Dr Sarah Mortimer


Choral Eucharist

Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Luke’s second great instalment of the Christian story is known to us as the Acts of the Apostles, but I’ve often wondered if that title really fits.  From the start we see that what is happening here is only the Acts of the Apostles in the loosest sense, for it is not really the Eleven, not even Peter, who are the stars of this show.  In these moments at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fills the disciples with grace and power, we hear what is possible for God and with God, through that Spirit.  And we learn, too, that the Spirit and presence of God is flowing outwards towards all people, whoever they may be.   The pouring out of God’s Spirit will cross every boundary of race and nationality, class and gender, and it will invite us all into new life, into salvation.  If Luke is telling us here about the Acts of the Apostles, he is also reminding us that these are the Acts of the Holy Spirit, and they can be our Acts, too,

From the start we learn that what the Apostles find themselves doing through the Spirit is rarely what they expected.  When our reading begins, they are in Jerusalem as Jesus had told them, huddling together, worshipping in the familiar setting of the Temple, staying close to the traditions that had sustained them and their communities for so long.  The day of Pentecost was a particular moment in that tradition, when they marked the giving of the Law by God to Moses on Mount Sinai – the Law which directed the people towards holy lives and holy communities, towards compassion for each other and reverence for God.  Now they were wondering what holiness might mean for them in these present moments, now Jesus has risen and ascended to heaven.  The disciples are expectant, uncertain, waiting to see what God will do next.  Then the Holy Spirit breaks into this little circle, giving them new languages, new words, new audiences to hear their message.  Now the disciples begin their move outwards, towards the disparate Jews in Jerusalem, and soon to the Gentiles across the world.

In the midst of this excitement, even as Peter stands up to speak to the crowd gathering around, he recognises that the words he offers are not his alone.  The Apostles have spoken words that make sense in every kind of language, and now Peter will speak in his own.  He offers words old and new, ancient words from the prophet Joel, and the new words of the gospel, of Jesus’s life and death and resurrection.  Yet for Peter there is no contradiction, between old and new, local and universal, but rather the unfolding of divine purpose across time and space, in a story that connects him with the prophets of old through the power of the Holy Spirit.   His message is in words that are familiar to the crowd but whose full meaning is only just being realised, only now becoming clear.   As Peter speaks Joel’s words and God’s words, he is telling of God’s salvation, of God empowering people of every class and nation and identity, so that all might share in this new life of love.  Here in this moment it is Peter who speaks for the Eleven, who stands as their leader, who has been trusted by Jesus his most intimate friend.  But Peter is not there to insist on his authority, but to open the hearts and mouths of the crowd so that they too can share in this moment, they too can learn to speak and to act in the power of God’s Spirit.

As Acts continues, we will hear what can happen when people from every culture and background come to hear the message of the gospel and to rejoice in the salvation that God offers.  For the great theme of Acts is the new life and new community that the Holy Spirit brings into being, it is a story about human beings allowing that Spirit to transform the world.  The disciples, including Peter, have to learn to embrace this, to see in what is happening around them the presence of God – not a challenge to their own community and history but a fulfilment of the promises given to it.   Soon there will be a mission to the Gentiles, to cities across Greeceand the Roman Empire; there will be new fellowship and friendship among strangers, new acceptance of difference in the unity of the Spirit.  Yes, this will be the work of the Spirit, but it is also the Apostles’ Acts, as they learn to become the people that God calls them to be.

At Pentecost we celebrate some of the early moments in that story, as the disciples receive the Spirit which Jesus had promised to them, the Spirit that would lead them into all truth.    But Pentecost is not only about the past, it is the marking of a new future, a new phase in the relationship between God and human beings as the Holy Spirit spreads across time and space.  In Acts we see what human life can be like when it is lived through the Spirit, when it is love and compassion and hope that shapes who we are.  For what Luke offers us is also a pattern for our future, an invitation to us to allow the Spirit to come into our hearts and to shape the narratives of our lives and our communities.    The Spirit which spoke in the past through women and men, old and young, rich and poor, is the same Spirit which gives the Apostles voice and which can still speak through us today, when it kindles within us the fire of God’s love.  And it challenges us to imagine what our own Acts might be like, if they too are shaped and inspired through that Holy Spirit.

So what might it look like for us, for you and for me, if we were to allow the Spirit to guide us, to set our hearts on fire, to give us the words and the works of God’s new community?  Perhaps one thing we can know from Acts is that it would surprise and amaze us, that we would find ourselves in new places, stepping into new relationships and new possibilities.   And we will have the courage to do this because we know that this Spirit is, as Jesus tells us, the Spirit of Truth, who draws us into the relationship of the Holy Trinity, the relationship of love and truth and glory between Father, Son and Spirit.  This is a relationship that always extends outwards, where love and truth and glory always are shared, a relationship that crosses all boundaries and lines, to include all people, even all creation.   To enter that relationship is to share what we are and what we are becoming, so that it is no longer enclosed within our own hard walls but allowed to flow outwards, into new understanding, new languages, new friendship.  

For the Acts of the Apostles recorded by Luke are just one instalment in God’s great story, even if this is a pivotal one.  There are other chapters, before and since, and there are chapters still to come.  Then and now the Spirit draws human beings into new life and community, with God and with each other, into new Acts of love and service which are ours even as they are also works of the Spirit.   And we are promised that when we too share in this life, set aflame by the Spirit, then we will find who we truly are, and who we truly can be.