Be the Church
Rev. Dr. Kristin Philipson
May 31, 2020 - Pentecost
We have a tradition in our family when it’s one of our kids’ birthdays: we pull out the photo album from the year they were born and look through all the pictures. There’s you when you were just a few hours old, we say. There you are trying solid food for the first time. There are your first steps. There’s something important in deliberately looking back on who we were; it helps us to remember who we are. It strengthens our sense of identity. “Remember that part of yourself?” we say, “Do you remember that? Do you remember?”
Today happens to be the birthday of the Christian church, and every year on this Sunday we pull out the Book of Acts to look at an old snapshot of the early Church. Looking back, we remember how we began, and who we are at our core, and what we should be about.
It was the Feast of Pentecost, an ancient Jewish festival kind of like Thanksgiving. Pentecost is the Greek word for “fiftieth,” and the feast took place on the 50th day after Passover. Just after Passover you’d plant your crops, then count the weeks until you got to seven weeks after planting, or 50 days, and on the 50th day everyone traveled to Jerusalem, to visit the Temple, and offer up to God the first fruits of their harvest. So the day of Pentecost had come, and they were all together in one place – that original small group of friends who had followed Jesus, eleven of them now, along with the women who worked with them and several dozen others who had joined the group – they’d gathered together for Pentecost; a celebration they’d planned just for the group of them. It had been 50 days since Jesus had died and there was such was a feeling of comfort in this gathering; within the group there was such a sense of security. It felt so good to look around a room and recognize every single other face there. And then there was the comfort in the predictable flow of their services – everyone knew what was coming next, the rituals that were familiar to them all – the greeting at the door as they came in, the passing of the peace, the recitation of the same prayers and the singing of the same songs.
For many of us Church is a place where we draw comfort in the predictable. When my family moved to Los Angeles a few years ago, for a year, one of the first things we did to steady ourselves after the chaos and stress of moving was to find a church community. First Congregational Church of Pasadena was a stone building that loomed solid and immoveable. We walked through the front doors and happened to be greeted in exactly the same way as we were at our church in Toronto – that was comforting. The minister said it was time to pass the peace and we turned and shook hands, “Peace be with you,” we said, just like back home. And this group said the Lord’s Prayer just like we did and after the service they too moved into an old parlour for tea and coffee. It was all so familiar, so predictable, so comfortable. But you know, when you go back and look at the picture of how the Church came to be what you see is that it was entirely strange, and you realize that the Church was conceived in totally unpredictable circumstances, and as I look back and ponder the image of that time I think it would actually have been really uncomfortable to be a part of.
It was the day of Pentecost, and all of the disciples were together in one place, when suddenly, without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, a gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building, and the Holy Spirit spread among them like wildfire. If you are sitting next to someone right now, imagine them starting to speak in a language you know they’ve never studied – Swedish, or Japanese, or Arabic. Now imagine a burning sensation in your own chest and your eyes widening as you open your mouth to speak Icelandic. The story goes that there were many Jews staying in Jerusalem just then for Pentecost, devout pilgrims from all over the world and when they heard that sound coming from where the disciples had gathered, they came on the run. One after another they were thunderstruck. “They’re speaking our languages,” they said, “describing God’s mighty works!”
Back in the middle of March this year (in North America, at least), in response to the global pandemic, we had to close our church building. You know the story: for the health and safety of all in the face of a very infectious virus, we had to suspend in-person gatherings. And all of a sudden everything that we thought of as making the Church “Church,” – what was familiar to us, what was predictable to us, what was comfortable to us, the passing of the peace, the singing together, the sharing of food – well none of that could be Church for us anymore, at least not in the same way. I was asking myself existential questions: what did it mean to be the Church if we couldn’t offer people what was familiar and what was predictable and what was comfortable? Wasn’t that a big part of what being the Church was all about? I raised the question with myself and was met all of sudden with a sound like the rush of a violent wind. “Hold on,” the Spirit said, “it’s going to be a wild ride. Time to move out of your comfort zone,” She said, and then She blew open the doors of this sanctuary with the force of gale wind. “You’re going to speak a different language now,” She said. “It translates into a series of 1s and 0s when digitized it can be understood by people all over the globe – I want you to start speaking, now,” She said, “into your phone.” “But what about our Bible Study,” I asked, “and what about the Contemplative Prayer Groups, and how is Roberta going to lead the Youth Group and Sunday School?” I said. “Have you heard of Zoom?” She questioned. “I don’t know,” I said, “ I don’t know if I like Church this way, in fact, I don’t know if you could even call any of this – what we’re doing here – church.” And that’s when the Spirit sat me down on the couch and pulled out the old album called the Book of Acts and flipped to the snapshot of the Church the year it came into being. “Take a look at this picture,” She said, point at the book. “Don’t you remember how the Church began,” She said, “don’t you remember?” “I didn’t make the Church for you to be comfortable,” She said. “The Church came into being to share my message.”
Today we are asked to remember; remember that the Church did not come into being to occupy a certain kind of building. The story of our inception doesn’t reference any towering cathedrals, vaulted ceilings, or rich colours of stained glass. And we are asked to remember that the Church did not come into being to bask in the familiar and the predictable, in ancient rituals and shared traditions. The story of Pentecost reminds us that the Church came into being to share a message. A group of people were empowered by the Spirit to speak. God’s Spirit empowered the disciples to share a message, and that was the beginning Church: a People empowered to speak.Now it needs to be said that ours is a world in desperate need of an encouraging and empowering word. I know that no time in human history exists without the twin presence of goodness and evil. Goodness and evil flow through every era like parallel streams, but it seems to me that in the present era evil is threatening to overflow its banks and flood us. As it wasn’t enough that an infection of greed and penchant for ease in humanity threatens the loss of our natural world, there is not a single person living on earth right now who has not experienced some kind of immediate and devastating loss from the Covid-19 pandemic. 365 000 dead worldwide and the numbers are still rising. But the news in the past week and month have made it impossible to ignore that our world continues to be ravaged by yet another devastating disease: the pernicious disease of racism and its presence and persistence among White people everywhere. Those infected are known to be violent and deadly to people of colour – witness the racist attack against two Asian women on a Vancouver bus, and the terrible murders of Ahmed Aubrey and George Floyd in the United States, to mention a handful of recent victims of this pandemic that has raged for centuries.It’s always been the work of good religion in every era to witness to the power and presence of Goodness in the face of evil and this has been the mandate of Christian Church at its best as well. We are called to celebrate God’s presence, to live with respect in Creation, to love and serve others, to cry out for justice and to urge repentance in ourselves and others. No doubt our world needs an encouraging word, but how will the Church bear witness? How can the Church deliver such a message when we’re so far out of our comfort zone right now, when nothing is predictable, when the familiar has been closed? “Do we need to sit down again and look at those old snapshots?” Spirit says to us.
Members of Rosedale United Church, friends on Facebook, you who stumbled upon this message on your newsfeed, you that had this video forwarded to you by someone else, all of you who are listening – today is about remembering that you are the Church. God’s Spirit has been poured out on you! You have within you the visions and the dreams our world needs to hear. The Church is a message. It is the Spirit’s message of love and mercy and forgiveness and compassion for this world and the Spirit has empowered you to speak it! You embody the Spirit’s message and so you are the Church.Now we’ve taken the time to look back, we’ve sat with snapshots and heard the story. Remember who you are! You are the Church. I want to invite you to listen within yourself for the Spirit’s message for a hurting world. She is empowering you to speak it. God has poured out God’s Spirit on all people. God has poured out God’s Spirit on you. When you go outside today and feel the rush of the wind, and let it move you, know that you are a vital part of God’s continuing story. You are the message, the encouraging word.