If We Knew Then…
Growing up in a big family we were committed birthday celebrators. On your birthday, you’d get the You Are Special plate for breakfast and your favorite meal for dinner, and usually at least one time over the course of the day, Mom would talk about the day you were born, drag out the photo albums and exclaim about how cute you used to be. “Look at that adorable baby! How could we even imagine the person you would become?,” she would say. Birthdays are a natural time to look back and see where we’ve been, because life has a way of taking us places we’d never imagined.
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church, and two years since you and I set out together on the journey of being the church together in this place. Seems like a good time to look back to gather the courage to move forward; the first disciples and all of us can definitely look at each other and say: “Wow, if we only knew the what we know now…!” Because the life of faith is a life that takes courage, confronting the unknown with commitment because, of course, we don’t know now what we will know…then.
This whole Easter season we’ve been thinking about how the gospel message—radical love, new life—can be decidedly threatening because it upends life in the way we know it, life that’s comfortable. As we look together today at the story of Jesus’ first followers and their adventures on the day the church was born, we can certainly feel the threat of discomfort, and I always think of the words of author and naturalist Annie Dillard, worth revisiting every year on this Sunday, from her book Teaching a Stone to Talk.
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk. Harper and Row, 1982)
Yes, Pentecost is the birthday of the church, but it’s not a story about the arrival of a nice, staid institution built to define tradition and maintain it at all costs, as the church is often mistaken. No, Pentecost is the threat of resurrection, lived out in full color and fire!
It’s God, shaking things up, as God always seems to do, and those of us along for the ride holding on for dear life, not completely sure exactly where we’ll end up. All that wind and fire, disruption, should have told the first disciples something, but they didn’t know what was ahead…just like you and I don’t know what’s ahead. I wonder what the first disciples would have done if they knew then what we know now…?
Just to be able to gauge the disciples’ mental and physical well-being during the period when our story from Acts occurs, I went online and completed the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, which rates stressors and resulting personal vulnerability. You have to choose whether some of the following has happened in your life in the course of the last 12 months: death of a close friend, trouble with the law, change in your family situation, vocational upheaval, among others. I chose everything on the scale that had happened to them just in the 6 weeks since Jesus’s arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection. (The test didn’t have the option, “One of your closest friends is resurrected,” though I would guess that might count as a stressor as well.)
The ratings were as follows: a score of 0-149 indicates a low susceptibility to stress-related illness. 150-299 would indicate a medium susceptibility to stress-related illness, and 300 and over indicates high susceptibility to stress-related illness. Taking the quiz as the disciples might have, the score was, uh, 644. 644.
In other words, after what they’d been through, it’s shocking that the disciples were not…dead.
(You may be interested to know that I declined the opportunity to retake the test as myself. Sometimes it’s better just not to know.)
Jerusalem was filled with people from all over the place that day—the text says “Jews from every nation under heaven.” Many of them were visiting Jerusalem because it was Shavuot, the Jewish Festival of Weeks, and devout Jews were required by Jewish law to come to Jerusalem to celebrate.
But not all of the people in Jerusalem that day were Jews; there were lots of worshippers, merchants, and travelers in Jerusalem for the holiday, the city packed with people from all over.
And then it happened.
The overpowering sound of a rushing wind filled the house where the disciples were, slamming doors, flapping shutters, blowing around so hard that they had to cover their ears it was so loud. And fire…fire came down and rested on each one of them, a flame the text says. And something else happened. They were filled with the Spirit, and everybody started talking in other languages. All of the sudden, everybody there, all of the people visiting the city, all of the foreigners providing services, all of them suddenly understood the disciples, they their very own languages. The Spirit arrived and the gospel was proclaimed, and a whole crowd of people heard it, and it radiated out from that moment, and from right then…everything changed.
The whole world changed.
If only they had known then what was ahead:
- That the nice, comfortable, familiar city of Jerusalem was not their destination; it was just their starting point.
- That their understanding of God through the tradition and structure they had always known was not what their futures held; they might encounter God somewhere outside the Temple they had always known.
- That the upper room filled with familiar faces, even, suddenly became a thing of the past. It couldn’t possibly hold all the people who wanted to hear, who had opinions to offer, who had voices to add to the conversation.
- That being followers of this resurrected God would take them places they could never have imagined. A wind had blown in; fire had alighted; the Spirit of God had arrived.
If they had, would they have embraced the crash helmets, life preservers, and signal flares that were indicated by all that wind and fire? You and I can look back over two thousand years of history and tell those disciples: you’ll be martyred, this little community will lose its prophetic edge and be co-opted by empire, the church will become a bastion of corruption, known for things like the Crusades, indulgences, colonization, and slavery. The church will have a hand in excluding women and breeding racism and the thousands of suicides of GLBTQ people who heard and hear again even this week that they are not welcome in the church.
Whew. If they had known then what we know now, I wonder if they would have stepped out in faith that day?
And what about us? Two Pentecosts ago we set out on this journey of being the church together. In these two years, we could not have known all we have experienced together, and if we had known then what we know now, I wonder if we would have had the courage to set out on that journey? It’s been hard; there has been so much change; we have felt the threat of resurrection all around us. We have said goodbye to people we loved. We have welcomed new ways of doing worship, new faces in leadership. Some situations have been decidedly painful; some days we have wanted to throw in the towel; the work and worry and care of this community have seemed overwhelming. How could we have imagined the journey of change and transition and growth that we’ve been on together these two years?
The disciples didn’t know then what we know now, but maybe what gave them the courage was the dream of radical love lived in community that can change the world. That HAS changed the world. See, they didn’t know then…but maybe they suspected…that the church would begin with little communities holding possessions in common and being family to each other, that these communities would empower women as their leaders and welcome folks that others excluded. They didn’t know, but maybe they imagined that the church could birth movements, like abolition and suffrage, workers’ rights and prison reform, religious freedom for all people and civil rights, too. Maybe they suspected that, if they had the courage to follow the lively wind of God’s Spirit to places they couldn’t see, the church would found hospitals and build schools, it would empower minority communities who were excluded from power elsewhere. It would become a platform for speaking up against misogyny and welcoming the stranger and standing arm in arm to say in the face of powerful opposition: we will overcome; love will win. This is the church they hoped for. And in its best moments, this is what the church has been.
And what about us? Maybe we’re here because we did not know then what we know now: that we are part of a community that speaks up often often and compellingly about racism, the destruction of our earth, the rampant escalation of gun violence in our culture, the oppression of women, the value and worth of LGBTQ people and other issues; that we are consistently invited into healing and hope; that we walk this journey with many faithful people who love us and accept us just as we are; that we have the rare invitation to step into the beauty and pain of building diverse community; that we know people will be there when our lives fall apart; that our children…our children…their little lives and minds and hearts and souls are being cherished and nurtured in this place; that new disciples are encountering this community and risking the possibility that they might follow Jesus, too; that our minds are engaged and our hearts challenged to grow in our faith; that we have here the Church of Jesus Christ: a place of hope in a cold, hard world.
This is what this church has been in its best moments. And this is what the church and this church can and must be…next.
Like the disciples, every day you and I stand on the edge of something. And today, Pentecost, is the day that we collectively stand on the edge of all we can do and be as the church in the world. The future is unknown, and if experience teaches anything, it will be painful sometimes. We do not know now what we will know in another two years, or 2000 years, but like the first disciples, be bold we must. The dream of healing, hope, justice, peace, beloved community is too important to shrink back to the familiar.
In the fear of the unknown, be assured: the Spirit of God is alive and well in this place. As she blows through our community today, hear her whisper a challenge: “Bring everybody to the table—everybody.” “Trust each other.” “Don’t be afraid to fail!” “Take a risk!” “View the future with curiosity and hope.” “Step out in faith toward whatever direction God will lead us next.” “Believe in each other; believe in God.”
It’s Pentecost. The wind is blowing; the fire is burning; God is up to something. We can never know now what we’ll know years from now, but let us step out in courage.
Happy birthday, Church! When you were born, we could never have imagined what you would become.