The anthem that our youth choir sang in church this morning has one of my favorite texts, “Gracious Spirit, dwell with me.” It’s a beautiful poem about the fruits of the Spirit and the different ways that faith transforms us into a people longing to live as Christ’s light in the world.
The text of this anthem comes from a hymn written by Thomas T. Lynch in 1855. Lynch (1818-1871) was an English Congregationalist preacher known for his numerous works of prose, hymnwriting, and the freshness and spirituality of his preaching. He was a unique theologian for his time, having withdrawn from university partly because of an ailing health that would plague him his whole life, and partly because his free spirit was not well-suited to the routine of college life. This gave him a theological perspective that was different from many of his contemporaries, and that served him well during his life of ministry.
Today we’re talking about the early church, in the post-apostolic era when they were trying to sort out how this whole Christianity thing worked. Like the church of every age, the early church sang, and there are remnants of their congregational music, their Greek hymns, in our hymnals today. It’s really cool to me to think that we’re singing the same hymns that the early Christians did centuries ago.
The post-apostolic church is also sometimes referred to as the Eastern church; the division of “Eastern” and “Western” in reference to the church stems from cultural and political divisions between the Hellenistic east and Latinate west, though it would be several centuries before the Western church formally split to form its own communion. This Western tradition eventually evolved into the Roman Catholic church… from which the modern Protestant denominations were derived, first with the Lutherans and Presbyterians, then the Church of England and the traditions that came from that Anglican heritage such as the Episcopalians and the Methodists, then all of the dissenters during the 18th-century Great Awakening: the Congregationalists, the Baptists, the Unitarians, who defined themselves against the Church of England, which had defined itself against the Roman Catholic church.
My point is, those of us who live, breathe, and work in the major denominations of the Christian church in America are surrounded primarily by the history and traditions of the Western church, frequently stemming from the Lutheran or Anglican traditions, which both have very strong identities within our church. Sometimes it can seem as if the history of the Christian church began with Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses, and we forget there even was a church before the Protestant Reformation and the rebellion against the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church.
But despite all of this, despite the modern church in American completely ignoring the existence of the Eastern church and forgetting its heritage, the traditions of the Eastern church have a presence in our worship that most people aren’t aware of: our hymns and songs.
Machiavelli is perhaps best known for a political philosophy with the tenet “the end justifies the means.” I’m going to say something here that might not seem terribly radical: I believe this justifying philosophy is counter to the teachings of Jesus, and counter to what the Christian church ought to be doing in the world. Lately, though, it seems that more and more people in the world seem to be using this justification to excuse any kind of behavior as they do absolutely anything to further their cause. And it seems like there’s an increasing number of Christians joining in.
The church spends a lot of time, as it should, fighting injustice in the world, fighting to make the world a better place. But when we fight for these things by shouting each other down, by railing at how wrong and ignorant and stupid the other person is, by calling people names, by doing whatever we can to make the other person shut up– these are corrupted means, and will only ever lead to corrupted ends.
It’s critical for the church to have a strong sense of right and wrong, and to always teach and fight for what is right, but that fight has to be conducted in Christian love. It’s only through engaging in Christian love that anyone is going to listen to anything you have to say. It’s only through Christian love, with the help of the Holy Spirit, that hearts and minds can be fundamentally changed and injustice will cease.
So then, how we meet people in love when we think they’re wrong? What if they’re not just wrong, but perpetuating injustice? Isn’t it a Christian thing to tell them how wrong they are so they stop hurting people?
Pentecost is the celebration of the Holy Spirit’s descent on the Apostles, found in the familiar story from the book of Acts, chapter 2:
When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
Pentecost is observed on the Sunday that falls 50 days after Easter (hence the Greek prefix, pente-, or “fiftieth”), and it is one of the first celebrations of the Christian church, considered by many to be the “birthday” of the Church. This has resulted in a rich history of traditions and symbols from which the modern church can draw. The primary symbol of Pentecost is the color red, denoting the fire of the Holy Spirit; when we wear red in church that Sunday, we are symbolically clothing ourselves in the Spirit’s fire. Other symbols you might see are flames, the dove (recalling the Spirit’s descent on Jesus at his baptism, “like a dove”) and red plants or flowers, which symbolize the renewal of life that occurs with the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life.
The church also has a rich heritage of musical traditions for this Sunday. The plainchant Veni Creator Spiritus is the traditional chant assigned to Vespers (I and II) and Terce of Pentecost, and is a popular source for liturgical music. It is attributed by most scholars to Rabanus Maurus (d. 856), Abbot of Fulda and Archbishop of Mainz, who lived during the reign of Charlemagne at the turn of the 9th century. It has, at different times, also been attributed to Charlemagne himself, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory, without real evidence or good arguments for either ascription; most substantiated manuscript evidence points to Archbishop Maurus. According to The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, Maurus may have composed the chant for the 809 Aachen Synod at which the Carolingians (the successors to the aristocratic dynasty of Pepin and Charlemagne during the Franco-German empire) decided that “the belief that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son (‘filioque’) is necessary for salvation.” The chant is “a rich tapestry of allusion to other hymn texts, liturgical prose texts, biblical texts, and texts relating to the ‘filioque’ controversy” and it would have been eminently fitting for a synod meeting about the Holy Spirit at the turn of the ninth century.
Today, I want to talk a bit about a church in the turn of the century: a church trying to define itself within society, and wrestling with power struggles within the church establishment, politics, and government. And all of these conflicts are foundational to conflicts about the music of the church, as church leaders and musicians are trying to decide what’s appropriate for worship and what’s not, should we be drawing from secular music styles or not, and how the church’s music can define the church’s engagement with society.
That’s right, I’m talking about issues of church, state, and culture 100 years ago, at the turn of the 20th century.
For the longest time, I didn’t really understand what people meant by “gospel hymns” or “gospel songs.” I blame my Yankee roots 🙂 but even when I moved to Virginia after undergrad, I didn’t know what made gospel hymns different from the other hymns in our hymnal, and why it’s important to understand the roots of gospel music in the church. So today, let’s talk about gospel music. Read More »
This past Sunday, we welcomed 9 sixth-graders into the church as baptized and confirmed Christians. The worship theme of the day focused on how God works within us, changing us from the inside out, to do His work in the world. Our middle hymn in the service was a one of those special hymns on this theme that speaks to people in all places of their faith journey: UMH #650, “Give Me the Faith Which Can Remove,” written by Charles Wesley in 1749.
When I was researching the hymn to write my bulletin notes, I discovered that the context of this text gives it a completely new dimension. Charles Wesley frequently drew from experiences of his personal faith in the composition of his hymns, and this hymn, first published in 8 stanzas in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1749), came out of a personal faith struggle. Read More »