john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Gathering the scattered - the Holy Spirit's work

    Bratton Clovelly and Lydford Communion Services,
    Pentecost, 12/6/2011

    Acts 2.1-21

    When the time for the Saturday night celebration party of the Bratton Clovelly - Nonant Twinning Association came, they were all gathered together in one place - Bratton Village Hall. Now there were people there who had been doing this for years: Devonians from birth, those who had made Bratton their home after a life lived elsewhere, people who seldom left Bayeux except to make this trip, experienced French travellers; good linguists, bad linguists, those whose local accents were so strong that even their neighbours sometimes found it difficult to understand what they were saying. The crowd gathered and enjoyed their evening together, the language barriers between them melted as they communicated through a stronger, more intuitive language of wine, music, and dance; body language, signs, symbols and song. As the gathering applauded Reg's rendition of 'I love Paris in the Springtime' all were amazed and perplexed, saying, 'What does this mean?' But others said, 'It's because of the wine.' And it may well have been, because it was way, way past nine o'clock in the evening. [1]

    There are events in our lives which give an inkling into the eternal truths of the kingdom of heaven. Imperfect images of the perfection towards which God is slowly leading us. Times when we get flashes of insight into what it really means to be living the abundant life which Christ promised his followers.

    Gathering the scattered people together - is today's theme.

    Gathering the scattered - people who normally would not meet, could not communicate, for a few moments in time united in understanding and celebration. Like those at Bratton Village Hall last Saturday night.

    Gathering the scattered. The story of Pentecost could be summed up as the moment that a loving and forgiving God gathered together his scattered people, once and for all, uniting them in love and understanding through the Holy Spirit.

    Gathering the scattered. The apostle Luke used this very important image of gathering and scattering as a way of summing up the whole story of Jesus and of his followers. Luke records Jesus as saying, "Whoever does not gather with me scatters." (Lk 11:23b). If we knew no better about scripture then we could regard that as a throwaway phrase. But it comes into its own at Pentecost.
    Luke wrote the Book of Acts, too, and, essentially, this is what his story of Pentecost is all about! Gathering the scattered. Those who are scattered are gathered. We might say that this is the number one effect of Jesus' words of forgiveness from the cross. [2]
    Gathering the scattered. The story of Pentecost could be seen as the reversal of the story of the Tower of Babel, which had been told by Israel about the time when a people who were attempting absolute power by building a tower together, were scattered over the face of the earth by a God who was in rivalry and conflict with them, who divided them by giving them different languages so that they would not understand each other.

    Pentecost is Babel reversed. The resurrection has let this reversal loose on the world by the Spirit of Christ - a Holy Spirit who gathers the scattered peoples of the earth back together, with a new common language of understanding, based in the ultimate self-giving of Jesus on the cross: the language of forgiveness. This is the true purpose of society under God.
    If you've ever searched for a simple way to describe what the Christian faith is all about, I think this may be it! Jesus died on the cross, offering us forgiveness, so that we could have a new way to gather together and stay together, truly as one. Gathering the scattered. Think of it! Think of all the ways we are scattered, all the ways we tear each other apart, all the broken relationships, all the bitterness, all the terrible hurt. Think of the wars and the killing and the terrible racism that scatters us as peoples across the earth, with so much tragic killing and so much unspeakable grief. [2]
    Think of the differences between peoples which are heightened at times of open conflict: the cruel stereotypes we apply to those who don't look and speak like us, the way we blame others for wrongs of which, in truth, we are all guilty.
    This is what Jesus came for, to gather us together again in loving forgiveness. Luke's story of Pentecost shows us that just 50 days after Easter, that powerful Holy Spirit began to blow and to gather God's people from the corners of the earth. It brought them together in a new oneness called the Church, which, [though] it has [never] been [free from strife and division, nevertheless] has [continued to grow and flourish] for [..] two thousand years now. [2]
    Achieving unity has always been a human desire; any unity which peoples have achieved has been fragile, relatively short-lived and ultimately failed. 'Come Together', sang the Beatles in 1969, a song John Lennon penned about the members of the group themselves, intended to rally them to unity when they were going through a difficult time. Six months after its release the Beatles had split. 'Come Together' was inspired by Timothy Leary's campaign for governor of California against Ronald Reagan, which used the slogan "Come together, join the party", and which promptly ended when Leary was sent to prison for possession of marijuana. [3]

    On our own we find unity hard to achieve. Consider the Big Society, the great hope of our coalition government when it was first inaugurated, now a focal point for disillusionment and anxiety, as witnessed in the critical words of the Archbishop of Canterbury this week. [4]

    On our own we find unity hard to achieve. Consider again the Tower of Babel, unfinished because the people's great push for power and domination went the way of all other pushes for power and domination - it ended in dispute, division, scattering.

    And on our own the unity which we reach for is founded on rivalry and opposition to others. We define ourselves as a group in terms of being different than another group.

    This week I received one of those emails which the original sender asks to be sent on to others, for the sake of unifying the ever-increasing number of readers around a particular issue or cause. The writer described being on a flight to Cyprus and how he gave the flight attendant a fifty pound note to pay for the lunches of a group of British Army Youngsters also on the flight. Seeing this act of generosity other passengers handed donations to the man, so that as the squaddies left the plane at the end of their journey he was able to hand them a further seventy-five pounds, for food for their ongoing journey. The email ended with the following statement highlighted in bold type: 'A British Serviceman is someone who, at one point in his life, wrote a blank cheque made payable to 'United Kingdom' for an amount of 'up to and including my life'. That is Honour, and there are way too many foreigners in this country who don't understand it.'

    We Brits are honourable - the foreigners dishonourable: that is the ground on which we unite; that is the opinion around which we gather: the message and intention of that email. Our human attempts at unity are characterised by such as this: we define our group in terms of opposition to another. Our unity is achieved only at the expense of others who we think are not like us; our gathering is founded on a deeply pervasive scattering. We are back to Babel again and the failure of all human attempts to build entirely together. The theologian James Alison puts it this way:
    All human societal foundations are futile exercises in the production of a fragile order. The only real foundation is the one given in Christ's gathering. [..] The New Testament [provides] a quite specific understanding of the universal futility of human social order that is being overcome by the revelation of the true foundation. [5]
    And so, in conclusion, we return to the party which God puts on for all who will receive him. A party where unity can at last be achieved - not in our own power, for that is based in rivalry and self-interest, but in the power of the Holy Spirit, which is based in absolute self-giving love. It's a party which is open to everyone now and forever. We have flashes of insight into it in the experiences of our own lives, where a special spirit unites us to others with whom we'd never before imagined we could share anything in common.

    Gathering the scattered - it's what Pentecost is all about. The story shows us that when we are united in the Spirit of God we each don't lose our own identity, but rather that God's Spirit heightens and strengthens our appreciation and understanding of others. The Pentecost people continued speaking in their own language, but they could hear and understand others as if they were speaking their own. We keep our integrity, but we gain absolute unity with others, when the Spirit comes. The scattered people are gathered, and it is good, when the Spirit comes.

    When the Spirit comes, what a great party God puts on. Open your heart - accept the invitation.

    [1] See my blog of Saturday, 4 June 2011, Smells and Bells, for more on the events of the annual Bratton - Nonant Twinning weekend.
    [2] Paul Neuchterlein, Gathering the Scattered People of God, delivered at Emmaus Lutheran, Racine, WI, May 30-31, 1998. The passages on the Pentecost-Babel reversal owe much to Pastor Neuchterlein's summary of James Alison's treatment of the subject in The Joy of Being Wrong, Chapters 6 and 9, here.
    [3] Come Together, in Wikipedia
    [4] Archbishop of Canterbury criticises coalition policies, BBC, 9 June 2011
    [5] James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p.167