In preparation for Pentecost this coming Sunday, I looked back thirteen years and revisited a Pentecost sermon I delivered on 8 June 2003.
This is not the sermon I will preach this Sunday, but it did put a somewhat interesting spin on the day.
THE UNBIRTHDAY OF THE CHURCH
JOHN 15:26, 27; 16:4b-15
Today is that season of the Christian year we know as Pentecost. Pentecost commemorates the day fifty days after Easter when Jesus’ disciples had an experience of God’s Spirit which seems to have utterly transformed their lives.
Pentecost is sometimes known as the “birthday of the church.” This is a rather cute way of acknowledging that, even after the resurrection, Jesus’ disciples remained a fragmented, disconnected body of individuals. It was only after Pentecost that they discovered within themselves the courage to go out into the world and proclaim the gospel. So, the argument goes, Pentecost represents the beginning of the church.
However, if by “church” we mean the organization/institution which we presently see around us and which we traditionally call “church,” I do not think Pentecost can accurately be said to be the birthday of this organization.
In John 16 Jesus sought to help his disciples understand what the coming of the Holy Spirit would mean in their lives. The explanation has nothing to do with bringing into existence some monolithic organization charged with the responsibility of carrying into the future the ministry Jesus began when he was teaching and healing in first century Palestine.
If John chapter 16 holds a key to our understanding of Pentecost, we are not talking about a birthday for the church. The coming of God’s Holy Spirit, as described by Jesus, seems to be a much darker image than the picture of a birthday party.
Jesus says that, when the Holy Spirit comes,
he will prove the world wrong about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; abut judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. (John 16:8-11)
The whole passage carries an ominous tone. Jesus warns his disciples of the possibility of their “stumbling.” He speaks about “sorrow” which has “filled” their hearts. And he talks about the fact that he is going to go away.
John 16 leaves an impression that the future is going to be difficult and painful for these disciples of Jesus. And, of course, we know from history that indeed, the lives of the earliest Christians were filled with sorrow beyond anything most of us could imagine.
For the first three hundred years of the Christian church, Christians were at best a marginalized suspect little group of people, barred from positions of power or influence in society. At worst Christians for the first three hundred years of the church faced terrible injustice, persecution, torture, and execution for their faith. Christianity in its early years was not a guarantee of health, wealth and prosperity for believers.
So, Jesus was preparing his followers to face difficult times. He was getting them ready for suffering, difficulty and struggle. And the promise Jesus gave was certainly not that everything would go well but that, in the midst of things going terribly badly, they would have the Holy Spirit.
What would this Holy Spirit do for these persecuted, suffering Christians?
The Holy Spirit would do one thing for believers. The Holy Spirit, Jesus says,
will guide you into all truth. (John 16:13)
The problem when life is not running smoothly, is that we start to believe the illusions of the world. “The world” in this context is shorthand for life lived exclusively on the horizontal plane. “World” is not a reference to creation here, but to life lived without any reference to or acknowledgement of the vertical dimension of mystery and light Christians believe was embodied in the person of Jesus. The world in this sense believes that the way to deal with difficult circumstances is to get control of life on the horizontal plane. Jesus calls this attitude “sin” and says the world needs to be proved “wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.”
The strategies of the world are all a dead end. That is why the Holy Spirit also needs to convict the world “about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.” The promises the world offers are empty. They do not bring life. They bring condemnation and hopelessness. If we trust nothing but our own determination to make our lives work in the material time-bound realm, we end up barren, empty, and frustrated.
The Holy Spirit comes to remind us of the truth that there is a better way to live than the way the world lives. Jesus calls this way the way of righteousness. He says that the Holy Spirit will condemn the world “about righteousness, because I am going to the Father.” The better way is the way of living now where Jesus is going. Jesus is going to realize the fullness of his absolute unity with God. The Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to know that we live in communion with God.
Pentecost happened, not to found some organization called church; heaven forbid. Jesus no more sent the Holy Spirit to found the institution of the church than he overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the temple in order to found the Toronto Dominion Bank. Pentecost happened in order that, those who are willing to see the truth about life may open their hearts to intimacy with God.
This is the only hope we have of living in the midst of the struggles and difficulties that are an inevitable part of human existence in a broken world. We cannot avoid the harshness and pain of life. But we can live in the awareness of intimate personal loving communion with God. This is the promise of Pentecost. Hopefully, this is the reality towards which Church directs us.
We are at one with our Creator. We can trust God’s love. We can know a personal loving parent/child relationship with the Source of our being. And this is the only path along which we may experience the life-giving reality of God’s presence for which our hearts long.
Pentecost urges us to give up on the illusions of any coping strategies outside of God. Pentecost asks us to open to the living presence of God and to recognize that this is the only relationship which can sustain us throughout life. This is much better than even the best birthday party.