Whose Church Is It?

Numbers 11:24-30

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

Acts 2:1-13

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.”

“Whose Church Is It?”

A friend of mine posted a picture on his Facebook page yesterday that made me laugh.  It was a photograph of an outdoor church sign that read: (And I’ll read it with the intonation that I think my friend imagined…) “Don’t let worries kill you.  Let the church help.”  I thought immediately of Moses. He had a lot of worries that could have killed him on the trek toward the Promised Land.  But according to Moses, it was his community of faith, his synagogue, who were helping to kill him off faster than anything else.  The long journey out of Egypt was taking a toll on the people and their constant kvetching was wearing Moses down.  The complaints of a people hungry for something tasty to eat were eating away at their leader.  “Don’t let worries kill you, Moses.  Let the people of God help.” 

The bit that came before what I read this morning from the Book of Numbers was pretty much Moses saying to God: “If this is how it’s going to be, then just take me now!” And so Moses turns to God and says: “I can’t do this alone.  I can’t carry these people by myself.”  And God says: “OK, fair enough.  Pick 70 elders and we will set them aside for leadership, to help you out.”  And Moses probably thought, why didn’t I say something sooner?  So Moses followed God’s suggestion, and God’s spirit was upon the 70 and they all prophesied, which is to say they did and said the kinds of things that helpful religious leaders are known to do and say. 

But it seems that they only prophesied once.  Moses was hoping for a little more help than that. Except… there were these two dudes named Eldad and Medad who were off doing their own prophesying thing. Moses’ worried assistant, Joshua, reported this to the Big Boss thinking it an infraction of the rules of Proper Prophesying. 

Make them stop,” Joshua cries.

“Are you serious?” says the burned out, over functioning Moses, surprising Joshua.  “I’d be thrilled if all of the leaders were out there prophesying all the time.”

“Oh.” Said Joshua.  “But I thought you were the boss.”

I suspect Moses gave Joshua a big eye roll at that point.  The exhausted Moses finally has come to accept that it is not all up to him.  He’s ready to share the burden of leadership, but not everyone is ready to step up to the plate.  And Joshua seems to want to exercise more vigilance than Moses does about the sharing of this leadership. In response, what Moses in essence ways to Joshua is that the community of faith doesn’t belong to him, or to Joshua, or to Eldad or Medad.  Or to the seventy selected leaders for that matter.  The community of faith belongs to all of them, and it belongs to none of them.  Ultimately, the religious community belongs to God.

Whose religious community is this?

The followers of Jesus were about to confront the same question about their own religious community.  They had this habit of staying indoors.  After the death of Jesus, they holed up behind locked doors fearing they would be killed along with him.  Even after they heard that Jesus had been raised from the dead they still couldn’t help themselves from locking that door when they were together.  So here they are again, after spending several weeks with the resurrected Jesus, after his Ascension into Heaven.  Inside. Again.

There’s a party going on outside.  People have come from all over the world to be in Jerusalem for the celebration of the feast of Pentecost, the commemoration of when Moses gave the 10 commandments to God’s people.  It’s a block party out there.  And the followers of Jesus are inside again. The text does not say the door is locked but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if it was locked.  The followers of Jesus, so recently re-abandoned by him, were trying hard to hold on to this fragile sense of… something.  When Jesus was there it was so clear, but when he was absent they that to work harder to hang onto the sense of Holy Amazing that they felt in his presence.  They were trying hard to hold onto to this fragile sense of…something.  Things had been happening so quickly, changes they never expected coming at them faster than they could assimilate.  Life.  Death.  Life again.  Who could take it all in?  So they stayed inside and prayed about it. 

Whose church was it?  I imagine they thought it was theirs, up to them, the ones who followed Jesus. They had carefully replaced Judas with Matthias, so now they were 12 again, just as they had been before.  When the world rocked around them with changes and uncertainty, they had their safe little group that was trying to go on as they had before.  12 designees for leadership, known policies and procedures, habits and traditions, they settled in to the known territory of prayer inside a room whose contours they had memorized.

They had a habit of staying inside. (But we’ve seen the movie; we know what happens next.)  They had this habit of staying inside, but God had other plans.  Plans that involved pushing them out into the street and beyond their comfort zones.  Plans that involved finding ways to translate their experience of God’s love into a language that others could understand.  Pentecost was not a day of “If you build it they will come” theology but rather a “Get out there and connect” theology a “Go where you don’t expect to go” and a “talk to people who are so foreign to you that God has to do the translating” theology. 

And before they knew it, this little movement of the 12 plus a handful of other faithful followers was blown wide apart by a Spirit that set them on fire and took them to places they never thought they’d visit.  If the early Christians had any ideas that this movement belonged to them then God quickly disabused them of that notion on the day of Pentecost. They couldn’t control or direct any of it. The Jesus movement no longer belonged to them, it never had.  It belonged to God.

Things started to happen and continued to happen that blew their minds and their categories apart.  Peter, God bless his heart, Peter who tried so hard to get it right, has this crazy vision.  And in the vision a sheet comes down filled with animals he would never think of eating because they were religiously unclean.  Peter sees this vision and hears this voice: “Rise, kill, and eat.”  “No sir!”  But God is insistent, and Peter finds himself breaking the rules and going places he didn’t expect.  It probably was not quite what they expected.

And Phillip.  Phillip finds himself walking down a road where he runs into the Ethiopian Eunuch who is hungry to know about God.  And Phillip finds himself explaining the gospel to the Ethiopian Eunuch, an outcast sexual minority if ever there was one.  And before he knows what he is doing Phillip is baptizing this Eunuch, who is if not the first then among the first baptized converts to Christianity.  Not quite what they expected. 

Saul, persecutor of Christians, struck down by a mystical experience of meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, probably not the convert to their faith that the 12 set their sights on. 

Women, lots of them, were coming forward to offer capable leadership in a church that would be living room sized for its first few centuries.  Not how they had imagined the leadership developing in this religious movement. 

Rich people, poor people, slaves, enemies, people on the margins, the same people that Jesus had drawn to him like a magnet.  Gentiles, for heavens sake.   Not what they expected! 

“Make them stop!”

 Whose church is this?  It’s God’s church.

It all belongs to God.  The winds of the Spirit will blow where they will.  And I guarantee we will be uncomfortable.  Things will not turn out like we expect. But, oh, what joy we will know! The surprises that await us! The precious transformations we will be a part of!  Whose church is this?  This Church belongs to God.  Amen…and off we go!

  • Pastor Meg Hess