On the Feast of Pentecost we celebrate the birth of the Jesus-following community. I say “Jesus-following community” instead of Church because the word “Church” has come to be synonymous with organized religion in some circles.
That is to say, when people identify themselves as spiritual but not religious, they mean that they want nothing to do with organized religion but seek a living relationship with God.
This spiritually hungry crowd perceives that something about what they call organized religion just doesn’t ring true.
Church people may speak the letter of God’s words, but from their lips those words no longer resonate with the spirit of God himself. Organized religion has lots to say about God, but God himself seems to have left the building.
There are some ways in which I think these folks are exactly right. This may sound odd coming from a bishop.
After all, you might think of bishops as the consummate insiders of organized religion. High level officials in the Church bureaucracy. You might expect me to defend Church practices, explain how the Church has been misperceived, or even to criticize our critics in turn.
Contrary to such expectations, I want to spend some time calling us back to who we really are. At our core as the Jesus-following community is what Jesus calls the Spirit of Truth.
The Spirit of Truth animates and directs the Jesus-following community. Even when we are distracted or insincere or even downright hypocritical, God is still breathing that Spirit into us, restoring us to the truth.
We have, from the very beginning, depended upon the Holy Spirit to be human. Think back to the second chapter of Genesis. God made an action figure out of lifeless clay. We’re familiar with action figures. Just stroll down the aisles of ToysRUs. You’ll find Spiderman, G. I. Joe, the Avengers, Batman, and a host of other flexible figures.
The action figures at ToysRUs are merely toys. We pose them and move them and crash them into each other. They look like people, but if we don’t manipulate them, they aren’t going anywhere or doing anything. There is no animating spirit within them.
God didn’t want just a figure he could push around. God wants a living action figure, one whose each and every action speaks the Truth about the God who created him or her.
God envisioned a responsive, creative being. A being who could think and feel and love, who could run and jump and swim, who could hope and dream and desire.
So he breathed his own animating spirit into a lump of dirt. God’s breath brought Adam to life. And he gave him something to do. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15) So it is with us all. We are God’s action figures.
You can see what I mean from a different perspective when we turn back to the first chapter of Genesis.
God created us in his image. This doesn’t mean that our face or our voice or the color of our hair resembles God. We are able to relate to the world, to each other, and to God in a way that is true to how God relates to us and the rest of his creation.
We are able to love, to create, to empathize, to nurture, to play, and to work. We make meaning and understand meaning. We can give ourselves away and receive others into our very hearts.
In other words, God created us for action, action that tells the truth about the loving Creator of all things.
The Spirit of Truth
The God who brought all things into being was at work on the day of Pentecost. Ten days after Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father (you’ll have to wait for another sermon to hear about what that means) the Holy Spirit did a very new thing. He created a new way to tell his truth.
On Pentecost, the Spirit created the community of Jesus-followers. Of course, these same men and women had followed Jesus all over Galilee and finally into Jerusalem. But in a manner of speaking that Jesus was no more.
Or more precisely, that Jesus had become more of himself than the disciples had ever imagined possible. Now the disciples were following the crucified and risen Jesus, and what it means to follow Jesus has changed as a result.
The disciples are not a group of individuals who happen to agree with each other about a set of ideas. They are a community. They are one as the Father and the Son are one.
As the apostle Paul puts it, they are the Body of Christ. To paraphrase the apostle John, Jesus is continuing his work through their work as a community. Together they are his hands and feet. And so are we.
Earlier Jesus had famously said that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. (John 14:6) Then, in the same conversation, Jesus said that he would send the Spirit of Truth to dwell within them. In other words, the disciples don’t just speak the truth. They act out the truth.
Jesus sends the Spirit of Truth to speak through his community. He speaks through our lips, but especially through our actions. We follow Jesus by staying true to his way of living in the world.
I’m going to outline what that way looks like in just a moment. But first I want to admit how we have twisted the truth.
Twisting the Truth
From time to time the Jesus-following community has acted out of character. At times like this we have wounded people or pushed people away or put people off. I suppose it’s us at our worst moments that people call organized religion. In these moments, we have twisted the Truth. Here are just a few examples.
Sometimes we seem to forget that Jesus brought the Good News. Instead, we become so focused on criticizing others’ behavior that we leave the impression that Jesus just brought the New Rules. Instead of embodying the message of grace, we occupy ourselves with passing judgment.
Followers of Jesus know that he came to us when we were on a losing streak. Our belief in Jesus is a generous gift received in the time of our greatest need. Faith is not an intellectual or a moral or a spiritual achievement. Jesus himself teaches us to be meek and humble even as we are steadfast in living out our faith. Instead, we sometimes speak in shrill tones, condescend to those with whom we differ, and arrogantly insist on our own way.
Some congregations forget the community in which the Spirit has planted them. If those congregations disappeared, no one in the town would notice. They have done nothing to enhance the life of their small corner of the world. They are too busy worrying about their own budgets, fussing about how to do worship, or fuming about the internal politics of the denomination.
No congregation is perfect. Jesus-followers are a work in progress as individuals. The same is true of the Jesus-following community.
Jesus himself is the perfect Truth who has chosen to make himself known to the world through his imperfect followers. Because the Spirit is at work in us, we communicate the perfect Truth of Jesus Christ to the world by being true to him in our imperfect way.
Here are a couple of ways that the truth happens through us.
We seek Jesus in the face of strangers. Notice that I said we seek the face of Jesus. I did not say that we see Jesus in the face of strangers, as if we automatically recognized our Friend and Savior in everyone we meet.
On the contrary, Jesus-followers are very realistic. We realize that some people are very difficult to like. Strangers are just that, someone strange to us. Someone whose opinions, appearance, social status, race, sexual orientation, economic class, behavior, or background tempt us to put up walls and keep our distance.
The rich may condescend to the poor. The poor may mistrust the rich. Conservatives call Progressives socialists. Progressives assume that Conservatives care nothing about their neighbor. Depending on who you are, someone else’s skin color, weight, hair color, body piercings, bow tie, accent, or taste in clothes will press your buttons.
Jesus-followers are not immune to the very human tendency to keep strangers at arm’s length. But to be true to our teacher and friend, we seek him out precisely where it takes some work. We don’t automatically see Jesus in the face of the stranger. Instead, we ask his help in improving our ability to see him with each new stranger we meet.
That’s the first way that we communicate the Truth. The second one is this. Each congregation serves the poor and needy within the surrounding community. We feed the hungry, clothe the ragged, and shelter the homeless.
We provide supplies to underfunded schools, teach illiterate adults to read, and offer after-school programs for at-risk youth.
We bring worship and homemade cookies to prison populations, staff shelters, deliver brown bag lunches to the homeless, and provide access to medical care.
Lots of people devote their whole lives to securing a better place for themselves in the world. Followers of Jesus seek to make the world a better place for everybody. After all, God loved the world so much that he gave his only son for its redemption.
And isn’t that the Truth we are sent into the world to deliver? God is loving us right now. God’s love is healing us and transforming us and making us whole. It’s a message best delivered by hands and feet. The Spirit of Truth speaks most clearly through our action.
This sermon was preached at St. James, Shreveport.