“Some churches still prefer churchmanship without any supernatural dimensions…
they have become hollow museums whose curators grow content to speak God’s name
without the slightest danger of experiencing His presence.”
~ Calvin Miller
It hit me with the force of a 2×4 up the side of the head when I was maybe 15 years old. I was in church, the church of my childhood and youth. I was serving as an acolyte, an altar boy. I was performing the intricate liturgical choreography exactly as it had been so carefully rehearsed the day before. I was bending and bowing, pouring and wiping, ascending and descending the altar steps. And right there in the middle of all that pomp and circumstance, a question popped into my head as if it had been asked of me out loud – “What are you doing?” – or, more accurately – “Why are you doing what you’re doing?”
Paul critiqued those who held to the form of religion in his day while denying its real power (2 Timothy 3:5), and standing there in church that day, I had the sense that he was talking about me… to me. You see, I was terribly concerned about getting the ceremony right, but I was completely oblivious to the real presence that made all of that activity meaningful and all of that effort purposeful. To use Sam Shoemaker’s wonderful metaphor, I was tending to a rather ornate fireplace that didn’t have a fire burning in it! I had the form of religion, in fact, a very fine version of it, but I was missing its power.
This was the realization that pushed me out of my familiar ecclesial nest when I was a teenager and into the spiritual quest that has been the direction and destination of my life ever since. Just like Jacob wrestling the mysterious presence at Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-31), I wanted God, the living, loving God, and I wasn’t going to settle for anything less until I had tasted and seen the goodness of God for myself (Palm 34:8).
A rather unsettling book that I’ve been reading lately is Ian Stackhouse’s Primitive Piety (Paternoster – 2012). This is his invitation away from the safe and pleasant world of suburban piety with its stress on moderation and politeness, and into the extreme and paradoxical world of Biblical faith. He begins it by quoting the Scottish Congregationalist theologian P.T, Forsyth (1848–1921) –
“We tend to a Christianity without force, passion, or effect; a suburban piety, homely and kind but unfit to cope with the actual moral case of the world, its giant souls and hearty sinners. …We have churches of the nicest, kindest people, who have nothing apostolic or missionary, who never knew the soul’s despair or its breathless gratitude.”
This was the kind of Christianity in which I was a participant and of which I was a steward when I was 15. Later I would sometimes hear it depreciatingly described as “churchianity,” and while there was certainly some truth in that, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that designation of it then, or now.
I don’t like the implication that Christ and Church are two separate things. I wholeheartedly agree with Irenaeus of Lyons (born c. 120/140 – died c. 200/203) who said that anyone who has God as his Father has the church as his mother, whether they like it or not, and even whether they know it or not. And I’m just not comfortable with the accusation that my personal spiritual emptiness was somehow the fault of some kind of failure on the part of that church of my childhood and youth. I can now see quite clearly how Jesus Christ was named as Savior in word and sign every Sunday morning that I was there growing up. The problem wasn’t that the Gospel of God’s redeeming love for me, and for all in Jesus Christ, wasn’t being proclaimed in that place in those days, it was rather that, for whatever reason, it just wasn’t getting through to me. But one day it did, and it happened while I was in a worship service at that church! That’s where God found me. And while my journey has since led me away from that place, and that way of being a Christian, I now understand that it was where my spiritual journey began, and I can appreciate the way that it set the table for my soul.
What I went looking for when I was 15 was the reality of Christianity, the God who was behind the creeds, beneath the rituals, and before all of the structures and systems. I wanted the fire and not just the fireplace, and where I found it was in the presence that Pentecost promises.
I am always a little troubled by the way that Christmas and Easter pack the church, but Pentecost passes with hardly a ripple. The Gospel event and experience that Pentecost marks is no less central to Biblical Christianity and no less critical to our salvation than are the events and experiences that Christmas and Easter annually commemorate.
When John the Baptist saw Jesus approaching him to be baptized, John said two things about what Jesus had come to do as the Messiah. “Behold that Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29) was the first thing. This is how Jesus Christ saves us from what’s in our pasts. And, “this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33) was the second thing that John the Baptist announced that Jesus as the Christ had come to do. This is how Jesus Christ saves us to a different kind of future. The forgiveness of our sins and the renewal of the Holy Spirit is what Jesus Christ came to accomplish, and they are what were in fact offered to people on Pentecost Sunday morning when Peter preached the Gospel in the power of the Spirit for the very first time (Acts 2:38).
Our failure to embrace Pentecost with the same interest and enthusiasm with which we embrace Christmas and Easter is a problem. In fact, I would argue that it is the reason why we have such a truncated Gospel in the church and a spiritual experience as Christians that is so far below what the New Testament describes and offers. And the only remedy to this, as far as I can see, is for us to consciously and consistently embrace the presence that Pentecost promises.
It is the work of the Holy Spirit to take the objective work of Jesus Christ as Savior and to subjectively apply it to our lives and to the world. The Holy Spirit comes to kindle the fire in the fireplace of the church, and in the fireplaces of our hearts. But this doesn’t just happen. The Holy Spirit can be quenched, grieved, resisted and even blasphemed by us, and so we’ve got to ask. God gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him (Luke 11:13).
If you, like me, are discontent with the “mechanical sacramentalism” and the “dead biblicism” of so much of the church, and if you, like me, ache for “the dynamic reality of God’s presence,” then “it is time that we took Pentecost seriously and eagerly receive a new infusion of the Holy Spirit.”
Pentecost is this coming Sunday – May 15th. Come to church as if it were Christmas or Easter, and come expectantly.