A few weeks ago, Terri and I embarked on a seven-day journey aboard a beautiful, massive cruise ship. From the outside for some, it may seem like just a big boat, created for a leisurely stroll along the Caribbean islands, where everyone on board simply enjoys the ride, eats all they want, and basks in the pleasure of vacation or retirement. However, there is much more going on aboard that ship, especially below the Lido deck, where all the dancing and fun takes place every day.
Ships have a purpose beyond merely making 3000+ people happy, fulfilled in their own fun, and full of delicious food. Ships are incredibly intricate machines, and a well-trained and committed crew operates them. A ship like this requires many people who are committed to the mission of the ship. Engineers make sure the engines are running properly. Maintenance folks keep the systems in top-notch condition. Deck hands handle all the hard labor associated with the trip and port visits. Entertainers dance, sing, and keep the passengers happy. Navigators keep the ship on course. Managers oversee the staff. The Captain/Master oversees the whole operation. Each person has a part in the overall mission of the ship, and every person must take his or her place, or the mission fails.
The church has been described by some, as a ship sailing on the chaotic seas of life, serving as a respite for sin weary travelers. It is a great metaphor, but the church is more than a place of rest for her members. Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”
We are not merely passengers on the ship SS Church, we are actually the crew called to serve on God’s mission, and the Day of Pentecost was the day the missional church embarked on doing Jesus‘ works in the world. Pentecost was the day we began to fulfill our purpose of making disciples, forming disciples, sending disciples out to be witnesses to God’s love, and making the Kingdom of God present.
The Pentecost Experience
Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and lecturer once wrote, “Pentecost is not as much about what God has done for us, as what God wants us to do in the world.”(2) Brown adds, “that isn’t nearly as attractive to most of us.”(2) I believe what Taylor may be saying is that the Pentecost experience may seem like it is all about us as individuals, but it is really about ALL of God’s creation, those onboard the ship now, and those who have not yet boarded. We the Church today are sent out on a mission to be witnesses of grace, but we often lose sight of the mission. That is when we find ourselves rudderless without direction, tossing on the waves of uncertainty and maybe even distraction. Them again, we have the story of the Day of Pentecost.
Pentecost is not merely a birthday party for the church that we celebrate each year. We commemorate that day as a renewed call to action, a calling to be sent out on Jesus’ mission. The best part of the Pentecost experience is that we are never alone but are given a gift of power, which we are asked not to hold onto for merely ourselves, but to give it away. The gift to which I am speaking about is the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us at each of our baptisms.
Today (or tomorrow Sunday at 9:30) another beginning and another day of embarkation happens for the crew of the ship we call Church. We are baptizing four beautiful children: Cecilia Perez and Katie, Emily, and Andrew Mcartney. These innocent children of God will be embarking on the first day of the long voyage on their mission as disciples. They begin a lifelong journey of faith, being formed by the love of parents and godparents who follow Jesus, and by this community of Jesus followers, who know the way, show the way, and go the way of Jesus. They too are not mere passengers on the ship, they are crew entering initial training and preparation for the mission they will carry on, long after each of us have joined the saints in glory. But they (like us) will never journey alone, as long as they (and we) remain in a community of faith that will help us all along the path of grace, and as long as they (and we) rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us.
We are Crew!
The Book of Common Prayer asserts that the “Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity, God at work in the world and in the Church even now.” This mission we the SS Church is on is not our own, or is it a mission we get to come up with all by ourselves. Our mission is God’s mission of love, and God works in us today to fulfill that mission. Don’t forget that the Holy Spirit is the rudder of the ship, and the guiding beacon that keeps our sights on the horizon line. God’s Spirit is our reference point that guides us, gives us direction, and keeps us focused on God’s mission of love.
In the church, like the crew of a ship, many of us remain below deck doing the things we do each day: maintenance, cleaning, cooking, singing, managing, teaching, and interacting with each other. So when we are in the midst of our busy crew duties, we may think we have no clue where we are on the journey. Even while the work continues each day, the perfect rudder of the Holy Spirit is moving us ever so gently on our path, guiding the church along God’s perfect mission of love.
The church moves slowly sometimes because like a ship, we just cannot turn quickly and abruptly, because if we do, we risk throwing the crew overboard. So, the ship can never lose sight of the horizon line, and the church can never move forward with her mission, unless guided by the Holy Spirit. Likewise, the mission takes all of us to make it a reality. The great works of Jesus we are called to do cannot be accomplished by just 1, 2, or 3 people. It takes the whole bunch!
Holy Spirit guiding, leading, nudging
Now we do not have to be overly mature Christians either to join God’s mission. Theologian Matthew L. Skinner tells us, these “ignorant, backwater folks” (a stereotype conveyed by the term “Galileans,” but perhaps lost to readers today) became impassioned, eloquent spokespersons for the gift of new life, the beginning of a brand new era in which God is fulfilling promises and salvation.” (1) If that group can fulfill God’s mission, so can we.
So, like the crews that came before us, we all have a place onboard the ship of grace. Whether you have been a Christian for 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, or 90 years; or you are the new crew members that we welcome today (or Sunday at 9:30): Cecilia, Katie, Emily, and Andrew, each of us have a part in moving forward on this voyage. We are the instruments of God’s grace, witnesses of God’s love, and the people through which God’s Kingdom will become a reality on the tempestuous seas of this old nightmare of a world we live in today.
Now, here is the key to a successful trip. As long as God’s Spirit guides us, nothing can deter us from the mission; not language differences, not our lack of resources, not our lack of motivation, or any challenges we will face. We just need to remember that like those first Christians on that Day of Pentecost, when we feel rudderless, we need to cry, “Abba! Father!” When we do, we will know it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, children who are sent out to change the world for Christ. Jesus’ mission of love is before us, so let’s trust the Spirit. How many of you ready to set sail right here and right now?
(2) Taylor, Barbara Brown. “God’s Breath.” Journal For Preachers 26.4 (2003): 37-40. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 12 May 2013.