Pentecost 2018

20 May 2018

I am constantly fascinated by the use of language in scripture: meaning and the interpretation of meaning. I confess, therefore, I find it really hard to understand why people seem to think you can take scripture absolutely literally. Just take the words off the page as it has been written – and, more importantly in the case of English – translated.

 There is no question that we need to interpret scripture. It is clear in the record of the meeting of the two disciples with Jesus on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection that Jesus interpreted scripture for them. The scripture he interpreted was of course what we understand as our Old Testament. The Hebrew Scriptures. He explained what some passages really meant. To the people alongside him, they meant one thing. They still meant that one thing – but now, with an act of revelation producing clarity, they meant another thing also. The words and meaning remain the same – just the perspective changes and with it humanity’s comprehension; awareness of a greater truth grows.

So it is with the passage in the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles when it tells us about the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Now, I do not for one moment profess to be a scholar of ancient Greek. My ability in this area is very limited. But a simple look at individual words and a good dictionary provides for some really interesting developments. The words talk about tongues of fire or flames upon the heads of the Disciples. However, nowhere in the original Greek does it say that tongues of actual fire dance around their heads as they wait in that room at Pentecost.

The writer can only describe the event as a kind of fire sitting with or upon the disciples.  The word ‘sit’ being taken perhaps to mean abide, or dwell. Just as you can say that such and such a characteristic sits well with this or that person. And can’t we also say that this person was on fire as he or she addressed the meeting, or such-and-such a sportsman was on fire in the semi-final? Or – as the two disciples say to each other after having met with Jesus on the road to Emmaus – did our hearts not burn within us as he explained things?

One can of course, absolutely accept that tongues of flame rested upon each one of the disciples as they waited there in that room on the day of Pentecost. I am really not saying otherwise. Two thousand years of Christian history tells us that people can accept that interpretation and their whole lives can be lifted, transformed by accepting this. Human society has benefited from such transformation. So also today we can absolutely accept that; embrace God - and God’s loving embrace of us - through that self-same Holy Spirit, and move forward in our faith.

Often that simple acceptance – and I don’t mean simple in any negative way – is absolutely the most helpful way of getting on with our Christian lives. Often it’s the only right response.

However, for me in this passage, I find it more helpful to think about that idea of revelation, and inner comprehension; a deeper understanding, a re-imagining of scripture – a dawning of the truth of Christ in its whole mystery and majesty came upon those people. The word inspiration comes precisely from the idea of God’s Spirit inspiring us humans. Inspire coming from the Latin Inspiro breathing in. Understanding, comprehension, revelation.

And, we should remember, the expression that follows: that all those other people from other parts of the Ancient Near East – understood in their own languages. Understood in their own languages. Suddenly comprehended we might say.

For me, what happened on that day in that room to those disciples was, essentially a conversion experience. The fire of the mysterious Holy Spirit swept through the room. The penny drops. No less sent by the risen ascended Jesus, no less a phenomenal gift from heaven by God, no less the Spirit coming among us. And no less a mystery and a miracle that such a great gust of comprehension should sweep through all those people at exactly the same time. No less worthy of our need to give God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit - thanks and praise for all the grace and mercy and love shown us… we undeserving human beings… through such events. Thanks be to God. Amen

Additional information