This pattern of reflection is designed to encourage us to deepen our understanding of what it means to be an Easter people.
Through this strange season we are also trying to capture our impressions of where God is calling us as the Church at this time. To help with this we would be delighted if you could answer some short questions using this link: "Where are travelling as a Church during Covid-19?"
- How do you react to things being messy?
- Read this week’s passage.
- Keep a few moments of silence
- Read the passage through a second time
- What word or phrase strikes you or stands out for you?
- Read the passage a third time
- Think about what that phrase might mean to you and what questions it raises.
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.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Pentecost is always in danger of being the great overlooked feast of the Church’s year. Next to Christmas and Easter the day of Pentecost – the moment when the Holy Spirit fills the hearts of the Apostles and breathes life into the Church – sometimes feels a little lost. There seem to me several reasons for this. The first is that, unlike Christmas and Easter, Pentecost is a feast which you can blink and miss. All of these great feasts are marked on a specific day. Christmas on the same date with Easter and Pentecost moving in relation to one another. However once that day has been celebrated at Christmas and Easter we remain in that season for the weeks that follow. These seasons give us time to continue to explore and celebrate the meaning of those feasts in the life of faith. Pentecost, unless you are devotee of the Alternative Service Book (remember that?) has no ongoing season. Instead it can feel like a one-day wonder as it disappears into Trinity Sunday and the weeks and weeks that follow.
Another reason we sometimes miss Pentecost is that we experience this feast in a different way from others. On one level Pentecost tells us something about who God is revealed to us in the gift of the Holy Spirit. But alongside this focus on God Pentecost also tells us something about us as the Church, as the inheritors of that gift first received to our Apostolic forbears at Pentecost. For this reason, Pentecost has been described as “the birthday of the Church”. In the gift of the Spirit to the Apostles which we heard of so vividly in our New Testament lesson, God commissions the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth as something new and transformative in human history. They become part of that great tradition in which we stand today, they become the Body of Christ on earth, they and we become the Church.
This surely should be something for us to rejoice in with the same gusto as Christmas and Easter, but somehow we don’t. And we don’t, I think, because we recognise that there can be a disconnect between the birth of the Church we hear about in the story of Pentecost and the limitations of the Church we know all too well today.
Although not entirely true, we can pretend that there is a purity of focus in the stories of Christmas and Easter. In those feasts we can pretend to stand a little way off, looking in on the story and through it recognising the grace and power of God’s love to transform the world. In Pentecost, however, there is an implicit messiness as we try to reconcile the glorious story of Pentecost with our own experience of the fallibility of the Church which can feel chaotic and a little tarnished next to the glory of this divine origin story.
A brief survey of the press coverage of the Church’s response to the Covid-19 crisis provides a microcosm of this long-known reality. For all the stories of the Church responding to the needs of a fearful and uncertain world, we also find stories of seeming missteps, of criticism of failures of imagination, of opposition to direction. We hope and pray that the work of God is in there, somewhere, but it seems lost in the babble and confusion of human disagreement and difference. As we mark the day of Pentecost it can sometimes feel like the Church we know is more closely related to people of Babel, with our scattered and confused language, than the excitement and possibility of those first Apostles filled with the intoxicating new wine of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps the chief challenge of Pentecost for us is that in its messiness we cannot hide from our place in the story. This is of course true of Christmas and Easter as well. With those feasts we can pretend to stand back observing what is taking place. But at Pentecost, whilst we can wonder at the power of the Spirit moving in the upper room, for it to be really true we need to open ourselves to the truth that that same Spirit is moving and inspiring our seemingly clumsy and untidy Church. The paradox of Pentecost is that the two parts of the story – the one about God and the one about us – are not pulling apart from one another as it might feel. The paradox of Pentecost is that these two stories are the same story.
We find this truth in the most chaotic part of the story we heard in our reading from Acts. When the Spirit moves through Jerusalem it does not show God at work by bringing the languages and differences of all gathered there – too many for me to list again – into one. Rather the Holy Spirit baptises the variety and difference of human experience and life which we hear about in the Babel story and gives the Apostles, with all their different languages, the ability to speak one single truth – that Jesus Christ is Lord. At Pentecost we find that it is in our difference and through our seeming messiness that the Spirit works encouraging us to proclaim again and again this one single truth.
As we continue to look to what the life of our Church will look like beyond this current season it is impossible not to see a Church that will be different. Not just different from what we knew before, but different in itself. At a very local level I cannot see how, as we return to our cherished buildings, we will not also continue to use the internet as a tool for worship. Through the Church more widely different experiences and expressions of faith are being nurtured not as fads or gimmicks but as new and different ways of communicating that one truth, that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Some of these we will like, and some we will not. Held all together they will make, at times, an unruly and chaotic racket. Our task is to listen through that noise and tune our ears to the Spirit’s song, so that through all the messiness and chaos of the Church born this day we continue to proclaim that one truth said in a multitude of tongues: that Jesus Christ is Lord.
- How have you reacted to the noise and messiness of recent weeks?
- What have you discovered about yourself in this messiness?
- Have you found anything good in that messiness, if so what?
- You might like to gather this time of personal or collective reflection in prayer by saying the prayer for the Parishes by the Wall or your own prayers.
- We finish by saying the Lord’s Prayer