Friday, May 13, 2016

Pentecost: When the Spirit Moves, the Church Moves Too! (Acts 2:1-21)

The Wild Goose,
Celtic image for the Holy Spirit
Do you remember the song from childhood? You might have heard it somewhere along the line if you grew up in the church. Ironically, it was my grandmother, not one for churchgoing, who taught it to me. It involved clasping your hands together, and making your fingers into a steeple. (Sort of hard to describe on paper!) The words went like this: Here is the church/here is the steeple/open the doors/see all the people.

When you are three years old, this is pretty entertaining to say the least. Now as an adult (and a minister nowadays), I catch myself thinking of this childhood experience, sometimes delighting in the simplicity, other times, as my brain spins with budgets, meetings, sermons to write, phone calls to return, websites to update, I crave the simplicity of what Grandmother Hugenot taught me about the Church. My first lesson about “church” was not a creed (though they help form faith). It was just a simple word to remember: “see all the people.”

“See all the people” came to mind when I traveling to Ghana in western Africa to participate in the 2007 gathering of the Baptist World Alliance. While English was the primary language of the gathering, the break-times out in the conference hallways reminded me a bit of Pentecost. One break time, I went into one of the corners and closed my eyes and just listened for a few moments. Persons carried on conversations in many languages, animatedly talking about a host of things. This global gathering of people, coming from across political and geographic boundaries alike, were assembled together because of their common belief in Christ and their desire to follow the Spirit’s leading. When we read the international news of strife and conflict, the day of Pentecost seems a bit too idealistic. How could all of those nations be possibly together in one room? The trick is to listen carefully. Out of all those conversations, I kept hearing one word bounce around from conversation to conversation, lilting across the room in a dozen accents. That word? “Jesus”

It is our common belief in Christ that draws us together as a people of God. We may differ on some matters of faith (especially if you get together a roomful of Baptists), but all in all, we confess together the same name. The same name that joins us together with generations of saints, great and small, all endeavoring to be faithful, sharing the good news, and living out the teachings of Jesus for their day and time. Christ calls out to the world, and we are the people who form around his call to repent and believe that the Kingdom-Reign of God is indeed at hand. So you look across that gathering of diverse people, the multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and you just have to marvel at the diversity called “Church”.

At the same time, while it is our common confession of Christ that gathers a people, it is the Spirit of God who enlivens the Church and kindles the diversified gifts of the people. On Pentecost Sunday, we recall that it is the Spirit whose mighty wind and flame transforms a group of people into a movement. Christ is the head of the Body; the Spirit is the fire that burns within. The Spirit ignites the mission and ministry of the Church, empowering a people to be more than the sum of their parts. The Spirit brings to life the Church.

The earliest stories of the Church record remarkable adventures, of a little movement clustered around Jerusalem, moving to the ends of the earth. A fairly obscure group starts in Acts 1, endures persecution and uncertainty, and winds up with its last words coming from one of its number (a remarkable convert named Paul) preaching “with all boldness and without hindrance”. Even though Christ has ascended to heaven, even though the Church struggles with the challenges before them, the Spirit beckons them, enlivens them to go forward, carrying out the commission to be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth. In contemporary times, the Book of Acts can be summed up by a quip from William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who once said, “I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, then you grow wings.”

In the book of Acts, the Spirit is a constant presence in the life of the early Church, empowering the people as well as prompting them to go beyond their comfort and familiarity. To be a people called “Church” moving in the power of the Spirit is not for the faint hearted! The Iona Community of Scotland, a Christian religious group, points us to a good image for the Spirit. Rather than the passive looking dove familiar as an image of the Spirit, the Iona Community claims an ancient Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit in all of its publications and music. The Celtic symbol of the Spirit is that of a wild goose, full of energy and hard to catch! (I would add that the “wild goose” is a rather plucky image!)

The Spirit inspires and fans to flame not an institution but a movement, a gathering of people summoned to a life unexpected and roads less imagined.

When I lived in southwestern Vermont, we were quite close to the Massachusetts state line.  Just over the line is Williams College where on campus you will find a memorial marker noting where there was once a haystack there in 1806. That’s right: a haystack, something that one would take for granted as part of the 1806 countryside.

A group of Williams students would gather to pray together, however, a sudden thunderstorm came out of nowhere. The students took shelter in the haystack and continued their conversation. The results of their conversation sound audacious: they resolved there and then to create a worldwide mission effort. Within six years, their efforts created the first American “foreign mission society” and started sending out missionaries. From one haystack just down the road two centuries ago began something incredible. It would sound near reckless that one conversation, one moment of daring thought, would make so much possible. Then again, it is a sign that the Spirit is at work!

Recently you heard about the unfortunate and very disturbing way that Lowville area residents learned that a major employer shut down its plant with little warning.  After a sudden meeting with staff was called, soon 157 workers were told to gather any personal items and to leave the facility in thirty minutes time.  On a Friday, the end of the work week for many, it was the end of jobs, long years of service and the abrupt loss of income and benefits.

The Lowville Baptist Church heard this and felt called to help out.  They began working through the weekend on developing local partnerships and getting stakeholders together to figure out ways to help families get help with medicine, groceries and other basic needs.  Within another couple of days, with the Region and the American Baptist Home Mission Societies, the church requested and received $5000 in emergency grant funds from One Great Hour of Sharing.  By May 3, the church reported over $25,000 had been raised and over $12,000 given out in vouchers administered by the church's deacon fund.

Like many of our churches around the Region, Lowville Baptist is a smaller church by the standards of a mega church, which unfortunately many churches seem to think is the only measure for what a successful church should look like.  Yet thanks to the years spent hearing and more importantly heeding the gospel, Lowville Baptist created abundance when scarcity seemed to overshadow the future.  They partnered with other churches and organizations, the best way to respond to community  needs.  They felt the Spirit's urging them to do something, and indeed, a "small church" made a great big difference!

When we think that we have everything we know about the Church and its capacities (and limitations) mapped out, the Spirit blows through our midst, sometimes a gale force wind, other times, like a breeze on a summer day. We think the Church can be one thing, when it can be so many other things. The mistake we make, however, is losing sight of the Pentecost story, the day that a group was gathered together and formed into something diverse yet unified, sent forth to share the gospel with the world. The ways that this gospel can be shared are as many as the people called to share it. Whether it is through teaching, dancing, serving meals, construction, advocacy, care giving, singing, and the list goes on and on, the gathered people called Church share the story of Christ crucified and raised in resurrection glory to all of humanity.

I suppose it would be fair game to put it this way: If you think of Pentecost as time long ago, you might have missed the point. The Spirit is still moving in our midst, calling us forth, empowering us for the many ways of ministry. We are still learning what it means to be a church moving in the power of the Spirit. Thanks be to God! AMEN.

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