Birthday of the Church

This meditation is based on:

Acts 2:1-21 and John 14:8-17, 25-27.

Pentecost is the traditional birthday of the church.  On this day the Holy Spirit, God’s love and presence in this world, gathered and made the disciples of Jesus one.  When the Holy Spirit landed on these believers, nothing, not language nor cultural identity, possibly not even a differing of beliefs, could separate God’s people.   What unites us as church is far greater and bigger than anything that can separate us. Yet, often what separates seems much more powerful and intractable. I believe this is because our vision of church is often much smaller than God’s vision of the body born on Pentecost Sunday.

When you and I think about the church, we are often thinking about our church, this red brick building in Reynoldsburg, Ohio.  Others think mostly about their church, possibly a white clapboard building on a country road that stretches for miles.  For many the identity of their church is wrapped up in one pastor, a man or woman who has served that church for decades.  Tireless pastors like Pastor Fritz, who founded this church and served as her leader for 34 years.

When I close my eyes and think of church, I picture a red brick building in West Toledo, Grace Lutheran. I went to church here with aunts, uncles, cousins and all of my grandparents.  Grace was where both my 75 year old father and my 21 year old twins were baptized.  The funerals of grandparents and cousins were held here and as was my wedding along with most of my relatives, too.  I was baptized, confirmed and ordained at Grace in West Toledo.  Leading worship for many of these events was Ike Redfern who served as Senior Pastor for twenty five years.

Pastor Redfern not only encouraged me to be a pastor, he fought for Grace to pay 100% of the cost for me to go to school.  What I know about God’s presence on earth in the gathering of her people is largely influenced by where I experienced that presence, Grace Lutheran Church, Monroe St., Toledo, Ohio.  The pastor I have become has been greatly influenced by Pastor Ike Redfern.

When I act goofy, you can blame Pastor Redfern.  When he was preaching, we were never sure what was going to come out of his mouth.  Once while he was fighting cancer but still preaching every week he took a long pause in the middle of a sermon.  With an impish grin he said in the pulpit, “I have a catheter in right now.  I bet you never had a pastor do what I just did while he was preaching.”

I hope I am perceived as human and authentic as Pastor Redfern was to me.  He was not the Herr Pastor, the unapproachable, unflappable, calming presence like so many of his generation.  He seemed always to me like a normal guy.  He played basketball and volleyball every week in our gym well into his sixties.  He sweated and sometimes even swore like the rest of us.  He cried with families at funerals, forgot names of people he should really remember, embarrassed your girlfriends when you brought them to church, and loved to dance at weddings.  Most of all he smiled a lot, even when I messed up acolyting.

My call has not been to replicate Grace or imitate Pastor Redfern.  Yet, the particular of my experience frames, even limits my imagination on what a church could or should look like.  I experienced church as a reliable ship of love, support and encouragement in the roiling seas of puberty, high school crushes, college late nights, marriage, career and children. I want to be a leader of a church that can offer these same gifts of support for others.  This is what I know, so this becomes what I imagine church to look like.

We get in problems when the character of our small c churches start to becoming the definition of the large C churches.  All churches need to have this ministry, contain this belief, have these gifts, if they are a real church of Jesus.  When our imagination becomes the boundaries of church we are not only limiting our churches, we are judging other churches and isolating ourselves.

An old joke I heard was once a Lutheran died and went to heaven.  When he got there he was taking to a big room where a party was going on. It was great, just how he imagined heaven. There were all sorts of people from all sorts of churches there, all having fun.  Suddenly, a guy jumped on a table and quieted everyone down.  You could hear a pin drop.  Then he got back up and said okay, go on with the party.  The Lutheran asked the guy next to him what that was all about.  He said, oh that happens now and then when St. Peter brings a Baptist by. We have to be quiet because they think they are the only ones up here.  You could fill in that joke with any denomination because we all on some level think we have sole ownership of the truth.

These thoughts rolled through my head as I attended Pastor Redfern’s funeral last week while on vacation.  At 76, his body finally succumbed to the cancer he fought for decades.  Grace was packed with members who had not been seen for years but wanted to honor this good man.  As is typical for Grace, the service started fifteen minutes late and lasted nearly two hours, two habits that you can be thankful I have not learned from them.

30 or so robed pastors led by a bishop processed into the worship service that celebrated God’s movement in the life of Ike Redfern.  Processions like this are difficult for pastors.  Not because of the specter of death but because we are used to being the center of attention not one in a crowd of 30. During the entire service we instinctively flinch when the congregation needs to be told to stand up or sit down, shake our head at the poor delivery of a prayer, and secretly wished they had asked us to preach.

Yet, surprisingly these weren’t the only thoughts I had during the funeral.  I had a great sense of the work of the church in front of me that spanned miles and generations.  The church was full of people touched by the body of Christ gathered by God through the Holy Spirit.  I was sitting with pastors, men and women whose tenure of service added together would span centuries.  Their ministries had touched lives, inspired faithful, and proclaimed the gospel in ways Ike had at Grace.  Behind each robed pastor to my left and right were hundreds of people in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and elsewhere who had been gathered together as one by the Holy Spirit in the churches they served. Their churches were in towns that contained many other gathered communities of saints.  The bishop who led was the leader of over 200 churches, with thousands of members and one of over a hundred bishops who served thousands of churches with millions of members.

Each one of these people had their own unique experience of church, shaped by the building they worshipped, the brothers and sisters in Christ that worshipped with them, the pastors that led them in worship, and the geography they found themselves.  Each of the millions of saints I saw behind the saints before me was a unique expression of God that became part of the larger mosaic of God.  Each one, joined together was the Church, united by the Holy Spirit to become the body of Christ.

In that procession of robed pastors, I thought of the hope of God on the first Pentecost, that disciples of Jesus would form communities spanning the globe, encompassing many languages and cultures, but speaking one language, grace.  People, we need to make a commitment today as one part of the greater body of Christ, Messiah Lutheran Church, that we will continually be in relationship with the rest of the body.  Tell me to stop being so lazy and create more worship opportunities with our brothers and sisters in Christ like our joint worship service with St. Pious in October.  Encourage the good work of Joann as she reaches out to many other churches to expand the ministry of Josephs’ Coat.  Push us to forge more special relationships with other churches like we have with St. Peters in Linden now.  Keep our leaders from ever solely looking inward in that ministry and always outward.

God’s hope was not to build millions of islands of love, but one solid continent of grace, land masses that overtake the chaotic seas of life.  On this birthday of the church, we celebrate the churches that have nurtured and encouraged our faith but more importantly we give thanks for the many churches, Lutheran, Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic and Independent that have given faithful voice to the gospel.  We pray that we may all begin to speak a language again that can be understood, the language of grace.  Amen

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