The Diversity of a Thousand Languages

Pentecost-True-Spiritual-Unit-and-Fellowship-in-the-Holy-SpiritToday is Pentecost, the day on which the Holy Spirit descended on the early Church with tongues of fire and with the tongues of a thousand different languages. In those tongues we hear the echoes of Babel, the primeval war on heaven that saw languages scattered ┬áin a single day. We often read this as a curse that Pentecost heals, something that needs to be overturned. Here on this blog I’ve referred to the destruction of Babel’s curse, but here we run into problems. There’s a danger of seeing Pentecost as being anti-diversity, as being a moment in which we’re all made the same by the Holy Spirit, and all those messy, annoying differences are overcome.

But late last night, terrorists attacked London again. It hasn’t been long since a suicide bomber murdered kids at a pop concert in Manchester; the concert in their memory is being held tonight. Nooses are being found in Washington DC, dark icons of lynching and slavery and a refusal to accept that black lives matter. Toddlers are drowning in the Mediterranean as they flee from ISIS. Look around and you can see the hatred of diversity poisoning our societies, toxins injected into the wellspring of our communities.

So this year I can’t see Pentecost as something that treats diversity as something to be cured. And maybe there’s hope in that everyone heard the disciples speaking in their own languages, rather than the pilgrims assembled in Jerusalem suddenly understanding a single tongue. The Spirit aided communication, but didn’t erase difference, and from this point forward the story of Acts is one in which the family of God is expanded and stretched grows beyond a few working class Galileans to encompass Roman soldiers, Ethiopian eunuchs, Europeans and North Africans. The family of God grows by becoming more diverse, it draws in different languages, new perspectives, new people.

Language shapes how we perceive the world, how we see the people and the plants and the fauna and the colours around us. On that Pentecost two thousand years ago, the Spirit chose words and phrases to communicate a message of hope, words and phrases from different languages, each of them reflecting new facets of meaning, each one extending how those present thought of God, thought of the divine, thought of each other. Those words and phrases would go on to become stories, become art, become inspiration, become resistance, because if that day made the early church one, it didn’t make them the same.

There are those who want to curse diversity, who want it to end so that there can be peace. Send away those who are unlike us, lock them up or kill them, then the world will be as we want it to be. The path to utopia, if you believe corners of the internet, is paved with deportations and internment camps and mass graves; the only difference between those who’d exterminate the unknown is geography and flags.

But the Holy Spirit brings people together; even when we disagree with the ‘other’, there’s still the potential to communicate, to be family. There are times when this is healing, there are times that this is disruptive, but a myriad tongues heard two thousand years ago points to the Spirit being a translator, an interpreter, the speaker of every language. And we’re not just divided by language or borders, but these differences too can be celebrated and honoured and learned from.

We can’t go on hating. We can’t go on killing. We can’t go on nurturing the seeds and the toxins that will reduce our communities to blasted wastelands peppered with walls and barbed wire and furious ranting.

Today is Pentecost. We celebrate a Spirit who speaks a thousand different languages. Let the flames of hope fall, and extinguish the hate and rage.

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.

Socks: A Post for Ascension Day

The Ascension is a weird story, a strange climax to the Gospel story in which Jesus levitates into the clouds leaving the disciples freaked out and wondering what was going on. It’s hard to know what to do with that; the Resurrection feels like the real end of story, reversing the Crucifixion and breaking the curse of death. The Ascension sometimes feels like one of those Marvel post-credits scenes that leaves half the audience going “Huh?”

But the Ascension plays on its double-meaning; this is the moment that Jesus ascends his throne. It’s the consolidation of his kingship, a cosmic coronation. Jesus leaves Earth to reign from heaven, which is another reminder of the inauguration of his Kingdom. The Ascension therefore shapes our identity – we serve as citizens of this Kingdom, and  as servant of our King.

That means the Ascension has implications; for instance, what does living under the reign of Christ look like? What does it mean in the ordinariness and mundanity of everyday life? If the Kingdom of God had always been a spiritual, other-worldly thing then we could get away with that sort of faith. But before he ascended Jesus incarnated into the mud and muck and complexities and blood of human life. That transforms what his Kingdom looks like.

So. Socks.

In seeing at what a Christ-centred Kingdom might look like, we need to look at Jesus himself. Here’s someone who typifies his reign through sacrificial love, by kneeling and washing the feet of his disciples. And this is where we run into incarnated spirituality, because we sometimes re-enact this moment in church. And although I can’t swear to this, I’d bet that a lot of people participating in the ritual wash their feet beforehand and change their socks. Do we erect a barrier against a spirituality that was designed for the dirt?

(Always remember that the disciples didn’t wear socks.)

If Christ is on the throne, and if we’re his followers, and if we’re inhabiting a spirituality that encompasses both soil and soul, then socks become totemic. Metaphorically they may be a barrier to us having our feet washed by Jesus; practically, they’re one of the most requested items at homeless shelters. And while washing our feet might be a powerful expression of intimate community, washing and clothing the feet of someone who hasn’t changed their socks for weeks embodies the Kingdom in places it’s most needed. It’s interesting that the Ascension takes place on the Mount of Olives, a day’s walk from the city – the Kingdom of God is often found in liminal spaces, emerges out on the margins.

This isn’t just about social justice, although don’t kid yourself that the suffering around us isn’t our concern; it’s incarnating the reign of God in the world, setting up a beachhead against all the things that seek only to steal and destroy. The Ascension knits two worlds together and makes them one.

In a world that’s shaking, maybe we need the Ascension more than ever.

Manchester


Any attack on innocents is reprehensible, a sudden shattering of lives and homes spitting fear and distrust like shrapnel. There’s a reason attacks like yesterday’s bombing of the Manchester Arena are called ‘terror’.

But to target this place at this time is a warped and twisted ritual, demanding the sacrifice of children on the altar of whatever toxic beliefs drove someone to walk into a concert and take their own life and those of others. We gather together to celebrate and sing and listen to music, just as we have from the dawn of civilisation, then suddenly all of that is torn away, leaving broken-hearted families and traumatised communities and further brokenness arising from the ashes – division and rage, media replaying the final moments of teenagers on a 24/7 cycle with no thought to empathy. Explosions reverberate.

But other echoes can be louder. Last night, Twitter was filled with offers of sanctuary, free taxi rides, cups of tea. Emergency services waded into Hell and saved lives. “Look for the helpers”, the saying goes; it’s the helpers who hold things together, who do whatever they can do, who become beacons in the night. “Our doors are open,” the helpers say, “We’ll keep you safe.”

Teacups vs nail bombs seems an unfair fight. But when fighting terror, cups of tea, friendship, hospitality can be formidable, shields against division and violence and hatred of all stripes. We win by deploying kindness and compassion; we give our homes for shelter, we give our cars for lifts, we plug phones into chargers, they ring and bring relief. We give our blood and donate it to hospitals. In isolation these don’t sound all that powerful, not compared to a suicide vest, but together these are the things with which we build and rebuild. Together we hold the line. And though right now all the songs are sad, together we keep on singing.

Breakfast (John 21:1-19)

Waves lap the beach and the sun sneaks over the horizon as a band of fishermen finish an unsuccessful night shift. With the benefit of hindsight we know they’re disembarking into a moment of redemption, the story of Peter being forgiven and reinstated echoing through a million and one sermons. We’ve heard all about the different Greek words for love, we know the symbolism of sailors and shepherds, we smile as Jesus reruns a miracle to reawaken the memories and the faith of his disciples. But we miss one thing.

“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says. Because the disciples were hungry.

These aren’t rich men, and they’ve just pulled an all-nighter. Much as we’do love them to be spiritual sponges, soaking in the presence of Jesus, remember that they go into this story tired and confused, bad tempered and guilt-ridden and gagging for a decent meal.

Let’s be honest here, quite often that describes Sunday morning. We put on our nice clothes, and cajole and threaten the kids into the car, and smile as the steward hands us a newsletter, but what we really want is a fry-up and an extra hour in bed.

For others among us, that’s a luxury. We’ve had to choose between breakfast and turning on the central heating. Something went wrong with the car and now the overdraft’s starting to creak. The ink on that redundancy letter is just about dry.

Here on the beach there’s a reason that, before he’s a prophet, before he’s a liberator, before he’s the good shepherd, Jesus is a cook. He sits by a fire cooking fish for his friends. Yes, he’s about to give Peter forgiveness, but first he gives him breakfast.

We try so hard to separate the ‘spiritual’ from the ‘practical’, but that’s such a false dichotomy. We can can have all the right doctrine and all the right theology, but sometimes, before all that, people are desperate for a mug of coffee and a couple of slices of toast because they’re stressed and exhausted. We can have rockin’ worship and a 45 minute sermon, but that’s going to be hard work for anyone who hasn’t eaten that morning.

And why is coffee always served after a service rather than before?

All needs are practical, all needs are spiritual. What does that mean in a world of alt-truth and food banks? What does that mean for how we plan our services, our worship?
Jesus cooking breakfast was an act of love, maybe one of the easiest acts of love to emulate. All you need is a toaster.