Church is a Group Project

Church is a Group Project

Acts 2:1-21

2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every people under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Peter Addresses the Crowd

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Fellow Jews and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘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 see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit,
        and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Let us pray: Oh Lord, when we are burned out, ignite us with love. When the world seems like a lot of “us” and “them,” make of us a “we.” Where we are confused and afraid and embarrassed and things don’t makes sense, translate for us, O Spirit, through your living word, Christ our Lord. Amen.

Several years ago, I was teaching a confirmation class about the Holy Spirit and the story of Pentecost. Now, a bad habit of Presbyterian curriculum writers is to repeatedly ask students to demonstrate their learning by working as a group to make a mobile, you know, dangling cut out pictures from string. It is supposed to be kinetic art, but it usually means the message itself dangles way over people’s heads. 

As they set about creating their mobile, I told them, “Pentecost is often called the birthday of the church, the day the Holy Spirit arrived with tongues of fire, 50 days after Easter.”

The only problem was …one student couldn’t find a dove of peace in the stack of magazines, so he used a picture of an attacking eagle from National Geographic. Its talons were lashing out to grab some unsuspecting fish. Yikes. Then, another student could not find a polite birthday candle for the flames that were to be over the disciples’ heads in the Pentecost story, so he used a picture of a wildfire, with firefighters shouting in the smoke. Double yikes. And finally, another student decided to add to the mobile a picture of a weird prehistoric looking animal I didn’t recognize, like a pangolin. I asked him what it was, and he said, “I have no idea.” Then he said. “Well, the Holy Spirit is kinda confusing too. Can you explain it?”

At that point, I considered offering a robust Reformed definition of the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity, coequal with the Father and the Son. I considered quoting theologian Karl Barth who said the Holy Spirit is the one who awakens the community, reconciles humanity to God, and breathes the church to be the visible body of Christ. I almost quoted Psalm 104, how God’s Spirit is sent forth to renew the earth and the glory of the Lord endures forever.

But I finally said that the Holy Spirit was more like their mobile than they realized. According to the book of Acts, the Spirit moves more like a wildfire than a sweet birthday candle. It moves swiftly, arresting our plans and speaking the truth in a way that seizes our heart so that we love with Christ’s heart instead of our own. And that means, the Spirit might have sharp talons as well as soft feathers. And the Holy Spirit brings understanding where people only expected confusion and conflict. All that to say, the Spirit is an ancient and curious animal indeed.

As Acts 2 begins, the disciples were gathered all in one place. They were together because they thought that the risk was outside, out there, with all those folks who didn’t understand them.  So, they were in that Upper Room in Jerusalem where it was safe and quiet and they could pleasantly discuss things. Pleasantly do the work of the Apostle Nominating Committee, replacing Judas with Matthias. It was calm, decent, orderly. Maybe someone passed around baked goods. As Nadia Bolz Weber writes, The disciples were in danger but not from outsiders – the danger they were in, as they sat all together in one place, was from a God who is about to crash the party and bring in everyone they were trying to avoid.

All of a sudden there was something like a fire that filled the entire house. If the burning bush is an indication of the holy fire of God, it burns, but does not consume. It always propels people who would rather be doing safe things into the wild terrain of their calling.

 So the apostles were propelled out into Jerusalem, this time with a surprising superpower!

 Now, I bet, if asked ahead of time, they probably would have chosen the ability to fly or shoot fire from their hands or become invisible. Those are the superpowers most of us want, right? But instead they were given the ability to understand people, the very people they had previously been sidestepping, and the ability to be understood. Is there anything people want more than that? Is there really anything more powerful than that? Is there really anything our world needs more than that?

Their superpower was the ability to create belonging. And to whom were they sent? Maybe we struggle to recognize that 1st century Jerusalem crowd of Parthians and Medes and devout Jews. To my knowledge, I have never met an Elamite. Pamphylia sounds like a place where people hand out pamphlets, so I may have met them at conferences. But maybe it is not all that different from any group. A group of transplants in a capital city, that sounds like Northern Virginia. A group of people who intellectualize holy things aloud “what does this mean?” that sounds like Presbyterians. And a group where someone thinks this chaos is the result of drunkenness and other lapses in judgment and another disagrees but just because it’s only 9 am, that sounds like the rest of the church.

It’s a lot easier to deal with Pentecost if it’s just a nice metaphor, a kinetic mobile that remains over our heads, remains safely in some other time and place. But, the Holy Spirit mobilizes us now. The Holy Spirit sends us now to the hard to understand places in our world, with a spirit of translation and shalom.

            … hard to understand places like the person who voted differently than you did,

            … hard to understand places like the part of your partner’s life that has become foreign to you,

            … hard to understand places like the region of your mom’s life that you’ve never understood

            Or like the part of your story that you’re still trying to make sense of.

The Spirit of God crashes the party, bringing visions and dreams and possibilities that still leave us astonished. The Bible is the story of people who chose to live with that kind of holy fire rather than freeze to death in cynicism and safety, and today we need to remember that the Spirit didn’t stop back then and back there.

The Spirit mobilized South Africans to envision a future beyond Apartheid.

The Spirit mobilized Guatemalans to envision a future beyond Civil War.

The Spirit mobilized Civil Rights leaders to dream about future for this country beyond the hostility of racism.

On Memorial Day weekend, I think about the prayers and dreams of so many who sacrificed, in uniform and not, so that fires of aggression and domination would not burn out of control.

And, I believe the Spirit is inspiring us to build a church that speaks the language of the people around us… builds community and belonging right here in Burke in a time when loneliness has become a raging fire. We are sent to Mason students and Greenspringers, Republicans and Democrats, Techies and luddites, Hondurans and Germans, veterans and vegans, Swifties and Deadheads and rabid enthusiasts of the pipe organ, those who grew up Catholic or Baptist or only at Church of the Holy Comforter, people from Cameroon and California and Carolina, including Duke fans and those belonging to UNC, listening to one another and serving together and telling the story of resurrection and forgiveness in Christ.

I told the confirmation students, their mobile dangling before me. “Well, I can’t explain the Holy Spirit perfectly – But, I can feel it. When it shows up, it feels as raw and healing as the truth, when someone tells you the truth you need to know. It feels like an unexpected peace, like when everything went wrong and yet your spirit feels buoyed by some holy wave. It feels like deep understanding between people who expected to be totally different from each other.”

This week I asked interns here at BPC if they had ever felt that Spirit. One of them said, “I feel it when I close my eyes and sing. I feel music inside me but also all around me.” “I feel it when we go on the IMPACT Choir tour. People told us we gave them hope.” “I feel it when there are no cliques, and people can belong and be themselves at the same time.”

Church has always been a group project, just as powerful and frustrating as the ones you remember from high school. We add what we have. We trust that the Spirit move us and heal us and connect us to a goodness far beyond what we can imagine. And even when we worry we’ll burn out, we don’t, or when we worry we don’t have what we need, we do. It turns out, the only things that are burned away are the old hang ups and fears and polarizations that kept us from seeing God in each other and thinking we were ever supposed to do this alone.

“Any other questions?” I asked the confirmands who had finished their mobile. “Yes, there is one I have been meaning to ask for a long time now,” one student said. Pastors love to believe we have pried open a theological watermain. “Do you know when lunch is? My grandparents are supposed to be taking me to Glory Days after church.”

I am betting he was more hungry than theological, but he was still going in the right direction. The table is where the Spirit is best understood… where outsiders become guests, where our bodies taste eternal belonging, and where the Spirit prepares to send us out again.