Sunday, June 12, 2011

Common Language

Acts 2:1-8; 12-21 John 7:37-39

Each year on this special Sunday of Pentecost we commemorate the birth of the Holy Church - not as an institution, however, but as a movement. Yet it is also a day which no longer seems to hold any real significance for Christians because the significance of that very special day has been diminished over time - not because we no longer believe it (even if we don't fully understand it), but because it has been reduced to a single event in the past that will never be repeated. In spiritual fact, however, it is an event that should be repeated daily.

The Pentecost is actually the Jewish Festival of Weeks - or Shavu'ot - which is not a fixed date on a calendar but is a lunar countdown from Passover as commanded in Leviticus 21. It is an agricultural festival during which the "first fruits" (Hag ha-Bikkurim) are harvested and brought to the Temple as an offering to the Lord. Its significance following the Passover also commemorates the "giving" of Torah - the Law; that is, the Lord "revealing" Himself to His people, which should not be confused with His people "receiving" Him through His revelation through prayer and Scripture study both of which should also be daily practices. Passover freed the people of YHWH from physical bondage; Shavu'ot in the "giving" of the Torah redeemed the people of YHWH from spiritual bondage to idolatry and immorality. The Festival marks and commemorates the definitive point at which the people of YHWH were "defined" as a people, a culture with its own practices and language; set apart from the dominant culture.

One of the points made at (Arkansas) Annual Conference regarding the Imagine Ministry proposals (all of which were adopted, by the way) was that the Church has lost its ability to speak to the contemporary generation, not exclusively referring to youth. It was suggested that this is not typically perceived as a problem among believers, those already inside the Church, because we pretty much understand each other. And because we don't really perceive or appreciate a problem within, we don't typically see a problem at all. From within, all is well. We find ourselves perfectly content with the way things are. We as individuals are satisfied with the status quo as it pertains to us individually, so we see no problem. Why, then, try to "fix" what does not seem to be broken?

It's a valid question, of course, because if something seems to be running smoothly, messing with it can really foul things up. This applies to nearly anything we could think of ... except the Church. Because of the dynamic nature of the Church as the Body of Christ (and not a social institution), the measurement of wellness cannot be of the same standard as anything else in the world. A church - any church - that does not see a regular influx of new visitors on a regular basis is, in fact, "broken". If all had been well some 2000 years ago - and the Pharisees and Sadducees were pretty content with the way things were - there would have been no need for a Messiah. If all had been well with the death of Jesus - and the chief priests and scribes were pretty OK with that - there would have been no need for a Resurrection. And if the Church - such as it was among the apostles - was ok with the way things were, there would have been no need for such an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

A "closed culture" is one that may tolerate an "outsider" coming in as long as that "outsider" knows his or her place, but such inwardly focused cultures are typically perceived as not only "private" but sometimes even downright "hostile" to outsiders. This is not always a fair characterization, of course, because churches are often judged by outsiders who never bother to come inside, much in the way we judge them without actually engaging them. Then again, why would they come in if they are not actively engaged by those on the inside and made to feel welcome and invited? Why can't they see from the outside what we clearly see on the inside? Good people, active worship, good study groups, great potlucks and fellowship. What could possibly be wrong with any of this?

There is nothing wrong with any church with a hearty fellowship. In fact it is highly desirable and consistent with the Holy Church's dynamic and history. Membership Care should be very high on any church's list of priorities. Part of what is so compelling about church membership is in understanding that we will look after one another, pray for one another, enjoy one another, and protect one another (rather than seek to destroy one another ) ... as well as hold one another accountable for the necessary spiritual journey. However, as was also pointed out at Annual Conference, it's not strictly about "us". Membership care is "follow-up" care. It is not the primary dynamic of the Body of Christ.

What happened on Pentecost was not about the apostles or their divine appointment and empowerment. It was - and still is - entirely about what the Church was - and still is - being empowered for: reaching outsiders. The Church was - and will be until the Trumpet sounds - about those who cannot seem to find their place within the Body of Christ. It was - and will be until the Day of the Lord - entirely about the "last, least, and lost"; those who thirst and are invited to "drink ... from the rivers of living water ... which flows [freely] from a believer's heart", as Jesus points out (John 7:38).

Outsiders will not come to "drink", however, if the environment where the "living water" is seems strange, exclusive, foreign, or even hostile. And no one, including any one of us, will drink "stagnant" water if there is a better choice. As seems to be told in Acts, however, there is one common element that made all the foreigners notice that "Holy Spirit language" is not gibberish, nonsensical noise exclusively reserved for "insiders". The Holy Father means to be heard AND understood. This must be why Jesus came to us in the form of humanity, so that the Holy God could be seen and heard and understood. It stands to reason, then, that the Holy Spirit is the continuing element of that ministry which began even before that glorious night in a stable so long ago.

It was - and still is - about the "outsiders", the Gentiles, as it is written in the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel: "I will also give you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be My salvation to the ends of the earth" (49:6), and as was pointed out to St. Peter in Acts 10 when he was given a vision with the sheet from heaven with all the unclean animals. That vision was not about food for Peter OR the people on the "inside". That vision was not about enhancing their food choices! It was - and still is - about the "outsiders", those who had previously been declared "unclean", or "common"; the "uncircumcised", those outside the covenant of Abraham. It was Peter's - and thus the Church's - call to reach out to those who had previously been perceived as "undesirable". And this vision was put forth in Peter's call to follow those "uncircumcised" men to the home of an "uncircumcised" man to preach the Good News and baptize these "outsiders" into the New Covenant. Peter was not told to sit and wait for Cornelius to come to him.

The Church - that's you and me - must be able AND willing to communicate with a world seriously gone mad because it is overwhelmingly obvious that as they are out there chasing their own tails in pursuit of something, they are clearly "searching". YOU as the Body of Christ are the answer to their quest for something more, for something with meaning, for something more enduring than anything the world can offer. YOU are the common language not of "sanctification" or "justification" or any other $20 "church word", but of "love", "grace", and "peace". YOU are the Body of Christ, and YOU have been appointed and empowered from above not only for your own spiritual well-being but to also be "a light to the [outsiders] ... [the Lord's] salvation to the ends of the earth."

It was - and still is - all about YOU ... but for something much greater, as it has been said, "The Lord does not comfort us to make us comfortable; He comforts us to make us 'comforters'". WE are the Lord's "salvation to the ends of the earth"! In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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