Readings: Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27, 16:12-15
Let us pray: Let us pray: Loving, living God, open our hearts and minds to hear your words, your prayer for us, your people. Amen.
“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.” [Acts 2: 1-4]
It’s a powerful passage isn’t it – full of drama - a momentous event that birthed the church and changed lives forever. Look too at the powerful symbolism – fire, wind, a babble of tongues and the Holy Spirit – the dove – entering into all those who believed. We have some of those symbols around the church today – thanks to the Youth Group and others. We have encouraged that symbolism too this morning with the lighting of the many shaped and coloured candles – bringing to mind not only that all are welcome in God’s house but that we come as many different people, yet one in the unity of Christ.
Today I want to pick up that theme of diversity in unity a little more and apply it particularly to our worship time. A number of things have directed my thoughts towards this. One is that Abby and a small group are revisiting what it means to be a Kid’s Friendly church – using PCANZ resources and expertise we are wanting to know how we could be more welcoming and inclusive of young people. And this immediately expands, for me anyway, into whether we are also a disabled friendly or other culture friendly church too. A second has been the worship and faith questionnaire that all of you? have filled in (or are about to). This is not about pre-empting what you might have to share in those responses but rather about acknowledging that there are going to be many differing needs and so we need to be thinking about how we might respond with grace and integrity to those which are raised. The third thing has been the reading today of the many diverse people, from all walks of life, all cultures, who were united in the gifting of the Holy Spirit, understanding each other easily in that moment of wonder and in the power of the Spirit.
Let’s begin with the reading from Acts. The people came from many places and spoke many languages – now I don’t know if they were all Jews at this point –scholars seem to think so – but they were speaking different languages and from differing cultural groups. They would have not easily mixed would they – can’t you just see the little pockets of languages sitting together in their own spaces – all probably having the same conversation of anticipation but only with those whom they could easily converse and be understood. And then they found that, in the Spirit, they were able to cross those barriers, lose some inhibitions, talk with strangers, people that, moments before, they may have considered outsiders. It was unusual enough for some bystanders to immediately think they were all drunk as skunks – what else could cause such an aberration from normal dignified behaviour? And afterwards, after the excitement had subsided somewhat – well they listened to Peter preaching and many were baptised and, I assume, eventually they returned to where they had come from. But it was different now – they had been melded into a community of faith, wherever they went – they met together to praise God, to pray, to share food around the table and care for others. It was indeed the beginning of church. But, and this was the point that stood out for me – they didn’t all suddenly turn into identical clones who agreed on everything and saw everything the same way – they were still who they were, still old and young, women and men, Jew and Gentile, traditional and contemporary, mathematicians and artists, emotive and logical, impatient and slow to decision. United in the love of God made known in Christ and now empowered by the Spirit, they became community but not to the degree of losing their individuality, their uniqueness. There was no magic speaking with one voice, seeing the world with one set of eyes - as Paul’s and other’s letters attest to. In fact there were those who headed off in some pretty weird directions, those who tried to make everyone do it their way, those who broke away to form new groups, those that thought they were right and others wrong, those that embraced change and those that fought for tradition. What actually kept them together, kept them travelling on the road of love and grace was to be constantly reminded in the Spirit of what Jesus taught and lived. The Spirit takes what is the Son’s and makes it known. And what is the Son’s is from and of the Father’s as Jesus reminds us in his prayers for us. Jesus made alive in the Spirit kept them in God’s purpose.
So how is this reflected in worship in 21st century, let’s say New Zealand for want of some kind of containment? Well I guess the first thing to consider is whether there are ways that we sort of huddle together so to speak, making it hard for others to break into our comfortable spaces. We have probably all been in churches where children are sshhed or glared at for the slightest noise. Some of us may have attended worship where everyone but you knows what to do and when, and anyone who is new to worship will remember I am sure trying to get a handle on the language used and what it means– I came across a phrase in my reading for today ‘What we have in the Pentecost narrative is an ethno-eschatological unveiling (apokalupsis) that deconstructs a theology of ethnic exclusionism toward a broader theological vision.”
Actually I am just being silly there but you know what I mean.
Where do we see worship in terms of the presence of the Holy Spirit unifying us in Christ and the fact that each of us has differing opinions, understandings, approaches to what it means to be Christian. Nowhere is this more clearly shown than in the debates that have taken place around our ability to hold any longer to one creed – to be able to state together what it is that we believe as a Church when much of the theological content is not expressing what we, each of us, believe. Even the attempt of PCANZ to produce a contemporary confession of faith, Kupu Whakapono, has met with a lukewarm response by many. And yet we are called by Christ to express our unity as a people of God – how do we do that in worship?
One way is in the Affirmations of Faith that we say each week. Each one starts off with ‘We believe...’ but you haven’t had a chance to suss out whether you do or not. I used to think that a communal statement of faith was just that – something that I had to believe literally and concretely to be a Christian; and discovered in fact that that thinking confined God to humankind’s ability to shape words around the divine. An impossibility I would suggest – especially if we bring all our differing perspectives and attitudes to bear. Now I see an Affirmation of Faith as an opening up of the possibilities of the mystery of God made known in Christ and through the Spirit. Some phrases perplex, some aggravate, some deeply connect, for each of us I suspect differently, as we together look for ways to share our belief that we are made one in the transforming love of God.
The last point I would want to make about unity and diversity in worship is that of how we use language. When I was a member of St Andrews in Amberley, and it came to the Lord’s prayer – I just loved the invitation from the minister of the time to say the version that we were each most comfortable with – for most it was the old version, for some the modern – and we did. On this day of all day, when many languages were heard, it seem appropriate to say that if you want to use the old version of the Lord’s prayer, do so – if you want to say it in your native tongue, do so, if you hear your neighbour doing just that hold to your way of doing so, that is just fine. Saying this doesn’t make me any more comfortable to be in a worship service where people are speaking in tongues – that is not what I am talking about – but I am saying that we don’t all have to be completely on the same page with everything that we do and say – it’s not about uniformity but about integrity and unity in our differences. When we come to sing the last hymn – I am going to sing some slightly different words rather than saying that God is just for men – that matters to me but it is of absolutely no import to others – we can sing different words and still be one in the Spirit, can we not? I think so.
So let us not be uncomfortable or threatened by difference, our individual takes on God and worship and Church, but let us be comforted on this Pentecost Sunday by the knowledge that, for 2000 years, unity in God’s love is made known in the Spirit and is to be lived out in all our loving and caring diversity as Christ’s disciples, as Christ’s church as we have done here in Opoho for many years and will for many to come. Thanks be to God. Amen.