Category: Eastertide

Some Doubted: Easter 2 (Narrative Lectionary)

Some Doubted: Easter 2 (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

April 28, 2019

Read Matthew 28:16-20 (CEB)

Reflection

man-2546791_1920
Image by photosforyou from Pixabay 

Note: My apologies for not writing a reflection the past few weeks.  The day after I wrote the previous reflection for Lent 4, I became very ill. It turned out I had a mild case of pneumonia. (I say mild, because I had another case of pneumonia that placed me in the hospital for two weeks when I was in my 20s.) I took some time off, partially because I was ill and also to make sure I was getting the rest I needed.  I’m still recuperating, but I’m better than I was.  

“When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.”  There is a lot in this sentence.  Why did some of the disciples doubt? What were they doubting?  The text never tells us. It could be that some of the disciples were still wondering if this really was Jesus.  After such an amazing few days, seeing their friend tortured and killed, it was too much for some to think this really was Jesus.

And yet, the text says “they worshipped him.”  Everyone worshipped and some doubted.

Can faith and doubt exist at the same time?

When I was a kid, I remember having questions about God and heaven. Did all of this exist? What if it didn’t?  Where is heaven? Why can’t I see God? Truth be told, I still have those questions at times.  I believe, but I also doubt.

So there are some among the disciples that are wondering if what they are seeing is real.  But as we read on where Jesus gives the charge of the disciple to go among the Gentiles, he doesn’t say, ‘Only those who have never doubted.'” Jesus calls all of the disciples, doubters included.  We are all called to teach the faith to people, to form Christian communities, to form people to become Christ-followers and to baptize people in the name of the Trinity,  even when we aren’t so sure.

The church I pastor is a small congregation that seeks to be more connected to the wider community and to be a public witness in the world.  But we really want to see more people become members of our church. People come to visit and don’t come back.  As a pastor, I start to doubt myself and wonder if I don’t believe enough.  But in reality it doesn’t matter if we have faith the size of Mac Truck or the size of a mustard seed, God is with us as we try to be the church in this suburb of the Twin Cities.

As humans we doubt.  At the end of the day, it is not doubt that matters to God, or that we have a perfect understanding of the resurrection or the Trinity.  What matters is faith, to place our trust in God, in the Risen Christ, in the Trinity even when none of it makes sense.  We trust in sharing our faith, we trust when we teach the faith, we trust when we are baptized and when we baptize.

What makes this passage so amazing is that all of the disciples worshipped, all of them placed their trust in Jesus and at the same time, some of them doubted as well.  And yet, they all are commissioned to go into the world.

Christ calls you and Christ calls me.  Even if we don’t understand, even if we doubt. Thanks be to God.

 

Notes:

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Advertisements

Obedience to Whom? A Lectionary reflection for Easter 2C (Acts 5)

Acts 5:27-32 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

 

27 When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, We must obey God rather than any human authority. 30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

 

********************

                I woke up Easter morning to news that churches and hotels in Sri Lanka had been bombed with hundreds reported dead or injured. It wasn’t the kind of news I wanted to hear as I prepared to help lead the congregation in worship on Easter Sunday. My sermon offered hope of a new creation emerging from the resurrection. It was a good plan, but how do you celebrate life when the news reports suggest that death has once again claimed victory? Then again, Easter is rooted in a prior act of violence, the crucifixion of Jesus. It is with these competing images of violent death and God’s victory over death in the resurrection that we began our Easter season. The question is, where do we go from here? How do we respond?  

 

The Gospel reading from John 20 invites us to receive the Holy Spirit and believe the good news even if, like Thomas, we don’t have physical evidence. The first reading for the week, as laid out by the Revised Common Lectionary, points us to the Book of Acts, rather than the Hebrew Bible, which is the case through most of the year. Since my focus in this cycle of lectionary reflections is on these first readings, during the Easter season I will be taking up the witness of the Book of Acts. So, we find ourselves in Acts 5. The reading for the Second Sunday of Easter, in Year C, comes from Acts 5.

This reading from Acts 5 begins in the middle of a story. The Apostles have been arrested and imprisoned, but somehow, they have escaped, though the doors were locked, and the guards were at their post. To the surprise of the authorities, the apostles had gone back to the Temple and had started up preaching once again, just like before their arrest. Having been sent to look for the Apostles, the Temple guards took the apostles back into custody (without violence) and brought them before the council to be questioned (Acts 5:17-26). This is where the lectionary selection picks up the story.

The goal here, at least in the minds of the religious authorities, is to put an end to this nascent movement of Jesus followers, before it led to trouble with the Roman government. If the death of Jesus failed to suppress the movement, what would do the trick? Thus, we have before us what you might call a power encounter. Two forces are on a collision course. On the one hand there is the religious establishment and on the other there is this emergent religious sect that is flouting the rules and undermining the status quo.  The religious authorities demand that the apostles give up their preaching, while Peter and Apostles insist on preaching. As Peter puts it: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” It’s one of those “Here I stand, I can do no other” moments. Something has to give, and Peter shows no signs he’s ready to give in.

                Peter and the apostles turn this appearance before the religious authorities into an opportunity to share their basic message, as if the authorities hadn’t already heard it!  To begin with, the religious authorities were frustrated that the Apostles were placing the blood of Jesus on them. That is, the Apostles were blaming the authorities for the death of Jesus, and they didn’t appreciate it. Afterall, they were just doing their job of keeping the peace when they tried to shut down Jesus. They figured that if they dealt a deadly blow to the leader of the group, it would dissipate. So far, that tactic hadn’t worked, but they still didn’t want to be blamed.  

 

When Peter and his cohorts get up to offer their defense, they reaffirm this charge. Yes, the authorities were responsible for Jesus’ death, but they had failed in their mission to deal a deadly blow on the movement, because God had raised Jesus from the dead. Not only had God raised Jesus from the dead, but God exalted him to his right hand, making him “Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” They stood before the community as witnesses to this message and did so through the power of the Holy Spirit given by God to those who obey God. Remember the question—who should we obey?

If we read between the lines, we will understand why the religious leaders were concerned about the activities of this upstart sect. The religious leaders were essentially in the employ of the Roman authorities, who charged them with keeping the peace. They were supposed to be the buffer between the empire and the people (who weren’t all that keen on being part of the empire). As for the Apostles, they were doing anything but keeping the peace. They were stirring up trouble with their preaching and their miracles, all of which occurred in the Temple precincts. This was an area of the city under the control of the religious authorities, and they didn’t appreciate the activity that cast them in a bad light.  

When we read a passage like this, we must be cognizant of the danger posed by a passage like this, which has been used to target Jews. We can criticize the religious leaders without blaming the Jews as a people. It is important that we remember that the Apostles were themselves Jews. This was in reality a contest for the hearts of the people—the institutionalists or the outsiders. As an institutionalist by profession, I find myself uncomfortable at this point in the story. Where would I be in this story?   

Peter stakes out the grounds for debate with the declaration that they must obey God rather than human authority. The opposition position is given voice by the chief priest, who in this story is representative of alliances made for political expediency. So, what we see here is a common occurrence through history, especially in the age of Christendom that extended from the time of Constantine to the present. It may seem like we’re in a post-Christendom era, but not everyone has gotten the message. Thus, we continue to see such corrupting alliances emerge to this day, with religious leaders lining up to support the reigning political authorities. In the current context, we’ve seen religious leaders bow before the President, embracing his immoral behavior, all in the name of gaining access to power. It’s an easy trap to fall into. Billy Graham discovered to his chagrin that he had been compromised by his friendship with Richard Nixon. And, consider how the religious authorities in Germany got into bed with Adolph Hitler, and in doing so compromised their beliefs and abetted Hitler’s demonic program.

You don’t need a Hitler to be corrupted. We entangle ourselves because we may believe it will benefit us or we might even believe we can steer the authorities in the right direction. As one who is engaged with political leaders, at least on the local and state level, I have to be watchful about my loyalties. It is easy to get corrupted, and it’s good to remember that whatever benefits we accrue from these alliances are often short term in nature. If we look at the history of first century Palestine, the alliance between the religious authorities and the Romans did not prevent the destruction of the Temple. It pays, then to be watchful, no matter what the politics of the governing authorities might be.

So, we come back the declaration of Peter: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” This is not a call for disengagement. It is a call to be wary of corrupting alliances. The Apostles rejected the demands of the authorities, and as the verses follow note, the authorities exacting some pain and suffering on them, having them flogged. They might have done more, but Gamaliel suggested that they might want to wait and see if this movement fell apart now that its leader was gone, as had been true with earlier movements. On the other hand, if its from God, you can’t defeat it. My sense is that Gamaliel figured that the movement would eventually collapse under its own weight. Why create more martyrs?  Of course, the movement did survive, so does that mean it is of God? What then will our witness be?

               

                 

 

Retirement is Over: Pentecost 17

Retirement is Over: Pentecost 17

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 16, 2018

Read Genesis 12:1-9 (CEB)

Introduction 

Most of us (hopefully) are saving for retirement.  Little by little we set aside a portion of our income for that future time when we decide to stop working or work less.

Or maybe we are already retired and starting a new life traveling or volunteering, things you wanted to do in your working years but couldn’t.

What many of us don’t do or don’t plan to do is start something new.  We don’t expect the elderly to start something entirely new like a new business.  A small number do, but most don’t.

This week we continue with the running theme of covenant.  In the previous reflection, we talked about Noah and the covenant God makes with him and with all creation; to never again destroy the earth with water.  God creates a rainbow to remind God of the promise and to find other ways to redeem creation.

One of those ways is to make a covenant with a people, a nation that will be the light to the rest of the world.  Today, we see God call Abram a man of 75 years who is called on a new journey to found a new nation.

Engaging the Text

The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.

-Genesis 12:1-2

The story begins with Abram and Sarai, whose names are later changed to Abraham and Sarah. This lesson covers their entire journey and so, for sake of consistency, “Abraham” and “Sarah” are used throughout. At the core of their journey is the establishment of a covenant between God and the descendants of Abraham. It is important to remember that the covenant is with the descendants of Abraham, and not exclusive to Abraham and Sarah.

Chapter 12 of Genesis is a turning point in this first book of the Bible.  Chapters 1-11 are full of foundational stories like the creation, the fall and the flood.  Starting with Chapter 12 until the end of the book, we start focusing on one particular family and it all begins with Abraham.

In verse one of chapter 12 we are introduced to Abraham.  The story tells us he’s 75 years old (we don’t know if the ancients counted in the same 12 month year as we do or not, but the age indicates he was getting on in years).  So Abe wasn’t a spring chicken.  To put it in modern terms, you could imagine an elderly man living with his wife in some retirement community in Florida or Arizona.  We have no idea what he did before in his life (and the writer of Genesis doesn’t seem to care), but we do know he is old and just living his life.

It’s then that Abraham gets a call from God to leave everything he has known to become the father of a great nation.  God says that Abraham will be blessed and that all nations will be blessed through him.

Now, you have to imagine the absurdity of this.  Abe is 75.  His wife Sarah has never bore him a child and yet God is talking about Abraham becoming the father of a great nation.  What’s even more amazing is that Abraham just packs up and does what God says.  He takes his wife as well as his nephew Lot and heads for the land of Cannan. When it means Abraham left he really left.  In fact, the Hebrew states the word go means go-immediately!

Let’s go back to our modern interpretation.  A retired man all of the sudden feels the need to sell his house in the retirement community and packs up his wife to head to Silicon Valley to start a new software company.  This is how odd God’s call is.  It’s just not something that is done.

Abraham’s leaving his country was in a way abandoning his identity.  God called Abraham to leave his “kindred” to leave the web of familial relationships, to even leave his father, meaning severing of the nuclear family and even his nationality.  This God that is unknown to Abraham tells him to leave it all behind and trust God.

Abram’s response comes down to a matter of trust.  He believed God, even though God didn’t do a good job at explaining how somethings would take place, like that whole you-gotta-have-a-baby-to-have-descendents part.  This story is an example of God calling a person to do something.  When a person decides that they might want to become a pastor, that person might be asked if they felt “called by God.”  Like Abraham,  the potential pastor was contacted by God to start on a new journey, with all the details filled out later.

This account is one of the first accounts where God calls someone.  Throughout the Bible, there are stories where a person is just doing his or her thing and is called by God.  The call of God is not something that is limited to just Bible characters or pastors.  Everyone is called by God to do something to further God’s kingdom.  Abraham was called to step out of the life he had set up for he and Sarai and trust God.

Theologians and pastors love to show Abraham as a model of what it means to hear the call of God and place total trust in him.  But don’t we wonder if Abraham doubted?  Did he wonder what in the world he was doing?  Did he sometimes think that maybe it was last night’s pizza and not God calling him?

The Bible never tells us what Abraham was thinking- all we know is that he followed God and left all that was familiar, all that brought him comfort.  What we do know is that Abraham believed- even when the facts told him this made no sense.  Alexander Campbell (one of the founders of the Christian Church-Disciples of Christ) had this to say about the faith of Abraham:

There was nothing more extraordinary ever believed by any man, than that he, an old man, ninety-nine years old, and his wife ninety, who had in her youth, and through all the years of parturition, been barren; should, by this woman, became the father of many nations, and have a progeny as innumerable as the countless myriads of the host of heaven. This was contrary to nature. When Abraham considered his own body as good as dead to these matters, and when he looked at the poor, wrinkled, shrivelled, and drooping old Sarah, and thought that they two, old and faded as they were, should become the parents of immense nations, it transcended all the powersof reason to believe it upon any otherpremises than the omnipotence and inviolate truth and faithfulness of God. To these he gave glory and rested assured that God would make good his promise.

The distinguishing peculiarity of Abraham’s belief was, that contrary to all evidence from the reason and nature of things, he embraced, with undoubting confidence, the promise: obviating all the arguments against his confidence, arising from nature and the common lot of men, by the power and faithfulness of God.2

One of the words used to describe Abraham is “pioneer.” He was taking a big risk to leap into the unknown, to stake out new territory.  This is the opposite of what culture expects of us.  We are told to go into the world as young people to make a name for ourselves.  They make a name for themselves, become popular and then are forgotten.  Abraham is risking everything to go into the unknown and will be made known through his ancestors.  Because of his faith he is regarded a hero of sorts, being willing to risk and trust even when nothing is clear.

There is one more hero here: God.   We like to talk about choosing God, but in effect, God always chooses us.  Abraham didn’t go to the Promised Land all by himself, but he was chosen by God.  Time and again, God chooses, calls us.  When God calls, how will we respond?

What is God calling you to do?  What journey is God asking you to partake?  Are we willing to leave all that is familiar and take a step in faith?

 

 

Conclusion

In Luke 9:57-62, Jesus calls several people and time and time again, the people who get the call come up with excuses.  One says they need to bury their father.  Jesus says, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Another person was called and they wanted to say goodbye to those in their house.  Again, Jesus brushes away what he sees as an excuse: “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

God seems to call people immediately, even if it mean to leave behind what you know.  But that passage also shows how hard it is to live by faith in God.  It is not natural to us, we prefer the known to the unknown.

Theologian Dan Clendenin has this to say about the call of Abraham and how it relates to us today:

Abraham left Haran in faith, not knowing where he was going, or even why except that God had commanded him. He acted whole-heartedly without absolute certainty.1 In so doing he defied both the inner propensities of human nature and the outer pressures of cultural conformity to cling to the familiar, the self-serving, and the broad and easy road. Abraham journeyed from what he knew to what he did not know, from what he had to what he did not have, from the the comfortable to the strange and the unpredictable. He journeyed “like a stranger in a foreign country” (Hebrews 11:8–9). Today, most everything in our culture, education and employment encourages us to journey in the opposite direction: from the unknown to the known, from what we do not have to what we think we want and need, making every effort to remove the strange and unpredictable in order to guarantee the safe and the secure. We demand certainty and act timidly.1

God chooses. We follow.  Easier said than done, but as Abraham shows, it has been done.

  1. Dan Clendenin, journeywithjesus.net, February 2005.
  2. Alexander Campbell, The Christian Baptist, 1828.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Reset or Renewal: Pentecost 16

Reset or Renewal: Pentecost 16

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 9, 2018

Introduction 

The winter of 1996-97 was quite harsh and long in the Upper Midwest.  There was snow, and freezing temps well below zero for months.  The record amounts of snow meant floods come spring.  The spring of 1997 brought record floods throughout Minnesota and North Dakota wreaking havoc in various communities. One of those communities affected by the flood of ’97 happened to be Grand Forks, the state’s 3rd largest city.  Despite a noble effort by citizens and volunteers, the rising flood waters of the Red River could not be held back.  Fifty thousand people had to flee their houses as a result.  Houses and businesses were now filled with the waters of the Red. As the waters filled the city, another tragedy hit the downtown area.  A fire started in one of the buildings downtown.  Water everywhere and now a fire.  The Grand Forks firefighters tried to deal with the fire using boats.  The situation looked hopeless.

A photographer for the Grand Forks Herald snapped a photo that became iconic.  In the midst of flood and fire, there was a rainbow.  The rainbow became a sign of hope to a beleagured community, a promise that things would be better. Things were bad and you couldn’t ignore that, but the rainbow said that there was hope.

The flood story found in Genesis is one that many know all about.  But maybe the correct thing to say is that we think we know the story.  Go into a Sunday School room at a church and you will see a drawing of the flood with animals smiling and a bearded Noah that looks like Santa Claus.  It is a happy story.

But the thing is, it isn’t a happy story.  This story has more in common with apocalyptic tales like the nuclear war drama the Day After than it does with any children’s cartoon.  

However, like the picture of the rainbow amidst the fire and flood, the Flood story is one about hope, the hope of salvation for all of creation.

Engaging the Text

“I am now bringing the floodwaters over the earth to destroy everything under the sky that breathes. Everything on earth is about to take its last breath.”

-Genesis 6:17

God isn’t happy.  God looks on all of creation and sees a creation steeped in sin. It’s not included in today’s passages, but earlier in Genesis 6 we hear God express regret. in verses 5-6 we hear God’s anger and anguish. “ The Lord saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil. The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken.” The passage opens with God giving Noah instructions on how to build the ark and get ready for the coming deluge.

What God is doing here is undoing creation.  The waters that were separated in Genesis 1 are brought back together again. God is winding down the world and that means getting rid of all life on earth save Noah, his family and the animals in the ark.

Even though the people who perished in the flood were considered sinful people who deserved to be punished, this story should bother us.  We have to wrestle with the fact that God is not the merciful, loving, God that we think God is.  Instead, we see a darker God, one that is so upset and sad, that God is willing to start over and rebuild the earth.

The flood story shows us two sides of God.  Chapter 6 shows us the God who believes in justice.  When we see in Exodus that God has heard the cries of the Israelites dealing with the misery of slavery, we are seeing a God that is a just God.  God sees what is going on and God sees that there was injustice in the land. What we learn here is that God believes in justice. The sinfulness of creation breaks God’s heart. It’s easy to understand that, but where things get worrisome is that God’s justice meant destroying all of creation, including every man, woman and child in the world.

But the flood, God as judge is only half of the story. Yes, God is a just God, but God is also a God that loves mercy.   God is also a loving God and we learn that even in the midst of destruction, God brings salvation and promises to relate to creation in a new way.

God tells Noah and his family that God will set a “bow in the clouds.”  This rainbow will grace the heavens as a reminder that God would never again destroy creation. This is not a promise to humans, instead it is a reminder to God.  In modern parlance God is placing a giant post-it note in the heaven to remind God to not unleash such violence on creation ever again.

When God makes this promise, it doesn’t mean that creation will never break God’s heart.  All you have to do is keep reading the Bible to see how again and again creation disappoints God.  At some point people would start being evil again and God would become angry at the injustice going on.  God might want to send judgement, but God made a promise.  No more hitting the reset button. From here on out in scripture, we see God trying to reconcile with God’s creation in a different ways.  God will use a specific people, starting with the Israelites as an example to the world to return to God.  Finally, God uses God’s chosen people to bring forth God incarnate, namely Jesus who would bring salvation to all of creation.

 

 

Conclusion

If you remember the Far Side comic, there is one where God is watching a man walking down the street on a computer screen.  When you look at the keyboard, you can see that God is contemplating if now is the time to hit the “smite” button.

The creator of Far Side was on to something there, because that is how many of us see God.  God is sitting there, waiting for us to slip up. 

But what we learn from today’s study that God is more pained than God is angry at creation.  God is angry to be sure, but we are so focused on God’s actions through the flood that we forget how all of this sin breaks God’s heart.  As Geoff McElroy notes:

Too often, however, I think we focus on the wrong aspect of the flood narrative.  Too often we hone in on humanity’s corruption and God’s wrathful judgment, either reveling in or being repulsed by it.  In that regard, we are often like we are when we pass a bad car wreck on the highway, not being able to look away, either because of our horror at what has happened or our fascination to know just a little bit more about what had taken place.  Either way, our eyes are glued to the scene.

But in doing so, in focusing on the theme of judgment, we miss the deep pain expressed in the story.  That pain, of course, being the pain at the very heart of God.  The flood narrative is not one that is about a vengeful God, watching and waiting for a screw up so that God might smote the evil-doer, which is the image a lot of people when we speak about the judgment of God.  If that is the understanding of judgment that you bring to the flood narrative, then you’ll quickly miss the point.

Judgment is not something God revels in, takes pleasure in, especially according to the flood narrative.  God does not chuckle gleefully as God throws lightning bolts at random sinners.  Instead, the reality of evil and God’s judgment of it is something that breaks God’s very heart.  “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:6).

The story of the flood and the promise of a rainbow tells us of a God that is heartbroken and longs for a day when all creation will be made whole.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

When the Spirit Moves, Pentecost

When the Spirit Moves, Pentecost

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

May 20, 2018

Introduction 

We are living the middle of times that are troubling.  Our society has become a little less nicer and a whole lot more meaner.  We are less tolerant of people who have views different than our own. A woman is hit in the head with a glass by another woman after speaking to a friend in Swahili. Angry people carry tiki torches and march through a college town. Anger towards immigrants and refugees.  Looking down at people from the working class. Men abusing women. It goes on and on.

What can be done? Who can stand up?

The church has a role to play in our world.  The church has a public mission in the world.  Now sometimes we confuse a partisan mission as the church’s mission.  But that’s not what the church is supposed to do. The public mission is that as we are guided by the Spirit, we should start acting differently.  If we are a community led by the Spirit, we want to see each other as a child of God, as a person of worth and value. I am not saying we are trying to be better, but that we allow the Spirit to change us.

The world needs a witness of a community that’s  united. They need an example of people who work together, who learn to love each other in spite of our differences.  This is the public mission of this church. It isn’t to adopt a progressive political agenda or a conservative one. Instead we are called to model a different way of being, where divisions are healed.  We are called to leave the walls of this church and model that love wherever we go.

But we also live in a time when it seems like the church and religion in general seem less and less relevant to the current context. Churches are losing members, facing shrinking budgets and divisive social issues. How in the world can the church be a witness when it seems like its in such bad shape?

Today is a big day in the life of the church. This is Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church. It is also the day that we focus on the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2:1-21 we see the Holy Spirit as the prime mover, the One that transforms the timid disciples into fearless apostles, a community huddled in a room is sent out by the power of the Spirit into the world.

I’m guessing that the disciples didn’t understand what was going to happen.  It was already hard enough to understand Jesus dying, rising again and then floating away. What was the Spirit? What was its importance?   

Today, we talk about the Spirit and the church.

Engaging the Text

They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

-Acts 2:4

Our text from Acts opens with the disciples holed up in a room in Jerusalem. These were the same bunch of people who never seemed to understand what Jesus was all about. And when the going got rough for Jesus, they abandoned him. This group was hardly the group that was going to lead the church.

And then, a wind comes through and envelopes the room. And then fire descends on each of them and they began to speak in other languages, which was quite a feat for these simple small-town men from Galilee. Peter addresses the crowd with wisdom we have never seen before. He tells them that in the last days, God would pour out the Spirit and sons and daughters would prophesy, young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams and even the slaves would prophesy.

Methodist minister William Willomon says that the only way to talk about this is through narrative.  Paul’s letters which we thick with theology couldn’t do it justice.  This event,, was so mysterious that it could never be told straight.  There are always interpretations that are not so obvious and there is more than one way to look at it. So no matter who you are, a pastor with degrees in Biblical Studies or a lay member that learned the faith from his Sunday School teacher when he was seven, this is a story that is meant to experience than a lesson to be learned. Take it as the story that it is.

When the tounges of fire settled on the disciples, they couldn’t just stay in that room.  They had to get out, they had to get out and make their praises known to God publicly.  So they did just that. It just so happens a religious festival is taking place with Jews from around the known world.  They were amazed as they heard these uneducated country hicks from Galilee praise God in their mother tounges. Well, some were amazed of what was happening.  Others scoffed thinking the disciples were drunk.

That cynical take on the event, that the disciples were really drunk, is a way to show how people don’t always understand the spirit. The don’t understand it because it doesn’t make sense. So, they have to find some way to explain what is going on.  William Willmon notes, that this is how some try to understand the un-unstandableness of the Holy Spirit:

That power the church proclaims as gift of God the world explains as inebriation. The inbreaking of the Spirit is profoundly unsettling and deeply threatening to the crowd in the street, and so it must devise some explanation, some rationalization for such irrationality.1

It’s also important to note that this is not the first coming of the Holy Spirit.  The writer of Luke and Acts, shows other times when the Spirit comes to one person like when Mary sings the Magnificat (Luke1:46-55). But Pentecost is more of a “democratic” coming of the Spirit to everyone.

Many of us, especially in Mainline Protestant churches,  don’t really know what to do about the Spirit. We know what to do with God. We are pretty sure what to do with Jesus. God is our Father and Mother, Jesus is the Son, the Lamb of God, but who is this Holy Spirit? We don’t know what to do with this third person. And, well, the word spirit brings up thoughts of ghosts and goblins…things that are rather creepy.

When most of us think of the Holy Spirit, if we ever do, we tend to think of our Pentecostal brothers and sisters. They are the ones that will sometimes dance up and down the isles and speak in something that sounds like complete gibberish. But “sophisticated” mainline Protestants look at such things with fear, because we most definitely don’t want to be like that. So, mainline Protestants tend to ignore the Spirit. If rolling around is what makes one “filled with the Spirit,” we will stick to our more sedate and sensible brand of worship, thank you very much.

But in throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we tend to miss seeing the world through God’s eyes and in the end, we end up missing God.

One of the few things this writer remembers from his seminary days is that the word for wind and spirit in Greek is the word pnuema. For the more mature people in the congregation, this is where we get the word pneumatic tires from- tires filled with air. I think it’s interesting that this word mean both spirit and wind, because it give us some insight into what the Holy Spirit is all about. The wind is something that can’t be contained; it goes where it wants to go. God’s Spirit is not contained in churches, but is alive beyond these walls in the world. Our job is not to bring the Spirit to people but to find out where God is already at work and join God in that work.

The Hebrew word for spirit is even more fasicinating. That name is ruach, which also means breath. Think back to the creation story when God creates humans. God fashions the bodies, but they were still dead- until God breathes into their bodies and then they come to life. Spirit here means life, because to breathe means you live, you aspire. To not breathe is to expire, to die.

It’s easy to believe that the Spirit is something interior, that it has to uderstanding outside our own thoughts. But the coming of the Spirit is not an interiour event.  It is like breath, it has to come out.  When Luke describes the Spirit, he talks about wind, fire, confusion.  Sometimes the Spirit makes one seek salvation.  When Peter preaches his sermon based on the prophet Joel, the answer of many in the crowd was, “brothers what must we do?”  When Jesus spoke to his neighbors at the synogogue in Nazareth, he said that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. His neighbors responded, “This is Joseph’s son, isn’t it?” The Spirit doesn’t always lead people to God, but it always gets a reaction.

Pentecost is about the arrival of the Spirit and the beginning of the Church.  The spirit is here and present with us. It doesn’t matter if we are a church of 1000 or a church of 10, the Spirit is present here now and if we pay attention to the Spirit, God just might kick us out of this building and into the world. Pentecost is about a church on the move, the car on the journey.  The church isn’t a destination, but it is the means with which we travel.

Give Thanks

Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks.

-Philippians 4:6

And now a brief word on the text from Philippians.  We finish Paul’s letter with chapter 4. Paul opens up the text by saying the church needs to rejoice in the Lord all the time.  What that means is that joy comes taking part in God’s redemption story. But taking part in the redemption of creation includes suffering.  So Paul is telling the church not to just believe in Jesus, but also be willing to suffer for Jesus.  When Paul talks about that joy, it doesn’t come from achievment, but simply being with God in the good times and the bad times.

When Paul calls for the Philippians to show gentleness to others, it is a call for the church to reach out to their neighbor with compassion.  Again, we do it not to spread the gospel or as a mission tactic, but simply because this is what a Christian does.

Every Sunday we come to church and pray prayers for the church and the wider world.  Why?  What is the point of sharing our prayer concerns? Paul responds that we pray to recieve the Peace of God. While we imitate the love of Christ, the peace of God is something that God gives.

Conclusion

Last year, a commentary appeared in the Dallas Morning News with the provocative title, “For the sake of our democracy, go back to church (or synagogue, or mosque).”  The writer, Joshua Whitfield reminds people how going to a place of worship can bring the domstic tranqulity that politics fails to produce. He writes:

Aside from various theologies, going to church or to the synagogue or to the mosque is good for us individually as healthy social beings and collectively as diverse citizens. And that’s because in faith communities we learn about the goods and virtues of belonging, and especially belonging among some people we wouldn’t normally have chosen to belong to.

And that’s what all local faith communities do in some form, gathering relatively diverse people together to practice virtues of commitment. They offer what the poet and farmer Wendell Berry simply calls “membership,” the sort of belonging that is accepted rather than purchased. It’s the sort of unbought, unsubscribed belonging that makes demands upon us but also nourishes us. It’s the sort of belonging that comes from loving and serving people you may have otherwise never thought to love or serve, discovering thereby deeper human solidarity. It’s the sort of belonging that teaches us how to love people simply because they’re there.

The church started because a group of people who were seated in a room, was touched by the Spirit and changed.

A pastor I knew used to ask  how we knew how God is at work in our lives. So, have you seen God at work? Were you paying attention?

Pentecost is in many ways a question.  We are asked to look back to see all the mighty deeds that God has done for God’s people, to see how Jesus showed us God’s love in his life, death and resurrection and to see the Holy Spirit descend in wind and flame.  We are asked to see all of this and ask, “So what are you going to do about it?”

As we worship in our churches this weekend, as preachers prepare to preach yet another sermon on the Acts text, we might want to ask our congregations the same question.  “So, what are you going to do about it?”

The “so what” for the disciples was that they started telling the story of Jesus all over the known world.  They didn’t go back to their old lives, but forged ahead, being empowered and led by the Spirit to some new territory.

The wind, fire and the speaking of different languages is a pointed question to us.  What does all of this mean to you?  Does it affect you?  Does it change your life?

As Christians our lives are shaped by a calling; a calling from God, exemplified by Jesus and sent by the Holy Spirit. It is when we serve others, teaching children about God or befriending a person battling addiction that is when we begin to answer the question that is Pentecost, it when we do something about life in response to all the amazing acts God has done for us. For all of us.

So, what are you going to do about it? I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Can you see the wind? Can you breathe in the Spirit? That’s a question only you can answer.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

It’s Hard to Be Humble!, Easter 7

It’s Hard to Be Humble!, Easter 7

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

May 13, 2018

Read Philippians 2:1-13 (CEB)

Introduction 

About a number of years ago, I was driving down Interstate 35W  from the suburb of Edina, Minnesota to Minneapolis. All of the sudden, the traffic just stopped. Now usually if there is a traffic jam, the traffic slows down, but it rarely just stops. I looked at the other lane and it was devoid of any traffic…at all. It was strange to see a freeway not have any cars on it at all, especially at the middle of the day.

Just then, a caravan of black cars made its way down the empty lane. One of those cars was a limousine with flags donning the hood. It was the that I realized what had just passed me by: a presidential motorcade. Then-President Bush was in town to make a speech in a western suburb and as is the case whenever the president is in town, all roads leading from the airport to the location where the president will be are shut down totally to offer he or she protection.

Frankly, I think it’s kinda cool that as president you don’t have to worry about traffic jams. Ever.

It makes sense why roads would be  shut down in order to make sure that the leader of our nation is protected from threats. But it was also a reminder of the power of the Presidency.  When the President walks into a room, please stand up. Sometimes it’s even followed by music, “Hail to the Chief.”

Even in a democracy, there are trappings of power. It just comes with the territory.

In his letter to the Phillipians, Paul writes a concise understanding of who Jesus was and what his life, death and ressurrection meant.  Paul talks about how Christ emptied himself, giving up his status in the Trinity to become “a slave,” to become a fragile human. He lived as a servant, healing people spiritually and physically.  Jesus never claimed any special privileges that he was definitely worthy of. Instead he was obedient in life and obedient in death, even in the most shameful way of dying- by crucifixion.

In the gospels, this Jesus is arrested, beaten, forced to carry a wooden cross and then was nailed on that cross to die.  All the while the guards and religious leaders made fun of him being the king of the Jews. Some king.  He couldn’t even save himself.

The cross is an embarassment.  Why would a king, why would any leader humiliate himself this way?

Engaging the Text

Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.

-Philippians 2:3-4

Paul writes these words to the Christians in Philippi and they are in a jam. They are facing persecution, worried about Paul who is inprisioned, and to leaders in the congregation are bickering with each other. In the midst of all this turmoil is these words about how Christ being equal to God, but knowing gave up his status and position to become a servant even to the point of death. And then he talks about how all of this made a difference in our lives and to top it off Paul calls us to imitate Christ and learn to lead lives of service towards others.

There are two themes we want to focus on here.  The first is humility and the second will be unity.  But first, humility.

Humility is a major theme in Philippians, especially in chapter 2:3 and 8. In modern culture, we consider humility a virtue. But in Greco-Roman culture, humility was not a virtue, but was at odds with its ethical system. A humble person was someone who is low, insignificant, weak and servile. Humble people were viewed not with admiration, but with pity.

Jewish and later Christian culture saw humility in a positive light; indeed, it shows how to properly respond to God through service and obedience.

In this clash of cultures, it is important to look at where people are placing their focus. In Greco-Roman culture, the focus was on those of high position, who look down at those considered subservient, and humble. But in the Hebrew (Old Testament) God is focused on the downtrodden. In short, it is a “solidarity of the humiliated.”

An example of this humility is in verse 7 where we see the Christ “emptied himself.” In Greek it means to make void to become nothing. It means that Christ set aside the position and power that he had to become a servant, and he willingly became a suffering servant for the sake of others. Now, none of this should be used as a excuse for someone to do violence towards another, but it is a reminder that as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to set aside our standing and status to serve others. This is what it means to be humble.

Kara Root, who is pastor of Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis recounted a story in the early history of the church that is a wonderful example of being emptied for others. Two major plagues hit the Roman Empire in the years after the church began. It was during these times that Roman doctors literally headed for the hills. Basically, anyone that was not sick, took off and let the sick and dying fend for themselves. Everyone did this; except the Christians. They were the ones who took care of the ill. Why did they do this? Why did they put themselves in harm’s way when they could have ran off as well? Kara notes that they did this because they saw those sick and dying as the sisters and brothers and decided to be in service to them.

Another way to see humility or self-emptying is in it’s Greek word, kenosis. What does it mean to be humble when you might belong to a group that has had to be “humble?”  Pastor Melissa Tidwell explains what it means to be humble even if you are of low estate:

 

The self-emptying Paul describes can be a difficult idea to embrace. Doesn’t exalting servanthood exalt a distorted view of human worth? Some of us never had the choice about servitude. Many of us—women, LGBT people who have had to fight for the right to even have a self—are wary of the idea of emptying our hard-won individuation.

But Christ did not erase the self he possessed, he offered it. I sometimes hear lonely people say they have a lot of love to give, and it seems they might be imagining their love in a vessel, filled to brimming, with no right place in which to pour out the devotion that is waiting inside them. The giving of the divine Christ, entering into human life as he loved the disciples, the sick who came to him for healing, the crowds who flocked to his stories, was that pouring out of the love he had to give, extended as a gift, a libation. And perhaps it was for Jesus and for us that in the pouring out the gift, we find it, like the waters of abundant life, welling up to regenerate the love freely offered.

Now to unity. In chapter two, Paul seems to put more weight on the unity of the church over its witness.  This runs counter to American culture, where churches tend to focus more on activity; investing in local and national issues.  Very little is placed on community building.  It might be because so much of 21st century American society is based on sorting into like-minded communities. But the community that Paul talks about goes against the spirit of rights, choices and self-expression. It is easier to focus on a social issue probably because it allows us to sort into those like-minded communities and Paul is calling us to do something that can’t be completed in an afternoon.

The community-building Paul talks about is challenging.  It means putting the needs of the other, which you sometimes can’t stand, above the your own needs. So for example, in Paul’s world, it would mean the owner had to cater to the needs of the slave. For Americans, it means crossing racial/ethinic/socioeconomical lines, which even for someone who likes “diversity” is a challenge.

Paul reminds the American church that we have things backwards. We think the public witness of the church is found in social action. But its public witness has to come from the internal unity and strength.

In Paul’s time, Roman society was a stratified by class and social rank.  Even Paul was a Roman citizen, a step above most other people. Unity meant treating people the same regardless of their standing. That was unsettling to people back then.  Think about it; Paul was saying that a slave and the owner were the same.  A Jewish immigrant would be equal to a Roman citizen and so on.  Sameness and equality is something the bothers us today as well. When Paul talks of unity it means God is no respecter of persons as Ephesians 6:9 notes:

because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do,whether they are slave or free.

And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

The unity Paul speaks of was costly for the first century church and it is costly for us in the 21st century.  What does it mean to cross boundaries in our own day for the unity of the church?  It might mean talking to someone who voted for Donald Trump. It might mean that a white pastor steps down from their post, allowing for a person of color to be the Senior Pastor. Instead of serving the poor, it might mean welcoming the poor to the church, to be full members.

In our humility and unity,  calls us to servanthood. The act of servanthood by Jesus was something that set us free from the powers of sin and death as my Lutheran friends like to say. Our own servanthood is not only a way to pay homage to what God did in Jesus Christ, but it can also free people. Helping an immigrant, or feeding someone at a soup kitchen or giving someone a shelter who doesn’t have one, being a servant to these folks can give someone life.

 

Conclusion

If you were watching the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, you might have caught a commercial that has gone viral.  It was an ad for Cadillac and features a well-dressed man comparing hard-working, some might say overworked Americans to Europeans that take a large amount of time off.  At the end of the commercial, the name walks up to the subject of the commercial, the ELR, Cadillac’s plugin hybrid.

If Cadillac wanted to get some attention, it got it in spades.  The general feeling from people was that it was too focused on gaining things over having a life.  Ford did a “parody” of the commercial with a woman from Detroit who has started a business making dirt to give to the urban farms springing up in the city.  While there are advantages to working hard over and against the more European attitude, there was something about the Cadillac commercial that leaves one  feeling uneasy.  The commercial is a tale of success. If you work hard, good things will happen. But what happens when one works hard and bad things happen?

You can’t totally fault the guy in the Cadillac ad.  People like having a nice house, and a nice car.  But as followers of Jesus life is more than things and more than living the good life. We are called to enter into the crosses of suffering in this world and do the work of healing and justice in the same way that Jesus did.

2. Craddock, F. B. (1985). Philippians (p. 12). Atlanta, Ga.: J. Knox Press.
3. Cohick, L. H. (2013). Philippians. (T. Longman III & S. McKnight, Eds.) (p. 31). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

Letter from a Philippian Jail, Easter 6

Letter from a Philippian Jail, Easter 6

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

May 6, 2018

Read Philippians 1:1-18 (CEB)

Introduction 

Sometimes the most meaningful words come from jail cells.

Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail , for example, was a declaration of necessity of nonviolent struggle for civil rights.

The apostle Paul was not a stranger to prison cells.  A few weeks ago, we talked about Paul and Silas being in prison in Philippi.  Now, he is sitting in another jail cell, this time with Timothy.  He decides to write a letter to the church in all of all places, Philippi. Being in jail might make one rather angry, but Paul’s letter to the Philippians is filled with joy and gratitude. His entire letter is one that exudes joy. Paul is not in denial, he is quite aware of what is going on.  But he is focused on the joy that Christ brings in his life, even life inside of a jail cell.

Today, we focus on the open notes to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul’s Ode to Joy.

Engaging the Text

 While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. 

-Acts 17:16

Paul starts things off in verse 1 with his greeting, “Paul and Timothy, salves of Christ Jesus.”is

The word “slave” can be a fraught word in American culture.  Our history of slavery of African Americans can make the word, slave, one that is troublesome. Many tend to use the word “servant” in place of slave and indeed, the greek word or slave, doulos, is sometimes considered the greek word for servant. However, some Greek resources say doulos means “someone who belongs to another; a bond-slave, without any ownership rights of their own. ” The word servant in greek is diakonos (where we get the word, deacon). But the original Greek says “slave.”  What is Paul getting at here?

Doulos doesn’t simply mean “slave” but “bond-slave.” What’s the difference?  Not as much as you might think:

 

“Bond-slave” arises from the same origin and is a direct (albeit emphatic) synonym to “slave,” again meaning an owned or purchased slave, one bound to a master as opposed to a free person. These words aren’t used today outside of Christianese, which lends them to easier misunderstanding. The translations that use “bond-servant” are actually trying to distance themselves from the KJV, which simply uses “servant,” which isn’t really the right word to translate δοὐλος today, since “servant” in modern English implies a free person in distinction from a slave bound to an owner. But many translations are a bit twitchy about using the word “slave” in these cases due to the extremely negative connotation attached to this word today (thanks to our history of race-based slavery). Thus, some 20th Century translations elected to go with the somewhat archaic but more precise “bondservant” (NKJV & NASB) or “bondslave” (again the NASB, which isn’t consistent w/its rendering of this word).

This led to the fanciful interpretations going back to the “voluntary” slave of Exodus 21, explaining that this is why Paul would call himself a “bondslave” as opposed to just a “servant” or “slave.” Of course, it’s all completely wrong. Paul simply uses the basic Greek word for “slave.” There’s no inherent notion of volunteerism in this word—it’s the same word that was used for a slave that was purchased at a slave market or from another owner—nor is this a unique word, as the archaic translation “bondslave” might suggest. Rather, Paul merely uses the basic word for a person who is owned by another person.

When Paul uses the word “bond-slave” he is differentiating from the word “debt-slave.”  Again from Jason Staples:

“Bond-slavery” is the more severe enslavement—a permanent one in which one is owned as property, as opposed to debt-slavery, which was to be limited in its timeframe. Either way, by Paul’s day, the debt slavery outlined in Exodus 21 (and the practice of voluntary slavery) had long ceased; in his introduction, Paul was straightforwardly using the standard word for “slave.” It is extremely far-fetched to think of this as an intentional reference to Exodus 21, and it’s even more unlikely that his audience (who were accustomed to hearing δούλος in everyday speech) would have connected Paul’s self-identification as a slave to ancient Israelite slavery regulations.

So, when Paul says that he and Timothy are slaves to Christ Jesus, he means what he says.  Again, that can be troubling to modern readers, especially in the American context and especially to modern African Americans (like the writer of this reflection).  But it’s important to remember what Paul is getting at here. This is not an endorsement of slavery in any time, but it is a description of Paul’s relationship to Jesus, that Jesus is his Lord and Master. He is not simply loyal to Jesus, but bound to Christ, he is claimed by Jesus and can’t just do as he pleases.

It’s also important to remember that Paul uses the same word, doulos to describe Jesus in chapter 2.  Jesus gave up his status to become not even a servant but a slave.

Paul is showing a similar humility. Paul is a well-travelled evangelist and could have presented himself in that way . Instead he presents himself as low on the pole. Paul then calls the Philippians “God’s People” or “holy people.”  The Greek word used here is , hagioi, which means “saints.” In modern  usage, we think of saints as special people, like Saint Francis or Saint Augustine.  But Paul is using the word saint or holy as one that is set apart. Paul is probably thinking of his ancestors as was written in Exodus 19:5-6 that if the people of Israel kept God’s commandments, they would be a holy (set apart) people. Paul is calling out the church at Philippi for living differently, living so differently that they are noticed. The late Disciples of Christ theologian and pastor Fred Craddok further explains:

The letter is to “all the saints in Christ Jesus.” The term “saints” or “holy ones” refers primarily to God’s act of claiming them as God’s people, consecrated, bound in a covenant (Exod. 19:6; Deut. 7:6). It is in a derived sense that the term came to refer to the moral character of those so set apart, but this secondary meaning should not be negated in order to underscore the primary one. Paul knew perhaps better than we how easily grace can degenerate into sentimental “acceptance” without moral earnestness.2

Another theme that factors in this first chapter of Philippians is the concept of koinōnia, or partnership.  What you notice in today’s passage is how Paul doesnt’ see his ministry as a one-man show.  Instead he sees himself as part of a larger team working for Christ. He is in ministry with Timothy and Silas, and he sees the Philippians as partners in ministry. “ I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now,” he says in verse 5. They are praying for Paul and preaching the gospel themselves in their home town. Paul prays that they might grow in Christ, maybe hoping they would grow to become preachers and teach this to others. And because they have shown love to Paul, he is showing love right back at them. It is a relationship of mutual admiration and prayer.

The final thing to talk about here is Paul’s imprisonment.  Putting Paul in prison might seem like a way to slow the movement of the Spirit, but instead of stopping the gospel, it only expanded. Some are spurred on by Paul’s imprisonment to spread the good news far and wide. Others use the gospel for their own selfish ends. This should bother Paul and it probably does, but he is also happy. “What do I think about this? Just this: since Christ is proclaimed in every possible way, whether from dishonest or true motives, I’m glad and I’ll continue to be glad.”

 

Conclusion

There is a lot in this passage that we never got to talk about.  But we learn in these opening passages what it means to be a Christian: to be one that is bound to Jesus, that is a saint, and is happy even when the gospel is used for less than honorable ends.

We began this talking about Martin Luther King and his writings from a southern jail.  King is an example of what it means to live as a “slave” for Jesus, living as Jesus did, giving up status to become a slave for Jesus…even unto death.

Martin Luther King was born Michael King.  He visited Germany when he was a child.  His father, also named Michael, was so taken by the trip and by the German religious leader, Martin Luther, he returned to the states and changed his name and his son’s name after the famous pastor.  The younger King said it was hard to live up to his namesakes’ legacy in the South he grew up in.

King realized he was in service to something much larger than himself. He was a slave for Jesus Christ in order to bring freedom for African Americans if not all of America that was bound to racial prejudice and a system that kept African American’s down.

The night before he was assisnatied in Memphis, King gave his last speech that showed his obedience to Christ. While others were seeking his life, he expressed joy in the face of danger:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live—a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.3

How are we living? Do we see ourselves as “slaves” to Jesus? Do we know that we are not alone in our work to spread the gospel? Can we express joy even in the darkest of times?

2. Craddock, F. B. (1985). Philippians (p. 12). Atlanta, Ga.: J. Knox Press.
3. Cohick, L. H. (2013). Philippians. (T. Longman III & S. McKnight, Eds.) (p. 31). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

Boundary-Breaking Spirit – Lectionary Reflection for Easter 6B (Acts 10)

Acts 10:44-48  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

***********

                The full story of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, and his household, unfolds over two chapters of the book of Acts. We have been given just a snippet of that story by the Revised Common Lectionary, but this snippet is powerful. It is a reminder that the one who pours out the Spirit on the church is the initiator of mission, not us. It is also a reminder that the Spirit of God is in the business of breaking through barriers and boundaries, whether religious, cultural, or social. Standing in the center of the story that lies before us is the Spirit of God, who fills a Gentile household, giving to each of them something that had been given to Peter and his community on the day of Pentecost. That would be the gifting of tongues, which in this case becomes a sign of inclusion. Where there was once a barrier separating Jew and Gentile, the Spirit broke through and set the stage for what was to come.

Continue reading “Boundary-Breaking Spirit – Lectionary Reflection for Easter 6B (Acts 10)”

Get Out! Easter 5

Get Out! Easter 5

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

April 29, 2018

Read Acts 17:16-31 (CEB)

Introduction 

In college, I learned how to share Jesus with someone.  There were several different methods including the Four Spiritual Laws, using the cross as a bridge representing Jesus as the bridge between humans and God and so on.  This way of sharing your faith always seemed forced and not very real.  It was never something that made you feel that you were just striking up a conversation.

A lot of people run away from the word evangelism.  People have images of men and women that try to tell others about Jesus in ways that makes people want to run away and sour on the church.

Sometimes we aren’t afraid of evangelism as much was we are complacent.  We take Jesus words of going into the world and have twisted them.  Jesus and Paul called on the early church to get out and make disciples, but churches now want to bring people to church. Methodist pastor and theologian Allan Bevere shares what Paul did and then how we twisted the words around:

The strategy here should be obvious: establish communities in places with population, ease of travel, and resources, and then move out to the hinterlands to found new churches. If someone in today’s world were to do some kind of complicated sociological analysis of how to go about such a mission, the person doing the study would conclude that Paul’s strategy was indeed the best and most effective one available. In other words, the strategy is to preach and live the gospel for conversion, found new communities of faith, disciple those communities, and then send them out to preach and live the gospel in order to establish new churches. This strategy makes such perfect sense it is hard to quibble with it.

But that is exactly what many in the 21st century Western Church are doing– they are taking issue with Paul’s missionary strategy– not in words, but in their continued failure to have a missionary strategy at all. That lack of strategy is appropriately called “staying put.” 

“Staying put” means trying to do something; hiring a young pastor, starting a new program, anything that gets people into the doors of the church. Instead of going out into our neighborhoods, we want to have people come to us.

But that wasn’t how Paul saw the sharing of the gospel.  Paul is an extreme example, but he is an example that we aren’t called to sit in our church buildings, but we are called to go out and engage the culture.

In today’s text, Paul comes to Athens, the intellectual center of the Roman Empire. He takes in the sites and decides to engage the men seated in the center of town.  Paul is an example of what it means to reach out not just way back then, but in the Mars Hills of our day.

Today we talk about Paul in Athens.

Engaging the Text

 While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. 

-Acts 17:16

Paul is waiting in Athens for his travelling partners, Timothy and Silas.  Since he has some time to kill, he decides to look around.  Athens was one of the centers of Greek power.  During Roman times, Athens might no longer be a seat of political power, but it is still an intellectual and religious capital in Greece and the wider Roman Empire. He walks through town that is littered with statues to idols.  Paul’s Jewish background comes to the fore as he probably remembers the edict of having no other gods.  His annoyance is no big shock.  How he responds is worth noting. He connects with the local synagogue and also strikes up conversations in the marketplace in Athens. Some thought Paul was a “babbler,” but others find him interesting enough that they invited Paul to Mars Hill, a place that was away from the bustling crowds of the Athens marketplace. Always interested in the latest new idea, they wanted to know more about what Paul was talking about.  Daniel B. Clendenin gives a good description of Mars Hill or Areopagus:

The “Areopagus” was both a place and a group. It’s a small rocky hill northwest of the Acropolis in Athens (Greek for “hill of Ares” or in Latin “Mars Hill”). More importantly, the Areopagus was the most prestigious and venerable council of elders in the history of Athens, so-named because it met on that site. Dating back to the 5th-6th centuries BCE, the Areopagus consisted of nine archons or chief magistrates who guided the city-state away from rule by a king to rule by an oligarchy that laid the foundations for Greece’s eventual democracy. Across the centuries the Areopagus changed, so that by Paul’s day it was a place where matters of the criminal courts, law, philosophy and politics were adjudicated.

Paul starts off noting how the thinkers around him were people that were interested in spiritual things.  “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way,” (Acts 17:22). He doesn’t start off attacking their idolatry, instead he praises their religiosity. He also notes that he saw the statue marked to an unknown God.  This was probably not marked for God, Paul saw an opening to use to explain who God is. “What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you,” Paul says in verse 23. 

Paul then goes about explaining the faith speaking in a way that the Stoics and Epicureans around him might understand.  For example, he use the Stoic teaching of reason to see God as the source of logos or reason, a reason that created the cosmos and that implanted reason in each of us in order that we might connect with God. God didn’t just implant reason into us, but God is the source all, God created the world, meaning we are because if God or as Paul put it in 17:28,  “In him we live and move and have our being.”

He wraps it up by calling on the men of Athens to repent. The time will come when we will be judge by a man appointed by God one raised from the dead. Some scoffed at the idea of a resurrection, but others were intrigued. The passage ends with two people who heard and believed. Paul then leaves Athens to head to Corinth.

 

Conclusion

Many of us sit in our churches and wonder,  longing for the days when the pews were full. Churches are dealing with dwindling church attendance and longing for the days when the churches were full of people. We want to know what we can do to turn things around.

The thing is, we haven’t realized or we are only just now figuring it out, that the culture around us has changed. Fifty years ago, we were a culture where Christianity was synonymous with being an American. Sunday was truly a holy day in that nothing was open. People went to church because that was what you did.

Somewhere along the way, things changed. The culture is not as predominantly Christian as it once was. Not everyone knows the old Bible stories. People have other things to do on Sundays than going to church. And many churches are wondering what to do in this changing culture.

Sometimes we think we need to do something to bring people into the church like plant community gardens.

Andrew Forrest is the pastor of Munger Place Church, a Methodist Congregation in Dallas. He has said in an interview that “Every dying church in America has a community garden.” The meaning here is that churches tend to think that a certain strategy will get people into the pews instead of doing what Jesus called us to do: make disciples.  Jesus in Acts 1:8 says that we are to go to the ends of the earth.

Paul engaged the people of Athens, by paying attention to the culture around him.  He knew Athens was an intellectual and spiritual place and used it to tell the story of Jesus. What are the Mars Hills, and marketplaces in our cities and suburbs?  What ways can we talk about Jesus that isn’t pushy, but acknowledges the context?

Paul didn’t for people to come to him, he went out to meet people. He tells the people of Athens that God created the world and everything in it, a God that claims us as God’s children.

Paul isn’t doing this in a chauvinistic way, instead, he uses points along the way to link it to his faith and persuade those gathered to consider another way- the way of Christ.

So, what would happen if we decided to actually engage the culture around us? What if we were willing to share about the God in whom we live and have our being in our places of work and in our social places? What if we went to where people are hurting- places where people are dealing with lack of food or housing and help them pursue those things in Christ’s name?

That is what Paul’s discussion on Mars Hill is all about. It’s about getting out of our pews and sharing Christ’s message with others by living our lives, by being Christ followers.



Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

Water! Baptism! Time to Rejoice! — Lectionary Reflection for Easter 5B

Water! Baptism! Time to Rejoice! — Lectionary Reflection for Easter 5B

Acts 8:26-40 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

***************

Here lies one of the most unique passages in scripture. It involves two primary characters—Philip, one of the Seven called by the church to serve tables (Acts 6) and the Ethiopian Eunuch, who is traveling home from Jerusalem by way of the road leading from Jerusalem to Gaza (most likely to pick up a ship that would transport him toward home). There is also an angel of God, who sets up a meeting between these two men. Standing behind this encounter is the church’s mission statement found in Acts 1:8. In that verse Jesus tells his followers that when the Spirit comes, they will bear witness to him beginning in Jerusalem, and from there to Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. Philip has already participated in that expansion by preaching in Samaria, in what was the first outreach of the early church beyond the original core Jewish audience. Now, with this encounter, it appears that the expansion continues, with Ethiopia being opened up to the message of the gospel. But not only that, but there is a word of inclusion of one who had been excluded or at least marginalized.

It would appear that Philip was still in Samaria when the angel appeared to him and directed him to go down to the road leading from Jerusalem to Gaza. The angel doesn’t tell him what to do or who he would meet. The word is simply go down to the road, and he follows the lead of the angel. Low and behold, when he arrives at the road he hears a man reading the scriptures while riding in a chariot. As for the man in the chariot, we quickly learn that he is Ethiopian, a royal official (apparently, he is the head of the department of the treasury), and he is a eunuch. This latter fact is central to understanding the story. He serves the Queen, the Candace, and being a eunuch, he is trustworthy (see the book of Esther for the role of eunuchs in a royal administration). While he is a trusted official, he is also excluded from the worship of Israel. We’re told that he was returning from Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship, but that would have been difficult since, according to Leviticus he would have been excluded from the Temple (Lev. 21:20).

While he might not have been welcomed into the circle of worshipers, he was a student of scripture. We’re not told if he was of Jewish background, a convert, or a God-fearer. Whatever his religious location, in this moment in time he is reading from Isaiah. The passage has messianic implications. In fact, when Philip flags him down and gets in the chariot, the Ethiopian asks Philip about the identity of the one spoken of in the prophecy—is it the prophet or another? That gives Philip the opening he needs to share the gospel. What all he says is not written down. What is noted is that the Ethiopian responded positively to the explanation and went on to ask whether he could be baptized. After all, there was a pool of water by the side of the road. What prevents him from being baptized? Philip, who had already baptized Samaritans, without authorization, can’t see why he should withhold the water in this case. So, they get out of the chariot, go down to the pool, and Philip baptizes him. As soon as the man comes out of the water, the Spirit snatches Philip away, delivering him to another area needing evangelizing.

The reading opens up a number of questions, including the question of who authorizes baptism. It’s not in Philip’s job description, which involves table service. But Philip has a bigger sense of call, and his ministry is affirmed by the Spirit. How do you say no to the Spirit of God? Then there is the status of the Eunuch. We know something about the barriers to his inclusion, but that doesn’t appear to be a problem here. Philip doesn’t seem to care. He just shares the good news, and when the request for baptism comes, he goes for it. There is here an immediacy to the sacramental act that many of us might be uncomfortable with. It’s true that over time, the churches moved from immediate baptism to prolonged instruction prior to baptism. I don’t know if either is the correct method, but at least in the New Testament baptism accompanies profession of faith rather quickly.

Perhaps the message here concerns the work of the Holy Spirit, who in Acts seems intent on pushing boundaries. It’s not that there are no rules or rites of inclusion, but they are not as narrowly drawn. Better yet, they are expansive. They force a person to fit a particular set of cultural expectations, even as one experiences a change in identity. That is, the man remains an Ethiopian and a eunuch, but through his baptism into Christ, he becomes a new creation. That which had once defined him spiritually no longer does.

We as church are often content to remain within our circles of comfort. We tend to sit in the same pew; sit with the same people at coffee hour; talk with the same people after church. We don’t mean to snub the new-comer, we’re just comfortable with our context. The Spirit of God, however, has an uncanny ability to upset our comfort zones. With the case of this encounter, Willie James Jennings notes that this is a “story of divine compulsion.” In other words, Philip doesn’t initiate the encounter, God does. Jennings writes further: “The Spirit is driving a disciple where the disciple would not have ordinarily gone and creating a meting that without divine desire would not have happened. This holy intentionality sets the stage for a new possibility of interaction and relationship” [Acts: Belief, p. 87]. In Jennings reading of Acts, he reminds us that in the history of the church, too often we have combined the invitation to discipleship with a vision of “civilization” that has nothing to do with the Gospel. So, here in this story, we have an invitation to celebrate our differences, knowing that realm of God is a diverse realm, and through the Spirit’s work, we are brought into relationship with each other.

As we hear this story of a divinely set up encounter between a follower of Jesus and seeker of God, we are invited, in my reading, to enter the lives of others, people who are different. We enter their lives, sharing the good news of Jesus, but without expecting them to become “just like me.” But, together, in our differences and diversity, we move toward the realm of God, each being transformed by the Spirit (not by any cultural visions). In the case of the Ethiopian Eunuch, the differences include ethnicity and sexual identity. These are not changed by the encounter, but the heart of this man is drawn toward Jesus, into whose life he is baptized. From there he rejoices in his encounter with Jesus.

Without any further ado, Philip is caught up by the Spirit and deposited at Azotus, where he begins preaching again as he journeys toward Caesarea. As for the Ethiopian, nothing more is said. One can assume that he returned to Ethiopia, where like so many others in Luke-Acts, he shared the good news. While Christianity was officially established in the fourth century CE, could a see have been planted much earlier, all because of a Spirit led encounter?

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.