Thought for the Day - Rev Dr Giles Fraser - 20/05/2013
Yesterday was the feast day of Pentecost. For Jews this remains a commemoration of God’s gift of the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel, the festival of Shavuot. But in the New Testament, the book of Acts describes how Jesus’ followers were gathered together for this celebration when they received an extraordinary gift of communication. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, they began to speak in such a way they people of every race and language could understand them. Through the disciples came from provincial Galilee, they were understood by Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Egypt, Libya, Crete, and ever further afield. Pentecost is often known as the birthday of the church because from this moment on, the message of the gospel began to spread itself throughout the world.
Yesterday morning, in my little church in South London, we gathered together to celebrate Pentecost. The preacher was a priest from Pakistan. The Deacon came from Guyana and the churchwardens from Ghana and Sierra Leone. Reflecting the ethnic diversity of my parish, the congregation hailed from the four concerns of the earth. And when we all said the Lord’s Prayer, we did so in the language we first learnt it. Some in Hungarian, some in Fanti, some in Uruba, some in Ga, some in English, some in French, some in Portuguese, some in Urdu. Everyone was saying something different, and yet, at the same time, everyone was saying exactly the same thing. Jesus would have said the prayer in Aramaic. Avvon d-bish-maiya, nith-qaddash shim-mukh. Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
As we were praying together, it was hard not to be reminded of the current debate about immigration that seems to have returned to the top of the political agenda. I know, of course, that one cannot just read off a specific set of policies from the simple observation of the diversity of the church. However, what can be said is that despite the fact that some want to appropriate Christianity as a crucial ingredient of British national identity, the reality is that Christianity is, and has always been, intrinsically multi-cultural.
There is, of course, a perfectly legitimate debate about the extent to which diversity within a society is consistent with community togetherness and solidarity. But the story of Pentecost claims that, whatever the diversity, and however threatening some may find it, human beings can be profoundly different and yet fundamentally united. That, I take it, is one of the principle attractions of monotheism – one God, one people. Which is why, when Jesus asked the question “Who is my neighbor?”, his answer was as much the person living far away as it was the person living next door. And that is a vision that the church, simply through its very nature and being, will always hold out before society.