Wednesday, June 26, 2019
I am finishing my third week of classes at the School of Theology in Sewanee, and, as you can tell, I haven't had much time for writing. It's all I can do to keep up with the readings and coursework. But I trust that the classes I take and the books I read and the conversations I have will have a positive impact on the rest of my work. In particular, this year's program has given me the chance to focus on preaching the Old Testament, and, as we make our way into the season after Pentecost, I am excited to see how that focus will bear fruit.
This coming Sunday, those of us who use Track 1 of the RCL will hear the story of Elijah's departure in 2 Kings 2. It's a dramatic story of how the authority--literally the mantle--of one prophet is passed to his successor. After refusing to abandon his master, Elisha is asked by Elijah what he might do for him. When Elisha asks for a double-portion of his spirit, Elijah confirms that the difficult request will only be accomplished if Elisha is able to stay with him until his departure. Sure enough, after Elisha picks up the mantle that has fallen from the senior prophet, he rolls it up and strikes the river just as his master had done, and the waters part. The spirit, the authority, the commission, the mantle have been passed on.
Each week, the Track 1 readings move through the Old Testament in large chunks, making their way through different sections and allowing congregations to hear extensive passages from the Hebrew scriptures. Track 2, on the other hand, is almost identical to the 1979 BCP lectionary, which itself parallels the older Roman Catholic lectionary, in which Old Testament lessons are paired thematically with Gospel texts. Because we use Track 1, there isn't supposed to be any direct overlap with the gospel reading. Of course, because the themes of salvation history are present in Old and New Testaments, there are always some connections that can be made, but usually they end up sounding forced if made from the pupit or in a blog post. This week, however, something different happens.
In the Gospel lesson, we read Luke 9:51-62, in which Jesus is turned away by the residents of a Samaritan town and then approached by some potential disciples. In both sections, there's an overriding question of what it means to receive Jesus and follow Jesus, which is probably the right theme for a sermon, but there's an explicit overlap with the relationship between Elijah and Elisha that Jesus seems to challenge in his encounter with a would-be follower. "Another said, 'I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.' Jesus said to him, 'No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.'
The point is that Jesus won't even let a farewell to family stand in the way of the urgent call to drop everything and follow him, but those who know their Old Testament better than most of us do would hear an intentional comparison with Elijah's calling of Elisha in 1 Kings 19. In that encounter, Elijah "passed by [Elisha] and threw his mantle over him," a symbol of the recruitment of a disciple. But Elisha's response almost identically mirrors that of the would-be disciple from Luke 9: "Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you." Yet Elijah's response reflects the exact opposite: "Go back again; for what have I done to you?" Moreover, after the farewell is said, Elisha takes the yoke of oxen and slaughters them and, using the equipment, boils them in order to feed the community. (Twelve yoke of oxen is a lot of meat!) A clear example of "putting a hand to the plow and looking back," this action seems to be exactly what Jesus rejects when he refuses the would-be follower the chance to go home and say goodbye to his family.
By the time we get to Elijah's farewell and the passing of the mantle in 2 Kings 2, Elisha has journeyed with his master through some difficult moments. His commitment, exemplified in his refusal to abandon Elijah in his final journey, is unquestioned. Yet Jesus wants us to go even further. There's a danger in preaching Luke 9 as an example that "corrects" or "perfects" what was incomplete or misguided in the Old Testament story--dangerous because it continues to nurture the evil of antisemitism through poor exegesis. Rather, Jesus' teaching to the would-be disciple (and to us) relies on the integrity of the encounter between Elijah and Elisha to explain the seriousness of his own ministry and the call to participate in it. No one questions Elisha's commitment to his master's work. How critical, therefore, must the commitment to Jesus' work be if we aren't even allowed to set our hand to the plow and look back?
As my preaching class has reiterated, one does not need the New Testament to preach an effective sermon on the story of salvation revealed in the Old Testament. But this week, if you're preaching on Luke 9 and the commitment of Jesus' disciples, consider telling the story of Elijah and Elisha--a story of true commitment that Jesus uses as the model for his own ministry. You can't know the story of the prophetic duo and miss the significance of Jesus' demand. Knowing the stories Jesus knew, of course, helps us know Jesus.
Monday, June 17, 2019
Finally--we have made it to the season after Pentecost. Propers 7 through 29 stretch out ahead of us. Miracles, parables, conflict, and comfort all lie ahead of us. Twenty weeks from now, I am sure to be ready for a change in the season, but, for now, I'm glad to be entering the ordinariness of ordinary time. And this Sunday we kick it off with a real gem of an encounter between Jesus, the demon-possessed man, and the community in Luke 8.
You remember the story: Jesus and his disciples come ashore in a boat; Jesus is met by a man with a Legion of demons; and Jesus casts the demons out into a herd of pigs that then drowns itself in the sea. But do you remember what the people of the city do when they come out and find the wild man clothed and in his right mind, sitting at Jesus' feet? They are filled with fear and ask Jesus to leave. Strange? Or not strange?
The drama of the story is surely contained in Jesus interaction with the Legion. This wild man has been a nuisance and threat to the community. He has broken every chain and shackle that the people have tried to place on him. He terrorizes them. Before letting their children play outside, parents check to make sure that the man isn't anywhere nearby, and, even then, they won't let them stray far for what the man might do to them. At any time, he could come and create havoc. Mostly, though, he lives amidst the tombs, in the unclean place of the dead, where a demon-possessed man belongs
As soon as the man sees Jesus, he identifies him as the "Son of the Most High God," a name that lets the reader know that the demon recognizes Jesus for who he really is. The demon has power over the man, but it recognizes that Jesus will have power over itself. Legion is a Roman name, reminiscent of the military brutality that the Empire has brought to this land. Yet Jesus commands the demon (permits it?) to enter a herd of unclean swine, which then races down into the water, killing the pigs and returning the demon to its primordial home--the sea.
The effect is immediate. The man is no longer wild. He gets dressed and sits quietly, attentively, at Jesus' feet. But, when the townspeople come out and see it, they are filled with fear. "Please leave," they say to Jesus with one voice. "We don't want you here. Please be on your way. You are not welcome here." Strange? Not strange? Jesus had given them the relief that no one else could give. He had restored sanity to the man and to the community. And the people ask him to leave. Why?
They could be upset because the pigs were killed--a substantial loss for the pig farmers. Or maybe this is Jewish-Gentile conflict. Maybe the death of the pigs represents in their minds a triumph of Jewish identity over their Gentile culture. Or maybe Luke wants us to see the imperial connection and understand that Jesus isn't just banishing a demon but attacking the demonic identity that the Empire, with its military Legions, represents. Maybe the townspeople don't want any outside agitators in their midst, thank you very much.
I may not know the specific thing that the townspeople had in mind when they asked Jesus to leave, but I know why they asked him to go. Change is incredible threatening, and Jesus was offering radical change. Sanity always seems so attractive from a distance, but, when it's your chaos that is being exchanged for someone else's peace, you find yourself fighting against the change.
Have you ever been to AA? Have you ever been to Al-anon? Why do you think your mother fell and broke her hip one week after being moved into the assisted living facility? Why do you think your preschooler keeps biting her classmates? The human psyche is wildly strange, but its predictable responses to change aren't strange at all. All of us would rather have the crazy we know than the peace we don't. All of us find God's reign and the reordering of our lives that it represents threatening. This week, as we watch what Jesus does for the demon-possessed man, don't forget to notice what happens to the community. If we are going to accept the peace that Jesus brings, we, too, must be transformed--not from the outside but from within.
Thursday, June 13, 2019
If you exercise on a regular basis, you are likely to be healthier. If you spend 20 minutes each day in silent contemplation, you are likely to be more peaceful. If you consistently drive 20 miles per hour over the speed limit, you are likely to get a ticket. Cause and effect. We all know it well.
In Sunday's short reading from Romans, however, Paul seems to suggest that we know the relationship between cause and effect too well, and he seeks to rewrite what we know about it: "...we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us." On the surface, this is a lovely, counter-intuitive progression that appears to seek a silver lining to the cloud of hardship. People suffer. We all suffer. Some of us who were born into a life of deep privilege suffer very little compared with others, but we all experience suffering. A shallow reading of Paul's words offers some encouragement in the face of that kind of suffering. "Keep your chin up," Paul seems to say. "Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character...You do want to be a person of character, don't you?" But I think the theology Paul is espousing here, which is built upon the dramatic conclusion of Romans 4, is far more substantial than a sympathy card from Hallmark.
As it often does, in order to make the lectionary reading, which picks up in the middle of a thought, seem to stand on its own, the reading usually omits a giant "Therefore" that begins Romans 5:1. If you read your lesson on lectionarypage.net or other lectionary-based sites, you're likely to miss it. But, if you open your Bible or a Bible app, you'll see that the first verse of Sunday's lesson is "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God..." You can't start a story with "therefore." You can't start an argument with "therefore." Try it. Try walking up to someone in your house or place of work or a random person on the street whom you haven't spoken to and say, "Therefore, that is why we should do it." It's silly. But that's what we're doing to the lesson.
So let's go back and see what's in Romans 4: "What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness...' For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith...Therefore his faith 'was reckoned to him as righteousness.' Now the words, 'it was reckoned to him,' were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification."
In the chapter that precedes Sunday's lesson, Paul uses Abraham and Genesis 12 to argue that justification--being made right with God--comes through faith and not works. We are made right with God because of our faith in God and what God has done and is doing and will do for us in Jesus Christ, not because of our works. Therefore, picking up with this Sunday's reading, we have peace with God--the kind of peace that comes from being justified by faith. Access to that peace is what leads Paul to boast and even boast in suffering.
Christian theology is a total reversal of cause and effect. We are justified not by our input into the relationship but by faith in what God has put into that relationship. That's Romans 4. When we get to Romans 5, Paul writes about the consequences of that justification, and that's why he believes that we have reason to boast in suffering. Our instincts tell us that bad things happen to bad people--that those who suffer in this life must have done something to anger the gods. But Paul tells us our instincts are wrong. Suffering is not only not a sign that we have done something wrong. It is a reminder that God doesn't work that way. It is, therefore, a sign that we are doing something right. In that way, suffering builds endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.
For those who have peace with God--who know that they have been given a right standing with God through faith in Jesus Christ--suffering in this life is a reminder to us that our God is not a God of cause and effect. That realization--peace in the face of suffering--gives us the strength to endure because we know that God is with us in our suffering. As we endure suffering, we are shaped into people who depend even more fully on God, who journeys with us. That character reflects a life that is lived not in this world but fully in God's reign, which is to say that that character produces hope.
This Sunday, remember that Paul's words are not a self-help routine. Suffering to endurance to character to hope is not a training regimen. It is a statement of Christian theology--of justification by faith. Only because we are made right with God through faith and not works are we able to boast in our suffering. In other words, the hope and character and endurance that come from suffering are not our work. They are God's work and come from our participation in that work through faith.
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
In Sunday's gospel lesson (John 16:12-15) Jesus said to his disciples, "Sorry, boys, but you cannot bear it now." On the night before he died, Jesus told his disciples that he still had much to tell them, but they couldn't bear it yet. Forgive me, Jesus, but that sounds a lot like, "You'll understand this when you're older," or "Once you become a parent, you'll understand what love really is." Actually, that's not at all what Jesus said, but I think Jesus will forgive me for making the connection to comments like those. As my beard gets grayer, those comments don't happen as much as they used to, but I can still feel the shadow of resentment spreading through me as I remember them.
In this case, though, Jesus wasn't saying that the disciples needed to grow up a little bit more before they were able to understand the truths about God that Jesus wanted to give them. He was standing on one side of his death and resurrection, and he knew that humanity could not comprehend what God was seeking to reveal until it had witnessed the Son of God die on the cross and be raised from the dead. Jesus' disciples needed to bear the loss of their teacher and friend before they could receive what he was trying to convey to them. That isn't ageist or ableist. It's theology.
I can't remember where I saw it, but I came across a survey about doing theology, and the question was whether someone who is not a person of faith is able to do it. I believe the answer is no. That's not because I think that only believers are committed to the pursuit of God, and it's certainly not because I don't like the conclusions that unbelieving academics reach. (There are plenty of people who identify as Christians whose writings I dislike.) Neither do I think that saying the Creed and receiving Holy Communion magically opens a person up to new and profound insights about who God is. Instead, I believe that true language about God is only possible for those who pursue a relationship with God that enables personal transformation. "Doing theology" isn't as simple as reading and writing about God--of surveying the relevant literature and proposing a new approach to old questions. It means to bring to light the inscrutable, unknowable nature of the one who is completely unknowable. Proper theology doesn't come from us; it comes from God. And only those who are available to God in a profound way can communicate of God like that. Otherwise, all one can do is research of secondary sources.
Whether an academic theologian or a faithful pew-sitter (or both), we cannot know the truth about God except what we know through relationship with God. As Christians, we don't get to know God (simply) by reading about God or by listening to sermons about God or reading blog posts about God. We get to know God by pursuing a deeper, closer, transformational relationship with God. And we do that, Jesus tells us, by dying with him and by being raised with him to new life. Baptism--not merely the sprinkling of water on a person's head in the name of the Trinity but the accompanying Christ into the grave and back out again--is the primary expression of our journey with God through death and into resurrection. The primary story of humanity's journey with God is scripture. And the principal language we use in this relationship is prayer--particularly the deep, Spirit-led silent or charismatic prayer that makes room for God to communicate to and through us.
God still has much to say to us. Can we bear it yet? Have we journeyed with Christ through death and into resurrection? Have we made space for the Spirit to speak to us and draw us into the divine life? It isn't a question of age or ability or circumstance. It's an issue of relationship--the kind of relationship that takes time and effort and, most of all, availability. How and when and for how long are we making ourselves available for God? Ten minutes here or there won't cut it. If we want to receive what God desires to say to us, we have to bear more than that.
Sunday, June 9, 2019
June 6, 2019 – The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
The problem with Babel wasn’t the tower. Although the people had planned an impressive structure, at the end of the story, we learn that the city was left unfinished with no mention of the tower, which suggests that it wasn’t integral to their plans. Nor was the problem the people’s desire to make a name for themselves—at least not directly. We may be tempted to interpret their efforts as an attempt to strive with God, but, when God came down to see what they were up to, God did not take issue with their desire to erect a monument to themselves. Instead, God named the real problem when God said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language.”
As strange as it sounds, the problem with Babel was the unanimity behind it. As Rabbi Shai Held wrote, twice in first ten chapters of Genesis—once in the creation story (1:28) and once following the flood narrative (9:1)—God blesses humanity with the command, “Be fertile, increase, and fill the earth.” But, in the story of Babel, we read that humanity refused to accept that vision because being “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” filled them with fear. “What they most fear,” Held wrote, “is what God most wants.”  Of course, human beings can accomplish much more if they are all of one mind, one opinion, one language, one vocabulary, but how will they account for the beauty of God’s diversity when all individuality is sacrificed for the sake of uniformity? How can their labors be of God when there is no room for a minority voice?
The Day of Pentecost was not a moment that undid Babel. It was a moment that embraced it. On that day, the disciples were all together in one place. After several encounters with the risen Jesus, the disciples, who had been so slow to believe, had finally embraced the truth of the resurrection. They had joyfully bid farewell to Jesus as he ascended into the heavens. Seeking God’s guidance, they had reconstituted the fellowship of the twelve by choosing Matthias to take Judas’ place. Everything had come together. They were all set, safely behind closed doors, until the Holy Spirit showed up. Like a violent wind, the power of the Almighty filled the house where they were, threatening to tear the building apart. Manifest in tongues of fire, the Spirit descended and rested upon each of them, giving them the ability to speak in other languages: “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”—all of them heard the disciples speaking in their native languages. Before Peter got up to address the crowd, one of the disciples leaned over to whisper to his colleague: “You know what this means, don’t you? A road trip.”
God’s vision of the end—of the fulfillment of all things—is not a totalitarian theocracy in which all people are assimilated into one. It is the church—the body of Christ—being given the ability to recognize and respect the wonderful diversity of the nations—the entire breadth of humanity—who all hear and understand and know in their own language that they, too, are created in God’s image and are loved by God, who calls them God’s own. The salvation of the world is all peoples coming together not to sacrifice their identity for the sake of the collective but to represent the fullest identity of God because of their diversity. And the Holy Spirit gives the church the power to step outside itself so that it might be possible. The refreshing uniqueness of the Christian gospel is that God loves all people and all peoples as God’s own, and Pentecost is the moment when the church begins to recognize it.
It seems that we have all of that figured out here at St. Paul’s. We know and proclaim the power of God’s unconditional love. Our worship is as beautiful and meaningful as that of any congregation. We care more about serving others than serving ourselves. If only everyone could come and see what we have and what we know. Come to think of it, why haven’t they? Why isn’t everyone a member of St. Paul’s? Why isn’t everyone an Episcopalian? We are God’s gift to this community and to the world. Shouldn’t everyone come and be like us? Maybe we should build a city for ourselves, with a high tower that stretches to the heavens—high enough to see everyone and everything in order to be absolutely certain that they are all doing it our way, the right way, God’s way.
God’s will is to bless us by scattering us to the ends of the earth. The instinct to celebrate who and what we are always leads to the temptation to think that we are good and that the rest of the world could be good, too, if they would just become like us. The thought of being dispersed and diffused throughout the whole world fills us with fear. We don’t want to risk losing the thing we know and love best—our own identity. We, too, are most afraid of the thing that God wants most. But that thing is the original blessing. It is the fullness of God, which can only be known in the exquisite diversity of humanity—all made in God’s image.
The Holy Spirit comes not to bring us together but to fling us apart—to empower us to recognize God’s salvation within the peoples and languages and cultures and traditions that are most different from our own. For too long the church has been a monument to Christians who look and think and act like us—a white, European, colonial beacon to the nations that requires that they find our God on our terms. But that kind of approach to God isn’t evangelism; it’s an assault on the one who has made all people in God’s image. It’s the kind of theology that denies the goodness of other human beings. It’s the kind of theology that is used by white Christians to justify slavery and lynching and segregation and mass incarceration and the shooting of unarmed black men. God is bigger than that. God has always been bigger than that. And we must be, too.
The only thing that can wrap its arms around the diversity of the human race is the one who made us, the one who shows us that we belong to God not because we are the same but because we are different, the one blesses us by scattering us to the ends of the earth. May God send the Holy Spirit to scatter us so that we, too, might finally see the truth that God has always seen—that salvation is all people made by God and loved by God.
 “The Babel story is about the dangers of uniformity,” The Christian Century, 24 October 2017. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/the-babel-story-is-about-dangers-uniformity; accessed 8 June 2019.
Thursday, June 6, 2019
The first eleven chapters of Genesis use narrative to wrestle with the biggest questions of human existence: Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is death? Who is our Creator? Why is there conflict and violence in the world? Why are relationships beautiful and difficult? The rest of the Bible engages those same topics in historical accounts that remind us of those larger-than-life truths, but these first few chapters of scripture tackle them head on. In our lectionary, we don't get to wrestle with these prehistoric passages very often--just nine times in the three-year Eucharistic lectionary--and this Sunday is a chance to do that which I find hard to pass up.
So what in the world happens at the Tower of Babel?
The LORD came down to see the city and tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech."Really? God came down, saw that the people who had one language and one purpose would be able to do whatever they put their mind to, and confused everything just to keep us from being successful? That's the simple reading--the straightforward reading--which is usually the best. We could look for cracks in the biblical text that provide enough of an opening for an alternative interpretation. For example, the passage tells us that the humans sought to "make a name for ourselves." A preacher could take that one line and use it to declare their effort--and all human endeavors--as sinfully selfish and subject to God's judgment and wrath. Or the preacher could focus on the people's attempt to build a tower "with its top in the heavens" as a sign that humanity was competing with God, seeking their own glory instead of the glory of the divine, and declare that all such efforts are doomed to fail. But that feels like ducking the truth that the Bible gives us.
However you believe that scripture was developed, we have a beautifully strange and challenging text in Genesis 11. Did the Holy Spirit direct Moses to write down every word as a record of what actually happened? Did God's people adapt mythical accounts of creation, fall, and judgment that they encountered from other ancient tribes into a story that was told and retold and retold again throughout the generations until it became codified in written form in the text we more or less recognize today? Regardless, the text isn't an accident. No matter your understanding of the origin of scripture, it is God's word, sacred and perfect. God could have dictated the story in a clearer, easier way. The generations could have shaped the account to tell a more straightforward, more easily understood story. But the didn't. God didn't. We have what we have, and we are called to wrestle with it.
What does it mean that God's people would discern a God who would come down and scatter the people to thwart their progress? What does it mean that God's people would be able to do anything they set their mind to if they were only unified in purpose and language? What does it mean that our differences in language, culture, and ethnicity are the only things that stand in the way of our greatest accomplishments? Of course, one instinct behind the passage is to explain how humanity developed those differences. But that explanation incorporates themes of human accomplishment and divine judgment. We situate the origin of our differences in a story of imposed limitations. The story seems to beg the question, when will we come back together? The unfinished tower and city, abandoned after the confusion of language, is a legendary testament to a work that is not yet complete.
The story of Pentecost is not an undoing of Babel. The Spirit does not lead the crowd to all hear the same language. Instead, Pentecost overcomes Babel by enabling the one truth to be shared in multiple languages. The differences, therefore, are declared good. Just as the tradition's insistence that the origin of those differences be located in God's work, Pentecost reminds us that the differences are not an evil to be wiped away but a reality to be overcome. An honest struggle with Babel leads us to a clearer understanding of the Christian hope as not the homogenization of the peoples but a unifying of our differences.
Wednesday, June 5, 2019
Have you ever heard the story about the people who used religion as a poorly veiled excuse for their campaign against those who threatened their power, wealth, and security? Yeah, who hasn't?
In Acts 16, we read a remarkable story about power. A slave-girl, kept by her owners because she has the unholy gift of divination--the ability to communicate with spirits and tell fortunes--has the power to recognize Paul and his companions for who they really are, servants of the Most High God. The identification "Most High God" is the Bible's way of letting us know that someone outside the spiritual family of Israel is talking about Israel's God. How remarkable that this slave-girl, whose spiritual gift is itself prohibited as fundamentally contrary to the ways of God's people, is able to use that gift to see something true about God and God's servants!
As if compelled by the greater power of the Holy Spirit that fills Paul and his companions, the slave-girl follows them around for days, calling out, "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!" The slave-girl, slave of an unholy spirit, proclaimed the truth about those who were slaves of God's Holy Spirit. But Paul was annoyed. Wouldn't you be annoyed if someone followed you around for days, yelling about who you were and what you did? So Paul, spun around and snapped at the girl's spirit, "I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!" And the spirit, overpowered by the Spirit within Paul, left her at that hour. Did anyone doubt who was really in control?
But the story doesn't end there. As soon as the owners of the slave-girl realized that they had lost their hope of making money, they stirred up trouble among the magistrates: "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe." The accusation had all the right components: an appeal to ethnic distinctions, the presumed violation of beloved customs, a reminder of the crowd's national identity and obligations, and a nondescript reference to the outsiders' trouble-making. The crowd didn't need to hear the details. They didn't need to know the truth. Having been whipped up by the disgruntled slave-girl owners, the mob joined in attacking them, stripping off their clothes, beating them with rods, throwing them in prison, and locking their feet in stocks.
The story of Acts is the story of how God's Holy Spirit enables the apostles to carry the name of Jesus to the ends of the world. Faced with threat of persecution, imprisonment, and death, the apostles succeed in spreading the good news of salvation because the Holy Spirit is with them. That's why the apostles' imprisonment isn't the end of the story either. Falsely accused, imprisoned because of their unwavering faith in the One whose Spirit is more powerful than the spirit of divination, the spirit of wealth-gaining, that motivated the angry mob, the Holy Spirit comes to the apostles by way of an earthquake, opening the gates of the prison, and breaking loose the stocks. God came to set these slaves of the Holy Spirit free from the chains of the world's empire. And, once set free, the apostles did not run out but remained and used God's dramatic intervention to share the promise of salvation with the jailer.
The apostles' bloodless victory over their opponents is a dramatic reminder of God's promised victory over the forces of selfishness, greed, and oppression that plague God's people, but for many that promised victory is sometimes further away that we would hope. Have you ever heard the story about the people who used religion as an excuse to attack the ones who would take away their wealth, their traditions, their power, their status quo? When has our own religion been the fuel to whip up an angry crowd into a murderous rage? The Crusades? The Inquisition? The fight for slavery? The fight for segregation? The lynch mobs that beat and hung and burned innocent black men and women and children in the public square or from whatever tree was convenient? What about modern inquisitions? The Crusades are our past, but what about the evil of Islamaphobia that is alive and well? We don't hang people for threatening our way of life anymore, but we keep them locked away in a cycle of incarceration or trapped at the border or locked in cages that leaves them as good as dead. We use religion to stigmatize abortion to the point where, instead of discussing the moral quandary or the public health issue, we whip up angry mobs who enact draconian laws so that individuals can maintain their position in the state legislature all in the name of Jesus.
In its infancy, the way of Jesus was a minority movement that sought to find a hold in the face of great oppression. The Acts of the Apostles gives hope to those who would carry the good news of Jesus into the lion's den. There are still those among us who risk everything they have for the sake of following Jesus. But most of us are citizens of the Empire who are trying to find our way into the kingdom of God. We're the children of Constantine as much as children of Abraham. Paul and his companions could never have dreamed of a day when those who used religion as an excuse to persecute others would be using Jesus' name for their cause. How will we become slaves of the Most High God, true followers of Jesus, when we're the ones who depend on the status quo?
Tuesday, June 4, 2019
This Sunday is the eighth Sunday of Easter, more commonly known as Pentecost. Despite a multitude of liturgical reminders of that fact, it's easy to forget that Pentecost is an Easter moment. We still open the service with "Alleluia. Christ is risen." The Pascal Candle remains lit (unless you're part of a congregation that ignores the rubrics and extinguishes it after Ascension day). The "Alleluia, Alleluia" is added to the dismissal one more time (unless you're part of a congregation that ignores the rubrics and adds it all year long).
Part of the problem is the fact that Pentecost is a big day (principal feast) with its own color (red) and its own traditions. Another problem is the fact that many casually refer to the upcoming liturgical season, properly identified as the "Season after Pentecost," as "the Season of Pentecost." But Pentecost isn't a season; it's a day. All those Sundays after it, which used to be reckoned as Sundays after Trinity Sunday, are ordinary time, but Pentecost is Easter. So distinct is the transition from Pentecost as the last day of Easter to the ordinary time that follows that the lectionary, which usually allows Sunday's propers to be observed throughout the week, dictates that proper observed during the rest of the week after Pentecost is whatever proper most closely falls on the calendar, in this case Proper 5 (see BCP p. 917).
Pentecost is Easter, and the story of Pentecost is an Easter story. Over and over, Jesus told his disciples to remain and wait for the coming Holy Spirit. The first collect option reminds us that the Holy Spirit is a "promised gift." The descent of the Spirit is not an afterthought or a secondary accommodation. As we read in the gospel lesson from John 14, Jesus' return to the Father and the coming of the Holy Spirit are part of the same movement--accomplishing the same purpose. Easter is our celebration of God's victory, God's salvation, and that celebration cannot be complete until the gift of eternal life is "shed abroad...throughout the world." In other words, we can't end Easter until the truth of Easter reaches everyone--or at least until it has been opened up beyond a particular moment, a particular manifestation, a particular language and made accessible to all.
This is an Easter Sunday. Pentecost completes the proclamation and celebration of Easter. We can't finish any other way. Now that we know the power of the Spirit, now that we've seen it come to the earth, can you imagine completing the good news of the resurrection any other way? The good news of Easter began with the woman at the empty tomb, spread to the disciples (albeit gradually), and continued as Jesus revealed himself to his followers. This spreading of the good news didn't stop when Jesus ascended into heaven nor was it in any way diminished. Jesus returning to the father allows the power of the resurrection to continue in all time and space, animated--breathed--by the Holy Spirit. This is Easter. For one more Sunday, one more day, this is Easter. Once Pentecost is complete, we have received the good news of Jesus' victory over death completely. Then, as the ordinary time of the rest of human history unfolds, we have what we need to carry that good news to the ends of the earth.
Monday, June 3, 2019
Why Pentecost? We know what happened at Pentecost--the Holy Spirit came down from heaven, filled the house where the disciples were, and rested upon them like tongues of fire, giving them the ability to speak in other languages. That's the story of Acts 2, which we read this Sunday. That's what. But the harder question is why. Why does it matter? Why is the story significant?
On the surface, we can see that it happened so that the good news of Jesus Christ could be shared across ethnic, linguistic barriers. From this moment, throughout the Acts of the Apostles, the gospel spreads from Jerusalem to the ends of the known earth. It is passed on from Jews to Samaritans to non-Jewish proselytes and on to Gentiles. But surely Pentecost is more than that.
There are other gifts of the Spirit, of course. Peter is recorded as performing miracles similar to those that Jesus performed--healing the sick, raising the dead. Sometimes the Spirit gives them visions. Certainly it gives them boldness. Paul goes on to write about the gifts of the Spirit as central to the work of the church. But none of those is highlighted in the Pentecost moment, except, perhaps, the wisdom and prophecy he reveals in his Spirit-led address to the crowd.
This week, our Sunday school class looked at the Acts 2 reading in detail, and we noticed that Peter himself gives us an important interpretation of Pentecost that is usually missed by most preachers, including me. How does Peter understand this event? "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.'" For Peter, the coming of the Holy Spirit is the inauguration of the last days, and he turns to Joel's vision of portents and blood and fire and smoky mist to describe them.
I don't often think of Pentecost as an apocalyptic moment. I prefer to think of the Spirit's linguistic gift as a unifying force that enables all peoples to be united in the one faith. But isn't that an apocalyptic vision?
This year, we will read Genesis 11 as our first lesson and hear the strange story of the Tower of Babel. I plan to write more about Babel in another blog post this week, but the etiological story of the development of languages speaks to an ancient (even prehistoric) confusion of our identity that Pentecost unscrambles. For Peter, the gift of the Spirit was a clear sign that God was reversing the disorder that had developed since the Fall. And that kind of reordering represents a change so huge that it cannot be received except as threatening--as a day when "the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day."
There are many reasons to celebrate on Pentecost. It's the "birthday of the church." It's a fun day to wear red and, sometimes, to pose for a parish photo. But it's also a day to celebrate the beginning of the end--the great reordering of the world that draws all people together. That's threatening to those of us who like things the way they are--those who benefit from the marginalization of some and the preferential treatment of others. Pentecost is God's reversal of that on God's own terms. I wonder how often that truth is celebrated on Pentecost.