Sunday 31st May 2020 – Pentecost
This Sunday’s Reflection is by Rev’d Arani Sen
How do we celebrate Pentecost at this time of lockdown?
Pentecost is often viewed as an inversion of the narrative of the Tower of Babel, when all human language became confused, leading to separation and incomprehension. Babel was built upon the slogan of: ‘Let us build ourselves a city, with a tower in the heavens, so we may make a name for ourselves’
As Pentecost erupts, in a veritable colourful festival of movement, colour, fire, wind and light, those gathered in Jerusalem suddenly understand each other, even with diverse mother tongues. At Pentecost, the gospel is accessible to every language represented: the Holy Spirit breaks down all barriers of language, race and nationality, pointing people to Jesus Christ. At Pentecost, the identity of Christians is as followers of Christ, not by ethnicity, class, race, gender or language.
I have ministered largely in diverse multi-cultural churches. In these settings Pentecost is a joyful celebration, celebrating unity in Christ, as different nations are brought together. Church members arrive in national dress, participate in worship, share in the ultimate sacrament of unity, Holy Communion. Afterwards there are flags, food from round the world, conversation across cultures, the breaking down human-made barriers of prejudice and separation.
This year will feel more like Babel than Pentecost, as we cannot celebrate collectively. Churches are making the most of modern technology, which has enabled some sense of connectivity. Yet, this year, Christians will not be able to party together, celebrating the joy of belonging to Christ. This may be a time to monitor our worship to assess who is involved; could there be testimonies of someone who has fled persecution and has now found release in Christ? Such moments are always uplifting yet salutatory, as we hear of the cruel and destructive capabilities of fallen humanity, or songs in different languages? These apply just as much to churches that are more monocultural, to remember before God the persecuted church.
A much-observed conundrum facing online worship focuses around participation. Multiple groups are excluded from worship as they do not have the prerequisite technical skills, desire or internet access. I was speaking recently to an Iranian refugee, who said how much he missed church, for him a sense of ‘family’, of seeing friends across cultures, and the opportunity to grow in his Christian faith. He now feels “bored and sometimes depressed”, unable to access the Z word service as he does not have broadband or enough data. Many churches have reached out wider through technology and this is a good thing, but definite groups are left out. Even singing hymns has to be done on mute, lest Haydn sounds like Schoenberg, due to time lapses in cyberspace. A friend with autism rang me, anxious that he could not play his guitar in a worship band. There is good pastoral care, but the sense of community and routine is missing.
How will we celebrate Pentecost this year? Perhaps begin with who is missing. Some churches are even collecting old iPads to help inclusion. Others, more elderly, are content watching services on television, but value the phone calls and letters they receive. Prayer walls and prayer chains reassure people that they belong.
The coming of the Holy Spirit led to a very radical sense of community, very different to the individualism of Babel and our current lockdown world. One of the realities of lockdown is that social inequalities have become even more manifest. The disproportionate number of those from BAME backgrounds dying from Covid-19, social factors including overcrowding, those having to work to keep the NHS and basic infrastructure running are some of the many factors which have come to the fore. Added to that, there is serious food poverty, domestic violence, job losses, and even more marked inequality in education. I am drawn to the South African missiologist, David Bosch, who commented:
‘If rich Christians today would only practice solidarity with poor Christians – let alone the billions of poor people who are not Christians – this in itself would be a powerful missionary testimony and a modern-day fulfilment of Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth’*
I have noticed that the news has become very centred on the virus, what is happening here and now, that there is little global news. As churches, we are able to bring a global perspective to our prayers, remembering, and if necessary, campaigning on global issues which still go on. For example, in India, Arundhati Roy has described the lockdown as ‘biblical’ in the Financial Times; it has led to ‘physical compression on an unthinkable scale’ **. The streets may be empty but millions in poverty remain powerless, hungry, and cramped into tiny unhygienic spaces.
The early church did share everything and was outward-looking and missional from the beginning. A number of elements contributed to the church’s remarkable growth: deep prayer and worship, sacrificial fellowship (putting the needs of others and of the community above their own needs), sharing food and Holy Communion. Most radically, ‘All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need’.
The Greek word for fellowship is koinonia. It is more holistic than just meeting together and encompasses sharing at two levels: in prayer and worship; sharing food and other possessions. The former is complex at present, but the latter is possible. We may find we are not spending on meals out, culture, holidays. I include myself here. As the social inequalities widen, those of us who have more can be challenged to the concept of sacrificial generosity in Acts 2, through looking out for parishioners and church members, acts of service and shopping, donating to food banks, homeless charities and refugee groups. In this way we can celebrate the joy of togetherness at Pentecost. Pentecost is a reminder to look outwards, to look toward the power of God erupting into this world through the Holy Spirit, radically transforming society.
6 May 2020
Rev Arani Sen is author of ’Holy Spirit Radicals: Pentecost, Acts and Changed Society’ (MD Publishing 2018). He is Area Director of Ministry in the Two Cities of London and Rector of St Olave Hart Street.
* David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission (New York: Orbis, 1991) p. 118.
**Arundhati Roy Arundhati Roy: ‘The pandemic is a portal’ Financial Times 20 March 2020, accessed 24 April 2020