Peter’s speech quoting the prophet Joel
and making Joel’s words the image of a world
exploding with new life,
is a delicious irony –
the kind of irony God loves to visit
upon those with whom God is in close relationship.
I don’t know if God enjoys visiting irony
upon the enemies of holiness
or those who are just plain indifferent to it,
but God seems to lace the bible with goo-gads of irony.
You see, Joel’s prophecy
is referencing signs of the end times;
and in Joel’s view,
when God pours spirit upon all flesh
bad stuff is going to happen.
In Joel’s view, the arrival of the spirit
is an “uh oh, no escape” kind of moment.
But Peter excitedly proclaims,
and he is nothing if not excitable,
the birth of something new!
Something new is taking place
right there in the midst of a moment
exploding with spirit.
So where Joel imagines the work of the spirit as death,
Peter imagines the work of the spirit as new life.
Then there is John;
he has a whole other notion of the spirit.
For John, as we heard in the reading today,
the spirit is God’s gift to us
and it enables the disciples, and presumably us too,
to embody the presence of Christ –
for Christ to “be with us always,” as it says.
The gift of the spirit is what will allow us
to be Christ;
to do what Jesus did
in spite of all that is within us
that wants to resist what Jesus did.
The spirit is the empower-er
Next week is Trinity Sunday
and I probably won’t talk about
the doctrine of the Trinity
so it’s safe to come back to church.
But the spirit, obviously,
is one part of that almighty threesome.
In fact, the spirit is the female member of that threesome
and you will note in today’s inclusive language
adaptation of the Nicene Creed,
spirit is she not he.
That is wholly biblical as I’m sure you already know.
But what does any of that have to do with you and me?
I am more than a little hesitant to talk about God
whether as the Creator-of-all-that-is
or as the spirit-present-within-all-that-is.
As I told you several times
in my first weeks here,
I do not believe we get to know God.
God knows us,
knows us each by name,
but we do not get to know God.
That is the mystical nature of our relationship.
It is pretty one-sided,
We get to encounter God.
We get to experience God
in awe and wonder,
in shock and awe,
in the awful and exquisite
within life and death
and the beauty of holiness.
But we do not get to actually ‘know’ God.
The best we get are driblets of information
that may be old and out of date
or uniquely subjective experiences
masquerading as universal.
All of our efforts to quantify and define God
are like the Inuit saying:
“Riding a whale
while looking for minnows.”
So I leave definitions of the spirit
up to the doctors of theology
and bartenders of doctrine
mixing their concoctions for general consumption.
Instead, let’s point to that moment
shadowed in the Book of Acts
and recognize it points to a moment in time.
It was the moment Christianity was unleashed
from the small chamber of a few close intimates
trying to make sense of whatever actually happened
around the death and resurrection of Jesus,
and exploded into an uncontrollable community.
Instead of a few people
whispering about their own direct experiences
with something awesome and terrifying,
there was suddenly a whole bunch of people
aroused and agitated
by their own direct experiences.
All of a sudden it wasn’t about one or two people
telling their friends about what they saw
and what they thought it meant,
there were a bunch of people empowered
and talking about their experiences.
those experiences were not all the same.
In fact, they were as different as the languages
they were speaking.
Suddenly Peter and James and John
couldn’t control the narrative any more.
Suddenly they couldn’t keep marginalizing the women
who had had more direct experience than they had.
Suddenly they could not keep the lid on what they knew
and what they thought it meant.
It was the end,
just as Joel had imagined.
It was the end of playing it safe,
and the end of controlling
what should never have been a secret,
and the end of hiding.
unhinged it all came out in a very public way
and from that moment forward…it grew.
The ‘it’ was spiritual community.
It began as a movement, the Jesus movement.
People who knew him
or heard him tell stories
or saw him do amazing things,
were joined by people who felt as though they knew him.
They were people who heard the stories
and learned the wisdom
and encountered the presence of the holy
in the midst of community,
and they felt fully empowered and authenticated
even though they had never known Jesus.
So soon the movement moved beyond Jesus.
It moved beyond Judah and Galilee too.
It moved beyond what we call today Judaism.
It moved like a grass fire up the Mediterranean coast
and snuck into Asia
and became a religious movement,
a new kind of spirituality.
Unlike the spiritual practices it encountered,
this one was not centered around a temple
or a statue
or a pantheon of gods.
This spiritual practice was centered around…
do you know?
It was centered around community.
Wherever it traveled
Christianity was a spirituality practiced
with intense community
that drew people across socio-economic and ethnic
boundaries into a communion gathered around
what Jesus had taught,
and the bread ceremony he had left them with.
Judaism was undergoing the same transformation
and it is no coincidence they both morphed together.
Judaism lost its temple and its land
and as it spread across the Roman world
it too became intensely focused around community.
So on that day,
on the Jewish Feast of Weeks that we call Pentecost,
a spirituality rooted in,
and practiced in community,
For nearly four hundred years,
longer than The United States has existed as a nation,
Christianity was a flourishing, vibrant,
cacophonous archipelago of spiritually based communities
both connected and disconnected –
federated by region, personality, and common practices
as well as fragmented by the same things.
Before it was captured
and molded into the likeness of an empire,
Christianity was not defined by conformity
nor was it located in and burdened by buildings,
unless like a snail it became squatters in one.
It used what spaces were available and safe,
and it incorporated local customs
as well as generated new ones.
It argued about beliefs
both within its own spiritual community
and among neighboring ones.
It was amorphous, sinewy, and fluid.
The Emperor Constantine
thought he could use Christianity to unify
the fraying and socially disintegrating empire
but he quickly discovered that Christianity itself
was festering with all kinds of variety and differences
and it took the Roman Empire more than a century
to actually force it into conformity –
and even then, the varieties and vitality
just went underground.
I mention all of this because today,
the Day of Pentecost,
is a good day to look back
and remind ourselves about what “Church”
really is and was meant to be.
In addition to what it became,
what is that sprawling spiritual city underneath us
upon which our current buildings were constructed?
Now I need to be honest with you.
I have been an ordained minister for thirty-six years,
and even before that,
I was an active lay person in churches
even as a teenager.
All that time I have been trying to figure out
what church is, or is supposed to be,
or was meant to be.
Perhaps it is like God,
and we simply don’t get to know.
But church being like God seems unlikely to me.
So this is what you and I,
in community with one another and the Holy Spirit,
need to wonder out loud about
and see if we can’t put a finger on it.
What is church,
Today, I mean,
and in the candle light of the next decade?
Even as we contemplate trying to save,
or having to leave, this wonderful building
we need to be asking ourselves
why we are Trinity
and for what?
What is that? Who are we? Why?
I think that is one of those divine ironies
God may be springing on us.
Asking that very naked, vulnerable question
may in fact lead to an explosion of new life.
I am betting that the holy irony planted for us,
here at Trinity,
is that when we thought
we were staring into a tunnel
without light at the end of it,
there is in fact new life waiting.
Joel’s imagined apocalypse of the end
becomes Peter’s explosion
from which a new star appears in the universe.
But we don’t get there until we ask the questions.
We do not get new life
until we have unleashed all that we fear.
We do not get new life
until we leave the secrecy of the upper room
and move into the public orgy of spiritual encounter.
We do not get new life
until we move out into the open
and talk out loud in all our different voices
about what we see and hear and know and imagine.
I do not know why it is that way
but I do know from my every experience,
and from what we read in biblical wisdom,
that until we unleash our fears
and let go of secrecy
and open the doors and windows
to every possibility as we wonder about and ask
what God has in mind for us,
we do not get new life.
So on the Day of Pentecost 2016,
the day Christianity looks back and remembers
a moment in time
when we left what was
and were driven by the spirit into what would be,
I invite the community of Trinity Geneva
into a shared and common wonderment
about who and what and why
we are church?
And if you are just visiting today
and don’t really care much about this church
then I invite you into that question for yourself:
who and what and why your church
wherever it is –
and if you don’t have a church,
HOW are you going to practice a spirituality
that has always been rooted in community?