Ecumenism and Interfaith

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler
Scripture Readings: Psalm 133; Ephesians 4:1-6; Luke 9:46-56; Romans 12:9-21

Mini-Sermon 1: What does it mean to live together as the body of Christ?
(Psalm 133; Ephesians 4:1-6)

Ice cream comes in many flavors. My favorites include lavender honey, caramel pecan praline, cookies and cream, and a wonderful one called Double Dunker (mocha ice cream with cookie dough and cookies and cream combined). While I chose the Church of the Brethren to be my faith home as a young adult, I’ve always loved ice cream – something that apparently is almost as core to the Brethren identity as peacemaking. (Why don’t we combine them? Peace through ice cream?)

Like ice cream flavors, churches also come in flavors. I chose the Church of the Brethren “flavor.” I was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. Later, as an elementary school kid, I was dedicated in a Baptist Church. I’m the only non-baby child dedication that I’ve heard of. After we moved to Ontario, I chose to be re-baptized at a church that was a different type of Baptist than where I was dedicated. It was here at this 2nd Baptist church that I had my first taste of Ecumenism, though I didn’t know the word yet. Apparently, the churches in my town had once been in conflict. The Baptists, the Anglicans, the Presbyterians, the Pentecostals – you wouldn’t have found them together, cooperating or worshiping. However, by the time I was in high school, the churches had finally gotten over themselves and whatever divided them to cooperate in two joint worship services a year and some shared youth events.

While we found ways to demonstrate unity, it didn’t mean that we all agreed with each other. For instance, a friend of mine told me that she would pray for me to speak in tongues so that I could receive the Holy Spirit. I was like, “um, you don’t think I have the Holy Spirit even though I already follow Jesus?” She doubled back and referred to it as an extra blessing of the Holy Spirit… but I know her church sometimes taught that if you didn’t speak in tongues, you might not have the Holy Spirit. Theology could still divide us, even though I worshiped with their youth group sometimes.

Also, when I was in high school, I would sometimes hear another friend’s mom (a Baptist friend) make sarcastic remarks about the Pentecostal youth pastor, who was a woman. The church that I attended and where I was baptized did not allow women to be pastors.

Clearly, there are things that divide Christians from one another. Robes. Bells. Incense. Women in ministry. Inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer persons in the ministry of the church. Patterns of organization and hierarchy. Beliefs about the ways the Holy Spirit works (what gifts exist today and who can get them). Beliefs about ways to practice communion (or perhaps not to practice such an outward form, if you’re Quaker). Beliefs about what happens during communion. Do the bread and cup become Jesus’ actual body and blood, like changing in matter and substance? Is Jesus present with it, even if it’s not his actual blood and body? Is it just a way to remember Jesus’ death? Or is it some altogether other mystical experience with Jesus? We differ on what communion means and as to who can even legitimately partake in communion. As my own rebaptism story indicates, we diverge in terms of what baptism means, who can be baptized, and when.

And yet, as we see with our scripture in Ephesians, even if we have different beliefs and practices about baptism, there is just one baptism. Even if we think our baptism is the most biblical, all of us are being baptized into Jesus. Brother Paul the Apostle writes, there is one baptism, one Spirit, one faith, one Lord, one hope of our calling, one God of all—who is above all and through all and in all. We are all connected—beyond the ways that we differ—through our faith Jesus.

For 5 years, I had the privilege and joy to be an author on a paper that was finally approved by Annual Conference this summer, A Vision for Ecumenism in the 21st CenturyA Vision for Ecumenism in the 21st Century. The paper describes church unity like bodies of water:

The Church of the Brethren, along with the other groups in the Brethren movement, traces its beginning to baptisms in the Eder River in Schwarzenau, Germany. The Eder connects to a series of other rivers (the Fulda and Weser), and the water eventually flows into the North Sea, before joining the Atlantic Ocean. Just as the Eder River is connected to other bodies of water, the Church of the Brethren is part of the worldwide body of Christ. As we hold fast to our identity and calling in Christ, the Spirit of God calls us into partnership with brothers and sisters who have also received living water’ in Jesus (John 4:10). The Greek word oikoumene, which means the “whole inhabited earth,” is a reminder that we are connected by faith in ways that are far greater than our differences. It is from this word that we get the term “ecumenical.” Our ecumenical interests and activities connect us to one another and to God as tributaries and rivers connect to the ocean) (Church of the Brethren Annual Conference, 2018).

I think that this river imagery is more poetic than my ice cream flavor analogy. It highlights connectedness and the life-giving nature of water, rather than just speaking to different flavors. Yet it also speaks to differences – rivers have different speeds and geographic features that make each distinct. They each have their own ecosystems, allow diverse creatures to flourish.

Our psalm passage also uses moisture imagery for unity, but in the form of oily beards and mountain dew. How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! When God’s people are unified, it’s something holy and pleasing to God—just as ancient anointing oil on the high priest was holy and pleasing. The 2nd image needs a bit more context. According to one writer, the land of Israel has a dry season for several months. During this time without rain, dew becomes very important to the ecosystem. The dew from Mount Hermon trickles down during the dry season to nourish the earth—sustaining crops and making the land fruitful even without rain (Tverberg, n.d.). Unity is holy, pleasing, nourishing, and it bears fruit—leading to abundant life.

The Vision for Ecumenism in the 21st Century paper shares a lot of scripture, history, and recommendations for congregations, districts, and the denomination on engaging with other Christians. The first recommendation for individuals and churches is this: “Every member of the Church of the Brethren is challenged to take seriously the meaning of Jesus’ prayer that all his followers be one (John 17:20-24).” (Annual Conference, 2018, p. 16). This is the only time in Scripture that Jesus prays, not only for the disciples, but for all who would believe in him in the future. Jesus prays for us and all Christians worldwide, that we might be one, just as Jesus and the Father are one. As such, weighty question stands for all Christians: what does it mean to live together as the body of Christ? We may not typically think of it as an urgent question, but the uniqueness of Jesus’ prayer heightens the responsibility that we all must take the call for unity seriously. How should this shape our ministry at Washington City Church of the Brethren?

Questions and Sharing

Do you have experiences working with other flavors of Christians? Tell us about them. What was positive? What was negative? What were they like?

What do you think are the benefits of Christian unity?

What are the challenges of Christian unity?

What are some gifts that other denominations or Christian traditions might bring to the body of Christ?

How do you think Jesus’ call should shape how we do ministry at Washington City Church of the Brethren?

Mini-Sermon 2: What does it mean to be Christ’s peacemakers in a religiously diverse world?
(Luke 9:46-56; Romans 12:9-21)

Our passage in Luke serves as a bridge passage, tying these two topics together. The section begins with an emphasis on humility—come to Jesus as little children, ready to learn and love on the journey with Jesus. Then, we see an interaction between Jesus and his disciples around who can legitimately call themselves Jesus followers. The disciples say, “Master! Someone is going around and casting out demons in your name.” Jesus replies saying, “Well, if they’re not hurting anyone and they’re not going against you, they’re actually for you.” Early ecumenism before the church was even a thing.

Then the story continues. Jesus is preparing for the final days of his ministry, so he gets ready and sets out toward Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish faith where the temple stood. Some messengers go ahead of Jesus, likely to get hospitality set up as he traveled through. But the village of Samaritans are not willing to show hospitality to Jesus and his disciples, especially since his end goal is Jerusalem. The Samaritan religion had gone a different direction than Judaism and one of the main areas of contention was where to worship God. The Samaritans said Mount Gerizim, while the Jews said Mount Zion in Jerusalem. In our text, the Samaritans probably find it offensive to facilitate a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and to support what they perceive as false beliefs.

The disciples are not happy about this. They take offense and get worked up. In their view, such hostility should be met with hostility. The disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus looks at them and, while we don’t have the actual words recorded, scripture says that Jesus “turned and rebuked them.” I’d like to know what Jesus said. Even though not showing hospitality was a big offense in their culture, and even though the Samaritans are rejecting Jesus, Jesus doesn’t repay them with violence or hostility. He just goes on his way to another village and teaches his followers to overlook this lack of hospitality.

It’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t gloss over religious difference; he doesn’t pretend that Samaritans and Jews believe the same thing. Yet Jesus also doesn’t get bent out of shape when people reject what he believes. These are helpful principles for us today as we think about being Christ’s peacemakers in a religiously diverse world.

When the committee first began its work on the Vision for Ecumenism in the 21st Century, we couldn’t help but talk about both ecumenical relationships and interfaith relationships. There had been precedent before and we knew that the Church of the Brethren needed clear guidance on both types of engagement. People use the term “interfaith” in very different ways, so we placed our definition in our paper’s glossary just to be clear. For the Church of the Brethren (according to the paper), interfaith means: “Partnerships, communication, or gatherings that bring people of differing faiths or understandings together for a common goal or purpose.”

We also knew we had to be quite clear about what we meant by interfaith and what we did not mean by interfaith. We knew that some Brethren would hear interfaith and think that we meant syncretism or relativism. What we advocated for instead was “a religious pluralism approach—which calls for peaceful coexistence and understanding, not a religious combining” (Annual Conference, 2018, p.10). We wrote in the paper, “Pluralism allows us to understand others while maintaining our specific belief in Jesus as reconciler and redeemer, while keeping the New Testament as our creed. Specifying the purpose of various [interfaith] interactions (building understanding, doing interfaith community service, or evangelism) can allow us to build trust, maintain our witness, and extend love and understanding in a world rife with hatred and division” (p. 10).

In interfaith events that I’ve been at, we don’t pretend that everyone believes the same thing. That honesty, when combined with authenticity, humility, and love, allows us to learn from one another to promote understanding and cooperation. I think that it can engage the most people in interfaith peacemaking because it does not require leaving your faith behind. Many Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and others would not want to participate if it meant signing onto a universal religion. For me as a follower of Jesus, I can engage in interfaith and still believe that God’s truth is most fully expressed in Jesus Immanuel, God with us. Staying true to my faith does not mean that I am mocking or denigrating another religion. In fact, I can learn about them, learn from them, and maybe even be strengthened in my own faith in Jesus because of what I learn.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” God’s children are called to make peace. As Paul writes in Romans, we are to love sincerely. Cling to what is good. As far as it possibly depends on us, to live at peace with everyone. AMEN.

Questions and Sharing

Do you have experiences working with people of other religions? Tell us about them. What was positive? What was negative?

What do you think are the benefits of interfaith engagement?

What are the challenges of interfaith engagement?

How do you think Jesus’ call should shape how we do ministry at Washington City Church of the Brethren?
Two recommendations from the paper are here:

Congregations are encouraged to offer opportunities (classes, workshops, special
services) for members to understand neighbors. One goal of these opportunities is to encourage dialogue and understanding about how the Church of the Brethren is part of the larger body of Christ. This understanding will build awareness of who we are as Brethren and how we are connected to other sisters and brothers in Christ. It will also identify points of connection and divergence between Christianity and other world religions.

Congregations are encouraged to communicate with local religious groups and to participate in community opportunities for worship and service, such as pulpit exchanges, intentional dialogue series, community worship services, and other gatherings designed to bring a community together. CROP Walks, workcamps, food pantries, and other local Christian and interfaith initiatives are examples of service that focuses on human needs and values that are common to major faith traditions.

I invite you to read the document further and to consider—as we discern moving forward in new ministries—how we can take seriously Jesus’ call to be one with other Christians and to live out our calling as Jesus’ peacemakers.

Without the Spirit, The Body of Christ Is Just a Corpse!

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43, Ephesians 6:10-20, & John 6:56-69

“The flesh is useless.” In the Gospel according to John, Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” This is what the en-fleshed Word of God says to us. “The flesh is useless.”

At first glance, it’s hard for me to make sense of this. After all, Jesus is the Word become flesh. Jesus is the one through whom we know just how much God loves this world of flesh and bone. By Jesus’ presence, we know that God embraces the whole creation – humans, plants, animals – so much that he is willing to become part of us.

Jesus says that the flesh is useless – but clearly God loves this created world very much! Earlier in John’s Gospel, it says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Jesus is the incarnate Word of God. He’s also a human being, just like any of us. He was born. He grew from a tiny baby to a full-grown man. He had friends and enemies. He experienced joy and suffering. In his life on earth, Jesus didn’t know everything all from the start. He learned and grew, just like we do. (If you don’t believe me, check out the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.)

Jesus is fully human, even as he is fully divine. That’s a basic statement of faith that we receive from the early church, but it’s still so profound that I have a tough time wrapping my head around it. Jesus is man and God. He is spirit and flesh. He is life itself, and yet he experienced death.

In our passage from John this morning, Jesus tells his disciples that “the flesh is useless.” And yet at the same time, what is his command to the disciples? What does he tell them is the way to encounter the Spirit? “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Jesus says that this is the true manna from heaven. “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” This is the way to life.

So, clearly Jesus’ flesh is not useless. On the contrary, his flesh and blood are the key that opens up everything, that makes the Spirit’s work in the world possible. So why does Jesus say that the flesh is useless, when his flesh and blood are clearly so useful?

It seems like Jesus is talking about two distinct things: there’s the kind of flesh that is useless, and then there’s his flesh which brings life and connection to the Spirit of God.

And this makes sense. Because, though I’ve been saying this whole time that Jesus is a man just like us, he’s also a little different. He’s different, because he came into this world with an open heart. All the rest of us, when we’re born into this world, are immediately sucked into the confusion and brokenness of our society. From the very beginning, we’re baptized into the patterns of alienation that define fallen human society. We are children of Adam and Eve, children of the fall, children of the serpent who has deceived us.

Jesus’ life is different, because he has always been a child of God. He was never a child of the fall, a child of the serpent. Jesus never rejected his Father’s love. He never gave into fear and hatred. Jesus is God’s answer to the fall. He is the good flesh that God created in the beginning. In Jesus, the created order is redeemed. The Spirit is present and moves unimpeded. The curse of the fall is broken. The fissure between earth and heaven is healed.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Gattaca. It’s a dystopian movie about a near future in which everyone who can afford it genetically modifies their children to be smarter, stronger, healthier. Of course, not everyone is super excited about this, and some decide to have children the old fashioned way. So there’s a scene where a doctor is convincing some parents to have their child produced through genetic enhancement. He tells the couple, “your child will still be you, only the best of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never achieve such a result.”

Now this is a dystopian movie, so I admit that the comparison is rather strange, but I think that Jesus is kind of like this. He’s still us. He’s a real human being, with all our hopes, fears, and limitations. But he’s the best of us. He’s what we look like when we have been enhanced by God’s love – freed from the crippling disease of sin, that has plagued our human family for so long.

When Jesus says that “the flesh is useless,” he’s not saying that the creation is bad. He’s saying that the creation is broken and needs to be healed. Jesus is pointing to the fact that the body is meaningless when cut off from the spirit.

This past week, a good family friend died. His name was Dan Patterson, and he was like an adoptive uncle to me. I remember how he encouraged my love of reading, buying my brother and me the best books throughout our childhood. I remember traveling as a family with him to New York City. I remember his love of Opera and theater. I remember his fierce cynicism about our fallen human nature and his passionate critique of injustice wherever he saw it.

And now, he’s gone. That is to say, all that’s left is flesh. A dead body. The breath is gone, and all that’s left is a corpse. And when I think about all that we’ve lost, I want to say with Jesus, “the flesh is useless!” Without the spirit, the life, the presence of my friend Dan, what’s left? “It’s the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” I want my friend back.

The message of Jesus to us this morning, is that real life is only possible when we are filled with the breath and spirit of God. The spirit, the breath, gives life. I can’t just be a body. I’ve got to breathe. I’ve got to be filled with the breath of God, the spirit. I can’t just go through the motions. Without the presence and love of the spirit, all that exists is death and decay. I’m just a corpse, breaking down.

This is what Paul was talking about in our reading this morning from Ephesians. He tells us, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” If we’re going to be more than just a corpse, we have to be clothed by the Spirit.

King Solomon understood this, too. For everything that he did wrong, God gave Solomon wisdom to understand what a vital and amazing thing was the presence of God in the midst of Israel. When the Spirit of God descended on the Temple, it says that God filled the sanctuary like a cloud. The power of his presence was so intense that the priests couldn’t even stand to minister there. The power was so heavy, all they could do was bow in awe and worship. “For the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.”

The house of the Lord. The dwelling place of God on earth. Solomon understood how crazy this entire concept was. How could the creator of the entire cosmos, a being who is deeper and wider than anything the human mind can comprehend – how could God come to dwell in a house made with human hands? Solomon was bowed down in awe and astonishment together with the priests, and he said, “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”

The Temple in Israel was an important teaching tool for God. Like the desert tabernacle before it, it was a place where the flesh of this world could be touched and redeemed. A place where the Spirit breathed and gave life. In the old covenant, this was the place where the effects of the fall were overcome. Reconciliation between people and God was possible where the Spirit breathed into flesh.

In the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus, we no longer need a building to serve as God’s dwelling place. The church itself – the people of God gathered here, and in hundreds of thousands of other places this morning – is the temple of God. Our bodies are the dwelling place of the most high. Our lungs are filled by his Spirit. The spirit gives life. Together we feed on the body and blood of Jesus, and our own flesh is transformed.

Without the spirit, we’re just a corpse. We’re no good for anything but burial. But we don’t have to worry about that, because the Spirit is present here with us, ready to breathe into our lives. This temple, this gathering of Jesus followers, is ready to be filled by the glory of the Lord.

Are we ready to be filled? Are we ready to truly come alive? Are we ready to become the redeemed flesh and blood of Jesus in the world? Are we ready to become children of God, together with Jesus?

I would like to invite us into a time of open worship, in which we wait on the Spirit of God to come and fill us, inspire us, guide us into greater truth and faithfulness. Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Father God. Breathe life into this body that longs to live in you.

Be Wise(ish)

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: Proverbs 9:1-6, Ephesians 5:15-20, John 6:51-58

The stories we tell are usually more action/adventure than “wisdom.” Christian Peacemaker Team’s Art Gish, with bushy white brethren beard and red CPT hat standing arms wide in front a tank in an attempt stop the destruction of a vegetable market in the city of Hebron, West Bank, Palestine. The radical witness of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers who have houses of hospitality and live communally. Dietrich Bonhoeffer a resisting pastor killed by Nazis. Brethren Volunteer Service. Seagoing cowboys. Jacob quitting his job and moving to DC after I gave him a surprise call one afternoon 4 years ago. We tell these because they embody deep commitment and courageous steps to follow the way of Jesus.

These have their own Spirit leading, reasoning, purpose, and call but—they hardly fit the conventional picture of wisdom. As part of a graduation gift this spring, my parents gave me a cute little stone owl lawn ornament. As my mother gave it to me she commented on wisdom…connecting completing studies with increase of wisdom. My immediate response was that I’m not sure that doing the program was wise. She asked if I wished I hadn’t done it and I said…well, that’s not really the case. While I’m not sure that it was wise in terms of impact on our family, church work, stress level, and general well-being I felt- and still feel—that it was what I should have done to faithfully follow God’s call to working for a church that is better equipped for Jesus’ way of peacemaking. Wisdom is a tricky notion. For the Apostle Paul, Christ crucified is the wisdom of God. The wisdom of God unsettles.

Writing on the Gospels, a scholar notes the wide view of wisdom in the Bible., “Wisdom can mean simply the practical skills and qualities which humans can acquire in order to live successfully, or wisdom can refer to God’s knowledge and creative power which transcend human scrutiny. (F.W. Burnett, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 874).

The Bible includes Wisdom Literature: Proverbs, some Psalms, Ecclesiastes and other examples sprinkled throughout. In our Proverbs passage, Wisdom is personified as a woman inviting us to learn.

Wisdom has built her house,
   she has hewn her seven pillars…
4 “You that are simple, turn in here!”
   To those without sense she says,
5 “Come, eat of my bread
   and drink of the wine I have mixed.
6 Lay aside immaturity, and live,
   and walk in the way of insight.”

Later on, we read
A wise child makes a glad father,
   but a foolish child is a mother’s grief.
2 Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit,
   but righteousness delivers from death.
3 The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry,
   but he thwarts the craving of the wicked.
4 A slack hand causes poverty,
   but the hand of the diligent makes rich.

These are generally true, but we can all think of ways that these wouldn’t play out. For example—A wise child makes the father glad—unless the father is evil and wants the child to do something dangerous or nefarious.

Or—the Lord does not let the righteous go hungry—except there are many cases where righteous people go hungry, in fact, there are probably righteous people every place of widespread hunger —one very immediate example is the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria or say Venezuela or Haiti or…

These do not prove that the scriptures are wrong. The style and intent are different. However, it still is the case that “wisdom” is not a category or framing that I am quick to overtly reference. But this may also be because there are many points in the Bible that appear to directly counter conventional wisdom. For example, 1 Corinthians upends and drastically reworks conventional wisdom, Paul writes—almost taunts,

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1:20)
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. (1:21)

For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,”  (3:19)

Additionally, many of Jesus’ teachings feel distinctly not wise—or at least not the level-headed and pragmatic we associate with wisdom.

Jesus said–

51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.

Jesus said –“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23

Jesus said—”Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Luke 18:22

Wisdom would seem to say, live carefully. Jesus seems to say, live with abandon. Not abandon for self-pleasure and fulfillment or apathy but abandon in the power and the leading of the Spirit. The life Jesus calls us to is not of calculating self-preservation. Not calculating self-interest of nationalism or our own group’s domination.

The Ephesians passage begins to link wisdom with the radical way of Christ through the Spirit.
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Do not live as unwise but as wise. The time is short, the day is evil. The situation is extreme so there can be no wasting time. Consume Christ. Be filled with the Spirit. Live in gratitude to God.
Be wise—(ish)….or rather be wise in a peculiar way. Be wise in the way that God calls us to be wise. For this wisdom of surpasses.

Let’s return for a moment to my earlier examples of the action or adventure stories we tell. We tell them because they radically embody the calling of Jesus. They are not, however, “heroes,”—courageous perhaps. They are part of communities that, together, follow the Spirit’s leading. Art Gish, for example, was part of the Church of the Brethren. A community that has gathered together to read the scriptures and prayerful follow the Spirit’s leading in both mundane and surprising ways. Art was part of Christian Peacemaker Teams ( http://www.cpt.org ). CPT is an organization that has been building relationships in communities around the world for years. CPT has an organizational structure and support from people around the world.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was formed by his time with Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem from within the rich spiritual life of the African American church in the US which has lived courageously and creatively in the face of deep injustice. (Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance http://www.baylorpress.com/Book/16/398/Bonhoeffer’s_Black_Jesus.html )

Do not live as unwise but as wise. The time is short, the day is evil. The situation is extreme so there can be no wasting time. Consume Christ. Be filled with the Spirit. Live in gratitude to God.

More Than We Can Ask or Imagine (or, There Will Be Leftovers)

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture Readings: 2 Kings 4:42-44; John 6:1-15; Ephesians 3:14-21

I ate a lot of leftovers this past week, while Nate was away at National Youth Conference. These leftovers were not, however, a sign of desperation or scarcity; they were a sign of abundant love. I had three types of leftovers. The first was a batch of smoked hamburgers that Nate made right before he left—where he showed love by cooking for me as a celebration/date night. The second was a frozen sweet potato and quinoa stew made by my neighbor. She had brought it by for us shortly after we came home from the hospital with Ayuba, just as many of you church folks cooked or provided gift certificates for us to ease our transition into parenthood. We ate a ton and then froze a container, which I utilized this past week. The third batch of leftovers was a gift from Faith K. this week, which she froze from a big pot of stew made for her family. She delivered this to me during my week of single-parenting a newborn. Faith knew that I would need both company (that she and Francis provided) and help feeding myself as I feed my tiny human. A week full of leftovers was a week where I felt held and cared for, even though it was a difficult and exhausting week. These leftovers meant love and community in abundance.

In two scriptures that we read today, leftovers are an act of God. We see people bringing small offerings to a prophet and to Jesus to be used by them. In both circumstances, God takes the small gifts and multiplies them beyond imagination. And there are leftovers.

Our third passage is from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. I think that all three passages can speak to our community’s present state here at Washington City Church of the Brethren. We see that what we offer to God—however small it may be—can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance. We see that our offerings, generosity, service, and sacrifice can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  

There Will Be Leftovers

Our first passage involves the prophet Elisha. Elisha was the protégé of the prophet Elijah. Yup, their names sound the same in English. Eljiah’s name means “My God is Yahweh” while Elisha’s name translates as “My God is salvation.” In 2 Kings 2, the two prophets are traveling. They both know that Elijah’s time on earth is almost up and that Yahweh will come for Elijah. As such, Elisha will not leave Elijah’s side. Elisha asks for a double-portion of Elijah’s spirit to carry on the prophetic ministry and the elder prophet says, “That’s a hard thing to ask. But if you see me when I’m taken up, then it is granted to you.” A few moments later, chariots and horses of fire whisk Elijah away in a whirlwind, leaving only his cloak behind. Elisha sees all of this, tears his own clothes in mourning, and takes up the cloak (or mantle) of Elijah. (This is where the phrase “take up the mantle,” meaning role or responsibility, comes from).

Fast forward a few chapters and a few miracles later to our passage, when a man brings an offering to Elisha. The man brings “twenty loaves of barley bread baked from the first ripe grain, along with some new heads of grain” (2 Kings 4:42). The Israelites were commanded to give to God from the “first fruits” or first harvest. Tithes and offerings in the Mosaic Law were typically agricultural produce and these often went to sustain the priesthood and prophets. As such, it wasn’t an abnormal thing to bring loaves of bread to a religious worker. Someone brought me bread this week – but it’s just because I have a newborn, not because I’m a pastor and she grew the grain.

Elisha instructs the man, “Give these breads to the people and let them eat.” Elisha’s servant is dumbfounded: “how can 100 people eat from these little breads?” A commentary explains that these are not the beautiful big loaves that we are likely picturing. They are small and flat breads, more like pitas, probably. Twenty pitas are not enough for 100 people. But Elisha ignores this and says, “Give it to the people. They’re going to eat and there will be leftovers.” The bread then gets passed around. The 100-person group eats heartily and, just as the prophet predicted, there are leftovers.

In our gospel passage, we meet Jesus and the disciples in Galilee. Jesus crosses the lake and the crowds follow, since he is healing the sick. Jesus and his disciples head up a mountainside and they sit down. Scores of people are around them, waiting to see Jesus teach and preach and heal. Jesus looks at the crowd and asks Philip, one of his disciples, “Where can we get enough bread to feed these people?” Philip is incredulous – Jesus is the person who has said the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. He doesn’t really go buy groceries, either. They rely on the hospitality of others and have little money… buying bread for thousands of people? Philips replies that the question is unthinkable and says, “Bread for these people would take more than half a year’s wages—200 days’ worth (200 denarii)!” Philip can’t even think about where to get the bread. He’s in sticker shock over how much money it would cost.

Another disciple, named Andrew, comes forward and tries to be as helpful as he can: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” Jesus responds by saying, “Sit everyone down.” All 5000 men and also likely many women and children. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks for it, and distributes it to those who are seated, giving them as much as they want. He does the same thing with the fish. When everyone has eaten their fill, Jesus instructs the disciples, “Gather the up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” They do as Jesus asked instructs and they fill up twelve baskets with the leftover barley loaf pieces. In the Kingdom of God, there will be leftovers.

This sign (and many other miracles of Jesus) reference and echo the miracles of the prophets of old, like Elisha, and surpass them. Elisha fed 100, while Jesus feeds thousands. The crowds recognize that God is at work in Jesus, even if they generally miss the point of his messages. V. 15 says that Jesus withdraws, knowing that the crowds would try to make him king by force. This isn’t the type of response that Jesus is looking for.

While these passages speak to both who Elisha and Jesus were, they also provide a message for us. Some pita breads and some fish can go a long way in the Kingdom of God. Sisters and brothers, what we offer to God—however small it may be—can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance and wholeness.

More than you can ask or imagine

Our passage in Ephesians is one of superlatives. It’s kind of like Paul is gushing about what God does—not that that is a bad thing. Paul uses one big run-on sentence in the Greek and prays for the early church. He thanks God and prays that they would, out of God’s glorious riches,” be strengthened in their inner beings with Holy Spirit power. Paul prays that they would be strengthened and, concurrently, be rooted and grounded in love. He prays that not only would they be rooted and grounded in love, but also that they would have the power (emphasizing power again) to comprehend, with all the sisters and brothers, the magnitude and pervasiveness of Jesus’ love. The breadth, the length, the height, and the depth—to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. And to be filled with all the fullness of God. As if all that isn’t a beautiful and moving enough prayer, Paul’s benediction closes giving God the glory, “to him who by the power [power again] at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20). This phrasing stands out for me and has for the past few years. The power of God is at work within us and through us and can accomplish more than we could ask or imagine… abundantly far more than we could ask or imagine.

This passage in Ephesians is one of my favorite because it reminds me that the Creator of the Universe is at work. The One who raised Jesus from the dead is at work. We can offer what we have, even if it isn’t much, and trust that God can do abundantly more than what we ask or imagine. It reminds me to hope and trust in the One who is bigger than both all my fears and my hopes.

Little Congregation, Big Things

What we offer to God—however small it may be—can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance. Our offering, generosity, service, and sacrifice can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  As you all know, we’re a small church. Despite our smallness, we were able to run the Brethren Nutrition Program, our soup kitchen lunch ministry. I remember some BNP guests saying with an incredulous, “Some of these big churches don’t do anything but you all are small, and you can put this on!” With BNP, we offered what we had and that offering was joined by volunteer labor, generous helpings of donated vegetables and bread from Eastern Market area vendors, and the gathering up of fragments from restaurants in Northern Virginia (the Oakton Church of the Brethren’s food reclamation efforts). We offered what we had and God provided, blessed, and multiplied what we gave.

We’re still in our post-BNP discernment and we’re examining how we can faithfully and effectively witness to Jesus’ way of reconciliation and love. We’ve been asking, “How can we serve our neighbors? How can we reach out? How do we invite? How do we build upon the gifts and strengths that we have within our church community?” These questions have not yet been answered; they’re an ongoing dialectic and discernment.

The two disciples in our gospel passage illustrate two different ways of responding to Jesus’ call on our lives and our community. Philip couldn’t wrap his head around Jesus’ request to brainstorm food for 5000. Philip shut down that conversation—there’s no way we can pay for that. Andrew, on the other hand, didn’t understand what Jesus was going to do but he still scrounged up the meagre resources he could find.

Are we Philip or are we Andrew? How do we perceive the opportunity to transform our ministry? Do we shut down and end the conversation? Perhaps we think about the ministry of this church and the task of outreach and caring for our community as overwhelming. That’s too big for us. We could never do that. How much money would it cost? How are we going to find the people to run it? We don’t know where to start…

Or, do we see an opportunity to give even what little we can scrounge up and trust that Jesus can use it? Well, I have interest in books. I have love for gardening. You know how to fix bicycles. You play music. Etc. etc. What are our gifts and strengths as a church? What do our individual people bring as assets and potential strengths to our ministries? What are our interests, skills, talents, and resources that we can offer? What are our community’s needs?

We are called to make disciples, to invite people into this Jesus-led journey of radical love, nonviolence, hospitality, mercy, and peace. The Andrew approach would be to look at what we already have to offer to Jesus. What are the resources that you can scrounge up? What talent, gifts, and interests do you already have, resources that we can use to build up this church and its ministry to the world around us? I invite you to commit to regular prayer with me about our ministry, for God to reveal what we have to offer, what we can give for God to bless and multiply—so that there will be leftovers, beyond what we ask or imagine.

What little we offer to God can be used mightily, illustrating God’s Kingdom of abundance. Our offering, generosity, service, and sacrifice can accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  AMEN

In this Age of Darkness, We Need the Prophets

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29

Who are the prophets? The prophets are those on whom God has sent his Holy Spirit.

This is the same Spirit that hovered over creation. The Spirit that breathed life into the first man and woman, creating us in the image of God. This is the Spirit that came upon Moses, giving him power to speak the word of the Lord to Pharaoh and to guide the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. The Holy Spirit fell on the seventy elders, whom God appointed to assist Moses, and they prophesied.

They prophesied. What does it mean to prophesy? Prophecy means speaking the words of God, just like Moses did. It means revealing that which is hidden, pointing people to the truth that the brokenness of this world has hidden from us. The truth that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus is a God of love and a God of justice. And that neither his love nor his justice will sleep forever.

Wherever the Holy Spirit moves, there is prophecy. This is the characteristic mark of the Spirit’s presence in the world: When we experience the presence of God in our heart, minds, and spirits.

When the Spirit shows up, we feel the love that God has for each of us, and the anger that God has at those things which hurt and destroy his beloved children. The Spirit comes to teach us who God is, and to inspire us to speak the message and demonstrate the character of our loving, righteous God.

This is Holy Ghost experience has always been the formative experience of the prophets. From Moses and his seventy elders, to Elijah and Elisha. From John the Baptist to Jesus. From George Fox and Alexander Mack to Martin Luther King, Jr and William Barber II. The Holy Spirit raises up men and women to speak the words our world needs to hear. Words that speak the very will of God. Whether or not the world is ready to listen.

As we see in our gospel reading for today, the world often isn’t willing to hear. It’s not an accident that John the Baptist ends up dead – beheaded by Herod at the request of his wife and daughter. It’s not an accident when terrible things happen those who speak the words of God, because fallen humanity is always killing the prophets.

Why would anyone want to be a prophet? Most of the prophets don’t. We see throughout the pages of the Bible, and throughout the history of the church, that prophets usually question their calling. Because being a prophet is often a death sentence. Friendship with God means enmity with the world. Speaking the truth means exposing the comfortable lies that this world cloaks itself in. Declaring God’s love for the needy, the outsider, the foreigner, the poor, means bumping up against the interests of the powerful insiders who are well-positioned to use violence to maintain the status quo.

In our gospel reading this morning, the story of Herod and John the Baptist is a quintessential telling of the relationship between God’s prophets and the powerful people who would prefer not to have the system disrupted by prophetic speech and action.

John the Baptist was acknowledged by everyone as a prophet. Even Herod knew that John was a “righteous and holy man.” So, despite all the reasons that he might want to permanently silence John by killing him, Herod held off. He locked John away in prison, but he hesitated to raise his hand against God’s prophet.

Herod’s hesitation might have been the result of simple political calculation – after all, John was a very popular man, and killing him might be more trouble than it was worth. Who wants to create a martyr? But the Mark gives us reasons to believe that Herod’s hesitation to murder John went deeper than mere political expediency.

The truth is powerful. It has an effect, even over those who are very wicked like Herod was. And John was a holy man, a prophet of God – clothed in righteousness and speaking the truth with the easy sincerity and fearlessness of a God-surrendered man. John was probably the only person that Herod encountered on a regular basis who wasn’t afraid.

Herod had the power of life and death over his subjects, and so most people were scurrying around, trying to please Herod. John wasn’t impressed. John lived in the life and power of the Spirit of God. He knew the truth, and the truth had set him free. John wasn’t afraid of Herod, because he had a life in God that transcended the threat of death that Herod could hold over him.

John and Herod had this really weird relationship. Herod had John locked up in prison. And you’d think that Herod would simply want John to disappear. To stop saying disruptive things about the immoral way that Herod was conducting himself. Yet Herod couldn’t get enough of John. He kept telling the jailers to bring John up out of the prison. Herod met with John regularly. Mark says, “he liked to listen to him,” even though when John spoke, Herod “was greatly perplexed.”

Herod could hear the truth in the words of the prophet. He could sense the presence of the Spirit in John’s life. Part of him wanted to silence this prophetic voice forever, but another part couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. He knew the truth when he heard it, even if he didn’t have the moral courage to surrender himself to the love and justice of God.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Herod was a weak man, and a foolish man. He couldn’t quite bring himself to kill John, despite the fact that his wife Herodias was demanding that he put John to death. But in our reading this morning, he’s thoughtless enough to make an oath, in front of many guests, that he will give his daughter anything she asks for.

When she comes back and asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, Herod is shocked. He didn’t even consider that the girl might consult with her mother and come back with such a request. But because he’s so afraid to lose face in front of his guests, he agrees. Herod dispatches guards to the prison, and they slaughter John, this holy man of God. They butcher the presence of the Holy Spirit in Israel. They desecrate the sanctuary of God to satisfy the whims of an insecure dictator and his family. Herod knows what’s happening. He knows who John is. But he goes ahead anyway. He fears men more than God.

The way of the prophets often leads to death. Jesus himself stood squarely in the prophetic tradition. He identified himself with the mantle of Elijah and Elisha. He stood in that Holy Ghost tradition. The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, anointing him to proclaim good news to the poor. The Spirit sent Jesus to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus stood in the tradition of the prophets. And like the prophets of old, like his cousin John the Baptist, he faced terrible repression and violence. Like John, he ultimately surrendered his life speaking truth to power, pouring out his life as an offering to God in love.

We live in a time of great darkness. It occurred to me as I was preparing this sermon that Herod doesn’t seem so unusual anymore. I used to consider Herod to be particularly monstrous, a truly evil character. And he was. He was an evil man. Yet today in our own national politics and throughout the world, we see men and women who are selling their souls for power built on falsehood, hatred, violence, and oppression. Today we witness evil that makes Herod look almost sympathetic. After all, Herod felt bad when he slaughtered John the Baptist. He regretted it.

But the Herod I know isn’t the one who cringed over his own murder of John. The Herod I’m more familiar with is Herod the Great – the father of the king Herod we read about in today’s scripture. King Herod the Great is the one who slaughtered the boy children in the vicinity of Nazareth. That’s the Herod I know, the one I’m seeing coming to power in the world today. He’s the one who doesn’t hesitate to destroy families for political gain. The one who forces the family of Jesus to flee and become refugees in a foreign land. The one who is praised by the religious authorities for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, even as he assaults the very word of God in the streets of Bethlehem.

This is the world of Jesus and John. A world where prophets are nailed to the cross and beheaded. A world where children are stolen from their parents and locked in prisons. A world where those in power prefer lies to any truth that threatens their dominance and control.

We live in a time of darkness, domination, and violence. Just like John and Jesus under Herod and Pilate. Just like Moses under Pharaoh. Just like the early church, whom God blessed and covered with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Living in our own time of darkness, we’ve been visited by this same Spirit.

As Paul says in our reading from Ephesians this morning, we have been marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. We are called to be God’s prophets in this time and place. In this present darkness that can feel as palpable as a clinging fog. God has marked and sealed us with the Holy Spirit so that we can speak the dangerous truth of God’s love and justice. The truth that the creator of this world stands with the immigrant, the poor, the marginalized.

Today is the eighth Sunday after Pentecost, and so maybe we need reminding. At Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit to each and every one of us who has decided to follow Jesus. Along with Jesus, we have been called and anointed to be prophets of the living God, the creator of the cosmos. We have been filled by the Holy Spirit, to speak the very words of God into a world that is so hungry for the truth and love that only God can provide.

We live in a time of darkness. And in times like these we are often tempted to despair. Yet it is in times such as these that the witness of the prophets is most needed. This is our time. This is our season. This is the moment that God calls us into active service, to speak his word of truth and love. To the powerful, as a rebuke and a challenge. To the powerless as a message of comfort and through tangible acts of solidarity. God has called us to be as prophets, even if we have to walk the path of suffering, just as John and Jesus did. This is what is means to be friends of Jesus. We walk in his footsteps, and accept his mission of love, justice, and reconciliation.

I would like to invite us to enter into a time of open worship, in which we can invite the Holy Spirit to be especially present with us. Spirit of God, we need your guidance. We are blind and lost without you. We need your love. We need your truth. And most of all, Lord, we need you to show us how to be faithful servants in sharing this love and truth with the world around us.

We live in dark times. But Jesus Christ has given us the light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. We are the light of the world. Holy Spirit, come and show us how to shine, and how much we must endure for the precious name of Jesus.

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.