Friday, 25 May 2012

The Meaning and Purpose of the Church

Peter Lockhart

Today we celebrate the day of Pentecost. It is the day that we remember that the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples. The significance of this event has been recognised in that Pentecost is often referred to as the birthday of the church.

The pouring out of the Holy Spirit of the on the early Church means that the church is the Church in the Power of the Holy Spirit. There is a famous theological book written by Jurgen Moltmann with that very title “The Church in the Power of the Spirit”.

The source of life and meaning stem not from a human decision to create some concocted religious institution but by the very intervention of God in history, God establishes the Church by binding people with God and each other through the Holy Spirit.

The presence of the Spirit in the church is not some vague and erratic power which responds to our will but has a specific purpose and direction.

Jesus summarises the work of the Holy Spirit for his disciples in this way. He says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

For me this means that ultimately the presence of the Spirit is to ground us in what God was doing in and through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Even more than that, as the church in the power of the Spirit our purpose and meaning come from God and what God was up to in Jesus!

So here we sit this Pentecost remembering the birth of the church and as many a person does on their birthday we are reflecting on what we are meant to be doing with our life as the church.

To paraphrase from the Scriptures, notably the only quote from the Bible used in the Basis of Union in the Uniting Church in Australia, God’s work in Jesus Christ was the reconciliation of all things to God.

Jesus presence in the world tells us 2 things. First, that the world, and more specifically people, are in conflict with God. Second, that despite this conflict God acts to bridge the gap, to reconcile and renew the relationship.

This is what God was up to in Jesus Christ. When we examine his life we see that Jesus walks about the earth, God among us, building bridges between people, re-establishing community, through healing and teaching, opposing evil as he cats out demons, declaring God’s mercy as he forgave those alienated from God and others.

And, ultimately, on the cross bearing within himself those things which are not of God and God’s love and bearing them down into the ground with him as he descended into the dead.

The resurrection declares that all that can bears us down into death, all that oppose God in this world, cannot hold God’s love for us within the tomb of our despair. God gives us hope.

When the Spirit is poured out at Pentecost it precisely to enjoin the disciples and so the church with God’s will to reconcile and renew people in their lives.

Jesus life, death and resurrection whilst encased in a particular moment in history transcends the boundaries of time to connect all peoples with this hope, this message.

God’s will for humanity is not enmity, it is not judgement and rejection, it is not retribution or revenge. In Christ we see that God’s will for those who would reject God and forget God’s ways is love, is mercy, is providence, is generosity, is joy, is peace, is justice, is hope.

This is the good news and the purpose, or the mission of the church is this, to share with others what God’s mission in Jesus Christ was, is and will be.

Living on this side of the resurrection we have glimpsed something profound and marvellous about God and God’s love and God’s desire for reconciliation but no less do we live in a world in which we and others continue to reject God.

The rejection God is not simply the decision to become an atheist but to live opposition to the way of love that God always intended.

In the sometime unpopular jargon of the church we call this problem of being out of step with God sin. It is the inclination to think we know better and that we don’t need to God.

The consequences are as we know devastating. Humanity has never had a period in its history free from war. We sit here in safety whilst Australian troops serve overseas. We can say all sorts of things about why there are wars but in the promise of God’s life war has no place for we will not find enemies among each other as human beings.

But war can feel far and removed from we who sit here yet that does not mean we are free from the problem of sin. Sin is an insidious and complex beast. We are schooled in our western culture that we must buy more and more things to be happy – it is actually called coveting.

To provide the more and more and more that we want we, often with little awareness, participate in destructive and exploitative systems. For example, in this congregation we buy “Fair trade” coffee which is like an act of penance because we know that when we sit in a coffee shop later in the week we may be drinking coffee with beans picked by children used as slaves, so we can enjoy our latte.

These complexities of exploitation are beyond you and I to solve, although one might argue every little bit helps, so we come and we confess and we are confronted with the news that we too need Jesus who reconciles us with each other and God. We cling to the message of hope that these systems of sinfulness will find an end.

I could go on – my point is clear to quote the apostle Paul “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

The Spirit we celebrate that was poured out on this day joins us again to God’s life despite this problem of sin and draws us in to what Jesus was on about.

The purpose of our birth, the mission of the church to be technical, is to be found in understanding and being drawn by the power of the Spirit into the mission of God in Jesus Christ.

We are to be a people who work for the end which God in view for all things – reconciliation!

Let me take us back to the day of Pentecost from the scriptures to begin to glean what that is about.

The Day of Pentecost was one of the great Jewish Festivals, it was a harvest festival. In the book Leviticus beyond the offerings and worship of God the people were to the following as part of their celebration of the harvest, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.”

God’s concern, right from the earliest days, is providence for all peoples. The poor and the alien should be treated with charity and equity. This is about human dignity and the ability of all people to enjoy the abundance of life, which is a gift from God.

Jesus own life reflects just such a concern for the poor and the church in the power of the Spirit is empowered to reflect this in its own life. Our celebration of God’s goodness must always be accompanied by the practical outworking of God’s concern for all people’s as we leave the edge of our harvest for the poor.

This might mean sponsoring a child, or donating to charity, or working on an ecumenical coffer brigade. As we do these things our worship and service become witness that God’s agenda is love and equity and justice.

The second example I would give to you is from the day of Pentecost described by Luke in the book of Acts. On that day people spoke in different languages but others heard those words in their own. God’s Spirit intervenes to break down the barrier of language created by human culture without taking that culture away.

For those of you who remember the story of the tower of Babel it is a reversal of God’s scattering of the people who had sought to storm heaven in their arrogance. Now once again in this moment people have the ability to hear one another again – they are reconciled from the barrier which had kept them apart. Humanity is given back it s unity in Christ and through the Spirit.

The church in the power of the Spirit, its purpose, its mission is to build bridges of understanding. Anytime such bridges are built God’s will becomes apparent – we are not to be strangers separated by language or culture we are brothers and sisters in the love of God.

As we celebrate on this day of Pentecost the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, we celebrate the good news that God’s agenda in Jesus is reconciliation – God’s love transcends our desire for conflict.

Over the next 6 weeks as a congregation we are going to travel more deeply into understanding the purpose and meaning of our birth as the church, or to use the jargon to seek to understand the mission of the church. Our starting point though is this: the Holy Spirit has been poured out to help us to know and understand and be joined to the mission of God in Jesus Christ. So if he our true north let us set our compasses and embark on this journey open to the teaching of the Spirit and ready for the invitation to hope.

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