Sunday, May 19, 2013

Languages of Fire...

I relied heavily on the work of Scott Hoezee, Bruce Epperly, D. Mark Davis and Brian Peterson for this week's sermon. What follows is by no means the only way to look at the events of the Day of Pentecost or the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.

That's kinda the point... there are an inexhaustible number of ways that God moves in the world, and that we can and do experience the Holy Spirit.

Acts 2:1-21
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?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

This is the Word of the Lord.

In the New Testament, it is only the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts which divide Jesus’ resurrection, his ascension to Heaven, and the giving of the Holy Spirit into three distinct events. For example, the Gospel of John puts Jesus’ resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit on the same day, and without the rushing wind and tongues of flame.

For the writer of the Gospel of John, the Holy Spirit is the Advocate, the continuing and comforting presence of Jesus with the church, and the source of peace. The Apostle Paul also writes quite extensively about the Holy Spirit throughout his Epistles, and for him the Holy Spirit is that which unites us to Christ, makes us into his body, and gives particular gifts to each person for the sake of the community.

For the writer of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, the Spirit is the power of God, the mighty burning wind that blows the church into new and unexpected places of ministry.

It is through these disparate views of the Person of the Holy Spirit that we gain important insight into the breadth and depth and reach of the love of God. The Holy Spirit isn’t one-dimensional. God has not left us with powerless comfort, or comfortless advocacy, or a community without purpose and direction. The Holy Spirit is our Advocate, the presence of Jesus with the church, the source of peace, our unity in the Body of Christ, the author and power behind the gifts of that body, the fuel that fires the church into ministry in new and unexpected places and ways.

In the Gospel of John, the Holy Spirit is given in a gentle manner; Jesus breathes on his disciples. In Acts, that breath is violent, a tornado, a wind carrying cloven tongues of fire. All this violence, the roar of the wind, but what the people outside that room hear isn’t that cacophony… No one says, “hey, what is that windy sound?” No, the response is, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language… we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power…What does this mean?”

That’s right. The power of God reveals itself to them in words. Languages.

I am simply offering a thought here, but you know how we generally interpret the phrase “tongues of fire” to be a descriptive term, painting for us a picture of how the Holy Spirit looked as it was given to the one hundred and twenty people in that place? Well, is it not true that the word “tongues,” in both the original Greek and in our own English, means “languages?”

Think for a moment of what this means: gathered in Jerusalem, for the feast of Pentecost, are people from all across the known world: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, folks from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, visitors from Rome, Cretans and Arabs…

Some of these folks had been born Jewish, some had converted to Judaism, and it is entirely possible that these visitors from Rome, among others, weren’t Jewish at all. Even for those who shared a common belief in the one true and living God, there were different experiences, background, cultures, beliefs… fertile ground for misinterpretation and offense and exclusion, divisions and differences...

And the voice of God spoke to them all.

The mighty breath of God, the wind of the Holy Spirit drove the message out from that world and into the streets!

And it was, of all people, Peter – the very one who denied Christ three times – who finally stood before that astonished, amazed, perplexed crowd (which was not free of detractors, by the way, people who passed off what was happening as the ramblings of drunkards) and answered their questions – who spoke the word of God from the prophet Joel.

And what a word, for them and for us!

“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

On the day that Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the Temple was torn from top to bottom, and the most secretive portion of the Temple, the Most Holy Place, was laid bare, open to any and all who wished to look, wished to enter therein. The sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf opened the way for each of us, for anyone, to, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “boldly approach the throne of grace.”

And while it is a fact that Jesus is the way, the truth, the life, and that no one comes to God except through Christ, what Peter makes clear to us all in his invocation of the prophet Joel is that Jesus is no more one-dimensional than any other Person of the Trinity. There are a multitude of expressions of the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Everyone can experience God! All are invited to healing and salvation.  The paths to experiencing God are myriad: some dream, others see visions, still others ecstatically share God’s wisdom.  No age, sexual, racial, cultural or economic community is left out of in this lively democracy of the spirit.  The Holy Spirit invites all to say “yes” in the dynamic call and response of God and humankind.

Pentecost is an eschatological event, a God-given turning point for the world. The promised new time has begun, and this new age is one not only of God’s power but also of God’s grace, and that it is intended for the whole world.

In the book of Genesis, the story is told of how humanity tried to build a tower that would reach to God. Humanity tried to mount up to God and fell into confusion as a result. But that was not because God did not want fellowship with humans. God did not confuse the languages of humans, did not frustrate the people at Babel because God just can't stand human company. God's ultimate goal, as a matter of fact, is to have fellowship with us. To get that goal, God eventually became human himself! The problem at Babel was that this storming of heaven was being done in an arrogant way and on human terms alone.

The gospel shows us what can happen when God, on God's own terms of humility and grace, brings heaven down to us. God himself snuck down the back staircase of history to deposit a baby into a manger one starry night long ago. In humility, not pride, the Son of God built his own reverse tower from heaven to earth not so that we could claw and climb and sweat and toil our way up but so that God could come down. What happened on Pentecost was another example of this same movement: since we cannot get to heaven, heaven comes to us. And in those tongues, those languages, of fire which blew down from Heaven, Babel is reversed! Instead of being scattered, people from all across the known world were brought together, are brought together! Instead of confusion, a gospel clarity comes. Instead of being a maddening barrier, the multiplicity of languages is transcended so that the same message gets through to everyone.

The Holy Spirit of Pentecost was poured out for so many reasons. The Spirit now gives us gifts and talents, provides us with our life's callings in whatever vocation and work we pursue. The Spirit animates our every worship service. The Spirit is behind every note played on the guitar, behind every lyric we sing out of the hymnal, behind every word you've ever heard me speak from this pulpit.

The Spirit keeps faith alive even when our bodies are dying, allowing even the gravely ill to testify to the hope that is within them. The Spirit touches us at the graveside of a loved one, allowing us somehow and against all odds to say the Apostles' Creed and to believe it when we say, despite the casket in front of us, that we really do believe in "the resurrection of the body." The Spirit pours itself out at the baptismal font and stays with our baptized children even in those far countries where the prodigal sons and daughters sometimes travel. And when one of those wandering sheep returns to the fold, there is never any doubting that the Holy Spirit led this one back home.

The Holy Spirit of Pentecost does all of that and more. But let us not forget the very first effect this Spirit had: the Spirit of God brought people together, allowed a common understanding of the same gospel among people who were very different from one another.

We live in a fiercely partisan and divisive age.   It seems that finding “wedge issues” that divide people has become something of a cottage industry in the United States. Too often we Christian people are part and parcel of all that, absorbing the divisive rhetoric of talking heads and consuming as a kind of latter day “bread and circuses” the shouting matches that pass for intelligent conversation on talk radio and cable news stations. We seem to enjoy such things these days. We seem to revel in divisiveness. We try and try and try to draw the circle tighter, to exclude and limit and categorize and ignore.

May I suggest that maybe Pentecost tells us that the Holy Spirit that dwells within us is opposed to the forces of division and animosity. The Holy Spirit unmade the chaos of Babel and calls us to be unified, not divided. This Holy Spirit is the very Spirit through which Jesus Christ brings true peace in chaotic times and true calm to hearts that have every right to be troubled. That Holy Spirit gives to all who believe a Life, a Liveliness, and unity and a calm that really does pass all understanding.

More than that this Spirit who arrived on a screaming, uncontrollable torrent of wind is alive and moving even today, in amazing and unpredictable ways still insisting on drawing the circle wide, on including and accepting and welcoming and loving, on bringing the Good News of new life in Christ, of relationship with the God of grace and love, the compassionate Creator, to everyone.

And that is more than sufficient reason, on Pentecost Sunday but also at all times and even forevermore, to say “Thanks be to God.”

Sunday, May 5, 2013

God Loves Anyway!

The man at the pool of Bethesda wasn't all that interested in what Jesus had to offer.

But it wasn't about him, was it?

It was about Jesus. God's love is contingent not on the worthiness of the object, after all, It is the character and intentionality of the One who loves...

John 5:1-9
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids-blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be made well?" The sick man answered him, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me."Jesus said to him, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath.

This is the Word of the Lord.

You know, just when you think you’ve got this whole thing figured out – I mean this Gospel message thing, maybe not explaining miracles but certainly categorizing them, putting them in neat little packages that can be used to highlight another aspect of the divinity of Jesus, or the love of God, or the efficacy of prayer – then along comes a passage of Scripture that turns it all on its head.

Our Gospel reading today has been called “the strangest miracle,” and there is good reason for that.

There’s some festival going on in Jerusalem; we don’t know which one, and while it has been argued over for millennia, when it comes right down to it, it doesn’t matter. There’s really no good reason for Jesus to be down by that pool of Bethesda, or “Beth-zatha,” as our translation puts it… unless he is looking for something, or someone. You see, there are apparently lots of sick people around. After all, every now and again the waters in that pool would bubble up. The belief was that an angel stirred it up, and when that happened, the first person to get in the pool got healed of whatever ailment they had!

Jesus and his disciples walked around that pool, but no one there seems to have noticed. No one called out for healing. No one really cared at all that Jesus was there. They were too busy watching the water intently, as if it were the fourth quarter of the Iron Bowl, waiting for the bubbling, waiting for their chance to be the first to touch the healing waters.

And Jesus stops, finally, and speaks to a guy who has shot at, and missed, the mark for nearly forty years.

One of the things I am terrible at is fishing. My problem isn’t that I’m afraid of fish, or can’t put a worm on a hook, my problem is that bobber thing. I’ll put the line in, and that red-and-white bobber will be floating on the surface, and I get tensed up waiting on it to move… was that a nibble? Ooh, quick, hook it! Oh, that was nothing, oh, well… wait, did it… by the time something actually takes the bait, I’ve zoned out completely staring at that bobber and I nearly always miss it!

But even as bad as I am, I occasionally catch a fish. Not this guy. Every time the water stirred, someone beat him to it. You’d think there was some kind of seniority, that over the years he would have at least gotten his mat put down closer to the water. That way, if nothing else, he could roll in when the time came, but no. He just lay there, day after day and year after year. Maybe there was still hope in his heart. Maybe he felt, each time, he was so close that surely next time he’d be first! Or maybe at some point he gave up. Oh, he still went through the motions; after all, what else could he do? He might have been homeless, and stayed there all night and day. Maybe someone brought him there every morning, and took him home every night, but couldn’t stay with him. Whatever the case nothing changed for him, day in and day out, and he had several very good reasons why not, excuses all rehearsed and ready when and if he was asked why he had been there so long.

So often in the Gospels, we read where people come to Jesus looking for a miracle: the leper who confronts Jesus in the village, blind Bartimaeus crying out for Jesus as he passes by on the road, the man who interrupts Jesus’ dinner to come and raise his child from the dead, the woman with the issue of blood who pushes through the crowd and strains just to get her fingertips to brush the fringe of Jesus’ robe, and on and on…

This guy doesn’t ask Jesus for a thing. In fact, when Jesus asks him, directly, “Do you want to be made well?” he may not even have looked up from the water. And he really doesn’t answer the question, does he? He doesn’t say he wants to be well, he simply rehearses his list of reasons why it’s everyone else’s fault he isn’t well.

Maybe the man hopes this guy will hang around for awhile, and if the water stirs he’ll help him get there first. But Jesus doesn’t offer to wait with him, he cuts to the chase and does what he needs. Jesus simply says to him, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." And before the man even comprehends what is said, before he can react in any way, he is whole. Just like that.

Does the crowd around the pool react in shocked awe, praising God for the healing?  Nope. No one even looked up from the water.

And does the man fall at Jesus’ feet, thanking him? Does he immediately take up his mat and follow Jesus?

Oh, he took up his mat all right. Sure, he began to walk. But he walked away.

The guy didn’t ask for the miracle, and didn’t appreciate it very much when it happened, it seems. Not even a “gee, thanks” from the guy.

And it gets worse. We have to read further in the Gospel account to see it, but the way our Lectionary passage ends, with the words, “Now that day was a Sabbath,” is very important.

We are familiar with the idea of the Sabbath being a day of rest, a day when the law Moses brought down from Mount Sinai demanded no work be done. Over the years, questions had been raised: if we cannot work, what exactly is “work?” How far can we go without breaking God’s law?

There ended up being dozens of stipulations on how far one could travel, how much one could carry, how many actual things one could do on the Sabbath. Among them was the rule that, of you were carrying a couch (or a mat) with someone on it, it was OK, but if you were carrying it just to take it somewhere? That was work, and it broke the rules.

So of course, almost immediately, some prim and proper Jewish folks, most likely the Pharisees, stopped the guy. “Hey, hey! You can’t do that! It’s the sabbath; it’s against the law for you to carry your mat.”

This guy responds, “Hey, it isn’t my fault, the guy who healed me told me to!”

“Oh yeah? And who, exactly would that be?”

“Him,” he says, and turns around to point, but Jesus is gone. “Oh. Uh… just some guy…”

Amazing, isn’t it? Not only does this guy immediately shift the blame to the person who made him well, he doesn’t even know who it is who healed him! And later, when Jesus finds the guy in the Temple, does he take the opportunity to thank Jesus and glorify God for this miracle, this healing, this restoration of wholeness and health? No, not even close! He immediately runs off to rat out Jesus to the Temple authorities!

If there were ever anyone on earth more undeserving of help, undeserving of healing, undeserving of anything, it’s this guy! Jesus gives him his life back, after nearly forty years, and in return all Jesus gets is persecution!

Can I tell you this morning that this is, for us, good news? Because what we learn from this, among other things, is that in Jesus Christ, God reaches out to us and loves us and heals us and restores us based not upon how deserving or desiring or devoted or prepared or even how cognizant or thankful we are for that healing and love and restoration, not based at all upon who we are… but upon who God is.

It could be argued that Jesus didn’t just go to the pool of Bethesda simply for the sickest man there. He went looking for the most undeserving person he could find – someone so disengaged from life that he couldn’t even be bothered to mumble “thank you” when he was given his life back. Someone who couldn’t muster the backbone to resist selling Jesus out to the authorities. Someone who couldn’t see love and joy and freedom and forgiveness, not the first time it hit him at the pool, or even after it found him again in the temple.

Jesus found the worst just so God could restore him – heal him – and love him anyway!

One of my favorite passages of Scripture is found in Romans 5, verse 8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

The Gospel – the Good News – has never been about who deserves God’s love, it’s never been about us, and it’s never been about “them,” whoever “them” may be. It has always been, and always will be, about who God is.

I said this last week: God’s love is never about the worthiness of the object of that love, but about the character and intentionality of the one who loves. God loves and heals and restores – even when it isn’t the proper time, even when the one to be loved and healed and restored isn’t worthy or appreciative. The man from the pool at Bethesda didn’t ask for or show thankfulness for his healing, but he didn’t lose it, did he?

We did not choose to be saved. When we were furthest from God, before we had an inkling of our need for the love and healing and restoration that is found in the cross of Jesus Christ, Jesus took up that cross, and suffered and died and rose on our behalf.

And that love continues today. God loves – even those we deem unworthy of love. Even when we don’t love God back. God heals – even when we have given up hope. God restores – even when there seems to be nothing left to restore.

The height and depth and breadth of God’s love reaches beyond our expectations, our desires, our demands, beyond propriety or convention. God loves us, all of us, even when we don’t want it or ask for it, even when we are looking somewhere else for the pool to bubble, expecting our own efforts to be enough to bring us to the healing waters.

God heals and forgives and restores anyway. God loves anyway.

Alleluia, amen.