It’s always interesting when someone feels the need to tell me that they don’t feel like they need to go to church to be a Christian. It’s usually followed by statements like feeling the presence of God on a walk, or at the beach, in a beautiful sunset, or in the quiet of the morning.
I really don’t know what they are hoping my response will be. Given my vocation, I bring a bit of bias to the topic. I think being an active part of the church, the community of faith is crucial. And here’s why. Pentecost and Babel. We, of course, have been recounting the story of Pentecost this morning. All those folk from all those different places speaking all their different languages were hearing the same thing. The tower of Babel was being undone.
Do you remember the story of Babel? You find it in Genesis 11. “At one time, the whole Earth spoke the same language. It so happened that as they moved out of the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled down. They said to one another, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and fire them well.’ They used brick for stone and tar for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower that reaches Heaven. Let’s make ourselves famous so we won’t be scattered here and there across the Earth.’”The story goes on, of course, to recount God giving them different languages so they couldn’t understand each other and complete this tower to heaven.
The Tower of Babel was meant to be a curse, but we have turned it into a virtue. The history of humankind to this very day is that we cling to our separations from each other. We divide into clans and tribes and nations, and find all manner of ways to remain separate from each other, including hating and killing each other.
Babel, though, is undone on the Day of Pentecost. Suddenly everyone Medes and Cretans alike understands what these Galileans are saying, hearing their praises of God. They are learning something about God they never expected to learn from such people.
It’s not only the language barrier that was coming down, though. Remember on that day of Pentecost the men and women who followed Jesus were together in that room when the Holy Spirit came upon them. It wasn’t just the men. And when Peter recalls that prophecy from Joel about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, he talks about the sons and daughters prophesying, the old and the young seeing visions and dreaming dreams. “When the time comes, I’ll pour out my Spirit on those who serve me, men and women both, and they’ll prophesy.”
Pentecost is moving us out of our Babel comfort zone and taking us to a new place where we hear God in the languages of others. And it is not an easy place to go.
It wasn’t easy for the disciples who were there when the Tower of Babel came crashing down. They argued hard and long with each other about whether that ultimate separation in their part of the world could or should be bridged, the separation between Jew and Gentile. That argument is all over the book of Acts. But the Holy Spirit continued to lead them to a new place. We get an example in Acts 10 where Peter says to this group of Gentiles the Holy Spirit has just led him to, “You know, I’m sure, that this is highly irregular. Jews just don’t do this—visit and relax with people of another race. But God has just shown me that no race is better than any other.”
To see Babel undone. That’s why we need to go to church to be a Christian. When those first spirit filled followers hit the streets of Jerusalem they were looking to build a new community, a new way of living with each other in this world that would bear witness to the Jesus who was alive again. You can only build the new community of Jesus Christ with other people. Community building is a group activity.
That doesn’t negate the value of the contemplative life away from the crowds. Time alone with God is good. We need to be in touch with those places on the inside where the Holy Spirit is at work bringing healing and insight and drawing us closer to Jesus. Mary has been pointing out of late that it would be good for us to explore more of the contemplative life in this town.
We need to do that inner work for the healing it brings. But we also need the healing community of Jesus. And others need the healing we bring to that community. People need us to help them find Jesus.
We surely can find the presence of God in a special way on the beach, or alone at home. But the presence of Jeus is also found in each other.
This idea of Christianity on my own, without having to hear the languages of others is very, very appealing in this Babel mesmerized world of ours. Have you seen that old Peter, Paul, and Mary concert on TV where Paul Stookey talks about how first there was People magazine, and then Us? That’s the story of Babel right there. He wonders why we don’t just cut to the chase and have a magazine called Me.
Why should I bother to hear what others are saying when I can figure it out for myself? We’ve always been taught we are in this on our own. It is the most conservative of viewpoints I can imagine. But it has become a substitute for the gospel truth for a whole lot of progressives.
If we are going to build this new community of Jesus there is no other way to build it except with each other and all our different voices. It takes, as we read in 1 Peter, ‘living stones.’ And that can’t be accomplished by those who see themselves as Christians but unrelated to the church. To not be a part of the church is to not be a part of each other.
It’s so clear in that very first church we read about at the end of Acts 2. This new community of Jesus followers worshiped together. They prayed with and for each other. They shared meals and bank accounts with each other. They realized their spiritual growth was dependent on one another. Being a part of the community wasn’t a nice option, but essential to their own spirituality. They knew they needed each other if they were going to figure out what it means to follow Jesus. They each had something to bring that others needed.
Obviously, there are issues we have to confront. People who are trying to do the solo Christian thing often, but far from always, have good reason to do so. They haven’t found the church a place where people are interested in building a new community of Jesus Christ. Churches have often been the greatest defenders of the Babel status quo, baptizing our separations, animosities, nationalism, hatred and wars in the name of Christ.
People are rejected all the time by the church because of their marital status, sexual orientation, gender, economic status, race, national background, previous religious affiliations or lack thereof, or for a number of other reasons.
That is not the church that Pentecost envisions. And it’s easy to understand why doing the Christian thing alone seems preferable to much of what passes for church these days. But our call is to build the church of Jesus Christ. It wasn’t easy for the first followers of Jesus, and it’s not for us. Babel is in our DNA.
It’s not, at all, impossible, though. It takes our work and commitment, and a healthy dose of the Holy Spirit. But there is a new world, modeled after the Risen Jesus Christ, for us to build. It’s not the failings of Pentecost that ought to cloud our vision, it’s the possibilities Pentecost offers that draw us forward. When we hear God in each other’s voices, we get a chance to build something. It’s not a tower that gets us to heaven, but a community that gets heaven to us.
Now you might be wondering why on a Sunday morning, of all times, when the regulars are here I would talk about the need to be here with each other. I guess there are a couple of reasons. First is that this is commencement weekend when we are always saying good-bye to somebody. Today it’s Melissa and Liz. Nobody comes to this place, to this church, without leaving a part of themselves with us when they leave. That’s what community means. I simply want to encourage them to remember as they go on to all the places they go, that they have something to bring to the community of faith. Not to mention what they will receive. There’s always church to be built and the church needs folk like them to help build it.
And when people are graduating, it gets us all thinking about the possibilities for the future. We wonder what is going to unfold for these four folk, as they mark an important milestone in their lives.
And Pentecost is a time for us to be thinking about the future. It’s one of the markers that remind us why we are here, and why we have done all this work we have done. We are the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. God is creating something in this place, and we get to be a part of it.
There are easier things to do than build the church. If we could all do this on our own, build our own personal churches, find our own enlightenment it would save us lots of time and aggravation.
But look how Jesus did it. He didn’t simply head for the mountains so he could figure out this thing by himself, find God by himself. He spent time in the wilderness for sure, but he built this community of men and women and said let’s find God together. And they did. And we still are finding God with each other.
So, yes I think Christians need to be in church. We need to be with and for each other. We need to receive and give, teach and learn, help each other follow Jesus Christ. We need to pray for and with each other. We need to eat together. We need to encourage each other in the ways of Jesus. We need to watch Babel come crashing down with each other. We need to do Pentecost with each other all the time. We need to glory in all the wonderful things we hear in each others’ languages about the work of God in our lives and this world.
Like commencement, Pentecost reminds us is there is always something new beginning for the church that we get to be a part of. There is a new community of Jesus Christ we are always becoming. And it only happens with each other. What an amazing gift we are to each other.