The Pentecost gift of costly love

Feast of Pentecost

Acts 2.1-21

Psalm 104.26-36

1 Corinthians 12.1-13

John 20: 19-23

Reconciliation Week, 28 May 2023

   ©Suzanne Grimmett

Pentecost is generally narrated as the moment when all the believers in Jesus were gathered in one place and there was a sound like a rushing wind and tongues of fire could be seen landing on the heads of all gathered there. They began to speak in different tongues, inspired by the presence of the Spirit in them, and the Christian church was born.

This can become an incomplete retelling of the wonder that is the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost. It can fit neatly into a linear history of the Church- Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, ascension and then finally the coming of the Spirit- but this unfortunately neglects both the Jewish heritage of the feast and the Spirit’s presence since creation, brooding over the chaos, bringing order and breathing life. The linear model can also suggest a culmination rather than the rebirthing which sends us out, co-creators with the Spirit, inspired by visions and dreaming good dreams for a world of truth and justice.  

Pentecost, ‘the fiftieth day’, was a festival marking seven weeks and one day after Passover which in Jewish tradition was known as the Festival of Weeks or Festival of Harvest, when first fruits were brought to the temple. After the destruction of the temple and by time of the New Testament, this thanksgiving feast was celebrated as the anniversary of the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai.[1] The coming of the Holy Spirit should not be separated from the generativity of God in creation and the goodness of God’s law and commandments.

The “birthday of the Church” narrative can miss the expansiveness of this story, but it also can tell a thin narrative about the good news we share. It is good news that Christ died for us and that we are forgiven people, empowered by the Spirit. However, this can never be separated from Jesus’ words that he came not to abolish but to fulfil the law; law which can be summed up in the statement to love God and love your neighbour as yourself. The Spirit comes that we may be empowered to fulfil the law with the same costly love that God reveals in Jesus the Christ. All too often we encounter not the costly grace of Christ being revealed in the church but the cheap grace which we bestow upon ourselves and which neglects the care of our neighbour.

And who is our neighbour? In this beginning of Reconciliation Week in Australia, the question should strike us as particularly relevant as we seek to listen to the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that there may be peace and mutual flourishing in this land. We should find it an important question when caring for our neighbour means leaning in to listen that we may better understand the experience of First Nations people. That Pentecost lands this year at the beginning of Reconciliation Week creates a powerful link with listening and language. When the Uluru Statement from the Heart describes the torment of powerlessness in the face of the suffering of their people in crisis, people of the Holy Spirit are called to pay attention to the structural and moral evils of colonisation. On the day the Spirit came, people were heard to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them voice, so that those from many different nations could hear and understand. With over 250 language groups amongst First Nations peoples, the Church needs the help of the Spirit today if we are to love our neighbour with the understanding born of deep listening.

Understanding was not in evidence this past week when someone used a power tool to carve the words, “Jesus saves just ask him” into a section of rock at the base of Mt Beerwah. The mountain is of great spiritual significance to the traditional owners, the Jinibara people. Uncle Kenny Murphy, a Jinibara elder, explained that the mountain was used for sacred ceremonies, and it was where Indigenous women gave birth. He also said, “The mountain is very important, it’s like our St John’s Cathedral.”[2] While it is true that the deed would be as wrong regardless of the words, it made me acutely aware of the way Christianity loses its way when it becomes a simplistic message divorced from love of our neighbour with an arrogance that claims knowledge of God’s saving grace but without living out God’s costly love. To deface a sacred Aboriginal site with the words, “Jesus saves, just ask him” is an ugly parody of the Christ who brings justice, peace and reconciliation, calling us to serve one another in humility and love.

What would it mean if the Spirit would bring to birth in us this day such love of our neighbour that we might be able to truly hear voices that in former days we could not or would not understand? Hearing to understand may help us to see the sacred in mountains as much as in cathedrals, to attend to the Word of God in creation as much as in scripture. Pentecost is a pouring out of the Spirit, but it was the same Spirit which had formed heavens and earth and through whose Word all life came to be. The same Spirit who had been a presence among the Hebrew people as they fled slavery to freedom and received the law. Those gathered there that day were Jews who worshipped the one creator God whose prophets has called them to live in peace and justice. The Spirit was not born at Pentecost, even though we may mark the day as a beginning of the Church. Neither did the Spirit arrive in Australia with the First Fleet but lived with and amongst the First Nations people in this land they were given by God. If listening to other languages and voices is a gift of the Spirit, how might our understanding of God be enriched as we attend to the way God has spoken to other peoples and other nations? How might the Spirit enable us to hear the story of God in the language of the First Peoples of this land- a voice which has been kept from us by the colonising structures which divide us?

In reflecting on the role of scripture and the Church in preparing for this referendum year, Stan Grant has shared;

“My people – Wiradjuri – have a word: Yindyamarra. It means to respect; to be gentle, to speak quietly and walk softly. It is a theology. It is captured in Micah 6:9: “And what does the Lord require of you but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”[3]

I find this a beautiful marrying of Indigenous theology and the scriptures we know. More than that, I find Stan Grant’s words of grace that he will come back from this time when he and his family have been the target of racial abuse to meet his abusers with “the love of his people” to be expressive of a profoundly moving and divinely inspired hope for our future. He adds to this by counselling to not mistake love for weakness. Such has been the hope of the Christian church for ages past; that tyrants and oppressors may come and go, but ultimately the greatest power of the universe cannot be found in wealth, status or military power, but in love. Where else can our hope be found when Jesus our Saviour surrendered even to a shameful execution by the empire of his day?

We are not there yet. The creation and all the peoples of the earth yet groan in longing for true reconciliation. In amongst all of our fears and anxieties Jesus comes, breathing peace upon us and promising that in receiving the Holy Spirit that ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ There is also a few words that may help us to understand the context of this astonishing statement- Jesus “showed them his hands and his side.” This moment of receiving the Spirit in John’s Gospel is inextricably caught up with the suffering of Christ and his solidarity with the suffering of the world. If we refuse the call of the Spirit to walk the way of Christ in solidarity with our suffering brothers and sisters, then the sin of this country will remain. For sin to be forgiven, new life to flourish and true peace and reconciliation be known, then the Church needs to receive anew the Pentecostal Spirit which enables us to hear the voice of our Indigenous brothers and sisters and listen that we may understand. Maybe then, we can rejoice in the costly grace we have received and witness to the world that love truly is the greatest power on earth. +Amen.

[1] Gafney, Wilda . A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church (p. 338). Church Publishing Incorporated. Kindle Edition.