Do I have to go to church to fully experience a relationship with God?

I believe our human relationships, when healthy, are designed to be a means of experiencing God.

Community: Where the Holy Spirit Hangs Out

Written by William A. Kolb

Gospel: John 20:19-23

Group prayerLanguage is an interesting thing. It can bring us together or it can divide us.

Many years ago I was with some friends who hailed from Louisiana — and heard a word I didn’t recognize. The word was "ratcheer." Heard it many times before I finally figured out what it meant. For example, when Juliet calls down, "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" Romeo responds, "Why I’m ratcheer in the bushes."

I spoke with a native of the South the other day and after I had hung up the phone I realized that I had been listening to the word "out" pronounced with three syllables. To a New Yorker like me, that is amazing.

When Pepsi Cola tried to use their slogan, "Come alive, you’re in the Pepsi Generation" over in China, it came out "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead."

If we could all speak the same language with the same accent perhaps there would be no wars. I don’t know. All I know is that the miracle that occurred at Pentecost sends us a message we need to hear: concentrate on the language that does unite us, despite all worldly differences, the language of the Spirit of God. We all carry a yearning for God in our hearts. We all live on earth with the Holy Spirit within us and among us. We all are in community because of that, and God yearns, speaking of yearning, God yearns for us to know it and to live it. God wants us to be in community with all its nurturing gifts and its call to us to minister to one another.

The miracle I referred to a moment ago took place on the day known as Pentecost—which literally means "fiftieth. " It was the ancient "feast of harvest," "the day of the first fruits." From the second day of the Passover, seven complete weeks, i.e., forty-nine days, were to be reckoned, and this feast was held on the fiftieth day. Besides the sacrifices prescribed for the occasion, every one was to bring to the Lord his "tribute of a free-will offering."

The purpose of this feast was to commemorate the completion of the grain harvest. It was on this high holy Jewish holiday in the City of Jerusalem, 2000 years ago, that peoples of all nations gathered to worship and celebrate. Multitudes were doing just that when suddenly they all started speaking in various tongues, or languages, yet everyone present was able to understand what was said all around them. They understood it in their own native language.

This miracle occurred as the Gift of the Holy Spirit was given to the Church, one of whose most important characteristics is community, community that is made possible by this Holy Spirit. This agape or love-based community, still lives and empowers us to care about others and to minister and to empower, from that day to this very minute.

Because the Holy Spirit made and makes possible the existence of the Church, the Feast of Pentecost is considered to be the birthday of the Church:

  • the day on which we were given the gift of the Holy Spirit of God;
  • the energy that keeps the Church in existence;
  • the voice that speaks to us when we are very quiet inside;
  • the bearer to us of what God created us to hear and what Jesus wanted us to learn.

The Holy Spirit is in us and in the world, linking us one to another. A parishioner e-mailed me this week and signed the note not with the oft-used "Peace," or "In Christ, " but with the words "In community." That got me to thinking that as a people who worship together, we are community.

We are in fact in community with everyone in the world who worships God, who seeks faith, who believes that good is better than evil. The word community comes from the same root that gives us the word communication, and the word Communion. We are, usually for better, occasionally for worse, all part of one another.

As people in community we find that we share many things in this life, several of which are found in the depths of this morning’s readings from Scripture. We hear Jesus speak of forgiveness and we realize that we all share the need for forgiveness. We see Jesus showing his wounds to his followers, and we realize that we have in common the fact that wounds are inevitably part of our lives.

We hear about many languages being understood by those who didn’t know how to speak those languages, and we realize that we have various languages, backgrounds, ways of expressing ourselves, accents in which we speak. But we see that we have similar yearnings and needs and that being part of God’s creation, being part of humanity gives us much more in common than we have that is different. We know that we share the knowledge of our own mortality and, perhaps because of that, we know of our common need for God.

We are called, as baptized persons, to think in terms of "we" rather than "I." Our culture has become one in which many of us are primarily concerned with our own needs and our own wants. Many advertisements trumpet that and appeal to that. Our consumer society has lost a lot of the concern for others that was present in decades past. But the Biblical focus is on the community.

God's answer to the human predicament was to create a new community, to start a family. We as individuals gain our identity by belonging to the community, and the community finds fulfillment in the growth and healing of the individual. Each nurtures the other. And the bread of life nurtures all of us.

This one-ness applies to the whole world and to the small piece of the world such as the community of faith known as St. James’ Church. What one of us does or does not do has its impact on the whole. What one of us receives or does not receive has its impact on the whole. When one is forgiven the entire community is healthier in spirit. When we as a community forgive, each of us is freer.

Looking at the closing words of our Gospel reading, we hear, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." We often wonder about this power given to the church to forgive or not to forgive.I think perhaps that our job is to concentrate not so much on how the Church is to know which sins are to be loosed and which are to be retained, but on Jesus’ confirming in clear words here the reality of forgiveness. It’s the gift of God to an imperfect but adored people.

Notice, earlier in the reading, when Jesus comes through the door to reveal his wounded but living self, how he doesn’t wait for the disciples to express their contrition and repentance before he says "Peace be with you; your sins are forgiven!" He puts that love out there without any quid pro quo.

How reminiscent of the prodigal son and his father! In so many places where we read about God’s Love in Scripture we see indications that it is full, that it is unconditional, that it is replete with forgiveness.

So we live in community, even when we go off by ourselves. Remember the old song:

I see the moon and the moon sees me,
the moon sees somebody I want to see;
God bless the moon and God bless me,
and God bless somebody I want to see.

To be in relationship with God is to be in relationship with every person who is also in relationship with God. And we do not need to speak the same language or have the same accent to be in true community; we have only to realize that we are all part of God, and to keep that uppermost in our mind and spirit as we live and relate to each other.

Remember the old movie, Star Wars? Remember the "Force"? I always suspected that the writer had the Holy Spirit in mind. After all, the "Force" was powerful, it was greater than any one person and it was good.

And so on this Day of the Holy Spirit, my prayer for all of us and those we love is, "May the Force be with You!"


Copyright ©2001 The Rev. Canon William A. Kolb
Originally preached at St. James' Episcopal Church, Jackson, Mississippi on The Day of Pentecost, June 3, 2001.