Pentecost has come … and gone … at least the festival day, the celebration of the momentous day millennia ago regarded as the birth of the Church … the very public launch of the Christian movement … when the first followers of Jesus began the work of carrying on what he began among them. Observing this festival is supposed to launch the church today into a fresh season of growth over the following “Sundays of Pentecost” or “Ordinary Time” that’s supposed to be anything but ordinary. Yes, that’s “supposed to.” But six weeks in, how are we doing?
Some weeks ago, on the Day of Pentecost, we read once again of the coming of Spirit, as told in the Book of Acts, with the rush of a mighty wind and flames of fire for each one. Maybe we heard words spoken in other language to capture some of the wonder of that ancient story, how those who heard understood what was said, even though they all spoke different languages. Maybe we paused to wonder how it worked that day in Jerusalem centuries ago. Did each person hear his native language, no matter the speaker’s language? Or did each of the disciples speak in a language he – or she (there were women in that assembly!) – didn’t know, and the hearers gathered round the speaker whose words they recognized? We’ll never know.
Even now, we still might marvel at how 3,000 members joined “the Church” that very day … and wish such a thing could happen in our own time. Many congregations’ numbers continue to decline. Some of the reasons we know: People die. Some move away for all kinds of reasons. Families aren’t connected to the church like they used to be. Grandma’s children may still be attending as middle aged adults, but her young adult grandchildren probably aren’t. “They’ll be back for the wedding,” we assure ourselves … and they might be, if the venue suits their taste and situational needs (location, size, etc.). “Once they settle down and have children, they’ll come regularly like we did.” But they don’t; that hasn’t been happening for some time now. If great-grandma and grandma press hard enough, the baby will likely be baptized. But it’s more about peace in the family and just the way we do things … not so much about pledging this tender new life to a specific way of life that we ourselves are joined to … because maybe we’re not.
Yet another blog post (or article) is floating around out there about signs of a declining church … another piece describing what needs to change in churches to stop this decline. But time and again, it’s really about institutional survival … finding ways to cultivate sufficient adherents who are appreciative enough to give the money and the time it takes to keep things going. Granted, the ways in which things are done needs to change to keep pace with the sensibilities and trends of the younger generations. They cannot be expected to do it the exactly the same way previous generations did. But the end goal in all these discussions and descriptions is the numbers. Get those numbers back up – the numbers of people attending … the number of dollars given … the number of dollars in the budget for staff and for the buildings. It’s about the bottom line – keeping the church going pretty much as we have known it: a building with a group of people who gather there to worship and have their spiritual needs met by properly trained and educated spiritual leaders. But preservation of the status quo is hardly the message one can draw forth from Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, the way he gave it all away.
Just what was the resurrection, what Peter and others testified to on the Day of Pentecost and all the days after that, all about anyway?
Too often, in recent times, Jesus’ resurrection seems to be mostly a sort of proof that life goes on even after death. The early imaginings of heaven were as a place above the earth, above the clouds, out of sight but not completely disconnected from earth. Such images find their roots in the account of Jesus’ ascension, in the theophanies of clouds and fire from the Book of Exodus, in the various mountain top experiences in Biblical stories … with perhaps a bit of Mount Olympus, the mythical home of the Greek gods, mixed in as well. Before the advent of aviation and then modern astronomy with far-seeing telescopes and satellites, heavenly life just above the clouds would be easy enough to imagine. But as airplanes took us up above the clouds … as telescopes and rockets and satellites expanded our awareness of the vast universe, the ancient poetic image of the dome of the sky was shattered – quite literally. After discovering just how vast the universe is, a heaven above and beyond the reaches of physical space seemed impossibly far away. Aided and abetted by the enduring sense of a sharp distinction between physical bodies and immortal spiritual souls (which was acquired from pre-Christian Greek Gnosticism), the common understanding of heaven gradually shifted into a purely spiritual existence completely removed from anything on earth. In popular practice, Christian faith and practice became very much about making it to a disembodied heaven after death. To fall short of heaven could mean eternal damnation to the tortures of hell … or much time for purification in the limbo of purgatory.
To be honest, such a vision of eternal existence in a remote, detached, purely spiritual state of bliss as the promised of reward after death has indeed functioned, as Karl Marx (in)famously termed it, “the opiate of the masses.” It’s been used to lull people into accepting situations and conditions they would naturally find unacceptable and even revolting. But through promises of rewards in the hereafter proportionate to the suffering endured here, teachers in the Church over the centuries have numbed people to their real pain and struggles and suffering and problems in their lives, urging them to inaction. Christian life was framed along the lines: “Yes, life may be difficult, hard, even painful – but when you get to heaven, all good things will be yours then. Keep your focus there. Ignore the unpleasantness of the here and now. After all, this is just temporary; heaven is forever. It’ll all be better then. Just wait in faith and hope.”
Is this really all that Jesus lived and taught, suffered and died, rose from the grave to breathe the Spirit into his first followers for – all this just to promise a blissful eternity in heaven … eventually?
The particularly American experience of Christianity has been largely shaped by pietism, a movement focused on personal engagement with religious faith. Over the years, this personal focus has played well with emergence of hyper-individuality in American culture. Now, in popular expression and practice, Christian faith is a matter having Jesus as a personal savior, making a public profession that one is a sinner and accepts the atoning work of Jesus’ death, and in so doing is then saved from the fiery punishment of hell for eternal life in heaven. The vision of heaven is just as personal—a place of eternal bliss with all the people you love, all the good things the world has to offer, endless rest and relaxation.
I am well aware that not all American Christians subscribe to this singular personal acceptance of Christ as the sine qua non (without which, none) of authentic Christian faith. This is certainly not my belief, my understanding of Christianity. But I’m also aware that my voice seems a marginal minority within the broad sweep of American culture.
Following from this intensely personalized expression of faith, American churches developed into places where congregants could have their personally felt spiritual needs met.
- “Here is where I go to get reassurance for my faith, to be reminded that I am indeed a good person … that God does love me … that I will have eternal life after death in an endless paradise, freed from all earthly concerns.“
- “Here is where the style of worship appeals to me, the hymns express my faith in both words and style of music. What happens in this place speaks to me and moves me.”
- “Here is where God’s word is taught to me in ways that I understand and (mostly) agree with (since even I might need a little correction from time to time). But if something strays too far from what I am already convinced of, the pastor/teacher is wrong and I must find another church – if she or he doesn’t.”
- “When my needs aren’t met, when I don’t agree completely with all that happens in a particular congregation, then I no longer belong to that one. I might just avoid the parts I don’t like or agree with … I might need to find a different congregation that is a better fit for my needs and beliefs … or I might just stay away all together, since God loves me anyway and I know I’ll make it to heaven, which is all that really matters.”
In a very real way, the struggles most congregations are facing are the results of a long history of bad teaching and poor faith formation. Rather than look around and blame the cultural shifts that seem to have left us high and dry, we would do better to look deep into Christian faith and practice in order to reclaim what has always been present to give meaning and purpose to everything we do. We would do well to heed the ancient Biblical calls to repent – to undergo a complete change, not only in our actions and behaviors, but in our ways of thinking and even our feelings … to return again to God’s calling and purpose for our collective, communal life.
Too often, the message heard from the members of our faith communities (and maybe within many faith communities) has not been the message that Peter boldly preached on the Day of Pentecost. His use of words from the prophet Joel speaks to the coming of the Day of the Lord with dramatic signs, such as what the observers outside the place where the apostles had gathered were experiencing. But this coming of the Day of the Lord is not the fulfillment of some fluffy, cloud-drenched happy-ever-after removed from anything on earth. The Day of the Lord, in its coming, would turn the world upside down. Those who had used their power and abused their authority by actions contrary to the ways of God would find themselves displaced by the divine mandate. Those who had suffered under the abuses of the powerful and privileged would find their situations altered by that same divine mandate. The wrongs done to them would be righted and their lives would be restored to wholeness.
To those on the bottom of the overall scheme of things, the coming of the Day of the Lord would be a welcome event indeed. To those at the top … not so much. And where are we now – really?
Let’s look beyond the exciting drama of Pentecost at events that followed. Do we really think Peter was repeatedly imprisoned, occasionally threatened with execution, and (at least according to tradition) finally executed in Rome for preaching about a blissful life after death similar to that enjoyed by the mythical gods of Olympus? Do we think Paul encountered all the problems he did – run out of town sometimes … imprisoned other times … eventually executed (in Rome, by tradition) – for teaching and writing about the primacy of the eternal soul and the irrelevance of life in this world? Did Jesus die and rise again just to show that the soul lives on after death? (If you really think so, go back and read your Bibles again.)
Jesus was ultimately arrested by the religious leaders for claiming the ways of God were broader than they imagined, that there was place within the Reign of God for sinners and outcasts and outsiders (types of people who still struggle to find a welcome and place in many congregations), that God’s will was different than they had construed it in order to serve their own purposes. When the religious leaders turned Jesus over to Pilate for a state execution, they accused him of treason against Caesar, the divine emperor because he claimed there was another kingdom, another Reign … another way.
Paul, Peter, all the others martyred through the years were rejected, harassed, threatened, and killed because they insisted Jesus was Lord … which meant that Caesar or any other lesser power-figure was not … that God’s rule would guide their actions within the world, and eventually, ultimately reshape the world as Joel and the ancient prophets foretold. It meant the powerful would be put down and the ones they exercised power over would be freed and lifted up. Not something those with the power of life and death cared to hear… and it isn’t a message we, to the extent we have privilege and power, care to hear either. (And there’s a long tragic history of the Church in its power not wanting to hear any more than anyone else.)
ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton is fond of asking the question: What if the main thing about our churches were that we really believe the resurrection is true? I think she’s pointing beyond the sense of historicity (that it actually happened) to the truth revealed in it: that Jesus’ resurrection ushered in the Reign and Realm of God, that the promised Day of the Lord has begun, that the Spirit of God is loose in the world – at work in the world and in God’s people within the world, that God is already in the process of making all things new and we, named as followers of Christ and empowered by the Spirit, are part of moving things towards that vision of the new heaven and the new earth … which is the eternal future we have actually been promised.
Maybe there’s the way back to the vigor of the Day of Pentecost, a way to revive the life in our congregations … a return to that message that God is at work in the world. The world as we know it does not have to be this way. We who are named as Christians are called and empowered to walk in the ways that Jesus has shown us – not for our own benefit (whether here and now or in the hereafter) but for the purposes of God in making the world more as God always intended it to be. It’s not about building up the numbers, the budget, the physical plant. It’s about doing the work of God in this time and place … those kinds of things that Jesus did, the way of life he showed us.
That might be something to get excited about …