Re-imagining Church: Would You Invite a Friend to This?

May 11, 2008

Opening Prayer for Pentecost Sunday – A Spirit to Know You – St. Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-547):

Gracious and Holy God,
Please give me
intellect to understand you,
reason to discern you,
diligence to seek you,
wisdom to find you,
a spirit to know you,
a heart to meditate upon you,
ears to hear you,
eyes to see you,
a tongue to proclaim you,
a way of life pleasing to you,
patience to wait for you
and perseverance to look for you. Amen.

New Testament Reading: Acts 2:1-12

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 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. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs– in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

Epistle Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

On this Pentecost Sunday we think back to that special day described in the Book of Acts when the good news suddenly became available to a huge and diverse crowd of people. What were all these people doing in Jerusalem anyway? They were gathered for the festival described for us in Leviticus:

Leviticus 23:5-21 – In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight is the LORD’S Passover. Then on the fifteenth day of the same month there is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the LORD; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread … You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh sabbath; then you shall present a new grain offering to the LORD … On this same day you shall make a proclamation as well; you are to have a holy convocation … It is to be a perpetual statute in all your dwelling places throughout your generations.

They were there for the “holy convocation” to celebrate the harvest (often seen as a metaphor for “final judgment”), to recognize the relationship between Yahweh and the people of Israel and (at least by the time of the Babylonian Talmud) to commemorate the giving of the law to Moses.

It was in the midst of this celebration that we read of “…the rush of a violent wind…” – a description bound to evoke the image of “ru’ah” – the Hebrew word for wind/spirit/breathe that was a familiar descriptor of a theophany – an appearance/experience of God..

Similarly, we read that “…Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them…” calling forth the image of fire and flame so familiar as a sign of God’s presence (e.g. Exodus 24:17 – “To the Israelites, the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire.”). And then we encounter that most troubling of passages, a passage whose interpretation has caused much dissent in the history of the church, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages … All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?””

The people said to each other, “What does this mean” … good question! Almost certainly, the passage would have evoked memories of Joel 2:28, “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.”

But to answer the question, “What does this mean?” (rather than, “What happened?” or “How do we explain this?”) perhaps we should to the meaning of the lessons we can learn from the Pentecost event. Three of these are topics we have discussed many times:

• Being open to the movement of the Spirit
• The importance of dreaming dreams
• The compelling nature of a powerful vision

It seems that there is another lesson for us captured in Acts 2:8, “And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” In other words … the importance of communicating the message in ways that the hearers can understand!

Paul, writing to the church at Corinth, knew that the message – which he calls “the message about the cross” – can be difficult for people to hear; “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Paul notes, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” Why “a stumbling block to the Jews”? One reason is that the very idea of a crucified Messiah simply made no sense. It seemed to fly in the face of Deuteronomy 21:22-23, “And if a man has committed a sin worthy of death, and he is to be put to death, and you hang him on a tree. His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall in any wise bury him that day; for he that is hanged is accursed of God…” And why “foolishness to Gentiles”? Simply because the Graeco-Roman concept of God was that a primary characteristic of God was “apatheia” – the word from which we get the English word “apathy”. God was understood to be removed from the affairs of the world and certainly not a participant in them – at least in the sense of participating in a gruesome event like a crucifixion! In deed, Plutarch taught that to involve God in the affairs of the world is an insult to God!

Paul tells us “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom”. The ne
ed for “signs” was and is a strong one. Many promised such signs and in 45 AD, according to the historian Josephus, Theudas talked thousands of people into following him on a trek to the Jordan River by promising that he would part the waters at a word. Nothing happened. In 54 AD, the “Egyptian Prophet” persuaded thirty thousand people to climb the Mount of Olives with him so that he could speak a word of command and the walls of Jerusalem would collapse. Nothing happened then, either. The “Greeks desire wisdom” is a phrase that captured the popularity of the philosophical movements of the day. The very word “philosophy” means “love of wisdom”.

And Paul insists, “but we proclaim Christ crucified”. No more signs and no more wisdom but rather a faith in Christ and His message.

If we turn for a moment to the question posed in the title of today’s sermon, “Would you invite a friend to this?” we will see how communicating the message in ways that can be understood – the lesson of Pentecost – remains vital today. Some Facts about churches today, gleaned from survey reports:

• Fact #1: 8 out of 10 people who visit a church do so because a friend invited them.
• Fact #2: Most people who attend church regularly never invite a single person to go with them.

The important thing about these facts is that when we have painted a picture of the Kingdom of God, we have always said that, first and foremost, “You can’t get there alone”. That means that unless we invite others to be part of the journey, we can never arrive at the destination. It doesn’t just mean that they wont get there – it means that we wont get there either!

Paul writes that there are but three reactions to the message about the cross:

• some stumble …
• some laugh …
• some believe and experience the power and wisdom of the cross…

And those are the reactions that you will get when you invite people to come on the journey with you. In my experience, most people are too polite to laugh in front of me – may be they laugh behind my back but if they do, I’ll never know and so that can’t hurt me! If people stumble, they are always polite about it and generally pleased that I have invited them, even if they never come and join us. And, of course, some hear and respond to the invitation.

Remember, if we don’t invite people and build a community to take on the journey together, none of us will ever get to the destination. You can’t get there alone.

Perhaps it is time to stop going to church. Instead, let us BE the church and reach out to those around us.

Thanks for visiting!