by Rev. Duncan Voice
Welcome to our Sunday Service. We invite you to read through slowly and reflectively pausing where you feel necessary. We start with a chalice or candle lighting so please do join in at home if you wish to.
“Whom God enlightened by His spirit must not be silent and must not hide the truth.”
Francis David (1510 – 1579) considered to be the founder of Unitarianism in Transylvania.
We light our chalice flame
symbol of our faith and commitment
to living in compassionate and peaceful community.
May it be a beacon of hope.
Spirit of Love and Life,
We are grateful for this time of peace.
Though we cannot meet in our beloved Meeting House,
we reach out to greet and welcome all in spirit.
We bring to our hearts and minds
those in our friendship groups and our community,
who are unwell and who suffer some hardship,
through the effects of the current virus pandemic.
May they find healing.
Help us to widen our circle of compassion still further.
We think also of those whose passing
comes to our mind at this time.
May they be at peace
and continue to live long in our memories.
Help us to find inspiration and hope
in times of difficulty and despair.
The kind words of a friend;
Seeing beauty in the everyday;
The warm sun on our skin.
May we understand that we are never alone,
and that we are held and loved.
Reading: Acts: 1-4 The Coming of the Holy Spirit
The day of Pentecost had come, and they were all together in one place. Suddenly there came from the sky what sounded like a strong, driving wind, a noise which filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them flames like tongues of fire distributed among them and coming to rest on each one. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other tongues, as the spirit gave them power of utterance.
The Fire of Commitment (Hymn number 42 “From the Light of Days Remembered” from Sing Your Faith).
“When the fire of commitment sets our mind and soul ablaze;
when our hunger and our passion meet to call us on our way;
When we live with deep assurance of the flame that burns within:
then our promise finds fulfillment and our future can begin.” lyrics by Jason Shelton
Reading: An excerpt from Seeking Paradise: A Unitarian Mission for Our Times by Rev. Stephen Lingwood.
Stephen is a minister serving the Unitarian congregation in Cardiff and doing what is described as “grass-roots pioneering work in inner-city Cardiff.”
“Why do we need “faith”? For the simple reason that we must live. We must get up in the morning and go about our business with some sense that there is meaning and purpose to life. I am calling this sense of meaning and purpose “faith”, and such faith is inescapable for human living. In some broad sense we must all have faith, otherwise we would be spiritually paralysed in life, unable to see any purpose of getting out of bed and getting on with life. All people must have faith, whether that faith is in money, themselves, religion, ambition, hedonism, patriotism, or survival. Nineteenth-century American Unitarian Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
“A person will worship something – have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our heart – but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character. Therefore, it behoves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.”
We may try to remain agnostic about “truth” (and perhaps we must), but we cannot remain agnostic about “faith”, because to live is to live because of some kind of faith. It is impossible not to choose an option.”
The book of Acts, from where our first reading is taken is anonymous, but from its opening dedication, style, language and theological interests, scholars are confident that its author was the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke. Thereby contributing around a quarter of the writing in the New Testament. It is unique in the New Testament canon in that its narrative describes events following the death of Jesus, up to the time of the apostle Paul’s arrival in Rome. It is sometimes described as a history of the early church, and does provide fascinating insights into the world of first century Christianity. However, calling it simply history is too narrow a definition as it has theological intentions too, and the author is keen to create a kind of bridge from the Gospels, and the Hebrew Bible, to demonstrate the continuity of the Christian message into the new community.
“The day of Pentecost” is placed within a Jewish liturgical timeframe by Luke, subsequently shaping the Christian year. The Jewish Festival of Weeks (Shavuot) is celebrated on fiftieth day after the Passover, and the English word Pentecost comes from the Greek word Pentekoste, meaning fiftieth. So, Pentecost is celebrated by Christian churches on the seventh Sunday after Easter. And just to confuse you a bit more, in this country it is also known as Whitsun or Whitsunday or Whit Sunday!
Back to the story. At the beginning of Acts 2 we find the disciples gathered in a house in Jerusalem. Although “gathered together in one place” may also have a deeper meaning, perhaps symbolic of spiritual unity. As they wait, we are told there is a sudden strong wind and tongues of flame appear. This colourful imagery is strongly symbolic. Loveday Alexander writing in the Oxford Bible Commentary says,
“Both wind and fire are associated with God’s self-revelation in the Hebrew Bible. But the choice of these two images is particularly apt for the coming of the spirit.
“Wind”, both in Hebrew and in Greek, is closely associated with “spirit”. The image of fire links with the spirit’s work of judgement (Lk 3:16-17). And the metaphor of “tongues” links with the fact that the result of this manifestation of divine power is inspired speech.”
We are told in the subsequent paragraphs of Acts 2 that “Jews drawn from every nation”, presumably in Jerusalem for the Festival of Weeks, were able to hear their own language being spoken by the disciples. Some people thought they (the disciples) must be drunk! But Peter stands before the crowd and in a speech quotes the prophet Joel, “In the last days, says God, I will pour out my Spirit on all mankind.”
Recently I attended an online Unitarian Bible discussion group where we considered whether the story of Pentecost has meaning for us. I brought no strong opinion to the discussion, to be honest I can’t say I’d given it a lot of consideration. It seemed, I thought, something that may be more appealing to those of a more evangelical persuasion. Pentecostalism, after all, is an experiential and energetic type of faith, whose adherents practice healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues; and who understand the Bible as being the word of God, and therefore without error. It’s very popular, some Pentecostal churches are huge, especially in South Korea. But Unitarianism it isn’t! And I like the Unitarian way, so is there anything for me, for us?
I didn’t come away from the discussion group with any answers, but over the days and weeks since then I have had a persistent question develop in my mind. What is it that fundamentally inspires us in our faith? I’m specifically thinking of Unitarians, but if you don’t identify as such, the question can still apply to your faith or spirituality.
It’s an important question, I think. So, I invite you to spend a few minutes considering it. Don’t necessarily try to formulate an answer. Just hold the question, or your own version of it in your mind.
The English word “inspire” is derived from the Latin word “inspirare”, which means to breathe or blow into. The Oxford English Dictionary’s oldest source is the Wycliffe bible which translated the Latin bible into English in the late 14th century. Interestingly “inspiration” also has the same Latin root, as the word “spirit”, spirare (meaning to breathe). It is perhaps not surprising to learn then that one of the earliest uses of “inspiration” meant, “to influence, move, or guide (as to speech or action) through divine or supernatural agency or power.”
So, the disciples were inspired, and to paraphrase our earlier hymn, the fire of commitment had set their minds and souls ablaze. Their mission was to go and talk to people. To tell them about the “good news”. At the end of Acts 2, after Peter and the other Apostles have spoken to them, we are told that three thousand people joined the new community. It could hardly have been otherwise! Some people might say that this happen through preaching and miraculous deeds, but in truth the community grew through dialogue. People talking with one another, engaging with ideas and having needs met; giving them a sense of belonging. “They met constantly to hear the apostles teach and to share the common life, to break bread, and to pray” (Acts 2: 42)
Having the commitment and courage to engage other people in conversation about faith matters is not easy. Especially for religious liberals who don’t try to provide simple answers. But if we think we have discovered something worthwhile it is surely worth sharing it. The risk is that the other person will change us, but surely that’s ok if what they say makes sense to us. Faith for me, and many other Unitarians too I think, is not a set of beliefs to be defended at all cost, but a journey of discovery. I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure I’ve got any! But someone else might be able to provide fresh insight. To inspire me.
In his book “Seeking Paradise” Stephen Lingwood suggests dialogue as a “practice of paradise.” He distinguishes between an old type of evangelism which emphasises the authority of the Bible, seeks to covert people and claims some kind of “exclusive” truth, with a more liberal version, which he equates with dialogue. Talking about faith in its many forms in an open and non-coercive way. Talking about faith and spirituality because its important! And if we don’t think its important then why do we bother with it at all?
Traditional religious language does not appeal to everyone, in fact it makes some people run a mile. A word like evangelism still makes me feel uncomfortable! So maybe part of our mission is to find new ways to have those conversations with people. Is anyone else interested though? Well we won’t know until we try! However, recently I took part in a series of online events that ran for three weeks, introducing people to different wellbeing activities such as yoga and Tai Chi on a daily basis. I led a Sunday Reflection each week. I thought it might be the least popular event, but this proved not to be the case. The format was brief, just 30 minutes. I shared some readings around the themes of awareness, contemplation and compassion. We shared moments of quietness, prayer and meditation, and shared conversation afterwards. The feedback I received was very positive.
So, I can only conclude that the interest is there. Meeting in the right place, in the right way, at the right time, where people feel safe they will engage. People looking for something, although they may not be sure what. Spiritual seekers or the those who are simply curious, or feel there maybe something more to life, and others! Maybe a church or meeting house isn’t always the best place for this to happen?
I am a Unitarian, which means I have freedom but also responsibility. I love that we don’t try to convert people or tell them what to believe, and support diverse spiritual explorations. But at the same time it is not enough to say the church door (literal or metaphorical) is open, come in if you want to. That is not welcoming or engaging enough I feel. We have to do what we can to move out of our comfort zones to meet with people in such ways as we can. To reach out to our neighbour. To share their joys and concerns, to find a common language for sharing love and understanding. We may help them, they may help us; but together we can face the future with hope.
May it be so.
Closing Words: Never a Moment by Penny Quest
from “Waiting to be Discovered”, edited by Johanna Boeke and Joy Croft, published by the Unitarian General Assembly Worship Committee.
What is it within us which wells up when we need it most?
That God-sense which is always there;
That inspiration which appears out of nowhere;
The faith in ourselves which takes us by surprise;
That moment of understanding which enables us to call upon our reserves to try again.
We all have within us those fundamental resources of love and joy;
A sense of humour which can turn the most dire happening into reason for laughter;
Inner strength that can be called upon
When we come to the aid of others or when we need help ourselves;
Inner wisdom which provides the answers to our unspoken questions.
There is never a moment when we are alone;
Never a moment when our cries for help will not be answered;
Never a moment when we are left unsupported;
Never a moment when insight is not available to us;
Never a moment when we are not connected to God, the Universe, All-That-Is.
May the spirit of peace and love and forgiveness abide in our hearts as we go on the ways of our lives. Amen