It’s been one thousand, nine-hundred and eighty-nine years since the disciples, all gathered together in a house in Jerusalem, heard a sound coming from heaven like the rush of a violent wind… and were visited by—and imbued with—the fire of the Holy Spirit. (Or, it could be one thousand, nine-hundred and seventy-nine years, if you ascribe to the Lukan timeline). In any case, it’s been just under two millennia since that first Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection, the day when the Advocate… the Helper… the Comforter… who Jesus promised would come to be with us, was made manifest in the world. Some churches celebrate this day with pony rides and balloons, kind of like a birthday party. The feast of Pentecost does commemorate the “birth” of the Church, after all. But part of me wonders if “feting” the Church in this way is a little self-serving. Who is the church? We are the church! And when we’re at our best—our very best—we are merely an instrument for spreading the Good News of God’s saving grace on earth. And when we’re not at our best… well, sometimes I cringe. In any case, celebrating the feast of Pentecost, the birth of the Church, the same way we might celebrate our own birthdays seems a little like patting ourselves on the back and saying “Yay, US!” But Pentecost really isn’t about us, is it? At least not in the conventional sense. It’s about God. Those of you who gathered for worship on Ash Wednesday, back at the beginning of Lent, may remember my posing the question:
“What if it really is all about us?” What if, after we (God’s people) messed everything up in the Garden, God came afterus… not to punish or destroy, but to bring us back into relationship? What if, despite our persistent rebelliousness, God entered into one covenant after another with us, with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses and David, all aimed at restoring his people to wholenesswith himand the rest of creation? What ifGod sent Jesus Christ as the bearer of a New Covenantto rescue us from the error of our sins, and open to us the gates of everlasting life? What ifGod will stop at nothing to bring his lost sheep home?
We will be welcoming a new sister and brothers into the Church today through the sacrament of Christian Baptism. When I think about the meaning and significance of Baptism, I wonder if, when someone decides to get Baptized, they’re really making two life-altering decisions. First, they are deciding to open their eyes to the reality of evil in the world… a force existing in direct opposition to the love of the Creator… a Tempter seeking to corrupt and harm us by enticing us to do things that cause us to become separated from God. When people decide to become Baptized, it seems to me that they are making a commitment to recognize and renounce all that… choosing instead to follow Jesus, trusting him to lead them home to God. And, of course, the second decision they’re making is to join the Church. And not just a specific denomination or church family, mind you, but the Church, with a capital “C.” A worldwide community of faith, with over two billion believers (and growing), spanning seven continents… citizens of every nation on earth… some living in places where Christianity is illegal, and Christians are persecuted… even unto death. The Church is family, in the most profound sense of the word, and it’s a sign and an instrument of God’s ongoing movement and purpose in the world. Being Baptized means becoming a part of all that. And when we say the Apostles’ Creed… which is our Baptismal Creed, we are not professing to understand every aspect of the mysteries that it contains. It may take a lifetime, and beyond a lifetime, to even scratch the surface of the nature of the Trinity: God in three persons, or the role of the Church and the Communion of Saints in God’s plan for the salvation of the world. We may never understand how Christ’s death serves to bring about forgiveness of our sins and make us fit for God’s everlasting Kingdom. Trying to get our brains wrapped around all of that could give us a perpetual headache until the day we die. But here’s the thing… we don’t need to understand the mind of God. We can’t. All we can do is make the decision to take a leap of faith… and say that we believe. That will be enough.
We’ve come a long way since that first Pentecost… that “day of days” on which the Holy Spirit first came among us… to be with us and guide us… to help bring us into closer relationship with God—and one another. But while Pentecost may be for us—surely it’s a key event in the salvation history of the world—it isn’t about us. Again, it’s about God. We must never forget that. We say, “We are the Church,” and we are. But I wonder sometimes how carefully we’ve thought out what that entails. What does it mean to be God’s Church? And what does it mean when we are “sent forth into the world to love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit,” at the end of our Eucharist service? What does that mean to you?
I’d like to share a poem written by Robert Fergusson (teaching pastor at Hillsong Church) that seeks to describe God’s mission and vision for the Church in terms we can understand. It’s titled, “The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Listen at your own risk…
She is the plan of God on earth;always in her Father’s eye: Cherished, mysterious, beautiful and potent beyond measure: King-empowered and life-infused. She emerges triumphant; limitless with potential; a harbor for the hopeless and an answer for the ages: The church resplendent – a bride for His Son.
She is the body of Christ on earth;born, like her Head, amidst tribulation, under jealous skies. Cradled in her innocence and guarded for His purpose. She grows in wisdom and stature with victory on her lips and freedom in her hands. Hers is an unstoppable cause. She embraces the world with dignity, honor and compassion; gives vision to the sightless and life to the dying.
She is the family of God on earth.Within her compass, the hungry find sustenance and the weary receive strength. She is a haven for recovering humanity, enthralled by grace. She invites the broken, the vulnerable and the outcast to be immersed in love. She stands imperfect, but perfection resides within her. She is flawed but is washed with forgiveness. She has a treasury of faith and a wealth of belonging.
She is the house of heaven on earth:A representative, resolute to reconcile. The Word within her accepts the receptive but challenges the heartless. She is the ecclesia,called out to serve the world: Calling out…to welcome in.Blood-washed and armed with testimony, the cross on her lips liberates the chained and offends the unchanging. Like her Master she is pursued and persecuted. Yet she rises with strength in her heart and fire in her soul.
She is the bride of Christ on earth;readying herself for the day when all eyes will be upon her. Prepared and presented before the Lord: The Lamb… for whom the world waits, who comes like the rising sun, majestic and magnificent beyond description, while shedazzles with reflected glory. Spotless, perfect and mature, she bows low to cast her crowns and passionately worship Him. Her temporal focus becomes her eternal gaze. She is the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
That’s what it means to be church.
So, rejoice… but rejoice in the Lord. Today is not about us. Today is about our Creator God, who sends forth his Spirit daily, so that the face of the earth may be renewed, and the New Jerusalem made a reality. It’s about God’s overarching plan to bring help the needy, strength to the weak, and hope to the hope-less. And yes, we’re all part of that, but we’re only bearers of the Word. Jesus is the Word and it’s in his name we gather and are sent forth. Happy one thousand, nine-hundred and eighty-ninth Birthday, Church!
Anderson, Kemper. “What if it really is all about us?” Ash Wednesday homily at St. James’ Episcopal Church, Cedartown, Georgia. February 14, 2018.
Fergusson, Robert. “The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ [A POEM].” Hillsong.com.https://hillsong.com/collected/blog/2013/02/the-church-of-the-lord-jesus-christ-a-poem/#.WwLrbS-ZOnE (accessed May 19, 2018.