Archive for October 2019

We Don’t Need A Rulebook, We Need a Savior

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/27/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 15:1-11; 22-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Who gets to call themselves a Christian? Who gets to define what that means?

Back in 2006, I enrolled in the Earlham School of Religion – a Quaker seminary in Richmond, Indiana. I was a pretty new Quaker, and was still learning a lot about my faith. Like a lot of Quakers, I was drawn in by a sense of God’s presence in the meeting for worship, but I still had a lot of questions about what my faith actually meant.

I don’t know if this is normal, but I didn’t consider myself a Christian when I first arrived at seminary. Don’t get me wrong – I was wrestling with the Christian tradition. I was reading the Bible, and I was really impressed with Jesus. Reading about him in the gospels, I knew that in all his words and actions, there was life. God was present.

But I didn’t know whether I could call myself a Christian. I wasn’t sure I qualified. I wasn’t sure I was a churchy kind of person – or if I even wanted to be.

I did eventually get there. Early in my second semester, I realized that I could, in fact, identify as a Christian, a follower of Jesus, a part of the Body of Christ.

How did this happen? What made me think I could count myself among the saints, in the same community as Thomas Kelly, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, George Fox, and Francis of Assisi?

At that time, I didn’t know whether I could affirm the whole Nicene creed. I didn’t know what I thought about the resurrection, or how to understand the atonement. I didn’t have things figured out and sorted into neat and tidy boxes. No doubt there are people who wouldn’t accept me as a “real” Christian, even now.

But during that first long winter at seminary, in the midst of all my doubts and struggle, I came to call myself a Christian. I found myself saying, “Jesus is Lord.”

Jesus is Lord. What does that mean? For me, it means that Jesus is my leader. He’s my teacher. My master. He’s the person I look to with absolute devotion, absolute loyalty and obedience. He’s the one I want to be like. He’s the measure that I gauge my life by. He’s the cornerstone that breaks me open and exposes my cowardice and hypocrisy. He’s the way, the truth, and the life.

Jesus is Lord. I became a Christian when I discovered him, accepted him, came to obey him. Not doctrines about him. Not rituals meant to remind me of him. Not a form of church organization inspired by him.

Him. The heart of my faith. A living relationship with the risen Jesus of Nazareth, alive and present through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is Lord. This is the most basic article of the Christian faith. This is the heart of our confession. That Jesus is alive. He is present. He can be known, loved, and obeyed as teacher and lord.

Our faith is not a set of rules that we studiously conform to. We don’t place our trust in a law passed down from the mountaintop, written down on stone tablets, and forever adhered to without any further communication from God.

Our faith is the law written on our hearts by God. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit, guiding us. It is a relationship, as real and as tangible as any other relationship in your life – with your brother, your sister, your mother, your father.

Realer. It’s even more real than those relationships, because this relationship with our Holy Center redefines and illuminates everything else. This relationship unites us into a body, one people.

This is the life that the early church was experiencing when Peter and Paul and Barnabas discovered the outpouring of the Holy Spirit even among the uncircumcised Gentiles. “God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us.”

The early church had a lot of really religious people in it. People who obeyed the law of Moses. People who followed all the rules. They kept the law.

But the big surprise, the great reversal, is that God doesn’t tie himself down with the rules. Many who are last will be first, and the first will be last. The eldest son who kept all of his father’s commandments is scandalized when the prodigal son is welcomed back with open arms.

The Gentiles – the unclean, sinful, wayward, godless Gentiles – are welcomed into the kingdom of God as first class citizens. Because Jesus is Lord.

The good news of Jesus is not a new law. It is not better rules. It’s not a more perfect religion. It’s the immediate, direct presence of Jesus in our midst.

The good news is not a program that we can accomplish. It’s not deeper meditation, or better activism, or even kindness to strangers. It’s the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s the transformation that comes when we hand our lives over completely to the living presence of God and say, “here I am, Lord – use me!”

The kingdom of God is a relationship. It is dynamic. It is contextual. And just like any relationship, it evolves over time. When God liberated the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt, he led them out into freedom in the wilderness. He gave them the law through Moses. Because that’s what they needed right then. That’s was where the relationship was at.

But as we read in the Book of Acts this morning, we see that the relationship evolves. In Jesus, God is moving us into a new phase. An age in which the living presence of God departs from the holy precincts of the Temple and takes up residence in his people, the church. In us.

Jesus is Lord. That’s the heart of the gospel. Our relationship of love and obedience to him.

Jesus is Lord. For us religious people, this can be hard to hear, because religion so often is about laying claim to having the best set of rules to live by. Do we dunk or do we sprinkle? Wafers or whole grain bread? Do we preach prepared sermons, or only extemporaneously? Do we tithe a tenth of our income to the church? Do we always give money to every person who asks for it? We like to have answers to these questions.

But here’s the only answer God gives us: Jesus is Lord. This is not an abstraction. God did not send Jesus to give us another legal code or set of rules. Jesus came and God raised him from the dead so that we would learn to listen to him.

The kingdom of God is listening to him. Knowing him. Becoming his friends. Obeying him, in a dynamic student/teacher relationship. We become a community in Christ when we hear and obey him together.

A legal code can’t do that. A “biblical worldview” can’t do that. It’s the presence of the Holy Spirit and our readiness to listen and obey that ushers in the kingdom.

That’s what the early church discovers in Acts 15. The Holy Spirit is doing a new thing. The religious people were reading the words of the Bible and applying them as best they could. But in Jesus, we discover that we have so much more than a book. We have a savior. A resurrected, living, present savior who speaks to us directly.

The book can help us to recognize his voice – but the point is not to follow the book, it’s to follow Jesus!

This calls for discernment. It’s easy for individuals, and even whole communities, to mis-hear what the Spirit is saying. The early church knew this. So they held a big meeting in Jerusalem to listen, speak, and pray for God to direct them as a community. It was basically the same thing as Quaker meeting for business.

The whole church gathered to listen to what the Spirit had to say. And they found that God was blessing the Gentiles’ entrance into the church. And even those who had opposed the unorthodox lifestyles of the Gentiles were convicted by the presence of the Holy Spirit. What God has made clean, who can call unclean?

At this council of Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit clarified the minds and spirits of the apostles, the disciples, the whole body of believers. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to those present, that the rules had changed. Citizens of the kingdom of God are not obligated to keep the many and complicated purity codes of the Torah.

“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials…” Don’t eat food sacrificed to idols, or blood, or strangled animals. And don’t involve yourselves in sexual immorality. Other than that, focus on sharing the good news of Jesus and live in peace with one another.

Jesus is Lord. The life of the kingdom is a living relationship with the resurrected Jesus. Hearing him. Obeying him. Moving with him as he guides us and continues to evolve our relationship.

We don’t have everything figured out. We disagree about important things. But what binds us together is that Jesus is Lord. What makes us one body is the one Spirit of God breathing in us. Our unity is in listening to Jesus, following him as he guides us in our own time and place.

We have different challenges than Moses and the Hebrews, wandering in the wilderness with God. Our circumstances are different from those of the early Church and the early Quakers. Yet we live in times just as important and challenging as theirs. We don’t need a set of rules to follow, we need real-time guidance from the one who created it all. We don’t need a rulebook, we need a savior.

As we enter into a time of open worship, let’s invite the Holy Spirit to come and move in our midst. Teach us, God. Bind us together and show us how to be faithful to the life you’re calling us to in our time and place.

Feeling Scattered? God is Ready to Gather Us.

Bicycle speeding away

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/13/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Hebrews 13:14-16 and Acts 11:19-30. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

Listen to the Sermon Now

The last time I preached, it was on Acts chapter four. We heard about how the apostles faced persecution at the hands of the religious authorities, but instead of being cowed and terrified, they were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were filled with boldness. They preached the word of God without fear.

We heard about how the newborn church in Jerusalem abandoned the strict “mine” and “thine” of private property. They held all things in common. People who had lands and possessions, they sold them and shared. People who had nothing received what they needed. We heard about a man named Barnabas – whose name means “son of encouragement.” He was one of the first to sell a field that he owned and hand over the proceeds to the church, so that no one would go hungry.

In our reading this morning, Barnabas shows up again. And once again, we hear about violent persecution. We hear the struggle of the church, and its mission to preach the word of God with boldness.

A lot has happened between chapter four and chapter eleven. Miracles of all kinds. And perhaps the greatest miracle of all – Peter has a series of encounters with the Holy Spirit and with a Roman soldier named Cornelius. These experiences convince him that the kingdom of God is for all people – Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female – all are one in Christ Jesus.

Now after Stephen was killed, a great persecution broke out that scattered the church throughout Judea and Samaria, but it didn’t stop there. The scattered friends of Jesus made their way all the way up to Phoenicia, which is what we think of today as Lebanon. And from there some of the disciples traveled to the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean sea. And from there, others went to Antioch, in the southern part of modern-day Turkey. And wherever they went, they preached the word of God and the good news about Jesus, and new communities of disciples formed in these places.

But in Phoenicia and Cyprus, it says that the disciples only spoke to their fellow Jews. They went to the synagogues and preached the word of the kingdom, but they didn’t mix with the uncircumcised Gentiles. They were Jews, and they kept to their own kind.

Something changed in Antioch. As the disciples went along, the Holy Spirit raised up new believers, to carry on the missionary outreach. It was Jews from Jerusalem who took the word of God to Phoenicia and Cyprus. But by the time the disciples got to Antioch, at least some of the them were from Cyprus and Cyrene. These disciples were not interested in limiting the gospel to Jews. “They began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. [And] the Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”

When the church in Jerusalem heard about the great outpouring of God’s spirit taking place up in Antioch, it confirmed everything that God had been showing them through Peter and Philip and others – God had opened the kingdom to those who had formerly been excluded.

So the church in Jerusalem sent good old, trustworthy Barnabas up to Antioch to get a grip on the situation. And when Barnabas arrived, he did what a son of encouragement does – it says “he encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” And it says that “a great number of people were brought to the Lord.”

Now Barnabas gets excited, and he runs off to Tarsus to get Saul. And he and Saul spend a whole year together in Antioch, preaching and teaching – encouraging the new church that is emerging in this great city of the north.

And after Saul and Barnabas had been laboring there for about a year, some prophets came down from Jerusalem. One of them predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. And so the believers in Antioch took up a collection. They pooled their resources so that they could send relief to the church in Jerusalem, who the prophet foretold would bear the brunt of this coming famine.

This must have taken a lot of guts. Because the prophet didn’t say “there will be a severe famine in Jerusalem.” He said “the whole world.” That means there’s a famine coming to Antioch, too. Is this really the best time to be sending your money out to people you’ve never even met?

But this is the transformation that has taken place in the lives of the brothers and sisters, this new family of God that is emerging in the months and years following Jesus’ resurrection. Before, these people would have been disconnected – perhaps even enemies, because some were Jews and others were Greeks. But now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, they have become more than friends – they have become one flesh, one body, one family. They support one another because the distinction between “us” and “them” has broken down. There’s no longer any separation.

They’re a body. Just like my stomach doesn’t withhold calories from my arms and legs, the church in Antioch doesn’t withhold their wealth from the poor and persecuted church in Jerusalem. They’ve become a family. In a family you don’t keep separate accounts; you hold everything in common. And that’s how the church is. They’re in it together. Profoundly. They’ve abandoned private wealth and security in favor of what Jesus called “treasure in heaven” and a life that is filled with the Holy Spirit. Perfect love has cast out fear, and the selfish human nature has been overcome by the resurrection.

All of this is possible because of the way God gathers his people. On the day of Pentecost. At the home of Cornelius, the Roman soldier. In the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch. The Holy Spirit falls on us as in the beginning, gathering us into a new body, a new people, a new creation.

When Jesus was arrested and crucified, the disciples were scattered. But through the resurrection, God gathered them in Jerusalem. And the church was born, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thousands come to faith.

Then the disciples were scattered again, by the violent persecution that comes as a result of the church’s bold and faithful preaching in the streets of Jerusalem. Things got rough. Stephen was stoned to death for blasphemy. And it says that “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” It was a bad time to be a follower of Jesus in Jerusalem.

This is a pattern throughout the book of Acts: The action of the Holy Spirit draws people together to become a body in Christ Jesus. This new life as God’s family results in boldness and non-conformity to the evil ways of the world around them. And this boldness causes a violent reaction from the people who are in charge, scattering God’s people to take the message even further.

The scattering part isn’t fun or glamorous. I doubt that any of the brothers and sisters at that time were saying to themselves, “look at the good thing God is doing by scattering us out of Jerusalem!” And yet, even though perhaps they couldn’t see it, God was turning the horror of their circumstances into the seeds of a new movement.

Gathered in Jerusalem, scattered to Samaria. Gathered in Samaria, scattered to Phoenicia. Gathered in Phoenicia, scattered to Cyprus. Gathered in Cyprus, scattered to Antioch. And on, and on, and on, in a network of relationships that we can’t even track.

Gathered at Firbank Fell, the Quaker movement was scattered like wildfire throughout the north of England, and quickly to the south. Scattered by persecution, the movement was spread to the Americas and the continent of Europe. God scattered them across the world – to preach the word of God to the Pope in Rome and the Sultan in Turkey. Scattered to listen to the inward voice of Jesus together with the Native Americans. The movement was scattered, and God gathered.

So what about us? Are we gathered?

Our community has been scattered. Our presence here in Berkeley, California is the result of many scatterings: Westward migrations. A series of Quaker schisms. And countless personal journeys that circled this meetinghouse on a map for each one of us.

Berkeley Friends Church is scattered. We’re an isolated congregation with our nearest sister churches hundreds of miles away. We’re a community scattered among the nations, a people seeking to follow Jesus in the midst of one of the most secular cities in the United States.

We were scattered for a purpose. We are here for a reason. Why? What is that reason?

When the first disciples were scattered to Samaria and Cyprus and Antioch, they were faithful in sharing the good news of Jesus. God used them to gather communities in the Holy Spirit, to make the kingdom of heaven a reality on earth.

When early Quaker ministers like James Nayler, Francis Howgill, and Edward Burrough, were scattered to London, they preached and taught. They held public meetings where they directed thousands to the voice of their inward teacher, Jesus. When they obeyed the voice of this teacher, they found brothers and sisters they never knew they had. They found themselves part of a new creation, the body of Christ. They were gathered by the Holy Spirit.

And us? When we were scattered to the East Bay, when you and I were called here, to gather as the church in Berkeley in the early 21st century… We what? What will be our story?

Why has God scattered us here? Who are the women, men, and children who need to hear the word of God here in our time and place? Who are the brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers that we will discover? When will we be filled by the Holy Spirit and released from the fear that holds us back from complete obedience?

You are here for a reason. God has scattered us here for a purpose. What is it? And what price must we pay to receive it?

As we enter a time of waiting worship, I’d like to invite us to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, that we might be filled. That we might be gathered. That all fear would be stripped away. That we would be left with nothing but love and knowledge of God’s will for us, and the power to carry it out.