“And suddenly from heaven…”
by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston
What a privilege to preach this past Sunday at The Church of the Messiah in Glens Falls, New York! My dear friend and seminary colleague the Rev’d Karl Griswold-Kuhn is the rector of that faithful, fruitful parish, and it was a tremendous joy to be with the good people of Messiah on the great Feast of Pentecost.
A Sermon Preached on the Feast of Pentecost, May 24, 2015
By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston
Texts: Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire. Amen.
Pentecost, the feast we keep today, is sometimes called “The Birthday of the Church.” But what is the Church? What image comes to your mind when you hear that word? What exactly do we celebrate this day?
Perhaps you are like my daughter who, at four-and-a-half years old, is remarkably adept at identifying church buildings. (It is, I suppose, one of the hazards of having a clergyman for a father.) The slightest suggestion of a steeple in a storybook or the faintest glimmer of stained glass in a children’s movie is all she needs to cry out, “Look papa! A church just like our church!”
There is long, sound historical precedent for thinking of the Church and speaking of the Church as a building, and when you hear the question, “What is the Church?” many of you will undoubtedly think of this sacred space hallowed by years of prayer and worship, of preaching and proclamation, by the events and offerings great and small that have transpired within these strong walls.
But for many of you, I’m sure the notion of Church as building simply doesn’t cut it. Perhaps you can recall hearing a stirring sermon explaining that no matter the state of our structures–or even were we to have no structures at all–the Church would still be the Church. Or, and I suspect this might’ve been more convincing, perhaps you’ve heard the charming little Sunday School song that includes this lyric: “The Church is not a building. The Church is not a steeple. The Church is not a resting place. The Church is the people!”
That last line is usually delivered in a high-pitched shout, and rightly so. It reminds us that the Church is so much more than stones and mortar and stained glass. The Church is the assembled people of God wherever they gather, wherever they worship and pray and work. Though we call our buildings “churches,” many of you will be quick to point out that the Church with a capital “C” means not the structures but the souls assembled within the structures. When I ask “What is the Church?” you think not of altar frontals and organ pipes, but of human faces and individual voices. “The Church is the people!”
This is an important and a well-taken point. And yet for some of us, even this view can be a bit narrow. The chorus of the children’s song I just mentioned goes on to say, “I am the Church. You are the Church. We are the Church together.” Very true, and a wonderful sentiment for our children to imbibe early and often. But it is also a limiting sentiment. It tends to keep the focus local: on the people of God here within sight.
So perhaps some of you would emphasize not simply the fact that we, the people, are the Church, but that indeed all the people of God, in every time and in every place, are the Church. Knit together in one communion and fellowship, the Church is all of those across the world and through the centuries who are united in worship, and inspired in each age for new work and witness.
If the first view I mentioned sees the Church in her structures and the second sees the Church in her local assemblies, this last view sees the Church universal, that great body stretching across millennia and drawn from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. Can we imagine any grander response to the question “What is the Church?” than that noble prospect of the Church militant around the world united with the Church triumphant in glory, all striving together for the sake of the Kingdom of God?
And yet there is a fundamental flaw in each of the three views I have just delineated. No matter whether you think of the Church as a building, or as a local gathering, or as a universal body, in each of these options the focus remains squarely on us. In each of these three views, the Church is something we build; something we join; something we unite with. In all of these ways of thinking the Church is something we do; something we are.
But today, beloved, the Spirit of the Living God blows like a rushing wind through our hearts and minds, and imaginations, sweeping away any concept of the Church rooted in us and our doings. On this day, on Pentecost, Scripture and tradition join together mightily to contradict any ecclesiology—any way of thinking or talking about the Church—that does not find her source and strength in the will of God himself.
For what do we find when we carry our question “What is the Church?” to our readings today? We do not find an assemblage of seekers considering, and contemplating, and coming to their own conclusions about who Jesus is and what he has done for them. We do not find a group of men and women struggling and striving to grasp the meaning of the Resurrection and Ascension, slowly coming to an awareness about their role in proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ.
What do we see instead? “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in the same place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rushing of a violent wind.”
There in the Upper Room we can identify the first church structure–but the Church was not the structure. There as they watched and prayed we can see the local assembly–but the Church was not the assembly. There as they kept the Jewish Feast of Pentecost we see tradition and continuity and the coming together of people from around the world–but the Church was not the great gathering of the faithful.
“And suddenly from heaven,” the Spirit of the Living God descends and the Church is born.
“Suddenly from heaven,” this unlikely band of backwoods misfits receives power to proclaim the Gospel in every language and tongue. “Suddenly from heaven,” this group of gutless deserters who abandoned Jesus as he hung upon the Cross are given grace to proclaim his Resurrection. “Suddenly from heaven” this assembly of silly fools who never quite got it, who never quite caught on, who never could quite see what Jesus was talking about or why he did the things he did, are set ablaze with the piercing vision of what God has done and is doing in the world. “Suddenly from heaven” this gaggle of fishermen and tax collectors and ordinary sinners is transformed by the power of God into the Church.
And more amazing, as Peter explains to the crowd that has gathered in awe, and amazement, and healthy skepticism, this is all in fulfillment of the promises and purposes of God. This is what God intends. “And it shall come to pass in the last day, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh.”
Pentecost, then, is no mere outbreak of ecstatic utterance–no simple spell of inspired speaking. No: on this day, God reveals himself to be the God who keeps his promises. On this day, God shows his power to accomplish his mighty will. On this day, God unveils his everlasting purpose for the assembled people of God.
And the Spirit blows on still, pushing us into John’s Gospel where we see this same power and purpose at work. Just as he promised before his death, the Risen Jesus gives to his disciples a new Advocate. By the breath of his lips, the Incarnate God breathes on his friends the power of his peace. In order to continue his work in the world, he invests them with the authority that is his by right, and theirs through his gracious gift: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
The power to break the bonds of sorrow; the power to set the prisoners free; the power that so offended and scandalized the Scribes and Pharisees when he exercised it; his own mighty power over sin and death Jesus dares to share with his followers even as he sends them into the world “as the Father has sent me.”
God the Holy Spirit makes the Church, and God the Son sends the Church, investing her with the almighty power of God the Father.
Beloved, when we put the question “What is the Church?” to our Scripture readings, the Word of God challenges us with a vision vast and terrifying. Vast because it flows from the very heart of the God who created the cosmos; the God who hovered over the waters of chaos; the God in whom we live and move and have our being. Terrifying because it is a vision that claims ordinary human beings–human beings like you and like me–and consecrates them not to their own wills and desires, but to the will and desire of God himself.
This is a vision from which we are inclined to shrink in fear and trembling. In the 21st-century, we do not want the Church to be the unquestioned work of God alone. In the American religious marketplace, we agonize over the apparently exclusionary nature of this vision of God’s people. In light of the Church’s long history of failure and faithlessness; of abuse and abnegation; of worldliness and wickedness and wandering in the wilderness, we lack the confidence to claim the crown of our calling.
But the Spirit of God blows freely, and we can no more hinder it by our fears, and faults, and failings than we could stop the rush of a mighty wind. The Church is flawed, to be sure, because she is made up of flawed people like you and me. But on this day, God cracks through all of our anthropocentrism—our resolute and persistent focus on human beings and human doings, on us and on ourselves—and calls us again to grapple with the outrageous claim that, even in spite of her failings, the Church is the handiwork and the handmaiden of the Lord. On this day the Spirit of God sweeps us up–not into a sorry story of human foibles and fussing, but into the great and everlasting story of the God who keeps his promises; the God who reveals his purposes; the God who calls and claims and commissions and sends.
On this day, by God’s grace, we glimpse that this local expression of the universal assembly, gathered here within these sturdy walls, is neither a country club nor a mutual congratulation society, but is in fact the Body of Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the power and presence of the Living God in the world.
“What is the Church?” She is that body whose birth comes “suddenly from heaven”; whose work comes solemnly from her Lord; whose life is hidden with Christ in God.
Come, then, Holy Spirit. Come with cleansing fire and burn away all about us and all within us unworthy of your work. Come like the rush of wind to guide us into paths of righteousness. Come “suddenly from heaven.” Come, and make us the Church.