Thursday, May 21, 2015

Back to the Gospel


In recent weeks, the lessons from Acts have been so good that I have stopped paying careful enough attention to the gospel lesson. For the last two weeks, I preached on circumcision in Acts 10 and casting lots in Acts 1. I'm not preaching this week, but, again, as I've read the lessons for this Sunday, I find myself drawn so clearly to the "text of the day"--the story of Pentecost in Acts 2--that I almost skip over the gospel completely. That's a mistake, and, even if you're preparing to preach on Acts 2, I encourage you to take a moment to reread the passage from John and let it sink into your soul. It might not be an exciting text from which to preach, but it's powerful words from Jesus worth remembering.

I think I could preach a whole sermon on "Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you."

In my teaching and preaching, when I refer to the building excitement that surrounded Jesus' earthly ministry, I often label it as "the Jesus Movement." That term, of course, is not from me. I'm borrowing it from lots of people who used it before I showed up. I like that term. It reminds me that the work Jesus was doing, while deeply rooted in the Judaism of his day, was distinct. But on Pentecost, when I read Jesus' assessment of his departure--"it is to your advantage that I go away"--I realize that our faith isn't simply a Jesus movement.

Lots of movements are person-centered. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Think of George Washington and John Adams and the other revolutionaries whose names we were taught in school. Think of Desmond Tutu and Pope Francis and Billy Graham. The comparison isn't perfect, of course. All of those figures were or are a part of something bigger and would eschew identification as the center of a movement, but each one had his own set of devotees. And those of them who have died or retired or disappeared from the public scene have seen their followers move on to other leaders. But that isn't how the movement Jesus initiated ended up. His followers didn't continue the spirit of his work by attaching themselves to another leader. They continued the exact same movement with the exact same devotion by following (and worshipping) the exact same God whose Spirit came down at Pentecost.

Although Jesus has ascended into heaven, our faith isn't adequately described as remaining in the post-Jesus era. The gift of the Holy Spirit isn't an afterthought--a way of carrying on the movement under new leadership. The Advocate is God himself as Spirit that lives and burns and leads God's followers. That's why Jesus can encourage his disciples to look forward to Pentecost without holding sorrow in their hearts. This isn't second-best. This isn't a babysitter or a pedagogue. It's the real deal, same deal. Our church is woefully shallow in its eschatology--in part because we're still acting like those first disciples. We think Jesus' departure is the end of an era. If the Christian faith were merely a Jesus Movement, that might be the case. But it's not. Our faith is more than a Jesus Movement. It's a God Movement, and Jesus and the Spirit are both at the center of it.

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