On the occasion of Pentecost the church invites us to reflect upon the origin and meaning of the church itself. It is this Sunday we set aside to commemorate the outpouring of the Holy Ghost upon the disciples in Jerusalem, the beginning of a worldwide movement to make known the mighty works of God, most especially the works done by the Father through his only begotten Son Jesus Christ, who at this historical moment has been crucified, raised, and now ascended back to the right hand of his Father.
Given that our church has been unrecognizable for the last year, and given that we are just now beginning to see our way to the end of this dystopian nightmare, what better time is there to refresh ourselves on the fundamentals of what the church even is?
The church has its proper beginning with the outpouring of the Holy Ghost, an event promised by Christ himself to his disciples, as recorded in today’s reading from the Gospel of John. Because Jesus is going back to the Father, he will appeal to the Father to send the Holy Ghost to dwell within anyone who loves Jesus, believes in him, and keeps his commandments.
That promise is made good ten days after Jesus ascends to the Father, and the Holy Ghost comes upon those same disciples.
Devout Jews from all over the world have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Weeks, the festival that commemorates the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. At that time God appeared to his people in a display of great power, attended by thunder and lightning on the darkened mount, and made his will for human life and behavior known. Pentecost is a new appearance of God to his people, once more attended by a great noise and fire from heaven, and once more he makes his will for human life and behavior known by uniting the faithful in a new society. This society is the church, and it transcends the national differences and divisions of languages among its members. This is the first work of the Holy Ghost, to call the faithful together into a new unity.
Thomas Aquinas argues that each of the persons of the Holy Trinity has a proper name: The proper name of the Father is of course “Father;” the Son he says can be properly called the “Word” or “Image” because the Son is the perfect word or image of the Father; while the proper name of the Holy Ghost is “Love” or “Gift.” Aquinas argues that both names are appropriate because we give a gift to someone we love simply because we love them and want to show our love by giving a gift. Because God loves us, he gives us the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Because the Holy Ghost animates the church and has done so since the first Pentecost, the church is also a gift.
I have just said that the church is a collection of persons, a new society, and so it is, but it is first and foremost a gift, a gift from a loving God for the people he loves.
Much of what we have endured over the past year has been premised on a very different view. This very different view is that the church is just a sort of social activity, such that if social activities need to be limited in some way, in the event of emergency, then the church—being just another sort of social activity—the church should be no exception.
This misguided conception is entertained not only by politicians and pundits, who cannot be expected to know better, but it is also believed by some people within the church itself.
Not far from my office in Cambridge there is a church that still has a sign hanging on the door that reads: “All activities of the church are canceled until further notice, including worship.” Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Social activities can be canceled. Worship cannot be canceled.
And that’s because worship is not an optional activity that we undertake at our pleasure and refrain from when it is unadvisable to engage in it.
Worship is a reality that is going on all the time whether we are part of it or not. The reality is that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, alive right now, and ascended to the right hand of this father in heaven. He is being worshipped there now, on his heavenly throne by the angels and heavenly host.
When we engage in worship here in this space all we are doing is witnessing to a reality that we confess is ongoing. We don’t initiate worship; it is much larger than us, and we take a small part in it. This is why in the prayer of consecration we say we are joining our voices with angels and archangels, because we take it that they are already and forever have been praising God, and we are now joining in ourselves, joining our voices to those who have been singing from all eternity.
We configure the liturgy, we arrange the very space inside the church, we appoint the ornamentation, to reflect this understanding of what we are doing: This church is designed to give the impression that prayer and worship never stop—even when the mass is ended. The lingering smell of incense, the light streaming through the windows, the magisterial stones standing as witnesses to what has gone on here day after day for over 175 years. It is just a part of a sacred cosmic drama that never stops. Worship fundamentally is a heavenly reality, one that is imperfectly realized here and now on earth. No earthly authority can stop it. Not a governor, not an expert, not even a bishop.
I have said that the church is God’s gift to us; every gift should be gratefully acknowledged by its recipient. Worship is that acknowledgement, and thus worship is the church’s primary function. In the Bible, to worship someone is to fall down before them and make yourself available for their service. Everything we do flows from this.
Like the first disciples inspired by the Holy Ghost we tell of the mighty works of God. Worship involves the recounting of those works, from creation to the calling of Israel to their liberation from slavery to the ministry of the prophets. Worship recalls the saving words and works of Jesus Christ and explains their meaning in preaching and in liturgical practice. Worship enjoins obedience to his many commandments: “Do this in remembrance of me.” “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” “Feed the hungry.” “Clothe the naked.” “Visit the prisoners.”
The church does not stop doing these things because in these matters the church is faithful to the commandments of the one who gave them to us and who gave us the gift of the Holy Ghost, who enables us to do these things. This parish church said mass daily throughout the last 14 months. This is not a point of pride. This is a point of grateful fidelity to Jesus Christ, who said that those who love him will follow his commandments.
Remember the words of our Savior: “He who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do.” This is a shocking promise, seeing as how during his earthly ministry Jesus did many amazing works, miraculous even. Yet he says that those who receive the Holy Ghost will do still greater works.
What works could these be? I believe that they are nothing other than the works of the church, the works that the Holy Ghost makes possible, the works that Jesus commands, the works that comprise worship and flow from worship.
Because there are no greater works than those that testify to the reality of who God is and what God has done. There are no greater works than those that reconcile human beings to one another and sanctify them. There are no greater works than those that meet the needs of the body, satisfy the longings of the heart, and heal broken spirits. These are God’s works, done through the person of the Holy Ghost, and done through us.
Here at the Church of the Advent we are just a small part of a story that began at Pentecost. That story has not been interrupted by the disturbance of the last year. What began at Pentecost will continue. World without end. Amen.