(Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15)
Last week, on Pentecost Sunday, we explored how speaking the same language and not speaking the same language influence our relationships. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples gathered together, God erased the barrier of language differences and allowed each person present to hear the disciples glorifying God in each person’s language. Thereby, God created unity in the midst of diversity and enabled an experience of community and communion among people from all over the known world. It was a miracle, a miracle that reveals to us God’s intention for the mission of the Church: The Church is to bring unity out of diversity and, in this way, enable an experience of community and communion among people who are different for all sorts of reasons.
The Church, by its very nature, speaks a different language than the culture-at-large. Regardless of where any particular church is located, its message will be different than the messages of the culture around it. As the saying goes, the Church and its members are “in the world but not of the world.” We are citizens of heaven who are living on Earth. We are immigrants, so to speak, and we speak a different language than our culture.
This is true throughout the history of the Church, but it is even truer at this time in history for us in the Western world. The time of Christendom in Western civilization has ended. “Christendom” is described as “the medieval and early modern period, during which the Christian world represented a geopolitical power juxtaposed [against non-Christian religions and philosophies.] In other words, during Christendom, Christianity held political power. Alongside kings and emperors, it ruled countries and large areas of the world. It had armies. It killed and conquered. It accumulated wealth. It was a political entity.
It was the Baptists who ended the marriage of politics and Christianity when Roger Williams, the founder of Baptists in America, insisted on the separation of church and state when founding Providence, RI. A quote from a Smithsonian article titled, “God, Government, and Roger Williams’ Big Idea,” states, “Williams believed that preventing error in religion was impossible, for it required people to interpret God’s law, and people would inevitably err. He therefore concluded that government must remove itself from anything that touched upon human beings’ relationship with God. A society built on the principles Massachusetts espoused would lead at best to hypocrisy, because forced worship, he wrote, ‘stincks in God’s nostrils.’ At worst, such a society would lead to a foul corruption—not of the state, which was already corrupt, but of the church. . . .” Eventually, the separation of church and state and the freedom of religious expression became part of the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; . .”.
Even so, Christianity remained the primary and dominant religion in the USA. Social norms and pressures reflected this. If you wanted to be considered an upstanding citizen, you better be a member in good standing in your local church, which meant that you attended church regularly and served on boards and committees. Even if you didn’t believe what you heard in church and didn’t enjoy being there, you did it, anyway, if you wanted to be respected in your community. Church was woven into the fabric of society. It provided worship, fellowship, Bible study, involvement in good works, and entertainment, in a society where not much else was going on. There was nothing to do on Sunday, anyway. Everything but church was closed!
All of this began to change in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Since then, our country has gotten progressively more multicultural and secular. Sunday is no longer a Sabbath day for the culture-at-large. As a Christian mother of growing children, I am faced with this on a regular basis. My children want to participate in the normal things children growing up in suburban America do – like sports, arts, sleepovers, and birthday parties – but many of these things take place on Sunday mornings. I am faced with either letting them do these things and not attend church, or with not letting them do these things and attend church. I don’t want to prevent them from doing the normal things children do, but I also want them to be formed in the Christian faith! What we end up doing is a bit of both. Earlier generations didn’t face this choice: There were no activities on Sunday mornings because the majority of people were at church!
Even so, I’m glad that our country and society is multicultural. I support the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state for which Roger Williams risked his life and, eventually, became part of our Constitution. When the Holy Spirit descended on the Church with a mighty wind and tongues of fire on the day of Pentecost, God didn’t make everyone learn the same language; instead, He enabled everyone to hear what was being proclaimed in his or her own language! God didn’t force people to change to make it easier for the disciples; he changed the way the disciples communicated so that it would be easier for the people to understand! The implication is that Christians are not to force everyone to be like us so that it’s easier for us to communicate; instead, we disciples are to work harder so that it’s easier for others to understand!
Being the Church today is harder than it was when most of us were growing up. Society is no longer set up to support the way we do church. We are immigrants from heaven who are in the world but not of the world in a time when the world is making our immigrant status very clear. Although this fact may make us sad, or angry, or anxious, or worried, or frustrated, it is the way it is. Jesus didn’t say it was going to be easy to follow him. As a matter of fact, he said, “Take up your cross and come, follow me” (Mt 16:24; Lk 9:23). And, Paul, in today’s reading, states, “[W]e also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Rom 5:3-4). We who have experienced the love of God in Jesus Christ are confident that God is alive and active in the world through the Holy Spirit!
Which brings us to the GOOD NEWS: God does not leave us alone in our plight! Jesus assured his disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (Jn 16:13). We are never the Church alone. God is always with us. The Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth and will declare to us the things that are to come. Yes, as the Church, we are in a wilderness right now. We know that the way we have done church doesn’t fit in our culture as it is today, but we don’t how we are to do it differently – yet. We don’t know how to do it differently yet, but we will, because the Spirit will lead us into all truth and will declare to us the things that are to come!
Trusting in this, I believe we must accept our culture as it is and continually turn to God for guidance regarding how to be the Church in our time and place. Rather than whining and complaining about how it is, let’s ask God how WE, as the Church, should be. We are the servant church of the servant Christ, so how can we serve the world today? What does the world need from us? Specifically, what does Canton and the surrounding area need from us?
I believe we need to really tune into the Spirit. We are not to maniacally try to “fix” the situation. Instead, we are to attend to the Spirit. If we act out of fear, then we will be spinning our wheels, responding to our own anxiety and running around like a chicken with its head cut off! We must act out of faith, trusting that the way will be made clear. At the same time, we must be willing to be flexible, to change if need be, to do church differently if that is what God requires of us. Last evening, my daily devotional reading confirmed the faith versus fear response. I read,
“I, the Creator of the universe, am with you and for you. What more could you need? When you feel some lack, it is because you are not connecting with Me at a deep level. I offer abundant Life; your part is to trust Me, refusing to worry about anything.
It is not so much adverse events that make you anxious as it is your thoughts about those events. Your mind engages in efforts to take control of a situation, to bring about the result you desire. Your thoughts close in on the problem like ravenous wolves. Determined to make things go your way, you forget that I am in charge of your life. The only remedy is to switch your focus from the problem to My Presence. Stop all your striving, and watch to see wht I will do. I am the Lord!”
We can begin the process of seeking the inspiration and guidance of the Spirit, by stating what is essential to being the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ in the world, first and foremost. Jesus states in the gospel reading for today that the Holy Spirit will glorify him (Jn 5:4). We exist, then, to glorify Jesus. We glorify Jesus in many ways. We glorify him when we gather together, for where two or three are gathered in his name, there he is (worship and fellowship). We glorify him when we tell the “old, old story,” as the hymn says, and share the good news (teaching and evangelism). We glorify him when we meet people’s needs, for what we do to the least of these we do to him (ministry and mission). We glorify him when we work for justice, for we are to seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness (ministry and mission). Of course, all of these things must be done with love and in loving ways because, essentially, we glorify him only when we do things with love, for that is the new commandment Jesus gave to his disciples at the Last Supper: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn 13:34-35).
So, the ways in which we glorify Jesus with love are: worship and fellowship; teaching and evangelism; and ministry and mission. We are doing all of those things now, but we are doing them in ways that may not be working in our world today. Perhaps we need to be attentive to new ways of doing what we do already. Could we worship on a different day or at a different time? Can we provide opportunities for fellowship on different days and at different times? Are there ways that we can do ministry and mission in our community that we are not doing now? It’s possible that we are to stay very close to what we are doing now and how we are doing those things now. I don’t know. I don’t know because the Holy Spirit hasn’t revealed the way forward to me yet! Has the Holy Spirit revealed it to you? Will you, please, be in prayer about the future of the Church and this church? Will you, please, ask the Holy Spirit to guide us and lead us forward?
We are immigrants in our world and we speak a different language. Sometimes that language has jived with our culture more easily than it does today. Right now, it does not. The task for Christians in the USA today is to work harder to communicate and be in relationship with our world than we have in the recent past. What that harder work will be, we don’t know at this time. But let us trust that we WILL know when the time is right. Let us be in communion with the Holy Spirit, whose job it is to glorify Jesus by inspiring and guiding us. Come, Holy Spirit, come: We await you. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, May 22, 2016, Trinity Sunday.
The image above is from https://godandpoliticsuk.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/future-church.jpg
 Young, Sarah. Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence. Thomas Nelson: Nashville, TN, 2004, 148.