‘Poor, little, talkative Christianity’ – that was E.M. Forster’s somewhat tart observation, and indeed it has to be acknowledged that ours is a religion which is very verbal, and very vocal, and which from the beginning has invested a great deal of energy in the whole business of communication.
Today’s celebration and commemoration, ‘the last day of the feast’ of Easter, the 50th day, ‘the great day’, is, amongst other things, about communication and language, about a new language, a new way of speaking: ‘tongues as of fire were distributed and rested upon each of them…and they began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance’. A new language for a new thing – not the old, tired words of official religion, with its tedious explanations and exhortations, its prohibitions and injunctions, but the young, fresh language of GOD himself – a language of fire, a speech of flame.
That first group of believers, gathered ‘all together in one place’ on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, had been surprised by a joy which no one would ever be able to take away from them, ‘joy’ that out of so much travail and anguish new life had been ‘born into the world’. Sorrow had indeed filled their hearts, and on Good Friday the light had been cruelly and brutally extinguished, and it seemed that darkness and death had had the last word.
But then came the third day, and their eyes were opened, and they were able to recognise in Jesus of Nazareth, and in all the things that had happened to him in the days of his flesh, a new way of living life and of understanding its meaning. So powerful was this realisation that it burst out of them, and they were irresistibly compelled to share with others their joy in the new Way, the new Truth and the new Life which Jesus represented and embodied and which they had witnessed and experienced for themselves, ‘seen with their eyes..looked upon, and touched with their hands.. the word of life’ (1Jn 1.1).
‘Had not their hearts burned within them’ as the Risen One came to them and ‘presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs…and speaking of the Kingdom of GOD’. ‘Fire’ had been cast ‘cast upon the earth’ – the New Fire of the Resurrection – and to enable them to bear witness to GOD’s decisive act in raising Jesus from the dead, they were given ‘tongues as of fire…and they began to speak as the Spirit gave them utterance the mighty acts of GOD’. – They spoke with a burning conviction and with a power which compellingly communicated itself to those who had ‘ears to hear’ – a power and a conviction which transcended all the barriers and differences of culture and class and language. None of the hearers was in any doubt of it: ‘we hear them tell in our own tongues the mighty works of GOD’. They got the message.
‘Tongues as of fire’. Christianity is the religion of the Word. It claims to have a message. It is deeply concerned with speech, with communication – GOD’s speech. It directs us to the task of speaking of the things ‘which we have seen and heard’ in Jesus Christ, of sharing ourselves, of giving ourselves away in what we say and how we say it – just as GOD gave himself away in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
And how are we to do this? So often Christians seem to suppose that preaching the Gospel to every creature means that we have to shout at them – that we have to put the truth on a line and turn up the volume.
But that does not seem to have been the way that Jesus went about things. He did not address people by delivering monologues, cowing and bludgeoning them into stunned silence by powerful and incontrovertible arguments. He recognized that by our very nature, by the way we are made, human beings come to their fullness of being through conversation, through dialogue, through the exchange of giving and receiving, through listening as well as through speaking.
So if we are to take our cue from him, if we are to learn how to speak the new language of Pentecost, if ours are to be ‘tongues as of fire’ we must know not only how and what to speak, we must know how to listen – how to listen to GOD, who speaks to us ‘in many and various ways’, how to listen not only with our heads, but also with our hearts. We need to bear in mind that Pentecost as well as being about the gift of tongues is also about the gift of ears.
GOD enters into conversation with us, not only in Scripture, not only in the Church, but also in the events and circumstances, the things and people, the situations and the relationships of ordinary life, and in the way in which we respond to them. And his Word is as fire, bringing light and warmth and cheerfulness to our hearts. But also searching us out, purging and refining the dross and rubbish of our lives, setting alight what is dried up and withered, cauterizing what is infected and corrupted.
We long for the assurance that the darkness and death which assail and threaten and oppress the human spirit do not have the last word. We all look for the word which will give us life, for we all long to live with hearts that are alive and warm and alight with hope and love.
It is in Jesus that GOD speaks his word of assurance to the human race. In that life consumed in the sacrificial fire of his total self-giving to the Father, and raised up in the New Fire of his Resurrection, GOD gives us his ‘Yes’, gives us the assurance that reality is on our side, and is for us, and not against us.
And as it was with him, so it is to be with us. The Word which enlightens and warms and purifies is to be made flesh in us. The Word is to be spoken with our lives as Jesus spoke it with his. It is we ourselves who are to be the Good News, GOD’s ‘Yes’ to the world, so that looking at us – whether as individual Christians, or corporately as the Church – men and women should be able to say, ‘Now we can see what GOD is