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On the Church

pentecost13Acts 2: 1-21
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, fifty days after Easter – as the birth day of the Church.  It is the baptismal day that John the Baptist 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 indeed come upon the apostles, as you will hear, and 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 is, and always has been, a gathering of the diverse faithful, unified and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  It started at Pentecost.

Whenever we have a class for new members, 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...” or “I was born a...”  Your religious backgrounds vary greatly, from Roman Catholic to Baptist or Methodist or Lutheran.  Likewise, your religious experiences, from “I left the church when I went away to college” to “now that we have children, we should start coming to church.”  And your personal motivations, from “we come when there’s nothing else going on this Sunday” to “my week is incomplete without Sunday worship.”
For some, church is associated with denomination and therefore, with family history or accustomed style of worship.  Traditional hymns or contemporary praise band?  Is the congregation made up of sinners, debtors or trespassers? What is the emphasis – missions, intellectual understanding, personal piety?
For some, church is associated with place, maybe even a particular structure.  Church should be in a small town, a white clapboard building with a high steeple.  Or a great stone cathedral with beautiful stained glass windows.  Or modern glass and concrete on a sprawling campus.  Or a storefront on a city street.  Where you went to church growing up, 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 marriage, or immigration, or the environment?  The church doesn’t have a unified voice in politics.  Some say it shouldn’t have any voice.  But Christian leaders do speak out, often quite forcefully.  But they do not speak for all, and this can be a source of consternation among Christians.  What the church is, socially and politically speaking, can be confusing and troublesome.
So, you see, the concept of church is highly variable.  

And yet it is not – not at all.  For what all this variety of church has in common should be this:  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 a 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.
This same breath of God came upon Mary.  Said the angel Gabriel 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 will name him Jesus.”
This same Holy Spirit is literally the moving force at Pentecost.  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.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each one of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Appropriately, the power of the Holy Spirit is expressed as fire and wind.  This is a power we are familiar with because it drives our world.   Fire – the burning of fuels, from gasoline in our cars to batteries in our devices to the sun itself – and wind, becoming a more popular as a clean and constantly renewable generator of electricity.  Fire and wind - both deliver energy for our heat and light, our comfort and inventions, our entertainment and our business.

What would happen if the power of the Holy Spirit energized and compelled our personal lives?  The gifts of the Spirit would be obvious.  Paul names them in his letter to the Corinthians:  wisdom, knowledge, understanding, healing.  So, for instance, if the Holy Spirit drives your life, you might stop yourself in angry outburst toward another long enough to think how it might be received.  Or you might find words of hope that get to the heart of someone’s difficult situation.  Or you might see intuitively how to bring peace to a contentious work situation.  All that and more if the Holy Spirit powers your life.  For that is what empowered the life of Jesus himself and we are his people.
Luke, in this second chapter of the book of Acts, presents the Holy Spirit as pure power from “on high” that sweeps in and enables the church to be God’s people on this earth.  I pray that we who are God’s people on this earth in this day and age continue to be energized by this amazing power.  That the world outside of these doors recognizes the Spirit at work within us, who gather in the name of Jesus Christ and call ourselves the church.  

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
June 4, 2017

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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