Church: Why Bother?
When I was graduating from college, every student in the Department of Biblical and Religious Studies was given a copy of the book Church: Why Bother?
We were Christian college students. We had just spent four years studying the Bible and theology. But it still seemed like a pertinent question: Why bother with church?
Our two texts for this week may offer some answers to that question.
First, we get the birth story of the church:
1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Like a lot of children, my daughter Ellie enjoys hearing the story of the day she was born. So we recount all the details, even though she already knows them: How Mommy, not realizing she was already in labor, took a new colleague to lunch at Palmer’s Deli; how she called Daddy to come home later that afternoon and he left the staff Bible study in the Peace Conference Room to do so; how, when he arrived, Daddy found Mommy wandering the house with one shoe on and one shoe off (Ellie’s favorite detail).
And so on.
The first two chapters of Acts tell the birth story of the church.
Like most birth stories, this one begins with a long lot of waiting. The Book of Acts opens by recalling the resurrection of Jesus, and recounting that short, strange season when the Risen Christ would just drop in on the disciples from time to time. But when the day finally comes for the Risen One to leave them on their own, the disciples gather together and get their instructions: go back to Jerusalem…and wait.
So they do. They trudge wearily back into the city, climb the stairs to that cramped upper room, settle down and start to wait for whatever comes next. They probably do not know what they are waiting for. They probably have no idea what God has got in store. And as the days drag tediously along, they may not even realize that, in this waiting, their birth has already begun.
The Day of Pentecost opens like any other day. Assembled together again, they pray… and they wait…and they wait. But today will not end like all those other days. A violent wind. Tongues of fire. Everyone filled with the Holy Spirit, everyone speaking in strange and different dialects. It is messy, mysterious and very loud –everything we would expect a birth to be. And all the while, just down the stairs, an unwitting world has no idea what the Spirit of God has begun to bring forth.
But even that is about to change.
I have sometimes compared the 1st-century festival of Pentecost to the Iowa State Fair, but it’s really more like Des Moines’ downtown Farmer’s Market in the month of May. It is a spring harvest festival that brings thousands of people into the center of the city, all of them celebrating the return of warm weather, all of them seeking out the first-century Palestinian equivalents of fresh asparagus and breakfast burritos. According to the Acts account, all sorts of people have come to town for the festival: Parthians, Medes, Elamaties and on and on, devout and faithful Jews from every nation in the known world.
Of course, they cannot help but hear the clatter, clamor and ruckus that attend the church’s birth. Rushing to the scene, in bewilderment they realize that these illiterate backwater peasants, these Galilean hillbillies, are simultaneously speaking in every known language. The crowd does not know what to think. Some simply scoff, suggesting that happy hour has come a little early today. But others have enough sense to pause and to ponder what all of this might mean.
They do not have to ponder for long. Just 15 minutes old, the newborn speaks its very first words. Peter stands up to preach. The sermon opens on a less-than-promising note, with recorded history’s lamest-ever defense against the charge of public intoxication (“It’s only nine o’clock in the morning”). But it gets better from there –much, much better.
What you see and hear today, says Peter, is easily explained: God keeps promises. Centuries ago, though the prophet Joel, God promised a day when the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh –sons and daughters alike, the old as well as the young. Today that promise comes true. Today the Spirit shows up.
Or, to put it another way: Happy birthday to us! On Pentecost, the church is born.
Then our second reading says a little about what it all means:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
This will be our last reading from Philippians for a while. Paul follows the typical 1st century epistolary conventions by concluding his letter with some moral exhortation. But he doesn’t tell the Philippians to eat their vegetables or floss after every meal.
He tells them to rejoice. And then he tells them again.
I tend to resent mandatory fun or imposed frivolity. But in the Church Dogmatics (II, 2, p.558), Swiss theologian Karl Barth writes: “How can any part of what Paul demands of Christians be rightly done if in the first instance it is not done with joy, as an “ought” whose seriousness lies at bottom in the fact that it is a “may”, something permitted?”
We don’t have to rejoice; we get to rejoice. And when we do, the peace of God will guard our hearts.
Why church? I’m still working that out. But we can discuss it together on Sunday.