We act like the best way to change the world is to stand firm behind the institutions we’ve created and the ideologies they promote. It seems admirable: pool our resources together to form an organization that can more fully do what individually we cannot. To safeguard that new pool of resources, we must develop rules and procedures to ensure it isn’t squandered or abused. The bigger the pool, the more the procedures and the more guards. The yoke we thought was freedom becomes burdensome.
One of the great losses that occurs when churches become institutions is the shift in focus away from people and toward maintaining and preserving the institution itself. It is as though the institution becomes a person, though not in a corporate “we are the church” way. It becomes a person of supreme importance, a god, and far too often that personified institution is someone/thing toward which we hurl our resources at the expense of the people who were meant to be served by it.
During his life Jesus railed against the institutionalization of the Temple and the exclusionary tactics of the Pharisees that were designed to prop up the Temple structure. The church’s struggle with institutionalization must have fiercely wrestled with Jesus’ own words of scorn for the Temple structure. How can we embody with greatest fidelity the Kingdom of God in an organized way?
The New Testament lesson for this Sunday, Proper 8, is the Galatians message about using our freedom not for self-indulgence but for greater postures of service and love. The larger book of Galatians is a diatribe against division and structured rules of inclusion and exclusion. It is a letter for churches struggling with how to make sense of Jesus’ call against the very worst of the Temple and for the kind of radical love he so richly proclaimed. The church is best, the author argues, when it recognizes that each person should be in profound life-service of each other, not the institution. The NRSV translation says, “Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
In our contemporary American context we are seeing a slavish devotion to the national institution against a spirit of care for the person. News reports ring with the debate over building a border wall, the deportation of persons to their home countries, and the gross and barbaric mistreatment of children in detention centers. The elevation of the national institution and the desire to preserve its purity is costing the nation what remained of its conscience.
But just like all organizations and institutions, the nation-state does not exist as an entity devoid of individual adherents or constituent parts. It is made of up people, many of whom claim to follow Jesus of Nazareth, who submit themselves again to a yoke of slavery that is allegiance to an organization. Such allegiance demands a full-bodied support of policies designed to sustain, elevate, and glorify the institution at the expense of any who appear as a threat to that institution. This is, at its core, diametrically opposed to the Gospel.
Perhaps the best argument to speak into such misguided allegiance is that the Kingdom of God that Jesus so passionately preached is not an institution. It is a movement of love and self-sacrifice that calls each person to devote themselves in true compassion to the good of the other even at the expense of the self. What would the work of mission and evangelism look like for a church that considered its primary (and dare I say “sole”) allegiance to the kind of cruciform love that Jesus heralded? I imagine it would see a rising up of persons committed to the care of the least among us. And as our world grows ever smaller, the “among us” begins to encompass more than before, including especially children locked away in detention centers.
Patterns of institutionalization in the church have led followers of Jesus to a form of self-slavery that fears the other and promotes a purity of organizational preservation at the expense of Christly love. At its heart, the Temple was a place to encounter the wondrous beauty, mystery, and presence of God. At its heart, the Church is a people who live that beauty, mystery, and presence of God in the world. Any organization that may come about as a means to facilitate that work must remember that it serves the mission, not vice versa. A movement of persons bound together in a common mission can and must be organized without offering a slavish devotion to the organization it creates. And when the organization gets in the way of self-sacrificing love, it should be disassembled.
Because any institution that promotes buildings over feeding the hungry, ideologies over caring for children, or politics over freeing the oppressed is an institution that has chosen itself over others and does not embody the message of our crucified Lord. As church we must be cautious against the kind of institutional patterns that seek purity and self-preservation. We must be agents of deep compassion, going as far as the Galatian author commends by becoming slaves to one another through love, even if that means giving up an institution we love.
That is really the only way the world will ever change.
This weekend, around the feast of Pentecost, I’ve been on a trip hauling passengers across a couple of states before returning home. My family decided to have a yard sale this weekend and my oldest daughter, Samantha, now 8, went through her toys to sell what she doesn’t play with anymore. My wife, Amanda, told me at the end of the day what had been sold, and there in that list were toys that brought up vivid memories of playing with Samantha when she was younger. I was saddened by the loss of these toys. Really, though, I was saddened about the loss of what I remember in those moments when she was 3 and 4 and I would sit on the floor and play with her with a Minnie Mouse doll.
The truth is, being away from the people you love is hard. When I am on these trips I live in my memories of my wife and kids and I cherish all the times we had and hopefully will continue to have. But living in the memories has its limits. My daughter is no longer 3. She is a vibrant, maturing, beautiful and inquisitive 8 years old. While she might not still fall asleep on my lap watching Barney, she does hug me close and write me notes and want to share jokes she’s made up. The little girl that I held in my arms isn’t gone. All that made her beautiful and lovely is still inside her, combining the experiences of the subsequent years to form her into who she is today, because our existence isn’t just our past or our present. It is the fullness of both folded into and looking ahead toward our potential selves.
I’ve been reflecting on the Pentecost story in Acts this week as we lead up to its feast day. The lectionary selection gives us only one part of the story: the Spirit of God falling upon the followers of Jesus as they gathered for worship and fellowship. The story is filled with wondrous images of how God was working. It would be a mistake, though, to isolate this section of the story and call it Pentecost. The feast of Pentecost marks the closing of the Easter season which began 50 days ago with the resurrection, itself a closing of the Lenten season which began some 50 days before that. Lent is a continuation of the telling of the life of Jesus begun in ordinary time and Christmas, the latter a capstone to the Advent season of waiting. And just as Pentecost isn’t the beginning, the story of the Spirit falling on the disciples at Pentecost doesn’t end there. It goes on to tell of the early church growing up together in prayer, teaching, and eucharistic contemplation.
Living in the individual memories of particular times is a beautiful way to re-capture and remember something that changed us, warmed up, nurtured us. On the Feast of Pentecost we remember how our forebears were overcome with the divine presence of a God who didn’t want to leave the family behind, of a God who, just like us, doesn’t want to be alone. To see the biggest picture of who God is and who we are, however, we need to zoom out. The Pentecost story is one part, one memory of God wanting to be with us as we grow up and live into our full potential as humanity and as creation.
We are not alone, and because of that we are not just one aspect of our past or an isolated glimpse of our presence. We are the sum of every person that we have been, morphing together into the promise of who we are yet to be. We may not any longer be the church in Jerusalem sitting in an upper room near the Temple, praying in hope in the weeks following Jesus’ death. But that is still part of who we are just as much as every other part of our story as the Church. Samantha isn’t 3, playing with a Minnie Mouse doll and watching Barney, but that sweet little girl is still part of her and still part of me, too.
This Pentecost (and Pentecost-tide), cherish the moments of life and wonder of being in the hope and life of God. Then zoom out and look at the whole picture of your life, the life of your community and family, the life of the church, the life of creation. See God at work in new and spectacular ways. And never forget that God is remembering us, too, and delighting in who we were, are, and will be.
What a wildly wonderful world, God!
You made it all, with Wisdom at your side,
made earth overflow with your wonderful creations.
Send out your Spirit and they spring to life—Psalm 104:24, 30 (The Message)
the whole countryside in bloom and blossom.
The Prayer of Great Thanksgiving, that wonderfully rich poetic template of praise that precedes the breaking and blessing of bread and cup in the Eucharist, closes with an exhortation to the Holy Spirit to be poured out upon the gifts and the community that gathers to receive them. It is a petition to transform something ordinary into something extraordinary celebration and beauty. Throughout the biblical narrative we are enjoined to the God who pours out the Divine Spirit into such ordinary human moments, and the result is always extraordinary.
Remember the Pentecost story, which the church marks and remembers and celebrates on Sunday, as one notable example of the Holy Spirit poured out. The Acts storyteller paints a vivid picture of the descending of God as sounding like the rush of a violent wind and appearing as divided tongues as of fire. The Pauline theologian in Romans, the New Testament corollary text, tells us that the Holy Spirit is not a spirit of slavery that leads us into fear but a spirit of adoption reminding us that we are children of God and heirs in Christ. The Hebrew book of Joel which is referenced in the Acts Pentecost account says that God’s Spirit will cause people to tell the truth, see visions, dream dreams. And thinking beyond the Pentecost narratives into the rest of the biblical story we find the Spirit of God shaking the doorposts of the Temple and surging as a violent earthquake, speaking in bushes that are on fire but do not burn, inhabiting animals to deliver important messages, and sweeping through nothingness to create light and water and wind and man.
If the feast of Pentecost teaches us anything about God, it is that the Holy Spirit of the God of our forebears is anything but safe and reliable. The Spirit that speaks quietly into our souls in moments of still devotion may lead us to believe that God’s wind is tame, but we believe so at our own risk. When we invoke the Holy Spirit to come upon us and transform anything, are we truly prepared for what that may bring?
The institutionalization of Christianity has transformed a collection of Jesus-followers who were accused of morning public drunkenness because of the inhabiting of the Holy Spirit into an organization of bank accounts and business meetings and carpet cleanings. Though there is nothing inherently wrong about a church that functions as an organization, it can too easily deceive us into believing that the Holy Spirit speaks most clearly when s/he makes the most rational sense. And in the institutionalized realm of the church, that spirit is one of bottom lines and success.
Surely the order of God, of which the Pauline author writes in Corinthians, is more than a well maintained organizational structure or a clean building. What if the order of God is a disordering of our complicated and unnecessarily burdensome systems so that we can be re-ordered into the ways of God’s shalom? What if the Holy Spirit wants to deconstruct all that we have built, our Babels, so that we can experience the fullness of God in life and in each other? What if the call of the Holy Spirit is like the call of a poor Jewish carpenter who told us to give up everything, everything, to follow?
The Holy Spirit is a wild spirit, untamed and untethered by our desire to keep in a cage something that we cannot otherwise control. The Holy Spirit sweeps, bursts, breaks into our world like a violent wind and like fire and advocates for us and for all those who cannot advocate for themselves. It reminds us of what we are supposed to be: God’s children, heirs with Christ, not given to fear but alive in hope.
I encourage you to celebrate the Eucharist this Pentecost Sunday. But when your celebrant prays for the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and wine and gathered community, brace yourself. Be ready for the wild ride that the Spirit might bring you on and be ready to give up all that holds you in fear so that you may spring forth into life. Be ready to tell the truth about what you see, to have visions of what God is doing, and to dream the dreams of a better world where God’s presence is moving and making all things new.
The Gospel lesson for Pentecost ends with a remarkable benediction, an admonition from Jesus on how to live when we encounter the awesome unpredictability in the Spirit: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
May it be so.