Nancy E. Petty;
Texts: Acts 2:1-17; John 20: 19-23
We remember today, on Pentecost Sunday, the very beginnings of what we have come to know as the Christian church. We have heard two stories that depict the disciples, in the days and months after the resurrection, having transformational experiences that help them move forward into what will become their ministry after the death of Jesus. These are seminal moments, tentative days when it is entirely unclear whether this movement of followers of Jesus will dissipate and go the way of other forgotten prophets and insurrections of the time, or if it would become something new and different, a departure from the religious establishment as it had come to be known in Jesus’ day. It was a time when anything was possible, and nothing could be taken for granted—truly a time of uncertainty for the future of the church.
Today, we live in a very different time in the life of the church, a time of relative stability and prosperity, and yet, you still have to wonder about the future of the church in light of the recent messages being proclaimed from pulpits all across our state and nation. It seems to me, that on this day when we celebrate the beginning of the church, it is appropriate—even necessary—to ask: What kind of future can the church have when its message, even if only by a few radicals, suggests that we round up certain groups of people, place them behind electric fences—concentration-camp-like—and wait for them to die? When the truth hits home, as it has these past several weeks, that of all the institutions in society it is the church that is perpetuating hate and violence, we can’t help but ask, “What kind of future does the church have?”
In all honesty, and coming from someone who loves the church and who believes deeply in the role of church in society, I have never felt more disheartened about the institutional church than I have in recent weeks. The intensity of religious bigotry, intolerance, exclusion, and downright hatred being perpetuated in the name of God, religion, and the church is beyond belief. In recent days, we have seen the church as its worst. But as saddened as I am about messages of hate coming from those who claim to be rooted in the Jesus story—a story that, from its very beginning, states that all people are created in the image of God and loved by God—I do have hope. My hope rests in the fact that, throughout history, there are examples of when hatred and bigotry and grave injustices become so profound that God’s people rise up and demand justice. These moments in history represent the church at its best. I choose to believe on this Pentecost Sunday, in the year 2012, that we are on the cusp of just such a moment, and that the spirit will move us—the church—toward being more fully the people of God—spirit-led people.
This morning, we are given two stories of Pentecost—stories that contain some similarities in terms of message, but that are really strikingly different in terms of tone and setting. In the Gospel of John, we have the disciples locked in a room, terrified of what awaits them. They are faced with a post-Jesus world for which they feel unprepared. In many ways, the story feels like an ending. In Acts, the setting feels more like a dramatic party—tongues of fire, magical understanding of different languages, mythological significance. The followers of Jesus are so demonstrative that onlookers assume they are drunk (another version of filled with spirit!). And then it goes into that poetic prose of God pouring out God’s spirit upon all flesh, and sons and daughters prophesying, and old men dreaming dreams. There is energy, excitement, and a sense of beginning in the Acts story.
John’s account of being locked in that room, fearful of what would come next, does not seem to speak to spirit in the same way. Indeed, John’s narrative raises the question of “What does it mean to be a spirit-led people?” Surely, it doesn’t mean holing up in a room or in a church building, fearful of speaking out. I can’t imagine that it means isolating ourselves from the world in which we are called to carry God’s love and grace. No, I would rather think the Acts story reflects more accurately what it means to be spirit-led people—taking risks, stepping outside ourselves for something bigger, being willing to be seen, to be different, to act different, to be seen as crazy if that’s what it takes.
I think of the times in the last twenty years that I’ve experienced our church receiving God’s spirit and allowing that spirit to lead us—the holy union vote, stepping out to take a risk on a different model of pastoral leadership, the marriage equality statement. But I also recognize the less dramatic times—those times when we get into a congregational meeting and allow each other the respect and space and freedom to speak our truth, and the quiet ways where we draw the circle wider and wider and wider, to include everyone rather than choosing to draw the circle tighter and tighter and tighter to the exclusion of others.
There is much debate as to the future of the church by those who debate such things. Much of the conversation is centered on worship styles or the music or the educational programs or what kind of space people will be drawn to—all of which are important. But I believe that the future of the church is not going to be in whether you have contemporary worship, or traditional worship, or what hymns you sing, or what educational programs you have. The future of the church, I believe, rests in the willingness of God’s people to receive God’s spirit, to engage in loving others in ways that may look odd to the world, to be bold enough to speak out with a clear voice in the face of hate and injustice, to welcome the stranger and the sinner, to cloth the naked, feed the hungry, to forgive and reconcile, to pray for one’s enemies, and to take care of those who society deems un-loveable.
In both of these stories—in John and in Acts—the people knew what they needed to know: they knew the message, they knew what they were to do. But their knowing wasn’t enough. In order to do what they had been called to do, they would need more than knowledge and commitment and courage—they would need to receive God’s spirit. It is a humbling thought to realize that Spirit is not something we will ourselves to have. We don’t possess it because of some knowledge we have. It is not something we earn. Spirit, John reminds us, is something we receive. John says, “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Spirit.’” Jesus knew, from his own experience, that we can’t do the work we’re called to do as the church if we’re not willing to receive God’s spirit.
As I think of spirit, I often say there are these moments in life that you can’t not do something—those moments when you know that it’s beyond you to not do something that you know you’re supposed to do. In its essence, I think that is what it means to receive God’s spirit—to be willing to step outside of ourselves for something beyond us. The moments when I’ve felt God’s spirit in my life are the moments when I have felt a presence so powerful and so compelling that I couldn’t not follow it. But it is more than that. Being spirit-led is also about acting from that place in your life where you respond with love in the face of hate, justice in the face of injustice, compassion in the face of pain, forgiveness in the face of judgment, mercy in the face of damnation, and grace in the face of sin.
Someone in the lectionary group this week said that being spirit-led people is about being willing to live beyond just knowledge, to take risks by opening our hearts to the unknown. By giving ourselves over to something that sometimes can feel odd or strange. It is about knowing that God’s love is bigger even than our understanding of God’s love. It is about knowing that we are God’s beloved and that God’s love extends to all people.
This I firmly believe: the future of the church is about now. If the church isn’t being what it needs to be today, the church can’t live into the future of what it can and should be in some future time. Today, I have hope for the future of the church; and I have hope because I have witnessed how you, the people of Pullen, have risked being spirit-led people. I have hope because I know the stories of how you are in the world making a difference by loving compassionately, standing up and speaking out for justice, and taking seriously the call to welcome those who have felt unwelcomed by the church. I have hope in the church because this morning I know there are Pullenites standing in Maiden, North Carolina, with others denouncing the hate speech that was spoken from a church pulpit in the name of God and religion.
I have hope because I believe deep down in my soul that the church today is on the cusp of a new reformation; and this new reformation (some called it the emerging church) will be marked not by its buildings, or its style of worship, or the music it sings but rather by its willingness to receive God’s spirit and be spirit-led people. The future of the church will be determined by how faithful the church of today is in doing what we know we are to do: love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.