Sermon preached on the Day of Pentecost (24 May 2015) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached on the Day of Pentecost (24 May 2015) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

The Very Reverend David Ison looks at the idea of equality and, on Pentecost Sunday says "God shows no partiality and is available to all"


Acts 2.1-21

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.’

These words from the American Declaration of Independence were written by men who owned slaves – a position which Samuel Johnson, whose statue is over there at the corner of the Dome, and many others were quick to highlight as rank hypocrisy. To be fair, some of them recognised their own hypocrisy, but saw this as something to be sorted out some time after they’d won independence from Britain; but others defended it by the belief that black people were inferior men unworthy or incapable of freedom. And they didn’t act as if it applied to Native Americans, or black people, or to women.

In 1776 it was normal in Britain as in the American states to only have a vote if you were a white male who owned property – and women and slaves were property and couldn’t own it. And the long process of realising what the words of the Declaration of Independence implied still continues in the United States, let alone elsewhere.

Today is Pentecost Sunday – the birthday of the Church, the reversal of the Tower of Babel in chapter 11 of the book of Genesis, when God scattered the peoples and confused their languages: now in Jerusalem the opposite happens, that Jewish people and converts come from around the world, and God speaks to them a common message in their own language.

The pouring out of the Spirit and speaking in many languages was a sign of God at work in and through Jesus Christ. Here was a group of fairly uneducated Galileans, notorious for the obscurity of their dialect – in a British context it might be like a group of excited Scots people from Glasgow speaking good French and Arabic. But the point of the sign was to bring people together and open them up with astonishment, in order to hear the astonishing news that Peter the apostle had to give them: that Jesus who had been crucified has been raised from the dead as God’s chosen one, and that the promised age of the Holy Spirit had come – and that things had changed.

What does Pentecost have to do with the American Declaration of Independence? Simply, that like Thomas Jefferson and the other American Founding Fathers – no Mothers, of course – Peter and the other eleven apostles didn’t realise quite how radical the message they were preaching was. And that’s because both the apostles and the constitutional writers looked at things through the lens of their own cultures, and gave to the words, and at Pentecost gave to the experience, the meaning which they saw, rather than the meaning which the document or the event possessed.

It took a while for the disciples of Jesus to realise this. When Peter stood up and quoted in his speech the prophet Joel, he says ‘God declares, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh – your sons and daughters, young and old, even upon slaves both men and women… and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ For Peter from his Jewish perspective, ‘all’ and ‘everyone’ meant Jews and Jewish converts. It isn’t until chapter 8 of the book of Acts that the Spirit is poured out on Samaritans, the hated non-Jewish neighbours of the Galileans, and then in chapter 10 of Acts that non-Jews from the Greek and Roman world were filled with the Spirit too, and the disciples had to realise that ‘all and everyone’ meant just that – God shows no partiality and is available to all.

It was one of the most attractive features of early Christian faith, that it acknowledged before God the equality of women as well as men, slaves as well as free people, Gentiles as well as Jews: it was really and truly radical, long before the Declaration of Independence – though it wasn’t long in the Christian faith either before men moved in to reassert a self-centred view of equality’ with powerful men like them at the top, and women, black people, the poor and the foreign and those marginalised in other ways being left out as either ‘equal but different’ or else just not one of us at all.

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ It was a statement with radical implications – a statement resting on the Christian concept of God as the creator, the Mother and Father, of all humanity, not just some. And so were the words quoted by Peter: ‘even upon slaves, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit… everyone – everyone – who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved….’

Thomas Jefferson and his fellows read their Declaration through their own cultural spectacles, and it led to civil war and civil rights. Peter read the scriptures through his own cultural spectacles, and had to painfully learn that he had been wrong in restricting faith in Jesus Christ to the Jewish people.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus says, ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.’ And this too has radical implications. It means that the Holy Spirit challenges us, you and me and all the world, to respond to the radical call to realise in practice as well as in theory that we’re equal in God through the love of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Three weeks ago today, UNICEF the United Nations relief agency started a phone-in radio programme on Radio Nepal, directed at helping isolated and anxious women and children cope with the aftermath of the big earthquakes there. They broadcast helpful information, and have a counsellor ready to respond to those who phone in on air. During the first programme, while 15-year-old Sadiksha was on air speaking to the host, there was an aftershock where she lives. When the radio host urged her not to be afraid, Sadiksha replied calmly, "I am no longer afraid!" And she’s not afraid because others have cared enough about vulnerable families to reach out to her and to thousands like her – to take those on the margins seriously.

We’re still working to realise what the Holy Spirit was poured out to make possible: the breaking down of barriers between people, the ending of inequality in Jesus Christ, the dignity and worth of every human being before God – and the Holy Spirit is here to lead us.

And you and I? What are the cultural spectacles we wear? Where do we fail to listen, and perceive, that we collude in inequality, that we deny the radical nature of God’s message in Jesus Christ, that we read scripture in a partial way? The message of Pentecost is that God is onto our case, and will not rest until like the first disciples we are broken open by the power of the Holy Spirit to speak in the tongues of everyone the wonderful deeds of God.