Monday, May 16, 2016

Pentecost: the birthday of the Church

After the roaring wind and the tongues of fire, everything's different. The disciples have become apostles. Their story belongs to the world. It has entered the public domain. And we all know what happens next.

What about us? We have our own faith stories, based on our own spiritual experiences. For many of us, the subject of our relationship with God seems intensely private.

We may continue to imagine it is, but after Pentecost, it can never be that way. The work of the Holy Spirit is to loose God's people on the world to witness to the good news. We aren't meant to hum our hymns under our breath. The resounding strains of Christian praise are meant to echo off the walls of cities and towns large and small, on six continents.

In 1955, famed TV newsman Edward R. Murrow interviewed Jonas Salk, inventor of the first vaccine for infantile paralysis, or polio. Until that time, polio had been a dreaded scourge, striking down teenagers and young adults at the prime of their lives. Some survivors spent the rest of their lives lying on their backs in "iron lungs" -- crude respiratory machines that did their breathing for them. Others, like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, lost forever the ability to walk.

But then came Dr. Salk with his miraculous vaccine. Cheap, easy to produce and so effective, it promised to rid the world of polio (which it soon did).

It was during the first rush of enthusiasm for the new treatment that Murrow interviewed Salk. "Who owns the patent on this vaccine?" the reporter asked.

"Well, the people, I would say," replied Dr. Salk. "There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"

Dr. Salk could have been a very rich man, had he successfully applied for a patent on his vaccine. But he decided not to. Some claim such an application would have been inadmissible on legal grounds, but even so, Salk never attempted it. A patent would have slowed down production. It would have hiked the medicine's price out of reach of some of the poorest people. It would have meant more young people would have died of the disease, or been permanently paralyzed.

"Could you patent the sun?" No more than we can confine the good news of Jesus Christ. The apostles realized this in a powerful way on the day of Pentecost. The question is: do we still believe it?

"Happy Birthday" to you, church!