Oddities of the Holy Spirit

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture: Acts 16:9-15; John 14:23-29

At times, I am reminded that following Jesus is a bit strange. I’m trained in scientific methods as a community psychologist and I’m working to develop specific hypotheses for my dissertation. My research will be descriptive – describing what exists in the world – but it will also seek to answer a question with new data, empirical evidence.

I’ve followed Jesus for many years now – I was baptized in the spring of 2000—and so I’m used to talking about supernatural events of the Spirit, like miracles, or the Spirit’s leading. Yet, sometimes, it hits me with how odd it is, from an empirical and from a nonspiritual point of view. For instance, the general the notion of God, but especially the Holy Spirit acting, moving, nudging, and revealing, as we see in today’s texts. It is odd, if you are not religious, to hear someone say, “This might seem out of nowhere, but I felt this strong thought or voice remind me of a person, or give me a strong idea, or compel me to pray or talk or reach out to someone.” Yet, despite the lack of empirical support for how the Spirit moves, I’m convinced that these “oddities of the Holy Spirit” are still at work today. Our faith is not just a moral philosophy but is empowered and led by a Spirit beyond ourselves. We see this in scripture and we experience in life together as the body of Jesus.

Oddities of the Holy Spirit

Our passage in Acts 16 highlights some of these Holy Spirit oddities. We see that Paul and crew were traveling around preaching about Jesus but hit some Holy Spirit roadblocks in their journeys. Acts 16, verses 6-8 say, they “traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.” There is no indication what this “not allowing” was. Did logistics just not come together? Was someone sick? Did they encounter hostile communities or authorities on the way? Or was it in times of prayer that they kept hearing a big “no”? Whatever the case, there were Holy Spirit roadblocks.

Then, in verse 9, Paul has a dream. The author of Acts, Luke, describes it this way: “During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Luke explains, “After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (NIV). Paul must have woken up from his dream and said, “Good morning! Um, I don’t know how your night last night was, but I had a dream about a Macedonian guy saying that he needed our help. So… I guess we should go to Macedonia?” So, they went to Macedonia, a place which was not just the next town over. Paul and crew get in a boat, leave Troas, and embark on the Mediterranean. They sailed straight to Samothrace (which was fun to see in the text, because of the statue of the goddess Nike, or the Winged Victory of Samothrace, that is at the Louvre). After Samothrace, Paul and colleagues continue on to Neapolis, then to Philippi, which was a Roman colony and the major city in that part of Macedonia.

Typically, Paul and his team would head to the local synagogue, but since there was not one, they went down to the river where they knew Jews or God-fearing gentiles might pray. They began talking with some women who had gathered, one of whom was a woman named Lydia, who is described as a dealer in purple cloth. Commentators say that her name may indicate she had a slave background, but that if she had been, she was now a freed person of means (with a household and a house). Lydia is said to be “a worshipper of God,” which is another way of saying a gentile drawn to Judaism. Primed and open to the teachings of Yahweh already, Lydia hears the message and receives it.

The gospel spreads beyond her to her household and everyone is baptized. She invites Paul and the team to her home. It requires some persuasion (she’s a single woman, maybe a widow, definitely a Gentile), but she ends up convincing Paul and crew to accept her hospitality. They stay with her and use her home as a base for their preaching in Philippi (until they leave after being thrown in jail, but that’s another story).

According to the text, Lydia is the first recorded convert in Macedonia, in the city of Philippi. The church in Philippi later becomes very important to Paul’s ministry of sharing the gospel; one of the main purposes of the Letter to the Philippians is to thank the congregation for its faithful support of Paul’s ministry (through funds, resources, and people).

Acts 16 is a story of closed doors, a weird dream, walking in faith (or rather, sailing in faith), of opportunities ripe for the harvest, crossing social boundaries to receive hospitality, the gospel spreading, ministry being supported—and all this in ways that Paul and his partners probably could not have imagined when they were in Troas at the beginning of the passage. Things weren’t working. Through the oddities of the Holy Spirit, a new opportunity opened. They followed the opportunity and it bore fruit beyond what they could have imagined.

Paul listened for the oddities of the Holy Spirit and acted decisively, walking in faith, though it could have seemed pretty ludicrous or absurd to other people. “You crossed the sea because you had a dream…?” The oddities of the Holy Spirit still happen today. Sometimes the Spirit speaks in a still small voice, sometimes in an emerging thought, sometimes in a dream (I guess!), or sometimes in an opportunity so obvious that we need to walk through the door, or have a conversation, or invite someone to our home, or any other number of things. I’m not stating an exhaustive list. We see in Scripture that the Holy Spirit nudges or reveals opportunities for ministry in ways that could be seen as odd or absurd.

Are we listening for the Holy Spirit? Are our holy senses working? Are we making the space to invite the Spirit’s nudges, pssts, or loud gongs to get our attention? Are we open to the oddities of the Holy Spirit? Are we open to the far-fetched call for a person to join our ministry? Are we open to the weird outreach plan that crossed our minds? Are we open to following the oddities of the Spirit, and then walking (or sailing) in faith to see how God might lead?

Peace I Leave with You, My Peace I Give You

Our 2nd passage flashes backward to Jesus’ ministry, the night before his crucifixion. Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples, trying to prepare them for his death, resurrection, and ascension, giving them what they need to know (even if they won’t remember until later) and praying for them. Jesus says, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

If we love God and follow the way of Jesus, God will make a home with us. There’s kind of a strange, saccharine phrasing here, “we will come to them and make our home with them.” Though it sounds trite or cutesy translated into English, I think there is profound meaning when we unpack it.

Homes are where we find solace and rest, homes are where we are nourished, where we feed ourselves, and where we are the most relaxed and most authentic. Jesus promises that God will make a home with us: give us rest and solace, nourish us, feed us, and enable us to be our most authentic and true selves. When I am closely walking with Jesus, this is exactly what I feel: at home with God. When I become distant from God, when I drift from the way of Jesus, the rest, the solace, the nourishment, and the authenticity start to drift away too.

Jesus continues, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will be sent by the Father in my name, will come to you. The Spirit will teach you everything and remind you of all these things. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Jesus teaches that the promised Holy Spirit—remember, Pentecost has not yet happened—will teach, remind, and cover the disciples with peace. Since Jesus and the disciples were Jewish, the peace he is referring to is the concept of shalom, which is wholeness, completeness, right relationships. With the Holy Spirit, the wholeness and completeness that God intends can be made manifest amongst these ragtag followers of Jesus. The disciples were about to be very afraid and deal with great loss. Jesus says, “do not be afraid. I am sending you what you need. My peace I give you, I leave with you.”

These are words that I needed to hear in my life both personally—as I’m dealing with numerous relational transitions or loss—and in terms of my role in this community. I’ve served as a leader here in times of great scarcity, then moved to what seemed like times of relative abundance and growth, and now back to what seems like a fallow period with scarcity—and, if I’m being honest, also some loss. I feel loss in the departure of core members who moved away. I feel loss in the disappearances of other seemingly somewhat committed persons. I feel loss, and I’m sad, and I’m probably afraid.

But Jesus says, I am giving you what you need. Really, while celebrating Pentecost is in 2 weeks, we are already in the era of the Holy Spirit—WE’VE BEEN GIVEN WHAT WE NEED. (I wrote that in all caps, because I need to hear it for myself.) Yes, I’m afraid. Yes, sometimes things really kind of suck. Yes, there is pain and loss. But you know what, Jesus did not leave us alone. Jesus did not leave us alone. The Advocate

(someone who pleads on our behalf!) is with us. God makes a home with us. The peace and wholeness and presence of God is with us, through the pain, through the loss, through the times that really suck.

Jesus said, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will be sent by the Father in my name, will come to you. The Spirit will teach you everything and remind you of all these things. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Act on the Nudges and Do Not Be Afraid

I find it very intriguing that these passages came up this week, after some Holy Spirit nudges had occurred. While I certainly preach for the whole body, I often find that the biblical interpretation and the preaching I do is exactly for me, is somehow what I need right now. I’ve been trying to pay attention to these holy nudges, holy opportunities, both in terms of my personal life and my ministry with Washington City Church of the Brethren. Instead of just grieving some personal relationships ending or changing (but believe me, I’m still grieving), I’ve been saying yes to new opportunities for friendship. It’s hard to make new friends, but I’m trying to follow up with a text or a playdate or a walk, or whatever. I don’t think Jesus just wants me to sit around feeling sorry for myself, but to take opportunities placed around me, like new acquaintances or new neighbors.

In terms of the church, I think I had a holy nudge this week and I’ll tell you the story: I typically read books while nursing Ayuba to sleep but, for some reason, I started browsing facebook. Which is also strange, because I’ve been avoiding facebook for a while, only periodically getting the app back on a device and catching up with folks or posting on the church page or reading my birthday greetings. While there, I saw some news about a Church of the Brethren acquaintance, who had recently graduated with a degree.

All of a sudden, this small thought came across: maybe she can come to Washington City. It sounds crazy, but her degree and training could really fit with some of our interests in outreach and arts here at Washington City. After Ayuba fell asleep, I sat in silence—and got the sense that, to be faithful, I should act on this crazy thought and send her a message. So I did. I’m not sure what will come of it, if anything—but I want to be open to the oddities of the Holy Spirit. That’s how Nate and I got here. That’s how Jacob got here. A random conversation, an invitation, and walking in faith after the way of Jesus.

Are we open to hearing the oddities of the Holy Spirit? Personally and as a congregation, are we listening to holy nudges or paying attention to opportunities for new connections, new relationships, new ministry? While things are painful and we’re feeling loss, we are not alone. WE ARE NOT ALONE! We have the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whose oddities still occur today. We have the peace of Jesus, and God has made a home with us. AMEN.

Benediction, from Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:16-21: I pray that out of God’s glorious riches God may strengthen us with power through the Spirit in our inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. And I pray that we, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to God who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to God’s power that is at work within us, 21 to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Recognizing God

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scriptures: John 21:1-19, Acts 9:1-20

One of the classic adventure books that I remember reading as a kid “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood” by Howard Pyle. It might have been in the Reader’s Digest abridged books. My mom and dad subscribed to those for many years, and it let me read books as a boy that I wouldn’t have been able to understand or follow if they’d been in their full original versions.

To get us all on the same page, Robin Hood is a British noble who has been cheated of his lands and become an outlaw. Great Britain’s King Richard is fighting overseas, and the throne has been entrusted to the care of the greedy and unscrupulous Prince John. Richard has been captured and is being held for ransom, and the people have been taxed for the ransom, but John does not intend to pay the ransom. Instead he is going to allow Richard to be killed and claim the throne for himself. Robin Hood and his merry men oppose John and support Richard.

Through a long and convoluted series of happenings, King Richard returns to England and is disguised as a priest. He and his entourage are

taken prisoner in Sherwood Forest by Robin and his men, as they do not see through his disguise and realize that he is the King.

The best movie version of this is from 1938 with Errol Flynn and Claude Rains. It’s on Turner Classic Movies all the time. One of the emotional high points of both the book and the movie are when King Richard chooses to reveal himself to Robin Hood and his band, and stands up and throws back his hood to show his face. Everyone immediately recognizes the King, and they all kneel before him, and they all bow their heads. It gave me goose bumps when I was a kid, and it still does whenever I watch the movie.

That mistaken identity thing, or just not recognizing someone, is a very common theme in books and movies and TV shows. Mark Twain used it in “The Prince and the Pauper.” A similar theme shows up in the 1983 Eddie Murphy movie “Trading Places.” I don’t know how far back in history this plot device goes, but it’s still in use today and probably will be as long as books and plays are written.

Both of our scripture readings this morning hinge on someone not recognizing God. I guess in our Gospel reading it’s more specifically about not recognizing Jesus.

The disciples are out fishing, and although many of them are professionals they don’t catch any fish. This random guy on the beach tells

them to throw their nets over on the other side of the boat. They do, and all of a sudden they have more fish than they can haul in. Then, and only then, does one of them recognize Jesus.

You sometimes wonder if the reality of the resurrection hadn’t quite sunk in for the disciples. Maybe they were a long way from the shore. Maybe they really couldn’t see Jesus well enough to realize that was him. They’d been traveling the countryside with him and observed him from far away and from close up for three years, and they’d already seen him risen a couple of times after the crucifixion and the resurrection, but let’s say that they couldn’t see him well enough to recognize him.

They sure could hear him, though. They could hear him shouting instructions, because they followed the instructions. They took up their nets from one side of the boat and cast them out on the other side. Even if they couldn’t see Jesus well enough to recognize him, you would think that if they heard him well enough to follow instructions that they would have heard him well enough to know who he was.

But they didn’t. At least not until they got their miracle and all those fish showed up in the nets. Not just a bunch of fish, not just a large quantity of fish, not just a mess of fish, but one hundred and fifty three fish precisely. Large ones. Once they had their miracle, once they had their one hundred and fifty three fish, they recognized Jesus.

That reminds me of the old joke about the guy who falls off a cliff. As he’s falling down and down and down he grabs hold of a little branch hanging out of the side of the cliff. He’s holding on for dear life, but the cliff is too sheer for him to climb up, it’s too far for him to let go and drop down, his grip is starting to slip on the leaves of the branch, and the branch itself is starting to pull out of the side of his cliff.

The guy shouts out a prayer. “God,” he says, “God, I’ve never believed in you. But I need you now more than I ever have. Can you hear me God? Are you up there God? Is anyone up there? If you’re up there God, please save me. Please rescue me.”

And a voice comes from the heavens – “I have heard your prayers, my child. Trust me, and release your hold on the branch, and I will catch you and keep you safe.”

The guy pauses a minute, and then he shouts, “Is there anyone else up there?”

Sometimes we’re like John and Peter and the rest of the disciples. We don’t recognize God in the ordinary and the routine and the boring stuff of life. We don’t recognize God unless and until God does some big, miraculous, fancy thing. It’s a challenge to see God in the regular old life that we lead from day to day.

When I come home from work Julia usually asks me if anything interesting happened, and I usually say no. Most of the time there isn’t a fatal accident, or a childbirth, or a shooting, or whatever. Most of the time nothing terribly exciting happens, at least nothing terribly exciting to me because I’ve gotten used to it.

But I don’t need for some exciting thing to happen to recognize God. I don’t need to wait for a successful childbirth delivery, or someone whose life is saved by timely CPR instructions, to see God. I don’t need to wait for us to save a suicidal person threatening to jump off a bridge or shoot themselves to see God. If I’m paying attention, it’s just as big a miracle that nothing happened. It’s just as big a miracle that everyone was safe. There are a million and a half people in Fairfax County. God is just as present on the days that nothing happens as he is on the days that we have the big spectacular stuff. I just don’t notice. I just don’t recognize God.

In our reading from Acts, God gets missed twice, at least. First, it’s Saul – the guy that we know better as the apostle Paul. There is a bright light, Saul falls to the ground, he can’t see anything, and he hears a voice asking “Why do you persecute me?” I want to give Saul credit in that he seems to recognize that this might be God when he says, “Who are you, Lord?” It’s not clear if he means Lord in the sense of a superior, like lords

and ladies, or my lord and master, or the lord of the manor, it’s not clear if he means Lord in that sense or in the sense of God.

But whether he recognized all of this as being from God or not, he didn’t recognize it as Jesus, at least not immediately. The disciples didn’t recognize Jesus because until the big haul of fish it was just routine old life as usual. I think Saul didn’t recognize Jesus until Jesus identifies himself because he perceived what had happened – his fall, his blindness, as bad things.

That happens to us too. We often think that God cannot be found in the hard or difficult things that happen in our lives. I don’t know how many times I’ve sat with people going through painful times and they’ve said, “Why me? I can’t believe that God is doing this to me. Why me?”

People write books about those questions and don’t ever resolve them. I’m going to try to say what I think very briefly. “Why me” is a fair question. The other side of that is “Why not me?” Why shouldn’t I suffer as other people suffer sometimes? That doesn’t mean I like it or I want it, but I’m not a better person than anyone else. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We all are worthy of death.

Yet another side of that is “Why her? Why him?” Again, “why me” is a fair question, but it’s a question that lots and lots and lots of people who go through hard things can ask. We had a meal last night with friends and the

husband was talking about his daughter that was born with Spina Bifida. Why her? She was a baby. She hadn’t hurt anyone. Why me? Well, why her? On almost any rational scale, it should probably be me instead of her.

There are folks who believe that God causes bad things to happen in order to test our faith and bring us some sort of spiritual growth. I don’t necessarily believe that, but I recognize that there is scriptural support for that idea and there is a large body of theology that teaches that. I’m not saying that I know those people are wrong because I don’t know everything about God’s will and God’s intent.

One of the ways that I think about it, though, is that everyone makes choices and choices have consequences. We have the gift of free will. I have undoubtedly made bad choices along the way, and I have suffered some consequences for them. I also have made choices that other people have probably suffered consequences for, and I am probably suffering consequences of some sort for choices other people have made. I don’t think that God necessarily caused those choices or those consequences. I do think that God can help something good come out of them. I do think that God can help us find meaning in them. I do think that God can use the bad choices I’ve made and the bad choices other people have made and the negative consequences that come from all of those things and use them to help me, to help others, and to help the world.

Saul doesn’t recognize God at first because he perceives that something bad has happened to him. Later he does recognize God, and good things come. Saul’s life of rebellion against Jesus, of persecution of Christians even unto death, lead in the end to good and positive things in his life and in the lives of others he ministers to and with.

And it’s Saul’s past life that at first trips up the third person who fails to recognize God – Ananias. Ananias seems to recognize that it’s God talking to him. I mean, the first words out of his mouth after God says his name are, “Here I am, Lord.” That’s a good start!

But then when he gets his instructions Ananias isn’t so sure. “Lord, I’ve heard of this guy Saul. And what I’ve heard… uh, well, uh… it isn’t good. Lord, he kills Christians. And he has authority from the chief priests to imprison us.” To give him full credit, God says again what he wants, Ananias obeys him, and Ananias lays his hands on Saul, and Saul’s sight is restored.

We judge people based on their backgrounds, or their histories, or their reputations. That can keep us from seeing God in them and with them. That was one of the things that was so troubling about political leaders referring to gang members, mostly MS-13, as animals.

No one actually defends MS-13 or what they do. It’s a terrible organization, just as all similar gangs are. Bloods, Crips, 18th Street, and

many, many more that don’t get nearly as much publicity do terrible heinous, and yes, animalistic things. I have to watch footage of gang activity from time to time. I have to listen to tapes and calls and it’s not pleasant at all.

But although they do terrible things, although they do animalistic, evil things, in the end they are not animals (except in the scientific, biological sense like all of us are.) They are human beings, created in the image of God. They are people for whom Christ died. They are not unlike Saul, who persecuted and tortured and killed Christians in terrible ways, but who God used to share the gospel with a significant portion of the known world of that day.

It doesn’t have to be something as awful as criminal gangs. For some, it’s politics or religion. I read an excellent, excellent article on Buzzfeed last week about Katie McHugh and her journey into and out of white nationalism. David French wrote a good piece in National Review about the shootings at the synagogue in Poway, California called “Dealing With the Shock of an Evangelical Terrorist.” There are folks that will look at McHugh and at the Poway shooter and because of their histories will not grant them humanity, will not recognize that they are children of God.

It happens when people look at President Trump, and Secretary Clinton, at Senator Sanders, at Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, at Sen. Cruz, at any

number of people regardless of their politics. People make judgements about evangelical Christians and progressive Christians and Muslims and atheists. We look at someone and make a judgment about their humanity and their worth based on their religion or their politics or any number of other things.

And that’s wrong. That is not recognizing that they are people for whom Christ died. That is not recognizing the ways in which God can use them, despite actions and views that we think may be wrong. That is not recognizing the voice of the Spirit in whatever form it may come.

Throughout the Bible God speaks through sinners and terrible people. God even speaks through animals, like Balaam’s donkey. Figure out who your least favorite political or religious leader is, and remind yourself that if God can speak through someone who killed Christians, if God can speak through a donkey, God can speak through that person too. That doesn’t mean that God IS speaking through that person, but we have to be open to the reality that God COULD speak through that person.

As we leave here I pray that we can be open to see the world around us as God’s creation. I pray that we can see the people around us, whether it’s around us in our own lives or around us in newspapers and on television and the internet, as real people. I pray that we can see and recognize God moving

comprehension in and through people who are also beyond our understanding and comprehension. I pray that however he comes, we recognize God. Amen.

As the Spirit Gave Them Ability

Preacher – Jeff Davidson

Scripture Readings – Acts 2:1-21

How many people watched the royal wedding yesterday? I was asleep so I missed the whole thing, but I heard about it from Julia and read about it on social media and looked up some of it on various websites. One of the things that a lot of people mentioned was the homily by the Very Reverend Michael Curry. I heard so much about it that I looked it up and read the text and watched the video. I don’t do that for a lot of sermons that aren’t preached here.
It was a good sermon. For those of you who didn’t see it or haven’t read it I recommend it to you. One of the images that Curry used was that of “contained fire.” He talked about how people who drove to the service were able to drive because of the power of contained fire, and that people like him who flew there flew because of the gift of contained fire. Fire contained, fire harnessed so that it is not roaring out of control and destroying all in its path, but fire harnessed so that its energy is directed for good. Energy used to create, and not to destroy. Energy used to build up and not to burn down. Energy used for good, whether to cook food or to power machines or to allow for the existence of the internet.

That’s an interesting image when we consider the scene in Acts chapter 2. Last week Jenn contrasted the Ascension with Easter and Pentecost, describing the latter two as “earth-shattering, tomb-busting, tongues-of-fire-dancing days for the church.” That’s a pretty good description. Not only are there tongues of fire coming down from heaven, but people are speaking all kinds of different languages, pretty much all of the languages of the known world. The fire is probably frightening, so people who see it are screaming, and then those touched by the fire start speaking in foreign languages and presumably speaking loudly enough for others to hear them. It was such a spectacle that onlookers thought they were drunk.
That isn’t always how the Spirit has worked, though. The tongues of fire that danced down on the heads of the believers on that first Pentecost, the many languages heard by folks near and far, those great and showy events are the exception and not the norm. The Spirit’s presence doesn’t usually show up in quite that noticeable a manner.
I did a funeral last Tuesday for a work colleague’s mother. She had five surviving children, and each child was going to offer a remembrance about their mom, starting from the oldest to the youngest. The second child had expressed concern to my friend about whether or not he could do this. That’s not surprising. It’s an emotional and difficult time, and add to that the fact that a lot of people are not comfortable at all with speaking in public. My friend asked me about it and I told her to let him know that if he wanted to prepare something but wasn’t able to say it that I or someone else could share it for him.

Instead, what happened was that when the oldest child got up to speak, the second child stood with him and put his arm around him and held him as he spoke and softly encouraged him when he was having trouble. The second child did the same thing for the other children who spoke. He was just there with them, holding them, as they shared their memories and their feelings, and he went back to their seat with them and gave them a hug when they were done. And then he repeated the whole thing with the next child.
I loved that. That presence, that action, told me more about that son and more about his feelings for his family and his mom than any amount of words could have done. The Sprit’s presence was very real in that moment and in that place. The Spirit had not given that son the gift of public speaking, but had given him the gift of support and love to share with his siblings. That’s a wonderful gift to have.
I may have told this story once before, but that’s okay. When I was a pastor in Dayton, OH it was time for me to preach the community Thanksgiving service for our area minister’s association. The service was going to be at the Residence Park United Methodist Church, an African-American congregation a couple of miles away.
I didn’t do anything particularly fancy to prepare. Frankly, I pulled out an old Thanksgiving sermon that I’d preached someplace else, and edited it and reworked parts of it and hopefully improved it. Come the night of the community service, I was preaching my sermon and I made some kind of a point, and someone in the back said “Amen!” Not just a quiet “amen” but out loud and enthusiastic. I made another point, and someone else did the same thing. Without my planning and without my knowledge, this old sermon that I had punched up a bit had turned into a call-and-response sermon that had the congregation interacting with me.

I loved that feeling. I talked a while back about how the interaction that comes with a live audience helps a performance – that was in the context of NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” program. That interaction definitely helped my preaching that night. It was exciting to me – I loved it!

A couple of years later it was my turn to preach again at Residence Park. I thought back to that first sermon and remembered how much I’d enjoyed the experience, and I set out to write a call-and-response sermon for that setting. I worked hard on it and I was proud of it and I was looking forward to sharing a sermon at Residence Park once again and feeding on the energy from the interaction with the congregation once again.

Guess what – silence. No one said “amen.” No one said anything. It could have been worse – they could have said “help him, Jesus” – but I dodged that one. It just didn’t happen. That particular gift for that style of preaching was not one the Spirit had chosen to give me at that time.

The Spirit does whatever the Spirit is going to do. The fire of the Spirit can’t be directed or controlled in the same way that the fire is that the Rev. Curry talked about at the wedding. But it is sometimes a controlled fire or a harnessed fire, like at that memorial service I talked about. The Spirit was there and the Spirit was real in the actions of the second child, offering his gifts of love and support silently to his brother and sisters. The Spirit was there and the Spirit was real even if it wasn’t a showy, explosive, tongues of fire moment.

Likewise, although I tried to control and channel the Spirit at my second Residence Park sermon, it didn’t work. You can’t just tell the Spirit what to do. That was my mistake. The first time, the Spirit spoke to me and through me. The Spirit was in control. The second time, I tried to control the Spirit and it wasn’t happening.

Friday was National Ride Your Bike to Work day. We declared today Ride Your Bike to Church day today, and some of us rode bikes in. When I was in HS I might have given it a shot. I used to ride a lot back then and would ride pretty long distances. Now, not so much and especially not trying to come in to DC from Manassas on crowded roads.

Was riding a bike to worship today an expression of the Spirit’s presence? I think so. Sometimes riding a bike is easier that driving or walking, but not necessarily on a hot day like this. We didn’t encourage people to bike to church today because it was easier or more convenient or cheaper, even though it might be some or all of those.
We encouraged it because it’s a symbol of God’s care for creation. It’s an example of what good stewardship looks like. It’s a small statement on how we are to treat the world and of God’s vision for the world. In other words, it’s an expression of the Holy Spirit.

Not a big expression. Not a flashy one. Not a noisy one, unless your bike really has some problems with its chain and its gears. But it’s an expression nevertheless of what God calls us to as Christians. It’s the Spirit speaking through us.

One of the points of the Rev. Curry’s wedding homily yesterday is that the power of love can transform the world. He asked people to imagine what the world would look like when love is the way and he said, “No child would go to bed hungry in such a world as that. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside to study war no more.”
Those things are all true. If we can live out of the love that God has shown for us, live out of the love that led Jesus to the cross to die for our sins, live out of the love that the risen Jesus has given us in the gift of the Spirit, if we can live out of the love that became visible on Pentecost, we can make that world real. I should say, God can make that world real through us.
The Spirit is a tongue of fire that comes down from heaven and gives us words to speak. The Spirit is real in the babble of voices in every language heard that first Pentecost. The Spirit is real in a man with tears in his eyes standing next to his siblings at his mother’s funeral. The Spirit is real in the riding of a bicycle on a wet morning to come to church, even when something else might be more comfortable. The Spirit is real in preaching and prayer and praise and worship here in this place and at the royal wedding yesterday and at places of every size and location in between the two. The Spirit is real in each of us, and in all of us.

Let us listen to the Spirit in our lives. Let us know the gifts that the Spirit has chosen to give us. And let us live out of those gifts. Amen.

Cloud Gazing and a New Reality

Preacher – Jennifer Hosler

Scripture Readings – Acts 1:1-14; Ephesians 1:15-23

A little voice asks, “Where is Jesus? Is Jesus going to be at church today? Is Jesus buried in that cemetery that we drive by regularly? Is that man Jesus?” These are some very real theological questions, as asked by a preschooler. Doing preschool theology is not easy, particularly when there are concepts or realities that are difficult for even adult theologians to wrap their heads around. The Ascension of Jesus, like the Resurrection, is an act of God that stands contrary to our understandings of reality. People are not typically raised from the dead. Neither are people whisked up into a transcendental reality and seated at the right hand of God.

The Resurrection and the Ascension are big concepts where theology and physics mix in ways that are beyond all our comprehensions. Both the preschoolers and the adults need to spend time pondering and absorbing the miraculous nature of it all.
Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus. It technically falls on forty days after Easter, which was this past Thursday, but I chose to exchange the lectionary Sunday passages for the Ascension passages because Ascension is often overlooked. Easter and Pentecost both stand out as earth-shattering, tomb-busting, tongues-of-fire-dancing days for the church, while the Ascension is a bit quieter. Though somewhat less showy than the resurrection from the dead or the coming of the Holy Spirit, Ascension Day still brings with it miraculous circumstances and deep theological significance. In fact, the Jesus story is not complete without the Ascension.

The Ascension continues the shift in reality which started Easter morning. Because of the Ascension, Jesus reigns in cosmic glory and sends the Holy Spirit to be with the Church at Pentecost. This new reality enables the disciples to continue the Jesus story in mighty and powerful ways. Yet the nature of the Ascension (Jesus not being physically with us) also means that the church must actively struggle to keep our new reality in focus.

The Big Goodbye

Goodbyes are always hard, but I can’t imagine the goodbye that we see in Acts 1: Jesus leaves the disciples. It’s been forty days since Jesus was resurrected. After the resurrection, Jesus kept appearing during those 40 days, being with the disciples, teaching them, walking with them, eating with them, and even cooking them fish (John 21:1-14). 40 extra days with Jesus! I imagine the disciples were comforted by Jesus being with them, but they probably tried to avoid thinking about if and when Jesus might leave.

One day, while he is eating with them, Jesus gives the disciples what would be his final instructions. Jesus says, “Don’t leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. While John baptized with water, in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (v. 5).

Even though the disciples had been with Jesus for 40 days and several years before that, they still weren’t always tracking with Jesus. The disciples come closer to Jesus and crowd around him, asking, “Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” Jesus doesn’t exactly say no, but basically. Jesus reorients the disciples away from speculation about the culmination of history, reminds them that it isn’t about empires rising or falling but about continuing Jesus’ work, witnessing to Jesus’ work. He responds, saying, “the timing isn’t for you to know. God the Father is working out that end. But you—you all will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes. When the Holy Spirit comes, you will be witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the world.” Jesus tells them they won’t be alone, instructs them to wait for the Spirit, and leaves mysteriously. Jesus goes up. The disciples are left gaping, jaws hanging open, gazing at the clouds. The book of Acts says, “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (v. 9).

I won’t try to explain the weird trans-dimensional process that occurs here or the physics of it. I trust that Jesus actually ascended and went to the Father, though that place isn’t a literal “behind the clouds” in our earthly sky. Luke wasn’t trying to be scientifically accurate but was using words to indicate Jesus’ ascension and connecting it to the presence of God’s dwelling place. In the Hebrew scriptures, clouds often symbolize the presence and power of God (Boring & Craddock, p. 367; cf. Exodus 13:21; 19:16; 40:34; Ps. 68:4; Ezek. 1:4; Dan. 7:13). Without knowing the technical details, Jesus is taken up and goes to the presence of God.

The disciples stand agape and reasonably so. They’ve just seen something miraculous, marvelous, and other worldly. I’d stare too. Beyond the natural shock at one’s teacher and messiah finally saying goodbye and leaving, the exit is pretty jaw dropping. The gaping jaws of the disciples only come shut when two messengers in bright white clothing snap them out of it. “Hey, Galileans! Why do you keep looking up? Stop gawking. Jesus, who was taken up to heaven from among you, will surely return again—in a manner just as mysterious” (v. 11).

Somehow, the combination of Jesus’ words, Jesus’ ascension, and shiny bright messengers (clearly from God—pay attention to those folks in shiny bright clothing), this combination helps the disciples finally put it all together. They set out on their way and quickly head back to the main part of the city to pray and wait for the Spirit, as Jesus instructed them to do. They don’t know what’s coming, but they pray and focus on this new reality—a reality of a crucified, raised, and ascended Jesus, who is lifted up to reign with the Creator of the universe.

A New Reality

How do we know what reality is? When I was a small child, around 7 or 8, I remember asking myself, “How do I know whether I’m sleeping or in a coma or whether my life is all a dream? Is this real?” I would pinch myself to try to be sure.
In the movie The Matrix, Neo is a man who has suspicions that reality is not as it appears. He goes about his work and everyday life, with a growing desire to learn about an alternate reality—another world and dimension that he’s heard coexists with and is, in fact, more real than his everyday experiences. Neo meets up with Morpheus, Trinity, and their crew, who lead him out of his tranquil but naïve existence. They guide Neo to a new reality, where he has a purpose and is part of a broader mission to save humans from their slavery to machines.

Our second reading today is from the book of Ephesians. This letter reads more like a sermon than other letters, such as Philippians or the Corinthian letters, and Paul includes sections that seem to be hymns or worshipful poetry. Our passage is one of those sections, that acts both as a prayer and as a poetic discourse of superlatives about who Jesus is and what Jesus has done.

In Ephesians, it’s been more than days and weeks since Jesus ascended—it’s been years. The context and audience of the Ephesian early church is very different than what we see in Acts. The gospel of Jesus has spread around the Roman empire and beyond. It’s mostly made up of people who never encountered the earthly ministry of Jesus, who didn’t break bread with Jesus, didn’t see Jesus heal the sick or cast out demons, didn’t see Jesus crucified, didn’t meet with Jesus after he was raised from the dead, and didn’t see Jesus ascend behind the clouds. These people, both Jews and Gentiles, have heard the Good News, the gospel of Jesus, and believed that they should follow Jesus as Messiah and Lord. The apostle Paul, with his spiritual gift of shepherding, knows that Jesus and Kingdom of God still needs to be made real for these new Jesus-followers, and so he prays for them.

He prays this way: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I don’t stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. And what do I pray? I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power” (Eph. 1:15-19).

Paul wants them to know the depth of the new reality—a new power and work of God in the world—that is made possible only with a Messiah who is crucified, risen, and ascended to heaven. The Ascension of Jesus has given the Christians hope, purpose, and power. Paul continues, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (vv. 20-23).

Paul prays that the church would know—despite not having seen Jesus face to face, despite the fact that we are in an in-between age when we aren’t fully experiencing God’s Kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven—that there is a new reality. He prays for them to know this new reality where Jesus is reigning, where sin and death have lost, and where all humanity (Jew and Gentile, male and female, young and old, and all other divided identities) can be brought together before God, in Christ Jesus. The church has the power to be Jesus’ body, to continue Jesus’ work of healing and deliverance in a world of pain and captivity. Paul prays that the early church’s hearts and minds would be given wisdom to see this new reality in existence. He prays that the power of Jesus—the crucified, risen, and ascended One—would be made concrete and tangible, that they would know the source of strength and life to continue his work in this world.

Remember to Breathe, My Dear

Remember to breathe, my dear. Breathing isn’t something that we typically forget to do – it’s an autonomic process. Breathing goes on without any involvement of your consciousness, without thinking or planning. Yet one thing I’ve learned is that when you’re in labor, you do need to intentionally remember to breathe. I’ve had some practice contractions, or Braxton Hicks contractions, and the pressure gets so intense that I’ve found myself holding my breath to brace against them. I’m glad that these “practice” contractions happen – to give me a glimpse of how I might respond when the real labor comes and to prepare accordingly. Since then, I’ve been trying to practice breathing.

Yet, breathing practice isn’t just beneficial for pregnant people. A colleague of mine has a reminder on his computer that will typically go off during our meetings. A little screen pops up that says, “Remember to breathe, my dear. Breathe in, Breathe out.” The intention here is for deep breaths, centering breaths. These breathes can calm you down, lowering your stress. Deep breathing can help remind you of your values, your purpose, and your source of strength. Breathing deep can help us listen to our bodies, become aware of our emotional and spiritual state, and can help us pay attention to the Holy Spirit (and in Hebrew, Spirit and breath use the same word). Intentional breathing can be a type of prayer that focuses our hearts and bodies on God.

Like the early church in Ephesus, we too have not had the privilege to be physically present with Jesus. We didn’t get to hear him teach on the mountainside, receive bread from him, be healed by him, and we didn’t see him resurrected or ascending. The nature of the Ascension means that the church must actively struggle to be centered and focused on Jesus’ new reality. “Out of sight, out of mind” is a real thing; we don’t have Jesus walking beside us and so it’s easy to just fall into a trap, thinking that our daily routines are all that exists. Our jobs, our schools, our families, our bills to pay. But Jesus ascended and made another cosmic reality that runs alongside and intersects our ordinary lives.

Following Jesus involves training ourselves, requires that we find ways to keep the Kingdom of God at the forefront of our minds, to keep it a reality. It involves building our skill for breathing and paying attention, for seeing God at work and for making ourselves available for God to use in this world.

Take a deep breath with me. Remember to breathe, my dear. How can you cultivate time to focus on the new reality, to look for and open yourself up to God’s work in this world? Cultivating time to pray is like remembering to deep breathe – it’s how we draw our strength, life, and energy from God. It’s where we tap into the power of the ascended Jesus. Is there a time in your commute when you can take deep breathes and ask for the Holy Spirit to move and reveal? Can you find some quiet moments to center in the morning? Can you stop and take a minute to breathe and reorient yourself to God in the evening, taking stock of the day and considering if and how you saw God at work that day?

Jesus was crucified, died, and was raised. Jesus ascended – and is seated above, empowering us through the Spirit to continue his work in this world, until he returns to make all things new. Sisters and brothers, let us remember to breathe and find ways to keep the risen and ascended Jesus in our focus as we live out our roles as his Body, the church, making his love and power manifest in this world. AMEN.

How Can I Know When I’ve Seen A Real Miracle?

Preacher – Micah Bales

Scripture Readings – Acts 10:44-48, 1 John 5:1-6, & John 15:9-17

One of my favorite movies is Pulp Fiction. When it first came out, I was a kid, so of course I wasn’t allowed to see it. My parents watched it, and they told me that they thought it was terrible. Way too violent!

Well, like all of Quentin Tarantino’s films, Pulp Fiction has no lack of violence and gore. But, more than any other of his films, I found it deeply compelling on a variety of levels. The characters are vivid and memorable. The scenes are colorful and imaginative, managing to be both dark, tense, and hilarious at the same time.

I’ve watched Pulp Fiction a number of times over the years, and it’s entered into my own personal canon. It’s among the pieces of literature, art, and film that I come back to repeatedly for reflection and inspiration. It’s the kind of movie that grows with you. When I was a teenager, it was just fun and entertaining. But each time I’ve watched it, I’ve found a new angle to consider.

Pulp Fiction is a movie that has many storylines, many threads to follow. But I would argue that the core storyline, the key thread, is the one that follows a pair of gangsters named Jules (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (played by John Travolta).

Jules and Vincent are thugs. They’re hit men, hired muscle for the crime boss Marcellus Wallace. And early in the movie, they pay a visit to a lower-level criminal who has attempted to defraud Mr. Wallace. We find out pretty quickly that the penalty for this betrayal is death. Vince and Jules summarily execute the unfaithful criminal in front of his gang.

What they don’t know is that one of these guys is hiding in the bathroom with a large revolver. The door opens, this man bursts into the room, and fires all six rounds into Vince and Jules.

And nothing happens.

The two of them stand there for a minute, processing it. Bullet holes cover the wall behind them, just barely visible on either side of their heads. The bullets must have passed within an inch of them. But they are completely unharmed.

From this point on, Pulp Fiction becomes a movie that is, at least in part, an extended theological reflection.

Vince is ready to shrug off the whole incident as a fluke. “Things like this happen.” But Jules is convinced that the two of them have just witnessed the hand of God. “This wasn’t luck. This was divine intervention.”

Vincent clearly doesn’t buy it, but with police on their way after this firefight, he placates Jules and they make their way quickly from the scene of the crime.

Fast forward to another scene towards end of the movie. Vince and Jules are sitting together, having breakfast at a diner, and they take up their theological reflection once again. Rather than describe this scene, I think it would be best if we watched it together. (Just as a warning, there’s some profanity in this clip, but I hope you’ll bear with me!)

 

“God got involved.”

Vince and Jules could argue and theorize about whether God had intervened in history to move the bullets and spare their lives. What happened to them may or may not have been a miracle in that sense. But for Jules, who felt the presence of God in that moment, it was a miracle regardless of the physical details. It’s not what happened; it’s the Spirit that was present in what happened. God got involved.

In our scripture readings this morning, we hear about someone else who God has called to wander the earth, Kung Fu-style, meeting people and getting into adventures. We hear the story of Peter and his journey to visit the household of Cornelius. Peter was up on a roof top praying before lunch, when a vision from God appeared to him. Something like a large sheet came down from the sky and in it were all sorts of unclean animals, that the law of Moses commanded should never be eaten. Then Peter heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

At first, Peter resisted. “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” But the voice persisted, telling him three times that he was to get up, kill, and eat these creatures that up until now had been forbidden by God. The voice from heaven said to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Just then, as Peter was trying to make sense of this confusing vision, men came from the household of Cornelius, inviting Peter to come visit him. Cornelius was a faithful, God-fearing man. He was also a pagan, a centurion in the Italian Cohort of the Roman legion. He was unclean and uncircumcised, outside of the household of faith. A good Jew like Peter should have nothing to do with a man like Cornelius, no matter how good his reputation and how charitable his actions.

But God had determined that the time for these barriers between peoples had come to an end. The distinction between clean and unclean, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free were to be abolished. Despite his the fact that Cornelius lay outside the bounds of the Jewish nation, God was pleased with him. Though Peter could not see it yet, Cornelius was part of the household of faith, the church invisible, the body of Christ.

Because of God’s love for Cornelius and his family, angels came to speak with him. They told him to seek out Peter and invite him to Cornelius’ home. God got involved, setting in motion a series of events that would bring reconciliation between peoples long divided by tribal divisions and animosity.

This wasn’t easy for Peter. Peter was a good Jew. He knew the rules. He knew what to expect, how life was supposed to be lived. His worldview provided him a sense of order and predictability. Yet here, suddenly, was this experience of God’s intervention, changing the whole picture. Externally, nothing had changed. To any outside observer, Peter was just sitting on a rooftop during the heat of the day. But God got involved. The Spirit was at work. Inside Peter, something changed.

That’s how Peter ended up in the house of Cornelius, an unclean place that the Jewish law taught him he should never set foot. Peter had travelled to Cornelius’ house out of obedience to the unseen Spirit of God, the hidden power that breaks down barriers and redefines life in ways we can’t possibly see coming. This life, this Spirit touched his heart so that he knew: God was breaking down the barriers between clean and unclean, Jew and Greek, male and female.

God got involved. You know, that was the only way this was ever going to happen. Everything in Peter and Cornelius’ life argued against this apostolic visit. For Peter to step into the household of Cornelius was a transgression against everything that Peter believed that it meant to be a righteous person. To be a son of Abraham was to be separate, set apart, holy. This leading of the Spirit to visit Cornelius seemed to contradict everything that Peter knew about leading a faithful life. But he felt the touch of God, and he couldn’t go back to sleep.

Cornelius felt it, too. He knew that this whole encounter was a miracle. Only God could have brought Peter to visit his house. After years of prayer and devotion, God was doing something he had never expected. Cornelius was so overwhelmed by Peter’s arrival that he fell down at his feet and began to worship him! Peter had to tell Cornelius to get up – “Cut it out! I’m just a man like you.”

That’s kinda awkward, huh? I hate it when people fall down and start worshipping me when I visit them in their homes. Don’t you?

The truth is, this whole meeting was really uncomfortable for everyone involved. Both Cornelius and Peter knew that God had commanded them to come together, but they had no idea for what purpose. Like Jules in Pulp Fiction, they know that God has gotten a hold of them, but they don’t know where he is leading yet.

When Peter arrives, he’s basically like, “Hey… So, uh, yeah – I got your message, and God told me to come and visit you. So what did you need?” Cornelius doesn’t really know anything more. All he can say is, “Well, yeah. Very glad to have you here. You come highly recommended by the angels. So, um… Why don’t you just go ahead and tell us whatever you have on your mind? We’re interested to hear it!”

With this invitation to speak, Peter proceeds to lay out the gospel for Cornelius and the members of his household. He tells them about Jesus, about how he healed people and liberated them from demonic oppression. He tells them about how Jesus was put to death on the cross but now has been raised from the dead and reigns in a new community of God. In very simple, straightforward terms, Peter lays out the basic facts about Jesus.

And God gets involved. As Peter is speaking, everyone present notices something changing. The Holy Spirit is present with them, touching every heart. God gets involved, touching the hearts and minds of everyone present. It’s an experience that goes beyond the gospel story that Peter is sharing with them; now it’s not just the words Peter is speaking. God gets involved. They feel the presence of the Holy Spirit together. It’s a miracle.

And it says that “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, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.” And then Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Peter orders them “to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” And they stay together for several days.

God got involved. Peter and Cornelius couldn’t have been more different from Vince and Jules from Pulp Fiction. But they have at least one thing in common: They each experienced an event that broke them free from the life and worldview that they had been traveling along. God worked a miracle in their lives. A hidden power breathed into their hearts, allowing them to change course entirely, to make a new life and find a new community. To wander the earth until God put them where he wanted them to be.

John – in his gospel and his letters – speaks to us of this experience. He writes of the hidden power of God, the Spirit that touches our hearts and makes change and transformation possible. He tells us about how God gets involved – how he got so involved in this world that he loves, that he sent his only begotten son to live among us, to become one of us. He tells us about the living Spirit of Jesus that is present to guide and teach us right now. This life, this power gets involved.

How can we recognize God’s power and presence when he gets involved in our lives? John is very clear about this: We know the Spirit of God when we act in love. We know that God is involved when we are filled with compassionate joy. This is the kind of joy that moves us to bless others and free them from brokenness and confusion. It’s the kind of joy that called Jules out of a life of murder and crime and into a path of trust – wandering the earth until God places him where he ought to be.

This is the power that pulled Peter out of his safe and comfortable religious existence, so that he could discover just how big God’s love is for the world – all the people of the world, not just Peter’s tribe. It’s this love that calls us together into community, despite all our differences and all the factors that threaten to pull us apart. This is the love that conquers the world.

The Spirit of God challenges us so deeply, and yet it’s not burdensome. The love that comes from God disrupts our lives in ways that we can’t ever predict. We’re often tempted to ignore it, because we want to be in control. But the love of God conquers the world. It’s not burdensome. It doesn’t force us to be something we’re not. Instead, it frees us to be truly ourselves for the first time – the lively, unpredictable, joy-filled men and women that God created us to be.

This is the victory that conquers the world: our faith. God gets involved. Whether or not God stops the bullets, turns Coke into Pepsi, or finds our car keys – we can’t judge these things on merit. When we feel the touch of God, our lives must change.

When we abide in the love of the Spirit, we will be transformed. Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

That our joy may be complete. Like Peter and Cornelius, we are finding a new and unexpected family in the Spirit. Like Jules from Pulp Fiction, we are being pulled out of the predictable track we’ve been following, the life that we have settled for. God gets involved, and we’re shaken out of our complacency.

That our joy may be complete, God calls us into a new way, an unpredictable path. It’s a path of love, making us brothers and sisters to people that we may never have gotten involved with previously. It’s a love that casts out all fear. It gives us a fresh start, and the boldness we need to live in ways that seemed impossible before.

This is the victory that conquers the world: God gets involved. He shows us the love that is in Jesus. He transforms our hearts. He breaks us out of determinism and teaches us how to love.

We’ve experienced this love, life, and power. God got involved. Now things have to change. We can’t go back to sleep.

This is a Wilderness Road

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: Acts 8:26-40, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

Yesterday morning, somewhere between 5:30 and 6, I made the connection that my sermon was titled “This is a wilderness road” and that I would spend the day before preaching it running on trails. Though the race was not a surprise (it took some wherewithal to leave the house at 2:45am and begin hours of running at 5) I had not made the connection—which was, it turns out, only superficial, until I was running through heavily muddied trails by light of a rather dim headlamp (Jenn, we should make a note to buy new headlamps). Whereas the wilderness road in Acts was actually wilderness, mine was a trail full of people not far from a city and staffed with aid stations and medics in cause of injury. Whereas Philip was sent to the wilderness with a mission by the Spirit of the Lord, I was there for reasons personal and perhaps unexplainable. Philip’s going to the wilderness is thought to have contributed to the beginnings of the church in Ethiopia which has produced, among other things, magnificent religious art (some of which is displayed this morning), my going mostly led to a feeling of accomplishment and severe soreness this morning. So, there is no connection between my wilderness road and the one in Acts except that my wandering thoughts noted early yesterday morning

In the Gospel of John (chapter 17), in the last hours before his crucifixion, we hear Jesus praying for the unity of his people. He knows that the coming crisis will stretch and push them and so he prays. Since he prays in the hearing of his disciples it is also a sort of pep talk and exhortation. At yesterday’s there was now prayer but there was a pep talk of sorts. Dean Karnazas, a well know ultra-marathoner, gave us some words to motivate but also included things like—the trails are really muddy and here the mud is slick like ice—which is more concerning than encouraging. When Jesus does the pray/pep talk/warn act it is for unity. It is not unity because unity is nice but because unity demonstrates the truth of their message. Unity demonstrates the truth of their message. In Jesus’s words “so that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:21).

The witness, the possibility that what these crazy disciples say about Jesus might be true is based on their unity (not their seamless arguments, dazzling sermons, or their social media presence) —they must be united in a profound way. The shorter booklet of 1 John carries on this concern. Throughout the writing we can see hints that all is not well. In 2:18 in an exclamation that could have been penned by our own Micah we read—”Children, it is the last hour! A you have heard that the antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come.” Verse 26, “I write these things to you concerning those who would deceive you.” And just before our passage, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

A commentator writes, “The once-unified congregation began to tear apart from within. Threats that were once external now were found within the ranks of the fellowship itself…The community was splitting, harsh words were being exchanged, and the vocabulary once reserved in the Forth Gospel for those in ‘the world’ now was being aimed at fellow Christians. (Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments, 589)” Throughout this text John holds two major themes—right thinking about Jesus and right living in light of this. [“John returns to two major subjects repeatedly as he writes: christology and ethical behavior…The secessionists had embraced an aberrant form of christology that led them to make wrong judgments about Christian living” (590).]

John demonstrates an intense concern that right belief and right living are of utmost importance. It is not merely doing the right thing, NOR is it just declaring belief in the right thing.

The spirits must be tested and the test is love. The teachings and actions must be tested—the test is love.

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

This verse tempts us to make it into a formulaàGod=Love and to Love=Knowing God.

9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.

The initiating action of love was from God. We learn of God’s love through God’s action, we demonstrate our connection to God through our own acting in love. In fact, the invisible divine is made visible through our love for one another. The invisible divine is made visible through our love for one another.

11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

There should be a direct causal link between God’s love for us and our love for one another. We have been loved by God, how can we do anything else but love one another?!

“his love is perfected in us.” Made perfect? Presumably God’s love is perfect love but if God’s love is to be lived then our participation in this love adds something to it—or at least manifests it concretely in the world. It is made complete

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

There now seems to be a second test of our “abiding” in God. That is, the reception of the Spirit. Which sounds like it should be good empirical or measurable results. If not empirical then at least a matter of philosophical defining or perhaps in writing a definition for a dictionary—which seems definitive. I have been learning, however, that even the dictionary is a complicated thing. In Word by Word lexicographer Kory Stamper describes in often humorous detail the work of a dictionary writer and editor. It turns out that the process of editing or writing a dictionary is about documenting and describing how a word is used rather than prescribing how it should be used. The two requirements to be hired are a degree in some subject (a range of disciplines is good since an economics major has different vocab than a biology-she notes a strong representation of medievalist majors.) and to be a native English speaker.

The later of these is due to SprachgefulleI, the feel of the language that comes with it being your first language—sometimes something just doesn’t feel right and then the editor knows to dig deeper. The offices contain accumulated scraps of uses of words which are filed and considered in this process. She tells of the, at times extensive revision process in which senses are considered and while talking shop at a dinner party she amazed the academics by proclaiming that she had spent a full month revising the word “take.” After describing, what to most of us would be an excruciating and unimaginable process a co-diner, with dramatic pause notes having worked 9 months on editing “run.” (Stamper, 148).

Defining or measuring the presence of the Spirit may indeed be a difficult test. The Spirit presence may also be difficult.

Our passage in Acts gives a picture of the Spirit’s activity. The disciple Philip is getting on with the work of Jesus. There are healings, preachings, and rapid expansion of the church. In chapter 7 Stephen testifies, it says, “filled with the Holy Spirit , he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God….but they [the mob] covered their ears, and with a loud shout rushed together against him.” While killing him, Saul stood by watching and approving. The Spirit that it seems that we thought we wanted to display…is hardly a ticket to a life of ease. The Spirit might just get you killed. Saul then goes about and severely persecuted the church. This Spirit filledness—leads to actions—which leads to persecution—which in verse 1 of chapter 8 leads to a scattering.

Though scattered this didn’t stop them. Vs 4 reads “Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.” Philip was one of them and went to Samaria. Now, Samaria might sound familiar. Remember Jesus and the parable? The Good Samaritan? The general consensus was not with Jesus and the “goodness” (potential or innate) of a Samaritan. Samaria was a place of enemies. The place that was outside of okay. None-the-less, the good news is preached and received, the Apostles come down to verify (it did, of course, stretch credulity), and the Holy Spirit power came upon them. Philip was rockin’ it—major successes, rapid church growth in a new locale. And then…and then the “angel of the Lord” said, go to another place—and abandoned place—a deserted place. In case the reader doesn’t know that the road from Jerusalem to Gaza is such a place the writer notes parenthetically that “(This is a wilderness road).” Rather than be where the action is, go over there. After providing commentary and then baptism to the Ethiopian Eunuch the “Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away…Philip found himself at Azotus….

All of this, then, becomes an expression of verse 13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

A writer asks “who is the protagonist is in this story?” (Willimon, Interpretation, 71). The angel of the Lord and demands and then the spirit of the Lord instantly transports Philip elsewhere once the meeting, explanation of the scripture and baptism are finished.

Meanwhile, returning back from the Spirit excursion to the dusty and desolate lands….

14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

Here we have the right belief—the confession, proclamation, assertion that “Jesus is the Son of God.” There are some of us that may “skew ethical”—not that we are necessarily particularly ethical but that we have reacted to Christians who assert that it is all a matter of belief—the notion that you should check the correct dogmatic box and you’re set—For those of us who skew ethical in our emphasis, this verse chastens us. It challenges us. (I wouldn’t necessarily say rebukes us). This confession is not simply in the vein of “actions speak louder than words” but seems linguistic. It is content bearing—it IS connected to practical ramifications BUT can, in some way, be spoken. [The Brethren are non-creedal—which doesn’t mean we don’t believe anything but rather that we don’t think it is summed up in a tweet or so.]

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.

Abides, abides, abides—When I see the same word show up I wonder—my biblical language major brain dings. Since there are not one for one translations of words the same word in an English translation doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the same original word. This happened when reading the 1 John 4 and John 15 passages. Though the word “abide” shows up many times and in both. The John 15 passage uses a much different metaphor to illustrate abiding. Remaining with or in or connected to.

15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears  no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit….4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing….8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

God is love,

       Remain in God.

Nobody’s Perfect. Is it Possible to Be Like Jesus?

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Acts 3:12-19, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

We are the children of God.

I know that for a lot of us today, this phrase, “children of God,” has been cheapened. It’s been universalized to refer to practically everyone. It’s become a way of saying that every person is worthy of respect, dignity, and fair treatment.

And I agree with that way of looking at the world. Every single human being has inherent value. As followers of Jesus, we are called to love everyone – especially our enemies, the people that the world has taught us to hate.

But when the author of John’s first epistle writes that we are the children of God, he’s talking about something distinct. For John, sonship and daughtership in the kingdom of God is not a matter of universal human dignity. It is not inherent to us that we are the children of God. For John, it is a very particular, contingent, and radical claim.

When we read John’s gospel and John’s letter, it’s clear that he’s not writing out of a community that sees the world as a benign, loving, and healthy place. John’s community is one that has has seen the evil of the world – the imperial rulers, the religious authorities and false teachers, and the everyday selfishness of ordinary people. They’ve seen the darkness of the world.

But they’ve also seen the light.

The Johannine community has seen the light of God in the face of Jesus. It is a community that testifies to the resurrection – not just with words, but with transformed lives. This is a community that can say, “we have seen Jesus, and we know him. Because of him we have moved from death into life. Because we are his friends, we have been called out of this world of darkness and hate. We have been adopted as sons and daughters of God. We are becoming like Jesus.”

John and his community knew from personal experience that sonship and daughtership is not our natural state. The original followers of Jesus failed miserably. They abandoned Jesus when he came to his time of trial. The disciples – especially the men disciples – ran and hid while Jesus was being tortured and tried as a criminal. Peter – who at that time was apparently the bravest of the Twelve and followed Jesus to the house of the High Priest – denied Jesus three times before dawn. The early Christian community knew what darkness looked like, because they themselves had been moral failures.

The resurrection changed all that. The return of Jesus on the third day, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the continuing presence of the risen Jesus throughout the months and years that followed – this guidance and power allowed the weak and fallible disciples to become the children of God.

John’s community knew Jesus. They had seen him and touched him with their hands. They experienced the resurrection, the living body of Jesus in their everyday life. And God gave them authority: To live in life, power, and boldness. To share the good news of the kingdom, inviting others to become children of God. And to speak into the darkness and confusion of this present world, even when doing so made them sound crazy.

The early church was not afraid to call out evil. They were not afraid to name the fact that we are not, by default, children of God. Living as we do in this fallen, rebellious, and confused world, only the grace of our Lord Jesus can rescue us, can transform us from being children of hate, violence, greed, and self-centeredness. Because of the resurrection, because of the love and hope that we know in Jesus, we can become the children of God. We can become like Jesus.

A lot of people misunderstand this. A lot of Christians miss the point here. So often we’re taught to imagine that the gospel is about Jesus dying on the cross so that we don’t have to face the consequences of our sin – our greed, our aggression, our brokenness. According to this version of the gospel, Jesus conquered darkness so that we don’t have to. Thanks to his sacrifice, all we have to do is believe certain doctrines about Jesus and we will be saved. In heaven, after we die.

But that sad gospel is a pale imitation of the truth. It’s a Wonder Bread parody of the whole wheat gospel that John and his early Christian community knew. This fallen world, and its version of Christianity, teaches that our faith is about damage control. Christianity becomes about avoiding punishment for our misdeeds rather than being reborn for justice.

But the real gospel is radical – it gets to the root of things. The true gospel message is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus. It promises us – not through words, but through hope in action, that we can be transformed. Our lives can change.

We can become the children of God, the children of the light – sons and daughters, reborn in the image of Jesus. All of the old dividing lines are broken down – between men and women, citizen and foreigner, rich and poor, black and white. Even between God and us. The radical, incredible, scandalous message of the gospel is that we can become like Jesus. Through the power of the resurrection, we can become sons and daughters of God.

So what does that mean? Concretely, what does it mean for us to become sons and daughters of God – brothers and sisters to Jesus? Well, right here in 1 John 3, he tells us how we can distinguish between the children of this world and the children of the light.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that [Jesus] was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.

Have you experienced the resurrection presence of Jesus? Is he teaching you? Have you surrendered yourself, to be brought out of rebellion and lawlessness, hatred and fear? Have you allowed the Holy Spirit to draw you into a new life, one where you do the deeds of righteousness and become holy, just as our brother Jesus is holy?

There’s some hesitation here. I know I have some hesitation. Holy? Me?

On the one hand, we’re right to hesitate. Who am I to think so highly of myself? Sure, the writers of the New Testament refers to all the believers as “the saints” – the holy ones – but it feels like a big leap to apply that to myself. I know how far short I fall on a daily basis. I’ve got a long way to go, and I don’t know how I’m ever going to get there. It seems a little premature to start saying I’ve made it. Who here can say they are like Jesus? I know I can’t.

The earliest Christians must have known this experience, too. The first generation of disciples knew so much failure – even after the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The saints made mistakes. They fought with one another and a level of church drama that makes our modern-day disagreements look like softball. The early church was a hot mess.

But they were also the children of God. The brothers and sisters of Jesus. The saints.

For John and his community, the line between the children of God and the children of this world was clear. The children of this world live in darkness and rebellion. The children of God follow Jesus and do what is right.

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

Who here is righteous? Let me see some hands!

OK, that’s fair. In one sense, none of us should raise our hands. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

That’s one way of looking at it. And it’s true. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

But there’s another way of looking at sin and righteousness. The first way – the Paul’s letter to the Romans way – looks at our nature in terms of our past failures. But John’s way is to look at the saving power of Jesus, the resurrection that transforms us into a new creation. Rather than looking down at our sin, John says, “look up at the holiness of Jesus. He is present to heal you, transform you. He is your salvation.”

Little children, children of the light, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous. And through the resurrection, through Jesus with us, we have received power and authority to do what is right.

This isn’t about perfectionism in the world’s sense of perfection. We don’t have to be the world’s greatest student, or worker, or parent, or anything else. We don’t have to always be cheerful or be an inspiration to those around us. We just need to do what is right.

Do you do what is right? Do you follow the light of God in your heart? When God shows you that something is wrong, do you stop doing it? When he calls you into action, do you follow? Do you love the Lord with all your mind, heart, soul, and strength? Do you love your neighbor as yourself?

Do you do what is right? Not perfectly, not with superhuman powers – but humbly and simply, even if no one notices?

Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous. We are children of the light. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus. We are salt and light in this dark and flavorless world. We are righteous when we do what is right. It’s a high bar, but with Jesus as our present teacher, guide, and friend, we can be faithful. We can do what is right, we can follow as God leads us.

In Jesus, God became like us. He became a human being. He had a mother. He wept for friends who had died. He suffered humiliation and death. And God vindicated Jesus. God proclaimed him righteous by raising Jesus from the dead, and now we can become righteous like he is. Simply, humbly, following in the footsteps of our brother and our Lord.

Little children, we are the sons and daughters of God. We are salt and light. We are the saints, the righteous ones that God has called out of the darkness to bless and heal the world.

Jesus asks the disciples, and he asks us: “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Look at his hands and his feet. Look at Jesus. See that he is here with us.

We are the children of the light, the sons and daughters of God. “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.”