Grace Presbyterian Church

A Warm and Welcoming Church

Sermon: Grow Up

Grace Presbyterian Church

August 1, 2021, Pentecost 10B

Ephesians 4:1-16

Grow Up

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before (that is, I’m pretty sure I have), but back in my youth I competed in what was at the time known as “Bible drill.” I think it used to be called “sword drill,” after words that crop up later in this book of Ephesians. (Remember, I grew up in another denomination.) Anyway, when I participated in it the competition involved being able to look up books of the Bible, and later specific verses, really really quickly. To cap it off there was also a portion of the event that involved being able to recite memorized verses. I was pretty good at it – enough so, in fact, that the summer after ninth grade I was in the statewide Bible drill championship. I finished second. By one stinkin’ point.

Preparing this sermon reminded me of Bible drill because a portion of today’s reading was one of those memorized passages I had to learn. Because I grew up in that other denomination, all the reading and searching and memorizing involved the King James Version. So my response, when called upon, came out like this (I will not attempt to duplicate my fifteen-year-old voice; it wasn’t pretty):

And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists, and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.

I had it memorized, all right, but I’m not going to lie to you; if you had asked fifteen-year-old me what exactly all of that meant, I’d have probably looked at you blankly and given you a clear “I have no idea” shrug. 

After a theological discourse that takes up the first three chapters of Ephesians as we have it, the author turns now to what might be called “boots on the ground” instruction, of which those verses are a part. This isn’t atypical of the letters of Paul upon which our author bases and models this volume: lay out the theology, then talk about putting it into practice in your location. Since this letter (despite its modern name) was probably meant to be distributed across many churches, the specifics of instruction might be somewhat less specific. The nature of the instruction is general, applicable across frankly all of these churches strung out across the Roman Empire, particularly that region sometimes called Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). 

Paul certainly did some letter-writing from prison, and so our author (again, likely a student or associate of Paul’s working to consolidate his teaching and reputation) evokes Paul’s imprisonments in the instruction to his readers. The initial verses point to a call towards unity. Notice that is “towards” unity; even if not spoken, the author seems to glimpse that unity is not possible in all situations, and the instruction to come in the later verses of this reading will sometimes be exactly why it’s not possible to be in unity with everyone or everything. But here the challenge is to “make every effort” towards preserving the unity of the Spirit, and sometimes that means the ones with whom you can’t be at unity with any integrity at all are those who are outside the Spirit. Verses 7-10 seem to be an odd diversion that could be about the importance of the Ascension, the old theological claim (still reflected in the Apostles’ Creed) that Jesus descended into Hell, or who knows what else.

Still, though, these opening verses do introduce the important idea of grace given to us as a result of “Christ’s gift,” and the result of gifts being bestowed upon us, which in turn sets up a brief list of some of those gifts given among the people of God. Unlike other such lists in the epistles, this one speaks of specific roles played in the church by specific people, without necessarily implying that these are the only gifts the church needs to function. (The specificity of this list is one of those reasons scholars have for believing this letter to be written much later than Paul’s output, as these roles seem to be more formalized than in the mid-century span in which Paul worked.) 

The reasons for which these gifts are given are where “the rubber hits the road” in this reading. Note that while unity of the faith makes an appearance again, a lot more ink is consumed on the other listed aim of these gifts and their exercise among the body of Christ: an aim that might be best summed up as spiritual maturity

This is where the language gets rather twisted up in the KJV rendering that still lives in my head to some degree, and even the NRSV can be a bit difficult to untangle. Last week’s sermon made a quick reference to the modern-day, scholarly yet accessible-language Common English Bible (CEB), and it might be useful in wading through these verses as well; first verses 12-13:

His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of the faith and knowledge of God’s son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults – to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ.

OK, that helps somewhat. All those offices help build up the body of Christ by building up those within it, and that is where the unity of the faith arrives. And the measure towards which that building-up points is nothing less than Christ in all completeness and wholeness and fullness. Nothing less is really enough.

Now hear verses 14-16:

As a result, we aren’t supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ, who is the head. 

We could, of course, put an even more vernacular spin on this instruction.

Don’t be babies.

Don’t fall for everything you see on the internet. Or some “news” channel. Or from some televangelist’s megachurch

Don’t be misled so easily.

And perhaps the harshest of all:

Grow up.

That’s not a phrase we use these days as a form of encouragement. Typically it’s spoken in a tone that makes clear the speaker’s exasperation (or worse) with the one to whom the statement is directed. To get the full force of this reading we need to divorce the phrase from the commonly sarcastic tone we often apply to it and hear it as not only a form of encouragement, but the principal charge or calling that is laid before us – even more so than all that pursuing-unity talk, because that true unity in the Spirit only happens when we are growing towards that spiritual unity, that living into the measure of Christ’s wholeness and completeness and fullness. 

To top it off, verse 16 reminds us that all of this happens in Christ. Again, to borrow from the CEB:

The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does its part.

The growing and maturing and moving towards unity all happens in Christ. This is one of those cases where the instruction given really is directed at the individuals reading or hearing the letter. Most of the time such instruction in the New Testament, gospels or letters, is corporate – directed at the whole of the church to do together. In this case, the responsibility of this instruction to seek unity and grow up is upon each individual, so that the whole church can grow and do and be what it is meant to be under Christ, the head of the church. 

Clearly, we aren’t there. It’s not just the too-many so-called “Christians” who crowd into each day’s headlines clearly demonstrating that they have not grasped the instruction of verses 14-15 about not being easily led astray and tossed about and fooled by deceivers. It’s all of us. Seriously, do we look like we measure up to Christ in all his fullness and completeness and wholeness? No, we’re not there. The point is to be on the way. And no matter how old we are, no matter how much hard-won wisdom we have earned, how much we have seen or experienced, we’re still on the journey. 

It is in the process of this journey that we learn to live lives worthy of our calling, to bear with one another in love, to build up the body of Christ, and yes, to grow up.

For growing up, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #733, We All Are One in Mission; #—, Live Lives Worthy of Your Calling; #529, Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether

Sermon: Rooted in Love

Grace Presbyterian Church

July 25, 2021, Pentecost 9B

Ephesians 3:14-21

Rooted in Love

“It’s just the same story as a doctor once told me,” observed the elder. “He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever. He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. ‘I love humanity,’ he said, ‘but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.’

(Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov)

This portion of a discourse from Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov captures one of the central contradictions of the human condition, particularly under God’s command of love. The sentiment is also captured in much more pithy fashion in words spoken by the character Linus in the ever-popular comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz. Responding to Lucy’s taunt that he could never be a doctor because he doesn’t “love mankind,” Linus answers with a classic line, one so classic that social media mistakenly attributes it to the likes of Albert Einstein or Marilyn Monroe: “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand!

While one never wants to dismiss any portion of any particular scripture passage, the core of this reading is found in verses 17-19. While verses 14-16 offer up the beginning of a benediction, and verses 20-21 rightly give honor to God, these central verses point to the root of the message found in this first half of Ephesians. One could also argue that the practical instruction that makes up the remainder of the book also has its roots in the encouragement of love found here (or at least most of the remainder of the book; we’ll get to the possible exception in a few weeks).

Ephesians can be divided into two parts: the first half consists of theological exposition, and the second of more practical instruction. It’s not an accident that the Revised Common Lectionary leans toward that second half of the book, devoting four Sundays to it compared to the three given to the first half, including the book’s introduction two weeks ago and this summarizing blessing we heard a few moments ago. 

Even those portions of the first half that seem to address other issues are written more with theological aims in mind than anything else. For example, the first thirteen verses of the chapter purport to describe Paul’s ministry among the Gentiles. (Mandatory reminder here that most likely the book was written by a student or coworker of Paul’s who was seeking to consolidate his teaching and preserve his reputation after his death.) These verses, however, contain little of actual detailed description of what Paul did among churches in Ephesus or Galatia or Thessalonica or any of those places Paul visited on all those missionary journeys that showed up in the map section in the back of Bibles years ago. What is described, however, is the mystery Paul proclaimed; the opening up of the good news to the Gentiles; Paul’s role as servant of God in proclaiming this mystery; and the fulfillment of God’s purpose in Paul’s work. It is, in effect, the conclusion of the theological discourse, which is formally wrapped up in and by the blessing prayer of today’s reading. 

Our author here indulgences in language that is almost paradoxical, to make a point, in verses 18 and 19. To help illustrate this, hear a different reading of those verses:

I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God.

That reading, from the modern scholarly translation known as the Common English Bible, hopefully clears the thicket of words just a bit so that we can get the full impact of what’s being prayed here. I want you to know just how great, how large, how expansive love is. I want you to know love that you can’t comprehend. I want you to be filled – completely, entirely full – just with all that God is. That next verse is almost mild by comparison (again from the CEB): “Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us…

Sometimes, as a preacher, the best thing to do is to find a way to let the scripture itself do the heavy lifting, so hear those three verses again, back in our usual NRSV this time:

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to *know* the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine…

It is eloquent and beautiful language, to be sure, with images that overwhelm and leave us in wondering awe, if we really hear it and take it to heart. 

I wonder how often we do that.

Do we, really, take in just what it would mean to understand love in all its height and depth and length and width? 

Are we capable of being open to so much that we cannot comprehend?

Are we willing to be open to so much that we cannot comprehend or measure?

Can we even begin to grasp what it would mean to know God’s love so fully, so completely as this? Can we begin to grasp what this would change for us or about us or in us?

Or, perhaps, does such a thought make us uncomfortable? 

Does such a love, such unmeasurable and incomprehensible love actually leave us with something like fear? Fear of what it might ask of us? Fear of how it might change us? 

In verse 17 the author prays that the readers might be “rooted and grounded in love,” and then goes on to describe the kind of love in which they might be rooted and grounded. You have to wonder how this treatise’s original readers must have reacted to this, living as they most likely were in a time when the still-nascent church was beginning to face a different world than before, one that increasingly viewed the followers of this Jesus as something of a threat, as people who didn’t play along with the mores and folkways of getting by in the Roman Empire. 

Peter Marty, editor of The Christian Century, writes in the most recent issue that “for life to be good and beautiful and true, we have to find a way to make God central to our lives, not peripheral…God has zero interest in being relegated to the outer edges of our lives.[1] I wonder if part of this overwhelming experience of the knowing God’s unknowable love is tied to this, to our lives being centered solely and completely on God, with nothing else competing for our loyalty or allegiance or love. Perhaps it is only then that the incomprehensible love of God can begin to be our root and ground, and to be all that in which we “live and move and have our being.”

For love we cannot comprehend, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #188, Jesus Loves Me!, #833, O Love that Will Not Let Me Go

[1] Peter Marty, “At the center,” The Christian Century, July 28, 2021, 3.

Sermon: Remember What You Were; Remember Who You Are

Grace Presbyterian Church

July 18, 2021, Pentecost 8B

Ephesians 2:11-22

Remember What You Were; Remember Who You Are

One thing that was mentioned in last week’s sermon, introducing this little trip through the book of Ephesians, is that this letter seems to have been addressed to a situation in which the church or churches being addressed consist more of Gentile converts to Christianity than of those who were of Jewish background. This differs from most of the letters of Paul, which address church groups that seem to be more evenly divided. The content of chapter 2, of which we just heard a portion, suggests that this shift did not occur without some measure of conflict or at least stress between the two parties. 

Here the author (again, most likely an associate or student of Paul’s trying to consolidate his teaching some years after Paul’s death) seeks to address this particular strain in the body of Christ. What is left unmentioned, however, is how this particular shift came to be. We don’t actually know why the church had come to consist of more Gentile converts than Jewish. It could be simply that more folks of non-Jewish background were welcoming to the gospel as it was proclaimed across the Roman realm. 

On the other hand, we see in other epistles situations where such conflict could have been triggered. Much of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, for example, addresses a situation in which that church had succumbed to a handful of teachers who insisted that to be “really Christian,” the Gentile converts in the church needed to undergo the Jewish ritual of circumcision. Paul had firmly opposed that teaching at the time, and upon learning that the Christians there had been swayed by this teaching he frankly blew a gasket, chastising the “foolish Galatians!” and asking “who has bewitched you?” (3:1)

Whatever the source of this conflict, the author of Ephesians takes pains to sort out the division. We are reminded here that the author (like Paul) was of Jewish background. The Gentiles are addressed as “you” as early as verse 11; by verse 14 the author is giving away his (or her) own status by speaking of “the hostility between us” in verse 14. 

The thrust of the author’s argument is to remind those of Gentile background that, for all their apparent superiority of numbers and status in the church now, they had originally been the “outsiders” – being “without Christ,” “strangers to the covenants of promise,” and “having no hope and without God in the world.” They had plenty of false gods, to be sure, but in that previous state they were cut off from the one true God. 

To be sure, the Jewish Christians aren’t let totally off the hook. This chastisement is more backhanded, however, and refers to the conflict previously mentioned from the letter to the Galatians. The reference in verse 11 to Gentile followers as “called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called the ‘circumcision’” seems perhaps a bit clunky until the author drops the next line: “a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands.” Nobody gets off the hook here; whatever the division was, both sides have culpability.

Into this division comes the good news of verse 14: “in his (that is, Christ’s) flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” By referring to Christ doing so “in his flesh” – in his bodily crucifixion – the author contrasts the new condition of Gentile and Jewish converts with the division that had come before through another act upon the flesh, the act of circumcision. The one act unites those whom the other separates.

Much of the rest of this passage elaborates upon and even celebrates this act of Christ, culminating in verse 19 with the joyful declaration “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” Finally, the metaphor of building is introduced to suggest how, “upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone,” we all – no matter where we came from – are built together into nothing less than the dwelling place of God.

While this passage is vitally important for understanding what unity in Christ looks like and the degree to which any unity we have is Christ’s doing, it can be difficult for moderns to take in or understand its application to us. After all, for many of us in these pews at appropriate social distance, we find it difficult to see ourselves in the author’s description of strangers or aliens or those on the outside. We’ve been good church folk all our lives, haven’t we? When you’ve grown up in the church, it can be hard to process this bit of instruction.

There are two ways to work through this conundrum, one of which is a historical acknowledgment. Most folks who you might find on the pews of Christian churches of whatever variety this morning did not come to Christianity via Judaism. In the language of the time of this writing, we would just about all have been “Gentiles.” It is this act of transcending divisions that enables us even to be here in the first place. Even after nearly two thousand years, this is no small thing to remember.

The second way of understanding our situation requires us to remember one inconvenient fact: your presence on a church pew does not automatically render you as being in unity with Christ and with God’s household. There are churches out there this morning full of zealous devotees whose true allegiances, whose ultimate loyalties and passions and beliefs and behaviors, place them squarely in opposition to Jesus Christ and his gospel, no matter how much they (and their ministers, to be sure) try to bathe those allegiances and loyalties and passions and beliefs in churchy talk. We would all do well, in light of this scripture, to examine our own lives and histories to discern whether we have at times pursued such loyalties and allegiances and beliefs that placed stumbling stones in front of other seekers, or brought disrepute to the gospel, or sought to drive out or exclude those whose lives or beliefs or faith somehow failed to match up squarely with our own, or tried to pass off our petty hatreds and prejudices as somehow Christlike. None of such things build us up into a dwelling place for God.

We, even we lifelong churchgoers, need to remember what this passage teaches us here. We didn’t earn this. We really don’t need to be strutting around the Church Universal as if we own the place. It is God’s grace alone that even allows for us to be the church that we are. And we would also do well to remember that the same grace of God that brings us into God’s household brings in all of those who would come into that household, even if they’re not our favorite people. God is the one who breaks down the barriers; God is the one who invites; God is the one who welcomes. It is only God’s doing that we are no longer strangers or aliens or outsiders, but citizens and members of the household of God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #761, Called as Partners in Christ’s Service; #—, Remember There Was Once A Day

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Sermon: One Great Big Run-On Acclamation

Grace Presbyterian Church

July 11, 2021, Pentecost 7B

Ephesians 1:3-14

One Great Big Run-On Acclamation

It was a chart-topping song back in 1981, and then it became a ubiquitous presence at almost any kind of celebration, particularly the kind that followed big emotional sports triumphs. You’ve heard it:

[singing] Celebrate good times, come on! …let’s celebrate…Celebrate good times, come on!…There’s a party goin’ right here…a celebration to last throughout the year…

Even forty years later, that song still manages to show up after a big win of whatever kind, and why not? It’s an absolutely infectious song (in the good way we speak of songs being “infectious”) and there’s really nothing about it to give offense; it’s just fun.

While the song isn’t terribly specific about what it’s celebrating (other than the pretty general “good times” of that opening), our scripture reading for today carries a pretty celebratory tone itself but with something quite specific to celebrate.

As we jump into a series of readings from the book of Ephesians that will take us through July and August, a little stage-setting is in order. While the book claims Paul’s name at its opening and has often been attributed to that apostle, it is incredibly unlikely that Paul himself actually wrote this book. For one thing, its apparent time of writing, based on content and context, would have been well after Paul was dead; for another, it is inconceivable that Paul himself would have written such a generic and impersonal letter to the church at Ephesus, which he loved dearly as described in Acts (a feeling that was most definitely reciprocated). For that matter, the designation of Ephesus isn’t even on most of the earliest manuscripts, so that part is doubtful also.

The far more likely case is that a follower or student or assistant of Paul’s, some years later, compiled a compendium of Paul’s teaching as the apostle’s posthumous influence began to wane, possibly sending it as a circular letter (one meant to be passed around from church to church, likely including Ephesus), and putting Paul’s name on it to indicate its authority, an unfortunate but not-uncommon practice of the time. Imagine an old follower or associate of John F. Kennedy or Dwight Eisenhower, say, taking up pen to write a faux-editorial with his or her mentor’s name on it as a kind of letter to America in its current troubled times. Something similar is going on here.

That said, the theme of this opening statement is one that Paul did indeed turn to in his own writings: the idea of adoption. Especially in the eighth chapter of the letter to the Romans, Paul did speak of adoption as how we know ourselves to be children of God:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry ‘Abba!’ Father!, 

it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 

and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ

(Rom. 8:14-17)

From this Pauline starting point, our adoption or being chosen in Christ “before the foundation of the world,” our Ephesians author pours forth quite a flood of acclamation of God for this gift; for the redemption and forgiveness that comes to us in this gift; for the mystery of God being revealed in this adoption; for the inheritance that is ours in this adoption (shades of the Romans reading above); for the hope in which we live because of all of this.

The fun part for those who try to read this in the Greek is that our author has done all of this in one sentence. It’s true; everything in today’s reading is one sentence in the Greek, all linked together with linking participles piled one on top of the other. Be grateful for the work of biblical translators, friends (especially the grammar-sticklers among you). 

Still, though, that seems like part of the charm of this passage. We do this, really, when we get all excited about something we’re trying to describe. “And then we saw…and it was so cool and it was amazing and then this happened and then…and then…” We do run on when we get excited; it’s nice to imagine our author here being so caught up in the joys of this adoption that the words just pour forth in the rush of joy. It’s fair, after all, to be excited about being gathered up and taken in by God.

The other challenging part of this passage is its apparent audience. Most of Paul’s writings were directed at churches somewhat split between those who had come to follow Christ from a Jewish background and those from Gentile backgrounds. By the time of this letter, however, the audience seems to be mostly Gentile. The author, on the other hand, is apparently of Jewish background if verse 2 is any indication. Yet God’s adoption was not limited to one group or the other; all of them – Jew and Gentile alike – were caught up in God’s choosing. God is not choosy; God will not be pinned down to choosing one or the other; God chooses everybody. How human beings respond to that choice may be all over the map, but God chooses everybody.

While trying to get this sermon going this week, after a wonderful week away last week and oh, yes, a tropical storm passing near our area, I came across a news item that feels relevant here. A sweeping survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute between 2013 and 2019 found that, among other things; the percentage of the population identifying as “none” (including atheists, agnostics, and those who might claim some sort of religious belief but no affiliation) had declined slightly; the percentage of white folks claiming some variety of evangelical affiliation had declined a lot; and the percentage of white folks claiming some mainline Protestant affiliation – mostly Episcopalians, some Lutherans, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) among others – had…risen a little bit.[1] (For the record, this tracks with this denomination’s own findings that after years of decline the membership of PC(USA) had leveled off from that decline and, in the last reporting period, had taken a slight uptick.)

One doesn’t want to get too giddy about freshly reported surveys like this, but I think there’s something to this result that resonates with the exuberant celebration of this Ephesians passage. After years of membership decline and sometimes even derision from other precincts of Christianity, the churches of the so-called mainline (a terrible name for a religious affiliation) found themselves pressed to be, frankly, more welcoming. Churches of those denominations that couldn’t get away from the somewhat exclusive or elitist bearing of, say, the 1950s found themselves shrunken dramatically or closed altogether. Welcoming all much more broadly, taking to heart the sense of generous adoption marked in today’s reading, became a survival mechanism if nothing else. Maybe that survival mechanism works. 

Before the pandemic shut things down, we were working on learning and singing a short song as a sign of welcome near the beginning of our services. It goes simply, 

God welcomes all, strangers and friends;

God’s love is strong and it never ends.[2]

(We’re gonna get back to singing that as soon as safely possible, I promise that.)

It does seem that recognizing the graciousness, the unmerited favor of God’s adoption of us, would compel us to be in turn welcoming of all of those who are part of that generous act of adoption, even if they don’t realize it yet. 

Maybe Kool and the Gang had it right. There is a party goin’ on ‘round here, a celebration to last throughout the years. Come on and celebrate.

For the generousness of God choosing us, Thanks be to God.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #475, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing; #839, “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine!”

[1] Jack Jenkins, “White mainline Protestants outnumber white evangelicals, while ‘nones’ shrink,” Religion News Service (accessed 7/8/21).

[2] “God Welcomes All,” text by John L. Bell, music South African, transcribed John L. Bell. Copyright 2008 WGRG, Iona Community (admin. GIA Publications, Inc.) All rights reserved. Used by permission OneLicense #725345-A

Sermon: Who Then Is This?

Grace Presbyterian Church

June 20, 2021, Pentecost 4B

Mark 4:35-41

Who Then Is This?

Who then is this, that winds and sea obey?

Who is this one who swirling storm can sway?

See how the danger now has passed away! 

Alleluia! Alleluia!

Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” It’s possible that the polished language of this NRSV translation of Mark 4:41’s climactic exclamation is just a little too tame, a little too composed-sounding to capture the moment fully. The Common English Bible goes with “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!” The exclamation point as a finisher helps, but that first phrase – “Who then is this…” – just seems…awfully formal for having just seen Jesus turn a raging storm into dead clam with just a few words. It’s regrettable that Clarence Jordan, the creator of the especially vivid Cotton Patch Gospel renderings of selected books of the New Testament, did not include Mark in his selection. You just know he would have found a way to get it across.

It’s worth noting that there’s another word in v. 41 upon which we should cast a skeptical eye. The NRSV speaks of the disciples being “overcome with awe,” but that is a characterization of those disciples that would most kindly be called generous. In just the previous verse Jesus had called them out for being “afraid” (NRSV) or “frightened” (CEB) in v. 40; a more literal translation of v. 41a acknowledges this as it speaks of the disciples being “fearful with a great fear.”

This is not unprecedented behavior. Think of Isaiah, in chapter 6 of that prophetic book, exclaiming “woe is me!” at the sight of the Lord in the heavenly temple surrounded by all the heavenly beings at worship. You could also stick with this gospel, for that matter, and skip ahead to its ending. When the women who had come to the tomb are confronted with an open, empty tomb and a man in white giving them a message to go ahead to Galilee where Jesus will meet them, we are told that they “fled from the tomb with terror and amazement” (the CEB says they’re “overcome with terror and dread”). 

So yeah, “who then is this” seems too calm. These people, fearful and overcome, just aren’t going to sound that composed. Something like “who in the world is this?” or even stronger, depending on your tolerance of the idea of one of Jesus’s disciples letting loose with a first-century Aramaic expletive.

Who then is this, so calm amidst the waves?

Who takes his rest, while tempest ‘round him raves?

Awake at last, with his own word he saves!

Alleluia! Alleluia!

Let’s be fair to the disciples. What they’ve just seen defies all logic and comprehension. It wasn’t just that they survived the storm or are preserved through the storm, the way that the singer of Psalm 107 describes in the reading we heard earlier; it wasn’t just that the storm subsided really quickly, as we can see storms do in these parts. Imagine a powerful hurricane coming ashore at Cedar Key, waves ratcheting up and winds pounding and rain pouring, and then, all out of nowhere, the wind has stopped, and the sea is absolutely still – a “dead calm” as v. 39 says. And no, it’s not just the eye of the hurricane; the storm is gone

You’re going to tell me that, no matter how much we’re all celebrating and rejoicing, there isn’t going to be just some chill of fear about witnessing such a thing? 

So yeah, even if I feel like the NRSV’s phrasing is a little stiff and bland, I can absolutely understand the disciples wondering who this is. 

Who then is this, whom crowds have flocked to see? 

This teacher, healer, from whom demons flee; 

What is his call? What can his mission be?

Alleluia! Alleluia!

It’s not as if the disciples haven’t seen some things, even in the relatively brief time they’ve spent with Jesus. These first chapters of Mark routinely depict massive crowds of people pressing in to be healed by Jesus, and Jesus, well, healing them. We also see accounts of demons not even waiting around for Jesus to spot them. They’re terrified just by his showing up. 

Thing is, though, this kind of thing wasn’t necessarily considered that out of the way or bizarre or non-credible. If we were to hear of such a “healer” coming to town we’d scoff and make jokes about it, and the very mention of casting out demons would bring up even more jokes about Linda Blair’s head spinning around in The Exorcist or similar Hollywood treatments. But in first-century Palestine, while this wasn’t necessarily commonplace, neither was it  unheard of. Remember elsewhere when the Pharisees start challenging Jesus, it isn’t over the act of casting out demons itself, it was over by what authority he does so – the act itself apparently wasn’t all that shocking. 

So while the disciples have seen some stuff so far, we can’t necessarily presume that what they’ve already seen would have prepared them for this. This is a different order of power. Great storms being stopped dead in their tracks compares with healings and exorcisms in the first-century Judean mind the way that the one thing doesn’t fit in that little childhood song about how “one of these things is not like the others…”. 

So yes, it’s believable for the disciples to ask “who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

But here’s where we have the advantage over the disciples; we’ve been able to read Mark’s first chapter, the stuff that happens before the disciples have fully joined up with Jesus. We are able to see how Jesus confronted Satan out in the wilderness, and came away proclaiming “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” We saw the baptism of Jesus, with the heavens torn open and the Spirit crashing down on him from on high. And for all the challenging stuff that this gospel writer puts before us, not just here but for all that is to come, we have the very first sentence of this gospel lingering over us and in us through every part of this book we read: 

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

This is the Christ, the Son of God most high! 

Baptized and tested, hear his calling cry:

“See how the kingdom of our God is nigh!”

Alleluia! Alleluia!

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #307, God of Grace and God of Glory; #830, Jesus, Priceless Treasure.

Sermon: Invasive Species

Grace Presbyterian Church

June 13, 2021, Pentecost 3B

Mark 4:26-34

Invasive Species

Remember kudzu?

The green viny stuff that became a rather notorious menace across much of the South not that many years ago? You could drive down the highway and see trees or bushes or even just what should have been grassy embankments covered in green vine. Anybody else remember it? 

Kudzu was introduced into US agriculture back in the 1930s as a guard against soil erosion, especially during the years of the Dust Bowl, and it also made good feed for cattle. When farmers had to abandon their farms because of boll weevil infestations and crop failures during the Depression and Dust Bowl, however, the kudzu that had been planted grew unchecked. And it grew, and grew, and grew. When it grew, it prevented other plants or shrubs or even trees from growing or caused them to die off. Kudzu had become an ecological hazard and threat to the biodiversity of the region.

It might surprise us to learn that when Jesus told the second parable in today’s reading, the one fondly known as the Parable of the Mustard Seed, his audiences quite likely responded to his mention of that seed and the shrub that grew from it in much the same way a modern farmer or nature observer might respond to the mention of kudzu.

Jesus doesn’t tell many parables in the gospel of Mark, but the ones he does tell are choice. The first portion of this chapter is given to the Parable of the Sower, and it’s not hard to believe that he deliberately followed that parable, with its sower scattering seed over soils and surfaces of varying receptiveness to the seed, with these two parables about seeds. How many ways can you use seed to make a point about the kingdom of God?

We should take note here that the way the seeds function in these two very brief parables is different than the role seeds play in that previous parable of the sower. In the earlier parable, which Jesus explains quite thoroughly to his disciples, the seed represents the word that Jesus proclaims; the focal point is the various “soils” – the path, the rocky ground, the soil covered with thistles, and finally the good soil – that represent the different souls to which the word comes and react differently. Here, though, in these two mini-parables, it is the seed itself that is the object of the story and serves as the primary “mover” in each. 

Also, in these two parables, the seed plays a specific role. Each parable begins with some evocation of the kingdom of God and suggests that in some way what the seed does is somehow representative or at least evocative of the kingdom of God.

In the first parable, the sower has scattered the seed on the ground and then, for all practical purposes, disappears from most of the parable. The sower sleeps through the night, and rises at day, but the seed’s growth occurs quite independently of the sower. We get a brief description of that growth that seems to be echoed in that old favorite Thanksgiving hymn “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come,” when Jesus describes how “the earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” You might remember the hymn’s line “first the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear…”. At any rate the seed’s growth happens without the prodding or direction of the sower. 

Maybe we need to remind ourselves of this, given as some of us are to keeping gardens or working very hard on lawns or foliage. The gardener can plant the seed; the gardener can then set up a very rigorous schedule of watering (according to local regulations) and then pile on all manner of nutrients or fertilizers or whatnot to encourage growth; but, even so, whether the seed grows or not is not up to the gardener. That growth is ultimately not a thing that the gardener controls despite their best efforts. (I suspect some folks can tell their own stories about learning that truth the hard way.)

If that particular gardening truth is frustrating, the one found in the second seed parable is downright maddening. When Jesus casts about for something to which to compare to the kingdom of God, he comes upon that mustard seed, (quote) “which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up, and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” 

There’s a bit of backhanded humor going on here, in that it was very unlikely that anybody in Jesus’s audience was deliberately going to sow mustard seed. More likely, if one found that great shrub growing on one’s land it was most likely because a stray mustard seed had hitched a lift on somebody’s sandals in some other location and finally been dislodged on your piece of land. Furthermore, most folks would emphatically not have wanted that shrub growing wild on their land, as it tended to disrupt or interfere with the growth of the stuff you actually did plant. To put some modern environmental terminology on it, in terms of cultivation and agriculture, this plant was the equivalent of an invasive species. It didn’t really care what your plans for that plot of land were; like kudzu, it moved in and took over. 

This is what the kingdom of God is like? Not just growing and moving without our doing anything, but actually overrunning, taking over, disrupting and disturbing what we’ve planted?

Well, yeah, that is what the kingdom of God is like. 

God is not a potted plant to be planted and confined to this specific corner of our garden. God grows wild; the Spirit blows where it will, as John 3 tells us; the kingdom of God grows and spreads out and provides shelter for all of God’s creatures – even the ones we don’t want messing up our perfect little garden. 

To understand the kingdom of God in this way is to grasp why possibly the most important words in the Lord’s Prayer that we will pray in a few moments are “your kingdom come, your will be done.” Your kingdom, your will. Not ours. God’s and God’s alone.

That Jesus (as Mark records) uses the word “kingdom” here is actually rather important and not something we want to mess around with, precisely because the kingdom of God as these parables describe it is completely unlike the human “kingdoms” we raise up over ourselves. If we as citizens of a democracy aren’t diligently scrupulous about watching over our government, it inevitably devolves into some kind of tyranny, right? Go ask those who lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire of Jesus’s time. And when human kingdoms or governments make like invasive species (like, say that Roman Empire), it isn’t a life-giving thing – no vulnerable creatures are finding shade in the branches of that human kingdom’s invasive growth. But God grows wild, the Spirit blows where it will, and the kingdom of God spreads out without waiting for us to tell it where to grow.

It’s tough to let go of making our own perfect little garden in our own perfect little lawn, once the Spirit blows in and the kingdom grows in. But faith truly has its roots in letting go of our insistence on control and getting on board with the kingdom of God, wherever it may grow.

For the invasive kingdom of God, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #620, Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven; #684, Faith Begins by Letting Go

Sermon: Family Values (According to Jesus)

Grace Presbyterian Church

June 6, 2021, Pentecost 2B

Mark 3:20-35

Family Values (According to Jesus)

Oh, hello, Mark. Nice to see you again. It’s been a while.

While this year of the Revised Common Lectionary is nominally devoted to working through the story of Jesus as recorded in that gospel, it’s been a while since we heard a whole lot out of this, most likely the earliest gospel written. One could argue that’s at least partly the author’s fault; the season of Easter, for example, doesn’t really include much of Mark (besides possibly Easter Sunday itself) because this gospel doesn’t have much Easter-ish stuff to offer beyond that blink-and-you-miss-it moment with the women at the empty tomb in Mark 16:1-8. Before that, in the season of Lent, aside from Mark’s account of Jesus’s temptation and of the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem are separated by a bunch of stuff from the gospel of John. So yeah, you could be forgiven for having forgotten about this brief gospel and its supposed place of prominence in this year’s lectionary cycle. 

I have to hand it to the lectionary folk, though; this is a heck of a scripture to bring this gospel back into focus. 

Since it’s been a while, and since this year’s lectionary cycle didn’t leave a lot of room during the Epiphany season, it’s probably best to recap what’s happened so far in this gospel (which, remember, has no nativity story at all): Jesus appears to be baptized by John in the wilderness; Jesus is tempted, though there’s precious little said about in this gospel; he heads back north to Galilee to pick up his ministry there, calling his first disciples along the way; and he performs a lot of healings and casting out of unclean spirits. He starts up a preaching tour, which seems to get interrupted with more healings. Along the way various religious authorities begin to take offense at his work and his “speaking with authority,” though the common folk keep turning out in droves. More disciples get called, Jesus dines with some of the “undesirables” of society, and the religious authorities start trying to trap him in some kind of error or (better yet) blasphemy, which doesn’t work. Finally, here in chapter 3, Jesus does a healing in a synagogue, which prompts those religious authorities to seek to “destroy” him. The crowds only get bigger, unclean spirits keep cowering before him, and he finally sets the group of twelve disciples in place from among his followers. That brings us to the homecoming recorded here, set against a backdrop of both great popular acclaim and fierce authoritarian threat. 

For the first time in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’s family shows up. Remember, there is no nativity account in this gospel, so we have no names for these folks who show up; at first they’re just “his family” in verse 21. By verse 31 they’re named slightly more specifically as “his mother and his brothers.” 

This family appearance is the bread, so to speak, in what biblical scholars sometimes call a “Markan sandwich.” This writer is fond of a rhetorical device in which two stories are told together, with one story split up and placed on either side of the other, as the slices of bread are placed on bottom and top of whatever you take in your sandwich. The tendency in such “sandwich” accounts is to focus on the stuff in the middle – the “meat” of the sandwich – with the “bread” getting less attention. 

And it would be very easy to do here, because the middle of this sandwich is pretty juicy. The religious authorities come after Jesus, this time literally accusing him of being “in league with the devil” in order to cast out demons. Jesus bats down that charge as firmly as basketballs are getting swatted out of the air during the ongoing NBA playoffs, with the pithy observation that if Beelzebul is divided against himself, he’s not going to last much longer. Jesus hints at the one who really can subdue a strong foe such as Beelzebul (spoiler alert: it’s Jesus himself, who has already faced down the devil and cast out a bunch of unclean spirits), and then suggests, in a passage that needs a sermon all its own, that some folks are getting so willing to believe lies about him that they’re trending towards blaspheming the Holy Spirit, which is a hole you can’t get out of. When one has so embraced lies that one can’t even see the truth anymore, how can one be restored to right relation to Jesus and one’s neighbors?

That’s meaty stuff indeed, and one could make an old-fashioned forty-five-minute stemwinder of a sermon out of that. But the bread of this Markan sandwich shouldn’t be ignored even though – or perhaps especially because – it might make us even more uncomfortable than the stuff in the middle. 

Back to Jesus’s family. It’s quite likely that they have shown up here in what we can only guess is Jesus’s first time back in his hometown region since his baptism, or as we might put it in vernacular form, “when he went off after that crazy wilderness preacher John.” And he apparently hasn’t even stopped in for a visit. What’s worse – and you know how this always seems to be the worst offense you can commit in the eyes of family – he’s causing a scene. As verse 21 puts it, they are saying “he has gone out of his mind.”

Therefore they have come to “restrain” him. Don’t overlook this word; it’s the same word used when the authorities come to arrest Jesus later in this gospel (ch. 14), as well as when John the Baptist is arrested (ch. 6) They’re not there to play nice. 

Jumping down to verse 31 (the other slice of “bread” in this sandwich), the attention shifts back to the family, now specified as his mother and brothers, who are “standing outside,” and who “sent to him and called him.” One might guess that sounded something like “Jesus! You get yourself out here RIGHT NOW!” 

Others in the crowd, those gathered closer to Jesus pass this news along to him. Jesus’s response is, shall we say, not exactly what you’d expect from a dutiful son.

Who are my mother and my brothers?

Here are my mother and my brothers! 

Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

One thing that emphatically must be named here is that there are many, many people in the world for whom this is good news. For those who simply cannot be reconciled to their biological families for whatever reason – physical or sexual or emotional abuse, neglect, rejection for sexual orientation or religious disagreement or for just “being a failure,” or even the politicized social polarization of our society right now – this is a definition of family in which there is hope, opportunity, and even welcome. 

For the “family values” crowd, not so much. Jesus isn’t anti-family, but family ties or obligations cannot be allowed to interfere with the business of “doing the will of God” as invoked in verse 35.

But what, exactly, constitutes “doing the will of God?”

There are lots of places in scripture where one could get an idea of what “doing the will of God” looks like. One might look at the parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25, or maybe the Beatitudes, for example. From the epistles one might think of the “fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians 5, or Paul’s list of things to think on in Philippians 4. But in this passage, among those whom Jesus indicates, what is it that marks them as “doing the will of God”?

It really seems like the answer is that they are there.

They are with Jesus. They are listening to what Jesus is teaching. They are there despite the accusations of the religious authorities. They are there even despite his own family’s claims that he’s gone crazy. They have come to him, they have followed him, and they are there.

In the end, any definition of “doing the will of God” has to start there, with the simple act of following Jesus. For us now, centuries removed from Jesus’s walking on the earth, “being there” cannot be separated from responding to the leading of the Holy Spirit and following in what the Spirit is doing. And doing that right can be just about as uncomfortable as dealing with out-of-his-mind Jesus was for his family. That Spirit leads to uncomfortable places, being called to do challenging things or taking up difficult journeys that might well persuade others that we’re out of our minds. It can lead to leaving behind all that’s comfortable and familiar and starting from what looks like nothing. It doesn’t allow for sitting back and assuming everything will go as planned, or as we’ve decided it should go. And sometimes it even means taking care of one’s family.

But it starts with following, being present, listening. That’s the first answer to what it means to do God’s will. And that is the call of this very uncomfortable, not at all family-values-friendly moment in scripture. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #612, We Praise You, O God; #771, What Is the World Like

Sermon: The Power of Three (in One)

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 30, 2021, Trinity B

Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17

The Power of Three (in One)

“Three is a magic number…”

At least that’s what I was taught by one of the “Multiplication Rock” cartoons I so eagerly watched as a child. The song went on to describe all sorts of things that came in threes. It also taught me a little ditty to remember my multiplication tables for the number three: “Three six nine…twelve fifteen eighteen…twenty-one twenty-four twenty-seven…thirty.” I would always be grateful for that in math classes.

Of course, there are lots of other places where I was taught that three was somehow an important grouping of things. It was, after all, three blind mice and three little pigs, not two blind mice or four little pigs. Even other songs, like the Jackson 5’s “ABC,” made a big deal out of that number: “A, B, C, it’s easy as 1, 2, 3, oh, simple as do, re, mi, A, B, C, 1, 2, 3…” (Sadly, that tune has gotten completely corrupted by being appropriated for some awful prescription drug commercial, with the 1, 2, 3 part now made ugly to remember.) And threes of various sorts pop up in all sorts of literature, art, music, you name it. You could almost be persuaded that three really is some sort of magic number.

Now I’m not a scholar on popular culture and how it gets that way, but it’s hard not to suspect that part of the reason that the number three carries such cultural significance is because of exactly the thing we commemorate on this day of the liturgical year. For all of the significance it holds in the church’s understanding of God, the whole idea of the Trinity is one of the least understood corners of the church’s doctrine and has been virtually since the beginning. Our reading from the gospel of John gets chosen mostly because if you read it with brain fully engaged, you can sort of see how all three members of the Trinity are found in the discussion, with “God” here being used to represent that first member of the Trinity known through much of the church’s history as “God the Father.” The Spirit gets much mention here with the comparison to the wind blowing where it will, and of course the “money verses” at the end speak directly of the Son and his work in the world. So yeah, you can sort of read this as a “Trinitarian” reading. This shouldn’t be taken to suggest that this is what Jesus (or John) meant this passage to be, although Nicodemus would hardly be the only person to be baffled by a discussion of the Trinity if that had been the case. The reading from Isaiah, while a spectacular portrait of the grandeur of God and one of the central “call stories” of scripture, really doesn’t help us much with the idea of the Trinity specifically, aside from providing the inspiration for today’s last hymn. 

The whole concept has been so vexing that many of the church’s most ancient creeds were created specifically to address the Trinity and the many ways the church risked getting it wrong. (The Nicene Creed, which we do use occasionally here, is perhaps the most prominent such example.) The challenge isn’t merely about being able to count to three, but it resides in the central paradox of the nature of God: even while we recognize what that last hymn today calls “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” we are also compelled to recognize that, in the words of another hymn, “God is one, unique and holy.” God is three, and God is one. God is one, and God is three. 

This is where people get into trouble. Some have tried to argue, for example, that Father-Son-Spirit (to use the old formula) represents three different modes in which God manifests to humanity. No. This gives rise to the term modalism to label that as heresy – “God in three persons,” distinct and individual yet one. 

On the other hand, you get some kind of attempt (even today in some more fundamentalist circles) to emphasize the three distinct persons of God by, for example, placing them in a hierarchy – God the Father being the big boss and Son and Spirit being subordinate, secondary figures. No. God is one, unique and holy – not some corporate hierarchy.

We are perhaps best left with the last stanza of today’s first hymn – “To thee, great One in Three, our highest praises be.” The power of three in one is perhaps first understood as the power of mystery. It stands against our tendencies to reduce Jesus to our “best friend” or to pigeonhole the Holy Spirit as the raucous thing that gets Pentecostals all excited. We don’t get it, and we won’t get it, and we are left with the realization that some things are best left to the musicians.

We sing of God, Creator High, the Sovereign on whom we rely

For life and breath and everything that makes the faithful heart to sing.

We sing of God, redeeming Son by whom all victory is won,

Who showed us love and taught us prayer and charges us his truth to share.

We sing of God, the Spirit free, sustaining us so we might be,

From tongues like fire to wordless sighs, upheld in faith and rendered wise.

We sing of holy mystery, this undivided Trinity,

And praises give in everything to this one God of whom we sing.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #2, Come, Thou Almighty King; #1, Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!

Sermon: Waiting With Endurance

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 23, 2021, Pentecost B (in-person)

Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-27

Waiting With Endurance

Well, here we are.

After a year, two months, and two weeks, approximately, we are in our sanctuary, gathered together in person for worship. We are also (hopefully!) streaming this service via Facebook in order that those who have joined with us during the time when all services were only online are able to continue joining with us. 

By no means are things “back to normal” now. I think I’ve preached enough sermons on that subject to make it clear that “back to normal” is a phrase that neither this church nor any other should ever use again. There is this list of health and safety protocols you hopefully found in your bulletin describing procedures and requirements that will be in place for the time being to try to prevent any of the kind of outbreaks and setbacks that have throttled many a church reopening over the past year. Yes, most of this congregation has been vaccinated, but there is such a thing as a “breakthough” coronavirus illness that can happen despite vaccination, and we’d prefer that none of our number become a statistic of that kind. So some pews are taped off, hymnals and Bibles are not in your pew racks (that one hurts me most, believe me), and you’ll drop off your offering, if you have it with you, in the narthex as you leave rather than in an offering plate passing down the pew. Another such protocol will show up in two weeks when we are next scheduled to observe communion – those little wafer-and-cup handouts aren’t done yet. Things don’t look the same, and things won’t look the same for a while. 

Yet we are here, and after a year-plus, that’s something. And dare I say it’s something to celebrate.

There’s something to be said for this re-starting happening on this particular day of the church year, the occasion of Pentecost. I think it’s particularly appropriate for it to happen on the festival day sometimes known as the “birthday of the church.” This was the day when, as is recorded in our reading from the book of Acts, the followers of Jesus (who had been waiting since Jesus’s Ascension for exactly this) were visited by a particular and highly visual act of the Holy Spirit. We see the highly dramatic description in scripture – a rushing, violent wind; divided tongues, as of fire, resting upon them, the tumult of multiple languages being spoken all at once – and we recognize the scene immediately. Even for the Bible this is a unique occasion. 

From this dramatic moment comes the scene that earns Pentecost that “birthday of the church” nickname. There were crowds gathered in Jerusalem, of the size that would require masks and social distancing today, for the Jewish festival known as Pentecost, or Shauvot, that marked both the wheat harvest and the giving of the Law to the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai. Those crowds were not accustomed to hearing their own languages being exclaimed from the windows of upper rooms of otherwise unremarkable buildings, and when that did happen it got their attention. Peter capitalized with what might be considered the first decidedly “Christian” sermon, and according to the scripture, three thousand souls were added to the fellowship that day. 

This is the occasion that the Christian church marks on Pentecost Sunday, and it’s a good time for this re-initiation of in-person worship. It might just be, though, that’s there’s a problem with this account, or at least with the way we tend to read and receive it, that might actually hinder the church as much as help it, and that might actually cause us to take the wrong lesson from an occasion such as this one. We might be prone to thinking that this is the way – the only way – the Holy Spirit works.

If we slip into that mindset, good ol’ Paul is around to disabuse us of that trap.

It’s worth remembering that Paul is writing this letter to the church at Rome somewhere between twenty and thirty years after this Pentecost event has taken place. If nothing else, he has by this time plenty of opportunity to see different ways of understanding how the Holy Spirit worked among the followers of Jesus. He had seen the manifestations of tongues-speaking, and he had come to understand that they really needed interpretation, unlike that Pentecost event when everybody understood what was being said in their own language. He had experienced being busted out of jail by an earthquake and had felt the Spirit working in that event. He had seen spectacular manifestations of the Holy Spirit, to be sure.

But Paul had also seen the Spirit at work in ways that didn’t necessarily set off fireworks. He had been in jail enough times with no spectacularly-timed earthquake to set him loose to know that that wasn’t the only way the Spirit saw him through. He had seen churches – not the mega-sized bodies and corporations that suck in all the attention in our modern world, but small gatherings regularly buffeted by unwanted attention from the authorities or conflicts with other local religious groups, and yet enduring and remaining ever faithful. He had seen the witness of Christ borne in inhospitable places and unlikely venues and had seen folks hear it and believe and become those who bore witness. 

By the time he wrote this epistle to the Roman church, he knew that the working of the Holy Spirit couldn’t be limited to dramatic or spectacular events like the Pentecost event. He had seen and experienced enough to know that the really big deal about the Spirit was the everyday, down-and-dirty business of enduring and waiting, knowing that there was more to come.

The account he gives here reminds us that it is indeed the Holy Spirit that helps us wait. The waiting isn’t easy – the comparison to labor pains should make that clear – but the waiting is necessary because of what is to come, the very redemption of our very selves that is done but not finished, the redemption for which all creation groans, the redemption which we do not see but for which we hope and wait with patience – a word whose Greek source could also be translated ‘endurance’. And it is the Spirit that makes this waiting possible. 

And it’s also that Spirit that makes even our prayers possible, we so often being confused or confounded about what we need to pray for or even what we need, period. And it’s that same Spirit that groans with us in our groaning, sighs with us in our sighing, interceding for us in ways that transcend words. 

The ability to wait, even to wait with the presence of the Spirit, is something that has been severely lacking during this pandemic time. I am reminded of one of those message signs outside of a business on Main Street here in Gainesville, which has since the pandemic started borne the message “WE WILL CONQUER THIS TOGETHER.” The trouble is that not all things can be “conquered.” Pandemics don’t submit well to “conquering.” They don’t care about the courage or the fortitude or even the faith of the potential target. The only way to “conquer” such a virus is to get isolated and “wait it out,” to deprive it of targets. And the world, frankly, has been spectacularly bad at that in this time, no good at waiting at all. In this I must commend this church and its session for doing what so many others have been unable or unwilling to do.

Sometimes waiting, just the simple fact of enduring and bearing the burden of all that surrounds us, is the work of the Spirit. You won’t convince me that the waiting and enduring of the last year-plus in the life of this church hasn’t been the work of the Spirit. Because that – not just the big spectacular stuff, but the hard everyday work of enduring – is what the Spirit does with us and in us and for us, on God’s behalf. This is every bit as much worth celebrating on this Pentecost day as the fireworks. 

It is the Holy Spirit that is the reason we can say we are not left on our own to live this life of discipleship. Let us give thanks and rejoice in the enduring power, the ceaseless presence of God the Holy Spirit, now and forever. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #292, As the Wind Song; #285, Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song

Sermon: Jesus Lifted Up, Yet Again

Grace Presbyterian Church

May 16, 2021, Ascension B (recorded)

Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:36-53

Jesus Lifted Up, Yet Again

It was back on March 14 that two of the scriptures for the day, from Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21, hinged on an image of something (or someone) being “lifted up.” The Numbers passage told of a bronze replica of a serpent being lifted up before the stricken Israelites after their rebellion against Moses and God had resulted in an infestation of poisonous snakes ready to bite: their instruction was to look up at that bronze snake if they wanted to recover and live. The passage from John’s gospel trades on that very image to anticipate Jesus’s own being “lifted up” on a cross, showing the world the consequences of its own sinfulness and rebellion and yet offering that “the world might be saved through him.”

Today’s account of being “lifted up,” however, is a bit different.

The Ascension is a curious story for a lot of reasons, one of which is that it only appears twice in scripture, and those appearances are in two different books of the Bible that were most likely written by the same author, most frequently identified with Luke, the physician who also worked alongside Paul on some of his missionary journeys. This author (we’ll call him “Luke” for convenience though no name is actually attached to the two books) tells us up front in Luke 1 that he is no eyewitness to these things, but instead is writing this missive to the otherwise-unknown Theophilus as the fruits of a research project. He speaks of all of this as coming about after “investigating everything carefully from the very first.” 

At the beginning of Acts he acknowledges this first book briefly and quickly gets back to his reporting, perhaps having garnered some new information about the Ascension from further research; the Acts account is slightly elaborated, acknowledging for example that Jesus remained on the earth for forty days after his resurrection, whereas Luke’s first book almost seems to suggest that all of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances took place in one day. 

This particular characteristic of the Luke version of the event brings up a point that carries loads of theological freight. It’s possible you might have recognized a large chunk of this scripture reading, since it was the lectionary gospel reading for a few weeks ago, on April 18. You might remember that it picked up immediately after the Emmaus road story, with Jesus appearing before his disciples and showing them his scars and asking for a piece of fish to eat. He then “opened their minds to understand the scriptures,” and gives them the charge that they will bear witness to repentance and forgiveness in Jesus’s name “to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” 

The “new part” of the gospel reading we heard today only begins at verse 49, where Jesus commands the disciples to stay put in Jerusalem for the time being, until they had been “clothed with power from on high” (pretty clearly a reference to the Pentecost event). Then, seemingly without skipping a beat, Jesus leads them out to the fringe of town, blesses them, and was lifted up into heaven. 

Notice what this extended narrative seems to mean: the Jesus who was lifted up into heaven at the end of the narrative is the same Jesus who was showing his scars to the disciples. The same scars in his hands and feet and spear wound in his side that he challenged the disciples to see in that closed room were still part of the body that ascended into heaven. Jesus didn’t shed that body and drift away in some vague spiritual form; he ascended complete with wounded and broken body.

It would seem clear that no amount of woundedness or brokenness is going to keep anyone out of the welcoming embrace of God. 

As we’ve already noted, Luke expands this account slightly at the beginning of Acts. We have already noted that Jesus’s post-resurrection time on earth is recorded here as being forty days, which is how the date of Ascension is placed on our modern liturgical calendar forty days after Easter and ten days before Pentecost. Jesus apparently spends those days with “many convincing proofs” and teaching them to the last about the kingdom of God. The charge to remain in Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Spirit is repeated here, with the promise of being “baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 

The disciples had one question for Jesus before he left, which Jesus dismissed as not theirs to know, and then issues the same charge again in the form in which it has perhaps become most famous, in verse 8: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Then Jesus is lifted up and taken from the sight of the disciples. 

This time, though, Luke has a small epilogue to the story. Two men in white robes have somehow appeared with their own addendum to the message, a promise that the same Jesus they had just seen lifted up would return in the same way they had just seen him taken up. The departure is not for good. 

In this curious coda to Luke’s story of Jesus’s earthly ministry we are given two distinct hopes. The lifting up of Jesus’s broken and wounded body reminds us that we cannot be broken enough for God to do anything but receive us. The “parting shot” from the Acts account gives us hope that our separation from the Son of God is not forever, not permanent. 

The promise of the Holy Spirit is real, but that’s next week’s story. For now, in the time of waiting, let us hope in these things. Especially after this very extended time of waiting, as we seek to gather in person in our sanctuary for the first time in a very long time, let us hope in these things: our brokenness will never keep us from God, or God from us. Jesus will come to be with us again. Think on these things.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #263, All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name!; #262, Since Our Great High Priest, Christ Jesus.