Acts 2: 1-8, 12-18; John 15:26-27, 16:4-7
Are you heartsick and tired of the way our world is these days? It seems like I have never heard so many people say that they cannot watch the news any more it makes them so sad, angry and depressed. I know even for me, sometimes, as with the recent school shootings, the news gets so bad, I wonder if making a different world is really possible.
But then I come here and I am reminded as we worship together that God does not call us to change the world by ourselves. And on this day in particular we’ve got some good news to celebrate! Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day we celebrate the birthday of the church, a day that reminds us that we belong to God and to each other, a day when we celebrate that God’s Spirit still at work through us to change this world.
Now I know that the church as an institution has not always given us reasons to celebrate. Even in the past few weeks in our St. Cloud region and in the Twin Cities headlines and pictures in the news have more than once featured priests and pastors who have abused their own parishioners. We know that over the 2,000 plus years of the church’s life these and other kinds of destructive acts have marred the history of the Christian church.
But at its best, the church was never intended to be an institution, and it certainly was not intended to inflict pain and suffering on individuals or to foster exclusion and discrimination against whole groups of people. The church is meant by God to be a movement to bring all people together in God’s love.
I was struck once again with the purpose of the church by the opening story in the devotional reading I read this morning entitled “A New Community.” The author wrote: “My friend Carrie’s five-year-old daughter, Maya, has an interesting approach to playtime. She loves mixing up together dolls from different playsets to come up with a new community. In the world of her imagination, everything belongs together. These are her people. She believes they are happiest when they’re together, despite being different sizes and shapes and coming from different playsets.”
This little girl’s imagination is a reflection of the creativity of God and of the purpose of the church as described in the story of Pentecost: God’s Spirit making a new community of love and understanding out of people who were from different cultures and who spoke different languages.
According to John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, this indeed is the mission of the church: to bring together people from all sorts of backgrounds to be united as a community of God’s love for the transformation of the world. That means that the church is not first of all a building but, rather, it is first of all about building relationships. Jesus built relationships with his followers so that they in turn could build relationships with others so that together they could change the world. This is the pattern of the Christian movement. And it all begins with building our relationship with God.
Like many of us feel when we think about the future of our world today, the disciples were feeling anxious about their world and were overcome with personal grief and sadness at the anticipated loss of Jesus, their leader and friend.
Jesus had worked hard to prepare his disciples for this time of loss and anxiety. He taught them and modelled for them what they needed to focus on in order to get through the challenging days ahead and to carry on with power and joy Jesus’ movement of love, peace and justice. Jesus reminded them in this gospel lesson, as he reminds us today, that those who follow him will never be alone. The Christian movement is not first our work; it is God’s work. And Jesus promised all who follow him that God would be present through God’s indwelling and empowering Spirit of love. Through his instruction and example, Jesus showed his followers how to connect each day to that Spirit by staying in love with God.
One thing I have learned as a licensed marriage and family therapist is that family members lose their connection to one another if they do not foster their love for each other. If there is one lesson I try to teach when I do couples counseling, it is reminding couples to never take their relationship for granted, but to make nurturing their relationship their number one priority.
Jesus, throughout his teaching and his life example, reminded those who followed him to make their relationship with God, staying in love with God, their number one priority. As Reuben Job, the author of the little book Three Simple Rules, puts it, “We can accuse Jesus of many things, but we cannot accuse him of neglecting his relationship with God. He must have learned early how important it was to stay close to God if he was to fulfill his mission in the world. He must have learned early that there was power available to live the faithful, the fruitful, the good life and that this power involved staying connected, staying in touch, and staying in love with his trusted Abba.”
Bottom line, if we don’t like the way this world is going, if we want to be part of a movement to help change this world, then our first priority is to stay in love with God.
While in the gospel story we see the despair of the disciples as they considered a world without Jesus, in the Pentecost story we see these same disciples filled with God’s Spirit, infused with power and hope and new vision, excited and ready to carry on the movement, equipped and enthused to bring the good news of God’s peace and love to all people even as they received the ability to speak in other languages so that people present from all over their world could hear about the wonderful works of God.
So how did these disciples go from the despair and discouragement of the gospel story to the hope and excitement of the Pentecost story? In between these two stories we discover in the first chapter of the book of Acts that immediately after the departure of Jesus, the disciples gathered together in the upper room in Jerusalem and, as verse 14 tells us, “they all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication.”
Thank God, the teaching and example of Jesus had gotten through. These first followers of Jesus had learned the lesson that no matter how discouraging the world becomes, no matter how overwhelming the needs of people appear, the priority remains the same: to take time to get away for solitude, for prayer and meditation, for connecting to and staying in love with God.
I learned this lesson and have continued to learn it over the years of doing pastoral ministry. And I have had some pretty good mentors along the way. As I have shared with some of you before, one such mentor of mine was a man by the name of John Norton, who died of an unexpected and massive heart attack two years ago, at the age of 62. Ironically John died while he was running, physical fitness being one of John’s many passions. But while many people knew of John’s passion for running and his discipline for physical fitness, not as many knew of his passion for staying in love with God through a disciplined life of spiritual devotion. At his memorial service speakers gave tribute to the tremendous impact of John’s public life as a community organizer. It was the vision, faith and leadership of John Norton that brought our church together with a dozen other congregations twenty years ago to form the community organization known today as ISAIAH/GRIP – the Great River Interfaith Partnership. Since his college days at St. John’s University, John Norton had felt called by God to recruit and train people of diverse faiths and races who together would build organizations like ISAIAH to provide a powerful public voice for justice and equal opportunity for all.
What I will always remember about John from my years being mentored by him is his sincere and powerful belief that each of us is called and gifted by God to help change this world. When I was with John, I felt that he believed in me even more than I believed in myself. John was incredibly effective at helping people identify their passions and step into the life which fulfilled God’s purposes for them.
Attending the memorial service for John reminded me that while John was known for his life of public service, it was made clear in the shared reflections on his life just how important it was to John to have regular time alone with God, with his family and with his closest friends who shared his passion for serving God in the greater community. John’s favorite get-away was the family cabin up in the woods of northern Minnesota. It was there that John found the private space he needed for solitude, prayer and reflection. He regularly used this space to deepen his connection to God and to his closest friends, so that together they would stay in love with God and find renewed strength and direction to return to serve God in the world.
Taking time to stay in love with God. It is what Jesus taught and modelled for his disciples. It is what mentors like John Norton taught me. And it is what John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, practiced and taught for all who would join the movement called “Methodism.” Wesley’s methods included what he called “essentials” or “ordinances.” These were spiritual practices such as worship, prayer, communion, baptism, personal and family Scripture reading and small groups for Bible study, prayer and mutual support. These spiritual practices, Wesley believed, were vital for followers of Jesus to stay in love with God and to be empowered by God’s Spirit to keep growing the movement of changing the world. Wesley also suggested that in addition to these “essentials” each of us can discover other practices that nurture us and keep us in love with God.
Bottom line, as we see in Jesus and his followers, if we are to go out in God’s name to change the world in the public arena, we must also go deeper into the private world of the Spirit and stay in love with God. When Jesus left this world, he knew that it would take a deep, inner spiritual strength for his followers not only to be changed by God, but to be the change the world so desperately needed.
And so on this Pentecost Sunday we conclude the series on Wesley’s three simple rules: Do No Harm, Do Good, and Stay in Love with God. The simple truth is that if we stay in love with God we will seek to do no harm and we will seek to do good. For it is the light of God’s love shining within us that moves us to love others and to shine as lights in this world. May God’s Spirit help us to make a different world by shining brightly as we stay in love with God and share that light of love with others. Amen!