19 May 2013
“‘In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’” (Acts 2:11) (+)
You know to say, “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” like we just did would have been a huge surprise to the first Christians, the first believers on that Pentecost Sunday some 2,000 years ago. They did not yet have a theology of the Holy Trinity. That literally took hundreds of years in the life of the church to figure out. If we were to continue reading from where Josh left off, we would hear Peter’s Pentecost speech. Twice he says, “‘God raised [Jesus] up,’” and once he says, “‘God has made [Jesus] both Lord and Messiah.’” That’s a very primitive Christian theology. It speaks of God’s power as separate and doing something to the old Jesus and thus making Jesus into the new Christ. That’s not Trinitarian theology. It’s older than that. So something as basic as the sign of the cross is evidence that the church is a living, breathing, changing organism, and that all goes back to the mystery and the power of Pentecost. Without Pentecost’s promise of the Spirit’s authority, church is a lie.
The reality of change is nothing new or strange. It just seems so when we talk about church. Then the idea of change almost takes on the patina of error, but change is not necessarily a sign of error. It can be a sign of life. When you read the oldest parts of the Old Testament, if this makes it easier to swallow, the faith of the generations of the Patriarchs, the Judges and the first Kings, there you do not find the orthodox faith of today’s Judaism. It was more tribal, primitive and even polytheistic. Even the name Israel is derived from the Genesis story of Jacob wrestling with God. It literally means “to wrestle God,” and even more literally it means “to wrestle El.” El was the name of the God of oldest Israel, but no Jewish synagogue has prayers to El any longer. Change happens.
Or even take something a lot more recent like the good ol’ USofA. The nation we are today, I imagine, would be a strange vision for the citizen farmers who gathered in Lexington and Concord or even for many of the Founding Fathers. I guarantee that a Washington, Jefferson or Madison never in their wildest dreams would have imagined an African-American President named Barack Obama. Change happens. And change is a natural progression of a living, breathing community. I hope we all can see ourselves as more committed, not less committed, to the ideals of the Constitution when we no longer count Negro slaves as 3/5 of a person. Change is what allows us to remain true and faithful.
Therefore, change is not the rejection of the past. It’s the continuing life of the past. If you want to see something unchanging, then you go to a museum and look at the work of taxidermists. Their job is to recreate the past as it was and keep it that way. That displays the separation of past and present when change stops. The Pentecost church is to create God’s people in the present. To be an authentic Pentecost church doesn’t mean to go back to a primitive, pre-Trinitarian theology. It means to believe that the Holy Spirit still guides us today with the same power and closeness as the Spirit guided the first believers in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. In Bible study we’ve been talking about the fact that Paul’s earliest churches were charismatic. They were guided by members who other members believed were inspired by the Holy Spirit. There was no clergy-laity distinction. I would not exist in Paul’s church in the city of Corinth. Neither would the liturgy as we today understand it. Today liturgy is extremely regulated, down to what you have to do, what you have to say, where you need to look. In Corinth Paul had to ask for a bit more order in their worship. Multiple people were standing up and speaking, some interrupting others, some speaking unintelligibly. Some people were coming to the eucharistic table and eating and drinking so much that Communion became a feast and people left drunk. Paul said this all has to stop, but he didn’t say that to a pastor. He said that to the congregation as a whole. And what he wanted to see was order, respect and meaning in the liturgy, but he did not refuse the right of everyone to participate actively in the worship. He didn’t create the distinction between clergy and laity, in other words. And Paul treated women as equals in the community of the church with voice, responsibility and leadership. That’s all biblical, but it’s not part of today’s church. We’ve changed. And as far as I’m concerned we should change again and reintroduce some of that earlier liveliness and equality back into the life of the church. Pentecost allows this. Pentecost requires this.
Church is foremost a living organism. That’s why she’s called the People of God and the Body of Christ in the New Testament. I think we’re not completely honest when we try to equate organism with organization. They’re not the same things. For Pentecost the church tells us to stop reading two verses shy of the beginning of Peter’s Pentecost speech. One verse says that the crowds were all amazed by the Pentecost experience. The other says that some sneered and said, “‘They are filled with new wine.’” While some were hearing the words of God, others were seeing only chaos and confusion. That’s a whole other discussion for which we don’t have the time, but it’s a clear indication that Pentecost was not an organized ritual that followed a well-rehearsed script. Pentecost was messy and noisy, and it was challenging. It challenged everything that those people in the streets believed about God and about Jesus. It confronted them with God’s unpopular revelation.
Where has that Pentecost gone? The way you tell today if something is inspired by the Spirit is you run it by the institution of the church, and not even the whole body of the church, but only by her bishops. If the organization agrees, then it’s the Holy Spirit. That is not the Pentecost model. It’s not even the old National Catholic model. I can’t even see how substantive change takes place in that model. It takes the fire out of the tongues of fire. It takes the rush of Pentecost’s “violent wind.” Institution is necessary, but it’s here for the benefit of Pentecost. It has to believe in change. It has to allow for surprises because God is in control not the institution. Church is organism far more profoundly than we are organization. And that’s something Pentecost keeps alive in us always, and for that fire and zeal of the Spirit, may we pray this morning in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Fr. Randolph Calvo