“Standing at Another Threshold”

A sermon on Deuteronomy 3:23-4:6, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church (my last as interim pastor there)

 

If anyone had poured his life into the people of God, it was Moses.  Adopted into the highest levels of the Egyptian oppressor class, he gave up his birthright because he couldn’t stomach the injustice the Hebrew slaves were facing, and so he became the agent of their deliverance from Egypt, leading them across the threshold of Egypt’s outer boundary and, even more fabulously, across the natural threshold of the Red Sea.

But that was forty years ago.  Moses had led them, instructed them, settled disputes among them, and otherwise shepherded them for a full generation as they wandered through the desert, because God had condemned the exodus generation to die wandering in the desert because of their disobedience the first time they had arrived at the threshold of Canaan, the land God promised to give them, just two years after the Exodus.  The next thirty-eight years had been spent essentially “marking time” until that generation had died off.  Now Moses stood at this threshold again, this time with the exodus generation’s adult children and their children – and he knew that, this time, he would not be allowed to lead them one further step.  It would fall to another – to Yehoshua, or Joshua, the son of Nun – to take them forward on the next leg of their journey and into the Promised Land.

And so, as he stood at this threshold, Moses wanted to be sure that the people whom he had led would retain what he had taught them, that they would carry his instructions with them into their future and allow these instructions to continue to shape their lives, even under Joshua’s new leadership, as they continued on to the other side of this threshold.  Moses had relayed to them what he had received from God for them as clearly and as closely as he was capable, and now at the threshold he reminds them of the key elements of the Law.  And thus we have Deuteronomy – a title derived from the Greek for “a second statement of the Law.” The whole book essentially represents Moses’ farewell address, an opportunity he took to remind them of the instructions he had given them concerning how to live faithfully as God’s covenant people.

Now I know that I’m no Moses, and these nine months haven’t quite seemed like forty years to me; nor am I going to remain behind as you all move forward with a new pastor, but will simply slip back into my supporting role under his leadership.  I also trust that, unlike Moses during those thirty-eight years in the desert, we have not simply been ”marking time” during these nine months, but have made some progress together as a congregation. But I need to acknowledge that we are standing at another threshold, at another transition in the life of this congregation, and as I stand here I can sympathize most with Moses’ desire that God’s people remember the instructions that he gave them for the sake of their own flourishing in their life with God, and that they take these instructions to heart so that his ministry to them might not have been for nothing.

  • Our confession of Jesus as our Lord has meaning and impact only to the extent that we actually do – actually discover ways of living out – what he has commanded his followers to do. There is a purpose for our lives, and it is to live as he tells us, to allow Christ to accomplish his purposes through us, to establish Christ’s kingdom fully in the little space of our bodies and our spheres of activity and influence. Christ’s reign is real and visible in this world only the extent that it is real and visible in our own obedience to his commands as the guiding force in our lives.

 

  • The most needful renovation project we could undertake is the reconstruction of our lives, from the ground up, on the foundation of Jesus’ instructions. The new wine that he has for us won’t be contained in the old wineskins of the lives our society has taught us how to build and wants us to hold onto.

 

  • Remember that you’re not here as customers to be satisfied and consumers to be filled; you’re called here to be producers of all that contributes to God’s vision for the Body of Christ. Abandon the consumer mentality that leads to dissatisfaction and division, and instead take the lead in producing unity and harmony throughout the Body. Embrace your calling to ministry alongside the representative ministers (the paid staff) of the church, investing yourself in “building up the Body of Christ” both in terms of helping your sisters and brothers grow deeper in their discipleship and navigate life’s challenge and in terms of reaching out tirelessly to those people who have not yet become part of the Body of Christ – but who are needed to complete the building!

 

  • As you consider how you spend, save, and invest your resources, remember Jesus’ tip about the investment opportunities that have the longest-paying dividends. The people whose lives we have rescued from or supported in the midst of distress, whose hearts have been opened to God and God’s salvation by our outreach, whose needs we have shouldered as our own so as to help them carry their burdens – we will find these people again on the other side of death, and the love that we expressed for them here, the relief that we brought them here, the spiritual nurture and growth that we facilitated for them here will make of them our treasure in heaven forever. You don’t want to get to heaven and be surrounded for eternity by all the good you haven’t done, but by all the good to which you have contributed – in which you have invested – as fully as possible.

 

  • Remain mindful of your Christian sisters and brothers throughout the world who face harassment, dispossession, imprisonment, torture, and even death because they have put their trust in Christ and value his promises. Rally around them in prayer, through sharing of resources, even through personal contact and support, because Jesus promised them that you would be their family, and take care of them as family, now.

 

  • Die a little more today, a little more tomorrow, and a little more every day to those character traits, those knee-jerk responses, those convictions, those demands that have been formed in you by your self-centered resistance to God. Come alive a little more today, a little more tomorrow, and a little more every day to the “new you” that Jesus died to bring to life, that the Spirit labors to bring to full term in you. Leave behind those well-traveled detours and well-exercised dysfunctions, and trust God’s Spirit enough to make of you something unspeakably beautiful in God’s sight.  Trust Jesus enough to let go of that old life, that old self, knowing that it’s the person who lets go of his or her life that secures his or her life for eternity.

 

  • Learn to crave the Scripture more than you crave any and all food. It is as essential to your formation as a disciple as physical food is to your sustenance as a biological organism. Open up the Word for yourself, and open yourself before the Word, each day, so that you come to reflect God’s vision for the redeemed and regenerated person more and more fully till, after the pattern of Jesus, the word has once again taken on flesh – in you!

 

  • Exercise your ability to sense and connect with God more regularly than you exercise your body. Give yourself time each day to experience the presence of God, to learn how to discern his promptings and how to recognize his voice.

 

  • Come before the God who knows you better than you know yourself and allow him to lay bare to your own gaze what you hide even from yourself, so that you can be set free from the power of all that would hold you back from becoming the “new creation” God seeks to perfect. Practice letting in more and more of the light of God into your inmost self, until you have reserved no corner of yourself for the darkness.

 

  • At the center of our faith is Jesus, who was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. And on that cross we do not see a man giving himself up to a torturous death to win over an angry, bloodthirsty God; we see God giving himself up to win over ungrateful, self-absorbed human beings. Jesus’ willingness to lay aside his rights and prerogatives for the sake of accomplishing God’s purposes; his willingness to go the full distance and not draw any lines in the sand; his emptying himself instead of becoming “full of himself”; his willingness to divest himself of everything, even every last shred of dignity and of life itself in order to obey God and advance God’s desire to restore people – this shows us the mindset that must guide us who follow this Jesus, who are bound to give for Jesus as he gave for us, in whom this Jesus must take shape, so as to restore in us the image of God.  Remember how at no point along the way did Christ say “that’s far enough to go for them,” and extrapolate from that how far we, who have benefitted so greatly from Jesus’ pouring out of himself for others, ought to go to invest ourselves in one another’s good and perseverance throughout the global Body of Christ.

 

  • Jesus is widely remembered to have highlighted the command from the Torah, “you will love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18), but on the night before he gave up his life he raised the bar significantly, telling his disciples, “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Jesus’ example – how Jesus loved us – takes us far beyond “Love your neighbor as yourself” and moves us to “Give yourself over to secure your neighbor’s good.” “Lay aside your own comfort, your own pursuits, your own delights, your own time and resources for the sake of meeting the very real needs of the sisters and brothers both in our midst and throughout the globe – to bestow on those most in need among Jesus’ family the love and self-investment that Jesus bestowed on you.” Following the example of our Lord and teacher, we are challenged to regard no act of loving service as below us, but rather to jump up to be the first to stoop down. We are challenged to observe no hierarchy among ourselves that does not call the most ambitious among us to the most humble service. We are challenged to allow Christ’s love for us to continue to have force in this world, by finding the ways in which we are being called to lay our own lives down for one another in love throughout the Body of Christ in response and imitation of Christ’s love.

 

  • Receive all the help that God makes available to each of us to live so fully for others and for the accomplishing of God’s good purposes for those others.  Receive the love that the historical Jesus demonstrated for you by going steadfastly to the cross and that the living, glorified Jesus continues to lavish upon those who take the time to experience it. Receive the assurance that Christ’s resurrection from the dead gives you, that this life is not all that there is, that the One whom you follow has the key to unlock your tomb as well, so that you are free to give yourself away for the good of others like a person who has an endless supply of life – because you do.  And receive the Holy Spirit.  Cultivate a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s voice and direction and allow the Divine Other to accomplish his complete work in and among you.  The Holy Spirit alive within us allows us to experience the intimate communion with God for which our souls yearn, into which God longs to draw us.  The Spirit also brings direction and power for living in alignment with God’s righteousness, the power for a transformed life.  The Spirit empowers us to stop contributing to the brokenness in the world because of Sin and selfishness, working through us instead to contribute to God’s redemptive activity wherever he moves us.  It is this Spirit, coming alive within us and taking over within us, who allows us to live the kind of life that God will approve as “righteous.”  The Spirit brings power to build up other Christians as you become the instruments through which God encourages, counsels, and strengthens them – and they, you!  And, of course, the Spirit brings power for effective witness.  The more we hear about the trials and tensions and tragedies besetting people throughout our world, the more we must know that the people who are not in this sanctuary with us need this witness – and we need the Holy Spirit to drive us to bold witness and to make our witness effective, for their sake.

 

  • Keep bearing this witness. If that neighbor, or that relative, or that person you come across at the store every week is going to hear God’s invitation to come back to him and to become a part of the family God’s creating, he or she will hear it because you lent God your voice.

 

Joshua would indeed lead Israel into the land of Canaan, but he wouldn’t finish the job.  Throughout the period of the judges and King Saul, Israel would continue to contend with the native inhabitants of Canaan on the one hand and powerful enemies at their borders on the other.  It would not be until David’s reign, two hundred years after Joshua, that the Israelites would take possession of Jerusalem away from the native Jebusites.  Even then God’s work would not be finished, as the people would indeed forget Moses’ instructions and warnings, bringing upon themselves all the curses threatened in Deuteronomy, including expulsion from the Promised Land.  Even the coming of a new Yehoshua – Jesus – would not complete the work, for God has been sending “apostles, evangelists, pastors, and teachers” among his people and out into the world generation after generation after generation.  The United Methodist Church has institutionalized this process quite dramatically in its system of endlessly itinerating pastors from pulpit to pulpit. Many have already occupied this particular pulpit; many more will across the decades to come.  The important thing is that each one contribute to the central task laid upon each of “equipping the saints” – equipping you – “for the work of ministry, for the building up of the Body of Christ until we all attain … to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:11-13).  I pray that anything I have contributed to this end among you will abide, and I pray that Pastor Lewis will do exponentially more among you to this same end.

 

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“The ‘Method’ in ‘Methodist’”

A sermon on James 1:19-25; Ephesians 4:29-5:2, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

How many of you looked in a mirror before coming to church this morning?  Men, perhaps you inspected yourself as you shaved, to make sure you got everything just right – even gave a quick check on those pesky nose and ear hairs and made sure everything looked the way you know it’s supposed to look, bringing your image in the mirror in line with the standard for yourself you hold in your mind?  Women, well, don’t get me started about the care with which you bring your image in the mirror in line with the standard you hold for yourselves in your minds, and how you don’t leave that mirror until you are satisfied that what you see in the glass matches the target image in your mind.

James tells us about another mirror – the mirror of God’s Word.  This mirror works in almost the opposite way as your glass mirrors at home.  When we look into the mirror of God’s Word, we see the standard for our attitudes and interactions and practices that God holds in his mind, and we need to look within ourselves and work within ourselves until our inner person and our impact on the world around us are brought in line with God’s standard – until we reflect what we see in the Word.

Receive with humble hearts the implanted word that is able to save your souls.  And become people who put the word into practice, and not merely people who listen, deceiving yourselves – because if anyone merely listens to the word and doesn’t put it into practice, that person is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror: he observed himself, walked away, and immediately forgot what sort of person he was.  But the person who carefully inspects the perfect law that brings freedom not becoming a forgetful listener but a doer of the word, this person will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:21-25, DSV)

I actually am prone to walking away from a mirror and forgetting what I look like.  I’m not particularly troubled by that.  Indeed, our youngest son would probably say that this is just a survival instinct I’ve developed.  James would caution me to be far more concerned about looking into God’s Word and not putting it into practice, so that I am not looking more and more like the reflection that I must come to resemble – the image of the new person, renewed in the image of our Creator, that the Word holds before me from every angle.

What’s most on my heart today is what you all do in this regard when you’re not here in the sanctuary with me. This morning you looked into your mirror at home, and you’ve come here to look into the mirror of God’s Word together.  But today is not the only day you’ll look into your glass mirror at home. I imagine that almost all of us look into our glass mirrors every day, perhaps even a few times in the course of each day.  But how many of us look into the mirror of God’s Word each day, let alone a few times in the course of each day?  How many of us keep before us each day another facet of that image that we are to grow to reflect back more and more?  How many of us work as intently to bring our reflection in line with the image we see in God’s Word each day, as we will work on our faces and hair in our glass mirrors each day?

I don’t ask these questions in order to raise your level of guilt – though I’m not averse to guilt if it advances God’s purposes for each of our lives! I do raise these questions in order to impress upon all of us the importance of holy habits.  We all cultivate habits.  There are things that we are careful to do every day: brushing our teeth to maintain dental health; flossing to attain and maintain gum health (let’s just all pretend that we do this conscientiously); popping vitamins and other supplements to maintain the proper levels of nutrients available to our bodies; taking showers to maintain the willingness of other people to be around us. J There are probably other things in our lives that have the quality of “habits” – checking e-mail every evening, watching a particular show that’s on at the same time every day or every week, undertaking some kind of physical exercise. How many of us have applied ourselves with the same intentionality to form those habits that will allow God’s Holy Spirit to take us far in the direction of reflecting God’s righteousness and holiness?

I suppose that, first, we would have to agree that this is a goal we really desire for ourselves.  We would need that “holy discontent” that shakes us of being satisfied to remain where we are in our journey toward Christ-likeness, where we might have been stuck, truth be told, for decades.  We would need that “holy desire” to discover just how far God’s Spirit could take us toward Christ-likeness, how real God could make the faith we profess in the person we become. I have sought, in several of the sermons I have prepared during this interim, to stimulate that holy discontent and those holy desires by holding up for you what God’s Word claims that God can do and yearns to do in and among us.  Today I hope to contribute to our thinking about the “holy discipline” that will help us arrive there.

Holy discipline stands at the foundational core of Methodism.  The renewal movement that would become known as Methodism began with John Wesley, his brother Charles, and a few other like-minded men dedicating themselves to “intentional discipleship” by means of a daily and weekly discipline that they formulated together.  This involved looking daily into the mirror of Scripture and engaging in prayerful conversation with God to bring to light what in their hearts and lives needed explicit attention and transformation, such that they would come to reflect God’s holiness and righteousness more completely.  It involved focused conversation with one another on a weekly basis, sharing discoveries and struggles, helping one another search each one’s soul most fully, encouraging and praying for one another and holding one another’s gaze and aspirations fixed on the prize of their sanctification.  It involved giving up a greater part of themselves weekly to service on Jesus’ behalf, visiting those in prison (which included not only criminals, but debtors), bringing education and basic health care to the very poor, investing themselves in what would improve their physical, social, and spiritual conditions.  What was astounding about their disciplined practice is that it allowed them to make such measurable and visible progress toward holiness that others quickly, even exponentially, joined them.  This holy discipline opened up our founders, and then dozens, and then hundreds, and then thousands of our spiritual forebears in this denomination to the amazing, fulfilling, inviting work of God in their midst.

I’d like to suggest a path, based on Wesley’s path, to a holy discipline.  I’ve created an outline for this path, which all of you received along with today’s bulletin. It begins, of course, with daily attention to Scripture.  Some of you may be thinking, “I’ve already read the Bible; I know what’s in there.”  I’m glad that you do.  You also looked in your glass mirror last year, so you know what you look like, but you keep looking at the mirror every day to make sure what you see stays in line with that mental standard.  It’s the same with Scripture.  There are two ways of reading Scripture.  The first is “informational,” and it is indeed possible to get so familiar with the contents of Scripture that you do indeed know what is in there.  I will confess a degree of skepticism that any of you are so fully there yet that you don’t need to keep refreshing your knowledge of Scripture – because I know that I’m not there yet, and I live in the informational reading of these texts.  But even if you are well advanced in the first way of reading Scripture, the informational way, you’re never so far advanced that you won’t benefit from the second way of reading Scripture, the formational way.  This is where you’re not reading Scripture so much as you’re letting Scripture read you, where you look into Scripture like a mirror, and see what it can show you about yourself, where you are in the process of coming to reflect God’s vision for you fully, where Scripture shows you, like your glass mirror, where you need to give some attention to your person to get the reflection right.

I’d like to lead you all through an exercise in formational reading right now, an exercise that you can continue practicing at home for the rest of the week, for the rest of your life.  For this purpose I’ve selected Ephesians 4:29-5:2, which you’ll find printed on that handout. We’re going to practice letting Scripture read us.  To start off, please take a moment and pray that God would use these minutes to reveal something that will illumine a path by which you can move closer to God’s vision for the new person he wants to shape in you.

[Take a few seconds, really]

Keep every toxic word from leaving your mouth – only those good words that are constructive, in line with the need of the situation, in order that it might give grace to those who hear. 

Speech can cause harm; speech can add to the toxins that make a situation more poisonous for those involved.  Speech can also help others stay or get on course with where God would lead them.  Think about your words (and I suppose we need to include texting and e-mails these days!) yesterday, the day before, this morning.  To what extent have you added to the toxins?  To what extent did you contribute to God’s construction?

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Think about interactions you’re going to have today and tomorrow, about conversations you anticipate will take place and even need to take place.  Ask God to help you discern how to frame your words such as will contribute to God’s constructive purposes, and avoid adding to the toxins.

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Don’t bring sorrow to the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were all sealed for the day of redemption.  Let all bitterness, seething rage, anger, clamor, and back-stabbing – along with all malice – be removed from among you. 

God the Holy Spirit is with us.  Just as the Old Covenant taught us that the Holy Spirit cannot abide the presence of defilement, the New Covenant teaches us that the Holy Spirit cannot abide the presence of bitterness, grudges and anger, the harboring of malice – the things that defile and pollute the Body of Christ that the Holy Spirit animates.  Toward whom in the Body of Christ are you harboring bitterness in your heart?  Against whom have you harbored anger?  Toward whom do you bear malice?

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Take another moment and pray to God about those feelings and for the people toward whom they are directed.

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Be of service to one another and tenderhearted toward one another, forgiving each other even as God forgave all of you in Christ. 

Do any of your brothers or sisters in Christ here or elsewhere have needs that you can meet?  Do you have a tender, responsive heart toward them, or a heart that has become calloused to their needs?  Thank God to the extent that he has given you a tender, responsive heart – as measured in your actions – and pray that God will break up any hardness.

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Whom do you need to forgive?  From whom do you need to seek forgiveness?  Ask God to reveal these places of broken relationship and to make opportunities for reconciliation.

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Be imitators of God, then, as well-loved children, and keep conducting yourselves in a loving manner, even as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as an offering and sacrifice to God, for a fragrant aroma.  (Eph 4:29-5:2, DSV)

Take a moment and allow yourself to consider afresh Christ’s love for you, for all of us together.  It’s in your awareness of being thus loved that you find the transforming power to love others thus.

[Reflect for a minute or so]

Ask God to protect, tend, and bring to fruit the seeds that he has planted in you during this exercise.

[Really]

Did that short exercise bring something to light for you and bring some spiritual direction from God?  Can you begin to extrapolate from this how much closer your walk with God would be, how much more closely aligned with God’s vision your heart and practices would be, after three-hundred-and-sixty-five such exercises with Scripture over the course of a year?

Now add to this the three further layers that I’ve outlined in your handout (SEE BELOW for text of handout): daily intercessory prayer with God, through which the scope of our own concern and care is daily broadened; weekly conversation with a core group of committed spiritual friends, who will help you see more past your own blind spots and encourage you to keep pressing on; and weekly participation in some venue for witness and service, which gives feet to your faith. It’s like any exercise regimen: visible change and maintaining the “new you” requires consistent, daily investment. It’s a simple plan – a set of holy disciplines – that will take from your life less time than you probably currently give to the television or to playing around on the internet, but will give to your life incomparably more and increase your impact for God’s kingdom exponentially.  I would encourage each one of you, then, to recover the method that makes a vital Methodist.

 

A “Method” for “Methodists”: Suggestions for Intentional Discipleship

David A. deSilva, Ph.D.

1.Look in the Mirror: the importance of daily Scripture reading

You reading Scripture – informational engagement

Questions to ask as you read the Scripture:

  1. What does this passage show me in regard to God’s character and heart – particularly God’s heart for human beings?
  2. What does this passage show me in regard to God’s vision for our living in righteousness and holiness as part of a redeemed, covenant community?
  3. What does this passage show me in regard to the forces and impulses that get in the way of living in righteousness and holiness in community?
  4. What does this passage tell me about God’s provisions for our attaining the first and overcoming the second, and about other strategies for the same?
  5. What does this passage tell me about the stakes involved?

Very few passages will actually speak to all of these focal points.

Scripture reading you – formational engagement

Questions to ask as you allow the Scriptures to read you:

  1. Where do I see attitudes I have had, words I have spoken, interactions I have had, and actions I have taken positively reflected in the things commended in this passage?
  2. Where do I see attitudes I have had, words I have spoken, interactions I have had, and actions I have taken reflected in the things this passage warns or advises against?
  3. What steps do I need to take to move closer to the positive ideals commended here, and to leave behind further the negative traits and practices identified here?

Weave prayer – conversation with God – into this daily exercise, and close with prayer concerning whatever the Holy Spirit has shown you.

 

2.A pattern for daily prayer and intercession:

A fairly comprehensive schema for praying might include spending time with God allowing him to raise to awareness particulars under each of the following headings and lifting up those prayer to him.  (Note: you don’t have to tell God what he should do in every situation – it’s alright just to hold it before him and ask him to intervene in the way he knows to be best.)

(1) the church in every place, its witness and mission, its solidarity and courage; pray especially for sisters and brothers in environments hostile to Christian faith;[1]

(2) our nation and the challenges that beset it at every level;

(3) the nations of the world and the cries for peace with justice;

(4) the needs and concerns of our church family, including your own prayer concerns;

(5) the needs of our local community and our witness and service in its midst;

(6) a friend, relative, associate, or neighbor who is not yet connected to Christ and his church.

Close by praying the Lord’s Prayer thoughtfully and meditatively.

 

3.A holiness support group (Wesley’s “Band Meetings”):

Who are three or four people sharing your gender whom you might identify as prayer and accountability partners as you seek to make progress growing into the new person that will fulfill God’s vision for our living in righteousness and holiness as part of a redeemed, covenant community?

Consider organizing a “band” that will meet weekly for the purpose of sharing one another’s discoveries and struggles on the road to Christ-likeness, to “Christ living in me,” and keeping one another moving forward through prayer and encouragement.[2]

 

4.Spreading Scriptural holiness: work and witness

 

Identify at least one ministry in which you can be involved on a regular basis, preferably weekly.  This could be something you pursue individually; it could be something that your “band” discerns together.  Show love and share Christ in some context of meeting a need.  Mentoring a young person, sponsoring an addict, visiting a prisoner, assisting a shut-in, helping a single parent – there is no end to the possibilities of what God might bring to your attention and lay upon your heart.  Work and witness.  Methodists have historically not been ashamed to tell other people the difference Christ has made in their own lives and can make in the other person’s life, and to invite them to “come and see.”

 

Appendix: Wesley’s Rules for Band-Societies (drawn up December 25, 1738).

The design of our meeting is to obey that command of God, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed.

To this end, we intend:

  1. To meet once a week.
  2. To come punctually and to begin (those of us who are present) exactly at the hour, with singing or prayer.
  3. To speak each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought, word, or deed, and the temptations we have felt, since our last meeting.
  4. To end every meeting with prayer, suited to the state of each person present.
  5. To desire some person among us to speak his own state first, and then to ask the rest, in order, as many and as searching questions as may be, concerning their state, sins, and temptations.

Any of the preceding questions may be asked as often as occasion others; the four following at every meeting.

  1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting.
  2. What temptations have you met with.
  3. How were you delivered.
  4. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not.

[The agreement among band members was that each should speak the whole truth, in love, concerning what each sees and discerns in the other, always as an aid to “search your heart to the bottom” and find fuller freedom thereby from all that holds each back from pervasive holiness.]

 

[1] Consider using the prayer calendars and other aids for praying for persecuted Christians in an informed and specific way found online at http://www.opendoorsusa.org/take-action/pray/ and barnabasfund.org/us/get-involved/pray.

[2] One promising resource on the purpose for and organization of the “band meeting” can be found here: https://store.seedbed.com/products/the-band-meeting.

“Faith is Just the Beginning”

A sermon preached on 2 Peter 1:3-11; Mark 4:1-20 at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

The winds were already exceeding gale force, blowing dead fronds and empty bins across yards and streets, causing palm trees to bend and sway like participants in an aerobics class.  Sheets of rain were slapping the car as its driver strained through the overtaxed wipers to spot the next arrow pointing to the hurricane evacuation route.  She finally saw one, pointing her to the right, then another telling her to continue straight, then another signaling her to turn left onto the northbound interstate.  She pulled onto the entrance ramp, emerged on the broad space of the highway, pulled over to the shoulder, turned off her engine, and fell back into her seat.  “Thank God! I made it!” she said, as she sat there, watching the other traffic press on by, wondering what their hurry was.

It’s an admittedly ridiculous story.  And yet, this is essentially how the author of 2 Peter would view the person who said that she “got saved” when she made a public confession of Jesus at a revival or church camp or altar call some twenty years ago, but who hadn’t traveled any distance up the highway toward Christ-likeness, toward living for others, toward giving herself over more and more fully to allowing God to accomplish his purposes for who she would become and what fruit she would bear for him over the rest of the course of her life. For the author of 2 Peter, “salvation” isn’t just a matter of an isolated decision.  It’s a matter of following an evacuation route.  Decision is important, but it has to be a decision to follow the evacuation route, because “salvation” – safety – lies at the end of an evacuation route, not at its beginning.

John Wesley and the people called Methodists shared this author’s view of salvation to a great extent.  Among the early Methodists, the principal entrance requirement to the group was a “desire to flee from the wrath to come,” and the nature of that flight was a lifelong commitment to use all the help that God had provided, all of “the means of grace,” to grow in holiness and righteousness.  The movement’s members sought, and encouraged one another, to exercise all diligence in discovering how to withdraw themselves from doing any harm and how to invest themselves in doing all the good they could, all the while seeking that “second rest” that was believed to be the Holy Spirit’s goal for each and every Christian, namely, arrival at that place where love for God and love for neighbor drove all of one’s actions and interactions.  Following Christ entailed a “long obedience in the same direction” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil 5.188), not “a long inertia in the same pew.”

Do you understand that you are still in the process of “fleeing”?  Or have you stopped running away from the direction of what is harmful and in the direction of safety – of salvation — too soon?

The author of 2 Peter begins his portrait of the Christian’s life by talking not only about God’s astounding gifting, but also by giving some clear definition to the purposes behind God’s gifting of those who came to acknowledge the Lord who was calling them:

Insofar as his divine power has given us all things with a view to life and piety through the acknowledgment of the One who called us by his own glory and virtue, through which he has given to us the precious and very great promises, in order that, through these, you might become participants in the divine nature, fleeing from the corruption that is in the world through desire…. (2 Pet 1:3-4, DSV)

This is a portrait of a God who has invested heavily in us.  The author shows us a God who has supplied us with all that we need to arrive at “life and piety,” an expression that might be better taken to mean, in English, “a pious life,” “a life of godliness” – a life reshaped with concern for God and for what is due God as the center and organizing principle of this new life.  Our acknowledging Jesus as our Lord and Savior is indeed important here, as is our acknowledgment that we have been called and selected not on the basis of any merit or value that we brought to the table, but rather on the basis of “his own glory and virtue” – because providing for us the way back to God’s embrace and the way forward to the kingdom of God’s Son seemed to God to be most in keeping with God’s generous, noble, redemptive character.  But, says our author, God’s investment in delivering us for that kingdom was not in the nature of some instantaneous teleportation, but rather in the nature of equipping us for pilgrimage, empowering us to make a long journey of obedience in the direction of that kingdom.

It is a journey of slogging through and leaving behind “the corruption” – the decay, the ruin, the rot – “that is in the world” – more to the point, that is in us, to the extent that we have been shaped by our society – “because of desire” (2 Pet 1:4). It’s quite countercultural for me as an American to think about “desire” as something negative.  I encounter all kinds of encouragement to “dream big” in terms of enjoying the goods and pleasures of this life, even in terms of achieving great things in this life as my society-shaped peers define “great things.”  I encounter all manner of enticements seeking to stimulate my desire, whether for a new appliance, a new car, a new medication, a new drink, a new snack, a new restaurant, a new beach resort, a new movie, a new computer, new kitchen cabinets, a new vehicle.  Wanting seems to be as normal, as necessary, as breathing in the world that I know.

Our author speaks to us from a distant culture – one that knew just as well as we do what it was to “desire” but that was also more critical, more suspicious, when it came to “desire” and its effects on a human life. A commonplace of ethics throughout the Greek and Roman periods was this: in order to arrive at a consistently virtues life, reason had always and consistently to maintain the upper hand over one’s desires.  To give free reign to one’s impulses, desires, and feelings, however, was to abandon the pursuit of the virtues that made a life worth having lived.  Early Christian ethics would be no less rigorous.

Our author warns us that desire has contributed to the corruption of God’s good world and God’s good vision for life in this world in so many ways.  Consider greed, which leads to ecologically unsustainable practices, to oppression of the weak so as to enjoy a larger share of coveted goods, to withholding other people’s access to “enough” so that I can have access to “more.” Or consider sexual desire, leading to the warping of relationships, the breaking of relationships, even to systematic or even violent victimization of people who are transformed into objects of lust.  But “desire” doesn’t have to lead to such obvious evils to contribute to the “corruption,” the “ruin,” that is in the world.  I suspect that, for most of us here, the greatest threat comes from vanilla desires that simply distract us, occupy us, siphon off our time, attention, and energy from pressing on along the evacuation route that God has laid out for us and for which God has equipped us, with the result that we run the risk of being found still puttering around uselessly at ground zero when the hurricane strikes.

But there is also holy desire. God has given us “precious and very great promises,” and the author would only encourage us to desire these things.  What would these promises include?  Surely that we might become reflections of God’s own righteousness in this world by the working of his Spirit within and among us; that we might be elevated to participate in the divine nature, sharing in God’s virtue and goodness rather than this world’s corruption; that we might be given lavish entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, a place in God’s unfiltered presence forever.  God’s promises hold before us that which is indeed worth desiring.  If we train our desires on what God has promised us, “desire” will work for us instead of against us; we will put aside being self-directed unto distraction at best and destruction at worst, and allow ourselves to be impelled in the direction of salvation.

The author lays out a path – an escape plan, an evacuation plan – by which to keep putting the world that is subject to decay and ruin further behind us and to keep moving forward in the direction of the “entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ” that shall mark our arrival in the safe, everlasting harbor.

Bringing all diligence indeed to bear in respect of this very thing, supply, in your faith, virtue in addition; and in your virtue, knowledge; and in your knowledge, self-control; and in your self-control, endurance; and in your endurance, godliness; and in your godliness, love for the brothers and sisters; and in your love for the brothers and sisters, love without boundaries (agapē).  For as these things belong to and abound among you, they will ensure that you are not unproductive or unfruitful in regard to your acknowledgment of our Lord Jesus Christ.  (2 Pet 1:5-8, DSV)

“Bring all diligence to bear,” the author says.  “Make every effort; invest yourself in this path that God has opened up for you, and do so in such a manner and to such an extent that shows that you understand its value!”

Coming to faith is just the beginning, the starting point for this evacuation plan: “in the midst of your faith, provide yourself also with virtue.”  Reflect more and more the character of the Lord you have acknowledged.  In the midst of growing in virtue, provide yourself with knowledge. Keep learning; keep yourself in the Word until the Word has fully infiltrated you; keep exerting yourself to understand more and more fully the contours of the life to which Jesus has called you, the life for your living of which he handed over his own life!  In the midst of growing in knowledge, provide yourself with self-control – the natural and key quality to seek and attain where “desire” is the principal source of the corruption, the decay, the ruin from which we are escaping.  In the midst of growing in self-control, provide yourself with endurance. Keep up the energy for this flight over the long haul, maintaining resistance in the face of every enticement and distraction, pushing back against the astounding cultural forces at work against our commitment to self-control – the forces daily preaching self-gratification, self-indulgence, self-centered investment.  In the midst of endurance, provide yourself with godliness, living a life that has God at its center, that places giving to God what is God’s due as the highest priority.  In the midst of such God-centered living, cultivate a love for your sisters and brothers.  Invest yourself in building up relationships of deep caring and mutual commitment among the family that God has called together and created by virtue of giving us all – all in the global Church – new birth into God’s own family, with Jesus as the firstborn of many sisters and brothers.  In the midst of loving your sisters and brothers, cultivate that love that knows no boundaries, the love that depends on nothing external, no kinship bond whether natural or spiritual, but simply springs from a character that has at last arrived at the place where it shares in the divine nature of which the author was speaking, the divine nature of the God who is love, according to another New Testament voice (1 John 4:8, 16).  The author assures us that, “as these things belong to and abound among you, they will ensure that you are not unproductive or unfruitful in regard to your acknowledgment of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:8).

Is it so vitally important to be productive, to be fruitful? Can’t I just believe and add “salvation” to all the other goodies I’m accumulating in this life?  Can’t I just hold onto my “faith” while investing the lion’s share of my energy, time, and attention in things in the world that appeal to me at the moment? I don’t find Scripture answering those questions in the affirmative.  Some preachers and theologians sometimes will (though perhaps not when the questions are posed so bluntly), but it strikes me as really important that Scripture doesn’t.  Consider that very familiar parable that Jesus spoke concerning seeds and soils (Mark 4:1-20).  Bearing fruit – being productive of the qualities and of the good consequences that are to characterize the new life – seems to be the decisive issue.  If the pressures of one’s peers or if the worries and interests of the world prevent that seed from reaching maturity and fruit-bearing, Jesus writes off those seeds as a loss.

The author of 2 Peter answers these questions even more sharply: “For the people in whom these things are lacking are so short-sighted as to be blind, putting out of their minds the cleansing of their past sins” (2 Pet 1:9, DSV).  It’s not the kindest image to use – “so shortsighted as to be blind” – but it’s an apt image nonetheless.  One of the greatest threats to our ability to “bring all diligence to bear” on cultivating the life that Christ died to free us to live is the business of today, day after day (and, truth be told, the non-business of today, day after day, for which we throw away each day just the same). We’re called to be farsighted people, people that live with our eyes on the horizon of the dawning day of Christ’s appearing.  And people who live with their eyes fixed there arrange their whole lives so as to be found blameless, and even to be celebrated, on that day – to hear the words known from another familiar parable, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt 25:21, 23).  To keep investing the lion’s share of our attention and efforts today on pursuits and distractions that will not matter on that day – what better label could the author give this than the severest form of myopia.

The author adds a further indictment, however.  To fail to move forward along this evacuation route and instead to splash around in the puddles along the roadside is to forget the costly investment that Jesus made in you to set you on this path in the first place.  Forgetfulness of the benefits one had been given was considered a deplorable failure in the author’s world.  Cicero, a Roman senator and statesman from the mid-first-century BC, wrote: “All people despise forgetfulness of benefactions, thinking it to be a personal injury against themselves since it discourages generosity; they regard the ingrate as an enemy to everyone who stands in need” (De officiis 2.63).  Similarly Seneca, writing a century later: “the person who fails to make a return for a gift is ungrateful, but the person who has forgotten a gift once given is the most ungrateful of all…. Who is more ungrateful than the person who has so fully put out of his mind the gift that ought to have remained foremost on his mind, that he has lost all knowledge of it?” (De beneficiis 3.1.3, 3.2.1).

For the author of 2 Peter, there’s really only one response to God’s gifting that makes any sense, one response that springs from keeping firmly in mind our past cleansing from sin, that great gift that calls for great gratitude in response, for living the life for which that cleansing was provided:

Therefore, brothers and sisters, invest yourself fully in making your calling and selection certain.  For by doing these things you will certainly never trip up.  For in this way entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly supplied to you.  (2 Pet 1:10-11, DSV)

Rather than asking the graceless question, “How much or how little do I have to do to really be saved,” live the grace-full response.  Make your calling and selection by God “secure” not by some lazy theological argument by which you think to excuse yourself from pursuing God’s evacuation route, but by that embodied response to God’s calling and selection that makes of you a person who belongs in the eternal kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, in that place where “righteousness is at home” (2 Pet 3:13), by giving yourself over to pursuing the path along which all the provisions of “his divine power” naturally and rightly impel you.  Here, for the author, is the surest foundation for any doctrine of assurance: “By doing these things you will surely not trip up” on the way to that kingdom.

 

The Arithmetic of God

A sermon on Col 1:11-20; John 14:8-21 preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

The first Sunday after Pentecost is also called “Trinity Sunday,” and one morning a year may not be too much to give to reflecting on the mystery of our creed, namely that we worship only one God, but worship this God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This remains an important task, I think, given the fair amount of resistance out there to the traditional – the orthodox – understanding of a God who has made himself known in three distinct Persons that, nevertheless, reveal one Divine Being.

Minds shaped by the Enlightenment have been quite hostile toward the idea of the Trinity.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, complained: “When we shall have done away with the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, reared to mask from view the very simple structure of Jesus; when, in short, we shall have unlearned everything which has been taught since his day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines he inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily his disciples” (Letter to Timothy Pickering, February 27, 1821). His legacy continues in a number of forms, including, for example, much of the Quest for the Historical Jesus – the quest to rediscover the man from Nazareth as the true center for a new Christianity that could be embraced apart from all the doctrinal encrustation that had accumulated around him and obscured him from view.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, true sons and daughters of the third-century deacon Arius, who taught that the Son of God was just a created being like the angels and was not eternal since he had a definite beginning, periodically come to my door promoting that ancient heresy.  I use the word “heresy” here in its fullest sense – not merely a divergent opinion about some religious topic, but a faction, a divisive movement that has broken away from the larger Church on account of its commitment to its divergent opinion, that uses the ongoing promotion of that divergent opinion as its very reason to exist as a separate sect.

Most dramatically, there are a billion people in this world that read, as their sacred Scripture, a collection of pronouncements that include the following:

O People of the Book! Do not exaggerate in your religion nor utter anything concerning Allah save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of Allah…. So believe in Allah and His messengers, and say not “Three”—Cease! (it is) better for you!—Allah is only One God. Far be it removed from His transcendent majesty that he should have a son. (Surah 4:171).

Lo! whoever assigns partners to Allah, to him Allah has forbidden Paradise. His abode will be the Fire….  They are infidels who say, “Lo! Allah is the third of three,” when there is no God save the One God. (Surah 5:72-73).

The Trinity is not without its aggressive critics and detractors, who think that the traditional, orthodox Christian view of God is without merit – indeed, that it is a view unworthy of the One God.  I am no theologian, such that I can present an airtight case for the Trinity, nor explain it even to my own satisfaction, but I am nevertheless convinced that the orthodox Christian position does greater justice to the evidence of our own Scriptures than any other.  It is my goal in this brief space to share with you why I remain unpersuaded by the Jehovah’s Witnesses at my door, the impatient child of the Enlightenment at a scholarly conference, or by the voice of Muhammad himself.

First, I am unpersuaded because I accept the limitations of my own mind in regard to grasping the arithmetic of God, rather than limit the arithmetic of God to what my own mind can grasp. If we are to ponder God as Trinity we should first accept that there is no analogy based on anything in the created, natural order that will suffice to exemplify the Trinity.  There are good analogies for features of the Trinity, but the absolute difference in category of being – that which constitutes God versus that which constitutes “all [created] things, seen and unseen” – renders it categorically impossible to find anywhere in our experience in this world that analogy that will capture “Trinity” absolutely. We must be content, as even Paul had to remain content, that “now we see in a polished metal mirror, dimly, but then we shall see face-to-face; now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).

Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth-century bishop, cautions us even more eloquently concerning how we ought to set our expectations for knowing God.  Gregory recalls Moses’s desire to see God, with God granting Moses’s request to the extent that Moses would be able to endure the sight. The story can be found in Exodus 33:18-23.  Placing Moses in a large fissure in a rock, God covers Moses’s eyes until God has passed by, allowing Moses only to see God’s back.  Gregory reasons from this that he, too, will not perceive “the absolute and pure divine nature, known only to the Trinity itself,” but only “that part of the divine nature that at last reaches us, the degree of glory that can be shown to God’s creatures.  These are the back parts of God, which he leaves behind him as tokens of himself, like the reflections of the sun in the water, which show the sun to our weak eyes, because we cannot look at the sun itself, for by his unmixed light he is too strong for our power of perception” (Second Theological Oration, adapted).  The traditional, orthodox view of God starts there, really, in the traces of God left behind in our experience – and that experience includes encountering God as Father, the creator of all that is; God as Son, the redeemer of all that is and the revelation of who God is by virtue of his incarnation; and God as Holy Spirit, the transforming divine Presence within us and among us.

I dwell on this point because it is a major failure of critics of the Trinity that they insist on limiting discussion of God’s Being to what can be grasped by their minds – and thus that 1 + 1 + 1 must equal 3 gods, which they can’t accept, so neither will they think of God as Son or God as Holy Spirit, for if they are to have 1 God, they can only conceive of that God as 1 Person – the Father, by default. If we insist on limiting our conception of God to what our minds can clearly comprehend, we place undue limits on God, the knowledge of whom by definition exceeds our minds’ capacity.

The Christian Scriptures loudly proclaim monotheism, in concert with our parent religion, Judaism, whose foundational creed is heard in Deuteronomy: “Listen, Israel: The LORD our God is God alone” (Deut 6:4).  God’s self-revelation through the prophet Isaiah is also distinctly monotheistic: “Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me” (Isa. 43:10); “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (Isaiah 44:6).  At the same time, our Scriptures speak of the worship of Christ – indeed, the worship due Christ – as, in some sense, himself divine.  After Thomas encounters the risen Jesus, he exclaims “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28), acknowledging that the Divine is truly present in the man before him.  Paul speaks of Jesus’ place in the cosmos in similar terms at the end of his hymn to Christ in Philippians 2: “God super-exalted him and graced him with the name that is above every name” – hence, the Divine name! – “in order that, at the name of Jesus, every knee of heavenly and earthly and subterranean beings should bend and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, unto the Father’s glory” (Phil 2:9-11).  The universal worship of Jesus as “Lord,” the title that replaced the not-to-be-spoken name of God throughout the Old Testament, does not detract from the worship of God (as it would, were Jesus a second god or an idol), but glorifies the Father as well. The clear legacy of our sacred Scriptures is that we worship One God and that we worship Christ as divine, which still means, however, glorifying the One God.

Detractors will complain that the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible, which is true enough.  And finding Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all together at a number of points throughout Scripture does not yet mean “Trinity,” but only names the three Persons that later Christians will confess to be One God known in these three Persons.  But faithful reflection on the statements that do appear in the Bible regarding the oneness of God, the relationship of the Father and the Son, and the work of the Holy Spirit led by a rather direct path in this direction.

Our reading from the Gospel according to John is one such statement:

Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and it will suffice for us.”  Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you for so long and you don’t know me, Philip? The one who has seen me has seen the Father! How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you trust that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (John 14:8-10)

For Jesus to say that seeing him is the equivalent of seeing the Father more than suggests some basic identity between the Father and the Son – indeed, Jesus had affirmed an essential identity just a few chapters earlier when he declared, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) or, a bit more enigmatically here, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”  John began his Gospel in a way that foregrounded this very theme: “The Word was God … and the Word became flesh and dwelt in our midst” (John 1:1, 14).  Here is an implicit analogy: the relationship between the Father and the Son is like the relationship between a speaker and what is spoken.  What is spoken is inseparable from the speaker; it proceeds from the speaker but is not some manufactured, independent product of the speaker; it emerges from the speaker into the environment to be experienced by others, even as the Word emerged from the Father into the visible world as Jesus, the Word-made-Flesh, to be experienced by others.  Nevertheless, the implicit analogy also shows its inadequacy because, in human (rather than divine) experience, our speech does not remain a part of us, does not have life equal to our own.  John’s point, however, remains: something of the One God became a human being and, by so doing, revealed the One God in a new way in the world.

Paul’s lofty words about Christ in Colossians echo this point when, after speaking about the Father rescuing us and transferring us into the kingdom of his Son, Paul speaks of the Son as “the image of the unseen God” (Col 1:15).  We might be tempted to think of Christ as the image of God in a manner analogous to the way human beings were created in the image of God, but I think Paul is going in a quite different direction here.  People in the Greco-Roman world often referred to what we would call an idol as the “image” of the god. It provided a physical representation of the unseen gods – it wasn’t the god, insofar as it was a handcrafted object, but it was also the god, insofar as worship offered to the image was offered in fact to the god. The genuine God – the living God – could not, Paul knew, be represented by any such graven image, a lifeless thing.  But Paul can point to Christ as a living image of the living God – not some part of material creation masquerading as a god (which is what every stone or bronze or wooden idol was), but the projection into the visible realm of the One, genuine, living God – God the Son made visible in his incarnation.

Paul continued by calling Christ “the firstborn of all creation.” This was a verse that Arius treasured, reading “firstborn of all creation” as a sign that the Son is himself a part of creation.  He ignored, however, the more likely sense here of “firstborn over all creation,” since the Son himself helps to bring all creation, every creature, into being, as Paul immediately goes on to say: “because, in him, all things in heaven and upon the earth, things visible and invisible, were created – whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities, all things were created through him and for him.  He is prior to all things and all things hold together in him…. In him all the fulness was pleased to dwell” (1:15-17, 19).

If that last clause sounds enigmatic, Paul circles back to spell it out more fully just a few paragraphs later: “In Christ all the fulness of the Deity dwelt in bodily form” (2:9). And yet, the totality of Deity was not contained in – that is, limited to – the six feet of body that was Jesus of Nazareth, for the Father was still active in the world and the Holy Spirit still operative beyond Jesus.  Thus, the early fathers of the Church reasoned, the Word, the Son, who was fully God but not the totality of God, became flesh – a distinct person of the Trinity who could refer to himself as “Son,” still refer to and speak to God as “Father,” and still work in the world by the Holy Spirit.

Congregations, it seems, tend to like the Apostles’ Creed more than the Nicene Creed – possibly because it is shorter and you don’t have to stand as long, possibly because it is missing a lot of the metaphysical language about the Son that seems remote.  The Nicene Creed, however, contains some careful language crafted to keep us thinking worthily of the Son, in particular.  The phrases “eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, genuine God from genuine God, begotten, not made” reflect the early Church’s decisive rejection of Arius’s claims concerning Jesus – namely, that there was a time when the Son was not, and that the Son was a created being.  Those who formulated the creed reasoned that the Father could not eternally have been “Father” were the “Son” not also eternal. Gregory of Nazianzus explains: “Can one imagine the sun as existing apart from the light rays it constantly emits?  The rays find their source, their origin, in the sun, but the rays and the sun also came into existence at the same time.”  Emitting light is simply in the nature of being a star.  Begetting God the Son is simply in the nature of God the Father.

The phrase that claims the Son to be “of one ‘Being’ [of one ‘Substance’] with the Father” affirms that the Son is like the Creator, not like the creation.  The Son shares whatever it is that constitutes the One God. Athanasius, another fourth-century theologian, explains: “The sun’s rays truly belong to it, but the sun’s substance is not divided or diminished by its extending its rays.  The rays do not diminish the substance of the light but are a true offspring of it.  In a similar fashion we understand that the Son is begotten not from something external to the Father but from the Father himself” (Oration against the Arians 2.24, 33).  Hence the Son is “God from God, Light from Light, genuine God from genuine God”

The fathers of the Church gave such energy and care to these discussions because they rightly perceived the implications for the gospel itself.  Do we understand that our redemption is fundamentally God’s own work on our behalf, or the work of a third party, some created emissary who took the fall for us?  Do we believe that we really see the invisible Father in the person and work of Jesus?  Is Jesus as “incarnate Son” really our surest glimpse of the invisible God’s mind, heart, and will?  The theological refinements of the Nicene Creed sought to preserve these basic Scriptural affirmations that stand at the very foundations of our faith.

Having preached for four weeks on the Holy Spirit, I may be forgiven for giving him short shrift here.  I’ll simply note that, in our Gospel reading, Jesus can both call the Spirit “another Advocate” – distinct from himself – but, at the same time, the vehicle by which the Son will not leave his followers orphaned, but rather come to be present with them (John 14:16-18).  And so we speak in our creed of the Holy Spirit, “who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” who comes to us out from both while also carrying along both.  The last verse of our Gospel reading suggests that this is a Trinity that reaches out to embrace and include us as well. Jesus says: “In that day,” that is, the day in which we receive the Spirit, “you will know that I am in my Father and that you are in me and that I am in you” (14:20).  The first statement pertains to knowing the Trinity, but the second pertains to our knowing ourselves to have been embraced fully by the Trinity – and it is ultimately only as we live more and more in that embrace that we will come to know God, as it were, as insiders ourselves.

 

 

A New Pentecost

A sermon on Acts 2:1-21, 38-39; Eph 5:15-20, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

We’re probably all familiar with the idea of the “bucket list,” even if we didn’t see Jack Nicolson help Morgan Freeman create and then check the items off his own.  Some of us may even have formalized such a list in writing.  I haven’t yet, though having gotten an estate plan for my fiftieth birthday I suspect that developing a bucket list might not be too far away for me in the natural course of things.  The bucket list emerges from a person’s confrontation with mortality – when a person realizes that the time left is limited and begins to think, “Wow! I haven’t really done what I’ve wanted to do in this lifetime; I haven’t gotten everything I wanted out of life.” So one gets serious about sorting out what one will and will not get to do before the buzzer, and begins to prioritize getting those things on the last pages of life’s calendar.

It’s unlikely that the person who is thus minded will list off: “open up more of myself and my life to God”; “get serious about investing myself in encouraging and supporting my sisters and brothers in Christ”; “seek out every opportunity to share Christ with others and plant the seeds of eternity in their hearts.”  But Paul would urge his readers not to put even such rich activities on some “bucket list,” but rather to start living life to the full – for eternity – today so that we have no need of a “bucket list,” because we have made the most of our life all along the way.

Take care how you live your life, that it not be as foolish people but as wise people, getting the most out of the time, because the days are evil.  So don’t be thoughtless, but understand what it is that the Lord wants.  And don’t get drunk on wine, which is a waste of your life, but let the Spirit fill you up as you recite psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord, giving thanks to the God and Father always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph 5:15-20)

Paul is dealing with topics of the utmost importance here – it’s the difference between being foolish and being smart, between throwing away our lives and getting the most out of the limited span of our lives.  If we’re going to be smart, we need to “understand what it is that the Lord wants,” and we need to invest the time that we have in the most profitable manner that we can.

Wine is a good example for Paul to use as a call out here.  We could extend this to any alcoholic beverages now, but the only options in the ancient world were wine and beer, with beer being much more of a fringe drink.  Wine was a principal beverage throughout the Mediterranean, so Paul is not promoting teetotaling here, but he does warn again using wine for more than or something other than a staple beverage, like using it to forget, using it to stupefy, using it to fill the evenings and the empty spaces and going where it takes you.

But wine is only one vintage of a great many varietals of time-killers and space-fillers – whatever we turn to in order to pass the time, to numb ourselves, to fill the empty spaces whether in our calendars or in our selves.  Shopping.  Just about anything on a television.  Video games.  Social media.  Whatever you might use to fill the emptiness of a day and that leaves you feeling empty after you’re done.  It doesn’t have to be just the obvious painkillers, distractions, and amusements.  We can busy ourselves so much with “day-to-day life” and invest ourselves so much in questions and issues of fleeting importance that we are equally guilty of foolishness – of not getting the most for our time.

Paul warns us against going along with the flow in which the concerns of this world and distractions of this world carry you along, without our realizing that “the days are evil” and that the flow leads down toward the drain.  Paul names the result of this way of life, “dissipation,” by which he means “sheer waste,” as in watching your energies, your resources, your time dissipate, evaporate, come to nothing.

For Paul, whether we have been foolish or wise, whether we have indeed “made the most of the time” or thrown the time away, will be discovered from the kind of answer we can give at the end of the day to the question: how does what I did with my day line up with what the Lord wants, be it for me or from me?  Did how I lived out the day that is past, did the manner in which I spent all that time, grow out of a deep understanding of what the Lord wants?

Paul has a good alternative in mind to all those time-killers and space-fillers: Don’t fill up on those empty things; fill up on the Holy Spirit instead.  Fill your head, fill your “self-talk,” fill your conversations with that which keeps your own focus and that of those around you on matters of eternal import.  Fill your heart with the remembrance of what God has done for you and what God has yet prepared for you, so that your heart will feel how full God has made you and be stuffed with gratitude toward God.  Then you will be impelled into your day not by a hunger for empty things, but by gratitude toward God, to discover and to do “what the Lord wants” to do in you and to do through you each and every day, with the Holy Spirit of God right there, dwelling with you, dwelling within you, animating you – giving you life in its fullness.

Today we celebrate Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, the day on which the promised Holy Spirit came upon the hundred and twenty Christ-followers in that upper room and impelled them into the streets to proclaim the mighty acts of God surrounding Jesus life, death, and rising again.  The miracle of Pentecost was perfectly crafted for the diversity of the Jews and converts to Judaism gathered there in the cosmopolitan city of Jerusalem.  There were no doubt many Jews from around the Diaspora that had relocated permanently to their mother city, but there was also an enormous swelling of the ranks of foreign Jews from throughout the Mediterranean during the three annual pilgrimage festivals.  Passover had been the first of these; Pentecost was the second.  The miracle was unmistakable, with all these pilgrims from every corner of the eastern Mediterranean hearing a bunch of Galileans shouting about the mighty acts of God in Chaldean, Lydian, Phrygian, Latin, Coptic, Mycenaean, and some precursor of Arabic.  It was an attention-getting sign, to be sure, and it was pointing unambiguously to the fact that God was there doing something in the midst of Jesus’ followers.

Pentecost was the name Greek-speaking Jews gave to the spring harvest festival (the first fruits of the grain harvest), which was also a celebration of God giving the Law, the Torah, to Israel on Mount Sinai.  Pentecost comes from the Greek word for “fiftieth,” since this festival was held on the “fiftieth day” after the first day of Passover.  What happened on the fiftieth day after the Passover of Jesus’ crucifixion, however, was a new Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of Israel’s expectations of what would happen “in the last days.”  Peter quotes at length from the prophet Joel:

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young ones will see visions and the elders among you will dream dreams; yes, I will pour out my spirit upon my slaves and my maidservants. (Joel 3:1-3)

The old Pentecost celebrated God’s giving of the Law to regulate his people; this new Pentecost celebrated God’s pouring out of the Holy Spirit to inspire his people with all manner of divine communication and guidance, and to empower them for righteousness and mission – indeed, to make himself wonderfully present in their midst and, through them, in the midst of the world.

I want to elevate two verses in particular as very important for us to hear this morning.  When the crowds asked the disciples what they should do to fall in line with God, Peter answered straightforwardly: “Turn your life around and be baptized, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, for this promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off from here – for as many people as will call upon the Lord our God” (2:38-39).

We have explored together at some length over three of the past four weeks what this promise means for us:

The Spirit brings the power for you to know who you are in Christ and to know God’s love and presence intimately, as intimately as we might know a father’s love: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God….  You’ve received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Rom 8:14-16). The Holy Spirit alive within us allows us to experience the intimate communion with God for which our souls yearn, into which God longs to draw us.

The Spirit also brings direction and power for living in alignment with God’s righteousness, the power for a transformed life.  “Live by the Spirit,” Paul urges, “and you won’t fulfill the desires to which your self-centered nature drives you.”  Rather than the “works of the flesh” – sexual impurity, idolatry, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, factions, and the like – your life will show forth the Spirit’s fruit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:13-25), with the result that we do from the heart what God’s righteousness has always sought from us.  The Spirit empowers us to stop contributing to the brokenness in the world because of Sin and selfishness, working through us instead to contribute to God’s redemptive activity wherever he moves us.  It is this Spirit, coming alive within us and taking over within us, who allows us to live the kind of life that God will approve as “righteous.”

The Spirit brings power to build up other Christians as you become the instruments through which God encourages, counsels, and strengthens them – and they, you!

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses” (1 Cor 12:7-11)

The people around you right here reach their full potential as disciples and as a community of disciples as you, as you, as each of us gives the Spirit freer rein to work through us for the others’ encouragement, edification, and equipping.  As a corollary, any one of us also depends on our neighbors’ exercising the gifts that the Spirit wants to give them for the strengthening of the whole Body of Christ.

And, of course, the Spirit brings power for effective witness.  This was a major purpose highlighted by Jesus himself in the episodes prior to his ascension: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And what a witness was borne on that Day of Pentecost!  And the disciples’ witness is convincing and convicting because the Holy Spirit that drives the witnesses also moves upon those listening to their witness, and they join themselves to the community of Christ-followers by the thousands.  The more we hear about the trials and tensions and tragedies besetting people throughout our world, the more we must know that the people who are not in this sanctuary with us need this witness – and we need the Holy Spirit to drive us to bold witness and to make our witness effective, for their sake.

Several weeks ago, I had invited us all to wait in our own metaphorical “upper rooms” with the expectancy of being clothed with power from on high.  I invited you to pray to God about your receiving more of God’s Holy Spirit yourself and about his releasing more of God’s Spirit in our midst.  Today, I want to invite the Holy Spirit to come upon us in a new Pentecost.  I want to invite God to fan into flames what we have doused, to stoke the fires of the Spirit within us so that our hearts are not merely “strangely warmed” by our weekly visit with God but our whole lives are rather set ablaze by God’s power at work within us and through us.

I want to invite you to surrender to God’s desires for us.  Here is where faith – trust – really comes into play. Open up to God with no negotiations, no bargaining, no parameters (“you can come in, Lord, as long as you don’t do this or change that”).  Just give yourselves over to live for him who died for us and rose again on our behalf, and let him pour his Holy Spirit – his very life – into you to live in and through you.  In this way, I invite you to know all that God has for us, to experience and to become all that he has redeemed us for, to do all that he wants to do through us for his Church in every place and for the world.

I would invite you, if you are willing, to a new Pentecost.

Our Great High Priest

A sermon on Acts 1:1-12; Heb 9:11-14, 24-28, preached on Ascension Day at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

I have come across the phrase “story arc” more and more as weekly television or cable shows have become more complex.  The increased use of such language reflects the increasing sophistication of some shows, where there are plots that are laid and find resolution within any single episode, but there are also plots that are laid in season one and continue to develop through many episodes, going through their own twists and complications until season four, or even until the final season.  Today, we focus in on a critical episode in Jesus’ story arc – an episode that is in many ways a satisfying conclusion to his story.

If we were to read the Gospels of Luke or Matthew, we would begin with the birth of a child who is somehow not merely of this world, but has come into this world from the divine realm.  If we were to read John’s Gospel, this is laid out all the more clearly: the Son of God, the eternal Word, descends into our world and into our story to accomplish some grand mission.  We follow the complications of the conflicts that arise as he pursues this mission, with his adversaries ironically facilitating the Son’s accomplishment of his ultimate goal for his mission, namely his offering of himself upon a cross and God’s glorious vindication of him in his resurrection.  On this, the Sunday of the Ascension, we celebrate his return, in a kind of aftermath of the “real” action of his story, to the divine realm.

This is precisely the way that Luke ends his Gospel, a nice season one finale: “Jesus led them out as far as Bethany and, raising his hands, he blessed them.  And while he was blessing them, he departed from them and was borne aloft into heaven.  And as they were worshiping him, they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they continued to bless God in the Temple.”  (Cue end title music and credits.)

Acts is the sequel to Luke’s Gospel.  It’s the second season, as it were.  And it opens in what has become a time-honored way for a second season to open – by stepping back and replaying the season one finale, but this time with an important twist.  The disciples are left as we were at the end of the first season, staring up into heaven with a sense that Jesus’ story arc is completed with his return whence he came, his ascension back to the realm of God whence he descended.  One can almost hear their thoughts: “We’re sure going to miss him.  It was great having him around, even if that resurrection body was a little spooky – with him just disappearing on us in Emmaus or his just showing up inside our room with its doors still bolted.” We watch them gazing into heaven and we wonder: Is this the end of Jesus’ story arc?  Has our favorite character been cut from the show?  An angel appears to announce, “no!”  The story goes on – not just the disciples’ story as they return to the city to await the promised Holy Spirit, but Jesus’ story as well: “this same Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

The ascension is the event that inaugurates a second story arc for Jesus.  The one who came down from heaven to take on our humanity has returned to heaven, still bearing our humanity; the one who ascended to heaven will return again at the unforgettable and not-to-be-missed series finale.  Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews echoes this: “Christ, having been offered once for all in order to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time – not for sins but for the salvation of those who eagerly long for him” (9:28).  Jesus’ story isn’t yet completed.  And we are living as part of this second arc, which encompasses the whole life of the Church.

I suddenly came to understand “ordinary time” in the Christian Year, that long, yawning stretch between Pentecost and Christ the King Sunday, which celebrates the consummated lordship of Christ over all things, when indeed at last “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and this to the glory of the Father” (Phil 2:10-11), just before the next Advent.  “Ordinary time” is our time; it represents the long season of the Church’s activity and work in the world, performed nonetheless in connection with and directed by the Christ who is the Head of the Body, the Church.

But Jesus, once enthroned as Lord and Anointed One, also has a story arc throughout this long season (by which I mean these 1984 years so far, not just the season of the “ordinary time” of June through November).  Jesus’ departure at the ascension turns out not to mean Jesus’ absence from the life of his people on earth. He keeps showing up in the second season.  Stephen, the first to die as a result of his witness to Jesus, glimpses Jesus in glory at God’s right hand.  The glorified Jesus intersects with and dramatically changes the story arc of Saul of Tarsus, turning him around from persecutor to preacher of the risen Lord.  We see the glorified Jesus again alongside John the Seer on Patmos at the far end of the Christian canon, still speaking words of instruction and warning to his congregations.

It is, mysteriously, this very ascension, this very departure from his followers in terms of physical presence, that makes possible Jesus’ availability to all his followers by means of the Holy Spirit – and thus make possible Jesus’ continuing presence in every episode of the Church’s story, for as many seasons as this run extends.  At the outset of season one, God the Son had willingly limited himself to a body – first to the physical body of his incarnation, then to the spiritual body of his resurrection.  It was indeed essential for him to ascend, to “return to the Father” in the divine realm, if he was to transcend that bodily restriction.  He accomplished this, as he had promised, in the sending of his Holy Spirit – the Spirit of God that is also the Spirit of his Son – upon his disciples in every age, connecting the Son as the Head to the ever-growing Body of his followers, who are the means by which the Son enacts his reign during this long interim.  Many of us, hopefully all of us, know from personal experience how Jesus can be present with us, even while physically absent.  When we sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” we’re not confessing an absent mediator, but one who is very much present to us as we sing, indeed, as we “carry everything to God in prayer” sheltered by our “precious Savior, still our refuge,” day after day, year after year.

Some of the richest reflections within the New Testament on the significance of Jesus’ ascension for us are to be found in the Letter to the Hebrews.  We have to reckon here with a basic fact: Jesus and his activities ceased to be observable to eyewitnesses when that cloud removed the ascending Lord from his disciples’ sight.  How is it, then, that the author of Hebrews goes on to speak of what Jesus did after he “crossed through the heavens” to enter “heaven itself,” the eternal realm of God’s dwelling?  The answer is to be found in his reading of the Old Testament.  As for so many early Christian teachers reflecting on the significance of Jesus and his work, so for the author of Hebrews the Old Testament provides the map for the journey that Christ ultimately undertakes.  It stood to reason for them that, since those ancient oracles of God lined up so well in hindsight with what they could see in his ministry, his miracles, his suffering, his death, and his resurrection from the dead, they would also line up well with those parts of Jesus’ story that they could not see (such as the Son’s activity prior to his incarnation or his activity beyond his ascension) or did not yet see (such as his return to judge the living and the dead).

The author of Hebrews looks particularly to Leviticus 16 for one particular map that illumines Jesus’ journey – both his journey outside the city to the cross and his journey into heaven itself.  Leviticus 16 outlines the ritual for the Day of Atonement, the solemn offerings that Israel’s high priest would undertake once per year in order to cleanse the people and the holy of holies from the accumulated pollution of a year’s worth of sin.  The relevant parts here center on the fate of the two goats that were involved in the ritual.  The first goat, over whose head the high priest would recite, and thereby transfer, the sins of the whole people, would be sent outside the camp and into the desert, removing the people’s sins from them.  The second goat would be slaughtered, and the high priest would take a basin of its blood into the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Temple where the presence of God burned brightest, to cleanse it of the defilement caused by the people’s sin, removing the memory of their sins from God’s presence in the Temple.

The author of Hebrews presents Jesus as our great high priest.  He is the priest of whom all the priests of the line of Aaron were but prototypes.  And Jesus’ death and ascension effected a cosmic Day of Atonement rite, universal in terms of scope, definitive in terms of accomplishment, in contrast to the sacrifices ongoingly and endlessly performed under the old covenant.  He was a high priest who offered himself, going willingly outside the gate of the city – outside the camp – “in order to sanctify the people by means of his own blood” (Heb 13:12); he was the high priest who brought the evidence of his own death into the very presence of God to cleanse God’s memory and God’s presence of the defilement our sins produced:

Christ, having become a high priest of the good things that were coming about, entered once for all through the better and more perfect tabernacle that was not made with hands (that is, that is not in this realm of created things) into the Holy Places, having established eternal redemption – and this not with the blood of bulls and goats, but with his own blood…. Christ didn’t enter into hand-crafted holy spaces, which were merely the model of the genuine ones, but into heaven itself, now to appear before God’s presence on our behalf. (Heb 9:11-12, 24)

Having completed this universal and decisive priestly act, Jesus sat down at the right hand of God – an event not seen by the author, but discerned from the “map” of Psalm 110, a text to which Jesus himself drew attention during his ministry as relevant to his story: “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool under your feet” (Ps 110:1).

We must not imagine the author to be expressing the view that Jesus is merely sitting on his resurrected posterior for eternity.  Rather, this is an expression of the completion and the completeness of his one great high priestly act of atonement:

Every priest [on earth] must remain standing about performing the daily religious service and offering again and again the same sacrifices that aren’t able to take away sins, but this one, after offering a single sacrifice for sins, sat down at God’s right hand… For by a single offering he has decisively perfected those who are being cleansed. (Heb 10:11-12, 14).

It is also an expression of his nearness to the God with whom he continues to intercede on our behalf, that very proximity assuring us that God will always receive us favorably, since our great high priest is right there at God’s side.  (This does not mean, of course, that he will always grant the particular help we request, but it does mean that he will always help.)

Jesus’ sitting at God’s right hand is also an expression of his reigning now, his participation in God’s reign over the cosmos as a whole and over the earth and its people in particular.  He is seated beside God “waiting until his enemies shall be set as a footstool under his feet” (Heb 10:13; Ps 110:1), and his call goes out now to all people to live in willing submission to his reign now, rather than in unwilling subjection to his reign (or worse) then at his coming again. The events of Ascension and Pentecost bring us back to the texts and themes I held before you on Christ the King Sunday in late November: Christ’s reign is real and visible in the world to the extent that it is real and visible in our own obedience to his commands as the guiding force in our lives; Christ’s lordship and the benefits to us of owning him our lord are only real for us to the same extent.

Jesus’ ascension has ultimate implications for our story arc as well, as the author of Hebrews makes clear at several points.  Jesus has entered into heaven itself as a forerunner for us (Heb 6:19-20); the Son who has entered into glory is also “leading many sons and daughters to glory” (Heb 2:10).  An ancient prayer of the Church makes this petition: “Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace” (BCP, 220).  The ascension of Jesus provides firm assurance and even strong incentive to follow indeed in the way of the Crucified Messiah who has now taken the place of highest honor in the cosmos.

 

 

An Unfailing Endowment

A sermon on Luke 24:44-49; 1 Cor 12:1-14, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

During my season as your interim pastor, I’ve been trying to get a handle on all the financial resources at our church’s disposal and on the church’s financial strength and stability.  What would you say if I were to tell you that, while doing some digging in our congregation’s history, I discovered something remarkable – a bequest made by one of the founding members of this congregation to create an endowment for the church that had somehow not been properly recorded or filed such that we had entirely lost sight of it. This endowment has been growing for almost forty years, and we’ve never been drawing off the accumulated interest.  As a result, it has grown so large that the annual interest it accrues now is sufficient to fund fully a third of our budget. This had escaped the notice of the Wills & Memorials Committee; it had escaped the notice of the Finance Secretary; it had even escaped the notice of Gary McCullough.  (So now you know this is all a fiction, since nothing escapes the notice of Gary, our Finance Committee Chair!)

The authors of the New Testament teach us, however, that we do have an unfailing endowment, one whose supply will always exceed our need. It is one that is sufficient to fuel all our ministries and, indeed, allow us to accomplish more than we can presently imagine – if the Scriptural witness to this endowment is reliable in what it depicts.  It is an endowment that I fear we do not draw enough upon as we seek to resource the work of God in our midst and in our world, and as we ourselves seek to facilitate that same work through our own participation in it.  I’m still speaking this morning, of course, about the Holy Spirit.  Last week we thought together about what this endowment offers us in terms of our individual lives as we give ourselves more and more to the Spirit’s leading rather than to the leading of those self-centered impulses within us that have not yet succumbed to that death with Christ that we embraced in our baptism.  God endows us with his Spirit, however, not only for our transformation and the transformation of our relationships, but also for our empowerment as the vehicles through which God accomplishes his work in this world.

In our reading from Luke’s Gospel, we hear Jesus’ final pronouncement to his disciples prior to his ascension: “I am sending upon you what my Father promised.  As for you, stay put in the city until you have been endowed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Jesus speaks, of course, of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, just ten days after his ascension, as Luke will recount in chapter two of his sequel, the Acts of the Apostles.  In the first instance, the Holy Spirit brings empowerment for effective witness.  The Spirit makes it possible, in Jesus’ words here, “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in Christ’s name to all the nations, starting from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).  This endowment provides Peter with the needed resources to deliver his inspired – his truly in-Spirited – Pentecost sermon, to which over three thousand Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem responded positively.  And let us not forget the miracle of Pentecost that preceded Peter’s preaching, that which drew in the attention of the Jewish pilgrims from every corner of the known world – the proclamation of the “mighty works of God” by the disciples in a bewildering variety of languages native to every region of the eastern half of the Mediterranean basin.  As we continue to read Acts itself and the rest of the New Testament, we find that Pentecost was not merely a one-off, stand-out event; it was the inauguration of a new era in which the Holy Spirit would be widely, stunningly, and unmistakably experienced in the community that formed around the confession of Jesus as Messiah and Lord, and in which the Holy Spirit would regularly manifest his presence and power to and through that community.

Paul begins to treat the topic of “spiritual gifts” in the passage we heard this morning (1 Cor 12:1-14), though he continues to develop this topic through 1 Corinthians 13 (the famous “love” chapter, which you can almost always hear read at a Christian wedding) and 1 Corinthians 14.

Now, brothers and sisters, I don’t want to leave you in the dark concerning things spiritual.  You know that when you were Gentiles you were led about, wherever you were led, to idols that cannot speak.  Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by God’s Spirit says “Jesus be cursed,” and no one is able to say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor 12:1-3)

While it is tempting to explore with you what on earth could have made it necessary for Paul to point out that “no one speaking by God’s Spirit says ‘Jesus be cursed’,” I need to remain focused on the principal topic here.  These Christians in Corinth have spent their lives worshiping gods who don’t speak to human beings (since, as Paul views them, they’re not real at all), but now they’re dealing with a God who does speak, and it is vitally important for them to learn how to listen to God – to learn to recognize when it is God’s Spirit that is speaking, and when it is some other spirit, or when it’s just some voice within themselves usurping divine authority to promote their own agendas.  This requires some spiritual maturity and personal discipline, but the possibility of hearing God’s voice so as to be able to respond with obedience makes any investment in growing in this area worthwhile.

Paul continues,

Now there are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit, and different kinds of service, but the same Lord, and different kinds of exhibitions, but the same God working all these things in everyone.   The manifestation of the Spirit is given to each person to bring about what is beneficial. (1 Cor 12:4-7)

Paul finds himself having to make a case in 1 Corinthians for the value of the whole spectrum of the Spirit’s gifts and manifestations because the Christians in Corinth appear to be most enamored with the flashiest manifestation – speaking in tongues.  They need to learn to value the more practical manifestations of the Spirit, those that actually help Christians serve one another and help Christians connect powerfully with non-Christians.  Paul’s point is that the same Divine power – indeed, the same Divine Being – stands behind and is present in each kind of manifestation, and that the same Divine Being determines who will manifest what to what end.  It’s not about showing your own spiritual status or virtuosity; it’s about opening yourself up to be moved and deployed by the Spirit for God’s own purposes and for the good of others.

I’ve been a part of several United Methodist Churches that have had their parishioners fill out so-called “spiritual gifts” inventories, which are really inventories of our natural inclinations, interests, and abilities.  These are, of course, not to be despised or overlooked, and they are indeed always to be channeled toward the doing of what is pleasing in God’s sight and even toward what advances God’s interests in our situation and in the world. However, they ought also not be confused with the ways in which we are endowed by the Spirit’s working within us with gifts for the good of the whole Body of Christ, often quite apart from our natural inclinations, interests, and abilities.

There’s no danger, of course, confusing Paul’s “spiritual gifts” inventory with natural endowments:

To one person, a word of wisdom is given through the Spirit; to another person, a word of knowledge in accordance with the same Spirit; to another, faith by the same Spirit; to another, endowments of healing in the one Spirit; to another, demonstrations of power; to another, prophecy; to another, the ability to discern spirits; to another, various kinds of languages; to another, the interpretation of languages.  One and the same Spirit works all these things, apportioning to each person just as the Spirit wishes. (1 Cor 12:8-11)

What strikes me as most remarkable about Paul’s description of the ways in which the Spirit manifests himself in the Christian assembly is how casual Paul is about it all, as if these manifestations are as regular in his experience as an opening hymn, a morning prayer, and an offering are for us!  Paul creates different catalogs of the Spirit’s endowments for the Church elsewhere in his letters, so that we shouldn’t hear this list as comprehensive – but we should still hear this list, all the more as I think it challenges our own experience of God’s operation within Christian community and the degree to which we know ourselves to be acting in response to the Holy Spirit (the degree to which we know the Holy Spirit to be prompting our actions).

It’s important to notice up front that Paul defines these “gifts” not as powers that become the personal possession of the believer, but as “manifestations of the Spirit” (1 Cor 12:7).  They are gifts for the Christian assembly, from the Spirit, through a willing, obedient, Spirit-sensitive person.  They convey no status on that person; they do not come about because that person wishes, but because the Spirit has something for the occasion.  Spiritual gifts are not about an increased ability to bring about what I want to see happen, but about a greater availability to God to bring about what God wants to see happen.

The “word of wisdom,” the “word of knowledge” (which may be what Paul will refer to in chapter 14 as a “revelation”), the “prophetic utterance” – by means of all of these, the Spirit imparts a supernatural perception into a person’s heart, into a situation, and into God’s perspective on things. In chapter 14, Paul will speak of “the gift of prophecy” communicating a word from the Lord to the assembly for “edifying, encouraging, and consoling” (1 Cor 14:3-4).  He will speak of the unbeliever walking into the Christian assembly where believers are exercising these gifts, with the result that “the secrets of his heart are brought out into the open,” which sounds like “words of knowledge” to me, opening up the unbeliever to the presence and power of God and positioning him or her strongly for repentance and conversion. In Acts, we read of Agabus revealing to the Christians in Antioch that there would be a widespread famine, mobilizing pro-active relief efforts for the more economically vulnerable Christians in Judea (Acts 11:27-30).  Agabus returns later in the story, announcing to Paul that imprisonment would befall him in Jerusalem (Acts 21:10-12). In 1 Timothy we read about a prophetic utterance was spoken over Timothy in connection with the laying on of hands (perhaps his commissioning for leadership in Ephesus?) and the imparting of some unspecified endowment of the Spirit (4:14).  The second and third chapters of Revelation provide seven stellar examples of “prophetic utterances” as the author communicates the Glorified Christ’s assessment of the various congregations’ strengths and weaknesses and calls them to the courses of action that will bring them into alignment with him.

It is probably in connection with these manifestations that we should place the gift of “distinguishing between spirits” – recognizing whether it is indeed God or some other spirit or the speaker’s own self behind the utterance (see also 1 Thess 5:19-21; 1 Jn 4:1-3).  Paul also expects the Spirit to empower believers to speak in “tongues,” whether these are actual human languages, as happened at Pentecost, or other “languages” that may reflect “the languages of angels,” to which Paul will refer in chapter 13 (“if I speak in the languages of human beings or of angels, but lack love”).  Paul may downplay the value of this manifestation in 1 Corinthians largely because it is overplayed in Corinth, but his evaluation of the phenomenon transcends the situation: the one who does the speaking in tongues gets more out of it than those who listen, unless the Spirit also happens to provide an interpretation through someone in the assembly (or unless the one praying speaks Greek, as did that sixth-grade math teacher).

Paul also speaks of the Spirit bringing endowments of power to effect some dramatic changes in a person or situation.  Paul expected the Spirit to work through Christians to extend healing to the sick or infirm. He expected “works of power,” probably including exorcism (which is actually still quite common in the so-called “Majority World,” especially Africa and Asia) and other manifestations that might promote receptivity to the gospel (as when Paul struck Elymas, a sorcerer and a rival, blind in the course of his preaching in Paphos).  Of course, the faith required to step forward in these ways and know that God wants to see something done and wants to do it in response to your prayer – this is also a Spirit-endowed gift (see also James 5:14-18).

Most of us may have very little personal experience of these manifestations of the Spirit.  Some of us may not be altogether certain that we would welcome such manifestations of the Spirit into our own lives, into our encounters with non-Christians, or into our congregational experience.  It is my aim simply to elevate before you the witness of the apostles to this spiritual endowment that God supplies to God’s Church and raise the question – do we need to draw more fully on this spiritual endowment not only in our own lives for our transformation, but also in our congregation and in its work, so that God may attain God’s ends more fully in our community? Are we interested in seeing our congregational resources, ministry, and witness reflect that of the assemblies in the New Testament and in plugging ourselves in more fully to the same source of direction and power? Or do we want to develop rationales for why our congregational life should not reflect the picture of Christian corporate life and ministry that we read therein?

If we were to read on to 1 Corinthians 13, we would come to what, for Paul, is the most essential, foundational, and lasting of Spirit-given endowments, namely the power to love – to be so centered in God’s Spirit that one manifests patience, kindness, and forbearance in one’s interactions; that one no longer manifests envy, arrogance, irritability, or resentment.  And so Paul himself urged the Christians in Corinth: “pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Cor 14:1), that you might become a mouthpiece for the Holy Spirit.  We tend to take Paul quite seriously in regard to the rest of his advice.  Perhaps we should here as well.

Obviously moving out into these new waters would take careful preparation and skillful sailing.  It would be essential that we grow in our rootedness in the Scripture as we grow in openness to the Spirit – and ahead of growing in our exercise of the Spirit’s gifts.  The writings of the Old and New Testaments were not called an “anthology” but a “canon,” the Greek word for a “measuring stick,” and this with good reason.  Growing in openness to the Spirit and his gifts would also necessitate growing in spiritual maturity overall, not because God is going to endow us with some power that we might misuse, like a child who finds her mother’s handgun, but because we would need to equip ourselves with the self-knowledge and self-awareness that allows us to know the difference between our own voice and the Spirit’s voice, our own impulses and the Spirit’s impulses, our own capacity to mimic spiritual gifts and genuine expressions of the Spirit.  Growing in all these areas, however, is a good and even a necessary thing anyway.  And so I simply put it to you all: what should we do about this amazing endowment that God offers us, not as something that he makes available for our use, but as something that makes us ever so much more available for his use?

 

New Spirit, New Heart

A sermon on Ezekiel 36:24-28; Romans 8:1-17, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

Ezekiel understood that at the heart of Israel’s problem was the problem of Israel’s heart.  Many in Israel had lost their heart for God and God’s covenant.  They had long since forgotten God’s benefits in delivering them from slavery in Egypt, leading them to take possession of the land that he had promised to their ancestor Abraham, providing them with all that was needful for a good life enjoying God’s gifts.  They wanted to be like other nations, living under the protection and patronage of powerful kings like Saul and David, rejecting God as their sole protector and patron.  They wanted more than the covenant-shaped life would allow them.  They didn’t want to leave the gleanings of their fields for the poor, preferring to squeeze every drachma out of their land’s produce for themselves.  They didn’t want to restrain themselves from increasing their lands at their neighbors’ expense.  They didn’t want to honor God and God’s Temple with their tithes and offerings, preferring to institute their own temples and cult shrines throughout the land and to worship however and whomever they saw fit.  They didn’t want to restrain their anger, their enmities, their grudges, their factions and power plays, their extra-marital sexual cravings, or their greed as God’s Law required of them.  Of course, there were always the faithful among the people, but the stink of the rebellion of the unfaithful among them had overpowered the pleasing odor of covenant faithfulness and God was moving in to take out the trash.

God was simply proving faithful to God’s covenant promises.  God told Israel the good that he would continue to bring upon them if they honored him and his gifts by keeping covenant with him, and the devastation he would bring upon them if they dishonored him and his gifts by dishonoring their covenant obligations.  The majority of the Old Testament prophets warned Israel of those consequences and urged them to return en masse to lining themselves up quickly with the covenant’s requirements, but the people’s collective heart had become stone as far as God and the covenant were concerned.  And so devastation came upon the northern kingdom of Israel and its scattered inhabitants in 721 BC with the Assyrian conquest and upon the southern kingdom of Judah and its scattered inhabitants in 587 BC with the Babylonian conquest.

Ezekiel also knew, however, that God would not abandon his good purposes for God’s people.  If Israel had proven unfaithful to the covenant that had promised them life, surely God would take the additional step of changing them from the inside out so that they could prove faithful to the covenant and enjoy God’s promised blessings.  What Israel lacked the power to do, God would empower them to do.  And so we hear these astounding promises spoken in God’s name:

I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezek 36:24-28, NRSV)

Israel needed a radical change of heart; they needed a heart that would be tender and sensitive again to God, so as to care deeply about how they were relating to God, how they were walking before God, what their walking said about their love for God and devotion to their covenant with God.  But, Ezekiel says, God knew that they needed even more. They needed for God’s own Spirit to enter them, to live within them, to direct and empower their covenantal response to God: “I will put my Spirit within you.”  This is the “new Spirit” that makes possible a “new heart” as well as makes possible a new future with God, one in which Israel will experience the covenant’s promised blessings upon its collective obedience and not its promised curses upon its collective disregard for God and God’s righteousness.

Paul understood the problem quite similarly, save that, in the death and resurrection of Christ, God was expanding the scope of his concern and his covenant quite dramatically.  As he would put it in Galatians:

Christ redeemed us from the Law’s curse by becoming a curse on our behalf (as it is written, ‘Cursed is anyone left hanging on a tree’), in order that the blessing pronounced upon Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus – in order that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith! (Gal 3:13-14)

Paul believed that, in Christ, God was circling back at last beyond the covenant that he had made with Israel to the promise that he had made to Abraham, that all the nations (and not just one) would received God’s blessing through him and through his offspring – for Paul, the offspring par excellence, namely Christ Jesus.  And Paul unambiguously declares this promised blessing to be – the Spirit!

Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome serves as Paul’s introduction of himself and his message to the churches in the capital city of the empire.  Even though Paul knows a good number of Christians in Rome, he’s not yet been to Rome himself and the majority of Roman Christians have not made his acquaintance.  Romans is a kind of stewardship sermon, for Paul wants the Roman Christians to support his ongoing mission to points West of Italy, specifically to Spain, now that Paul feels that he has made the rounds from Syria through Dalmatia in the eastern Mediterranean.  Paul therefore wants to lay out his understanding of the good news quite carefully and fully, therefore, so that the Roman Christians will have a chance to think about what they would be supporting, should they partner with Paul.

Paul is particularly emphatic in this letter that the good news of Jesus calls people to a change of life.  He’s been misrepresented in some circles as preaching “grace” as an excuse for making continued room for sin in one’s life (Rom 3:8; 6:1, 15); he wants to make it crystal clear that this is not the case.  Just two chapters prior to our reading today, we find Paul making these declarations:

Are we to keep on sinning in order that grace may abound?  Heck, no!  We who died to sin – how will we keep living in it?  Don’t you know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were submerged into his death?  We were buried, then, with him through immersion into his death in order that, just as Christ was raised from among the dead through the Father’s glory, so also we might walk in a new kind of life.  (Rom 6:1-4)

So don’t let Sin continue to be the dominant power in your mortal body, to make you keep obeying your body’s cravings, and don’t keep offering your embodied life to Sin as its tool for doing what is unrighteous. Instead, offer yourselves to God as people who have come alive again out from among the dead, and offer your life in the body to God as his tool for righteous action. (Rom 6:12-14)

The promise of the good news is that “the person you used to be was crucified in order the body driven by Sin might be set aside, in order that we should no longer live as Sin’s slaves” (Rom 6:6), that “Sin will not be your boss, because you’re not living under Law but living under grace” (Rom 6:14).

This is a great promise, but I wonder to what extent we are experiencing the fulfillment of this promise in our lives.  Are we living in the victory over Sin, and over the sub-Christian attitudes and actions it incites, that Paul proclaims?  Does Sin continue to master us as it kicks up resentment, anger, that sense of injured merit within us?  As it prods us to any of a wide variety of self-centered indulgences by which we seek to distract ourselves from the emptiness of our souls?  Do we find ourselves giving our embodied life over to acting out Sin’s impulses, allowing it to achieve its ends in our relationships and realities instead of giving ourselves over consistently to God, for God to achieve his ends in and through us?  I don’t find myself consistently there, where Paul says Christ’s death has the power to take me.  Do we perhaps even find ourselves to be like stone, where God’s love and leading are concerned, with the person that we used to be still very much the person that we remain?

Paul was acutely aware not only of the promise of the good news, but also of the problem of the human condition – the problem of knowing the right thing to do and failing to do it, of knowing the wrong thing to do and failing to resist doing it.  As he writes in the paragraphs immediately preceding our reading today,

The good to which I aspire, this I don’t do; but the wickedness I don’t desire deep down – this is what I end up doing!  But if I am doing what I don’t really want to be doing, it’s no longer me who’s doing it, but Sin – that power that is living within me. (Rom 7:19-20; see also 7:15, 17)

Paul writes these paragraphs from the perspective of living under the covenant Law, like those Israelites who failed to keep covenant with God prior to the devastations of the northern and southern kingdoms – and like those Israelites who continued not to walk in the covenant, whose hearts became stone once again, leading to the ongoing experience of Gentile domination and, eventually, the second destruction of Jerusalem and its temple under Rome in AD 70.  A great many Christians, however, can also relate to the impasse that Paul describes – knowing the righteousness that God desires to see in our lives and finding themselves far more inclined toward selfishness and sin.  We’ve probably all been there at some point, perhaps at many points.  But what not enough Christians seem to realize is that God does not leave us in this miserable condition, powerless to attain our holiest aspirations and doomed ever to fall back under the power of Sin.

If we find ourselves still exclaiming with Paul, “wretched person that I am! who will save me from this death-bound body” in which Sin has such power? (Rom 7:24), we have not yet experienced all that Christ has made available for us – that which causes Paul immediately to exclaim “But thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, our Lord!” (Rom 7:25) as he moves to God’s solution for the problem of the human condition, namely the provision of the Spirit:

The law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of Sin and Death … in order that the just requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us who live not in alignment with the flesh but in alignment with the Spirit. (Rom 8:2, 4)

The contrast is unmistakable.  Before God’s work within us, Sin is the power living within us, possessing us, driving us.  The promise of the good news, however, is that God sets a new power loose to live within us, to possess us, to drive us.

Those who live in the domain of the “flesh” are unable to please God.  But you are not living in the domain of the “flesh,” but in the domain of the Spirit, since God’s Spirit is living in you…. If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the One who raised Christ from the dead will also make your mortal bodies to live through his Spirit that is living in you.  (Rom 8:8-9, 11)

Christ has given us two things that open up for us the promise of the good news.  The first is his own death and resurrection – his death, not only as an act of supreme obedience that reconciles us to God and sets aside the record of our own disobedience, but as an act that communicates spiritual power to us each and every day because of our baptism.  The death and resurrection of Jesus holds ever before us the opportunity and the obligation to die with him to our old self with its cravings and to live a new life for God.  It is both opportunity and obligation.  It is opportunity, because only those who die to self and live for God will live forever, and Christ has opened up this possibility for us; it is obligation, because “he died for all in order that those who continued living might live no longer for themselves but for him who died and was raised on their behalf” (2 Cor 5:15).  We owe it to him to fulfill in our own lives the purpose for which he laid down his own life for us.  “We are debtors,” Paul says in Romans 8:12, “but we don’t owe the flesh anything more.”

The second is this marvelous gift of the Holy Spirit, God with us, God within us.  The promise of the good news that Paul articulated in Romans 6 – “Sin will not be your boss, because you’re not living under Law but living under grace” (Rom 6:14) – is made reality as the Spirit of the Living God, that supreme grace, that supreme gift, of God becomes the dominant and driving force in our lives.  As Paul had put it earlier in his letter to his converts in Galatia, “walk in line with the Spirit, and there’s no way that you’re going to bring to pass what the flesh craves” (Gal 5:16).  The good news proclaims the unqualified promise of the Spirit’s victory over sin in us, so that we may indeed live for God in the manner that pleases God.

We can’t leave this passage only focusing on the power of the Spirit for a transformed life without also hearing Paul’s word about the power of the Spirit for a transformed relationship with God:

As many as are led by God’s Spirit, these people are God’s sons and daughters…. You received a Spirit of adoption, in whom we call out “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself bears witness alongside our spirit that we are God’s children. (Rom 8:14-16)

It is the Holy Spirit who tells us who we are before God and who God will be for us, and whose witness within us gives us assurance of our place in God’s family and in God’s love.  It is the Holy Spirit that brings home to us Jesus’ words of assurance, “Don’t be afraid, little flock; it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32), stirring up within us the necessary trust in the Father to let go of the person that we used to be, with all of his or her desires and demands and requirements, to become the person that he wishes to make of us – the person in whom Christ has come fully alive.

Do you want to know God more intimately not just as the Father, but as your Father?  Do you desire to experience unequivocal victory over Sin and the ways in which your old, self-centered person derails your highest aspirations for the new life in Christ?  Are you ready to stop letting your expressions, words, and actions contribute to the brokenness in the world because of Sin and selfishness, and let all your expressions, words, and actions contribute to God’s redemptive activity wherever you find yourself?  If you feel yourself inclining positively in these directions, take heart – it’s a sign that you indeed have a tender heart toward God, and not a heart of stone.  Take heart also, because God richly provides his Holy Spirit to accomplish all these things in you and through you.  Paul assures us that we were sealed with this Holy Spirit when we put our trust in Christ (Eph 1:13), but in the same letter he urges us to “keep allowing yourselves to be filled up with the Holy Spirit” (Eph 5:18), to earnestly seek that the Holy Spirit should become the indwelling power within us, training ourselves to discern the Spirit’s leading so that we can keep walking in step with the Spirit.  If this seems beyond our reach, we simply need to trust God’s promise the more: “I will put my Spirit within you” (Ezek 36:27).

 

Should We Let Him In?

A sermon on Ephesians 3:14-21; John 16:7-15, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

The rhythms of church life – by which I mean, the rhythms of church attendance and the rhythms of our expenditures of energy at church – might suggest that Easter is the climax of the liturgical year, from which apex we ride a slow decline into the doldrums of summer.  The climax of the liturgical year, however, is still ahead of us – even though there will be admittedly fewer of us here to experience it together.  I’m speaking, of course, of Pentecost, the Sunday on which we celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the one-hundred-and-twenty or so disciples waiting together in their crowded upper room where they had been staying since the epoch-making weekend of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  That event is rightly celebrated as the birthday of the Church.

It was after they were “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49) that the disciples emerged from that upper room and flooded the precincts of the Temple to bear witness to all concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus and to call thousands to repentance and into the fellowship of Christ through the Holy Spirit in the very first day (2:41), “the Lord adding daily” thereafter “to the number who were being rescued” (Acts 2:47).

I don’t want Pentecost to take us by surprise this year, such that we aren’t prepared to receive all that it holds for us, and so it is my plan to reflect with you for this and the following two weeks upon the New Testament vision for the role that the Holy Spirit plays in the life of the believer and in the life of the believing community.  Jesus himself gave careful attention to preparing his disciples for their Pentecost.  In our Gospel reading, we hear merely one reference to this upcoming Pentecost out of four references just within Jesus’ “farewell discourse,” the Fourth Gospel’s account of the instructions Jesus gave to his disciples on the evening before his passion and death. Jesus would continue to point them forward to Pentecost, moreover, in the period between his resurrection and his ascension, his physical departure from the visible realm.

On that night before his suffering and death – but also looking ahead to his returning to the Father at his ascension – Jesus assured his disciples: “I’m telling you the truth: it’s to your advantage that I’m going away, because if I don’t go away, the Advocate will not come to you.  But if I go away, I’ll send him to you” (John 16:7).  I imagine that this was a tough sell.  After all, it had to be fabulous to have Jesus there – to hear his teaching with the full conviction of the truth of his words that his presence (and the Presence of God that it mediated) brought; to witness his miraculous healings and signs, the ocular proof of the power of God at work in him and, because in him, immediately available in their midst; to see and know personally, with the eyes of the body and not only the eyes of faith, him in whom they were placing such trust.  Who here has not ever wished to have been alive then to have seen Jesus in action, to have met him in the body?  Who here has not considered Thomas ever so fortunate to have been able to put forth his hand and touch the wounds in the risen Lord’s resurrected body and know beyond the shadow of another doubt that he was risen, that everything he had said about himself proved true, that everything he taught was therefore reliable as a bedrock foundation?  I would gladly endure that mild slapdown – “Do you believe because you’ve seen me? Blessed are those who believe without seeing!” – to be able to believe because I’ve seen. What could be better than having Jesus here?

And yet, Jesus himself said to them – and all but told them on oath by insisting, “I’m telling you the truth” – that things would be better for them, that they would gain greater advantage, from his departure, because it would mean his sending “the Advocate.”  Had we started listening in to this discourse from the beginning today, we would have heard his introduced as “another Advocate” (John 14:16), one who would be even more for them (and for us) than Jesus, the original Advocate, was for them.  This second “Advocate” is, of course, “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name” (14:26), Jesus says, “the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father” (15:26).  The question before us is, are we experiencing this “better” yet?  Do we enjoy such a connection with the Holy Spirit, and with the living Jesus through the Holy Spirit, that we are glad no longer to have Jesus walking about the earthly sphere?

Paul certainly prayed that his own converts in Ephesus – along with new converts who would have joined the Christian movement since his departure – would enjoy such a connection.  In one of those rare passages in which Paul opens up a window into his own powerful prayer life, and specifically how he prays for his churches, we find him praying that they would enter into a rich experience of God’s Holy Spirit:

“I bend my knees toward the Father, from whom all fatherhood in the heavens and upon the earth takes its name, that he might grant you to be strengthened with power in your innermost self through his Holy Spirit, in accordance with his glorious bounty; that Christ might live in your hearts by faith, while you sink deep roots and foundations into love, in order that you might have the power to understand, along with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth of, and to fathom the unfathomable love of Christ; that you might be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:14-19).

ow John Wesley was not a fan of what he called “enthusiasm,” which he defined as “a religious madness arising from some falsely imagined influence or inspiration of God; at least, from … expecting something from God which ought not to be expected from Him” (from his Sermon, “The Nature of Enthusiasm”).  We, too, should want to be careful not to fall into the trap of imagining ourselves inspired by God when we are not, nor to fall into the trap of “expecting something from God which ought not to be expected from Him.”  But I think we should seek to be equally careful not to expect too little from God, not to be so wedded to a “reasonable religion” that we shut ourselves off from the intimate knowledge of God and the flooding of our lives and our congregation with the power of God that Paul, at least, seems to be convinced that God wishes to provide, unless Paul is himself praying in vain.

Paul’s prayer for the Christians in Ephesus – and I might presume that he would have prayed it for us as well, had he any inkling we would be gathering this morning in Jesus’ name – was for an experience.  It was for an encounter with Divinity that would presumably have a starting point, but not an ending point.  It was for the invasion of our inmost selves by God’s Holy Spirit, an invasion that would flood us with both power and a Person – not power for us to do what we wish, but power that comes in the divine Person of God the Holy Spirit, accomplishing what he wishes in us and among us and through us.  The second petition seems to me to be a consequence of the fulfillment of the first – that Christ would live within each one of us and among all of us together, bringing with him an experience of divine love that, at one and the same time, is so great that it cannot be measured, but is so full and real that we feel its limitlessness.  The third petition is the most paradoxical – that the infinite and boundless God in all his fullness should somehow come to occupy this infinitesimal space of “me.”  And how could that ever happen, except by God’s settling within us, filling us with God’s Holy Spirit.  If it sounds a lot like “possession,” I think we’re on the right track.

Should we let him in?

He will mess with everything if we do, but what might we hold onto about our lives as they are that would be of greater value to us, that would bring us greater joy and fullness, than to “fathom the unfathomable love of Christ,” or to know the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit in our inmost selves, or to experience the fullness of God firsthand and thus to know that, having God, we have it all?  I personally would think it a great tragedy for us to go through our whole lives enacting the forms of piety, but remaining closed off from its power.

Should we let him in?

Let me tell you briefly a story of a church that did.  The pastor – I should say “rector,” as he was the senior pastor at an Episcopal Church – encountered another Episcopal church that had let the Holy Spirit in and spent some time corresponding with its rector.  After a time of study, he led his parish through a series of sermons exploring the Scriptural witness to the Holy Spirit and the Scriptural vision for Spirit-led lives and Spirit-led churches.  At some point in this pilgrimage, they prayed, and the Spirit showed up.  Most in the congregation were suffused with a new and deeper love for God, for one another, and for the people outside their walls.  They began meeting together more often, informally and in newly formed small groups, praying with and for one another, calling down God’s help, favor, guidance, and Spirit upon one another.  They began worshiping with a new passion for God.  The old Anglican hymns came alive as vehicles of praise, adoration, and prayer.  As might be expected, new songs were brought into the repertoire as well, bringing an added dimension to worship.  The old liturgy took on a new life – the words didn’t change, but the people had changed.  When the time for prayer came around, people were unafraid to pray out loud and to pray with confidence.

Some admittedly strange things started happening as well.  Either in the Sunday morning service, or the Wednesday evening teaching service, or in small groups – always at the appointed time for such things – someone might say something that he or she believed had been given him or her from the Lord.  Generally, these would be sifted and confirmed or discarded over the course of the week.  Someone might start praying in a language that was not recognized – what is commonly called “speaking in tongues.”  Now, I have to admit that I had serious doubts about this phenomenon myself.  I loved the people.  I respected their ardor for God and for genuine discipleship, but this part seemed a bit much – until, that is, a retired elementary school math teacher started praying over me in Greek.  I can still remember a line from her prayer: … chairein en tē aretē tou kuriou, “… that he might rejoice in the excellence of the Lord.” [[Greek geeks reading this: of course I know that chairein is an infinitive, but I am assuming that the words right before this would have been something like “Grant him” or “Make him”]]

But the most important thing about this influx of the Holy Spirit into the lives of individual disciples and into their corporate life together was the level of love for one another and for the stranger in their midst that this engendered.  It was a church to which I was eager to invite people (as indeed, were many), because there was something there that was unmistakably beyond the “everyday.”  It was a place where connection with God was palpable.  Those whom I brought almost never failed to be impressed by the spirit of the congregation and by the experience.  I hold in my mind Paul’s own vision for Christian worship and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the assembly: “if all are speaking prophetic utterances in the Spirit and an unbeliever or outsider comes in, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the hidden secrets of his heart are brought out into the open and in this way, falling on his face to worship God, he will announce, ‘Truly God is in your midst’!” (1 Cor 14:24-25).

I’d like for us to be that kind of church.  I would never presume that there are only certain ways that the Holy Spirit will make himself known, but I do presume that he makes his presence unmistakably known. I’d like for the presence and power of God to be so real and palpable here – something that comes to pass because the Spirit of God is vitally present in us and manifesting himself through us and among us – that the visitor goes away not merely thinking, “Wow, those were really welcoming people” (though I do want the visitor always to leave with that impression!), but rather, “God is truly in your midst!”

The season after Easter was, for the first disciples, a time of waiting and praying for this “power from on high,” this anointing with the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised. As we approach Pentecost this year, I would like to invite you – as many of you as are attracted to the experience that Paul’s prayer envisions, who want to find out what’s better than having Jesus here in the flesh with us – to spend these next few weeks as did those first disciples.  I want to invite us all to wait in our own metaphorical “upper rooms” with the expectancy of being clothed with power from on high.  I want to invite you to pray to God about receiving more of God’s Holy Spirit yourself and about releasing more of God’s Spirit in our midst.  This is a prayer that we can count on God answering for, as Jesus is remembered in Luke’s Gospel to have said, “If you, being wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father from heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13).

Let’s invite him in.

 

 

 

Living Like You’ll Live Forever

A sermon on Luke 24:1-12 and 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, 51-58, preached at  Port Charlotte United Methodist Church

 

If it all seems a bit unbelievable, that’s alright.  The message of Easter – the news that Jesus had beaten death and walked out of the tomb – struck the people who had known Jesus and traveled with him for years as unbelievable as well.  They had even heard him announce on several occasions that he was going to be crucified, buried, and raised to life again and still, when the women returned from the empty tomb to report that two angels had appeared to them and said “He’s not in there anymore – he’s on the loose in the world again,” the eleven dismissed it as “an idle tale” and for the most part returned to their moping (Luke 24:11).  They had seen what had happened to him – granted, from a safe distance.  First the thugs employed by the chief priests and then the thugs serving in the Roman peacekeeping force had made a complete mess of him.  Then they nailed him up on a pair of planks between two other unfortunates and that was that.  Game over. No bonus round.

It was difficult for the eleven to question what seemed, based on all observable evidence not only from that week but throughout their whole lives, to be the basic fact of life: death is the end.  Alright, so maybe Jesus gave a few people a “bonus round,” like that widow’s son in the village of Nain, or that daughter of Jairus, the synagogue leader, or Jesus’ own friend Lazarus, which was all pretty impressive, but all of them were just going to die again anyway.  Jesus could sneak a little extra time from Death for some people, but there’s no beating Death in the end.

It wasn’t long at all, however, before the disciples were confronted personally with the Risen Christ.  He didn’t quite look like himself – at least, a pair of disciples didn’t recognize him as they walked for perhaps seven miles together from Jerusalem to Emmaus, until he broke bread at a table with them.  In John’s Gospel we find Mary Magdalene by the empty tomb mistaking Jesus for the gardener, until Jesus calls her by name.  When he showed up in the midst of the eleven and their companions (and in John’s Gospel he just shows up among them in the middle of a locked room), the disciples weren’t sure if he was real or a ghost, until he told them to poke him and give him some food.  It took a while for it all to sink in, because it was just so hard to believe, after seeing the triumph of Death all around them for all their lives, that they knew someone who really had defeated Death, who now lived a life, in a body, over which Death had no more power. They still took another fifty days to process all this before they started preaching – and living – the implications of it all.

The Apostle Paul, who also had the benefit of getting turned around by an encounter with the risen, glorified Christ, knew a great deal about living the implications of it all.  Indeed, if he was going to prove faithful to God’s commission to him to proclaim Jesus as the risen Lord he would have to be willing to live the implications of following a resurrected Lord, which simply meant living now as if he was going to live forever.

Now, I’ve typically heard the expression “living like you’re going to live forever” applied to people doing stupid things, like taking unnecessary risks for the thrill of it, or putting a great deal of energy into work while allowing relationships with spouses or children to pass one by or to suffer for lack of investment, or just plain wasting precious time that one will never get back – but some day will desperately wish one could get back.  Living mindful of the fact that we will indeed, one day, die can be a path to living wisely during the span of this mortal life.  It can help us reflect on how to make the most of any given day in terms of pursuing what gives greatest value to our lives rather than allowing ourselves just to “kill” time, which is a kind of prolonged suicide.  It can help us prioritize wisely, which usually means prioritizing people.  (I wouldn’t take back a single hour that I spent playing with our boys, for example.) It can even help us stop investing ourselves in conflicts and concerns over the “little things” because we know that pouring any more of our limited time into such matters is just sending good money after bad.

More often, however, it seems that living mindful of the fact that we will indeed, one day, die leaves us vulnerable to living in a selfish and, sometimes, even cowardly manner.  We find ourselves thinking more of what we are getting out of life, and making sure that we get what we want out of life, even if that means giving up on a spouse who no longer makes us happy; even if that means spending 97% of our after-tax income on preserving the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed; even if that means getting behind public policies that hurt other people but are alright because they protect our interests. We are no longer motivated by virtue.  The good of the other, whom we are to love as we love ourselves, is no longer the primary guiding value.  Instead, we are seduced into an ethic of satisfying our own desires to the point that we are willing not only to withhold help from, but to cause harm to others to do it.  This is how Death makes us its slaves.  This is how Death asserts its control, its power over us.  This is precisely that from which Jesus died and rose again to free us.

If we are going to follow Jesus all the way, we need to discover an Easter faith.  We need to understand that Death is not the wall into which we slam at the end of our lives; Death is not a mirror that should keep us looking only to this life and looking out to get all we can out of this life.  Death is a door – one that Jesus has knocked off its hinges.  We need to hear Jesus this morning, standing outside his tomb with the round stone rolled back again, saying: “I died, and look! I’m alive now for all ages to come – and I hold the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev 1:18).  Only if we hear him say this and trust him, that he can and will unlock our tombs, will we be able to follow him when obedience, when gratitude, becomes costly.  Only then will we trust him enough to give away our lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel, believing his word that it is only such people who will ultimately make their lives secure.

Paul understood all of this very well.  What we do not see in Paul is an attempt to have things both ways – a secure, comfortable life now and just enough of Jesus to have some insurance in case there’s something after death.  What we see instead is a complete re-ordering of life with a view to fulfilling the call that Paul understood God to have placed on his life – to announce God’s Son throughout the nations that made up the Roman Empire (Gal 1:15-16).  He took up an essentially itinerant life, a hard trade that required, however, only a few tools that could easily be carried as he moved from city to city, and hostility from everyone who felt threatened or betrayed by his proclamation of a crucified blasphemer as the Messiah of Israel, who loved Gentiles every bit as much as Jews, and would soon return to upset the entire Roman order.

Paul provides this summary of the downside of his life as a missionary and church planter:

Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.  (2 Cor 11:25-28, NRSV)

And all of that happened to him before the really bad stuff – his four years of imprisonment in Caesarea and Rome and his eventual execution under Nero.  He can rightly say: “If we’ve hoped in Christ only for this life, we’re of all people the most wretched” (1 Cor 15:19).  If there’s no resurrection from the dead for me, why have I been doing all this?  As Paul says just a few breaths later,

“Why do we put ourselves in harm’s way every hour?  It’s like I’m dying out there every day!  If I faced down people in Ephesus who were like wild animals, what did I gain from it?  If the dead aren’t raised” – if this life is all there is“then let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor 15:30-32).

I wonder to what extent we spend our lives hedging our bets.  To what extent do we insulate ourselves from the possibility of ending up like Paul – the loser both here and hereafter because we failed to get all we could out of this life in the hope that Easter faith was real, perhaps to find out in the end that it wasn’t real.  This is, however, precisely the posture against which Jesus warned: “those who seek to make their lives secure will lose them; those who spend their lives for my sake and for the sake of the good news will secure them” (Matt 16:25).

Paul understood that one had to go “all in,” to live now like people who were assured of living forever, and not hedge one’s bets. Pastor Stephen Abur of Darfur, Sudan, understood this as well.  He continued his work of preaching Christ in open-air evangelism and building up a congregation of believers there despite having received multiple death threats from Muslim zealots, enraged that former Muslims were embracing Christianity.  Enough Sudanese Christian leaders had turned up dead for Stephen and his family to treat the threats as credible, yet they persisted in their witness and in their work.  In the still-dark hours of the morning of March 2, 2018, Stephen, his wife, and their two daughters were found butchered (the reports say “like livestock”) in their house, after their attackers had set fire to the church building in which over a hundred converts, who had been disowned by their own families, were living.

Theirs was an Easter faith. They continued to live as people who would live forever, for whom Death might hold some apprehension, but not fear, such as might cow them into silencing their obedient witness to the Lord who loved them and gave himself for them. And as I hear more and more such stories of our sisters and brothers around the globe, I think, more and more, that our best response is not: “Well, I’m certainly glad that we live here where that sort of thing doesn’t happen” or “Thank God we don’t have to face anything like that.”  I don’t think anymore that God calls for that degree of Easter faith from one family or person and calls for much less Easter faith from another family or person.  No, I have begun to hear this: “If they faced death with that kind of an Easter faith, how should we live life with an Easter faith to match?”

If they were willing to give their all on this side of death to continue the witness and work of Christ, sure that their Lord held the keys and would unlock death for them, and putting their all into advancing their Lord’s interests in Darfur, what would it look like for us to give our all on this side of death to advance our Lord’s interests both here and throughout the world?  Should I feel lucky that my faith journey doesn’t require such sacrifice as is required of others, and go back to enjoying my normal American life with all of its trappings?  Or should I start reorganizing my normal American life more radically so that, maybe, my living will bear the same kind of witness to an Easter faith as the Abur family bore in their dying?  The essential question that Easter places before us is this: will we go on living for the sake of the enjoyment of this life, witnessing to the power of death, or will we live like people who are going to live forever, proclaiming by our selfless actions and courageous witness, “Death, where is your sting?  Death, where is your victory?” (1 Cor 15:54b).

The “good news” of Easter is not merely that Jesus’ story has a happy ending. It’s the assurance that Jesus’ resurrection is the first of many: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits from among those that sleep” (1 Cor 15:20).  Where there are “first fruits,” the full harvest is not far behind. Christ’s resurrection turned the tomb into a womb.  It may swell now as its burden grows with each new death, but at the time of deliverance new life will burst forth as the dead are brought forth by God to live anew (Rev 20:13). The chief point of 1 Corinthians 15 is that you can’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus without also believing in your own.  And when you truly believe in your own resurrection, you will be free to give yourselves away for the good of others like people who have an endless supply of life – for you know that you really are going to live forever.