It’s not our text for this morning; nonetheless, I never come to this part of our statement of faith without thinking of it: the passage from Acts, chapter two, that describes the Day of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit; a phenomenon of religious fervor the likes of which had never been seen before, and which forever changed the lives of those who experienced it. And I’ll tell you the truth: even after all these years of hearing that text, and preaching on it from time to time(!) I still can’t wholly wrap my mind around it!
Oh, I love the image of a “rush of a violent wind” filling the house where the disciples were sitting; the “divided tongues, as of fire” resting upon them; the gathered multitudes all hearing about “God’s deeds of power” in their own languages; as well as the notion that there were those who quickly dismissed such a thing as the result of too much cheap wine! It’s an incredible story, and I get the power of it; what I have a harder time understanding is how all of that became all of this: you and me, the church, the “people of all ages, tongues and races” bound together in faithful covenant!
In the little town of Island Falls, Maine, near to where our family camp is, they have something called “Summerfest,” a week-long celebration with a parade, suppers, a fishing derby, kayak races and so on; but the highlight every year is always the fireworks: which the town raises money for the whole year, which attracts people from all over the county, and which is the thing that everybody in town talks about for days if not weeks ahead of time; but which also never, ever lasts any longer than 12 minutes! Honestly, they shoot these things off every year precisely at 8:45; we know this because by 9:00, we’re already back to camp!
And don’t get me wrong; they’re great, but the truth about fireworks is that they never last. They light up the night, and very beautifully, but only for a fleeting moment, and then they’re gone and you go home. I sometimes wonder how the Day of Pentecost, with all of its “holy fireworks” could have been any different; and yet it was. The Holy Spirit had come, and to quote Joseph Donders, “Before the story of Pentecost in Jerusalem was over, the apostles where in the streets working at the introduction of a new world… breaking through the structures that [had]… kept them and the world in which they lived captive,” an activity that has never stopped to this very day.
This actually speaks to an underlying truth of everything we confess to be true about our Christian faith: that our God is a God of action. As we have seen in this sermon series, the God we worship is not some cosmic” absentee landlord” who sets things in motion, only to depart for some distant corner of the universe while back here we struggle to get by on our own. On the contrary; our God creates everything we need to sustain our lives and to do so abundantly; God sets before us a way of righteousness; and then gives to us a Savior when our own “aimlessness and sin” keeps us apart from that pathway, and thus from God.
And that would seem to be more than enough, more than we could ever need or want; yet God won’t stop there. What was it that Jesus said to his disciples in our reading this morning? It was a promise that when he was gone, there would be “another advocate,” a Counselor to be with us forever, no less than “the Spirit of truth.” In faith, you see, we do not think of the Holy Spirit as a one-time display of divine firework, but as yet another way that God actively comes to us and seeks to be close to us. Roger Shinn writes that while sometimes we “feel the distance of God, the awesome majesty of the Creator of galaxies… the Holy Spirit is God experienced in intimacy; [it is] God’s liberating presence in persons and communities.” Or, to put it another way, it’s God “at large” in the world and in our lives!
This is no assertion to be taken lightly, friends! Because what we’re saying here is that the very same God who has mightily stirred the heavens and earth into being and who has breathed into you and me the very breath of life now seeks to stir us to life with abundance, purpose and infused with the fruits of a faithful, “spiritual” life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This God sends us his Spirit in an on-going effort to bring us nearer to him and in sync with his purposes; and not only this, but also to draw us into community with one another; for indeed, as we also confess in our statement of faith, the same Spirit that moves through us, also “creates… renews” and directs us as the church!
That, in and of itself, is important for us to remember; for is it not true that all too often in this day and age we tend to think of the church as our own creation, rather than God’s? This is not to say that we are not stewards or, shall we say, “organizers” of the church, because indeed we are (Of course, some might argue, and appropriately, that we’re better defined as “disorganizers of the church,” and that “organized religion” might just be an oxymoron, but we’ll leave that discussion for another time!); but as God has intended it, the church is to be the vessel of God’s Spirit through worship and service.
That means that we’re not gathered here this morning primarily as a social club, nor a congenial gathering of good folk; we’re not uniquely set apart as a community service organization, and we’re certainly not to be thought of as a place of business! You and I are here, first and foremost, as a people set aside for God’s purposes; gathered that we might prayerfully seek to move together as God inspires us through his Spirit!
Of course, there’s great danger in that kind of affirmation, especially given that that same Spirit has a distinct way of inspiring us right out of our comfort zones! It’s so ironic, you know, that one of the biggest complaints many have against the church today is that it’s so resistant to change (You know the joke… how many “Congregationals” does it take to change a light bulb? And the answer is, “Change?!!”); ironic when the fact is that by his Spirit, God has gathered the church to be the very agent of change!
That’s what it means when we say that God’s spirit “renews” the church, because change is ever the norm in the church of Jesus Christ; it goes on continually! Actually, there’s a wonderful motto that has its source in the tradition of the Reformation: in Latin, ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, which means, “the church reformed, always undergoing reformation.” In other words, as the church we are meant to change; we’re meant to grow; we’re meant both to shake things up and to be shaken, because that’s the way of the Spirit!
Mind you, I’m not talking anarchy and mass rebellion here; our “spirit movement” is one that is in covenant with God and with God’s people; and that is because the church is a covenantal and inclusive community. We are, as the statement of faith proclaims it, bonded with “faithful people of all ages, tongues and races.” That’s what I love so very much about World Communion Sunday: it’s one day in the church that we actively seek to acknowledge the great and utter vastness of this table at which we’ve all been invited to join in this joyful feast of the people of God! I mean, I find it pretty remarkable that all of us here in this sanctuary, as diverse and varied in our situations and opinions as we can be, can feast at this table as one people; but then to add to that guest list the whole rest of Christendom… well, that’s just amazing! What it says is that we are endeavoring to be the answer to Jesus’ prayer that “they may all be one,” so that “so that the world may believe.”
One of the most persistent questions that we ask ourselves as the church these days is how we might remain relevant in the midst of such a shifting culture as what exists right now. We wonder the same thing in our congregation: how we will move into the “next generations” with purpose and integrity and true faith. And in these times, it’s a challenge, to be sure; but friends, I would submit to you that it begins simply by our living after the manner of how the church is supposed to be: a Spirit-led people in this time and place; a people who wholly embrace the truth that God has brought us together, not we ourselves; who understand that in the midst of today’s challenges, as well as in looking toward the future’s horizon, we are first, ever and always to be about the work of God’s kingdom; and who always remember – in all that we do here – that we are God’s people, created and renewed by the Holy Spirit; and as such, determined to be focused, and open, and united in that purpose.
As we sang at the beginning of this service, “Jesus calls us in [and] sends us out,” and what that means for us for the living of these days, we’ll talk about next time. For now, it is enough for us to know that God’s Spirit gives us the life we have, makes us the people we are, and will provide us the strength we need; which includes the nourishment that comes in this “holy meal” we’re about to share.
Thanks be to God who sets the table, invites us to come, and who brings us all together as one.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry