Last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday, one of the Sundays of the year when our congregation welcomes new members. In the ancient church most new members were initiated (baptized) on either this Sunday or Easter. Baptism is a ceremony Christians have used since the faith’s beginning. It both depicts God’s grace and expresses the baptismal candidate’s desire to fashion his or her life in mold of Jesus of Nazareth. Baptism is a tangible way of experiencing the church’s welcome and God’s love. Those joining our congregation on Pentecost Sunday had all moved to Ottawa from other communities and had already been baptized, so we didn’t do that. However, giving them a formal welcome and celebrating communion with them was the focus of our worship that Sunday. For that reason we didn’t have a proper sermon, but I did offer some reflections on the day’s Scripture readings (Rom 8:14-17; Acts 2:1-6) and the liturgy of the morning.
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I’ve begun to wonder where all the “no fear” people have gone. Some of you remember what I’m talking about. That slogan was once pretty trendy. People sported the “no fear” phrase on T-shirts and on ball caps. It appeared on bumper stickers too. Someone out there probably has a “no fear” tattoo. We don’t see that line much anymore though. I wonder why. I worry it might be because there is only so much fearlessness that the universe tolerates. I hope it isn’t the case that all of those “no fear” folks are no longer with us. Though if you’re consistently trying back-flips on your dirt bike or skating on thin ice or walking on the edges of tall buildings, it isn’t hard to imagine how your story will end.
Sometimes fear is just what we need. However, the apostle Paul tries to dispatch certain kinds of fear in Romans 8. He writes, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear . . . .” With the leading of God’s Spirit there is no need for fear not measuring up or not making God’s cut. There’s no need to fear because you’re all God’s children. That’s one of the things we celebrate at Pentecost.
Like most Christian celebrations what we know as Pentecost is a development of something older. ‘Pentecost’ is the Greek name for the Festival of Weeks, Shavout in Hebrew. One of the things the festival originally commemorated was God’s gift of Torah at Mt. Sinai. According to Hebrew Scriptures when the tribes of Israel had made their way out of Egypt they encountered God in the swirl of dark clouds at Mt. Sinai. God gave a set of norms intended to make those disparate tribes a people capable of demonstrating how life was rightly lived.
This would have been on the minds of those gathered in Jerusalem. Think about what that meant for those depicted in Acts 2. They were gathered to remember the gift of Torah and they received a new law—the law of welcome and openness. They were enabled to communicate with speakers of other languages, but the deeper development was that being a part of God’s people no longer stopped or started at the bounds of one language or another. Being a part of God’s people no longer stopped or started at the edges of an ethnic identity. The new the new norm, the new principle was ‘welcome’. With God’s Spirit at work you’re all God’s children.
A couple of weeks ago our church hosted a workshop on how to be church in multi-cultural contexts. We had English-speakers, French-speakers, Spanish-speakers, speakers of Amharic, Tigrina, Portuguese and Creole. I remember initially feeling that this was very post-modern, very twenty-first century. And yet, even though grappling with multiple languages and multiple cultures might seem like a new challenge for Christian churches, I realized it really wasn’t. Navigating cultural differences and differences of language is a part of the Christian DNA. One doesn’t have to learn the language of the founder or even possess the ability to read Scripture in its original languages to be a Christian. It’s encoded in our DNA to joyfully translate and negotiate these differences.
In addition to celebrating the gift of Torah, Pentecost was also a celebration of the beginning of the wheat harvest. I doubt this would have been lost of the early Christians either. They would have thought of it as the beginning of the ingathering of the nations, and with that the global recognition that where God’s Spirit is at work there are God’s children.
Paul continues in Romans 8: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry ‘Abba! Father! It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God . . . .” That word ‘adoption’ is important.
Over the years I’ve had the privilege of walking with a few people as they went through the process of adopting children. Adopting can be an incredibly challenging thing. I’m amazed every time I see a family negotiate it. It’s not just that it’s administratively difficult but it’s culturally challenging as well. There are elements of our culture that see children as an impediment, as a waste of household income. And yet there are families that decide to raise children to whom they have no natural obligation.
Adoption was practiced in the Greco-Roman world Paul knew. In that context one of the key features was that the adopted child carried on the family lineage, the child received the rights and privileges of the family even though they would not have had these naturally. Paul is trying to accent the notion that we aren’t God’s children in some vague, whimsical or automatic sense. This is part of the Spirit’s work. We’re given the inner confidence that this is true and the outer mandate to make it clear: we are all God’s children.
Ancient Christian theologians saw this as a key element in explaining salvation. What Jesus had naturally, the right to be a part of God’s family, we were given. What we had naturally, our sin and broken relationships, he received through intentional solidarity with us. I wonder if you’ve ever used someone else’s ID to get anything—get into a workplace, Costco or whatever. There’s something of that same thing going on in Paul’s thinking here. We’ve been given the right to use Jesus’ ID and the Spirit makes the new identification stick.
As we welcome new members and renew our commitment to each other, it strikes me that committing to any actual, physical community is a small act of cultural rebellion. We’re all trained to be consumers, and consumers don’t make many public commitments. Consumers want to keep their shopping options open; they want the easy option of going down the street where the service is better or the greeters are chattier. So as we respond to the Spirit’s drawing us together, as we commit ourselves to supporting each other and caring for each other we’re bound to face challenges. Remaining together is not easy. For Mennonites in particular splitting and dividing seem to come naturally. Maybe it’s because our commitment to pacifism makes compromise and exceptions hard to take. So it’s only natural that we wonder if it’s possible to stay together and to pursue unity, in our church or in the broader Christian community. Is it enough to have some values, beliefs, practices, history in common? Those things are important, but the truth is we depend on the power of the Spirit. If the Spirit is still at work on this Pentecost as she was on that Pentecost so many years ago, we just might be able to do it. With the Spirit’s power we might be able to share a common life as God’s children.