How many languages do you speak? Who speaks more than one language fluently? Anybody speak more than three languages?
I only speak European languages – English, of course, and French, but also some German. And all three languages “work” the same way. German is very like English in a lot of ways, and very different in others. French is very different, but it still works the same way. And both German and French are ancestor-languages of English. Most European languages – not all, but most – are related to each other, and fairly mutually comprehensible. In some areas of France, for instance, they speak a version of German, and in Luxembourg they all speak both French and German, and their native dialect seems a bit of a mixture!
If I go to a country where I don't speak the language, I can usually pick up the words for groceries or wine or beer even if I don't know how you say them, just by looking at the notices in the shops.
But I know some of you – most of you, perhaps – speak languages that work very differently to European languages. They diverged from whatever the original spoken language was very early, so they build up differently. I'm sure if you grow up speaking them, they seem normal and natural, but I would find them very difficult to learn, other than occasional words. Some European languages, too are like that. Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian, for instance, are very different from the languages that descended from Latin, and nobody knows where Basque came from!
In our first reading, we heard the story the ancient Hebrews told to explain why there were so many different languages in the world. The people had tried to build up a tower that would reach up into heaven, and God said “Can't have that!” because that's not how you get to heaven, so he scattered the people and caused them all to speak different languages so they couldn't co-operate and understand each other.
Well, I wonder why we had that story today? It is, of course, Pentecost, and don't you think that the story we heard read, as we hear every year, is a sort of anti-tower of Babel? Now, everybody can understand what the people are saying! No matter what their native language – as the bystanders said: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites,
and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,
Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene,
and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,
Cretans and Arabs –
in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power."
So in a way, what happened at Pentecost closed the circle, and unmade the differences that God was thought to have caused at Babel.
Some were puzzled –
were these people drunk, or what?
So Peter, glorious, wonderful Peter, who never used to be able to open his mouth without putting his foot in it –
they used to say he only opened his mouth to change feet –
Peter jumps up and lets out this terrific bellow which shuts everybody up, sharpish.
"No, no, no, no, no, no, no," he goes, "we're not on the sauce –
come off it, it's only nine a.m., what do you take us for?"
And he goes on to explain that this is what Joel was talking about,
this is what they'd all been expecting.
And, as you know, he preached so powerfully, and God's presence was so overwhelming, that three thousand people got converted that day alone!
Thus the story.
We know it so well, don’t we?
Every year, this passage from the book of Acts is read.
We could probably quote a great deal of it off by heart, and the bits we can’t quote –
all those nationalities, I can never remember them without looking –
we know what they say, even if we don’t know the words!
One way of seeing it is that it’s the Church’s birthday.
The day we celebrate the anniversary of the explosive growth from a tiny handful of believers –
barely over a hundred –
to several thousand, and on down the millennia to the worldwide organisations and denominations that is the Church today.
But there again, that’s just history, rather like we celebrate our own birthdays. But we should celebrate it. And my grandson is at the age that thinks a birthday has to include cake, so I have brought some cakes – I think, though, that we had better wait until afterwards to eat them so that we don't make crumbs on the carpet in here!
Pentecost is more than that. I think that much of it is one of those things that doesn’t go into words very well –
what is officially called a “mystery” –
the Church’s word for something that words can never fully explain.
After all –
a mighty wind, and what looked like tongues of fire?
We know the damage that both wind and fire can do;
we've seen it all too often.
1987 was a long time ago now, but I still remember clearly the devastation caused both by a fire at King's Cross Underground Station and a huge gale that destroyed vast swathes of woodland. Even today you can still see traces of the damage it caused, if you know where to look.
But the wind and flame from God were not sent to destroy, but to cleanse, to heal, and to empower.
Wind and flame can be good things, as well as destructive. After all, think how when it's really cold, we want to warm ourselves at a flame, don't we? And back in the day, flames were the only way people had to make light when it was dark – we like our little tealights even now, don't we? And sometimes we light tealights or other small candles as a form of prayer.
And wind.... we can do lots of things with wind. Here are some windmills. They don't do anything if you just hold them, but if you blow on them, they come to life and turn round and round..... Blowing on them is all very well, but of course they really come to life if you put them in your garden and let the wind blow them as it will! And remember, when you see them going round, that the Holy Spirit came as wind.
The Holy Spirit is sometimes called the Breath of God; the Hebrew word for “Spirit”, Ruach, can also be translated “Breath”. It seems only fitting that the Breath of God is a rushing mighty wind!
Let's blow some bubbles – go on, you know you want to! Share them round so everybody can! I love to blow bubbles; you have to be fairly serene and steady to be able to do it, and you can't blow them if you're panicking all over the place. Very calming.
But look, too, at the bubbles. They are all different sizes, no two are quite alike. But they are all similar. And they depend on our blowing them! They don't form on their own. They remind me a bit of God's making us. God breathed life into us. And they remind me of how God transforms us - ordinary washing-up liquid transformed into beautiful bubbles!
It's fun to celebrate Pentecost with bubbles and windmills and cake! And, do you know, if you are Jewish you celebrate with cheesecake! Or even if you aren't Jewish – I'm going to have cheesecake for my supper pudding tonight! Robert will be out, but I might save him some if I'm nice! Apparently the reason is that the Jewish festival, Shavuot, celebrates the giving of the Torah, the Jewish version of the Scriptures, and, as you know, one of their rules is that you don't eat meat and dairy products at the same meal, and so they have a tradition of eating dairy produce on Shavuot, and, well, cheesecake is really rather delicious! I only learnt that tradition last year, from a Jewish friend on Facebook, but I promptly adopted it!
Anyway, the point is, while it's fun to celebrate, and we should – we need to remember that Pentecost isn't just history. It happened, yes, on a given date in about AD33, but like so much of our Christian life it is a here and now thing as well as a then and there. As I said earlier, it doesn't really go into words very well – stuff about God very often doesn't.
But what does go into words is that God still sends his Holy Spirit to us today. God the Holy Spirit is still breathing life into us. Still giving us light, still leading us, as Jesus promised, into all truth. And we are still commanded to be filled with the Spirit! We can still have the various gifts St Paul saw in use (the tongues, the prophecies, the healings and so on) and the fruit he saw develop in people’s characters:
"love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control".
And as we saw earlier, the Spirit undoes the divisions between people, enabling us to understand one another, to listen to one another, to hear one another.
And God the Spirit brings life. Abundant life. And so we celebrate, this Pentecost as every Pentecost. Amen! And, perhaps, Hallelujah!