Penteconnectivity

Tongues of fire and a rushing wind and the buzz of an anti-Babel. Pentecost is a burst of supernatural energy in the aftermath of Easter, the moment the Holy Spirit takes centre stage by evaporating the rulebook. It’s possible we get too comfortable with that; when three thousand pilgrims heard the disciples speaking in a hundred different languages, a tiny GalIilean movement became a global church. Our problem is that we domesticate that, take the diversity of Pentecost and trap it within homogenised silos.

An example: In the West we have plenty of noticeboards covered in newsletters from mission organisations, and supporting them is great, it’s important to show solidarity. But how often do we make this a one-sided thing? We write a few cheques, deploy a few workers, but do we, as fellowships, learn from our brothers and sisters? Do we grow as a result of this missionary work, or do we do we just enjoy the warm, paternal glow we get from helping those less fortunate than ourselves?

When the Spirit swept through the disciples two thousand years ago, a global church was created, each different language representing a different perspective, a different environment, a different context. Three thousand new believers had to go home and figure out what it meant to be followers of Jesus among their own particular circumstances. All those initial learning curves, all the lessons of the two millenia that followed represent the familial memory of the Church. But it’s scattered and disjointed because we don’t spend the time to sit and listen to each other, to share stories around the campfire; in the Information Age that’s tantamount to a sin. We don’t do the Church any favours by pretending that the Spirit’s monolingual.

The Church is universal, a network of believers spread throughout the world, brothers and sisters despite the differences we place between us. Pentecost burns through the barriers, blows them down, gives us the words and the language we need to become a family. We need to embrace that, humbly using our Missions budgets to not only support other Christians but also to learn from them, forging genuine, mutual, globe-spanning relationships. And may our Pentecostal celebrations echo with a thousand different voices, with a thousand equal tongues.

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Always Listen to Old Ladies (Acts 6:1-6)

So, the early church – shining example of ecclesiastical perfection or not?

It’s easy to romanticise those first few years after Pentecost, but chapters like Acts 6 point to a far more complex situation. Here we read that, while the Hebrew speaking widows in the church were being looked after, Greek widows were getting overlooked in the distribution of food. This cultural faultline was a problem that festered away under the surface until eventually the apostles had to jump in and sort things out. But why did it get to be a problem in the first place? Because no-one was listening to the Greek speakers? Because no-one was listening to the women? We can admire how the apostles dealt with the situation, and that’s fine, but why was no-one talking to each other in the first place? Why were vulnerable people being overlooked over something as important as food?

Maybe this particular organisational problem was caused by everyone taking their eyes off the basics; no-one was looking out for a whole group of Christians, part of their own extended spiritual family. There were hungry people out there who weren’t being fed, and it seems that even the apostles had been dropping the ball. You’d’ve thought they would have been on top of things – after all, these were the guys who had picked up leftovers after the feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand. But hey, even then they only counted the men who ate; They weren’t so accuate about the women and children.

So yeah, the apostles eventually sorted out the logistics of distributing food to a whole bunch of widows who were at risk of starving. They had fixed an important problem, but take a step back: someone had to listen to those widows. Someone had to be relationship with them, someone had to advocate for them. I don’t know, this may be heresy, but I reckon the apostles found out about this problem because of some old lady, who’s already sorting out all the church’s cooking and cleaning in the first place, finally cornered Peter at the end of a meeting and wouldn’t let him leave until he promised to get the whole thing sorted.

(Always listen to busy old ladies. They know more about what’s going on than you do.)

(Don’the you think it’s odd that one of the people chosen to distribute food while the apostles focus on preaching the Word is, in the very next story, arrested and executed for preaching the Word? Maybe it’s harder to separate all these things than we might think.)

Problems begin when everyone’s busy having debates about, say, the mechanism for feeding vulnerable elderly people, but no-one’s actually doing the cooking, no-one’s loading up the van, no-one’s getting the food out there, no-one’s in relationship with the people they’really serving, no-one’s even doing the washing up. And by the time the gears of bureaucracy finally turn, there’s already been too many scared elderly people wondering where their next meal is coming from.

For the church to truly be the church we need to constantly have our fingers on the pulse of our communities. We can’t get so caught up in theological debates and organisational maintenance and political campaigning that we miss when someone living next door doesn’t have enough to eat. Because that’s where Jesus wants us to be, and sometimes the first to realise that aren’t priests or CEO’s.

It’s all those busy old ladies.

Giving a Voice (Acts 6:1-6)

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The early church is often idealised. It’s a golden age – everyone was a great saint and martyr, everyone shared their lives and their resources, everything was awesome and we need to get back there ASAP.

Passages like Acts 6 show that the reality was far more prosaic – those early Christians were figuring things out as they went and sometimes things went wrong.

For instance, here we have a pastoral breakdown. The church was supporting the widows within its community, but somehow, be it an oversight, a breakdown in communication or unspoken prejudice, the Aramaic speaking widows were being looked after while the Greek speakers were being forgotten.

The apostles need to sort this out, and so they appoint seven deacons to manage the situation – this is where Stephen and Philip arrive in the narrative. And while we can see this as simply being a solution to an administrative need, there’s a deeper wisdom on display here.

See, we’re given the names of the seven deacons in Acts 6:5, and the key thing to notice is that all seven names are Greek. There’s an issue where Greek-speaking widows are being neglected? Okay, the Greek-speaking community needs to lead the church’s response as thet’re the ones on the front line.

It’s a simple, obvious solution, but all too often we neglect its wisdom. Racism is discussed on panels consisting entirely of white commentators. Events are held to talk about gender equality and every speaker is a man. The apostles were wise enough to hand things over and let the deacons have their voice.

Too often the voice of privilege is dominant, so much so that it’s taken for granted as the default setting by everyone except, say, the Aramaic Christians – the people on the receiving end of society’s mistakes, oversights and prejudice. And so the questions of how to deal with racism or sexism in the church are asked, but the wrong voices are trying to answer them and so those answers are unsatisfying.

In short, sometimes the best thing to do is pass the mic to a little-heard voice and then shut up and get out of the way. We need to do a lot more listening than shouting nowadays; that’s the only way unspoken stories will be heard and healing between our communities can begin. And if you have a platform – a blog or a podcast or a pulpit – offer that to someone who needs space to speak. Maybe, in the diversity of our stories and our voices, communities can be transformed and the scars of the centuries slowly begin to heal.

(If anyone out there wants to use this space to tell their story, please let me know.)

Disruptive Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13)

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There was a time, once in my life, when I was scared I would see Jesus.

I can’t remember how old I was, but when I was in the house alone, or the only one still awake, I would sometimes be seized by the idea that if I walked through the living room door I would see Jesus standing on the other side. Sometimes, just to keep things interesting, I’d be scared of seeing an angel instead, all the same, on the times I needed to take the handle and walk through the door, it was with a sense of terrified anticipation.

I don’t know why I should have been so scared, or why this memory has suddenly resurfaced. It’s not like I ever saw anything. But if I had, I know, by definition, it would have been a disruptive experience.

I guess that’s true of much of the Spirit’s work. On that first Pentecost the disciples have their worlds turned upside down by fire and gales and languages they knew they couldn’t speak. How can they not have been shaken by this? It was disruptive enough for a note of scandal to enter proceedings – a bunch of working class pilgrims from the sticks tumbling into the streets shouting about God in a hundred different tongues? They must have been drunk, right?

But the Holy Spirit is a healer, and maybe that disruption is fundamentally restorative. From this point the story begins to expand its borders – geographically, culturally, ethnically. That’s going to lead to headaches for those early Christians, but ultimately the church is stronger as a result.

When revival hit Azusa Street, critics were scathing of how it resulted in a “shameful mingling of the races.” Near where I grew up, a cairn stone commemorates how John Wesley was dragged away for prosecution by a mob instigated by local clergy. Even in my lifetime, the local Pentecostals were viewed with wary suspicion. Thankfully that’s changed, but the Holy Spirit freaks people out, and often the people freaked out the most are the church. That’s a tradition that goes back as far as Moses and Joshua.

But we can’t complain if God doesn’t play by our rule book; he’s the one who writes the rules in the first place. Sometimes we need shaking up, we need to be disrupted, we need our horizons to be expanded. The Holy Spirit does that; has the right to do that, in fact, because he is God.

(Yes, I know that’s a fairly orthodox statement to make, but how many times do we refer to the Spirit as ‘it’? I know it’s sometimes a battle for me to remember to use personal pronouns when referring to the Spirit. Slightly embarrassing confession, yes, but I bet I’m not alone.)

So maybe today’s a good day to open ourselves to some disruption. We can’t be the church without the Spirit, be that through his fruit or his gifts; Pentecost needs to be an ever present reality, not just a commemoration. Let the wind blow, let the fire burn, let our language be transformed. And let the Spirit fall.

The First of the Gang to Die: The Feast of St. James (Acts 12:1-2)

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Today is the Feast of St. James, the first apostle to die.

It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.

He’s not the first martyr, of course. Stephen is killed in Acts 7, a brutal moment after an impassioned speech. If this were Hollywood, the assembled crowd would realise the error of their ways and walk away ashamed; instead Stephen is stoned to death and we catch our first glimpse of one of the architects of persecution – look, there’s Saul, holding the coats as sentence is carried out.

Yes, the same Saul who’ll become a hero of the early church. All mixed up, isn’t it? In a few verses, Peter will be miraculously released from prison; Paul himself will one day have his chains broken by an earthquake but he stays put and his jailer gets converted. James, meanwhile…

Reading the gospels, you’d expect great things of James. Of the Twelve he’s one of a core group of three; along with Peter and John, he’s one of the few to witness the Transfiguration, the raising of Jairus’s daughter and the full extent of Jesus’s suffering at Gethsemene. Add to that the theory that he was Jesus’s cousin and we’d expect the story to have a different ending. Instead he’s killed in just one verse. And that’s it.

We hear a lot about the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ – God wants to bless you with money and cars and health and a private jet and if you don’t have these things then, well, you’re just not believing hard enough. That’s not what we see in the Bible itself, but in my more heretical moments it appeals to an off-kilter sense of fairness.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect God to give me an iPad. But I’ve heard so many stories of doctors being stunned by cancers spontaneously disappearing, while is both glorious and terrifying; after all, my dad succumbed to mesothelioma despite the prayers of numerous churches. What’s the difference? What was the difference between James and Peter?

That’s a personal question, of course, but there are bigger issues here, when people are dying today because of their belief in Christ, when the church has a history of supporting massacres in the name of the gospel.

The fact is, I rebel against the idea of persecution; it’s unjust, evil, a violation of the right to freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. People shouldn’t have to die for their beliefs. When asked what we should pray for, those undergoing ask that they would experience endurance rather than deliverance, but why should they need to endure while dictators and warlords prosper? Organisations like Open Doors shouldn’t have to exist and yet they do…

Let no-one say that faith is always ‘fair’.

Like I said, I have no real answers. Maybe that’s a good thing; maybe, as we remember James, as we remember the first of the gang to die, we can weep with those who’ve lost loved ones, acknowledge that oppression exists, pray for God’s will to be done. Maybe, in the middle of suffering snd tears, that’s far more important than answers.