Declaring the wonders of God

Acts 2:1-11 [11b]

“…yet all of us hear them speaking in our own languages declaring the wonders of God!”

In my first parish I was driving to lead worship at one of my congregations and was listening to the radio, to a broadcast of the opening worship of an assembly of the World Council of Churches, being held in Canada.  The service was in French.  I couldn’t understand anything, but enjoyed the music.  And then the leader sang “Kyrie eleison”, and the congregation responded.  And I knew where we were in the service!  And I suddenly felt included with the great gathering of Christians from all over the world, gathered there in Canada, or listening on the radio as I was.  And, in recognizing that “Kyrie eleison” is not French, but Greek—using the common ‘world language’ of the early Christian Church, and the language of the New Testament—I recognized, too, the same prayer that Christians throughout the centuries had used.  It was a familiar prayer in a foreign tongue—to which I added my Hebrew “Amen”.

And so I have persisted with a personal preference, during my years as your pastor, and thus imposed on you an outdated liturgical practice.  When, in our worship, we use the responses “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy” I usually use the Greek formula “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison”.  It reminds me that my prayer belongs to a community of saints that stretches beyond the immediate and includes people of all nations and all time.

Language is clearly an important factor in the life of the Church.  The day of Pentecost as we hear the story each year was, in a way, a festival of language.  And I can say, with absolute confidence, that although there is no specific reference to people from England or Germany or Australia or Malaysia or Namibia or South Africa or Poland or Holland or Papua New Guinea or the Americas or half a dozen other countries from which our own congregation has been built up over the years—although there is no specific reference to these I am absolutely sure that, had any one of us stood there among the others on that first day of Pentecost, we would have heard the Gospel in our language!  We would have heard the disciples of Jesus, thus empowered and encouraged, proclaiming to us “the wonders of God”.

They proclaimed the wonders of God.  For all the excitement and spectacle of rushing wind, flames of fire, and the un-babble of languages, the excitement served only one purpose:  to proclaim the wonders of God.  We do, indeed, see the event as a sort of ‘birthday’ of the Church, a starting point for the missionary movement and the organised fellowship and the new, revised patterns of worship, and the assigned roles of apostles and deacons…and if I mention too many more aspects about how the church started to take structure your thinking will shift to ‘the Church’ rather than stay focussed on “the wonders of God”!

And the day was about “the wonders of God”—for  ‘the world’, for people “from every nation under heaven”, as the reading says.  Pentecost was a very important Jewish festival and Jerusalem was full of tourists, if you like—foreigners, but not quite.  Over the past generations, especially since the time of the Babylonian Exile, and into the age of Greek and Roman Empires, God’s people had been taken, or had moved themselves, into countries all around what we sometimes refer to as “the Middle East” and “the Mediterranean”.  In fact, some of the largest and most significant communities of Jews, and some of the best Jewish scholars were located far away from Jerusalem itself.  So, at this festival time, with a longing to be in Jerusalem and worship in Jerusalem, Jews had come ‘home’, so to speak.  And this is the moment when God chooses to send his Spirit, and send his followers out. 

[A curious blessing of God, that to help them go out into all the world, he brings all the world to their doorstep.  It would be like if everyone came to us for ministry rather than for us to have to go out and find them….]

“We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”

Over the coming decades and centuries “declaring the wonders of God” had a significant impact on the world.  The Church grew; and it spread.  It became more complex and more organised.  At times declaring the wonders of God resulted in persecution—many Christians died for proclaiming their God, and the Church had to be careful; went ‘underground’ even.  At times declaring the wonders of God appealed widely, and whole societies were changed; even kings and emperors got behind the Church.  The Church became stronger, more secure, more influential and, at the same time, more vulnerable to what happens when an ‘ideal’ becomes ‘institutionalised’.  Sadly, in the history of Christianity, there have been many periods when the Church has been busy focussing on the wonders of ‘the Church’, rather than on the wonders of God….

For quite a long time, the Church in Western Europe used a single language, Latin.  At first Latin was, in a sense, a unifying language that could be used by people of lots of different language groups to communicate with one another.  After a while, Latin became a language only used widely by clergy and scholars—the universal single language became something only accessible to a few.  And then, the “wonders of God” became a message only accessible to those empowered by their learning or their office.  “The wonders of God”—the Gospel—became a mystery, and a means of control:  “We will tell you about God’s love.  We will include you among us, but first you must”…and then comes the set of conditions.  And you end up with a community of people so focussed on doing the right thing by the Church and keeping all the rules and conditions set before them that no one has time to simply wonder at “the wonders of God”.

Lutherans remember October 31, 1517 as the day that Martin Luther shook things up by posting the famous 95 Theses.  But, to be fair, 1521 & 1522 were years that were more exciting or more significant—when Luther translated the New Testament into the common language of his people, and for the first time they could “hear the wonders of God in our tongues!”  And in 1524 he published a hymnal—only had 8 hymns in it!—but they proclaimed “the wonders of God in our own tongues!”  And two years later he published the German Mass, and regular worship services became opportunities to hear and proclaim and celebrate “the wonders of God in our own tongues!”  These moments were echoes of Pentecost, when God’s Spirit empowered and encouraged Christians to proclaim wonders of God to all the world, to all nations.

The Church today—us! & Christians throughout the world—are truly out among all nations.  There are Christians and missionaries reading and teaching and proclaiming the Bible in thousands of different languages.  Technology enables us to make use of TV and radio and films and the internet.  Transport allows comparatively quick and much easier access to most of the world.  Pentecost continues!  God has blessed us—even us, here in Lilydale/Croydon!  Around the world the Church is growing, and spreading—most of all in parts of Africa and Asia where access and understanding for missionary work has sometimes been most difficult. 

At the same time, however, many of us are concerned that in other places the Church has stagnated, is shrinking, is considered ‘irrelevant’, and in many traditionally strong ‘Christian countries’ people seem to be increasingly estranged from the Church.

We need to listen to, and think about, what the Church—us!—is saying to the world, to our world.

In some ways “language” is all important.  Language is about communicating; and we always communicate more effectively when our words, gestures, culture, methodologies—our lives!—address, meaningfully, those to whom we seek to minister.

But at the heart of our communication is that on which all of those who were present at the first Pentecost focussed:  “the wonders of God”.

I want to encourage you—so that you might become even more effective as Pentecost proclaimers of the Gospel—I want to encourage you to ‘listen’, carefully and critically, to what the Church—our Church and others—is saying to the community, and to the world.  At the end of the message, when you have listened carefully and critically, have you heard “the wonders of God”?  Have you heard a clear and unqualified statement of God’s grace?  Of the free gift of his love, his forgiveness, his blessing, his life?

I have worshipped in situations where everything is full of energy, up-tempo, glossy and full steam ahead—modern language!—in which the message for the day has boiled down to “all this is yours if you do what God commands”; and no one has told me that God loves me freely, that he accepts me in my weakness, that he values my tears as much as my “Hallelujahs” (that’s another Hebrew word).  I have heard of wonders of the Church and wonders of wonderful efforts of wonderful Christians; but I have not heard the wonders of God.  I have not heard what Peter preached on that first day of Pentecost:  “God will forgive you.  God will give you his Holy Spirit.  This is God’s promise for you and your children.”

People often share with me what they have been taught by well-meaning Christians who encourage them that all they need is a little bit more—a little bit more faith, a little bit more faithfulness, a little bit more obedience, a little bit more prayer—just a little bit more.  That first Pentecost God’s Spirit enabled his Church to proclaim the already complete, full victory won by God; to proclaim “the wonders of God” or, as another translation puts it, “God’s deeds of power”.

Sometimes “the wonders of God” or “God’s deeds of power” are most effectively communicated in the language of one-to-one individual offers of forgiveness; of small, personal inclusive acts of fellowship; of patience, long-suffering, in supporting those who are struggling; in the language of faithful encouragement and affirmation.  The language may, in fact, be simple, even faltering; but the message shows the wonders of God’s love.

Paul put it like this (once the Holy Spirit had also got the message of God’s grace through to him!):
“When I came to you, my brothers and sisters, to preach God’s secret truth, I did not use big words and great learning.  For while I was with you, I made up my mind to forget everything except Jesus Christ and especially his death on the cross.  So when I came to you, I was weak and trembled all over with fear, and my teaching and message were not delivered with skilful words of human wisdom, but with convincing proof of the power of God’s Spirit.”

Jesus Christ—his death on the cross—proclaimed with the power of God’s Spirit.  That is the language the Church needs to speak.  That is the language the world waits to hear.  That is the Holy Spirit’s gift to the Church, and to the world.  Amen.