May 27, 2012 Acts 2:1-14
Awhile back during our baptism classes, Christopher Redding asked where Baptists fit into the other Christian denominations. We sat at a pizza joint across the street from the church, and I had only a pen and a placemat in hand. I started drawing as I talked, perhaps out of desperation (how do you really sum up the many branches of Christianity over 2000 years let alone the often splintering story of Baptists over 400 years).
What emerged as I improvised my way through was less of a “tree” and looked more like mapping out rivers, a meandering series of lines that sometimes branched and other times ran into other streams. It is not a tidy summation to say that Baptists are Protestants, as we are better known as a certain type of Protestant in comparison to other denominations. Toss in the “oh so fun” factor of tendencies among Baptists to differ, disagree and distance themselves, and I began wondering if I needed more drawing space.
Perhaps instead of my artistic attempt, I should have given the answer I heard at a Baptist World Alliance meeting. A South African Baptist leader described Baptists as “the people who meet to eat”….
At the start of the book of Acts, we encounter the heart of this narrative. The Day of Pentecost is the moment when the church is summoned to life. After the crucifixion, the disciples scattered. After the Resurrection, the disciples steadily regained their wits as the Resurrected Christ was revealed and spent time with them. As Pentecost arrives on the heels of the Ascension (or better said, after the disciples watched the heels and all the rest of Jesus disappear into the heavens above), we encounter a day for the disciples that is a “game changer”, moving them from a small group more firmly into a future as an ever expanding body of believers.
The story of Pentecost is the roots of the family tree or the beginning of the mighty rivers Christianity would form into as the centuries unfold. Without this day, the disciples would have been more likely lost than to find their pathway. Christ had commissioned them to go forth with his teachings to the ends of the earth. The disciples speak in many of the known languages of the world, astonishing the crowds who witness the Spirit’s winds of change coming upon these otherwise unremarkable women and men known for following that controversial teacher some say was put to death not that long ago. The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost is the disciples’ first taste of what it means to be who the Church will become: a diverse, multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-hued people of God.
A taste of this sort of diversity is experienced readily when the American Baptist national meetings are held every other year. For the last few years, the demographics of our denomination demonstrate a shifting away from a primarily “Euro American” orientation as our churches have multiplied among various immigrant and racial/ethnic groups. We are becoming less a “majority/minority” group of Christians, opening up the possibility of a veritable Day of Pentecost revisited with the differences among us not so sharply drawn or at varying levels of disparity. Curiously, we tend to be at our worst when we harp at why we are different. We are at our strongest when we honor difference and despite it all work together on common ground issues.
In his commentary on the Book of Acts, the United Methodist bishop Will Willimon observes, “In reading the Pentecost account in the second chapter of Acts, we are part of an author’s struggle to bring to reality something of the truth about the church, something which cannot be known except by this story”. What do we hear in this story of two thousand years ago? Is Pentecost a story of the “past” long dead and fading or is this story “prologue” to a much greater story that we are in the latest yet not last chapter to be written about the gathered people called “church”?
Revisiting the story of Pentecost reminds us of our origins as a people living in light of Easter’s alleluias. We are commissioned to go to the ends of the earth with this good word and living the way of Jesus to every nation and to every people. At our best, we have responded faithfully in places near and far with the Spirit moving within the Church’s mission and ministry. At our worst, we have lost sight of Pentecost’s promise, reticent to move ahead when the Spirit moves ahead of the Church. Willimon observes, “Sometimes this story [of Pentecost] has given the church hope; sometimes this story has judged the church and found it wanting” (p. 29)
Too easily, we see the Church as a place of glacial pace, permanence and uniformity, where we repeat patterns and traditions to the point we sometimes forget why we do such things. We have a history, rich with its learning and wisdom as well as our failings and our myopias. Living with our history as a people after Pentecost, we realize our strange family tree, nurtured by the teachings of Jesus and his parables of the Kingdom/Reign of God and the “adventure stories” of the first Christians heading out into the far reaches of the known world. We improve ourselves when we realize the Spirit moves in our midst and at a fair clip ahead of us.
This past weekend, I attended the Saturday session of the American Baptist region meeting, held this year at the Mt Snow Resort. The planning committee invited me to offer a workshop entitled “The Holy Spirit prompts us to the work of peace and justice”. While the title given to me was a mouthful, I was more concerned with the presentation’s content. How do we speak of these issues when such disagreement springs up quickly when we get to the specifics? Take most any issue, and you’ll find Christians struggling among themselves with what “the Church” ought to be doing about things. Add in the recent history of the region’s disagreements over particularly volatile issues, and you could imagine why when I tried planning out the workshop, I had writer’s block. (Would I need a car running out in the alley?)
When I offered the workshop last Saturday, what I encountered were a group of earnest folk, wondering how they could make a difference in their community. I shared my presentation about the Spirit that moves within and ahead of the Church, and how we’ve found our ministry improved by taking a close look at our community’s needs. We had some lively discussion about what we can do to make a difference in small towns and urban neighborhoods. The political and theological differences between our congregations can be a dividing issue, and certainly they have been problematic. Yet when we talked about common ground issues, the conversation turned more collaborative and empathetic.
Part of my presentation was to be a storyteller, sharing stories of First Baptist’s commitment to work with the community, especially other non-profit organization, or talking up the benefits of interfaith collaboration that produced a health clinic for the uninsured and a food distribution center providing assistance to one-quarter of the town’s households. These stories were grounded in the reality of a small congregation deciding to be larger than the sum of its worries and live into a vision of collaborating with others to make a difference.
Pentecost…It’s the story of a day long ago.
Pentecost…It’s the story we’re still living out.