Happy (?) Birthday, Church!

Today, 49 days after Easter, is the feast-day of Pentecost in the Church calendar. This is the day we commemorate the Holy Spirit’s first coming to all followers of Jesus Christ–average Joes and Marys–instead of just specially-picked-out guys like Moses and Samson. (Yeah, really–Samson. I know, right?)

Lots of people call Pentecost the birthday of the Church. I heard someone say within the last year or so that that is not an accurate descriptor, but I can’t remember what his reasons were for this, so until I hear them again and decide they sound reasonable, I’m going with it. Happy birthday, Church!

Today is also, in Now Church, Confirmation Sunday. I grew up Baptist, and although I don’t think salvation hinges on this issue, I still and probably always will think that believer’s baptism by immersion at an “age of accountability” (i.e. when you’re old enough to make some sort of decision about this yourself–and I realise there could be some discussion/disagreement about what that is and how you determine it) is the way to go. And if you do that, there’s no need for confirmation because it’s built right in to the baptism ceremony. But I work for a church that does infant baptism and confirmation, and confirmation falls under the auspices of Christian Education, and I guess I don’t think it’s a big enough deal to start soapboxing about. If people are making a public confession of faith in and desire to follow Jesus, it’s awesome, no matter what you call the ceremony, right?

We had two young men making this confession today, and they each had somewhat older men as their mentors, and although I didn’t have a great deal to do with this process (because I didn’t need to, as the mentors were fully capable and devoted to these guys), I was excited. It’s Pentecost and two guys are getting confirmed and it’s a party!

They were all excited, too, and also a bit nervous, and on top of all that there was a lot of other stuff going on, and a lot of other people going around, and in the hubbub, it was discovered that I had not accomplished something in preparation for this day that most everybody had expected. It was due more to lack of communication on a few fronts than, say, forgetfulness or neglect, but let’s just say that a furor was caused which startled me more than I can say. Angry words were exchanged, incensed and hurt feelings were felt, and as I stormed down the hall in one direction while another person stormed away in the other, I thought wryly, “And this is Pentecost.”

Yeah. The birthday of the Church. Happy birthday, Church. Welcome, Confirmands, to your new dysfunctional family.

This is not the first time I’ve had such kind of bitter thoughts about the Church, and I know (and know of) people, both lovers of Jesus and deniers of Him, who have even bitterer thoughts about her, on a more regular basis. There are so many times when I think, “Why does the Church fight so much? And over such usually stupid stuff?” I felt like this morning was a microcosmic picture of the sin and disease which have plagued the institution Jesus called His Bride ever since He went back to the Father. (Ever wonder how an institution gets to be a Bride? Or even more, how a Bride gets to be an institution?)

But also, as I was storming down the hall, I muttered under my breath, “Help, Holy Spirit!” Because I knew, and I know, and so do the people with whom I was angry, that the Holy Spirit of God, whose coming we were observing today, doesn’t will for this kind of thing to happen in Christ’s Church. I try not to give too much credit to the other elemental spirits that wish to subvert what the Holy Spirit is doing, but every once in a while, the burst of discord is so strong and yet so senseless, that I can’t help but think something like what I thought this morning which was, “Well, wouldn’t it just be a score for the other side if anger and disharmony instead of love and celebration and unity took precedence today, of all days? Wouldn’t they just love that? That can’t happen!”

Within the next few minutes, things had calmed down to a workable level, and by the end of the morning, we had agreed that a sorting-out discussion was in order, a few days hence, but in the meantime we could still laugh and talk and joke.

And this is why I still celebrate the Church, and still fight for her, and still love my family there: because Jesus came to give forgiveness and reconciliation, not just between people and God, but between people and people. Since the Church is made up of people and we are so easily distracted by our own self-interests or blinded by our own histories and perceptions, we don’t often avail ourselves of this two-fold, life-giving, absolutely supernatural distinction that the Holy Spirit of Jesus holds out to us every day of our lives. But we can. Forgiveness can happen anywhere in the world, but I truly believe that real forgiveness is only supernaturally obtained, and that, as the supreme expression of it, Jesus Himself, by His Holy Spirit, is the one who grows it in us–even gives us the ability to want it rather than retaliation.

The thing about forgiveness and reconciliation, though, is that they necessitate community. You have to forgive and be forgiven by somebody, and you don’t get reconciled to your hermitage. It’s a good thing they’re supernatural, because I don’t know that I would continue to be motivated to face the hard slog of daily (or at least weekly) community with a bunch of forgiven sinners who are so often distracted from their Lord and their vision as I am. But this is what we commit to when we commit to following Christ–we commit to following Him along with all the other pilgrims, past, present and future, local and further afield, and most often, I believe, this following simply means forgiving and forgiving and forgiving, being forgiven and being forgiven and being forgiven, by our fellow travelers closest to us at any point and time along the trail.

Drizzly and cold out, it still ended up being a beautiful day. The confirmands and the mentors looked great and did a great job expressing what they needed to express in the service. There was joy on many faces. Including, I hope, mine. After all, we were celebrating the reconciling Holy Spirit’s coming, and the birthday of the Church.


4 thoughts on “Happy (?) Birthday, Church!

  1. The Holy Spirits’ work is perfect, even in a people being perfected. I think the process is a wonderful opportunity to be humbled as well as to move forward in the process. The recognition that we need each other on this journey certainly lends itself to the process of forgiveness, albeit not always readily. And the command doesn’t possess any more ability to change our attitude without the inner working of the Spirit. Sometimes looking in the mirror dimly is still enough to see what we knew was there all along. Thankfully the grace we walk in never gives up on us.

  2. Such a good point, and so beautifully articulated. Thanks, John. And yes–I agree–the command to forgive in itself doesn’t empower anyone to forgive. I think what I was trying to convey (but think I may have sidetracked a little) was just that–that the ability both to forgive and be forgiven actually itself comes from Jesus by the Holy Spirit, so that the Spirit not only birthed the Church, but also gives her the resources to exhibit His grace (to each other and outward), by His grace.

    There’s a lot of gracelessness in the Church and finding oneself guilty of it is, truly, humbling (or, it’s better if it is–then there might be more grace!), but as you say, it’s a process, and the possibility is there, thank God.

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