Today we celebrate the birth of the Christian Church. Unlike our birthdays there are no candles on a cake to blow out and no presents to open. This birthday is marked with a rush of violent wind, with tongues of fire and with the infilling of the Holy Spirit. It’s marked by the gospel spoken in the languages of all those then present. The church of Jesus Christ came alive on the day of Pentecost. Those who professed Christ as Lord and Savior were empowered to preach the good news! So, it was a great day, one to be remembered and one to celebrate!
As the disciples waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit they stood expectantly on tiptoe, leaning forward into their unknown future, eager to be about the work of Jesus Christ in the world. God heard the prayers of their hearts and God answered them. So each Pentecost observance takes on a special meaning for us too. We also stand on tiptoe, always leaning forward into our respective unknown futures, eager to continue to do the work of Jesus Christ wherever we may find ourselves. We are the church!
We, like the earliest converts to the faith, are at a crossroads, always anticipating some new beginning as our lives individually and collectively shift and flow with our growing faith. Like many new beginnings, there is the tendency to hold fast to what we know or to let go of too much of what we’ve learned and what we’ve gained from the past. Neither inclination is helpful. What is helpful is to embrace the past and learn from it, look forward to the future with anticipation, and enjoy the gift of the present because it is just that, a gift.
Standing at a crossroads can be a time of anxiety and concern but it can also be a time of challenge and excitement. As a church, we stand expectantly and on tiptoe for the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to fill us and inspire us. When we cease to do so, we cease to be the church. God continues to call us and claim us as the Church, as the people of God, as Christ here and now Disciples.
That descriptive image of who and what we are prepares us to be ready to take on new challenges. It can be helpful, in in our preparation, to think of this sense of readiness by considering four steps we might take. The first all-important step is to learn how to assume an attentive posture and as a church to pray and praise God together. So many times in this church we have offered prayer for one another and for circumstances and situations around the world. We know that God hears our prayers even when we aren’t sure how those prayers will be answered. We trust that our prayers have the power to move mountains and sometimes we witness to the fact, that mountains have indeed been moved as a result of our prayers. To truly be the Church of Jesus Christ we are called to lift our voices in prayer. We are called to nurture a true piety, practice a God-breathed, Christ-centered and Spirit-driven faith.
“Years ago, an American minister visited Charles Spurgeon’ s church in London. When the visitor noted there was little heat in the sanctuary, he asked Spurgeon if he had a heating plant. Spurgeon led his guest to a large basement room. He explained that before every service, 400 members met there to pray for their pastor and the salvation of the lost. Spurgeon concluded, ‘This is the church’s real heating plant.”‘ Prayer has the power to heat a room, fill a heart, heal a soul, and transform a life. When we pray, really pray for someone, we can feel a rush of heat permeating our bodies. Singing our prayers can do that too. That’s the power of the Holy Spirit in us. Heat, wind, light, and a sense of calming peace, that regardless of what might happen, God is happening in us.
The Spirit must be allowed to flow freely in the church, in the way we lift our voices in song and prayer, and in the way we relate to our God and one another. We are called to experience the power and presence of God everyday of our lives and with all of our being. Filled with the Spirit, who’s to say that there are not tongues of fire resting above each of our heads? And who among us would deny that the heat in this sanctuary rises a degree or two when we join our hearts together in prayer for one another. When it happens, tears flow and there is a dramatic shift in our worship. We feel it and we know it for what it is…God’s Holy Spirit breathing on each of us.
The second step a spirit-filled church takes is to pour out our hearts. It’s easy to forget that we are more than just an organization run by officers, peopled by workers, raising money and staying busy. The church is far more than this. It’s not an organization we join, but an organism of which we are living members. Pentecost reminds us to be about the work of Christ, to be in fact the body of Christ for the world, bread to the hungry, drink to those who thirst.
What makes a church spirit-filled? It really isn’t dependent on the things we tend to give far too much thought to. A spirit-filled church is not dependent on having a beautiful sanctuary in which to worship or having a good choir and organist bringing us music. A spirit-filled church isn’t dependent on a well-run church school or having an ordained minister leading worship. What’s vital is to have a community of faith alive with the knowledge and love of Christ. “To make Christ enfleshed incarnated, embodied through a Spirit-filled community, the church must pour out a heart filled with self-sacrificing love.” That’s what it means to be an alive church, a spirit-filled church.
The third step of a spirit-filled church is to extend our hands. We are called to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world sharing food with the hungry, providing homes to those who are homeless. But we are also called to do all these good works in good faith, to share the message of Christ with the poor in spirit. The 21st-century church must relearn what the 19th-century church knew so well–that the strength of hands increases the farther away from home they reach.” Our faith should be the guide that leads us forward in mission and compels us to be about the work of Christ in this hurting world.
In far too many ways, we as a church lose ourselves in structures and policies. We find ourselves caught up in rules and regulations. We get lost. A cartoon in the ‘Cathy’ series in the newspapers has Cathy’s father meeting her at the airport. ‘Are you sure Irving was picking you up, Cathy?’ Cathy responds, “Who knows? Once I waited down here for a half an hour while he was waiting on the upper level. Once he went in to meet me at the gate and it took us half an hour to find each other. Once he waited for 45 minutes at the wrong airline. Once I got the dates mixed up, and he spent two hours paging me while I was in a different city. We never run out of ways to miss each other.” *
How true! As human beings we never run out of ways to miss each other. But while we are busy missing each other and missing the point, lives are being lost. As the church, we are called to be a voice in this secular and hostile society-to speak with the authority of God, sharing the message of God’s love for all.
The fourth and final step in the process leading to a church alive in the Spirit is for the church to spread its wings. We are called to trust the Spirit of God, to give ourselves over to the work of God’s Spirit within us, to take up the task before us and to use the power of God that rests within empowering others to be the people God has called them to be. God has the power to change lives. That change happens within us and it happens through us as we live out what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ. On Pentecost that power was shared with the Disciples of Christ. As the spirit moved in the hearts and lives of these committed men and women, a new beginning was initiated, hope was born, and lives were saved. That same movement is available to us today. That same power can transform us first and then the lives we seek to serve in love and in Christ’s name.
We celebrate who we are this day. We remember our roots and our beginning. We envision our future and see just a touch of eternity. We dare to spread our wings, to step off the edge, believing that the rush of wind God calls down upon us will lift us on the breath of the Spirit, bearing us forward into the future.
The wonderful thing about the Universal Church is that buildings or transitions do not encumber its influence. Its work is not stifled by pastoral shifts or by distances. The connection is strengthened not through our efforts but in spite of our efforts. Christ is in charge, not us. The power of prayer, hearts poured out for others, hands reaching out to others, and the spread of wings that lift us above the world but not beyond it – this is the call of the church. It was the call then; it is the call now. On this day we give thanks for the Spirit of God and the rush of wind that flows through us and in us. Amen.
* (Homiletics, April-June 1994 p. 33)