Oddities of the Holy Spirit

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

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

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

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

Oddities of the Holy Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace I Leave with You, My Peace I Give You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act on the Nudges and Do Not Be Afraid

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

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

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

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

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

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.

I Sought the Lord

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scripture Reading: Psalm 34:1-8

Wherever it appears in the Bible, whenever I read the phrase “I sought the Lord” my mind goes to a song from 1965.  I was too young to know the song when it was a hit, but it continued to be played on the radio a lot for several years and you’ll still hear it on any oldies station.  The song was by the Bobby Fuller Four, and it’s called “I Fought the Law.”

I’m not going to try to sing the whole song, but the part of it that I always think of is repeated several times:  “I fought the law and the law won. I fought the law and the law won.” My brain automatically changes the words to “I sought the Lord and the Lord won.  I sought the Lord and the Lord won.”

Now that doesn’t make perfect sense, because “sought” is not a win-or-lose kind of a thing unless you’re playing hide and seek.  “Sought” does not imply some kind of a contest or a battle or keeping score or anything like that. “”Sought” implies, well, seeking.  Looking for something. Trying to find something.

It’s kind of an interesting word to use when we think about God, because as Christians we believe that God is always with us.  In John 14:16-17 where Jesus is saying good-bye to the disciples, he promises that he will pray for the Holy Spirit to be sent to the disciples.  Later in Acts chapter 2, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit appears as tongues of fire, and Peter preaches about the Old Testament prophet Joel who proclaimed that the gift of the Holy Spirit would be given to all believers.

So we know that the Bible teaches that God, through the Holy Spirit, is always with us.  We know that in our heads. Sometimes it’s hard to feel it in our hearts, though. Sometimes our hearts are heavy and we feel as if we need to look for God, to seek God’s presence, even though our heads tell us that the Spirit is always with us, closer than our own breath.  God is with us. God’s Holy Spirit surrounds and is within us.

The other image in this Psalm that speaks to me is there in verse 8:  “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.”  It’s not an issue for Ayuba yet, but sooner or later parents have to figure out how to introduce kids to different foods and how to have them eat foods that they may not necessarily like but that are necessary for good health and growth and development.

Sometimes it’s better if you don’t know what the food actually is.  I watch cooking shows sometimes and they’ll work with Rocky Mountain Oysters.  There aren’t actually oysters in the Rocky Mountains. They’re just called that because if you called them bull testicles no one would buy or eat them.  Sorry, not interested. That might be the tastiest, most healthful dish ever. I might like Rocky Mountain Oysters better than I like popcorn with salt and lots of butter.  It doesn’t matter. Nope, nope, nope, nope.

I find that is true even with things that I like, or that I once liked.  When I was a kid mom would fry up some liver, and it was one of my favorite meals.  I really enjoyed it. And when I was in seminary doing my intern year in Orrville, Ohio there was a cafeteria that had liver.  I had it there and enjoyed it a lot.

Now?  Not interested.  Actually that’s not true.  I am a little interested, but my head is filled with people telling me how gross liver is and although I used to enjoy it quite a bit I can’t quite bring myself to try it again.  I tell myself that nobody can make it as well as my mom did, and that might be true. I don’t know if I’ll ever have liver again or not, but for now I am not willing to try it and see if it is good.

As a pastor you run across a lot of people who are that way with God.  They have had a bad experience with a church, or they read about a Christian leader who has said or done something that is hurtful to them and they just have no particular use for the organized church.  But still at important moments of their lives, like weddings or funerals, they want some sort of representative of God. They want a pastor or a minister of some kind to bring God’s presence into whatever the event is.  They want someone to reflect on what God might mean in their life or their marriage or the life of their loved one.

I’ve been that representative in a lot of settings.  As I think back over it, I think I may have done more weddings for people who are not a part of a church than for people who are.  Sometimes those weddings or funerals lead people into a deeper relationship with God than they had before. Sometimes they even start attending a church and developing a support system of brothers and sisters who can help them develop and use their gifts.  Sometimes that doesn’t happen.

Either way, it’s an opportunity for people to taste God.  A chance for people to taste and see that God is good, that there is refuge in God, that God does not wish them ill.  It’s an opportunity that each of us have in our lives as we live and work and talk and share with so many different people from so many different places religiously, emotionally, and philosophically.

Sometimes when people taste and see that God is good, they seek more.  They seek after God in a way that they haven’t before. They find the refuge that David talks about in the Psalm.  They find protection, and strength, and safety. We each have the ability to provide that taste of God. We each have the gift of the Spirit’s presence that can speak through us to those who are seeking God.

It’s a difficult week in some ways for people who are seeking God.  We have the Unite the Right 2 rally going on here in DC today. At my workplace this past week we had a particularly difficult shooting call.  There are many other things in many other lives that I am not aware of or that I don’t have time to mention. Each of you know of difficult and hard times either in your own life or in someone else’s that could lead one to wonder where God is, and where to seek for God.

Back in 1986 Fred Rogers wrote the following:

“I was spared from any great disasters when I was little, but there was plenty of news of them in newspapers and on the radio, and there were graphic images of them in newsreels. For me, as for all children, the world could have come to seem a scary place to live. But I felt secure with my parents, and they let me know that we were safely together whenever I showed concern about accounts of alarming events in the world.

There was something else my mother did that I’ve always remembered: “Always look for the helpers,” she’d tell me. “There’s always someone who is trying to help.” I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.”

When we seek the Lord we can look to those who stand against evil, who demonstrate against it.  When we seek the Lord we can look to those who try to save others from evil, even at the risk of their own lives.  When we seek the Lord we can look to those that help, doctors and nurses, police and firefighters, volunteers, neighbors, and friends.

It’s not that they’re perfect people.  They’re not. In other contexts they might be people we wouldn’t particularly like or wouldn’t particularly have much use for.  It is entirely possible that there are people attending the Unite the Right rally that are in other contexts helpers that God uses.  It is entirely possible that there are counter-demonstrators at the rally that are in other contexts people we would disagree with, people we would keep outside of our circle of friends.


This is no surprise.  The Bible teaches that everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Everyone, from the worst racist to the most kind and gentle person you can think of, and everyone in between.  Including us.

That’s one of the reasons it’s important for us to be among those who seek the Lord.  We need forgiveness. We need mercy. We need grace. We need the Way and the Life, just as much as the worst person you can think of.

In the song, fighting the law didn’t work out for Bobby Fuller.  He fought the law, and the law won. When we can say “I sought the Lord” it’s a different result.  When God reaches out through us to others so that they can seek, and taste, and see that God is good, it’s a different result.    “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.” 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.

As the Spirit Gave Them Ability

Preacher – Jeff Davidson

Scripture Readings – Acts 2:1-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

GOOD AND PLEASANT

Preacher — Jeff Davidson

Scripture Readings — Psalm 133, John 20:19-31, Acts 4:32-35, 1 John 1:1-2:2

How many of you watched the live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC last Sunday night?  I didn’t see it live, but I have seen a lot of the clips on YouTube and the whole show is on NBC.com and I’m planning to watch it there.  A lot of critics said that Jesus Christ Superstar was the best of the live musicals that NBC has produced in the last five years or so, and based on what I’ve seen I agree.

I don’t think it’s too hard to figure out why.  It’s not because of the star.  Yes, John Legend is a popular singer, but some of the earlier live shows have had popular singers like Carrie Underwood or bigger stars like Christopher Walken or Matthew Broderick.  Yes, Jesus Christ Superstar is a classic show, but so was The Sound of Music, and Peter PanHairspray was a Broadway hit not long ago, and A Christmas Story is one of the most popular holiday movies of all time, and they weren’t nearly as good.

I think the reason is that Jesus Christ Superstar is the first of the NBC live theatrical productions to be produced in a theater and in front of a live audience.  The others were all live, but they were on a sound stage, like a regular TV show, and there was no audience to laugh or cheer or boo or cry.

Superstar had an audience, and that’s a big thing.  Actors learn how to play to their audience, how to coax a response.  The audience provides feedback that they actors respond to.  The audience provides energy that the actors feed off of.  For an actor, the audience can be a colleague almost as much as their fellow actors on stage with them.  Other people being there make a huge difference in the energy and in the life of a performance.  Hold on to that thought for a few minutes.

I have many friends who don’t go to church very often, or who don’t even go at all.  It’s not necessarily about whether they are Christians or not, but a number of them have expressed a similar thought to me.  A lot of my friends who don’t go to church say that they believe that they can worship God just as well when they are out in the woods, surrounded by the beauty of nature.  They say they can worship God just as well when they are alone in the midst of silence in their home or apartment.  They say that they can worship God on the golf course, and you know what?  Maybe they can.  A golf course is a beautiful place.  There are trees and hills and manicured grasses.  It’s often quiet, with only birdsong to accompany you.

I do wonder sometimes how many people are worshiping God when they’re out on the golf course, or when they’re alone in their apartment, or when they’re camping or hiking amidst the beauty of creation.  I’m not there, I can’t judge, and if they tell me they’re worshiping God then I have no reason not to believe them.  Now hold on to that thought for a moment as well.

The theme of our scripture readings today is obvious.  All of them deal with community.  All of them deal with believers in relationship with other believers.  Our Psalm, which we used as our Call to Worship, starts out “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.”  The passage from Acts is specifically about how the early Christians were so close that they shared all of their goods, all of their income, and each received from the common purse as they needed.  A lot of people believe that the phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was written by Karl Marx.  It definitely wasn’t Marx – that phrase had been around for a long time before he was born.  The idea behind the phrase is exactly how the early church lived.  It’s not Marxism – it’s Christianity.

1 John 1:3 talks about what it is that will make John’s joy complete: the fellowship of believers along with God and Jesus.  1 John is believed to be written by the John the Evangelist, who is also believed to have written the Gospel of John.

And in the Gospel of John we read the story of doubting Thomas.  In doing research for this sermon I ran across an idea that was new to me.  It was on a blog called “Left Behind and Loving It” and the blogger is a Greek scholar named D. Mark Davis.  Let me just say before I go on that I didn’t study Greek in seminary.  Davis talks about the use of the aorist tense and the imperfect tense in the original Greek, and each of those tenses imply different meanings for words when they are used..  I don’t have much of a gift for languages, and so I can’t evaluate the pros and cons of what Davis suggests, but I think it’s interesting and worth thinking about.

We’re all familiar with the good ole doubting Thomas, who wasn’t there for some reason when Jesus appeared to the disciples and so didn’t believe them when they told him that Jesus had appeared to them.  His words are famous:  “”Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  And later on, when Thomas did happen to be with the other disciples, Jesus did appear and Thomas did believe.

Verse 24 says, “But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.”  Davis says that the choice of words in the original language suggests something different than we usually think it does.  We usually think that verse 24 says that Thomas wasn’t there for a moment.  Maybe he had stepped out to get food.  Maybe he had gone to visit someone.  Maybe he was taking a nap.  For whatever reason, Thomas wasn’t there at that particular moment.

Let me quote what Davis suggests as an alternate reading.

Just to be clear, Mary had already told the disciples “I have seen the  Lord” but they are overjoyed when they see the hands and side.  In this story, the disciples say “We have seen the Lord,” but Thomas cannot accept it until he, too, sees the hands and side.  To me, the point of this story is not that Thomas is the disbelieving holdout because he needs to see evidence before he believes.  I think there is more to Thomas’ “doubt” than a lack of evidence.

…John may be saying that Thomas was no longer with them when Jesus came the first time, as if he had given up on following Christ with them after the crucifixion.  Likewise, if they had only said to Thomas, “While you were out getting bagels one day, Jesus came,” the aorist tense would suffice.  But, the imperfect (tense)… implies ongoing past action.  Perhaps they were trying over and over to convince Thomas to return.  Finally, Thomas threw down the gauntlet, “I’ll come back, but unless I see and touch, etc., I won’t believe it.”  I guess I’m seeing the possibility that this was an extended conversation about Thomas’ participation in the community, and not just that Thomas happened to miss out on the first visit.   (http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.ca/)

I don’t know about you, but that’s a much different way than I have thought about Thomas before.  Because he had cut himself off from the community, he was not able, at first, to see Jesus.  Because Thomas was not part of the body, he was not able to truly and fully believe.

I truly don’t doubt the sincerity of people who tell me that they can worship God just as well on their own as they can in church.  But I think they are cutting themselves off from the full blessings of the body of Christ.  They are cutting themselves off from support.  They are cutting themselves off from care.  They are cutting themselves off from accountability.

They are cutting themselves off from a community of friendships based on their faith, based on the thing that is truly the most essential thing in any Christian’s life.  We have friends because of our jobs or our schools or our geographic communities or our ethnic communities or any number of other things.  None of those are a replacement for friendships that are grounded in our faith in Jesus Christ.  None of those are a replacement for friends who are a part of the body of Christ, the church.

Those folks are also cutting themselves off from the energy that you get when you experience something with other people.  I could sing hymns and songs on my own if I wanted to.  But I hardly ever want to.  Why?  Because it’s more fun to me to sing them with someone else.  It’s more fun for me to be part of a group that is singing, whether it’s a choir or here in church or in a play or whatever.

Which do you think would be more exciting – to watch Jesus Christ Superstar alone at home on your television or to watch it in person with hundreds of other people?  For most folks, not everyone, but for the vast majority it would be more exciting to watch it live and in person.  It would be better to draw energy from the crowd around you and reflect that energy up to the performers on stage and let them bathe their performances in that energy than to watch it alone at home.

And even if you were at home alone watching, or watching clips on a computer like I was, that energy comes through the screen.  The difference in energy between a live performance with an audience and a live performance without one is something that you can feel when you watch it at home.

The Spirit’s presence in each of our lives as individuals is magnified when we gather as a group.  Our worship of God is magnified as well, because there are more ways we can worship and more ways we can minister to and with one another than when we are by ourselves in the woods or in our apartment or in our car.  This is the church.  This is the body of Christ in the world today.  When we cut ourselves off from the church, as Thomas may have, we cut ourselves off from God’s presence in so many ways.  It doesn’t mean that we cut ourselves off from God’s presence completely; we all have an individual relationship with Christ.  But we limit the possibilities to experience that presence in all of its fullness.  We minimize the opportunities to learn, to grow, to be encouraged, to be held accountable, to minister, and to be ministered to.

Almost every time I begin a worship service during the Welcome and Announcements I say that I am glad to see you here this morning.  That’s true.  I am glad to see you here this morning.  I’m glad because you’re here, and I’m glad because the fact that I can see you means that I’m here as well.  I am glad to be a part of the body of Christ in this place.  I am glad to be able to worship, and sing, and pray, and minister with each of you.  With the Psalmist, I find that it is good and it is pleasant when brothers and sisters can dwell together in unity.  I hope that you do too, and that you will invite others to learn and share and grow and minister with us in the days to come.  Amen.