Pentecost Sunday is one of the high days of the churches calendar. This is the day when the disciples received the Holy Spirit, or was that a few weeks ago? – John 20:22. Some people celebrate Pentecost Sunday as the birthday of the church, or did that happen earlier in Jesus ministry? – Matthew 16:17-19. I appreciate Pentecost because it is the only one of the ‘big three’ church celebrations which has no commercial overtones.
In past years I have celebrated with with churches filled with bright red balloons or decorated with scarlet banners and red flames hung from the ceiling. Or have been in large outdoor circuit services. Non of that this year thanks to Covid-19.
Much of the imagery of the gift of the Holy Spirit seem counter to our present situation – breath, wind, crowds – all would be frowned upon by our current lockdown instructions. But there is another side to the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Writing to the churches of Rome and Galatia Paul spoke of many different gifts from the Holy Spirit that could be used to build and maintain the church. Practical gifts such as preaching and teaching, but also the deeper gifts that bring a church together – love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
If Pentecost is, as we are fond of saying, the birthday of the Church, then what does it mean to be the Church? Paul’s exploration of gifts is worth probing. There are “varieties of gifts,” so there’s no one spirituality or service model for everybody. Many churches do “spiritual gifts” inventories, assessments of “strength finders” etc. so people can see what gifts they may have and thus find their path to service. All good: but I always wonder if we might be getting it backwards. Is it that God has made me a certain way, so that’s how I serve? Or do I stretch and learn to serve God more profoundly if I do what I’m not gifted at?
Does God use my strengths? Or my brokenness? Leonard Cohen’s “Everything has a crack in it, that’s how the light gets in,” and Ernest Hemingway’s “The world breaks everyone, and then some become strong in the broken places” come to mind. How do we unearth people’s gifts – all the people’s? I worry about the way churches and their groups are geared toward “marathoners,” people who will sign up for 35 week studies or 3 year weekly commitments. What about the “sprinter,” who get nervous over a 3 week commitment. And then what times of day do we have things? A young parent, or a surgeon, or a night nurse: how do we employ their gifts, and time?
Not surprisingly, in our culture, “difference” feels threatening. The Methodists seemingly struggle to get along with people who think or act differently. But difference is God’s good gift; difference is how we know God, not merely through the challenge of reconciliation, but even just hearing God’s voice. I love Hans Urs von Balthasar’s wisdom: “We cannot find the dimensions of Christ’s love other than in the community of the church, where the vocations and charisms* distributed by the Spirit are shared: each person must tell the others what special knowledge of the Lord has been shown to him. For no one can tread simultaneously all the paths of the love given to the saints: while one explores the heights, another experiences the depths and a third the breadth. No one is alone under the banner of the Spirit, the Son and the Father; only the whole Church is the Bride of Christ, and that only as a vessel shaped by him to receive his fullness.” (Hans Urs von Balthasar – ‘Does Jesus Know Us? Do We Know Him?’ – Ignatus Press, 1986)(*Spiritual gifts)
As we begin to contemplate what life will be like as we come out of lockdown perhaps we can reflect on the gifts the Holy Spirit has given us and how we might use them to build our church once again.
God bless and stay safe,