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Gathered

pentecost18Acts 2: 1-21
Ezekiel 37: 1-14
Introduction to the reading

Today is Pentecost – in the Jewish tradition, the Feast of Weeks, a pilgrimage to celebrate the spring barley harvest fifty days after Passover. Jews from every nation had converged on the temple in Jerusalem, as they had been doing for centuries, and we will hear the names of all the places they had come from; the whole known world of that time was represented.

Christians mark this day – Pentecost – as the birth day of the Church, the day the church began to be more organized. It is the baptismal day that John said would come: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." The Holy Spirit did come upon the apostles that day and dramatically so. It filled them with the ability to speak the gospel in a whole raft of different languages, thus offering it to all the world.

The church began as, always has been, and still is a gathering of the diverse faithful, unified and empowered by the Holy Spirit. It started at Pentecost.

Sermon
Whenever we have a class for new members – and you’ve heard me say this before - it’s fascinating to hear the stories that the newcomers – and our own elders – tell of their personal journeys of faith. The stories often begin with, “I grew up in…” or “I was raised as a…” or “I was born a…” Your religious backgrounds vary greatly, from strict Roman Catholic to Baptist or Methodist or Lutheran; from “I left the church when went away to school” to evangelical, from nothing in particular to “my week is incomplete without Sunday worship.”

For some, church is associated with denomination. For instance, what the emphasis is – worship or mission, intellectual understanding or personal piety. Is church where they sing old familiar hymns or play contemporary music? Is the congregation made up of sinners, trespassers or debtors? What you think of as church depends a lot on what you experienced as a child or younger person or maybe just in the last place where you were.

For some, church is associated with place, maybe even a particular building. Church should be a high white steeple in town. Or a great stone cathedral with beautiful stained glass windows. Or a storefront on a city street. Or a campground in the woods. Where you went to church, the kind of place it was, is church.

For others, church is a social and political institution. What does the church say about abortion or the environment or marriage or immigration? The church doesn’t have a unified voice in politics. Some say it shouldn’t have any voice. But Christian leaders do speak out; the “evangelical vote” certainly makes headlines. But one offshoot does not speak for all, and this causes consternation among Christians. What the church is, socially and politically speaking, can be confusing and troublesome when the holy is caught in the net of human sinfulness.

So the concept of church is highly variable. And yet it should not be– not at all. For the church is and always has been a gathering of the diverse faithful, unified and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit was not something new, mind you. It’s not as if the Holy Spirit didn’t already exist, and all of sudden at Pentecost, there it was. The Holy Spirit always was.

Genesis 1:1: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. The Hebrew ruah: wind or breath or Spirit. In some versions, the word is translated ‘Spirit’.

In the passage from Ezekiel, which you heard earlier, God’s spirit is breathed into the dry bones, which symbolize the nation of ancient Israel that keeps turning away from God. Again, ruah: breath, Spirit, life-saving, life-giving Holy Spirit.

This same breath of God came upon Mary. The angel Gabriel announced to her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God … you will name him Jesus.”

This same Holy Spirit is literally the moving force at Pentecost, at the birth day of the church. 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. … All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

From the beginning of time on through time, God has spoken and acted within humanity as the Holy Spirit. And so, too, the church a gathering of the diverse faithful, unified and empowered by that same Holy Spirit.

And so now we come to now, to the 21st century. The world is created and we are constantly discovering, through science and technology, the depths and vastness of that creation. Jesus has lived as a human being on the earth, was put to death, but resurrected; he ascended into heaven. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, poured out at Pentecost, the Word of God has spread from the first apostles down through time to be known and felt the world over.
Yet we have cause to worry about the power of the Holy Spirit in our time. We have cause to worry about the church as a gathering of the diverse faithful, unified and empowered by the Holy Spirit. And why is that?

Well, fewer of us gather together as a faith community anymore, on a Sunday morning or at other times. You know the reasons, ad nauseam:

  • intense competition from other occupations;
  • a 24/7 world that places no value on Sabbath rest and thus offers none;
  • a decline in the social significance of organized religion and thus a decline in the number of people, especially young people, who identify with traditional faiths, including, I read recently, American Muslims.

If we, as Jesus’ people, believe that deep down, others are seeking what we proclaim to offer – meaning, purpose, belonging, a connection to the Holy… and if we are serious about it, and sure that our gathering as a faith community indeed provides that connection… but, if there are fewer of us who gather for mutual support, fellowship, encouragement and mission, then, how do we draw more people into our gathering to experience a sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit?

I came across a new book this past week that lends perspective on this question. In The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, Priya Parker argues that the gatherings in our lives – from parties and summer camps to conventions and business meetings – are often lackluster and unproductive. Then she explores why that is so and how simple, specific changes can invigorate any group experience. She doesn’t use the church worship service as an example, but we could probably learn something from her work.

Parker’s first chapter is titled “Decide Why You’re Really Gathering”, and she keeps going back to that idea of having purpose. And I am telling you what I pray that you already know: nothing could be more significant, exciting, vibrant, invigorating, salvific and meaningful than the purpose for our gathering:

Peapack Reformed Church is a congregation called by God, inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be the very presence of Jesus Christ in a broken world so loved by God.

May each one of you know the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit in your life and in our gatherings. Amen.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
May 20, 2018

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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