This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. Winds and flames, swirling fire and the stimulus of the spirit, are the images that come to mind when we think about this day. All very energising and inspiring. Yet how often do we take the story of the first Pentecost, that Luke tells in Acts 2, and focus it inwards, into the faith community? It becomes a story of “the birthday of the church”—the day on which the church was breathed into existence.
But the readings provided by the lectionary for this festival day point in precisely the opposite direction. They are outward-oriented texts, inviting and encouraging people of faith to be open and inclusive towards others in society.
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me”—an invitation placed on the lips of Jesus, as he speaks to the crowd of pilgrims who were gathered in Jerusalem for the a Festival of Booths (John 7:37). The invitation is to anyone, to anyone who is thirsty. It is a wide, open, welcoming invitation. Jesus welcomes all. Anyone. Everyone.
“God declares, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh”, proclaims Peter, quoting the prophet Joel, in the account that Luke provides of the time when the spirit energised and inspired the early followers of Jesus, gathered also in Jerusalem, this time for the Festival of Pentecost (Acts 2:17). Those words declare that the gift of God’s spirit is given to all. Anyone. Everyone.
The gift is not for a select few, not just for chosen minority amongst humanity—but to all flesh. And that must surely include the possibility, not only of human flesh, but of animal flesh. God’s spirit is gifted to all creatures. Any creature. Every creature.
This hypothesis is confirmed when we turn to the psalm set for Pentecost Sunday. “O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures”, the psalmist declares. “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” (Psalm 104:24, 30).
The creative force that God sets to work in the world breathes spirit, ruach (Hebrew), the very life-force itself, into all living creatures. God’s spirit is present in every single living, breathing creature—humans, marsupials, reptiles, insects; even plants. Any of them. Every one of them. That is an amazing thought!
And the story of Noah and the ark, the flood and the rainbow, confirms this: it ends with a covenant, made not solely with humanity, but with all living creatures: “As for me (God is reported as saying), I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.” (Gen 9:9-10). Any animal. Every animal.
This spirit is a generous spirit, a creative energy moving in the lives of all people and all creatures. We live in a world that is God-breathed, spirit-imbued. In any of us. In every one of us.
Alongside this, scripture indicates that the spirit also bestows particular gifts upon specific human beings. Filled with the spirit is a phrase found in both testaments, referring to individuals or groups who were granted particular ability—to prophesy, to proclaim good news, to speak in tongues, to discern the spirits.
Being filled with the spirit, or having the spirit poured out, to enable particular activities, is a regular biblical refrain; see Num 11:17; 1 Sam 10:6; Neh 9:30; Isa 11:2, 32:51, 37:7, 42:1, 44:3, 59:21, 61:1-3; Ezekiel 2:2, 3:24, 11:1, 36:26-27, 37:1, 14; Joel 2:28-29; Micah 3:8; Haggai 2:5; Zechariah 4:6, 7:12, 12:10; Luke 1:15, 41, 67; Luke 4:14; Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31; 7:55; 9:15; 13:9, 52; Rom 5:5, 8:1-17; 1 Cor 2:9-13, 12:1-13; Gal 4:6, 5:22-26; 1 Thess 1:5; Eph 5:18; Heb 2:1-4.
The Hebrew Scripture narrative chosen for Pentecost Sunday gives an insight into the width of generosity inherent in the spirit. Moses had appointed seventy elders to assist him in leading the people of Israel; the spirit granted them the ability to prophesy (Num 11:26).
However, two other men, Eldad and Medad, who had not been appointed as elders, were also prophesying. In response to the mean-spirited request, to stop them prophesying, Moses responds, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Num 11:29). He does not consider the spirit to be limited in the people that can be so inspired. Prophecy could be for anyone. For everyone.
The apostle Paul follows in that vein with his affirmation to the Corinthians about the wide reach and inclusive invitation that characterises the work of the spirit: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Cor 12:13).
I rejoice that these words have been taken up in my church as the basis for fostering a broad community of faith, across multiple social factors which could divide rather than unite (in paragraph 13 of the Basis of Union). Ministry is enabled by the gift of the spirit. To anyone. To everyone.
So the Lukan story of the first Pentecost embeds this strong sense of yearning to include all, with the glittering description of what was, in Luke’s mind, the first Christian community. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:4) All of them. Every single one.
The good news is for all. Anyone. Everyone. The community of faith is for all. Anyone. Everyone. The spirit is in all. Anyone . Everyone.
I have been reflecting on the “where” of how we want to be, as the church, in post-COVID times, as well as the “when” of how we want to be. Do we want to be simply back in the church building on a Sunday morning? Do we want simply to be doing things in the old, familiar ways of past years?
In this post, I pick up the theme of “who” we are imagining ourselves to be in this future time. What might worship look like for us? Who do we reveal ourselves to be, when we gather for worship?
If we want to rethink how we worship in the post-COVID era, and reimagine what we might do in a gathering of people as “church”, perhaps we could get some inspiration from what our scripture tells us about the early followers of Jesus? Could we being to rethink and reimagine so that church looked more like what these people did? After all, we have scriptures which we use as guidelines for various doctrinal and moral matters; why not also with worship?
The earliest followers of Jesus, we know, did not worship in English. They used their own languages—Aramaic, for Jewish People, and probably Greek, in many of the early Christian communities. And, no doubt, the native language of the particular region where new faith communities were established. Syriac. Coptic. Phrygian. Arabic. Latin. Each spoke to the other in their own language.
Unsurprisingly, that sounds just like Pentecost, the festival that we celebrate this coming Sunday, when those gathered in the Temple heard the early followers Jesus, and declared in amazement, “how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2:8, 11).
Of course, I am not advocating that we take up speaking in Aramaic, or Koine Greek, or Syriac, or Phrygian, or Latin. In the Reformed churches, we have long adopted the custom of worshipping in our native language. But are there other practices from the early church that we could consider taking up? For instance, the early church did not have organs or pianos to accompany singing. Is that something that we could adopt? How many other places in society still have group singing accompanied by organ or piano?
The earliest believers being Jewish, they most likely followed the pattern of worship that is attested in the Temple: “Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! Praise him with trumpet sound … with lute and harp … with tambourine and dance … with strings and pipe … with clanging cymbals, with loud clashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150).
I know stories from Congregations where drum sets, complete with cymbals, were introduced into worship—leading to even louder noises, as church conflicts broke out! But such musical accompaniment is actually biblical. Can we head in that direction in our worship today?
We know also that those early believers sang “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16). That sounds familiar. Not too much different from today. Except: singing. All the evidence points to the fact that singing, indoors, in a group with other people, standing close to one another, is one of the most risky behaviours in this current time of the pandemic.
So, there is very little room to move: if and when we gather together in person to worship, we will not be singing. We will, necessarily, be quite different in our worship practices, from the early believers.
The early followers of Jesus did not have paid ministers leading worship. This was the case from the very earliest days, and this practice lasted for a long time. (They did, however, have provisions to provide for their leaders—hospitality, places to stay, the provision of resources to enable their living—as Paul makes clear.)
Not having a Minister in placement is a reality for a growing number of our Uniting Church Congregations, now, as the decrease in numbers has brought with it a decline in offerings and therefore a reduced capacity to support a stipended minister.
Is this something that might be considered by more congregations, in an intentional way, into the future? Do we need to move away from dependence on “the paid person” as the local leader (and often, the person expected to “do all the ministry”), and strengthen the resilience of the whole people of God who make up the Congregation in each of these places? Could we reshape local ministry so that it equipped and resources the gifted people of God to lead worship and other church activities, rather than sitting back and being consumers of whatever the paid person delivers?
And perhaps alongside that: should we be encouraging our stipended ministers to focus elsewhere than on the Sunday worship? To be resourcing and equipping people for their own ministries, to be developing missional plans and fostering community engagement? To be enabling the whole people of God to be confident in sharing their faith, serving people in need, and living as active disciples in all of their life? This would be more in line with the way that leaders functioned in the early church.
That’s a challenge that is worth considering. After all, our Basis of Union (picking up on 1 Cor 12) actually affirms that “every member of the Church is engaged to confess the faith of Christ crucified and to be his faithful servant … the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts … all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ.” (Basis of Union paragraph 12).
We are all ministers. We are all gifted by the Spirit. We are all equipped to serve. We are all part of the ministry of Christ—not just the paid person! How might that best translate into a reshaped form of worship?
Another insight into the nature of worship in the early church communities is that it was spontaneous. That is very clearly the case in Corinth, a community that caused Paul quite some angst. Indeed, the critical issues he addresses in the later part of the letter (1 Cor 12–14) arise out of the highly spontaneous, seemingly chaotic situation that characterised worship in Corinth.
Such worship had more the nature of a dialogue between conversation partners, rather than a monologue delivered by one person to a group of silent listeners. We can see this in a simple way, with the references to “interpreters” in what Paul writes to the Corinthians. Whilst there are people who contribute words of prophecy, pray in tongues, or speak in tongues (1 Cor 14), in each case there is the need for someone to interpret these phenomena.
What would it take to move towards a style of worship that more closely reflected this central ethos of gathering? That’s a challenging way ahead for us to consider. Could our worship be different, in this regard? As we explore the different possibilities for worship, once we start to gather together again in person, we ought to be stimulated by this kind of exploration of different options, of fresh expressions, of evolving ideas.
Another question: where did the early followers of Jesus gather? Luke’s account of the early church in Jerusalem indicates that they met in homes on a daily basis (Acts 2:46; 5:42). Commentators on the letters in the New Testament have made it clear that the earliest churches met in the homes of wealthy patrons—there are pointers towards this in letters to Corinth, to Rome, and in the letters of John. (See Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philemon 2; 2 John 10, and perhaps also 2 John 1.)
When we start planning to regather as Congregations, how should we do this? Perhaps we should consider, not gathering en masse in a large building, but meeting others in smaller groups, in homes, sharing together on a regular basis (and not necessarily on a Sunday morning!)—with appropriate social distancing, of course. Let’s plan for some different ways of gathering, not all together in one large body, but in focused smaller groups.
It is also worth pondering the fact that, for so many of the early followers of Jesus, coming together for worship was not the primary purpose for gathering. The indications from New Testament texts are that the earliest followers of Jesus came together to share in meals, to pray together, to share their lives with one another, to receive teaching on the life of faith, and to strengthen practices that are integral to discipleship.
Worship was part of that, but not ever the primary purpose (and certainly not the sole purpose) of gathering together. Worship was but one stream amongst a number of elements essential to these gatherings. What would it mean for us to work to this set of priorities into our planning for the future?
This central feature of the life of the early followers of Jesus is worth pondering and exploring: how might we follow this, and foster it, in our own times?
For Jews in the first century, the synagogue was more akin to a community centre, and much less like a sanctuary set aside for worship. Archaeology has shown that first-century synagogues did not have “Jewish” features; they were simply public buildings with benches lining the walls. The architecture of the buildings reflected the primary role of synagogues as Jewish community centres. People gathered for all manner of social and community activities. Worship was a secondary use of the space.
This carried over into the ways that early followers of Jesus lived out their faith in their daily lives. There was no separation between “church” and the rest of life. Faith was to be lived out in the actions and behaviours of life. Faith informed everything. Faith was a way of living, a way of doing, rather than a set of beliefs, a doctrinal creed. To be a follower of Jesus meant to be engaged with other people, assisting them, caring for them, serving them, attending to their needs.
Indeed, there is a strong view amongst scholars that the main reason for the growth of the church over the first two centuries was much less to do with doctrinal beliefs and verbal evangelism, much more to do with acts of charity, deeds of care and compassion towards others. Christians, simply, loved one another (just as Jesus commanded them to do!)
So, when Paul writes about “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1), he makes it clear that this means living a life wholly committed to discipleship in every way—reaching out to others, serving people in need, giving up self-interest, and not totally focussed on the worship gathering alone. That is most surely a way of being that we could well emulate in our own lives, today.
So Paul encourages the Romans to “contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (12:13) and reminds them that “each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour” (15:2). He advises the Corinthians to maintain positive relationships with those who do not share faith in Jesus (1 Cor 10:27) and to follow the principle, “do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Cor 10:24).
To the Philippians, he writes “let each of you look … to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4), and he urges the Thessalonians to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them” (1 Thess 5:14). All of this is outward-oriented, community-focussed, and following the direction of the injunction to “love your neighbour” (Lev 19:18, quoted by Jesus at Mark 12:31).
And that, more than any particular style or form of worship, is what should best characterise the followers of Jesus today. Are we up for the challenge??