May 31st, 2020
Today’s readings are:
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
Happy Birthday, the Church! Today is Pentecost, which means that it’s the Church’s birthday! It’s the day when we celebrate the founding of the Church, and the founding of the Church not just by human hands but by the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Fire, and the Light, to guide us wayward and confused folks into a life lived as Christ’s Body in this world. It’s on this day, just short of two thousand years ago, that all of this began.
You can learn a lot about something from its beginnings. You can learn a lot about something from how it’s made, when it was made, and what sorts of things went into it. First impressions are important. I remember when we brought Gwen into her school just before she started pre-school, and all the teachers had their doors decorated in fun colors and with silly animals. Going to school for the first time can be tough for a kid, and that first impression is important. One of the reasons the transition into school life was good, I think, was because the door, and inside that door the teacher, and the room, was so welcoming.
So when we sit down and wonder, what is the Church, who are we as the Church, it’s important to remember what we’re founded on. And this is a particularly important question these days. For the past few months, what we usually know of as church sure didn’t look like church. We’ve been watching our worship services online, and few of us have received the Sacraments at all, be they the Eucharist, Baptism, Reconciliation, and so on. And as we move on into these times, and even as we begin in-person worship again, church might still look pretty different, and I don’t mean just what we do on Sunday mornings. This is a good time to reflect on what we are as the Church. What does it mean to be the Church? What does it mean to be the Christian Church, capital C? What does it mean to be the Anglican or the Episcopal Church? And what does it mean to be St. James Church in Coquille, Oregon?
Luckily, we’re not beginning at square one. God may have created the world out of nothing, but we’ve got two thousand years of history (and, really, more than even that) to stand on. And we’ve got Pentecost. We don’t, and we shouldn’t, try to reimagine the Church from the ground during in these difficult times. The Church isn’t something that we’ve built; it’s something that the Holy Spirit gave us two thousand years ago.
So, then, what does Pentecost tell us about the Church? Well, quite a lot. Too much for a single sermon, that’s for sure. Too much for a whole life, or even two thousand years of life, because the grace and the love and the joy that was spilled out by God upon the disciples, that the Holy Spirit himself, the third person of the Trinity, gave to all humanity, that grace and love and joy is more than we can possible imagine. It has taken two thousand years to even catch a glimpse of what the Church, founded by the Holy Spirit, can and should do in the world. And we’ll never get to the bottom of it, because there’s no bottom, no end, to a life lived, in community, as the Body of Christ, living that life of love another day and yet another day.
But I do want to point out something so very important about Pentecost. It’s the languages. It’s the wealth and breadth of all those languages and, specifically, all those personal languages proclaiming the Good News and Love of Jesus Christ. If you have ever traveled abroad, you know how important your own language is. For what the disciples were speaking weren’t just a bunch of different languages, as if the Holy Spirit went down the list of a bunch of classes you could take at college. You know, like, “Well, Peter, you’ve got Arabic; James, you take French; the other James has German; John, sorry, I know it’s a tough one, but you’ve got Irish. But buck up, you can do it; Bartholomew, you take Swahili”, and so own. You see, each of those languages they spoke was the home language, the mother tongue, of someone in the crowd. It was like one of the disciples started speaking French, but not just French from Paris but the dialect of some guy who was born and raised in some little village out in the middle of nowhere; it’s like that someone didn’t just speak English but spoke Jersey.
I mean, pretty much everyone there that day could probably speak Greek, or at least make it out with a struggle, so that if the disciples proclaimed the Good News in Greek, most of the folks would have gotten it. But that’s not the point. For these people were abroad, away from the land they knew. And when you’re abroad, you’re in a strange land, and nothing’s familiar, even the food, even the bathrooms, and from dawn until dusk you’re surrounded by differences. And even if those differences are wonderful, it gets tiring after a while.
But then imagine this. Imagine that you’re one of these people in Jerusalem. You’re far from home, you’re yearning for just something that’s familiar – anything. And then suddenly, suddenly, you hear your own language spoken, and not just by someone trying it out but by someone fluent, who knows it, as you know it, from the first day you were born – your heart is moved to its depths. And oh, it’s not just someone reading off a list of stuff to do, or sometone making a crude joke. What this person is saying, in that language that touches your heart, is the most amazing and wonderful news that you have ever heard. And this message, this message of love and hope, this message that you’ve loved and you’ve hoped for down in the depths of your heart, maybe this message that you could barely admit to hope for because it’s just too good to be true, that God loves you, that God loves the whole world and will go to the ends of the earth and back just to tell us about that love, that this message is proclaimed in your own language. Two hearts: the longing for home and the message of love, they meet on this day of Pentecost. Nor is this message just for anyone, but it’s for you, and you, and you. This is the miracle of Pentecost, that the hope of the world isn’t just something you can look up in a book, but that’s it’s personal, it goes to the heart of our hopes and longings. And it is here that the Church, the community of the faithful, the very Body of Christ, is born.
This says something so very important about the Church and about our lives as Christians. God speaks to our hearts, to the things that we care about and love the most. Most of us were converted, or stepped into a deeper conversion to God, because we heard a voice calling to us from something we loved. God spoke to me through good stories and the natural world, two things I already loved; and God has continued to speak to me through family, my children, my good friends, food and travel and laughter. You don’t gotta get rid of those things in order to become a Christian. But through those things God speaks to us, and turns us more fully to God’s light through them. And as God does this, those beautiful things become only more and more beautiful, until all our lives shine with the glory of God.
But there’s something else, too, and it’s one of the biggest lessons of Pentecost: the Church isn’t just for us. Just as we follow the example of Jesus Christ, who is God, so too do we, the Church, which was founded on Pentecost, follow the example of the Holy Spirit, who is also God. We’re to go outside of ourselves, outside of what we know and serve others from where God has touched them. We don’t proclaim the Good News in our own language or from our own experiences alone, but from the hurts, needs, hopes, and loves of those we serve. So that when we serve the world in Christ’s name, we’re not just doing what makes us feel good and happy but that we’re answering that call from God within each and every person who we meet. And this can be tough sometimes, because it requires patience, an open ear, and an open heart to the experiences of others.
It’s tough to do sometimes, but, in the end, what a gift, right? What a gracious and beautiful gift, that we are given the privilege to serve God’s voice in the life of those around us. It is a humbling gift, truly; you can’t be proud when you do this work. You can’t think you’ve got all the answers. And it can be a hard gift sometimes, especially when the world is hurting so deeply, and those in front of us see only darkness and despair. But even still, what a gracious and beautiful gift, to be able to serve in God’s Name, the Gospel, that most glorious Good News, that before all else you are loved and that salvation is a free gift. And our work, now, two thousand years later, it’s the same as it was two thousand years ago: to listen to the love of God singing out through Creation, to serve that voice and that love, and to live together, together, with the love of God upholding it all.