(This was the ‘weekly word’ on Pentecost five years ago).
Pentecost reminds us that the end goal of God’s purposes in human history is the ingathering of a multi-lingual global church ‘from every tribe, language, people and nation’, as John writes in his Revelation (5:9).
Pentecost saw the birth of this ‘rainbow’ church with the outpouring of the Spirit. Jews and converts, including Cretans and Arabs, gathered in Jerusalem, from ‘every nation under heaven’, so Luke writes with a certain amount of artistic licence. They all heard the disciples praising God in the languages of their lands of residence.
One translation reads that the crowd ‘could not understand that they could understand’. So Peter stood up to explain that what everyone was witnessing was what the prophet Joel had foretold would happen in ‘the last days’.
Clearly we have been in the last days therefore ever since Pentecost. Also clearly, this was only the start of the fulfilment of this prophecy. The Spirit is yet to be poured out on all flesh. There is still much more to come, which is something that should excite us.
It should also warn us against the sort of religious nationalism being preached from political platforms on both sides of the Atlantic these days. We live somewhere between Acts chapter 2 and Revelation chapter 5, as part of the process of a church becoming increasingly multi-cultural. The New Jerusalem will be multi-racial and multi-lingual, all focused on the One who will reconcile all things under heaven and on earth.
Yet too often we see believers making the same mistake for which Israel was rebuked by the prophets and by Jesus himself: ethno-centrism. Instead of embracing God’s purposes for all peoples, Israel focused too often on being the Chosen. Too often they adopted an ‘Israel first’ policy. But they forgot what they had been chosen for: to bless all the peoples of the world, and be a light to the nations.
When we reflect on all the things Jesus said and did on the last week before his trial (Matthew 21-24: the cursing of the fig tree, the cleansing of the temple, the parables of the two sons and of the tenants, and more) a clear pattern emerges. Israel had neglected her calling to bless the nations. One of the saddest scriptures is Matthew 21:43 – ‘The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and be given to a people who will produce its fruit’.
Here is a sober warning for those tempted to embrace a religious nationalism ‘to preserve our Christian heritage’. The gospel is inclusive, intended for all peoples. It is not the exclusive right of westerners. We are better people when we commit to the welfare of others, that is to ‘loving our neighbours’. We are better nations when we promote the common good of the community of nations, not an ethnic nationalism which places one nation over others as a political goal.
Populism, often appealing to religious grounds, threatens to further undermine the foundations of free and open societies in countries including Hungary, Poland and now Italy. Therefore believers everywhere need to be prepared to reclaim true Christianity from those trying to use it for their own political ends.
In America, church leaders have banded together ‘to fight for the Soul of the Nation’ by making a declaration entitled Reclaiming Jesus. Ron Sider, Tony Campolo, Richard Rohr and Jim Wallis are among the signatories, along with Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church in the USA, who preached at Harry and Meghan’s royal wedding on Saturday in Windsor Castle.
‘It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else—nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography’, they write. ‘When politics undermines our theology, we must examine that politics. The church’s role is to change the world through the life and love of Jesus Christ. The government’s role is to serve the common good by protecting justice and peace, rewarding good behavior while restraining bad behavior (Romans 13). When that role is undermined by political leadership, faith leaders must stand up and speak out. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”
‘We reject the resurgence of white nationalism and racism in our nation on many fronts, including the highest levels of political leadership. We, as followers of Jesus, must clearly reject the use of racial bigotry for political gain that we have seen.’ (Read the full statement here or see the video here).
Pentecost emboldened the disciples to declare to the authorities: ‘We must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29).
May the Spirit embolden us also to stand for truth, love and justice, and for God’s purposes for all peoples.
Till next week,