Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 31, 2009, Pentecost:

First Reading: Acts 2:1-21

First Reading (Alt.): Ezekiel 37:1-14

Psalm: Psalm 104:25-35, 37 (Psalm 104:24-34, 35b NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 8:22-27

Second Reading (Alt.): Acts 2:1-21

Gospel: John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

This Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, the event that sets into motion the events that will form the church as we know it. In mainline churches, Pentecost often gets overlooked. It doesn't have the gift giving potential of other holidays; it doesn't have any special candies or foods (although I see lots of potential here--flame shaped chocolates, anyone?). But I think the real reason that Pentecost has gotten the short shrift is that the events of Pentecost make many of us nervous.

Speaking in languages we don't ourselves understand? Evangelizing to strangers? No wonder we don't spend much time contemplating the meanings of Pentecost for modern life.

But maybe we should. Many North Americans are members of a church that is in clear crisis. Some of these crises explode on the national stage, like the wrenching scenes from Episcopalian churches who decide they'd rather be part of African episcopates than to continue to work with American bishops.

And even if my larger Lutheran church body, the ELCA, manages to avoid schism, it's hard to deny that many mainline churches are institutions in trouble. We face declining membership, declining donations. It's unclear how long many individual churches can keep limping along.

If we let the Holy Spirit loose in our home churches, what might happen? If we trusted in the transforming power of God, what changes might we see, both in our individual lives and in the lives of our church bodies?

Perhaps it is time for another Pentecost, for the next Reformation. Maybe the way we've been doing church is not just financially bankrupt, but spiritually bankrupt as well. Which leaves us with a burning question: what will the future look like?

Some people would tell you that the next Reformation is underway. In her slim book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, Phyllis Tickle explains how we've come to the point of another great Reformation, and she draws a compelling picture of the various ways the Church will look when we're done. Some people are excited, as they point to a number of churches, both mainline and experimental, who are thriving. For an inspirational read, turn to Diana Butler Bass's book Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith.

Of course, there's a darker side. We are about to move into a time period where there are more Christians in developing parts of the world, like Latin America and African nations, than in the previous power centers, like the United States and Europe. No one has chronicled the changes already underway better than Philip Jenkins in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.

Let's leave the larger questions of the larger institutional church to the Bishops and other higher-ups who get paid to ponder these things. Let's think about our individual lives. What do you need to nourish yourself spiritually? How could a religious community be part of that vision? If we could create a church that enriched your life, on Sunday and the rest of the week, what would that church do?

Most of us go to church out of habit. We're used to paying a pastor and hoping that the leadership will deliver what we want. We don't spend much time envisioning something better. And yet, many of us have yet to reach our full potential as Christians, as Christians in community. Think about a religious community that could help you with that spiritual mission. What would that community look like?

What would your role be in such a community? How can you be part of creating that community? How can we go from a vision to a reality? Pentecost is the time for dreaming daring visions--and then going out to bring them into being.

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