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What Does it Mean to be Church?

Oh, God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire.    Amen.

Today we celebrate Pentecost–the day in our church when we celebrate God’s Spirit coming to dwell within the hearts and minds of the people.  The miracle of Pentecost is often seen as a dramatic event with violent winds, tongues of fire, and the sudden ability of the disciples to speak (of God’s power) in all the languages of the people gathered.  This certainly would have been an astonishing experience. But I believe that the first miracle–or earth changing moment– of Pentecost was when these ordinary, timid, terrified men and women were filled by the Holy Spirit and changed into witnesses of the risen Christ to the world. This was new creation.

The disciples had certainly been caught up in a roller coaster ride of joy, fear, despair, and amazement.  After giving everything up to follow Jesus, they had watched him be arrested and led away to be crucified as a common criminal.  In Jesus’ hour of great vulnerability, these followers had betrayed and denied him and then upon his arrest, fled in fear. Not exactly an auspicious beginning for our church.  Still Jesus never gives up on them, just as he never gives up on us.

Following his resurrection he comes to them. He shows them his hands and his feet and invites them to touch him.  Then in the breaking of the bread and enjoying a meal of broiled fish he confirms that he has indeed been raised to new life.  After spending a few days with them, he is gone, having ascended into heaven.

Before leaving, Jesus instructs his followers to wait in Jerusalem and pray.  He tells them that they will be “baptized by the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5) and through this they will be empowered to proclaim the good news, — to be  “witnesses …to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8)

They remained in that upper room —until the day of Pentecost, when together they experienced in unmistakable ways the promised outpouring of the Spirit. Because you see, on this day, Jesus’ promise was fulfilled.  God’s infinite love was alive in them and through this love; they were able to communicate this power to others.

What does this time of Pentecost mean for us in the church today? How is the spirit of God calling us today to be church?  How is the Holy Spirit animating us in this time and in this place to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all corners of the world?

In a time when we are wrestling with the reality that many of our brothers and sisters suffer daily from the sin of racism, when we can see through the lives of our neighbors that our system of economic development does not produce the same level of wealth for all people regardless of the effort or the number of hours worked, when we face anguish over the appalling violence in our country and around the world and our role in those struggles, and as we witness climate change and the catastrophic disasters it can unleash, we need now more than ever as people who have experienced the good news of Jesus Christ and who have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to be witnesses to the world, to lift our prophetic voices, to invite those who are currently outside our community to receive the life giving food we offer here at Christ’s table, and to welcome all to receive the healing love found in our community of faith.

At the same time, we as the institutional church, are in a time of change. Church participation is on the decline in our country. Though seven out of 10 people still identify themselves as Christians[1], more and more church communities are getting smaller and we are seeing fewer and fewer people joining together for worship or Bible Study or for the time we lovingly call “Sunday School.” Young men and women in particular seem to be avoiding our invitation to become a part of our worshipping and serving community. We can find ourselves asking in frustration what we need to do to bring back the abundant days we remember when there was standing room only at Christmas and Easter services and our  programs were full to the bursting point of the laughter and energy of children and their families.

In the Holy Spirit, we can be assured that God is active and alive in our world and is calling us to join in– wherever that may be. In our reading from John’s Gospel we hear Jesus telling his disciples that the Advocate, the Spirit of God will come to them and guide them into all truth. In particular, the Spirit would lead them in the ways of truth that Jesus had not yet been able to teach them. (John 16:13) “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” When Jesus says that the Spirit “will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you” he conveys the exciting news that the Spirit will proclaim Jesus’ own teaching in the new and changing circumstances that the community will face when Jesus is gone. The Spirit will interpret what it has heard for the new situations that the community will face. The Spirit will make the teachings of Jesus ring out for each new generation and to each new age.  In confidence we can trust that the Spirit is guiding us in this time of change. And the Spirit who entered the hearts of those disciples in the first century speaks to us today and has the ability to set our hearts on fire with the wonder of Gods’ goodness and love sending us out to all corners of our community and the world to declare the good news.

Here at Grace Church, the ground is beginning to come alive at Gideon’s Garden. Over the long winter, plans have been made and seedlings planted and on June 6 at 10:00 in the morning, the garden will be blessed and the planting will begin. This garden provides a place for our children and youth to experience the new creation that God is always bringing forth. They get to put their hands in the dirt and become a part of this new life. They water and tend the baby plants and watch them grow and grow until good fruit is revealed in the form of healthy tomatoes and beans and peppers and lettuce.  And then when the time is ripe, the produce is harvested and taken to a place where people gather who are hungry for good fresh food as well as the love that is shared through this bounty.

But those of you who work at Gideon’s Garden, who come anytime of the day any day of the week, know that much more is growing in Gideon’s Garden. We often lament in our churches—not just here, but almost everyplace clergy gather—that we do not have more young children and youth in our churches—that our children are too busy, that they do not have time to gather to learn about God’s promise of love for them and for the whole world.

In Gideon’s Garden, they learn on a very visceral level, that God is active in the world.  That God loves us and that God’s love is abundant for us and for all we meet. This love is shared no matter the age. No matter where you live or go to school. No matter whether you are an “A’ student or just hang on day by day. And that love is there all the time. It always shows up—though sometimes in surprising ways.

And, no matter how small or how big you are—you can turn around and share that love with others which only results in making the love larger—and your heart more glad.  Alongside these young people, are adults who love to share in the goodness of the garden and find through this good work, that all are invited to sit around the table of God’s love and share as one family in the goodness that God offers us.

This Tuesday, our Bishop Doug Fisher, is walking in the Berkshires.  On the Diocesan website he says he is doing this so he can listen to the experiences of those he meets both in and outside the walls of the local churches, he can visit with others about the Gospel in a way that invites conversation, he can pray with people wherever they are along the road, and that he can offer blessings for those “who serve the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, the homeless, and all who seek justice.”[2]

We are invited to meet and walk with him on Tuesday at 4:30 pm where he will learn about Gideon’s Garden and the stories of those who offer ministry there.  And we are most heartedly welcome to join him on Wednesday morning at 9:00 am at Congregation Ahavath Sholom as together with brothers and sisters of the Reconstructionist Jewish faith we offer morning prayers. This gives us the chance to meet new people and share God’s love in perhaps a new way—opening the possibility for the Holy Spirit to continue to enliven our hearts.

Alongside this essential work, we are called to prophesy– to use our voices to communicate God’s love and Jesus’ redeeming grace. Peter boldly stands before all those assembled who are amazed at what they observe and tells them that God will pour out the Holy Spirit on all the people and as a result all who receive it –people of all ages, people of all genders, people of all economic stations in life, those who are bodily enslaved as well as those who are free will prophesy, will dream dreams. The opportunity to witness to the good news is not limited to Peter or the other disciples of Jesus. That gift belongs to all who receive the Spirit, both then and now.

It is so good that we come together to share God’s word and participate in the feast offered at Gods’ table. And it is so important that we go out and meet people where they are, speaking in a language that all can understand:  speaking the language of love to the youth in the community, speaking the language of compassion to those who are hungry and do not have transportation, speaking the language of comfort to families trying to raise children in a confusing and hectic world, speaking the language of companionship to those who work hard but cannot afford a safe place to live. As we share with others about our church community, we are given the chance to reflect on how God is working in our lives and why we want to share this love with others.

“We are the church!”  Today as we celebrate our beginnings, we are given the opportunity, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to offer God’s love to every corner of our community and our world. Jesus who did not leave his disciples comfortless, sending the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth, comes to us today in this changing time and changing place continuously offering opportunities to share God’s eternal love. The Holy Spirit who filled those disciples in Jerusalem is still actively moving and changing this world.  This day of Pentecost celebrates the actions of the Holy Spirit who set hearts on fire in the first century and reminds us that at this very moment, our world is “God-drenched.”

On this Pentecost day, let us experience the renewal of the power unleashed in that upper room.  Let us reclaim our mission as church to witness to God’s glory, to love and serve God and God’s people, and to prophesy to the ends of the earth where we have experienced God’s Spirit at work in our lives and in this world.  Let us pray that what was given to those ordinary, timid people be given to us, so that again and again God may bring to life that which is life giving, making us all a new creation.


[1] Pew Research Center. American’s Changing Religious Landscape. http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=3d4bd2e40f-Religion_Weekly_May_14_2015&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3e953b9b70-3d4bd2e40f-399931613

[2] https://www.diocesewma.org/vision-ministry-statements/bishops-ministry/a-bishops-pilgrimage-walking-together-on-sacred-ground/

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