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Pentecost | Midwife of the Holy Spirit

Flames on a black background

Sermon for St Edward’s. 19 May 2024.

Reading: Acts 2:1-21

So Pentecost, Holy Spirit, Tongues of fire, languages. What is it all about?

Well, let me start by reminding you – and I do tend to repeat this at each Pentecost but it’s a good reminder, the Bible says of the HS that it is:

Holy Ghost

The comforter, paraclete, advocate

One third of the trinity

Bringer of spiritual gifts

intercedes for us

Hovered over the waters at creation

God breathed 

Brings new life 

You can be baptised with it

Brings prophecy 

Can be quenched and breathed

Will glorify God

Brings power to witness

Will highlight sin, righteousness and judgment in the world

Is like fire, wind

Will reveal Jesus

Pours God’s love into our hearts

Lives within us

And can bring

Revelation, wisdom, counsel, glory, might, understanding, knowledge, truth, freedom, holiness, adoption, life and grace…

The Spirit is a key part of God. When we read about the Spirit at work in the Bible there’s usually a purpose – at creation, or in building the temple – craftsmen were filled with the Spirit to make beautiful things for worship; Gideon was filled with the Spirit to lead Israel;  Samson given strength to overcome the Philistines; the Spirit came upon Isaiah to prophesy; and here we see in Acts it is the power that births the church. 

A midwife if you will. A feminine side of God.

And, as you know I personally don’t like to refer to God as ‘he’, because God is male and female and all things in between. We are all made in the image of God so Genesis tells us so every aspect of humanity must be a part of God. But specifically the word for Spirit in Aramaic is ‘ruach’ and this word is almost always feminine; and also early Jewish/Christian writers often referred to the Spirit as Mother recognising the feminine side of God too. So I quite like the image of the Spirit as a midwife.

Birth is a holistic whole body experience, it is not just physical but needs the mind to be fully engaged, the body to work hard. In the same way, the experience of the faithful in that upper room at Pentecost was totally holistic, a spiritual birth. In the lives of those present but in something bigger too, the birth of the church.

For those early believers, God took hold of their whole beings. To some extent they had given consent by waiting faithfully for this gift that Jesus had promised, but they had no clue what was coming next. Their whole bodies were overcome, the senses overwhelmed, the sound of the roaring wind – not just a wind but a violent wind – filling the house where they were. 

Imagine the feeling, the fear, the ‘what on earth?’.  And then upon them, on their bodies, rested tongues of fire. How did that look? did they see on themselves, on each other? did they feel the heat? Hear the crackling of flames? 

And then they were filled with the Spirit. Bodily assaulted in a way. And more, they spoke, their words taken over with languages they didn’t know, the speech part of the brain overcome. Their whole beings were occupied by this Spirit. ‘God taking hold of tongue and voice, mind, heart and body’ (Willie James Jenkins).

And this was a spiritual labour, birthing something new in them but building on something that was conceived months earlier. Where they were baptised with water, now this has developed into fire. It’s like an anointing of fire.

In the Bible we know oil was poured on the heads of those who were called to leadership. We see Samuel anointing David as King for example, in 1 Samuel 10. In the law in Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8 we see priestly anointing. ‘Christ’ in Greek literally means ‘the anointed one’ and we see Jesus declaring that in Luke 4:18-19: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to bring good news to the poor. Anointing sets things apart, sets people apart, consecrating them for a holy purpose. Those there in the upper room, men and women, were anointed with fire in the power of the HS, for God’s purpose.

When the HS came at Pentecost it was holistic, overwhelming, an embodied theology we might say. In that God worked through their bodies in a powerful way. There is nothing about the HS coming that day that was not embodied in them.

In fact I’d go so far as to say whenever the Spirit comes it is an embodied experience. When the dove descended on Christ it was to his body as he physically went under and out of the water. Luke 3:22

In 1 Cor 6:19-20 we read:

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

We are temples of the Holy Spirit, we carry her in our own bodies. 

Romans 8:26 says:

 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 

The Spirit works in our voice boxes when we don’t even know what we’re saying.

In fact we see the HS regularly at work in the Bible in word and language. At creation the power of the Spirit is at work as God speaks creation into being. And God said we read every day…  the Spirit is embodied in creation.

The Spirit works though the Angel Gabriel, speaking to Mary – And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. (Luke 1)

Again embodied.

And that same power in language and word is now poured out of them at Pentecost. They speak in ways they have never done before, the good news poured out of them, flowing, their whole bodies overtaken and used by God in the power of the HS.

And I think there is something really interesting going on here if we dig deeper. They were equipped to speak in other languages, to be active in the power of the HS but that same power worked through the crowd too as they heard all these different languages.

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… Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?

Acts 2:5-8

They recognised different languages, even if they didn’t know what was being said. But actually more than that, I think the crowd too were then filled with this same power. Now it is likely that some of them knew more than one language, often those who spoke Aramaic also knew Greek or Latin for example because of the cultures they lived within, the rulers in charge. The passage says Jews from every nation were there – that’s probably a metaphor meaning that they came from all over, but we do read they are:

Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs

How did they all know that others were hearing the same words in their own language? I think the same power of the Spirit enabled them to hear that too not just their own language.

And for all of them the power of the Spirit was embodied in hearing or in speaking.

So what does this mean for us? I wonder what we generally think of the HS? How do we imagine her at work? Have we ever considered an experience of the Spirit being embodied? Now I don’t want you to think this is all new age nonsense, I hope that I have shown when I talk about an embodied experience it is biblical! But what might it mean for us as individuals, as a church, to be embodied by the HS or act as if we are? – because we are!

As an example I was at an online conference this week where the speakers talked about faith being like an eco-system – that we are all entwined by our faith, working together, connected. One used the example of a compost heap, that within it, all these different elements, decaying together, are actually working together to become fertile soil and new life. I love that idea, that we are all connected in that way. 

In the HS outpouring that first Pentecost, the apostles, the first believers were united in their experience of the HS, for a united purpose. I wonder what that might that look like for us?

And how did they get there? they waited, as something was conceived and grown in them.

I feel like we too are on that journey too as a church. We conceived our vision together and we are slowly birthing it, we are in labour together if you like.  And that can be a difficult place to be, it’s hard work, we might not think we can do it, it’s taking too long. But if the HS is our midwife then we need to be led by her and trust her for the outcome.

At this point I led into anointing the congregation…

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