Called to be lifers

by Doug Johnson

Text: Acts 2:1-4

Retired ministers rarely surrender their interest in the Church. Servants of Christ who have stepped away from active, professional ministry rarely shut the door on that to which they’ve given themselves for years. Church talk, church life, church growth, even church politics live on in a minister’s mind. Early in my ministry I was approached by a similarly young Baptist pastor in Santa Cruz, California. He wanted to meet for breakfast. A date was set to meet at a local watering hole. Without much delay he posed this question to me: “Are you a lifer?” Having never been asked that question my momentary pause gave him the opportunity to answer for himself. “I’m a lifer,” he said. “I intend to stay at my congregation for my entire ministry.”

I took another gulp of coffee thinking to myself, “I’ve never met such a presumptuous pastor. How can he declare that he’s going to stay put, abide, endure, suffer long, hang on even by his fingernails in this one church for an entire career?”

My answer was couched differently. “I’m likely here for some years, but honestly, I really doubt I’ll be here for the long haul. I cannot testify to being a lifer.” My breakfast partner seemed to swallow my logic. We finished a cordial breakfast, wished each other well and talked about meeting again, something which never hit the appointment calendar. Oh, did I mention he was gone in a year and a half!

My point is this: when it comes to the church, I am a lifer. Not because it’s my church but because it’s Christ’s Church; not because any clergy can command the Church, but because it’s God’s Church. I am a lifer because Jesus birthed the Church through the Holy Spirit. And, by the power of God’s Spirit all in Christ are reborn to be lifers in Christ’s Church. As we know, God’s Church is a human Church. Her failings are many. Any frustration, any anger at the Church cannot be lightly dismissed. In a recent article of The Atlantic Monthly, a former Catholic priest writes about the rampant sexual abuse against children within the ranks of priests and nuns. He’s calling for the dismantling of the priesthood! There are many sad chapters in the history of the Church which have painfully bold chapter headings: The Church and Slavery; the Church and Racial and Ethnic Discrimination; The Church and War; The Church and Silence – her silence in the face of injustice and exclusionary practices, past and present. And much of it has been justified with the use and misuse of scripture! How is it that God’s Church can build a silent consensus of hate toward other human beings while her Lord lives and commands love?

How is it that God’s Church can coddle a nationalism sprinkled with Gospel truth? God’s Kingdom does not advance with sabers rattling or by taunting immigrant populations. Truth marches to the footsteps of Jesus. Nothing else can claim the blessing of the Spirit. The living word of God declares mercy and love with fresh wind and power. It is not of the Spirit if the Church further alienates those who are estranged from the body in the name of Jesus Christ.

Yet, in spite of her tragic history and failings we are called to be lifers. The Holy Spirit grafts us into the Vine, the Body of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit moves among us and within us calling us to wrestle with what it means to love Jesus and to love others to the glory of God today. What does the catechism affirm? “The Holy Spirit is God everywhere present and powerful, working in us, in the church, and in the world.” We are lifers because the Spirit of the living God has lovingly found a home in our hearts. We are lifers because the Spirit of Jesus, who is the Holy Spirit, calls us never to slam the door of the Church on anyone. We are lifers because the Holy Spirit greases the ancient hinges of that open door today, enabling it to swing wide to the world and announce a love beyond our telling.

In Acts 2 when God’s chosen holy day for wind and flame and power came, God not only birthed the Church, but the promise of the Father was also fulfilled. In his gospel Luke had already tipped his hat, recording Jesus saying, “I am going to send you what my Father has promised…” (24:49). In other words, God’s Incarnation, God taking on our flesh in the ministry of Jesus, his death, even his resurrection was not the completion of the promise. The promise of the Father did not end with the empty tomb. Yes, resurrection declares the final enemy, death, as dead. Trounced. Finished. Episcopalians capture this well in prayers following Easter: “we’ve been raised with Christ, who has trampled down death by death, and has bestowed upon those in the tomb life eternal.”

Mennonite professor, Norman Kraus, gives us eyes to understand what happened at Pentecost with these theatrical images: “The drama of Incarnation does not conclude with a final act that neatly wraps up the loose ends of the story and draws the curtain. Rather it ends with an open future for those involved. Pentecost is a commencement in the same sense that we use the word to describe a graduation. It is simultaneously climax and beginning.”

Pentecost was not a settling of the dust at the tomb of Jesus where the stone was rolled away. Not at all. Pentecost declares an open future for the work of God. Its wind and fire breathes into the Church an open future, a life-affirming future for all the people of the world: the bruised and battered, the drug addicted the propagators of violence, the greedy and cheating, the marginalized and the trampled down, and any others who think that they must clean up their lives, or pretend an identity other than who they are before tasting the grace of Jesus and joining the new community of the Spirit. The Spirit does not bring the curtain down on the story of Jesus. Rather, the Spirit blows the curtain wide open to the world. What is seen on stage is Jesus loving all manner of people. Is the church timid about Pentecost? Does the church give Pentecost a yawn or a yes?

Returning to Luke’s exacting language in these verses, this fulfillment of the Father’s promise has the apostles “all together in one place.” Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus had given them instruction: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised […] John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” An accurate translation of Jesus’ instruction to the apostles is “Sit tight.” Sit tight for the blessing. Sit tight for the power. Sit tight for but a few days to discover the fulfillment of God’s plan.

But how hard waiting can be! What does it mean to wait upon the Spirit of God today? For your church? For my church, First Covenant, Minneapolis? And, for the wider Covenant Church?

The suddenness of a violent wind filing the house signaled the mystery of the work and ways of God. That wind-blown assembly would carry the Jesus story beyond Jerusalem. That tattered, yet awakened community, would inspire the world with an abundant love, a sacrificing love, an undeserved love that doesn’t give up on anybody. Why? Because the Spirit calls the Church to retell the story of Jesus and live the story of Jesus. The Spirit of God energizes the church to keep telling the story of Jesus because he and he alone is our Center, our Hope, our Life and our Salvation. As the ages run the Church is not to be telling those who love him and who seek him who they can and cannot love. The Church is not to be slamming doors which the Spirit declares cannot be shut.

Rachel Evans, a Christian author who died in her thirties not long ago, wrote, “The church is not a group of people who believe all the same things; the church is a group of people caught up in the same story, with Jesus at the center.” She opens the Bible reverently, but unafraid to call out passages that Christians use as weapons against others, against other churches, and against other denominations. She writes, “Like it or not the Gospel is a story unleashed. Even Jesus had trouble keeping a lid on it… Don’t tell a soul what I’ve done, but off they go! Sometimes those gospel stories step on your toes. Sometimes they challenge or annoy. Sometimes they force you confront your privilege, your pride, or your lack of imagination for just how reckless and wild and indiscriminate the Holy Spirit can be” (p. 155, Inspired).

My heart resonates with Rachel Evan’s testimony: “I am a Christian because the story of Jesus is still the story I’m willing to risk being wrong about.” I believe the Spirit is speaking to the Covenant Church in these tumultuous days. Our love for one another in the face of disagreement is being tested; our cherished freedom in Christ is being squeezed; Jesus’ call to love, welcome and serve all people is being muted. Jesus put no asterisks next to some groups of people, ruling them disqualified for grace. Today, the Spirit calls the church to tell and live the story of Jesus’ love, Jesus’ welcome, and Jesus’ grace without restriction. That’s how the Kingdom of God flourishes.

This sermon was given in June 2019.