Birthday of the Church

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John 20:19-23

Pentecost is the birthday of the church.

The church will exist until the end of time. Some parts of the church may not. Nevertheless, discreet communities, communities of common faith and common ground and common hope, communities of meaning and belonging and empowerment, will continue to the end of time.

Our text from John 20 identifies several abiding features of the church, of community life, as the community of the beloved disciple took shape in the early second century. Notice them with me, on this happy Pentecost Sunday.

In the life of this community, there is continuity between the Lord and his disciples, the life of Jesus and the lives of those who have gone over to him, gone after him. ‘Jesus came and stood among them’. We are not after the physics of this, but the metaphysics. There is a flow, a river of being, a somehow marvelous interlacing of death and life, of Jesus and church. Every Sunday we marvel at this. People are in worship, and yet they have their minds, rightly, on loved ones afar: traveling, in peril, gone to God, in another country. With Jesus we learn to pray first, walk together, and save lives.

In the life of this community, the connection or interlacing of the Lord and the disciples is effected through speech. ‘He said…’ Our voice, our most personal characteristic, carries us from the lonely continent of our personal isolation across the sea and hell of anxious separation, and transplants us onto the dry shore of another person’s heart and mind. This is what it means to fall in love, to experience friendship, and to know forgiveness. We see this week by week in our churches, often in pastoral care. The good pastor begins and ends work by getting to know his people, by keeping track of them, by watching out for them, by taking the time to go out onto their own turf.

In the life of this community, whose birthday we today celebrate, the roadsigns point to peace. ‘Peace be with you’. Peace is not so much the absence of conflict as it is the awareness of love.

In the life of the community of the beloved, the church, we should note, there is real bodily hurt, and real personal change. ‘He showed them his hands and his side’. Yes, this was mentioned to show that the crucified was the raised, the glorified was the ascended. But before the theology, there was the tragedy. The church came out of hurt, suffering, defeat. Things do not always turn out. Justice is not always done. Some things end badly. It is the hallmark of the church, at its truest, to be honest about this. Then, too, the one sent, sends. We are all spiritual itinerants. We change, we move, we grow, we age.

In the life of this community, there is a breath of fresh air. We receive the Spirit. And here, unlike in the rest of the Gospel, that spirit gift is tied to forgiveness, with the further admonition that we are playing for keeps. People will know forgiveness in the actual living of a forgiving community. ‘They have been forgiven’. How this sudden occurrence, not recurrence, but occurrence of a word on forgiveness relates to the rest of a Gospel that does not mention forgiveness, I am not sure. I am sure that it stands out here, a beacon, a lighthouse, a voice in wilderness, a swan song: forgiveness. People know forgiveness by being forgiven. If you are like most people, including me, you probably have some unfinished forgiveness projects strewn around the basement and attic and garage of your unconscious mind.

The utter reality, the unrepeatable miracle of days lived is here shouted, blasted at us: every day matters. Fortunately (to call on Paul) we are not alone. Those of us who keep silence, have among us others who utter wisdom. Those of us who have no knack for healing, have among us others who are natural healers. Those of us who are clumsy at insight and imagination, have among us others who shine in the dark. Those of us who are all thumbs, have among us others who put the X in dexterous. We have a whole body, a church, born on Pentecost.

Let us love our church, let us love our community, let us love our beloved community. For the church today is in serious decline, and so truly can benefit from love. By today’s Gospel, we are responsible for what has been forgiven and what has been retained.

The decline of my own beloved Methodism in the Northeast (a harbinger of similar decline coming soon to other regions) is not the consequence of the will of God (the theological defense). Nor is this decline the result of inevitable demographic trends (the sociological defense). Neither is the decline due to insuperable national and regional trends in lifestyle or commitment levels (the cultural defense). This spectacular decline is also not assignable to educational fashions (the pedagogical defense). Our decline toward death in the Northeast has been a matter of consistent, deliberate, and conscious choice, on the part of church leadership. It is a case of the banality of evil. Little decisions, choices, elections, selections, expenditures, repeated and reinforced, over time. It need not have happened. It did. We did it. To ourselves. Neither a vengeful God, nor a drop in population, nor culture wars, nor seminary curricula are to blame. We simply chose decline over health, death over life. The banality of demise is seen in its location in every mistaken expenditure, every misdirected election, selection, choice, decision, budget and appointment. We are responsible for what has been forgiven and what has been retained.

We had several excellent reasons.

In the meantime, though, the body of the church lost significantly more than half its size, and aged well out into retirement years. In the span of little more than a generation. We simply decided not to tithe at any level of church life, not to engage in the exacting discipline required to preach well, and not to replenish our spirits in the vital liturgical traditions of the church.

Since 1972, my beloved church, the United Methodist Church of the Northeast, has displaced, off loaded, dismembered half of her people. 2% a year for 30 years. The farther north, and the farther east, the worse the numbers. Lyle Schaller’s tragic prophecy has come true: ‘the denominations will gladly accept 2% annual decline in exchange for the tacit agreement that there be no significant change’. We don’t seem to mind dying, as long as we can do it at home, in our jammies, watching TV, eating ice-cream, with pleasant pastoral (read hospice) care.

So let us remember where we are, whose we are, and what time it is. Today is Pentecost, the celebration of the birthday of the church.

Dearly beloved, the Church is of God, and will be preserved to the end of time, for the conduct of worship and the due administration of (God’s) Word and Sacraments, the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline, the edification of believers, and the conversion of the world. All of every age and station stand in need of the means of grace which it alone supplies. (UMH, 1968).

He said to them, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you’. And when he said this, he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.

There is a gentle, warm summer wind breathing through us today. The happy news is that a return to excellence in preaching, consistency in tithing, and immersion in tradition will bring us back to life. Here are some gentle suggestions, as we pray first, walk together and save lives.

The m
ark of disciplined living in our time most needed by our churches is robust giving. The old word, a good word, is tithing. In a materialistic age, nothing testifies better to the invisible than generosity with abandon. People notice. Likewise, when the church appears to act irresponsibly with money, people also notice. In an age of entitlement, nothing witnesses better to graceful love than intentional self-abandon in regular (not occasional) giving. Steady investment in fellowship is a great joy to the giver. In an age of greed, nothing bears stronger witness to another way, than another way of relating to wealth. We have not always and consistently remembered well our inherited practice of tithing. Our current average lay giving hovers between 1 and 2% of income. Our current average clergy giving is lower still. More sadly still, we have overburdened our basic ministries in the local churches by requiring not a tithe, but often over 25% of income to be sent on into the elaborated ministries of the denomination. The power to apportion is the power to destroy. This heavy handed ladling of required donations has most hampered growing and larger churches, which most would have benefited from the reinvestment of extra-tithe resource in developing ministries of worship, education and service. To equip our church for the struggle ahead, we will need to teach tithing by precept and example, in season and out.

In Methodism we need to recover our confidence about the importance of education. No denomination anywhere, ever did more to support educational development than did the Methodist church in America during its first two centuries of life. 128 US schools and colleges continue to this day to honor such investment. More statues to John Wesley are found on campuses than in churches today. John Dempster (Methodist minister and founder of Boston University) exemplified the recognition of an earlier era to the need for education in the preparation of clergy, and education in the development of laity. Our current willingness to let semi-prepared people occupy our pulpits in large numbers is a direct contradiction of our own best past. When I entered the ministry in 1979, about 5% of the pulpits in our conference were held by non-elders. Today it is 55%. 500 of the 937 pulpits in upstate New York are occupied by unordained, only partially educated ministers. You cannot run a college on adjuncts. It is far better to have one good sermon preached four times than to have four bad sermons preached one by one. Our confidence in our inherited use of circuits has disappeared. We have made a virtue of uneducated piety. But there is no such thing as piety without learning. The two go together. Better a good sermon preached four times on a circuit than four bad ones comfortably heard and given, without any driving.

We shall need to recover a love for worship that is traditional without the scourge of traditionalism, that is enchantment not entertainment, that is God centered not conversation centered, and that is excellent, entrepreneurial and enjoyable. Every church both deserves and requires fine preaching and music. Especially preaching. It is the heart of pastoral ministry. It is the one thing most desired and needed in our churches. It is the single thread of consistency linking all healthy and growing churches. It is utterly difficult consistently to do well. It is more important than all the other features of community life. It was what we have been known for, our verbal endowment. “I am grateful for the discipline which preaching requires” (R Dolch). We hunger, hunger for the right handling of the word of truth.

For some years our churches have been under the sway of a kind of preaching meant to distance the church from the culture. Unlike Jesus, who ate with sinners, and Paul, who wrote good Koine Greek, and John, whose Gospel itself may be considered (to borrow from Harnack) the acute Hellenization (that is acculturation) of Christianity, this currently influential quasi-Gospel tells us we are resident aliens. Resident aliens. I heard this same now tired, now old phrase used again this week. In it there is some truth, we must affirm, the truth of the narrow gate and the straight way. But on the whole it misses the large, Pentecost, great, Spirited, good, Gospel. Friends: you are not resident aliens in Boston! You are angelic residents of Boston. Not resident aliens, but angelic residents.

Such preaching takes preachers who love both the Bible and the people, both the church and its life, both the community of faith and the culture in which it dwells. If thine heart be as mine, then give me thine hand. (J Wesley). How shall they hear without a preacher? The cunning of a private detective, the resilience of a boxer, the courage of the matador—these are the marks of speech which moves from peace to forgiveness, which is the preaching of the gospel.

For example, we have been told recently of a governor in a far off golden state, who lived for decade, in a household where he was a known father of some, but an unknown father of another. Daily deception. Remarkable. (Of course I feel sorry for all in this situation, and want the grace of forgiveness extended to all.) The Governor was living a double life, his deeds and their consequences all around him, visible fully to him, but not to others. Until a moment of revelation.

But just a minute (so says a preacher). Just how many of us are utterly, completely known by others as we know ourselves? Just how many of us have metaphorical offspring whom we see, but others do not? Others may not see our illegitimate offspring (I am speaking by analogy here, metaphorically here). But we do. They walk right by us, on the way to breakfast. That is what makes the California story of some weeks ago so compelling. It is not just about him, it is about us, about you and me. We see, suffer, rue, endure the presence of things about ourselves that others do not see. We are all the ‘party pooper’, to some degree.

Hence the dire need for the announcement of forgiveness. The Gospel is that God’s grace frees us and forgives us not only from what is seen, but also from what is not seen. Forgiveness frees us again to try to live the lives we hope to live, and which we hope will inspire others, particularly the young.

We want to love our church.

Every spring, we try again to do so, in our Annual Conferences. Although we continue to fail, I find the spring time call of the Spirit utterly compelling. A conference is a chance to confer. This week I heard a saintly superannuated preacher, and Boston University graduate, open his heart in eloquent confession, before 2000 others, about a view of his from 1980 and 1984 which he now knows to be mistaken, in light of Scripture AND tradition AND reason AND experience. This week I listened to a saintly preacher in mid life, and a Boston University School of Theology graduate, who has quietly spent 22 years rebuilding a tiny church into a great community—the real, messy foundational work of our era in ministry—and July 1 will move 100 miles to start all over and do the same in another setting. This morning I have the privilege of meeting and greeting the spirited congregation of Marsh Chapel, a heart for the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city. Listen, as we end this morning, to the historic questions every budding preacher answers on her way to ordination. See if these questions do not catch you up. See if they do not inspire you. See if they do not touch your heart, and make you think, about how best to live, from this day forward:

Have you faith in Christ?
Are you going on to perfection?
Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
Are you earnestly striving after it?
Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work?
Do you know the General Rules of our Church?
Will you keep them?
Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?
After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony
with the Holy Scriptures?
Will you preach and maintain them?
Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?
Do you approve our Church government and polity?
Will you support and maintain them?
Will you diligently instruct the children in every place?
Will you visit from house to house?
Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example?
Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God?
Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?
Will you observe the following directions? a) Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. b) Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake

Though with a scornful wonder we see her sore oppressed
By schism rent asunder, by heresy distressed
Yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes us ‘How long?’
And soon the night of weeping, will be the morn of song.

Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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