experiences and remained in our traditional denominations. We need to value and take seriously the Pentecostal movement.
There is an Alternative
Sometimes, though, people who have not had these kinds of experiences can feel inferior. Sometimes, even if we have had these experiences, we have decided that it is right for us to remain in a traditional denomination. I think it is a help to realise that there is an alternative Pentecost. There is a different picture of what it means to be filled with the Spirit. The description of how the Holy Spirit came upon those first believers that we read in Acts is dramatic and decisive, but it is not the only one. The alternative is provided by the gospel of St. John. There are two key passages where John tells us about the coming of the Spirit. The first is the gospel reading for today. The second comes in John 20:19-23, the Upper Room scene after the Resurrection, when Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, Receive the Holy Spirit.

It is important to remember that both ways in which the coming of the Spirit is described are important. Each compliments the other because St. Luke and St. John are both part of our Bible. God is always more than we think of him, too, and there are different ways in which he can be experienced. Whilst Luke is about an ecstatic outpouring of the Spirit in wind and fire, in tongues and miraculous communication, John is about the breath of God. We can sometimes ignore the more subtle style of the Spirit that John tells us about because we are attracted to or can feel inferior to the Pentecostal way of being Christian. But those of us who are parents will know that our children can be very different from each other, and yet each is our child and has a character that comes from the same parents.

Breath of God
What are some of the characteristics of this quieter child? If Luke’s description of the Spirit is as wind and fire, what does John’s description of the Spirit as the breath of God mean?
1. Advocate or Helper. John says that Jesus spoke of the Advocate.
This description comes in the middle of a longer discourse, in which Jesus is preparing his disciples for a tough future without his physical presence. They will experience opposition, but they must remain in his love and stay united. Once he has left them, he promises to send the Spirit who will be their helper. The Helper can only come once Jesus has left. But when he comes he will guide the disciples into all truth. (vs 13). In other words, the Holy Spirit’s role is also to provide wisdom. This wisdom is genuine and faithful to all that Jesus is and will be in union with the Father.
2. The Life of God. After the Resurrection Jesus came to his disciples and breathed on them saying Receive the Spirit. He did this in the context of offering them his peace and sending them out into the world. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. He also gave them authority: if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. (John 20:23) We often associate the life of someone with their breath. If they are still breathing there is hope of life. So Jesus breathed the life of God into his disciples. The life of God brings peace, mission and authority. Whilst Luke’s version of the Holy Spirit’s coming is like an explosion of energy, John’s version is like the stamina needed for the long haul. John wrote his gospel 10 to 20 years after Luke by which time the Church had begun to form and take a more permanent shape. They were discovering how the life of God was sustaining them in their mission, and how they experienced something of God’s authority amongst themselves.

We began by thinking of the place of words and language in our development as humans. Luke’s version of the Spirit’s influence is very much based on language. John’s version is more to do with a deep, inner mystery; perhaps sometimes with non-verbal communication: body language; the language of wisdom and love; the gradual realisation of God’s guidance in our lives as you look back and think. The Church needs both kinds, and those who prefer one to the other are equally part of God’s family in Christ.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith





Holy Spirit, sent by the Father,
ignite in us your holy fire;
strengthen your children with the gift of faith,
revive your Church with the breath of love,
and renew the face of the earth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.