Pentecost A

It’s a dangerous moment for Christianity.

The followers of Jesus are gathered together in a locked room. It’s a familiar place to them. They locked themselves away from the world after Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.

That locked room was where Jesus found them the evening of the resurrection – huddled together in fear, hoping the locked doors would keep out the forces of empire that had brought Jesus to his death.

The startling news of the resurrection brought them out of hiding for a while. But now Jesus is gone again, for good this time. He promised before he departed for heaven that he would send them the Holy Spirit to be with them and empower them.

They had no idea what that actually meant. But 10 days have passed and nothing has happened. So his followers have once again locked themselves away from the world.

That is where the Holy Spirit finds them. In dramatic fashion the Spirit blows through that room like a violent wind, propelling the disciples into the very world they feared.

The Spirit gives them courage and strength and abilities they had no idea they possessed. They speak about God’s deeds of power in languages that everyone can understand, no matter what their native tongue.

Peter, the most cowardly of them all, the one who on the night of Jesus’ death denied knowing him three times, becomes the boldest of all, proclaiming the good news of Jesus to the world. On that day, 3,000 people were baptized.

Pentecost, the day that Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit is fulfilled, is known as the birthday of the church. Without Pentecost, Christianity would likely not have developed into the religion we know today.

That is why the time of the disciples locked away in a room was a dangerous one for Christianity.  The disciples could have given in to their fears, they could gone back to the lives they lived before they knew Jesus, they could have reconciled themselves to the evils of empire which Jesus stood against.

If they had, the teachings of Jesus would have gradually faded away, and we would not be here today.

Pentecost is the day that we celebrate the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God that is still abroad in the world today. Scripture tells us that the Spirit has gifts for each one of us, gifts to be used for the common good, spirits of truth and compassion and courage.

But there are also other spirits abroad in the world, spirits of evil that are not meant to build up the common good, but that seek to divide, to exclude, to benefit some while taking away from others.

We know the spirits by the fruits they bear. The apostle Paul tells us that the fruits of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

Other spirits, he says, bear fruits of impurity, idolatry, enmity, strife, dissension, anger, and factions.

The Holy Spirit and the spirits of evil are both always present in the world. Part of the task of the Church is to discern which spirit to follow.

That is not always as easy as it sounds. The spirits of evil can be very alluring, offering temptations that are hard even for people of faith to resist.

There are times in history when those spirits are especially strong. These are dangerous moments for Christianity.

One such moment was in Germany as Hitler rose to power.

By some estimates, 95 percent of Germans in the 1930s identified as Christian. The Jewish population was about 1 percent, the same as the Muslim population in this country today.

How could a Christian nation be responsible for what is among the greatest atrocities of human history? Where was the Church?

Hitler appealed to a growing nationalism, a resentment of the international community, and fear of communism.

His message was often cloaked in religious language, fostering a toxic brew of Christianity and patriotism.

Most German Christians supported the Reich; many continued to do so even in the face of mounting evidence that the Hitler regime was immoral and murderously cruel.

Only with Christianity’s tolerance and cooperation could fascist movements gain majority support in Christian nations.

European fascism bore fruit in Christian cultures. Millions of Christians actively supported these notorious regimes. Thousands participated in their atrocities, including violence against Jewish citizens.

Throughout this period there was virtually no public opposition to anti-Semitism,  or any readiness by church leaders to publicly oppose state-sanctioned violence against Jews.

In that dangerous moment for Christianity, the church failed. The German church followed not the Spirit of Christ, but the spirit of evil, manifested in Hitler and Nazism.

There were exceptions, of course.

Individual Christians spoke out on behalf of Jews, and small groups became involved in the resistance movement.

The most well-known Christian opposition against Nazism was the 1934 Barmen Declaration, a document adopted by those who opposed the German Christian movement and the official Reich church.

The declaration was the first call to resistance against the theological claims of the Nazi state.

“Try the spirits whether they are of God!” the declaration proclaimed. “Prove also the words of the church to see whether they agree with Holy Scripture…If you find that we are speaking contrary to scripture, then do not listen to us!

“But if you find that we are taking our stand upon scripture, then let no fear or temptation keep you from treading with us the path of faith and obedience to God.”

When the Church becomes a tool of the State, as had happened to many German churches, “the Church ceases to be the Church,” the statement said.

“We may not keep silent,” it added, “since we believe that we have been given a message to utter in a time of need and temptation.”

Despite the bravery of those who signed the Barmen Declaration, the majority of German Christians failed to follow the Holy Spirit, allowing their fears to overcome their faith.

The silence of the church and the widespread complicity of ordinary Christians in the horrors of the Holocaust continues to haunt German Christians to this day.

While far from perfect, the Barmen Declaration was a Pentecost moment. There have been other courageous Pentecost moments since then – but far fewer than the command of the Spirit requires.

More than 50 years ago, theologian Paul Ramsey wrote a book entitled Who Speaks for the Church?

We may well ask ourselves that same question in our own time.

Amen.

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