When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
And no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Last month, we began our council retreat by pondering what, at first, seemed like a pretty straight forward question. The question was “Why do we (meaning this church) exist? What’s our purpose?
It takes a lot of effort to be church. So we should be clear, why we insist on being so. It takes a lot of time and money, which, for most of us, are already in scarce supply. There are dead trees that have to be cut down, boilers that need updating and a leaky roof that needs fixing. There is just so much to do — so much that needs tending. It feels never ending.
And that is just the physical plant. Being church is also not easy, because we human beings are complicated and life together is messy. Be in a community long enough and chances are pretty good that at one point or another, we will find ourselves frustrated or impatient at something that is or that is not happening. Be in community long enough and chances are pretty good that someone will get on our very, last nerve. Being together is hard. Each of us come into this place from different life experiences with different needs and expectations. When you start to really think about it, it is a kind of miracle that things work as well as they do.
So why do we do it?
Maybe we don’t really need to. After all, in our reformed tradition, we do have a kind of escape clause. We uphold the idea of the “priesthood of all believers.” It’s there on the back of our bulletins — all of us are ministers. That means you really don’t need me or Amy. Probably not particularly strategic for me to say that out loud since I still have college payments to make and really do love my job, but nonetheless it is true. Each of us can have our own unmediated relationship with God. And that then begs the question, do we really need each other? Do we really need to gather here Sunday after Sunday?
An increasing number of our brothers and sisters out there are answering that question with a resounding “No.” The number of people identifying as “spiritual but not religious” which is to say, people who want a relationship with God but without the headache of being in organized religion, is on the rise. Why deal with the mess of sharing in a life lived together when we can very well do our own thing?
This trend towards “going it alone,” “doing one’s own thing,” is of course a phenomenon not unique to faith. Robert Putnam’s well know book “Bowling Alone” speaks of a remarkable sea change that happened in the end of the 20th century when we began to see a stark and profound collapse of social connections in communities. Where once communities had many bowling leagues, tournaments and opportunities to come together, people were now, literally bowling alone.
We are in a really remarkable era in human evolution where for the first time in human history, we have gotten to the place where in many real ways, our survival is no longer tied to the survival of others. Where once we could not go it alone, where once we needed our tribe, our people in order to make it, now we don’t. Or at least we don’t think we do. I believe we saw a remarkable example of this mentality on our national stage this week, as our President pulled us out of the Paris Climate Agreement.
But really, we may protest, are we not more connected than ever? Technology and social media surely have strengthened the social capital of communities no? No! At least according to Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at MIT who writes in her book “Alone Together” that social media has given us a way to manage and control our social interactions that is not dependent on reciprocity or relationship. In a TED talk from 2012, Turkle cites a conversation she had with an 18 year old young man who uses texting for almost everything who said to her wistfully, “Someday, someday, — I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”
It turns out having a conversation could very well be the key to it all. Turns out having a conversation, coming face to face, to encounter and interact and fortify those ties that bind, could very well be what God had in mind from the beginning and where our salvation today lies.
For over two thousand years ago, there was this group of 120 or so people who had gathered together. Much like us here now. They were hard working and well meaning. They were doing the hard work of being church together. They were in their first century ways doing the equivalent of nominating to council, working on stewardship, and figuring out how to fix the roof. (I invite you to the first chapter of the book of Acts). I am sure they were also finding themselves frustrated or impatient at something that was or that was not happening. I am sure they were also getting on each others, very, last nerve.
But then something happened, something that spun them around and set them off and out. Something happened that shocked, terrified, astonished and amazed them. Something that lit them up and set them afire. Something happened that gave them capacities that they did not know they had. Capacities to connect in ways they did not know even existed.
Social scientists may be now discovering the value of social capital to the health, well-being and thriving of us all, but turns out God has known it all along. Turns out God abhors isolation. God abhors contraction, hunkering down, walling up and retreating within. And I will be bold enough to say that God abhors bowling alone.
On Pentecost we celebrate the “birthday of the church,” but that is not really true. The early church had organized itself and was doing its thing before Pentecost. But what was missing, what this day is all about is answering the question Why? Why be church? Why deal with the mess of being together. What is the purpose of church?
On Pentecost the early church, our ancestors of faith got the answer to the question of why. The answer to “Why?” came when they were filled with the Spirit, and were commissioned and capacitated to speak in languages that those around them could comprehend. The answer to “Why?” came as they were commissioned for connection. They were not to be an isolated club of like-minded, like speaking, like shared experienced, people hunkered down in their own echo chamber of the reality of their own making.
No they were to be, we are to be, outward focused, spirit-filled, people of engagement and communion. Making connections with those who speak a different language both metaphorically and literally. God commissions us to usher in the reign of peace that can only happen in community, through engagement, through building social connection and social capital . We are to be creators of connection.
I learned recently that a forest is not just a collection of individual trees. It is a community. Under the soil the trees speak and it turns out oaks do not just speak to oaks and maples do not just speak to maples, but the forest is a thriving community, an ecosystem fed by communion. Creation knows and has always known the power of communion. Our work is to rediscover it now, in our time.
You heard me say on Palm Sunday that I think the central image of our faith should be not the cross but the communion table. For that is who we are. The “why” of who we are, at least in my mind, is Communion. We deal with the frustration, the hard work of being together and the bumps and bruises along the way because we are embodying and living the way of communion which is the way of life and hope in a world that is so desperate to know the power, redemption and hope that lie in going it not alone but together.
We are church. We are living this messy, beautiful, spirit infused life of communion because the pathway to our shared future lies not in going it alone but going it with each other and with God. The pathway to life, hope, love and possibility lies through the door way of communion.
Thanks be to God and the reason we are. Amen.