Pentecost Peace-makers

IMG_7011Each year I tell myself the same thing – it’s rubbish, the music is lost in some kind of time warp and they all hate us, so why watch. And yet I find myself sneaking into the living room to catch the Eurovision Song Contest. Last night was no different, though the music has in the main updated. But what can I say? We crashed and burned – UK nil point. If you did watch it – which was your favourite song? 

The idea behind the Eurovision Song Contest is a cultural exchange, a mechanism to bring people together across the Eurovision TV networks – which somehow extends to Australia – I never have been able to get my head round that one. The bonhomie of cultural exchange may be how it started, but there does seem to be block voting and politics at play.

It’s a moment when national flags and pride in identity are on display. Flags can be a unifying force; they can also be a dividing force. The UK Government edict that the Union Flag should be flown from public buildings brought quite a backlash from some. Others looked and thought, well others do it and we see the Welsh flag, the Saltire and the Cross of St George, so why not. 

When you see a flag what do you think? Here’s a few. 

  • Let’s start with the Welsh flag 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿. Is this a sign of identity, national pride and culture? You certainly see them flown with pride and in the rugby triumph too. 
  • What about the Union Flag? 🇬🇧 Is that one that makes you think of the nations of the union brought together or one of imperialism and domination by one of them diminishing the others, of a Westminster elite? And of course, Wales isn’t represented on it. Does it unite or divide? 
  • Here’s another, the rainbow flag 🏳️‍🌈. This version has become associated with Pride and LGBT+ communities striving for respect – self-respect and respect from others. It’s a banner from the struggle to be. Another version was adopted in South Africa for the Rainbow Nation as a way of bringing people of different colours together after the years of Apartheid. And over the past year the rainbow has been picked up again, this time for the NHS and a sign of hope in a pandemic. The other day, after a storm, there was fantastic double rainbow over the city, which was a delight to see from the Deanery – a sign of hope.

Flags and national identity can be a way of showing we are secure in who we are and so able to reach out with the hands of friendship and respect to other nations and cultures. They can also be a way of setting up boundaries and divisions; we are different to them – building ourselves up by nocking others down and that is of course much less healthy.

Today, on the Day of Pentecost, in our first reading (Acts 2:1-21) boundaries were removed as the gift of tongues of flame came upon the Apostles so that all could hear in their native languages. Something about this powerful and enabling gift of the Holy Spirit opened up the disciples to reach beyond boundaries and brought a new unity to emerge beyond tribal confines. Still secure in who they were, they opened and expanded their horizons.

In Christ all are brothers and sisters. We know families can fall out, but they have a bond that connects them, that is part of who they are. There is a new identity that enables fellow Christians to recognise one another, in faith and hope. Reading around the history of this place a little over the past few months, it is striking how links have been forged across the seas. Over the channel to Somerset, Devon and Cornwall; across the Irish Sea and also further to Britany. When sea is the main highway, then those links become inevitable and the shape of Welsh Christianity has many meeting points in its development. 

At the moment there is quite a discussion going on about contested histories, where different outlooks are not so much an opportunity for growth and development, for enrichment, but conflict and challenge: some of this is over tarnished or even deeply disburbing slave-trading, some over other oppressions and violence. One option is to lock horns and see who can push the other over. Another, more creative, more Spirit inspired approach, is to dig down deep enough into the contested histories and convictions, to listen deeply to why something matters so much to the other. As we do this we can find surprising points of meeting, though it may take some patience and pride swallowing to get there. ‘This matters to me because…’ ‘well it matters to me because…’ It’s a principle of conflict resolution and just like the dramatic and visible/audible speaking in tongues without a translation app switched on, it is a gift of the Spirit bringing people together who otherwise stand in different corners.

If there is to be movement on questions of justice, the divisions that run so deep in our society and nation of nations, and we see so destructively being played out in other places too, we have to find the common cause, the win for all. As with the vaccine, unless all gain, no one does. Flourishing and liberation are best and most secure when there is blessing for all – not leaving us where we are, as we are, but opening up the fruits of the Spirit to transform us and whatever issue is the point of dispute.

As we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, today we can think about how it opens us up and enables us to reach beyond boundaries and divides, to be people of peace and peace-making – which is, of course, one of the fruits of the Spirit.

Sermon for Day of Pentecost, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 23rd May 2021

About Ian Black

Ian is an Anglican priest and Dean of Newport Cathedral in the Church in Wales. He was previously Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes in Faversham. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury in partnership with the Diocese of Rochester. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare’s Church – Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus, was published by Sacristy Press on 1st July 2017. There is also a hymn based on this – Christ the Saviour. Other online writings can be found under the Books & Publications tab above. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s and was a contributing blogger to the ReJesus website. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his Facebook and Twitter posts.
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