“Happy Birthday Church”
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 4, 2017
Our Christian calendar recognizes three major festivals—Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Generally speaking, the church does a fine job celebrating Christmas and Easter, but Pentecost, now that’s another matter. For Christians, Pentecost marks the day that the Holy Spirit descends upon the followers of Jesus and the church is born. Yet, for all its significance, for all its magnificence, for the majority of the church in this great land of ours, Pentecost hardly gets any attention at all. Seriously, have you ever been to a Pentecost production or a Pentecost cantata? But then again, on this day that is such a remarkable part of our faith story, do we expect anything remarkable?
Before his Ascension, Jesus tells those gathered around him, “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”[i] They pray and they wait. The next move is God’s. Then when the day of Pentecost comes, they are all together in one place when suddenly from heaven there comes a rush of a violent wind and divided tongues, as of fire, rest upon each of them.
In his book, The Source of Life, Jurgen Moltmann writes that Jesus, who was sent by the Holy Spirit, now becomes the Sender of the Holy Spirit—who is the source of life and brings life into the world—whole life, transformed life, everlasting life. The mission of the Holy Spirit is the mission of new life.[ii] Peter gets a new life. The Peter who, after Jesus’ arrest, follows at a safe distance, now stands at the head of the pack. The Peter, who three times could not find the words to admit he even knew Jesus, now raises his voice and proclaims the gospel boldly.
The first gift of the Spirit at Pentecost is proclamation and Peter boldly proclaims that this was foretold in Scripture, that Jesus is the Messiah, and that God has sent the empowering Holy Spirit to continue God’s work in the world for all people. Peter may have failed miserably in the past and there will be mistakes in his future—such is life—but with the coming of God’s Holy Spirit, Peter is transformed. Ultimately, Peter becomes what Jesus says he is—Peter becomes the Rock! And the Rock will be silent no more. The Rock will open his mouth and proclaim the gospel message for all to hear.
With Christ’s Spirit within us, among us, around us—what do we proclaim? Through words (written or spoken), through art, through music, through other creative outlets, through service and acts of love—do we proclaim the good news that Christ’s Spirit has been set free upon the earth? Do we live with a sense of hope and joy because God has once again taken on flesh and lives among us? The Holy Spirit brings life into the world—whole life, transformed life, everlasting life. The mission of the Spirit is the mission of new life[iii] —no longer based on age, gender, or nationality. New life for all! And, that my dear sisters and brothers—that is cause to celebrate.
Ann Weems, a Presbyterian poet, noted writer, speaker, and worship leader, died last year at the age of 81. A woman of profound faith, through poetry and stories, she proclaimed to the world the need to celebrate God’s love on Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and all the days in between. I invite you to listen to one of her marvelous stories, entitled, “Happy Birthday Church!” [iv]
There once was a church that had only party rooms: the Session’s Party Room, the Music Party Room, the Feasting Party Room, the Do Justice Party Room, the Love Mercy Party Room, the Touch Lepers Party Room. In the center of the building was a large round room with an altar and a cross: God’s Party Room.
There was in the church an air of festivity and brightness that could not be denied. The people outside the church pointed their fingers and shook their heads: “Something should be done about that church.” They were especially upset when they saw that the members wore party hats and smiles both inside and outside the church. Other congregations came to take a look and were shocked when they saw this church having so much fun during a worship service…
“Sacrilegious,” screamed the crowd. But the people in the church just smiled at them and went right on doing things like taking people in wheelchairs to the park and playing ball with them. …For the poor, this church bought pizza and marched right into dingy, dirty, paint-peeling apartments and sat down to eat with the tenants.
They held picnics for the old folks home, and old men ran races while the congregation stamped their feet in applause. It was at one of these picnics that some of the members climbed up on the roof and shouted: “Good news!”
“Now we can get them for disturbing the peace,” said one of the outsiders. The police arrived with sirens, ready for the arrest, and came out two hours later wearing party hats and smiles.
One Sunday afternoon, the entire congregation met at the jail and passed out flowers to the prisoners. The following week after bread and wine and much [joy] at the Lord’s table, the people went to the hospital and asked to see the dying patients. They held their hands and mopped their brows and spoke to them of life.
“Disgraceful!” shouted the crowd. “They must be stopped.” So the crowd appealed to the governing body of the denomination, and this committee of respected church people went to see for themselves.
“Do you deny the charges of heresy?” asked the committee. “Do you deny that you’ve mocked the church and the Lord?” The people of the church looked into the stern red faces and smiled at them. They held out their hands to the committee and led them to the Birthday Cake Party Room. There on a table sat a large cake decorated beautifully in doves descending and red flames and words that read: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHURCH! The people began cutting cake and blowing up balloons and handing out party hats to the committee members.
“Wait! Wait!” cried the chairperson. “Can’t you take anything seriously?”
“Yes,” said the people. “We take our commitment to the Lord very seriously indeed.”
“You don’t take it seriously at all,” interrupted the chairperson in loud voice and red face. “You have parties and wear silly hats and blow up balloons and sing and dance and have fun. Do you call that commitment?”
The people smiled at the chairperson and asked him if he’d like a glass of wine. The chairperson hit his fist on the table. “I don’t want wine, and I don’t want birthday cake. We’re here to reprimand you. We’re here to show you that you’re wrong. Can’t you be serious?”
“We are,” said the people. “We’re asking you to take communion with us.”
“Outrageous!” [Screamed the chairperson.]
“Outrageous? [Said the people] “We ask you to sit at our table and sup with us. God gave the Holy Spirit to believers, and that is something to celebrate! It’s an occasion for a party. We are celebrants of the gift of Life. We are community. We are God’s church. Why are your faces red when we are trying to do justice and love mercy? Why do you shake your fists at us when we are trying to discover the hurting and begin the healing?
We are overjoyed that we can be the church, a community of people, who are many, yet one—who are different, but who walk together and welcome any who would walk with us. When we weep there is someone to weep with us and to affirm us and to take us to a party. When we see injustices, we must be about God’s business of freeing the oppressed. When we are faithless, we have God’s promise of forgiveness. Isn’t it remarkable that we can be God’s good news? Is it any wonder we have a church full of party rooms? There is so much love to celebrate!”
The committee stared at the people, and the people moved closer to them and put their arms around them. The committee chairperson stepped up to the table and sliced a piece of birthday cake, took a bite, and laughed out loud. He began slicing and passing it out… [Then the chairperson] raised his glass and said, “There is so much Love to celebrate! Happy Birthday, Church!”
And all God’s people said, “Amen!” Abundant power is ours! Abundant joy is ours! The Spirit is among us and in us. So let us celebrate and sing “Happy Birthday” to Christ’s Church!
[i] Luke 24:49
[ii] Jurgen Moltmann, The Source of Life, 19-20.
[iii] Jurgen Moltmann, The Source of Life, 19-20.
[iv] copyright 1980 by Ann Weems