May 15, 2016
Acts 2: 1-13: When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested[a] on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”
One of the biggest questions that we face as the Church is figuring out where we change to fit culture and where we seek to change culture. Where do we move with culture because of new understandings of the world and so that we can effectively share the story of God in Christ in our current context? And, where do we push against culture, in the name of Christ?
These are questions that all churches must ask. And not everyone answers it in the same way. For example, some churches have completely moved away from what we often call “traditional” worship, because they believe that it doesn’t connect with the culture. Other churches couldn’t imagine a worship service without a pipe organ. Here, of course, with have worship with guitars AND worship with a pipe organ.
You walk into some churches and you’re overwhelmed with Christian artwork, architecture, and symbols, half of which you need a doctoral degree to understand. Then, you walk into other churches and there’s a Starbucks in the lobby. No joke. Some of you are thinking right now, “Could we get a Starbucks at Christ Church?”
Many of you are familiar with The Onion, a news satire website. Many of you probably didn’t know that there’s a Christian version of The Onion. It’s called the Babylon Bee and it’s pretty funny. Though, pastors probably enjoy church humor more than the average person. There was an article a little while back about Newspring Church, a megachurch in South Carolina, offering a 90-day refund on salvation. If, after trying Jesus out for a little bit, it’s not working for you, you can take advantage of the 90-day guarantee. If you decide you want out, you still get to keep your baptism t-shirt and you even get a free set of kitchen knives, just for giving it a shot.
Now, remember, this is satire. It’s completely made up, obviously. No one would take seriously any church that actually did that. But, it’s funny because it rings true in some ways. Churches can go so far in trying to mirror the culture that they lose the core of who they are. But, there’s an equal danger in presenting culture as something that is inherently bad, because then churches grow stagnant and irrelevant. The church shapes culture and culture shapes the church; the difficulty is figuring out when we should be shaped and when we should be doing the shaping.
Last week, Mike shared with you a little bit about General Conference, the gathering of United Methodist delegates from around the world every four years to set the course for the future of our church family. This year, they’re in Portland, Oregon and we’re one week in with one week to go. Now, many of the things they’re wrestling with at General Conference relate to this question of church and culture. Of course, because we’re a worldwide church, we have the added challenge of trying to figure this out in a way that relates to many cultures. One week in, it’s already been an interesting roller coaster ride. I have heard from a few of you that have been following the proceedings.
You know, Portland, Oregon is a good place for General Conference, because Portland describes itself as “weird.” Back in 2000, Austin, Texas adopted the slogan “Keep Austin Weird” to promote local businesses. Portland snagged the slogan a few years later and “Keep Portland Weird” became a thing, starting a feud over which city is more weird. I think you could also throw Asheville into the mix.
There’s something compelling about being different, about being unusual. One of our retired bishops, Will Willimon, refers to Christians as peculiar people–people that are seen as somehow different, that don’t completely reflect the values and behaviors of mainstream culture. We are people that march to the beat of a different drum.
Of course, it doesn’t always seem that way. Some of you may have seen the Daily Show clip a few years back, where Jon Stewart talked about the Methodist Church. He said, “Being a Methodist is easy. It’s like the University of Phoenix of religions: you just send them 50 bucks and click “I agree” and you are saved.”
It’s hilarious, until you really start thinking about it. And you realize that there’s a little too much truth to it. I’m a lifelong Methodist. But I can’t disagree with him. Another John–John Wesley–wrote in his later days about his greater fear for the Methodist movement. He said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.”
His fear was that we’d lose that which makes us different, that which makes us weird. The form of religion is reflective of culture. For example, the structure of the United Methodist Church is shaped, partly, by US political structures and corporate models from the mid-20th century. The church has had many different forms over the centuries and to this day. But, the power of our faith is what makes us different. The power of our faith, the power of the church is in the Holy Spirit. John Wesley’s greatest fear was that we’d lose our dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
The power is what makes us different. When the crowds saw the power of the Holy Spirit on display in the early church, it was immediately clear that they had encountered something unusual. Is the Holy Spirit at work in us such that, when people encounter us, it is clear that they have encountered something unusual?
Now, you can’t determine someone’s reaction to that encounter. In this passage, some react in awe and later come to believe. Others simply say the disciples have had too much wine. You can’t determine someone’s reaction, but, if the church isn’t prompting a reaction, if the work of the Holy Spirit is not so apparent that people don’t look at the church and see something unusual, then maybe we really are the University of Phoenix of religions.
Now, I don’t believe that’s the case. I believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in us, in this church, and in our worldwide church family. I’ve seen the lives transformed through participation in small groups and bible studies. I’ve seen the people fed through the work of our hands. I’ve seen the hearts shaped through passionate worship. The impact in our community when our generosity reflects God’s. The Spirit is moving at Christ Church.
You know, a few weeks ago, the Spirit-driven vision of one of our church members, Sally Muller, came to fruition. We are so blessed in our church to have a large number of people from Vietnam. Some of them have been with us for quite a while. Others are brand new, not just to Christ Church, but to our country. If you’ve ever traveled to a country that primarily spoke a language that you didn’t know, you know that it can be challenging. Imagine living there. Imagine going to church there. But, through the work of the Spirit and Sally’s passion, we received a grant for a translation system that allows for the people in our church community from Vietnam to receive live translation via headsets during our Awakening service, primarily from Angelo Lieng, one of our Vietnamese young adults. How awesome is that? It’s like a real live, 21st century Pentecost, each hearing in his or her own language!
The Holy Spirit is at work in the people of Christ Church. But, what more is possible? Where is the Holy Spirit ahead of us, pulling us? Where do we have the form of religion, but not the power? Where do we mirror the problems in our cultures, rather than working against the injustice, the violence, and the suffering?
The video that we watched ends with the question, “What does it mean to be alive in the Spirit of God?” That’s a good question, but I want to tweak it. Consider this: “What does it look like for YOU to be alive in the Spirit of God?” And this: “What does it look like for CHRIST CHURCH to be alive in the Spirit of God?”
I cannot answer that question for each of you and only together can we answer it for Christ Church. But, what I do know is that when the Spirit is at work, when we have not just the form, but the power of religion, it cannot be ignored. It provokes a response. It makes us different. Peculiar. So, let us be a peculiar people.
- Share your experience or understanding of the Holy Spirit.
- How do we remain connected to the Holy Spirit?
- Where do you see the Holy Spirit at work?
- What more is possible, if we open ourselves up to the Spirit?
- What does it look like for YOU to be alive in the Spirit?
- What does it look like for CHRIST CHURCH to be alive in the Spirit?
- What type of reaction do you hope Christ Church to provoke in our community?