Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Baptism Means Looking Forward

I've always wondered why baptism purely in the name of Jesus isn’t good enough. On the surface, I know the answer—because we’re Trinitarians. There is real power in the recognition and belief that God is one in three persons. The mention of the Trinity is foundational to our understanding of baptism. In fact, it’s one of the few things that most churches share—baptism by water in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit. For example, if I were to become a Roman Catholic, my confirmation and ordinations would not be recognized, but my baptism would be.

We get a little taste of that in Acts 19:1-10, when Paul encounters some believers in Ephesus and asks them, “When you were baptized, did you receive the Holy Spirit?” All they could say is, “What Holy Spirit?” Uh-oh, Paul must have thought. Something important is missing. It turns out that the believers, who had every good intention of being disciples of Jesus, had only been baptized into John’s baptism—a way of repenting in preparation for the coming of Jesus. So Paul laid his hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. Apparently, a place of repenting and waiting isn’t all it means to be a Christian.

Our baptism is partly a look back—a recognition that a sinful, broken identity in the past needs forgiveness and fixing. But it is also very much a look forward—both to the time when we will be raised with Christ into the heavenly places but also a life between baptism and then of Spirit-filled work. We cannot, as Christians, be content to in our rearview mirror. Although repentance and forgiveness is critical, there is more to being a Christian than that. We are called to be filled with the Spirit and take the good news out into the world. We are supposed to do something with our baptismal identity. Sitting still and looking back aren’t good enough. When we proclaim our identity as God the Father’s children who are redeemed through the gift of his Son, aren’t we also proclaiming our role as his Spirit-led missionaries?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

For Us or Against Us?

As I preach more and more in this season after Pentecost, I find my love for “Track Two” growing each week. I am learning to love the unspoken connections between the scripture lessons. I believe there is power in simply hearing God’s word read in a congregational setting, and, even if I don’t say anything at all about the OT lesson, it speaks for itself—usually in subconscious ways.

This week, the reading from Numbers is there to shape my understanding of the reading from Mark. It’s as if the RCL guru is saying to me, “In case you missed it, this gospel lesson is about the true test of discipleship…and that test isn’t based on what you believe but on what you do.”

Moses, overwhelmed by the responsibility of shepherding the entire, rebellious nation of Israel across the desert, is helped by God, who shares a little of the Spirit that is upon him with 70 elders. The funny part of the story is that two of them, despite forgetting to show up at the meeting tent, receive some of the Spirit and being prophesying back in the camp. Expecting a jealous reaction from Moses, some people run and say to their leader, “Stop them!” But Moses dismisses them, saying, “Would that all God’s people were prophets!”

That forms the background for Jesus’ conversation with John, who came to him upset that non-disciples were casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus gives a similar reaction—let them! Some people say, “If you’re not for us, you’re against us.” But I think Moses and Jesus would have said the opposite. Contributing to the ministry of the kingdom isn’t restricted to those who have signed up. Powerful, godly works are done by people who don’t belong. Are we supposed to resent that? What is true discipleship anyway?

If you want to be a follower of the way, you don’t have to pass the doctrine test. Instead, as Jesus tells his disciples, you have to live the kingdom life: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off…” If your life bears fruit for the kingdom, your heart must be in the right place. We don’t have to worry about motives as long as the results are right. Who could do a mighty work in God’s name unless he were of God? Who could live a kingdom life unless he were already a citizen of God’s kingdom?

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Time to Speak Up

Silence. Usually, when preachers like me write or talk about silence, we say things like, “We should all spend more time in silence,” or “God speaks to us when we are quiet enough to hear him.” It isn’t all that often that you hear a preacher say the opposite, but today’s OT lesson (Esther 4:4-17) proclaims loudly, “Speak up!”

As you’ll remember, Esther is a Jew who lived as a queen in the Persian palace. Her story—one of great and bold faithfulness—revolves around another Jew named Mordecai and an evil, selfish Persian named Haman. The latter had conceived a scheme by which all the Jews in Persia were to be eradicated, a treacherous deed in exchange for which Haman would give the king a large sum of money. Mordecai was openly protesting this plot, and, when Esther heard about it, she faced a dilemma.

If she spoke up and approached the king, she faced almost-certain death. No one, we read, was allowed to come into the presence of the king without being called, and it had been thirty days since Esther had been invited to see him. If she stayed silent, she might escape death—perhaps her identity as a Jew would be overlooked during the purge. But, as the only person inside the palace sympathetic to the plight of her people, Esther knew she had a duty to speak up. Helping her overcome her reticence, Mordecai declared, “For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father's family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” Now was the time for her to speak, so she decided to risk her life and go to see the king.

I love Mordecai’s words, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come…” Although he does not claim to know exactly what God’s purpose and plan are, he invites Esther to consider whether her whole life has been orchestrated for this moment. Maybe he’s stretching there, but I don’t think so. It might not be as simple as that, but I do believe it is our duty as people of faith to ask that profound question: “What is my purpose here?” Through odd circumstances, Esther found herself in the palace of the Persian king, and she was called by a prophet Mordecai to ask why. Upon reflection, she discovered that silence would not suffice.

We are all in positions and relationships. Often, we discover that we got there by chance—a seemingly haphazard sequence of events that could have gone in any other direction. But to remain in that place of indeterminism and not search for a God-directed meaning in the circumstances is to remain silent. However we got here—random collisions of atoms and molecules or predestined orchestration—we still must speak up when we find ourselves in a place where our voice is needed.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Who's the Greatest?

In this Sunday’s gospel lesson, Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” But what does it mean to welcome? If it simply means “make a space for” or “don’t kick out,” then we’re good. I can handle that. But, given that Jesus is challenging the disciples’ perceptions of power and authority and servanthood, I have a feeling it’s deeper than that.

In Mark’s version of the story, this is Jesus’ way of refuting the disciples’ desire to be the greatest. Even deeper than that, this is Mark’s way of showing that the disciples still didn’t understand Jesus’ passion predictions. Jesus predicts his death (2nd time); the disciples argue about who is the greatest (clearly don’t get it); Jesus responds with the bit about children (come on, people!). And that suggests to me that welcoming children is a little like dying on the cross. It’s not as easy as you think.

Although we are separated by centuries of culture, and children have come a long way during that time, I don’t think this is merely a cultural gap between us and Jesus’ words. His words wouldn’t have been shocking because people hated children back then. Instead, he’s asking us to do more than “make space” or “not kick out” little ones. He’s asking us to set them in the middle of us and learn from them.

This morning, I read a NPR bit about white middle-class families sending their children to Birmingham’s public schools—bucking a long-standing trend. And in the article one of the parents says of elementary-aged children, “I feel like at this age, they don't really see color…They go straight to playing together and learning about each other and talking and sharing snacks.” THAT is the opposite of what the disciples had been arguing about. Jesus is telling them to go back to first grade and learn what they need to learn about who’s first. I don’t know at what age children discover that black kids and white kids are different. I don’t know how old you have to be before you learn that some kids don’t have the five-star trapper-keeper because their parents can’t afford it and (to take the logic where the disciples were stuck) are thus less valuable as human beings. But we aren’t born that way. And Jesus wants us to get back to the playground.

Welcoming Jesus and the one who sent him means eliminating the social strata that assign value to “the greatest” and “the least of these.” Jesus died as the world’s servant. Yet he was exalted to the heavenly places. There is no more “who is the greatest?” We’re supposed to be past that now.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A New Word for God's People

The Lord has given me a word, and that word is comfort. In this Sunday’s lesson from Isaiah, I think the prophet announces something relatively new for his people. Usually, when someone came to God’s people and declared that God had given him a message for his people, the words that came out were not welcome. They usually meant that trouble was ahead. Typically, prophets came on the scene when people had forgotten how to live as God had asked them. The poor, weak, and vulnerable were oppressed by people in positions of power, and the prophet came to set things straight. But, this time, the prophet comes not to announce God’s words of condemnation but God’s message of redemption.

All of this suffering that you have endured through recent generations, the prophet declares, that was not empty pain. God was not absent. The depth of your agony was not an end in itself. Instead, the word that God offers is that your very pain is being transformed into your redemption. Now, despite all of that suffering and struggle, God is standing with you—and has been through it all. Who can compete with that?

In modern times, when someone stands up and declares that she or he has a word from God to share, it usually means that they want to be critical of something. The role of the prophet is much the same as it was in Old Testament times. Prophets don’t come to tell us that everything is just fine. They come to stir us up, and there are plenty of problems for them to point out. But what would happen if we had more prophets who focused on offering words of redemption rather than words of condemnation? If the world keeps telling us that we are broken, hurting, and suffering, shouldn’t we have messengers from God who remind us that our pain is not the end of the story—that even though our agony God is with us? Who can compete with that?

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Church Changes

One of the biggest developments in the first century of Christianity was its transformation to a sect of Judaism to a free-standing, Gentile-focused religion. Of course, an argument could be made that it was never really a Jewish sect. And I suppose others could argue that it still is Jewish in nature. But I think our faith, although Jewish in heritage, is distinct. So how and when did that happen?

Today’s reading from Acts (Acts 13:44-52) tells the story almost in passing. After preaching the word of God effectively, Paul and Barnabas were met with strong and successful opposition from the Jewish leaders of Antioch. That rift, which had been developing throughout the near-East, became too great to heal. And Paul and Barnabas looked at the Jews and said, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles.” At that moment, everything changes. The Gentiles rejoice, and the Jews probably rejoiced, too. Like a difficult partnership that was destined from the beginning for failure, Christianity stepped aside from its ancestral spouse and became its own religion.

In other posts, I’ve written about the historically accidental nature of that split. Basically, synagogues couldn’t hold both Christians and Jews, and, as the Jewish people didn’t see a need to convert, it was natural for Christianity to reach out to Gentiles. Still, though, it seems to be a bigger deal than Acts makes it out to be. In a few quick sentences, Paul writes off those in his own ethnic community who haven’t gotten on board, and he turns his attention to everyone else. Shouldn’t there be more to it than that?

One line in the reading reminds me why stories of this significance get written the way they do: “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.” There is a role of destiny in this and every story. By writing from the perspective of hindsight, the author is able to look back and see that everything worked out exactly as it should. But isn’t that the way it always works?

Even in huge, religion-splitting moments like this one, we can look back at them and trace evidence of God’s will—the Spirit’s guidance and direction—all the way through a controversial moment. The same can be said of the first Ecumenical Councils, at which the strangest coincidences led us to our definition of orthodoxy. Part of what it means to be human is to be able to discern God’s work and will in human history.

We could argue all day whether God is pulling the puppet strings or whether he set everything in motion or whether he exists at all. Looking back and seeing God’s hand at work is an exercise in faith. And in tumultuous times like this one, when expressions of the faith are going through as much change as they did in the days of Paul and Barnabas, we have to remember that 500 years from now people will look back and see the same God and work in the same ways—even if we’re too close to discern that.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Sunday's Gospel: Full of Surprises

I love a good surprise. I don’t mean being startled—like when someone jumps out from around the corner and scares you half to death. (I like that, too, but that’s another topic.) I like those moments of genuine surprise, when things don’t turn out the way you expected them to. They don’t happen all that often. Usually we can see what’s coming long before it gets here. But, every so often, something truly unexpected happens.

I wonder whether Jesus himself was ever surprised. I expect that he was. I don’t want to get into a heavy discussion of the communicatio idiomatum—that Jesus Christ had all the properties of both God and man—but I don’t want to believe in a savior who wasn’t caught off-guard at least once. That’s part of what it means to be human, and, although it doesn’t make sense to say that all-knowing God was surprised, I can’t imagine going through a pre-programmed life.

This Sunday’s gospel reading is, for me, a time when Jesus was surprised. Unique to Mark’s telling of this story of the Syrophoenician (“Canaanite” in Matthew) woman is Jesus’ understated response to her plea. The woman asks Jesus for help, and he responds the way everyone (including himself) expected—by saying no. But then she uses his own demeaning metaphor of a dog gathering up crumbs under the children’s table to reveal to him something new. Jesus sees that the time is right for God’s mission to be extended to the Gentiles.

In Matthew’s account, Jesus makes a big deal about the woman’s faith—as if her bold exchange revealed a faith worth responding to. But this account shows a Jesus who responds purely out of acknowledgment of her humanity. I read it as if he didn’t expect that to happen. I think he was serious when he said no, and I think he left that house with a new theological insight to mull over: “maybe it is time to reach out to other people.”

We are supposed to look for surprises like that. But how do you look for a surprise? Can we search for something and still be surprised by it? Yes, I think so. God chooses the weak to reveal his strength. God chooses the poor to shower the world with riches. That way of God always comes as a surprise, but it’s a surprise we’re supposed to be looking for every day.