Sunday, June 8, 2014

Pentecost Homily

Alton Parish--John 20:19-23, Acts 2:1-11, I Corinthians 12:4-13

About a dozen or so years ago, it became very fashionable for groups of all sorts—corporations, schools, government agencies, churches, and even families—to adopt mission statements. Even now, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid them. You can check into a hotel and find the mission statement of the corporate owner prominently displayed in the lobby. I’ve even seen mission statements in fast food restaurants. The idea is that, if you don’t have a clear idea of what you’re supposed to be doing, you’re probably not going to be doing it. You’ll probably feel busy, but you might be busy at the wrong thing.

This can all be taken to a bit of an absurd extreme of course. It actually wouldn’t surprise me to hear about a pre-school play group working on a mission statement. And I suspect that, to some extent, the faddish aspect may have run its course. But in principle, I believe in mission statements. Many dioceses and parishes have mission statements. And, we could say, the whole Church has a mission statement. It could probably be expressed several different ways, but we may as well start with the version contained in our catechism, in the back of the Prayer Book: “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each another in Christ.”

So let’s take this apart and look at it more closely. As the Church, we are to be about restoring all people to unity—with God, and with one another. Another way of saying this, to borrow the language of St Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians, is that we have “the ministry of reconciliation.” Or, to borrow the language of a Ford Motor Company slogan from the 1980s, “Reconciliation is Job 1.”  And how are we to pursue this ministry, this mission, of reconciliation? Well, the catechism helps us out here as well: “The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.” So there we have it; that’s what we’re about: liturgy—which is what we’re gathered here for today, evangelization—telling others the good news that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”; and the promotion of justice, peace, and love.

This activity, this ministry of reconciliation takes place in many different forms and at many different levels. It’s a dynamic interplay between individual effort and corporate effort. St Paul makes this point most compellingly in his rich and memorable metaphor of the Church as a body. A body is a complex organism. As Paul puts it, “…the body does not consist of one member but of many. …If all were a single organ, where would the body be?” Yet, Paul also says, “As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”  In order for a body to be healthy, and to function as it’s supposed to—in other words, in order for a body to fulfill its mission statement—all the different parts have to be pulling in the same direction, they have to work as members of the same team. When they don’t, we call it cancer, and it’s a serious problem. So, the various gifts and talents and resources that we have as members of the Body of Christ are never simply for our own benefit.  They are for the benefit, the overall health and vitality, of the whole body.  This is not to say, however, that the exercise of our gifts and the development of our talents and resources does not have any impact on us personally. Quite the contrary: Employing our gifts for the glory of God and the benefit of the Church’s mission is invariably a means of grace that perfects our own holiness. We need to exercise our spiritual gifts in order to become more like Jesus, to mold our inner being, our character, into the pattern of his own life and being, to be made ready to live in the unfiltered presence of God. That is our destiny.

It is an ambitious project—the reconciliation of the world and the salvation of our own souls. And the fuel for this endeavor is the very gift of the Holy Spirit—God’s gift to the Church. The gift of the Holy Spirit is what we are celebrating today, on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to the Church, and we actually have two distinct versions of that gift being presented: one quietly and privately, as Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room on the very day of his resurrection—this is the account in St John’s gospel; and one publicly and dramatically, on the day of Pentecost itself, when the apostles were miraculously able to proclaim the gospel in a multitude of languages, according to the needs of the rather cosmopolitan group gathered in Jerusalem that day—this is the account we read in the book of Acts.

But the gift of the Holy Spirit is not only God’s gift to the Church corporately; it is His gift to individual Christians, personally. This is the angle St Paul emphasizes in his letter to the Corinthians:
[T]he body does not consist of one member but of many.  If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body.  And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?  But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose.  
Whenever we gather to celebrate Holy Baptism, we pray for the candidates lavishly and at great length, and we believe that in response to our prayers, and according to His promise, God faithfully sends His Holy Spirit into those who come to the font, and that Spirit will come bearing gifts. We can’t in the moment say what those gifts will be. That will be revealed over a period of years. Whatever those spiritual gifts are, however, they are just what those who are baptized need for their own salvation, the perfection of their development into the full image and stature of Christ. As they exercise their gifts, these reborn children of God cooperate with the Holy Spirit in a process that will conclude only when they can look God in the eye and not die.

But the only context in which the exercise of our spiritual gifts will be effective for our salvation is the context of whole Church into which we were  initiated in the baptismal liturgy. The gifts they receive in the sacrament are for the benefit of the whole. They are for the Church’s mission, her ministry of reconciliation, of restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. Indeed, the gift of the Spirit cannot be separated from mission. Jesus breathes on his disciples, we’re told in St John’s gospel, and say, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” But this only happens in the context of his first having told them,  “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." One is for the other. The gift is for the purpose of mission.

When we forget this—when we forget this indissoluble bond between spiritual gifts and the Church’s mission, her ministry of reconciliation, spiritual gifts get turned in on themselves. In a sense, we might say they “go bad,” like a carton of milk forgotten in the back of the refrigerator for too long. They turn sour, and become the occasion of sin, and can, without the intervention of grace and repentance, lead eventually to a soul’s destruction.

So I want to leave you with a question, a question to which I do not presume to know the answer, but one which each of us, each of us who are members of the one body, must be asking if we are at all concerned with the Church being faithful to her mission statement. The miracle of Pentecost was that people from a dozen different language groups around the eastern Roman Empire heard the apostles speaking their languages. Each one heard good news that held out the promise of making a positive change in his or her life. Many lives were forever changed that day because of the gift of “tongues” that was given by the Holy Spirit to the apostles. What might that gift look like today? There are no longer any Parthians or Medes or Elamites or Mesopotamians in the world today. But there are Pakistanis and East Timorese and Swedes and Brazilians and South Africans. There are no longer any distinct language groups representing Cappadocia and Phrygia and Pamphylia, but there are certainly Baby Boomers and Generation Xers and those who are fluent in the language of alienation and cynicism and post-modernism. How are all these people, who are defined either geographically or culturally, going to hear the gospel, each one in his or her own “language”?  What is the nature of the gift of  “tongues” that the Church needs today, so that we as the Church, we as the Body of Christ, can be focused on and faithful to our mission statement—being ministers of reconciliation, restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ? I invite you to join me committing that utterly crucial question to prayer in the weeks and months that lie ahead—as it applies to the Episcopal Parish of Alton, to the Diocese of Springfield, and to the whole Church throughout the world. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Alleluia and Amen.

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