Rev. Leanne Walt
Going to church is like choosing to take the subway as opposed to a taxicab. The first time I went to New York City, I got lost on the subway. I had just graduated from college and decided I would assert my independence by taking the infamous Fung Wah bus from Boston to New York, which at the time was charging an astronomically low fee of $10/ticket that caused you to wonder what kind of business they were really running after all. For $10 a ticket I couldn’t complain when I had to join 40 other New York bound hopefuls in chasing down the industrial bus through the streets of Chinatown in the ripe August heat because there is no designated bus stop for the Fung Wah.
Five hours later, I was in Chinatown, New York, deposited onto the street and left to my own devices to find my way to my older brother’s apartment in Midtown, Manhattan. I had too much pride and too little money to hail a cab and give the driver the address of my desired destination. Instead, I would take the subway.
Have you ever seen a New York City subway map? It looks like a can of multicolored worms exploded on a piece of paper.
I spent the majority of that day attempting to find the correct worm-to-worm-to-worm ride that would lead me to my brother among the 8 million people in that city. I rode that subway in faith, relying on the help of strangers to guide my way.
Going to church is like choosing to take the subway as opposed to a taxicab. It’s a bit smelly and crowded, the train buckles and bolts, it’s prone to squeaky breaks and breakdowns. There’s rarely a direct route to your destination. The doors open and all kinds pour in, from all walks of life. In just one New York City subway car, you can find the businessman and the addict, the sick and depraved, the child and the old woman, the artists and the scientist, the blind and the beautiful, the tattooed and the straight-laced side-by-side, on a common journey.
We normally think of Pentecost as the descent of the Spirit for the birth of the church, the coming together of people from all over the ancient world - Parthians, Medes, Libyans, Egyptians – and their powerful discovery of their common bond in Christ. While that’s true, the saga of the Holy Spirit began long before the birth of the church and has roots in God’s earliest act of creation: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7).
Divine breath, Holy Spirit, animates the soul, from Adam to each one of us. We are each a soul - each thief, each leader and each follower, each politician and each hungry belly, each Muslim and Christian, each one riding on the subway, each one sitting in these pews - as the words of the Falmouth poet, Dennis Downey remind,
“And each of us is in our own incarnation a soul inside a body/
for some reason/
a fire/a flame/a soul/
what we desire (that we desire)/
Lighter than flesh/
the soul is the glow of us.”
Prior to Pentecost, the fire, the flame, the Holy Spirit of God burned outside of and external to us - we remember Moses and the burning bush – the mysterious flames that signified the presence of God and also during the Exodus that God went ahead of the Israelites as a pillar of fire in order to light their way. At Pentecost the people were reminded that the Holy fire burns within, from the inside out. Just as the earth is on fire at its core, a ball of iron burning from the inside out, flames of energy and life, so too do we burn at our individual cores with the common Spirit of God.
In fact, our Reformer ancestor, John Calvin, paints the human soul as the very image of God:
“For although God's glory shines forth in the outer man, yet there is no doubt that the proper seat of his image is in the soul.”
Pentecost is as much about understanding the common image of God that constitutes the human soul as it is about understanding our common language.
For, when we recognize the common, holy flame that burns from within each one of us, then we can begin to recognize another story of our lives and the history that we hold. The story written by God rather than humanity, the story that binds us together in community – through a common hope, a common love, a common good, a common humanity, a common faith – a story that leads to ultimate understanding.
Consider the history of our churches. Consider the history of this church. There is the history that is written and recorded so neatly and concisely in the books, the names that First Church has held, the ministers who served and the length of their tenure, the gifts that were given and in whose name, the trajectory of its membership and size.
Then, there is the history that has been written on the hearts of the people over the course of time and spanning the generations. This is the deeper, truer story, the story that tells of the life that is truly life (in the words of 1 Timothy). This is the story that has carried us from the first Pentecost up to this very moment in time, the story of the image of Christ burning forth from within the people out into the world.
This lesser known story tells:
- Why all those people joined the church in the first place;
- What they hoped to accomplish together;
- What their collective hopes and fears were;
- When they experienced the presence of God in their lives and what they did in
response to these moments;
- Where they displayed courage in living out the gospel; and
- What new things God did here to rally the people through the tides of change.
Pentecost reminds us that this is the story that Jesus is urging us to tell, a story that digs deeper than our regularly told history; one that reaches beyond the superficial barriers that divide us on the subway and in the church, beyond those visible, external differences that work to overshadow the underlying common hope, common love, common good, common humanity, common faith that bind us all together. A universal tale of redemption that transcends the nations, language, and ethnicity; wealth, culture, and ideology.
At the first Pentecost the organizational structure, the great institution of the church and its complex hierarchy simply wasn’t there. Jesus had left the world, ascended to heaven and that small band of apostolic followers who he left behind wondered if they could carry on his ministry without him. For, there were many prophets in Jesus’ day. Even John the Baptist had a following and the movement survived, as we know from Acts, but probably not for more than a generation.
Yet, by the end of that day when Jews from all over the world gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Pentecost, somehow, someway, the early church had grown from one hundred and twenty people to more than three thousand.
Something was different. Something had happened. They saw in one another, and so also in themselves, the glow of Christ. They recognized their own hands as the hands of Jesus, healing the sick and blessing the poor;
they recognized their own eyes as the eyes of Jesus, seeing God’s perfect kingdom instead of a flawed creation;
they recognized their mind as the mind of Jesus, speaking wisdom instead of division, and their feet as those of Jesus, setting out to spread the good news.
They were aglow. They were on fire with the common image of God burning in their souls and they began to write a story of understanding that transcended all linguistic barriers.
It’s the story of the most predominate Christian community in South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church, condemning apartheid in 1989.
It’s the story of the Confessing Church in Germany that spoke out against genocide of the Jews.
It’s the story of a group of religious leaders from Quincy founding Protestant Community Services in 1947, now known as Interfaith Social Services, to serve poverty stricken families.
It’s the story of the group of ministers who began meeting with homeless people on the streets of Boston in the mid-nineties to form Ecclesia Ministries and the community of Common Cathedral.
We are called to ride the subway together. To spread the good news out into the world side-by-side with strangers and unlikely cohorts, not always knowing where we are headed, but relying on faith that we will be led to our final destination. We are called to recognize the image of God, the presence of Christ in each person we meet and, in turn within ourselves. We are called to write the good news story in our day and in this place, in all days and in all places.
 “We Never Go Away,” by Dennis Downey, from NPR’s “This I Believe” series, September 18, 2006
 Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 188.8.131.52-8
 Inspired by the thoughts of Paul Nixon in Nixon, Paul, Finding Jesus on the Metro and Other Surprises Doing Church in a New Day (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2009) 87