Imagine a woman in black pantsuit clapping and stamping her feet one meter away as you take the last bite of your sandwich. Glancing over from your perch on the grass verge in front of the library, you notice that a teenager with a skateboard under his arm at the top of the square’s steps follows suit.
Three small children and their mother also appear to know this routine, and you find yourself spinning about in confusion as the middle-aged gentleman to your left, with his umbrella now on the ground, spins and turns as well – but he, unlike yourself, is turning in time with the others.
Over the next thirty seconds, music plays loudly from an unknown source and dozens of others move, clap, stamps and shake to the beat of a popular medley. The full-blown spontaneous cast of this bizarre performance soon strike a pose in time with the final chord of the mysterious music, creating surprising scene against the shop windows that surround the town square.
Just as abruptly as it began, the amateur dancers disperse among the crowd that has gathered. They reclaim their umbrellas, check their mobile phone and exit the space casually in every direction as if nothing of consequence has taken place.
In the afternoon shadow of the cathedral spire, the ebb and flow across the paving stones return to normal as the bemused onlookers more slowly disperse. They wander off slowly, debriefing amongst themselves and examining the photographs and videos they have just captured.
Well, the act that you have just witnessed by these individuals is called a “flash mob.” Since 2003 flash mob has become an internationally recognized phrase. Flash mobs include a broad spectrum of public performances that share some exciting features. They take place in urban areas with large populations from which to draw participants and regions with significant foot traffic to engage passerby. It unfolds without warning and end as abruptly. The rationale for their fleeting presence is seemingly unexplainable. They can be oxymoronic, as they confound accepted performer and audience roles.
Flash mobs, by design, take unsuspecting members of the public audience by surprise. It stands for a brief, surreal dislocation from ordinary reality. It celebrates the possibility of harmoniously utilizing the public environment while simultaneously interrupting the well-practiced everyday communal usage of the same space. It is fascinating to note that in bustling, disconnected, individualistic, and diverse cities across the globe, complete strangers can coordinate with such ease to achieve events that demand the actions and efforts of a cohesive collective.
More I think about the day of Pentecost, in all its effervescence spontaneity, the more I tend to equate it with the flash mob experience (it is not surprising that media studies have connected flash mobs with ancient theatrical experiences).
After the strange experience of watching Jesus leave this world and ascend into heaven, the disciples must have been a bit unsure what to do next. As a result, they kind of stayed together listening, praying, patiently waiting to see what awaits them.
Luke reports that when they were praying, something remarkable happened. Immense energy begins to build among them. It was almost like a fire burning in each of their hearts. Such experiences are painful to put in words. At best, they described it as a flame of fire hovering over their heads.
They felt a breeze moving through the room. Perhaps, it was the Spirit that moved over the waters at the beginning of creation is moving over them now. This breeze grows stronger and stronger as if they were experiencing the Mediterranean hot summer breeze. Whatever it was, it filled each one with a deep inner sense of joy. Was this the Holy Spirit Jesus promised he would send? They tired makes sense of this mysterious experience, which was as true to them as the air they were breathing.
This mysterious experience brought a new sense of strength and unity among them. It had filled them with an inner power that becomes so strong they finally exploded from the room into the marketplace outside laughing and singing, sharing the good news with everyone they met. The Spirit of God now fills the vacuum that was left after the ascension of Jesus. Godself has now descended in the form of the Spirit to bring peace and reconciliation among all people.
To recall the words of a famous hymn by Charles Wesley, “Oh for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” the Spirit of God has come down to show us the “The triumphs of His grace!”. Godself has descended to set the prisoner free and to cancel the power of sin in all its manifestations. God has descended, once again, to forgive us the things we regret, and to liberate us from our shame and our fear.
It was in this sudden and unpredictable experience of the Pentecost that the seeds of the church were sown. A handful of followers of Jesus, so filled with the Spirit of God that they had to take the incredible news of God’s love outside the place they were meeting, to anyone who needed to hear that news. The love and compassion they witness in Jesus begin to flow through them. They become an unexpected carrier of God’s Spirit of perfect love and compassion and justice. They took to the streets in a bustling city of Jerusalem. Much like a flash mob, they took the unsuspecting members of the public by surprise.
I have a favourite flash mob that worth the attention. It’s a kind of picture to me of the way the church might work when empowered by God’s Spirit.
This flash mob-takes place in the plaza just outside the bank in Barcelona. It is 6:00 in the evening. The date is 19 May 2012. The plaza was full of people wandering around or sitting in the cafe, enjoying a drink at the end of the day. A lone man walks out, carrying a double bass. He sits down, places a hat in front of him and begins playing. A young girl comes out of the crowd, fascinated by the music. She stands in front of him, fascinated by the beautiful music, and places a coin in his hat.
A woman with a cello soon joins the man playing the double bass. Other onlookers gather around. The crowd builds. Little kids kneel down and peer through the legs of the gathering crowd.
More instrumentalists make their way through the crowd and join the musicians already playing. Weathered old faces creased with worry break into a smile as the beautiful music glides through the air.
A young father kneels by his son in a stroller pointing out the different instruments while more passers-by look on curiously. People at the nearby ATM machine take their money and join the crowd. A little boy climbs up a lamppost to get a better look. The music builds and the conductor can be seen leading the group. People drinking coffee stand up from their tables, excited by the crowd and the music. A sense of Joy and happiness fills the air. Singers appear as if from nowhere. Their voices fill the air causing little kids to dance and clap. Mothers sway to the music. Fathers lift their kids on their shoulders to get a better view. Suddenly the chorus bursts into the familiar sound of Ode to Joy –
Joyful, joyful, we adore thee
God of glory, lord of love
Hearts unfold like flowers before thee
Opening to the sun above
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness
Drive the dark of doubt away
Giver of immortal gladness
Fill us with the light of day
A flash-mob captures the Spirit of people coming together, regardless of who they are, what they look like, or where they are from. It isn’t just one young person or a professional. It’s you and me, the mums, the dads, the grandparents, the liberals, the conservatives, the evangelical, the atheists, the poor, the rich, all races, all genders. It is people who come together in unity through a piece of music. It is different and random people, who appear to be just going about their day, uniting in such a sudden fashion. It is exciting and breath-taking to watch.
One of the noticeable features of the flash mob is that its effectiveness resides in its capacity to transcend personal differences and unite for a common purpose. By working together to perform a short routine, these people are pushing against the structures and systems that have traditionally dictated about where and when they can or cannot unite. For just a moment, these people participate in freedom through dance and music. They play music next to each other, regardless of their background or ideologies.
I think this is what the Holy Spirit intends. Pentecost agitate and disrupt, but also unite us in all our eccentricities, our passions, and even our brokenness. It scary and exciting yet life-giving and heart-pumping stuff. “to know God as Spirit is to experience God as a liberating rather than a coercive power,” states Daniel Migliore. To experience God’s Spirit is to participate in the breaking out of rigid patterns or movements that are dictated by human systems or limitations. Systems that choose to exclude.
It is not setting boundaries. But, instead, it is allowing the Spirit of God to move freely among us, to engage us in a movement of liberation, freedom, unity, and perhaps even cause disruption in order to halt injustices and chaos. It is about allowing and enabling all of the members of Christ’s body to move and participate in their own unique and God-given ways, but ways that are all needed to glorify God.
Flash-mob analogy is perhaps one of the best to understand the Pentecost experience, as these little moments point to some sort of counter reality. They question our everyday reality. Everyone stops and asks, “what’s happening,” and it takes us out of your daily mundane existence.
The Pentecost is like a flash mob. It rises from nowhere. It ruptures the status quo. It throws a party in the middle of the commonplace and infuses the mundane with the joy of a pure kind. It causes others to be swept up in its tide, to be captivated by its surprise, to be caught off guard and engaged by its elated flurry.
Looking through the lens of flash-mob, we can begin to see, for instance, the Day of Pentecost as a flash mob initiated by the Holy Spirit. The city centre turns out to be in Jerusalem. It created an experience that ruptured reality that shocked the ordinary, which generated a lively buzz of conversation. And it created change both in its participants and in its bystanders.
All of this begs the following questions.
How might church create flash mob moments in the world around us?
How might we shock people around us out of their ordinary lives because of our commitment to creating a loving, inclusive, and just community?
May the Spirit of God enable us to create flash-mob moments in the world around us. May those around us be shocked out their ordinary lives as they witness the Kingdom of God come to life around them.