The Day of Pentecost, Year C.
Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, `Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”John 14:8-17, 25-27
Two men in wrinkled grey pants, tucked-in short-sleeved button-down shirts, and red ties stand at the threshold of the door with a book in each hand, a disarming smile, and a loaded question: “Have you found Jesus?”. Just out of their sight, if they were but able to see past their own script to look in places where they would least expect Him, they would have noticed the sandals behind the window curtain just a little to their left.
You can always tell that these door-to-door missionaries aren’t good Episcopalians because if they were, they would have known that Ascension Day was last week. Of course we’ve found Jesus! Didn’t you see Him get lifted up into the clouds making a bee-line to heaven? Did you not hear the two men ask “…why do you stand looking up at heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” [Acts 1]. Looks like we got Him, He’s been in heaven this whole time, and even left us with His address in the first chapter of Acts. Despite the pestering question “Have you found Jesus?” it seems that Jesus was never all that good at hide-and-seek, or perhaps more likely, we’ve just been looking in the wrong places.
Now that we’ve finally found Jesus, as good Episcopalians, we can now ponder a more interesting question, “Have you found the Holy Spirit?” Like all loaded questions, I have data on the answer. Where do you think most people find God? In church? In a child’s laughter? In a sermon with too many questions? Turns out for most Americans, it’s in nature, at least according to the Jesus in America studyrecently conducted by the Episcopal Church and Ipsos. Now, there is nothing wrong with finding God in nature, but there is something troubling that not only did most people prefer to find God in nature, as opposed to a Church community, but also that people increasingly have a negative view of the Church, citing Christian hypocrisy as the primary reason. According to the study, Christians tended to describe Christians as “giving”, “compassionate”, “loving”, and “friendly”, while non-Christians described Christians as “hypocritical”, “judgmental”, “self-righteous”, and “arrogant”.
Now, it’s easy to think, “Well, we’re not like those Christians. The Episcopal Church knows how to do Church right and we can put on a mean pot-luck.” While that may be true, that as a corporate body we work hard to be welcoming, kind, and friendly to all, the fact of the matter is the rest of the world isn’t interested enough to parse out denominational differences. The truth is that while the Church has always been many voices, a diversity of views, and a beautiful quilt of unique traditions, the Church has always been “One body, one Lord, one faith, one baptism”: sometimes to our great strength, and sometimes to our detriment. And as troubling as it is to hear that the Church has picked up such a negative reputation, it is a crucial wake-up call that we have earned that reputation through centuries of the Church being more interested in power and influence than loving our neighbor. And now that one does not have to be in a church to participate in polite society, we’re getting some honest feedback on how well we’ve kept the Lord’s commandments, so many prefer to find God in nature.
But where is the Holy Spirit in all this, on this day of Pentecost where we celebrate the birthday of the Church and the coming of the Holy Spirit to be our advocate and guide? Have we strayed so far from our mandate that we have no hope, has She retreated to nature? Show us the Spirit Lord, and we shall be satisfied. And just like to Phillip when he asked to be shown the Father, the Lord will tell us, “Have I been with you all this time, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the [Spirit].”
Where is the Holy Spirit? Well much like Jesus, we never lost Her in the first place. She is here, in this very room, in your home, in your workplace, in all places where you live out the Gospel, in your soul, and marked upon your very forehead. The Spirit is in you, and though in our work of ministry and stewardship we think of the church as a building, you are the Church. The Spirit is only in this building because we have gathered here as Christians. Though the Church does not have the best reputation at the moment, if we are honest enough to see our own history, if we are brave enough to speak up against hate, and if we are loving enough to see Christ in all people, especially the people we fear or don’t understand, then the Church will earn back the trust we have lost.
“If you love me, keep my commandments”
In the spirit of taking an honest stock of our history so that we can build a better future, it’s important to remember how the Church reached so many people in the first place. It all began this day, the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit came down to people from all over the empire, and each were suddenly able to hear each other, to truly understand one another in their native tongue. That miracle was the inspiration and beginning of the Church, most of us have heard this story so well we almost no longer hear it. But what happened after Pentecost? How did the Spirit reach out to so many new people? In most histories of the Church, the story jumps from the apostles to the martyrs, those brave faithful who in dramatic moments of courage and speaking out against an unjust earthly authority were killed for proclaiming their faith. While the martyrs did play an important role in the growth of the Church, they were not the only evangelists. As much as we love dramatic stories and “great men of history”, often the greatest miracles are performed in the most ordinary places.
Turns out what really won over the people and grew the Church the most consistently were burial clubs. In the early days of Christianity, when churches were merely attics and courtyards of wealthy widows rather than grand cathedrals, most people encountered Christians through their burial clubs. In fact, the first registered Christian organization we have a record of is a burial club. Culturally, imperial Romans were a bit squeamish about death, preferring not to think about it, placing cemeteries far from the city, etc. And much like today, the death of a family member, and especially the cost of burying a family member, could be financially ruinous, especially to the poor. Burial clubs started in the army, with groups of soldiers chipping in their wages to help pay for the burial of their comrades and the care of their family, these burial clubs were also the origin of life insurance. Eventually, Christians, who were not so troubled by death, began forming their own burial clubs. What made the Christian burial club different than all the others is that they would bury anyone. Not only would they bury anyone in need, but contrary to the strictly hierarchical Roman society, they would give everyone the highest honors available, and bury all together. The most revered bishop would be buried right next to the lowliest slave, both of their living relatives watched over by the Church community. The Church was there to show God’s love for all people, especially when society failed to do so, and especially in their hour of need.
I can understand how it is easier to find the Holy Spirit in nature rather than a community. Seeing the wonders of God’s creation is always breathtaking. After all, in nature, one never has to deal with other people, never has to be bothered to do the hard work of loving your neighbor since you’re out there all alone. While it may be good to take a retreat once and a while and lose oneself in the search for God, the Spirit, and the Church, is among the people. And while the Church community may be sinful, trying, disappointing, messy, hypocritical, and often failing to live up to the Gospel of Love, this is where we find the Holy Spirit. It is this beautiful mess that we call our family that God chose to save. As much as we are the Church we are also the world we live in, a world full of beauty and love, sin and hypocrisy, evil and good. Yet what makes us the Church is the Spirit and the Gospel. And in all things the Gospel will save us; it gives us hope for salvation, courage to love all, and the message that even this mess is worth saving.
Have you found the Spirit? She is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart so that you may proclaim Her. She is here, the Church. And if you wonder about how you can help others find the Spirit, there is no secret wisdom or hidden tactic, be a friend, invite them to this community, maybe start a burial club, but above all remember the words our Lord said:
“…the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Amen.