Reflection for Western Heights Uniting Church
Pentecost, 31st of May, 2020
Something so astonishing happened at Pentecost that churches, in years when we can gather, celebrate it with candles and kites and bonfires and the colour red. We try to find ways of symbolising the Spirit, of showing visually just how incredible was Her appearance to the first disciples. In Acts, Luke does the same thing. He tells us that as the disciples were gathered together in a house there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind. And there came divided tongues as of fire. Luke is doing what we’re doing; he’s trying to describe the indescribable. We cannot truly express the coming of the Spirit in words or images. What happened at Pentecost is beyond description.
What we can do, what Luke does, is describe the effects. The disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit, and suddenly they’re able to speak in other languages. In a world so easily divided by language, in which we talk so often of communication breakdown, this barrier is overcome. The disciples speak, and the devout Jews gathered in Jerusalem each hear their own native language. The gospel is able to be shared with people in their own tongue.
But the miracle is not just the disciples’ sudden multilingual ability. The miracle is that the disciples are speaking at all. Without explanation, Luke shifts the scene from the house where 120 followers of Jesus had congregated together, to a public place where a crowd gathers to hear the disciples speak. Fifty days after Jesus’ death, the gospel goes public.
All this time, through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection and ascension, while the disciples have gathered together for prayer and have praised God in the temple, they haven’t shared the gospel beyond the community of believers. Filled with the Holy Spirit, now they do. And the first sermon preached, the explanation of this phenomenon, is given by Peter. The last time Peter was mentioned by name in the Gospel of Luke was when he was weeping bitterly, remembering Jesus’ prophecy of his denial. The last words we heard from Peter’s mouth, to someone accusing him of being with Jesus, were, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’ Now, Peter stands before the great crowd of Jews and says, ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and listen to what I say!’ The disciple who denied Jesus has become the spokesperson of the Jesus movement.
The regime that killed Jesus is still around, still bloodthirsty. We know that Peter himself will be crucified – upside down. Peter must have known, as he stepped forward to speak, that what he was doing wasn’t safe. But he did it anyway. The disciples spoke in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability. They spoke at all as the Spirit gave them courage. This is the first miracle of Pentecost.
The second miracle is that when the disciples spoke it was in what Luke describes as the languages of ‘every nation under heaven’. We can never overestimate the importance of sharing the gospel with people in their own language. One of the first tasks of missionaries anywhere in the world was to learn the language of the people to whom they were ministering. In some cases, this meant that the missionaries had to create the first written form of the language. The reason that the Russian alphabet is known as the Cyrillic is because it was created in the ninth century by Saints Cyril and Methodius, to enable them to share the gospel with the Slavs. In Australia, an indigenous language called Kaurna, which had disappeared as the Kaurna people became victims of disease and dispersal, is being resurrected, based on the notes made by German missionaries. The gospel must always be shared with people was in their own tongue, as the disciples did at Pentecost.
Pentecost is notably inclusive. The Holy Spirit comes to all the disciples, Luke tells us. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and all of them began to speak in other languages. This includes the eleven that remain of the twelve apostles; Matthias, chosen by lot to replace Judas; Mary, the mother of Jesus; Jesus’ brothers; certain women; and all the rest of the one hundred and twenty gathered together. Peter quotes Joel prophesising that the Spirit will be poured out on all flesh: sons and daughters; young men and old; slaves, men and women. The Spirit makes no distinction. We know that this is the way of God, because we saw this in the life and ministry of Jesus, who didn’t distinguish between women and men, slave and free; who ministered to Gentiles as well as Jews. This is the third miracle of Pentecost, that no one is excluded. This miracle should always characterise Christianity and the church. No one is to be left out.
From Pentecost the gospel is taken beyond Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Gentiles as well as Jews became Christians. The revelation of God in Christ has been shared with billions in every nation under heaven, including here in Australia. We celebrate this, but we need to remember its shadow side, the violence and dispossession that has accompanied the expansion of Christianity. This year Pentecost coincides with Reconciliation Week, held each year from May 27 to June 3. May 27 is the anniversary of the successful 1967 Referendum; June 3 is the anniversary of the Mabo Decision in 1992. These two dates are celebrations, as well, but they follow Sorry Day, May 26, the anniversary of the tabling of Bringing Them Home, the report into the Stolen Generations, in federal parliament. Sorry Day reminds us of the sorry business still to be done.
In 1994 a Covenant was signed between the Assembly of the Uniting Church and the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. At the making of that Covenant the then-President of the Assembly, Dr Jill Tabart, apologised to the members of the Congress for what had been done to them in the name of Christianity. Among other things she said:
… we who are non-Aboriginal members of our church grieve with you, our Aboriginal and Islander brothers and sisters. We grieve that the way in which our people often brought the Gospel to your people belittled and harmed much of your culture, and confused the Gospel with western ways. As a result you and we are the poorer and the image of God in us all is twisted and blurred, and we are not what God meant us to be.
… We regret that our churches cooperated with governments in implementing racist and paternalistic policies. By providing foster-homes for Aboriginal children, our churches in reality lent their support to the government practice of taking children from their mothers and families, causing great suffering and loss of cultural identity. Our churches cooperated with governments in moving people away from their land and resettling them in other places without their agreement.
I apologise on behalf of the Assembly for all those wrongs done knowingly or unknowingly to your people by the Church, and seek your forgiveness. I ask you to help us discover ways to make amends.
In response, the Chairperson of the UAICC, Pastor Bill Hollingsworth, replied:
Your ancestors came to us in different ways and we saw little of our caring God in them. They did not come to us as God’s will would dictate, but to dispossess us, take our children, rape our women, kill our men and boys and destroy our culture, reject our values and beliefs and ultimately claim our lands as their own.
As a direct result of this violent dispossession, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have lived as strangers and outcasts in their own land.
Whilst the church attempted to stem the decimation of our people and culture by providing missions and sanctuaries, in very many instances it did not attempt to understand our ways, our laws or social and economic structures.
We agree with you that the church, which had a responsibility to be the conscience of the invaders, in many instances relinquished this responsibility and joined with the invaders in a great many atrocities by smoothing the pillow for what was believed to be a dying race. Many of our people look upon the church in our country as condoning what was happening and watched the church stand by as our future was slowly being shortened by westernisation, assimilation and policies of prejudice.
Along with the past governments of Australia, the church is held accountable in our society for the injustices/atrocities inflicted on our people.
Two years’ later, after the Bringing Them Home report, the Assembly Standing Committee apologised for doing what in many cases it thought was right, but which, as the apology said, ‘was blind to the racist assumptions that underlay the policy and practice’. (Resolution 96.73) A year later the Assembly affirmed that apology. (97.33.02-11) In 2009, the Uniting Church added a preamble to our Constitution to acknowledge that God had already been present in Australia before 1788, that God was not brought over as a passenger on the First Fleet. (09.08.02-03) In 2018 the Assembly agreed to commemorate the Sunday before Australia Day January 26 as a Day of Mourning.
Pentecost is the story of the Jesus Movement going global. History reminds us that, sadly, when the church preached the gospel here in Australia it was often the furthest thing from ‘good news’. It was accompanied with racism, violence, and dispossession. If you can, I encourage you to listen to Kev Carmody’s ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ in which he reminds us that ‘Jesus said you’re supposed to give the oppressed a better deal’. Too often missionaries believed that the only way Indigenous people could become Christian was by denying their own cultures and languages. Too often, the church facilitated genocide; as Kev sings: ‘the left hand holds a Bible, the right hand holds a gun’. We had not yet learned the universalising message of Pentecost: ‘in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power’. If the story of Pentecost tells us anything, it tells us that the gospel can only be shared in culture – not against culture. If that wasn’t true, we would still need to become Jewish before we could become Christian, and we would be using Hebrew, maybe even Aramaic, as our religious language.
Today, as we celebrate Pentecost, as we rejoice at the birthday of the church, as we remember the courage that took the tiny Jesus Movement from a small sect within Judaism to a global movement, we cannot ignore the times when that globalising imperative led to destruction. Reconciliation is a Christian imperative if we are to truly follow Jesus in Australia.