I loved watching Eurovision yesterday evening – anyone who follows me on Twitter will have realised that! To be honest, over the last few years I’d become a bit bored by it all but for some reason yesterday’s 60th anniversary show seemed to have regained something of the Eurovision magic. A competition out of which emerged ABBA can’t be all bad and there has been a lot more besides that has been good besides ABBA. To be honest, I’m not sure that our entries have ever really been that fantastic, even though we have won on a number of occasions in the past and it looks as though it will be very hard for us to win in the future. But I may be wrong as we do have one thing on our side.
I was struck even more forcibly yesterday evening by the number of entries that were sung in English. The French of course sang in French and why wouldn’t they – it’s a lovely language to hear sung. But what about the rest? I’d have loved to hear songs in a multiplicity of tongues. You can easily hide banal lyrics when you have no idea what someone is singing about. But of course I understand that if you want your song to do well commercially then English opens up lucrative markets around the world. To go to Zimbabwe, to go to India and so many other places and hear young children singing English pop songs whilst not particularly understanding English as a language is amazing. But that is the world we live in.
It was great that the Eurovision Final was held on the eve of the Feast of Pentecost. Those who were preaching today will have been reading in preparation the account from the Acts of the Apostles of the events of that first Christian Pentecost and these wonderful verses within the passage
At this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ (Acts 2.6-12)
The writer of Acts was obviously trying to describe the creation of a church that went beyond the world of the local Jewish community. The list of countries, the list of communities from which people came, draws a picture of the known world of the time. And the fact that miraculously the apostles were able to speak in a variety of tongues has to be something about the way in which the universal church has always spoken in all languages.
But the question that is asked by the amazed and perplexed onlookers is the most important one ‘What does this mean?’ Perhaps that is the question that preachers should address on this day, ‘What does this mean?’
One thing that it means to me is the very thing which concerned me about the lack of variety of languages in Eurovision. There is always a concern in church nowadays that we are ‘on message’, ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’. But the newly born ‘Pentecostal Church’ that we have been celebrating today was multilingual from day one; the message that the apostles delivered was understood across cultures; people were hearing in their own language and in a way that they could understand.
Whatever happened that morning at nine o’clock it was a defining moment for the nature of the church, for our ecclesiology. And there was something uncontrollable and passionate about it all. The Spirit took over and the apostles found their tongue and their confidence despite almost being blown off balance by the experience.
What does this mean? To me it means that we have to speak in different languages to different cultures and that thinking that one language can describe God, one way of explaining things, one way of defining things, one un-nuanced set of ethics will do does not do justice to what God does with us at Pentecost.
The Holy Spirit is unpredictable and uncontrollable – that is what is so exciting about the third person of the Trinity. Wind and flame are exactly the right metaphors for what defies too much definition. Try to control either and you risk being blown away or getting your fingers burnt; seeking to close down variety will simply not work because the wind will blow through the gaps and fire of God will break out.
I want to hear many voices and languages in Eurovision; I want to hear many voices and languages in the church.
speak through us
with an authentic voice,
challenge us with new language,
unsettle us in our desire to control
and break out of the confines of the church
with wind and flame;
blow and burn as you will.