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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Pentecost, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
June 12, 2011

Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104:24-34,35b; 1 Cor. 12:3-7,12-13; John 20:19-23

Speak graciously and truthfully’

A Korean colleague and friend at UTC once told me the history of the Korean written language. That under Chinese rule for many years, Chinese characters were used by Koreans (mostly the upper-class people). The Korean language was an oral language only. In the 15th century Se Jong King, of the Lee Dynasty, invented Korean characters so that the Korean language could be written. This written Korean, called “Unmun” was gradually adopted by the people, though the upper-class looked down on it (calling it a “shameful” script) and continued to write in Chinese (the cultured script). It has taken over 500 years for the Korean script to be adopted by all (people of South and North Korea)! This is a sign of hope, perhaps, that peace will come to a nation divided.

Such stories call to mind others in which language is a source of conflict, difficulty, division or struggle. In the Book of Judges (chapter 12) we read that the Gileadites slaughtered 42,000 Ephraimites when the latter were unmasked as the “enemy” for pronouncing the word “Shibboleth” incorrectly as “Sibboleth”. In Acts 6 Greek-speaking Jews complained that the Aramaic-speakers overlooked their widows in distribution of food. In the years of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, thousands of Bibles printed in German, Italian or English, that is, a language other than Latin, were burned.

In today’s text, it is remarkable that human language (one of the most salient and ambiguous characteristics of human nature) is used to symbolise the inbreaking reign of God. “They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as she enabled them.”

“Pentecost”, literally “50” days after Passover (the slaves freed from captivity in Egypt), was/is a Jewish feast at which Jews from all over the Empire gathered in Jerusalem. It was a feast (also called the Feast of the Harvest) to celebrate divine providence, in particular the provision of the Divine Law (including the Ten Commandments) at Mount Sinai – God’s Word to unite, and enable loving relationships, a loving community.

Luke tells us that something happened in Jerusalem at Pentecost to cause a stir. Believers, still coming to terms with the absence of Jesus, were filled with his Spirit in such a way that they spoke and truly heard one another (a miracle) – in spite of cultural divisions.

Pentecost, for Christians, has come to signify the birth of the Church, the beginnings of a new community of God’s people under the rule of Christ – people from many cultures and nations. From Pentecost on, the Church grows in confidence and numbers – worshipping God as the Trinity of Love – interrupting the selfishness and the violence of the world in order to transform it. Luke’s story celebrates this by way of rich and colourful symbolism. Fire links this story to God’s fire on Mount Sinai. The new community of the Spirit celebrates, incorporates, and then transcends barriers of race, social stratification, economics, ethnicity and gender.

Here is an ancient image of the Church, perhaps the most ancient image: diversity without division, and unity without uniformity.

Pentecost, it is said, reverses the curse of the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9), where human language divided humanity in a cacophony of confusion. At Pentecost the God of Sinai acts again to restore communication and community.

Indian-American theologian, Sathi Clarke, writes that Pentecost is about the “sacramental nature of language” – language restored to “sacramental power”. In and through human words, the Word of God is spoken and heard to touch and to heal. One thing we might do at Pentecost, then, is to affirm and to celebrate those we notice taking great care to speak graciously and truthfully (John 1:14), which means also/always taking great care to speak creatively (John 1:3).

I think of oft-cited obfuscations (examples of destructive “unspeak”): “surgical strikes” (high-tech bombing), “collateral damage” (death of civilians), “illegal arrivals” (asylum seekers fleeing danger); and misleading terms: “Bible-based Church” (fundamentalist congregation), “Reconciliation” (justice for Indigenous Australians, peace for all in Australia) ...

One of my treasured books is a book of interviews with Arundhati Roy (a post-colonial Indian writer who was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize in 2004). The Preface to the book is written by Naomi Klein (American activist and the author of No Logo).

Roy is sensitive to the plight of ordinary people in India – she writes with “bright and furious words” on their behalf, with them. She understands that language lies at the heart of what it means to be human – at the heart of struggles for justice and peace. She recognises that real flesh and real blood are at stake when words are argued over, when words are used to justify inequality, when words are used to deny access to resources, when words are used to confuse and to demoralise, when words are used to cover up injustice.

For example, former U.S. President, George W. Bush, says, “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists”. Roy says that we don’t have to choose between “a malevolent Mickey Mouse and the Mad Mullahs”. He says, “We’re a peaceful nation”; she says, “Pigs are horses … War is peace”. He says the invasion of Iraq was right and just because we caught Saddam Hussein; she says that’s like “deifying Jack the Ripper for disemboweling the Boston Strangler”.

Klein says approvingly of Roy’s creative and investigative writing that it’s about “transforming fear and confusion into courage and conviction.” Is this not what we celebrate today?

When Klein says of Roy’s essays and speeches that they are not propaganda, but “attempts to name our world as it is, exactly, precisely, perfectly,” I recall Martin Luther’s distinction between a theology of glory (which sees only power and beauty), and a theology of the cross (which sees the world in all its brokenness as a beloved world – a world in need of mercy and healing – sinful/ugly human beings in need of grace).

To the extent that Roy names our world exactly and with a humanising love, she can represent the work of the Holy Spirit in our time. This is the Spirit of joy, and as another of my favourite writers, Flannery O’Connor, puts it so well, this is not a glib or escapist joy, but a “joy that overcomes sorrow”.

There’s a particular image of Roy that I think is apt on this day of Pentecost. It’s an image of Roy watching an American cable news show, and with a great roll of tape, “picking up the words George Bush has ruthlessly severed from their meanings – peace, evil, war, democracy, truth, good, innocent, justice ... – and carefully, urgently taping them back together again”.

The work of the Spirit in the world is life-giving. It is a work of meaning-making for the sake of Christ. It bears the scars of violence inflicted on Christ and on the friends of Christ, just as the living Word still bears the scars of crucifixion. When we talk about the Spirit we are talking about Christ. We are talking about the Maker, too. One God … whose Word processes and whose Spirit infuses everything that lives.

At Pentecost we rejoice that in the Spirit of Christ words are meaningful, that there is truth, embodied/material, that there is communication … Holy Communion. In the Spirit, human words, like the dry bones of Ezekiel 37, are re-made, put together again, enfleshed, embodied. That’s the work we’re called to take part in. Across the divides of culture, gender and generation. And the work goes on.

One thing we might do at Pentecost is to affirm and to celebrate those we notice taking great care to speak graciously and truthfully (John 1:14), which means also/always taking great care to speak creatively (John 1:3). The red ribbons on the altar-table, torn and tied again, can be seen as bearing the scars of suffering as well as the marks of healing and new life ... Amen.