Getting Voice

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture: John 2:1-11

On Monday Garba and I were taken around the Dutse Uku area of the city of Jos in Middle Belt region of Nigeria. Dutse Uku means “3 Stones” in Hausa. Jos is approximately a 4 hour drive northeast from the centrally located capital of Abuja, a city, like DC which was built solely as a capital. Jos has been the site of repeated violent crises since 2001. Though these crises would typically be relatively short lived, while Jenn and I worked in Nigeria, Jos experienced an extended period which meant we were unable to pass through for most of our two years. Jos was the center of one of several reoccurring conflicts that had political, economic, and power as well as ethnic and religious facets. Dutse Uku, 3 Stones neighborhood in this city, was at the center of these. My hosts said that the crises either start there or somewhere else but always end up in Dutse Uku.

Before entering this area, we needed to talk with a military checkpoint. They said since we hadn’t gotten a permit ahead of time (even though we were walking with residents of the area) we needed to talk to the military commander for the area. After waiting for maybe 20 minutes he arrived. He said that since we didn’t have the permit, he needed to hear from both the Muslim and Christian leaders that they agreed that we could enter and that we would walk with both Christians and Muslims so that people wouldn’t think we were favoring one side. We then visited the district head of the area in his home to also inform and ask permission.

We then began to walk. This house was owned by a Muslim and destroyed in October 2018. This dry, deep, washed out river bed was the dividing line where conflicts often start. Here was a house destroyed in 2008, 2010, 2018—the government has only collected data but never brought assistance. This street was mixed religiously and has two Christian and two Muslim homes destroyed. Here is a building never rebuilt from 2010 standing next to one recently burnt. (Since the buildings’ walls are cinder blocks, they usually remain standing but are unusable due to heat damage). Later we saw entire blocks that were uninhabited, and all the buildings destroyed, and then the remains of the Mosque of the Imam that we are walking with. After some time, we returned to the military checkpoint to get our vehicle. The one soldier said, when you go, remember not just to tell about the bad things—there are many good things about Nigeria.

My work is peacebuilding—which implies there is a lack of peace and all that makes for peace, such as, justice. And policy advocacy—which implies that things are not the way they should be. So, my focus tends toward that which is not as it should be. However, this was a good word from the soldier. Incidentally it was similar to Jacob’s comment that helped frame our Advent themes—we may often focus on the negative or the difficult call of Jesus but there is also joy and beauty and God’s provision.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus’s first miracle is to sustain the joy of a wedding party in Cana of Galilee. This is an extravagant act that marks the coming of the Kingdom of God. The “on the third” day invokes the resurrection of Christ marking the experience of God’s power (Craddock and Boring). In the classic Russian novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the young man Alyosha, prays in despair at the death of his mentor Father Zosima, drifting in and out of sleep hearing the Gospel account of Jesus’ miracle of turning the water to wine at a wedding feast, responds, “Ah, that miracle! Ah, that sweet miracle! It was not men’s grief but their joy that Christ visited, He worked His first miracle to help men’s gladness…’He who loves men loves their gladness, too.’ ….’There’s no living without joy,” (Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 338). This wedding was taking place under an occupation by a foreign power—the Romans. The wedding was either poorly planned or the people were poor enough to run out of a critical beverage for such a celebration. Immediately after this Jesus

drives the animal sellers and money changers out of the temple for their economic exploitation of the worshipers. The joy, and Jesus’ acting to sustain the celebration take place in the presence of struggle.

While traveling I was reading James Cone’s recently published memoir. Cone was widely considered the Father of Black Liberation Theology. Cone powerfully describes how he began to find his voice as a young theologian in the 60s. Having written his Ph.D. in theology which, at the time, focused almost exclusively on white European theologians, he was filled with anger that the white church and white theologians of America maintained and supported white supremacy through silence.

He writes “When I turned away from white theology and back to scripture and black religious experience, the connection between Black Power and the gospel of Jesus became crystal clear. Both were concerned about the liberation of the oppressed” (Cone, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, 15).

“…White supremacy is America’s original sin and liberation is the Bible’s central message. Any theology in America that fails to engage white supremacy and God’s liberation of black people from that evil is not Christian theology but a theology of the Antichrist” (Cone, 18).

He wanted to “wake up black people and let them know that the day of the white Christ was over. A new Black Messiah was in town.” This was because his theology was not just about the oppression but was also a celebration of blackness. It wasn’t only anger but also joy. He writes, “Black liberation theology came out of black culture and religion, and it celebrated a new freedom to talk about God and Jesus in a jazz mode, a blues style, and with the sound of spirituals…” (Cone, 64).

Cone finds his voice, which is both angry at injustice but also a celebration. In Cana of Galilee Jesus starts to get his voice. The first miracle of the Gospel of John is to keep party going, to protect a poor family from the humiliation of inadequate wine. Jesus will have many harsh words throughout his ministry. Jesus will also challenge and rebuke—there was and remains much in our world and in our lives that needs such a challenge—but Jesus, a poor Middle Eastern Jew, the incarnate one, this Jesus also celebrates and affirms.

We will read the passage again followed by silence and then a time to reflect on what we have heard.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

12 After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.

[***James Cone notes that his black liberation theology, which was a theology that took blackness and its cultural beauty as a source for theological reflection, was different from white theologies that were also affirming of culture. This mode of theology in Germany contributed to the Holocaust and in America contributed to the genocide of indigenous peoples and enslavement of Africans. For Cone, however, wrote from the “underside of American history” (Cone, 58). “I was thinking about God from the bottom and not from the top, from the experience of the powerlessness of black oppressed and not from that of the powerful white oppressor. God’s power is found in human weakness, the struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors” Cone, 10).]

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

Trinity Sunday—We have had enough of sermons from pulpits

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture Readings: John 3:1-17; Romans 8:12-17

“We have had enough of sermons from pulpits.” We have had enough of sermons from pulpits. This rings in my ears.

Weeks ago, the Great March of Return was mounted to nonviolently protest unjust treatment in Gaza. Gaza has been under Israeli blockade, surrounded by an electric fence, with limited means for survival for 10 years.

On Monday May 14th, 2018 60 Palestinians—were killed by snipers during a nonviolent action.

On Tuesday May 15th, Churches for Middle East Peace gathered next to the White House for a vigil to mark the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the Catastrophe as it is called by Palestinians driven from their land.

On Wednesday May 16th, I was asked, as a member of the board for Churches for Middle East Peace to facilitate the Q & A section of a talk by Naim Ateek—known as the founder of Palestinian Liberation theology. In his new book, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict, he notes that the theology that was taught to his people by Western Christian missionaries couldn’t bear the weight of the displacement of 1948 and the Occupation of Palestine. He writes, “When the catastrophe struck, our Christian community was not ready for it. People’s faith was not always resilient enough to withstand the tragic impact. Some of our people lost their faith…They felt that the spirituality they were taught by the missionaries was one of resignation and acceptance of their fate as the will of God” (Ateek, 3).

This theologian, Naim Ateek is “big stuff” in theological circles. I do not typically say things like “I was honored to do this…,” I’m either to pompous or too informal but, as a theological ethicist, this was pretty great.

Also, on the panel was Tarek. Tarek, a Palestinian activist formerly with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron, West Bank, Palestine, gave an impassioned plea for action. He said, “We have had enough of sermons from pulpits!” We have had enough of sermons from pulpits…

My task this morning is to preach a sermon from a pulpit. Not only that but this is Trinity Sunday. To many of us the theology of the Trinity is probably about as esoteric as it can get.

While a sermon may be “just” words, it also can be a tool for justice. The work of the sermon and the preacher draws us to God and to neighbor and should draw us into the street. Not only this, but our church sits in a particular location and has a particular calling, a particular gift—a responsibility. We are taking up geographic space on Capitol Hill.

Taking up space is not neutral nor necessarily positive, however. This land also had original inhabitants on it—the Piscataway Nation. Who were also displaced through violence. But while it is not neutral in terms of innocent or without harm, it is also the possibility to participation of the work of justice.

It was my job to read the text this week. To read the text prayerfully and with care so that this morning I can do the audacious act of proclamation. Though we may gain from historical figurations and formulations about the doctrine of the Trinity, the work this morning is to read the texts. But not just to read the texts—to read them in light of the world. To read them for a “theology of the street” as Tarek admonished.

If you were to read this text with a highlighter for notating appearances of the persons that make up the Trinity you would see:

Vs. 13 “if by the Spirit.
Vs. 14 “led by the Spirit of God…are children of God.” –you get two there.
Vs. 15. “Abba! Father!” and “very Spirit”
Vs. 16 “heirs of God” and then…”with Christ.”

So, there you have it. That is why this passage was chosen for Trinity Sunday. All three persons of the Trinity show up in the same passage. We also see the way that the persons of the Trinity interact with our lives. Listen again to the text,

12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—
13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”
16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Now tell me—how do we relate to the Trinity? It’s like a knot! The pieces and our relationship are so interwoven that an effort to detangle, delineate, separate into categories or otherwise make it neatly comprehensible is a risky endeavor. The social relationship of the Trinity makes these relationships and processes and formation of our lives to that of God’s life possible. This is also why the connection between rightly loving God and rightly loving our neighbor cannot be separated.

This is also why the connection between rightly loving God and rightly loving our neighbor cannot be separated.

This is also why there can really be no difference between theology of the street and of the pulpit—if both are done as they should be. They are one—but we have often tried to stay in safety. By we, I mean Christians who should have been on the street.

The passage focuses on being led by the Spirit and being children and heirs of God. Which is splendid! My parents got some inheritance money from an uncle and they were able to visit the Canadian Rockies—a long-time dream of my mother, and they were able to take all of their children and spouses. If this is being an heir, then being an heir to God—now that must be quite spectacular. Being led by the Spirit we are heirs to God. Which puts us as co-heirs with Christ—also fabulous sounding. Co-heir, co-anything with Christ sounds like being a buddy with God incarnate (Jesus did say to his disciples, I now call you friends).

So the Spirit leads which results in a relationship of child-ness to God and in some way adjacent to Christ.

This all sounds dandy. The passage concludes 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him…. if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. Our tendency, which is quite natural, is to focus on the first and last of these.

We are heirs to God! We get God-stuff!

We will be glorified with Jesus! We are going to be famous like Jesus!

We like the sound of being co-heirs and co-glorified but we often skip the co-suffering. And if we admit there will be suffering we likely are thinking of something like discomfort-lite rather than anything parallel to Jesus.

Another place in scripture where the phrase “children of God” is noted is in Matthew 5:9. In this we read, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” And in the example of Jesus we know that peacemaking is not conflict covering or avoiding or minimizing. If we look at the world, in Gaza (with blockade, hunger, protests, and sniper deaths), in Houston (with school shooting), in Nigeria—we know that peacemaking requires justice and sacrifice and risk and compassion and courage.

Omar Harami, Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem and struggler for justice described peacemaking for me in this way:

“The city of Jerusalem is the city that gave witness to our faith- the crucifixion, death and resurrection of our Lord, we are also in a way the city of Jerusalem as we continue to testify to the miraculous resurrection.

Peace is a beautiful word, even the worst tyrants talk about peace and claim they desire it, but their peace is not the peace of our lord.

Like every dish, the right ingredients and the proper way of making it will determine the success in making it to tasty meal.

We as Christians believe that Justice is the main ingredient to make peace, peace without restorative justice is simply impossible. Our faith mandates us to be justice seekers to make peace possible. The world is in need for justice, on many levels, human rights, economic justice, environmental justice etc… be justice seekers please.

Peace is not the final goal in our faith, its actually reconciliation… peace is only the path between justice and reconciliation. Please don’t be peacemakers, be demanders of restorative justice who work towards true reconciliation.
Philippians 4:7 -And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

We are called into the very life of God led through the Spirit into co-suffering and co-glory with Christ. We are called into the very life of God in the streets.

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.