If you watch the international news, you might have noticed a very strange communication event which has been developing over the last few days. On Wednesday the officials at a nuclear power station in eastern Romania enacted the warning procedure notifying key agencies around the world that a nuclear leak was in progress.
Sixty-two countries became involved in the emergency situation in just a few hours and teams of specialists arrived in Romania to monitor what was going on and to provide advice to those who were tracking(through the weather system)the nuclear materials as they spread out across the surrounding area. People were evacuated from homes, and a state of emergency was declared. Those of you Who remember the Chernobyl disaster will know how potentially terrifying the accident could have been.
Now in case you are wondering why we are not running for cover here in Australia, there is a very simple explanation: there was actually no accident at all, and there are no nuclear particles escaping into the atmosphere as they had done in Russia some years before. This was simply an exercise which lasted for three days to test the readiness of those who are supposed to be ready for these kinds of emergencies. That is why it did not get front page coverage in our newspapers!
In an interview on BBC radio, one of the co-ordinators of the simulated event said this: “no matter how ready you are, if there is no communication the response will not work.” That was what was being tested. In other words, you can have all the right plans in place, but if you do not have the ability to communicate effectively, it will be extremely unlikely that you will achieve your desired aims.
A priest friend of mine tells a wonderful story about being met by an excited older lady at the end of the service at which he had been preaching, who greeted him with the words, “of course I’ll marry you!” Not surprisingly this was rather perplexing because he had never met her before. But as the conversation continued it became clear that she had come to the conclusion that the way that she perceived that he had looked at her, and the things which he said whilst preaching, amounted to a proposal for marriage directed solely at her. Communication events are fraught with danger! That is true for priests delivering sermons, as much as it is for husbands talking to their wives, and parents talking to their children.
We probably all know from experience how easy it is for us to say one thing, and for quite a different thing to be heard by the person that we are talking to There is a gap, a gulf, between what we say and what others hear us say. I have been trying to do some reading recently to brush up on my own communication skills. According to communication theory, there are three important things in any good communication event: firstly of course, the words, secondly the tone of speech, and thirdly the body language. The statistic which is given (and I have no idea how this is worked out) is that in any effective communication event 55% of attention is given to body language and only 7% relates to the actual words which are spoken. So in fact it is even more complicated than just being careful with our words. We communicate with our whole being, it is not just a matter of what we say, it is a matter of what we do as well (how we act, whether we in fact do what we say we do).
Here in this Church we have embarked together on the development of a new structure of leadership, in common with some other parishes in this Diocese. The intention of our new ministry team, is that that team will be a visible sign of what we know to be true in the life of the Church. The hope is that our ministry team will be the “body language” – the action language – through which we are all reminded that we are not designed to minister alone, we are called to minister as a body – some of us as hands, others as feet; some as eyes and ears; but all of us joined together as a part of the whole.
We know that God has called all of us, and not just Fr Mark, into some form of ministry. We were not baptised into Christ to simply be spectators in worship on Sunday mornings. We were called to “shine as lights in the world, to the glory of God the Father.” So our ministry team, albeit in its very early stages, is a form of communication, to visibly remind us (as we look at those who are members of the team) that we, like they, are called to play our part in the life of the body, as much as is our Parish Priest. The ministry team (just as in other parishes) will have to be very careful to communicate an understanding of the life of the Church which will draw all of us into participation, and not (although this would never be intended) to set themselves up as the only ones who are involved in ministry in the life of the Church. Communication for them will be critical, as it will for each of us as we engage in this understanding of what it means for us to be the Body of Christ.
I remember visiting a Church for the first time and finding all over the building a series of “do not” signs. They were everywhere; there was even a scripture verse framed on the wall which read “do not be afraid!” There was not a single notice in that building which invited people to do things, it was all the reverse. Every one of those signs, I am sure, was a response to something which has happened in that Church in the past, and which needed to be rectified. But the whole set of signs, taken as a package, conveyed a rather different message about how that community lived together. Each sign in its own right had served a purpose, but when signs telling people not to do things had grown to be on every wall in that Church complex they conveyed a profound message to anyone who was visiting there. It was not a deliberate message, it was one of those situations where people had intended to say one thing – but the accumulation of the notices had portrayed something quite different.
That was a different Church from our Church, but it is a reminder to us that as a Christian community we have to be really careful to do everything that we can to ensure that what we say and do is not interpreted by others to mean something different. And when I say these things, I want to re-assure you that I am speaking mainly to myself. Because I know that I can be a terrible communicator when I am tired or simply pre-occupied.
Around the world today Christians are celebrating the festival of Pentecost. Pentecost is a celebration of communication, because as we heard in the reading which re-told the story, the first Christians, empowered by the Holy Spirit, found that they were able to communicate the good news of their hope in Jesus to people in a way that they had never been able to do before. Pentecost was a Jewish festival, known in the Old Testament as the Feast of Weeks, because it came seven weeks after the feast of the Passover. Jews from around the known world were in Jerusalem to celebrate the festival together, and the disciples were meeting together in prayer and worship.
In John’s Gospel the coming of the Holy Spirit is connected with the first appearance of the resurrected Christ, but in the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit comes some time after Jesus has ascended into heaven. It is this later tradition which has stuck in our Christian year. That is why we celebrate it today, at some distance from the festivities of Easter. As the disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost morning, they begin to speak in languages which they have not learnt, and they spill out onto the street proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus in these languages which can be heard and understood by the onlookers. We call Pentecost the birthday of the Church, because for the first time the story of all that Christ has done is shared with people who will take it back to the far corners of the Roman’ Empire.
No longer is the good news of Jesus just for those who had known him personally, but it is now being communicated beyond the local to the global – in every language. So Pentecost is a festival of mission. It is a profound moment which alters the whole future of the Church. We remember on this day the way in which the Gospel spread through the first disciples of Christ to the ends of the known world. And we remember too our call to be a part of that mission here in this Parish. The first Pentecost was an incredible supernatural event of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Few of us this morning came to Church expecting something like that to happen to us here today. But wouldn’t it be a miracle of the same proportions, if by the Holy Spirit we as a community became able to communicate to those who live around us in a language which they can understand? And through actions which clearly identify the love of God working through each one of us?
Those first fearful disciples were transformed into men and women who were able to converse in every language and culture, that is why this is a celebration of communication. We who are the bearers of Christ’s good news today, are challenged by this story to seek the power and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit so that we too may be able to communicate effectively with those in the community who live around us. Remember what the spokeswoman said about the nuclear exercise in Romania this week? “no matter how ready you are, if there’s no communication the response will not work.”
So I ask us this morning on this Festival of Pentecost, what is there that we do at the moment that communicates something different in this place from the radical welcome and acceptance which Christ offers to all? What do we do, albeit unintentionally, that might detract from God’s good news of love and joy and peace? What more can we do to communicate with those who live around us, in a language which they will understand?
And remember: only a small part of any communication event is the words which we say. The most important thing is the body language, the actions, which go with it. Let us pray this Pentecost week for the guidance of the Holy Spirit that we may be an effective channel for the communication of the good news of Jesus which is the hope for all humanity, and with which we have been entrusted for the people of our Parish.