This upcoming Sunday, we will celebrate Pentecost, the birthday of the Christian church. It is a day when we recognize the Holy Spirit flowing through God’s people and making the word of God and the church accessible to people from various backgrounds and cultures. In fact, the scripture that most churches read on this day (Acts 2: 1-21) specifies that Pentecost broke down language barriers and welcomed and empowered people of varied statuses as integral parts of the Christian church. It is a day when we celebrate new beginnings, inclusion, and grace.
However, as I write this, I can’t help but feel like my home denomination, the United Methodist Church, is struggling to live into its Holy Spirit-filled heritage. On May 7, 2018, it was announced that the annual conferences of the United Methodist Church had failed to ratify two amendments to its constitution that were mainly focused on gender equality. The first amendment would have stated that men and women were of equal value in the eyes of God and would have sought to end discrimination against women and girls within church institutions and society-at-large. Much attention has been given to this amendment’s failed ratification over the past two weeks. In fact, Amendment #1 will be revisited by annual conferences due to an error in the text at the time of voting.
While I am dismayed over the failure of both amendments, the dismissal of Amendment #2 (which will not be revisited) concerns me the most. The second amendment would have added “gender, ability, age and marital status” to the list of characteristics that do not bar people from membership in the church. As a person who uses a wheelchair because of a physical disability and a United Methodist minister, I see my calling as helping the church become more welcoming and understanding of people with disabilities. By refusing to pass this amendment, the United Methodist Church fails to proclaim that our congregations and worshipping communities are open to people with disabilities.
It also fails to reflect the movement of the Holy Spirit, which will be proclaimed this Sunday in churches around the world as we read the lectionary scriptures from Acts 2. By descending on the disciples, the Holy Spirit removed barriers on the day of Pentecost to make the Christian movement accessible to those in the wider community.
Those who did not speak the same language.
Those who came from differing social statuses.
Those who came from outside communities and who did not share the same life experiences as those who had walked with Jesus.
Peter exclaimed to the befuddled crowd gathered outside of their dwelling in Jerusalem and who are suddenly aware of the Galilean’s words, “In the last days it will be, declares the Lord, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…” (Emphasis mine). He goes on to say, “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
In Feasting on theWord, G. Lee Ramsey Jr. states that God comes to us in our very own bodies and speaks to us our very own language. “In an age of increasing cultural diversity, religious pluralism, and the perpetual rubbing of shoulders across lives of nation, race and class, God offers authentic human communion.” Ramsey argues that through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit across all barriers, Peter and the early church are fulfilling the salvation story set down in the Hebrew Scriptures.
While I do not think church membership is the same as salvation, I do think it is important for our churches to mirror what the Kingdom of God looks like. Through the actions of the Holy Spirit and the words of Peter, we see in Acts a glimpse of the Kingdom of God that includes all people, no matter their language, gender, or social status (“Even upon slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my spirit”). While Peter does not specifically mention ability in his sermon, we know that Jesus worked tirelessly to ensure people with disabilities were “healed” and welcomed back into the community. (As a side note, I do not think we should be trying to “heal” people with disabilities, but that is a blog post for another day.)
If we as the church seek to mimic the movement started on Pentecost and described in Acts, we must welcome people who look, talk, think, and act differently than we do. For people with disabilities this means we have to make our buildings, services, and attitudes more accessible to those who live and experience life differently than a typically abled person. While the passage of Amendment 2 would not have made our buildings and congregations suddenly universally accessible, it would have made a statement that people with disabilities are a welcome and important part of the Kingdom of God. Instead, we have affirmed what many people with disabilities already know: They are to be kept at arm’s length and not guaranteed a place within our communities.
My hope is the United Methodist Church can address similar legislation in the future and ensure people with disabilities are not denied membership within our congregations. However, until that happens, it is important that churches that profess to be “open to all” ensure that their congregations are prepared to be hospitable and welcoming to people with disabilities. It is not enough to put a ramp to the entrance of our sanctuary (though I am certainly in favor of that as long as it meets ADA codes), but we also have to ensure that our programs and groups are socially equipped to allow people with disabilities and their families to become an authentic part of our communities. It is only when we can look through our membership rolls and recognize diversity of all kinds,whether ability, gender, race, status or orientation, that we will begin to recognize ourselves as a Holy Spirit-filled church.
This is the first in what I hope becomes many blog posts on theology and disability. My plan is to offer a weekly post from a disability perspective on the lectionary and current events. I welcome any feedback and questions you might have on my posts. Feel free to comment and share my posts with any and all.
 Taken from the Homiletical Perspective on Acts 2:1-21 on the Day of Pentecost in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Volume 3.