Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pentecost C

One thing 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 now 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 tiny bits of ideas about God, flash-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. A fancy word that means, “really bad and really wrong ideas about God.”

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 vivid 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 years ago, and we are not to deviate one 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 hadn’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. So, for those whose eyes were fixed on their glorious past, the Day of Pentecost must have seemed impossibly 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 movement.

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 on their own, 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 with alarm or even scorn. It must have sent them into a panic. It must have seemed like the world was ending.

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

But for those who trust in a God that makes all things new, Pentecost must have been like someone had opened a window to allow in 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 worshiped God. 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, if we are to take the message of Pentecost with seriousness.

That the hard work of those who came before us will be lost in the dust of history. That we’ll fail to honour those who dedicated their lives to building Christ’s church.

That we’ll arrogantly forget the blood that was spilled to bear witness to the crucified saviour, which propelled the Church forward.

And that’s an appropriate fear. It IS good 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.

It’s tempting to turn our eyes to the past. It’s easier to look at earlier successes than to see what’s ahead of us. 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 aren’t just behind us, and the glory days of the church aren’t just in front of us, But 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, the oppressed find freedom, and the poor receive good news, THOSE are the church’s Glory Days.

Whenever the lonely find friendship, whenever the grieving are comforted, whenever the dying receive 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 their lives bearing witness to God’s 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,
Whenever the gospel is proclaimed in every language,
Whenever a sinner receives forgiveness,
Whenever the waters of baptism are poured over a child’s head, that is the church in its glory because God is glorified in what we do.

And this is GOD working within and among us. This is GOD working within and among YOU.

You have NOT been given a spirit of slavery to fear, but you have been given a Spirit of adoption into God’s family. You who have been named and claimed as God’s own child through your baptism into Christ bear witness to the Spirit that lives in you.

Despite what we see all around us, despite what we feel within us, God isn’t finished with us yet. The Spirit is still descending.

The Spirit is still hovering over the waters of the world’s chaos.
The Spirit is still descending upon the church breathing new life into old institutions.
The Spirit is still setting new fires of love and compassion all over the world.

The Spirit is still giving us tongues to speak God’s Word of mercy and forgiveness to anyone within earshot.

God won’t be finished until that glorious day comes when all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.

May we see this glory in all that we do. Today. Tomorrow. And into the future that God has prepared for us. Amen.

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