It will always be Pentecost in the Church, provided the Church lets the beauty of the Holy Spirit shine forth from her countenance. When the Church ceases to let her strength rest on the power from above — which Christ promised her and which he gave her on that day — and when the Church leans rather on the weak forces of the power or the wealth of this earth, then the Church ceases to be newsworthy. The Church will be fair to see, perennially young, attractive in every age, as long as she is faithful to the Spirit that floods her and she reflects that Spirit through her communities, through her pastors, through her very life.
by Óscar Romero
During his three years as archbishop of San Salvador, Óscar Romero became known as a fearless defender of the poor and suffering. His work on behalf of the oppressed earned him the admiration and love of the peasants he served and, finally, an assassin’s bullet.
This article is composed of excerpts from The Violence of Love, a free ebook.
What was it that actually happened on that first day of Pentecost? We don’t really know, do we? All we have is the story from Acts, written for us by Luke, the Doctor. However it is clear from historians of the day that something strange did happen on that day and from that happening the Gospel of Jesus Christ was spread to all the nations. But now we have a plethora of Churches with more and more smaller denominations coming into being all the time. Even here on our own little island, in a small corner of the great big world, we have seen splits and schisms. We now have two different Free Churches here on Arran: the Free Church and the Free Church continuing. And if the papers are to be believed, the pastor of one of those churches left some time ago over the issue of hymn-singing to set up yet another new manifestation of the church in the Western Isles. In Friday’s Glasgow Herald, just as the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was coming to an end, there was yet another article concentrating on splits and disagreements. Two very fine and faithful ministers, both known to me and graduates of Aberdeen University, moving denominations over an issue that our Church has not yet finished debating.
And the question that I am left with in all of this is this one: Do we really believe that the Spirit is moving through the Churches today, or is it dead? And if it’s dead, then you and I and everyone here is completely wasting their time and we should all go outside into the sunshine and enjoy it, because this is all we have. There is nothing else… I’m glad you’re still here!
This is not a club, nor is it a business. If we were a business we would have fallen into disrepair long long ago, because we’re a very bad business. We waste resources and money all the time. If we were a club we wouldn’t have lasted very long either, because there is little that is visible that we give to our members, and yet we ask a lot of them. We ask for a share of your money and we ask for a share of your time and commitment and there doesn’t seem to be much to gain, does there? So what is it that keeps us coming back? What is it that helps us to continue, even if we are struggling to get along with each other? Why do some people move denominations or even start new branches of the Church rather than just give up and go off and play golf on a Sunday morning instead?
Yesterday at 1 o’clock in this gorgeous sunshine, I had a wedding in Kilmory Church. There were around 60 people as guests and, of course the wedding party: bride, groom, best man and bridesmaid. They made their promises before God and the congregation. I told the congregation that they were not there as an audience but as witnesses to the event. They listened to the vows
Not one of us here can say that. All we have is the written record of what happened, and yet some of these are contradictory. We have four different accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry and they do not always agree: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We have a note of how the first church came into being in the book of Acts, a whole heap of random letters and other writings by different authors telling us how we ought to behave. Some of these are contradictory and we struggle to apply them to today’s modem Church. And lastly, we have an account of a vision or a dream written for us by one of these early churchmen in symbolic language that would have been clear to the people of the day, the early persecuted church, but without careful study and interpretation the book is as clear as mud!
So divisions, arguments, problems, lack of money, lack of ministers, poor organisation, buildings in disrepair, bullying, power-mongering and so on and so forth. So WHY don’t we give up and go home?
Well we don’t, because within and through all of that there still is, as Wordsworth said ‘a sense of something sublime.’ There is something intangible that keeps us here, something that keeps us coming back amidst the human shambles, something that made those two ministers, despite their problems with this particular branch of the church, look for another church to take them in. I would rather they had stayed and tried to work it out together with the rest of us, but they needed a church to belong to; they had to carry on doing what they believed to be right. We are all imperfect. Every branch of the church has some problems and failings, everyone needs a fresh pair of eyes and a bit of a make-over. The Catholic Church is keen on ritual and regular communion. The Methodist Church is good at distributing its resources of ministry wisely. The United Reformed Church is often better at consensus and more open to new ideas than we are. The Free Church’s emphasis is on the Word of God as it is contained in the pages of the Bible and so on and so on. The Baptist Church is hot on the experience of individual salvation and commitment. This of course is not an exhaustive list and only represents my opinion and observations. But every one of us has something to learn from the others and none of us are passengers. We are all witnesses. But we weren’t there were we? So what are we witnesses to?
The Holy Spirit is alive and well and living here in our Church, but not just here, in all the other Churches of Jesus Christ and in the world too. In our communities too, wherever goodness and kindness shines out. And it’s our job to keep that flame alight, to pass it on, just as the Olympic Torchbearers are doing even as we speak. But just like the torch bearers we are all very different and our lives and even our churches may all take different routes. Some will run fast, others slower; some have disabilities that they will have to contend with that will hold them back, but they will try to do their bit. It’s only one race but there are many runners and the nature of the race is such that there are no winners and no losers.
Often we get discouraged and bogged down and worried about the future. Sometimes we get fed up with each other. Sometimes we take the wrong turning and sometimes we feel like giving up. The flame is still burning. The Spirit is still here, at times disturbing us, at times forcing us to change direction, at times warming us, at times offering us peace or hope, at times inviting us to new challenges. It’s our job to pass it on; to run the race and to pass it on.