by Ellen Sims
texts: Acts 2:1-18; John 14:8-27
The Holy Spirit, as Jesus described it to his disciples in John’s Gospel, is a source of comfort and peace. But consider how terrifying the story in Acts portrays the Spirit’s activity at Pentecost. From Acts 2 we hear that a sound like the “rush of a violent wind” (Acts 2:2) invaded the space where the disciples and other devout Jews were gathered to observe Shavuot, a festival fifty days after Passover (or fifty days after Easter, as Christians now measure it). The sights that day were as frightening as the sounds: tongues of flame appeared over the heads of each person. Then, as if those gathered there in Jerusalem were possessed by this Spirit, they involuntarily began speaking in languages unknown to them. So bizarre was their behavior that bystanders assumed they were all drunk and Peter had to defend their sobriety and insist that it was God’s Spirit at work among them. But if Peter was right that it was the movement of God’s Spirit they were experiencing, you and I have to acknowledge the Spirit in that instance as a disruptive force, not behaving at all like the gentle dove descending at Jesus’s baptism.
I almost said the Holy Spirit’s emergence on that chaotic day can also be seen in stark contrast with the serene setting for the entrance of the Christchild on Christmas Eve. Yet those who’ve given birth know that even a newborn arrives through a process that can feel violent. Even sweet little Baby Jesus broke into the world amidst pain and strain and the specter of death. Childbirth two thousand years ago had a high probability of ending in death rather than life.
Of course, that’s always how the new emerges–in the birth of a child, in the first manifestation of Christ’s Church at Pentecost, in the wrenching transition from death to resurrection hope. For the new to emerge, the old must die. As 2 Corinthians 5:17 puts it: “17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” The new was celebrated. But the new—-the birth of the Church—-came at a price: the old passed away. And that is the price we are paying for today’s renewal of the Church.
Culture watchers and church analysts like the late Phyllis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, have been tracking the death of one form of Christianity and the emergence of a new. Tickle’s book makes the sweeping claim that about every five hundred years the Church has a rummage sale and throws everything out of the Church attic to start afresh. Two thousand years ago the life of Jesus and the birth of the Church emerged at a time when one form of Judaism was undergoing significant changes and challenges. Then approximately five hundred years later in the tumultuous years when the Roman Empire was collapsing, the great Church councils began developing church doctrines concerning the nature of Christ. Five hundred years after that, the Eastern Orthodox Church split from Western Christianity—even as the horrific Crusades began. Five hundred years after that the Protestant Reformation and Protestantism begin—as well as Roman Catholic reforms. And now today and another five hundred years later we experience and participate in the way the church as we have known is re-forming its theology, ethics, liturgy, ecclesiology. If Phyllis Tickle was right, we’re at a pivotal moment in the Church’s history.
A joke based on the fictional characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson might help us appreciate this pivotal but disorienting moment for the church:
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson decide to go on a camping trip. After dinner and a bottle of wine, they crawl into their tent and go to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend.
“Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”
Watson replied, “I see millions of stars.”
“What does that tell you?”
Watson pondered for a minute.
“Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets.”
“Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo.”
“Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three.”
“Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant.”
“Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow.”
“What does it tell you, Holmes?”
Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke: “Watson, you idiot. Someone has stolen our tent!”
Have YOU felt as if someone has stolen our shelter from the world’s wildness that we called the Church? How vulnerable and exposed we can feel in the midst of the Church’s sweeping changes. What church meant to me decades ago is not what it means for me today. So I’ve changed. But the church is changing, too, on many fronts and always has. There are many Christianities. Unfortunately, it seems the most “popular” versions are the least authentic to the life of Jesus.
After the recent death of beloved author Rachel Held Evans, producer Luke Vander Ploeg for The Daily described her as being “at the center of a movement that’s grappling with the future of an entire religion — a religion full of believers wrestling with where they fit in a rapidly changing culture. Evangelicalism and Christianity in general are often treated as a monolithic block. Rachel’s life forces us to confront a more nuanced reality. There’s a whole new version of a Christian community gathering at the margins.”
Some of us at Open Table may feel we are among those Christians now “gathering at the margins.” Some of you are being newly exposed to progressive Christianity, which must seem less like a spiritual journey and more like a theological roller coaster: at times it’s exhilarating — and at other times terrifying. We might appreciate the freedom of liberal Christianity but miss the certitude that comes with simple, unambiguous answers for the big questions. We like feeling loved unconditionally by God and by the Church —- but we can’t quite trust that love and affirmation. What if there really will be an eternal price to pay for deviating from traditional norms for sexuality and gender, for instance? And if we wander too far from those old expectations, will we be able to find our way back?
What is happening for some of us here at Open Table is happening on a larger scale in much of our post-modern culture: one version of Christianity is dying as a new is being born—-or reborn.
One of the most destructive things that can happen to a faith is for it to become the accepted and established religion of the political, cultural, and social world of its adherents. This is a word of warning and hope for those who follow Jesus. The current hinge time we have entered will offer us the chance to realign our religious tradition with Jesus . . . which years hence will need to be reformed by those who follow us.
After today’s service we’re going to celebrate the universal church’s birthday with Pentecost Cupcakes–red velvet, of course. In the past I’ve baked a red velvet cake, but we’re large enough now that one cake won’t serve us all and for that happy reason we’re having cupcakes at today’s birthday party of the Church. Which is a somewhat silly way to signal again that the church is always changing, always in a process of being reborn in big and small ways. And then dying. And being reborn and dying in service to the needs of the world.
I know it’s natural to want to cling to reliable institutions and world views at this time of sweeping changes within the general culture. But that’s neither healthy nor possible for most people. I know Church has been one of the most reliably static institutions in times of cultural evolution. But in some ways a sliver of the Church, which includes congregations like ours, is in the vanguard of change today. One reason church can be key in helping us move through cultural, political, even drastic environmental changes . . . is that Church offers us foundational values and stable, supportive community amidst instability elsewhere. The churches that can remain relevant in such times have to be, themselves, adaptive and evolving, knowing what is essential for sustaining the Jesus Way, and what to jettison or refit to meet the needs at hand. The 2000-year-old church of Jesus offers us ways to regain our bearing, rejuvenate our spirits, and renew our commitment to the Way during periods of societal upheaval. At this time of Christianity’s approximate 2000-year-old birthday, let us also give thanks for our own small but hopeful expression of Christ’s community right here.
I close by returning to our Gospel reading from John to recall how Jesus envisioned the future of the movement he was founding. His comforting yet challenging words to his followers still speak to us today:
18″I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father/Mother, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Parent, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”. . . .25”I have said these things to you while I am still with you.26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Parent will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Dear Friends, much is uncertain in what lies ahead for us. But the Church, throughout its iterations and despite its ongoing needs for reform, has always been held in the embrace of Jesus and led by the Spirit that dances just out ahead, beckoning us to catch up. Friends, “do not let your hearts be troubled, and to do let them be afraid.”