9 June 2019 Sermon (Robinson College, Cambridge)

Acts 2: 1-17

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.

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When I was an undergraduate here, there seemed to be an overarching narrative that reappeared again and again in sermons preached here. The narrative took the form of a myth that went something like this:

“During the planning of this college, our benefactor David Robinson came to the offices of the architects. He was shown various plans, elevations, maps and models.

‘Mmm,’ he said, ‘very good, but where’s the chapel?’

‘Oh,’ said one of the architects, ‘but Mr Robinson this is the 1970s, surely we’re beyond needing a chapel?’

‘No chapel; no college,’ came the steely reply.”

This account may be mythical, or perhaps only legendary, but it carries a foundational significance – this chapel is likely here because somebody took a stand against the prevailing views and trends of the times.

Today the church remembers its own foundational event: the day of Pentecost, which was described in our reading from Acts. Jesus had died, risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. His followers had been told to wait in Jerusalem for God’s next move. This next move is pictured in vivid terms: there was a rushing wind that filled the house; tongues of flame rested on each person; and then people began to speak in different languages.

The writer of Acts describes this as the followers of Jesus being filled with the Holy Spirit.

Later Christian theologians would explain this encounter with the Holy Spirit as an encounter with God – the Holy Spirit being more than just a power God can choose to exercise, but God himself acting.

Why should this particular encounter with God lead to speaking other languages? Speaking in many other languages is not necessarily positive if you consider our reading from Genesis” that mythical account of the origin of languages at the Tower of Babel.

If you look at the two books of the Bible attributed to Luke (the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles) up until the day of Pentecost Peter has barely spoken – one or two lines of dialogue here and there. Yet after receiving the Holy Spirit, Peter addresses the crowd in a speech lasting more than half a chapter.

So, the gift of speaking in other languages contains within it the gift of being able to speak at all. Yet it is even more than that. Peter’s speech is one which the crowd understands – both literally and figuratively. Literally, people from all over the world can understand the words he is using.

Figuratively, his words have an effect – they cut the crowd to the heart, they feel a sense of awe and 3000 of them believe the message. The encounter with God in the Holy Spirit means that even though myriad languages are spoken, Peter and the other disciples are understood – a complete reversal of Babel where those desiring to become like God are reduced to a non-sensical babble.

So the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts is presented as the gift of meaning; the gift of making sense to people.

If we say to someone “You’re really speaking my language,” we do not simply mean that they are speaking English! It means someone is speaking in a register that I understand, a register that gets through to me, a register that means something to me.

The extraordinary encounter with God in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost opens up the very possibility of talking about God, and of our talking about God making any sort of sense at all. For that reason, the events of Pentecost have rightly been described as the birth of the church.

That was all a rather lengthy First Act to Act Two, which is about Plato, and his dialogue Phaedrus.

So, why the Phaedrus? Well, like the account of Pentecost, the themes of speech and meaning run intertwined through this particular Platonic dialogue.

Although the dialogue is ostensibly about two conflicting accounts of the nature of love, it is really about philosophy. Love is almost synonymous in this Platonic dialogue with philosophy – the love of wisdom. So, when Socrates and his pupil Phaedrus talk about a lover and his beloved, the words have deep personal resonance – the love described is the love between Socrates and Phaedrus cemented in their mutual yearning after wisdom.

The philosophical quest for wisdom and truth is a joint effort of two minds, the minds of a teacher and a pupil, whose love for one another is rooted in a common love of things like truth, beauty and goodness.
A quest for meaning, a quest for truth is not something one can embark on alone – it is a communal endeavour of proposing, questioning, dissecting, generalising, clarifying, and refining. This has been given the rather grand name of “the dialectic”. But we might be equally justified in calling it “conversation”.

Plato’s dialogues are based around reconstructed conversations between Socrates and his various pupils. Those conversations take place in a mutual spirit of love and desire to find truth and wisdom. So conversation, when it is entered into openly and in the right spirit, is a place where truths can be uncovered, meaning can be found and minds can be changed.

Slightly embarrassingly I realise at this point that I’ve painted myself into a Simon Perry-shaped corner.

If the overarching narrative of the preaching here when I was an undergraduate was the myth of David Robinson, then the overarching narrative of many sermons I have heard here on attachment as an ordinand has been that changing your mind is not a simple thing to do.

Is what I’ve said about dialogue and conversation being a place where truth can emerge really incompatible with the difficulty of changing someone’s mind? If it is, then I’m sure Simon and I will thrash the point out over a glass of wine or two after the service!

But as a prelude to that, another quick look at both Plato and Pentecost.

In the Phaedrus, Plato acknowledges that the philosophical quest for truth is not easy. The conclusions of philosophical debate are written not in ink, he says, but in the souls of human beings – the quest for truth is an ongoing one and is just as complicated as we are to ourselves.

The Platonic dialogues are not simply conversation and rational argument either, they also contain a significant number of myths. So in Phaedrus we find mythical accounts of local deities, an allegorical description of the human soul, and an Egyptian myth about the origins of writing. These myths act as rhetorical devices interrupting the flow of the debate, opening up conversations, and sparking new lines of enquiry.

It is an enormous question whether the description of Pentecost in Acts is mythological or historical. The account is certainly anything but straightforward.

It stretches us to the point of disbelief when we hear about miraculous rushing winds and tongues of fire. But the point is that a sudden, violent interruption was needed in these people’s lives before they could begin to speak to people about God and Jesus Christ, and before they could begin to make sense, before they could begin to be the church in other words.

An architect’s plans of a college without a chapel made no sense to at least one person in the 1970s. At least according to the myth. Whether that account is mythical or not, it does give us an insight into the vision of one man, and what made sense to him. A vision that in the space a college provides for conversation and debate about anything and everything, there should still be a space for conversation about God.

Whatever your own vision is, it will likely never come to anything unless you speak up about it, and try to make sense in your speaking.

You may not feel that you need the Holy Spirit to enable you to do that, but you certainly need to speak and to go on talking and debating about what is truly important to you. And be prepared to have your mind changed. On that, I think, both Plato and Pentecost can agree.