Can you tell the difference between a Christian and one who is not? We all have noticed how the name “Christian” has gotten a lot of bad press these days, especially since some people who call themselves Christian have been behaving in ways that are very un-Christian, … them with all the rigidness and intolerance (some of them are actually convinced a whole bunch of people they don’t especially like are going to hell), them with the know-it-all and holier-than-thou attitudes (they claim their tightness with Jesus makes them smarter than the rest of us), them with the preference for hatred and violence against their enemies and other undesirables even calling it patriotism (clearly Jesus himself instructed us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors, and to them that is clearly weak and un-American), them that have an obstinate dislike of all things fun and exciting (because somehow to them fun and exciting is the very definition of evil and sin), and that fringe group who were convinced the world was going to end because their leader had discovered in the bible God’s sure-fire formula for predicting Armageddon. Who wants to be associated with any of that?
The early followers of Jesus had learned directly from him what true discipleship entailed. If anyone was unsure of what he meant when he spoke, they can always look at how he behaved and how he lived. Jesus entrusted to his disciples not a set of rules and laws, but primarily a way of life that was to be always open to God’s plan and purpose. Some of his teachings would be challenging because they attempt to draw us away from our selfishness, our lack of gratitude, and our hardness of heart, away from what is not of God, to help us see what is honorable and true and good in ourselves, strengthening those who struggle, protecting the vulnerable, nourishing us for the long journey ahead, not for our own benefit alone, but also for the good of our neighbor, and the greater glory of God. So as Jesus bestowed upon his apostles the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, he assured them of his abiding presence in the days ahead, whenever they called on God together in prayer, whenever they broke open God’s Word in the scriptures, whenever they shared the One Bread and the One Cup in remembrance of him, and whenever they opened their hands, their hearts, and their homes to the poor, the hungry, the stranger, the unbeliever, the outcast, and the sinner.
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we read that familiar description of the church as a body with many parts, each functioning for the good of the whole. Each of the members of the body of Christ is given wonderful and unique gifts for the good of the community. Each of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus is a member of his body, and we have been entrusted a specific function and the necessary tools to carry out that function in the church and in the world. But many of the baptized are unaware that they have been sent to take part in this great work of redemption, that they have a specific role to play in God’s wonderful plan, that they have gifts, talents, and unique capabilities from God’s Spirit for the good of the church, the body of Christ. We must put those gifts to good use. And God will not be outdone in kindness and generosity.
But sometimes the message of Jesus gets lost in translation. If we are truly convinced that we possess a treasure beyond price – our faith, our friendship with God, our union with Jesus Christ and the members of his body the church – how is it we are unable to convince others who do not know God, who have turned their back on Jesus Christ, or who have given up on Christianity and the church? Mahatma Gandhi, the great proponent of non-violence in India at the time of the Indian independence movement, had a few things to say about Christianity that should make us stop and think. He once said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Gandhi was quite familiar with Jesus’ teachings, but the poor example of Jesus’ followers was a hindrance to his transformation. He also said, “If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the bible, all of India would be Christian today.” It’s a bit simplistic to think that is all it would take, but when we who call ourselves followers and disciples of Jesus Christ are not truly convinced of what we believe (and it will show in our actions and how we live our lives), we will certainly not convince those who have yet to hear the gospel, and those whose faith is shaky, and even less those who have closed their hearts and minds. Some of us have more enthusiasm and fire for our sports teams and our politics than for our faith. Really, we could use some of that enthusiasm and fire for the faith.
On this feast of Pentecost, we recall how a fearful band of uneducated women and men came out of hiding to proclaim for all the world to hear “the mighty acts of God.” They were intoxicated with the Spirit of God who came down upon them in rushing wind and blazing fire. Those who saw them were amazed at their conviction and their energy. We read how many in the crowd understood them, although they were from far-away places and spoke different languages. So the church today is gifted with the same Spirit of God who comes upon us in less dramatic fashion, not in rushing wind and blazing fire, but in the laying on of hands and the anointing with holy oil. But the manifestation of the Spirit’s presence is not any less significant. We are still proclaiming “the mighty acts of God,” sometimes using words in various languages, but hopefully more with our actions and our way of life which are a kind of language unto themselves, to draw closer to the heart and mind of Jesus the angry and the frustrated, the ambivalent and the resistant, the lost and the marginalized, the stubborn and the heartbroken, the violated, the burnout, the genuine seeker and the resolute unbeliever. We are given the task to speak “the mighty acts of God” to those who speak a different language, the language of the oppressed, the alienated, the isolated, the discouraged. But if we are without passion and fire, how will we convince them of what we know? How will we convince them of what we believe?
We often find most beyond our reach those who are dear to us, family members and friends who do not share or even reject our faith. But the work of speaking “the mighty acts of God” comes with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is not necessary that we speak about the Gospel at the start. That opportunity will come when God’s Spirit opens their minds and hearts as we tell of the wonders God has done in our lives. It might take years, but God’s Spirit is at work in ways we will never know. Yet we cannot sit on the gift of the Holy Spirit. We need to convince others around us, and perhaps convince ourselves first, that we possess a treasure beyond all others. Our conviction will be made known when we speak, and we can speak with words as well as with actions. The Holy Spirit comes in rushing wind and blazing fire. We cannot justify just sitting there and doing nothing.