The anniversaries of key markers in our lives are important. Birthdays are a good example. Some of us age until we are not all that crazy about our birthdays. They are a sign we are getting older, but even as we age, birthdays are important. Birthdays celebrate the labour of the woman who gave us birth; they celebrate the way in which we were nurtured as children; they celebrate another year given to enjoy. Birthdays are a big deal.
So, it is with other key anniversaries in life, such as wedding anniversaries or the milestones of our children’s lives. These are marker events remembered and celebrated annually. These anniversaries mark the significant passages of our lives. They also give us the framework for our stories. This is true not only of happy times, of course, but also of our difficult times. I wonder how the Covid-19 pandemic will be flagged and remembered as part of our stories. Will it be marked by a special day or be part of our histories only?
If you’ve experienced the breakup of a marriage, each year you remember the time when that happened. If you’ve lost a loved one—a spouse, a parent, or a child— those dates are forever pressed upon your memory. Those anniversaries are not marked by parties, but they are times of remembrance. This is important, not only for individuals, but also for countries. In the Australia we have Australia Day with celebrations with fireworks and outdoor barbecues. The celebration calls to mind the stories of the arrival of non-indigenous people in this land and the deep sorrow for the indigenous people that followed.
Anniversaries remind us of our stories, so it’s important that we observe the church anniversary of Pentecost. This is the day when we tell the stories and celebrate the events that gave birth to the church. In the first weeks after the Resurrection, there was no organised thing called the church, just people who had known or followed Jesus, who had experienced his resurrection. One day they are all together, and then, suddenly, miraculous events begin to happen.
A mighty wind blows through the house and shakes the very foundation. Tongues of fire leap from person to person. People begin to speak in the languages of the world. Then, after all this chaotic uprising of the Spirit, the Spirit expresses itself in yet another way as Peter quiets everyone down and preaches. He explains to them the meaning of the events that have just taken place. Peter tells the story and teaches us something about our roots, so the story of Pentecost teaches us about our roots as the church. Telling and retelling the story reminds us of the fundamental truths that are deeply embedded in our birth as the body of Christ.
We need the reminder because we live in the mundane “everydayness” of the church. Every one of us can find something to criticise in the church. We all can tell of disappointment, or even of hearts broken by the church. It’s important, then, to remember that the church is more than the fallible human beings it comprises. To use the words of an old creed, “The church is of God and will be preserved until the end of time,” not because we are the church, not because we embody the full measure of what the church should be, but rather because it is not ours, it is God’s.
For all of its faults and failings, it is through the church that we have been told the stories of the love of God in Jesus Christ. The church, for all its human messiness, is a gift of God. A second thing the Pentecost birthday story of the church teaches us is that the church, from its birth, was multinational, multicultural, and multilingual. We need frequent reminders of this. The text from Acts we here on this day is a testimony that at the church’s birth we were multinational, multicultural, and multilingual. We certainly don’t look like it most of the time, do we? Unfortunately, our congregations are often not reflective of the God-given nature of real church. We have to tell the story to be reminded of our true self. Our true self isn’t monolithic; our true self isn’t mono-cultural; our true self is multicultural.
There’s something else in the birthday story that’s worth remembering. After all the chaos and uproar of wind and fire and languages, Peter calls for order and attempts to interpret what all of this means reminding us to remember that it is important “your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” This Peter takes from the Hebrew Scripture of Joel 2:28. Maybe from its birth, the church was meant to be a big dreamer for God. The church, from its birth, was to be a visionary change agent, not an agent of conformity, was meant to have visions and to dream those dreams.
Peter, on the day of Pentecost, tells us so. The church should always be dreaming God’s big dream. When our dreams are small or absent, when we are satisfied with the status quo, when we think we’ve done as much as we can possibly do, we’ve quit being the church, because the church is a dreamer. The church is visionary; the church is a possibility place. It’s important to tell our birthday stories and remember again our beginnings.