#Greeklivesmatter – A Pentecost Sermon

Acts 2:1-12

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

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

Acts 6:1-7

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

Disclaimer Text

In place of our Footnotes today I offer you a disclaimer: If you are following along with the sermon that I sent out in the weekly update or with one that was sent in the mail, then you should stop now. For the second time in my stay here as pastor I found myself compelled by the Spirit to give a message other than the one that I wrote for today. While this time the Spirit allowed me time to write out the message rather than preach it extemporaneously, the fact remains. What you are about to hear did not exist until this morning as I struggled with the call of the Spirit to do something other than what I had planned. The original sermon’s text is available online and a video of it will be posted here sometime this afternoon, but for now we have another lesson to learn from our Scripture and our remembrance of the Pentecost.

I would also like to say out front that we will be discussing race, police accountability, and what we in the 21st century can learn from the church of Acts in its response to issues of race. Our sermon today, in exploring it, is far from the ideal medium to talk about this in. The conversation is necessarily one way, I only have so much time to speak to the issue, and at the end of the day no one message can really tackle all that is involved in these discussions. I offer up a sermon, a meditation on the word which is the beginning of a conversation we all must have with ourselves and with one another as the community of Christ.

What the Spirit gives to the edification of the community I offer up freely. We go into our time today, I pray, with an understanding that what is lifted up is not meant to divide or to condemn, but to give us time and place to question what comes next. I invite us to be convicted by our Father where we can be, empowered by the example of Christ to overcome our failings, and in all things to live in a Spirit of Love that allows us to come to different conclusions on many things, yes, but that nonetheless sees the essential unity of the Church win out.

Sermon Text

The Pentecost tells us a story that is hard to imagine. A group of illiterate ministers gather together in the upper room of a house. They have been waiting a long fifty days since their Master had left them and ascended into Heaven. This group of people feel the rush of wind, they suddenly find themselves speaking languages they never knew, and they pour into the streets to share the message and the salvation of their Master. They preach to thousands of people, all hearing in their same language, all suddenly entering together into a community that was barred to them before.

The Pentecost is amazing because it shows God’s willingness to reach out to us, and not only to overcome differences between individuals but to utilize and embrace them. When God spoke to each person in their own language at Pentecost, the convert did not have to learn Aramaic or Greek to join the community, but the Spirit of God allowed for the difference between the two communities to live alongside one another. The Persian convert, different in dress and speech than the Greek convert, both were able to sit at a table and break bread together.

The work of the Pentecost saw people of all races, creeds, and backgrounds brought together into Christian community. There was no erasure of differences but the celebration of them. In the Chapters that follow this one, we see again and again that God lifts the restrictions that would keep people who lived differently from the Jews from communing with the Jewish Christians that made up the bulk of the Church at this time. Dietary laws are lifted, examples are given of people from across the world being allowed into the Kingdom, and perhaps most importantly of all, the Church is given a glimpse into how to settle differences between the disparate members within their numbers.

Immediately following the Pentecost event, trouble started among the church. First Peter and John were taken on trial and paddled for their preaching of the Gospel. Secondly, two members of the Church who wished to look rather than act Holy pretended to have given all they had to the Church when they really had a large portion of it tucked away in case this whole, “Christianity” thing did not work. Finally, and relevant to our discussion today, Greek widows cried out to the disciples because they were being neglected in the distribution of food.

The Pentecost event was the moment that reconciled Gentile and Jew together eternally in the economy of the Church. There could be no separation where even language was erased in the work of the Spirit. The community was growing in large part because it allowed for anyone and everyone to join its community. The first few days of the Church were full of energy straight from God, the divine pulse the thrummed through the community-made sure they did exactly as they ought to. They shared all things in common, they called all people their siblings, and they were in love with God and Neighbor such that they were always out in public and always had the good-will of the community around them.

How quickly that energy faded! The reality that they were a community of flawed individuals saved and slowly sanctified by Grace became real among them as friction started to emerge between the members of the Church. The rich hid away money from the poor, the Christian membership of the Jewish High Council stayed silent in their trial, the distribution of food was prioritized by the language one spoke and the region they came from. The fervor of the Spirit in Acts 2, the impassioned preaching of Peter in Acts 3, it already seems to be fading as we move forward just a few chapters in the book.

The Greek Widows raise up their cry to the apostles and they are given a choice – they can either listen to their concerns, or they can ignore them. The apostles remembered the day that the Spirit came, they were sitting with the Church when Greeks and Persians and Romans and all manner of people broke bread together. They had before them the image of the perfect church, and when these women raised their cry it would have been very easy for them to say, “What are you talking about!? Our workers would never do that! Stop complaining!”

Yet, they did not. The apostles heard the women and appointed a task force to deal with the problem. While we cannot be sure exactly, it is of note that they not only entrusted this work to members of their community in good standing, but that each of those appointed to tackle this problem had names with no Hebrew source. In other words, the sons, relatives, and neighbors of the Greek widows were appointed to make sure that the Greek widows were given their fair share. The Apostles not only heard the complaints of the Greeks in the community, but responded by empowering and supporting them to work to fix the problem. To chastise those who were withholding food, to bring the riches of God’s love to those who previously were denied it.

Today, we the Church celebrate the Pentecost, but we do so in the United States not as though we are in Acts 2 but as though we are in Acts 6. Around this country, there is a great deal of civil unrest because, once again, a man has been unjustly killed by an officer who took an oath to protect and serve, and once again it seemed like the killer in question would not be held accountable. This tragedy, unlike so many before it, saw many people in agreement that the officer was out of line in the methods that he took, at least as far as I have seen. There was not the ambiguity that often haunts these cases, but a clear sense of something horribly wrong having happened. What comes next, is where things get difficult.

We are not new to the discussion of police brutality in the United States. As long as there has been a police force there have been those willing to abuse that position for personal reasons. This is true of any position of leadership, take it from a minister if you give people control of a situation and they have their priorities in the wrong place they will cause incalculable harm. The existence of cruel and frankly wicked police officers does not negate the work of those that dutifully serve their communities, and I in no way wish to project that message, however, we in the 21st century as both citizens and law enforcement have a lot to learn from the first-century church.

The first case of a person of color being killed and of the world lifting their voice in protest was Treyvon Martin way back in 2012. He was the same age as me, he was killed walking from one place to another, and the exact happenings of the event were not recorded in an easily understood way. He was killed by a citizen, not an officer, and I remember at the time, I decided that it was unreasonable to put blame on the killer, because how and why would someone kill someone, a child like me, without good reason. Eight years later, I do not have the same optimism that I once did. Eight years later, I wish I could go back and give myself a stern talking to.

Since 2012, consumer grade cameras improved and many were placed in our pockets as cell phones became more plentiful. Because of this, we have seen time and time again videos released of the final moments of people of color. Scared, in pain, crying out for help, killed in unnecessary shows of force by people who should know better. It is bad enough that, ten months after I preach about racism and how it led to the El Paso shooting, we find ourselves once more discussing matters of race, but there is a darker reality even than this. If we took a moment to examine ourselves and our response to these killings every time they happened, we would hardly be able to worship normally. We are, at this point, familiar with these incidents to the point they are mundane.

Oftentimes the language used to discuss these tragedies puts us in a place of absolutism in regard to law enforcement. The choice is posed as support entirely of law enforcement, even if it means a few bad officers slip through the cracks, or else of rejecting law enforcement entirely. Both of these seem extreme, but I think the first even more so. It is harder to blame someone who, after going unheard for years and years, leaves a discussion. The cries of the unheard, falling on deaf ears, will breed a well-earned resentment.

If we return to Acts 6 though, we may find a way forward. Here, the apostles are told of an abuse – for them the overlooking of Greek widows in the distribution of food by official representatives of the Church, for us the wrongful deaths of people of color by representatives of the state. They deliberate on what to do and have a choice – they can assume the best of those they have appointed and deny the cries of those in need, or they can work to be better. The decision is made to put people in place, Greeks at that, to oversee what happens in the distribution of food.

For us today, we cannot cut off our nose to spite our face when it comes to racial injustice. We cannot defend the cruelty of the wicked who find their ways into the halls of power, to protect those who do good works. We as people should hold those in power accountable, and that means officers as well. Likewise, officers should police themselves. The only way a bad cop can continue to be bad is if the good cops who see them working let them. We often describe unfit officers as, “bad apples,” but we forget that the rest of that adage is, “One bad apple spoils the bunch.”

We also, like the Church in Acts, need to listen when people cry out to us. The Widows likely would have left the Church if they kept being ignored. If the problem persisted to the point they were starving, they may still push further and disrupt the church directly. They, following the example of Christ, may have run in and overturned the tables the apostles sat at, making their displeasure clear through destruction. However, because the widows were heard and something was done immediately to seek out a solution, then no one was pushed to the point of desperation required to make such a display.

Finally, we do well as the Church today to remember that more often than not these incidents involve our fellow Christians. George Floyd, the name that has sparked all this recent discussion, was a bible believing man. He was a member of a church and was heavily involved in its ministries. We must hear the cries of our siblings in Christ when they call out to us, and believe me, like Abel a great deal of blood cries out to us from the ground today. However, as George’s minister was quoted as saying in an article in Christianity Today, “I have hope because just like Abel is a Christ figure, I see my brother [Floyd] as a Christ figure as well, pointing us to a greater reality. God does hear us. He hears his cry even from the ground now. Vengeance will either happen on the cross or will happen on Judgment Day.” Let us purify ourselves now, at the foot of the cross, so that when Judgment comes we may stand blameless before Christ. – Amen.

Would That All Were Prophets – Lectionary 05/31/2020

Numbers 11:24-30

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

Acts 2:1-12

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

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

Sermon Text

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[1] These words of Jesus initiated his ministry in the world. The work from the Incarnation to the cross can be found in the words of this proclamation. The Spirit of the Lord, resting upon Jesus, is prepared to go into the world and bring good news to those in it.

The mission of the Church began in full at the Pentecost. When the Spirit of God was poured out on the followers of Christ, the 12 apostles, yes, but also the multitude of the believers. The Spirit manifested by giving the disciples the ability to speak in numerous languages. Whether this was through the sudden knowledge of foreign languages or through the Spirit translating the words of the Church to those who heard it, we cannot know, but God allowed for preaching to happen where none was possible before.

Greek, Aramaic, Farsi, Latin, all dialects and tongues, were suddenly being used to proclaim the spectacular story of Christ. That God had taken on human form, had died on a Roman cross, and then been risen from the dead. This same Lord was then raised into the Heavens and will one day return to establish a kingdom founded on love and righteousness, free of evil and abundant in all respects. The Son of God, the incarnate Word of God, the one named Jesus of Nazareth who is called the Christ, this is who has delivered the world through the proclamation of his Good News, his Gospel.

The Church, in receiving the Spirit, takes up the mantel of Christ’s work in the world. Like Elisha taking over for Elijah, we receive a double share – the life of Christ and the presence of the Spirit as a testament of how we ought to live. When we enter into the Church and the Spirit unites us to the body of Christ that is the people of God, then we are able to become prophets and ministers of the Gospel. We serve one another through actions of love and through our promotion of our mutual good. Yet, we often minimize our ability to do the work that is set before us.

Whether out of a misplaced sense of humility or a legitimate sense that we are insufficient to the task, we do not trust our words to be refined enough to preach the Gospel, or we consider such work to be the task of a select chosen few. Certainly, the vocation of ministry is a valid designation for a person to take on. If it was not, I certainly would not be here speaking today. However, the vocation of ministry is not all that there is to do in the Church. Pastors, Priests, Bishops, Elders, whatever name that they are given they hold administrative roles in the church. Likewise, they proclaim the word and administer the sacraments.

However, if only these ministers were called to speak for God and to proclaim the Gospel, then the work would be severely limited. There are 328 million people in the United States and only a little over 440 thousand ministers. That’s ca. 1 minister for ever thousand people in the US, two if we are being generous.[2] Even the most prolific of minister could hardly be able to serve that many people, definitely not responsibly.

The preaching of the Gospel, the administration of the Church’s service, the community of love which defines the Kingdom of God, all these are accomplished not by single leaders of communities, but by the whole body of the faithful. The gift of the Spirit at Pentecost remained with us, being passed from one generation of the faithful to the next to the next.

If we believe that every member of the Church has their own ministry, their own call to act as prophets, then the task of ministry is far less daunting. A conservative estimate of active Christians in the United States sees the potential for us to understand the ratio of ministers to those ministered to as suddenly 1:5.[3] If we can imagine having an impact upon even 5 people, then we can imagine becoming ministers to those around us.

There has forever been conflict between our understanding of ministry as the work of those in the vocation of ministry and the duty of each and every Christian. Throughout history we have placed emphasis either entirely upon the ministry of the ordained or upon the priesthood of all believers. We, like the people of God in our reading from Numbers see people doing the work of God and immediately ask for credentials. Either we, as they often did in the wilderness, question the leadership and ask who gave them the right to lead or else we question the people and ask them where they got it in their head they can do the work of ministry.

Balance between these two realities is not easy. It requires all persons in the church work together humbly and trust one another. It requires that we see value in one another, that we regard one another as a diverse but united group. There is no hierarchy that can find its home in Christianity. Creating a hierarchy of race, of ethnicity, of wealth, of state of origin, of country of origin, of anything that demarcates the body of Christ in antagonism to itself is unacceptable. The Church established from the beginning that it was not an affair for any one group of people, not something to remain in Jerusalem or Judea or the Levant, but every corner of the Earth. It shows preference only for the poor and powerless, in all things it shuns accolades for righteousness. The Church is a kingdom that reinvents itself constantly to democratize itself.

The dream of Moses is that we all would become prophets. That each and every person who is called by name to be a part of God’s kingdom would be able to take on a role like Moses and to speak to the world boldly about the Good News of God. That dream is fulfilled in the giving of the Spirit at the Pentecost. We in the Church today are each called to be like Moses, the Holy Nation of Priests that was anointed by God continues today in our work. There are always those in the Church who will be called to specific roles of leadership, but the work of God is never limited to a select group.

The individual discernment of what our individual work may be, that is a more difficult path to chase. It takes prayer, it takes fellowship with one another, it requires that we are honest in every aspect of our life. Yet, when we are willing to ask questions, when we believe that our mission which God has initiated will be provided for by the Spirit, then we can work wonders. The words of Jesus which rang out so long ago, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is the proclamation that we in the Church now continue.

Limited to no place, no time, no single class or vocation, the word of God flows out from each person who finds the object of their love in Christ. The Spirit is able to spread from one person to another, a flame that cannot be quenched, it consumes the world in a fire that does not burn but sustains itself and the object it finds itself upon. The mission of the Church, the inheritance we receive from Christ, is passed on to us through the Spirit. The Spirit which we remember being given today, that lives within us, that unites us together as one. This is what we celebrate in the Pentecost and this is what enlivens us to take hold of the mission that we, the Church, the Body of Christ, are called to. – Amen

[1] Luke 4:18-19

[2] Statistics taken from DATA USA’s presentation of US Census Data Available at: https://datausa.io/profile/soc/212011

[3] Data taken from the Pew Research Center’s In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace. Available at: https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/

An Ascendant Mission – Lectionary 05/24/2020

Luke 24:44-53

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Acts 1:4-11

While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So, when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Sermon Text

The work of the Church is founded in the gift of the Spirit from the Father to us through the work of Christ, the Son of God. We have worked, over the past month, through how the Church has and has not found its way in the world. The work of the Church stands or falls based upon its dependence on God. We gather together and worship because God works, sometimes unseen, in our life. We prove our place in the Kingdom of God through our commitment to love for one another. We are able to love one another because we follow the example of Christ and the empowerment of the Spirit. We maintain our identity in the Spirit through Unity in the diversity of the body of Christ.

The final act of Christ on Earth was to depart to be bodily with the Father. The language used in Luke-Acts is designed to connect this exit with traditionally apocalyptic imagery. Jesus leaves swathed in clouds, a symbol of divine presence as old as the Exodus. The departure recalls the Son of Man and Ancient of Days of Daniel. This departure happens on the Mount of Olives, which Zechariah had placed as the point from which the Messiah would reenter Jerusalem. The final act of Christ on earth, the departure from Earth to Heaven and from being present among us to present with the Father, is not an ending in any sense, but a point of shift from which a definite continuation begins.

Christ leaves the disciples in a way that propels them forward. The are pushed, whether by a sheer outpouring of joy and praise or by the urging of an angelic messenger, to return to the city. The Son of God who had been killed and then raised, now is seated beside the Father. The first two definite marks of the Church’s beginning were established – the resurrection and ascension of Christ. Now the disciples only had to wait for the final sign, the arrival of the Spirit, the fulfillment of Christ’s parting promises that he would be with them always.

The arrival of the Spirit is not all that is promised to us in Luke-Acts account of Jesus’ departure. Christ implicitly gives us a strong statement about where we can find strength in our pursuit of our mission. The mission of the church is Ascendant, it aspires to climb to higher and higher heights. It is never sufficient that it should settle, even in rest it must be on the move. Upward spirals of activity follow the path of Christ’s life and work so that we who are humbled in our baptism work toward new heights of goodness and pride, not in ourselves, but in the transformation which has been worked within us.

Throughout the Gospels, and indeed the New Testament as a whole, the presence of Jesus at the right hand of God is what allows our life to be lived out as it presently is. Our prayers are heard directly by God, but also our concerns are lifted up by Christ who advocates for us. The Ascension is not the endnote of Jesus’ ministry, it is a continuation of what Jesus’ ministry has been up to this point. The descent of Christ to be among us in the incarnation established the permanent fusion of divinity and humanity. In ascending that fusion was put in a new context. Like how divinity entered humanity in a unique way in the incarnation, the ascension allowed humanity to enter into the divine realm.

We continue on as people who are caught between realities. We do not yet see the fullness of Heaven and Earth brought together, but the Spirit within us attests to this reality. The greatest proof of this possibility spent time among us and lived out an entire life exactly as we did. Then that proof went before God and remains there to this day. The Church now fulfills the role that Christ once fulfilled on Earth – we are the visible sign of Christ until Christ returns, the proof of Heaven and Earth combined. We are the sign of God’s presence in the world, and our presence must be an active one. The change of our hearts, the realization of those divine characteristics, if they do not produce activity then it is only a change of appearance not substance that we have experienced.

Oftentimes we internalize the mission of Christ as something that changes us and then stands still. We are saved from damnation or from our own evil and then we are content to have that be our story. If we branch out beyond this, we often do so in mild ways. We may share about our faith, ideally in the positive but often in the negative. We should speak to the wonders of God working in our life, but we are no strangers to identifying our faith through negating other worldviews. If a poll was put out to people on the street, it would likely be easier for people to name what the Church is believed to be against than what it is for. The things it traditionally abstains from stand out more than the things it seeks after.

Yet, we are people called to go out and preach the Gospel. A Gospel that saves not only in the next life, not in the World to Come alone, but in this life and this world. We are people who preach a message that dares to say that the Last are First and the First are Last. We cannot simply say what we believe but must also live it out. Though we cannot define ourselves through antagonism, but we stand in contrast to the world around us. The Church is an alternative to all systems of power and order, Jesus establishes a Kingdom which is like no other.

The implicit promise of the Ascension is established in Jesus’ words to the disciples on the Mount of Olives. They ask if Israel is to be restored, Rome deposed and the Davidic Kingship re-established, and Jesus redirects their thinking. “It is not yours to know the times or periods God has established…” We do not need to know what comes next and usually have no idea. If anyone sitting here today claimed that they knew where we would be today six months ago, they would be lying. The disciples in this moment did not understand the next step of the Church’s mission either. They had no idea what their journeys would consist of.

Jesus tells them that there will be two sure things. The Spirit will come to them and that will allow them to complete their mission – that is the first sure things. No less important is the statement that is given in Jesus’s apparent negation of their question, “It is not for you to know the time or periods God has established…” That implies that God has planned ahead what the Church should do. There is no mission we can undertake that God does not already have ideas about. The Spirit is not shocked by circumstance, the Son is not put off by our requests, because the Father has prepared works for us from before Creation.

This section uses two words for time which we translate as, “time,” and, “periods.” The first word, κρονους describes time generally, every individual moment. The second word, καιρους is a word that refers to an appointed time, something which is planned ahead of time. This second word is usually taught as being, “God’s time,” (καιρος,) however kairos just means an opportune or preplanned instance. The text allows us to read it in two ways – that we do not know what God has put before us, either in the moment to moment existence we live or in the set events of the future, but neither do we know our own plans, our own experience of time.

Plans are changed constantly. Trips planned years in advance can be canceled because of rain. Budgets are reworked because of unexpected expenditures that are nonetheless necessary. Ministries are reworked because needs or resources change. Even in smaller affairs, we do not know what will happen. If we walk into the kitchen and eat some grapes we cannot know if they will be sour or sweet. Our best predictions and models fall apart regularly. We may, through experimentation and experience, make better and better projections of things to come, but until we live in a moment it is a mystery to us.

Of all that we see in the Ascension of Christ, there are few things as reassuring as this brief statement. No matter how we choose to understand God’s sovereignty over time and space, the reality of God’s sovereignty remains. We are given freedom to act in our life. This freedom allows us to make right choices and wrong choices, to find ourselves on paths that lead to life and to decay. Yet that freedom is under observation, not so as to make our freedom into an illusion, but to see that we are never so far afield as to be completely lost.

The mission of the Church can never become completely derailed because God watches over it. Individuals within the Church, administrative systems within denominations, even entire congregations may lose track, but there is never a point of no return. God who sent them into the world initially never lost them, God who established the pillars of the Earth has authority enough to see all time, all seasons, to completion. God is not a tyrant that stands over us with an iron fist, but the established work of God is toward restoration. Even though we do not know the moment of our restoration, it is always there, prepared for us for when the time is right.

This does not mean that our life is guaranteed to be easy, living it properly means we will have our fair share of problems. It does not mean that we will always have a clear road ahead of us, obstacles will appear and twists will occur that we never could have anticipated. What it does mean is that we have the complete experience of our advocate working with us. Christ who lived out a life sufficient to know all that we may experience personally. The Spirit that inhabits us and testifies to us about Christ. The Father who sees the road ahead, every twist and turn it will take for us, and gives us grace upon grace enough to respond to it.

The mission of the Church is built off of the foundation of Christ, and like Christ its end point is the Heavens. In Christ’s incarnation Heaven came to Earth, in the Ascension Earth came to Heaven. When Christ returns Heaven and Earth will meet again, never to be separated ever again. In the meantime, we have this assurance, that even if we go astray, even if we lose the plot, God sees where we are, God can and will save us. The mission begun by God, will be finished by God. This is the nature of our faith.

Defending the Faith – 05/17/2020

1 Peter 3:13-17

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.

Sermon Text

Our text today is part of a long section of 1 Peter in which the worshipping community is asked to grapple with difficult concepts about their faith. The culture of the community outside the church was one that allowed slavery, that put women into positions of servitude, and that generally made it difficult for the church to live out its egalitarian existence as a community of those called to the service of God. Christ, who showed no preference, preached to people who were specific about theirs. There were the ruling classes and the subjugated ones, and it was primarily in the latter category that the Christians in 1 Peter’s context were found.

What has inspired and vexed the Church for centuries is that the people are not charged to rebel against this system. Slaves are told to be obedient and women to be submissive, not because these are what God wants, but because in doing so they may win the good favor of the people around them. The church was to go above and beyond the standards of the community they found themselves in so that when they were accused of any malice and wrongdoing, it was painfully obvious how trumped up the charges were. More than this, it ensured that the vulnerable populations of women and the enslaved were protected from the cruelty of the world around them. It was a policy of survivor, not the ideal community of Christ.[1]

The kernel which we read today is not specific to any group. It is offered not only to the congregation in 1 Peter’s audience, but to all of Christianity. That every faithful person should abound in doing what is right, and that they should be prepared to answer the questions that are asked of them, “with gentleness and reverence,” so as to put to shame their opposition. Again, the theme is that by being good we can never go wrong. That if ever we are asked to suffer on behalf of good, we should consider it a blessing, because to give in to what is wrong to avoid punishment would be to let evil win.

All of this is complicated. Gender relations in the Biblical World are not what we in the modern world see or expect. Still, mutual submission is the overwhelming theme of scripture, and it places men and women equally in God’s kingdom. In fact, it is only in select texts and particular contexts that men and women are delegated different lots in God’s kingdom. Unfortunately, those select texts were often the most popular throughout history.

Similarly, slavery was different in the ancient world than what our American sin of slavery constituted. It was no less dehumanizing and no less a sin, the Christian Church is historically abolitionist.  Still more, ancient slavery is so foreign to us that the comparison between slaves in Rome and America simply do not bare out. The antebellum gospel offered to American slaves that they must be obedient was a perversion rather than a fulfillment of divine mandate.

Yes, these two are more complicated and nuanced issues of biblical interpretation. A full study of 1 Peter, if you embark on one, requires a great deal of preparedness to undertake. Perhaps, one day, we can tackle that as a community. However, we are made to return to the most difficult concept in this book – the one that is not locked to context, but asked of us all, and that is to be people of good conduct and to be ready to provide an answer for our hope.

It is important that we understand that we are to give an answer to those who question us. Oftentimes we translate the Greek word used in this text (απολογια) as defense. Certainly, in the ancient world a defendant in court was asked to make a defense, and that defense was called an apologia. Even today, when you’re not ready to say you’re sorry for something, and instead hope to explain why you did the thing you did, you offer an apology. Defense betrays this text, it shuts down what the point of this discussion is. Namely, can we as a church, answer those who question us, even if the accusation is vile and cruel, and still do so with gentleness and reverence.

Defense is oppositional language when the text is asking us to think communally. We are not just fighting against faceless accusers, but our neighbors, our friends, our family even. We are not brave crusaders fighting the scourge of unbelief. We are fragile vessels carrying impossibly valuable treasures. Away from the context of persecution, we have no excuse not to answer questions put to us, and we have no excuse not to respond in gentleness and reverence.

There are many things that the Church did for centuries that have become sacrosanct in Western Culture. Christian burial, in the medieval sense, is still primarily how we bury. Christian holidays, though commercialized to a deadly point are still the dominant holidays in the West, to the point that we receive time off for them almost universally. Even Biblical names, across cultures and languages, are still the most common names in the West. Joseph, Jesus, John, Ian, Janos, Mary, Mariam, Abigail, Sarah, I could go on… The Church has changed society fundamentally, but we only left a shadow of an impression, one that now begins to fade away.

We leave a shadow of an impression because, as a previous sermon stated, we lost track of the community of the faithful. We loved power, we loved anger and wrath and control, and when we started to lose it we locked ourselves away. Modernity saw two major movements of the Church. There were those that embraced modernity to the point they really just became a social club that enjoyed sipping wine and eating bread once a month, and there were those who rejected it completely and hid away from it. On one side the witness of the church became equivalent to popular perceptions and on the other popular perception was written off as completely sinful and something that should be rejected.

The church is a radical thing. It asks that all members be committed to one another in love. It asks that even when persecuted and treated poorly, we should still be good. There is never a point where a Christian could act cruelly and say, “They made me do it!” Because we are called to something higher than that. When the world debases us, we bless them. When the community rejects us, we reach out and try to help. When all manner of evil is said against us, we call ourselves blessed.

All this to say that the ethic of gentleness and reverence is not one of moderation. In our era of polarized politics and discourse another party has emerged that insists that the middle road is always the best. This is an impossibility. The middle road of slavery was Liberia. The middle road of the Holocaust was appeasement. The middle road of Christian witness is luke-warm and good only to be vomited out. We must be radical, but we must also be gentle. We must be confidant, but we also must revere one another as fellow members of Christ’s body. We must work with Christians we disagree with to find the center of our faith and band together as one.

The diversity of the church demands that there will be differing opinions about what is the best way to live out the Christian life. Some people, for example, believe that communion should be open only to members of the denomination that offers it – like Catholics – others like the Methodist church hold that all Christians should share in a common cup. Some Christians believe the universe in billions of years old, and others that it is six thousand. In both cases the Church still stands somewhat apart from the world around it. Both parties hold that the Eucharist is more than just bread and juice, but a gift from God that dispenses grace. Both parties believe that the universe is created with a purpose and that God initiated that construction. Even in the midst of differences on certain matters, the core message of Christianity emerges.

Of course, these are softball issues. Rarely do differing perspectives on creationism or communion cost lives. When we go into the more complex issues that face us today, more trouble emerges. Matters of economic inequality, of racial justice, of political allegiance, and even basic truth claims further divide the church. However, we cannot afford to stand a bicker about these forever, the church must begin to have dialogue internally and sort through our mess before we ever can hope to bring change outside ourselves. We have to find what is good and do it, we must find what we have done that is evil and do away with it. Because, the fact is that people look in on us and see that we are no better than anyone else, they will have questions.

When those outside the Church see the poverty that surrounds our sanctuaries, they will have questions for us. When they see the segregation that we continue in our pews despite the fact no law forces us to, they will have questions. When we as people of faith side with conspiracy theories that suit our political needs rather than authentic knowledge that keeps people safe, there will be questions.

The reality is that we as the church cannot begin to give an answer following the model of 1 Peter. 1 Peter asks that we be of good conduct, so that when we are accused the accuser is put to shame because it is unfounded. Unfortunately, we as a body of faith have much to apologize for, centuries of bad work and twisted roots to sort through. If we are accused of wrongdoing, we will often be found, if not as a body, as individuals, to be guilty.

We must sanctify ourselves as we sanctify Christ as Lord. We must follow the example put before us if we hope to effect change in the world. We can memorize the entire works of C.S. Lewis, Lee Strobel, Thomas Aquinas, Polycarp, and any other defender of the faith throughout time so that we have an answer ready for any quibble someone has against us. That will not matter if we do not follow up our belief with action. Our accusers will not be put to shame unless we authentically remove evil from our life.

The first evil we can remove is the divisiveness we have accepted as the norm. Why should the church be as divided as the world around it? Why can we not come together and find the center of our faith and work outward? We are working toward a schism in the Methodist Church in which we will split progressive from traditionalist in the same way our country has split conservative and liberal. Not because the other side, whoever they may be to us, is belligerent, but because we both have refused to have dialogue. We do not answer one another’s questions with gentleness and reverence, how could we ever do so with the world outside the Church?

Let us listen, let us seek truth, let us love one another more than our opinions. This is just one step toward a clean conscience, the beginning of a conversation we all must take place in, and one that we will be able to stand together afterward and finally answer our critics as people who are free of guilt, and whose innocence will put anyone who stands against us to shame. Only if we repent, only if we can learn to love and revere one another can we ever truly defend the faith. – Amen.

[1] This premise is explained at length in Richard B. Vinson et al. 1 & 2 Peter, Jude. (Macon Georgia: Smyth & Helwys 2010)

The Work of Christ – Lectionary 05/10/2020

John 14:1-14

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

Sermon Text

The work of the church is never done. Until Christ returns in final victory we will be working in this world. Telling the Good News to all who will hear, loving neighbor and fellow believer with all our heart, and pursuing true worship of God in all its forms. Even after we enter into paradise, we will not become inert. Instead, we will find ourselves employed in whatever mysteries exist in perfection. When all of our existence is communion with God and loving community with one another.

The work of the Church is too numerous to name except in the categories of loving neighbor and God. This is because the work the Church pursues is contextual. At times one course of action must be taken, at other times another. The general virtues and ethical ends that we hold for ourselves manifest differently across the wide and varied iterations of life scenarios. The course of action which is appropriate in one situation would be ill-suited for another. We have to be discerning in how we act as members of Christ’s body.

If we were left to discern this on our own, then we surely would be lost. There is not enough evident in our world and our experiences to make it clear what is and is not the will of God and the work of Christ laid out for us. If we were blindly sent into situations, then we would find ourselves lost in the mire of the situation itself. We need something more than raw intuition, our virtue has to be born out of more than experience, we need an infusion of something greater. We need Christ and Christ’s work on our behalf to know what our own work as the Church consists of.

Our scripture captures a moment in which Jesus is presenting this basic paradigm to his disciples. Jesus says, “You will follow in my footsteps, and you will know the way to go because I have shown it to you already.” Likewise, he says, “You will do the work I have done, still even more than what I have done, because I first did the work and now before the Father will support your work.” The text is a complicated construction in any language, and translators are utterly unsure throughout John 14 what function each member of the Trinity is ascribed in the work of the Church. John weaves such a complicated picture that after two thousand years, the only way we can see this text clearly is through its manifestations in our life.

This passage is famous for its opening “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Usually, the King James is invoked for its usage of the word, “Mansions.” We imagine a spacious house for us all to enter into. Our worldly desires for opulence translate into our conceptions of Heaven and the simplicity of the text is lost upon us. A more apt translation is, “In my Father’s house are many places to stay,” or rendered differently, “many apartments.” The emphasis is not on the kind of place that we are given to inhabit but on its proximity to God who owns and maintains the household.

Jesus says that he goes to prepare the way for us, no doubt through the work of the Cross and the ascension, but Jesus also makes it clear that to follow him we must take the same path. Our entry into the blessed household of Christ requires the same sort of work, the taking up of our own cross, and the pursuit of God’s righteousness even to our death. It is a heavy statement. It invites us to think about our following God, to count the cost appropriately lest we get in over our heads too soon.

Thomas’s question of Jesus is often put against him as further signs of his doubt and hardheadedness, but in truth, it captures our own feelings toward Jesus. We often find ourselves looking to Jesus and saying, “What comes next?” Only to find Jesus replying, “I told you, but did you see me showing you and hear me saying it?” We are hard pupils to teach, yet Christ is patient.

When we encounter opportunities to serve Christ we do so as Thomas did. We enter in with little context and oftentimes lost in our own presuppositions of the situation. We miss that Christ’s example in life and on the cross is the framework by which we evaluate and plan our entire life. A life of service to all the world, a willingness to suffer on behalf of others, a pursuit of truth that is willing to turn over tables when necessary. Jesus’ life is the framework for our own – the perfect form of humanity married to the fullness of divinity to show us what we must become.

This would be an overwhelming task if we were not given still more guidance. We can read the Gospel and see what Christ did, but what do we do in situations that do not have direct parallels? Jesus told us to be kind, but how do we balance kindness and truth in a digital space? Jesus shows us how to serve one another, but how does one wash the feet of someone they risk spreading infection to? These questions do not have direct or obvious answers in the writ of scripture, and we depend still further on divine revelation to interpret our life and the next steps we must take.

Our Scripture goes beyond asking us to look behind at what Christ has done and forward toward what we will do. Jesus goes so far in his teaching here to suggest that what we as the Church will do is greater than any work of Christ! How can this be? Rather than evaluating how we can measure up against Christ’s work on the cross, it is better to look at what Jesus is intimating by making such a claim.

For Jesus, the work of his ministry was primarily in two functions – firstly in the salvific work, he undertook on the cross and secondly in the disclosure of God the Father to the world. Jesus is simultaneously the substance of God in his identity as God’s eternal Word and the sign of God in his concrete form of a spiritual God. Christ is an icon in the purest sense, a window into a reality we would not be able to conceive of otherwise. Still, Christ does not limit God the Father by locking him into a fleshy image. Christ perfectly displays God the Father as God the Father perfectly displays Christ. They are a united mystery we can scarcely begin to conceptualize.

Yet, this basic unity allows for us to see Christ and know God. If we know God, then we can speak to God and what is more, we are told that Christ also speaks to God on our behalf. We are granted through Christ’s going before us the opportunity to speak directly to God and the assurance that Christ does the same for us. We are initiated into relationship and then gifted further assurance that that relationship is authentic. We become the beloved of God in a way similar to Christ and then participate in relationship with the Godhead in Christ and in the Father.

All this is achieved through the intermediate of the Spirit. This divine Helper is no less God than the Father or the Son, nor does the Spirit exist only as a divine telephone. The Spirit enters into our heart and undertakes two roles. The first is to remind us of the example of Christ, and therefore unite us to the identity of the Father, the second is to educate us further in our understanding of the divine and what our ministry in the world should look like.

A complicated web to get to an understanding of how we know what we must do, but a necessary one. The fullness of God meets us whenever we are given the opportunity to act. We pursue a life that models the selflessness of Christ, even selflessness that ends in a cross. We receive the instruction of the Spirit that equips us for ministry and reveals more and more the truth of God and the disclosure of Godself. We are conformed to the image of God and in doing so begin to comprehend just what the image of God is in itself. The three members of the Trinity manifest in our lives, of one will and acting in perfect concert, to perfect us into what we were meant to be, what we must be.

Our work is often not as simple as flipping open a page of scripture and following step by step what we should do. If we are lucky, we will find it. Situations like church struggles, for example, are described procedurally in Jesus’ teachings. Still more often though we will find ourselves in a place where the teachings of scripture and the work of the Spirit in our heart have led us to a point where we have our moral compass set in the right direction and our general idea of what is right, but the particular action must be decided. In the infinite fraction of a second which we have between a situation presenting itself and our reaction to it, we must process and immense amount of information and begin to act.

We can train ourselves to react to situations in many ways. Workshops and seminars that teach us what the most advantageous actions are in a situation. How to manage conflict, how to speak to someone in distress, how to give responsibly to those in need. All these are good things and things we should seek out, so we are equipped with education and resources enough to effectively do what is right.

However, when the moment comes and all our learning flies from our heads, we must hope we have more than a list of things to do. We need deeply held beliefs and standards we hold ourselves to. More than that we need advocacy and support to see us through that moment. Luckily, we are afforded all the help we need in the Spirit’s movement in our hearts. It calls us to see what God has done, and what God is calling us to do. We work with the example of Christ behind us, the cross on our shoulders, and the Spirit blazing a path ahead of us. All the while with the assurance we have the blessing of our Father in Heaven.

Still more, at the end of it all, we know we enter into rest. Into a dwelling place prepared especially for us. Nothing grand, nothing lacking, but exactly we need and enveloped in the loving presence of our God. Our example, our guide, our beloved, and our savior. – Amen.

The Breaking of Bread – Lectionary 05/03/2020

Acts 2:42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Sermon Text

The church fulfilled the promises of Christ in its creation. This was the thesis of what Luke hoped to prove in writing Acts.[1] The lessons of Jesus that began in Luke are met with parallels in Acts that show how Jesus’ teachings and pronouncements about what the Kingdom would be like are reflected by the reality of assembled believers living and worshipping with one another. The abstract is made concrete, the spiritual is made to inhabit the enfleshed.

Today’s passage presents some of the most obvious connections between Jesus’ vision in the gospel and its completion in the work of his apostles. The people gather together for worship, they bring together what they have into a common pot, and all people are cared for within the community from this sharing with one another. Not only are needs met and community brought together, but the Church went out into the world around it and became known for the good works they did. They held the good will of, “All people,” and they prospered in community together. .

The fulfillment of their work was exemplified in the erasure of certain problems from their midst. The word, “poor,” so integral to Luke’s gospel, never appears in Acts. The idea being that the Church has provided the answer to poverty in the fellowship of believers. The realization of God’s kingdom is tied to the eradication of poverty, of class, and in their place the establishment of a new community. This community was led by the love of the Spirit, the love of Christ, and the kind providence of the Father. Community and mission were tied together inseparably. Later in Acts we even get to see how the Church reacted to problems, facing issues of corruption and neglect within their community. The Church was born, the Church grew, the Church sanctified itself to the service of God.

Many have wondered why this is not our present reality. Why is it that the Church has become a secondary concern in the lives of so many? I do not mean here any of the churches of this charge or the United Methodist Church alone, but the entire Universal Church. While the church still holds a great deal of influence, and Christians still include the privilege of at least a nominal majority in the Western World, it is clear that the Church today is not the Church we see in Acts Chapter 2.

Perhaps the most obvious difference in our two realities as worshipping congregations is that while the Acts Church grew, the Western Church is obviously shrinking. In the United States alone there has been a drop of twelve percent in people who identify as Christian. That translates to about 40 million people leaving the fold of the faith. Of the remaining Christians, seventy percent claim their faith is important to them, but only 45% attend church regularly. While Church attendance does not automatically determine the earnestness of a person’s faith, we have to wonder how a Christian exists outside of community. Church is after all called, “Ecclesia,” in scripture – an assembly of people.

At this point discussions of the state of the Church usually turn to finger-pointing. Political parties, philosophical movements, historical happenings, are all put forward as potential causes for our apparent decline. However, if we are honest with one another then I do not think we can place the blame too far afield. Especially when, no matter the demographics, the numbers I stated above remain fairly consistent. While there are variations in datapoints no single groups can be blamed. Politically the worship practices of Americans are consistent across parties, age groups fall mostly within historical ranges. We cannot blindly point fingers at large swathes of people because we have met the enemy and they are ourselves.

The Church in its purest form can never be called ineffectual. The Church is transcendent. It is the Spirit initiated gathering of believers for the purposes of friendship with God and love of neighbor. The Church is found wherever the Spirit is found, and where the Spirit is allowed to work freely it will work well. The problem emerges, as seems to be the problem in the West, is that we as Christians can easily try and push the Spirit away from us. We can reject our God-given mission and transform ourselves into something other than the Church. We can become a nominal social club sliding into obscurity.

It is only natural that we should experience such a slide in status. The Church from Constantine to Luther was unquestioned as a political entity as well as a faith community. When Luther jumpstarted the reformation, it was not long before infighting among different groups in the Church began to demystify the body of Christ. How could we call ourselves divinely anointed when we killed one another over how we celebrated communion? How could we claim to be holy servants of God when we were more concerned with taking power than serving one another?

It is not completely because of poor stewardship that the Church has arrived at its current state, but it is a part of the path we have taken. More than that, it is the part that we as the Church can affect. We decide whether we live into the mission the Spirit has placed in us or if we let ourselves get lost in our own pursuits and desires. The Spirit of God has not changed in the centuries that the Church has existed, so it must be something else. People have not changed just the means by which they act like people, so it must be something else. Yes, it seems that for the Church to reclaim the accidents of the Acts 2 Church it must also take on its substance. We have to push beyond looking Christian and actively become Christian. We must not settle for anything less than this.

When we look at the Church in Acts we see the Spirit manifest among them in specific ways. They form a community centered in the worship of God. They come together in small assemblies together and then together again in the Temple. They were known for their devotion in worship such that they were often spotted praying or singing hymns, not out of vain shows of faith, but authentic outpourings of love for God. The foundation of the Church was in worship, and it can be for us too. How often do we truly take moments to praise God? When we see the blossoming flower or feel secure in our homes? We can express our praise anytime, in any number of ways. Let us commit ourselves to such worship.

The Spirit also manifested in a community that cared for one another. As previously stated the community was so well taken care of that poverty fell out of the vocabulary of the Church in acts. What can we do for those we around us? There are plenty of contributing factors to poverty in the modern world, but we cannot deny that a lack of opportunity and community support contributes a great deal to it. There should be a commitment among the Church to help people find stability, both in our local community and abroad. As we have provocatively stated before, it is a shame that poverty exists anywhere in the proximity of churches.

Finally, the community of the faithful was defined by the breaking of bread. The communal meals they shared were more than just symbolic actions or simple meals together. They were experiences of God’s grace, retellings of God’s actions in the lives of the faithful. We too must join together as often as we can, if not in person than in other ways. We must share the abundance God has given us and tell stories of God’s saving work in our life. If we share together, then we have achieved community. If our resources, our stories, our pain all come together as one, then we have achieved the unity of the Acts church. Then, perhaps, we will see growth once again. Not just in numbers, for they are a side effect of something much more important. We will see growth in ourselves, in the community we are a part of, in our character, in our faith, and in our love. Then perhaps we will be as the Church of old once was, whether we be numerous grains of sand or only two or three gathered together. Then perhaps we will once again have the goodwill of all the people. – Amen.

[1] All data taken from the Pew Research Center. Specifically, the Religious Landscape Study and the article In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace

Walking with Christ – Lectionary 04/26/2020

John 20: 1-18

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”

He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Sermon Text

Walking along life’s way we are not always at risk of getting lost. Sometimes we are on the exact road we need to be taking, working our way in our own time from where we have been to where we are going. Long and winding though it may be, the path from the past to the present to the future seems at times to consist of a single path – step by laborious step we head down the road of time.

That simple path that we are on, ever forward and never backward, is contrasted with the day to day experience we have of choice making. From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep we have choices to make. What to eat or drink, what to do in X or Y scenario, and what to say to those who we speak to. The forward momentum of time is married to the infinitely branching paths of our own life. Thus, even as we constantly move forward, even with a relatively certain end to the journey, the path along the way is constantly shifting – equal parts circumstance and choice.

Our scripture today captures Cleopas and an unnamed disciple of Jesus taking a literal journey with many shifting parts. They have just left Jerusalem, just seen their Lord crucified and buried. Now, as they are making their way to the town of Emmaus a ways out of the city they begin discussing the news that came to them on their way out of town. “Jesus is risen… Or else his tomb is empty, either way he’s gone.” The two walk along the road, trying to make sense of this tangled mess of emotion and information that has been given them. If Jesus was stolen then they must mourn again, if Jesus is risen then nothing can ever be the same again.

The rest of the story we know, Jesus comes to them and begins to join their discussion. Though it is the same Jesus they knew and loved, the resurrection has altered Jesus in some way or else altered how they see Jesus, and they cannot recognize him. Ever the teacher, Jesus explains scripture and the events of the past week to them in a way that, “opens up,” the scripture to the disciples. They encounter God’s word as they never have before, and they cannot part from this apparent stranger who has come to talk with them.

Finally, over dinner, in the moment Jesus breaks and blesses the bread the disciples are suddenly able to see Jesus for who he is. The revelation occurs simultaneously with Jesus’ disappearance from the scene.

This is the second to last major event in the Gospel of Luke. More than that, it is proposed as being pre-Lukan, that is to say, that Luke had this story as one of his sources for his Gospel and chose to include it. Luke is upfront about his Gospel being an aggregate of other sources. Throughout Luke, there are passages that are identical to Mark and Matthew, yet this story is only in this gospel. More importantly, the language does not quite line up with Luke’s stylistic choices. That Luke placed a source document in his Gospel and with very little stylistic edits left it as is, indicates this story is significant to the overall message of the Gospel.

Indeed, a great deal of ink has been spilled on the discussion of the Emmaus Road and whether or not this person or that could be Cleopas’ companion. It is used as the foundation, along with Paul’s writings and the last supper in Luke’s Gospel, of our eucharistic liturgy. The image itself burned into the hearts of all who read it.

The significance of this text is not in establishing a historical event of Jesus’ resurrection appearance. While the story definitely does so, it is not written just to tell us a thing that happened and who was there. As with many gospel passages, it is equal parts object lesson and historical fact, there is no separation between sign and signifier, The walk along the road is a thing that happened, it is also a thing that constantly happens to us every day.

We often read this passage only in terms of a person’s conversion into the faith. The journey whereby we, en route somewhere, meet Jesus and find the scripture opened up to us for the first time and our hearts on fire. The journey that sees us enter into fellowship with Jesus and the church for the first time. While we often see this passage as only about this moment in the life of our faith, we can push further. The reality is that this is a story about two faithful people making a journey and encountering Jesus. It is about people like you and me meeting the risen Lord as we make our way through life.

Christ, and with him the promises of the Resurrection, is constantly appearing to us, always showing us the way, the scriptures ought to be read. Our heart is not fit to be kindled once and for all, we must have it lit again and again by Jesus’ speech. We never just take a journey with Jesus once, we are constantly walking on our way to Emmaus, constantly with Jesus beside us.

What combines the symbolic language of phrases like, “our own Emmaus,” to our daily life is the weekly pattern we all participate in. We live our lives and do our work separately from one another. We each take our own road to our relative Emmauses. For some of us, that is the simple survival till Friday that allows for our weekend and the Sabbath that comes with it. For others, there are particular destinations that they reach week in and week out. The completion of that case, of those assignments, of X, of Y, and even of Z.

The path we take week by week would only be a rote repetition if not for the people we travel with. The unknown companion of Cleopas allows us to imagine anyone in that position. Several traditions of the church have provided several answers, each to a different theological end. In our own life, we can never be sure who will be in our lives in the week ahead. Yes, our family and friends likely will play a part in the week ahead, but what of the people we do not expect a call from, the people we run into on the street or in the store? Our travel partner week after week will be different, we must take the journey with them, nonetheless.

Then comes Jesus. The teacher of all scripture, the savior of all the world, and now another companion we have along the walk of life. Jesus listens to our discussions, our questions, paying rapt attention to our interrogation of life and God and faith. Jesus also gives us direction if we listen. This is not always in auditory sensation, in fact for many people it is not. More often than not Christ speaks to us through others in our life, through circumstance and providence that is expressly divine.

How do we acknowledge that it was God who told us such wonderful things? Where is our confirmation of God’s presence and activity in our life? The assurance of our divine help comes in the moment that the bread is broken and blessed. In table fellowship, the most common image in Luke for Jesus’ interactions with his people, we see that Jesus never left our side. In liturgy we find this in the Eucharist, in worship in the fellowship of believers. The walk we take from Monday to Sunday is important, because as we gather to worship God, as we bless the gifts we are given and share them with one another, as we meet our eyes are made to see. We understand Jesus and faith as a community, not as islands.

So important is this community to our understanding scripture that Cleopas seemingly misspeaks in describing what Jesus did along the road. While most translations render Cleopas and his friend as saying, “Were not our hearts burning within us…” the text is actually written with “heart,” being singular. Cleopas does not see he and his friend as having separate divine experiences, but a single one. They share a, “heart,” which is now burning because of Jesus’ walk with them.

We gather today in the same way. Our heart, that inner seat of discernment and understanding, is one today. We gather together after our long walks throughout the week and come together to speak about what God is doing in our life. Our eyes are allowed to open up, and we begin to see that our companion was none other than our savior. We cannot help but share what we have received with one another, our revelation significant enough to shake the world. Today we all move back from our own Emmaus’ to Jerusalem. Telling what we have seen to the other disciples, praising God, and fanning the flames that have consumed our hearts. – Amen