All Together

Happy birthday, Church! In my family, birthdays were a big deal. You got to choose your favorite meal and type of cake for our mother to prepare. You could expect presents, cards with cash, and the whole family singing Happy Birthday before you made a wish and blew out the candles.

There was one other requirement. After the singing, everyone clapped and cried “Speech! Speech!” And you had to make a speech (though I’ll admit the bar was pretty low). Some words of gratitude, something you were looking forward to doing in your new exalted age, and of course how much you loved each family member. Though the ritual elicited eyerolling during our teenaged years, it was observed without fail—and has even carried over into succeeding generations of family birthdays.

Call me a traditionalist, but I propose the same for us this morning as we celebrate Pentecost, the Church’s birthday, the stunning event that transformed the inexperienced, anxious band of disciples during the days following Jesus’ earthly departure into a Spirit-led, purposive community of compassion and bold witness.

A little family history before we read the text. Millennia before the Church was born, there were people gathered in tribes and kinship groups. The world was vast and untraveled. The story is told in Genesis to explain how there came to be huge diversity among the world’s people: different histories, beliefs, cultures, and languages. You may have heard of the “Tower of Babel”—a great ziggurat-like structure the people conspired to build to reach all the way to the heavens.

Like all attempts to wield unbridled power and absolute control, it failed, yet one more example of the myth of unity. That is, the myth that unity is realized only through a single language, story, and rule. In many ways, the history of civilization can be told through this myth, from the Greek and Roman empires and British colonialism, to the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny decimating indigenous peoples in the Americas, Hitler’s genocidal vision of one Aryan race (including contemporary examples), and the rise of Christian Nationalism.

It’s called the “myth” of unity because it’s not real. Humans will always scatter, divide and conquer, create systems of injustice and inequity, center one story over all others, and develop hierarchies of power to impose order and restraint on others.

Which makes the Biblical narrative of Pentecost so compelling and so countercultural. Listen carefully for the ways unity is described here. What provokes gratitude in this story? What does it call us to become and do? How does it demonstrate God’s love for all people? A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter two, verses one through twenty-one. Hear God’s Word to the Church on its birthday. [ACTS 2:1-21]

They were all together in one place.

The Spirit of God showed up as fire and wind, and suddenly a movement is born. Everyone receives good news about God’s presence “with all flesh” and power to make whole what has been broken and divided. Notice that everyone heard Peter’s witness not because he spoke a single language, but because they heard it in their own language. I’m always tempted to skip over the long list of countries and regions, but I never do because it’s actually important to experience the connection between God’s Spirit and human diversity.

Christian faith is ignited amid human difference, and Christian unity is a gift that supersedes cultural and national identity, and any of the vast array of differences in race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, socio-economic location, politics, or anything else.

On the day of Pentecost, they were all together and they were all filled with the Spirit and abundance of almighty God. They went out into the public square and all the people heard the message.

Happy birthday, Church! To express our gratitude for the Spirit that unites us, I invite us to a brief moment of silence, and then invite you to say “thank you” aloud in whatever languages can be spoken here. [Call out gracias. . . . merci. . . . todah. . . . shukran….American sign language hand to mouth and then forward] Thank you, friends. And thanks be to God!

Happy birthday, Church! Birthday celebrations are not simply remembrances of the actual birth, one moment fixed in time, never to be repeated. They are celebrations of who we’re growing to be, and what new insights, skills, and actions we plan to embrace.

And I don’t think it’s too big a stretch to suggest that celebrating the Church’s birthday today calls us to welcome the newcomers in our community. I even dare to believe that worldwide immigration offers a Pentecost opportunity to embody the good news available to all, grow in understanding of what unites us across human difference, and practice the love that will renew and energize the whole world, including this church, this City, our nation.

Think about it: how can we limit the illimitable God by speaking only one language and telling one story and imagining that it is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? The reality is so much greater! We need other languages, other narratives, other perspectives even to begin to grasp the global expanse of God’s love, and how it animates the life of the Church. What does this mean? exclaimed those folks at the birth.

And even now, millennia later, we’re still figuring that out. But one thing’s sure: the newcomers are part of the solution, not the problem. And though the stories shared by some of them are painful to hear, they are necessary and important to allow the Spirit to move in the Church, transforming Christ’s body that has become so institutionalized and so captive to American cultural values and lust for power.

I hope you’ll extend your time a bit this morning to hear Mayor Mike Johnston outline Denver’s multiple responses to welcome these newcomers (some 20,000 people), and how Central has and can support them through the kind of accompaniment modeled by Rob and Celeste Habiger, Chris and Lisa Primus, Mark and Julie Earnest and others, and Denver presbytery’s Journey with Migrants initiative with which Central is deeply engaged.

At a time when the Church is often characterized as irrelevant and impotent, just imagine the fire of love and the winds of change to revive us! A Pentecost of power exercised not through control and domination and loyalty to human authority, but through active love, shared commitment, and trust in the God whose realm is universal.

The gift of unity through inclusion; not imply acknowledging but learning from those of other backgrounds, cultures, and stories. The very power of God unleashed through God’s beloved people. Imagine! Makes you want to be all together in one place. Amen? Amen!

Happy Birthday Church! Our celebration needs one thing more. An answer to the question asked so long ago; a question to be answered by the Church in every generation. How is it that we hear, every single one of us, in our own native language? You know what it is, friends. There’s only one answer. Love. God’s love for us and all people. Jesus’ love demonstrated through service and sacrifice. Spirit-love that fills us with power beyond our own to love, love, and love again. One another, so dear and annoying. Our neighbors, newcomers and old-timers. The world, as fragile and vulnerable as any of us. Love. There’s always enough and more. Happy Birthday, Church.

Thanks be to God!