Here are my thoughts and words from this morning, at least the script - there was a fair amount of departure from said script!
Year C Pentecost (2013) RCL Princpal
Today is a celebration – a day to celebrate Church! Not a phrase we use very much – hooray let’s celebrate Church is not the usual attitude I have experienced in my years of ministry. And for those of us in the business of leading within the Church our minds are more often than not on ‘how’ we are doing Church in any given week and how the component parts are going to fit together when we get there!
It’s not often, I suspect, that any of us really think about what it means to be Church and why we ‘do’ Church. We just get on with it – sometimes struggling, sometimes anxious about what is going to happen.
So to hear the stories of Scripture – the amazing start of the Church at Pentecost, or Jesus talking in terms of doing things greater than him through his Spirit – seems a bit distanced, a bit abstract… not really the kind of Church that we are used to.
But WHY NOT?
Why should the Church not be filled with the same life and excitement, the same peace, hope, love, faith, grace and wonder that we hear about in the stories of Jesus’ relationship with his friends? Why are we not filled with the power and the worship and dedication that we see in this story of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost? After all, we have the same relationship with Christ. He is alive, and we are called to follow him and know him in our every day lives, to talk to him in prayer, to worship and obey him. Jesus is here with us- we may not see him but he is! And we certainly have the same Spirit – the one who came as what appeared to be tongues of fire and like rushing wind, who inspired the apostles to speak in many languages and to proclaim the truth of faith – who transformed them from a fearful huddle into a group boldly sharing the life of Christ and who changed Peter from the faltering, stumbling, often blustering one who denied into one who would preach with such authority that three thousand would be added to the believers’ numbers that day!
Why aren’t we like that? Well the truth is that even for the first apostles and those early Church members it didn’t stay like that. Pentecost, the outpouring of the Spirit with signs and wonders soon became the everyday life of prayer, worship and sharing that we read about at the end of the chapter – the bit just after the reading from Acts we heard today. We are told that they dedicated themselves,
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* and ate their food with glad and generous* hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
So the Church began to establish itself. They met to pray, they learned to share, they supported and loved one another. This is the honeymoon period of the Church, they are learning what it means to be Church, they are enthused and excited – but they are winging it, they don’t have a plan, they don’t have structures or any aims beyond growing in faith. By the time we get to Acts chapter 6 they appoint Deacons to serve at table in the sharing of meals and of resources, they start to have a weekly pattern of worship and the Church starts to spread across the Roman world, learning to incorporate different types of person – slaves, soldiers, tradespeople, families, even eventually becoming the official Religion of the empire.
And as that happened the structures we recognise start to appear. But they did keep this enthusiasm, they committed themselves to meet together, to share, to pray, to learn from the teachings of Christ, and to have fellowship. Everything the early Church did was rooted in these things.
So we celebrate Pentecost in order to remind us of the wonder of that first flush of the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, and that way that inspired women and men to work together to grow in faith and to continue that wave of the Spirit – living, proclaiming and being the Gospel.
But we have to ask, and it is a hard question, why are we so far from that kind of expression of Church? Yes we have two thousand years of experience (good and bad) since then, yes our world is different – but we have the same God, the same Spirit, the same saviour. Have we tamed the Church, contained the wild and unpredictable Spirit within our buildings: quenched the fire and sheltered ourselves against the wind?
There is still much that this passage of Scripture has to say to us, there is still a challenge and hopefully, an inspiration within these verses.
First of all the promise of the Spirit is still real – still on offer, perhaps not being poured out as was the case in those first days, but promised to us in Baptism. If we were to carry on with this passage we would read that the family of the Church had an ongoing commitment in which they were sustained – the Holy Spirit was not just for the big stuff, the wonder and ‘wow’ of Pentecost, but was alongside the believers as they learned what following Christ together meant.
But in order to draw on the Spirit they had to meet together, together – we know how hard it is to get people to travel beyond their village boundaries to worship, but it is part of our calling as God’s people, God’s body, to be united and share together in worship. Jesus didn’t pray ‘father I pray that they will meet in individual groups dotted around the country, as you and I do’ – he prayed ‘Father I pray that they will be one, as you and I are one.’ The reason for encouraging our parishes to meet together more frequently is NOT because it makes the life of the clergy easier – but because meeting together is what the Bible says we should do. And when we do, we are encouraged, we grow in faith and we learn to love one another as Christ has called us to.
The story of Pentecost reminds us that the Church was, and should be, radically inclusive. The Spirit gives different languages in this story so that none miss out on hearing the message. Now I know that our Churches feel they are welcoming – and you are, you are lovely people/ And yet there is so much more we need to consider if we want to include the 96% of people in our country who have little or no contact with Church. We need to consider whether the hymns and music that we enjoy are the kind of thing that anyone outside of the Church would get, or enjoy, or feel a part of. We need to consider whether the words we use are understandable to those who have not heard of prayer books or bibles, and think about how we include them. We should ask ourselves about whether a world which rarely uses books, where being handed a book or books and bits of paper is completely alien, is well served by all that we give out when people arrive, should we consider again the option of screens, or other ways of encouraging worship. It is all very well saying “It’s good enough for us” or “I like it as it is.” But the Church is only ever one generation away from extinction, are we going to be the last generation? We should consider whether our welcome, and our refreshments, are not just ‘good enough’ but make a statement about generosity and hospitality? And we as a Church need to think whether we are truly able to cope with those who are truly different, those of different colour, or sexuality, or tattoo’d and pierced, the single parents, those who don’t ‘quite know how to behave’? Do we reflect Christ’s values of being open to the outsider, the stranger, the difficult and the disturbed or would we rather Church stayed as it is for as long as we are a part of it?
And another thing we can take from the early Church, another challenge – they GAVE freely, they shared their money, nothing was withheld. Now, there’s a lentil eating, kaftan wearing hippie inside me which says “wow man it would be so cool if we all lived in like a totally big house and shared everything.” But common sense prevails and I realise that the commitment was to give – and our own Churches need that. It is our Christian responsibility to give to the life of the Christian community. I know I don’t say that enough, but we should be making a significant contribution to the life of the Church if we expect our Churches to continue to stay open and to serve our communities. We need to consider our priorities and ask whether we give generously in the way that the Bible expects us to.
And the last Challenge I want to consider from this story and that is who is given the Holy Spirit in this Pentecost account? Well Peter and the Apostles at the start, but the Spirit is poured out on ALL – the work of the Church then proceeds apace and the Church grows exponentially – and though there are leaders and teachers, the work of the church, the ministry of the church, the life of the Church is sustained and maintained by the whole Church. It is all God’s people that make Church possible – when each one is open to the life of the Spirit, then the Church grows.
We all have a part in the life of the Church. We all have a responsibility for living and sharing the life of Christ. It is not the province of ministers, Clergy or lay, or churchwardens or PCC members to ‘do’ church for us. We are all one in Christ Jesus, called to his body.
So even as we celebrate we are challenged to devote ourselves again – to be devoted to learning from and about Christ, to be devoted to fellowship: meeting and working together, to be inclusive and completely welcoming, to be devoted to giving and generous with our finances, time and energy and to be filled with the Holy Spirit that each one of us might find our part in the life of Christ and in the work of the people of God.Thank God for the Church! Amen.