“Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.”
Sermon in a tweet: The Day of Pentecost is the fulfillment of God’s promise to pour out His Spirit and gather for Himself a people from every nation upon the earth.
One of the things that I truly love and appreciate about our Anglican Communion is the great diversity of people that call this particular church home. Do you know, for example, that the Anglican Communion is the third-largest tradition in Christianity with over 85 million worldwide members? This is kind of amazing if you think about the fact that all of this grew out of what was in the 16th century simply the Church of England. A few things were central to this growth not least of which was a focus on mission and study, especially as these two things relate to the Bible.
You might know the name John Wycliffe, after whom the seminary that both Beth and I were formed at is named. Wycliffe was an influential figure in the English church known best for translating the Bible into English for the first time in 1382. Prior to this the Bible was available only in Latin in addition to the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. Which meant that if you were uneducated or illiterate you were unable to read the Bible or hear it read in a language that you understood. And so translating the Bible into the language of the people became a hallmark of the English Church. And as the British Empire spread throughout the world there was the Church of England, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and labouring to do so in a language that the people were able to hear and understand.
Today the Anglican Communion is found on every continent and to give you a sense of the shape of global Anglicanism consider this. In Canada there are somewhere in the neighbourhood of about 700,000 Anglican Christians. In Nigeria there are close to 22,000,000. What began as a state church in England has grown and shifted dramatically so that presently the Anglican Church is most heavily populated not in the Western world but in the so-called Global South (Africa, Asia, Latin America etc). It has been said that today the average Anglican is a young sub-Saharan African woman. This is remarkable, is it not?
In Canada one of the places where the Anglican Church is actually growing is in the north amongst our Indigenous brothers and sisters. A work that began with Anglican missionaries like James Hunter and others in the 19th century and continues today in the ministry of Indigenous Anglican bishops like Mark McDonald, Lydia Mamakwa, and Adam Halkett who labour faithfully to communicate the gospel to people in their own language.
Of course, all of this is to speak only of the Anglican Communion. But I mention it because as a microcosm of the whole Church it gives us a glimpse into the meaning of the Day of Pentecost which we celebrate today, and thus insight into the mission and ministry of the Church.
As he was about to ascend to be with the Father Jesus was with his disciples and, “he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father,” (1:4a) by which he meant the gift of the Holy Spirit. A gift which would empower these ordinary people to bear witness to the risen Jesus Christ “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” (1:8).
The first thing to notice about the Day of Pentecost then is that it is the fulfillment of God’s promise.
Jesus promised that he and the Father would send the Holy Spirit so that the disciples would be empowered to make God known in Jesus Christ to the whole wide world. A promise that Peter and the early Christians understood was rooted in Scripture. So, when Peter begins to explain the meaning of what happened on Pentecost he turns to the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” (2:17, 21). What’s happening now, says Peter, is what God speaking through Joel promised he would do.
Indeed, the Bible begins and ends with the same promise, that God will gather for Himself a people from every nation. Consider God’s promise to Abram in Genesis 12: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” (12:1ff). Recall as well that glorious heavenly scene revealed to St. John in Revelation: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands,” (7:9). This is what the Day of Pentecost means: that God has poured out His Spirit and through this action is gathering a people from every nation.
This is why Luke places such emphasis upon the different languages that were being spoken. Jews from “every nation under heaven” were gathered there in Jerusalem and they heard these simple Galileans proclaiming the gospel in their own native languages.
Luke doesn’t tell us the content of the disciples’ speech as they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in other languages, only that they were “speaking about God’s deeds of power,” (2:11). I like to think that perhaps they were singing on earth what St. John tells us that great multitude of nations were singing in heaven: “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory…” (Rev. 19:6-7). Certainly, our earthly worship of the Lord this morning is taken up into and accompanied by the whole host of heaven who continually sing God’s praise.
At any rate, those who heard the disciples speaking in these languages were astounded, amazed and perplexed! And Luke tells us that some of them asked, “what does this mean?” (2:12). A question that results in Peter’s proclamation of the gospel. Beginning with Joel he continues on to speak of Jesus of Nazareth, who lived, who died, who rose again, and was exalted. This same Jesus, says Peter, has now poured out his Spirit that others might both see and hear God’s deeds of power (2:33). And the crowd who heard this were cut to the heart and repented and were baptized and received the gift of the Holy Spirit themselves (2:37-41). And the Church grew, and the Holy Spirit gathered and formed a community around the risen Jesus whose common life was marked by devotion to the teaching of the apostles’, to prayer, to breaking bread, to sharing their possessions and their lives with one another. “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved,” (2:47b).
To be a member of the Church is to be a member of this people, whom God is calling together from all the ends of the earth.
You are here this morning, chiefly because the Holy Spirit has gathered you into the people of God. In our reading from Romans Paul said that, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God,” (8:14). Think about that for a moment. If the Holy Spirit makes both you and I children of God then what does that make us? Siblings.
This is what God does in baptism by the power of the Holy Spirit: he makes us brothers and sisters of Jesus, thereby adopting us as his sons and daughters. And when God makes us his sons and daughters, he makes us brothers and sisters with one another. There is no knowing Christ apart from knowing one another in Christ for the same Holy Spirit who joins us to God in Christ joins us to one another in Christ as well. St. Cyril of Alexandria said that all of us who have received the Holy Spirit, “are in a sense blended together with one another and with God.” Unity of is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, a gift to the Church, which we are called daily to live into as we bear with one another in love. I want you to look around at the people gathered here this morning. This is no random assembly of people. The faces that you see, these are the faces of your brothers and your sisters in Jesus Christ. The same is true for Christians all over the world be they in Nigeria or in the Canadian Arctic.
We are bound to one another in a way that transcends our national, ethnic, and other social ties.
And all of this—the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gathering of a people from every nation—not for our own sake but for the sake of a world that is watching. As former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple put it, “The church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” Remember, the Church is filled with the Holy Spirit so that we can witness to Jesus to the ends of the earth.
From the Day of Pentecost onwards the Holy Spirit empowered mission of the Church has been to make the risen and living Jesus seen and heard. And as I stated at the beginning this has always been central to the identity of the Anglican Church in particular. If the Anglican Church has a future in Canada, and if we have a future here in west Toronto, it will not be apart from this task which is part of our own DNA, to clearly proclaim “God’s deeds of power” in Jesus Christ in a way that people can hear and understand. And to allow the Holy Spirit to cleanse us from all sin and give us grace, that our common life might be coherent with what we say. May we be such a Spirit filled, Jesus following, one-another loving, family-of-all-nations here where God has planted us so that the world might see and hear and wonder, “what does this mean?” Amen.