Text: Acts 2:1-21
News headlines can be confusing. One boldly states, “Church in America marked by Decline.” The first sentence of that article makes the assertion that, “The church in America is shrinking.” As evidence, it says that, “The number of men, women and children in the pews has dipped to the lowest level since a comprehensive effort to count members began in 1980…” (source: www.christianchronicle.org) But if you turn to Christianity Today, a well-known and respected religious publication, you will read a different headline. It reads: “The State of the Church in America—Hint: It’s Not Dying.” If you go on to read the first couple of sentences of that article, here is what you will read. “The church is not dying. Yes, the church in the West—the United States included—is in transition right now. But transitioning is not the same as dying, particularly if you hold the belief that Christianity is represented by people who live for Christ, not check ‘Christian’ on a survey form.”
Is the church in America dying or not? While the debate about the state of the church wages on in scholarly religious periodicals and even popular magazines like Time and Newsweek are asking the question, “Is the church dying or not?” there are others of us asking a different question. And that question is this, “What role does the church play in our society today and what relevant message, if any, does it have for the world?” I raise this question about the state of the church in terms of its role and message because today is Pentecost—the liturgical day when Christian worshipers celebrate the birth of the church as described in Acts 2. And so today is a good day to ask some questions about the state of the church in our society.
Before delving into what this Pentecost narrative may mean for us, let us first consider its context. The first thing to note is that the story of the day of Pentecost can go in many directions, depending on the lenses through which we read it. “If we read it alongside of Genesis 11—the story of the Tower of Babel—we might attend to the languages and how God uses differing languages to scatter one people and to gather another. If we read it alongside of Ezekiel 37—the valley of dry bones—we might attend to the spirit, or breath, that infuses the church, bringing new life. We might connect it to the second creation story if we go in that direction, when God breathes life into the lump of clay called Adam and Eve. If we read it with our Jewish sisters and brothers alongside of the tradition of Shavuot from Leviticus 23, we might see how this is an empowerment of justice, which is realized in Acts 2:44-45 [where Luke writes], ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.’” (Mark Davis)
Pentecost is believed to be the oldest feast in the Church, dating back to the first century A.D. Historically, it coincided with the Jewish Feast of Weeks, which occurs fifty days after Passover. According to Jewish tradition, the Ten Commandments were given to Moses fifty days after the first Passover, which freed the Hebrews from their bondage in Egypt. As the Hebrews settled into Canaan, the feast become a time to offer thanks to God for blessing the fruits of their labors. At the time of Jesus, the festival would have focused on rabbinical law and faith traditions.
In Luke’s telling, Pentecost signals the the day and moment that the Spirit descends upon all those gathered, post resurrection, and fulfills the arrival of God’s promised Spirit. Luke structures the narrative to reflect Jesus’ earlier prophecy, the reception of God’s Spirit, which enables the community to carry an inspired word about the risen Christ to the entire household of Israel. One of the more fascinating aspects to me about this story is that Luke includes in his telling the response of the critics of the day. It appears that some did not buy the whole “arrival of God’s spirit” theme. Instead, they spoke not of THE Spirit but of spirits—and accused those present of having a little too much to drink. (I guess none of us can escape our critics.) At that point, Luke has Peter quoting that beautiful and inspiring text from Joel.
In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And with that beautiful summation, one could surmise from Luke’s Pentecost story that the role of the church is to prophesy—sons and daughters; men and women. But of what shall we prophesy? What is the message of the church today? That is the question.
I want to answer that question by describing what I see as three paradoxes of Pentecost. The first paradox, as theologian David Lose describes it, is this: the Spirit does not come to solve our problems but to create them. He writes, “Think about it: absent the coming of the Spirit, the disciples could go back to their previous careers as fisherman.” He goes on, “I can almost hear James and John explaining, ‘Sure, it was a wild and crazy three-year-ride, and that Jesus sure was a heck of a guy, but maybe we needed to get that out of our system before we could settle down and take on Dad’s business.’ But once the Spirit comes, however, that return to normalcy is no longer an option. They will now be propelled throughout the ancient world to herald the unlikely message that God has redeemed the world through an itinerant preacher from the backwaters of Palestine who was executed for treason and blasphemy.” The Pentecost story reminds us that the Spirit doesn’t solve our problems, it creates them. Asking us to press on with a message that is countercultural to the one that many churches espouse today—that God will solve all our problems if we just have enough faith. The Pentecost paradox is that once the Spirit is upon us, our way of living in the world is challenged by and challenges the status quo of the world.
The second Pentecost paradox: the Spirit doesn’t prevent failure but invites it. Our culture is obsessed with success and the church has bought—hook, line and sinker—into the success-obsessed model of our society. We evaluate our programs, our budgets, our worship by how many people come. We are a success if our membership grows by 20% a year or if our budget grows 10% from year to year or if we have need to build bigger buildings to house our successful programs. On the other hand, failure means that we are not good enough, smart enough, or hip enough. And in order to not be seen as a failure, we risk less and less unwilling to follow the Spirit that often calls us to do things that look crazy from the world’s standpoint.
Barbara Brown Taylor says it this way, “If I had to name my disability, I would call it an unwillingness to fall. On the one hand, this is perfectly normal. I do not know anyone who likes to fall. But, on the other hand, this reluctance signals mistrust of the central truth of the Christian gospel: life springs from death, not only at the last but also in the many little deaths along the way. When everything you count on for protection has failed, the Divine Presence does not fail. The hands are still there – not promising to rescue, not promising to intervene – promising only to hold you no matter how far you fall. Ironically, those who try hardest not to fall learn this later than those who topple more easily. The ones who find their lives are the losers, while the winners come in last.”
I remember the first time I heard this Pentecost paradox. I was at a preaching conference in Atlanta and Walter Brueggemann was the conference preacher. He began, what would become his final official sermon before retirement, with these words, “God does not call us to be perfect. God calls us to be faithful.” I have shared with you before how deeply liberating those words were to me. I actually remember physically feeling weight being lifted off my shoulders. And still today, I have remind myself of the truth of Brueggemann’s words. God, the Spirit, does not call me to be successful. God, the Spirit, calls me—us—to be faithful. And sometimes when we are faithful, we experience failure. Things don’t work out like we thought they would, or had hoped they would, or as we wanted them to. But unless we are willing to risk failure along the way, we are at greater risk of not following the Spirit. Everything that the disciples believed in and had hoped for in the three years of following Jesus could have ended with the cross. There were no guarantees. Failure was always a risk. But here we are today still telling the story.
The third and final Pentecost paradox: the Spirit is not a personal gift from God that each believer privatizes, it is a distinguishing mark of a people belonging to God. That beautiful passage from Joel doesn’t say that God will pour out God’s Spirit on some people, it says that “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” Because we are Baptists, and American, we have a natural tendency toward rugged individualism. As Baptists that carries over into one of the tenets of our faith – soul freedoms that promote individual and individualist faith. But the Biblical story, from the beginning, is about a whole people who belong together to this God. And this text goes to great lengths to illustrate that this Pentecostal Spirit is compelling the disciples to witness not just to their own established community, but to literally speak in the mother tongues of the masses so that the larger community can understand and engage. And so, while we are individuals, who have to come to our own faith and discern the Spirit in our lives, our faith is not solitary, it is communal, and we can ultimately find our way in faith only in the presences of the people of God. For God has poured out God’s spirit on ALL people.
Writing about the mission of the church, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “What if people were invited to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe? What if they were blessed for what they are doing in the world instead of chastened for not doing more at church. What if the church’s job were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church?” What if that was the message of today’s church? Maybe the pews would be packed.
Is the church in America dying or is it simply in transition? If we are looking for the Spirit to solve our problems, while we take no risk in following the Spirit, all the while privatizing our faith as a personal gift from God, then I would say the church is dying. But if our message is one joining the Spirit, not in trying to solve the world’s problems, but rather in creating enough tension to show the world a different way of living; and if our message is one of being willing to risk looking like fools for our cause and sometimes failing at what we do; and if our message is that this gift of Spirit and faith is not about a private religion but rather a distinguishing mark of a people belonging to God, then I say the church is in transition and has never been more alive.