Commentary

The danger of a Pentecost church

Jay Carlson

This commentary is an excerpt of a sermon preached by the Rev. Jay Carlson on Pentecost Sunday at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Minneapolis. The traditional Pentecost text, Acts 2:1-21, served as the primary source. For more information about the foreclosure event described in the sermon, see “Lutheran Brethren pastor addresses foreclosure,” on the front page of this issue of Metro Lutheran.

They were all together in one place. The disciples, that is, were sitting together in a house in Jerusalem on the beginning of that Pentecost day.

Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem. He had promised them that they would receive power from on high, but who could have anticipated what that would mean? I imagine that when they came together in that place they were not expecting anything extraordinary but rather a simple meeting.

Maybe they had a worship service planned. Maybe they had bulletins printed out with a nice liturgy prepared, including some familiar hymns. One of them might have prepared a little sermon. Perhaps a choir was formed to offer an anthem. A few of them might have been preparing a potluck dinner for after the service. Who knows? This was the beginning of the Christian Church, so it isn’t difficult to imagine them doing any of these things.

The book of Acts and the Gospel of John give us just a couple of details of that initial time of waiting: They were together in one place, and they were inside a house, behind a closed door.

A closed door

They did not close their door, I take it, simply to have a little privacy for their worship service. They closed it because they were afraid. They locked their door tight out of fear of the people outside, and they prayed, and they waited.

I wonder, in that upper room, as they gathered together all in one place, was that the beginning of Christianity? If so, it was “a church of sweaty palms, and shaky knees, and a firmly bolted front door.” Not much of a church.

In an instant, the disciples found themselves out on the street, with people from all over the world.

But of course, that’s only the beginning of this Pentecost story. Because, while they were waiting there in that house all together, worried for their future, out of nowhere there came a rush of violent wind that filled the house. Well, it was something like a wind, anyway. They couldn’t see it coming, but it had real power. It started messing with the architecture of that little house where the disciples had gathered. It shook the foundation and blew open the locked door.

In an instant, the disciples found themselves out on the street, with people from all over the world. And those same disciples started boldly proclaiming God’s love and forgiveness. Rather than being paralyzed with fear, they now demonstrated a radical new hope.

When we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit,” we are praying for that same disruptive power to come upon us. Are we sure we want to do that?

United Methodist Bishop William Willimon has a theory about church design: He argues we build such solid brick church buildings, bolt the furniture down to the floor, print up the service in a bulletin, and deliberately follow the prescribed acts of worship out of an inner fear. We tie everything down, we make church so predictable, so settled and fixed because, in our collective memories, we remember stories like this one about the day of Pentecost. We know that the Holy Spirit has done extraordinary things through disciples in the past. We know that a church can be a risky, dangerous place, what with the living God roaming about.

But if we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit, into our church” then we ought to be prepared for the Spirit to disrupt things.

The door opened

This week, while I have been thinking about the disruptive power of the Spirit, I have also been following the news about some south Minneapolis neighbors, the Cruz family. You might have read about them in the StarTribune this weekend. For a couple of months now this family has been facing foreclosure of their home on Cedar Avenue because, like so many others during the economic recession, they fell behind in their mortgage payments. They’re doing their best to get back on track now. And thanks to a number of supporters who advocated for them the bank agreed to work things out with the Cruz family. However, there was still an eviction order from housing court, so at 4 a.m. on Friday morning, sadly, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s department came and entered the home by force and evicted the family and arrested some of the supporters.

It was a terrible ordeal. But the Cruz family and their other supporters didn’t stop their efforts Friday morning. They didn’t stay where they were.

Being a Pentecost church means many things, but among them is recognizing that our work outside these walls is even more important than our work inside.

Instead, they removed the front door of the house, now with damage from the Sheriff’s battering ram, and carried it downtown to city hall. When they got there, they brought it right inside to the Sheriff’s office, and waited for an hour for him to come out and speak with them. Then they asked him to try to find another way of working with this family and to help them stay in their home. There is still more work to do, but the eviction is on hold, and the five supporters have been released.

It is a sad situation for the Cruz family. Yet as I stood outside city hall Friday afternoon and saw the crowd of 100 dedicated supporters, carrying that front door up over their heads, I thought, “what a great symbol of a Pentecost church this could be.” Can you imagine? Picture a group of Christians arriving at city hall carrying a big wooden door.

And imagine that when they were asked what they were doing there, they answered, “Well, we were at church Sunday morning, all together in one place, and the Holy Spirit showed up and blew down our front door. The next thing we know we’re here. Apparently, the Spirit is quite interested in the decisions that get made here, especially for people like the Cruz family.”

Can you imagine that? It’s Pentecost, after all, a day for dreams and visions, so why not? And maybe while that was going on, there was another group of disciples downtown carrying their church’s front door into Hennepin County Medical Center because the Spirit had given them deep concern for the patients there. And then another group showed up at Simpson Homeless Shelter to visit with the men and women eating a meal there. And another group at the immigration detention center in St. Paul.

All carried the front doors that had been blown off their churches, and they were all boldly proclaiming the good news of Christ’s love and abundant life. Can you imagine?

Being a Pentecost church means many things, but among them is recognizing that our work outside these walls is even more important than our work inside. We know that. But if we ever forget it, then we should expect the Spirit to come and mess with the architecture a bit, to blow down our door, and lead us out. It’s Pentecost, after all. Crazier things have happened.

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