As we prepare to celebrate Pentecost and reflect upon the birth of the Church there is a part of me that is deeply sad. As I look out upon the landscape of Church in America I feel a deep need to lament.
As the Spirit fell and the disciples and those gathered stepped out of that upper room so long ago is was clear that an alternative to the world had been birthed – not a world based on division or power or domination or the status quo or one ruled by Caesar, but rather one based on love and compassion and sacrifice and equality and justice where Jesus was Lord.
The babbling divisions of the tower of Babel had been replaced by the declaration that the Spirit was being poured out on all people – the young and the old, women and men, servants and free, the rich and poor!
Equal Flourishing For All
To me, this is the clearest picture of what this new alternative, this newly created church, would be based in: equal flourishing for all. No longer would the ethnic, gender, or economic divisions of our cultural systems operate unchecked. Now, the Spirit is let loose and the primary indicator of the Spirit’s presence and activity is reconciliation. In this community, there would be no divisions.
Yes, this church was out of control. Breaking down all barriers and divisions to level the playing field so that everyone could be part of what God was doing.
To me, this is the primary message of the book of Acts – reconciliation. The grand coming together in the name of Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to be a unified people where no divisions exist any longer. Where the truth is told and forgiveness is offered, equality is established and a place of prominence is set at the table for everyone – no matter what. To me, this is the primary message of the book of Acts – reconciliation. Click To Tweet
As Willimon & Hauerwas say in their book, The Holy Spirit,
“Now, because of the descent of the Spirit, all, even those who were previously voiceless and hopeless, would be enabled to speak up and speak out in God’s name.”
And at every stage through the story of Acts we see more and more people being welcomed and given a voice. The outcasts, the ethnically “other,” the poor, the sick, the outsiders, women…
The Holy Spirit Alternative
The church in Acts is a church dripping with power to be a liberating force to any and all people who have been caught up and crushed under the heavy wheels of the empire’s power, division, inequality, misogyny, violence, ethnic supremacy, and economic brutalism.
The church empowered by this Holy Spirit was wild and uncontrollable, breaking out in places and with people previously unimagined. There were no limits to its disruption and no place it could not reach. As Hauerwas says,
“The claim [of Jesus is Lord] was not an attempt by Christians to grab power and to take over the role of Caesar; they proclaimed that Jesus’ Lordship was more radical [and threatening] than Caesar imagined. It is therefore not surprising that the disciples found themselves constantly in trouble. Why was the church so disruptive and so threatening to controlling politicians? Blame it on the out-of-control Holy Spirit.”
The Church was proclaiming and living out the alternative politics of the Kingdom of God. To me, this is the primary message of the book of Acts – reconciliation. Click To Tweet
While the Spirit is still clearly moving over and through the waters of the Church today, I am saddened by how often the Church in America embraces the status quo and systems of power present in the world around us as markers of success.
We so often define our success by numerical growth – believing that somehow bigger is better and that “more” represents the blessings of God. When, in reality, the blessings of God and outpouring of the Spirit are represented in other ways, like people selling their possessions in order to provide for those who live in poverty.
Of course, growth is not necessarily good or bad, but using it as a maker for health is out of touch with the history of the Church.
The Legacy of Reconcilition
We inherited a legacy of radical reconciliation from Acts, yet our churches and lifestyles today are incredibly segregated, exclusive and are so often based in and propagate culturally dominant systems of power and control.
We read of an early church who was radically inclusive of those that society and religion said were “unclean” and thus not worthy of God’s loving presence. Yet, time after time, we see the Spirit breaking down those barriers to include everyone, everywhere in this new alternative reality. Sadly, in so many of our churches today, real and full inclusion is often based on the parameters of sexual ethics, economic class, family stability, physical “health,” language, and the color of our cultural values.
Are we attempting to control the movement of the uncontrollable Spirit?
Moving forward I would recommend a new set of criteria for judging the health of the Church that is not based in the empire’s markers of success but rather in the new alternate reality of love, compassion and justice. As we worship and proclaim Jesus as Lord, repent of our sin, dedicate ourselves to the spiritual disciplines and strive to live out our faith in the world here are some markers I believe would better represent the health of the Church:
- Foster care children being cared for in our churches.
- Racial reconciliation actively being preached, pursued and happening in our churches.
- Learning from and including ethnically diverse communities in the life of our churches.
- Our churches going out of their way to include developmentally disabled persons.
- Our churches faithfully including and serving our elderly.
- Raising up, inspiring and embracing teachers working with special needs children or in under-resourced schools in our churches.
- Partnering with hungry families to get food every week.
- Working with and empowering people who need jobs to secure them.
- Standing up for economic justice and equality in our churches.
- Participating in efforts to engage sexually exploited children.
- Our elder boards representing ethnic and economic diversity.
- Landlords from our congregations offering quality, clean and affordable housing.
- People in our congregations working with those in prison.
- Our congregations mentoring and tutoring “at risk” children and teens.
Yes, I am biased, as these are things we seek to embody in our church, but there are many more “markers” that could be included. What I am suggesting is that we stop trying to use the empire’s system of control and recognition and allow the Spirit to move in uncontrollable ways through the life of our congregations. Stop trying to control. Allow the Spirit to move in uncontrollable ways thru our congregations. Click To Tweet
This will cause disruption. This will bring people to us that present challenges to the way we have always done things. This will stretch our resources beyond our capacity. This will lead us into places that are controversial and require deep conversations. This will cost us power and prestige. We may get put in jail. But is there any other way?
On this Pentecost, let us stand together and pray the simple prayer: “Come Holy Spirit, Come.” And as we do, “it will be as if we pray, Bring it on, Holy Spirit! Shake us up, send us forth, kick us out, and make us a more interesting church than we could be if you had left us alone!”