Pentecost Message from the Moderator
Pentecost confirms our identity, our belonging, and our mission. And it gives us courage to know that we can do it. The Holy Spirit will give us the power and ability to communicate the Gospel in ways we never could have imagined.
So, it’s disappointing that we won’t get to celebrate Pentecost together this year. I mean, not together in a physical sense. My congregation, and many of yours will gather for worship, of course. We’ll meet online. And, as one of my colleagues recently said, the pandemic has taught us that “online is not just a tool, but online is a place.”
We’ll meet there, and we will worship, and we will tell of the wonders that God has done, and we will be sent out to tell them some more in other online meeting places, in our homes and in our neighbourhoods, through telephone lines and in letters and notes and mailed-out messages.
This weekend, the Canadian Council of Churches is also hosting an “Online Ecumenical Prayer Service for Pentecost.” It’s on Saturday, May 30 at 3:00 p.m. (Eastern). They are calling it “Together in One Place,” based on the opening line of the Pentecost story from Acts, chapter two.
In one online place, the church across Canada, across denominations, across cultures and experiences will gather together to pray, and listen, and respond to God’s sending. We trust that the Holy Spirit will move among us and empower us for the mission that we share as Christians and churches.
“Well, that’s fine,” some of you are thinking, “But we’re just looking forward to getting back together in person with our own congregations. We miss our church families, and we want to be together in one physical place with them, back in our own church buildings.”
Here in Saskatchewan, they recently announced a date for places of worship to re-open, and that date is only a few weeks away. I know that some of our folks are assuming that when we get to that date, we’ll get back to church and get back to normal. But it’s not that simple.
As the Moderator, I have no right or responsibility to tell Presbyterian congregations when they should or shouldn’t begin gathering again. That will be a local decision of each Session, and decisions will vary because of the different contexts in which we live.
Congregation sizes vary. Some buildings will allow for physical distancing more easily. Some populations will include more vulnerable people. Some areas have more severe outbreaks and risk levels than others. Some communities may be able to quickly institute new cleaning and hygiene regimens, and others will need more time to work them out.
I want to encourage Sessions and ministers to consult your own province’s guidelines for faith communities. Some of those aren’t published yet, but they are coming. And then don’t rush to open by whatever date you’re “allowed” to open. But take the time to do it safely, responsibly, and carefully for the well-being of your members and the wider community.
Although there may be a strong desire to be together as a congregation again as soon as possible, it will be important for your Session to carefully develop and implement a safe re-opening plan that is appropriate for your context. Things to consider will likely include numbers of people, size of gathering space, how to do physical distancing at all times, hygiene and cleaning regimens, and appropriate ways of greeting one another. My congregation that loves to hug is going to have to restrain themselves and be patient!
Sharing food, opening nurseries and Sunday School classes, and possibly even congregational singing may not be allowed. Using hymn books and printed bulletins that are distributed may not be a good idea. Safe methods of sharing Holy Communion, conducting Baptisms, and gathering offerings will need to be carefully considered.
In the meantime, we will celebrate Pentecost. We will celebrate that we continue to be the church, empowered by the Spirit, with a mission in the world. We never stopped being the church. We never really closed up, even if our buildings have stood empty for a few months now.
During the pandemic, many of us have been pushed into learning new ways of communicating the Gospel. Like the Holy Spirit sending the Apostles out to tell of the wonders God was doing in all kinds of languages that they had never spoken before, we’ve also been learning new languages.
We’ve had crash courses in recording, streaming, using video conferencing, and social media. We’ve re-discovered the wonders of the telephone for pastoral care, Bible study, and connection. We’ve put Canada Post back in business with all the sermons, messages, cards, and packages we’ve been sending out by snail mail. We’ve tried “front porch ministries” and had physically-distanced visits from the sidewalk. We’ve responded to new needs in our communities arising from the pandemic situation.
Even when our church buildings do open up again, we can’t just revert to our old ways of doing things—going back to that one place we used to meet and that one language we spoke to tell of God’s love. It would be like the Apostles proclaiming the Good News in all the languages of the world on the day of Pentecost, and then going back home to Galilee and becoming fishers of fish once again.
Sure, they would reminisce about the times they had with Jesus on the road, and the things he said and did. Sure, they would remember his promises to them—that he’d be with them in life and in death. But what good would that do if the world did not hear it too? If they stopped learning and sharing? If they stopped responding to the Spirit’s prompting as it sent them out in power and love?
Last week on social media, people were posting a little video of a church building animated so that it looked like the steeple had a big mouth and it was singing. It was singing that song I first learned in Junior Choir in the 1980s: “I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together! All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together!”
A simple message, but still so true. And one we’ve had reinforced for us in recent months: “The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.”
And indeed, we are the people sent out in mission to tell of God’s deeds of power in all the languages of the world: “At Pentecost some people received the Holy Spirit and told the Good News through the world to all who would hear it.”
You’ll all be in my prayers this summer as you work out the when and whether and how of re-opening your buildings and gathering in person again. May the Spirit give you courage and wisdom and love as you continue your mission.
—The Rev. Amanda Currie, Moderator of the General Assembly