This summer I will have lived in the United States for 15 years. This year, I have been a US citizen for six years already, and just the other night I was once again reminded that American English is not my mother tongue and that I still don’t always know the words to make myself understood, or to understand.
So it is a gift on the day of Pentecost to read in the Acts of the Apostles that the people can understand each other no matter what language they speak, no matter where they come from, no matter their background. They all hear the Spirit of God speaking to them in their own language, one that they can understand; and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the story implies, with its buzz of excited conversation among the crowd, that they understand one another. Certainly, they all heard Peter, that fisherman from Galilee who in his time crossed the borders of Lebanon and Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Gaza, without let or hindrance. They heard, and understood the gospel that he brought to them straight from the life and love of Christ.
It makes me wonder what we have done, how far we have come from that moment which threatened to reunite humanity within the Spirit of God, within the unity of understanding, standing under the love of Christ revealed to us by the cross and the empty tomb.
How is it that we no longer understand one another even when we allegedly speak the same language? How is it that we are so divided that some of us feel duty bound to arm ourselves against our own neighbours, instead of loving them to death? How is it that we are so threatened by the love of Christ’s death on the cross that we carry death in our pockets and expect it to lead us to life? How is it that instead of the empty tomb, we stand witness too often to the graves of God’s children who are no longer playing at killing one another?
What have we done, since that day of Pentecost, when the Spirit of God blew out the doors and let rip the gospel, the love of God demonstrated to us in Christ Jesus for the whole world to see?
Yesterday, I suspect that a good many of you saw our own Presiding Bishop Michael Curry offer a wedding homily. I knew that it would be a good one. The language of love can bridge wide oceans. The language of the gospel is always crossing boundaries. The Spirit of understanding can even heal the division between British and American English, with a little good grace and a following wind.
I knew that Bishop Curry would blow the minds of many who heard him. I knew that he would preach that love of God, that love of Jesus which threatens our divisions and thwarts our fears if we let it, which heals wounds that cannot be sewn shut by any other power; which heals them even they may still leave a scar.
I didn’t know that he would quote Teilhard de Chardin on the discovery and the use and the harnessing of fire, which of course is perfect for Pentecost, thought all the preachers in the land – except that really it isn’t. Whoever thought that fire could ever be a positive image for the Holy Spirit? I know, it’s in the Bible, and that without the fiery combustion engine of the sun we would have no life here on earth, but still …
We know the destructive force that fire can be – we see it in the melting of the earth and the ash that rises from the volcano on Hawai’i. We see it in wildfires and house fires, and we see it in the controlled explosions that ring out from shotguns and semi-automatic rifles and service revolvers. Only when it is tightly controlled and curbed does fire become useful to us, life-giving instead of life-stealing, productive instead of destructive. Only when it is drawn back, held back, reasoned with … even then, let’s be honest, having seen all that we have seen, can we still call fire our friend? If fire represents the Holy Spirit, then we have blasphemed the Spirit of God by making fire the creature of our destruction instead of the essence of our life.
The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, cannot be tamed, and does not destroy when given free reign, because she is not our creature to control, but she is the very essence of God, who is love.
De Chardin says that if we can but learn to harness the power of love, that Spirit which is God; if we can learn to use love to power our lives, our homes, our schools, our communities; if we can learn to share love as God has shared love with us, then it will be as revolutionary for humankind as when our ancestors learned how to pluck fire from the earth without getting burned.
If we can learn, not to hoard or to restrict or to control love, but how to live with it, live within its dance, let love live within us, then we can change the world.
Bishop Curry also quoted the Revd Dr Martin Luther King, Jr:
We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way.
If we can learn the language of love, instead of fear, or of fire; if we can learn the language of love then we might once again understand one another, and hear the voice of God on the wind, telling all who will listen of the love that gave up life itself for us on the cross, and plucked life itself from the grave, all for the love of God and of God’s creation.
If we can learn the ways of love – well, Bishop Curry said it this way:
When love is the way, the earth [our world] will be a sanctuary.
When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside
to study war no more.
Can you imagine a world without war? Can you imagine a world without gunfire? Can you imagine a world in which the murder of schoolchildren, and their teachers, and our neighbours, was unimaginable?
That is the world imagined by the Holy Spirit which blew through Jerusalem on Pentecost morning, bringing people from different backgrounds, languages, nations, ethnicities, and histories into an understanding of this: that God is love. That God would do, has done, anything for us to know love. That what God wants more than anything else in the world is for us to love one another, because in doing so, we live the life that God created for us, and because perfect love drives out all fear, and because when we love one another, we love God, because God is love.
Love God. Love your neighbour as yourself. It is still, and always, the only way to change the world.