John E. Harnish reflects on how he finds great comfort in knowing that the Holy Spirit can still work through our very human church with all its squabbles to bring the world to Christ.
JOHN E. HARNISH
Michigan Conference Communications
I assume most folks reading these reflections are United Methodists and familiar with the Pentecost event in the book of Acts. Many of us can repeat verbatim, “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place” (Acts 2:1, KJV).
We’ve heard about the rush of a mighty wind, the tongues of fire resting on their heads, and the gospel being proclaimed in all the world’s diverse languages. (I’ve always wondered if it was a miracle of tongues—the disciples speaking in other languages—or a miracle of ears—everyone hearing in their own tongue.) We’ve heard it all. Unfortunately, however, we don’t hear much about the Pentecostal squabbles that must have gone under the radar. Luke points to a few.
First, there was the matter of replacing Judas through a quick election between Barsabbas and Matthias in Acts 1. Matthias won, but we don’t know anything about the campaigns, the rhetoric, the tension which can surround any election, or whether Barsabbas contested the results. Interestingly, we never hear about the two men following the election. I like to believe they both found their place within the community and quietly lived out their newfound faith, but you never know.
Second, there were struggles around their communal life: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45, NRSVUE). Except, of course, Ananias and Sapphira, whose selfishness led to an unhappy ending (Acts 5). Evidently, everyone didn’t buy into their socialist lifestyle. And as the community grew, it seems some of the widows were being cheated in the distribution of bread, which called the disciples to organize with assigned duties (Acts 6). If you don’t like organized religion, just try disorganized religion.
Then if you read on, you encounter the debate between Paul and Barnabas over Mark in chapter 15. Luke is painfully honest when he says, “The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and set out, the brothers and sisters commending him to the grace of the Lord” (vv. 39-40).
Of course, the major fight was over race and tradition between Gentile and Jewish Christians, which led to the great “Jerusalem General Conference” (chapter 15). Sound familiar?
I share all this simply to say that Pentecostal squabbles are not new.
From the very beginning, there have been times when the all-too-human church dealt with all-too-human disagreements as they sought to be the spiritual body of Christ. And so do we.
Regretfully, like the squabble between Paul and Barnabas, some of our congregations are deciding they need to go their own way, to “disaffiliate.” It seems some United Methodists would prefer to be Untied Methodists. Just like Paul and Barnabas’ feud, it’s tragic, but in the end, the good news of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit continues to move within this very human church to spread the Word and share the love of Christ just as it did then. The good news is that, even in our disagreements and divisions, our struggles and squabbles, God is still at work. Pentecost still happens. The Spirit still comes, and the witness of the church goes on.
The introduction to the liturgy for confirmation and reception into the church in The Methodist Hymnal (1964) still gives me great hope despite what we see happening today:
The Church is of God, and will be preserved to the end of time, for the conduct of worship and the due administration of his Word and Sacraments, the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline, the edification of believers, and the conversion of the world. All, of every age and station, stand in need of the means of grace which it alone supplies (#829).
In the face of the divisions within this church we all love, I find great comfort in knowing that, ultimately, “the Church is of God, and will be preserved to the end of time.” I take heart in the assurance that the Holy Spirit can still work through this very human church with all its squabbles to bring the world to Christ.
That old liturgy ends with this benediction:
Go forth in peace, and be of good courage; hold fast that which is good, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. And the blessing of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be with you and remain with you for ever. Amen.
May it be so in The United Methodist Church, throughout the whole church in all its expressions, through every tongue and every nation around the world today.