What Is Church?
In Labor, Anticipating New Life

Sixth Sunday of Easter • June 4, 2017
Reading: Acts: 2:1-21
Pastor Jeff Wells

     Read carefully the Pentecost story in Acts. The followers of Jesus were waiting in their grief. Waiting and moping. They were waiting and wondering – what should they do next? What would happen next? They didn’t know, but I expect their imaginations were in overdrive. Would they, too, be arrested and crucified? Would God do something dramatic to turn a stressful and high anxiety situation into something positive and good? Would God help them find a way out of no way?

     It often feels that way in life and in communities of faith as we strive to act in the world, practicing love and justice with courage, commitment, and conviction. As much as we work at it, we also seem to spend a lot of time just being together, praying together, and waiting to see what will happen next. So much is out of our control. We contend with many powerful forces. So much depends, too, on our sensing and listening to God’s Spirit.

     Today we begin a six-part worship and sermon series under the general theme of “What is Church?” In Christian theology, this area of study is called ecclesiology. So, when we pose this question, we will be thinking about more than just our local church, although our exploration certrainly has very direct implications for our community. We mean the “big C” Church. And, again, I don’t mean primarily “the institutional church,” but rather the divinely inspired gathering and connecting of human beings, who seeking together in community to promote God’s love and justice in the world. [repeat]

     What does it mean to be church? Why is church important? What distinguishes it from any other kind of human community or organization? We will delve into these and other questions today and over the next five Sundays, covering themes such as “Church as the breakdown of Empire,” “Church as a place of creative tensions,” and “Church and Culture – the role of Church in society.” Our exploration feels especially relevant to our current context as we are embroiled in turmoil, division, and the possibility of a split in the United Methodist Church.

     One answer to the question, “What is church?”, is that church is a sacred and numinous space in which we experience the Spirit together. The community of followers of Jesus is a primary arena of the Spirit. The brilliant writer and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor wrote this about the Pentecost event:

The Holy Spirit had entered into them the same way it had entered into Mary, the mother of Jesus, and for the same reason. It was time for God to be born again - not in one body this time but in a body of believers who would receive the breath of life from God and pass it on, using their own bodies to distribute the gift.

The church at its best can be a place of deep and wide openness to the Spirit. When we are open to it, the Spirit often makes herself known in surprising ways, just like the followers of Jesus were so surprised on that Day of Pentecost. What a surprise they experienced on that first Pentecost after the death and resurrection of Jesus. They each felt it touching them and the people around them noticed something very unusual going on. They could understand one another in a new and profound way because the Spirit gave them the means and the understanding. Surprising things can happen when the Spirit abounds in individuals and in community.

     The Spirit works through community, inspiring us to be more creative together than any of us could be on our own. And the Spirit works through individuals, encouraging our gifts and passions, using our hearts, hands, and voice, and urging us to employ all of these to move ourselves, our communities, and the world closer to God’s vision of love and justice. The Spirit emboldens us to take action, opens us to uncover new, creative ideas, offers us words to give voice to our dreams and our imaginations, and helps us to make new discoveries. I’ll share just one recent instance of the movement of the Spirit in our community. Lina Landström has a passion for studying Queer history. She was inspired to do some research in the Methodist Archives at Drew University. While perusing the collections, she came across a reference to the Rev. Ed Egan, who had served the Metropolitan Duane United Methodist Church from 1971 to 1977. That was the church that inhabited this building until it consolidated with the Washington Square UMC and the Church of All Nations in 2005 to become The Church of the Village. Lina came across the following article from the UM Reporter from July 8, 1977:

“A United Methodist minister has been given a one-year leave of absence by the board of ministry of the denomination’s New York Annual Conference after he disclosed that he is a homosexual. The Rev. C. Ed Egan, 54, had been pastor of Metropolitan Duane UMC in the Greenwich Village section of New York City since 1971. He was divorced in 1963 and has a 31-year-old daughter, a 29-year-old son and two grandchildren. Dr. H. Burnham Kirkland, superintendent of the church’s Metropolitan (N.Y.) District, said the leave was given because it was felt Mr. Egan was “unable” to fulfill his responsibilities as a pastor.
‘Our position is that under the present position of the total United Methodist Church, we’re unable to appoint an avowed, practicing homosexual to a pastoral appointment,’ Dr. Kirkland said.”

She brought this and other findings to my attention in early March. We worked together to find other information about Ed online and in the Conference archives. We located Ed’s surviving companion, Russ Morin, and we visited him on April 4 in Haverstraw.  

     Rev. Paul Abels, pastor at the Washington Square church in the late 1970s, was also compelled to leave ordained ministry when he made public that he was gay. Abels’ story is fairly widely known, but while there are a few Church of the Village members who vaguely remembered Ed Egan, the details of the injustice done to him by the Conference were obscured and he had been largely forgotten, both in our own congregation and in the NY Conference. If it were not for Lina’s passionate interest, her inspiration to visit the archives, in finding particular documents, and in bringing them to our attention, Ed Egan’s advocacy and sacrifice in the cause of LGBTQ equality and inclusion might have been lost forever. Instead, on Wednesday, June 21, we will hold a commemorative event here at the church to remember both Ed Egan’s and Paul Abels’ faithful service and courageous witness. And the Church of the Village and Methodists in New Directions will bring a petition to the Annual Conference session next week to begin to heal the injustice done to them and restore Ed especially to the collective historical memory of the Conference and the UMC.  

     Let’s return to our current context. Our denomination is at the breaking point. We can imagine a number of scenarios, but we don’t know what will happen. We do know it is possible – maybe even likely – that we will be faced with creating something new – a new organization, a new alliance of congregations, a new denomination. In this venture, we have the opportunity to be guided by the Spirit of God to become the church in a new way – founded on the principles of progressive theology, radical inclusion, and vigorous advocacy of racial and economic justice. Are we ready to be surprised by the Spirit? We are being given the gift of participating in a new and surprising thing that God is doing within Christianity – in the new birth and new life of the church. That’s another answer to the question: “What is church?”: Church is a space in which we are compelled to repeatedly go through new birth and new life for God’s vision to find new vessels through which to work.  

     Whatever the new thing is that we are co-creating with God – haltingly and with many missteps – we can be sure that the Spirit is working in our midst. Many people lament the possibility of a split in the United Methodist Church, but it may be that is exactly what the Spirit is trying to move us toward. The Pentecost story is often called “the birth of the church,” but, in truth, the history of Christianity (and every other religion, for that matter) is filled with a series of births and rebirths – with movements for renewal and reinvigoration and even radical change seeking to respond to the ways people felt the Spirit moving them. The Pentecost event itself was such a movement. In the face of a religious hierarchy and religious practice that had become rigid and legalistic and focused on maintaining privilege, the Jesus movement arose to renew and extend the focus on deep spiritual and communal connection and love of God and neighbor. The early Methodist movement was an attempt to bring new life and spirit to the Church of England, which had become a moribund, middle class enclave and refused to reach out to workers and farm laborers and the oppressed.

     In our life together as church, the Spirit invades our space, disrupts our plans, and calls us to love, the reach out, to work for and be open to the new life that awaits us and the world. I think we are in just the place and just the mindset that the Spirit of God is seeking right now. May the Spirit bless the work of our hearts, minds, and hands.

Let us pray:
Spirit of God, be with us in our love, in our generosity, in our compassion, in our witness, and in all of our striving for your kin-dom. Be in the midst of our deliberations, decisions, and actions. Be in our dreams and inhabit our imaginations. Give us directions to the new life we are moving toward and help us to do all that we do in a spirit of love and justice. In the holy name of Jesus.

Amen.