“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”
Charles Dickens, a tale of two cities.
Charles Dickens’ immortal words better describe what I have to say than what follows. However, these last few months have been a time of huge anxiety, sadness and broken expectations. Shopping in our deserted town centre is an experience that is sobering and if I’m honest, unnerving, and even dystopic. We struggle to know where this has all come from and just exactly where it will leave us: our economy, our national health, our social fabric and our commitment to public worship. There are so many uncertainties and disappointments. Our church has been forced to cancel many important celebrations this year. Normal services like weddings, baptisms and funerals, our hospitality season, the National Armed Forces Service, VE Day, the Mayor-Making, our flower festival, the Anne Bronte celebrations are just a few examples. While this is nothing compared to those that have lost loved ones to Covid-19, all of our preparations for these events can still leave us justifiably bereaved at these losses too.
What exactly is happening to us? Observing the secular horizon everyone is talking about the ‘new normal’ as if it’s a thing! Even Marks and Spencer’s have warned us they need to make hard, long-delayed decisions. If national institutions such as M&S are repositioning themselves because they expect things to look different, then I suspect nothing less for the Church of England in its institutional life. Thankfully, we are not simply an institution that might be held to ransom by this pandemic with the political and cultural storm following in its wake.
I reflected in the sermon last Sunday that we are like the disciples locked down in the upper room, stuck between Ascension and Pentecost, between Jesus leaving the disciples commanding them to “stay in the city” and wait his promise of the Holy Spirit. They responded in prayer. Like them, while the command has been “stay in our homes,” we have not remained idle. This experience of abstinence and bereavement has made us more determined to hold on to a promise yet to be fulfilled. You can see this tenacity in the way our church has grown in discipleship, corporate on-line prayer and a real generosity. We have taken the initiative to broadcast our services. This was something I was particularly nervous about, but that leap of faith has yielded real rewards. Even this last Sunday someone mentioned that the Lord had spoken to them personally for the first time after a number of silent years. These are precious encouragements.
It is because this period holds so many similarities to the disciples in the book of Acts, that I have decided to study Acts for the coming months each Sunday. If you have been joining in with Jake and Hannah for Facebook night prayer, then you will have been given a great overview of Acts. You will have noticed that I began Acts 1 this last Sunday with Luke’s account of the Ascension. Trying to apply Acts to the modern church is fraught with pitfalls because of a number of differences. While it may be ‘romantic’ to return to basics, the Acts church grew in a Graeco-Roman culture dominated by a huge empire. There are 2000 years of Christian veneer to peel back before the text can be applied. Some of this veneer was great while others parts were significantly darker. Take for instance the great Christian influence on hospitals, schools, the justice system, the overturning of slavery. But we can’t ignore the Crusades, Christendom and the besetting religious wars. All of these things, both good and bad have happened since Acts was written. Even our understanding of God settled in the creeds of the 5th and 6th century make reading the book trickier than we might first imagine.
Having said that Acts does have a lot to say for us now. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost decisively created a missionary faith that emerged out of largely static Jewish established state religion. In your darker moments, I wonder if you have ever despaired at the way the mission of the CofE is hampered by its establishment? Under the unction and empowering of that same Holy Spirit the book of Acts teaches us how to be a missional church not concreted into our established boots. What is remarkable about Acts is the spirit of generosity and community that arises from Pentecost. St. Mary’s with Holy Apostles enjoys a civic responsibility and the Acts Christians were constantly ministering in ‘the public square’ as they testified to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. But it was not all plain sailing. Lies, conflicts of interest, squabbles and the fact that the whole book is shot through with the language of money speaks of the vulnerabilities of this early Christian church. Reading Acts carefully bursts any tendency to romanticise the book. We face similar challenges today and that makes its lessons relevant to the place we find ourselves.
More than anything, the Acts of the Apostles introduces us to the Mission of the Holy Spirit. How prophetic then that Bishop Graham Cray came to lead our January church away day on the mission of the Spirit. What becomes clear from Acts is that without the unction of Spirit, the church could not have been characterised by boldness and the miraculous. Simply put, without the Spirit, the church cannot be the expression of the presence of God here on earth. If we are a church caught between the Ascension and Pentecost, as we come out of lock-down it is vital to attune ourselves sensitively to the guiding of the Holy Spirit in his mission and for our corporate life going forwards.
So when we ask why did this happen to us? Maybe my tentative answer is that we are being given an opportunity to be courageous and re-imagine who we are for the next generation. If I hear Peter’s sermon at Pentecost correctly, which said “I will pour my Spirit out on all flesh (Acts 2:17)” then surely that same Spirit will be speaking to all of us as members of the body of Christ? If the Lord has said something to you, please write to me, email me or telephone me and tell me what you think, because that is how we best discern God’s voice coming out of this difficult time.
Where will the Covid-19 pandemic leave us? This side of Kingdom-come, it will always feel like the best of times and the worst of times. The Lord didn’t say: “behold nothing bad will ever happen to you” however, he did say “I will never leave you or forsake you (Heb 13:5).” We might have imagined stopping our familiar church worship would have left us feeling utterly deserted, but I think coming out of this so many of us have discovered a deeper relationship with God and each other. We carry that forward. I hope and pray that as we look at Acts in real detail these experiences will resonate with that early church. In turn, I believe that their lives teach us how to ready ourselves for a new great Pentecost of God that is about to break upon this world.
With blessings from Richard