Grace Presbyterian Church
June 18, 2017, Pentecost 2A
Welcome to Rome
Paul’s epistle to the Romans is widely and consistently regarded as one of the thorniest, most puzzling, most contentious, and most uplifting and joyous books in the New Testament. Yes, all of those at the same time.
It is a letter unlike Paul’s other letters in that the apostle is addressing a fellowship he does not know. By the end of the epistle it is clear he may know a few individual members of the church at Rome, but it is not a church with which he has ever had any involvement. At the time he writes this letter he’s never even been to Rome.
As a result Paul is not addressing specific questions or issues within the Roman church to the same degree as in letters to the churches at Corinth or Galatia, for example. Instead, Paul is writing to the church at Rome for a variety of different reasons, not least of which is to introduce himself to a congregation that doesn’t know him, at the same time hoping (as he says by chapter 15) to enlist their aid for future mission endeavors, including a hoped-for journey to the land we today call Spain (a journey that ultimately never happened).
The Roman assembly may not have met Paul, but they’ve heard of him. Furthermore, not everything they’ve heard about Paul necessarily came from his friends or supporters. As a result, while Paul certainly has friends in Rome, there are also plenty there who are, at minimum, uncertain about this guy whose reputation seems to be equal parts great evangelist/church starter and major troublemaker. Therefore Paul feels the need to provide something of a “theological resume” as part of his appeal to the Roman Christians.
In addition, in writing to the Romans, Paul was (we can guess) reasonably knowledgeable about the makeup of that church even if he had not played any role in its founding. Clearly he knew some people who had been involved in that congregation and had told him about it some. As a result, Paul was able to address the Romans, not from a position of complete unfamiliarity, but with some awareness of the church and its people. One thing he evidently knew was that the Roman “church” (which may have been one group meeting in a home of one of its members, or several such house churches spread around the city) was made up of both believers who had come to be Christians out of a Jewish background and Gentiles who had converted to the faith without first becoming Jews. Paul has by this time had some experience grappling with the questions and disagreements that arose in some churches between such groups. Here, though, instead of rehashing those old disputes, he begins his letter (taking most of the first four chapters) by emphasizing as strongly as possible, the one thing he saw both Jewish and Gentile Christians having in common; the utter futility of each without Christ. Even by 3:9 Paul has made it clear that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” save for the intervention of Christ.
That intervention is, in short, faith – whether faith in Christ or the faith of Christ is not made completely clear, but faith becomes that through which the power of sin over all (Jews and Greeks, remember) is undone and overthrown. Chapter 4 discusses that faith in the person of Abraham, who had long been revered in Hebrew/Jewish tradition for his deeds – answering God’s call to depart from his home and be the ancestor of a new nation. Paul, though, cites Abraham’s faithfulness as the locus of his righteousness.
Therefore as Chapter 5 opens Paul is actually wrapping up one idea to start a new one; “…since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God…and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”
It’s easy to get hung up on the word “boast,” particularly since Paul has been using it so far in Romans in ways that, frankly, don’t make sense to us modern readers (and I’m not completely sure it made sense to Paul’s contemporary readers, either). The choice of word seems to be influenced by some measure of disagreement among the Roman Christians and the need for Paul to have stressed that both Jews and Greeks were under the same condemnation of sin outside of faith. The law, as Paul argued, gave the Jewish portion of the church no cause to boast, as the law did not prevent sin from prevailing (though it was very effective for pointing out their sin). Therefore, the only thing for a Christian to “boast” in has nothing to do with the Christian him- or herself, but only in the work of God, the redemption enacted in Christ.
And frankly, Paul’s talk about how we “also boast in our sufferings” not only sounds just wrong to anyone who has ever known suffering, but also it is frankly the kind of passage that too often gets twisted into what one writer has called a “clobber verse,” the kind which those with more power or influence or status use to “clobber” those who Jesus might call “the least of these,” in this case by persuading them that their suffering is somehow the will of God when no, it isn’t.
The following sequence sometimes doesn’t help either, with its seeming suggestion that one has to suffer in order ever to get to hope – again, a way of clobbering the unfortunate or the suffering. “You have to suffer if you ever want to build character, or patience, or hope.” You see how it works? This is where it helps to remember Paul’s words from later in this letter.
You’ve probably heard it like this: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.” That’s over in Chapter 8. Even that can become a clobber verse until remember that it is not about God wanting bad things to happen to us; it is that in all the things that happen to us, God is working for our good – not because of but despite the bad. Likewise here in chapter 5, we don’t gain hope because we suffer; we gain hope because God works in us despite the suffering to lead us to endurance, to character, or to hope.
But not just any hope. I had a little bit of dialogue with a seminary classmate from those several years ago who is preaching on this same passage today, and on this subject of “hope” and just what kind of hope we’re talking about here. She was making the point that for us, far too often, hope (despite what Paul says in verse 5) really does disappoint us, or at least it sure seems like it.
And the thing is, she’s right. Hope does disappoint, most of the time.
We hope our loved ones will recover and continue to live among us, and they don’t. We hope the institutions of our society will seek justice instead of merely enforcing order, and our daily headlines make it clear they do not. We hope that we ourselves will truly live up to our best dreams, and we do not.
And Paul still says “hope does not disappoint.” And he’s still right too.
The question is, are you hoping for, or are you hoping in?
We know what it is to hope for – whether it’s the child hoping for a new dog for Christmas or me hoping for a clean result every time I go for a cancer screening, we hope for some thing, usually something fairly specific, something good or beneficial or at least not harmful. Sometimes our hopes are fulfilled – sometimes the child gets the bicycle, and my cancer screenings keep being clear so far – but painfully often we are disappointed. The new job doesn’t come, or turns out to be a horror show when it does. We send our child into the world and things don’t go well; maybe they end up back home in disappointment. Our own health fails.
When we hope for, inevitably we will be disappointed. Bodies fail us. Other people fail us.
But we hope in God. And that hope does not disappoint, because God does not disappoint.
God doesn’t promise us a dog or a bicycle or a perfect new job or perfect health. What God promises us is God, God’s own self, the love that is God.
As Paul goes on to point out, we already know that love because God has shown us that love in dying for us – and dying for us when were weren’t even good people. That’s not how we’re accustomed to things working out, as Paul’s little meandering thought in verse 7 reminds us. Hollywood certainly wouldn’t show us a movie in which the hero dies for the villain. That’s just not how it works. And yet while we were still “sinners,” while we were still “ungodly,” while we were still “the bad guys,” Christ died for us.
So we know God’s love, and that does not disappoint. When others around us disappoint and harm and murder and commit gross injustice, God’s love does not disappoint. When our very world spins recklessly off its axis and the very fabric of our basic living together is trashed and torn by purveyors of hatred, God’s love does not disappoint.
You might remember, from Matthew’s gospel many weeks ago, Jesus warned his disciples that his coming to them was no guarantee of peace; he did “not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34; that was way back on March 12, a long time, I know). But here’s the thing; even when the sword has come, even when we are set child against parent, when we are beset by those who mockingly call us brothers and sisters … God’s love does not disappoint.
It may not seem like much; it might not seem like anything more than survival at times, as my pastor friend said, but God’s love is there, holding us up when we don’t even realize it. And that hope, that undying love of God, is where we are not disappointed.
We’re going to be in Romans for a while now, and I would encourage you to hold on to this point. It’s a book with some bleak lows and some incredible heartfelt highs. But whatever comes, whatever other arguments and meanderings and exaltations are to come, this is something to hold on: hope does not disappoint. Christ does not disappoint. God’s love does not disappoint, and that is where our hope – our only real hope – stands.
And for that undying hope, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #10, Sing Glory to the Name of God; #655, What Shall I Render to the Lord; #353, My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less; #832, Here on Jesus Christ I Will Stand
Grace Presbyterian Church
June 11, 2017, Trinity A
Trinity Sunday is a field of landmines.
As one of the few special Sundays on the liturgical calendar that takes a doctrine as its subject rather than an event in the church’s tradition, it can easily seduce a preacher into a futile attempt into explaining said doctrine. Not only is such sermon unlikely to be very successful at engaging hearers, but it also puts the preacher at risk for any of a multitude of errors that have, at some time in the church’s history, been denounced as heresies.
I’m not kidding.
If you saw my Facebook page this week or the church’s page this weekend, you might have noticed an odd little animated example of these pitfalls attached to the Trinity. In the cartoon St. Patrick attempts to explain the Trinity to a pair of supposedly simple Irish cousins through (at their request) a series of metaphors, only for those “simple” Irish country folk to shoot Patrick down with the name for the heresy expressed in the metaphor. Water appearing in three different forms – liquid, ice, vapor? Denounced as “modalism,” which was named as heresy at the council of Constantinople way back when. The three-leaf clover? A violation of the teaching that the three persons of the Trinity are of one substance, and are not distinct “parts” of God. This goes on until Patrick finally rants:
All right, fine! The Trinity is a mystery that cannot be comprehended by human reason, but is understood only through faith, and is best confessed in the words of the Athanasian Creed, which states that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance; that we are compelled by the Christian truth to confess that each distinct person is God and Lord, and that the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory, co-equal in majesty!
To which those “simple” cousins respond, more or less, “well, why didn’t you say so?”
So no metaphors here. Accidental or not, I don’t need any heresies to deal with right now. Preaching is hard enough as it is.
But if it’s all that difficult, then what’s the possible benefit of having a whole Sunday devoted to this mysterious and seemingly inexplicable concept? Why have a Trinity Sunday at all if all it does is get preachers in trouble?
I think there are a few reasons.
I doubt this is a primary reason, but one of the great benefits of the doctrine of Trinity to the development of a real, humble, mindful spirituality is precisely that it is so incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to explain or to comprehend.
Humanity has this terrible, destructive habit of taking very scant scriptural evidence – say, the two passages read today, both of which more or less take Trinity as given without bothering to explain – and turning (or trying to turn) them into hardened dogmas to be used for judgment rather than instruction for the purpose of edification. Even a couple of days ago, when I was supposedly on vacation, I ended up in a conversation in which I ended up being asked “so who am I supposed to say wrote it,” referring to part of the Bible, to which I could only respond “you’re supposed to say you don’t know.”
Do we really think we will win the world to discipleship by logic and factual argument, or by having an airtight system in which no one can poke holes? No, that really isn’t how it works. The sooner we give up the idea that we’ve got God pegged the better. Really, what kind of God would an easily explainable God be?
Following on this, another possible value of the Trinity as a subject to consider is perhaps in its suggestion of community and togetherness even in the very nature of God. God is One, even as God is Three – Father, Son, Spirit in a relational sense and in the formula we usually speak in many churches, but we might also describe the Trinity as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, emphasizing ways that humanity has experienced God working in God’s world from creation to the redeeming act of the cross to the ongoing sustaining presence recognized in the form of a mighty wind and tongues as of fire at Pentecost. It’s possible we would be well served to widen our vocabulary for speaking of the Persons of the Trinity, rather than being tied down to a single exclusive formula that fails to teach us and bring us into a deeper experience of God as One and God as Three, an experience that might lead us to reconsider our own experience as community, as the body of Christ, as the recipients of the fruits of the Spirit, so that we understand ourselves much more as “we” and get less hung up on the “me”.
This last also points to something that is most useful about these scriptures offered for Trinity in the lectionary. As noted before, both the passages from Matthew and 2 Corinthians more or less seem to assume a three-in-one God even as they also put forth God as still one even as three, so to speak. Matthew’s record of Jesus’s parting words to his disciples places the now-familiar Trinitarian formula – “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in the context of Jesus’s charge to the disciples to go – “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… .” While there’s a certain moment of pause when we, recognizing Jesus as Son of God, note that he’s evoking himself in this formula the way Matthew describes it, we don’t really think about it too much; it has simply become so commonplace that it is part of the sonic furniture of worship, so to speak, only examined more closely on an occasion like today.
Paul’s closing salutation, on the other hand, is born of a much more difficult situation. 2 Corinthians is a hard letter, written to a church that had brought great stress and humiliation upon Paul, and the letter consists a great deal of Paul letting them have it theologically. Nonetheless, as the letter comes to a close Paul chooses to use this salutation to remind them of what they have in common, the experience of God that binds them together to one another and also to the God they worship in common.
While we don’t want to get hung up on trying to make this into Trinitarian dogma – “grace must come only from Christ, love only from God, and what does communion even mean?” – we do want to take note of how such an evocative greeting points us again to how we are bound together in God. We are bound together with all the saints in the grace that brings us before God, the love that builds us up in God, and the communion or fellowship we share with one another in God. Paul points the Corinthians (and us) to the fact that while we have experienced God in these differing ways, they are all experiences of God. Three in one, one in three.
Maybe that’s the point here. To speak of this inexplicable mystery of a three-in-one, one-in-three God is perhaps to force ourselves to be sensitive to how we have experienced God. The unspeakable grace and mercy of a Savior who suffered so in redeeming us and restoring us to God; the unspeakable love of a Creator God whose providence is truly limitless; the unspeakable sustaining power of the Spirit that perhaps we don’t recognize until the end of a day we were absolutely convinced we would never get through, only to discover that somehow, we did.
No analogies here, no set answers, no easy formulas. Today a preacher can only step away from the pulpit with mystery still fully in place, challenging you – challenging us – to be utterly confident in precisely what we can’t explain, in unending love and undying mercy and unexpected support that we can know as being from God even if we could never write a doctoral dissertation to prove we have conquered it.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Creator and the Redeemer and the Sustainer, Three in One, One in Three, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #1, Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty; #25, O Lord, Our God, How Excellent; #11, Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud; #432, How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord
Grace Presbyterian Church, June 4, 2017, Pentecost A
Numbers 11:24-30; 1 Corinthians 12:1-13; Acts 2:1-21
I confess that I get excited about Pentecost.
It isn’t necessarily for theological reasons, although there is plenty of theological meat to chew on where this day is concerned; nor is it because of any particular part of the liturgy, although there are a lot of good hymns available for the day – far more than can really be used in one service.
No, I get excited because we get to break out the red vestments. And as you can see, I like to go red.
Aside from services where an ordination is involved, Pentecost is the only Sunday of the liturgical year to which the color red is assigned. That seems strange to me – it’s not as if the Holy Spirit takes the rest of the year off, really – but between the dominance of green, purple’s hold on the penitential seasons of Lent and Advent, and white’s reign over Easter and Christmas, red just doesn’t get any other chances.
Of course the association of the color red with Pentecost comes quite specifically from the Acts story, in particular the “divided tongues, as of fire” that appeared in the room with, and rested upon, the disciples. You know, “red” for fire. And as far as it goes, that association works just fine for the particular occasion of Pentecost.
I wonder, though, if we run a risk of confusing the “red” of the event of Pentecost – this wild, unexpected outburst of the Holy Spirit among the disciples, leading to an event in which they were able to proclaim the gospel to a diverse and multilingual crowd in languages they themselves did not know – with the Holy Spirit itself. And that would be a bad thing for our understanding of the Holy Spirit. Maybe we need to be looking for a few more colors and shades of color other than our usual red.
Even the anthem just sung by the choir points to the Spirit as much more varied and less monolithic than our usual Pentecost reading suggests. A “mighty” Spirit, to be sure, but also a “gracious,” “truthful,” and “holy” spirit too. This is part of Paul’s message to the Corinthians – the Holy Spirit is about more, much more, than ecstatic utterances and flashy displays of spiritual power on which the Corinthians have become fixated. For Paul, the Spirit is what (or who) builds us up, who gives us the gifts that enable us to work together and live together and function together as the body of Christ. Those spectacular displays of ecstatic utterance were only upbuilding as long as the Spirit was also giving someone the gift of interpreting that utterance, while gifts such as teaching and leading were of more directly uplifting quality.
The extended passage from Joel quoted by Peter in his speech in Acts 2 points to yet another aspect of the Spirit. In this passage (you can compare it with Joel 2), what seems to be the key to the Spirit’s work is vision – vision that is not limited by age or status of any kind; “your sons and daughters shall prophesy … your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams … even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” This gift of prophesying, this gift of vision and dream, will be poured out on all, in Joel’s words, and Peter seizes upon this image in the wake of this event of the Spirit, even if “vision” doesn’t seem to be the first thing that comes to mind after what had just happened.
The Holy Spirit’s work among us is multifaceted indeed. We would be well-advised not to limit its work to the spectacular and dramatic and maybe a little eccentric. In essence, the Spirit is what sustains us in all ways, directly in a way that the ascended Christ did for the disciples while in human form on earth.
Of course, as Paul indicates in part, there are things the Spirit cannot, or perhaps will not, do.
I have to admit that I wonder about 1 Corinthians 12:3 these days. I don’t know that anyone would call for Jesus to be cursed when speaking under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but it sure seems to me that these days there are an awful lot of people running around trumpeting “Jesus is Lord!” with absolutely no evidence that the Holy Spirit is guiding their lives, and a ton of evidence suggesting that it is not. When we do things that are not even remotely reconcilable with the life and teaching of Christ, we just can’t claim to be guided by the Holy Spirit.
And yet we have a loudly self-proclaimed “Christian” (and a candidate for Congress) body-slamming a reporter for a question he didn’t like; another loudly self-proclaimed “Christian,” a radio host, defending said candidate by saying that if anything was going to “save Western civilization” it was going to have to be, and I quote, a “more aggressive, a more violent Christianity”[i]; and a congressman, also a self-proclaimed “Christian,” saying that we humans didn’t need to be worrying about climate change because God would “take care of” it, despite all that stuff in Genesis about being stewards of, you know, God’s creation.
You can’t do and say such things and claim to be led by the Holy Spirit. You just can’t be anti-Christlike and claim to be led by the Spirit. You just can’t, no matter how many times you call Jesus’ name. That’s not how it works.
When the spirit we are discerning shows us Jesus; when it builds us up into Christ’s body; when it cannot be contained by our preconceived plans as in the curious story from Exodus when prophecy wasn’t limited to the chosen elders; we then can have some trust that the Spirit is indeed the one we call Holy. When it doesn’t do those things, or when it does the opposite of those things, run very fast in the opposite direction.
For the gracious, truthful, holy, mighty Spirit, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #66, Every Time I Feel the Spirit; #292, As the Wind Song; #287, Gracious Spirit, Heed Our Pleading; #289, On Pentecost They Gathered
Image credit: agnusday.org. Maybe not just fire?
Grace Presbyterian Church
May 28, 2017, Easter 7A
Acts 1:1-14; Luke 24:44-53
Ascension Deficit Disorder
Before we go any farther: the title comes from a comic strip.
In the strip the disciples are seen (backs to us viewers) looking up at the sky, some pointing, as Jesus ascends into heaven (we see him disappearing into a cloud). One disciple, however, is crying out “Where? Where? I can’t see him!” And of course, that one disciple is labeled “Ascension Deficit Disorder.”
Such deficit of attention has been typical of the occasion for quite a while now, even in some of the church’s most liturgical quarters. Part of the issue is that, technically, the feast day doesn’t fall on a Sunday – Ascension Day was actually this past Thursday. As well, the event doesn’t really feature prominently in much of the church’s liturgy and practice – its “public theology,” if you will. Let’s face it, the most attention any of us ever pay to the Ascension is when it appears in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, in a terse four-word phrase. For example in the Nicene Creed we read:
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
And, really, that’s about it for the Ascension.
To be fair, it’s not as if scripture makes that big a deal of the Ascension either. Only one New Testament author takes the trouble to mention the event, but interestingly that author feels compelled to describe it twice. Luke includes a brief account of the event at the end of his gospel, but then returns to the event at the beginning of the book of Acts. And if we look closely, the two accounts…well, they’re not exactly the same.
The Ascension is described, not surprisingly, at the very end of Luke’s gospel. It shares the twenty-fourth and last chapter of that gospel with the visit of Mary Magdalene and other women to Jesus’s tomb, now found empty; Luke’s lengthy account of Jesus’s appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus; and Jesus’s subsequent appearance with the larger body of disciples back in Jerusalem afterwards. The account we read from Luke earlier picks up directly after that event, after Jesus has asked for something to eat and been given a piece of fish, which he ate in front of them in a way a ghost would not be able to do.
Luke doesn’t give us any indication of time lapse in chapter 24; so far as we know all of the events in this chapter take place on the same day – including Jesus’s opening of scripture to the disciples and their trip to Bethany, where he was lifted up to the heavens in front of them.
At the beginning of Acts, however, Luke offers some different details. For example, in verse 3 Luke adds the noteworthy detail that after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples over the course of forty days – quite different from the seeming all-in-one-day approach at the end of the gospel. The words Luke records from Jesus are slightly different as well, and Acts also adds the two men in white robes who chide the disciples for standing around looking at the sky.
While there are churches in this country, and probably in this town, who would accuse me of some sort of heresy for pointing out what looks like inconsistency from one biblical book to another, the explanation here is pretty simple. At the very beginning of his gospel Luke declares to his intended reader, the otherwise-unknown Theophilus, that after noting how many others were seeking to write down accounts of the gospel story as they had been handed down by eyewitnesses, that “I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you” (Luke 1:3-4). In short, Luke is telling us from the very beginning that these two substantial volumes are the products of careful and thorough research. To put it in scholarly terms, Luke has taken up the task of gathering material from primary and secondary sources (eyewitnesses and those who had received the stories from them). When, by the time of writing down Acts, he had gathered information that he didn’t necessarily have at the time he wrote his gospel, Luke duly and diligently updated the record, so that “most excellent Theophilus” would be more completely informed about all these things that had taken place.
Would that we would be so diligent.
We have, particularly in this country and in the church’s more evangelical quarters, been subject to some fairly horrible instruction about reading scripture. We have far too many so-called Christians who are convinced they have the Bible licked. Because they heard it from some big-time preacher or read it in some old commentary or book by one of those big-time preacher they know everything there is to know, they know the only possible way to understand what that scripture means, and they consider themselves authorized to go out as heresy hunters and beat down those who commit the crime of coming to different conclusions about the scriptures they know.
That is one of the more damnable (in the most literal sense of the word) errors a so-called Christian can commit.
You can read scripture through five thousand times, and if you’re doing it right – if you are doing it to be led by the Holy Spirit instead of to confirm your own preconceived conclusions about the Bible – you’re going to be surprised and caught off guard by something the five thousand and first time you read it. You don’t have it licked, I don’t care how many times you’ve read it. You haven’t gotten the whole story, and you haven’t gotten it right. Like our friend Luke here, go back to the sources and read it again. Really, folks, we live in far too dangerous a world for anything other than constant immersion in the scriptures, over and over again, under the constant prodding and pulling and leading and shocking of the Holy Spirit. No, you don’t have it licked. Go back and read it again.
As to today’s story itself, maybe two points need to be reinforced. In both accounts Luke records Jesus reassuring the disciples that even as he is leaving them, he is not leaving them alone. Actually, though, the fulfillment of this promise is pretty much next week’s scripture, so let’s leave that until then, shall we? (You didn’t expect a sermon cliffhanger, did you?)
The other striking point that we might easily overlook is almost buried in Luke 24:49, and reiterated in Acts 1:4. Even as Jesus is telling the disciples that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem,” (or in “Jerusalem, and all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” in Acts” Jesus’s first instruction to the body is to … go back to Jersualem. Go home. Wait.
Wait “until you have been clothed with power from on high” in Luke. Jesus “ordered them not to leave Jersualem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father” in Acts.
Even as we have a worldwide call, we also have a mandate to wait upon the Lord. We are to go into all the world, but not without being made ready by the moving and shaking of the Holy Spirit. We are, in short, to hurry up, and wait, to be open and receiving and ready for the leading of the Spirit to prepare us to witness to the world.
And maybe that’s the Ascension Deficit Disorder we need most to be worried about.
For even the highly neglected days on the church calendar, Thanks be to God. Amen.
(p.s. I’d love to be able to give credit for that cartoon, if anybody knows…)
Grace Presbyterian Church
May 21, 2017, Easter 6A
The climax of today’s account from Acts is set at a place called the Areopagus, in effect an open forum in the city of Athens in which, at this point in the city’s history, debates and philosophical discussions ranging from the serious to the dilettante-ish were carried out among the Athenian public. The name of this forum derived from the name of the ancient Greek god of war, Ares, to whom the site was tied in their mythology. You might recognize this story more quickly if the location is cited by its Roman equivalent, Mars Hill.
The name “Mars Hill” actually caught on at times in Western Christian culture as a kind of shorthand for the open and courageous defiance that Paul is presumed to have exemplified in his speech there. A Google search can turn up a number of Christian-supported educational institutions bearing the name, the most prominent probably being Mars Hill University in North Carolina. Originally given the more prosaic name French Broad Baptist Institute at its founding in 1856, the school received the Mars Hill name shortly thereafter, with verse 22 of this chapter cited specifically. In the King James Version prevalent at the time, that verse reads “Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.” I guess this defiant tone must have seemed appropriate to the school’s early supporters, which makes me wonder just how much mid-19th century North Carolina came off as an idolatrous spiritual wasteland to them. The name continues to this day, and private elementary and secondary schools also carry the name in various locations.
One can also find a number of churches bearing the Mars Hill name. Probably the most famous (or infamous) was the megachurch based in Seattle, which at its peak was the center of an empire of fifteen locations across five states, with a peak membership of nearly 6,500 and regular attendance over 12,000 across those locations. Revelations of improprieties on the part of its celebrity pastor, Mark Driscoll, and Driscoll’s refusal to submit to discipline over those irregularities and violations, led inexorably to that church’s decline and eventual dissolution in January 2015. (It seems that it wasn’t just the idolatrous world around him that Driscoll was intent on defying.)
What’s odd about these examples is that if those who chose the Mars Hill name had read the whole account more closely, or had read more than verse 22, I can’t help but wonder if they would really have been impressed by it at all. Far from being “in-your-face” pushy and defiant, the speech turns out to be quite a model of finding ways to work across difference and find common ground with persons of different religious persuasions, with the real stumbling block found only at the end.
When we join the story in verse 14 Paul has been forced to leave the city of Berea due to unrest stirred up by a group of synagogue followers from Thessalonica, a previous stop on Paul’s journey. The believers of Berea sent Paul away to keep him safe. His partners Silas and Timothy stayed, while Paul was put on a ship to Athens under the presumption that the instigators were unlikely to follow them there.
We don’t generally see Paul alone in Acts; usually he is traveling with a working partner – Barnabas early in the book, Silas and others later on. But here he is in Athens, all on his own, so of course he’s going to get himself into trouble.
First, as usual, he finds the local synagogue and begins to speak about Jesus there to his fellow Jews; somewhat unusual was his appearance in the local marketplace, not to mention debating local philosophers of the Epicurean and Stoic persuasion. Always, traveling through the city, Paul took notice of the proliferation of idols, fighting off his gag reflex long enough to take note of one particular idol.
So when the local intellectuals asked him to come to the Areopagus to explain himself, Paul had experienced a whirlwind of dispute and debate, out of which he was suddenly on the spot to produce a persuasive argument for an audience with whom he had remarkably little in common.
And now we’re back to verse 22, the one in which the King James Version called the Athenians “superstitious.” You’ll note that the NRSV chooses a less harsh translation, instead having Paul call the Athenians “extremely religious.” You could look at that phrase two ways in this context; it could be a simple opening gesture of compliment or even flattery, or it might just have a tinge of sarcasm in it – “I see how extremely religious you are in every way…” Either way, the audience is much more likely to be hooked in than when being assaulted as “superstitious” from the very beginning of the talk.
With that opening, Paul moves to his “hook.” Here’s where that one idol he noticed earlier comes in, and becomes his opening to talk to the Athenians about what they don’t know, and what – by their admission – they know they don’t know.
The idol Paul found was one inscribed simply “To an unknown god.”
You have to wonder what prompted the establishment of such a shrine. Were they afraid they forgot one? Was it some strange way of being “welcoming” to out-of-towners? “Hey, we know you’re lonely and missing your local deities, so just in case one of our thousands of idols can’t meet your needs here’s one you can turn into whatever idol you need it to be!” Really, what was the reason for this idol?
Nevertheless Paul pounced on it: “what therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
What follows is pretty striking for what’s missing as for what’s included. All the Mars Hill schools and churches might not have noticed that in this talk, Paul doesn’t really engage in any Bible-thumping. The things he proclaims certainly have scriptural warrant, to be sure. The God who created all that is, made humanity all out of one ancestor, allotting the times and seasons for the peoples of the earth – all of that you could back up from multiple sources of Hebrew scripture, but Paul doesn’t do so? Is he wimping out on “preachin’ the Gospel” or is it just possible that Paul realized that trying to confront the Athenians with a scripture they probably didn’t know might not have been the best start?
As if that weren’t enough, the two direct quotes that can be identified in this speech are not from any scripture, but from two Athenian poets of centuries past. The phrase “in him we live and move and have our being” seems a pretty clear quote from Phaenomena, by the poet Aratus, and “for we too are his offspring” could be from any number of Greek sources. Paul has challenged the legitimacy of the Athenian gods using the words of their own poets. Not bad.
Then comes the stumbling block.
First it was the idea of repentance. Huh? What’s this? In practices that mostly revolved around paying your homage and making your offerings to your chosen deities and, well, maybe not killing anybody or being otherwise horrible, the idea of repentance – not only confessing doing wrong but changing – made no sense.
Even that paled in the shadow of the ultimate stumbling block – speaking of a “man whom he has appointed, … of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Athenian philosophies were all about escaping the body. The idea of returning to the body – a body that had died, no less – that was too much. You can almost imagine some of the crowd walking away after saying “dude almost had me until that coming back from the dead bit.” Many scoffed, a few were mildly curious, and some even believed, including one of the Areopagus regulars named Dionysus and a woman named Damaris., who apparently joined Paul as he left Athens.
We can adapt a lot in conversations of persons of other faiths or no faith at all. More than one scholar has observed that the typical tenets of many religions bear an awful lot of similarity to one another. At some point, though, the Resurrection happens. We come up against that inescapable, indispensible fact of our faith and can do no other than call it out straight, no matter what that does to those who hear us. It is what makes us, it is what makes us one.
Christ is still risen! Alleluia! Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #234, Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain; #12, Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise; #739, O For a Closer Walk with God; #839, Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine!
Grace Presbyterian Church
May 7, 2017, Easter 4A
Do you remember “choosing up sides” as a kid?
You know, the group is all set to play some game, but you need to divide into teams, so two “captains” are appointed and then they take turns choosing until everybody’s on a team?
I remember mostly being chosen near the end most of the time. Never have been terribly athletic, although I could hit a little if the game were baseball or softball.
But maybe you remember “choosing up sides” and then playing. Of course, how you chose depended a little bit on what game you were playing. The big stocky guy would be great for a game of pickup football, or for that childhood favorite “Red Rover” where you formed lines and called out one from the other team to dare them to break through your line. I never really thought at the time just how violent a game “Red Rover” was. But anyway, that big stocky guy might not the best choice for a game of pickup basketball.
So yeah, choosing up sides could sting a little if you were chronically chosen last. Maybe the bigger problem, though, is that in a lot of ways, we never do get over “choosing up sides,” even as we pass from childhood to adulthood and we’re not playing games anymore. In many ways we “choose up sides” when we choose where to live, with whom to socialize or spend our time, certainly when we vote, who we respect or who we scorn.
And yeah, Christians can be guilty of “choosing up sides” even in the church.
Sometimes it shows up simply in choosing which individual church to attend, seeking out people who “look like us”, or who we know “think like us”. Sometimes it’s all about whatever gain a person can gain from being among that congregation’s members in terms of social status or influence.
Suffice to say that this kind of “choosing up sides” isn’t at all what is at work in today’s reading from Acts. This brief vignette from the life of the early followers of Christ, still not quite a church yet, follows after the Pentecost story and Peter’s subsequent sermon that day. One of the key points of that Pentecost account was the presence of Jews from points far and near, speakers of many languages, who were first drawn to the event by hearing the disciples’ proclamation in their own varied languages. Aside from the moving of the Spirit in that Pentecost event there was very little reason for those people to be together in that place in that time, much less for three thousand of them to stick around and be part of the still-forming community.
Today’s reading contains another similar point, maybe a little hidden behind the part of the scripture that always gets people on edge.
Particularly among those of a particular political persuasion, verses 44-45 are guaranteed to provoke a pointed reaction. Just the mention of a community that “had all things in common” and that “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” is virtually guaranteed to provoke horrified gasps and mutterings of “socialism!” or worse. I’m watching y’all right now, you know, for signs of exactly that.
And yes, I get that this is a shocking thing to see right here in your Bible, and probably downright offensive to that particular political ruling class holding power right now. But maybe the larger shock, the larger miracle is that this particular community, drawn together by nothing in common other than the Spirit, includes both the folks with possessions to sell and those without. Rich and poor together, in addition to people of all nations together. Let’s face it, we just don’t see that so often in many churches, either of those let alone both.
And all of the things happening in this community described in this passage – together in fellowship and breaking bread, the “wonders and signs” in verse 43, being together in the Temple and in one another’s homes, and yes, the having everything in common and selling stuff to provide for one another – seems to be connected to, and maybe inseparable from, this being brought together in the Holy Spirit. Maybe none of those things happen in a community that comes together by plain old human “choosing up sides.” Maybe it takes being so caught up in the leading and moving of the Spirit that we live and work among a community we would otherwise never have chosen to be ready for wonders and signs.
As we come together around this table, like those followers so long ago, look around. Did we choose up sides to be here? Or is the Spirit moving among us and within us and through us, drawing us together for, literally, God only knows what? Who knows what wonders and signs might come? For whatever comes, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #249, Because You Live, O Christ; #526, Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ; #528, Come, Let Us Eat; #39, Great Is Thy Faithfulness
Grace Presbyterian Church
April 30, 2017, Easter 3A
Acts 2:14a, 32-42
Every year in the lectionary cycle, be it Year A, B, or C, the Old Testament readings that are typically offered as the first of four possible readings to be used in the service of worship are replaced by readings from the book of Acts, the one straightforwardly historical book in the New Testament. Readings from Acts, nestled in between the observance of Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday and the Pentecost event, serve to connect the two in a way, giving record of how the early not-quite-church first began to take root in the aftermath both of the Resurrection and the out-breaking of the Holy Spirit among the followers of Jesus. Different readings from Acts are included in each year, so over the three years of the lectionary cycle a pastor that chooses these texts for preaching covers a decent variety of that book’s stories, from the earliest followers in Jerusalem to the extensive travels and preaching of the Apostle Paul.
This year (Year A of the lectionary cycle, if you’re curious) the Acts readings focus most heavily on the earliest days after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and the subsequent Pentecost event. And in some ways these are the hardest texts of this Acts mini-series to preach, and the hardest to make sense of from the point of view of the church today. And today’s text, the second of a series of three from the second chapter of this book, is a pretty good example of why.
This second chapter of the book of Acts includes the Pentecost event of the Holy Spirit, which of course will come along on Pentecost Sunday, and also continues to include the seemingly spontaneous sermon Peter gave at that time, as well as a brief, lightly poetic description of the communal life of the earliest followers, found in next week’s text. It is, in short, full of events and descriptions that are hard to swallow, and easily misinterpreted by modern teachers or preachers or readers (willfully or not). Peter’s sermon, which concludes in today’s reading, is an example of such a text, one whose misreading has contributed to some of the most heinous crimes in human history.
First of all, where did this come from? To be charitable, Peter doesn’t always come off as the sharpest knife in the drawer. Even when he does get it spectacularly right – “You are the Messiah, the Son of God” says Peter in Matthew 16:16 – he almost immediately turns around and gets it spectacularly wrong – as in Matthew 16:22-23, when he reproaches Jesus for predicting his crucifixion only to be reproved by Jesus with “Get behind me, Satan!” And we haven’t even gotten into his thrice-denial of Jesus after his arrest.
So, when Acts 2 presents us with a Peter preaching this emphatic and forceful sermon out of the blue, people get ideas. “It must be the Holy Spirit!” they say. Well, yes, it is the Holy Spirit, but it is the Holy Spirit acting on a man who, no matter how often he didn’t get it, had nonetheless had been exposed to and receiving the life and teaching of Jesus for the better part of the previous three years. The Holy Spirit wasn’t working with nothing here. That business about being ready to give a defense of your faith on the spot only works when you’ve been immersing yourself in study and meditation Christ’s teachings and deeds intently and deliberately. To think (as some people do) that “I don’t have to worry, God will tell me what to say in that moment” is a pretty irresponsible distortion of this and other texts that can, at worst, leave their practitioners babbling foolishness and nonsense, or confusing, say, political views with spiritual guidance, at the worst possible time.
Peter’s sermon, as Luke records it, also has a strange and nasty blaming streak in it. Over and over, Peter casts blame for the crucifixion not on the Romans who actually carried out the deed, nor on the religious authorities who stirred up a mob against Jesus, but on “you.”
Peter is, of course, speaking to a crowd of Jews – fellow Jews, it should be pointed out, as at this point Peter and the other disciples are still observant, Temple-attending Jews themselves. Furthermore, the Jews who were swelling into town for the observance of Pentecost were, if you look earlier in the chapter, from a wide range of non-Jewish lands, and it’s quite unlikely that many, if any, of the crowd had even been in Jerusalem at the time of the Crucifixion. It’s entirely possible that the “you” to whom Peter is preaching are people who hadn’t even heard about this crucifixion, or even about this itinerant rabbi named Jesus, before stumbling upon these Galileans who were somehow speaking their own, native, non-Hebrew non-Greek non-Aramaic languages. How do you possibly blame them for what they don’t even know about?
Furthermore, this would be the kind of text that, in its seeming blanket accusation of all Jews as “Christ-killers,” becomes the basis for anti-Semitism, one of the more virulent sins in which the Christian church has indulged across the centuries of its existence. One only needs to take notice of Holocaust Remembrance Day, that was observed this past week, to recall and recoil from the horror that such beliefs have visited upon the world in the spirit of hatred, a hatred which has the ears of those in high places in our nation’s government today and is nauseatingly close to taking power in ongoing French elections as well. Why must Peter – again, an observant Jew himself at this point – speak this way, or why must Luke record his words this way?
But in a way, one of the hardest parts of this text to swallow is that part that almost sneaks in, so familiar that we almost don’t notice anymore, towards the end of the passage in verse 41: “So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added” (emphasis mine).
Really? First real sermon and three thousand people get saved?
In today’s balkanized, fragmented world, how often do you even find three thousand people all in one place at one time, ready to listen? I mean, sure, you could get up and start preaching at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium one autumn Saturday, but I’m pretty sure the crowd would throw you over the walls of the stadium if you started interfering with their watching the Gators.
But yeah, reading about three thousand being added in one day can create all sorts of inferiority complex for churches for which three hundred is the fondest of pipe dreams. But numbers are transitory; faith that endures is another thing altogether.
By the end of his letter to the Romans (chapter 15, to be precise), Paul is describing his travel plans, telling the believers in Rome that he will visit them after he makes a trip to Jerusalem. Apparently some of the churches in Paul’s travels had taken up a collection for the community in Jerusalem, which by that time apparently could no longer keep up with the needs of the widows and the poor in their midst. What happened to those three thousand, or the “many” recorded as joining in later chapters of Acts? An outburst of persecution scattered some, no doubt, but what happened to make that vibrant and, well, large a community unable to take care of itself?
And yet, amidst all of these head-scratching and facepalm-inducing moments in the chapter, it is undeniable that the Holy Spirit is moving among these earliest followers and even through the longtime dunderhead Peter. People are hearing and being moved; repentance is happening; people are coming together and making community. The Holy Spirit is moving in that moment, and the Holy Spirit does not move in vain. Even with Peter seemingly lashing out in ways that really ought to be directed at him as much as spoken by him, the Spirit still moved.
The Holy Spirit did not wait around for a perfect vessel through which to speak. The Spirit worked through Peter, the lunkhead, the one who stupidly got in Jesus’s face and got lumped in with Satan for it, the three-times denier.
It seems pretty unlikely that Peter had forgotten those things just because the Spirit showed up. Maybe, as Peter engaged in his finger-pointing at the crowd, he was remembering some first-century Palestine version of the old adage how when you point a finger at others, three fingers are pointing back at yourself. There’s a lot of brokenness in someone like Peter at this point, and still the Holy Spirit moves.
We see this later in Acts, as Paul moves from persecutor of Jesus’s followers to principal missionary. In his letters Paul makes it clear that he never forgot what he had been before his Damascus Road encounter with Christ. That memory, and the pain that went with it, didn’t go away just because the Holy Spirit gave him a new job and a new calling.
Our shortcomings, our sins, our failures are forgiven, to be sure, but are they really forgotten? I don’t think so. I don’t think at all that Peter was forgetting his own failures as he was castigating the crowd. And why would we think it would be any different for us? Can one who doesn’t remember, who doesn’t know first hand that horror or that shame really be an empathetic or effective witness to those who seek redemption?
Remember how, after the resurrection, Jesus was recognized by the disciples only when they saw his scars? Our scars don’t disappear either. Even as our sin is forgiven, we don’t get a memory wipe. We don’t get to ignore or wipe out the consequences of our sin. What we do is bear witness as the Spirit leads, in all our imperfection and brokenness.
God is not going to wait around for us to get perfect. The Spirit will just work through us anyway, and for that, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #246, Christ Is Alive!; #655, What Shall I Render to the Lord; #737, Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song; #733, We All Are One In Mission