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Are You Able to Drink the Cup of Jesus?

Are You Able to Drink the Cup of Jesus?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/21/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 53:4-12, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

A beginning is a very delicate time. At the start of a long journey, it seems like any route is possible. In a story’s introduction, the reader can imagine any outcome. But as we walk further down the road we begin to discover what the journey really looks like. Slowly but surely, our story becomes less about what we imagined it would be, and more about what is actually happening.

Jesus’ first disciples were very young. Quite possibly teenagers, or at most in their early twenties. Jesus, the man they looked to as teacher, lord, and future king, was just barely in his thirties. The Jesus movement was a young people’s movement. A movement quite literally fresh off the boat. A movement of people with very little past and an enormous horizon for a future.

It is a wondrous and fearful thing to be a young adult. Just out of school. In that first job. Or out on the road. Exploring the world. It seems like anything is possible. Young people have no idea what’s coming, but the world of their imagination fills in the gaps. The future is so wide-open, anything is possible.

The disciples were ready for anything. They were primed for adventure, to become the heroes that Israel so desperately needed. To break the yoke of Roman occupation and restore the Davidic kingdom in Jerusalem. To make Israel great again.

The disciples didn’t have much in the way of personal history or life experience, but they had tradition. They had a cultural context to draw on. They had the shared story of the Hebrew people. And this story told them that they should expect a new king, a messiah, a strong man like David to emerge and to restore Israel to its former glory.

They believed that they had found this man, this new king, in Jesus. These young disciples gave up everything they had – walking away from family, friends, and jobs – to follow Jesus wherever he went. In retrospect, this seems very brave and self-sacrificial. But at the time, it was probably a whole lot more self-interested. They believed that Jesus was the messiah sent by God to restore the fortunes of Zion. Jesus was going to be the big man in charge, and the disciples were going to be his inner circle.

It’s kind of like joining an early stage startup, if you can imagine that. Sure, you’re expected to work long hours for low pay. But you’ve got equity. You own a part of the company. And if the company takes off, you get rich. All that hard work will be worth it, because you invested your life into the shared project.

For these early disciples – who we see from today’s text were really quite ambitious people – the Jesus movement was a lot like that. It was a startup, and the disciples were basically equity partners. Sure, Jesus didn’t look like much yet. Just another Rabbi wandering through the Judean countryside. But when he became king of Israel – oh, boy! Peter and Andrew and James and John and all the others were going to be sitting pretty. They’d get to command armies, serve as top officials, and generally be very important people. That initial public offering was going to be huge.

In this morning’s gospel reading, we see that the disciples really have the wrong idea about how this startup is really going to work. They’re still at the beginning of the road, and imagine it can lead exactly where they want to go. They’re still reading the novel’s prologue, imagining the happy ending that must lie at the end of the story.

They don’t understand yet. They don’t realize what it means that they’ve been given equity in the Mustard Seed Startup. They can’t wrap their heads around how this story really ends. They still think they’re going to be lords of the earth alongside their king Jesus.

They’re all thinking it. All of the disciples have their youthful ambitions and imaginations, pushing them forward into a glorious destiny. And as with any group of ambitious people, there’s a fair amount of tension within the community as the internal pecking order gets established.

All of this unspoken jostling for preeminence comes to a head in the tenth chapter of Mark. Most of the chapter is about Jesus trying to get the disciples to understand what this movement is really about. The empire of God isn’t what they expected. It’s nothing like the empires of this world, based in relationships of domination and submission, the rule of the strong over the weak.

Jesus teaches the disciples that only those who become like little children will enter the empire of God. He reveals that it is almost impossible for the rich to enter the empire of God; only by surrendering everything can they hope to enter it. These two teachings, one right after another, upended all the common wisdom about who was good, important, and worthy to rule.

Even more so than today, children had virtually no rights in the ancient world. They were at the bottom of the pyramid – better seen and not heard. The vision that we get from Isaiah, that “a little child shall lead them” was almost too ridiculous to be believed. Leadership was for the strong, not for the weak.

The rich, on the other hand, were supposed to be blessed by God. In the ancient world – including in the house of Israel – there was always a strong strain of prosperity gospel teaching. The idea that if someone was rich, it was a confirmation that God was on their side. Those who are on top of society are there because they deserve it somehow.

Today’s society has pretty much the same idea, even if we use different words. Maybe we’d say that the rich worked hard, made good choices, and were really smart – so maybe that means that one percent of the world’s population deserves to own half of the earth’s wealth. In ancient society, it was common wisdom that the wealthy were rich because of God’s favor. The world is as it should be, and rejecting the rule of the strong, the rich, the powerful, was fighting against the divine order.

In just a few short lines in the tenth chapter of Mark, Jesus overturns the tables of the money-lenders at the heart of establishment religion. “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” It says that the disciples were amazed at Jesus’ words. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. So he repeated it, to make sure they understood. “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Many who are first will be last, and the last first.

This isn’t what the disciples signed up for. They joined up with the Jesus movement in order to be part of the new Judean 1% in the empire of God. They were ready to be rich, powerful – people blessed by God.

So even when Jesus told them all these things directly, the disciples were having a really hard time hearing it. As Upton Sinclair famously observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Perhaps even more importantly, it’s difficult to get a person to understand something when their hopes, dreams, and worldview depend on them not understanding it. The disciples were so full of their ideas about how the story should end – about the triumph and glory that should be theirs as charter members of the Jesus movement – that they just couldn’t wrap their heads around what Jesus was actually saying to them. So Jesus tried again. Mark says:

Again [Jesus] took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

And it’s right after this – after Jesus has told them to be like children. After he’s told them that it’s the bottom rung in society, not the top, that will enter the empire of God. It’s after he’s tried to shatter the disciples’ startup mentality and wake them to the trials and suffering that are coming, that James and John approach Jesus to ask for a bigger share of the company.

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“And what’s that?” asks Jesus.

“Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

I can just see Jesus face-palming at this point. “You don’t know what you’re asking.”

You don’t know what you’re asking, because you still think that this path is about glory. You still imagine that the road of discipleship ends at power, honor, and prestige in the eyes of the world. You still don’t understand suffering. You don’t know what it means to give up everything to follow me. You haven’t surrendered your naive ambitions and lust for control.

James and John think they do understand. “We’re ready,” they say. “We can be baptized with your baptism and drink the cup you’re going to drink.”

And then Jesus says what are probably some of the most ironic words in the whole Bible: “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

The disciples came to Jesus asking for the best seats in the house, but Jesus knows what it means to sit at his right and his left. Those aren’t seats. They’re certainly not thrones. They’re crosses. Those who will sit at Jesus’ right and left are those who will be crucified on either side of him. The disciples still can’t imagine it, but the inauguration of the empire of God is Jesus’ execution. His throne is the cross. His crown, of thorns. Jesus reigns from a throne that is completely opposite and diametrically opposed to the throne of Caesar. The king of Israel reigns from the cross.

In our reading this morning, Jesus calls us out of our youthful foolishness, out of our enthusiasm and imagination of what grand deeds we can accomplish, what heights we can ascend. The gospel invites us to join Jesus in the Desert of the Real. We discover victory in surrender, redemption in suffering, glory in submission and service to others – including our enemies.

This is not the path any of us signed up for. Just like the disciples, we haven’t been ready to hear it. But Jesus is telling us now, clearly. It’s time to wake up. It’s time to embrace the savior that Isaiah talks about, whose life was made an offering for sin – whose sacrifice wipes away our transgressions.

This same Jesus, this crucified king is inviting us to join him. To become like him. To allow our lives to become a sacrifice that, together with Jesus, redeem the world and usher in the empire of God.

This is good news. The simplistic, selfish minds of our youth may reject it, but the way of Jesus is one of hope, liberation, and joy. The gospel of the cross requires us to experience two seemingly contradictory realities at the same time:

First: The way of God is marked by suffering and loss.

Second: The way of God is one of triumph and peace.

These are both true. And we can’t have one without the other. No cross, no crown. No loss, no victory. No suffering, no peace. The prophet Isaiah describes this double reality so beautifully:

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to surrender our will to power – our insatiable desire to be the best, the brightest, the strongest, the most honored. Becoming like Jesus, we are invited to bear the sins of many, to make intercession for the transgressors, to become priests of the new covenant – cleansing the world through the life blood of Jesus.

As we enter into a time of waiting worship, let’s ask God to uncover all the ways that we use our religion as a mask for our own unexamined ambitions. Holy Spirit, come be in our midst. Show us our hidden darkness and bring us into the light. Make us people who are like your son Jesus – able to drink his cup and be baptized with his baptism. Make us people who bless the world through our obedience, sacrifice, and love.

Related Posts:

Are You Salty Enough to Overcome this Age of Darkness?

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

Are You Salty Enough to Overcome this Age of Darkness?

Are You Salty Enough to Overcome this Age of Darkness?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/30/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29, James 5:13-20, & Mark 9:38-50. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

I never knew how attached I was to the United States of America until I saw it being destroyed.

I’ve always been critical of this and all empires. Every empire of this world stand under God’s judgment, and as the most powerful empire the world has ever known, the United States of America most certainly stands judged by God.

America has a lot of blood on its hands. The rulers of this land have done what empires always do. The United States is founded on exploitation, slavery, and genocide. It is a society built on patriarchy, racism, and economic injustice. Like all empires, the United States is a social and political order founded on fear and violence.

But that’s not all the United States of America is. This country is a continent. A society that contains multitudes – every kind of diversity you can imagine. It’s a nation of more than 300 million women, children, and men. People of all ages, ethnicities, national origins, and languages. America is our home. It’s where we live. Where we raise our children. Care for our neighbors. Worship our God.

For those of us gathered in this building this morning, America is where we are called to be the church – a community of disciples that reflects the character and will of God on earth. The life and struggles of this American empire is the context in which we are given the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. To share his love.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be aliens and sojourners in this and every human empire. This world is not our home. We are to be a colony of heaven in the midst of an evil and violent age. This demands a certain degree of separation from the mindset and logic of empire.

Yet this call to separation and distinctiveness is not borne out of a sense of self-righteousness. Like every calling that comes from God, this one is rooted in deep love for the world. It is because God truly loves the people of the United States of America that we are called to come out of this empire, to be separate, to turn around and think and live differently.

As the people of God, we are called to be salt and light in the midst of this flavorless darkness. We are called to seek the good of the city and nation in which we have been placed by God. We are to be patterns and examples. A new society – the empire of heaven – being birthed in the midst of the old, dying ways of this world. Like Abraham, we are called to come out of all that is familiar and comfortable so that we can be a blessing. We are to be a blessing to the world, even when that world hates and slanders and abuses us.

There’s a lot of hatred, slander, and abuse these days. There always has been, of course – but now more than ever, it’s out in the open. It’s impossible to ignore any longer. All the ugly things about the American empire – the racism, the greed, the violence, the misogyny – it’s all gushing to the surface now. The veneer of order and civility – the norms and expectations that we once took for granted – are being swept away.

We live in the age of late capitalism, an age of growing barbarism. It’s an age that our grandparents or great-grandparents would have recognized from their youth in the 1930s. We live in an age of fear and twilight. The sun is setting on the social order that we knew, and all the night creatures are slithering out of their burrows.

We are living in times that demand a savior. These are days that preachers like me have been warning us about for generations. Days when our faith will be put to the test. Days when all the deeds of darkness will be brought out into the light. Days when we will have no alternative but to make a choice – clearly and definitively – between the empires of this world and the empire of our God.

These are days when people who seemed good and respectable will reveal themselves to be moral cowards, accomplices to evil, and violent tormenters. And then there will be others, some who we never paid much attention to before, who will be revealed as the fearless and loving children of God.

In days like these, we may be surprised by which group it is we ourselves fall into. These are days of testing for those of us who would be saints. These are days that call for patient endurance. We must wake up, and stay awake.

In these days, we should expect and welcome miracles. That which is hidden will at last be revealed.

The false church – the church of empire, the church of greed, misogyny, racism, and domination – is already revealed. This is the false prophet that we read about in the Book of Revelation. The fake religion that sells its soul for a seat at Empire’s table. We know all about this kind of religion – prosperity gospel and cheap grace that has bankrupted the church’s moral influence and put a stumbling block before millions who might otherwise turn to Jesus and be healed. Jesus says in our reading this morning that it would be better for false teachers like these to have a millstone hung around their neck and be thrown into the ocean.

But we know the darkness. I want to talk you this morning about miracles. Miracles of hope.

The greatest miracle of all will be the revealing of the true church of Jesus Christ in the midst of this empire.

It won’t be who most of us expect. This moral and spiritual revival won’t find its epicenter in echoing cathedrals or mega-church stadiums. It will come from the margins. It will come from those who have been crushed and humbled. It will come from those who have been abandoned and neglected by this empire, and by those who choose to turn away from our privilege and align ourselves with God’s poor.

It our gospel reading this morning, Jesus is clear with us that we don’t get to choose who God uses for his miracles. The Holy Spirit is wholly sovereign. She moves where she will. She chooses who she will. She breathes life into the body of Christ; all we can do is open our mouths and pray to receive this breath and new birth.

In these times of darkness and violence, we don’t get to choose who our friends are. There are no human rulers in the kingdom of God – only King Jesus and the spirit of love and wisdom that he sends us. This spirit is raising up a new generation of disciples. Young and old, male and female, poor – and yes, perhaps even rich. The Spirit of God is gathering a people to endure and bring light in these dark times. Will we be part of this people?

It is time for the disciples of Jesus to be revealed. It is time for the elders to prophesy in the camp. Whether or not you showed up for the meeting, you’ve been called. The Spirit will find you.

What God tells us in the dark, we must say it in the light. What you hear in whispers, proclaim it from the rooftops! In the words of the Amos, “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?”

It’s a time for prophecy – yes, indeed. But it’s not a time for grand-standing. It’s not a time for pious and exciting words that make us feel better about ourselves but which fail to heal the sick, bind up the wounded, and liberate the oppressed. It is time for us to become prophets of love – demonstrating in our own lives what the empire of heaven looks like – a world beyond domination, hatred, and fear.

To be this kind of prophet may mean that some of us will get quieter. I know I’ve been getting quieter. I’ve been saying less. Writing less. Making less of my own thoughts and seeking to open myself more to God’s thoughts. In times like these, maybe talkers like me need to focus on speaking less and loving more. Practical deeds of mercy and justice.

That’s what we get out of our reading from James this morning: A vision of the church as a place of healing, reconciliation, and transformation.

Are any among us suffering? We should pray. Are we cheerful? We should sing songs of praise. Are some sick? Let the elders of the church anoint them with oil so that we may be healed. Confess your sins to one another. Pray for one another. God will bring healing.

The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Are we becoming people of prayer? Are we willing to slow down, to take time for all the people and situations that call for prayer? As this dying society moves faster and faster, are we choosing to live in God’s eternal now?

The miraculous church of Jesus Christ is marked by the acts of care and accountability that James talks about. Now, more than ever, we must have the courage to watch over one another. Because many of us are wandering from the truth. Many of us are losing our relationship with Jesus and his spirit as we are sucked into the vortex of the news cycle. Many of us need a friend’s hand on our shoulder, calling us back. That’s what the church of Jesus looks like according to James.

The church of James, the church of Jesus, the empire of God is a place of healing and reconciliation. It is a community where real courage and sacrifice become possible precisely because we know that we can count on the friends of God to act like friends to one another.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells us in the most graphic terms possible that we will have to give up everything to follow him. If your eye is causing you to lose sight of what is real, tear it out. If your hand or foot is causing you to side with the empire of this world rather than the empire of God, cut it off! Better to enter into the empire of God blind or lame than to stick around and go down with this sinking ship!

This sounds impossible to the ears of those who do not know the true church of Jesus Christ. Without the fellowship of disciples that James describes, who in their right mind would follow a man who tells us to chop off hands, eyes, and feet?

But the church of Jesus is a place of healing and reconciliation. It’s a place where wounds are bound up and made whole. It’s a place where we don’t have to be afraid to be blind or lame – because ours is a God who makes the wounded whole and restores sight to the blind. The empire of God is a community where real healing is possible, where the supposed “wholeness” that is offered to us by this world looks like a cruel joke.

As friends of Jesus, we die to be resurrected. We are defeated, only to discover that death is swallowed up in victory.

Hear this:

Be not afraid.

Remember this:

It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the empire. He has promised us everything! No matter what it may cost us, God is faithful, and his way is worth it.

Only, have salt within yourselves and be at peace with one another.

Related Posts:

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

In this Age of Darkness, We Need the Prophets

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

Without the Spirit, The Body of Christ Is Just a Corpse!
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/26/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43, Ephesians 6:10-20, & John 6:56-69. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Posts:

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In this Age of Darkness, We Need the Prophets

In this Age of Darkness, We Need the Prophets
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/15/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3-14, & Mark 6:14-29. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

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.

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The Sabbath of God is Within You

The Sabbath of God is Within You
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/3/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Deuteronomy 5:12-15, 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23-3:6. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

When I first moved to DC, and Faith and I started thinking about doing ministry here, I did a lot of reflection on the spiritual condition of our city. Over the course of my first few years here, I became convinced that busyness, over-work, and high stress were some of our most important challenges. I hoped that Faith and I could minister to those who are overwhelmed by the intensity of life in our city, the many demands that are put on us by our work. This stress and busyness has the potential to choke out the seed of God in our lives.

I’m sad to say that, in the time I’ve lived here, this city has probably changed me more than I’ve impacted it. Over the last nine years, Faith and I have had two children. We’ve been employed at increasingly demanding and time-intensive jobs. At this point, I wouldn’t say that our level of busyness and stress is much different from most other people in our life stage and social class.

That’s not great. I know that my life isn’t exactly the way God intends it to be. I know that my busyness and burden often distract me and pull me away from the life of presence and freedom that Jesus invites me into. I know that I need to be called back to wholeness, right relationship with my family, friends, work, and God.

So I was really grateful to see that our passages for this morning focus on sabbath, both its foundations in the Old Testament, and Jesus’ teaching on it in the New. I’m thankful, because I need to hear the wisdom of the sabbath. I need to be invited into the rest and peace of God. Maybe this speaks to your condition, too.

The sabbath is about as ancient a concept as you can get. God celebrated the first sabbath on the seventh day of creation. After creating the heavens and the earth, the plants and the animals, men and women, God rested for a day from all his labors. Following this model of good work followed by true rest, God taught his people, Israel, to observe a sabbath day of their own. This special, holy day each week would be a period of rest.

The sabbath wasn’t just a reduction of work. It wasn’t like what a lot of us Christians experience today, where maybe we take a few hours off to go to church, maybe go out to lunch with friends, and then get right back into the productivity and busyness of our lives. For God’s people in the Old Testament, and for Jews today, God’s sabbath was a cessation of all work.

Why would God command us to refrain from all work for a whole day every week? It’s easy to imagine God as some kind of random rule-maker in the sky, handing out weird instructions that we’re supposed to follow, because, you know, God. But the sabbath is not random or capricious. As we read together in the Torah, we find that the origin of a religious sabbath comes about in a very specific context. That context tells us a lot about what the sabbath can mean for our lives as children of the God of Abraham and followers of Jesus.

So what was the situation when God instituted the sabbath? It came as part of the law that God set out immediately after liberating the Hebrews from slavery, four hundred years of forced labor in the land of Egypt. The sabbath is a mark of freedom, of health, of social harmony and economic justice. The sabbath is for all people – even the male and female slaves, even the animals!, have a right to a total cessation of work on the sabbath.

The sabbath is a call to humility. To remember, as it says in our reading from Deuteronomy, that “you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” The sabbath has the power to bring justice because it puts all human effort into perspective. Our lives are but a breath. God doesn’t need our help any more than a parent needs assistance from a young child. God’s effort is decisive; human effort can be, at best, a token expression of our love for the Father. (Paul expresses this thought in his second letter to the Corinthians, “this extraordinary power [of the gospel] belongs to God and does not come from us.”) By honoring the sabbath, we honor the God who through his power created the universe – and then rested.

We could all benefit from honoring the sabbath today. We need rest. We’re tired, and we work too much. We need space to breathe. To worship God, setting aside all our temporal preoccupations. To remember who we are, and whose we are. We need the sabbath to teach us how to love again. Love ourselves. Love God. Love neighbor.

Our whole culture is feeling the loss of the sabbath. We’re noticing the impact of a society that no longer reserves even one day of rest each week. Sunday shopping comes at a price. Our weekends are crowded with activity. Many employers expect us to be on and available, 24/7. There’s very little space to listen.

The sabbath acts as a check on our human tendency to over-extend ourselves. It sets a hard limit on our time, energy, and planning. It’s an opportunity to yield ourselves to reality and our own limitations, rather than being forced to do so by sheer exhaustion and burnout.

The Jewish religious authorities of Jesus’ day had 99 problems, but keeping the sabbath wasn’t one of them. They kept it religiously. The Pharisees were sort of the good “churchgoing” Ned Flanders of the ancient world. They were scrupulous in their observance of the law of Moses. Among the hundreds of other regulations that they followed, they were almost ridiculously careful not to do anything resembling labor between sundown on Friday and dusk on Saturday.

And yet, for all their piety, the Pharisees were missing the point. They embraced the sabbath, and all the law of Moses, but they had forgotten that they were liberated slaves. They had become the authority in their society, and the interpretation and enforcement of the Torah became a powerful lever for them to exercise that authority. The law often loomed larger than the God who established it. Just as the priestly Sadducees loved the Temple more than they loved the uncontrollable God of the Tent, the Pharisees loved the letter more than the Spirit.

Jesus saw this. He was harder on the Pharisees than on anyone else. Because they knew so much about the kingdom of heaven. They knew so much about God. And yet their attitudes prevented them from experiencing the real life, power, and purpose of God’s reign. Not only that: In their zeal to convert others to their misguided focus on rules and ritual, they blocked the door for others to enter into the kingdom of God.

God made the sabbath for people. God’s creation exists to bless us; it allows us to experience wholeness and holiness. The sabbath is made for people, not people for the sabbath.

Jesus came into conflict with the religious authorities on this point. He was busy moving throughout Galilee, preaching the good news of the kingdom, healing the sick, feeding the poor, and gathering his disciples. Jesus was drawing bigger and bigger crowds, and the Pharisees were curious to see what this new teacher was all about. They hoped he would be one of them. A lot of his teachings sounded familiar to the Pharisees. Jesus definitely wasn’t siding with the priestly elite in Jerusalem. Maybe they could form an alliance.

But when the Pharisees actually met Jesus, what they found disturbed them. Rather than a teacher who was first and foremost concerned with observing every jot and tittle of the Mosaic law, they saw that Jesus tolerated his disciples breaking all sorts of rules. Everyone knew that Jews weren’t supposed to do anything resembling work on the sabbath – that included food preparation. Yet Jesus didn’t say a word when he and his disciples were passing through grain fields on the sabbath, and the disciples started plucking and eating grain.

The Pharisees saw this and they got really upset. They appealed to Jesus to reign in his followers. “Look, why are your disciples doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Check your boys, Jesus; they’re running wild.

Jesus responded to the Pharisees in a very particular way. He didn’t agree with them. In fact, he flat out contradicted the Pharisees. But he didn’t do so by denying the importance of the sabbath. He didn’t reject the law of Moses and God’s commandments in scripture. Instead, he reframed the conversation in terms of the broader story of God’s people. It’s not enough to simply say, “the Bible says this,” or “the Bible says that.” The Bible says a lot of things. What truly matters is what God is saying, and how God is revealing himself throughout the scriptures – and in our very lives.

So Jesus responds, not with a rejection of scriptural authority, but with an expansion of it. “Haven’t you ever heard what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.”

When David and his crew was hungry, they ate the food that was available. The daily bread that God offered them. In that moment, God’s power to bless and provide for David overrode the static, non-contextual rules laid down in the laws of Moses. In general, only the priests were supposed to eat the consecrated bread in the Temple. But in that particular time and place, that holy bread was God’s way of caring for David and his men – providing them with rest, comfort, and sustenance.

Jesus sums it up this way: “The sabbath was made for people, and not people for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

The sabbath is made for people. The law was written for us. The word of God is not a harsh rule laid upon us as a burden; it is the caring hand of God guiding us, providing us with what we need. It is a gift of God, to be received in context – in particular time and circumstances, according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

People like the Pharisees – both back then and today – have a tough time wrapping their heads around this. For so many of us, the purpose of religion is to provide a clear and unambiguous set of rules to live by. Do this; don’t do that. Don’t touch, don’t taste, don’t handle! Follow the rules and you will be safe. Follow the rules, and God will love you.

But God does love you. God does love you. He gives us the law precisely because he loves us. God doesn’t give the law as a set of terms and conditions we must follow to receive his love. Love comes first. Love is the first motion. Love is the ground and source of the law. And love must reign over the law if we are to receive it as God intended.

The law is made for people, not people for the law.

But most religious people just can’t understand this. Especially religious people with power. And have no doubt about it, that’s what all this is about. Our rules and regulations are about power. Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, we use the law to shape the society that we live in. We create a set of expectations that must be followed. Those who step out of line are subject to peer pressure, ridicule, shame – and even violence. To challenge the rules that govern our culture is a dangerous act.

It’s not too long into Jesus’ ministry before he performs such an act – one so dangerous, so threatening to the Pharisee’s cultural and religious system, that they have no choice but to respond. One way or another. They can join Jesus or they can reject him; but they can’t assimilate him. They can’t pretend that Jesus is a good old Pharisee who they can integrate into their social order. Jesus won’t play ball.

This moment of revelation happens not out in the field, but in the heart of the Pharisee’s social and religious life – the synagogue. Jesus comes to the house of prayer on the sabbath. Jesus is an emerging local celebrity at this point, so maybe they invited him to lead worship and interpret scripture for them. Or maybe he just showed up for prayer. Whatever the reason, Jesus came to this particular synagogue on the sabbath, and the religious leaders knew he was coming. They were watching to see what he would do.

Because there was this guy in the synagogue that everyone knew. A man with a withered hand. People had heard that Jesus frequently healed the sick, and they wanted to know: Would Jesus break the Pharisees’ sabbath prohibitions to heal this man?

The people in the synagogue were watching Jesus. And he was watching them back. They wanted to see whether he would heal on the sabbath. Jesus wanted to know whether their hearts were so lost to the love of God that they would condemn compassion.

Jesus calls the man with the withered hand forward, up to the front of the synagogue where Jesus was seated.

Silence. Jesus looks at the people of the synagogue. The best and brightest in the town. The religious leaders. Everyone who is anyone.

Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”

Silence. Nobody moves. They just watch Jesus. Will he do it? Will he break the rules? Will he defy the authority of the teachers of the law? In the synagogue?

And it says that Jesus “looked around at them with anger.” He was “grieved at their hardness of heart.” How could these folks be so sensitive to the commandments of God in the past and so completely miss the motion of God’s spirit in the present? How could the Pharisees know so much about God, yet fail to recognize God in their own lives? What did it mean that God’s people were living in a temple of scripture and yet failed to receive the sacrament of compassion?

The sabbath was made for people. Hungry people. Thirsty people. People with withered up hands, who because of their physical deformity were excluded from full participation in religious life. The sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath.

In this moment, Jesus resolves to live into the full meaning of the sabbath. He demonstrates what the sabbath looks like in flesh and bone and sinew. He heals the man standing before him, re-enacting God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. He frees this man from physical bondage, and invites everyone present in the synagogue to be freed from the spiritual bondage of rules-lawyering religion without pity, without mercy, without love.

“Stretch out your hand.”

I want you to stretch out your hands with me. Stretch out your hands, and remember everything that God has done for you.

Stretch out your hands, and remember how he has brought you up out of slavery. Slavery to materialism. To selfishness. To addiction. To death.

Stretch out your hands, and be healed.

The sabbath of God is within us. And we so desperately need it. We can’t live without the sabbath, without God’s rest, abundance, and liberation.

The sabbath is life. The sabbath is rest and freedom from slavery. The sabbath is a gift given by the Holy Spirit, and one which we must accept if we are to experience the peace and blessing of God’s kingdom.

What does it mean for you to embrace the sabbath in your life? What needs to change? How does your heart need to open, your mind be renewed, your habits shift?

Stretch out your hands. Let us promise together that we will be a people of sabbath in this city. Let our lives open up a space sabbath rest, sabbath grace, and sabbath justice. Because the sabbath was made for people.

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God's Strength is in Weakness. Could My Success Be in Failure?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/20/18, at the Berkeley Friends Church in Berkeley, California. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Ezekiel 37:1-14 & Acts 2:1-21. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Pentecost Sunday. It’s a big day. The birthday of the church. The day when we remember how the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, came and moved across the face of the waters once again, transforming confusion and mourning into rejoicing, power, and boldness. This is a day that reminds us that the resurrection is real. The kingdom of God has come near, and Christ is come to teach his people himself.

We need this life that comes from God. We need the Spirit to breathe in us, transforming our dry bones and making us a people of praise, of love, of justice. The Christian life is impossible without the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter who lives in us and reminds us of everything that Jesus has taught us. This is the Spirit that, as Jesus promised, leads us into all truth.

The triumph and salvation of Pentecost is foreshadowed the Lord’s promise to Ezekiel, that God would soon redeem his people Israel out of the land of Babylon and return them to Jerusalem. God promised to rebuild the fallen city and make Israel a holy nation once again. By the power of the Spirit, Israel would become a nation that displayed the character of God – love, mercy, and justice.

The fact of the resurrection and the arrival of the Holy Spirit is greater than the restoration of Israel to Jerusalem. It’s greater than the rebuilding of the Temple and the law of Moses observed. At Pentecost, we get a glimpse into some of the “even greater things” that Jesus promised we would do in his name and by his Spirit.

2,000 year ago, in the streets of Roman-occupied Jerusalem, we witness the loving action of God to redeem the whole world – starting with the children of Israel and extending to all the peoples of the earth. God would leave no one behind this time. Those who had been lost in spiritual darkness, outside the household of faith, are welcomed in. People of every tongue, race, and tribe. Jew and Greek. Male and female. Clean and unclean.

Many who are last will be first, and many who are first will be last. The arrival of the Holy Spirit comes as a surprise to those who thought that the kingdom of God was only for them, those who thought they could control the word of God, and draw human boundaries around God’s grace. All our religious bigotry and fearful self-protection is challenged by God’s universal love and inconvenient grace.

Pentecost is a day of royal power. It is about the establishment of a kingdom. Our king is the broken and crucified one, Jesus. Through his death and resurrection, he has conquered the powers of darkness and death. He has overcome hatred and fear. He has established a whole new social reality.

This isn’t some other-worldly, pie-in-the-sky promise. The kingdom of God isn’t merely about going heaven after we die. On the day of Pentecost, we discover heaven for ourselves. It’s a physical reality. It’s about life in community and our shared journey with Jesus. The kingdom of God shapes us and transforms our whole existence. The kingdom of God makes us inconvenient to the powers and principalities that govern our world.

God’s empire stands in stark contrast to the rule of Caesar and Herod. The mainstream culture of the ancient world was one of domination and submission, patron and client, honor and shame. But through the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit, God revealed another way. A new community. A culture based on love, where the last shall be first and the first shall be last. A world where the mighty are brought low and the humble are raised up. On the day of Pentecost, the spirit of love is revealed to be lord of all, and the crucified one reigns as king.

A new world, new community, new culture – the reign of God. I get excited just thinking about it. Yet, like so many parts of the Bible, the day of Pentecost is often taken out of context, proof-texted, and turned into a mandate for triumphalist ideologies that see the gospel as just another way of exercising control over the people and cultures of the world. Along with a few other passages – like the Great Commission, for example – Pentecost is often used to fuel a vision that is primarily about church growth, organizational replication, and success in the eyes of the world.

I’ve been down this path. I have been deceived by the idol of success.

My wife, Faith, and I met planning the Young Adult Friends gathering held at Earlham School of Religion in the spring of 2008. She was living out in Washington, DC, at the time – working at the William Penn House. I was a student at ESR, in my second year as a Master of Divinity student. The planning committee asked the two of us to serve as co-clerks. They told us that by appointing us clerks, they hoped that I would speak less and Faith would speak more.

I think we did a pretty good job as co-clerks. But, you know, good clerking requires a lot of planning, prayer, and deliberation. And well, those clerking calls just started getting longer and longer, and more focused on personal matters rather than strictly business. We hit it off. By that summer, we were formally “seeing” each other, and over Christmas we got engaged.

After Faith and I got married in September of 2009, I moved out East to live with her in DC. I had recently started working for Earlham School of Religion doing outreach to young adults, but location was flexible.

When I got to DC, I was on fire for the gospel. I had only become a Christian a few years before, coming out of a profound experience of God’s presence at the World Gathering of Young Friends in England. Wherever I went, I was seeking ways for God to use me in sharing the good news, building up the church. During seminary, I had traveled widely among Friends, and so when I arrived in DC I continued that pattern, visiting a number of meetings in the Mid-Atlantic region.

As I got to know Friends in the DC area better, I became very aware of the fact that there was no local Friends meeting that was corporately Christian. That is to say, there were individual Christian Quakers in the area, but there was no organized group that could say that their shared mission was to follow Jesus.

This was a problem for Faith and me. As much as she and I loved Quakers, it was important for us to be part of a clearly Christian community, and there really wasn’t one available to us in the existing DC Quaker scene. So, in my mind, we had a choice: We could either attend a non-Quaker church, or we could try to start a new Quaker meeting, one rooted in a desire to follow the risen Jesus.

Faith and I talked it over, and we decided to start holding meeting for worship in the William Penn House, where we were living. As we were looking around in the Quaker world for models of how to start a new meeting, the common wisdom seemed to be that the way to do such a thing was just to start holding worship, invite people, and see who showed up. So that’s what we did. We had a Field of Dreams mentality: “If you build it, they will come.”

And, you know, things went really well for a while. We started small, but soon we had a solid group showing up – reading the scriptures together, singing, and practicing waiting worship. Our gatherings were small, but God’s power was there. It’s amazing to think back on how consistently God showed up. The Holy Spirit was present, teaching us and strengthening us to become more fully disciples of Jesus.

But planting a new Quaker church is harder than Faith and I ever imagined. Holding worship was relatively easy, but establishing a new community that could sustain itself over the long term was another story. Over the course of the five years that Capitol Hill Friends was meeting, our attendance varied quite a bit – between two and twenty, but probably averaging more like half a dozen. Yet the core of committed people, the folks who took a personal responsibility for the meeting, never expanded beyond Faith, me, and one other person.

Now, I was only working part-time for Quaker institutions during this time, so I was able to dedicate a lot of my energy to writing, outreach, and pastoral care of people who attended the group. I did everything I knew how to encourage our attenders, build community, and invite all of us to go deeper. Yet, despite the powerful worship, despite the transformation that we could see happening in people’s lives as a result of our fellowship, people rarely stuck with the group for longer than six months. They came, they had a powerful experience of God, and then they left.

We went through several of these cycles – gathering a core group of attenders, nurturing them, inviting them into the mission of growing a new meeting, and then watching attendance drop off. It was really demoralizing, and it was hard not to take it personally. Eventually, Faith and I decided that we needed to take a break. We stopped holding regular worship at our house, and eventually started attending a local Church of the Brethren congregation where we’ve found opportunities for ministry.

How does all of this relate to Pentecost? Well, you see, as an ambitious, fired-up young follower of Jesus, I looked to Pentecost as one of the key texts that told me what a “successful,” faithful church should look like. I read about the Holy Spirit coming with obvious displays of power, an effect so intense that the neighbors all assumed that people at the prayer meeting were drunk! Peter is preaching to masses of people in the streets of Jerusalem, exhorting them to repent and turn to Jesus. Thousands of people are brought into the way of Jesus on a single day.

Vitality. Conviction. Spiritual power. Numerical growth. These are some of the marks of the New Testament church that I learned from Acts 2. And in the context of my own failure to gather even a small community that could cohere without my constant encouragement, I couldn’t help but wonder – what am I doing wrong? Where am I being unfaithful? Why isn’t God blessing my work, the work that I truly believed that God had called me and prepared me to do?

I still feel sad about how things went – or didn’t go – with Capitol Hill Friends. I wish there were a Quaker church in Washington, DC, and I don’t know why there isn’t. But even in this failure, there have been blessings. Our ministry during those years had a big impact – some of which we are aware of, and much of which we will probably never know. And it had a big impact on me. I’ve gotten to know God in ways I never expected – and, frankly, never wanted to learn. But I needed to learn. I needed to learn what it looks like to follow Jesus in the midst of failure, to trust Jesus like he trusted his Father.

That’s the perspective I was often missing in my church-planting ministry with Capitol Hill Friends. I was so focused on the success of this new Quaker community that I didn’t want to see the whole picture of the early church. The glory of Pentecost was only possible in the context of failure. The joy of the resurrection is impossible without the suffering and loss of the cross. And, as we see very soon as we continue reading the Book of Acts, the health and growth of the church is only possible through the “failure” of the apostles’ vision of what the Christian community ought to be.

One of my mistakes was reading Pentecost as a story about how the church ought to be, rather than a story about who God is. The transforming power of Pentecost is not an outcome to be achieved. It’s not a reward for good behavior or hard work. The coming of the Spirit happens amid failure, pain, and loss. Like the disciples experienced on the Road to Emmaus, Jesus often appears to us in our confusion and mourning. He is present with us because we need him, not because we are doing well.

Ezekiel’s valley of the dry bones speaks directly into this experience. Ezekiel encounters God in the context of national failure, the humiliation of exile, and the longing for restoration. Ezekiel has no power to restore the fortunes of his people, but in the midst of his sorrow, the Spirit of God comes to him.

What’s interesting here is the interplay between God and Ezekiel. It’s the same as that between God and Peter. God is the life and power. God gives the Spirit. But God also asks for our cooperation. Just like Peter, who preached before huge crowds and kindled the faith of thousands, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy in the presence of the Spirit. It is through the act of prophesy that the dry bones come to life, filled with the breath of God.

This was the heart of the early Quaker movement, too. The first Quakers knew the importance of prophesy. The word of God is alive and active. It wants to be spoken and enacted in our lives. To speak the words of the Spirit is to cooperate with the healing and transforming power of God. To speak truth into the world, especially out of a position of weakness and risk, is to walk in the way of Jesus, who spoke the truth in love, right up until they nailed him to a cross.

Our failures along the way are painful, but they don’t have to dismay us. If we aren’t as big or successful as we think a Pentecost church ought to be. We shouldn’t be shocked if our ideas, rooted in the gospel of Jesus, don’t carry much weight in the debates of this age. We shouldn’t lose heart if our trust in God looks like foolishness and failure in the eyes of the world. We don’t need to be discouraged, because we know that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. We have seen how the light of Jesus breaks into this world through the cracks of failure.

The challenge of failure never ends. As we read in scripture, and experience in our own lives, God is continually breaking through our false strength in order to reveal the true life and power of the Spirit. Pentecost isn’t the end of the story. Through the power of the Spirit, Peter and the early church are continuously challenged in their beliefs about who belongs in the church. The Jewish disciples are shocked to realize that that God is welcoming all nations into the body of Christ. For people like Peter, who had scrupulously observed the law of Moses from his youth, this must have felt like a great failure, the loss of a certainty he had held precious.

For us here today, we face a similar challenge. God has changed the playbook once again. The Holy Spirit is doing a new thing in our rapidly shifting culture. Those of us who are faithful to the letter of the law – like Peter was – may have a tough time keeping up. The growth of God’s kingdom may feel like failure to us.

Fortunately, we are not left without a witness. The scriptures are full of stories about what it looks like to follow God even in the midst of radical, uncomfortable change. The Spirit is present with us, guiding us into all truth, even in times of challenge and confusion. The story of the church did not end with the writing of the scriptures. It didn’t end with the early Quakers. Jesus is alive. He’s here to teach us and lead us. Are we listening?

Like the people of ancient Israel, we look at our weakness and are tempted to despair: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” But God responds with the spirit of Pentecost. He says, “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people… I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”

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

How Can I Know When I've Seen A Miracle?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/6/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 10:44-48, 1 John 5:1-6, & John 15:9-17. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

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.

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