There is quite a gap between Easter Day and the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost but this year there was a sense in which I observed the two together while on a visit to Austria. On Easter Sunday, I had the privilege of sharing the Eucharist with a hugely diverse congregation in Christ Church Vienna, an Anglican presence in that beautiful city. We were there to celebrate the hope described in the First Letter of Peter: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…”
As I watched the large congregation gather to fill the church to capacity the diversity of the Pentecostal event of long ago as recorded in the Book of Acts came to mind: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia… Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt… in our own languages, we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” That Easter Day congregation in Vienna was like that – multiracial, evidenced in some cases by traditional dress, hairstyles and language, and the latter acknowledged by an invitation to say the Lord’s Prayer in one’s native tongue. Ár nAthair atá ar neamh was given its place.
What was striking in this cocktail of faith and culture was that there were no signs of the controversial issues that too often keep Christians apart, things like limits to eucharistic hospitality, gender issues, women’s ordination and so much more. That does not mean for a moment that such differences of opinion did not exist among us but on that Easter morning we were united in daring to speak about hope in an increasingly desperate and cynical world, “hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”.
Some of those present would perhaps have been less sure than others about that hope but that is how it has been from the first Easter Day. Thomas wasn’t only a doubter, he was a non-believer and those who were trying to persuade him that Jesus was in some form alive after the crucifixion had had their own doubts earlier.
Pentecost invites us to reach beyond ourselves, to embrace diversity in community but that can be a step too far for some, given the resistance to the settling of immigrants and asylum seekers in their localities. On an even broader front, most of us dislike anything that takes us out of our comfort zones, even though that is a function of the Spirit of God as he/she leads us into all truth.
In Crying in the Wilderness, Desmond Tutu suggests what that might mean for the church in the modern world: “The Church of God has to be the salt and light of the world. God wants us to be the alternative society; where there is harshness and insensitivity, we must be compassionate and caring; where people are statistics, we must show they count as being of immense value to God; where there is grasping and selfishness, we must be a sharing community now. In the early church, people were attracted to it not so much by the preaching but by the fact that they saw Christians as a community, living a new life as if what God had done was important and had made a difference. They saw a community of those who, whether rich or poor, male or female, free or slave, young or old – all quite unbelievably loved and cared for by each other. It was the lifestyle of the Christians that was witnessing. We witness too, by being a community of reconciliation, a forgiving community of the forgiven. We need this in the world today, don’t we? But how can we say we offer the remedy to the world’s hatred and divisions, if we ourselves as Christians are divided into different churches, if we are unforgiving, if we don’t greet or speak to certain people? People will be right to say ‘Physician heal thyself’.”