The one good thing about an early Easter is the fact that we get to have an early Pentecost. Unfortunately, Pentecost is often lost to the beginning of summer or, even worse, Memorial Day. But this year we get to have an all-out celebration of this special day.
Historically, Pentecost started in the Hebrew tradition as the harvest festival Shavuot, which celebrated the wheat harvest and the day God gave the law to Israel when they were assembled at Mount Sinai. While in the Hebrew traditions this was a feast of lesser importance, the Christian church seized on it following the events laid out in Acts 2.
Thematically, it also makes a lot of sense that the Christian church would choose to make this one of their high holy days. With respect to the law, the recognition that Christ came to complete the law replaces the Torah with the teachings of Christ.
More interesting is the harvest festival aspect. As the Acts story of Pentecost plays out, there is a very important harvest: once everyone is able to hear and understand God’s message, they can come to faith and “be harvested.” This is nothing new, just an agricultural twist on the story of the fishermen and many of the parables. The church then becomes central, because the purpose of the church is not to make people happy or even to do what we want, but it is about reaching beyond ourselves into the world to make a difference.
I was lucky to be in seminary in a time of great change. While there, I was blessed to meet and study with Rev. Bill Creevey, who was the interim chaplain my middle year. Having been a very successful pastor, he would talk about the exponential growth of his churches by saying “church growth starts small, literally, by caring for the children.” He talked often about when his church in downtown Portland stopped trying to serve their members and began to serve their community. While it was difficult, the church began to change and grow to what is now one of the largest churches in the denomination.
Over the years, I have witnessed that when churches highlight their biblical mandates, different priorities come into play. We stop thinking about our own comfort and begin to live in the sometimes frightening unknowns of life. But when we do so, like most things, we begin to find that our comfort, if anything, was holding us back. The stagnation is often our fear of moving forward.
About ten years ago, one of my friends found himself in the position of being a hospice chaplain to dying congregations. He was in the unique position of helping the congregations cope with the very real issues of dignity and life, hope and salvation as it related to their unsustainable situations. He said that when he would go to a congregation, their primary concern was the question of dignity and life. While these are great questions, he also notes that they are social, not biblical ones.
This means that for a “good death,” he worked with the congregation to transition from dealing with their own self motivations to understanding the church theologically, especially in terms of hope and salvation. As he did this, he found that his churches tended to break out of their boxes. They dropped the hardened identities which they had formed and let the spirit take hold. Interestingly, not every congregation he was called to closed. Many actually took on a new life, stopped worrying about how to stay open, and started to ask, “How can we best serve God in our remaining days?”
It reminds me of the passage from Romans Chapter 8 Verses 5-6 :
5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
A church focused on the spirit is infinitely more connected to God and its mission than those who use the standards of this world. We have to set the example as a congregation and take the necessary leaps of faith. This is, after all, why we are all here, celebrating life as an expression of God.
We must labor to continually ask if the order established by the church is a catalyst for spiritual growth in faith, and whether it is bringing an understanding of hope and salvation or has become a rigid law boxing in the Holy Spirit. Our job as the church is to be a faithful expression of God deeply rooted in the spirit, which has been given as a gift to us. We are called to lift up and not tear down, and we are called to live in the celebration of the Holy Spirit every day!
If there is one thing that we can learn from what happened here on Pentecost, it is that God still has great plans for this place and there is a powerful seed for the spirit here!
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen