Dear People of God,
At Pentecost, we celebrate the birth of our Church, marked by the empowering of Jesus’ Apostles by the Holy Spirit. So Pentecost, and the season which follows, give us an opportunity to ask questions about the nature of the Church. Questions such as: What are we as believers supposed to become if we want to witness to the presence and the working of the Holy Spirit?
On Pentecost Sunday, I worshipped with the congregation of St Monnica's in Midrand, north of Johannesburg, where we used the reading for the day from Ezekiel, in which the prophet is set in a valley that was full of dry bones. I call that passage my conversion passage, because growing up in Alexandra Township I recall vividly how the Revd Sam Buti, the schools chaplain in Alex, linked the image of the dry bones to the frequent gang killings that happened there. In particular, he warned us that one day all of Alex would be a valley of dry and dead bones if we didn’t pluck up the courage to root out the gangs.
As an adult, I now understand this passage to challenge leaders to have the courage to bring tangible hope and transformation in spite of the death, destruction and despair that surround us. It prophesies a world in which God’s way of life and love will prevail, in which the barriers between us will be broken down, in which we act with sensitivity to one another lest we create the conditions in which atrocities occur, such as those we have seen in Burundi, in northern Nigeria, or Matabeleland, or those we experienced under apartheid, or – further afield -- those being experienced in Iraq and in Syria today.
The description of the Day of Pentecost in Acts aptly captures the theme of breaking barriers, or transformation. For, to people’s utter bewilderment, they find themselves speaking, as scripture tells us, the languages of the “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; [of] residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; [of] visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); [of] Cretans and Arabs.”
To grasp what Pentecost means for us, here and now, imagine if in South Africa today, we found ourselves able to speak, not in our mother tongue but in one of the hundreds of other languages of Africa. Not only would we be hearing all the languages of South Africa: we would hear the languages of recent migrants to South Africa: kiSwahili, Kirundi or French; we might hear Somali or Arabic; isiNdebele or chiShona; xiRonga or Portuguese. Would we be called amakwerekwere? No! We would need to be reminded, as Peter told the crowd, “These men [and women] are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!” We would need to be told, rather, that we have received the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost tells us that right from its inception, the Church broke down barriers between people: linguistic barriers, geographical barriers, the barriers raised by the notion of nation states, even religious barriers. In other words, from our inception as Church, the Holy Spirit birthed a nation set apart, a nation that is neither Afrophobic nor xenophobic, a nation comprised of people of all faiths and none, all listening, hearing and all transformed into witnesses by what Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John is the Spirit of truth who will guide us into all truth.
So Pentecost is an opportunity for us to celebrate God’s creation of this wonderful community called the Church; God’s people who are known by their love, life, faith, truth and courage; God’s people who are urged to speak up against rot, unfairness and false accusation; and equally God’s people who are able to celebrate, to laugh, to marvel at our creation and to revere diversity.
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During Eastertide I travelled to the United States, to Tennessee and then to New York, where on Ascension Day I attended the inauguration of the new Rector of Trinity Church Wall Street. In Tennessee, I first preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville and a few days later received an honorary doctorate of divinity from the University of the South, a renowned Anglican institution in the US situated in a rural part of the state.
Enjoying the hospitality for which the people of the American South are known, I reflected on how although the social media and the Internet have vastly improved our communications – and have great and so far untapped potential for sharing the Good News – they can also be misused to divide us. When we, as they say in the South, “visit with” one another, our shared liturgy and heritage overshadow our differences. But when we are physically distant our relationships easily become defined by destructive caricatures. We have, I told congregations both in Nashville and at the university's School of Theology, used the Internet and the social media to label the other, to hurt the other, to divide ourselves from the other and to encourage blind hatred instead of seeing love in the other. I suggested to the Americans that we all need to embark on a process of evangelisation and transform the social media and the Internet from being what they are right now, a source of conflict and division, and turn them into a source of good and a source of sharing. You can read my address in full on my blog.
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As we approach Youth Day on June 16, and taking further our mission priority of nurturing the young, I have sent out a questionnaire to those young people born around the time our democracy was established in 1994. I have raised with them three questions about values, asking what they value and what informs their values and decisions. Please urge young people you know to reply and engage me on these questions. They can reach me on archbishop01[at]anglicanchurchsa.org.za and they can read the full text of my letter here >
On June 16 we will celebrate courage – the courage of the young people who were prepared to sacrifice their lives to rebel against the way they were being denied opportunities to become all that God wanted them to be. As we reflect on Youth Day, let's ask: what does courage mean for us all today? What does it mean to have the courage to love, and to let go? To have the courage to demand justice, and to forgive? Paul encourages us to consider “how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” (Hebrews 10:24).
In the midst of competing demands on my time, in this season and always, I value Paul’s admonition and try to act on it, to summon up the courage to be provoked and to provoke others to do the right thing at the right time, because Paul also tells us that “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” (1 Thessalonians 5:24) Later this year I will be in Maputo, and then in Paris, provoking world leaders to do good on climate justice. And to provoke you and those around you into action, I encourage you to share and discuss the Anglican Communion Environmental Network’s call to urgent action, which you can find here >
May we through God’s Holy Spirit know Jesus with our hearts and minds and in our deepest beings, and may we bear witness to Him in our country, our continent and around the world, bearing the fruit of the Spirit that lasts forever.
God bless you,
+Thabo Cape Town
+Thabo Cape Town
If you would like to share my reflection on Pentecost with others, I have made an audio recording. I commend to you also the Pentecost reflection of Prof. John Suggit. Go to: https://soundcloud.com/anglicanmediasa/