The risk of being pentecostal

“Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Then Peter said unto them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 2:37-38, AV)

S Luke is the only author in the New Testament to take on a narrative of the Pentecost, and it is an incredible picture that he paints. This is the moment, termed by New Testament scholar Jimmy Dunn as ‘the big bang’ of the church, when Christianity really explodes onto the scene in high drama and great wonder.

S Luke tells his readers that, by being anointed by God’s Spirit to speak the good news in foreign languages, this movement was about to go global. The first act of this globalisation was for S Peter to speak the good news into the darkness, prejudice and violence that had caused so many to insist on Jesus’ crucifixion. This first sermon ends with a call for repentance; a repentance, we should add, through which S Peter had already passed; for he, too, shared in the guilt of what happened to Jesus.

Let’s then, fast-forward around 1960 years to the present church, and ask, “How are we doing?” It’s not a bad question to ask on a birthday, really.

It would not be unfair, as a friend of mine said the other day, to say that the modern Church is marked by its obsession with internal disputes over women bishops and gay clergy. It is certainly true that we take a great deal of time over the issues that surround these two groups of people. The question is, I suppose, if this is so, should it be so?

To answer that question, it might be helpful to look around at the world in which we live in the twenty-first Century, asking what people think about these issues.

Whilst gender equality is generally on the increase, Pew demonstrates that there are a number of nations outside of Europe and the Americas where there is an increasingly less egalitarian view of households. Since 2002, there has been a reported increase in these countries of almost 20% who would say that a woman’s place as in the home. Also, the evidence is becoming stronger and stronger to demonstrate a link between men’s attitude towards women and domestic violence.

Regarding attitudes to homosexuality, less than 10% of the global population outside of Europe and the Americas think that homosexuality is socially-acceptable. Once again, there is a strong link between these attitudes and acts of violence.

Whatever we may think, it is into this world that the church is called to be good news.

It’s difficult though, as a Westerner and subject of an ex-colonial Kingdom, to speak into situations outside of one’s own country. We’ve seen too much harm done in the name of the big solutions, where extreme versions of Right Wing Empire and Left Wing Marxism have caused all kinds of damage. Surely it’s best to allow local cultures to be the only bedrock of the local church? That is what the incarnation is all about, isn’t it?

Whilst that is a fairly popular view at the moment, I can’t help but feel that incarnation is not much good without redemption – what would be the point in God entering humanity if their were no redemption? The two go hand in hand. As a friend of mine continually quotes from S Athanasius, ‘God became man, that man might become God.’

Being incarnate needs to lead people out of themselves and their own small world into the eternity of God, which allows them to see more fully the whole world beyond their own experiences. This is redemption. This is good news. And the church of the Pentecost is called to take the risk of speaking this good news.

I feel no shame in disagreeing with those of different cultures, whether they be my next-door neighbour, old schoolfriend or a stranger on the other side of the world. If a woman is told that she cannot be or do something solely because of her gender, or if a homosexual is labelled a dangerous pervert, then I cannot be silent.

What the church has to say about women bishops and homosexual clergy, then, is far from an internal dispute. It is grappling with what it means to be good news in our world.

But what about the Bible? It says pretty clearly that homosexuality is wrong and women cannot be leaders in the church.

Well, if a person really believes that Christians are called to copy the cultures and societies of the ancient near-east, then let them stop pussy-footing around and do it properly: stop the education of girls, bring back a legalised slave-trade and do away with modern medicine. If, however, those parts of the New Testament culture are not to their liking, then a better argument is required for the continued subjugation of women and homosexual people than, “It says so in the Bible.”

The Bible is filled with wisdom and beauty, and not least the story of God in Christ. It is the collection of texts that has set the trajectory for the Christian Tradition. But it is the first word, and not the last.

Women are equal to men. Anything that says otherwise is based on a very poor view of humanity. Homosexuality is not against the natural order; the felt impulse toward attachment is the same in all expressions of sexuality. To exclude or demonise on the basis of gender or sexuality is nothing other than prejudice.

The minute I speak out, however, I am aware of my own failings, and that’s why it is a risk. As the Prayer Book so eloquently puts it, I am a miserable sinner: arrogant and hypocritical. So, as well as speaking, I must also learn to listen if I am to be led out of my own small world. And the church outside of my little world has a great deal to say about my values. To be good news, I need to be able to listen as well as to speak, otherwise I will never come to see the prejudices that skew my own view of the world.

Part of this is to understand the church to which I belong: things are far from equal, and far from easy in the dear, old C of E. I know that I am bound to work within the rules set by the wider institution and in fellowship with those whose views differ from my own: and I will certainly not break those rules. If I do, then there would be no reason for people to break other rules that I believe are important. However, what I am able to do is speak my mind, with respect, and work for the day when things will change, as they are doing so already.

Being partially-sighted is not a good enough excuse not to speak at all. If the calling of Pentecost means anything to us today, then the church is called to follow S Peter and speak good news into the same darkness, prejudice and violence that sent Jesus to the cross.

“Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Then Peter said unto them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 2:37-38, AV)

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About fancourt

I'm the Parish Priest of St Luke with St Bartholomew in Reading, U.K (http://www.lukeandbart.org.uk). This is mainly a blog of sermons, and I'd welcome your thoughts on what I write. I've taken a bit more time to write about my thoughts about the church in today's world in a little book called Brand New Church? (Review of it here: http://admiralcreedy.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/book-review-brand-new-church.html).
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