Reflection: June 8

On this Pentecost Sunday, we give thanks for the strength of God’s presence enlivening and empowering our community of faith. And so we pray:

God of fire and beauty
warm us
God of peace and justice
disturb us
God of wind and wonder
amaze us
God of Pentecost 
kindle your love in our lives.
(Fire and Bread, Wild Goose Publications, 2006, Ruth Burgess, pg. 148)

Stories are central to the Christian faith tradition. We wouldn’t be sitting together in this sanctuary, as a community of faith, if our ancestors in faith had not shared their stories over and over again passing them along as wisdom and inspiration for current and future generations.

There is an old Jewish saying, “What is truer than true?…   Story.”

I’ve been reflecting this week on the formative stories of the early Christian communities. Stories that are familiar to us today: stories told by Jesus to help people understand God’s commonwealth; stories of Jesus’ ministry, his death and resurrection; stories of experiences of Christ’s ongoing presence and inspiration; stories of the early Christian community coming together and becoming more unified in spirit and in purpose.

Today’s story from the book of Acts—the Pentecost story—is of crucial importance to the formation and persistent continuation of  Christian community in the 1st century. It is just as important a story for us as Christians in the 21st century. Although it may sound strange to us, Pentecost is simply a story about a profoundly powerful experience of the energizing and amazing power of the Holy Spirit. Language cannot fully express dramatic and mystical experiences. Wind and fire, already important symbols of God’s presence in the Judeo-Christian tradition, helped describe a dramatic event that was a turning point in the formation of the Christian church.

Many of Jesus’ followers had remained in Jerusalem after Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. There were many experiences of the risen Christ in their midst which comforted them as in these early days they were still suffering from shock, fear and grief because of the brutal torture and murder of their beloved teacher and friend. They were, as most grieving people are, a bit at loose ends not knowing exactly how to continue living and wondering what was the purpose of their lives. Jesus had told them to remain in Jerusalem and wait for the Advocate – the Holy Spirit – that would empower and guide them in his absence. He’d said, “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem…and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

And so they had waited, gathering in prayer every day, sharing what they had with each other but not venturing outside of the safety and security of their community. It was hard for them to imagine how they would have the strength to go out and proclaim anything as dispirited as they were. But then, seven weeks after what we now call Easter, there was Pentecost. The book of Acts tells us there were 120 of Jesus’ followers gathered in Jerusalem and thousands of Jewish people gathered in the city for a harvest festival. Christ’s followers experienced a powerful communal experience that transcended their fears and gave them confidence. The only description that seemed to adequately describe the sensation of God’s empowering presence was to say that it was like a powerful wind and that tongues of fire appeared among them and that “all were filled with the Holy Spirit”. 

This was exactly the empowering and unifying experience the disciples needed at this crucial time in the formation of their community of faith. We don’t know or understand everything that happened to them on that day we call Pentecost but we do know the outcome. Timid disciples became bold apostles teaching and preaching and carrying on Jesus’ ministry in a way that drew on their own spirit-given gifts. Each one offered what they could and in the diversity of giftedness there was a unity of faith and purpose. That doesn’t mean that it was always easy. As Christianity spread there was the challenge of keeping in touch with, supporting and encouraging, communities of faith that were some distance from each other. Apostles, like Paul, would keep in touch through written correspondence and in-person visits whenever possible. This contact helped to strengthen connections between members by sharing stories and encouragement from the wider Christian community.

This contact, and awareness of being part of a larger body of Christian community, is still vitally important today. Our challenges, as communities of faith, differ from our ancestors in faith in the 1st century and yet in some ways they are the same. Some United Church congregations are in “survival mode” and face an uncertain future; some are feeling isolated and discouraged; some are thriving, enthusiastic and hope-filled; some are gathering in creative and non-traditional ways that have become known as “fresh expressions”. In whatever way we gather, to fulfill our ministry together as members of the body of Christ, one thing has remained of constant importance and that is the need for connection with others in Christian community.

In the past few years, our United Church communities in the Kootenays have enjoyed encouraging and supportive visits from our Conference Minister, George Meier; two Moderators – Mardi Tindal and Gary Paterson; General Council staffperson, David Armour; stewardship support and education from United Church minister, Brenda Watt; consultations and workshops by Ann Linnea, Christina Baldwin and Chris Corrigan.

The United Church is beginning to utilize “webinars”—internet website seminars—technology to share information and make connections with United Church members across Canada. For some, this is new and somewhat daunting technology that is becoming more accessible and easier to utilize with a little experience. This past week, eight of us from Kimberley United Church connected, by webinar, with United Church members from Nelson, Grand Forks, Trail, Rossland, Cranbrook, Fernie, Castlegar and New Denver. There were some technical glitches but as my mother used to say, “where there is a will there is a way”, and we all managed with some ingenuity to make the process work for us in our own context. For example, our Kimberley United Church group struggled through difficulties with connecting to the website address and then the failure of two telephones to work on the speaker phone setting. We persevered and offered what we had which in the end were three IPads, one laptop computer, and a cell phone placed in a Tupperware bowl to amplify the speaker phone volume so that everyone could hear. The process was not flawless but it was certainly a learning experience and one in which we were able not only to receive information but also to offer our own thoughts and wisdom.

Working together, as the body of Christ, responding to the needs of the world is not always a flawless process. There are challenges that at times seem insurmountable. In spite of this, experience has shown me that with goodwill, perseverance and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, amazing things are not only possible but probable. The results may not be what we were expecting but with eyes and hearts opened by faith we can be amazed and inspired.

Just such an example happened a few years ago during a Kootenay Presbytery meeting in Nakusp. The Rev. Dan Chambers, who at that time was the President of BC Conference, was in attendance and had been invited to be the guest preacher for the worship service at the close of presbytery. It was a sunny Sunday morning in May and the doors of the church were open wide to let in the fresh air. Dan was about half way through his sermon when all of a sudden he began to lose the congregation’s attention. Like a giant wave at a hockey game, one after another the gathered community began to look up toward the ceiling and a murmering sound took over the sanctuary. The object of the congregation’s attention was a hummingbird that had flown in through the open doors and was frantically trying to find a way to get out of the building. The tiny bird was attempting to get through the flourescent lights thinking that was the way out. Realizing the bird’s plight the congregation responded. Someone suggested turning off the lights; someone else reached for a broom to gently guide the bird outside; someone else suggested everyone be very quiet so as not to startle the bird; someone else suggested praying for the bird to escape. Then someone noticed the red flowers in front of the sanctuary, lifted them up in hope of attracting the bird and guiding it to the door. Unfortunately, the flowers were plastic and did not appeal to the bird. Someone else mixed sugar water and sprinkled it on the plastic flowers and held them by the open door. Finally, someone remembered they had a bird call application on their cell phone, set it to hummingbird call, stood next to the person with the red plastic flowers sprinkled in sugar water, turned up the volume and waited. To everyone’s amazement the hummingbird flew toward the hummingbird call and out through the open door. The congregation cheered with relief and celebration.

Dan Chambers, recalling this experience said,
That was the sermon for the day. And the message is this: a familiar way of being church was suddenly and unexpectedly interrupted. We were presented with a challenge to which no one knew the answer. We collaborated, cooperated, people brainstormed,we tried several ideas, several of them didn’t work on their own, but we kept building on the ideas until, to our amazement, all the pieces came together and the bird was rescued, leading to a spontaneous celebration. … That’s how we’re called to be Church in the 21st century. There it is, in the story of the hummingbird: when we work creatively and passionately together with one heart and mind, we may by the grace of  God stumble upon a way forward in faith.”

That was the way it was for our ancestors in faith. That is how it is for the body of Christ today. We step out in faith, inspired by God’s spirit to act with faith, hope and love in our community and in our world. With this in mind, I’ll close with words of prayer by John Harvey:

Gracious God, 
on this day of Pentecost,
we pray that the sparkling light of faith,
the rushing wind of hope
and the joyful sound of praise
may echo round the world,
may echo in the church,
and find their response in us.
We pray in the name of Christ
whose life and ministry 
enlivens and encourages our service in his name.
      (Fire and Bread, Wild Goose Publications, Ruth Burgess editor, 2006, pg.153, adapted)

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