Tom Shaw–the late bishop of Massachusetts–used to work out in a storefront gym in his home in West Newbury. Some of the trainers there knew that he was connected to the church, but they didn’t know any of the specifics. He had never worn his clerical collar into the gym and apparently had not said anything about the Episcopal Church or being a bishop. Everybody just called him Tom.
One of the trainers was named Ryan. Tom knew him to be a seeker but to have no church affiliation. Ryan became a dad for the first time, and when he returned to work after the birth of his daughter Isabel everybody congratulated him. Tom said, “How about a baptism?”
Ryan wanted to think about it and to check in with the baby’s mom. The next time Tom showed up at the gym, Ryan said that they were up for it. So, Tom scheduled a time to come by the house for what he assumed would be some baptismal preparation.
On a Wednesday night Tom pulled up to the house. Dressed informally, he wore no clerical collar and carried no Prayer Book. He was puzzled to see a number of cars already parked in the driveway.
Perhaps the couple lived with their parents, he thought. Maybe this is a duplex. And then it dawned on him. This is a party. Ryan and Laura think that we’re baptizing the baby tonight.
Just as he had guessed, Tom steps into the house to find a festive table laden with food. Both sets of grandparents are there. Ryan and Laura then lead him to the backyard to show him where they thought the baptism should be. He meets the godparents for the first time: little Isabel’s four-year old brother as well as his seven- and eight-year-old sisters.
None of them–neither Ryan, nor Laura, nor their respective parents, nor any of the children–had any church affiliation. They all wanted Isabel to be baptized. It wasn’t clear that any of them quite grasped what in the world that meant.
In the Episcopal Church we baptize in the church at a principal service because it is an act of God and a commitment by the community. God not only transforms us in baptism. He weaves us into the very Body of Christ. We are marked as Christ’s own forever. Parents and grandparents and godparents and the gathered congregation promise to support and nurture the candidate in the way of Christ.
And yet, here were people gathered in community outside of the official structures of church yearning for and expecting God to show up in their midst. They had only the foggiest notion of what that might mean. But they were down right giddy about it.
Now what, bishop?
These people are outside the church. Isn’t it his job to bring them into the church? Then baptize them?
Well, maybe not. Maybe these people have not gathered themselves waiting for God. Instead, God has already gathered them together. They are people gathered by God. That’s what the Church is. The people gathered by God. They just don’t reside within our established ecclesiastical structures.
God is already at work in the world. The Church’s role is to engage God’s mission in the world where the Spirit is already at work.
So what did Bishop Shaw do? We’ll get back to that in a minute. First, let’s consider how much this resembles what happened on Pentecost.
The twelve had been in the upper room for nine days. That’s right. Twelve. They had all voted to replace the deceased traitor Judas with Matthias to restore just the right proto-ecclesiastical structure. Huddled together in the narrow but safe confines of a garage apartment, the disciples prayed and prayed and prayed with all their familiar friends.
And then the Holy Spirit turned everything upside down. You probably think I mean the whole wind and tongues of fire thing inside the upper room. And yes, the Spirit’s activity in the hearts and the minds of the disciples is a crucial part of this story.
But the Spirit was working outside that room in an even more unlikely way. People had gathered. Yes, they had gathered for the agricultural festival known as Pentecost. And yet, there was something more. God the Holy Spirit had gathered people of every ethnic group, social class, and language
God was forming a Church out on the street. The few praying in the upper room were only a small fraction of a motley, diverse, ragtag group God called together that day. The Spirit sent the disciples out into the street. Had they stayed within the safety of the walls of their little room, they would have missed it completely.
And notice what the disciples did. They went out into the streets and preached and baptized. They baptized thousands on that day. Three thousand. And not once did they invite them to come on back up to the upper room with them. Even the disciples didn’t retreat to their comfortable haven. They fanned out into the neighborhood.
Now let’s return to Bishop Tom Shaw’s backyard adventure. Here was a group of people yearning for God precisely because God himself had gathered them. Should he insist that they enter the ecclesiastical structures that he had sworn to nurture and govern and protect? Should he insist that they come into the Church as we have organized it in order to receive the grace conveyed by the sacraments?
To his credit, Tom saw that he was having a Pentecost moment. The Spirit was already moving in the world, and the Church’s real calling was to engage the work that God was already doing. He baptized little Isabel that day in the family’s backyard.
Some believe that the Church is declining today because the average Sunday attendance in worship services is declining. It is true that the ecclesiastical structures to which we have grown accustomed are meeting the spiritual needs of fewer and fewer people. But that does not mean that the Church is declining.
The Church is the people of God gathered by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the risen Christ. God is gathering his people in new and previously unnoticed ways. God gathers his people in laundromats and pubs, in living rooms and desert amphitheaters, in storefronts and community gardens, in schools and offices and nursing homes and homeless enclaves.
God is restructuring the Church in thousands upon thousands of Pentecost moments all around us. God is not starting from the inside of our accustomed ecclesiastical structures. Oh, he’s shaking plenty of us up in heart and mind. But his big gathering work is happening in the world around us. God is calling us to change how we are Church by calling us to engage what he is already doing in the world.
Our challenge is to bring Word and Sacrament to God’s new gatherings, not to convince these people that they’ve been doing it wrong because they’re not in our house.
Pentecost moments are happening all around us. But we will miss the holy party completely unless we get out of our safe upper rooms and venture out onto the streets.
Bishop Jake Owensby preached this sermon at Calvary Episcopal Church in Bunkie, Louisiana.