With Pentecost behind us, the Church leaves the festival season that began with Advent/Christmas/Epiphany and was shortly followed by Lent/Easter/Pentecost. But there are images from Pentecost that linger with me and ask important questions of us as a community as we move into the long summer season the Church calls “Time After Pentecost,” or “ordinary time,” and we focus on the nature of discipleship and evangelism.
When the Holy Spirit descended on the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem that first Pentecost, empowering each to speak in other languages (Acts 2:1-42), the world witnessed the birth of the Church. This means that from its inception, the Church has been characterized by unfamiliar words spoken to unfamiliar people in unfamiliar ways. Two thousand years later, who would guess that what takes place in most Christian sanctuaries on Sunday morning is directly connected to that first moment of the Church’s existence?
Language is important. It allows us to express our needs, to make ourselves known, to create and establish relationships, to preserve our identity. Language has the power to include and to exclude, to welcome and to repel. It matters what words we use. The same is true of the songs we sing, and the symbols with which we surround ourselves.
Christians have a special relationship to words. The beginning of the gospel of John declares that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) We understand that words shape our perception of reality, words create worlds. So we choose the words we use in worship carefully. We select hymns and we recite creeds and affirmations of faith that shape how we understand who God is, and who we are in relation to God.
When we forget the power of words, when we begin to speak without thinking or sing without listening, we run the risk of unintentionally harming ourselves and others. We fall into patterns of speech that are alienating, even insulting. When that happens, we are likely to either refrain from speaking and grow distant from our faith – or continue speaking and grow numb to our faith. Neither serves us, or God, at all.
This summer we are intentionally creating opportunities to think more intentionally about language and its role in our worship. As we have for the past few summers, we will occasionally leave behind the Apostles and Nicene Creeds so that we can hear other creeds and affirmations of faith from other Christian communities. We will be stretched to hear how other brothers and sisters describe their encounter with God in Christ Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.
In July and August I will be teaching a summer study on the history and development of the creeds on Sunday mornings before worship (July 18-Aug 22, 9:15-10am in the Lesher Lounge) using a text by one of my seminary instructors, Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson’s “The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters.” I hope you’ll all consider being a part of that study – we’ll be sure that there’s child care provided so that everyone who wants to can participate.
As a further spur for continuing conversation about our worship – what we do and why – you’ll notice each week in the back of the bulletin a short entry from the ELCA’s worship resource Principles for Worship, beginning with the section on “Language and the Christian Assembly.” That document includes the following statement,
One of the liveliest areas of conversation regarding worship in the church today has to do with the use of language. The ELCA is increasingly a church in which various languages, including but not limited to English, are used for worship. At the same time, the ongoing changes in language within the wider society have an impact on the language of worship in a church that is committed to worship in the vernacular. In addition, any discussion about language in worship is affected by the wide-ranging theological discussions about language that are taking place among Christians of many denominations and language groups.
As you prepare for worship on Sunday morning, take a moment to read the featured principle, related background materials and suggested applications. Consider how these principles are (or aren’t) embodied in our worship here at St. Luke’s, then stick around for coffee hour when I, or another member of the congregation, will be available to lead a short conversation reflecting on our worship practices.
Finally, on June 13th we’ll begin learning setting 9 of the liturgy by American composer Joel Martinson (b. 1960). This setting of the liturgy was commissioned for our new hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Martinson is Director of Music Ministries and Organist at The Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Dallas who also lectures and makes presentations across the country on the diverse styles of sacred music at the turn of the 21st century. Just as we pay attention to the words we use in worship, we also attend to the sounds and the songs that shape our assembly. I think you will enjoy the new melodies and harmonies in this new setting!
The first Pentecost marked the birth of the church, and we remember that the apostles who preached that day were lit up with tongues as of fire. The movement of the Holy Spirit can be like that – both frightening and inspiring – but as followers of Christ we are called to continually find new ways of proclaiming an ancient truth: that there are no boundaries God will not cross to meet us where we are and to transform our lives and the world around us.