The first Sunday of this month, we celebrate Pentecost, traditionally observed as the “birth” of Christ’s Church, the fiftieth day after his Resurrection when he sent the promised gift of the Holy Spirit upon his chosen apostles, and from the original group of around 120 (Acts 1:15), “that day about three thousand persons were added” (Acts 2:41).
That was a great evangelism program! And it only got better:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers . . . All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
It was an idyllic picture. But it didn’t last. In the 5th chapter we get the story of Ananias and Sapphira trying to cheat the church in their giving, and paying a stiff price for it, and in the 6th chapter we find “when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.” So all was not perfect in the early Church.
Yet there’s something oddly assuring about these mixed reports of the Church’s first growth and struggles. We see that the Church had its gifts and strengths, its inspiration and vision, and it had its difficulties and disagreements, squabbles and human failings.
Yet God continued to bless and nurture and use it to proclaim God’s mission and extend the reconciling work of Christ beyond Jerusalem, beyond Palestine and out into the whole world. The Acts of the Apostles is sometimes called the Book of the Holy Spirit, for again and again we see the Spirit at work, propelling God’s chosen men and women through good times and bad to proclaim the gospel, using flawed, imperfect folk (look at Paul!) to accomplish his divine intent.
And that is no less true today. The Church today, and the people in it, remains flawed and imperfect, afflicted with all manner of human failings. But God’s Spirit remains present to it, God’s call still comes to us through it, and Christ’s presence is revealed in it by Word and Sacrament, fellowship and service. As we celebrate our “birthday” once more and enter again the green season of growth and renewal, may our hearts be renewed by God’s millennia-old birthday gifts of forgiveness, grace and power to fulfill his saving purposes among us.