We are told that on the Day of Pentecost, about 3,000 souls were added to the Church (Acts 2:41). This simple fact has for many linked the Day of Pentecost and the Gift of the Spirit to the Church to the process of evangelism. For many Christians in our culture, for whom evangelism has come to be the defining action of the Church, Pentecost need be nothing more. Thus the feast of the gift of the Holy Spirit becomes a celebration of a successful membership drive.
The problem surrounding such an interpretation is that the Church is easily reduced to a secular entity, whose goal is simply the increase of its membership, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit reduced to a boldness for evangelism. Lost in such an account are the deeper elements of the Scriptures and the feast itself.
First, there is the phenomenon of the languages. As noted in the hymnography of the Church, the miracle of Pentecost is a clear reversal of the tragedy of the Tower of Babel. The continuing fracture of humanity, from the Garden forward, is manifest as well in the fracture of human unity in the story of the Tower of Babel. Man is fractured in his relationship with God – he is fractured in his relationship with his family (Cain’s murder of Abel) and he is fractured in his relationship with the larger race of humanity. Of course, in death itself, we see the fracture within the person of each particular human being.
The Communion for which we were created is lost and the story of the progressive disaster of that lost communion marks the opening chapters of Genesis.
In contrast, the closing chapters of the Gospels as well as the continuing gospel account that is the book of Acts is a reversal of that lost communion – and the Church is the manifestation of man’s renewed communion with God.
Christ the Second Adam reverses the sting of death and triumphs over Hades, restoring in Himself man’s communion with God. From His side flows blood and water (Eucharist and Baptism) from which His bride, the Second Eve, is spiritually reborn and birthed into communion with Him in newness of life.
And in the miracle of Pentecost, the lost communion of the human race is overcome, as language no longer becomes the sign of disintegration, but the very vehicle of a new union.
None of this has any place in a secularized account of the Christian Church in which numerical growth is the only measure of its existence. Were numerical growth the mark of the Church’s life, in what way would the Church differ from any number of international civic clubs?
Of course it’s also true that one could point to the moral teaching of Christ and contrast that with the simple utilitarian ethics of most civic endeavors – but to see the teaching of Christ as an example of moral teaching is to miss the entire meaning of His Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection. The essential teaching of Christ is, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” The coming of the Kingdom is not marked by the improved behavior of man, the prisoner of death and corruption – but the new life begotten in Him by the gift of the Spirit – raising humanity from death and corruption into the eternal life of God. And importantly, not simply as a promise of a happy afterlife, but as an entrance into a new life now – even when marked by suffering or martyrdom.
This is one of the great challenges of the Church in the modern age – to return the proclamation of the Gospel to its proper existential and realist foundations and rescue it from the increasing secularism of marketing growth and moralistic interpretations.
Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. The miracle of Pentecost is its manifestation of new life among mankind. It cannot be measured by 3,000 new members – but by the tragedy of Babel reversed. It is a new life into which we have been inaugurated. The call of the Church is to turn away from the siren call of modernist success and to keep its focus on the life of the Kingdom. The martyrs have given themselves for nothing less – and we should live only for this reality.
With no other way that I know of to contact you, here is the link to your Easter Christian Blog Awards banner:
Please display it proudly
I am working to get it displayed. I have to resize the image to make it fit properly into my text widgets. I’m ok at writing blogs, but challenged when it comes to their technology. My daughter is helping me. I am honored to have received so many votes and grateful for the support I enjoy at Glory to God for all things.
I’ve become almost allergic to the words “successfull church” – it normally seems to be almost synonymous with “we actually worship the almighty $$ but clothe it in Christian garb”. Same with “relevant”, “seeker-friendly” etc etc. And then there are those terribly upsetting plastic smiles on book covers, the “You”-centred message and all the rest. Enough to make me take some sick leave….
Thank you for this wonderful post (great photo, too!)
My Priest, who has an evangelical background, gave a Pentecost homily on the importance of evangelism and emphasized the Spirit’s role in giving us liberty to grow into Christlikeness and fruitfulness in terms of character (theosis) as the basis for evangelism. He explained the icon of Pentecost with the figure of “Cosmos” in darkness at the bottom of the icon with the Light of heaven being mediated to the world by the Apostles and their teaching (i.e., through the Church).
In my former evangelical/seeker-sensitive church, evangelism is naturally an emphasis. The thrust of recent messages there (I still attend some Sundays with my husband who hasn’t become Orthodox) has been essentially that the purpose of the “Church militant” is for the salvation of the lost world, so believers shouldn’t be coming to church just to receive, but should also take what we have been given into a broken world where we are God’s emmisaries.
There definitely is truth to both messages. It is tempting to simply accept that the Church is a hospital, embrace the need to be healed, and end up treating it as a comfortable private (sometimes ethnic) club where outsiders need not apply. (Of course, one could argue in this case that one with such an attitude is deluding herself about actually submitting to the healing process!) On the other extreme, within evangelicalism, I ended up with the impression that ultimately the whole purpose of my Christian life was to serve as a “tool” for God to reach others. Over time, the emphasis on “outreach” was depersonalizing in the extreme, even where the importance of growing in “relationship” to God and others in the “Body” was also recognized. I think the reality is that where there is a true understanding of the purpose and nature of personhood (communion) and a true participation in the Life of Christ in the Church, loving those around us in the world in Christ’s Name becomes a natural outflow.
This entry was especially excellent, thanks!
“I think the reality is that where there is a true understanding of the purpose and nature of personhood (communion) and a true participation in the Life of Christ in the Church, loving those around us in the world in Christ’s Name becomes a natural outflow.”
Yes, Karen, so true! It is only when Christ in us lives that we accomplish this. No mere “I am doing my best for Christ” will do.
Bingo! The message of Pentecost is that the Kingdom of God has arrived. As Christians we live in this dispensation under the banner of the Risen Christ and are to challenge the gates of hell.
…the church is easily reduced to a secular entity! AMEN! This is certainly true as the western church has entered into this new century. It must be remember that Darwinism was applied to all history, to the sciences and even to religion. Just look at the state of affairs in modern christianity.
To Karen: I understand just what you’re saying. Once, 25 years ago, I decided to volunteer for a political campaign. Someone had called me and asked, so I thought I’d try it. I arrived at the office the next day wondering if I would be painting banners, scheduling events, folding fliers — but all they asked me to do was to call people to ask them to volunteer for the political campaign. I also felt like a tool, not like a person. What’s the point, in politics or the church, of inviting people into a place with no life, growth, or work going on except to get other people in? That’s just a pyramid scheme.
I think the Church often defaults to a more or less secular position because it is all most people know. Knowledge of more than that requires ascesis and discipleship, as well as patience (which is not good news in a society that wants fast answers and results). But it is all the more imperative that the Church seek to be what it is truly called to be regardless of what that entails. It is God we need and want, nothing less.
Truly it is God we need and want, nothing less. I experienced in my heart, but didn’t realize in my head until I began to study Orthodoxy, that in my evangelical world we affirmed “by faith” having God living by His Spirit within us and that His Presence was with us in our corporate context. But in reality, because a sacramental view of reality had largely eluded us, we failed to really experience that Presence in any consistent way, especially in the context of corporate worship. We were taught to blame our own individual lack of attention or a presumed lack of desire to worship for this, since if the verbal content of the services was arguably biblically sound, the style and form of worship shouldn’t matter. I now know that if form and style don’t also conform to biblical truth, this will present an impediment to worship in my heart precisely because form and style make up a critical part of the biblical content of our worship as well. I think my last evangelical pastor’s careful disclaimer before passing out the crackers and grape juice for “the Lord’s Table” that this was “not magical, not MYSTICAL,” (my emphasis) but merely what amounted to rote “obedience” to a command of Christ to “remember Him” was what made my settled complacency within my free church evangelical subculture begin to really crumble. I remembered a far different and more potent experience kneeling before the communion rail in my childhood Methodist Church when the minister reverently handed me the bread in my carefully upturned palms saying, “Take. Eat. This is My Body broken for you . . . ” and the sense of being gently enfolded in the love of Christ was palpable.
Karen, my 12 year old son said this about communion in his previous Protestant life, with the crackers and grape juice: “It was like nailing a dummy to a cross.”
Father, I read your blog often and believe your award is well deserved. I also listen to your podcast on AFR. I am an inquirer and am very close to making the step to catechesis. I have a question. You have used that phrase, “Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live,”quite a bit recently. It really does seem to place His coming in the correct light. Forgive my ignorance, but is that something you came up with on your own, or are you citing someone? I would love to know how you came to know that expression. Thank you and keep up the good work. In Christ…
May God bless you in your journey. I have to confess that the phrase, to my knowledge, is original with me. If someone else said it first then I’d gladly credit them.
For me it is simply a direct way of relaying the fact that the Christian faith is not about moralism, but about new life. Thank you for you very kind words.
Thank you for the prompt reply. I shared that phrase in my morning men’s Bible study a few days ago and it seemed to have quite an impact on the group. We were discussing the Holy Spirit “speaking” to us and what it all means. It ended up being mostly a discussion about God speaking to us so we’ll do the right thing in any given situation: sharing the Gospel, helping someone, not committing sins, etc. I shared that I’m learning that God speaking to us may have less to do with doing the right thing morally, though that may be a product of it, and more with Him calling us closer to Himself, transforming us into His Likeness and being filled with His Life. I’m not sure if I made any sense, but your phrase summed it up all very well. One guy asked me afterwards where I heard that phrase. I told him about your blogsite. He said something about putting it on a T-shirt! Commerce is still alive and well. I supposed he would have to get in touch with you about that, hey you could make a few bucks 🙂 Anyway, thank you for your insights.