The Spirit calls all to the love of God

June 01, 2012 12:54 pm

Happy Birthday, Church! May 27 was Pentecost Sunday, which has been traditionally held as the inception of the Christian Church by the giving of the Holy Spirit. Originally Pentecost was an agricultural celebration, being seven weeks after the presentation of the first sheaf of spring barley for the Passover. (Israel is further south than us, spring comes earlier). 

Later, Pentecost became associated with the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, so bestowing the Holy Spirit on this day held great symbolic meaning. In a reversal of the Tower of Babel, the Spirit burst forth, driving the followers of Jesus out into the streets to tell the Good News of God through Jesus Christ in all the languages of the world. At least the world as they knew it. The world of the Jews and those who had joined in the Jewish faith, but not the Celts, the Chinese or the Cayuse. Not yet.

Later, while Philip was walking down the road to Gaza, the Holy Spirit directed him toward a man in a chariot reading the scroll of Isaiah. This man in the chariot was a follower of God, coming from Jerusalem, but he would have been barred from temple worship. You see, this man was an Ethiopian and a eunuch, which made him ritually unacceptable. Still the Spirit was present, the man was baptized and a new church was born that day, one a little more inclusive. Happy Birthday, Church!

Even later, Peter had a vision in which he was told not to call unclean anything that God had created. Immediately thereafter, representatives showed up from a God follower named Cornelius. Cornelius was a Roman soldier, an officer, which put him and his people really on the outside of the church at that time. Yet, the Spirit was present, these Roman foreigners were baptized and Peter announced that “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” 

Because of this Spirit-inspired event, missioners went out to the Mediterranean, Europe, Asia and all the world. This is the birth of the church that includes even me. Happy Birthday, Church!

Recently, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church met in Florida. As the only group that can speak for the entirety of United Methodism, they function as the gatekeepers of this branch of God’s Church.

As with all denominations, really at all times, one of the issues was who can be included, and who is excluded, from the ministry of the church.

I don’t think anyone went into this General Conference with high hopes for a sweeping removal of the barriers to participation that have been erected around some groups of people. Perhaps the most crushing blow was the refusal to even consider a statement that as a body of Christians, we do not agree on the issues of inclusion and exclusion.

People have asked me, in the wake of this, how can we continue to call ourselves the United Methodist Church? How can we keep saying that we have “open doors, open minds, open hearts?”

Tongue in cheek I’ve suggested that we change the name to the Untied Methodist Church. Happy birthday church? Looking at our scriptural history, it is clear that the Holy Spirit’s work has been to open the circle of the church to larger and more unexpected groups with each “birthday.” This hasn’t happened in great synods or conferences, but in small intimate settings where the people involved were surprised by the outcome. Surprised by the Spirit. 

What the United Methodist church will do, I don’t know. I only know that in this time and this place, the Spirit calls all to the love of God, regardless of race, economics and even sexuality. We are not called to do this through compromise, but with compassion. 

Happy Birthday, Church!


Steven A. Wolff is lead pastor ot the La Grande United Methodist Church.



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