Acts 2:1-11; Corinthians12:3-7, 12-13; Psalm 104; John 20:19-23 (+)
Pentecost has been celebrated widely over the centuries as the Birthday of the Church, the day on which a group of frightened, confused, faithful but groping, disciples became the empowered Body of Christ who went forth and changed the world. Also, over the centuries, the Church has been called many things, not all complimentary: The cozy club of the saved, a hospital for sick souls, a social service agency with a cross on the top, the New Jerusalem, the Elect and so on. All of these have some truth in them, as well as some error. So, what is the Church? Who are we as the Church? How does being the Church effect how we live our lives? These are very big questions that cannot be answered in one short homily, or even one really long homily. So I will touch on the points that I think are most relevant to us, here and now.
First, the Church is the Body of Christ in the world, we are all sons and daughters, by grace, of God the Father and brothers and sisters of Christ. We are the family of God, who have been given, in our Baptism and Chrismation, in the Eucharist and all the other Sacraments, the power and ability to actually be children of God, to live that reality in this fallen world. There is an ancient Orthodox theological statement that says that in Christ we are free from all determinants. This means that, in the words of FDR, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” There is nothing, no stumbling block, no tribulation, no memory, no neurosis, no addiction, no behavior, no disease, no pain, or sorrow, failure or success, that can keep us from following Christ unless we choose to let it. We are free, radically free, as free as only the children of God can be, if we will let go and let it happen. We are the only thing holding ourselves back, we let so many external circumstances, and internal doubts and fears determine our response and behavior. It is one of the results of the Fall that for us human beings fear and doubt, selfishness and pride are our default settings; we have to actively choose each time to be faithful, trusting, sacrificial and humble. And that brings us to my second point –
As the Body of Christ the Church is the resting place of the Holy Spirit, and each of us, in our Chrismation, have been given the Holy Spirit, to live in us. God lives in us, not a piece of God, but God the Holy Spirit; just as we don’t receive a little bit of Christ at the Eucharist, but the whole of Christ, so at our Chrismation we receive the Holy Spirit, to empower us, guide us, strengthen us, comfort us and challenge us to strive to live the truth of who we are. We share the life of the Trinity and our Triune God shares our life. In everything we do, think or feel we participate in that reality. And that should give us pause, when we recall some of the things we have done, thought or felt – that we have done, thought and felt them with hands, minds and hearts consecrated to God. And that is how we get in our own way, how we prevent this divine reality from manifesting in our lives. We practice selective amnesia, we forget, for the moment, who we are so that we can do what we want to do. And then we remember, repent, confess and move on; but we are like the frog in the well, for every two steps forward, we slide three steps back. We all do it, even those we revere as Saints have done it, our crucial task is to be aware that we do it and to stop, hopefully before we have acted. Charles Wesley wrote a hymn about this, the first verse is, “I want a principle within of watchful, godly fear, a sensibility of sin, a pain to feel it near. I want the first approach to feel of pride or wrong desire, to catch the wandering of my will, and quench the kindling fire.” Nepsis, Brother Steven’s favorite word, is what we need to practice, to watch ourselves while at the same time being mindful of the Spirit within, who wants to protect us from ourselves and guide us in the truth. Who wants us to always be aware of who, and where, we are.
And so to my third point – The Church is the Kingdom, the Reign of God on earth. As Christians this is our true home, our heart home and our eternal home; and this is our eternal family, all the faithful of all times and places are our brothers and sisters in Christ, with whom we will reign forever. That is quite a destiny, and an appealing and shiny picture to contemplate – but where are we now? Does our life, in all its aspects reflect that glory? Do we live as if we live in the Kingdom? Yes, we do, some of the time, and at others, not so much. We, each one of us, as well as all of us together, and the whole of creation, are a work in progress. The whole picture lives complete in the mind and heart of the Master Artist, the Most Holy Trinity, but the actual canvas is still mostly blank – we each add our own brush strokes, our own colors and texture. That is what St. Paul is writing about in our second lesson, “There are different gifts but the same Spirit; there are different ministries but the same Lord; there are different works but the same God who accomplishes all of them in every one. To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” We are working with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and with one another and all the Saints and all the Holy Bodiless Powers, to the best of our ability to build the Reign of God, to finish the picture of the Kingdom, and sometimes we get it wrong, we smear the paint, or choose the wrong color, so we grab a palette knife (repentance, confession, absolution) scrape it off, and try again. We can’t get it ultimately wrong as long as we are striving to follow the mind of the Artist, we only fail if we walk away and refuse to join in the struggle.
Tomorrow we begin the Fast of Mission, and, in broad strokes, the three points I have used are our mission – to be the Body of Christ in the world, to live our lives as Children of God, and to work in the building up of the Kingdom of God. That is the Mission of the Church, that is our mission, and I pray that during these 40 days we may each recommit ourselves to this goal, and that we be filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit and the strength to carry on.
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