Today is Pentecost, one of the great feasts of the church. It was an Old Testament Jewish feast – that, after all, was why so many Jews were gathered in Jerusalem. But we mark it for the first coming of the Holy Spirit, to equip and empower the disciples for their mission of witness to the risen Christ. And we thank God for the fresh gift of the Holy Spirit to each believer, and to the church- God with, and in, us, even as we await the second coming of Christ. Sometimes the feast is popularised as the “birthday of the church”. I’m not sure that analogy quite works, but Pentecost was a major event in the life of the early church and it is a time to celebrate. We are the church of the living, indwelling, God. That is astonishing, and humbling. That is grace at work.
And yet, in this part of the world, we woke on the feast of Pentecost 2015 to the news of the Irish referendum result. A right to same-sex “marriage” is to be established in the constitution – in a country that only a few decades ago was widely seen as one of the bulwarks of western Catholicism. The tone of jubilation in many circles had me thinking of the revelries of the people of Israel as they abandoned Moses and worshipped the golden calf.
Results like those in this referendum – and other decisions of courts and Parliaments around the West – reflect the church’s own failure, but are also a marker of the intensified pressures on the church, and orthodox believers, that are likely in the next few years. It isn’t that the so-called “traditional” view of marriage – held pretty much across all cultures and human history – was particularly Christian. This recent piece on the nature of marriage makes that clear. But part of what religion does in any society is to protect and proclaim foundational truths. Ours has failed.
For decades now the western church has been in decline. Nothing is irreversible with God, but the decline looks far from over. The old line asserts that the church is only ever one generation from extinction. That decline must be, in large part, a result of the church’s own failure – a loss of nerve, of deep belief in the truths we proclaim, and in both the judgement we must all face, and redemptive hope with have in Christ. Churches seem barely to know what to do, or how to respond. For many it seems that a desperate desire for relevance and acceptance impels them to adopt the spirit of the age – political causes, or the “moral therapeutic deism” that some authors have written about. Often enough, entertainment seems to rank ahead of mission or sacrifice. So many churches, and church leaders, have (either openly or in silence) signed on to the agenda of the age. Some less so than others of course – the Catholic church, for all its faults including in Ireland, is less bad than most at least in its official teaching.
And what of the future? How long before those who seek to maintain the millennia-old definition of marriage are themselves actively penalised? In the US it has already happened to some individuals – prominent and obscure – and it seems likely that the forces of law will soon come for the church, its people, and its institutions. In the US, the Constitution is likely to provide some protections, but in many countries there won’t even be that. For now, in New Zealand and Australia and the UK legal pressures are still limited, but it is hard to imagine that that will last long once the next centre-left government is elected Old beliefs, held by men and women of all faiths and none for millennia, will be tarred as totally unacceptable in modern society. People holding those beliefs openly will, in many cases, pay a high price.
If and when the pressures come, will churches stand for truth, or will they quietly comply? At present it is difficult to be optimistic: too many churches have already bought into society’s orthodoxies in so many other areas – divorce, abortion, and the sexual revolution itself. In some cases, we already see churches as champions of this new false orthodoxy – as once some were of slavery or eugenics and other distortions of truth. It is an increasingly difficult environment for those wanting to raise children in the faith of Christ. Tertullian’s old quote – the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church = has at times been true, but at other times the church under pressure has just wilted and died.
And so, this Pentecost, we must again turn back to our holy God – who calls us to worship, to follow, to pray and to witness. We read in church this morning Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones being brought together by God. It is a vision of hope, against hope – a reminder of possibility.
We must pray, and work, for the revival of true religion in our land, and throughout the West. There are more Christians now alive than at any time in world history, and yet the gospel has been squeezed out from its initial homelands in the Middle East, and is in dramatic decline in the advanced world. It is a bleak prospect, but the church in the West could, in time, go the way of the church in the Middle East. Same-sex “marriage” probably isn’t the biggest single issue, but it is a marker in the revolution – an upending that would have seemed impossible only perhaps 30 years ago. But what would we expect when a society has lost any sense of the sacred, where perhaps the only taboo is that there are no taboos and that those who defend the old taboos put themselves beyond the bounds of acceptable society.
Our only hope is in God. The mighty God, revealed in Christ, who sends his Spirit. The Spirit is not given just for our comfort, but to cleanse, renew and equip. My favourite Pentecost hymn by far is very old, dating from Siena before the Reformation.. Perhaps for some it is uncomfortably individual in its focus – no mention of a collective church – and yet the renewal of the western church – a renewed passion for mission and holiness, for a witness that calls our societies back to God – can surely only take place individual by individual.
For this I pray.
1 Come down, O Love divine, seek thou this soul of mine, and visit it with thine own ardour glowing; O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear, and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.
2 O let it freely burn, till earthly passions turn to dust and ashes in its heat consuming; and let thy glorious light shine ever on my sight, and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.
3. Let holy charity, mine outward vesture be, and lowliness become mine inner clothing; True lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part, and o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.
4 And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long, shall far out-pass the power of human telling; for none can guess its grace, till he become the place wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling