This week past has been the official Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and over the week, this year as every year, there were daily prayer meetings held each morning, hosted by the various churches within our municipality. And this year, unlike previous years (I am ashamed to say) I actually made a real effort to attend these daily meetings (well, I made it to 3 out of 5), and in the process I discovered an amazing fact that really shocked me – most the other churches in our area are really small!
I thought we were small! People often ask me, “Why are you so busy? Your church is only small, isn’t it?” to which I always respond, “well, we may be small for a church but we’re big for a family!” But that reflects what I’ve always assumed – that we are a relatively small church. I’ve now discovered that we’re actually two to three times the size of almost every other Christian community in the greater Marrickville region! And I find this really depressing!
Now the Catholic and Orthodox churches are a bit of an exception to the rule, but having said that, it must nonetheless be said that church attendance on the whole in this region is abysmal! I hadn’t laboured under any illusion such that come Sunday morning the entirety of this area rises up as one and goes to worship, but I had assumed that if you’d put us all together that there was quite a throng of people around here going to attend Christian worship each week in one church or another … and I was wrong!
It’s the curse of multiculturalism that’s to blame of course, or so I’m told. Certainly if you ask the powers that be (and there are indeed significant numbers of people who make it their job to study these things) they will tell you that ethnic diversity doesn’t work well for the church, and if there’s one thing you have to say about our region it is that we are ethnically diverse!
According to the last census the (approximately) 72,000 residents of this area come from over 100 different cultures, speaking more than 70 languages – our major languages being Arabic, Cantonese, English, Greek, Portuguese and Vietnamese, and we also have a significant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community (the second largest in the state, I believe).
This is our ethnically diverse, non-church-friendly environment. White, monochrome middle-class areas tend to be the best places for growing healthy churches, I’m told – most especially for Protestant churches, and, as I’ve noted, this crisis in church attendance in the area is largely a Protestant problem. The Orthodox are doing alright, and our main Catholic parish in this area is huge of course, though even there, much of their strength comes from the different linguistic communities that make up the larger parish.
It seems though that many of the traditional congregations of our area are still made up largely of dwindling groups of ageing white people. And if that’s the nature of the church in our area, it doesn’t bode well for the future of Christian witness in this region.
The curious thing is that this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, culminates today in Pentecost Sunday, where we celebrate the very beginnings of the church, and there’s the rub. For on the one hand, we’ve had this focus on bringing together the ever-decreasing numbers of (mainly) white people in our region to celebrate Christian unity and yet we are simultaneously looking back to the foundation of the church, where the numbers involved were huge, and where the composition of the original community was incredibly diverse!
You can’t miss these two emphases when you read that first Pentecost story:
Clearly lots of people were involved in the foundation of the church. We’re told that by the end of that day of Pentecost 3,000 people had signed up, and it’s possible that there were 10 times that number in the crowd to start with! There were a lot of people there, and they come from everywhere. There were Parthians and Medes and Elamites and people from Libya, Phrygia and Pamphylia. Romans, Egyptians, Cretans (for whom I think the politically correct term is ‘Phoenicians’) and Arabs. Everyone was there!
Indeed, the scene Luke paints is incredible, for it’s hard to work out how some of those people could have possibly managed to get there! The Medes that are referred to, for example – how did they get there? The obvious problem for them is not only that they had to travel a couple of hundred miles to get there from their ancient land, but that the Kingdom of Media itself hadn’t actually existed for a couple of hundred years by that stage! There were no Medes by the time we reach the time of the New Testament!
And what about these Elamites? There is a reference to these people back in Ezra chapter 2, but again, there is nothing else in the Bible or in historical texts outside of the Bible to suggest that any such people still existed by the time you reach the day of Pentecost spoken of in Acts 2!
Oh, it’s just like the celebration we had here last Easter, with all those people visiting us from up north in Queensland and from down south in Victoria, and then there was that lovely Hittite couple that wanted to be baptised, and I think our old friend Bob Thomas was here! I know he died a number of years back, but I could have sworn he was here too!
Was Luke (the author of the book of Acts) simply mistaken about the identity of some of those persons who were there that Pentecost? Most scholars just assume that he was referring to people who came from regions where those ancient lands used to be.
Even if that’s all it is, I’d suggest he probably chose his words quite carefully, as I think he’s trying to make a point, and I think the point he’s trying to make is that what went on there on that Pentecost morning was much bigger than most people realised – bigger than just one people and nation, and bigger than just one time and place. It was something that had ramifications that affected everything and everybody, in the present, future and past as well!
There was something foundational to the whole world that was taking place there on that Pentecost morning when the church was founded, and it was, I believe, the Curse of multiculturalism again, though not this time the ‘curse’ (with a little ‘c’) that the church growth specialists talk about, but the Curse (with a big ‘c’) that was the most terrible of the Biblical curses ever to fall upon humankind – the Curse that we read of in the story commonly referred to as the ‘Tower of Babel’ narrative, as recorded back in Genesis Chapter 11.
Now I’m not going to read the Tower of Babel story in full, and I’m not going to start on any lengthy scholarly arguments demonstrating how that ancient story is connected to the Pentecost story of Acts 2. I will though remind you that Babel was a story about people getting together to build a testimony to human greatness – a mighty tower
They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4)
And it seems as if, from the Biblical point of view, this was the first great attempt to build a unified human community, but it was a unified community where God had been excluded. And so judgement fell on that community, for God said, “Behold, they are one people and they all have one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” And so multiculturalism is introduced as a way to limit these people’s power, and indeed the reality of multiculturalism is that it does certainly limit human power.
Adolf Hitler was never going to capture the imagination of the entire world and become its charismatic leader. Why not? Because most of us don’t speak German, and that is always going to be a limiting factor in the amount of influence that any dictator can wield. Linguistic diversity does indeed impose limits on the unity of the human community, and this can be a good thing, as it will inevitably interfere with any grand design for global domination
For most of us though, these limitations imposed upon human community cause us nothing but frustration. We would like to be closer to people of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, but the language barrier makes this difficult. We want to be able to work together more harmoniously with people who are very different from us but cultural diversity makes this a challenge. We would love to build a human community where it truly didn’t matter what colour you were or what country you came from or what language you spoke, but it just doesn’t seem to be humanly possible!
Well … what we couldn’t do for ourselves, God does for us at Pentecost! Just as God came down at Babel to confuse the languages, so the Spirit descends here and starts to unscramble the languages!
Just as human community was confused and pulled apart through linguistic diversity way back then, so the Spirit of God heals these divisions and starts bringing the various races and language groups back together!
And so just as we who had sought to build a ‘name for ourselves’ had our aspirations for human community destroyed, so the Spirit of God now makes a name for Herself through building a Christ-centred community where race and language and colour and culture no longer divide and separate, but where in the Spirit of God we find unity!
As St Paul would later say, “For Christ himself has brought us peace by making Jews and non-Jews (and all the myriad nations that are included there) one people. With his own body he broke down the wall that separated us and kept us enemies.” (Ephesians 2:14)
Put it as you may, Christ has brought us together. He has built a new community. He has broken down the wall of alienation and hostility. Now, instead of division we have unity! We have diversity still, but it is a diversity of mutual enrichment wherein we see the ‘manifold wisdom of God’ expressed (to quote St Paul again [Ephesians 3:10]) rather than a diversity leading to separation and prejudice and pain.
What does all this mean? It means that multiculturalism is no longer a curse! On the contrary, it means that by the Spirit of God, multiculturalism is now a gift to the church through which we can demonstrate the marvellous love of Christ to the world, by building a community where there is no Jew, no Greek, no slave, no free, no black, no white, no male, no female, no rich, no poor, no academically brilliant, no academically challenged, no gay, no straight, no saintly, no unsaintly, no morally upright, no morally down-trodden, but Christ is all and in all, and where the Spirit of God is blowing and bringing unity and peace and love
And what does this mean for our relatively small churches? What it means I think is that in our quest for survival, we cannot abandon our drive for unity amidst cultural diversity! We cannot aim for growth if that means becoming culturally monochrome, for to do so will be to forget who we are and how and why we were formed!
The church is the community where God is bringing the nations together to reverse the ancient curse of hostility and pain and to restore communication, harmony and love. This is who we are. This is what we were formed to do. This is the foundation of our witness to the world, such that when people see that in the church true human community is possible, they will ask, as the spectators at Pentecost asked, “What does this mean? Are they drunk?” and we will be able to answer, ‘No. It’s not wine that we are intoxicated with, but with the all-powerful, all-loving and all-unifying Spirit of Christ!’
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.