The story of Pentecost is the story of the birth of the church. Not the building or the institution that we call church, but the whole idea of church. There is the rushing mighty wind that fills everything - I see the spirit filling every nook and cranny of life; there are tongues of fire - I see the energy of the spirit animating our every action; and words spoken that are heard and clearly understood in any language - I hear the spirit helping us connect with each other in ways that bring us together. (Acts 2:1-21)
That’s church, isn’t it? For everyone, everywhere, isn’t it?
We want it to be. So I imagine, in many churches this Pentecost Sunday, we’ll want to be as hip and relevant as we can: the balloons and streamers will come out, and the big fans for that rushing wind, we’ll sing really energetic songs and there’ll be cake. Birthday cake for the church. With one big candle to represent all those years. And we’ll tell the story with as much energy and enthusiasm as we can muster. ‘Cause we’re hip and cool.
Which is fine if you really are hip and cool. But not everyone is, not like that, anyway. For some it’s going to be solemn plainsong, candles and incense and still others gospel songs and fire and brimstone preaching. Some will gather in great cathedrals, others in plain little wooden buildings and still others in theatres or hockey arenas.
For some, this year, the images of wind and fire will resonate more with fear and destruction than joy and celebration. It will be difficult to see those images as a positive and inspiring reflection of the power of God at work in the world.
Isn’t that all part of the third piece, though? Once the wind and fire - the special effects - had settled down, they began to communicate in a way that each person could understand. No amount of energy overcomes faulty communication. As I just suggested, even the images we use to communicate energy and enthusiasm might not do the job for everyone.
So how do you do that third piece, then? How does the church share the story of God and Jesus, of what is true and right about how we should live together and, as we’ve been talking about for several weeks now, teach - and learn - how to love one another. It sounds like a pretty lofty and idealistic goal, but just how do you do that?
I think that’s the answer right there. How do you do that - you and me and each of us? If we mean what we say when we say things like the church is a living thing, the church is people, the church is about community, the church is about relationships and, ultimately, our relationship with God and all creation, then shouldn’t we be more of a living, breathing being that interacts with others?
Just ponder that for a minute and ask yourself a few questions. Like, if church were a person, would you want to know them? And how would you go about that? If church were you, would you want people to know you? (Seriously, think about that.) And how would you go about getting to know people?
It seems to me that’s how church got started. The disciples shared the story in a way people could understand. Paul built communities by bringing people together on common ground. We had to figure out how to be together. But then we thought we knew how and we cast it in stone and told people what they had to be in order to belong. And soon it was about excluding those who didn’t meet the criteria.
But that’s counter to both the story of Pentecost and the story of Jesus. The Spirit moved the disciples to communicate in a way that connected with people, loving and living with everyone, even those who thought they were drunk and “filled with new wine” (Acts 2:13). Jesus met people where they were, physically, educationally and emotionally, he healed the broken and restored them, he challenged the structures of society that confined and excluded people. That’s what church was born to be.