The Church is Not What We Thought it Was

The Church is Not What We Thought it Was

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I’ve been saying it for weeks now, in one way or another: the church is not what we thought it was. The church isn’t the building or the steeple. It’s not the sanctuary or the pulpit or the pews. It isn’t the classrooms or fellowship hall. The church isn’t even a place. It’s something… else.

Today is Pentecost. You know the story. You’ve heard it before. And if you have been the liturgist on Pentecost before, you’re a little disappointed that the reading from Acts this year didn’t include a long list of nationalities that a pastor had to read and stumble through.

Don’t worry.

Today is Pentecost. You know the story. You’ve heard it before. After Christ rose up from the grave… after Peter saw him, and the twelve saw him, and after more than five hundred believers saw him, and James and the apostles saw him… after Christ ascended into the heavens… the disciples were all together in one place in Jerusalem.

And suddenly, out of nowhere, came a rush of wind and tongues of fire. And suddenly, out of nowhere, the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. And suddenly, out of nowhere, they began to speak in other languages—languages that they did not know how to speak—as the Spirit gave them ability.

And people heard them: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and Mesopotamians; Judeans and Cappadocians; Pontusians and Asians; Phrygians and Pamphylians; Egyptians and Cyrenian Libyans; Romans and Cretans and Arabs. They all heard the disciples, speaking in their own languages.

And some said, “what does this mean?” And others sneered and said, “They’re drunk… at nine in the morning.”

I’ve been saying it for weeks now, in one way or another: the church is not what we thought it was. It isn’t a Zoom meeting or a Facebook live video. It isn’t a podcast or a videocast. The church isn’t even a technology. It’s something… else.

Long after Pentecost… after Paul persecuted the church… after Jesus appeared to Paul… after Paul went to Corinth and spent is sabbaths arguing with people at the synagogue and founded a little community of believers… after Paul left and Apollos came and the little community split… after Chloe’s people found Paul and told him what was happening… Paul wrote a letter to that fractured community of believers.

And some of what he wrote was this:

“Folks, I don’t want to you to be confused about the whole spiritual gifts thing. Yes, there are the gifts of speaking in tongues and of interpreting tongues. But there are a bunch of gifts: some people have wisdom and some people have knowledge; some people have faith and some people can heal; some people can work miracles and some people can prophesy, and some people can discern spirits. But it’s the same Holy Spirit moving through all these people.”

And Paul didn’t write—but he could have written—some people can preach, and some people can teach, and some people really understand the finances, and some people really have an eye for decorating, and some people can spot a good deal, and some people know how to tend a garden, and some people can play the harmonica, and some people can do a backflip, and some people can make jalapeño poppers, and some people can… well, the Spirit gives a lot of gifts.

And no matter who you are… or where you are on life’s journey… you are carrying something that the Spirit gave to you.

But…

Today is Pentecost. And today we talk about the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. And today our readings are about the Spirit. But there’s a trick here…

You see, Paul writes about spiritual gifts: the tongues and the miracles and the prophecies and the jalapeño poppers. And then, Paul writes about the body that we’re all a part of… and how all the parts of that body—me and you and everyone—are important; how all the parts of the body matter

And then… Paul writes about love. The reading that we had a couple of weeks ago. The reading that you’ve heard at so many weddings:

“Folks, you see, there are these three things: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of them is love. If you can speak in tongues and interpret tongues… if you have wisdom and knowledge… if you have faith and can heal people… if you can do miracles and speak prophecies and discern spirits… if any of those things are true about you… if every. single. one. of those things is true about you… and you don’t have love? Well, gosh, man. That makes all of those things kind of useless.”

No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re carrying a gift that the Holy Spirit gave to you. Maybe even a few. Maybe even a bunch. And it doesn’t matter which ones. They’re all important. We need each and every one of them. God can use each and every one of them. The thing is that we need to take them… and use them… in love… for the good of all.

Let me say that again…

The thing… the thingthe call… is to take the gifts that God has given us through the Holy Spirit and use them. In love. For the good of all.

I’ve been saying it for weeks now, in one way or another: the church is not what we thought it was.

It is not the building or the steeple. It is not Zoom meetings or videocasts. It might not even be the word being rightly preached and the sacraments being rightly administered. It isn’t a place and it isn’t a technology and it isn’t a bunch of stuff that we do.

I don’t know what the right word for it is. But maybe it’s a feeling. Maybe it’s a way of being in the world.

Maybe the church—when we’re at our churchiest—is just anywhere and anywhen and anyhow that people are using those gifts of the Spirit in love for the good of all. Whether we’re gathered together in a sanctuary or scattered around kitchen tables or sitting in a recliner with a laptop or in our cars with our phones. Whether we’re all together on a Sunday morning or scattered throughout days and weeks and months.

Maybe the church—when we’re at our churchiest—isn’t confined by quaint human notions of time and space. Maybe it’s only confined by God’s infinite imagination. Which is to say, maybe it isn’t confined at all.

Maybe, no matter who we are, or where we are on life’s journey, we can be the church for someone. Each and every one of us. By speaking and listening and understanding. By sharing our wisdom and knowledge. By healing and helping. By making a phone call or sending a card. And, when it’s safe again, by gathering together in sanctuaries, visiting someone at home, playing a song on the harmonica, or sharing some jalapeño poppers.

By doing whatever we do… in love… for our friends and neighbors, strangers and enemies, and the whole wide world.

The church is not what we thought it was—not buildings and steeples, not livestreams and podcasts, not sermons and sacraments—but the Holy Spirit living in us, moving through the world, loving the Kingdom of God into being.

Hallelujah. Amen.

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About

I’m a pastor, an author, and a nonprofit development and communications professional. My passion, my mission, and my calling is bringing people together to do good, with a particular focus on serving people who are experiencing poverty and other forms of marginalization.

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