The Rebirth of the Church: That Which Cannot Be Scheduled
A dear friend of mine and his wife, both priests, are getting ready to welcome their third child.
The baby is expected within the next two weeks, but as we know, even with all of modern medical science at our disposal, there really is no way to schedule or anticipate a birth. The baby comes when the baby is ready to come, and unless there is an urgent medical need to influence the birth more specifically…we wait.
We worry. We anticipate with joy. We guesstimate.
We exchange family stories and histories of other babies being born to hunt for clues as to how this birth might unfold.
And we wait, in a strange in-between world of being hyper-prepared while spinning our wheels.
We know we have to be ready for it to happen at any moment, but we also know that no matter how much mental or emotional energy we put into our racing thoughts, this momentous occasion will unfold at its own pace, in its own time.
As my friend was telling me about the strange liminal space he and his family inhabit while they wait for labor to begin, he mentioned how difficult it was to prepare for one of the most important days of his life while having no idea when it was going to happen.
And I thought: what if all the most important days of our lives were like that?
What if we knew that our wedding was approaching, but not what day it would be?
What if we had to have our graduation cap and gown packed up and ready to go, because our graduation ceremony could break out at any moment in the next two weeks?
When I think about the work I put into planning my ordination service, all the preparation and careful choreography—and how nervous I was that morning—and then to imagine that some invisible but undeniable signal could arrive at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday, out of the blue.
It’s time! Get everyone to the church! We have to ordain her! Get the bishop here, stat!
It’s funny to imagine, but the same amount of work, love, and preparation we put into major moments of our lives like graduations, weddings, and ordinations goes into the preparation for a birth.
But a birth completely lacks the certainty and ability to control what will happen and when that all of our other life milestones have.
This dynamic spoke to me as I thought about Pentecost. Because we are so familiar with the stories of the Bible, it’s difficult to put ourselves into the shoes of the people who experienced them in real time.
We know Pentecost is coming, a reliable fifty days after Easter. We have time to prepare, to print our bulletins and order red balloons and arrange for the gospel text to be read in different languages—whatever the traditions are of our worshipping community.
But we know that Pentecost will “arrive” at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. respectively in our congregation on one specific Sunday that we know about months in advance.
It wasn’t like that for Peter and the other disciples.
They were in fact having a worship service, one they had probably planned rather carefully, when the Holy Spirit descended in tongues of fire, completely out of the blue.
That is entirely apropos—this unexpected, almost intrusive nature of this moment.
It’s just like a birth. You don’t know when it’s coming, and you can’t control it.
Jesus had promised the disciples that he would send the Holy Spirit, and they did what they could to get ready for it.
But in the end there was no way to anticipate or imagine when or what the coming of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the Church, would be like.
And here’s something else about the birth of a baby, obvious but worth reflecting on more deeply: it changes a family forever.
A family has an identity and a personality that is larger than the sum of its individual members. A family has a tone, habits, traditions, favorite ideas and activities, that exist fully only with them together.
And when a new member arrives, that old family dies, in a sense.
A new family is born with the new baby.
And that new baby, as small as he or she is, calls the family into new life, new questions, new identity.
In some sense, we could say that that new baby speaks an unfamiliar language. It is only the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of Love, that enables other family members to understand what the child is trying to communicate.
So it was with the birth of the Church. The Holy Spirit descended and empowered the apostles to speak in unfamiliar languages, to translate the gospel into new words so that new ears could hear them.
And those new believers, those who spoke the different languages, introduced an instant new diversity into the church family.
The “baby believers,” from vastly different places and cultures, changed the Church forever.
As we think about Pentecost, about the arrival of the Holy Spirit in our midst, it’s worth reflecting on how carefully we control our celebrations. There is really not much surprise to them.
We know what’s going to happen—or at least we think we do.
We might consider asking ourselves how to approach the daily descent of the Spirit—not just on one feast day, but every day—more like a birth and less like a graduation or wedding.
That means two things. First, we can prepare for the Holy Spirit to act in our lives—live as people of prayer and spiritual practice—while acknowledging and leaning into the gift of surprise and the unexpected.
If we don’t allow God to surprise us once in awhile, show up at times and places we’re not ready for, our spiritual lives are going to be pretty stale and uninteresting.
And secondly, we should be ready to be changed by the people and events that enter our lives and communities by means of the Spirit.
They will speak different languages, both literally and metaphorically.
If we look around our community and see that pretty much everyone looks, sounds, and thinks just like we do, we have literally no resemblance to the first gathered disciples, to the early Church as Jesus designed it.
That’s worth thinking about.
And if we see little to no diversity, our prayers for the descent of the Spirit should be all the more fervent.
That’s the only way we’ll be changed and empowered to strike out into new territory, to allow ourselves to be influenced by others rather than simply seeking to influence them.
After all, we need to be evangelized as much as we need to evangelize. We need the gospel proclaimed to us in a new and unfamiliar language, one we can only understand by the work of the Spirit.
We all know that birth is inherently messy and painful as a biological process.
So much was true for the birth of the Church, and each cycle of the Church’s rebirth will and should be the same.
It’s no mystery that Christianity is going through a death and rebirth right now.
The Church as we know it today will be unrecognizable to believers fifty or a hundred years from now.
And as much as we would love to plan that rebirth as carefully as we plan all our other religious moments—our baptisms, our Eucharists, our weddings—we can’t.
Birth cannot be controlled by those who undergo it.
But we need never navigate the wild change and revelation alone.
In the midst of the upheaval of all the birth and rebirth we struggle through as individuals and community, we gather hope and courage from the name Jesus told us to call the coming Spirit: the Comforter.
If you liked, please share!