Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the church. The Resurrected Jesus is gone, ascended into heaven. They are afraid and huddled in the upper room. They had elected a replacement for Judas Iscariot. But what now? Up to this point they had been a close community knitted together by Jesus. Now Jesus is calling on them to spread the word worldwide… a significant job for this close knit group.
Then comes the Holy Spirit upon them in tongues of flames. Each person is “commissioned” if you will by the touch of the Holy Spirit to go out in the Roman Empire and beyond. And so begins what we know as the Christian Church.
And they went far and wide, gathering thousands into Jesus’ movement. The book of Acts is our story of the beginning of this as they apostles went from Jerusalem all the way to Rome. When know subsequent to that they went beyond the Roman Empire to India.
But what attracted so many people to them? Why were they so successful?
There are no doubt a lot of reasons for their success, but I think one of the most important is that they left behind communities of support.
The Christian Church quickly began more than just a temple with a priest sacrificing and praying. It was a community separate and distinct from the secular world around them.
Christianity was and is an alternative life style. Every nation had a state religion in the time of the apostles. This is what most people experienced as religion and as God. It was part of the culture, part of legal system, and part of their civic duty. It was a reflection of their own society.
And when society was working for them, neither was their religion. So when people felt oppressed or alienated from society, they had no where to turn except to so-called mystery cults which provided so relief from the spiritually sterile world around them. But these cults were very secretive intentionally and very particular whom they allowed in. They were also supplements to the state religion and did not provide an alternative life style.
But the apostles and disciples came and preached a gospel of love and compassion and most of all of acceptance of everyone. They were very public, not secretive. And all they asked of people was to accept what Jesus taught as their way of living.
And so they left behind communities that were open to all who wanted to share in them. These communities provided a place to belong without the bias and expectations of the secular world. Here everyone sat together, master and slave, foreigner and citizen, men and women. Everyone broke bread together. Everyone cared for each other.
Becoming a Christian gave one a supportive network in a harsh, brutal, violent society. It also gave one a vision of the possibility of a better world. The lifestyle practiced by their communities were modeled on this better world. In that alone they would find hope in the midst of despair and a secular world falling apart around them.
And I suggest that the community spirit of those early Christians is a legacy far greater than we often give credit to.
We Protestants form communities as much as parishes. We have all of the liturgical and pastoral services found in a church. But one of the outstanding … and attractive features … is that we are a community of support and care for each other. How often have you or heard someone refer to their church as their church family or their extended family.
It is this aspect that the fiery spirit of Pentecost has bequeathed us. It is not a passing artifact of how we organize or of our tradition. It is a critical, essential part of who we are. In our faith community we model to the rest of the world how it should be: caring, support, and diverse … agreeing to disagree on non-essentials and working together on essentials … and calling on the Holy Spirit to help us know the difference.
And our faith communities are not fly-by-nights. Many have been around for decades, if not centuries … and that history provides a depth to our experience.
I suggest to you that our faith community is more important today than ever. Our communities receive little media attention and society still sees Christianity as either bible-centric or priest-centric. That our particular brand of Christianity is more community-centric goes unnoticed.
But in our present age of alienation and isolation it is that community that is so sorely needed.
Have you read the terrible stories of teenagers committing suicide because of the harassment they experience from their peers? One report was of a young Irish teenager whose family immigrated to South Hadley in MA. She was harassed at school. But she was not only harassed at school but she was constantly harassed day and night via these Internet social networks. She had no respite from the harassment and could not go on.
I wonder if she had a faith a community. And if she did was she involved as a part of it?
There has been a clear drop off of participation in embodied community … community that requires us to show up as human beings, not an avatar on a Facebook page.
Many people … particularly the young … are limiting their social networking to the Internet using Facebook and other such facilities. And they abandon or never learn about real, embodied, present communities.
They are not drawn to the church. People, young and old, have pushed being part of a community way down on their priorities. Even people my age seem to limit their human socializing to family and work. And for young people, that’s family and school. The gap is filled with these ghostly social networking systems where civil discourse has never been the norm.
Indeed these Internet social networking systems, because they are disembodied don’t have the natural restraint imposed by looking someone in the eye … the other someones are just so much pixels flowing over a screen.
Real community is here where we look each other in the eyes, sing together, reach out together, and pray together.
When one of us is down or ill or desperate, we support them with caring words and divine prayers, if not outright physical support. That won’t happen on the Internet. But one can be harassed to death by ghostly enemies on the Internet as this young woman was.
When my daughters were in the hospital, an Internet ghost didn’t come to visit. But the ministers of their church did.
People are isolated in this present age. They get their community from the Internet and the Mass Media… and it is terribly distorted, alienating, and divisive.
It is here in this faith community and the many faith communities scattered all around where people learn to be human and learn that being human is being a child of God. It is here they learn to respect all humans … and believe me they do not learn this in school. It is here they are part of a long history and a long tradition and are not alone. It is here they learn that God is constantly present.
But most of all it is here they can find respite and support and freedom from the harassment, the alienation, the divisiveness, and the self-centeredness that has turned our society into a coarse, crude, uncivil society. It is here they can learn civic duty and the joys and values of being part of a community. It is here they can be part of something greater than themselves. It is here they can find perspective, that they are not alone in their problems, their imperfections and in their sins.
It is here in this and other faith communities they can experience divine grace and the strength and hope to stand over and against society and live a lifestyle of compassion.
Think about it.
God’s grace and love be with you …