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Pentecost Sunday: Breaking down the barriers

A great thing about the royal wedding yesterday was in part it was a celebration of different cultures and backgrounds. A wedding is a time to come together and enjoy the sense of community that is generated. Anything that can break down barriers has to be a good thing and it is the same for the church.

Pentecost Sunday is sometimes called the beginning of the church or the churches birthday, but it is a Jewish Festival.

It was a festival commemorating the giving of the Law, its occurrence 50 days after Passover corresponds with the tradition that Moses received the Ten Commandments fifty days after the Exodus.

The story of the Exodus describes how God heard the cry of the Hebrews in slavery and liberated them from oppression.

The Law was a gift to the people and gave them a unique identity. The celebration of Pentecost is the gift of the Holy Spirit. A gift that is not restricted to a few.

At one of the Housegroups this week we have been looking at the book of Exodus. I was thinking afterwards how important is the issue of identity. The story of where we come from, what has shaped us and who we are?

For the Hebrews in the wilderness it was very clear: they were slaves liberated from Egypt not on the basis of anything they had done, but rather God’s love and grace.

Into the New Testament that sense of identity was very important and a theme through the Gospels is when will there be national liberation.

In Acts just before the Ascension story Jesus is asked, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

It is a question that asks are you going to put us first, will this mean the end of the Romans at last, and will we once again is the Jewish nation going to be revived?

The answer is slightly vague: go back to Jerusalem and they would receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. In the meantime they have to wait.

The issue of identity and ownership of the land has obviously been a factor in the news surrounding Israel and Palestine this week.

When you look at the newspapers most days there is a story about immigration and part of the debate over the European Referendum has been dominated by protecting British borders and controls on who comes in.

We have an American President who has famously said that he will always put “America first.”

In a few weeks the church will be celebrating the Venerable Bede who in the 8th Century famously wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

He made a very good point about national identity. Once the Romans had left, in came the tribes from across Europe.

The identity of these islands was forged by Celts, and then the arrival of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who themselves came from different parts of Germany and Denmark. This is a way of saying that we are a complete mixture of traditions and cultures.

The breaking down of barriers is something that will shape the Pentecost story.

The disciples are gathered together in one place and then a sound like a mighty wind and divided flames captures the moment when they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

This is the wind that hovered over the waters at creation and the fire that consumed everything at the giving of the law to Moses.

The Holy Spirit isn’t the quiet heavenly dove. It is the force that pushed the disciples out the door and the tongues that gave them words to say.

In Luke’s telling, Pentecost engenders fear and bewilderment rather than celebration among the crowds who hear the disciples.

They cannot understand what is happening and why they can hear their own language being spoken. There are some who scoff and say that the disciples are drunk.

Then what takes place is a theme that will be evident in Acts. One of the disciples (in this case Peter) stands in front of the crowds and gives a sermon based on the prophesy of Joel.

God’s Spirit is now given not to a few but “all flesh” and its impact will be felt by old and young, slaves and free, men and woman.

What is taking place brings together a number of themes.

The power of God made evident at Easter through the resurrection of Jesus and the ascension is now being shared with all the people.

No matter how scattered the people were everyone would have the potential to respond.

All those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. To the disciples who were asking about the restoration of Israel, now have to adjust to a vision of God being interested in the many not just a few.

The makeup of the first church is interesting. That church consists mainly of immigrants, people of different languages and cultures with different mother tongues (Acts 2:5, 9-12, 14). In the Gospels Jesus constantly cuts across barriers. The most well known parable uses the hated Samaritans as an example of good behaviour.

Luke tells us that he healed the Roman Centurions Servant, which in a centre of nationalism, would be a controversial thing to do.

He makes a point of speaking with the outcasts and rejected and shows in word and action that everyone has a place and can be a recipient of God’s grace.

One of the things that the Holy Spirit does is to make Jesus present with us now.

The strong gale force wind of the Spirit will give us that inspiration to be open to the new, to welcome people and simply enjoy being the people of God together in this place.

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