Call to worship
Come and worship!
We will praise the One between, within, and over.
Trust in the One who co-creates the was, the now, and the will-be.
Our hope is in the One who creates expansive love
calling us to do the same.
Follow the One who never breaks covenant.
We follow the One whose extravagant love calls us
to co-create justice for the oppressed,
feed the hungry, unlock prisons,
and welcome strangers, orphans, and widows.
Praise the One whose justice is grace-full and inclusive.
We praise the Spirit that spans the ages. Amen!
~ written by Tim Graves
Holy Spirit, we welcome you (Singing the Faith 385. Not in Hymns & Psalms)
breath of the big bang,
idea of creation,
you who make spring come forth,
who make life out of nothing,
breathe yourself into me.
you are the flame,
I am your light. You are the nerve,
I am your muscle. You are the Word,
I am the story. You are the song,
I am the singing.
I am one with you
and one with all Creation. One Spirit,
one flesh, many forms. In your Spirit
I am we.
Holy One, live in me;
I am your body. I remember,
and I live.
~ written by Steve Garnaas-Holmes
For ignoring the vision
breathed by the living Spirit
churning deep within our souls;
Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy,
Have mercy upon us.
For refusing to look at the vision
alive within those
who look or act or sound different from us;
Christ have mercy,
Christ have mercy,
Have mercy upon us.
For choosing familiarity, ease, and comfort
rather than risking the opportunities
afforded in the vision
Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy,
Have mercy upon us.
~ based on Habakkuk 2: 1-4. Written in 1998 by Katherine Hawker for the Evangelical United Church of Christ
Psalm 104: 24-34
Genesis 11: 1-9
Breathe on me breath of God (Singing the Faith 370. Hymns & Psalms 280)
1 Corinthians 12: 3b-13
John 20: 19-23
Acts 2: 1-21
I have teenage boys who love all of the superhero films. We’ve had conversations about which superpower we would choose. Invisibility? How about the power to fly? Teleportation is a pretty popular choice in our house, but for me, I’d like the ability to speak fluently every known language. For any Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy fans, you might know this as the babelfish. The fish which fits into your ear and is a universal translator giving the ability to both speak and understand.
I can speak a smattering of French & German – I can get by, order food, ask for directions, but proper conversation is beyond me. The last conversation I had with a German, I left her confused by my clumsy attempt. So yes, to effortlessly communicate, to understand nuances, cultural references, idioms; that would be my superpower.
I’ve actually been learning a new language for just over 6 years now, but I’m still struggling with it, the grammar is very different from what I’m used to and the rules seem to continually change; that language is Teenager. Somehow when I attempt some of their sentences, it just doesn’t sound right; they can say something is ‘sick’ (that means fantastic by the way), but if I say it, my boys cringe with embarrassment. I think to really get a language, you have to live amongst those who are fluent, absorb yourself in their world and perhaps acknowledge that even then, you will still make mistakes.
Babies are particularly good at copying, it’s how they learn, but all humans are excellent at mimicking; it is hardwired into us to pick up on what others do, and if we want to be accepted by them, we do the same. We imitate them. My brother lives in central Liverpool – when I visit, I do have to be a bit careful not to slip into a Scouse accent when we are shopping for fear some might think I’m taking the mickey. Assuming that accent is something I do without thinking.
Today is Pentecost – the date in the Christian calendar when the church celebrates God’s Holy Spirit and how that spirit became a real presence for the followers of Jesus. It’s the third most important day in the church after Easter and Christmas. It wasn’t originally a Christian festival – it is a Jewish day of celebration and simply means 50; 50 days since Passover when Jews continue to mark their liberation from slavery in Egypt. Us Christians are very good at imitating and copying and we copied the Jews and borrowed this idea. For us, it’s 50 days since Easter Day – well, technically 49, but who’s counting? Jesus had gone, but had left his followers with a promise, that the Advocate or Spirit would be given to them very soon and they were told to wait for this. The passage reads, ‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.’ Those mates of Jesus had continued to gather, looking after one another, praying together, and on that day they were all in the same house.
When The Advocate, the Spirit comes in a blaze of excitement, it is to this gathering, so I would assume the Holy Spirit like company. We live in a highly individualistic culture, but God’s spirit meets us when we come together – there’s something special about being in community that is part of God’s intention. It’s why being forced apart at the moment is so hard and for some of us this separation has been damaging to our mental health. We sometimes refer to Pentecost as the church’s birthday – and like all birthday parties, the best ones are where many people are invited.
Back to the story: ‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.’ The apostles rush outside into the cosmopolitan city of Jerusalem, and here were crowds of people from all different nations, very much like most big cities today where under normal circumstances wandering to sightseeing points you can hear many different accents and languages.
The Apostles were given that superpower I most desire – God’s Holy Spirit gave them the ability to speak in other languages and be completely understood. If we go back, right back to Genesis chapter 11 we’ll find a story which comes just after the story of Noah and the flood and how the descendants of Noah scattered over the whole earth, and this chapter tells us that at this point in human history everyone on earth spoke the same language, the same words. Well wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t that encourage peace and harmony? No need to learn GCSE Spanish, spend money on phrase books or employ translators. They could understand each other with no issue of interpretation. But these people had decided to build a tower, one so high they thought it would reach ‘up’ to heaven so that they would have access to God, because God is ‘up there’, right? Remember, we spoke about that last week when we were thinking about the Ascension of Jesus. The people of Shinar had failed to understand that God is not ‘up’, not remote, not someone to be reached by climbing lots of stairs, distant from the earth, someone disconnected from humanity. And this frustrates God, that the people hadn’t recognised when God was right in front of them, down here. So as a consequence, God confuses their language and causes them not to be understood – and all this happens in the city of Babel; where the babelfish gets its name and it’s also where we get the word babble from, that incomprehensible language of babies. It is possible to think of Pentecost as a reversal of the story of Babel; people were divided because of their differences and their lack of understanding, and God’s Holy Spirit comes and unifies them, making them understand again.
But I think something else is going on here. Those apostles were not speaking one language and suddenly everyone around was given the ability to understand them; it was the apostles who were given the ability to speak the words of the people.
If you come to church regularly you will speak at least 2 languages fluently; your own native language which for many of us is likely to be English, but you will also speak another language: Christian. And it’s a language for those who don’t come to church very often increasingly find hard to understand. Because we use words we wouldn’t use in any other context; words like salvation, redemption, sin, trinity, grace, kingdom, mercy, heaven. And some of us might even think we know what these words mean. We also have this confusing way of speaking and singing as if we lived at least 200 years ago, as if words like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ are fundamentally more holy than ‘you’ and ‘your’. We are particularly bad at providing any translation and as a church we expect people to come and speak our language, to learn our words, rather than the other way around.
The story of Pentecost, the story of the power of the Holy Spirit shows us that God has the ability to break down barriers, allowing us to enter other people’s space and talk their words. How good are we at communicating the story of Jesus, explaining the difference he makes to us, showing people God’s love for them and speaking this in ordinary ways?
As the decades go by, we have had to face the reality of declining numbers in the Methodist Church. It would be easy to think that evangelism had been a failed project and trying to reverse the trend is like turning round a super tanker. But all too often we have assumed that people just need to come to us. If only people would walk in off the streets and join us, be like us, sing like us, pray like us, speak like us. And if they did that, they could belong. The welcome provided by so many Methodist Churches is excellent, but we do rather like being a good host. The message of Pentecost provides us with a serious challenge to be a guest in someone else space. To speak their language. To go to where they are and not expect them to come to us.
The lockdown over the past couple of months has forced us to rethink evangelism and worship. It has forced us to reimagine our church. A church without walls. I recently attended a webinar where we were talking about how things might change for the better after lockdown restrictions are lifted. Evangelism for many of us is a tricky word that carries uncomfortable baggage. But the Evangelism & Growth Team at the Methodist Church are trying to get us to have a better definition of proclaiming the good news of Jesus. This is about speaking of the goodness of God, but it is also about listening for the goodness of God and living out the goodness of God. Evangelism is relational and works best when we seek depth in our relationships and demonstrate vulnerability. Evangelism seeks to do good and not harm. Evangelism isn’t shaming, it is not good news for some and bad news for others, it is good news for ALL. Finally, evangelism is inclusive and is rooted in social justice, because if we want to share the good news of Jesus, we seek the best for everyone and this means challenging unfair structures that push some people to the bottom of the pile. We are not free until all of us are free. Whilst some of this can and does happen within church buildings, we should not be confined to our spaces. The challenge of Pentecost is to widen our vision and to step outside. Lockdown had already engaged up to 1 in 4 adults in some form of online act of worship. That’s good news! People are curious about spiritual matters. To borrow a phrase of one of my theological tutors, we need to scratch where it itches. We need to go where the need is.
The main image of Pentecost is what? Let’s go back to the text: ‘Divided tongues as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.’ It’s fire – holy fire. As a point of interest, when you think of hell, perhaps you have those classical images by Botticelli inspired by Dante’s Inferno? A hot place of torture. Dante has a lot to answer for and it is a stubbornly enduring image. But in the Bible, fire is more often a holy thing – the people wandering in the wilderness were guided by God providing a pillar of cloud in the day and a pillar of fire at night. Remember when God spoke to Moses through a burning bush. And now God’s Holy Spirit comes like fire.
If all of this sounds like a huge responsibility and you are worried that you will use the wrong words, that like my attempt at speaking German, you will leave people baffled, don’t be. Pentecost can show us that these ordinary folk decided to reach out to those around them; they were brave enough to speak. And they were given help.
We have an incredible message, an amazing story to tell, of the Jesus who is not a bland nice man who passively smiles and does little else; our story is one which reaches out to all who are hurting, all who feel marginalised and left out, all who feel they don’t quite belong and we can tell them, Jesus stands with you, and we’ll do a bit of the shouting with you about how unfair things are, we’ll speak up for you because we know you’re important to Jesus and important to us. We’ll show you respect, treat you with kindness, but that doesn’t mean we won’t challenge your prejudice or agree with everything you say. But despite all of that, we’ll love you because Jesus loves you anyway.
We have been living fractured lives, like the people in Babel, we haven’t understood one another. But what God’s Holy Spirit does for us is to allow us to say, hey you Parthian over there, I’m an Elamite, and I comprehend you, I understand you, or to translate it into teenager, I get you. Even though you are different from me, I get you. I am from Devon and you are from Gloucestershire, but I get you. I’m straight, you’re transgender, but I get you. I vote this way, you vote the other, but I get you.
This is the beginning of the church – this is how it all started. Not trying to force us into the same model but celebrating our differences and doing so together. Stepping into each other’s space and learning to talk each other’s language. Because God shows no favouritism. You, me, him, her, them, yes even you – we belong, let’s start talking and really understand. It’s called radical inclusivity – it’s a gift of the Holy Spirit and it’s how it all began. Amen
She sits like a bird, brooding on the waters (Singing the Faith 393. Not in Hymns & Psalms)
Flaming God of Pentecost,
Let us speak in tongues of comfort
to those weeping over the bodies of their loved ones
Let us speak in tongues of courage
to those living in fear;
fear for those they love, fear of death, fear of making the next rent payment
Let us speak in tongues of condemnation
against laws and policies that promote violence,
prioritizing the preferences of some over the lives of others.
Let us speak in tongues of care
for the most vulnerable in our world–
human beings, animals, and ecosystems.
Let us speak in tongues of love
for you and for your people,
that Your language might be our language.
And when our tongues are still,
when we have no words to speak,
let our hearts burn with your fire,
let our ears hear your words in our own native tongue,
let our skin feel the wind of your Spirit–
a mighty wind, blowing where it will.
Dancing Generation (Not in Singing the Faith. Not in Hymns & Psalms)
The Spirit of truth lead us into all truth,
give us grace to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
and to proclaim the word and works of God;
and the blessing of God,
Spirit, Son and Father
remain with us always. Amen
(Methodist Worship Book: Pentecost liturgy)