Jerusalem then and now

Text: Acts 2:1-21 (the day of Pentecost)

Yesterday’s Royal Wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle felt a bit like Pentecost to me. A Gospel choir sang “Stand By Me” in St. George’s Chapel of Windsor Castle. The Most Rev. Michael Curry — the first African-American to be the presiding Bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church — delivered a rousing sermon on love. And Markle became the first person of African descent to become a British Royal.

Through her mother, Markle is a descendant of African slaves. Now she is a member of a monarchy that presided over the British Empire of the 17th and 18th centuries, which was one of the largest slave empires in history.

So, I was struck by yesterday’s wedding.

When Britain conquered much of North America and Africa after 1600, it brought its churches along with it. But these churches were far from holy because they preached white supremacy and endorsed the enslavement and exploitation of Black and Indigenous people.

The imperial spread of the Church was not powered by a Spirit of Love, but by a spirit similar to that of the Roman Empire, which had executed Jesus and later burned Jerusalem to the ground.

What occurred yesterday at St. George’s Chapel felt to me like a zephyr of Love’s Spirit returning to the centre of the Imperial Church. Queen Elizabeth, who is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the clerical head of the Church and who officiated at the marriage, listened to a sermon from the leader of a denomination that had separated from the Church of England after the American Revolution in 1783. Bishop Curry is a descendant of slaves who were brought in chains from Africa by Britain. He prominently featured the words and cadences of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in his sermon, and he quoted a slave hymn of healing, “There is A Balm in Gilead.”

This moment of interculturalism doesn’t mean that all the wounds of Britain’s colonial past are healed. But it shows that the Spirit of Love can survive war, conquest, and colonialism. It shows that the Holy Spirit blows where it wills, even into imperial chapels built on the backs of slaves.

On Pentecost Sunday, we hear a story from Acts about how the Holy Spirit descends on the friends of Jesus in Jerusalem 50 days after the first Easter. This allows them to preach the good news of death and resurrection in the languages of the pilgrims who have come to Jerusalem from around the Mediterranean for a Jewish Festival. It shows how the friends of Jesus from the backwater of Galilee begin to build communities outside of Palestine in other languages.

Pentecost is about a moment when the vision of Jesus, which developed within Judaism, begins to spread. Death and resurrection are not just good news for Jews. They form a path that can help anyone walk away from tribal prejudices and towards a universal love.

The author of Acts sets Pentecost in Jerusalem in the year 30. But given that Acts was written 60 years after that date, and given that Jerusalem had been burned to the ground in the year 70 and its Temple destroyed, the necessity for the first Jewish Christians to leave Jerusalem becomes clear. After Rome rebuilt Jerusalem, they allowed no Jews to live there. This was the case until Islamic invaders conquered it in 638. During the centuries that various Islamic kingdoms ruled Jerusalem from 638 to 1918, it was home to a mix of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities.

Seventy years ago last week, the United Nations created a Jewish state in the western part of Palestine, and the fate of Jerusalem has been in flux ever since. Since Israel conquered the eastern part of Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, it has become more and more Jewish. Today it is two thirds Jewish and one third Arab.

Last week on the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel, the United States moved its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv — where most countries have their embassies in accordance with international law — to Jerusalem.

I was struck by the ceremony at the Embassy last Monday and not just because hundreds of Palestinian protestors were being injured and killed 80 km to the west on the border with Gaza, but also because of the so-called Christian presence at it.

The closing prayer was given by an evangelical pastor whose Christian credentials are as suspect as those of the Church of England when it supported the cross-Atlantic slave trade. Pastor John Hagee is the founder of a right-wing group “Christians United for Israel,” and he has preached that Hitler’s Holocaust reflected the will of God because it pushed Jews to leave Europe for Israel. People like Hagee see the return of Jews to Israel as a prerequisite to the nuclear war that will herald the Second Coming of Jesus and the end of the world as we know it.

The fact that John Hagee has moved from the lunatic fringe of Christian evangelicals to the centre of American power and is now welcomed by Israel’s leaders is a sign that Jerusalem is not having a Pentecost moment.

Pentecost was about moving beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem and its tribal worship to a wider world in which Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam would create communities in a Spirit of Love and Truth far beyond the Holy City.

In contrast, today’s Israeli leaders promote an Israel in which Jews have rights that are denied to Arabs and who cultivate support from a U.S. administration that wants to make America white again. Like yesterday’s Atlantic slave-traders, today’s tribalists are supported by religious misleaders. They include Orthodox Patriarchs in Russia who are Vladimir Putin’s best friends, Catholic priests in Hungary who back its authoritarian and racist leader Viktor Orban, and Islamic leaders who support despotic governments in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Pentecost showed the power of Love to lead beyond a tribal past and towards universal love. On a much smaller scale, yesterday’s wedding ceremony in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor shows something similar. Even in times of increasing fear and racism, the power of Love to expand our hearts and widen our compassion can lead us to the future we want.

Yesterday’s wedding brought to mind my own wedding to Kim Boyes in November 2016. So with your indulgence, I end this reflection with a Pentecost moment from three years ago. Kim and I first met three years ago today on May 20, 2015 at Southminster-Steinhauer United Church.

We had come to participate in a meeting of the Edmonton Progressive Christian Network. At one point, Rev. Nancy Steeves, who was leading the discussion, asked us to share with a neighbour, and Kim and I chose each other. For about five minutes, we talked about grief; and at the end of this time, we were both hooked.

When I got home that evening, I called my sister and said, “I think I met someone.” It would be a month before Kim and I went on a first date; but even after that first encounter, I would not have been surprised to learn that 18 months later, we would be married.

This was “love at first sight,” an experience I highly recommend. But that moment was predicated on our separate lifetimes of pain and joy, loss and grief, and struggle and transcendence. Neither Cupid’s arrows nor Pentecost’s tongues of flames could have pierced our hearts or touched our foreheads if we hadn’t brought to that moment three years ago the wounds and blessings of our pasts.

Similarly, Pentecost was predicated on the history of Judaism; the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and the grief and joy of Peter and the other disciples. They would not have been able to receive the Spirit’s flame without all the cultural and personal history they brought to that moment.

In a similar way, Harry and Meghan would not have been able to fall in love if they hadn’t come to grips with their separate histories before they met. Prince Harry was born into a crazy system of monarchy and celebrity, and he has struggled since childhood to cope with it. Meghan Markle found herself born as a bi-racial person in a country still suffering from the wounds of slavery and colonialism.

Out of their separate pasts and their struggles with them, Harry and Meghan fell in love; and now they will try to grow themselves and their relationship in the hothouse of the world’s most prominent monarchy.

In our marriage, Kim and I have used an initial spark from three years ago to build a relationship to help us weather the storms of life in times of great wounds and blessings.

On Pentecost, the disciples of Jesus accepted the Grace of the Spirit to create beloved communities that began in Jerusalem, but soon moved far beyond it. Today, we continue to reverberate with the Power of that Love.

We may feel discouraged by the success of tribalists who fan the flames of fear to achieve power. But with joy, we can also listen for the still small voice of Love and fan its flames into a Pentecostal bonfire that burns away old prejudices and refines our families and churches into beloved communities of inclusion, compassion and Love.

On this Pentecost Sunday, I pray that it may it be so.


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