Here’s how I like to tell my story of church wandering, of moving from one kind of church to another—the way I’ve switched Christian traditions several times during my forty years.
As a kid, my family was Roman Catholic. We were part of a lovely parish in Los Angeles. I have hazy memories of church life there, mostly warm feelings. I do remember that Pat Riley was a member of our parish, he was the longtime coach of the LA Lakers at the time, and he gave me a basketball with signatures of all the players of his team: the greats, like Magic Johnson, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, James Worthy, A.C. Green. I have a lot of regret about what happened to that ball over the years, but that’s for another sermon.
At some point my parents moved us from our Catholic parish to the Vineyard, a charismatic group, for reasons that are still unclear to me. Then we bounced around to other pentecostal congregations, following the Spirit, I think. I remember people speaking in spiritual tongues, the tongues of angels as the apostle Paul called it in 1 Corinthians. I remember those with the gift of prophecy who made weekly pronouncements about the future. I remember worship services where people would be laid out on the sanctuary floor, slain in the spirit, it was called, while others keeled over, full of holy laughter.
When I moved away for college, I guess I needed a break from the wildness of the Spirit, so I joined up with a nondenominational church, an uneventful evangelical congregation. Then I showed up here, to Chapel Hill Mennonite, that was eighteen years ago, and I felt like I had arrived, finally, at my spiritual home, better than all the rest: a congregation full of God’s spirit, full of grace and gentleness but also making room for the disruption of the Holy Spirit, who we summon to speak in tongues—not of angles but of humans, people of unclean lips, as the prophet Isaiah would say, God’s word spoken from the mouths of one another, as we wrestle with the Scriptures in our prayers, our sermons, our songs, in our sharing our lives week after week in a chorus of joy, of thanksgiving, of struggles, of hurt, our confessions of despair and gratitude. Worship makes room in our lives for the Holy Spirit, a presence to comfort us with gentleness and to confront us with the labor of our redemption.
We are like the people in the story we heard from Numbers 11. Our congregation is like the seventy in the story, the people who gather in the tent of meeting and wait for God’s Spirit to fall upon them in a cloud. “The spirit rested on them… and they prophesied,” we heard in the passage (Num 11:25); in their gathering, they spoke the words of God. That’s what we’re about here, as a community. We gather and wait for the Spirit to rest upon our lives.
But, as we keep on reading, the story complicates how we think about our church—or, I should say, I can feel this passage from the book of Numbers calling into question how I’ve talked about my experience of our congregation. The emphasis of the passage shifts at the end, and I can’t help but hear a word of judgement, for me.
In Numbers, at the end of the story, as the seventy people in the tent are in God’s presence, two other people, Eldad and Medad are their names, are elsewhere in the camp—they’re outside the tent, beyond the gathering, and they somehow start prophesying. The Sprit, for some reason, falls upon them, too. This is unexpected. Definitely a surprise. And not everyone is happy about this development. This is what we hear in verse 28: “Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, ‘My lord Moses, stop them!’” Something needs to be done about this unruly activity of the Spirit. Because God belongs with the seventy, the Spirit belongs in the tent, not with the others. Listen to Moses’ response to Joshua in verse 29: “But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake?’”
We hear echoes of this same jealousy in Mark 9, in the passage that Joe just read. John and the rest of the disciples seem to think that they’re the only ones in town with access to the power of Jesus. “Teacher,” John says to Jesus, “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38).
John assumes that the disciples are some kind of ministry police. He believes that Jesus belongs to the disciples, that they should have the corner on the market for administering the reign of God on earth. Since Jesus has entrusted his ministry to the disciples, then people beyond their circle who use Jesus’ name are competitors and rivals. Ministry, according to John, involves an adversarial posture towards others, that the disciples are in competition with other groups.
Jesus replies with a word of judgment. Followers of Jesus are in no position to be jealous or competitive—this verse 40: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” God’s power is not a possession. No one has proprietary rights on the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus confounds our thinking about God’s presence in the world. He shifts our attention away from competition and toward the work that needs to be done, work anyone can do. We need all the help we can get, because the demonic ravages our world—demons as forces of evil that ransack the goodness of God, that wreck the wonders of creation, that hurt our lives.
To work against a society, an economy, a culture that produces such demons requires all the allies we can find. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Jesus calls us to resist forces of destruction alongside anyone, regardless of who they claim to follow. No time for jealousy. No room for pride. This struggle for healing and justice requires solidarities that reach beyond our communities. To give ourselves to God’s movement involves the formation of coalitions across differences and identities.
God’s reign reaches beyond our community, because God loves the whole world. The society God wants is not our possession. There’s no room for jealousy as people who wait upon the movement of the Holy Spirit. The world we want includes our fellowship here, which is why what we do matters, how we organize our lives together matters—that’s what the passage from James is all about, how we are returned to the truth about God through one another, in our mutual care.
Church life is how we return our lives to the truth about God. Worship is how we open our lives to discover the truth about ourselves and the world as we wait upon the Holy Spirit together—as we read from the Scriptures and listen to one another for God’s word renewed in our own voices, in the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts, as we heard from the Psalmist.
What we do, as followers of Jesus, is to remind each other of the promises of God—to bear witness, with what we say and what we do, that the Spirit is here, the presence of God in our lives and in the world. We believe in miracles of redemption, even if we can’t always see God at work, and even if we feel jealous of the access that others have to God’s power.
The Christian life is one of gratitude, not competition, not jealousy. We’re commissioned to give thanks for what God has done and what God is doing, sometimes with us and sometimes without us. To live in gratitude, as we pray for redemption from evil, for ourselves and for the world, and as we remind each other of the hope of God’s promises—that Jesus will never leave us nor forsake us, and that the Holy Spirit has given us the friendships of our sisters and brothers, our siblings in the faith, as a source of comfort and solace along the way.