Day of Pentecost, Year B
23 May 2021
Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Let me see if I can keep your attention.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.
Or the third article of the Nicene Creed:
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,*
who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.
I had a friend in my youth who – when in worship we would speak the creed – would always omit the line that confessed the church. His issue was not the word catholic, meaning, of course, the church universal, but his issue was the church itself. Perhaps institutional disillusionment. Yet I don’t think I had many illusions about the church either. I knew that it consisted of sinners like me who often were tempted to judge others, by their theology, the clothes they wore, the way they spoke, their sexual orientation, their politics, the socio-economic group they belonged to.
Considering that we follow a Lord who admonished us not to judge, we do a lot of judging. Judging is baked into our DNA, it’s how we orient ourselves in the world, how we tell friend from foe. Judging in and of itself is not bad, but when we use it to elevate ourselves over others we fall victim to the heresy that we are saved by our works and that God may love some of us more than others, just because we find it easier to love those most like us. And while we all do this to some extent, it’s probably that which turns us off the most about the church.
I want to share with you three ways in which the church has shaped my life.
My parents did not grow up in the church. Through the provision of the Holy Spirit they found their way into the church, my mother through her own need for God, my father through a radical conversion experience. They found their way to the church we became members of because my brother and I attended that church’s preschool.
Only a few Sundays ago I shared with you a little about the family in which I was raised. In my teenage years the church became my community, my primary community, my family. The grace that was lacking in our home I received at church, the love we were missing at home, we received in common worship, proclamation, and sacrament, and the acceptance I was missing at home I received in the acceptance of God. I learned to love myself because in the community of the church I experienced the love of God. I could not imagine my life without the church during those years.
Another way that I experience the church as foundational in my life was that it helped me to take myself less seriously. To take oneself less seriously is not a burden but a gift, because if we take ourselves too seriously, our world comes out of kilter. Taking oneself too seriously is a common human problem but it is unbearable to only worry about oneself. God has given us others to lighten our load, as contradictory as that may sound. Taking ourselves too seriously is the reason we’re more concerned about the speck in our neighbour’s eye than the beam in our own eye, it also tends to exaggerate our own anxieties and fears, taking our feelings to be the true picture of reality. I was an adolescent then, so this was particularly important for me, but it’s important for us all.
The way that I learned to take myself less seriously was twofold. One was that I learned that the anxiety I experienced as part of our home-life was only a part of the reality in which I lived. The bigger reality that was ultimately important was God’s love for the world. Yes, there was suffering in our home and it was real. But that wasn’t the whole story because our suffering had been redeemed in Jesus. This gave me courage that our family’s suffering was not ultimately determinative for either the present and or the future.
The other way in which I learned to take myself less seriously is closely related. While I attended church every Sunday, I did not always feel worshipful going. In fact, if I had only gone to church when my spirits compelled me to, I would have gone less often. Yet being in the presence of other believers my own disposition became less important. By being with others in worship I felt carried by the community. St Paul admonishes us in Galatians six to bear each other’s burdens for in this way we fulfill the law of Christ. I experienced the community not only carrying my burdens but carrying me, and that without me having said anything.
The last thing I want to share about my own experience in the church is that the church formed me. We have long spoken of Christian education but it seems to me that we should call it Christian formation instead, because being Christians is not only about knowing certain things but it is about being, about being Christian.
I think the fundamental thing that has shaped my life is that my life is not about me. It’s not about what I can get, how much fun I can have (and feel entitled to), or how far I can climb the career ladder (which isn’t all that high in our small church).
I learned that whatever gifts God has given me, are not simply about me, and so I can’t speak of God’s blessing of me without remembering the call of Abraham and Sarah in which God says, “I will bless you and you shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12)
That means that it’s important to make time for others, to be concerned for the welfare of all, to not withdraw into a private life that ruptures the connections of community.
A little while ago someone asked me about a saint or mentor in my life of faith. I did give one particular example, but I also said that as pastor I am privileged to know many saints of which I often think that that is how I would like to be when I grow up.
So, while I too have my frustrations with the church, I cannot imagine either my faith or my life without it, and that has nothing to do with me being a pastor. And so I will always profess my faith in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, and the communion of saints, because, as St. Cyprian, a third-century bishop, famously said, “No one can have God as Father who does not have the church as Mother.”