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Pentecost – Dr Elisabeth Dutton


A schoolboy puzzling over the doctrine of the Trinity suggested to his teacher that it was like three men travelling in one car. He was pleased with his analogy, but the teacher thought about it for a few minutes and replied that it was not so much three men in one car as one man in three cars. So that’s all clear then. The teacher wasn’t being perverse. The Trinity is notoriously difficult to understand – but then, as Augustine points out: ‘if you can comprehend it, it is not God’. Alister McGrath suggests that the doctrine of the Trinity can be seen ‘as a safeguard against simplistic or reductionist approaches to God, which inevitably end up by robbing God of mystery, majesty, and glory.’ Preaching on Pentecost Sunday, I’m glad about this. I can now assure you that my failure, in this sermon, to explain the significance of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity will be motivated purely by my desire to preserve in your minds the mystery of the divine. (Ahem). The passage from Acts which is the New Testament reading this evening is the dull bit of the account of Pentecost. In the twenty-one preceding verses, we’ve had violent winds, tongues of fire on the apostles’ heads, miraculous speaking in foreign tongues, and the Apostle Peter’s invocation of Joel’s prophecies – the sun turned to darkness and the moon turned to blood. But here Luke, the writer of Acts, takes a change of direction, turning to a historical narrative, putting into Peter’s mouth three verses summarizing the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This narrative is not obviously connected with the events of Pentecost which surround it: commentators suggest that Luke incorporates some traditional material at this point. For we are not, of course, to think that Luke here inscribes word-for-word the first Pentecostal sermon, recorded by some far-sighted friend with good shorthand: rather we know that he records the pattern and message of that sermon which, scholars have noted, is a common pattern and message of Christological proclamations recorded in Acts. It is an oddly matter-of-fact narrative, and yet Peter’s message is later said to have brought three thousand to faith. How does it do this? The speech is very simple in what it has to say about Christ, much simpler than many passages in Paul’s writings, for example. Firstly, Jesus was a man, and he was a man marked out, or accredited, by God who performed miracles through him: secondly, you put him to death: thirdly, God raised him from death ‘because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.’ There is no statement about Christ as Son of God; no assertion of Christ’s nature as divine or sinless; no discussion of Christ’s death as salvific through sacrifice or atonement. Instead, there is a simple, stark contrast drawn between God’s purpose and the actions of the listening ‘Men of Israel’ who put Christ to death: though they knew of the miracles God worked through him, they did not appreciate their significance; they did not grasp that death could not hold Christ, and so they killed him.But, the Book of Acts declares, ‘God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’ And then there is the jump to a quotation from the Psalms, in which David writes that ‘you will not abandon me to the grave’. What is this about? We all know that David died. ‘I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried and his tomb is here to this day’, says Peter. An immediate, human understanding of David’s words is deceptive – the words appear to be a lie. But David was a prophet, and he perceived things in a different way: seeing what was ahead, he ‘spoke of the resurrection of Christ.’ This passage of the speech also, then, draws attention to the gap between human understanding, and divine purpose and perception. The speech which Luke records Peter delivering at Pentecost does not extrapolate on the complexities of the Holy Spirit’s position within the Trinity, or come anywhere close to Paul’s sophisticated development of the doctrine of atonement. Simply, it emphasizes the gulf which separates our feeble misunderstandings from divine reality. The Men of Israel ‘know’ Christ’s miracles (v.22), and now ‘see and hear’ the effects of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the disciples’ preaching in tongues. But even though, as the witnesses of Pentecost declare, miraculously ‘each of us hears them in his own native language’, they recognize the words but not the meaning. The speech recounted in Acts does not entirely explain what Christ was, but it makes clear that he has now become ‘Lord and Christ’, and so highlights the dramatic nature of the error of those who did not appreciate his significance. C.K. Barrett writes: ‘It is presumably the reminder, uttered in this context, that you crucified this Jesus, that pricks the conscience of the hearers.’ The realisation of error – of the gap between human and divine perception – and of the awful violence resulting – achieves repentance, conversion. ‘About three thousand were added to their number that day.’ One of the most alarming and also most exhilarating things about studying is the daily realization of new depths of ignorance in oneself. The more we read, the more we discover new fields of knowledge, the very existence of which we may not previously have suspected, and which we then long to explore: and exploring this new field will hint at other, unsuspected fields, so that we are more and more extensively ignorant. Sometimes new learning adds up, but more often it modifies, challenges, or even reverses previous learning – and this too can be exhilarating. As the scientist Valentine, in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, puts it: ‘It’s the very best time to be alive, when everything you thought you knew is wrong.’ And yet we often resist being wrong. Because we think being right is what makes us valuable, we will argue endlessly to prove our point, even when we ourselves feel it becoming indefensible. I undertook, to some of you present, not to discuss a certain matter of expenses which has been dominating the headlines of late, so here I will simply suggest that defending the indefensible sometimes seem to be an art form in Parliament. I fear that academics might be able to give MPs a run for their money, too!‘It’s the very best time to be alive, when everything you thought you knew is wrong’ – how liberating it would be to believe that! How liberating it was for those who heard Peter’s preaching, at Pentecost, to realize that they were wrong – not suddenly to understand all the divine mysteries, or to grasp the complexities of soteriology, but just to know that God’s point of view was different, and bigger and better. The experience was not pain-free – Luke tells us they were ‘cut to the heart’, but that heart-piercing was itself witness that God had fulfilled his promise, made through Ezekiel in this evening’s Old Testament reading: ‘I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’ And then they were able to turn to God in a new way of knowing: the word which is translated as ‘Repent’ is rather richer in the Greek, meaning something like ‘Embrace a new view of things.’ So let’s embrace the idea that we are likely to be wrong, and that we are unlikely ever to know anything much fully and completely. But let’s remember too that this is not an excuse for intellectual idleness or passivity. We cannot appreciate our intellectual fallibility unless we ask more questions, with more energy – for if we stop questioning we start to think we know, and then we become credulous of the lies or deceptive half-truths which are for example, daily pedaled in the racist, sexist, ageist trash of the tabloids and more than occasionally broadsheets, too. And we must question like Piglet’s friends, in Winnie the Pooh. When concerned that Piglet might have been blown away by a very strong wind, Eeyore explains that people will start to ask questions: ‘People will ask, ‘Where’s little Piglet been blown to?’ – Really wanting to know!’

Dr. Elisabeth Dutton, Worcester College
31st May 2009