Today is Pentecost Sunday, often referred to as the church’s birthday, the day when God poured out the Spirit on the early church gathered in Jerusalem. It was an amazing spectacle and it is this spectacle we often get caught up in. And it would have been so easy to have been swayed by tongues of fire, roaring winds and otherwise mono-linguistic people speaking in foreign languages. This story of God breaking in on, not just the disciples though they were there, but devout Jews and people from every part of the known world is a story too good to ignore, yet we often drain it of it’s power and relevance for us today.
This story is an example of experiential learning, the type of learning we search for in our teaching, parenting and living. We are called to become involved in this event which is being experienced by us and by people all throughout the world at this very moment. Jesus promised to send the Spirit to teach, to breakdown, to unify and to celebrate the creative and redeeming wonder of God, and Pentecost is that day.
The wonder of teaching is surprise, and as teachers, if we lose the capacity to be surprised by our material, our students and our selves, our teaching becomes static, lifeless and dead. Each day we are surprised by students, students who respond with amazing insights, attention and participation we were not expecting, not at least from ‘that’ particular student. Marking Religious Education assignments I have been surprised by the students who have surprised me with the quality of their work and their insights into the world around them. These haven’t been the brightest and the best, just ordinary students who have given of themselves in a way that says, ‘I am listening and I am capable of catching you off guard.’ When we are not looking something amazing happens. That is Pentecost in action, that is the Spirit of God continuing to create wonder and blessing in places we consider dead, not alive, barren and unproductive.
Peter gets up to speak, Peter the petulant, the impulsive, the one who speaks before thinking, the one who cut off the soldiers ear with his sword, the one who denied Jesus three times, gets up to speak in the midst of this amazing moment. Peter speaks without hesitation, plainly and powerfully, no impulsive sayings, no over the top rhetoric – just good plain speaking knowledge – he speaks what he learnt when Jesus was with them. Peter becomes the archetypal student, the student we hope we teach. He gives us hope that those in our classes who mimic the ‘old’ Peter – Peter the student – will become Peter, the learner who now acts on what he was taught:
- He is aware – of what is happening, of who is there, and of the importance of the occasion;
- He applies reason – ‘These men are not drunk’ – and asks those listening to take this situation seriously,
- He is contextual – he remember’s the prophets words and quotes them as the reference for this moment in history.
Peters speech in it’s entirety reflects the power of experiential learning. While Peter had spent 3 years with Jesus, he had also spent a lifetime with the Torah and the Jewish traditions as well as in the world as a business, fishermen, son, husband and parent. Peter gathers together all the learning which had come his way and uses it here to teach those who were gathered from all over the known world and who had, many of them, a similar understanding of the Jewish scriptures as he.
Peter would have recognised in the diversity of languages and peoples the image of the Tower of Babel where God brought into being individual languages so that people could not communicate as before. Now they, despite their diversity through the primacy of language, are brought together to experience the unity that comes from Spirit. Note that no language is discarded, no difference is erased, they still have their languages and their ethnic and cultural differences, but they are united through the power of the Spirit. They are one, but different. Diversity becomes a strength not a weakness, and they are challenged to engage and learn from each other in the glow of Pentecost.
Luke has Peter dismantling the arguments of those watching, the devout Jews, who accuse the crowd of being drunk. When the Spirit surprises, our natural reaction is to find an excuse, a way of rationalising what we have seen so that we can avoid embracing what is there. The challenge to the conformity of the devout Jews to an ethnic Jewish religion, to the idea that they and they alone are Gods’ people, and that that God only speaks to and through them, was powerfully experienced by them at this moment. All of a sudden centuries of accepted teaching, learning and expectations have been challenged to the brink of collapse, how do we respond? Let’s find reasons and excuses to trivialise and dismiss it out of hand. That way we can go on doing what we have always done and not have to learn something new.
Students and children (even ours) do that to us each day. We have preconceived ideas what teaching and learning looks like, what particular students or children are like and what we can expect from them and, even when they surprise us, we often simply dismiss that as a one off and fail to embrace the learning in that moment for ourselves.
Students and children (and people in general) learn and process their learning in ways that are particular to them. They often only learn when those who teach them are no longer in the room. Peter is forced to recall his teaching, to process what he has learnt and to get up and present it without notes, powerpoint slides or a rehearsal. He speaks off the cuff and has to rely on what is with in him, much of which he was still processing, yet here he is giving the speech which set the church up for the future and him as the leader of that church.
In my RE classes I have a number of Peter’s and at least one by that name. I have been driven to distraction by these young boys and girls wondering when their disruptive, some times disrespectful, sometimes oppositional behaviour will stop and they will begin to learn. I said to a fellow teacher on Thursday after a particular difficult year class, ‘Tell me again, why do we do this?”
One student hadn’t submitted his assignment, and when challenged said he would do it sometime, I said ‘sometime isn’t good enough, tonight is’. I marked some of the others work and was surprised at both the quality and the insights into contemporary issues and the thinking of the Apostle Paul. I met 2 boys on the stairs and told them they had done good and asked permission to publish their work for others to see. One said yes straight away, the other said no, until I told him it was for other schools and not students at our school, then he was very happy. I learnt something about that young man right there, how he sees himself and how he wants to be seen. He was proud of his work but he didn’t want to stand out amongst his peers. Later on that night, at 6.30, an excellent assignment came through from the boy who said he would do it sometime!
As teachers we, just as Jesus did and God before him, become frustrated at the lack of obvious and visible response from the students in front of us. The Peter, James and John’s in our classrooms disrupt, interrupt and are abrupt, but they are learning and will activate and implement that learning as and when they and the moment is right. Our disappointment is just that, our disappointment, not theirs. Jesus knew Peter had it in him, that’s why he told him he would be the Rock on which he would build the church. Even Peter didn’t believe him!
Here at Pentecost, Peter comes of age and his learning matures and bubble forth like a new wine, empowered by the surprising breaking in of God’s moment and Spirit. Pentecost is the promise of the hidden, the unseen, the previously unknown to break forth in diversity and surprise.
Our task? To stay awake and not resort to our preconceptions, ancient practices and accepted wisdom. The Spirit will surprise us, but we have to be awake to be surprised!