I am taking a break from my survey of the history of the Church through the centuries to reflect for a moment about that topic and the celebration of Pentecost this Sunday. Pentecost is often considered the “birthday of the Church” because it is the day we celebrate the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus’ followers fifty days after Easter, an occurrence referenced in Acts 2:1-21. In that moment, Jesus’ followers are given the task of continuing his work in the world: proclaiming the Gospel of love, healing the sick, challenging injustice, and building a faithful community. What my brief revisiting of Church history has reminded me is how the way in which the Church has fulfilled that ministry has changed dramatically in so many ways throughout its existence. Those changes came from not only internal evolutions in theology and scholarship, but also in response to changes in the outside world. Those outside changes include how the secular governments treated the Church and what technological innovations had occurred that would be folded into Church life (like the use of the printing press or improvements in architecture).
Furthermore, there is no way to realistically conceive of “going back” to a way that the Church had been before. I think of this metaphorically like the show Quantum Leap, where the main character travelled back through the years of his own life to inhabit other bodies in the past for some purpose. Now imagine if your own consciousness was thrust back in time into your own body in the past, with full knowledge of what had already happened. How you could be the person, in that moment, that you were then? You couldn’t. Because you’ve internalized your own experiences and are no longer the same person.
Now let’s move the metaphor to reality. Just as we could not recreate the Church of the 1500’s or the 1800’s or even the first generation of Christians depicted in the Pentecost event, we must also acknowledge that we can not go back even such a little distance as December 2019. So much has been revealed, good and ill, about our society in light of the challenge of COVID-19. So much forced growth and adaptation has occurred within our own parish. People across the country watch our services now; why would we want to lose that? We are more aware of the health risks and vulnerabilities to some of our members; how can we ignore that? Finally, on what may be perhaps my most controversial comment in this essay, we have been made aware of our own profound dependence on comfort, familiarity, control, and the legions of people working in the service sector economy whose work gives us those things. How can we, confronted with that, shun self-conviction and the opportunity to grow and instead continue in that path? In the Book of Common Prayer we confess to God our tendency to pray and worship “for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal” (Eucharistic Prayer C, p. 372) and we ask God for deliverance.
On this Feast Day of Pentecost may we embrace the ever-changing, ever-overcoming, ever-growing mission of Christ for the Church.
Yours in Christ,