"Not A Rose Garden, Minus The Thorns"
Text: Acts 2:1-13
Back in the late 1980’s, the Allegheny Ludlum Steel Corporation was going through a difficult period of labor disputes which were threatening to close the company’s doors. Over a three-year span, there were five walkouts. In one instance, production ground to a virtual halt, forcing key customers such as General Motors, Westinghouse, and Peterbilt to seek the flat-rolled steel they needed elsewhere, including offshore. During those three years, Allegheny Ludlum recorded losses in excess of sixty million dollars. It lost almost a quarter of its customer base. And labor and management couldn’t even be brought to the same table.
As Ludlum’s board of directors lamented the company’s downward spiral, it was suggested that a labor negotiator of the highest caliber be invited to the bargaining table as a mediator. After a long search, it was decided that John Castle from New York City be contracted to try to break the gridlock which was driving Allegheny Ludlum into insolvency.
At the initial consultation between Mr. Castle and Ludlum’s board, Castle said some things which board members found both surprising, and disheartening. “First,” he said, “Please don’t expect a quick fix. It could take months of ‘behind the scenes’ negotiating before both labor and management are willing to come to the table. Second, once we get them there, it may be weeks or months before we can get them really communicating, speaking the same language. And third, even after communication has been established, it will take who knows how long to get the two sides into agreement. Folks, it shall be a very long and arduous process.”
This is not quite what the board of directors of Allegheny Ludlum wanted to hear. They were looking for something of a miracle. They had assumed that once John Castle made the scene, all the company’s labor problems would just disappear; that everyone on both sides of the bargaining table would finally find themselves in perfect accord.
How often do we as the church wish for some quick fix for our problems? How we long for a leader who might step in and at once bring Protestants and Catholics, mainliners and independents, conservatives and liberals, traditionalists and progressives into perfect accord, so the church can be about its Kingdom labor in peace and unity.
On this Pentecost morning at churches throughout Stark County and beyond, many well-intended sermons will be preached about getting back; getting back to the Holy Spirit; getting back to the model of the 1st century church; getting back to the church’s birthday when, as we read, the Holy Spirit of God moved mightily among the disciples. This morning, there will be many sermons preached throughout Stark County and beyond about how the Holy Spirit made the scene and over- came the confusion of 1st century Jerusalem, and got everyone speaking the same language. This Pentecost’s call to action will be: Let’s get back to the Spirit so we can be in perfect accord! This sounds great! And there is nothing we’d rather see than everyone living in one accord; i.e. the church at perfect peace and unity. I would dare challenge this sentiment on two points.
First, what effect do we expect “getting back” to the Holy Spirit’s guidance and leading will have on our life as the Church [with a capital C]? Do we expect that the Spirit’s working among us will at once turn the Church into a rose garden, minus the thorns? Do we believe that if we somehow “get back to the Spirit,” all struggle, and conflict, and disagreement will at once melt away like so many lemon drops? Like the board of directors at Allegheny Ludlum Steel Corporation with regard to John Castle, do we regard the Holy Spirit of Almighty God as a negotiator with a quick-fix in His briefcase; an instant, granted solution to problems raised by our diversity, our personality differences, our contrasting styles, and our varying social and political worldviews? Do we then tend to become discouraged or disheartened when we find there are no instant solutions to our differences among and within churches? Our first reaction may be to cry out that we’ve somehow left the Holy Spirit behind.
Once we get past the exhilaration of that first Pentecost episode – that first birthday party – we need to consider the real ongoing experiences of the first generation Church. Yes, it is true that God’s Holy Spirit – as promised by Jesus – moved powerfully among the disciples, loosening their tongues, inspiring their words, giving them amazing courage, bestowing upon them special spiritual gifts, and dramatically increasing their numbers. That’s the historical event we celebrate today.
But that Pentecost church -- even with the profound unleashing of Gods’ Spirit upon it -- was in reality not a rose garden, minus the thorns. The truth is, it was not many days and months into the life of that 1st generation church before disputes arose, some quite bitter. There were clashes over things like qualifications for leadership, church structure, worship style, proper stewardship and distribution of community resources; things we’re still clashing over twenty centuries later. It was not long before personality differences began to bubble to the surface, becoming formidable challenges to the Church’s unified mission.
For example, upon close examination of the Book of Acts against Paul’s letters, we find that the disciples -- with what they knew of Paul’s past -- never really trusted him. Read Galatians chapter 2, and you’ll quickly get the sense that there was no love lost between Paul and Simon Peter, two of the biggest names in the life of the early Church. In fact, their relationship was such that they could not even come to the bargaining table together, agreeing instead to work different sides of the street to keep the peace; Peter going to the Jews, and Paul to the Gentiles. Toward the end of Acts chapter 15, you will find that there was “sharp contention” between the teams of Paul and Silas, and Barnabas and John Mark; so much so that they had to go their separate ways. Throughout the early Church, there were varying positions being taken on issues such as circumcision, and degree of adherence to Jewish dietary customs. The occasions for most of Paul’s letters were divisions within the churches over matters of spiritual gifts, litigation, sexuality, marriage and divorce. And as we’ve discussed before, some in the Church were dividing over which leader was to be followed: Paul or this guy named Apollos.
So we might be tempted to say that, well, the early Church must have left the Holy Spirit behind. Otherwise, there wouldn’t have been so many problems. In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. The Holy Spirit of Almighty God was moving in powerful ways in the early Church. What we do realize as we look closely at the experience of the 1st generation Church so many long to return to, is that the presence and movement of God’s Spirit wasn’t a quick fix for every problem, dispute, or disagreement. The early Church, as much as we like to romanticize and idealize it, was not always in perfect and peaceful accord. It was not a rose garden, minus the thorns.
I believe it’s more accurate to say that the 1st generation Church was empowered by the Holy Spirit to deal with its real life problems; encouraged by the Spirit, if you will, to sit down at the bar- gaining table and work it through. The Holy Spirit didn’t then – and doesn’t now – shield or insulate the Church from the thorny realities of trying to live in harmony. It’s not easy. It takes real work, and it takes real time to become the Church Christ would have us be. And we’re still in the process of becoming. The Bible makes it clear that the Church will not be perfected until Christ receives it upon His return; in the language of The Revelation to John, as a bridegroom receives his bride.
The promise of Holy Spirit is guidance through our difficult, ongoing labor of growing in Christ. The Holy Spirit serves as the motivating Force which keeps us at it when we’d rather throw our hands up and give up. Another way to put it is that the Holy Spirit of God accompanies us in the trenches rather than smoothing the battlefield. That’s the first challenge.
Second, is the Holy Spirit of God something we “get back to,” as if we lost God’s Spirit back there somewhere, and need to retrace our steps so we can return, pick up the Holy Spirit, dust it off like a genie in a bottle, and go on our way with three wishes in tow? I believe the truth is, God’s Spirit is always out in front of us; beckoning us; calling us; confronting us; challenging us to move forward, blazing new paths of opportunity rather than retracing our tracks backwards to some good old days, which, as the historical reality of the 1st generation Church illustrates, were not as idyllic as we’ve made them out to be in hindsight.
Nor do I believe that the Church is to move backwards, collectively retracing our past steps; trying to recapture some bygone glory, or to replicate some prior success. The Church was called out and called forward by the movement of the Holy Spirit on that first day of Christian Pentecost. And the Church is still called out and called forward by the movement of that one same Holy Spirit on this Day of Pentecost; called out and called forward by God’s Spirit who always precedes us.
Does this suggest that we abandon our traditions, our roots, our history? Certainly not. But traditions, roots, and history are not elements of our identity as the Church which we turn around, go back to, and pick up. Rather they are elements of our identity which we carry with us as we move ahead, led by the Holy Spirit who is always out front.
On this Pentecost Sunday, let’s allow ourselves to be challenged to seek a deeper understanding of God’s Holy Spirit, and how the Spirit works among us and within us. The Holy Spirit is not a quick fix. The Holy Spirit is not a long-lost friend. The Holy Spirit is not some genie in a bottle we seek to unearth, dust off, and command to grant our every wish. The Holy Spirit is God’s active and forward moving Force in our personal lives, and in the life of the Church [with a capital C]; calling us and summoning us to grow into the people and the Church which Christ intends us to be.
O Holy Spirit of our living God, fill us anew daily, preceding us and beckoning us to become the Church You’re calling us to be. Even as we ask, we await the blessed day of Your Christ’s return, when Your Kingdom is fully established, and Your Church finally perfected, received as a bride to her bridegroom. Hear this, our Pentecost prayer. Amen.