With all the hub-bub and holiday bling associated with Christmas and Easter, it’s easy for other church festivals to get left behind. Think about it: between Christmas and Easter we have Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday… none of these have really worked their way into our culture’s consciousness the way Christmas and Easter have. Then there’s this “second round” of festivals between Easter and Christmas, festivals that focus on the life of the Church: Pentecost, Holy Trinity, Holy Cross, Reformation, All Saints and Christ the King. If you talk to someone who doesn’t attend church regularly (or attends a non-denominational or non-liturgical congregation), chances are they’ve never even heard of these seemingly second fiddle celebrations. And yet, each one tells a significant story in the unfolding drama of the Church year calendar.
Perhaps these important days are so overlooked because their stories are so difficult to tell. Everyone can understand Christmas, right? A baby is born. That’s not hard to figure out. So what if he happens to be Son of God and born of a virgin, destined to die for the sins of all humanity, rise from the dead, and ascend to heaven to rule the universe? We don’t have to worry about all that as long as we keep him in the manger. Easter isn’t too bad either, but too many people focus more on rabbits and candy than the actual meaning of an empty tomb and Risen Savior.
But what about Pentecost? What do we say to the world when we tell the story of Pentecost? Who can blame people for shaking their heads at what sounds like a tale of an invisible tornado and people catching fire? Which of us has ever been in a crowd of thousands where everyone starts speaking and communicating in other languages? What do we say about a day in history when the main event was something supernatural?
The coming of God’s Spirit upon God’s people, Pentecost was the opening of a door, the meeting and melding of minds and hearts, the spontaneously combustible constituting convention of the holy catholic Church. Every bit as much a work of God as the birthday of Jesus and the rolling of the stone, Pentecost was the moment it all led up to, the day it all came together. What we do on Sunday mornings or whenever we come together as Christians, what stirs in our hearts when we pray, and what guides us in faith each and every day… these are all results of what happened so gloriously and unexpectedly on Pentecost. In fact, our whole life in Christ is a continuous unfolding of Pentecost and a continual outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
We see it and celebrate it in ways that may seem tame at first glance. The gifts of the holy Spirit are, for the most part, unspectacular. So are fireworks, before you light them. Several places in scripture, we are given example lists of these gifts. “There are,” St. Paul tells us, “varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit…to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues…” (1 Corinthians 12). Elsewhere, he says “we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy in proportion to faith; ministry in ministering; the teacher in teaching; the exhorter in exhortation; the giver in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate in cheerfulness” (Romans 12: 6-8). These gifts can look like everyday talents, but what the Spirit does is fit them together so that we all become part of something so much bigger than ourselves, we are set aflame and, as Jesus put it, “our lights shine before others” (Matthew 5:16).
Pentecost is what lights our lights. Dreaming dreams and seeing visions, being enthusiastic architects of a better world is now the business of every Christian. These different gifts work in different ways, but always for the purpose of bringing God’s healing and love into more of the world. We learn from Pentecost that ministry about working together. We are all connected, all part of the body of Christ. We all need each other to function at our best. In the church, we strive to give everyone a part, not just so we share the load but also to find a place for each particular gift. We enrich our congregation and build community by helping more people get involved in fellowship, worship, and service. That could mean thinking outside the box when it comes to the ministries we do. Even if we’re covering all the bases, if there are new people who want to be in on the game, maybe it’s time to change the game and add more bases. No matter what, we try to do each ministry with a “servant’s heart,” sensitive that we are part of a larger team working for the good of the whole.
As usual this Pentecost, we celebrated our confirmation ministry at Atonement. The four young people in confirmation each shared a presentation using the gifts God gave them to tell the story of their faith. Joshua Diemer presented a powerpoint he called “The Church as a Team.” He showed that the different roles and tasks in our congregation are similar to roles you’d find on a sports team, with a leader (pastor), coach (God), ball carriers (volunteers), medics (helping ministries), and even announcers (powerpoint makers), and fans (everyone who goes out and spreads the Word). Nicholas Trejo spoke about ways the Church has changed and adapted over time, taking new shapes and forms and using new technologies. He pointed out that having a Bible app is a revolutionary new thing, but so was the Gutenberg Bible and being able to read Scripture in your own language. Z’Leah Liburd sang a moving song that included the words “I give myself away (so You can use me).” Accompanying the song was a slide show of pictures that depicted her volunteer work in the church, and other achievements she has made despite being visually impaired. Alex Rivera-Matos, the one being confirmed that day, talked about the way his faith shapes and influences his own personal life. He shared ways that music, prayer, and sports shape his own priorities and relationships, and helps him feel closer to God.
How wonderful to see young people living out their faith with enthusiasm and creativity. Clearly, they get it! Several people stopped me on the way out of church that morning, telling me how impressed they were with these young people, and how clear it was that God’s Spirit was at work in, on, and through each of them. One person told me, “These kids have a lot to teach our whole congregation.” Let’s learn a lesson from them, and stay fired up for God this summer!