The former president of the USA, Calvin Coolidge was not known for being extrovert in nature. In fact he was such an unassuming sort of person that when his death was announced to the public, the question was asked "How can they tell?"
It strikes me that the state of the church in this land is getting to the point where the same could be said about it. There are hundreds of chapels scattered throughout Wales which somehow cling on to life despite a faithful gathering of only a handful of aging folk. When those last few have gone and the doors close for the last time will that moment be noticed and mourned?
In fact there's only one thing worse than a church dying and that's a church dying and no one noticing. How can they tell if the church is alive? How can the world know that the church is alive? How can people see that the church is growing? How can we tell them that Christianity isn't dead, but is alive with the Spirit of God in our midst?
How can they tell if we are alive?
Today is a great Christian holiday. Today is Pentecost, a day that ranks with Christmas and Easter in its relative importance to the church. Pentecost is the birthday of the church. The church was born on that day so long ago when the followers of Jesus were meeting in Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit descended upon them.
It came from God like tongues of fire, and the fire rested on each one of them, and they were all filled with God's Spirit, and empowered for the great work of God .. the sharing of the story of Jesus Christ and the promise of salvation.
What a birthday party that must have been! What a celebration they had! It was exciting! The people there were rejoicing! It was a wild and reckless time as they were filled with the Spirit of God. Onlookers thought they were drunk with new wine -- but it wasn't wine that made them so happy. It was joy they felt at the birth pangs of God's church.
And from the day of that birth . . . . the church grew. It spread outward throughout the world, into every valley and plain, across every mountain range, even across the oceans, into every country, into suburbs and slums, into cities and countryside. And everywhere it went it proclaimed Christ and the message of God's great love. And it made the world a better place. It changed people's lives. It changed my life and I trust that it has changed your life.
And yet there are people out there looking at redundant church buildings with FOR SALE notices on them and saying "Gosh, I didn't realise it had died .that's a shame." Is that the fate of the church as a whole? Is it beginning to outlive its usefulness in the light of all the other objects which have become so important in people's lives, in the rush to fill every available moment of the week such that Sunday no longer has any special place within our society. Is the church really something of history, steeped in the past and really belonging in the past?
Now, I happen to know that the church is very much alive, and I know that the Spirit of God still fills the hearts of Christians, and I know that the promises made to those early followers of Jesus are yet to be fulfilled. But why are there so many people around today who don't know these things?
Why don't they know that God's love is as real today as it was nearly two thousand years ago when tongues danced about the heads of those who had been touched by God and filled with God's Spirit. Why do so many people not know that the church is alive?
How can they know unless we show them? How can they tell unless we tell them?
Birthdays are a good time to evaluate where you have been, where you are, and where you are going with your life. There are landmark ones of course; when you're young anyone over thirty seems old, and then as you get older the goalpost moves accordingly. Forty springs to mind as one I can just about remember. The world would have you believe that if you were climbing a mountain, then you've just reached the peak and it's downhill all the way from now on. What a depressing thought, and of course it's totally untrue, but it's the way some seem to live.
On this birthday of the church, I'd like us all to think about these things. There seems to be a malaise that has settled over Christianity in some parts of the world. In many ways the church in parts of Europe is indeed seemingly on its death bed, a shell of its former self, puppets to the state in some countries, run as just another government bureaucracy. People stay away in droves and say in polls that they no longer think the church teachings are valid.
In America, where nine out of ten people still proclaim faith in God, where forty percent of the population is in church each week, where half say they pray to God each day, the symptoms have not yet become so obvious. But they are there.
The church lives in the world, and it's a world that has values that lie a long way outside that of the teachings of Jesus. Greed so often outweighs goodness, individual happiness is placed above that of others, might makes right, and success is determined by the size of house, car and cheque book. And it's so easy for the church to lose sight of the real values and get drawn into the world's way of thinking.
We've all seen in the papers the stories of evangelists, often it must be said American, who have shamelessly exploited their followers for easy gain. We've seen stories of rave services geared towards youngsters raised on a diet of TV and loud music, who go to be entertained .but do they get challenged as well? We've heard of church officials downplaying the essentials of our faith in order to make it 'more palatable' to the masses.
It's difficult when you're on the inside to see what the problem is. When we're ill it's often other people who notice we're off color before we even realize it ourselves. The same is true of our churches. When we're inside, and if we've been in the same church for many years, it can often be an outsider who notices the first signs of malaise.
Fortunately, although on this birthday of the church there are signs of sickness, there are also positive signs that point to a church that is starting to thrive.
There are signs of a church that believes in the power of prayer, and every great revival that has swept through the Christian community has begun with a commitment to prayer.
Part of the legacy of Pentecost is prayer. The prayers of people like you keep the church alive. Do you believe in the power of your prayers? I hope you do, because it is God's power living in this church. It is restoring people to health, it is meeting people in their moment of need, it is building a new church organ, repairing a roof. Prayer is working right here.
And there are other signs of health and vitality in the church. The church's well-being is evident wherever people care about each other. Donald McKinney tells about a time when he was in the hospital with pneumonia. A man and his wife from the church called on him.
When they stood up to go, the wife said, "I'd say a prayer for you, but I don't know how to pray. But I do love you."
Not know how to pray? She said the greatest prayer that has ever been prayed. She cared about him just as Christ cared about people. Prayer in action, people loving one another as Christ loved us; that is a sure sign of life in the church. It is apparent in this church. I see it everyday in many ways. I see it especially in the way individuals respond to another's need.
The greatest sign of a church's vitality is when that church understands its purpose. And our purpose, when you dig beyond the Sunday sermon, beyond the church council meetings, beyond the Sunday School classes and the get-togethers and the coffee mornings, beyond the building projects and the circuit assessments and the regular offerings, beyond all of the things we do in our times together; our purpose is ultimately to claim this town for God in Jesus Christ. It is to offer Christ's love to our brothers and sisters by showing them Christ's love. That is our purpose, our mission statement, to use the current jargon, and it is a grand purpose indeed.
Through prayer, through fellowship and the ministry of caring, through offering Christ in everything we do, we say to the world that the church born on Pentecost is not dead. The church that is built on the foundation of prayer, that cares for people in the Spirit in which Christ cared, that knows its purpose of sharing Christ was given to them by God, that church is alive and will never die.
What makes a church special is exactly what made the first Pentecost special. Enthusiasm. I would go so far as to say that this is an enthusiastic church. Perhaps I'd better expand on that statement. The word enthusiasm I am assured, comes from two Greek words, in - theos, that have been combined and added to our English language and which translates "God in you." When I say this is an enthusiastic church, I am not just saying that we are an active and happy bunch. Some are more active than others and we all have our ups and downs emotionally. What I am saying is that God is in you. Like the followers of Jesus on the Day of Pentecost, I see people who have been transformed by God's presence.
If you're not sure about that, talk to people who visit us, or have recently joined us in fellowship. People notice something about this church, this fellowship of believers, which they want to be a part of. It's difficult to make a comparison with that first Pentecost, but the people there noticed something about the apostles that made them want a piece of the action.
The church, planted on that first Pentecost, started small. We can learn from their experience. We can learn that numbers are not important. Money is not important. Buildings are not important. But enthusiasm is. Wherever people come to God in prayer, wherever compassion and caring are shared with a brother or sister, wherever the love of Christ is proclaimed as the overriding and all-consuming purpose in life, there is God's Church. There is a Spirit-led church.
How will the people know that the church is not dead? They will know because you will tell them. You who are enthused with the love of God, you who pray and care and proclaim Christ, you will tell them. You will tell them with your lives, with your deeds and with your words, that God came to earth and loved us, all of us, and that no matter what we've done, God will always love us, and that if we will only ask God will live in us and we will live in him. That is what Pentecost is all about.
This is not just another day. This is our birthday. Celebrate it. Celebrate it for God. Celebrate it for the world. Celebrate it for yourself. Amen.