Sunday, June 12, 2011

Day of Pentecost

What I find troubling about the Christian church is that we too often seem to be facing in the wrong direction. We look backwards in history rather than forward in hope. We look to the past for inspiration rather than to the future with expectation.

This is especially true when we talk about our beliefs. We trip over ourselves trying to prove that what we believe is the same thing as what people believed 2000 years ago, or even longer.

We say that God is unchanging, which may be true, but we don’t know the whole of who God is. So we take our thoughts about God, freeze them in time, and present them as if by their very nature, their un-embodied truths will speak to all people in every time and every place.

It’s as if we think that the glory days of the church were “back then” when the faith was fresh and the Spirit spoke with awesome clarity. It’s as if we believe that today’s expression of church is a pale imitation of what God has done in previous generations.

I hear this all the time. People wax poetic about the primitive church, and how the early Christians were filled with fiery zeal, upon which we have poured cold institutional water.

Others point to the great church reformers, and the heroism that was shown in restoring a corrupt faith to the purity of the original.

Even the father of our Lutheran Church, Martin Luther went to great pains to demonstrate that he is not an original thinker, that he was just a mouthpiece for an ancient proclamation. Theological innovation in the church, we are told, is heresy.

So we ponder the drama of the Reformation story, and are inspired by the Christian heroes who stood up against the enemies of the gospel, and we think, THOSE -THOSE - were the glory days of the church.

Still others look to the recent past with memories of full churches and crowded Sunday School classrooms. They and we remember when committees had more members then they needed, when new church buildings were being constructed weekly, and the budget kept growing, and we say “Those were the church’s glory days.”

We think that God set the standard thousands of years ago, and we are not to deviate from iota from what we say God has created. It’s as if we’re saying that, the more ancient the expression of faith, the more pure it is, since it hasn’t yet been stained by the messy fingerprints of human history.

And when we say that we are not totally wrong. We just don’t see the whole story.

The Day of Pentecost starts telling the rest of the story. When the Spirit descended upon the disciples there was no going back to where they started. For those whose eyes were fixed on their glorious past, the Day of Pentecost must have seemed horribly chaotic.

It must have seemed like everything they knew to be true and good was crumbling around their ankles.

It must have looked like their ancient faith was being trampled upon, pushed aside in favour a dangerously innovative religious expression.

They were taught that salvation was reserved for God’s chosen people - Israel. Now people from all over the world were receiving God’s mercy and grace.

They were taught that a series of national laws and religious disciplines made them unique in their faith. Now those laws and disciplines were being replaced by new practices.

They were told they had to offer sacrifices in the temple and worship in the synagogue, Now people were praying in the streets and meeting in homes.

They were taught that people could come to God only through the mediation of a priest, that they couldn’t understand the bible, that women had no place in leadership.

Now people prayed without the help of religious professionals, they could study the scriptures for themselves, and women took their place at the head of the table.

Those invested in an unchanging religious tradition must have met the Day of Pentecost will unyielding scorn. It must have sent them into a panic. It must have seemed like the world was ending.

And they would be right. Their world was ending. But out of something old and dying, something new arose.

For those who trust in a God that makes all things new, Pentecost must have been the blast of fresh air they were waiting for. Something new had begun.

The Word of God was now spoken in all languages. God’s message of mercy and grace was now for everyone. People from all over the known world fell down and worshipped the God of Israel. Now, all people were invited to God’s table.

Church folks like to call Pentecost Sunday “The Birthday of the Church.” And what do we celebrate on birthdays? The fact that a new person has arrived on this planet. We celebrate a birth, a new age of possibility.

I guess the danger and the worry is that people will diminish or dismiss the past as if what happened before us is irrelevant or unimportant. That the hard work of those who came before us will be lost in the dust of history. That we need to honour those who dedicated their lives to building Christ’s church.

And that’s an appropriate fear. We DO need to honour what God has done in and through those whose names are now written in the Book of Life. It’s important that we remember the saints of the past whose sweat and toil has built Christ’s church and whose voices still echo in our collective proclamation.

But forgetting the hard work of past Christians is not the danger I see. The danger I see is that we cling too closely to the church of the past that we miss the opportunities for ministry that God has placed today on our doorstep, opportunities that will take us into a faithful future. A bigger danger is believing that our glory days are behind us, and in front of us is a ministry boulder that we’re being asked to roll uphill.

And to think like that is tempting. VERY tempting. Especially when we’re honest about the challenges we face as a church.

But today, this Pentecost Sunday, this day when we celebrate the coming of the Holy and Life-giving Spirit into the church and the world, God is telling us that the glory days of the church are NOW. TODAY!

Whenever the Spirit speaks words of mercy and grace through Christians just like you and me, those are the church’s glory days.

Whenever God is praised either with a smile or through tears, those are the glory days of the church.

Whenever the captives are set free, people’s eyes are opened to new possibilities, and the poor receive good news, THOSE are the church’s Glory Days.

Whenever the lonely find friendship, when the grieving are comforted, when the dying receive and believe the promise of new and everlasting life, those are the glory days of the church.

Whenever the people of God gather to hear good news, to receive the holy sacrament, and go out into the world bearing witness to God vision of peace, justice, mercy, forgiveness, love, and grace, those are the Glory Days of the church.

In other words, TODAY - TODAY is the Glory Day of the church. Right here. Right now. In this place.

Tomorrow is the Glory Day of the church. Whenever the Spirit ignites faith, when the gospel is proclaimed in every language, whenever a sinner receives forgiveness, whenever the waters of baptism is poured over a child’s head, that is the church in its glory because God is glorified in what we do.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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