Happy Birthday Church!
Does that sound odd to you? To wish the church a Happy Birthday?
Perhaps you never quite thought of it that way, but the day of Pentecost, which we celebrate each year, 50 days after Easter – really is an observance of the birthday of the Church.
So let’s say it together one more time – Happy Birthday Church!
In some ways, this birthday is just like any other birthday. The Acts reading presents an image of a group of people gathering in wait for the guest to arrive - perhaps thinking they will provide a surprise greeting to an unexpecting honoree. The guests are filled with expectation and anticipation of the arrival of one that has promised to arrive at any moment.
And like all birthdays, the one we observe today is not just an event – not simply a moment in time to be remembered - but it is also a threshold in history - one which marks the end of one process and the beginning of another. Just as a child is formed over time inside its mother prior to being born - the birth of the church at Pentecost is linked forever to HER formation in the holy womb nurtured by God’s Word and nourished by God’s promises – Word and promises made alive in Jesus Christ – the God who came to dwell with us.
And like any other birthday - today we remember the emergence of new life as the Holy Spirit launched God’s people along a trajectory on which we are still travelling nearly 2000 years later.
We were then – just as we are now - a church sent out into a dangerous world of confusing voices and noises. But because of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of God which gave birth to the church at Pentecost – we do so as a church empowered with a wonderful message of clarity and unity of purpose which breaks boundaries and tears down walls.
So Pentecost - like any other birthday - is a moment “in between” – between Jesus’ preparation of his followers - and the sending of those followers as apostles into the world – A moment pregnant with the anticipation of something special waiting to happen – some new life bound to emerge – and as any first time parent knows – new life changes everything.
Yet in many ways– this is a birthday like no other birthday. A birthday party - like no other birthday party.
Instead of singing the jovial Happy Birthday jingle - the Holy Spirit makes a different kind of music – signaling her presence with a loud echoing sound - a heavy billowing wind gust - a noise that made the gathered witnesses shudder. The Spirit is the one who shouts “SURPRISE” at the gathered guests.
And like no other party - instead of blowing candles out on her birthday cake the Spirit’s wind lit candles ablaze - not just for the twelve disciples - but to unify - and give purpose to - an entire movement we know as the church.
And these candles are even more resilient than those tricky relighting candles some of us have placed on a birthday cake as a cute practical joke. After the fun wears off, you can still put those flames out. But once the Holy Spirit lights YOUR candle – nothing can douse its flame – you are forever ablaze for God.
And like no other birthday party, the gifts that were given - at this party - were not given TO the birthday girl, but were instead poured out by the host of the party onto all the guests – God’s Holy Spirit now living inside each of us, and swarming all around us
Out of the Spirit’s unlimited treasury of grace – we remember today the gifts that were poured out on the church and upon each of us that have been baptized into her promises. These gifts are not just party favors – we don’t all get the same one - and they don’t sit on the shelf gathering dust. The gifts the Holy Spirit rains down on us, are gifts to be used – to be given to others – as we pass on the empowering Holy Spirit to all those we meet.
The church was born into a world that was messy. The disciples that day were gathered together in great anticipation - but also in fear that their lives were in jeopardy. Those first Pentecost celebrants, and the ones that celebrated the church’s birthday for decades to follow also lived in fear that their lives were at risk. Their world was as violent and confusing a place as our world is today – and perhaps even more so.
And in the face all those risks – all those reasons to just run away and hide – all the death and violence and messiness of the world – new life broke in and changed things forever. Now let’s be clear - The Holy Spirit did not emerge on Pentecost to miraculously alter the state of the world – and maybe that’s the biggest surprise of this birthday party!
Instead the Holy Spirit came and has changed us – changed the way we see the world into the way God sees the world.
God is not blind to the world that is broken all around us. God doesn’t ignore the fact that the world remains a violent place, unsafe for so many – that the world is our home – but one with no home for refugees - or for street dwellers – a world that is too divided into rich and poor – black, brown and white – weak and powerful – deserving and undeserving – stranger and native. A world where serving the interests of a few TRUMP the virtues of serving and caring for the common good.
The Holy Spirit helps us see this suffering the way God sees it – and calls us to live in solidarity with those who suffer violence and injustice in the world. To notice those who might otherwise be invisible to us. To see everyone as one of God’s beloved children – as someone to be claimed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
And while the Spirit indeed opens our eyes to what is really happening around us, we are not simply observers – we become actors in the church’s birthday story. Our blown-out candles are lit by this incredible power poured onto us by God. In the face of the world’s brokenness and injustices – we are empowered by God to speak with tongues of fire – to say to the world – enough to racism - enough to planet abuse - enough to bombs - enough to hunger.
And we remember today, on the church’s birthday, that WE are the ones who receive the gifts – the gifts of the Spirit. They are not all the same gifts – but none are more or less valuable than others. They are to be used – but can never be used up, because they come from God. Whether you teach or preach - lead or serve - organize or support – you are enabled to do these things because of the Holy Spirit that has been poured out upon you.
And now – one more time – – let's say together – Happy Birthday Church!
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About this website
Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church (GA) in New York City has been chosen as one of eight internship congregations to participate this year in a church-wide initiative designed to increase our understanding of Holy Scripture and most importantly, to cultivate our engagement with it. In partnership with The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, Vicar John Heidgerd will be working to develop innovative ways to deepen our faith formation and sense of discipleship for the sake of ourselves and our communities.