A few years ago, I was talking to a Lutheran friend from Toledo on the phone on the Sunday afternoon of Pentecost. I asked how Pentecost worship went at their church that morning. He replied he had attended but had not realized it was Pentecost Sunday. I was amazed. I told them that whatever else Messiah got out of the service on Pentecost Sunday, they would leave with the clear knowledge it was Pentecost Sunday.
Admittedly, for Pentecost, I am kind of like your crazy neighbor at Christmas. More is better. Red bunting. Red flowers. Red flags. Red shirts. Red banners. Red paraments. Parades of children, trumpets and flutes added to hymns, the garbled reading of the story. In worship planning we had a checklist of things to do for today that rivaled our checklist at Christmas. I am the Clark Griswold of Pentecost.
The thing is though, I am really not very spiritual, which is what you would think someone would be who loves the day the church celebrates the presence of the Spirit. When I get moved by a song we might be singing in worship, I don’t clap or sway or raise my hands. If I am really moved by a song, I just sing a little bit louder. If someone interrupted a worship service I was leading, to speak in tongues, I would feel terribly awkward. “Okay, thanks for that…please let’s all open our hymnals to…” When I went on a spiritual retreat in Kentucky, I spent nearly the entire three days sightseeing instead of in prayer. I love church, religion, gathering, worshipping, but I can’t imagine shouting an Alleluia! unprompted by the bulletin.
The fastest growing religious identification in America is none. When these nones are surveyed, they often say they are spiritual but not religious. Wow! Am I out of style. If anything I am religious and not spiritual. What this group might say is “We believe in God but we don’t need church or formal religion. We find different ways of accessing God, that are more spiritual than the rote behavior of worship: sitting, standing, listening, reading. We find God in mountaintops, sunsets on the beach, even the third tee of Willow Run on a summer Sunday.” Spiritual but not religious. I love the sitting and the standing. Religious but not spiritual?
Pentecost is the day the spiritual but not religious and the religious but not spiritual join together. In a blog post by Pastor David Lose, he points out that the story of what happened after Jesus was resurrected could have gone differently. The disciples could have headed back home to their dad’s fishing business or to see if their tax booth was still around. They would have said to themselves wow, that three years was a wild ride, a crazy spiritual experience, I am glad we did it. But, now I guess it is time to get back to work, the real world, making a living, raising a family, catching fish, collecting taxes.
The Spirit put a stop to that kind of talk. The Spirit showed up and put these guys to work. Doing crazy supernatural Spirit stuff, like speaking with tongues of flame and healing people who have been sick, just like Jesus did. But the Spirit also got these disciples into religious stuff, too. The Spirit led them to create a church, a religion really. The Spirit led Church is what allowed the Jesus movement to spread from the Sea of Galilee and become a world religion. The Spirit landed on Peter, James, John, Matthew, Phillip and the others, just as they were writing their letters home. The Spirit stopped them. Saying, no, I have got other plans for you.
The Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost called the church into being. If you are a Christian, it is impossible to be spiritual and not religious. The Holy Spirit is always leading you back to the church. And even if you are as stiff as me, if you are a part of the church, it is impossible to be religious but not spiritual. The Spirit enabled the church to be more than just a social club, or a do gooder’s club, or her worship simply a rock band performance. The Spirit enabled the Church to be the body of Christ in the world.
God can be seen in the work of the Spirit within the church. The Holy Spirit sung in the hearts of men and women, leading them write and sing great songs, vision and build towering cathedrals, to think with inspiration as they write books on books of the bible and sermons on verses in the bible. The Holy Spirit has enabled the church to be the number one source of charity in America today and the first to respond in the world to tragedy and disaster. The Holy Spirit enabled the church to be brave in dictatorships like Poland or El Salvador in the 1980’s. The Holy Spirit made the Jesus movement of 33 AD into the Church of 2018.
This is not to say that the history of the Church is one where we always listened to the Spirit. The Church when she has disregarded Christ has been the source of great sorrow, too. The Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the massacres and wars that occurred in Europe in response to the Protestant Reformation. Early in the history of the church, Paul, inspired by the Spirit wrote that in Christ there was no male or female. Further, it is clear there were female leaders in the early church. But by 100 AD nearly all Christian congregations had silenced the voice of women leaders, a deficit the Church has suffered in the majority of denominations to this day. When the Church stops listening to the Spirit, we stop looking like Christ and what God hoped.
For all her faults, the Church is the one place we can go, week after week, to receive the presence of God. I understand people who can’t get past the faults of the church. I understand those who are offended by the judgmental even hateful language of some who claim to speak for the Church. I understand some whose sense of God’s awesomeness and majesty is lost in a congregation of sixty people weakly singing, “A Mighty Fortress”. Yes, we can find God in a mountaintop sunset and even on the seventh hole of Willow Creek on a Sunday morning. But the Holy Spirit didn’t send those disciples to go live on a mountain or a golf course. The Holy Spirit sent them to create the church, full of sinful, beautiful people made in God’s image. When you gather sinful beautiful people, you are going to get both the good and the bad.
God’s plan on the first Pentecost is clear. There is no way to be followers of Jesus and be spiritual and not religious or religious and not spiritual. The Spirit has joined us together to be Christ. The Spirit has joined us together to share Christ. The Spirit has joined us together to receive Christ. God stopped those disciples from going home, to fish, golf or watch sunsets because God needed them to create the church so that the groans of the world would be heard. We are part of something bigger than ourselves. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are part of Christ’s body, the church.