Tomorrow is Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost is celebrated in western Christianity as the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus fifty days after Easter. The story is recounted in Acts 2:1-13. Put aside for a minute skepticism about the story being factual. It probably isn’t factual. It is, however, true. It is a story that explains how a group of small, marginalized, fearful followers of a wandering rabbi who were sacred to death about being associated with him for fear they too would rounded up and crucified stopped hiding in the shadows and began to actually live by the teachings that meant so much to them. It is in essence a story about how a group of people decided to live their lives on fire; to actually live as though they believed in and valued the lessons the teacher taught. It is a story of a people finding the guts, strength, and courage to risk being who they say are. Here’s the story. A mighty wind and tongues of fire come upon Jesus’ friends and followers:
“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. ”
The apostle Peter then speaks of prophesy and how the prophet Joel said in the last days God will pour out his spirit on all people. Peter talks about everyone who calls on the name of the Lord being saved and breaking bread together in fellowship.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 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. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number… Acts 2:42-47
I don’t know exactly what happened in the room with Jesus’ followers. I don’t actually think tongues of actual fire appeared over anyone’s head and I don’t think people started speaking in strange languages. Here’s what I think: I think days passed in which people who loved Jesus and took to heart what he said grieved his death. They wondered what would happen next. Being associated with Jesus must have been scary if not dangerous. I suppose they spent a lot of time talking with each other about what Jesus meant to them. I suppose they spent time talking about his stories and his interactions with others and how practical it would be turn the other cheek and to take the log out of their own eye before removing a speck from someone else’s and how it is that when you feed the hungry and visit the sick and clothe the naked you are doing those things to Jesus, to God, and to each other. I like to think they argued over these things and finally the more or less general consensus became that they had no choice but to live their lives differently if anything their teacher said was actually important to them. Then they found the guts to do so. That is when people started noticing them.
They began to live differently. They became the people who welcomed and embraced the outcast. They became the people who performed signs and wonders such as healing and tending to the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. They sold their possessions and together held things in common. Conservative Christians today would call them communists and socialists and think they were an evil plot hatched by a Muslim president.
They were radical. They included women and slaves and the most despised people in their society. They didn’t call themselves Christians. They called themselves People of the Way. They were the ones who lived differently.
What’s this got to do with Unitarian Universalism? Much.
There is a Pentecost going on among Unitarian Universalists. People are coming alive and beginning to live their lives on fire. Unitarian Universalism is wrestling in a very deep way with what it means to live life every day as if being a Unitarian Universalist can change individual lives and change the world. Unitarian Universalist are finding that their religion is not about going to church but about being the church.
The missional movement in Christianity seeks to stop spending so much time and energy advertising and trying to attract people to join their congregation and to start spending time going out into the world, as the early Christian communities did after Pentecost and spread the teachings of Jesus by living them out in their daily lives.
This movement is gaining ground because by and large the church (and this is also true for the Unitarian Universalist Church) has become synonymous with the larger, dominant culture. The church is no longer counter cultural. The church is an arm and agent of the corporate consumer culture in which we live.
The missional movement sees the Gospel as extraordinarily counter cultural. The church’s place in society should not be an integral working part of the status quo, situated at the center of modern consumer-driven superficiality. The church’s place is at the margin, not only calling for justice and equity and compassion, but being a living example of how to live justly and equitably and sustainably and compassionately.
Unitarian Universalists are moving in this missional direction all the while wrestling with a demon that has long plagued them – Christianity. How can we be missional if we are not Christian? The answer finds an example, ironically enough, in the Christian celebration of Pentecost. Pentecost was the event – and this was probably not a singular event, but most likely happened over time following the crucifixion – where followers of Jesus decided to actually live as if they were who they said they are. The decided to close the gap between the way they lived every day and these new teachings they had taken to heart.
This is the way for Unitarian Universalists to be missional. Our good news is that we can create beloved community, not just in a little oasis of liberal minded, progressive free thinkers in our congregations, but on a grand scale in our society. In order to do this we have to live as if we are who we say we are. We are called to change the world for the better. We are called to be the change we wish to see in the world. We are called to radical integrity and authenticity.
The most fascinating thing about living a missional life is that it breaks down barriers between people of different faiths. Last year I worked for an ecumenical coalition of churches and my office was in a Church of Christ. Even though there were vast differences in my theology and theirs, we shared a commitment to mission. Their mission was to be a center of mercy, mission and transformation in the neighborhood because the Gospel of Jesus Christ called them to bring the good news of compassion and God’s love to the outcast, the poor, the forgotten, and the marginalized. I was trying to create the beloved community of justice and equity and sustainability that is at the heart of Unitarian Universalism. Both of these motivations, when we lived and acted and worked out of them, amounted to the same thing – feeding people, helping people get medical care, clothing people, speaking up about the injustices of poverty and hunger and want and need. Both of our motivations caused us to love the hell out of the world around us.
It’s Pentecost and the missional spirit is growing in Unitarian Universalism. Once you go missional you can not stop, retreat, go back, or give up. Your life changes. Being the change you wish to see in the world is self reinforcing. It is like Neo following Morpheus out of the Matrix. Catching the missional spirit means seeing that everything you thought you knew about life and church and religion is wrong. Once you see life as a mission you can’t unsee it that way.
The missional shift in Unitarian Universalism presents us with the opportunity for our communities to be recognized for how we live, not what we believe. Let us be the people who live out our values so strongly and so completely, that we become the people who live differently, not just the people who think and believe differently. Once you begin living this way, everything must change. Everything. You will become a soul on fire. You will be a light and a beacon and a comfort to those who are suffering and struggling. You will stop encouraging people to come to church with you, but rather you will encourage people to BE the church with you by changing the world around you in great and small ways. You will not just think differently, you will live differently. You may even notice a tongue of flame over your head every once in a while. And yes, the flame can be in a chalice.
Join us! Life on Fire 2013 – A Gathering of the Tribe: September 13-15, 2013, Oak Ridge UU Church, Oak Ridge, TN. Gather with others for an UN-conference about living missional lives, radical integrity and making a difference.