12 Jun 2011
“Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit …” (Acts 2:3-4a) In the name …
We’re coming to the close of graduation season. Amherst and Northampton are much quieter now because the college students have gone home and their senior classes have had commencement. High schools have shooed their seniors out the door, and for one, the parking lot at Frontier is now nearly empty without them around. But inside those institutions of learning, an amazing contradiction is kept in fine balance. First, in their libraries and classrooms, the wisdom of the past is stored. I remember when I was at Smith College, the only part of the library that was locked and off-limits to unattended students was the section where they collected all of their oldest and rarest manuscripts. The wisdom of the past is being protected behind those locked gates. That’s the first half of their amazing contradiction. The other half is that in those same libraries and classrooms, they are helping to invent the wisdom of the future. That’s to be found in the minds of all those students. No one can tell how all that treasured wisdom of the past will be transformed by the students of the present when they make their mark on the future. What they will do with it is the other half of the amazing contradiction of education. The wisdom of the past is protected and treasured for all that it has accomplished, but it stays meaningful by the way the students receive it and change it. Change is really the highest compliment. The accomplishments of the past that don’t inspire new thoughts are forgotten. It is the old wisdom that inspires new thinking that we treasure and continue to teach.
One of my cousins just graduated last month as an architect from Cornell University. One of the fields that is now open to her is something called space architecture. They actually have a conference this summer. We’re closing down the space shuttle program. We’ve got no real plans to send humans out to the moon or beyond. We’re too broke to think about it, they say. But at some point we’re going to go. It’s almost inevitable. And when we go, we’re going to be aliens, and we’re going to have to get used to living in different worlds. We’re going to need to stay, not just survive. We’re going to have to put down roots, and form communities and have all of the amenities that go along with them, but according to conditions that are alien to us. The American pioneers of 200 years ago could never have imagined what their world looks like today. And just like that, in another 200 years we don’t know what a community on Mars will look like, but space architects are gathering this summer to lay some of the groundwork to at least start thinking about it. Change like this is literally unimaginable, but it is also necessary and exciting, and it’s the very definition of human progress.
Most everywhere this path of progress is accepted, but the church is usually not such a place. And that’s disappointing because the church that was born on Pentecost is based on the living, changing presence of God among us. St. Paul says that we are not based on the letter of the Law, but on the Spirit. The imagery is no longer of engraved stone tablets, but of ever-changing fire. Pentecost means that God is not limited to the past; God is always in the present. Our Bible study group is finishing with Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew is written for a church of Jewish-Christians. They go to the Temple and synagogue, they keep kosher, they speak about the Law. This is the kind of church that probably felt the most like the remembered historical Jesus of Nazareth. But Matthew’s church faded and died. It is no longer a model of church in our world. If there never was a Pentecost, Matthew’s church would have remained, and it would have been our model because it looked the most like the remembered Jesus. But as Christians changed, so did the church because the Spirit is the living, changing presence of God among us in all of our present moments. We approach our faith differently than did the first believers in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. That change isn’t a rejection of the past. We still read Matthew and reverence it as an inspired text. We still preach from its pages and teach its lessons. Change respects the past, but adapts it to the present.
And that’s the message of Pentecost. That’s where church was born and that’s what church is supposed to be. But too often the institutional church shies away from this Pentecost-truth because a corollary of the Spirit forever in the present means that change is always a part of our faith. Just like Matthew’s church could not have possibly envisioned the church found 2,000 years later, so the church of today cannot pre-determine the church of tomorrow – and this scares the institution. This is why church is not as much a Pentecost church as she should and could be. We resist giving ourselves over to the Spirit’s inspiration because we won’t give up trying to control the church.
That’s dangerous. What it means is that the institution feels more confident about defining the church than it does allowing the Spirit to guide the church. And if this had happened before us, then Matthew’s example would be ours, and obviously it is not. So we’ve watered down Pentecost. And maybe that’s why one of the fastest growing and most studied current religious categories is something called “Spiritual But Not Religious.” A lot of people feel in touch with God, but not with religion. A real faith in Pentecost, a real trust in God-in-the-present, may be the answer to bringing spiritual and religious fully together again. Let us pray that we truly are a Pentecost church. Let us trust the Spirit to guide us. Let us appreciate that change is not the enemy of church, but a sign of its vitality. Let us appreciate the power and the authority of God among us now. This is the meaning of Pentecost, and for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo