Pentecost Sunday: The Mission of the Church

Pentecost

This post was meant to run on June 4, 2017, which was Pentecost Sunday and the end of the Easter Season. Apologies for the late post. 

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Acts 2:1-13.

Today we celebrate Pentecost Sunday and the end of the Easter season. For 7 Sundays, we have contemplated the Resurrection of Christ and its many implications. One of its most explosive implications is the gift of Christ’s Spirit to the Church, which binds us together into the life of God.

Fifty days after Passover and liberation from Egypt, the Israelites were given the Law at Mt. Sinai. Hundreds of years later, Pentecost (Shavout) was the feast where the Jews, as the faithful remnant of Israel, would commemorate this giving of the Law.

But if you know the story of the giving of the Law at Sinai, you know that it was an event touched by tragedy. After Moses came down with the Ten Commandments, he confronted a nation that–just 50 days after an amazing escape from slavery and certain death by the shores of the Red Sea–had forsaken their Savior God and turned to idolatry. In order to save the nation, Moses called for his own faithful tribe of Levites to cut down their rebellious brothers. 3,000 Israelites were killed by the sword that day. The whole story is told in Exodus 32.

But 50 days after the Crucifixion of our Passover Lamb, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit came down as tongues of fire on the disciples while the city of Jerusalem was observing Pentecost. But at this Pentecost, things were different. Peter preaches the first public sermon of Christ, and 3,000 Jews were cut by the sword of the Spirit in their hearts, and they were baptized and saved. See Acts 2:37-42.

We see in this story both the continuity and radical discontinuity between the mission of Israel and the mission of the Church founded by Jesus Christ. There is continuity–we must not fall into the Marcionite heresy which dismissed the Old Testament as heralding some other, lesser god whom Jesus Christ supersedes.

But we should also note the radical discontinuity in modes of practice between the zealous violence of Moses and the co-suffering martyrdom of the apostles, which occurs after the unveiling of the beautiful Christ. By the power of the Spirit, it is the mission of the church to preach Christ.

It is through the lens of Pentecost that I want to examine the last question raised by the post from a few weeks ago, The Resurrection and A Multi-Faceted Gospel. As a reminder, here were the questions:

  1. How can justification by faith be reconciled with your critique of an overly individualistic Gospel? (I tried to answer that in this post, The Resurrection, Justification by Faith, and the People of God.)
  2. How can capital-E Evil as a rebellious force be reconciled with the sovereignty of God? (I tried to answer that in this post, The Ascension, Evil, and the Sovereignty of God.)
  3. So what? Why does your critique matter in the big scheme of things for our worship or mission?

In my earlier post, I stated my concern that our Gospel presentations would be distorted if we unknowingly conveyed an overly individualistic, spiritualized, and Hell-focused Gospel.

In order to correct those distortions, I suggested that preachers of the Gospel should be sensitive to the truths in Scripture that 1) Physical matter will be redeemed, not just souls, 2) The Spirit is forming a New Humanity by restoring the image of God so that mankind can return to its original vocation, not just saving individuals for Heaven, 3) The biblical witness gives us a divine drama, not a logical formula for salvation, 4) Heaven and Earth will be united and all that was former will pass away, 5) All spiritual and temporal powers will be placed under the feet of Christ, 6) Jesus Christ as a living person must be supreme and central in any Gospel presentation, not just as the logical solution to a problem, and 7) The emphasis in the “Good News” is firmly on the Resurrection.

Pentecost Sunday reminds us that the mission of the church is to preach Christ, the Son of God and the son of David, crucified for our sake, risen from the dead, and ascended as Lord over all. I believe that the above suggestions will help us understand the mission and worship of Christ in three ways:

  1. Christ founds a new world. The task of the Church is not to itself “change the world.” The task of the Church is to bear witness that God has changed the world because of Jesus Christ, and to invite everyone into this new reality governed by Christ through the power of the Spirit.
  2. Therefore, the task of the Church is to implement the Resurrection of Christ in anticipation of the final reconciliation of all things in the New Heavens and New Earth.
  3. Finally, by simply faithfully being the Church in its mission and worship, the Church helps the world taste the Kingdom, because the Church by definition is already transformed in the ways it relates to space, time, and matter.

My thoughts on this are heavily indebted to the Anglican bishop and theologian NT Wright. You can hear him expound on these thoughts in a much more compelling way than my post here.

CHRIST FOUNDS A NEW WORLD

After the Resurrection and before the Ascension, Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus commissioned his disciples with the following words:

 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 18:18-20.

Luke portrays Jesus’ parting words to the disciples before the Ascension in this way:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

When we put these two narratives together, we see that the task of the universal Church is to be a witness to Jesus’ authority and power throughout the world, and to make disciples from all the nations into the way of Jesus.

To give greater context to this task, and to understand why the disciples were inquiring about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, we must keep in mind this prophecy from Daniel 2:

You were looking, O king, and lo! there was a great statue. This statue was huge, its brilliance extraordinary; it was standing before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of that statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked on, a stone was cut out, not by human hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, were all broken in pieces and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.

“This was the dream; now we will tell the king its interpretation. You, O king, the king of kings—to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, the might, and the glory, into whose hand he has given human beings, wherever they live, the wild animals of the field, and the birds of the air, and whom he has established as ruler over them all—you are the head of gold. After you shall arise another kingdom inferior to yours, and yet a third kingdom of bronze, which shall rule over the whole earth. And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron; just as iron crushes and smashes everything, it shall crush and shatter all these. As you saw the feet and toes partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom; but some of the strength of iron shall be in it, as you saw the iron mixed with the clay. As the toes of the feet were part iron and part clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. As you saw the iron mixed with clay, so will they mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay. And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever; just as you saw that a stone was cut from the mountain not by hands, and that it crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold. The great God has informed the king what shall be hereafter. The dream is certain, and its interpretation trustworthy.”

Daniel 2:31-45.

Daniel foresaw a day when the idolatrous empires that rule the world would be crushed by a stone, cut from a mountain but not by human hands. This stone would grow until it filled the whole earth.

Jesus Christ is the stone cut from the mountain, very God of very God, who comes down by the power of the Spirit to crush the empires of evil and establish a kingdom of justice and light that will stand forever.

There are many debates on the exact relationship between the Kingdom and the Church, which we will not get into here. The point is that all believers are witnesses to the reality that Christ has founded this new Kingdom, that He has Ascended and reigns even now, and that He will rule until every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

In the words of Abraham Kuyper, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'” (Quote from his inaugural address at the dedication of the Free University of Amsterdam). And we praise God because if it belongs to Christ, it will be redeemed and live again.

This is an important distinction–we do not ourselves create the new reality of the Kingdom. God creates this reality through Christ and the Spirit. Instead, we receive it, live under it, and offer it to the world for their blessing.

We witness this new reality with our every thought, word, and deed. This is what it means to be the Church. As we are joined to the Risen Body of Christ, we are Spirit-filled agents of His Kingdom, pressing its truth and reality further and further into the world. And we continually invite everyone to step into the reality of the New Creation accomplished by Christ, so that they may taste the Kingdom and praise God.

IMPLEMENT THE RESURRECTION

Paul makes this clear at the end of his long discourse on why the Resurrection is so central to Christian faith in 1 Corinthians 15. For 57 verses, he has been tightly packing an extended argument on Jesus’ resurrection and the hope of our resurrection from the dead.

You may suppose that when he concludes this discourse, he may something like, “Therefore, keep your chins up when you are persecuted, because you are going to be given new bodies after death and that will be a wonderful defeat of death.”

This is not how Paul concludes. Instead, he does something very interesting: He writes in verse 58–“Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

I believe that Paul here is harkening back to the message of Ecclesiastes, where the Teacher throughout the book refrains, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

In a world governed by death, our families, our labor, and our entire lives can lose meaning and significance. On a long enough time scale, there is only death, and everything is meaningless. I believe that what Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 15:58 is to point out that if the Resurrection is true, nothing is meaningless. The Resurrection infuses all of our activities with meaning and significance–cosmic meaning and significance. As the Church, what we do in the name of Christ will echo throughout eternity. Our labor is not in vain.

As the Church, we live after the time of Pentecost, when we were given the Spirit, but before the time of parousia, when Christ will appear again. As Paul wrote earlier in 1 Corinthians 3, we all build upon the foundation of Christ, and our work shall be tested on the Last Day as by fire. The gold, silver, and precious gems in our work will be purified and included in God’s New Creation, and the builder will be rewarded. But all that is wood, straw, and hay, will burn up, and the builder will suffer loss.

And so, our task in this in-between period is not to “build the Kingdom,” but to “build for the Kingdom.” As the Church, we implement the Resurrection of Christ so as to anticipate the New Heavens and New Earth.

What does this mean concretely? This means that mission is at the very heart of the life of the Church. The Church should not mostly be concerned about its own inner life and programs. As Jesus was to Israel, so the Church is to be to the world as an extension of Christ.

It is not easy to make a straightforward answer as to how our work in the Creation will be included–by grace–into the New Creation. But we have some assurance that when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless, as Christ tells us in Matthew 25, and when we bring beauty to the world through music and the arts, and when we labor in our workplaces, and we do so in the name of Christ, none of it will be wasted. All of it is meaningful and will be redeemed in the New Creation.

Christians are those who have confidence that because of the Resurrection, everything that we do has meaning before God. In the Book of Acts, we are given example after example of how the early church “implemented the Resurrection”–through ministries of healing, through the driving out of demons, through the liberation of slaves, through the reconciliation of races and cultures, through confrontation with the principalities and powers who think they can rule the world apart from the Justice of God, through provision for the orphans and the widows, through contextualized preaching, through apostolic fellowship and the breaking of bread, through the sharing of all possessions, through love for their enemies, and through martyrdom.

Because of Christ and through the Spirit, the Church bears fruit before God for the blessing of the world. This is what it means to “implement the Resurrection,” and thereby declare and demonstrate to the world that Jesus is Lord.

TASTING THE KINGDOM

The Church is not synonymous with the Kingdom of God. But as the Body of Christ, it submits to the reality of the Kingdom of God, and thereby makes available to the world a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.

It does so by proclaiming Christ in thought, word, and deed. But it also does so by living a transformed communal life with a different relationship to space, time, and matter. By simply being the church that worships the Resurrected Son, and that sees all of reality through a Gospel-lens, the Church is transformed into a community that witnesses to the world the power of Christ simply by existing.

  1. Space

The Church has a transformed relationship to the spatial dimension. As NT Wright demonstrates, throughout the Old Testament we are given a vision of Heaven and Earth as separate dimensions of reality that overlap and interlock. Particularly at the Ark of the Covenant, and then at the Temple, the Israelites are able to experience and access the presence of God in power and glory. Heaven touches Earth at these special places designated and blessed by God.

This relationship of an overlapping and interlocking Heaven and Earth continues into the New Testament, but it is radically transformed. Jesus Christ is the true Temple in which the fullness of godhood bodily dwells. And so, as Christians, we now believe that the places where Heaven invades Earth are the places where Jesus is truly present.

Christ has promised a few particular places where He will be specially present, and where Heaven will therefore be breaking into Earth. We are promised in Scripture that Christ will be present among His people gathered in His name, in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and in the faces of the poor and marginalized.

The first is among His people gathered in His name, as promised in Matthew 18:20:

 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

Peter expands upon this in 1 Peter 2:4-5, where he states that all people who are built upon the foundation of Christ are a Temple for God:

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

As the gathered Church, we are the place where Heaven invades Earth.

Further, Christ is truly present through the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper; Therefore, by participating in the sacraments the Church also encounters Heaven invading Earth. As told by the Apostle Paul in Romans 6 and 1 Corinthians 10.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

Romans 6:3-4.

I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

1 Corinthians 15:15-17.

And finally, Christ has truly promised to be present in the faces of the poor and marginalized, to whom we are called to minister as bearers of the image of God:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:31-40.

In the gathered Church, in the sacraments, and in the faces of the poor, Christ is present, and Heaven is invading Earth. Simply by being the Church that is faithful to Christ’s presence in these things, we will witness to the world the coming union of Heaven and Earth, where God’s glory will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.

2. Time

The Church also has a transformed relationship to the dimension of time.  In contrast to other worldviews, the biblical worldview presents us a picture of time as linear, not as cyclic. In other words, instead of time as an inexorable wheel, Christians perceive of time as having an origin and moving toward an end-goal, which is Christ.

I say end-goal, and not end, because the picture presented us in Revelation 21 and 22 does not seem to be the abrogation of time, but its renewal and perfection. In addition, time meets its historical climax in the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ–as Christians, we believe that the “Christ-event” is the decisive turning point of history.

But as Christians, we also believe that God’s sovereignty over time means that in the present moment, the past can come rushing forward, and the future can loop back to be experienced as a foretaste. In a real sense, Christians are a “people from the future”–God promises us a New Creation at the end of time, but as Paul writes, anyone who is in Christ is already a New Creation.

NT Wright likens this to when, in the wilderness wanderings of the people of God on their way to the promised land, the Israelites send out spie, who bring back the produce of the land for the Israelites to enjoy while still in the wilderness.

This should shape how we understand the relationship between the Sacraments and time.

One day, God will flood all of Creation with His Love.  In the present sacramental life of the Church, that future where God is all in all is experienced now by the power of the Spirit. In the Lord’s Supper, the bread and the wine is charged with God’s presence as a foretaste of how all of Creation will be charged with God’s presence in the New Creation. In Baptism, the water is charged with God’s blessing as a foreshadowing of how all of Creation will be charged with God’s blessing in the New Creation.

Something similar happens for the past events where Jesus accomplished our salvation. In the Lord’s Supper, the bread and the wine are not a new sacrifice–they transport us to the Cross, so that we truly buy mysteriously partake in the flesh and blood of Christ that was sacrificed for us once and for all. In Baptism, the Spirit joins our life to the past events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, so that by going down we descend with Christ to death, and by coming up we ascend with Christ to New Life.

We are still on the linear time, but by the Spirit the present moment can intersect with the past moment and the future moment. This too is a foretaste of the New Creation that we make available to the world simply by faithfully being the Church.

3. Matter

Finally, the Church has a transformed relationship with physical matter.

As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:10, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”

When we participate in the mission of God, we should not be surprised that it will lead us to pain and suffering that brings into our present reality the sufferings of the Cross, and that through those sufferings we will occasionally break through to New Life in Resurrection. I do not believe this is metaphorical–our restoration is and will be a physical restoration, where matter will be charged with the grandeur of God.

As CS Lewis recognized in his sermon, The Weight of Glory, this has enormous implications. It means that every person that we meet today, after being confronted with the Love of God, will be physically transformed into either a heavenly or hellish creature:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

–CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory, pg 9.

This means that our everyday relationships must be transformed as the Church. Every day, a husband is helping his wife become either a more heavenly or a more hellish creature. Every day, a mother is helping her children become either a more heavenly or a more hellish creature. Every day, friends push other down the road to beauty or nightmare.

The mission of the Church extends even to our smallest interactions with the people on the fringes of our lives’ stories. Every relationship, every hello and goodbye, is an opportunity to show the transforming grace of our Lord and Savior. Simply by being the Church that has a transformed relationship to physical matter, we witness to the world the alternative reality of Christ.

CONCLUSION

NT Wright summarizes his thoughts on the connection between the mission of the Church and the Resurrection of Christ in his book, The Challenge of Easter. I think this is a good way to close our reflections in the season of Easter this Pentecost Sunday:

The key is that humans are made in the image of God.  That is the equivalent, on the wider canvas, of Israel’s unique position and vocation.  And bearing God’s image is not just a fact, it is a vocation.  It means being called to reflect into the world the creative and redemptive love of God.  It means being made for relationship, for stewardship, for worship—or, to put it more vividly, for sex, gardening and God.

Human beings know in their bones that they are made for each other, made to look after and shape this world, made to worship the one in whose image they are made.  But like Israel with her vocation, we get it wrong.  We worship other gods and start to reflect their likeness instead.  We distort our vocation to stewardship into the will to power, treating God’s world as either a gold mine or an ashtray.  And we distort our calling to beautiful, healing, creative many-sided human relationships into exploitation and abuse….

…Our task, as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to the world that has discovered its fallenness, to announce healing to the world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to the world that knows only exploitation, fear, and suspicion.

Humans were made to reflect God’s creative stewardship into the world.   Israel was made to bring God’s rescuing love to bear upon the world.  Jesus came as the true Israel, the world’s true light, and as the true image of the invisible God. He was the true Jew, the true human.  He has laid the foundation, and we must build upon it.  We are to be the bearers both of his redeeming love and of his creative stewardship: to celebrate it, to model it, to proclaim it, to dance it.

Because of the Resurrection of Christ, the Church is a community of renewed human beings able to bear the image of God again. This image of God, which is Jesus Christ, transforms our hearts so that we participate in His ministry of reconciliation as a Church of renewed worship and mission.

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