In the name of God our creator, Christ our savior, and the Holy Spirit who still empowers us and guides us. Amen.
Everything about the Christian story seems, at its core, to be about pushing us.
Pushing us past the boundaries we have erected. Pushing us into new ways of thinking. Pushing us into more authentic ways of living and acting.
But perhaps most of all, the Christian story is about pushing us ever more out into the world.
And nowhere, in all of the Christian story, is the narrative about going - of our being pushed - more explicit than it is in the story of Pentecost.
The disciples are huddled together. It’s been nearly two months since the resurrection, but still they keep huddling. Of course they haven’t been simply hidden away the whole time. We heard about Thomas being away somewhere when Jesus first appeared to the disciples. We know that Peter took them fishing. But even despite the episodic ventures beyond the confines of their secure little community, the pull was always back into the huddle.
Even as late as Pentecost - 50 days - nearly two months following the Resurrection - even then, the disciples were still walking timidly through their new world. Even then, their timidity and fear kept pulling them back into their familiar circle.
One of the images of Pentecost that has never really sat well with me is that of the “birthday of the church”. This is something I’ve heard about as long as I can remember - the idea being that on Pentecost the Jesus movement went from being a small band of followers, to a church in the world - growing and expanding and spreading the message of Jesus to everyone. Not just to the few that were fortunate enough to have been personally called while he walked among us.
Different places where I grew up put differing levels of emphasis on this “birthday” idea, but sometimes it went so far as having a birthday cake for the church, and candles, and balloons, and streamers, and an atmosphere not far from that of a child’s birthday party.
That idea always made me sort of uncomfortable. Even as a child, I somehow knew that it didn’t really make sense. Having a birthday party for the church seemed to be trying to anthropomorphize it; but even as a child, I knew that the church wasn’t a person. It’s bigger than just a person. Its purpose is higher than any person.
Giving the church a “birthday party” seemed somehow belittling - like we were trying to hold the church in too small a box. Like we were trying to hold God in too small a box. A simple “birthday party” like I might go to some Saturday morning for any of my friends seemed a bit too trivial for something as big and as important as the church.
But this week, after years of hearing it, the metaphor of the “birthday” of the church started making sense to me for the first time.
It’s less about parties and cake and balloons and streamers - and more about birth.
As the disciples are huddled together, the Holy Spirit fills the room “like the rush of a violent wind”. Suddenly, tongues of flame descend and rest on each of them, and they begin speaking in languages, not their own.
They speak in all the languages of the world. They speak in a multiplicity of voices that can reach the ends of the earth. They speak with a surety that pushes them out of their security and their huddled enclosure into a world aching for their message.
They speak with the voice of the living Christ.
Like a mother laboring to push new life into the world, the Holy Spirit labors to push us, the followers of Christ, beyond our huddled enclosures into a world that aches for our message.
And the church is born.
Whenever we speak the truth of Christ in tongues that seem foreign to us; whenever we speak the truth of Christ to people who seem foreign to us; whenever we speak the truth of Christ beyond the safety of our own huddled enclosures; then the church is born.
It’s not about cake, and streamers, and parties - it’s about being born. It’s about the labor. It’s about being pushed into the world and taking our first breath, and having it fill us with life like the rush of a violent wind. It’s about the promise that in this new life we will stand up, and walk, and carry the message to the farthest reaches of the earth - even if those unreached places are just around the corner, or even just outside ourselves. Even if that means that we’ll have to speak in ways that seem foreign to us, to people who seem foreign to us.
There are those who say that the church is dying. And maybe it is.
All around us church attendance is dropping and church giving is dwindling. The impact and influence of churches on our wider society is slowly chipping away and eroding.
But in the places where that isn’t true, it’s because the church is being reborn. In those places, the church is learning to speak in new ways to new people.
Birth - and even rebirth - is a painful experience. Laborious, even. But it’s a labor of love. It requires moving from our places of safety and security into places of vulnerability. It requires moving from huddled warmth into the cold vastness of the outside world. But it also involves moving from darkness into the light. From confines, into freedom.
And the same Spirit, who pushes us into the world, supports us and guides us through it.
“I will ask… and [God] will give you another Advocate, [the Holy Spirit], to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth… [who] abides with you, and [who] will be in you.”
We needn’t do it alone.
Birth is frightening, but it’s the only thing that leads to life.
We are being pushed.
Past the boundaries we have erected. Past our old ways of thinking. Into authenticity and truth. Into and among new people and experiences that we never could have imagined.
We may try to scratch and claw our way back into some sense of safety and security, but we are being pushed. Into new life in a new world.
And the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, is with us. Pushing us. And showing us the way. Amen.