Living Generously

This week and next, we’re going to spend some time thinking about the meaning of stewardship in our lives as followers of Jesus and in our shared life as a community of faith. Before we dive in, though, I want to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Or maybe the herd of elephants in the room. 

It’s no secret that our American culture is steeped in capitalism. And as consumers, we are trained to measure our success by comparing our stuff (clothes, car, electronics, jewelry… toys of all sorts) with others.

We may or may not measure up to some, but we can usually find at least one person to place ourselves above. And even as we make clear how much we have, we tend to want to keep how much we make and how much we give a secret.  We go well beyond privacy about money and giving…We flat out don’t want to talk about it…

And that paradoxical thinking about money that most of us grow into means the mere mention of stewardship can cause even the most mature Christians to reflexively cover their wallets and hold their purses a little closer.

That reflex has led many churches to instruct their pastors NOT to speak about money and generosity and how those relate to a life of faith… except when the church needs to ask for money.  And then, because we don’t like to talk about money, we need to cushion the blow by including an out.  Usually in the form of giving of our time and talents.

It’s getting a little crowded in here, but let me add another elephant to the herd…

We pastors are not immune to the money paradox. And we get to add a layer of awkward to the whole thing, given that a good chunk of any church’s budget goes toward …yep… the pastor’s salary.  

Oh, and then there’s the pressure not to preach about anything remotely controversial or uncomfortable for a few weeks before or after talking about the budget and giving… so that people don’t protest by withholding their tithe.

So, here we are, approaching the fall, the time of year when the session puts together the budget for next year, the time of year when my contract needs to be reviewed… the time of year when it would really help for us to know what folks anticipate giving.

Which means it is definitely the time of year when all of us would really just like to talk about something else.
Anything else.
Like the start of football season.
Or the Nelson’s new dog.
Or pretty much anything but money and what God wants us to do with it.

It really doesn’t have to be that way.
No really, it doesn’t.

In fact, I suspect Jesus would be mightily surprised at the church’s squeamishness over stewardship, given the number of references to money we have in the gospel accounts of his teachings and his conversations with the disciples. And the story of the early church, as well as the letters we read from Paul and other early church leaders indicate that finances were anything but a taboo topic.

So… why not just take a leap of faith and join them?

Let’s all breathe deeply and offer up a prayer before we read our scripture lessons for the day…   We’re going to start with a portion of Paul’s letter to Timothy.  1 Timothy 6:6-19

And now we’ll turn to a brief snippet of Luke’s gospel.  A scene with Jesus and his disciples that should sound familiar from earlier this year. Luke 20:45-21:4

—-

If ever the word of God was a rejoinder against a pastor standing in her pulpit wearing a long robe asking her parishioners to give until it hurts… so that she might live all the more comfortably… there it is.

To be honest, this passage makes me think of my grandmother, who gave generously to her church, but then would set aside change in a jar that eventually went to at least one of the evangelists she watched on tv. All of whom had more than enough money for their ministries, for their homes and for their sometimes bizarre projects. In the meantime, my grandmother had no choice but to live quite frugally until she died.

To this day there are plenty of famous ministry leaders or pastors we can point to who fly around in jets and live in mansions. It’s not difficult to find stories – even right here in Central Florida – of ministers worth millions whose parishioners give above their means in the hopes that God will bless them with the same sort of prosperity they see their leaders enjoying.

Let’s just say that you will never see this pastor in a Lear jet.  Or making promises that increasing your giving to the church will lead to an unexpected cash windfall for you. That’s not the way God works and it is certainly not what Jesus taught.

Now, Jesus did say at one point that we must be willing to give away all we possess if we want to truly follow. He told the rich young ruler to do just that… and the man couldn’t. Few of us could.

I do know of a few Christian monastic communities that have been founded in the last several years.  One is called the Simple Way, and each of its members take a vow of poverty. They have a common purse, into which any earnings go, and from which all their needs are met. And then the rest is given away. While I admire that level of faith and community, it’s hard to imagine taking on that call myself. And I honestly don’t know that all believers are called to that kind of living.

So I have to believe that somewhere in between running after wealth in the name of a God of Prosperity and running toward poverty in the name of the God who had compassion on the poor… surely we can find a sweet spot… a faithful way of living in relation to money?

That, actually, is where our conversation around stewardship needs to start.  As followers of Jesus, what is our relationship with money meant to look like?  

There are a couple of commonalities between Paul’s words to Timothy and Jesus’ observation about the widow.

The first is that our relationship with money is rarely neutral.  Money – wealth – can be used for good or evil. It has utility…  particularly in a market-based economy.

As I mentioned before, our society teaches us from an early age that our level of success or failure is in large part judged on how rich and/or how powerful you can become.  Just look at the most powerful people – in politics, in business… they are the ones with the money.

Yes – we can point to some exceptions…. But think about the influence of people who own billion-dollar corporations. And now think about the influence of people who work in the minimum wage jobs.

Still not sure this is true?

In July, Forbes Magazine estimated that the members of the President’s cabinet had a combined worth of at least 4.3 billion dollars…
Yes, I said billion.  With a B.

Fewer than 20 people in that room, all sitting around a table, holding the power to change the nation’s laws and to shape the policy direction of every government agency.
For good or for evil.
And they got there because of their wealth.

In the United States in 2017, clearly, money is power.

And yet, we are here to worship a man who never had his own home. We have gathered to worship a man who never even took up a collection, unless it was food to feed the people around him.

So it makes sense that the Christian tradition would have us reframe this notion that money IS power.
Our tradition points to the truth that money HAS power.
And thus, that money can have power over us.

When we allow money to take a place higher than its proper order, it begins to define us, it begins to shape who and what we value, and we can begin to measure our own self worth based on our possessions in ways that are really unhealthy. Our relationships are affected, including our relationship to God.

Our possessions can come to possess us.

In the end, stewardship is less about managing our money… Less about being wise about spending and investing… And more about understanding our relationship with money.

Like any relationship, this one needs tending and awareness. I mean, if the love of money is, indeed the root of all kinds of evil, it makes sense that we need to pay attention.
Really close attention.

And not just personally…  As a body of believers, we must tend to our relationship with our gathered money.

In what ways might spending or saving or tracking or investing our money distract us from our other relationships?

Does anxiety and conflict over finances come between couples?
I’ve seen it… in my own house.  

Or between members of the church?
I’ve seen that too, in more than one house of God.

Can we have conversations about money without fear of fighting, and if conflict happens, without the threat of someone leaving?

These are important questions… And the answers help us to understand our unspoken priorities.

Priorities that need to be spoken aloud.
Honestly and openly.

See, we need to be honest about our priorities because… any relationship that takes priority over loving God has become an idol, breaking the very first and greatest commandment.

And any relationship that keeps us from loving our neighbors… Well, that would be the second half of the law of love broken.

Whether we’re talking about a relationship with food, a person, sex, sports, some other possession,  or money, any relationship that takes priority over loving God has become an idol.

And because of its connection to power and influence, even within the sacred community of a church, our relationship with money is the one most likely to get out of alignment.  The root of all kinds of evil, indeed.

Thankfully, Paul provided Timothy with some relationship advice for people who have money.   Let’s look again at the end of that passage, starting at verse 17:   

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

Step 1….
Make sure your trust is where it ought to be. Not in money, but in God.
God has and always will provide for us.

This idea runs against our culture, which tells us to place our trust in the goods and systems and financial reserves that we’ve created.  But even as we trust them, we know in our hearts they can fail us.  We don’t have to look back but a few years to see the widespread consequences of systems crashing.

So what do we do?  We worry and work to amass even more, so that we might feel safe again. So that we might trust the numbers in our account statements and investment portfolios to cover our needs.

In a recent essay on trust in God as a key to stewardship Marcia Shetler wrote,
Trusting in God is part of our responsibility as followers of Jesus. It allows us to joyfully and generously let go of what we think is ours and release it for God’s use. Those acts of generosity are our witness to the world, sharing God’s abundance as channels of God’s love.

She went on to share a few examples from scripture….
Elijah asked the widow of Zarephath to be generous by sharing her last meal and trust that she and her son would not go hungry. …A small boy gave his lunch of five loaves and two fish, [trusting he would not be left hungry] and more than 5,000 people were fed. Moses’ mother trusted God with her son’s life. Twice.

The first time she placed his life in God’s hands when she put him in a basket in a river, Moses was returned to her and she was able to raise and love her son while he was young. Later, she gave him up again, and Moses ultimately fulfilled God’s call as leader of the Hebrews.

And then Ms. Shetler turns to the widow’s coin, saying
…there have been numerous interpretations of this incident. But perhaps what was most important was not only the widow’s ability to give to God totally, but to trust God completely.

Truly, the only explanation for the widow’s generosity is that complete trust.  She had faith that the God who had faithfully provided for her in the past would continue to do so.

When we truly trust God to provide for us, we are free to give as lavishly and generously as God. Not because by giving we have earned a prize, but because God has promised to care for us, and we believe – we trust – that God is faithful.

In verses 18 and 19, Paul encourages Timothy to see all that God provides, not simply as the means by which we survive, but the means for us to do good in the world.  Speaking of those who have money, Paul says
They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

This is the sort of giving that moves us beyond a transactional, quid pro quo understanding of stewardship into a life that is marked by generosity.  

When God gives to us, when God provides for us, and when we acknowledge the gift, there is no transfer of ownership. No paperwork to be completed and filed and accounted for. Instead a link, a bond is established between us. Gifts connect the giver and the receiver.

This bond is what makes a really good gift, really special. And why a really bad gift can make you question a relationship.  I mean, think for a second… I bet you’ve gotten a gift that made you scratch your head more than a little. 

INSERT STORY ABOUT REALLY BAD GIFT….

It made me want to ask… Do you even KNOW me?  Why would you think I would enjoy/want that??

But think about a time someone gave you the perfect gift.
You know… something that was exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time.  

That kind of gift makes you feel known, loved, truly cared for by the one who gave it. 

Theologian Miroslav Wolf reminds us that no object on its own is a gift.  Not until the act of the object being chosen and given. Like this pen.  It’s just a pen.  Until I look at it and think, you know who could use this even more than me?  R.  

Here, R, I want you to have this…

Now the pen is a gift. I gave it to R and now he has something he needed because I saw that need and met it. The pen, now a gift, is also a social relation, an event between us.

This happens to us regularly, as God continues to offer the gifts of grace, of life, of air and all that we see around us. The more aware we are of these gifts, the more aware we are of the bond those gifts create between us and the God who loves us.

Wolf says it this way – “To live in sync with who we truly are means to recognize that we are dependent on God for our very breath and are graced with many good things; it means to be grateful to the giver and attentive to the purpose for which the gifts are given.”  

In other words, God gives to us, not only so that WE might enjoy God’s gifts, but so that we might know the joy of giving as we pass them on to others. As people who have received from God, we need to give to others. It is vital to our identity as humans. It is at the core of our identity as image-bearers of a gift-giving God.

Living a generous life requires an awareness of all that God is doing in our lives, all that God is providing.  Thus generosity begins with a heart of gratitude for a relationship that is not contingent upon us  and our ability to reciprocate God’s perfect love.

Generosity begins with a heart filled with gratitude for grace. Gratitude which leads us to love and serve and give in return. It leads us to live the life worthy of the calling to which we have been called.

Generosity leads us to use the spiritual gifts, the skills and talents and passions within us – all to the glory of God wherever we go… at work, in the community and in our homes… and at church.

Living generously means sharing from our abundance and even from our scarcity with those who are in need. It means taking the time to care for our own bodies and minds, taking a Sabbath rest away from the busyness our society worships.

Living generously and boldly as a church requires taking time as a body to look around, to take a fresh inventory of all that God has given to us.

Living generously and boldly as a church requires being grateful for the past and trusting God for a future.  And then following Jesus out into a world that needs the gifts we’ve been given to share.

Living generously requires us to receive new gifts with open hearts and open hands… courageously letting go of those things we’ve protected by holding them tightly…  So that our hands are able to gather up today’s blessings with gratitude and joy, offering them in turn to whomever might need them.

Living generously and boldly means trusting God enough to hold today’s blessings loosely so that we might open our hands and hearts to receive and give away God’s gifts again tomorrow…. and the next day… and the next.

Until one day we realize that our receiving and giving are a single inseparable stream, a river of life and love and grace flowing into and through us.

Next week, we will talk in more detail about some of those other aspects of our lives that are gifts from God which allow us to live and to love generously. And in the coming weeks, we will be talking about budgets and our household contributions to our shared life as a church.  

I ask that you would join me and our church officers in prayer for wisdom and clear guidance for our church as a whole and for each household…  That we would discern together what God is calling us to do with the gifts God has already given and those we trust God will give in the years to come.

Let us pray.   

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Stay Thirsty- Sermon on Communion

Primary texts –  1 Samuel 21:1-9 and  Mark 14:10-31
The assigned Old Testament reading this week is obviously quite- well, interesting.  And as much as I enjoy taking time to give context to our scriptures…  I really just want to point out a couple of things about this odd episode in the life of David, which happened as he was running from Saul.

First,  the bread of Presence mentioned in the story isn’t quite the equivalent of communion bread.  The Holiness code called for what is sometimes translated as showbread to be kept on the altar. It is described as twelve cakes or loaves baked from fine flour, and arranged in two rows or piles on a table standing before God.

Each loaf was baked with specific ingredients by the Kohathite clan. They were  stacked along with the frankincense on the altar, in a way that seems reminiscent of the stacks of stones left in various locations as memorials to moments when God was uniquely engaged with humankind.  

The bread would only be left on the table for a week, replaced with new fresh loaves each Sabbath.  The priests were allowed to each the bread once they were removed, as long as they did so in a holy place. After all, this was holy bread.  Set apart for a purpose

And so, when David seeks to take the bread with him, he is asking for the priest to bend the rules, perhaps break a few. Ahimelech did help David and his friends, providing 5 loaves.  He was later summoned into Saul’s presence, and accused of disloyalty for assisting David, based on the information of Doeg the Edomite.

This is a complicated story – as most stories involving David are…He was not a priest… and yet, he was set apart. He was chosen by God. He needed bread, but he lied… he wasn’t sent by Saul. He was there because he was on the run and he was hungry

The only food that was present at the tabernacle was the bread of the Presence. There was nothing in the letter of the Law that allowed the bread to be given to anyone else, and Ahimelech was- as a priest aware of every letter, every jot and every tittle of the law. Ahimelech also knew the Law was given to further life, and that the spirit of the Law demanded that feeding the needy must be put ahead of ritual if the two ever seem to conflict.

Jesus later appealed to this incident to justify His practice of ignoring the Pharisaic traditions that put preserving religious ritual above helping the hungry. Following such traditions leads only to bondage to sin rather than leading to freedom according to the law of love.

I think that is part of what happened the night Jesus was betrayed.

Everyone was familiar with the words to be spoken.
The order of the questions.
The answers.
The foods they would eat.
It was passover.

And passover is all about family.
And being family for those who are far from home or whose family is no longer with them.
It was comforting and familiar to recite the story together
To eat the symbolic foods
To drink the symbolic wine

The middle portion of our reading from Mark is familiar.  They are one version of what we call the “Words of institution”  The words that recall how this sacrament was instituted, came into being.  If I had my way, I’d change that nomenclature…

—  Tell story of attempting to memorize WOI for Dr. Shaffer’s class —

The assignment – memorize and demonstrate for the prof… Struggling to get the words right.  All week, I would try to get it right and forget/freeze every time.  It’s not like I hadn’t heard them hundreds of times in my church-going life, should have been easy…  But there I was, standing in front of classmates in an unfamiliar church, hot dog bun in hand.  Hopelessly stuck.  Finally Dr. Shaffer says to me.  It’s ok.  Just tell the story.

Because that’s what the words of institution are – the story.
The story of that night when they were gathered together.
The story as remembered by Mark. And Matthew. And Luke.

The story that Peter and the others must have told Paul – Or perhaps he heard it while he was blind and the Lord spoke directly to his heart… But Paul gives us in his letter to Corinth a testimony of what had been passed on to him, so that those who heard the letter might bear witness, too.

I added a few verses this morning… before and after. The part of the story in which Judas betrays him.And the part in which Jesus warns Peter that he, too, will fall away…

You see, it’s important to understand the human context in which this divine promise, this new covenant as Luke and Paul describe it, is being made.  Jesus is 100% aware of the betrayal and denial that is coming. He cannot and will not stop them, any more than he would avoid the pain and death that is looming.  

This is the world in which he lived.
This is the world in which we live.
Sinful, broken, not-yet-God’s Kingdom,
Not yet fully reconciled and awaiting an upgrade to the Resurrection Operating System

But Jesus loved those people gathered at the table.
Loved them like family.

And because he offers forgiveness in his broken body
BREAK THE BREAD

And because he offers forgiveness in his spilled blood
POUR THE JUICE

We are one family.
Claimed and adopted by God

Baptised into one church
Sharing one communion
Proclaiming his saving life, death and resurrection until he comes again.

Knowing that very night that some of his family would fail him, Jesus still bears witness to God being with us – all of us.

I could talk at length about the myriad ways theologians have argued and written about the sacrament….

There were the reformation era debates about Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation or just plain memorial.  Is Jesus really in the bread, in the room? How do we square that with his being ascended???  

For the record – Jean Calvin’s response is the one most Presby’s cling to: It’s a mystery, but we can trust that the HS is in us and with us. And that power allows our hearts to be in the presence of Christ as we celebrate the sacrament  

Argue over who can preside.
For us – generally an ordained MOWAS

Argue over who can partake and when.
Baptized… or at least being raised in the community of faith 
and learning what it means to participate. There’s that whole letter vs Spirit of the law thing again

I could talk about the way coming back to the table again and again is like sanctification, whereas baptism reminds us of justification – once and done.

But I want to talk about what it means for our hearts, for our lives
The how then shall we live part.

It starts by thinking about what a family meal means.
Gathering- family, bonus family (guests)
Remembering – meals past, people here and gone, good/bad convos
Celebrate- holidays with rituals and traditions
Nourish – eat, feel full hearts and bellies

Have people who brought dishes tell their stories…
Prompt Questions

  1. What did you bring?
  2. Who taught you how to make it (maybe you just watched)?
  3. What memories does it bring to mind…
    • who do you think of?  
    • What table does it remind you of?
  4. With whom do you most want to share this?

Food – especially comfort food…  It’s all about Love
Family
Coming together
Being nourished heart soul mind strength

Tell story about Pork Pie becoming part of my history when married into New England family.

Take bread to everyone as tell story about Monkey Bread, Mary Helen, hospitality, love.

Talk about the Smell of Grape Juice

  • Takes me back to family filling all the communion cups in the vestibule
  • First communion
  • Watching the Table –  the men and women who helped raise me along with parents standing, praying, telling the story in those words
  • Tell the story of Sarah Bell – frail, ravaged by stroke, barely able to swallow… but when she tasted and smelled communion… countenance changed, face relaxed, mouth formed words “Our Father”…

She was, in those moments truly present. With us, with God.
I was, in those moments, in the presence of God.
And when I stand at the table and smell the bread and the juice…
I remember… I am with the saints from my past and present.
I am loved…  I am thankful.
I am in the presence of God.

As the cup is passed, smell the juice, dip the bread, allow yourself to experience the mystery of the presence of Christ for you.   TAKE CUP TO PEWS FOR INTINCTION

That is what this table should mean… to us.
We should walk in, see the bread and the juice and stomachs growl
Because we are hungry for that company, fellowship
Because we are thirsty for the stories that remind us who we are
Belonging to one another – blood relatives, thanks to the blood of Christ.

Stay hungry, dear ones.
Stay thirsty.

Stay Wet – a sermon on baptism

This week and next, we’re going to take some time to talk about the sacraments that are central to our lives as a community of faith: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Today, I’d like us to start by reading Psalm 46 – a glorious reminder that God is not just with us. And not just for us. God’s presence is so powerful it is akin to a place – a safe place in which we find refuge from all that is evil.   Psalm 46

And now we will turn to Paul’s letter to the Romans, a church that apparently needed a strong reminder about what it means to live in a complicated world in light of the lavish grace of God. In the selection we read today, he addresses one of the questions that we still wrestle with…

If God’s grace is so big, so healing, so cleansing…  What does that mean about following the law?  Or following Jesus? If, as Paul says, where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, should we just keep on sinning and leave the forgiveness up to God?

Listen for the Word of God from Romans 6:1-11

Like Psalms 23 and 91, also psalms of assurance and confidence in the Lord, we don’t hear a guarantee in Psalm 46 that life will be easy just  because God is with us.  Rather, God promises to remain with us, no matter how dark the valley gets or how difficult the troubles that surround us. The writer of this Psalm has clearly been there… experienced that… and has earned faith enough to share this truth.

When he writes about mountains shaking such that the seas roar and foam, the reference is less about natural disasters than the cosmic forces that would seek to tear God’s creation apart. Forces that – because God is present – we need not fear.

The writer knows what it looks like when political powers and principalities are doing the shaking, seeking to unseat rulers and nations. To bring chaos. In our time, he might have written about terrorist threats and actions.  

Whatever the turmoil, we are told, God offers a point of stability that shall not be moved.
God is our help.

The writer knows the folly of placing one’s faith in any power but the Lord’s.  God’s presence is the genuine source of refuge, of strength, of comfort.
Of salvation.

God’s presence is the source of restorative waters… rivers that offer joy and gladness. Rivers, that in the person of Jesus, will be called living waters, waters that assure that we never thirst.

The psalmist tells us that it is in the city of God where the rivers and streams make the hearts glad.  The city of God  is where the baptized are gathered. Not a literal city, so much as, well… a church.

Where the baptized are gathered, the Spirit of God is present.
And thus  the church- the gathered body -is also a place of healing and hope.
A place of refuge.

Over and over again, from creation to the new Jerusalem described in Revelation, images of water evoke God’s care and God’s presence. It is no wonder then that approaching the waters of baptism requires more than instructions for completing a ritual.

Understood more fully, and more communally, baptism is not simply something that is done, it, too is a place.  A refuge to which all are called. A refuge to which all are re-called

And as we noted in our reading through Ephesians, there is but one baptism.  There is no special baptism for those who had been near, and no alternate baptism for those who had been far off…

One baptism for all….
Jews and Gentiles, enslaved and free, men and women, old and young.
All.

All who hear and whose hearts respond to the news of God’s great love for them.
All who believe that God’s grace is greater than any sin.
All who belong to the family of God are invited to repent and be baptized.

And then, from the moment we are baptized into a community of faith, we are called and equipped by God in the Holy Spirit to walk in the way of Christ, to live worthy of the calling to which we were called.  

I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that the early church, including those meeting in Rome and Ephesus were dunking churches.  OK – technically, that would be baptism by immersion. But you know what I mean.

I grew up in a tradition that required full immersion, as opposed to the way we baptize from the font here. Which is still more splash than sprinkle, but not all the way in…

Anyway, chances are good that like John the Baptist, other Jewish prophets and rabbis would have used a river or lake to baptize. The person would walk into the water, repenting of their sins, receive a blessing and be immersed into the water.

Down into the water
Down into death
Up into the air
Up into new life.
Into the water dry and dignified
Out of the water looking like a drowned rat.

And in that baptism moment, they were changed.
Not just outwardly in their dripping robes; they were no longer who they had been.

Paul would like us to see this as a direct comparison to what Jesus experiences in the time between Good Friday and Easter morning.  Jesus went into and through death to life.
Resurrection life.

Because of that journey, the power of resurrection becomes evident in the body of Christ in two ways: Baptized followers of Christ celebrate his victory over death. We trust that we will live with him forever. And baptized followers of Christ share in his victory over sin. We can and will live holy lives right now.  In this world.   

That is the power of resurrection: the power of grace for the individual, the community and the world.

In Paul’s view, it is the power of resurrection that makes the idea of a sinful baptized person a laughable oxymoron. It is a silly contradiction in terms.  Paul essentially says,  “You are dead to sin.  Stop acting as if you are even capable of sin.  Live like you know who you are.”

Perhaps you have experienced one of those moments when a friend or neighbor or even family member has said or done something awful… Told an egregious lie, destroyed a relationship… Committed a crime and was arrested…

And because that act was so out of character, all you could think to say in your shock was “That is not like him at all.”  Or “she’s a better person than that…”  

Confronting them directly, you might ask… “Who are you?” or “I don’t think I know you any more…”  

Well – a baptized person is a whole new person.  A person that the powers of darkness no longer recognize. And a baptized body of believers looks nothing like the rest of the world.

This is true for all of us, no matter how long ago or how early in our lives that baptism happened.  Even if you can’t remember the water touching your skin or who was there, you can remember your baptism. At least in the way that is most important to our community of faith being a refuge from a sinful world.

You can remember your baptism by remembering that you belong to God, you are adopted into God’s household.  

No longer enslaved by sin, no longer enlivened by sin’s power, you and I are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  We are empowered – for all of life – by the Holy Spirit.

Let me say that again – through the waters of baptism you and I are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  And that is very good news indeed!

What do you think of when you hear those words.. Dead to sin?

At one point, I thought maybe it meant being a perfectly sinless human.  Which of course, I was completely unable to pursue. For one thing, I am not a very good perfectionist, and being perfectly sinless would require me to make the right decision on how to think and act and speak and move through life a bajillion times a day.
Seriously.
Never going to happen.

But I think now that Paul is really talking more about an operating system. Like the underlying software that allow our phones and computers and other digital tools – to function properly.

So, my old operating system – the old human part – was really glitchy. It was an old version that was created with all good intentions but became corrupted somehow.  That old human OS was a mess and caused me to experience the world – and thus respond and move through the world – in ways that failed to honor God. The hate and fear that leaked out of me was more a reflection of sin than faith, hope or love.

New life in Christ – living as a baptised follower of Jesus –  is like getting a whole new operating system installed.

In this OS, there is no spirit of fear, only the Holy Spirit.  There is no darkness, no hate.  No glitches.  Just a solid platform because there is grace… so much grace. Grace in such abundance that it leaks out of me, leaving a trail of joy and generosity and kindness and love.

When I function using that operating system, and that system alone, the one that runs on grace… my experience of life and the world is changed completely:

I can trust that God is with me, that God’s Spirit indwells me.  

I have entered a whole new Kingdom in which Christ is King and I am living in him.  

And… because we are not baptized into a one to one relationship with God, but into a huge pre-existing family, a giant network of followers of Jesus, we experience that new Kingdom in community.  

Together.

Like the Israelites passing through the river into the promised land, you and I have passed through the waters into a promised life of abundance.
A place of refuge.
A place where we can stay wet…
Practically swimming in God’s grace.
Together.

All that grace? Paul doesn’t really think it’s an invitation to moral anarchy – where we sin more and more and more so that we might experience greater and greater depths of grace.

No… Paul is all about the kind of transformation that comes when we know who we are and who we belong to.  The kind of transformation he experienced and then witnessed in countless others.  

But here’s the thing… understanding baptism as participating in the death of Jesus means that there is a lot of resurrection life to participate in as a baptized believer.

It won’t be perfect… After all, we live in anticipation of the resurrection of Christ.  Rather than erasing our capacity to sin completely, our baptism OS puts sin in check.

The ongoing work of the Holy Spirit allows us to create and maintain boundaries, so that our lives reflect the Law of Love: Love for God and love for neighbors.  All of our neighbors.  And access to resurrection power means we have the capacity to get better at living as a community that exhibits faith hope and love to the world.

In that sense, baptism is a process, a journey toward Christlikeness.

A life that is grounded, shaped and formed by the death and resurrection of Jesus is motivated by and directed by that same Jesus.  Who has defeated sin forever. So, our new way of operating and experiencing the world means we can no longer tolerate, much less cooperate, with sin.

In other words, our faith provides an understanding that new life with Christ is an assurance of salvation beyond death. AND an understanding that this assurance is lived out in discipleship… a life that is dedicated to God in this time and this place.

That means giving all of our lives over to God.
Day after day after day.
Moment by moment by moment.
Facet by facet.

And even with a shiny new operating system… that can be hard.

C. was telling us in a session meeting last month about a baptism story in the book he was reading  about stewardship.  The author was writing about how we sometimes hold back a part of our lives, a portion of our resources, and pretend that it isn’t God’s- that we’ve somehow earned it on our own and can reserve it.  

That might mean holding back a certain percentage of our income we don’t want to give, a particular behavior pattern that we don’t want to change, or a grudge we don’t want to stop holding… you get the idea.

How is that related to baptism?  Well, the author points back to this story from the era of Charlemagne.

You may or may not recall that Charlemagne was the most powerful European ruler in the Middle Ages, leading the Franks to rule most of Europe. He converted to Christianity, which was the beginning of what church historians would call an era of Christendom.

Perhaps as a means of assuring God was on the side of the Empire, Charlemagne expected his soldiers to convert and be baptized into the church.  The soldiers would go down to the river en masse to do just that.  

But by some reports the baptisms were a little unusual.

When it came time to be immersed, they would hold one hand up out of the water, so that it would remain dry.  Yes- it was their sword hand, the hand they wanted to be able to use in battle to kill as needed. As if to say.. I’ll let you change every part of me, I’ll give over all me… except that part…

Now, I’m not entirely sure that’s solid ground, theologically speaking. But I can see how that logic works.  And if I’m honest with myself, search my heart a little, I must confess there are things that I have left dry.  Or perhaps allowed to dry out.

Rogue apps, connecting back to that old operating system.   

There are sins that this faithful believer can’t seem to shake, still needs to confess, still hasn’t trusted God enough to transform.

Shall I go on with those sins, so that grace for me might increase?
No… and here’s why.

I am not alone.
You and I belong to each other, just as surely as we belong to God.  Just as surely as the aches and pains of my little toe matter to my digestive system, my sin affects you.

Not just each of you, but all of you.
And our life together in Christ.
Our health and witness as the Body of Christ.

And the reverse is true.
Your sins matter to me.
And my health.

And it goes far beyond these walls…
Far beyond the membership rolls we keep.

The sins of all who claim membership in the body of Christ,
All who are brothers and sisters adopted into God’s family,
All who are baptized…  no matter how wet or dry they seem to be…

Their sins matter to us, too.
Because we all belong to each other.

The events that unfolded this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, even as I was putting these words to the page, made it really hard for me to claim some of our brothers and sisters. I watched and wept and wondered… 

How much of your heart do you have to hold out of the water to be able to spew such hatred for the Jewish community?

How much of your heart must stay dry to consider people less than human because their skin is brown or black?

How much must of your heart must one give over to hatred to openly choose symbols of intimidation and death used by the Nazi party and the KKK?  I mean… these folks didn’t feel a need to cover their faces! 

And how are we to respond?  

Knowing that yes, there is grace enough, even to cover sins so proudly displayed by torchlight…

How are we to faithfully respond?

I have to start by remembering that those hate-spewing protesters matter to God.
Just as dearly as the Jews matter to God.
Just as dearly as African Americans and immigrants and women and all of us matter to God…
Despite their evil, sin-filled chants.  

And because my operating system is grace-powered, they all must matter to me, too.
The ones spewing hate and the ones they despise.

All of them matter.
All of them belong.
All of them are a part of us.

And – against all logic- I want to invite them back into the waters…

I want to go up and ask…
Do you remember who you are?
Do you remember whose you are?
Do you honestly believe that this is the calling to which you were called? 

That’s when an uncomfortable truth hits me…
I, too, desperately I need the waters of baptism.

My sins are no less harmful to my relationship with God, no less harmful to my relationships with you and others in the Body.

And so I long to be back in the water.
Not just a little damp, but soaking wet.
Holding back NOTHING.
Nothing of mine, nothing of ours.
ALL IN.

Which of course, makes me think of Peter… in that moment when Jesus was teaching the disciples what it meant to be a servant by washing their feet.

And Peter – God bless him- He was having none of it. He knew it would have been much more appropriate for him to kneel down.  For him to be washing his rabbi’s feet. Because in his heart, Peter knew that Jesus was so much more than a teacher or friend.

But Jesus made clear that wasn’t the way it was going to happen.
And Peter relented.  
And then, in his own inimitable, always passionate way,
Peter took it even further: 

Wash all of me, then, Lord.  Not just my feet… all of me.
Wash the dust off my feet, sure.
But there is all the dirt and muck that my heart has picked up along the way.
The words I’ve spoken that soil my mouth.
The silence I’ve kept when your children needed an advocate.
The selfishness and self-centeredness that leads me to treat others as less than. 

Like Peter, I cry out in these difficult times, Wash all of me!
That I might be a better servant
Wash all of your children… Head to toe
That we might be more faithful followers
That we might make a difference in the building of your kingdom

And then that OS kicks in, reminding me that the waves of grace have already washed over us. That Christ has already done the work.

I remember who I belong to.
I remember that God is and will be my refuge and my strength.
I remember my baptism and am thankful.

Remember, dear ones.
Remember your baptism.
Remember who you are.
Remember who we are.
Together.

And be thankful.

Armed and Ready

A final sermon in a series in Ephesians.  Hat tips to MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s conversations about Wonder Woman and the gospel on the Blue Room Blog and Teri Peterson‘s description of the Roman soldiers’ shield and her listing of the church’s calls to action. 

From about the mid-point of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul has been talking about what it looks like to live a life that is “worthy of the calling to which we are called.”   How to live in a way that honors our adoption into the family of God and builds up the community of saints, all so that we might be part of God’s work of reconciling all people and all of creation.  

In this discussion, he moves from a reminder of our unity being an outflow of our shared identity in Christ to some more specific guidelines for this new way of being God’s people, of being church. But instead of pointing to the myriad rules and rituals of the law, the law that he had once pursued as a Jew, Paul keeps it simple.

You’ve been made into new people… Live like it!
Speak truthfully… you can’t be connected if you can’t trust each other.
It’s fine to get angry, but don’t hold onto that anger – not even overnight.
Our words should build each other up and offer each other grace.
I love the bit about thieves no longer stealing. It’s not just about honesty for Paul…
he says…  
let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. (4:28) Which tells those of us who would not be considered thieves that a portion of our work and resources ought to be shared, as well.

Basically, he says, we are to be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (5:1-2)

In addition to these instructions for us as a church, members together in the Body of Christ, Paul makes clear that the same ideas apply within our own households.  The mutual love and respect, care and love, the mutual sharing of grace and building each other up  that reflects God’s triune nature in a healthy church…

All of that ought to be on display at home, too.

That goes for Parents and children, husbands and wives, slaves and masters (let’s translate to bosses and employees)… And Paul could easily have included teachers and students, officers and enlisted soldiers, leaders of all sorts and their committees or teams.

Our work lives, our home lives, our religious and recreational lives… no matter what aspect of our day to day living you can think of… all of it should reflect our call- our identity in Christ – before any other label we might claim. Because every facet of our daily lives is a portion of our calling- loving people into relationship with God and one another. Assuring that all people experience the salvation they need… here and now.

And then, before signing off, Paul has one last set of instructions.
Listen for the Word of God from
Ephesians 6:10-20

It probably won’t surprise many of you that I went to see Wonder Woman the first opportunity I had.  I’ve been a fan of most of the comic book movies released in the last several years.  But this one was special. It wasn’t until Wonder Woman that a woman superhero was the lead character.  

It was amazing to see this character on the big screen, especially how long it’s been since she was featured in the TV series starring Lynda Carter. Or the Justice League cartoon that I grew up watching.

I promise, this isn’t just about comic book stuff… I’m coming back to Paul’s instructions to us.  But before we go there, I want to give those of you who aren’t familiar  just a bit of Wonder Woman’s backstory… At least the movie’s version.

Wonder Woman begins her story as Diana, a princess raised by a tribe of Amazons on the island of Themyscira. She is taught that their mission is to fight on behalf of humanity. In fact, the Amazons believe that Ares, the god of war, has ensnared humankind in endless conflict, and that when Ares is defeated once and for all, an era of peace will reign. And that defeat will happen at the hands of an Amazon.

Fate brings Steve Trevor, an American soldier who’s been spying on the Germans during World War I, to the shores of Themyscira, as well as a few of the Germans who were trying to kill him. After he is rescued then captured by the Amazons, he is questioned.  About his identity and the war.    

When Steve describes the conflict as “the war to end all wars,” that’s all the invitation Diana needs to leave the safety of her island and take on Ares— and thus, she believes, to defeat war itself.

And maybe it’s an occupational hazard, but this pastor couldn’t help but think about this passage from Ephesians as our heroine gathered the various tools she would need as she left her home to live into her calling.  

See, even great warriors like the Amazons need more than a mission and determination. Diana’s warrior armor includes has a breastplate and belt, a shield, some serious combat boots, bracelets that are indestructible, the lasso of truth and a sword that is sharp enough to cut even atomic particles into smaller pieces.  

—-

Paul and the Gentile readers of his letter to the Ephesians would have been really familiar with the armor worn by Roman soldiers. After all, as newly welcomed members of a minority sect of Judaism, they were a minority among minorities in the Roman empire. And because they were now living in the way of Jesus, their choices were counter-cultural enough to be obvious. And, as you may recall from Paul’s own pre-conversion story, some Jews were willing to persecute members of the early church.  Sometimes by turning them over to the Romans.

So, when Paul begins to describe armor… the full armor of God as he calls it, they know exactly what he is describing and why a soldier would need each piece.
The belt holds up the toga so the soldier can move unencumbered by cloth.
The breastplate covers the core of the body.
Shoes provide more protection from weapons and terrain than the sandals typically worn
The shield is defense against flaming arrows.
And then, of course, the helmet to protect the head. But is also provides an easy way to identify a soldier’s rank, function and unit.

Outfitted in armor like that, the Gentiles would be armed and ready for most any kind of battle. But as people who are resurrection people… people who are empowered by a Spirit of love and called to a life of reconciliation in the service of God…Paul wants them and us to be ready for a different sort of battle.  

We’re not talking about a war against flesh and blood warriors…   

We are talking about a war against the principalities and powers that keep this world from being as it should be.

We’re talking about the forces of sin, the reality of our separation from the Holy One.

We’re talking about our own desires for what does not feed or nourish God’s creation, including our own well-being.

There might well be times we are fighting for our lives, but the battle Paul envisions is the battle for our hearts, our souls, our minds, our strength.

We’re talking about fighting against those things that cause division and pain and sorrow within the body. As well as those wounds that the Body of Christ inflicts upon the world beyond our walls  

The enemy Paul describes in verse 12 as  “the rulers… the authorities… the cosmic powers of this present darkness… the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” That enemy threatens from within and outside of ourselves.

Just imagine taking on and defeating that enemy!

If we can be prepared for war with that enemy…  then we would be set for the daily battle against all that opposes God’s desire that  “the mystery of the gospel” give joy on Earth.

We would be fighting on the side of God’s will being done… On earth as it is in Heaven.

Now we’re talking about a war to end all wars.

—–

When Diana first meets Steve Trevor, he explains why he is fighting: “My father told me once, he said, ‘If you see something wrong happening in the world, you can either do nothing, or you can do something.’ And I already tried nothing.”

That seems like a throw-away line. A cliche way to keep a character from sounding too noble.

But then Diana and Steve head toward Europe and the front lines of the war. Along the way, they come to a village being held captive. Everyone is suffering, including the women and children. Diana desperately wants to help, but it appears hopeless.  

The space between the German and the British soldiers has become a No Man’s Land… a battle-scarred stretch of land between long trenches filled with men shooting cannons, rifles and machine guns at the other side.  It was too dangerous to try to cross, but the land was too valuable for either side to abandon.

They were in a stalemate.

Steve and the others in their team tell Diana that they must keep moving. After all, they have a mission to pursue, a specific and important contribution to make to the war effort.  And she was looking for Ares.

“Let’s stay focused” they say. “We can’t save everyone.”

But Diana refuses. She can either do nothing (even if just for the moment).
Or she can do something.  

And so she steps out of that trench and steps into her own power. No longer wearing the cape that has covered her armor, Diana becomes Wonder Woman— she becomes worthy of the calling to which she has been called.

Bearing only her armor and shield, she steps out onto the field. She draws all kinds of enemy fire. But her armor can withstand it. And as she stands firm in the middle of the field, putting herself on the line, the others behind her take heart. First Steve and their team follow her and begin to fight. Then the other soldiers finally see there REALLY IS HOPE. And they storm the field.  Soon they are able to claim No Man’s Land and retake the village, extending that hope to the civilians.

Diana had the courage to stand firm behind the armor she had been provided.
This selfless act was enough to turn the tide.  

—-

It’s interesting that the armor Paul describes is designed to help regular folk like us to stand firm. It’s not armor for aggressive action.

In fact, coming right after those household codes calling for mutual care and love, it should be clear that standing firm does not require a person to hurt a neighbor – or a sibling in Christ – in any way.

The armor is meant to empower believers to withstand (stand firm against) the evils surrounding and threatening us. And to stand firm against the presence of sin and evil that we carry within us. It empowers us by providing coverage.

Its very nature is defensive.  Believers are girded in truth, faith and peace, the Spirit through the word, and finally in prayer for their defence and strength.

While none of us are superheroes or demigods from mystical islands, we all have access to the greatest power in all creation:
The Power of the Creator.
The Power of the Savior
The Power of the Holy Spirit.

As we persevere in prayer, we are connected to God’s resurrection power.

You might have noticed I’ve used a lot of WE language here.  That’s because Paul’s words calling upon believers to stand firm… they are plural. All of y’all… stand firm.

Unlike Wonder Woman taking on the whole line of Germans in No Man’s Land, or Don Quixote tilting at all of his windmills… we do not take our sword and shield out into the world alone.

Paul’s original readers would have known something about those Roman shields that I didn’t know until recently. The shields of the Roman army were one-and-a-half people wide. So when the army stood together there was no break in the line, because each person was holding a shield that covered themselves and their neighbor. And together, they become impenetrable.

As long as the whole body stands fast and holds the line together, all of us are shielded by the faith of others, as well as our own.

Did you notice that there was no armor for the back or sides… just the breast plate? That’s because turning back is not an option, the only option to stand firm.
Together.

And that is not the same thing as doing nothing.

It is the big picture version of turning the other cheek, which was a nonviolent way of resisting the powers that be, by forcing them to back down or to acknowledge your equality and treat you accordingly.

We wear these gifts together. We “stand therefore” shoulder to shoulder as Roman soldiers would do, or as today’s riot police do: an impenetrable wall of strength.

And stand firm we must.

When the powers call for violence, the church must stand together for peace.

When the powers call for silence, the church must stand together and speak for those who are voiceless.

When the powers call for ignoring the plight of the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant, the church must stand firm for justice.

When the powers call for going along to get along, for endless expansion at the expense of creation, for using people for our own profits, the church must stand firm against them and insist on a more excellent way.

Together.  As a body.

I don’t know if you saw the story in the news about a month ago…it happened at Panama City Beach

Six members of the same family, including a grandmother who had a heart attack, were rescued after getting caught in a riptide. Three other people who had attempted to help were saved as well.

They weren’t saved by one heroic person.
Or even by a couple of super-skilled lifeguards.

Dozens of people on the beach created a human chain… linking arms and holding tight…  so that they could reach almost 100 yards into the surf in the Gulf of Mexico.

Here’s how the Guardian reported the incident:
Derek Simmons, an Alabama native who recently moved to PCB, quickly organised the chain and swam with his wife Jessica to rescue the stranded group. Simmons said he was enjoying a family picnic on the beach when they noticed people in a group on the sand close to the pier, some pointing into the water.

“We thought it was a shark; we have a ton of those,” said Simmons.

“We walked down to see what was going on and I asked the guy furthest out if everything was OK. He said: ‘No, those people out there are drowning, I can’t get to them because the current’s too strong.’

“I said to the guy: ‘Let’s try to get as many people as we can to form a human chain.’ If you know about ants, you know when one’s in trouble they form a chain to help it. My theory was, let’s get enough people, we’ll get out there and pull them in and everybody can finish having a good rest of the evening.”

At first, he said, people appeared reluctant, fearing they would be caught in the same riptide.

“We were yelling at the beach, we need more people,” he said.

Then more beachgoers raced to join the chain, allowing Simmons, 26, and his 29-year-old wife to swim further out on their body boards and reach the group, which included a young family with two small boys and the grandmother, who were attempting to keep afloat but gulping in seawater.

The couple first handed the children, Stephen Ursrey, 8, and his 11-year-old brother Noah, to the end of the chain, which by then had grown to about 80 people, and returned to help their mother Roberta, 34.

“She looked the most in trouble when we first got there,” Simmons said. “So that was the third one in, then the fourth and fifth.”

After about an hour in the water, he said, they were exhausted but able to rescue the last of the group, a nephew of the Ursrey family and an unidentified couple.

And do you know what Mr. Simmons said afterward?  

“It was a wave of humanity that brings some things back into focus, that maybe we haven’t lost all hope in this world,”

Faith, hope and love abide.  And were on beautiful display that day.

Over 80 people, most of them strangers… standing in the waves.

If any one of them had decided to do nothing… or just quit at any point during that hour or so it took to bring those people back to shore… Things might have turned out differently.

I’d be willing to bet almost all of them were praying in some fashion or other… sending out thoughts of encouragement and hope.

This passage about armor – all of Ephesians really – is a call to prayer – shared, corporate prayer that is passionate and articulate in its desire to see the world transformed
To see lives saved.
To experience hope.

And this letter is a call for embodied, corporate resistance to evil whenever and wherever it is revealed.

This letter is a call calls for us to be church… to be the Body of Christ

This letter is a call to be ready for the power of God to be unleashed, and to be the hands, feet, voice, face and heart of Christ…
in a world that is drowning.
In a world that hungers and thirsts for the love and grace we are called to proclaim.

May we answer that call on this day.
And every day.
Armed and ready.

United and Equipped

We are going to zoom ahead in the letter to the Ephesians a little bit, bouncing past what our Bibles denote as Chapter 3. You’ll notice one of the first words in our passage today is “therefore…” which means that our writer is about to shift gears.

The first portion of the letter has focused on doctrine… a reminder of what Paul had taught the Gentiles and what they together have said they believe about God, what they believe about the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and what they believe about their own adoption by faith through grace.

He reminded them that Christ came and proclaimed peace to those who were already near to God (the Jews) as well as those who had been far off (the Gentiles. The Ephesians themselves.  Us).  

And that because we are all siblings in and through Christ, there should be no walls between us.  No false separation based on human requirements.
No enmity based on traditions or long-standing segregation.

The reconciling, saving work of Christ was and is to bring us near to one another, near enough to be the bricks from which Christ builds a temple in which the God who created all of us and adopted all of us is worshipped and glorified.

Paul tells a little of his story, being careful not to make it all about him… and then he prays one of the most beautiful prayers I can imagine praying over a congregation…  I’m going to share it with you now, because it is one of the prayers I return to as I pray for this congregation.

Ephesians 3:14-21

Paul wants them to know… really really know… how completely and truly God loves them.  How completely God loves you. And me. Even as he confesses that we humans are fundamentally incapable of imagining the full power of God and all that God has done and is able to accomplish.  

Even the resurrection power on display in Christ is but a fraction of what our God is capable of…   

Let that sink in for a moment.

That is the power of the force of love that is at work for us.
That is the power of the the force of love that is at work in us.

You can see why Paul offers a prayer for our growth as members of a community of faith that seeks to understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Because as Christ-followers, you and I have access to God. You and I have been invited… no, called… into the work of God here and now.  

We have been called into the work of Kingdom-creating, of world-reconciling.
The work of transformation.

This understanding of what it means to be the church is so much bigger than getting together on Sundays to pray and sing. This call is about leading a life – together – that is worthy of the new life we’ve been given as children of God.    

Here’s how Paul turns the corner and begins to address the question: How then shall we live?  

Listen to the word of God in Ephesians 4:1-16

—-

Honest and truly, this is one of my favorite passages in all of scripture. There is some powerful poetry here, calling us to unity.  Powerful enough that it’s really hard to miss out on the main idea.  

The ONE main idea.

But Paul being Paul, there is also some word play that isn’t totally poetic. The first part of that first couple of sentences have some repetition that we bears digging into a little bit. That pairing of called and calling is intentional, and it is important in making the connection between what we believe and how we live.

Paul is asking us to keep in mind the relationship between our being called – being chosen – by God and our calling – our assignment in the world.

No longer aliens and strangers but called and claimed by God, we Gentiles are now inextricably linked to the chosen people of Israel those who were already in.  Not that we had anything to do with this… of course. It was all God’s decision, God’s plan from the beginning. We were on God’s mind at the moment of creation.

Now, as a result, we who understand that love, we who have become aware of the gift of grace that called us home to God, we who are among those faithful saints, we all have callings…

We are to lead lives marked by humility, love and patience.
We are to lead lives that reflect the peace of Christ and the glory of God.
We are to lead lives that connect us to neighbor and community.

You see, God, who is active in every corner of creation, uses us… the called… to make sure that in every corner of creation, people are fed, clothed, comforted, educated, protected….   

We are the way that love shows up.
We are God’s plan.
We are the means by which salvation arrives in the form of humble service to those in the greatest need…Whether that need is for healing, friendship, advocacy or a hot meal.

In the book our Tuesday night group is reading together, Eugene Peterson says that if we are going to unlock this critical passage of the letter, we need to understand another bit of word play in that first sentence.  It’s a metaphor that Paul creates with the the word translated into English as WORTHY.

In the greek, the word is axios, which is the name for a set of scales.This particular set of scales is formed with a crossbeam balanced on a post, with pans hanging from either end.

Here’s how you might use the axios. Let’s say you have a known value… like a pound of lead. You could place that lead in one pan and then measure out a pound of another item… like flour… by pouring it into the other pan.

When the known weight (the lead) and the other item being measured (the flour) reach an equilibrium, a balance, they are axios… of equal worth.

They are worthy.
They have the same value, which in this case is the same weight.  

Flour and lead are nothing alike, but once they can be axios.  Paul’s statement is showing us that, in the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s calling can be balanced – axios – with our human lives.  When we walk in the way of Jesus, live as transformed, resurrection power people, we are in balance – axios – with God’s calling.  

This means our calling can’t simply be a job or an occupation… even one as churchy as minister of word and sacrament… Or filling any other functional role within the church.

Our calling is so more than that!

Just as Jesus was sent to walk and eat with followers, to heal and feed the crowds, to laugh with children and cry over lost friends and celebrate at weddings, and well… bring the very presence of God into human life, our calling as Jesus-followers extends into friendship, into family life, into citizenship, into every aspect of the human experience.

All of which will most definitely require all the love, humility and peace we can muster.  

Because… have you been around people lately?
No… really…

Thursday morning, I had finished riding my bike and walked to the pool to cool down and stretch a bit. As I was putting on my goggles and headed to the steps, I heard a lot of noise coming from the corner… clearly some kind of kerfuffle was starting up. It was loud enough I wandered to where I could see.

There was no actual crash… just horns honking, doors slamming and a cloud of blue smoke drifting skyward as they let loose with some of the foulest language I’ve heard in a long while.

It was quite impressive, I must admit, and I’ve heard some pretty skilled cussers in my time.

But I’ll be honest… after 2-3 minutes of the heated exchange, they got back into their cars, and I was more than a little thankful that it ended with tires screeching and rude gestures flying rather than a gun or two going off.

I’m pretty sure that we would NOT categorize that interaction as having been Spirit-filled.

There was not much in the way of bearing with one another, maintaining unity of the Spirit or speaking truth in love on display.

To be fair, I have no idea who they were or what they believe. Or don’t believe.

And I’m pretty sure neither of them checked for Fish Stickers or churchy slogans on the other’s bumpers to see if this was an opportunity to help a brother grow up into Christ.  

But it was not an unusual situation these days…
People are angry and on edge.
And it’s hot, which doesn’t help.

As I cooled off in the pool, I was thinking about the ways that we almost crash into each other here… within the confines of the work we do as a body.  And we can find ourselves letting loose – though perhaps with less colorful language – as we unload the anger and fear and anxiety and other wall-building bricks that we’ve been carrying around.

After all, we’re still human.
Adopted and forgiven, yes… but still fallible.

And… here’s the crazy thing.

Some of that frustration and anger and all those other difficult emotions we experience in our life together

Some of that is a direct byproduct of the very way we are being pulled together as a body.

You may very well have noticed that we are not all alike.
We have different gifts and skills.
We have different perspectives and experiences.
We even come to the table with a pretty wide range of beliefs, which is pretty typical under a Presbyterian umbrella.

All of which is good… we need arms, toes, noses, elbows and all the wondrous variety of parts required to create a whole body. But all those differences make the unity that we are called to as a body…

Well…  it’s hard.  Especially if we try to get there in our humanness

That’s why Paul reminds us in this passage that we are called to a unity that is created by and grows in love, God’s love.

It is not based in our unanimity or even in similarity.
It can’t be.

The mystery of God revealed in Christ resulted in the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles – definitely distinct groups. And they remained distinct groups… Equally loved and valued by God. Axios.  

Much the same way the flour and lead balanced on a scale are still very different substances… and yet axios.

There is and always will be a rich variety in the wisdom of God. Thus there is and always will be a rich variety in the people of God. All those distinctions we love to point out and use to exclude… Not a problem in God’s axios.

And thus to be worthy of the calling to which we are called, our lives must display a unity that goes well beyond tolerance. It must be rooted in the connections created by the Spirit, which are given and shared at the font in baptism.
One baptism.

Paul never assumes that the distinctions between groups and individuals within the body will cease, but that the work of the Spirit will allow a diverse church to grow together as a body.  No matter the source or complexity of that diversity…

Life together in the Spirit will yield the fruits of the Spirit, even as the gifts needed by the body become manifest.  And in the same way our adoption into God’s family is a gift of grace (not our work), we do not and cannot attain or earn the gifts of the Spirit.  But we can count on God’s generosity… knowing they are given for the equipping of the saints…for the building up of the body, so that all who follow Jesus might grow from childlike faith into their mature calling and unique contributions to the life of the community.

And remember, Paul says that we mature in our faith, not by calcifying in our beliefs or by checking off the lists in our doctrine, but by becoming sure of our identity in Christ.  

No one can come in and tell you that you are not worthy or somehow less worthy than they are. There are no second-tier believers, any more than there are second-tier churches.  

There is one body (made up of Presby’s, Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics, and all manner of baptists, lutherans and I could go on and on).

And that one body is empowered by one Spirit.

There is but one Lord, one faith

And one baptism (which can look like sprinkling or dunking or splashing)

There is but one God, the one who called and claimed and sends us out.

Just one.  

We are one manifestation of that body within these walls, which is part of the larger body we confess in the Apostle’s Creed as the one, holy, universal and apostolic church.

In order to be about the business of equipping the saints, who are to be about the business of living their calling to love their neighbors, we need to believe that – as the psalmist describes – we are a body that is wonderfully and fearfully made. Every joint and tendon, every muscle and nerve, each one of us, equally beautiful and absolutely essential, connected and ready to do its work when called upon.

Earlier this week, I came across an article from Inc magazine by Michael Schneider.  As happens pretty regularly in my brain, I ended up reading it through the lenses of this week’s scripture.

About halfway in, I thought to myself… If Paul were in the corporate coaching world today, he might have used the team analogy in his letters, rather than all that body language.  It also struck me that he would recognize the Spirit at work in some of what these Google researchers found about teams that do their work well… Teams that function worthy of the work for which they were hired.  

See, a few years ago, Google wanted to figure out how to create really good teams.
Really efficient teams.

Being a data-driven firm, they started gathering data. Researchers interviewed over 200 people and studied 180 teams to analyze 250 different team attributes. Two years in, they still couldn’t come up with the algorithm that would create the perfect team.

That’s when they started considering some of the intangibles…  which is when things get interesting for folks like me who aren’t aiming for a profitable company, but want to see a healthy culture in a church context. The research revealed that group norms play a big part in the success and failure of teams.

Norms are things like traditions and expectations, the shared rules that govern how people relate to one another when they gather to work or to play. Sometimes these rules are openly acknowledged and taught, but not always.  Some norms are remain unwritten and are just understood or caught.

They identified 5 key characteristics – each connected to those norms – that made for successful teams, at least as defined by Google.  

The first couple make especially good sense in almost any setting.

  1. Dependability. Team members get things done on time and meet expectations.
  2. Structure and clarity. High-performing teams have clear goals, and have well-defined roles within the group. This is not so far off from  our Presbyterian norm that expresses our desire to see things done decently and in order.

The next two are where I started thinking… Yeah… this sounds like people who are maturing together in their callings as Christ-followers

  1. Meaning. The work has personal significance to each member. Not that the work makes the person significant… but that the work is meaningful in that person’s life and in the way they view their place in the world.  We’ve might be in trouble if our experiences and work together for God has no significance or meaning.
  1. Impact. The group believes their work is purposeful and positively impacts the greater good. The work goes beyond taking care of us and our own…It connects us to the needs of the world beyond the team, beyond the church…

Now- this last one gets to the our very human tendency to create barriers to strong relationships within the body. And to build up walls between us and the people not yet reconciled to God.

  1. Psychological Safety.

Chances are good over the years you’ve been in a meeting… whether a congregational meeting, or a committee, session or trustee meeting and – out of fear of rejection or not wanting to look foolish – you have held back your ideas or questions.

This can happen when we’ve heard stories of other people being shut down or when we have witnessed others taking heat in similar situations. Frankly, it’s unnerving to feel like you’re in an environment where everything you do or say is being judged.

But imagine a different way of being.
A community in which everyone is safe to take risks, voice their opinions, and ask questions without fear of judgment. A group culture where everyone can let down their guard and feel known and valued for their unique contribution.

That’s psychological safety.
That’s being a sanctuary from the world.
That’s being the church.  

Google found that teams with psychologically safe environments had employees who were less likely to leave, more likely to harness the power of diversity, and ultimately, were more successful in their projects.

Paul believed that churches should be filled with people who interacted with humility and gentleness, and with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  

Which sounds an awful lot like a church with a psychologically safe environment,
A church whose members who were less likely to leave,
A body more likely to trust and believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to do amazing things through the diversity of its members and their diverse gifts and passions.

And ultimately, this sounds like a church that would be creatively and wholeheartedly connecting with and serving the people in their corner of creation.

All because they are growing up in the knowledge of who they are, who they belong to and how to live more fully into what they believe.

I so want to be part of that church…. How about you?

 

Demolition and Renovations

In the opening portion of Ephesians, we were greeted with the most amazing news:  the good news that we have been adopted into God’s family.  

We belong.    

Not just to God, of course, but to one another.  Because as siblings, all of us are family.

We belong.

Not just some of us.
Not even just the us we see right here in this room…

God has always – from the very beginning – desired to see all of humanity, all of creation even, gathered up in harmony with one another and in loving relationship with God.  

All knowing that we all belong.  

Also, Paul tells us, when we come to understand who we are in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are also bound to God and one another in a work of reconciliation that is cosmic in scale.

But understanding who we are in Christ is at the heart of understanding how we can belong to God. That’s why, as we move into the second portion of the letter, Paul digs a little deeper into this concept.  

First, we need to know that our belonging to God has absolutely nothing to do with us;  it has everything to do with Christ.

Ephesians 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

God’s grace is so lavish that it transforms a creation gone astray into a new creation, one alive with the resurrection power of Christ.   

That, my friends is who we are.  

We together are the new creation, a body that is at once broken and restored, fallible and forgiven, messy and beautiful. A body that has been redeemed so that we, too,  might reflect the character and nature of God as we move through the world.      

Like the original recipients of this letter, we are gentiles.  Our only way into the family- into the covenant people of God – is through the work of Christ.   Bearing that in mind, listen for the word of God in Ephesians 2:11-22…

11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,  16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.

17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually  into a dwelling place for God.

You might recall from our readings in Acts this spring that the conflict surrounding the practice of circumcision was really important in the move to truly welcome gentiles into the Jesus way of knowing and following God.

Some of the apostles and many other observant Jews in the early church believed that one must first convert to Judaism to become a follower of Jesus.  That process included, for men and for any male children in the family, circumcision.

Paul and several others who ministered among and alongside gentiles argued that with Christ as the fulfillment of the law, this ritual and physical symbol was no longer necessary.  Baptism in water and evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in one’s life was sufficient. The key to one’s belonging is a conversion of the heart.

But – as you and I know – traditions die hard.

Paul uses some architectural metaphors in this passage to help the church understand the damage this kind of conflict does what could and should be unified faith communities.

See – in some places of worship, there were literal walls that kept gentiles  separated from Jewish worshippers. They could only enter so far into the building.  If Jesus-following communities met in those spaces, these walls would naturally create division, segregation.

Paul believed that too many communities found themselves segregated by the lingering discussions around circumcision.  You can see from our passage today that the word circumcision was used as a shorthand for which group one belonged to.  It could even be used as an epithet, spat out in that particular tone that makes it very clear who the speaker believed was “in” and which group was “out”.  

You might imagine, then, that the division and separation wasn’t limited to gatherings for worship.  It is difficult to be in relationship with someone- much less to gather for meals and fellowship or to serve others in mission alongside someone who thinks of you as being wholly other. Someone who despises you. Someone who has decided they just can’t or won’t trust you.

This letter to the Gentiles is a critical reminder to them – not just the Jewish believers, but the gentiles – of their full adoption into the family and just why it matters.

Yes, at one point they were far off. But now?  

Just look at what Christ has done! I mean… Check out these verb phrases-

They have been brought near
The two groups have been made one
Christ has broken down the wall (the one that represents the hostility between them)
He abolished the law, creating one humanity, and making peace
Christ reconciled both groups to God in one body, putting to death hostility
He came and proclaimed peace

The work of Christ Paul points to here is salvation.
It is absolutely salvation… but not for a heavenly eternal future.
This is salvation here and now.

Honestly, this is the reconciling work of Christ that we are most likely to overlook in our zeal to move people toward a personal relationship with God.

This is the work of Christ that reminds us of the good news for right here and right now:
The news that tells us It doesn’t have to be this way.
The work of Christ tells us
My kingdom can come here on earth
My will can be done.
In and through you.
Life in the Body – my church-  isn’t meant to be this way.

Christ has come to break down the barriers between us, so that we might be one.   

Now, I know that this might make some of you uncomfortable, but I’m going to ask you to help me make this a little more tangible. And it’s going to require some moving around, including for me…

Now… the reason this letter still resonates across generations is the very reason we still need Jesus.  We are not yet the people God created us to be.  We are not yet sanctified, nowhere near perfect. And so, we still find ourselves divided.Not over circumcision, mind you.  

But we can name some significant conflicts that have dogged the church. There have been battles and still are battles in the church over the ordination of women.  As deacons or elders, even as ministers.

I polled some of you over the past week, including our Bible Study group, and it wasn’t hard to come up with a couple dozen things – concepts, issues, ideas… that can cause conflict and division in any congregation, even one as small as ours…

This is where I built the wall, reading off the words on the bricks, asking for examples, agreement, consensus that there is truth to these issues being an issue…

This is what we do.
We build walls.
Unconsciously,  I think, for the most part.

But not always. 

Sometimes, we choose to build walls or allow gaps to become chasms.
And when we build them up high enough… We can’t see one another any more
We can’t reach one another to hold hands

And as we get comfortable with the idea of being on one side or the other…
We choose to withhold our love.
We withhold our gifts.
We withhold our money.
We withhold ourselves.  

Just the other night, we caught a rerun of an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. As usual there’s a complicated setup… but the central conflict led to both Raymond and Deborah withholding intimacy from each another, all while trying to tempt the other to say “yes” first.  

They start out acting flirty, wearing provocative pjs… but pretty soon, they’ve moved to t-shirts and boxers, reading books and flat out snoring with the lights on…

After almost a month, Ray breaks the silence at the breakfast table.  I don’t remember the exact dialogue, but it went something along the lines of…

Ray: Look at you… I know what you’re doing.
Deborah silently eats her cereal
Ray: Don’t play coy… you know what you’re doing.
Deborah raises an eyebrow
Ray: Oh Come on… I can’t take it any more.
Deborah: What are you talking about?
Ray: It’s been 26 days…  I’m tired of pretending. How are you ok with this?
Deborah thinks a moment, then remembers:  “Oh that!  Psshh… I forgot all about that.”

I forgot all about that.

Now, this is a TV show – a sit com… so of course there was a cute and happy resolution

But that response- I forgot all about that.  

Honestly? It pierced me.  It pierced my heart.  Because it is so true.

We start out by playing a game.  A manipulative game…
We hold back so that we can get someone’s attention.
So that we can hurt someone else.
So that we can get our way.

Deep down, we want someone to call our bluff.
To move toward us, seeking some kind of  resolution.
But then it goes on too long.

For Ray and Deborah, the lack of intimacy became a new pattern.

In real life… this is how marriages, friendships, even congregations fall apart

When we choose not to talk about what we want or need, even just to get someone’s attention… Just for a short time.
A new pattern can develop and then calcify
A brick gets added to the wall.
Relationships suffer.

And while any relationship loss is worth grieving and working to fix, our relationships matter on an extra level. Because when relationships within the Body of Christ suffer, our witness to the world is diminished.

John’s gospel records that beautiful priestly prayer, in which Jesus prays that we – the generations of followers that he trusted would come after the men and women he knew personally – people like us!

Jesus prayed that we would be one, so that others might see our love and know that God sent Jesus out of deep love for all of us.

I don’t like this wall.
I really don’t.  Do you?

This is where people agreed and even asked if I want them to knock it down. No… because that’s really not our job.  I kicked the lowest brick subtly as I make clear it’s not my or anyone else’s job who is in the room.

Christ has broken down the wall.

Christ has broken down the wall and is here to break it down again and again.
Every time we come up with new bricks and begin to stack them up. .

Because only Christ has that power.  The power to transform.
The power to love us into being one family.
One body.

This is where I hang the poster from the table, placing the cross at the center.  The quotes and the heart are to reinforce for us the centrality of peace and love in the life and work of Christ. I begin moving the bricks from a pile of rubble to create a  new structure on either side.

See, the wall that Christ has destroyed is constantly being recycled. Building on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus himself as the cornerstone, we are transformed and then joined – in Christ.  Peace and love transform our hearts and actions, so that we now become the bricks – living stones – in a new structure.  

A sanctuary from the conflicts that would divide.

A temple.  A dwelling place for God.

All to the glory of God.  

Absolutely essential to all of this is love.
God’s love imparted to us through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Love for one another that defies logic.
Love that defies cultural expectations and norms.
Love that flows directly out of the love that God has lavished upon us.

See – hearts that are at peace are able to love.
The peace of Christ is found in Christ himself.
He is our peace, and thus he is our capacity for love.  

And truly, love is the only thing that can overcome the myriad bricks we stack up and separate ourselves into us and them  

Jesus was pretty radical in his focus on love as key to connection with God. He not only taught the primacy of love, he modeled it.  

Theologian Brian McLaren writes  The new commandment of love meant neither beliefs nor words, neither taboos, systems, structures nor the labels that enshrined them mattered most. Love decentered [and] relativized everything else; love took priority over everything else. [1]

He goes on to consider how closely Paul follows Jesus’ teaching… Early in his life, Paul (then known as Saul) had no time for this kind of love talk. He was a religious-correctness man, not a love man.

To guard the purity of his code, he was even willing to kill (Acts 9:1). But Paul was converted, deeply converted, and he migrated from religious correctness to love. In fact, in his writings he not only echoed Jesus’s radical proposal but made it even more explicit.

There were nearly nine hundred rules identified by his religion, but you could trade them all up for this one, he said (in Galatians 5:6) “The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love”. [2]

It’s not that this is new concept in Judaism… Love was part of the Jewish tradition from the get-go.  Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy when he spoke of loving God as the first and greatest commandment. What he and Paul were saying is that love is the most important part of the tradition.   

Faithfulness matters.
Obedience matters.  

But without love?
Well, Paul told the Corinthians that without love, nothing we say or do matters.

Love knocks down walls
Love heals.
Love forgives.
Love trusts.
Love overcomes.
Love shelters.
Love rebuilds, remodels, renovates
Love unites.
Love can and will make us one.  

Love brings peace.

Now, with all that in mind, look at your neighbors. And as an act of worship, let us once again offer one another the Peace of Christ this morning.

 

—-

NOTE Brian McLaren references are thanks to the daily email from Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation dated July 17, 2017:
[1] Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian (Convergent: 2016), 41-42. Please visit brianmclaren.net to learn more about his work.
[2] Ibid., 44-45.

Of Flames and Fruit

You may recall that Luke started the book of Acts by setting up a sort of transition – the shift from Jesus’ bodily ministry on earth to the church’s embodiment of his ministry.

He lets us know that there were 40 days during which Jesus made appearances among his followers, teaching and commissioning them, even as he continued to do wonders in his resurrection form.

Luke also tells us about that strange day when Jesus ascended into heaven…  but not before he told the disciples to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Spirit to come upon them.  It would be through the Holy Spirit that they would receive power.  They would then bear witness to God’s power, the power that raised Jesus from the dead, in Jerusalem, Judea, all Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

So they waited.

And waited.

They stayed put in Jerusalem, where folks eventually gathered for Pentecost. And here’s what happened… listen to Luke’s description in Acts 2

1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Maybe like me, you’ve wondered why, of all the ways that the Holy Spirit might become manifest, the Apostles were given the ability to speak in multiple unfamiliar languages.  

As the festival of Pentecost approached, Jerusalem again grew busy and crowded.  Like the Passover, Pentecost was a pilgrimage festivals.  One of those times of year that those Jews who had the means would come to Jerusalem, swelling the ranks of those who had lived in other nations. 

As Luke wrote…   there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.   This meant  Jerusalem was quite the multilingual city.

And so, when the apostles started talking in different languages, you can be sure they drew a crowd.  A crowd of people heard these men- all of them Galileans – and understand exactly what they were preaching….

It must have been surreal, hearing one’s language spoken unexpectedly.  

I imagine it like the reaction of characters on Doctor Who- no matter where or when the TARDIS lands- no matter the language spoken by the beings they encounter, the ship’s translation circuit allows its passengers to hear in their own language (for us- English). The Doctor’s new companions are always a little puzzled at first, but eventually are able to focus on what is being said, rather than why they can understand it.

Any way… The Holy Spirit arrived in power and filled these men, so that they were fluently speaking in languages they had not previously known.

Luke says people were amazed and astonished.   They asked “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?

8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs— in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

It was a fair question.  What was God up to?

This Pentecost moment is more than just a sign of God’s ability to do unexpected things.  This is an important moment in the launching of a new movement. God is pursuing people in a new way to do a new thing.

Among the great variety of people gathered in Jerusalem, many of them would have been familiar with Hebrew or Greek, able to do a sort of instant translation as needed to understand what was said.  Kind of like I do when I’m among folks speaking Spanish.

I hear it, translate it in my head and then think about what it means.

But in that moment, God made all that work unnecessary. This Pentecost miracle means that the great variety of people hear the good news in their first language.
The language of their hearts, not their heads.
Their go-to language.  

They don’t have to search for the meaning…
They immediately understand what is said.
Which makes it that much easier to trust what they were hearing

This is important because, while there were some who sneered… who called them drunk… Many other women and men heard and believed what the apostles were preaching.

These new believers were baptized began to learn how to follow Jesus. And when they spoke with other Jews – each in their own language – they, too, were able to share the good news about God’s love made flesh in Jesus, adding even more disciples to their numbers…

People the disciples themselves might not have been able to speak with beyond that Pentecost day.

And, remember those who were not residents of Jerusalem?
Those who had made the Pentecost pilgrimage that year?
THEY had a story to tell when they went home. As well as a sermon to share in their corner of the world.  

I always think of this holy cacophony on Pentecost as the payoff for the story that started way back in Babel, when humanity had tried so hard to build a tower to heaven as if we were gods.  All of those languages that separated people for generations have now been redeemed as God’s plan to draw every tribe and nation back into relationship with God.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians helps us understand that language isn’t always the barrier to our reconciliation with God. Sometimes God’s welcomes gets lost when we translate it into tradition.

For many Jewish Christ-followers, the law had been a comfort, even as they knew they could never fully obey, and therefore never become fully righteous… fully right with God.  But because of their lineage, their heritage, they had confidence in their belonging to the family of God.

But as the good news spread beyond the Jews into Gentile communities, how would this imperfect law observation affect them?  They didn’t trace their family lines back to the tribes of Israel?  Was true inclusion possible for them?

In Chapter 4, Paul brings an important household and family metaphor into play with coming of the Spirit to the Gentiles. Listen to the way he works to help them see their lives before and after Christ – the Messiah – comes on the seen as everyone’s Redeemer.

Galatians 4:1 My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; 2 but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. 3 So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. 

4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave but a child,  and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Here, Paul wants the Galatians to see that being law-observant was necessary for a time… an interim period… but was not the final chapter in the long story of God’s relationship with humanity.

As children (minors) in God’s household, humankind would be considered heirs but not yet of the age to claim that inheritance.  The law acted as a sort of steward or guardian, giving us an imperfect experience of salvation and keeping us within the bounds of our relationship.

If you think about access to the head of the household and all of their holdings,  an heir who has not yet “come of age” may as well be a hired hand or an enslaved person in the household.

That is the before.  For Jews and Gentiles alike.

But now, knowing and believing all we do of Jesus as the Christ, having received the Holy Spirit, God made us so much more.

No longer in need of a steward, God’s children become the full heirs of God’s Kingdom, recipients of all the good and perfect gifts that God had longed to give. from the beginning.

Including the freedom of life in the Holy Spirit.

Paul says that Christ has set us free, free to live in God’s love.
Free to be children who know they are loved.  

Of all the stuff I learned in Child and Adolescent Development classes, I was most fascinated and moved by the way a parent’s love plays out in the behavior of toddlers. Technically, we see this at every stage during which children work to establish themselves as separate individuals…  including teenagers.

But you can see much more easily among children who are just beginning to be mobile.  The bond of love between the parent and child determines how free the child feels to go explore… and just how far they will wander.

Children who are loved. Who know they are loved.  Who have come to trust that their parent will be faithfully present and available as needed while they roam… They become confident in their own ability to navigate the world.

So they toddle off, a little farther each time they venture out. They check in, looking back to see if their parent is watching, but they aren’t as fearful.

Not like the child of a parent whose love and care seems conditioned on the child “getting it right.” Or the child whose parent is unpredictable, whose rules and expectations are confusing and capricious.

Those children stick close, hesitant and fearful.
Needing direction or correction or affirmation for every move, every choice

Imagine a child going to the playground, carrying with them and consulting a long list of rules in the book before choosing where to climb or what to play. They occasionally calling in a specialist to interpret the rules, just to be safe.

Over time, children who are corrected and encouraged with love come to know the values behind the house rules and expectations. They know them so well that they can improvise. They feel freedom to interpret what is happening around them and are able to respond appropriately.

Paul wants the Galatians (and us) to know that the law- written, preserved and proclaimed as a way of life- is not the same as having the Spirit of God living in us, prompting, prodding, guiding us in the way we should live.

You and I have been invited into a relationship that simplifies that whole complicated set of rules into a single guiding principle – the Law of Love.  

God said “Love me. Love me with every bit of the best of you… heart, soul, mind and spirit.” In the physical, mental, social, spiritual aspects of our lives, we are commanded to love an d honor God.  

Likewise, we are commanded to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
So that all of our relationships with all of our neighbors honor God 

Which means love must be obvious in the physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual interactions between us and others  – Be they family, friends, church folk, people we know in the neighborhood or complete strangers.

And the only way to live this life of love, Paul says, is to live by the Spirit.

What does that look like?

If we aren’t going to have a rulebook, judges and referees, how can we possibly know we are living by the Spirit and not just our own desires and passing fads?

Well, it’s not an exhaustive list, but starting in Galatians 5:16, Paul gives us a good idea of what to look for…

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.

19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

Funny thing about fruit – Including spiritual fruit –  I tend to think of it as a finished product. Something I can go get at the store when it’s in season.  But actually, it isn’t an end, so much as a continuation. 

Fruit is produced by a plant so that some creature… a bird, an animal, a human animal perhaps… will eat it.  And while that is good, and might even keep an animal alive for another day, producing fruit isn’t just about providing nourishment for another part of the ecological web around the plant.

Each fruit contains seeds that will travel with and in the critter that eats it.
Until the seed is dropped into new soil somewhere.
And then the cycle of life can begin anew.

This was not lost on Paul, who saw fruit daily on trees and bushes, He intentionally describes fruit as evidence of a healthy, thriving person and community of faith.

Because those fruit offer nourishment to a world
that hungers for kindness,
that is starved for generosity and compassion.  

When people experience through God’s people the love and peace offered by a life in Christ, we have the opportunity to bear witness to its source and to invite them to come and experience life anew…
Life in the Spirit.

Paul’s examples  aren’t just about making good choices, what it takes to be considered straight up moral individuals.  

The works of the flesh – the things that cry out to us from the brokenness of the world – these are exactly the opposite of loving, kind and gracious ways of living in community.  They are precisely the actions that cripple families and tear worshiping communities into apart. In fact, knowing that Paul is writing to a particular group of people whom he knew by name, it is not a stretch to imagine he is calling out specific and known situations.

God has expectations, to be sure.  Every parent does.
We talk about renouncing sin as we baptize new member at the font and as we take on responsibilities of leadership within the faith community.
We confess our sins each week, aloud as a community and in silence as individuals
Clearly, we believe that what we say think and do matters. To us and to God.
Hopefully, we see how what we fail to say and do matters just as greatly.

But just as Jesus included his promise to be with us as he commissioned his followers to go and make disciples, Paul reminds us that he also promised that we would receive all the power we need in order to bear witness to the glory and grace of God.

Pentecost was the answer to that promise.

The Holy Spirit – God’s own power – is available to each and all of us. We can claim and proclaim the new life we embrace as co-heirs with Jesus, adopted children of God, crucified and resurrected with Christ
Set free for the freedom

As we remember the life, death and resurrection of Christ at the table, in a few moments, we will have the opportunity to embrace freedom and reject the values we held before knowing the truth of God’s great love for us.

Nourished by the bread of life and the cup of salvation, may we live for one another, as God lives – through the Holy Spirit – in us.

Amen

When Worlds Collide

A sermon based on the Council at Jerusalem as described in Acts 15:1-18

It would be really hard to overstate just how important this particular episode in the early history of the church is. I mean, up to this point, the Spirit has been leading the disciples to do exactly what Jesus commissioned them to do:take the good news out from Jerusalem, farther and farther away from that upper room.

And as they traveled into Judea and Samaria and around the region, the Lord first added to their numbers people who spoke all kinds of languages, people who looked very much like the disciples and some who looked very different, people who would have claimed to be Pharisees, Saducees, Essenes… many different streams of Judaism.

It was pretty heady stuff.

Every where they went, the apostles (and some others) were part of God’s work: there signs and wonders, healings, visions, transformations, narrow escapes and miraculous interventions.

And then, about ten years before this particular gathering, Gentiles like Cornelius began to hear and respond to the Jesus story.  

These Gentiles are people who had not grown up looking for a Messiah.
People who had never been part of the Hebrew culture.
People who came to understand God ONLY by way of Jesus.

And they, too, were folded into the body of believers who worshiped and prayed and cared for one another and the communities in which they were situated.

As you might expect, gathering people from many different backgrounds and traditions into a unified worshiping community wasn’t easy. There were more than enough arguments to go around in every city the where Christ-followers founded a congregation.  Questions about how what it meant to be Gentile and part of the Jesus movement popped up pretty regularly… and now it was coming to a head.

The church in Jerusalem was made up primarily of Jewish believers. Which makes sense, really.  Even though the city housed other people groups, the majority of those who responded to the good news in Jerusalem were folks who worshiped at the Temple.

About 300 miles away, in Antioch, Paul, Barnabas and others had built up a thriving worshiping community that was primarily made up of Gentiles.  They were teaching and preaching, and all seemed to be going well.  Until these “certain individuals” from Judea arrived.

These individuals argued, from a deeply held personal conviction, that all followers of Jesus were meant to be Jews…  that in order for the saving work of Jesus to be effective on their behalf, the gentile believers would need to be circumcised.  They would need to follow the law in all ways.

After all, Jesus was a Jew.  He taught from the Torah, and the early Christ-following communities studied the Hebrew Scriptures.  

The question being raised – which is actually a fair question – is this: can Jesus be the Jewish Messiah and offer salvation that was somehow disconnected from the Law?   

Now – we need to remember that the rabbinic tradition is based on debate and discussion. Get a bunch of theologians together and they’ll talk forever, often disagreeing. This is true of most rabbis, who tend to be ok with a broad range of interpretations. That is why Jesus was generally unfazed by the leaders of the synagogues and in the temple challenging him to explain his authority and give more details about how he interpreted the scriptures.

Paul, being a Pharisee himself, would have entered into these lively conversations  with passion and maybe a little pride in his expertise and knowledge.  

I would imagine that Peter’s passion would have equalled Paul’s, given what we know about his passion for Jesus, so he would have felt compelled to argue his position, even if he had less formal training in the scriptures themselves.

Anyway… when Luke tells us “there was no small dissension and debate” in Antioch, I feel safe in assuming Luke was being funny.  Anyone who has shared their experiences in contentious meetings (church or otherwise) knows how effective a little understatement can be in setting the tone for a story.  

There was no small debate…  not only because Paul was passionate, but because this was a really big deal.

Paul’s worlds were colliding

His past…
his role as defender of the purity of the faith,
keeper of all laws,
crosser of t’s and dotter of i’s….

was crashing smack into his current ministry…
finding the nuance and the balance between the law of Moses and the law of love.
Seeking the way of Jesus, which was not about jots and tittles, as much as healing and reconciliation.

Paul knew what was at stake.
This was not an argument about circumcising the male gentile Christians in Antioch.
This was about understanding the grace and mercy at the heart of the saving work of Jesus.

It was well worth a 300-mile trek to Jerusalem.
It was worth engaging in yet another round of debates.

Of course, like debater, he makes stops along the way, telling his stories and building his case.  Perhaps he was even doing a little market testing – finding the best words and stories to help others see what he was seeing, to understand what he was arguing.

You know what I love about this story? The one thing that really kind of surprised me.  When they got to Jerusalem, they were welcomed.  They were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, who wanted to hear all that was happening among them.  

These folks knew why Paul and Barnabas had come up from Antioch.  They could have put up their defenses and been wary of conversation. But they opened their hearts and arms and welcomed them. They listened to the stories of Paul and Barnabas; they heard about the ministry in Antioch.

And then, the moment they had been braced for…

Some believers – just to be clear here, these are people who followed Jesus just as faithfully as Paul – some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”

It’s all well and good that they have heard about the Messiah. It’s wonderful that they understand his teachings and that this gathering of believers looks and sounds a lot like ours.

But a statement of faith is not enough.  If they are going to be in… they have to be all in.  They need to be circumcised and instructed in… and held accountable to the Law of Moses.  You have to order them to do so.

There it was.  

The people’s concerns had been voiced.
The Apostles and elders gathered.
The debate begins.
And this time Luke skips the understatement.

They went on for quite a while, the apostles and the elders. And then it was Peter who reminded the council that it was God who made clear that he was to preach among the Gentiles.

It was God who poured out the Holy Spirit on those who believed… and the Spirit was clearly at work in and among the Gentile believers, just as clearly and powerfully as among the Jewish followers.

And sounding an awful lot like the Paul we meet in his letters to the fledgling churches in Corinth and Galatia and elsewhere, Peter reminds his Jewish brothers that none of them had ever been able to keep the law perfectly.  Nor had any of the generations of Jews who handed down the faith to them. In fact, the saving work of Jesus is based on his fulfillment of the law on our behalf.

Why then, Peter asked, would we place burdens on these believers that we cannot carry ourselves?

The silence that followed must have been thick.
Thick with the tension that comes with inner turmoil and shifting balance of influence.
Thick with the palpable energy that marks the Spirit at work.

And into that silence, stories were told.
Then prophecies were remembered and scriptures were consulted
And after no small amount of time… they came to agreement.  

The council came to a place of consensus and were ready to spread the word.

Not that everyone was happy.  Not that everyone in every congregation agreed. In fact, this would come up again and again.

But in that gathering, the apostles and elders had discerned together that this was the will of God.  

And because they came together
Because they did the hard work of listening to one another and God
Because they trusted the work of Spirit as evidence of God’s desires
Because of the way they enfolded Gentile believers…

Generations of Christ followers have come to understand that  God’s grace and mercy – not ritual or law-keeping – are the basis of our salvation.

There is nothing you or I can do under our own power that will get us in
There is nothing you or I can do under our own power that will keep us in

We – you and I – are a part of God’s family, God’s people because God made a way, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

That is good news, indeed.

But there is more good news.
There good news in this story for the church – for the Body of Christ.  

The church can live through hard conversations.
The church can live through conflict.
The church can find its way from deep division to unity of vision

Because it has, from its very beginnings.

But the process is important… and is critical for our elders and deacons to understand
These leaders demonstrated what it means to be spiritual leaders
They were seeking to grow in their faith
They were willing to gather and listen to others with great respect – even when they knew they disagreed
They made space for silence, because it is in that space, in that quiet, that God is likely to speak
They looked back to tradition
They looked out into the world
They looked for and trusted what God was doing right then, even if it contradicted what they expected to find
They went to scripture, looking for confirmation of a new decision, not just to shore up old arguments.

And when the decision was reached, they spoke honestly about the process (Luke lets us know it was hard and long!) and they moved forward together to help others get on board.

In other words, they allowed the Spirit to move them toward unity

See, there is nothing we can do under our own power to lead the church
There is nothing we can do under our own power that will keep us (all of us – together) in the will of God.

We can only attempt those things if we live in dependence on God in the power of the Holy Spirit.

When I talked to Flo on Wednesday evening, she mentioned being a little relieved at not having Sunday School this week- that she was not excited about having to tackle this passage…   I get that…  Really, I do.

I wasn’t super keen on preaching this passage.  It’s all about conflict.

And let’s be honest, this congregation has experienced plenty of conflict over the years. What happens if we mention conflict? Will that bring back to the surface all the stuff that has been neatly stashed away?  Or will it make people push it farther into the shadows?  It just seems a little fraught…

So, yeah, I get why this seems like a downer.

But the more I looked at this passage, the more I see it as a message of hope. For us, for the whole of the church.

If we place Christ at the center of our relationships
If we believe that God in our corner (not mine, not yours, but ours).
If we open our hearts, minds and eyes to the work of the Spirit…

There’s not a conflict we can’t work through
There’s not a barrier we can’t tear down…  so that all might experience grace of God in Christ Jesus and become a part of the family of God.

And that right there?

That is what we are talking about when we say “Christ is Risen!”
He is risen, indeed.

How did we get here?

Acts 8:26-39  (Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch)

I have to say, Luke set many interesting scenes and introduced a number of fascinating characters in his gospel and the beginning of Acts, but the farther we go, the more intriguing his narrative gets.

In a continuation of the travel motif in his telling of Jesus’ ministry, Luke makes clear at the start of Acts that we will be learning how the good news travels from Jerusalem outward… to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the Earth.

In fact, after Stephen was stoned, he tells us that all but the apostles left Jerusalem to avoid the worst of the persecution, including another of Stephen’s cohort, Philip.  Philip found himself in Samaria.  Luke describes Philip’s ministry there at the beginning of Chapter 8:

5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. 6 The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, 7 for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. 8 So there was great joy in that city.

Luke doesn’t give us a sense of how long Philip was there before Peter and John joined him, nor how long before the messenger from God told Philip to head out to the middle of nowhere on the road to Gaza.

And he got up and went.

I do kind of wonder what he expected to find there… or perhaps, having done many signs and wonders in the power of the Spirit, he had learned to set expectations aside. That would go a long way toward explaining his openness to just get up and go.  And to just start jogging alongside a chariot when the Spirit moved him.

I mean, surely it was not on that morning’s task list to catch up to a chariot belonging to a eunuch from Ethiopia.

We don’t get the name of the man Philip is sent to meet, but we do learn he is among the courtiers of the queen of the Ethiopians.  And that he is headed back home from a time worshiping in Jerusalem.

Now – Luke’s original readers would have understood a few things about this man that most of us don’t.

It was not unusual for male members of the royal family to face castration once it was determined they were not in line for the throne. By removing the possibility of producing an heir, the likelihood of their leading an overthrow was slim. This also meant they could be trusted to serve in high level roles, such as caring for the queen’s treasury.  So, it is possible that he was not just a courtier, but royalty, part of the royal family.

Many of the people who lived under Roman rule around the Mediterranean were fascinated, captivated even, by the exotic look and sound of people from Sudan, Ethiopia and the African edge of the known world of the time. That would have made this encounter all the more intriguing.

Another detail Luke seems to trust us to know is that there are Jews even as far away as Ethiopia. It’s not clear how long they had been in the country. Perhaps they were influenced by the exiled Hebrew people there.  But he was at the very least familiar with the Hebrew scriptures.  

So…we have a nameless Ethiopian who is clearly educated and wealthy:
He is literate and reading from the scroll of Isaiah.
He has the means to own this expensive scroll, as well as a chariot and probably someone to drive it. After all, it would be just this side of impossible to hold open a scroll and drive at the same time. The chariot must have been large, given that Philip was able to join this man and share with him the story of Jesus in answer to his question about the scroll.

But despite all his wealth, status, and intellect.
Despite his knowledge of the Hebrew scripture and desire to be righteous, like all eunuchs, this man was only just barely part of the community, marginally allowed to participate at the temple

Not accepted and affirmed…. but not outright rejected.
Until that day.

It all happened so fast.
A conversation, a baptism, followed by the long ride home.

And for Philip- undoubtedly- a conversation with his friends
How did you get there?  Of all places?
Out on the edge of reality, experiencing God’s glory and power in a way that was unique, even for the early church?

It’s common question when things seem way out of the ordinary…
Whether beyond our wildest dreams or our worst nightmares. 

How did we get here? 

How did we get here?
Into the family of God… into this place, worshiping as the Body of Christ?  

Like the Ethiopian… our stories start at the font, in the water.  With baptism.

Like the eunuch… we each and all needed God’s grace to be extended to us, in order to be welcomed into the family and begin our journey as followers of Christ.

The innate desire to be whole, to be known, to see the new Kingdom of God reign, that may well have been why he was reading in Isaiah…

The passage quoted in today’s scripture is from Isaiah 53, in the section that prophecies about the suffering servant. For most Hebrew people of that time, particularly those living beyond Jerusalem and the few cities the Christ-followers had visited, this passage was still imagining a future messiah.  They were – and today’s Jewish people still are  – waiting and watching.  

But when Philip heard those words that morning, whether he had heard it preached before, whether he had considered it himself before, the Holy Spirit opened his heart and mind with new clarity.  

That suffering servant sure sounded an awful lot like Jesus.

And because he was open and willing to follow the Spirit, not just physically, but into new spiritual and religious understandings, Philip had the opportunity to help one more person understand.

Through scripture that clearly made sense to him, this eunuch heard and understood Jesus was the messiah and that he, too, was welcome into the Christ movement.   

There must have been, somewhere in that conversation on the road to Gaza, a description of Jesus’ call to repent.  And there was likely a mention of the call for followers of Jesus to go and tell others- the commission to make believers, teaching and baptizing them.  

Perhaps, Philip explained all of this in the context of his own story,
remembering his baptism,
remembering Stephen’s faithful witness,
reminding his new friend that he had been sent on this particular day to this particular road.   

And the eunuch knew a beautiful thing when he heard it.
Is there any reason I can’t be baptized?

Philip also knew a beautiful thing when he heard it… and didn’t hesitate.
Is there anything to keep you from being baptized? 

This person’s race, nationality, or sexual identity… None of it was a barrier to the Holy Spirit. Here he was with a human being who heard the good news about Jesus, who was compelled to become part of this way of knowing God, and who had requested baptism.

Who was Philip to stand in the way?

Even their being in the wilderness – on a road through the desert – there was water!

In Luke’s gospel, he made clear:
Wherever Jesus is, there is salvation.

Jesus has ascended, leaving the Spirit to guide and empower his followers as they continue his work. Luke is making clear that wherever those followers are open to the will of God, there, too, is salvation.

Wherever the Body of Christ is, there is salvation.
Salvation looks a lot like a puddle or pond or oasis of grace on the side of the dusty road through life
Salvation looks an awful lot like welcome,
Salvation looks an awful lot like hospitality beyond what etiquette requires
Salvation looks an awful lot like love without prejudice, without assumptions.
Salvation looks like becoming part of the beloved community.

See – the good news isn’t that Jesus suffered
The good news is that Jesus didn’t stop at suffering
The good news is that Jesus understood that we humans get way too comfortable allowing people to suffer:
That as long as we are comfortable, we are ok allowing others to suffer
from hunger and illness,
from relational exile,
from addiction or imprisonment,

And he wasn’t OK with us being OK. 

Jesus witnessed all of that, healed all of that and fought against all of it and suffered tremendously himself as a result.

Not because God wanted to experience suffering through Christ,
Not because God was so angry with humanity that Jesus became the outlet for divine wrath.

Jesus’ shared in the suffering of those around him so that he might show the children of God how to get uncomfortable for the sake of others,
s
o that when we hear that other sibling are suffering…
so that when we see others causing suffering…
we are moved to compassion and repentance, as well as advocacy

The life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus was God saying loudly and clearly for all time:
it doesn’t have to be this way.

We don’t have to get tangled up in getting every detail right,
Or worry about who should be in or who to keep out…
By grace, even our missteps are redeemed. Our hearts are freed to focus on God and the loving heart behind the rules and rituals.

The sending of the Holy Spirit and the empowerment of the church was God saying loudly and clearly for all time that we are God’s plan

We are God’s Kingdom come and God’s will being done.
Right here on earth as it is and will be in Heaven.
Not just praying it, but believing it and being the builders of that Kingdom.

All of which begs the question, how did we get here?

For real… how did we get here?

How did we – the church in 2017 in America – get here?

How did we – by and large – become a body that is more comfortable behind gates and walls and fences than out walking among those who are suffering?

How did we get here?

How did we become more like the rich young man who refused to lay down his wealth so that he could follow Christ without distraction?

How did we get here?

How did we become a body that allows our members to claim allegiance to Christ while using their power to place millions of people in harm’s way through endless wars, environmental destruction and cruel legislation?

How did we get here?
More importantly, are we ok being here?
Because, I’m pretty sure we are not where the Spirit of God is.

Oh, yes, each of us has moments.  And groups of us are able to come together for short stretches of time and do good work in the name of the one who saved us.

But being faithful witnesses in our Jerusalems, our inner cities…
Bearing witness in our Judea and Samaria, our states or even the nation…
Being humble servants like him… Taking the healing message of Christ…to the ends of the earth?

As I scan the headlines, I don’t see much in the way of hope, compassion, grace or peace.
I don’t see the people of God working to bring the Kingdom of God to fruition.
At least not one that looks like the Jesus we’ve been reading about all spring.

Which makes me want ask…
How do we get to the places Jesus calls us to be?
How do we get there?

The answer is at the font.
Remembering who we are, whose we are
Remembering the painful joy that flows from confession, repentance and grace

The answer is at the table.
Putting ourselves in a place to remember that God nourishes us and sanctifies us
Remembering that Jesus continues to proclaim to and through us
It doesn’t have to be this way
Because wherever the Spirit of God is, I am with you
So that wherever the Body of Christ is, salvation is

The answer is sitting in the pews around us.
Being the true Body – united in love.
United in a purpose that goes beyond us.

The answer is in the neighborhood
Being the Body by meeting real needs with true compassion

The answer is in the phone book and on the internet
Being the Body by calling the larger body to repentance.
Advocating on behalf of not only yourself but on behalf of those without access, without a voice, without the power or energy to advocate for themselves.

How did we get here?
We got here by the grace of God
We got here by the work of Christ

Where will we go next?
That depends… on just how open we are to the ministry of the Holy Spirit

Faithful Witness

A sermon based on Acts 6:1–7:2a, 44-60

This week, it’s time to hit fast forward…. Since we have to go in real time between Easter and Pentecost,  and since Luke doesn’t give us much content to explore in his gospel and in Acts between those days, we are going to jump ahead in the story a bit. I promise, we’ll come back to the action in the upper room on the day of Pentecost in June.

Heading into the remainder of Eastertide, we’re going to zip past that, past Peter’s first big sermon and the church’s first wave of converts. In fact, the rapid growth of the church in Jerusalem is part of the conflict that shows up in our passage for today.

Even as a city made up primarily of Jews, Jerusalem is fairly diverse. Many of its citizens are from the diaspora- those who had been scattered during the time of exile and had learned the languages and customs of the places they had settled.

The groups Luke identifies most often are the Hellenists and the Hebrews. It’s likely that he was using Hellenists to describe the Jewish people in the community who were more comfortable speaking Greek, and he probably used the descriptor “Hebrews” for those whose native language was Hebrew or perhaps Aramaic.

As the numbers of people following the apostles in the teachings of Jesus grew, so did the numbers of people who had particular needs. There were widows and orphans, there were people who were infirm and displaced.

The apostles were trying to figure all this out – how to keep telling the story of Jesus’ resurrection, how to help other people understand his way of approaching life and love, AND how to care for all those who were in great need… and it was more than a little complicated.

Until they realized that they could share the load. They didn’t have to do it all.   

Listen to the first few verses of Acts 6

6:1 Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.”

5 What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

The twelve leaders brought in the larger community of disciples – the women and other men who had been around longest, were helping to support the work of the community. They could have done it all themselves, or attempted to control the process, but they trusted the Spirit to lead the community in this effort.

The prayers and laying on of hands conferred the authority and power to these men, so that they might make wise decisions and serve the community well.

And it seems that they did.  

The apostles continued in the work they were called to do… spreading the good news and teaching others.  And the work the church was called to do… it was done too.

It seems that when you are a faithful witness, when you stand up and speak truth to those with the power to make change- as the Hellenists did- you may indeed see justice.

The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly.  Even many priests from the temple became obedient to the teachings of Jesus.  The Spirit was empowering this community of faith.  God was blessing their efforts.

Don’t you wonder what happens next?   Listen…

8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen.
10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.

Now, perhaps, like me, you’re wondering how did we get from Stephen serving in a role that looked more than a little like a deacon, to Stephen standing and arguing theology between the signs and wonders he was performing? He sounds more like a prophet than someone taking care of tables.

Truth is, Stephen was simply bearing witness -faithfully in word and deed – to the power of God and the resurrection of Christ. He was faithfully doing his work, and then responded to the call to show up, to speak up, to act up. To be Christ-like in every sense of the word.

It sure goes to show, you never know what might happen in the laying on of hands… And you never know how people will respond when you preach truth.

Certainly hearts can be transformed as the Spirit works and people are moved to compassion and hope and faith.

But hearts can also be hardened by fear, by desire to maintain their position of influence, by a lack of trust in God and in neighbor. And there were some in Jerusalem who were frightened by the power with which these followers of Jesus were speaking, including Stephen.

11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council.

13 They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” 15 And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.  

7:1 Then the high priest asked him, “Are these things so?”

Stephen, like Peter before him, begins to speak, not because he is an orator by nature, but because the Spirit of God was in him, ready to make known the truth.

His sermon is worth a read, though it is a bit rambling. He responds to their accusations by connecting the dots between Moses and Jesus, by describing the ways that God has been among them.  He finishes with some hard words… We’ll pick up near to the end.

2a And Stephen replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me…

44 “Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the wilderness, as God directed when he spoke to Moses, ordering him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45 Our ancestors in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our ancestors.

And it was there until the time of David, 46 who found favor with God and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the house of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands; as the prophet says,

49 “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50 Did not my hand make all these things?’

51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.  52 Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53 You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”

54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.

55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.

Sound familiar?   Luke is helping us remember, even as he tells the story of Stephen, what happened to Jesus.
Once again, the Sanhedrin is the location.
Once again the people are stirred up by a small number of those who are against this new stream of Judaism in their midst.
Once again, the story and promise of liberation, of redemption, of God’s love for the people of Israel and God’s power to turn the world upside down… the potential that Stephen was right about Jesus… that powerful teaching was enough to set this small group of leaders against Stephen.

And as he closes his impassioned and faithful witness to God’s promises made and kept, he knows that their hearts are not open.
That his time has come.
And he doesn’t back down.
He doesn’t back down. In fact, he looks up.  

He looks up and describes a vision of Christ as Messiah, ascended to heaven and reigning with God.

And while I’d like to say it’s hard to imagine the scene that comes next, we have seen all too frequently the reality that angry, frightened people do awful things.  And this crowd has been stirred up…
by the group that wanted Stephen quieted,
by the passion in Stephen’s voice,
by the truth in his words and the confusion in their hearts.

They were ripe for a riot.  

58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Stephen was a faithful witness to the end.  And like the prophet, teacher, messiah he followed in death, he asked that those responsible for his death might be forgiven.

I’ll be frank with you. I don’t know how to get there. I don’t know how to get to that kind of forgiveness.
I mean, I am a person of faith.  I believe that Jesus was who he and his closest followers and generations of disciples after claim him to be.

I don’t understand them, but I believe that there were signs and wonders wherever he went. I believe he healed and forgave and set people free from all manner of ills.

And I believe that both he and Stephen meant those words, “Forgive them.”  

But I am pretty sure I am far from mature enough in my faith to be able to do that.   To ask for forgiveness on behalf of someone who is in the midst of an unspeakable act of cruelty.

But then I have to look again at what they saw…
The people who came after Jesus.
The people who came after Stephen.
They were – in their own ways – making every effort to be faithful witnesses.

And they were, just as much as Jesus, equally as much as Stephen or you or me… Children of God, beloved and worthy of compassion.

It would be easy to characterize them as evil people.  Or at least people who have been overtaken by evil.  In fact, that very characterization has been an excuse for generations of anti-semitism as Christians blamed Jews for killing Jesus and early martyrs like Stephen.

Stephen himself called them stiff-necked, calling to mind Moses and his frustration with the generation God called him to liberate.

Stubborn, yes.
Evil?  No.

You know –  faithful Christ-followers today find themselves disagreeing about what Scriptures say about many difficult topics.Not just because of their political party affiliations, though that does sometimes get in the way…

No- I’m talking about people who have spent hours with the Bible and commentaries and the Holy Spirit in conversation with God about
whether the Body of Christ should support the death penalty
or should be ok with using drones as opposed to foot soldiers in a war zone
or if we should lead the way in welcoming immigrants and refugees
or whether the church should limit the role of women or fully embrace and affirm LGBTQ folk in church leadership.

Because the scriptures are complex and complicated, the answers to those questions aren’t simple and faithful people come to very different conclusions.

Within denominations or with theological cousins, within particular congregations, even within this congregation, we Christians have been known to throw some pretty large (if metaphorical) stones at one another. Often causing significant emotional and spiritual wounds.

We are passionate about holding our position, stiff-necked even, and we believe that God is equally passionate about supporting us. And so we bear witness to what we understand God is saying to us.

We make every effort to be faithful witnesses.
But what happens if we’re wrong?  

What happens if we’ve spent years arguing and fighting against what we perceive as a threat, or what we believe to be unfaithful? And then we find that we were wrong?

There was a young man on hand at Stephen’s death. His name was Saul.

The people who were ready to stone Stephen, to kill him for his words – they put their cloaks at Saul’s feet.

We don’t know the timeline…

It may be that this is the moment that launches his career as the persecutor of Christians.
Or perhaps it verified for him that he was right…
Or maybe he was among the pot-stirrers that got the whole incident started.

Luke doesn’t say.   But he does tell us, going into Chapter 8, that Saul approved of their killing Stephen. And that a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.

And you and I, we know more of the story to come;
we know about the redemption to come.
The re-orientation that was coming in Saul’s heart, so complete that it made him a new man.
So complete that he needed a new name.

And I wonder, was it the prayers of Jesus and of Stephen that set in motion the work of God to make that change? Was it the forgiveness that flowed as thick as their blood?

Was it that faithful witness to God’s enduring love and mercy that made possible the change in Paul’s heart?

And then made it possible for the very church he had persecuted to see and hear and embrace him as a leader among them.

I wonder…
I wondered about that quite a bit this week. And then I begin to trust.
Because there is power in forgiveness,
healing power,
saving power,
resurrection power

And there is even greater power in the seeking of forgiveness:
In the confession of our own sin, of our shared sin,
In the confession of our complicity in the pain and oppression of others nearby and worldwide
In the confession that we, too, can be stiff-necked and proud, when God would have us humble and willing to bend

There is power in confession and forgiveness and orienting our hearts to God.

Not the sort that lords over another, but the sort that allows the Lord to enter a relationship to heal and redeem it.

That is the power of full submission to God’s will,
The power of choosing to bear witness to God’s great love, not by force, but by faith

Bearing witness by taking risks on the side of love and welcome,
On the side of forgiveness and compassion
On the side of life over death.

That is the hard work of being a follower of Jesus. Submitting to God’s will and bearing witness to the fullness of Christ’s teachings shapes our lives in community with one another even as it deepens our relationship with God.  And it is the means by which we assure succeeding generations have the chance to hear, believe and become faithful witnesses.  

I give thanks for the faithful witness of those who made it possible for us to worship here today.  The generations of women and men who built this church, literally and spiritually.

Can you give thanks for them with me?

I give thanks for the faithful witness of those who have fought for this congregation’s life, who are fighting for it even now.

Can you give thanks for them with me, too?

I give thanks for the faithful witness of  those who took the fight for the life of the Body of Christ elsewhere, when their gifts were no longer welcome in this place.

Can you give thanks for them?

I give thanks for the faithful witness of those who have endured the pain of staying when their gifts were less than welcome in this place.

How about them, can you give thanks for those dear ones, as well?

I give thanks, by faith, for the faithful witness of those who will use their gifts to express God’s love in ways we’ve not yet imagined… here in this place… to the glory of God.

I pray that we might all bear faithful witness to God’s grace and mercy, and God’s justice and love, to one another and to a world in need.

Today and every day to come.  Amen.