A Pentecostal Church

A Pentecostal Church

I have a friend who I’ve gotten to know through Twitter. His name is Morgan, and he is a young man who is a student and a candidate for ministry in the United Church in Ontario. Morgan is also preaching today, and as he was preparing this week, he tweeted: “I’m preaching this Sunday for Pentecost. I’m trying to balance making people feel comfortable and being faithful to the Gospel. Then, I remembered that one is much more important than the other.”

I was thinking about this as I was preparing this week, as this is my second last Sunday with you all for a while. After next week, I’ll be going on a four-month sabbatical, and there is a mighty temptation for me to leave on a good note, with people feeling happy and contented. And comfortable.

But, as my friend notes, that’s not always what the Gospel gives us to preach.

It’s a helpful reminder that the content of the sermon is not at the preacher’s discretion. We can’t just get up here and say what we want to say to you, whether that’s a word of challenge or a word of comfort. Preachers and congregations stand together under the authority of Scripture.

Each week, before Scripture is read, we pray together the Prayer for Illumination, and it’s always some version of a commitment to listen intently, to allow our hearts and minds to be penetrated by what we hear, because we believe that in some way what we are hearing is a word from God; and to allow ourselves to be changed, that what we hear actually makes us different than what we were before; then, as changed people, we go and make a difference in the world.

…dangerous stuff.

This is serious stuff. We might even say dangerous stuff. Church is not a place we come to be confirmed as who we are, to be told that everything we are doing is just right, a-okay with God. It’s also not a place we come to be told that everything we are doing is wrong. Church is a place where we should always know that we are loved by God; and yes, loved just as we are.

But the God who loves us is generally not content to leave us just as we are. Our God is a relentless God who keeps working on us and working with us, who untiringly encourages us to become the people we were created to be. We’ve all got something to work on, in our own lives, and certainly, we’ve got lots to work on in the world around us.

So, God loves us—yes; and because God loves us, God’s not content to leave us as we are. That goes for preachers as well as for all of you.

So why am I saying all this on the Day of Pentecost? I’m saying this on the Day of Pentecost because this is the day on which we remember a particular story, the story that Linwood read for us from the Acts of the Apostles.

It’s a story that we sometimes call the birth of the church, a story about God’s fulfillment of an ancient prophecy that He would pour out his Spirit upon all people, enabling them, equipping them, changing them, making them different, so that they would go out and make a difference in the world.

It’s a dramatic story: this roar of a violent wind, a sound that fills the entire house; these tongues like flames suddenly appearing and resting on each person present; each person filled with the Holy Spirit, and starting to babble, to proclaim, to preach in a language they had never known before.

And then, native speakers of all those myriad languages descend on the scene, drawn by the sounds, and astonished by what they find: a gathering of people who speak their language; a sign, an indication, that all are welcome, irrespective of language or culture, or place or gender, or socioeconomic status or tribe. It’s a sign that God has broken down every wall to make a new community; a community that gathers around the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that story itself a sign of the new thing God is doing in the world.

The question that this story confronts us with …

The question that this story confronts us with today is, How closely does our church, what we are doing as church today, how closely does it resemble the church in this story, the church that was born on the Day of Pentecost? What has become of the community born in wind and flame and radical welcome?

I think it’s safe to say that attending this church today is a much tamer, much safer experience than the one described in the book of Acts. I think it’s safe to say that in many respects—though certainly not in all—the church as we know it has become a mainly middle-class social service society with a spiritual flavour; a group of people who are strongly committed to acts of charity and to social justice initiatives.

Let me say, there is nothing wrong with that. The service club version of church has done a lot of good: we’ve raised money for causes at home and abroad, we’ve fed people, and we’ve taken important stands on justice issues. All of these activities and actions trace their lineage back to the stories of Jesus, and his actions of healing, and feeding, and teaching.

But when I read the story of Pentecost I can’t help but think that the church as a service club is a very thin version of the church we meet in the pages of Scripture. It’s been watered down, thinned out, domesticated, tamed, made into something that people like us find inoffensive, non-threatening, just one more good cause amongst many we are inclined to support.

A few verses after today’s reading, the book of Acts describes the church that emerged from the Day of Pentecost:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

Now it’s true that people question whether or not this is an accurate historical description of the early church, and we can think of all sorts of objections to what is described here—it sounds like Communism, it would never work—fair enough.

But I think that when you put this together with the stories of Jesus, it’s pretty clear that the church, the gathering of God’s people, is meant to be so much more than a service club or a charitable society. The church born of the Holy Spirit is so much more than a sponsor of charity, a supporter of social justice, a group of people who never get their hands dirty but instead stand at a safe distance, separated from the people whose lives we hope to impact or improve.

The church that is born on Pentecost is not a sponsor of charity or a supporter of social justice initiatives: it is instead an embodiment, an incarnation of charity and of justice. The church is a site where charity happens, where it is expressed. The church is a social justice initiative. Do you see the difference? We’re not meant to just think charitable thoughts about people who need food, and pray for them, and bring a little something to the food bank. All of that is good, sure; it’s good charity.

But the church born of the Holy Spirit is the place where we eat together; where we ensure that no one sitting in any of these pews is going hungry. We share our food and our resources. In the church born of the Holy Spirit, we genuinely enquire after one another’s well-being, and then do something about it. We can pray for one another, yes, that’s good. But our prayer needs to move us in the direction of doing something; it needs to move us in the direction of becoming the church that was born on the Day of Pentecost, a church that breaks down the walls that keep us separate from one another, always at a safe distance, with all kinds of invisible barriers separating us from the other people who share our pew.

In the church born of the Holy Spirit, our prayer moves us in the direction of opening our hearts, opening our wallets, maybe opening our homes to one another.

Just like on that first Day of Pentecost when God broke down walls of language and culture, and place and gender, and tribe and class that separated the Medes from the Phrygians. God opened their eyes, and their ears, and their hearts to one another and made a new community.

I think we need to become a more Pentecostal church. And now you might be thinking—like in the story—What is he going on about? Is he drunk? Did he just ask us to become a Pentecostal church? But I don’t mean Pentecostal as in speaking in tongues; I mean Pentecostal as in alive with the Spirit, willing to give up some control, a place where we dare to have our complacency disturbed, a place where we are open to the holy mess that will ensue when the Holy Spirit moves among us. We need to move beyond our politics and our preferences; our plans and schemes and dreams and agendas, and get on board with God’s.

With God’s plans and dreams for us and for the world. This may seem like a tall order for us. After all, most of us are older, and settled in our ways. We’re not sure we’re up to all this getting our hands dirty; we’re not sure we know how.

On the other hand, we’ve got a lot more going for us than that first church that gathered on Pentecost. The story says that the entire Christian community numbered about a hundred and twenty people. We’re more than a hundred twenty people here today. Of course the story also says that after the Spirit came on the Day of Pentecost an additional three thousand people joined the church that day, making them the first mega-church!

But to begin with, they were a frightened and traumatized group whose leader had been brutally executed a few weeks before. They were persecuted, arrested, imprisoned, killed for their beliefs. They didn’t own any property, and most of them were poor. Compared to them, we have a lot going for us.

Most importantly, just like them, it’s actually not up to us, and to our efforts, and our resources.

The church that was born that day was a gift of the Holy Spirit. It happened, and three thousand people were baptized, and walls were broken down, and hearts were opened, and people ate together, and loved one another—all that happened because of the Spirit.

It will be so for us, too. As we pray for God’s Spirit, I have no doubt that our prayers will be answered, and that the Spirit will come, making one right holy mess of our lives and of our church. So pray with me if you dare:

Spirit of the living God, visit us again this day of Pentecost.
Come, Holy Spirit, come.
On rushing winds that sweep away all barriers,
come, Holy Spirit, come.
With tongues of fire that set our hearts aflame,
come, Holy Spirit, come.
With speech that unites the babel of our tongues,
come, Holy Spirit, come.
With love that overleaps the boundaries of race and nation,
come, Holy Spirit, come.
With power from above to make our weakness strong,
come, Holy Spirit, come.
In the name of God, the Holy One,
and of Jesus Christ our Saviour,
come, Holy Spirit, come.

Rev. Jeff Seaton reserves all rights © 2016. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.