A pastor acquaintance from my online Bible study started a new church in the Denver area and, as so often happens, her church quickly became every other church’s little sister, getting all of their hand-me-downs. One year they received a beautiful set of paraments, the colored clothes that adorn many Lutheran church altars. The gift was perfectly timed because it was right before the celebration of Pentecost and they didn’t have a set of paraments for the season.
They dug through the box and, sure enough, they found a red altar cloth, red being the color of Pentecost. It had an image of a descending dove representing the Holy Spirit, but upon closer inspection they discovered that the dove had completely crazy eyes and claws that looked like talons. The Holy Spirit pretty much looked like a raptor! “Wow,” one of them said, “We can’t use this one. It makes the Holy Spirit look downright dangerous.”
To which their wise pastor replied, “Or perhaps that’s the very reason we should use it.”
Today we’re celebrating Pentecost, one of the three core holy-days – along with Christmas and Easter – in our community. Christmas describes Jesus’ birth into human form. Easter marks Jesus’ rebirth to eternal life. And Pentecost describes the birth of the Church’s mission. Last week, we heard the risen Jesus tell his disciples to stay in Jerusalem until he sent to them the promised Holy Spirit. Jesus said that, through the Holy Spirit, they would receive power to be Jesus’ witnesses throughout the world. I can’t help but wonder what they thought Jesus meant, but I’m pretty sure that what actually happened was beyond their wildest imagination.
In the first century, Pentecost was one of the three major festivals of the Jewish calendar, and an occasion for Jews from all over the region to gather in Jerusalem to thank God for the first fruits of the wheat harvest. It was during this festival that the disciples were gathered together in Jerusalem, just as Jesus has instructed.
Three years earlier, John the Baptist had said that while he came to baptize people with water, the Messiah would baptize people with the Holy Spirit and with fire. And that’s just what happens. The Holy Spirit appears as flames and fills them, and they begin to speak in the languages of the religious pilgrims who have come to Jerusalem for Pentecost, presumably languages they have never spoken before. In other words, Jesus fulfilled his promise. The Spirit does come. The disciples are filled with power, and they do become his witnesses.
This is such a great story, but we don’t read it each year because it’s a great story. We read it each year because it’s our story. It tells us something remarkably important about who we are. We are the church, called and empowered for a mission to the whole world. Let me say that again: We are the church, called and empowered for a mission to the whole world. Let me tear that sentence apart, to make sure we understand what it means for us.
First, we are the church.
It wasn’t until I was in High School and started going to Youth Group that I learned the song, This is the church, and this is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people. Maybe you learned that little ditty, too, when you were a child. It’s cute and it’s fun. But it’s not entirely true, and the subtle implications are damaging
This building is not the church. Heaven forbid, if a fire broke out later this afternoon and destroyed our entire campus, Immanuel Lutheran Church would still exist. We are the church, all of us together, washed by grace, united by faith and the Holy Spirit. When we talk about the church we’re talking about us – all of us –along with all believers around the globe. We are the church.
Second, we’re called and empowered for a mission.
In our baptism we were called “to know Jesus fully and to make him known to those who don’t know him yet.” Like those first disciples at Pentecost, we have been filled with the promised Holy Spirit. We’ve been called to a mission. By how we live and by what we say, we proclaim that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and that God is working in this world, right here and right now, to bring restoration and reconciliation to all people.
We do that by speaking the truth in love about the reality of sin. We do that through acts of love and mercy. We do that by fighting injustice. We do that through generosity of heart, time, prayer and financial resources. We do that by giving our lives away for the sake of others, living like Jesus as the Spirit grants us grace.
And finally, our mission is to the entire world.
Sometimes our sinful nature wants to make the church something outside of us that is supposed to serve us, as if Immanuel’s primary focus is to serve our members. There are lots of important ways in which we care for one another in this body of believers. But our care for each other is a means to an end – how we “know Jesus fully and make him known.” We care for each other so we can care for those not yet a part of this community.
And our mission is to the whole world. Just as those first disciples were empowered by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the good news in ways that all people could hear, we’re called to proclaim that same good news of God’s saving love in ways that all people can hear, see and understand.
You see, we are a resurrected people in Christ. We are the church, called and empowered for a mission to the whole world. That’s who we are, and that’s what we’re doing here at Immanuel. On this Pentecost weekend I celebrate the many ways in which we are in mission together:
- Serving food at FCA luncheons in our social hall
- Supporting the ministry of the Fresno Rescue Mission with our food booth at the Caruther’s Fair
- Worshiping and serving together as part of the Churches of Easton ecumenical partnership
- Thursday men’s Bible Study that draws from the community
- October car show that brings a bunch of community folks onto our campus
- Breaking Grounds ministry to HS students on Wednesday mornings
- Supporting our missionaries: first, Jan Kersgaard (Pakistan) and now Taylor Ewing (Zambia)
As Immanuel prepares to call a new pastor this summer, there’s no telling what directions the Holy Spirit is going to blow, or what the future holds. What an exciting time to be the church!
I don’t know if the Holy Spirit has crazy eyes and claws, but I do know that the Holy Spirit isn’t safe. The Spirit will not let us dwell in comfort and complacency as long as God’s mission needs to be accomplished. We live to do God’s work with our hands.
You and I are the church. You and I are called and empowered for a mission to the whole world. We are called to live mission. So, what mission in this world might God be calling you to this week?