by Daniel Harrell
Last Sunday Jesus flew off to heaven, ascended we say, with a mighty exclamation point on his embodied, post-resurrection appearances. But Christ’s left an equally emphatic comma to ready Jesus’ disciples for what was to come: “You will receive power to be my witnesses when the Holy Spirit falls upon you,” he promised. As empowered and inspired witnesses, the disciples, apostles, extended Jesus’ mission and presence—better than if he’d stayed here himself. Just as Jesus was God in the flesh on earth, so Christians filled by the Spirit became Jesus in the flesh on earth, the body of Christ for the world as the church. Today is our birthday.
Pentecost, a Jewish festival celebrating God giving the law to Moses, transformed into a surprise birthday party with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ disciples, gathered in Jerusalem for the festival, biding their time as Jesus instructed, got blown away by a sudden rush of wind and a burst of flaming tongues that dropped down like confetti on their heads. Before you could say bonjour, or hola or ciao or nee-how or hello, the fired-up apostles hit the streets to praise the Lord and speak the gospel to every person present in every language they spoke. Theologians differ as to whether the miracle was a miracle of speech or of hearing, but either way, the message was clear: “The crucified Jesus is the risen Lord and Christ and now seated at the right hand of God. We’ve seen him! Repent and be forgiven like us and taste the Spirit yourselves.”
Three thousand people joined the church that day, astounding numbers for its first day of existence. Sadly, we only read of people leaving church that fast these days. According to the recent Pew Study of Religion in America, the decline is steepest among big steeple churches, mainline Protestants, Congregationalists like us. Ironically, people have not lost interest in what the church offers: spirituality, character, virtue, values, hope. I mentioned last week how hundreds packed out Westminster Presbyterian Church in the middle of the workday to hear David Brooks, a New York Times columnist of all people, hold forth on what it means to live a virtuous life. In the Q&A following his talk, someone asked Brooks about his own personal faith. Rumors circulate about whether he’d converted to Christianity given the way he described about loving your neighbor, the redemptive power of suffering and losing your life to find it. He sure sounded Christian. Yet Brooks replied he preferred to keep his faith commitments quiet; not wanting his personal commitments to become the talking point or get him pigeon-holed, categorized and subsequently dismissed. The Westminster senior pastor and host, Timothy Hart-Anderson, remarked how keeping quiet about his faith made Brooks sound just like a Presbyterian.
Schooled in more evangelical circles, I’d always been taught to not be ashamed of the gospel, even if that meant sharing my faith with people who didn’t want to hear about it. The harvest was ripe so my conversation needed to be seasoned with salt and make the most of every opportunity to rescue the lost, so matter how annoying I was doing it. It’s hard to say which has contributed more to the decline of the church: Christians keeping quiet or Christians being obnoxious.
You may remember a story I told a few years ago about being buckled in on a sardine-packed plane where someone left a copy of Cosmopolitan magazine in the seat pocket in front of me. As usual, the cover displayed some provocatively clad, cosmetically enhanced woman alongside all sorts of bold-faced, suggestive promises of instant beauty and gratification. I started flipping through it waiting for take-off when a neatly dressed young man settled in the seat beside mine. He reached into his book bag and hauled out this really big Bible. I smiled. Felt a little guilty. Went back to reading Cosmopolitan. Once we had reached a comfortable cruising altitude, the captain turned off the seatbelt sign and as if almost on cue (I’m sure he’d been praying for me), the young man leaned over and started a conversation about airplanes and flying. He then steered it to mention a recent spate of crashes (I figured this was why he was reading a Bible). I also thought he was being a little morbid, when suddenly, he blurted out, “if this plane were to crash today are you 100% sure that you’d go to heaven?” What? Are you evangelizing me? Then I realized. Cosmopolitan. I told him, it was OK, I was a minister. Man, the disappointment on his face when I said that.
Christians haven’t made it easy for people to converse with us about virtue and character. We don’t always practice what we preach, especially us preachers. But even when we do, virtue and character are hard to discuss without coming off accusatory or self-righteous. Easier, I think, for those first disciples, who were told not to worry about what to say; that God himself would give them the words, and in multiple languages if needed. They’d do a few miracles too, heal the sick and disabled, and link what they’d discovered to what people already believed, connecting Jesus back to ancient prophecy and forward future redemption and justice and the coming kingdom of God.
Pentecost wasn’t the first time Jesus had empowered his disciples for evangelism and mission. In a trial run of sorts, here in Matthew 9, Jesus had been doing all the work himself, but apparently got overwhelmed, as strange as that sounds for God incarnate. Moved by compassion—too many sheep with no shepherd—Jesus invited his followers to pray for God’s help, the harvest was too ripe and the workers too few. Therefore, “ask the Lord of the harvest to send more laborers into his fields.”
This is a prayer we still pray whenever we’re overwhelmed by mission. We’ve prayed it this week for Burundi, the small east African country in the throes of political upheaval. We’ve been involved there this year, with World Relief and Hope International, supporting indigenous church efforts in addressing neighborhood health, savings, marriage, and HIV/AIDS needs in sustainable, locally-driven development. Sadly, all of this is coming undone due to a presidential power struggle turned violent. The laborers we’ve prayed to be sent have now had to flee. 100,000 citizens have run to refugee camps in neighboring countries, where cholera has already broken out. People are terrified that this will excuse another genocide. We did hear yesterday that JJ Ivaska, World Relief’s Country Director in Burundi who preached at Colonial last summer, has returned to Burundi to help, though it is too dangerous for his wife and children to go back. They’ve returned to the United States.
In addition to overwhelming, mission can be so disheartening. Jesus said it would be this way: “I send you as sheep among wolves, brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; you’ll be hated and persecuted on account of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved.” As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously explained, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.”
As part of an eternal trinitarian community of love, Jesus understood God’s work in the world was never a solo endeavor, but meant to be shared—another reason he told his followers to pray for more help. Jesus’ followers complied and asked and the answer was instantaneous, which is what happens, I guess, with Jesus standing so close by. In the very next verse, he handpicked twelve of his disciples to send as apostles right then and there. It reminded me of that time in a seminary class at Harvard, of all places, where the late, great Catholic mystic Henri Nouwen, our teacher, passionately explained about a relief project happening in Haiti that needed some extra workers and would anybody be willing to go down like tomorrow? A few students hesitantly raised hands, after which Professor Nouwen pulled out this huge bucket and passed it around for the rest of us to fill up with money to pay for the travel so the workers could take off the next day which they did. While I didn’t go myself, I was so impressed that I copied the move some years later at my church. We recruited and sent a group of students to Bolivia on a moment’s notice to start a ministry to street kids that’s still going strong to this day. It was so Pentecostal.
Likewise here in Matthew. Jesus handpicked and empowered apostles in a moment to go with his very own firepower to cure the sick, raise the dead and kick out demons. He told them not to worry about the money, it was all taken care of somehow. He also inspired them to speak and not worry about the words, God’s spirit would do all the talking. There would be joyous success, but not without resistance and persecution, suggesting that the Holy Spirit often stirs up as much trouble as it stops. The power to work wonders never worked to save the disciples from danger. Moreover, their power also proved provisional. It ended by the end of the gospels, requiring that recharge at Pentecost. But then after the New Testament accounts, you read little regarding miracles from the early church fathers—though there remained plenty of persecution and trouble, and endurance and courage. This is not to say miracles can’t happen—the Spirit moves where it will—just that it’s never ours to control.
Christians have disagreed about the Holy Spirit over the centuries. Despite the power of the Spirit as a unifying, the first church split occurred after a heated debate over the Holy Spirit fit into the Nicene Creed. Protestants later spilt off over the inspiration of Scripture and who possessed spiritual authority for the church, and has continued to split over Holy Spirit issues such as charismatic gifts, worship styles, second baptisms and various conflicting visions. Granted, the Spirit is impossible to pin down. Depicted as a bird or a flame at times, the word spirit comes from the neuter Hebrew and Greek word for wind or breath; meaning you can really see only its outcomes. The Spirit blows and breathes as power and life, but is most accurately understood as love. Early theologians understood the Spirit as that ideal, intense and unbreakable love between parent and child, specifically between Father and Son, making for a Trinity and spilling over to produce a creation. Love is never done by itself, it is not a solo endeavor. We may sing that “to love yourself is the greatest love of all,” but that is an anthem for narcissists. Even God is not love all alone. As the apostle Paul famously discovered, “If I speak in the tongues of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and knowledge, and faith to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and hand over my body to hardship, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Take away love and the power of the Spirit is but a blast of hot air.
The lack of love could be why the church is in such decline. We could love better than we do sometimes. Jesus had compassion on people and proclaimed the good news of the kingdom and sent his followers to do likewise. But cornering a buckled-in passenger with a hypothetical plane crash isn’t especially compassionate. Veiled threats about getting kept out of heaven doesn’t sound like good news. At least here in America, kingdoms and kings is mostly the purview of fantasy fiction and video games. Plenty of non-believers do humanitarian good works. Yoga instructors and celebrity chefs are the evangelists these days. Though the Spirit has transformed sinners into the presence of Jesus on earth, according to columnist David Brooks at least, you’ll get more traction talking about virtue and values if you don’t mention Christianity. Be a good Presbyterian and you can say nothing at all.
But how can Christians keep quiet?
We held our first Church Council meeting of the new season, and going around the table people shared all kinds of good news.
My church walked me through my troubled marriage and through cancer. My church visited me in the hospital and brought food to my family and a pile of money when I couldn’t pay bills.
My church loves my kids almost as much as I do and takes them on trips and runs summer camps and gives them good friends and creatively teaches them character and values and how to live as good and faithful people in a world that needs good and faithful people.
My church is where my dearest friends are, people I’ve known and loved for 30, 40 and even 50 years and more, friends I know I can call when I need prayer and help, friends I don’t need to call because they already know.
My church promotes beautiful music and art, plants gardens and challenges me to use my brain to learn and to think and imagine and then become the kind of person I truly want to be. My church gives me hope when everything’s hopeless, a happiness I can embrace on my deathbed.
My church has welcomed another congregation into its building, coming together to collaborate instead of split, for a change, bearing witness to the goodness unity promotes.
On Facebook, a church member posted how proud she was of our funding young social entrepreneurs. Half a million dollars out the door, with free coaching and mentoring, launching projects to feed hungry people and create jobs for the poor and provide arms and education to those with disabilities and give hope to financially stressed and the homeless and addicted and abused, all for the sake of the gospel and at the speed of good business. All this in addition to our work in Burundi and Kenya and Zambia and in so many other places.
Another church member told me about walking into Birchbark Books over in Kenwood and seeing a volume called The Beekeepers Bible. Oh my, she told, the salesperson, I have got to get this for our minister. We’ve started two bee hives at our church. Get it? “What church is that?” the salesperson inquired. “Why, Colonial Church,” she replied. “Oh, I’ve heard about the cool things you’re doing over there.” Cool things at a church? This church member said she went on to share more good news than the salesperson could handle.
Christians do get a bad rap in our culture, no surprise, Jesus said that would happen. If the church is indeed dying, this is good news too. We may not cure disease and cast out demons as easily as the first apostles, but we always rise from the dead. The Spirit still breathes life and power and love and joy and hope and and language and compassion for mission. So Happy Pentecost, Church. Happy Birthday to Us.