So, you want to know about Pentecost!
The other night I was privileged to go and hear Geoffrey Roberson speak at His Majesty’s theatre with my son Nathan. Nathan is a 5th year law student, although he looks more like a surfer than a future lawyer. I was hoping to inspire him with words from one of the great human rights lawyers of our time. Robertson spoke for 3 hours, of Australia and of the world. And the significance of individuals making a stand against any form of discrimination, racism or injustice. How anyone can make a difference.
He pointed out that in Australia the first great humanitarian and supporter of aboriginal people had been Captain Arthur Phillip, the leader of the first fleet and colony. He above all else believed he was founding a new nation, based on an inclusive moral vision. He enacted the first law of this country, “there can be no slavery in a free land and hence no slaves”. His sense of fairness, particularly when it came to the aboriginal people, was in the words of Robertson, extraordinary for the age and for the place.
Let me read a little of what Robinson goes on to say…
“When two convicts were speared, cutting rushes at a place called in consequence Rushcutters Bay, Phillip personally investigated and decided that the Aborigines had good reason to be provoked. When some convicts who had been harassing natives were reported to him, he ordered these convicts to be flogged in front of the tribe. But even Phillip was outdone in humanity on that occasion: the Aborigines, appalled at the calculated brutality of what they were witnessing, began to whimper and weep and beg for the punishment to stop. We should not, incidentally, idealise their lives – some tribal rituals were barbaric even by the standards of the British navy, although Phillip realised how culturally anachronistic it would be to make the comparison. What he showed in his own actions, and recognised in theirs, was a common bond of humanity that distance and time and spiritual beliefs could not disguise.”
Captain Phillip, Geoffrey Robinson, you and me. Today there are so many people, aboriginal and non-aboriginal who are working for reconciliation, for peace and justice for all who call Australia home. God’s spirit is moving freely in this land, in the deepest dimensions of life, not restricted by colour or race, but only by our willingness to open our hearts and minds to it. Even if it sometimes seems otherwise.
For there are many who close their ears to the cries of the poor and dispossessed. For those locked in detention centres or in ghettos we call aboriginal reserves.
Yet we know that God’s spirit is present in this country. Always has been, always will be.
In fact can we imagine a time in this ancient land when God’s spirit was not present?
It is like the Hebrews who knew God’s spirit in their land, and in the wind and fire and in the dawn of the world. Who heard the spirit in the harvest, in the valley of the dry bones, at the giving of the law on Mt Sinai, and in the prophets who spoke for the poor and dispossessed. It is like us, who see the spirit of God revealed in our modern scientific discoveries. In all of life from the earliest beginnings in the universe, in the galaxies and stars and planets, and from the smallest life forms to the complex creatures we have evolved into. All of life shows the presence of Gods spirit, in which we live and move and have our being. It has always been present in the world, inspiring and nurturing women and men in the ways of holiness and service and love. This ancient land has always been filled with the spirit, well before the arrival of the first fleet.
Yet today is special. Today we celebrate Pentecost, when we wear red and remember the story of the Holy Spirit descending upon the followers of Jesus. Luke in Acts tells the story dramatically, the spirit coming as a rushing wind and descending fire, appearing as tongues of flame 50 days after Easter. That told by John is more personal. The risen Christ bestows the Holy Spirit on his followers on the night of Easter and his spirit is a brooding presence in their hearts and minds. Both represent a watershed moment in the life of the church.
But in light of the universality of God what does this moment really mean?
To understand we need to explore its past. Pentecost’s roots are in Judaism, for it was very much a Jewish festival before it was a Christian festival. Occurring 50 days after Passover it links Israel’s much older agricultural cycle to her religious history. It celebrates both the completion of the harvest as well as the giving of the law to Moses on Mt Sinai. As Marcus Borg says it was about the creation of a new kind of community, the way of living together radically different from life in Egypt.
The readings from both Luke and John reflect this history, building on what has gone before, while announcing something altogether new. Today we celebrate more than just an event in the past but a starting point to a future for us all. It is about the creation of a new community in Christ. A community anointed by God’s spirit and in continuity with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. A community that calls forth peace and justice and reconciliation in the world, here and now.
This divine moment of reconciliation can be heard in the reading from Acts. The descent of the spirit as tongues of fire enables the disciples to speak in a universally understood language. The individuals in the crowd, from multiple countries all hear the disciples in their own language. It is an amazing account and links powerfully to an ancient story in Genesis. At the Tower of Babel God scattered the pretentious human race across the earth confusing them by having them speak many languages rather than one. At Pentecost God reunites the scattered people into a new beloved community, one that is able to bridge differences and value diversity.
Pentecost is thus the beginnings of the reunification of humanity, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female. The followers of Jesus became this community of reconciliation and renewal through the presence of the spirit. They began to share everything they had, former enemies became friends and people laid down their swords and picked up a cross. As the book of Acts goes on to say, there was no needy persons among them.
It is this spirit that leads us forward today. And gives us great hope. As Michael Morewood suggests, the story of Jesus reveals not only God but also our capacity as human beings to give expression to God’s spirit. We live with a belief and with a sense we are spirit people, sons and daughters of God each one of us. Those at the first Pentecost experienced the same thing. They realised they too were bearers of God’s spirit and could live courageously in the world as Jesus did. We are to embrace this spirit, this rushing wind, or whisper, this constant nudging from within and bear fruit in our own world, our own country.
Pentecost therefore is far more than a past event, it is about a future for us all. It is a future which we are to build together with God. As Greg Jenks believes, “Engagement with the spirit leads us to a much larger sense of God. It leads us to the character of Christ. It enmeshes us in a web of love from which all reality emerges, all life emerges”. This is where our future lies.
So as we despair at our countries inability to seek justice for many of its citizens let alone those in other places, let us also celebrate those people who reveal the spirit to us, working in the world. For just like Captain Arthur Phillip there are men and women who want to change things, who want to empower others to live full and complete lives.
Today the spirit is everywhere, if we look.
I see the spirit of God working in each one of us, helping us to see the value of all people, including our indigenous brothers and sisters. I see the spirit working in those who are attempting to improve the health, education and lives of so many who are marginalised in our society. We can think of those here and from other churches who are involved with the Mowanjum community, an aboriginal community from our north, supporting its young people, offering practical assistance and allowing them to glimpse a future for themselves. I see the spirit in Vinka Barunga, the first graduate doctor for the Mowanjum community, supported by both black and white to reach that milestone. I see the spirit of God moving in the small steps forward that our community has made to acknowledge aboriginal culture and spirituality and can only marvel that at a football game next weekend 90,000 will be watching as a dreamtime ceremony is performed. Small steps forward on a very long road. But they are in the right direction.
So today, in a world riddled with violence and hate, the Pentecost vision invites us not to settle for some ancient story or a world as it is, but to dream for a world as it could be. And to have faith that the spirit of God which has always been in the world, will always be in the world. We should wear our red with pride, believing that the spirit of God is reconciling us to each other, moving sometimes as a still small voice and sometimes as a ranging wind or fire. Calling, inspiring and sometimes dragging us into the future, to form a new community of love and peace and harmony with one another.
Remember the vision and strength of Arthur Phillip, part of our history and a voice for our future. “There can be no slavery in a free land, and hence no slaves”.
Here or anywhere.
Greg Jenks, Lectionary Notes, Pentecost.
Michael Morewood, “Is Jesus God”.
Marcus Borg, “Speaking Christian”.
Geoffrey Robertson, “Dreaming Too Loud”.