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Pentecost, Year C 30.5.04, St Mark's
Ps 104.25-35, 37
Acts 2.1-21 (Pentecost)
John 14.8-17 (849-14=835)
A number of people in history have been given a descriptive
name. For example, we have Alexander the Great, William the Conqueror, Ivan the
Terrible and some of you may have heard of Vlad the Impaler.
Well, today, on this Feast of Pentecost, I would like to tell you about Luke the Inverter. Paradoxically, Luke is at one and the same time both a conservative and a revolutionary, for he conserves all that is good from the past and yet, on the basis of his experience of Christ, he inverts many received traditions and positions, as though his guiding principle were words from the book of Revelation: "Behold, I make all things new!"
Let's begin with Luke's presentation of the preaching of John the Baptist. It is real hell-fire and damnation preaching, winning over his audience with his opening words, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (3.7). And when he speaks of the one to come after him, you can almost see him licking his chops as he says, "He will baptize you with wind and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (3.16b-17).
Now let us turn to Luke's story of the feast of Pentecost. This starts with all the disciples gathered together in a house, and Luke picks up and inverts the notes of wind and fire, for suddenly there is a great wind, and tongues as of fire settle on each disciple, and they are all filled with the Holy Spirit. This is a complete inversion of what we may call the hellfire-and-damnation preaching of John the Baptist. John had used threshing imagery of coming judgement, and Luke converts it into the empowering of the disciples with the Holy Spirit.
Along this same line is what Luke does with the phrase "signs and wonders. When we look at the Old Testament, the phrase "signs and wonders" invariably denotes God's judgements and actions against the oppressors of Israel. But in Luke's writing in both the Gospel and Acts they are always the "signs and wonders" of God's mercy and favour toward all men in whom he is pleased. The damning judgement is gone and grace has come.
We have had as our OT reading the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel, in which all the peoples of the world are split asunder by a multiplicity of languages. This Luke inverts by having all the pilgrims who have come to the feast from lands far and wide now hear the apostles tell them the good news in their own tongues. Note that the variety of languages is not done away with: they do not all hear and understand one language, for Luke is concerned with what we may call unity in diversity, certainly not a unity of uniformity, as we shall see.
Let me end with two more examples. In these we might say that Luke the Inverter is also Luke the Mickey-taker, for he appears to bring down to earth those who have high-flown ideas.
As we move on from the feast of Pentecost in Acts Luke tells
of the church in Jerusalem having all things in common, but then unrest arises
over the food distribution. There is a disagreement about the fairness of the
system between the Aramaic and the Greek-speaking members. The apostles think it
is beneath them to handle it, and say, "Choose yourself seven good men to
handle this. Our job is to preach and to pray." And the way Luke tells the
story, it is as though the Holy Spirit said, "Oh yeah? Well, I've got news
for you guys." For now the preaching is done not by the apostles but rather
by the Seven, highlighted with the preaching of Stephen and Philip. Apart from
Peter, we never hear of the apostles preaching again. So much for their
And now for my final example. In 1 Corinthians Paul says, "God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, and third teachers." This is a three-fold ministry of apostles, that is, church founders, as No. 1; prophets, that is, pastoral preachers, as No. 2, and teachers, that is, catechists, as No. 3. That the Pauline churches maintained this order is shown in the letter to the Ephesians, which reserves the terms "apostles and prophets" for the first generation, the founders, and now speaks of the current ministers with equivalent terms, as evangelists, pastors and teachers. It seems very likely that these churches may well have argued that their form of the ministry was the only proper one. Luke takes this on when he has Paul and Barnabas set apart for mission with prayer and the laying on of hands by the prophets and teachers at Antioch. Only after that are Paul and Barnabas ever called apostles.
I believe that Luke's proclamation is that the Holy Spirit upsets apple carts, so don't think that we are going to have an easy ride of it. The Spirit will lead us where God wants us to go, which may very well be surprising - and not at all what we expect - or necessarily even want.