If the folks who make up Emmanuel’s participating community were ever all together in this place, we would not be able to fit in the nave. But we never are. Any given Sunday, probably about 40% of us are actually together, and it’s different ones each week. This is less true at the 8:00, which is more stable as a sort of small group within the parish, but across both services, there’s never really a quorum on any one Sunday. I’m not talking the whole church mailing list, I’m talking people who are currently taking part in our life together in some way, but who have not had the experience of being all together in one place the way our first lesson describes.
That’s a situation many American churches are facing, and I think we’re right on track with national averages. Having a different group at worship Sunday to Sunday poses a lot of challenges for any church, but one of them is that the kind of unity in spirit and solidarity in mission that took place on the first Pentecost is becoming a rare experience for many Christians in the USA. The entire church at Pentecost was all together in one place, praying and seeking God, and that is when the Holy Spirit fell. Unity of spirit and solidarity of mission, with everyone on board.
But it wasn’t just that first feast of Pentecost. It has happened like that throughout the history of the church. There is something about groups of people who are really together that the Holy Spirit seems to find very attractive – if you’ve ever been part of a Christian community that was of one heart and soul, all in the same place, where a quorum was available to be deployed by the Spirit for God’s work, you know what I’m talking about. The Spirit falls on communities of people like that. The Spirit goes to work through communities of people like that. And being part of a community where that is happening is a life-changing experience for anyone who has had it.
A culture as individualistic as ours just naturally assumes the priority of the single consumer who chooses what they feel works for them. And what that assumption buys us – we see this all over American Christianity – is a lot of congregations where many people are acting against the grain of the enterprise, and where Pentecost is a rarity. Some of the key ways of deploying Christians that the Spirit has been in the habit of using among us for centuries seem to be atrophying.
Last week, talking about the Ascension of Jesus, Deacon Chris made a terrific point that ties in directly to today. At Ascension, the risen body of Christ is removed from this realm and transferred into God’s realm. This action of God is vitally important. It makes Christ accessible at all times and in all places, it assures us that our human nature has been carried forever into the very heart of God, and it teaches us that Jesus is reigning over the entire universe. Because of all that, in hindsight, we know the Ascension is something to be grateful for – but what the disciples experienced was a bit more scary and destabilizing: their leader stepping back from them and going away. And Deacon Chris pointed out that this withdrawal was very important for the church ever to actually become the church, rather than an audience. After the Ascension, Jesus is no longer physically on site to do the ministry for them. He is over in the control room for the universe. His followers can’t keep being passive, waiting for the expert to be the one to act, anymore. After the Ascension, if serving needs to happen, Jesus isn’t physically there to do it for them. If healing needs to happen, Jesus isn’t physically there to extend a hand. If Bible study needs to happen, Jesus isn’t physically there to lead it.
Once Jesus moves into God’s realm, the disciples can no longer be an audience, individuals in their silos waiting around for Jesus to do the work for them. They have to be deployed to act themselves. If you’ve ever spent any time with a young child, you know exactly the strategy God is using here. You tell the child that it’s time now to zip her backpack shut, something you know she is perfectly capable of, and the child throws up her arms and passively protests, “I can’t.” The last thing to do is swoop in and do it for her. You stay where you are, and quietly and lovingly say, “yes, you can. You can do it.”
Now the image of the parent faced with the child who claims “I can’t!” is an analogy, and as an analogy it breaks down at one very important part. Yes, We do begin our Christian life as spiritual babies, however old we are when we begin it, and God does move us from passivity to responsibility as we grow spiritually. Yes, God does also look at us, in Christ, and communicate encouragement and unconditional love as we are faced with the challenges and invitations of being his people and doing his work. God has adopted us into his own family, and as the parent he supports us and wants to see us become fully functioning Christian adults. All those aspects of the analogy work. But what it’s missing is Pentecost. Because Pentecost has happened, and the reality it opened up keeps happening, God doesn’t just stand by and say “you can do it.” We’re actually not on our own. God pours into his body, into his gathered people as a community, his very self. He pours into us his Holy Spirit, the very same life and power and energy that was and is at work in Jesus Christ.
Because of what Jesus has done, it has become possible for God to fill us, all the members of the earthly communal Body of Christ, with the same Spirit that fills Christ’s risen and ascended Body. Pentecost is the sign of that possibility, and it opens up the door to living a kind of life we never could have had without God’s gift of the Spirit. Pentecost opens up the chance for you to do things as a Christian far beyond what you could ever do on your own. Pentecost opens up an intimate connection with God that turns acting as his servant and his representative from an obligation or a duty into a celebration, a dance, a delight. And Pentecost does that for everybody, all of us: that door opened the first day God poured out his Spirit, and it’s still open today.
When a community of Christians is drawing on the reality of what God gave us on Pentecost, we don’t experience a bystander God before whom we can stay an audience of individuals. Whatever act of creativity or servanthood or proclamation God wants to get done, we experience God acting to do them from inside us. And as God does act through us, we experience ourselves coming into our own, the real, full human beings God sees us as in Christ, more open, more loving, more capable, more connected. All of us, together, his people, not individuals but his body. Not an audience but an army.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place… and all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.
Let us pray:
O God the Holy Spirit, come.
Come upon us, and among us;
come as the wind and cleanse;
come as the fire, and burn;
come as the dew, and refresh.
Convict, convert, and consecrate
these many hearts and lives
for our great good
and to thy greater glory,
Until we are set free from the service of ourselves,
to be thy servants for the world.
And this we ask for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.