A sermon preached at St.Andrew’s-by-the-Lake on June 8, 2014.
Who doesn’t love birthdays?
I know my kids do. The day after their birthdays, they are already thinking about their next one.
And who can blame them. After all, birthdays are the time when I am the centre of attention.
Plus, let’s not forget all the stuff that goes with birthdays – cake, parties, and, of course, presents!
What was the best birthday present you ever received?
For me it is a tie between the present I received on my fifth birthday – a Dinobots transformer – and my sixteenth birthday – tickets to see Red Green.
Today we celebrate a birthday; the birthday of the Church. I’m not talking about St.Andrew’s-by-the-lake, but the church universal; the church across time and in every place where a community of disciples existed or exists; the capital ‘C’ Church.
Today we celebrate Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit was poured out to the first disciples. It was in God’s act of giving the Holy Spirit that the Church was born.
This is completely backwards to how we normally celebrate birthdays; we can’t celebrate birthday by giving gifts until a person is born.
And yet in our reading from Acts today, in God’s act of giving the Holy Spirit, the Church is born.
This means that everything the Church is and has is the result of sheer grace, of pure gift.
The Church is created out of God’s self-giving: the giving of Christ as Savior and the giving of the Holy Spirit as Sustainer.
Not only does the Church exist because of God’s gracious giving, the Church is to exist as a gift to the world in order to be a blessing to all people.
However, throughout history, up to and including the present, it seems as though the Church is anything but a gift to the world.
Recent polls among the un-churched indicate that the Church has, shall we say, a PR problem.
I don’t need to repeat the litany of sins committed by the Church, both past and present, in order to emphasize this.
Problems arise when the Church assumes it is God’s gift to the world rather than a gift that points to the Gift – Jesus Christ.
The Church is to act as Christ’s body in and for the world.
The mission of the Church is to continue Christ’s ministry.
The shape of Christ’s ministry is the shape of the cross.
Christ’s ministry was nothing less than God’s grace in action; Jesus did not seek power, fortune, or fame.
When the Church has sought these things, she has neglected her mission and placed her own well-being above those whom she is called to serve.
When the Church has sought these things she has rejected the gift of the Holy Spirit, throwing it back in the face of the self-giving God.
If the Church exists because of grace and to share grace, this requires that the Church operates with a profound, and, dare I say, reckless trust in God.
This trust propels the Church to focus on nothing else other than the proclamation of the gospel.
Unless everything the Church says and does is rooted in the gospel, the Church is bound to fail because it will be relying on its own power rather than that of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit alone is able to communicate the gospel.
In our reading from Acts, the focus of the text is not about the sudden ability of the disciples to speak different languages (though this is miraculous).
Rather, the focus of the text is the sheer fact that the gospel is communicated and that this communication can only occur by the work of the Holy Spirit.
But what is the gospel that the Spirit communicates?
The gospel is, as St. Paul tells us, the declaration that “Jesus is Lord”.
And, he continues, this declaration is only possible by the Holy Spirit.
To claim that Jesus is Lord is a declaration of allegiance; it is to claim that final authority rests not with those who have power, fortune, and fame, but in the one who refused to pursue these things, choosing to graciously give up his very life for the sake of the world.
To claim that Jesus is Lord is a declaration of allegiance that binds me to Christ’s ministry and the mission of the Church to speak the gospel to the world.
The Church is able to speak the gospel insofar as the Holy Spirit is at work in the life of the Church.
The Church speaks the gospel when it proclaims the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ.
The Church speaks the gospel when it shares the same peace that Christ did with his disciples in today’s Gospel reading.
In this reading, we find the disciples terrified for their very lives; completely driven by fear, they are concerned for nothing else than their own skins.
Compare this to the disciples’ fearlessness in our reading from Acts. With no fear of reprisal or of death, the disciples boldly proclaimed the gospel.
In defiance of the Roman Empire, the early church claimed that Jesus is Lord and Cesar is not.
What is the difference between the disciples in our readings from John and Acts ? The presence of the Holy Spirit.
The Church cannot exist apart from the Holy Spirit and the Church cannot speak the gospel apart from the Holy Spirit.
Christ commissions the Church to be his body on earth; the Holy Spirit consecrates the Church, then and now, empowering it to fulfill its mission.
Therefore, the Church does not exist for itself; when it speaks the gospel, when it speaks Christ, it exists for the sake of the world.
However, like those in the crowd at Peter’s sermon, the world will react with ridicule and rejection to the utter strangeness and foolishness of gospel-speech.
Yet, we should not expect that everyone who hears the gospel will respond positively. Furthermore, reception of the gospel is never the church’s responsibility; it is never the result of flashy advertising or top-notch programming, or rock-concert-stye worship.
The Holy Spirit alone makes reception of the gospel possible. Our responsibility it to make our entire lives open to the Holy Spirit so that everything we say and do is gospel-speech.
The Church has a single mission and purpose: to proclaim the gospel.
The Church is a community united by a shared purpose. Yet it remains a community comprised of individuals with different personalities, interests, career-paths, and so on.
The Church is a community in which is Spirit gives different gifts to everyone; gifts that are given in service to proclamation of the gospel.
In other words, the Church is kind of like a hockey team; there are different positions, but everyone on the team is playing together for the same purpose: defending their net and scoring goals in order to win the game.
The Church works in tune with the Spirit, using the gifts of the Spirit so that the Spirit can speak the gospel through the church to the world.
I once heard a pastor say “the Church has nothing to say to the world until it throws better parties”.
I think there is a lot of truth to this.
Great parties are joyful occasions. Not only is joy contagious, it is, as St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians, a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Because joy is contagious, the Holy Spirit is contagious.
When the Church focuses on itself, it is unable to joyfully celebrate the gospel and it closes itself to the reception of the Holy Spirit.
However, when the Church gives itself for the sake of the world, it will work in sync with the Holy Spirit, throwing the best parties the world has ever seen, parties that anticipate the eternal party that Christ promises to throw when he returns.
Of course, these parties will not look anything like the parties we are used to (though Jesus does promise that at his eternal party there will be lots of food and wine), these parties will be where people are transformed, healed, and restored,
where relationships are mended,
where the poor and sick are receive everything they need,
where the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner receive care and provision
where the outcast and rejected are welcomed with open arms and receive a place at the head table
where those who mourn will be comforted
where God’s justice and peace abound.
As we celebrate the birthday of the Church, may we be continually open to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, in the life of the parish, but also in our individuals lives.
May the Holy Spirit speak the gospel through the lives of our parish.
May the Holy Spirit speak the gospel through our individuals lives, at home, at work, at school, and at play.
May our joy be contagious as we celebrate the good news.
Let the party begin!