Pentecost Sunday Homily
Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17
An audio-visual event
Our Bible reading of Acts 2 is a dramatic account of what happened on the Day of Pentecost in the earliest church.
Thanks to a gift voucher given by a friend, we were able to watch Star Trek as a family. As you know, a sci-fi action movie like Star Trek can give us a very entertaining cinema experience, because of the audio and visual effects they provide.
The wonder of Acts 2 is that it describes an event that has strong audio-visual elements. It speaks of a sound like the rush of violent wind. It talks about tongues of fire resting on people. When reading things like that, I think it helps to pause and imagine what happened on the Day of Pentecost.
Imagine what it is like if you witness the visible work of the Spirit on this day!
If we are familiar with the Old Testament, the imagery of the outpouring of the Spirit here in Acts may well remind us of a number of stories in the Hebrew Bible. As is often noted, the narrative in Acts 2 reverses the confusing of language in the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11. Instead of people being scattered, the people of God are now united by the Spirit. Each person hears their own language being spoken as those gathered are filled with the Spirit and speak in the languages of the others.
But Acts 2 may also remind us of the work of the Old Testament prophets, the spokespersons of God who were filled with the Spirit to declare God’s holiness and justice for the oppressed. In addition, we may recall the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire in the Exodus story, where God delivered his people from the yoke of slavery to freedom. I think the “visual people” in our midst (that is, those who are good at observing things visually) can quite easily visualise the Exodus story and its similarities with the narrative in Acts 2.
A cosmic event that breaks all barriers
But what’s really happening on the Day of Pentecost was a cosmic event in which God graciously intervened in the affairs of humankind. Peter cited the prophet Joel’s prophecy, which says that
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my slaves, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
It is important to note the inclusive nature of the Spirit’s outpouring. In the ancient world—and in many cultures today—the society is intensely hierarchical. Women were thought to be inferior to men. Children were not as important as adults. Slaves were subordinate to their masters. But the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost saw no such social divisions.
The life-giving Spirit is poured out to all people—daughters and sons, young and old, and slaves are not excluded.
What we see in the narrative—in this audio-visual display of cosmic event—is not only a picture of the coming-together of peoples and nations under heaven. It also portrays God’s intention to break down all socioeconomic barriers among his people. It is about God’s purpose to bless people from all walks of life, bringing peace to all who seek to worship him and love him.
I am proud of our multicultural community. You see, I always longed for the type of community I found in the New Testament. I wanted to see an inclusive multicultural community that is not merely theoretical but a lived reality. And I am glad that I’ve found it here, where every person is as important as everyone else, without social, economic or ethnic distinctions.
God’s empowering presence
Our second New Testament reading today is from John 14, in which Jesus says that he will ask the Father to give us another advocate to help us and be with us forever—the Spirit of truth. It is worth looking at the context of the passage. In verse 1 Jesus says,
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me.
In verse 15 Jesus says,
I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you.
Later in the chapter (in verses 26–27) Jesus says,
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you… Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
I like these words of comfort. Jesus knew that he’s going to die, and after his resurrection he would ascend to heaven. So, he told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would come, and the Spirit would be their advocate and comforter. He will not leave them as orphans.
The Spirit is God’s “empowering Presence.” In our fear the Spirit speaks peace. In our powerlessness the Spirit gives us strength. When we feel hopeless the Spirit gives us hope. In our loneliness the Spirit speaks comfort.
As I hear the stories of people in our community—not least the testimonies of those who got baptised—I realise how much the Spirit has been working in our midst. People in our community have gone through many dangers and turmoils. Loneliness, physical pain, danger at sea, persecution, uncertainties about life and the future. But in all these life’s challenges, God’s abiding presence does not leave us.
Many years ago, following a crisis in the family, I prayed to the Christian God and asked whether he’s real or not. In the following months I became a Christian. I bought a Bible to read, and found a church to attend. It took me about a year to work through some major questions about Christianity. But over time the Holy Spirit helped me to understand the Scripture and the God it speaks of.
But it was through another crisis that I had an unforgettable experience of the Spirit.
Since I grew up in a relatively low socioeconomic area in Asia, very few of us were able to go to university. In fact, among all my relatives in my generation, I am probably the only one who managed to go to university.
I went to a university in the UK because I was able to get a scholarship, as well as a special government grant. But even with that there was still a lot of out-of-pocket expenses. We had very little money, and so it was no small miracle that we managed to find money to buy air ticket and pay three months’ worth university fees and living expenses. I flew to England quite literally by faith, hoping that extra money would come after three months.
The university was in Yorkshire. As you know, as someone whose first language is not English, people in Yorkshire sounded like speaking in tongues to me. I struggled greatly as a student, and for the first time in my life I almost failed a subject.
I felt extremely lonely, and I feared greatly that I might fail my parents, who worked tirelessly day and night to support me.
At the same time, it was in the UK that I experienced the power differentials that were embedded in the social structures and systems. For the first time I experienced racial slurs. I began to realise that the dominant culture in a society has power over the minority cultures.
I also began to realise that among my Asian friends there were many wealthy people. In the area I grew up, rarely could we afford to buy brand-name sports shoes or equipment. In fact, none of us would have thought that we could ever afford to play tennis, which was thought to be a very expensive game to play.
Well, I found that I had lived in a somewhat different world, for some of my friends in the UK could afford to play tennis and buy brand-name sports equipment. You see, back home I worked very hard in a factory, and I had to study very hard to go to university. But a fellow overseas student said to me one day,
Okay, you are very smart. You worked hard and certainly did well in high school. But here we are. We both end up coming to the same university and doing the same course.
In other words, some people have to work hard to seek a better life. Others don’t have to work hard and still have a good future.
Fortunately, not all my wealthy friends were like that. I did make some good life-long friends in England, who would never say that type of things.
Work of the Spirit
So, as you can see, life was not easy in a foreign country, especially when you are lonely and your family doesn’t have a lot of money. You have no idea how much I prayed to God and asked him to help me.
Then, something happened. One day I was alone in my bedroom. Suddenly I felt that God entered the room. It was an experience that cannot be described through words, except to say that God’s presence was real. I could not see his face, but I could definitely feel that he was there. Then I went out and walked on the streets, and God’s presence was there. It was the most amazing experience of all. And I can only say that it’s the work of the Spirit.
I hasten to say that this rather unique experience is not really very extraordinary, for I have seen many wonderful works of the Spirit here in our community. I have heard amazing stories of transformation. I have heard stories of those who have seen visions of Jesus or heard the audible voice of God.
I have seen the tenacity of those living with a disability and those who struggle with sickness, including terminal illness. Their resilience is inspiring and is nothing short of the work of the Spirit.
I have met those who have been hurt by religious people who do not care about people’s emotions. But the Spirit is slowly and gently bringing healing and deliverance. I have seen the courage of refugees and asylum seekers. Despite their adversities they hang in there. And there are those around them who seek to stand by these friends from overseas in their suffering and walk with them in their darkest hours. This, again, is nothing short of the work of the Spirit.
It seems to me, then, the Spirit is moving powerfully in our midst, and so we can truly celebrate on this Pentecost Sunday. God’s empowering presence is at work in our community. The Spirit brings life and peace, and through the Spirit we live in love and unity.
And may the Spirit empower us to bear witness to Christ to the ends of the earth. Amen.