“The Spirit in the City” Part 1
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, May 24, 2020
Reading: Acts 2:1-13
As you can imagine, the phone lines over the last few weeks have been buzzing, not only between members of the congregation and the clergy, small groups, and families, but also between clergy ourselves. I have never spoken to so many clergy in such a short period of time as I have done over these last eight or nine weeks. There are common threads and trends that all of us are dealing with, so it’s lovely to have a chat and to hear what others are doing… and maybe borrow their ideas once in a while.
One such conversation took place not long ago with a minister in a three-point pastoral charge – three congregations in a rural community. We talked about the similarities and the differences of ministering in an urban versus a rural setting in a time like this. She was extolling all the virtues of being in a rural community. She was almost romantic in the way that she described the idyllic scenery with beautiful waters, trees, and birds. She sounded like a Wordsworth in the way that she was describing the beauty of nature around her. While she said she misses connecting with her congregation at the bank, bookstore, grocery store, or the Legion, she nevertheless finds that she can still have conversations with them. I think she felt quite relaxed. But then she said to me, “How is life ministering in the big, bad city? How do you deal with being around so many people, and how do you manage to navigate all those millions of people in Toronto? It must be difficult”
I said, “Well, it has its challenges like anywhere else” and I explained a bit what life was like and how we’re communicating with members of the congregation and having to be very careful. Suddenly her mood changed, and rather than talking about the idyllic situation she was in, she talked about the challenges, the financial ones, of maintaining a small pastorate with very few members, limited resources, and what this time was doing to her and to her congregations. She talked about the isolation of not belonging to a staff or having other people with whom she can have conversations about the church in the same way. She talked about the loneliness that she feels, and she asked a question, “Am I, are we of any use in a time like this?” Then, finally she concluded with a question, and the question was posed to me, but was probably also, in a sense, for herself: “What is the Holy Spirit doing for us and to us in a time like this?”
I thought about that conversation, and how there is a certain degree of symmetry to the time in the passage from the book of Acts. The passage is the account of the first Pentecost. While next Sunday is Pentecost, I want to set the stage today for looking at it, because there is a symmetry, similarity to our situation. For those who were gathered in the Upper Room in Jerusalem at that time for Pentecost, there was the sense of unease.
They had just witnessed the ascension of Jesus, something we celebrated yesterday. Jesus going to heaven and being with His Father, leaving the disciples to whom he had appeared after the resurrection and they were euphoric. Now, it’s a time when they are truly alone, and they're frightened in the city of Jerusalem. It wasn’t one that had been kind to Jesus, and it wasn’t one that had been kind of them, and they were uncertain about their future. They’d been made a lot of promises by Jesus. He had promised them many times over that he would not leave them as orphans, that they would not be on their own, that he would be there for them. He would send a Comforter, a Power. But they're waiting for it, they're waiting for it in the big city. I think there is something rather synergistic about this, because we are also in a big city, we’re waiting for the Spirit to move, and we wonder what the future will bring.
Donald McKim, who writes for Knox Press, said something very interesting in a commentary. He said, “One of the things that we miss in the whole of the Pentecost story is the power that it had on the city.” Where is the Spirit in the city? That’s what I want to look at today.
The Spirit in the city in Jerusalem was not an accident. It happened in that city for a reason. After all, the people had gathered for Pentecost in Jerusalem. There were three great feasts at that time with the people of Israel. There was Passover, which we of course associate, as Christians, with Good Friday and Maundy Thursday. There is Pentecost fifty days later, after Passover and later on, the Feast of Tabernacles, or Booths. These major feasts were an occasion for people to get together. In fact, everyone who was able, from a twenty-mile radius around Jerusalem, was supposed to come. It was expected of them in the same way that Muslims are expected in their lifetime to do the Hajj.
They came from all over the known world. They came from as far west as where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic, as far north as Damascus, to Arabia, and to Egypt in the south. Jews who were faithful came to Jerusalem from all over. So, it was a cosmopolitan city; a place where a great deal was going on. There was also a profound sense of unity amongst the people at that first Pentecost.
If, in the Book of Genesis, Chapter Eleven, the tower of Babel had been about all the different tongues that would be there, created to divide people, this was a moment, where they came together despite all their different languages and traditions. It was rooted, I believe, in the great prophet Isaiah and the passage that I preached on last Sunday, where Jerusalem Zion would be a gathering place for all the nations. Pentecost was a way of realising that, bringing people into the city. It was also a place where the great prophet, Joel, had declared that the Spirit would blow and come upon people. This he had prophesied and this, the earliest Christians realised, was being fulfilled.
What a lot of people don’t know is that there’s a great rabbinic tradition that says that when Moses received the law, he heard one sound, and then the whole law. That was followed by seven voices and then it was in seventy tongues, so that all the people could understand it. The sense that the law emerged from one place, but then was disseminated in many different places and languages. So, when those early believers, with all their uncertainties, gathered in an Upper Room, this was the context of the city that they were in and in that place, in that moment, the fulfilment of the promise of the Spirit was realised.
The Holy Spirit came and filled those disciples, and what happened to them changed them, and it changed the city. It changed them, because they received a gift, the power of the Spirit, to be able to speak in words and in languages that hitherto they had not been able to do. Most of them spoke Aramaic, and would know some Hebrew, and the odd word or two in Greek, but they certainly didn’t have the natural ability to speak to all the different nations that were gathering in Jerusalem at that time. The Holy Spirit granted them that language.
Oh, there have been debates about how this happened and why, what form it took, and there’s a lot of speculation about how the Spirit was able to be heard. I don’t really believe a lot in speculation, I believe in the Word, and the Word tells us that they had the ability, through the power of the Spirit, to speak in a tongue, a language that all the people could understand.
If it was the spiritual language of Glossolalia or Xenoglossia, then so be it. If it was the language that people could hear in their own head, so be it. The fact of the matter is, it was the power of the Spirit bursting into the city of Jerusalem, giving strength and power to those believers in Jesus Christ, who themselves then went out into the streets with the Word of the Spirit with power, and they were transformed. They’d huddled in a room and now they were courageous. They’d been stuck in a place, but now they were embracing the place was around them. That is the power of the Holy Spirit at work.
I was musing that it was about fifteen years ago when I visited Santiago, Chile. Some who have heard me over the years know, I had a rather profound experience when I was there. I met some of the great church leaders of the country, who had been very instrumental in preserving the Gospel and life during the time of Pinochet in particular, with all the uncertainties that followed. One day, I was taken by special permission, into what was known as the Vicario de la Solidaridad – pardon my Spanish. It is the place, the archives of those who were lost, those who had disappeared during the Pinochet regime. It was a place in solidarity with those who had stood against military oppression.
I’d been given a special letter by a monsignor, to have access to all the files. There was a wonderful woman who welcomed me with open arms, and she did so with tremendous grace. She could only speak Spanish, I can only speak English, and we had to try and figure out how we were going to be able to get a sense of what we wanted to do and what I wanted to see. She opened some of the drawers, and I saw some of the pictures of people who had disappeared, never to be seen again. And those who had died, having been thrown down mineshafts, and those who had never been identified. It was profoundly moving.
There was also documents about the church, and how Christians had found courage to speak the truth in a time of uncertainty. There were messages, letters, sermons. It was inspiring. Although my Spanish wasn’t very good, she nevertheless was able to help me through it. There was one moment in all of that, where the overwhelming sense of the Spirit dawned upon both of us. I realised at that very moment, in an act of love and compassion and faith, that the Holy Spirit’s courage can come upon us in times of uncertainty and speak to us with a clarity and a power that we cannot understand.
That’s what happened to those disciples. She spoke Spanish, I spoke English, but we spoke the language of Christ, we spoke the language of faith, and we spoke the language of the Spirit.
So here we are, in Toronto in 2020, or you may be in a beautiful pastoral charge somewhere in Nova Scotia or in Manitoba or British Columbia, it doesn’t matter where you're listening or watching from. It doesn’t matter where you find yourselves right now. We sometimes though, a little bit like those disciples, need the courage and the power of the Spirit. We certainly need the power of the Spirit here in our city of Toronto. We need, as things open up, to pray for divine protection over our people. This is a time of danger and opportunity both, but we should be praying for the power of the Spirit to give us the leadership we all need to be able to see us through this transition. That takes courage, it takes faith, and it takes compassion.
You know, one of the nice things of being able to have a bit of time for me, is to go online and watch some of the more ethnic churches in our city, putting on their services, and watching their pastors and their ministers. They're in different languages and traditions – you wouldn’t believe how diverse the Christian community in Toronto is. It is remarkable.
I’ve heard some great messages, and some I simply don’t understand. I’ve heard great music, and I have seen the diversity of our city worshipping Christ. You can't help but get this feeling that there is a power of the Spirit that transcends all things, is beyond the limitations of language or culture or race. There is a power in it. When the Spirit speaks, there is a power in it.
We’re also in a world that is being changed, and we are being changed with it. Maybe even by the technology that we are using now. I don’t think we’re going to be the same after all of this, and I don’t just mean in terms of the way that we convey meetings, or the way we gather together, I mean the way that we think.
There was a brilliant article in the New Atlantis by a writer called LM Sacasas. I really commend this to you if you can find it on the web. He talks about technology and faith in society, and wrote this:
We are in the middle of a deep transformation of our culture as digital technology is reshaping the human experience at both an individual and a social level. The Internet is not simply a tool with which we do things well or badly, it has created a new environment that yields a different set of assumptions, principles and habits from those that ordered things in the pre-digital age.
We are caught between two ages, as it were, and we’re experiencing all of the attendant confusion, frustration and exhaustion that such a liminal state involved. There’s a crisis in some ways, and it consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms can appear.
He’s suggesting that the way we’re communicating, and with whom we’re communicating, is changing us. It’s fine to be swept along by the changes of culture. It is okay to be moved by these things. But there’s also got to be a sense in which we are moved by the power of the Holy Spirit as well. There is a force that is greater than the changes of culture, and in the world. It’s going to take courage and an openness and a devotion to the Holy Spirit to allow us to speak to the culture that we’re in, to the world that we’re in, with the glory and the wonder of the Word of God.
In the 19th Century there was a great writer called George MacDonald, who was loved by everybody, from Mark Twain to the influence of Emerson and Thoreau, in the 20th Century by CS Lewis and Tolkien and GK Chesterton, and L’Engle and others. He wrote at a time of great difficulty in the city. There was an outbreak of tuberculosis and he lost some of his children. There was this desire to leave the city, to get away from it all. He wrote this incredible poem in which he encourages us to stand in the faith where we are.
I said, let me walk in the fields.
He said, no, walk in the town.
I said, there are no flowers there.
He said, no flowers, but a crown.
I said, but the skies are black, there is nothing but noise and din,
and He wept as He sent me back.
There is more, He said, there is sin.
I said, but the air is thick and the fogs are veiling the sun.
He answered, yet souls are sick and souls in the dark undone.
I said, I shall miss the light and friends will miss me, they say.
He answered, choose tonight if I am to miss you or obey.
I pleaded for time to be given.
He said, it is hard to decide.
It will not seem so hard in heaven to have followed the steps of our guide.
I cast one look at the fields, then set my face to the town.
He said, my child, do you yield? Will you leave the flowers for the crown?
Then into His hand went mine, and into my heart came He,
and I walk in a divine light, the path I had feared to see.
MacDonald knew that even in the town, in the city, in difficult times, with the death of his family, he still had to be there to proclaim the goodness and the light of God.
At Pentecost the disciples received the Spirit and went into the city with the power of God. May we have the same. Amen.