“Spirit, Spirit of gentleness, blow through the wilderness calling and free;
Spirit, Spirit of restlessness, stir me from placidness, Wind, Wind on the sea.”
~ James K. Manley
This past Sunday followers of Jesus from all around the world observed Pentecost, a holy day regarded as the birthday of the Christian Church. We are told that the Church’s birthday party first began one auspicious morning in that upper room in Jerusalem where Jesus’ inner circle of disciples were cloistered under orders of their ascended Lord. They had been instructed to hunker down and wait prayerfully for the Spirit to introduce the next act of God’s great cosmic drama.
Outside that room, the crowded streets of Jerusalem were all a bustle with a diverse throng of devout Jews who had come to Jerusalem from far and wide in observance of their harvest festival, the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot). The stage was set and the crowd was gathered. The time had come for God’s Spirit to raise the curtain.
Clothed in the elemental attire of wind and fire, this same Spirit of God that was “hovering over the waters” in the Creation narrative (Genesis 1:2) blows into the upper room with the sound of a Kansas tornado and lights a fire under the disciples (or in this case, atop them). It is a refiners fire that hones them into Apostles with the mettle to proclaim the good news that Jesus is Lord and Messiah, and to invite people of every stripe to follow his example as ambassadors of the Kingdom (reign) of God.
In a narrative that turns any contemporary preacher green with envy, we are told that impetuous Peter, imbued with and emboldened by the Spirit, delivers his first sermon. And though accused by some of being under the influence of other ‘spirits’ (the inebriating kind), Peter’s homily declaring that Jesus is the ‘real deal’ is so persuasive that around 3,000 amazed listeners take the plunge. Then and there they heed Peter’s ‘altar call’: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38). Then and there on that transformative day, the diverse throng who had come only to experience a Hebrew harvest festival left as witnesses to the birth of the Holy Christian Church, the ‘Communion of Saints’ (at first known as ‘The Way’).
Fast forward from then and there to here and now. Over 21 centuries the institution that bears the name ‘Christian’ has come a long ‘Way,’ baby. History, rightly interpreted, reveals that it/we have been and still are a force to be reckoned with, a force both benevolent and malevolent. It/we have been and still are both a blessing and a curse upon every civilization from the inception of the Church to the present, and upon the natural world that is our God-given home “to till and to keep.” We have managed to ‘reverse engineer’ the Creation account by anthropomorphizing God, recreating God into our own image. Under the banner of him whose name/title we bear, and through the authority and power we presume God has granted us, we have both unwittingly and knowingly perpetrated acts of atrocity and evil that are beyond the pale.
Like a ship without anchor, sails or rudder, the HMS ‘Christiana’ has often slipped its moorings and drifted further and further away from the beloved community that the book of the Acts of the Apostles describes following Peter’s Pentecost sermon:
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.” (Acts 2:43-47)
In his poem Troilus and Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer opined that “all good things must come to an end.” Such was the case with that early ‘Utopian’ community of believers that possessed nearly perfect qualities. The pastoral epistles of Paul to the ever growing Christian congregations reveal the shortcomings and wrongs in need of righting. Take his letter to the budding believers in Ephesus. After extolling the gospel story of Jesus as Christ (Messiah) and describing this new, all-encompassing family of God in the first 3 chapters, Paul goes on in the next 3 chapters to challenge the lifestyle of these neophyte Christians. He reminds them that they were reborn of the Spirit by the grace of God to respond in gratitude by living selfless lives. Like Christ, they are to put the welfare of others before their own petty self interests (i.e. the picture of the Church in Acts 2).
Paul emphasizes that the body of Christ (the Church) is one body empowered by one Spirit so that each person uses their unique talents/gifts for building up the body and in pursuit of the common good. Paul gives examples of what that new Spirit-filled lifestyle looks like:
- In place of deceit/lies, the new person in Christ puts on veritas/truth
- In place of anger/hostility, the new person in Christ puts on passivity/peace
- In place of thievery/avarice, the new person in Christ puts on benevolence/generosity
- In place of gossip/malice, the new person in Christ puts on encouragement/assistance
- In place of revenge/retaliation, the new person in Christ puts on forgiveness/mercy
- In place of promiscuity/unfaithfulness, the new person in Christ puts on self control
- In place of drunkenness/insobriety, the new person in Christ puts on the Spirit.
In summary, Paul says “So be careful how you live. Don’t live like ignorant people, but like wise people. Make good use of every opportunity you have, because these are evil days. Don’t be fools, but try to find out what the Lord wants you to do.” Then, building on this reality that evil exists to counteract the working of the Spirit, Paul uses the military metaphor of putting on the whole ‘armor’ that God supplies in order to “stand up against the Devil’s evil tricks.” He lists the various pieces of that armor beginning with the belt of Truth around one’s waist, and ending with the Word of God as the sword supplied by the Spirit. The Word of God is the sword wielded by the Spirit that dissects/separates truth from lies, reality from fantasy, and that which God pronounces “good” from that which God declares “evil.”
It has now been 21 centuries since Peter’s Spirit-inspired sermon on Pentecost that gave birth to the Church; 21 centuries since Paul’s challenging letter to the fledgling followers of Christ in Ephesus to live the new Spirit-filled life in gratitude for God’s grace and in defense of God’s truth. Across those centuries so much has changed, and so much remains constant, for better and for worse. The fact that the Christian Church that was birthed on Pentecost centuries ago still lives and breathes and moves and influences the lives of people and the fate of nations (and of the planet) is miraculous. But in that same breath, it is also daunting.
As many trials and tribulations, persecutions and executions as the first Apostles and believers endured, they could never have imagined the long, arduous, winding and bumpy road that lay ahead for the Church to traverse. Indeed, their hopes and dreams called for Christ’s quick return as they prayed, “Come, Lord Jesus.” But the sprint they hoped and prayed for turned out to be an endurance ultra-marathon with no finish line on the horizon. The Church’s journey is, in fact, a relay ultra-marathon with the baton being passed from age to age to one generation after another. Given the odds of maintaining that perfect pass of the baton through the centuries, some have conjectured that the Church is always one generation away from extinction; one faulty drop of the baton. Others trust that such a scenario in not in the Spirit’s playbook.
Nevertheless, 21 centuries is a long time for any institution to thrive and survive. 21 centuries of praying the prayer that Jesus taught his first disciples while God’s Kingdom still dwells in the “now but not yet” and God’s will has not yet gained the traction on earth as it has in heaven, is a long haul. Roman Catholic theology enumerates what is known as the Seven Heavenly Virtues with #6 as Patience. Perhaps the time is overdue to move Patience (or Perseverance) up the heavenly ladder, for it is surely a spiritual gift in high demand.
And so, while we still pray as did the first believers, “Come, Lord Jesus,” we also learn throughout our life to trust that Jesus has, indeed, already come to us individually, to the body of Christ as a whole and to the whole world in the person of the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Spirit on Pentecost that gave birth to the living body of Christ is the gift that keeps on giving. That’s the nature of the Spirit. That’s the Spirit!
In this week between the observance of Pentecost and Trinity Sunday it is appropriate, then, to finish this post with the concluding portion of A Brief Statement of Faith:
We trust in God the Holy Spirit,
everywhere the giver and renewer of life.
The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith,
sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor,
and binds us together with all believers
in the one body of Christ, the Church.
The same Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles
rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture,
engages us through the Word proclaimed,
claims us in the waters of baptism,
feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation,
and calls women and men to all ministries of the church.
In a broken and fearful world
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit,
we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks
and to live holy and joyful lives,
even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth,
praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
With believers in every time and place,
we rejoice that nothing in life or in death
can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.