Breathtaking change and life-giving Spirit

Text: Acts 2:1-21 (the coming of the Holy Spirit)

On May 5, Election Day in Alberta, I watched a group of NDP supporters who had gathered along 66th Street. They danced and held up campaign posters as people in passing cars honked or waved. And what came to my mind was Pentecost.

Pentecost is the day when God’s Spirit descended on the followers of Jesus 50 days after the first Easter. It was a dramatic moment of wind, flame, and transformation. Suddenly, everything seemed different.

The election of an NDP government after 44 years of PC rule felt like this to me. This is not to argue that the NDP — with its roots in the labour movement and socialism — is aligned with the Holy Spirit in a way that other parties are not. It is more that the election of an NDP government seemed unexpected and big – a shift in the zeitgeist, or the spirit of the time.

The election of a left-wing government after more than 80 years of unbroken conservative rule — first of the Social Credit and then the PC Party — feels like a breath of fresh air.

I am sure that Premier-Designate Rachel Notley did not choose today for the swearing-in of her new government because this is Pentecost Sunday. But for me, the timing fits. Sometimes, as on Pentecost, big changes are revealed in an instant.

We live in a world of constant and ever-more rapid change. But even in times of population growth, technological revolution, and vast cultural shifts, some things seem unshakeable — like the domination of conservatives in Alberta and of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.

But then the Irish people vote overwhelmingly in favour of gay marriage, as they did on Friday, and Alberta elects an NDP majority government. Such events are symptoms of long-term trends that, like ice breaking on a river in springtime, suddenly become evident.

In both Alberta and Ireland those trends include immigration, urbanization, and the rise of new sources of authority. Personally, I am thrilled that the Roman Catholic Church has lost its moral authority in Ireland and that Albertans no longer conform to outsiders’ perceptions of our conservativism. At the same time, these shifts bring stress to our churches.

At the time of the first Pentecost, the handful of people who followed Jesus faced daunting challenges. The Risen Christ had appeared to them briefly following his crucifixion but then had ascended to heaven. Jesus had directed his disciples to preach the good news of death and resurrection to all nations. But they were a small group of uneducated peasants from the backwater of Galilee. How could they possibly undertake this mission?

It was then that the winds and flames of Pentecost descended on them. These illiterate peasants now found that they were able to preach about the marvels of God in every language of their day. Using the power of the Holy Spirit, they spread the good news to all the corners of the world.

As a child who struggled to learn French in school, this story bothered me. Why did the Holy Spirit give Peter and the first disciples this linguistic power but not me?

On Thursday night while driving home from choir practice, I heard a news item on CBC Radio about a product from Microsoft called Skype Translator. In real time, it translates a conversation between two people using different languages. It is similar to Google Translate, a smartphone app that transcribes spoken words in one language and then speaks them aloud in another, but with video added.

Apps like this are today’s version of Pentecost. The computer revolution has now advanced to the point where it is tackling one of the greatest challenges of artificial intelligence – translating from one natural language to another.

The first version of Skype Translator is reported to be clumsy and unreliable. But given the advances of the first 75 years of the computer revolution, it would be foolish to bet against the capabilities of such technologies in the years to come.

Have any of you seen the movie “The Imitation Game,” which won an Academy Award in February for its screenplay? It tells of the beginning of digital computing in World War II Britain under the leadership of the brilliant mathematician and philosopher Alan Turing. His team developed one of the first electronic computers, which successfully broke a German code system and so gave the Allies a huge advantage in the final years of the War.

The film also shows how post-War Britain persecutes Turing for his homosexuality. Thankfully, much has changed in the decades since. The spread of computers and the Internet on the one hand and the erosion of traditional religious authority on the other are welcomed by many of us even as both sets of changes can upset us.

How can we continue as a church in a world where the magic of Pentecost is as mundane as a smartphone app and where traditional authority on issues like marriage is ignored by people who used to be obedient Catholics?

I think this is a good question, but one without a good answer. One path we are trying here at Mill Woods United is greater ecumenical cooperation. And this past week, I reached out to two other denominations.

Last Sunday, I worshipped at Mill Woods Community Church, which is a Moravian congregation on 23rd Ave just before 34th Street. I had arrived back from Denver late on Friday, and because Elfrieda was leading our service last week, I took the opportunity to get to know another local faith community.

The Moravians were one of the first Protestant movements 600 years ago in what is now the Czech Republic. They suffered state persecution by both Roman Catholic and Protestant kingdoms but managed to survive in small numbers. Today they have a reputation for piety, forgiveness, and compassion.

I was glad to meet the two pastors after the service. We will talk again in the summer about reviving a Mill Woods Ministerial Association. At the same time, I didn’t like their service. I thought the prayers and songs were out of synch with our current context because they expressed a doctrine called substitutionary atonement, which was first developed 1,000 years ago.

This doctrine says that Jesus had to die on the cross to pay for our sins. I don’t subscribe to it for several reasons. One is its implication that Christianity is the only path to healing. In today’s intercultural society, this idea doesn’t work for me.

The other faith community I approached last week was The Baha’i Community of Edmonton. Baha’i is a peace-loving religion that originated in what is now Iran in the 19th Century. It draws from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. Linda Paddon and Nancy Siever had suggested I contact one of its leaders whom they had met at a Mill Woods Community Network meeting. We are going to meet soon to talk about projects that we might work on together.

I know a little about Baha’i including the terrible persecution its followers suffer in Iran. I am attracted to its focus on unity, love, and inclusion. But in looking at their website, I wondered what would move anyone today to follow a religion founded in 19th Century. To me, it seems “too recent” to be viable as a religion. But then I realized that many people today have a similar reaction to any religion whether ancient or relatively modern.

In dealing with declining numbers and in responding to breathtaking changes in morality, technology, and politics it seems reasonable for churches and other faith communities to work together. But I believe that what we need is something radically new.

“Radically new” describes the path taken by the first followers of Jesus. After the burning of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70, they continued to worship God even though they could no longer offer sacrifices in YHWH’s Holy Temple. Their worship was based in the Jewish traditions they had shared with Jesus, but they now followed a God of Love who was available to people of all languages and traditions.

The decline of our churches today seems almost as big to me as the destruction of Jerusalem and God’s Temple in the First Century. This thought came to my mind again two weeks ago in Denver where I attended The Festival of Homiletics. A constant theme running through many of the lectures and sermons was church decline.

On May 11, the first day of the Festival, a research group The Pew Forum released its latest report on religious trends in the United States. Between 2007 and 2014, all stripes of Christianity declined. Evangelical Protestants dropped by about 1% a year; Roman Catholics by about 2% a year; and mainline Protestants (the Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and United folk who made up the 1800 people who attended the Conference) by about 3% a year. During the same period, the number of people with no religious affiliation increased by about 5% a year. This latter group — people with no religion — now make up almost 25% of the people in the United States and are second in numbers only to Evangelical Protestants.

One of the speakers said that after 60 years of continuous decline, the era of denial among our churches is now over. We will see if this is true for us in Alberta at the Conference meeting of the United Church of Canada next weekend in Slave Lake. I will be there along with the Paul, Lesley, and Gaeyln Verdin.

How to best respond to this decline, I do not know. We probably need something as different from Sunday morning worship as the house worship of the first followers of Jesus was from animal sacrifice in the Temple. The problem for me is that I love Sunday morning worship. I might not like hymns about substitutionary atonement, but I love lots of the old hymns, as you well know.

Beyond the survival of our churches is the bigger question of the survival of the human race! Will we wake up one morning to find that our artificially intelligent apps — which help us talk to people in China or Denmark without learning another language and which will soon drive our cars for us — have taken over? If you extrapolate from Turing’s first computer in the 1940s to today and then draw those lines out another 75 years to 2080, I think this becomes an open question.

Rapid changes like these can take our breath away. But is this the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is supposed to inspire us, not suffocate us. Perhaps this is how we can discern God’s Spirit from ones that are less than divine. Do the winds of change take our breath away, or do they fill our bodies, hearts, and minds with space for more love and grace?

In constantly changing conditions, we rely on the Holy Spirit to power our work. We also rely on God’s support and mercy to keep us grounded in traditions of family, church, and nation. When change becomes too much for me, I try to remember the love shown to us in the stories of Jesus and his command that we love one another no matter how weird or wondrous life today might appear.

This afternoon as Rachel Notley and her cabinet are sworn in as the first NDP government in Alberta’s history, and this fall as the first same-sex couples are married in Ireland, may we marvel at the winds of change that blow through our society. My prayer is that these winds will fill our hearts and minds with the grace of new possibilities.

My prayer is also that we will remain grounded in the God who is Love. God walks with us humbly as our brother and friend Jesus. God’s Spirit promises to be with us no matter how strangely our lives unfold in the years and decades ahead.

In times of great change, God’s Spirit of Love is with us. We are not alone.

Thanks be to God.


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