10 May 2010

Winds of Change: In the World

Acts 2: 1-21

Sixth Sunday of Easter/ 9th May 2010

Last week Dorothy Boulton preached these words; toward the end of the first sermon in our series on the Holy Spirit, a series about the changing winds of the Spirit, in a sermon on how the Spirit actually blows through sometimes as solid and true as tradition, this is what she said: “Encountering the Spirit is not a tame adventure. The church is always being called to see beyond itself. To live in the midst of challenges. To wrestle. To discern. To be changed. To be made new.” These sentences capture the themes of his series: Encounter. Adventure. Called. Challenge. Wrestle. Discern. Change. New. The Spirit of God is not tame and when the Spirit of God arrives in our spirits, or in the church, or in the world – nothing is ever the same.

That’s what the first Christians discovered when the Holy Spirit arrived on Pentecost. “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” It was a violent, ferocious wind blowing into their lives. It was a wind that burned with tongues of fire. It came upon them – they didn’t go asking for the Spirit – and forever changed their lives – the lives of the people who were huddled together in one place. We say that on Pentecost the church of Jesus Christ was born through the gift of the Holy Spirit. When we think of the Holy Spirit – when we think about the Holy Spirit – he or she is the “orphan” of the Holy Family, as it were, we connect the Holy Spirit with the formation of the church. And that’s true. Or we might think of the Holy Spirit moving in the depths of the human spirit. And that’s true, too. But there’s something else going on here in the way Luke tells the story.

First, notice how the Holy Spirit gave the first Christians the ability to preach the gospel “in other languages.” The gospel of Jesus Christ was not good news for only a few people, huddled together. It was not simply the theological reflections of a closed group of people trying to organize themselves around a new religious experience. It was not a private experience because the gospel of Jesus Christ was not given just for them. It was given in order that it be translated from one language to another, from one people to another, from one time to another. The gospel was not given for them alone, as the church; the gospel was given to them for the sake of everyone else. The gospel was not their private possession, but entrusted to them that it might be shared.

Second, therefore, note that once the church spoke the word went out to every nation living in Jerusalem, to the immigrant population in the city, which beautifully symbolizes the way the gospel will be unleashed and given to the world. Everyone is here: Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, from as far away as Mesopotamia, Asia, Pontus (which is Turkey), Egypt, Libya, visitors from Rome, Jews and non-Jews who worship Yahweh, Cretans and even Arabs. It’s an amazing ethnic and religious diversity. Just about the entire reach of the Roman Empire (except Northern Europe) is represented here. It’s the world that’s found there, receiving the good news of God’s redemptive love.

Third, Peter then stands up and begins to preach. The Spirit has moved through him and now he has something to say. He begins to proclaim to the crowd these words of the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17).” Not just to Jews, not just to a special group of Jews who follow Jesus, not just to a special group of Gentiles who follow Jesus. The Spirit unleashed in Jerusalem, the ferocious winds that blew through their lives cannot be contained in that space, in that location, to that city or even to that time. The same wind of the Spirit blows through the world – out there, even the doors of the church. Yes, God is at work in the church. But we have to also say that the Holy Spirit is at work in the wider world, extending the redemptive activity of Christ to all people. I’m reminded of the world of Harold Kurtz, who died last year; a Presbyterian minister, raised on a farm in Idaho, heard the call to ministry, listened to the Spirit, and eventually served as a mission worker in Ethiopia for more than twenty-two years and later director of Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship. He loved to say: “The gospel is out of control!”(1)

Yes, the Spirit of God is at work in the church, in our lives. But an overemphasis on this view has led some to think that the Spirit of God is only present in the church or can only be found through the church. If you want to find God, some believe, you have to find God in a church. There was a time when this was the prevailing view, that there could be no salvation apart from the church; and a major reason why church attendance and membership was so high, especially in the United States. As we know this is not the conventional view today. Those days are over; that world is gone. The church needs to acknowledge this, grieve it, and then move on. People who thought they would find God in the church have found, instead, petty arguments, political squabbles, and plenty of judgment and shame to go around. Can you blame some for leaving the church? How often have you heard people say, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual. I don’t believe in organized or institutional religion; I’m spiritual.” Just as many people feel they can commune with the divine hiking through nature or teeing off at a golf course or sleeping in on a Sunday morning. For those who have not given up on God or Christianity, for that matter, there are many ways to connect with the holy that does not include worship in pews at 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Now, I don’t recommend any of these, of course, especially staying away from worship, obviously. For the truth is, one cannot be a Christian without being in community. Someone got very mad at me years ago over this. He called to ask me a question about, I forget the reason. I happened to mention one can’t be a Christian alone and he got very upset. We can’t. We are called into community. It’s just a way of illustrating that the world has change and it’s changing – fast, exceedingly fast. The world has changed and it’s changing – fast, exceedingly fast.

Next week we’re going to look at the winds of change in the church. We see the church in decline, both here in the United States and in Europe. The drop in church membership is a major concern for many. We’ll look at these trends next week. But what the church in this age has to come to terms with is that, yes, people are leaving the church (and, again, sometimes with very good reasons), yet we inside the cocoon of the church have to realize its not all about us because beyond the church, all around us, is a wider world, a world that has changed and is changing outside our doors. Declining membership is not the issue. It’s just a symptom of something deeper going in the wider culture.

There’s a wonderful German word that refers to the spirit of the age or time: Zeitgeist. The ghost, the spirit, the winds of change blowing through our time is enormous. The Zeitgeist is in turmoil. The world is changing fast. It’s becoming increasing complex and calling from us a greater capacity to process complexity. These are extremely challenging times. Scientific and technological developments are far outstripping our ability to morally, ethically handle them. A growing trend toward secularization started back in the early 1800s, with considerable help from the likes of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), which continue to grow unabated. (2) Twenty years ago this year I graduated from seminary and left the United States to study in Europe. I soon came across a word at the University of St. Andrews I never remembered hearing or never registered in my thinking at Princeton Seminary: postmodern (or postmodernism). I was forced to study postmodern thought, a philosophical movement that was sweeping Europe at the time and having a profound impact upon theological studies. Today, postmodern or postmodernism is not a foreign word in America – although, most are not really sure what it means, with good reason because it’s notoriously difficult to define (there are many definitions of it). I would sum it up this way: it basically points to a collapse in confidence at all levels of human experience. It’s a collapse in confidence in God, in the existence of God; the collapse in confidence in humanity, the good in humanity; it’s a collapse in confidence in institutions, in the value of community and institutions (which has had considerable impact upon church membership decline); and it’s a collapse in confidence in reason, which means that truth must no longer be referred to as Truth (capital ‘T’), but small-‘t’-truth or truths. (3) Truth has become relative – you have yours and I have mine and if we share the same truth we can talk. I was trained to be a minister in the modern world (so was Dorothy Boulton), but we have spent most of our ministries trying to figure out and say why the church is really relevant in a postmodern world. My point here is to say that the intellectual challenges facing Christianity are enormous – colossal!

Add to all of this the massive sea-change in cultural, political, and religious perspectives throughout the world as a result of 9-11. Rising religious fundamentalisms combined with the rise in terrorism. There’s climate change and environmental disasters to contend with. It’s not surprising there’s a rise in fundamentalisms and reactionary political movements, for all this change (whether real or perceived) is scary. There are people playing around with traditions, trying to redefine marriage. Nothing seems to be sacred any more. We call BGE or Comcast cable and hear: Press one for Spanish; press two for English. For some, all of this is just enormously unsettling. Add to this the worse economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. No wonder so many people are fearful. For some just trying to figure out Facebook and Twitter is very unsettling and disturbing (I’m still trying to figure out Twitter).

I was at a conference at Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC, last weekend. I’ll say more about this next week. But I heard a statistic that really shocked me. Depending upon the study, either 52% or 58% of Americans under the age of thirty have never been inside a church building. (4) Now, immediately we can mourn this (and we should) and put the blame on the church. Or we can flip it around and use it as a wake-up call to the church to confess that while we were busy “doing” church,” doing our church-thing, running our religious institutions, the world around us was changing and we never noticed. Yes, we can be concerned about the decline in church membership. The more faithful concern, however, is trying to understand the culture, the wider-world in which the church finds itself today. The more pressing concern is whether or not we are really relevant. Perhaps we’re answering questions that people have stopped asking. To some extent the world is passing us by.

“There is an old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheelbarrow he rolls in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards can find nothing. It’s always empty. Finally, one day, their eyes open: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves.” (5) Sometimes what should be most obvious is oblivious to us. Sometimes we think we’re seeing one thing, only to discover we were really blind to what was going on right in front of us. The church has to open its eyes.

We are immersed in a world of change. The winds of the Zeitgeist are ferocious. The church in its present incarnation might not be as relevant as it was fifty, twenty, even ten years ago, but Jesus Christ is just as relevant and the church needs to find the language to translate this truth, even if it’s a small ‘t,’ to the world. God hasn’t given up on the church, but the church needs to wake up and understand the world anew: to really love the world and not be afraid of it, to embrace the world in all of its wild diversity, to reach out from one place and touch the lives of “all flesh” with the good news of God’s love. Not all change is bad. In fact, if the book of Acts can be believed in this postmodern age where skepticism reigns supreme, then the Spirit of the Living God might actually be loose about the world, in the Zeitgeist, beyond the church. In fact, I want to know where the Zeitgeist ends and der Heilige Geist begins? That is, where does the spirit of the age end and the Holy Spirit begin? Are they intertwined together like a DNA-string? How do we discern where the Holy Spirit is at work in the world? If faith is, as Will Willimon puts it, “the breathless attempt to keep up with the redemptive activity of God,” then we as the church need to keep asking ourselves, “What is God doing, where on earth is God going now?”(6)

Next week I will risk being foolish by suggesting how the winds of change shaping the world might actually have the hand of God about them, how the winds of change in the world are actually forcing the church of Jesus Christ to be the church. I would push the question even further: some of this change (and certainly not all of it, but some) might actually be the work of God who is trying to teach us something about ourselves, our neighbor, and of God, trying to teach the church something new, to get us to wake up, to form us and transform us to be more faithful, more committed to the redemptive work of God in the world. This means that if some of this change is actually coming from God, the effects of the Spirit blowing through the world, then how do we know? Is it the spirit of the age or the Holy Spirit? And if we’re involved in resisting change, how can we be sure that we’re not in some way restricting the very Spirit of God? If so, who wants to be guilty of standing in the way of the Spirit? Do you?

1. Cited in Jerry L. Van Marter, Presbyterian News Service, December 21, 2009. http://www.pcusa.org/pcnews/2009/091094.htm.
2. For an intellectual tour-de-force charting this movement, see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).
3. For good summaries of postmodernism, see: Mark C. Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern A/theology (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987);
4. Statistic quoted by Jan Edminston at the transFORM Conference at Wesley Seminary. She was quoting a Carol Merritt. I’m working on securing the exact source.
5. Story told by Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador 2008), 1.
6. William Willimon, Acts: Interpretation Commentary (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 99.

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