Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.
When I was a child, birthdays were always a cause for celebration. I still have pictures of my father’s family, including my grandmother, sitting out in the backyard under a large elm tree at my aunt’s house with a large birthday cake and ice cream ready for us on a picnic table
As we got older, the birthday parties became fewer and fewer until all anyone received was a birthday card from my aunt Helen. When she passed away, birthday celebrations in whatever form were a thing of the past. What a loss for us.
Today we celebrate the birthday of the Christian Church. Roughly speaking the Church is about 1990 years old. That’s a long time. Jesus ascended to heaven almost two millennia ago. The disciples and other apostles have long since died. The Church has divided into an uncountable number of denominations and become like a large extended family in which cousins no longer know each other. Our celebration of the Church’s birthday has diminished and with it our understanding of what God intends to achieve through the church.
Over the past twenty years a modern form of religious individualism has devalued the importance of the Church. Social scientists describe religious individualism, as the right to express individual religious preferences. Unfortunately, though, a growing sense of religious individualism in our culture has led to a decline in connectedness and weakened ties within the faith community. When individuals argue their personal spiritual journey need not be grounded in the ministry or mission of the church, religious individualism divorces itself from the Church Christ himself instituted.
On Pentecost Sunday we hear the story of events leading to the creation of the Church and justifying the Church’s very existence. From the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians about the variety of gifts the Holy Spirit offers to us, we learn how to remain one in the body of Christ. There are many gifts, but we are one in Christ.
But let us step back for a moment from the events of Pentecost day and recall the words our Lord spoke to his disciples at the Last Supper, as recorded in the Gospel according to John. This dialogue between Jesus and the disciples sets the stage not only for the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, but Pentecost Day as well.
Jesus knows his disciples worry about what will happen to themselves and the Christian community after the ascension of their Lord. He assures them by saying, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Jesus assures his disciples that God will send the Holy Spirit to instruct and lead them according to God’s purpose. The Holy Spirit will guide the Church into God’s own truth, giving both purpose and direction to the Christian community.
The promise Jesus made at the Last Supper finds fulfillment on the Day of Pentecost. Scripture tells us the disciples all gathered in a room, when a rush of wind fills the house where they sat. Tongues of fire rest on each of them; they are filled with the Holy Spirit and speak the Gospel in other languages. Jews from throughout the known world gather in astonishment to see this event unfold. Peter addresses the crowds, proclaiming God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah. About three thousand persons welcomed his message, were baptized and devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers.
From that moment, we mark the birthday of the Church. Whenever individuals hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, receive the Holy Spirit and devote themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers, you have the Church, as God intends it.
We gather today not just to commemorate an event taking place two thousand years ago, but to declare also we intend to follow in the footsteps of the disciples and apostles. That implies we shall devote ourselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers.
The most significant problem facing the Church today is the growth of religious individualism in our culture. This problem is probably best exemplified in an interview I heard on the radio not too long ago. The reporter interviewed a young woman about modern attitudes on issues related sexuality. He asked her in what ways her religious beliefs shaped her view on sexual issues. She replied her attitude toward sexual issues was private and religious teaching had no impact on her values. The Church and apostolic teaching were irrelevant to her.
Christians ought to remind themselves that Christian faith and values cannot be divorced from membership in the church. Remember what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body… and we were all made to drink one Spirit.” At baptism, we were made Christians, but we were also made members of the church. Membership is more than a name on the rolls, but a way of life grounded in Christ.
I recall the story of two men, sitting in front of a fireplace with a blazing fire before them. One man took a tong and pulled a coal away from the rest of the fire. Gradually, that coal cooled and began to lose it’s flame until the man pushed the ember back into the fire. His point was this: We come together to hear the apostle’s teaching, to join in fellowship with the breaking of bread and prayers for a reason. We can’t do without each other. The flame of our faith, the gift of the Holy Spirit, goes out in us without the support the fellowship of the Church provides.
Paul reminds us the Holy Spirit gives to each a gift for building up the church and promoting the common good. Some offer an example of faith, while others have the gift of teaching. Many members are generous in their support of the work of the church, while others are tireless in their work. God has endowed each of us with gifts for building up the church and each other. On Pentecost Sunday, therefore, we celebrate God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. We celebrate the Spirit which creates and sustains the Church. We rejoice in the gifts we have received as individuals that bind us together, give us a common mission and strengthen us for ministry. May God’s spirit ever be with you and empower this congregation. Amen
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.