Sunday, May 23, 2010

Community Change

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, The Day of Pentecost, May 23, 2010

Text: John 14:8-17; 25-27

Use your imagination. Think of Jesus, gathered with his disciples during his final hours, hearing Philip say, “Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.” A silence falls over the room. Jesus looks down, then up. He runs his hands through his hair. He squints. He lifts one hand to his forehead and knocks a couple of times against his head. See his jaw grinding, his lips pucker. Silence thickens. Disciples see his chest rising with a deep internal sigh. He stares at Philip.

“Have I…have I been…” He stops, measuring his words. “Have I been so long a time with you, Philip, and yet you have not known me?” Though exasperated, he contains his frustration. “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Or don’t you believe it?—his expression seems to say. “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. Or else believe me for the sake of the works themselves.”

His tone changes. Exasperation gives way to excitement. “I tell you the truth. The one that believes in me will do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do even greater works than these because I go to the Father.” He looks around the table at them all. Their eyes meet his. He lowers his voice to little more than a whisper, as if he is telling them the best secret in the world. “I will do whatever you ask in my name.”

Pentecost is one holy day that has been spared bastardization by Hallmark. Don’t expect to see Pentecost cards on sale tomorrow, nor little marshmallow doves stacked up in CVS. I’m glad to be spared such trivialization. But, to be honest, I’m not sure we in the church have done all that much better in our treatment of Pentecost. We’ve sometimes reduced it to a rather cute celebration of the birthday of the Church, a rather dubious idea since it was hardly on Pentecost Day that something recognizable as “church” actually sprang into being. Sometimes we have had fun—I have—with wind and water and fire and doves and the other symbols. In some places, folks assume that Pentecost is about God getting a little whacky and encouraging us to get whacky too with shouting and clapping and tongue-speaking and praise music—not that there is anything wrong with that. But all these things tend to miss something very central. They obscure the fact that Pentecost is about community. It is about the transformation of a community. It is about a transforming community.

There is a deep connection between the scene of Jesus and his disciples, in which he tells them that he and the Father are one, and the story of Pentecost Day when the promised Spirit comes to the disciples. And the connection is this: that the very nature of God is communal, just as the very nature of humanity is communal. John’s gospel is explicit in identifying “indwelling” as a characteristic of God. As far as the Fourth gospel is concerned, God does not nor ever did live alone. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God:” remember? Jesus is that Word become flesh. He makes it explicit that Abba (as he calls “God”) lives in him and he lives in Abba. Abba works through Jesus, speaks through Jesus, empowers Jesus. The gospel makes it equally clear that indwelling does not stop with Abba and Jesus, however. Abba sends the Spirit to live with and in the disciples. Over and over Jesus tells them that the Spirit will enable them to be one, as he and Abba are one. Through the Spirit, he and Abba will come and make their dwelling with the new community. The world will know that the community belongs to Jesus because the community will love like Jesus. “As Abba loves me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another as I have loved you.”

There is no such thing as a Christian alone. We are all communal, first by our very nature, and second by the transforming act of God through the power of God’s Spirit. Yesterday, our vestry—the governing body of the parish—gathered for a retreat day. Emily Barton took us out on St. Alban’s lawn and gave us a group task to do. She whipped together a bungee pole of the sort used for a tent frame. It weighs only a few ounces. Half of the dozen of us lined up facing the other half. Everyone extended index fingers underneath the rod. Our task was to lower it to the ground. Can you believe how hard that is? Our natural inclination was to lift, not lower. We struggled for a few minutes until Linda, our leader, began to coach us. Working together, we managed very, very slowly to lower the pole until we finally got it to the ground. We talked a bit about what made it so difficult. One insight was that it helped to think together, imagining together the downward motion. Another insight was that our natural instincts were to lift if we saw one end sagging. The point was clear: we could only do the job if we very intentionally and sensitively worked together. Being together in community was a start, but not enough. We needed a transformation.

A fellow I know, about 35 years old, tells the story that several years ago he developed a serious problem with arrhythmia—the condition when the heartbeat changes in frequency or in force. For some reason his medication did not work and he was unable to get medical help. He said that his mother commanded him to lie down on the bed next to her. She took him in her arms and held him against her as if he were a small child. After awhile his heart began to beat in sync with hers. His arrhythmia went away. A strange story, perhaps, but one which serves as an image of what it is like when God holds any one of us so close that our very life-beat begins to mimic God’s own. We begin to live first in sync with God, and then more and more in companionship with God, and finally in true union with God. Then we can become not only a transformed community, but a transforming community.

Today we are baptizing Rosa Falee, one of our youngest sisters. Baptism is not about doing something that will make God love Rosa anymore than God already does love her. Nor is it about some future that she will share with God when she leaves this body and this life. It is about Rosa being connected to a community alive with the life of God dancing around our heads like so many flames. It is about Rosa living among us, practicing things like prayer, repentance, proclamation, works of mercy, works of justice. It is, in short, about Rosa being in a community that knows its heartbeat will be irregular unless we stay very close to the God who births us and mothers us and heals and restores us. But Rosa will not have heard the whole message of God or of Jesus if she does not hear that her Christian life does not end with her own transformation, nor indeed her community’s transformation. The Spirit is to the community of Christ what breath is to the body: it empowers the community to do transforming works—believe it or not, even greater works than Jesus did (we have never ever believed that and still don’t). But that is the promise and the call. And do you know what? A people on fire with God’s spirit, staying close to God’s heart, can do wonders. Like bring the planet back from the edge of self-destruction. Like learn to get past racism. Like dismantle nuclear arsenals. Like lay down their lives for their friends, and to love their enemies for God’s sake. Like being kind when it is easier to be nasty, to tell the truth when it is easier to lie, and to believe against all odds that the great God who made us actually lives within us.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2010

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