Monday, May 20, 2013

The Power to be God's Church

Last week we were on vacation in Finland, which turns out to be an incredibly diverse place. Sitting in the train station I had one of the closest experiences to Pentecost I could imagine, hearing Finnish, Norwegian, Russian, Spanish, Chinese, and French, and probably other languages I didn’t even detect, all swirling at the same time. But what I really needed was someone who could help me in my language. Last Sunday in worship I tried to sing along to hymns in Finnish, but I had no idea what I was saying. I only picked out a few words- Hosanna, Jesus, amen. My friend Elise translated some of the sermon, but it was bits and pieces. And I really got a sense of what it meant to understand in one’s own language when I could not. The only thing I knew for sure was the body of Christ given for you and the blood of Christ shed for you at communion.

After worship, we met the pastor and learned the church’s history. It is called the Old Church. But originally it had no name. When the Tzar of Russia ruled the area, he decided people would be Lutheran and ordered a cathedral be built on the highest point in town. That church now is the National Cathedral. But while it was being built, there still needed to be A church-so this other church was built. But for years on maps it was identified only as "temporary church." Because it was only going to be the church until they built the real one. Like somehow God wouldn’t empower that place and those people.

After the cathedral was built, this wooden framed church remained active. The cathedral became the New Church, this other became the Old Church. Perhaps to the surprise of some. The painting behind its altar depicts Jesus blessing children. It was originally intended for the New Church but the tzar thought it too juvenile. Jesus creating family seemed not weighty enough. So it was placed at the temporary church. It wasn’t OK for the real church, but it was fine here. Like God wouldn’t use that art to show faith.

Despite not being the “real” church, now several hundred years later, both the Old Church, and the New Church are still there, as part of 5 churches in the Helsinki parish. Committed to a mission to make God’s love known and extend God’s family. A statement not so much about which people or which church, but a lot about the power of the Spirit!

And The Lutheran Church of Finland today works hard to produce resources not only in Finnish, but in the languages of the many others who have come to live there in a book called “To be a Christian.” Spanish, French, German, Russian, Chinese and more-languages through which to communicate God in ways others understand. Because this is God’s mission. It’s impressive.

But at the same time, the pastor of the Old Church explained that after worship they now have "Sharing time." It’s new. They gather chairs in a circle and invite people to stay for conversation and to learn each other's names. Because among the 100 or so people who worship on Sunday mornings, they don’t know each other well. They tolerate the children, and the old woman with dementia with food in her hair, and the young professionals, but they don’t connect. It seems that Finns are not big on asking each other first names. And since the city has changed so much, the old ways don’t work so well. The Old Church cannot be the Same Old Church.

When people keep to themselves, it’s hard to form community or talk about what it means to be Christians. The Pastor’s idea was seen as really shaking things up. No one apparently thought he was drunk when he announced it, but I was told that he was not raised Lutheran. It turns out before he was a Lutheran pastor he was … Pentecostal.

These experiences point up the dynamic we find ourselves in at times- we’re not sure what to consider temporary or permanent, old or new. In our wrestling with this, we don’t always really connect with each other. It’s like we speak different languages. We can look right past each other and past now, believing at times we know how God will act. Or that some other time past or future is what really matters.

In the end, those considerations turn out to say a lot about us and not really much about the grace and love of Jesus Christ or the power of the Holy Spirit we celebrate this day.

We live knowing Jesus has risen and will come again. But we live now. And in this time, we are really all temporary churches. But like the disciples we’re promised  the Holy Spirit to help us live out the mission. To be God’s church now.

Because living in the movement of things are constantly changing is not the easiest thing. The Book of Acts calls what happened that Pentecost a miracle. The fact that everyone could understand, each in their own way was a miracle. In all the languages of our lives, we hope to be understood and loved but how we communicate can seem like we’re really all speaking different languages. It’s just as likely that we and those around us imagine being able to connect with God and to be understood, and living in all this change takes nothing short of a miracle.

Into this place God sends the Spirit. And it starts with prayer.

What happened that day 3000 alone came to believe and the church began to spread, started with prayer. Those disciples gathered in the room were not all alike. Or inherently gifted. They came from different perspectives, not always seeing eye to eye, waiting for Jesus, but not quite sure what’s coming next or what to make of it. And really by nature not of one mind. But when they gathered and prayed, God entered.  The promised power of the Spirit came in prayer. And I suspect not as they expected. Coming to and working through all kinds of people, with wind blowing and fire flaming, and amidst them the voice of God stirring it up. The power of God transcended it all as those languages burst forth and people began to understand God’s language- love for all. That is still God’s mission.

We are a part of this chapter of God’s power and mission. Sometimes we talk about figuring out the church’s mission.

I think Pentecost reorients that conversation. God has a mission-go and make disciples of all nations, draw people into relationship. This is God’s mission. The gift of the Holy Spirit is not a mission. God doesn’t give the church a mission. God gives the mission a church. And gives us the power and a place in it. To be what God’s wants here and now. Even when it feels temporary, uncertain, unpredictable, or unfamiliar.

And God gives us a language of love, power and grace. And the connection to it all is prayer. Part of why I shared the stories of Finland is I saw connections to this place. In the history of God in this place, the Spirit blew and people were convinced that there would be a Sunday school. But then, not just a Sunday school chapel, but a real church. And the Spirit has continued to blow, using a rich variety of people and ways to help people grow in Christian faith and unity. Not to make us all be the same, or speak the same, but to draw us together in the Spirit as God’s family in all its diversity. And I continue to be amazed at the work of the Spirit in and through you!  We’re a small group through which God affects many. Young and old, new and long time, and everything in between. God’s Spirit is still moving, bringing power. My prayer is that God continues to stir us to be the Church that dares to call itself the Church of the Holy Spirit-reminded of our mission and the gift of community, proclaiming the Good news of God’s love, power and grace.
And I pray this will be our prayer -together.     

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