Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
June 4, 2017
The Feast of Pentecost (Whitsunday)
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
A few years ago, Newsweek magazine published a cover story called “The Changing Face of the Church.” This provocative and prescient article chronicled both the now-familiar decline of the Christian faith in Western Europe and in North America, and the burgeoning of that same faith in Africa, Latin America, and even in Asia. According to the article, there were, for example, seven times more Anglicans in Nigeria alone than there are Episcopalians in the United States of America. And, if recent communiqués from places as diverse as Canterbury Cathedral in England, the Episcopal Church Center in New York, and even our very own Diocesan offices in Boston are to be believed, we can only conclude that our chief pastors are realizing what we in our local congregations, especially in the Northeast—often dubbed the “graveyard of the churches”—have known for a very long time: All is not well in the Church outside the global south; the “household of God” in these parts is shrinking; and we Christians can no longer continue to engage in business as usual. And this is not a matter of crisis for the Anglican Communion alone. This precipitous decline is occurring in every so-called mainline Christian denomination, including the Roman Catholic Church, whose US membership would also be plummeting if not for the influx of largely Hispanic immigrants, thanks be to God. The hopes and dreams of the failed “Decade of Evangelism”—in which we were to have doubled the size of the Anglican Communion in Western Europe and North America notwithstanding—we have only to look around us every Sunday in our local congregations to behold the sad wages of post-modernity, scientism, and secularism for the Church. Where are our young people or, for that matter, where are our neighbors? I, for one, sometimes feel as if I am living in some local version of the Incredible Shrinking Church (sic).
Now, before we succumb to the easy temptation to play the “blame and shame” game among ourselves, we are better served by rigorous honesty and careful analysis of these demoralizing “signs of the times.” For something even more terrible than dysfunction, unfaithfulness, and discontent within the visible Church has been underway in the Western world for the last three-hundred years. Science and technology, rationalism, materialism, liberal democracy, social Darwinism, “free market economics,” and consumerism—all fruits of the so-called Enlightenment—have combined to create first the modern, and now, the “post-modern” world. Our post-industrial, globalizing Western societies no longer give de facto recognition to Christianity as the official or unofficial state-religion. In these first decades of the twenty-first century, most human beings on this planet of seven billion have never even heard about the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. And, where they have—especially in the West—the majority have voted with their feet and could care less. True Christian believers are a small minority of the world’s burgeoning population, and religion in general—and Christianity in particular—are simply irrelevant to most people’s daily life in the West.
Even among many nominal believers, religiosity has replaced true commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and mere cultic observance has supplanted a genuine Christian spirituality of transformation in Christ. Our prayers speak about the people of God as “the body of Christ,” “the household of God,” “the royal priesthood,” and “that wonderful and sacred mystery,” and so it is. But, when we move outside the boundaries of our local congregations, we too often encounter only the erudite atheism and genteel cannibalism of our post-modern, atomized, self-absorbed, and materialistic societies of the West, the “cultured despisers of religion” whose only “trinity” is subjectivity, relativism, and uncertainty.
When we turn our attention to the state of the Church in the modern world, we find deep cause for concern there as well. Far too often, the Church has become so completely identified with the surrounding culture; so fearful about making mistakes; and so totally mesmerized by the managerial leadership style of corporate America that we sometimes forget our charismatic origins as a Spirit-filled and God-intoxicated fellowship. We hear Saint Luke tell us in the Acts of the Apostles that the tiny group of early believers in the risen Lord was accused by their opponents of “turning the world upside down.” And, in the very next verse from that same Acts, we hear this morning that the Apostles’ behavior on Pentecost morning is accounted as so strange and bizarre by some of the on-lookers that they can only conclude that the Apostles must be drunk with powerful “new wine.” Now, when was the last time that anyone accused polite Anglicans in the developed world of “turning the world upside down” or of being “filled with new wine”? Either urbane humanity has tragically outgrown the Christian revelation, or we, the messengers, the “ones who are sent,” have lost our moorings, our inspiration, and our perspective. I, as a post-modern Christian of the developed world, still have enough faith to assert with reasonable certainty that the problems are with us, the messengers, and not with the Gospel message!
My sisters and brothers in Christ, the great feast of Pentecost reminds us that we have been entrusted with the “priceless pearl” of the revelation of God in the face of Jesus Christ for “the nations.” And on that first Day of Pentecost we, the Church of Jesus Christ, received the full power and strength of the life-creating, Holy Spirit to become—individually and corporately—by grace what Christ is by nature: daughters and sons of God and heirs of eternal life. We possess within the Church the faith and order and sacraments for the healing and salvation of both ourselves and of the whole distracted, disordered, and violent world. Today, as baptized members of the Church, “the communion of the Holy Spirit,” we celebrate the fact that the all-holy and life-creating Spirit, who proceeds from the Father, and who is sent to us in power through the Son as “his own first gift to believers,” gives us the wisdom to know the Holy Trinity and the power to enter into its very life of creative love, mutuality, and communion. The Day of Pentecost is the seal of that holy Resurrection of Jesus the Messiah that we have been celebrating for the past fifty days. It gives us the power and the strength and the authority as people baptized into the saving Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Savior to go out into the world as missionary disciples and evangelists boldly proclaiming the “good news” about what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do for the nations in Jesus Christ. We are fully empowered by our Baptismal Covenant to “turn the world upside down” through converted lives of continual repentance, forgiveness, suffering servanthood, and agents of reconciliation in a fallen and broken world after the model of Christ our Lord. So, let’s cast off the bonds of fear, of phony decorum, of petty bureaucracy, of duplicity and in-fighting! Let’s stop the wrangling and power struggles in the Church and its local congregations! We are freed through Christ from the “powers and principalities” of this dark world with all of their manipulations and false enticements to security, power, and esteem. There is new life to live; the joy and peace of the Gospel to experience; love and charity to be shared; and great work to be done in the vineyard of the Lord. We are in fact “a royal priesthood”; “the household of God”; “that wonderful and sacred mystery”; the very “Body of Christ;” and the “the communion of the Holy Spirit.” The time has come for us to take ourselves seriously as this “new creation.” If we cannot do at least this much, we can hardly expect the benighted world to do so. And our reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles bears witness to the power of the sanctifying Spirit to give us the boldness and resolve to speak and to act with authority toward our waiting, weary world.
The great Feast of Pentecost reminds us that we already have everything necessary for baptized Christians in the western world to “turn the world upside down” again. It’s all right here in the liturgical, sacramental, and charismatic life of this local congregation of Trinity Parish IF we will but take hold of it. For every one of us who has been “born again” here “by water and the Holy Spirit,” and who is nurtured here week by week with the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, is also a “temple of the Holy Spirit” who searches us, prays in us, unites us to Christ and, according to Ephesians, brings us “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” When “two or three” of us gather to pray in Christ’s name and to celebrate the sacraments “in spirit and in truth,” there is Christ in the midst of us. When we can look into the faces of our unchurched sisters and brothers and find Christ there—no matter how hidden and how obscure—then we have seen the face of God, and there we will also find God’s summons to the Church.
Our Gospel this morning describes the great joy of the holy Apostles on that first Easter night when the risen Lord came among them to bequeath to these simple fishermen the greatest power on earth: the power to be the baptizing community, Christ’s “new creation,” the Church. And the powerful image of those first believers cowering in fear behind locked doors might well serve as an accurate description of the Church today. But we also have the corresponding image of Christ, the eternal Word of God, through whom the world was created by the Spirit moving over the face of the waters of chaos in Genesis now breathing again the re-creative power of that same Holy Spirit on his new community, the Church, whose mission is nothing short of reconciliation, service, and making “all creation new.”
Today, on the great Feast of Pentecost, we must not lose heart: we have Jesus’ assurance that he is with us always, and that the “gates of hell” will never prevail against his “little flock.” We have the gift of the Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth. As Pope Francis recently stated, “The Church is like a great river, and it is important that we stand within it; everyone within it!” So let the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, wherever it is locally gathered in all of its fullness, hear anew the words of the great commission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Let us throw off our fear, our cultural captivity, our petty conflicts, and our little egos, praying together that the Holy Spirit will move among us again to make us bold, visionary, and courageous as the “Body of Christ” in the world, proclaiming the “good news” of salvation in word and deed. Only then do we have any chance to “turn the world upside down” once again through the power of the Holy Trinity. This is our commission, our privilege, our joy, and our peace. And so we pray today on the great Feast of Holy Pentecost: “Come again, Holy Spirit! Fill the hearts of Thy faithful, and kindle in us the fire of Thy Love.