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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Pentecost, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
June 8, 2014

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 lecturer at United Theological College 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. God be with you ...

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 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. The Orthodox icon, Descent of the Holy Spirit, shows this ancient image.

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 mentioned last Sunday the careful work of Lyn Turnbull with regard to reporting on the tent embassy. You can read our report in the new SSH our efforts at gracious and truthful reporting ...

On Wednesday night the Wordplay poets met at the Woolpack to celebrate the work of our friend Cecile Pauly who passed away just a little over a year ago. We read some short poems we’d written in honour of Cecile, and we read some of Cecile’s poetry too. We remembered a person who cared about the world and the people around her, in and through her careful use of words words of acknowledgement and involvement, amusement and encouragement ...

“The unveiling of a new poem by Cecile Pauly and the careful way it was read aloud was an event. A sharing. A trust. An offering. An invitation to cherish the world, to love it towards wholeness and wellness. Cecile raised our expectations of language, of ourselves as poets and as people. What more can be asked of anyone?

“We knew that Cecile was unwell, but she was so often radiant. She didn’t often complain, hardly at all. Our recollections imagine her elegant, tall like an orchid; a smart dresser with sparkly eyes and beautiful skin. We see her quietly at work on a drawing or painting, enjoying Tai Chi in the Park, Sculptures by the Sea, a road-trip to the Chapel by the Sea; at Circular Quay for a night-time movie, the Darlinghurst Theatre, the Art Gallery of NSW, the Orchard Gallery; involved with origami ribbon weaving in honour of survivors of child abuse, karaoke at Souths on Chalmers, dancing, smiling.

“We hope she knows how much we cherish these visions; that we were never offended by her or disappointed in her (though sometimes she worried we might be); that we measure our courage and graciousness by way of her example; that we wish her no more pain, no shame at all, and nothing but joy” (SSH, June 2013).

Yesterday we heard the sad news of the passing of Anglican Bishop Rev. John MacIntyre, most recently the Bishop of Gippsland, formerly a much-loved Rector of St Saviour’s in Redfern. The news comes as a shock. John had contracted a rare virus and did not respond to treatment. Today we acknowledge and affirm the gracious and truthful speech of a man inspired by the unconditional love of God. John spoke up for community services, for social equity, for land rights, for gender and sex equality (in 2012 his appointment of an openly gay priest to a parish in Gippsland attracted criticism and support). He had more recently entered the debate about prevalent community concerns over the potential impact of mining operations on agricultural communities.

In an article published by the Latrobe Valley Express, John said: “As a priest, you’ve got to engage with what you think is important in the community, and it’s not up to [parishioners] to come up and tell you; you have to go out and find out what is important yourself ... If we are going to get to know each other and engage around the issues of life that really matter ... if it’s important to them, then it’s got to be important to you” (“Bishop’s strong progressive values” by Louis Nelson, Oct. 15, 2012).

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 religion, culture, gender and generation. And the work goes on.

The kingly figure at the bottom of the icon is known as Kosmos and represents the worldly powers. Kosmos waits expectantly for the gifts of the Spirit, given not solely for the Church, but for the whole world, for the good of all ...

One thing we might do at Pentecost is to affirm and to celebrate those we notice within the Church and without 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 streamers/ribbons on the altar-table, torn and tied again, may be seen as bearing the scars of suffering as well as the marks of healing and new life ... Amen.