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Pentecost Sunday, is widely regarded as the birthday of the Church, so today’s message starts with the not-very-liturgical words, Happy Birthday! We won’t be having cake, but later in the service as we share in a socially-distanced communion service, we will have bread and wine or whatever celebrative beverage suits the occasion for you – and I hope that the mood of celebration permeates this time of worship. This week, our focus will be mostly on the “big picture” of who we are as Church; next week, we’ll look closer to home.
A little under 2000 years ago, religious pilgrims from around the Mediterranean and beyond had gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival variably known as Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost. Jesus’ disciples, as observant Jews from Galilee, were amongst the pilgrims and suddenly were overtaken by the power of a great gusty breeze, filling the room they were in, and seemingly fueling what looked like tongues of fire above each one, enabling multiple languages to be spoken. That rushing wind was the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, God’s own breath of life. Much in the same way that a parent eagerly awaits the first breath taken by a newborn, the Christian Church took its first breath that day, in receiving the Spirit. The English word, “inspire” is rooted in this sense of being in-spirited, holy breath filling and transforming us, as individuals and as Church. Starting at that first Christian Pentecost, both the visible Church and all actions of peace, love and justice undertaken in Christ’s name – have had that intrinsic, powerful connection with the Divine.
One manifestation of this “birthday gift” of the Holy Spirit, was a wondrous moment of speaking in languages, known and understood by the pilgrims from other lands but unknown to the speaker. At times this gets mixed in with the ecstatic spiritual experience of “speaking in tongues” but that’s something else. This, as reported in the second chapter of Acts, was a multiplicity of languages that delighted and amazed these visitors from afar: hearing their mother tongue being spoken in a place they did not expect to hear it.
This Pentecost, I’d like to go a bit deeper into the bestowing of Holy Spirit, and this sudden facility with new language. If we go way back in our faith tradition, there is connection to the legend of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) and the mythical days of old when all spoke one language, together building a tower so tall it would touch heaven, with the express purpose of “making a name for themselves” (Gen 11:4). In response, the storyteller of Genesis says that God mixed up their languages, so that their words were just “babble” to one another, and that they were then scattered over the earth. At Pentecost, we have a reversal of sorts: in Genesis, the diversity of languages is used to separate people; in the second chapter of Acts, a diversity of languages is used as to unite people. The diversity of language at Pentecost, is something exciting and uniting.
How wonderful, that linguistic and ethnic diversity is a central part of the birth narrative of the Christian Church! If you take that celebration of diversity, and apply it elsewhere to our life as a community of faith, you end up with, well, something that looks very much like an Affirming Ministry(!): a place where breadth of welcome, diversity of persons, and openness to the unfamiliar, find an authentic home. In the 2nd chapter of Acts, the group that were speaking in various languages, had much in common: they had all shared time with Jesus and, we presume, had all come from the province of Galilee. But the group they spoke to, in their own tongues, were from everywhere. The disciples may have started out as a mono-cultural group and that lasted only a brief time, before the Spirit went to work and said, “you know, this will be a lot more interesting if people from everywhere know that they are every bit as welcome and valued as anyone else.”
From day one, on purpose, the Church has celebrated a diverse group of people who have come from everywhere. And yet recently, stories about tourist towns on both sides of the BC/Alberta border have reminded us of how easy it is to fall into we/they thinking, the established ‘us’ threatened by the newly-arrived ‘them’. On a larger stage and with much bigger stakes, the world has become heartbreakingly familiar with the names Ahmed Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, whose deaths force us to see the challenges faced every day by racial and ethnic minority populations, not only south of the border, but everywhere. Rev Dr Michael W Waters, founding pastor of the Abundant Life African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas, challenged podcast listeners this week not to distance ourselves from these events, but to come face to face with the deep brokenness these incidents reveal. For even if there was success in ending the violence, the attitudes underlying the growing un-safety in doing anything while black remains in statements like “I don’t want you living next door to me, don’t want you shopping at the same stores that I shop in, don’t want you marrying my daughter or my son. So we’ll stop the harm, but we don’t necessarily see you as an equal brother or sister in God.” And Dr Waters continued, saying “Until we have a full commitment to see each other in that space of equality with each other, brothers and sisters in God together, we can’t ever repair the harm that continues to happen.” (Pagitt/Waters, 17 minute mark).
That’s a fair and important question to ask right now: do we truly believe in the inherent belovedness and equality of all people, regardless of ethnicity or religion or gender identity or anything other factor you can name? If the answer is no, if we don’t believe in that equality, by extension we don’t believe much (if anything) of what Jesus said, we deny the full and diverse goodness of God’s wondrous gift of life, and we are very, very broken indeed.
That brokenness, which exists in so many ways in our world, is so totally contrary to the celebration of diversity that leads us to Worship today. And sorry, I know it’s supposed to be a birthday get-together and this is a difficult gift I brought to the party… but y’know, birthdays are more than just gifts and fun and unhealthy food. Birthdays are an annual time of taking stock; assessing where my life is right now, celebrating friendships and noticing who is missing from the party. At any birthday, we have those bittersweet memories of the faithful departed who are no longer part of our celebrations, but we may also have the hard reality of fractures in our families and friendships where there has been a falling out. And so on this Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the joyous togetherness of a God who enlivens every language, a God who speaks every language except the language of hatred, we admit and lament the brokenness, and pray for the will and the way for our world to heal these deep wounds.
It has always been God’s will, that the body of Christ be diverse. Last fall, I was at the “Awkward Conversations” event in Edmonton, an annual United Church event that opens us to experiences of racism in the Church, and our presenter reminded us this. The final instructions from Jesus to the disciples, the “great commission” of Matthew 28:19, say “Go and make disciples of all nations” but our speakers – Rev. Dr. Andrew Sung Park and Rev. Dr. Eric H. F. Law – underlined for us that the Greek word translated “nations” is ethnos – the root of the word, “ethnicity.” While that one scripture has been used to justify a lot of colonialism, our speakers argued that Christ’s intent was for us to have a big, big tent where all ethnoi, all ethnicities, are fully, equally welcome and valued.
This validated a belief I’ve held for a long time. That is, each time we gather (even virtually!) we do so as part of an enormous and diverse community of worshippers worldwide, people from everywhere who draw near to the Divine in many ways and many languages. We are connected to one another and to the world, by a love that experiences our differences and diversity not as divisions but in the way that distinct notes blend into beautiful harmonies. I invite you to imagine this breadth of the body of Christ, as we join for communion this morning: as we recall Christ in bread and cup, we are one with one another and with this extraordinary range of seekers on every continent. What an amazing table to be a part of – what a wonderful celebration, this festival of Pentecost – what a love, we experience in a God who wants the world and all its people to live without fear, in love, and justice, and equality.
As we mark another birthday of the Church of Jesus Christ, may the gifts of human diversity inspire our hearts and minds, our hands and voices, our responses and our initiatives. May the voice of love take the place of the languages of prejudice and terror and hatred. May the Spirit of our life-giving God, be the source of our next breath, now and always. Amen.
Pagitt, Doug and Waters, Michael W. “Vote Common Good” podcast, May 26, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/votecommongood/videos/286772796029375/
© 2020 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.