Text: Acts 2 1-21 (the Day of Pentecost)
Today is Pentecost -- the birthday of the church, born almost 2,000 years ago in the wind and fire of God's Spirit. So today, a sermon on the church . . .
While I was in Edmonton last week, I went to Sunday worship at a Roman Catholic church with my younger sister and a mutual friend. We went because our friend had loved a man named Kevin whose funeral will be held in that church later this week. Kevin faced many challenges in his life, including poverty and addiction. But in his later years, he had found a new life of sobriety and love, in part through his connection to this Roman Catholic parish.
The church is called Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples. Most of its members are of First Nations descent, although the priest, Father Jim Holland, is from North Carolina and of European descent. Sacred Heart is located in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of downtown Edmonton, and I was pleased to worship there.
We went to the second of three Sunday services, and it was packed – perhaps 300 people in all. Sweetgrass and sage were burning; a huge medicine wheel wrapped in the colours of the four directions was displayed at the back of the chancel; native paintings of the life of Jesus adorned the walls; and a statue of the Virgin Mary was draped with a shawl, which looked like it was from native Guatemala.
I didn't love everything about the service. Like most Roman Catholic masses, the 1700-year-old Nicene Creed was recited during the service, which is a practice I don't like. Then there was Father Jim's sermon, which was only about five minutes long. And as you can tell from my services, I consider that to be too short! Finally, the Gospel reading for last Sunday's celebration of the Ascension of Jesus was one that never appears in the Revised Common Lectionary used in most Protestant churches, including the United Church.
The reading was from the disputed longer ending of the Gospel of Mark -- Mark 16, verses 9-20. All reputable scholars declare these verses to be a later addition to Mark by scribes. Perhaps these scribes wanted to bring Mark into line with the other three Gospels. Perhaps they did not like the downbeat ending that Mark had given his Gospel. Some of you may remember that I preached on this downbeat ending --- Mark 16, verses 1-8 -- on Easter Sunday six weeks ago.
At that time, I did a search on the official website of the Revised Common Lectionary, which confirmed my guess that its creators never included readings from the disputed last 11 verses of Mark. Our Lectionary is based upon the Roman Catholic one, so I also assumed that these controversial passages were never read in Catholic churches. But last Sunday's service showed that I was wrong. Catholic churches read from these verses when celebrating the Ascension of Jesus.
Beyond being what I consider to be an illegitimate part of the Bible, the passage read last week in Roman Catholic churches around the world contains a detail that seem ridiculous to me. The risen Jesus commands his followers to perform the miraculous signs of handling dangerous snakes and drinking deadly poison in order to show the power of their faith.
I was pleased that Father Jim preached against this text. But given that we now know that Mark didn't write it, why bother reading it in the first place?
The Bible is a huge and amazing collection of ancient stories, poems, and songs written by 100 or so mostly anonymous Jewish leaders over a period of about 1,000 years. But when Jesus ascended to heaven, he did not leave his disciples the Bible. Instead, he left them God's Holy Spirit, which fell on them like wind and fire at the celebration of the Jewish festival of Pentecost in Jerusalem after Jesus' ascension almost 2,000 years ago.
The church is founded on this Spirit and not on the Bible. Liberal churches treat the Bible like any other text, as a product of history. We research and study it in order to help us find meaning in it for our lives as Christians today.
On the other hand, there is part of me that appreciates the Roman Catholic Church's disregard of biblical scholarship about the Gospel of Mark. There are a lot of troubling biblical passages that many of us would rather ignore. But anxiety can be a barrier to faith, including being anxious about who wrote what in the Bible and whether we should use a passage in worship.
The Protestant churches of the last 500 years ago have always taken the Bible more seriously than the Catholic Church. When we broke from the Catholic Church, Protestants led a spiritual revival that came from translating, printing, and studying the Bible. Unfortunately, along with this revival also came anxiety about "getting it right" -- in our scholarship, our worship, and our understanding of these texts.
Perhaps, then, my dismay that the Catholic Church still includes Mark 16 verses 9-20 in its worship life reflects my anxiety more than it reflects a real problem.
Nevertheless, my dismay remains. I also feel something similar about the Nicene Creed. In a class at Emmanuel College a few years ago, we talked about this creed based on a line from the United Church of Canada's 1925 Basis of Union: "We acknowledge the teaching of the great creeds of the ancient Church," it reads. Some of us who dislike the ancient creeds questioned this part of the Basis of Union. Our professor countered that at least these creeds came from a time when the Christian church was united.
In turn, I replied that the unity of the church in the Fourth and Fifth centuries was created from above by the Roman emperors who had adopted Christianity as the state religion at that time. They used the terrible power of the imperial state to create one universal church out of many.
From the time of the birth of the church at the festival of Pentecost in the Year 30 until 300 years later when Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicea at which the Nicene Creed was adopted, the early church was wildly diverse. Each city had its own unique type of Christianity. They each used different Scriptures, had different theologies, and worshipped in different ways. The diversity of the church in its first 300 years was much greater than the diversity we see today between liberal denominations like the United Church, traditional churches like the Roman Catholics and Anglicans, and conservative ones like the Alliance or Lutheran churches.
Unity came after Emperor Constantine and his successors decreed it. But it was a unity built by murder, torture, jails, book burning, and other coercive measures of the brutal Roman state. For this reason alone, I never recite the Nicene Creed or the others that followed it. They remind me of the time when the church was captured by the state 300 years after Jesus. They remind of the time when the Holy Spirit that descended on Peter and the other disciples at Pentecost in that first Easter season was replaced by a spirit of war, conquest and conformity.
Now, Sacred Heart in Edmonton is not a place of coercion or war. I loved the atmosphere of the worship and the singing, which was in both English and Cree. I loved the fact that Father Jim smudged before celebrating communion. I loved the beauty of the space and the warm spirit of the faithful who had gathered there. I believe that other churches could learn a lot from Sacred Heart, especially its outreach to the poor and marginal people in its neighbourhood.
Nevertheless, the Scripture and creed used there last week reminded me of the sorry history of our church for much of the last 1700 years. From the year 325 until well into the 20th Century, the Christian church was not just a place of healing, love and mission in the name and Spirit of Jesus. It was also an instrument of state power. The church was not just a place where the God who is Love was worshipped. It was also a place where the Bible or the nation were worshipped instead.
We believe that the Holy Spirit is available to us in any moment. We seek it in worship and in mission. But the Holy Spirit is not the only one that beckons to us. The history of the church from the late Roman Empire through the Protestant and Catholic European empires that succeeded it shows us that our church can be captured by the spirit of war and conquest as well as by the Spirit of Truth and love.
No church can claim purity. No one of us can ever know if we are correctly discerning the spirits that compete for our allegiance. But when the church becomes a vehicle for Empire and its terrible wars, as it did for many centuries, then the promise of Pentecost with its vision of salvation becomes instead a nightmare of pain and conquest.
So what can be done? If Pentecost is the birthday of the church, then I fear that my birthday greetings today are pretty grim.
The good news is that grace and forgiveness are available not just to individuals but to institutions like the church as well. As a human institution, the church will often get things wrong, even disastrously wrong as when it uses the violence of the state to further its own ends. But a church that is sometimes captured by nationalism or war can still be a place where grace is preached and grace is found. A church that sometimes worships the Bible as an idol instead of the God who is Love, can still be a place where grace is preached and grace is found.
Last Sunday at Sacred Heart, I detected traces of empire and idolatry. But I also experienced a place where God's Spirit of Truth and Love was alive and well. This helped me understand how someone like Kevin could have his heart opened to God there and could find a community in which to turn away from addiction and towards love and service.
It is the same in this United Church today as well, I believe. We are all holy fools and broken sinners trying to respond to the flame and breath of God's Spirit. We hope and trust that this Spirit leads us to the God who is Love. We won't always get it right. We may sometimes get it disastrously wrong. But in the end, we trust that the Holy Spirit will lead us home to God -- for us as individuals, for the church as a human institution, and for the whole of God's groaning creation.
Thanks be to God.