The annual Feast of Pentecost sets the bar high for many of us. On this day there is a lot of excitement and running around. It is after all, the birthday of the church. And birthdays are special because they happen but once a year. Birthdays force us to pause, if only to look back upon the journey thus far, and ponder what we might learn for the future. But we also pause to celebrate who we are, who we have become, and who we are yet called to be. It is a time to embrace our present reality, the experiences that have shaped us, the bumps and bruises we have sustained, and the wisdom that has formed us. Birthdays also give us a chance to revisit our dreams, to see past what our senses grasp into what may still yet be. For as long as we can peer over the horizon, we can dream. And for as long as we can dream, we can hope in the fulfillment of an even more glorious tomorrow. Only those who have no hope for the future will also be without incentive to keep breathing or eating or moving. To what purpose would we be exerting energy if we are powerless to bring about any kind of advantage? Why seek to improve anything about ourselves or the world around us if those who come after us will never be able to tell the difference?
The account we read today from the Acts of the Apostles tells an amazing story of crippling fear and its wonderful transformation in wind and fire—rushing, driving wind and glorious, brilliant fire. The once timid band of Jesus’ closest friends spill out into the streets at midday speaking in the many languages of the human family, and people hear them proclaim the mighty acts of God. There is some confusion and turmoil in the unfolding of the story, and we are led to believe the mighty and creative Spirit of God resides in the chaos, and could even be the source of the chaos. No, they weren’t drunk this early in the day. True, it would have given them the courage and confidence they needed. But no. Instead, something even better was at work.
In contrast the account from John’s gospel has Jesus appearing to the same group in the evening of Easter day, showing them his hands and side, despite the horrendous death they had all witnessed. And with a gesture reminiscent of the story of creation, Jesus breathed on them and the Holy Spirit came upon them. We don’t get to see what happens next. Perhaps that’s where the Acts of the Apostles pick up the story. But in these accounts we witness the power and majesty of God bringing the church to birth.
2015 years later, give or take a few, here we are. I don’t know about you, but I would consider that an achievement. Yet the occasion invites some critical self-examination. Who are we? Who have we become? And who we are yet called to be? What are the experiences that have shaped us? What bumps and bruises have we sustained? What wisdom has formed us? And do we still dream? Or are we living off the dreams of generations past? Do we still long for days of fulfillment? Or have we grown tired and cynical and myopic?
The recent report on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” from the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life is a wake-up call. “Between 2007 and 2014, the Christian share of the [U.S.] population fell from 78.4% to 70.6%, driven mainly by declines among mainline Protestants [3.4%] and Catholics [3.1%]. The unaffiliated [describing themselves as atheist, agnostic, or ‘nothing in particular’] experienced the most growth [6.7%], and the share of Americans who belong to non-Christian faiths also increased [1.2%].” (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/) These surveys are highly subjective, with people responding to questions put before them. So we can’t really tell if people have the same basic understanding of what it means to belong or not belong to a religious group. And Catholics haven’t been counting accurately either, since we base our numbers on sacraments celebrated each year. It isn’t that the numbers tell the whole story. But we should be paying attention nonetheless. How we see the reality before us determines where we go from here.
Recently for instance, we have been planning for the future of our parish. Our church building has been around for 83+ years. And we hope our people are around for many more. Yes, we have grown over the years. We studied numbers taken from the U.S. Census, the Virginia Employment Commission, and the Demographics Research Group of the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. So we aren’t making this up. We have seen our numbers rise and fall with the jobs market and the movement of families. We have studied the numbers of baptisms, first communions, weddings, and funerals. There is the usual movement that accompanies the transfer of pastors, or the conducting of building and renovation projects. None of these make up the whole picture, of course. And we know members of our own family and neighbors who no longer come to church with us, or who go wherever for that matter. And sometimes our own connection is strained at worst or halfhearted at best. But the self-examination is still necessary. As Socrates puts it, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” We might celebrate birthdays with cake and ice cream, or not. But it is important to reflect deeper. We cannot plan on arriving anywhere if we have no idea where we are right now. And no amount of cake and ice cream will tell us.
So we need to reflect once more on what it really means to be church. I noticed a few weeks ago that through the Easter season we have reflected on images of the early community of Christians fending off persecution and doubt, and images of sheep and shepherd, and vine and branches. We know who Jesus is, and that we make up his body the church. But we don’t always stop to consider how we live as a community of believers: the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic community of believers, and what it means to be part of that community. “Love one another,” he tells us. But we seldom dig deep into what that love implies. Does that love require us to hold one another accountable in any way? We certainly don’t need cake and ice cream to help us focus. Rather, we need to look at our sisters and brothers with the heart of Jesus. Are we willing to acknowledge their hurt? Or do we disregard it as irrelevant? Do we listen when the gospel message challenges us? Or do we shut down and walk away? Do we seek new and creative solutions? Or do we just keep returning to old and tired ways of the past?
We can be truly powerful witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus Christ if only we are willing to share in his suffering, death, and resurrection. We can be such awesome bearers of the Spirit of God if we embrace the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Birthdays come once a year. Yet we are called to faithfulness every day when it’s easy and when it’s not.
Rolo B Castillo © 2015