This Sunday is one of those in-between occasions in the Church’s year - in between Ascension Day which was last Thursday and Pentecost, next Sunday. In between our celebration of Christ’s rising in glory to sit at the right hand of the Father and the coming of the Holy Spirit to enable us to take Christ’s message of salvation to the whole world.
I am always reminded at this time of a magnificent stain glass window in the church where we used to worship for many years. That was more than 25 years ago, but I used to spend quite a lot of time looking at it so I can still recall it vividly. It shows Jesus surrounded by an aura of gold, about to be taken up into Heaven. His disciples are gathered around him and hovering above are the angels and other winged messengers bearing the message – ‘Ye men of Galilee, Why stand ye gazing?’ It is the scene depicted in the opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.
Why stand ye gazing? Why are you sitting here looking at stain glass it used to say to me. It is a call to action. The angels are saying to the disciples and to us...Come on, there is work to be done. Jesus is gone...at least for the present - now it’s up to you. The point of Christ coming to earth was not simply to enable us to have a beautiful relationship with him, or to reflect on his glory, it was to bring about change. Change in our lives here on earth and in our relationships with our fellow men and women; change in our relationships with God and with the whole of his Creation.
Some people like to think of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. I think it is more accurate to regard it as the birthday of the missionary work of the church...the day when followers of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, took up the challenge of being witnesses to Christ.
But being witnesses to Christ is more than just increasing the number of Christians in the world. We are to be concerned with the whole well-being of our fellow men and women throughout the world and of the world itself. So we are to love and serve the whole of God’s creation and our neighbours, as Christ taught us...whether they are at the ends of the earth or at the end of your street. And for those who first responded to this message, there was change, growth, new life. And this went on through the ages - across the continents, so that today we can say with confidence that Christ’s command has been fulfilled....the Gospel has been taken to all nations.
Let me take you back to that stain glass window. The most intriguing thing to me about it is that it is dedicated to 44 officers and men of the 99th Duke of Edinburgh’s Regiment who lost their lives in the Zulu War of 1879. 44 people sent to fight and die in an obscure war to gain control over what is now part of South Africa.
The aim, of course, was to bring the whole of South Africa within the empire and to have access to its gold and diamonds. But under the umbrella of Empire and alongside the army, the prospectors and the traders came the missionaries, bringing the gospel. As Desmond Tutu has said - When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said 'Let us pray'. We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.
And while it is not to be taken literally, he does make a point about European involvement in black Africa. And the same kind of change happened right across the southern hemisphere. The flood of mission outreach from this country and from Europe to Africa, Asia and South America has had its effect. As a result, the centre of gravity of the church has moved permanently from north to south.
So today most of the world’s Christians live in the southern, poorer parts of the world. They are among the world’s poor and this is bringing a profound change in the church. While we here still see our task as caring for the poor, increasingly the world church is mainly a church of the poor and during the 21st. century this will continue to change the church in many ways.
Some years later, my work took me on several trips to South Africa. My visits taught me about the issues facing the Church in Southern Africa at a time when it was still emerging from Apartheid and when HIV and AIDS were becoming a serious health threat. At that time, the South African government was in denial about the causes and seriousness of AIDS and so the spread of the disease and number of deaths had reached alarming proportions. It is thought that the lack of effective government action caused around 350,000 preventable deaths in this period. And ignorance and people’s unwillingness to face up to the threat of AIDS – in other words denial – remain the biggest barriers to controlling the spread of the disease in Africa. The church was responding as best it could, mainly by offering care and support to families. And I was able to go with church volunteers to visit several families and a home for mothers and children living with HIV. I found on my visits how HIV and AIDS go to the heart of the community. Everyone is affected – from the unborn child to the grandparents who suddenly find themselves the chief carers in the family at a time when they had a reasonable expectation of being cared for themselves. HIV and AIDS not only destroy health, they deprive people of the means of living. And so on - The results are just devastating. And, despite the widespread use of effective drug treatments these days, this devastation continues on a large scale today, affecting many millions. 1 in 5 South African adults (7.7million people) are HIV positive and tens of thousands die of AIDS each year.
Although the causes and effects of the Covid-19 virus are very different, I can see parallels between ourpresent crisis and what I saw in the early days of the AIDS pandemic in South Africa The main differences of course are that while the current crisis is affecting all of us, it affects each of us differently. For some of us, catching the virus is a profound discomfort; for others, it could prove to be fatal. Some of us are simply trying to keep sensible distancing guidelines; others are at real risk, working in hospital and care homes for example. Some of us have incomes that are secure; others find themselves impoverished by business shutdown and the economic downturn. Some of us are taken up with the daily tasks of getting groceries and medicines; others have had our lives turned upside down by postponed weddings, cancelled exams and enforced separation from loved ones. But the parallels with the AIDS pandemic in Africa are there too. Both are silent killers, an invisible threat, which introduces ever-present anxiety into our lives. Some people respond positively. In response to Covid-19 many are seeking to make a difference in people’s lives with creative ideas and complex plans; while others feel utterly powerless, especially the many who cannot access a computer or tablet; while others are overwhelmed by having to work while still caring for children, the fragile routines of life disintegrating before our eyes. Lives have been changed, in many cases permanently. And for the church I am seeing another parallel. The church begins by seeing people’s individual need of help and support and finds ways to respond to that. But then some within the church start to take a broader view.
The Revd Jean Underwood was an inspiring leader and advocate for The Haven, a home for mothers and children with HIV which she ran in Port Elizabeth. She worked tirelessly to raise funds and publicise the need to be open and honest about HIV and AIDS. But her work extended out from the home across Southern Africa. She had been instrumental in writing a training course, The Church’s Response to AIDS, which encouraged Christians to take a broader view, to understand the effects of AIDS within society and develop strategies to confront it. A second course provided people with training for homecare for people living with AIDS. Both were being widely taken up by churches across Southern Africa. Others in the church also began to take a broader view of the AIDS pandemic.
And we are beginning to see similar things happening in response to Covid-19, both in our churches and in the world at large. Quite a lot of people are beginning to look beyond where we are and see the immensity of the changes in society which this virus has brought upon us and to ask how much of this change is permanent.
Will virtual meetings on Zoom become the norm? Will working from home become more widespread? Will the economy recover and enable a return to full employment? What are the longer term consequences for our health and well being? And for our environment ? And so on. The one thing we can be sure about is that change will take place and it is vital that the churches and Christian people are at the heart of seeking the right sort of change. In this we may well find ourselves at odds with the secular world. But this is part of what it means to be a missionary church. We have to work with and frequently stand against the secular world. But let’s not rely on those at the top to take action. There is work to be done at the grass roots too. Change is often most effective when it comes from the bottom up and from outside the mainstream of the Church, bringing growth and change into the Church which is vital for its continued life.
And just as this worldwide problem has come about because we are global community, we should expect and welcome inputs from Christians from all parts of the world church, so that, through it, all can become partnersin shaping and sharing God’s Mission, both through prayer and through action. That is what God is asking of all of us.
At home we have a picture of Desmond Tutu, which dates from the year 2000. Under it he has written his personal message for the new millennium: ‘We are shattered at the evidence of our inhumanity to one another, our remarkable capacity for evil. But wonderfully, we are exhilarated by our extraordinary capacity for good. The new millennium gives us a chance to begin again, to realise that we are made for goodness, for love, for caring, for sharing, for compassion, for togetherness, for peace and reconciliation. Let us reach out for the stars, for the sky is the limit.’