Archive for May 2021

The Day of Pentecost Has Arrived – What Should We Do?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/23/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: Acts 2:1-42. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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Today is Pentecost Sunday. Seven weeks after Easter, Pentecost is the day that Christians celebrate as the birth of the church, the day when the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised came and filled his disciples with wisdom, power, and boldness. It was a day when thousands came to faith in the Lord Jesus, and became a new community in him.

Pentecost isn’t a holiday that Christians made up, of course. It had been a Jewish festival since God brought them out of Egypt. It’s one of the celebrations that God commands Israel to observe in the Torah. 

We Christians know this festival by the name Pentecost, which is a Greek word that means “fifty.” Called by its Hebrew name, Shavuot, this festival falls fifty days after the Passover. It commemorates the giving of God’s law to Israel at Sinai.

Just as Passover celebrates God’s physical salvation of his people from slavery in Egypt, Shavuot is a celebration of God’s spiritual salvation of his people. By giving them his law through Moses, God made those who were not a people a holy nation. Those who had been powerless slaves to Pharaoh became a people blessed and set apart by God.

Shavuot is a reminder that physical liberation is essential, but not sufficient. Spiritual liberation must occur. We must have an inward encounter with God, coming into a living relationship with him, if we are to be truly free. God did not create us for liberty without holiness. God has called us, his people, to a whole new way of life. One where we are weaned off the false Gods of the world and given power to live as a nation of priests – following the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.

In the old covenant, it was the law of Moses that made this possible. The statutes and rules given by God, written down on tablets of stone. The festivals, the sacrifices, the distinction between clean and unclean – these were all ways that God was preparing Israel for a life of holiness – set-apart-ness – creative difference from the fallen world that God would redeem through them.

It is not an accident that Jesus was crucified in the season of Passover. Passover is the remembrance of how God saved the people of Israel with a mighty hand and outstretched arm, smashing Pharaoh’s army and parting the Red Sea for his people. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was an even greater triumph, bringing salvation to all of humanity, liberating us from all the Pharaohs of the world, freeing us to worship God without fear and be remade in his likeness. In Jesus, all people – Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female – can finally become truly whole, truly holy, integrated and complete, just as God intended from the beginning.

In the cross of Jesus, God parted the Red Sea one last time. God tore apart the barrier between God and people, the curtain in the Temple that separated the Holy of Holies. God broke down the ultimate dividing wall, making himself available to all people directly. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God triumphed once and for all over the power of sin, death, and the devil, and brought us all out of the grasp of Pharaoh, Caesar, and Mammon. It was a new Exodus, made available to the whole world.

But the journey wasn’t complete yet. Just as the people of Israel made their way to Mount Sinai to receive the law, the people of God in Jerusalem were about to receive the new law, the fulfillment of the law: the presence of the Holy Spirit. Filling them. Transforming them. Creating in them a new humanity in the image of Jesus Christ.

The day of Pentecost, Shavuot, is about that spiritual liberation. It’s about the transformation of heart and mind that comes after passing through the Red Sea of terror and death. It’s about the new creation, a new life in God – nothing like the life that came before. 

Because now we are his. Now we are his holy people, set apart and different from the world. A people knitted together so tightly in the Holy Spirit that we have become one body in Jesus. One flesh. (No wonder Jesus so often used marriage imagery to describe the kingdom of God.) One Lord, one faith, one baptism. One heart.

This transformation that took place in the lives of those one hundred and twenty disciples that morning was so intense, so powerful, that it raised a ruckus in the city of Jerusalem. These friends of Jesus couldn’t be ignored. 

They were filled with life, and truth, and power. God gave them words to speak to all the people present in the holy city for the festival – people who had come from around the whole ancient world. The Holy Spirit gave them words in the many and varied languages of those who needed to hear the message.

And they heard it. Thousands of them. It says that on that day alone, three thousand people came to have faith in the Lord Jesus and become part of the disciple community, the body of Christ. 

They heard the message that Peter and the apostles preached. About the messiah who came and was crucified by the people who he came to save. About the way that God raised him up, and in his resurrection conquered death once and for all. They heard the message: that the time of salvation was here at last, for any who would embrace the message.

They heard. And it says that “they were cut to the heart.” They could sense the presence of the Holy Spirit on these disciples of Jesus, who had been clothed with power from on high. They felt the resurrection power in their midst, just as clearly as you can feel heat radiating from a bonfire. The burning bush was back again. Sandals off! Everything had changed. 

And those who heard the message and experienced the presence asked the apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”

What should we do?

Peter said to them:

“Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

Repent. Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, into the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

It all comes together. Jesus began his ministry with John the Baptizer by the river Jordan. A ministry that was a call to repentance, pure and simple. Change your life! Embrace God’s call to holiness and justice! Abandon your hopes for greatness as the world measures it, and cling to the promises of God.

That was the message of John the Baptist: An invitation to join the flight from Egypt. An invitation to make our way through the Red Sea, through the waters of repentance. To trust in God’s promise and power to save.

We have experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit. What should we do? 

Repent. Be immersed into the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of our sins, and we will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Come to the waters. Come to the edge of the Red Sea. Pass through and enter the desert of transformation with our God. Embrace God’s physical liberation – the practice of righteousness and justice – resurrection! – and you will receive the Holy Spirit: the power of God who gives all truth, love, and ability to do the will of God.

What should we do? What are we, as Berkeley Friends Church, to do with this call that we have from the lips of the apostles and from the heart of God’s Spirit?

For those three thousand who came to faith in Christ on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, their whole life had led them to this moment. They knew that in the presence of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, nothing could ever be the same. They knew that the world was about to turn. The only choice for them to make was whether they would turn in God’s direction. Would they stay behind in Egypt, or would they risk the desert with the pillar of fire and smoke to guide them?

What will we choose?

Do we recognize the moment we are in? There is no time but this present time. This is our day of visitation. The Holy Spirit is here for us. “The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Will we embrace the promise of God? Will we trust him?

It’s not too late. Repent. Be immersed into the name of Jesus Christ. Receive forgiveness. Receive the Holy Spirit. We can become something new in God.

We have to. The present form of this world is passing away. Something new is coming. The world is about to turn. 

Repent. Be immersed into his name. Receive forgiveness and transformation.

What will that mean for us? Where is the pillar of cloud and fire going to lead Berkeley Friends Church? When he makes all things new, what will we become? What will happen to us when we pass through the waters?

We don’t have to worry about that now. God has a plan for us, just like he did for Israel. Just like he did for the early church. God has a plan to bless us and make us a blessing to the world. We don’t have to make it happen. For now, just turn around. Repent. Be immersed. Receive the Holy Spirit.

In the words of George Fox, from his Epistle X:

“Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves, and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts and temptations, Do not think, but submit, and then power comes in. Stand still in that which shows and discovers, and there doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone, and then content[ment] comes.”

We have already received salvation in the cross of Jesus. We have participated in the liberation of Passover, the flight from Egypt, the journey through the Red Sea. Through his resurrection, Jesus has conquered the power of sin, death, and the devil. Pharaoh has been undone. We have been set free.

Now comes the journey to Sinai. We are in the desert. Nothing stands between us and the holy mountain, the endless love of God. Will we dare to approach?

We have heard the message. We know what God asks of us. We have received the promise of the Holy Spirit. God is present with us – we are his people, and Jesus stands in the midst of us.

Do we want to be led? Has the message cut us to the heart? Are we asking God, with a broken heart, “what should we do?”

What should we do? God, you are here. Lead us. Guide us through the desert. Make us the people and the community that you created us to be.

Birth is Messy, But We Have a Mother We Can Trust

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/9/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: 1 John 5:1-6. 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

This morning, we’ve heard about what God is like. God is like a flashlight, shining in the dark. He’s like a loaf of bread. He’s like a best friend, a mama, a daddy. That’s what God is like.

Scripture provides us with a lot of comparisons, to imagine God’s character. Jesus says that God is like a mother hen, caring for us, her baby chicks. The prophet Hosea described God as a mother bear, ready to fight for her cubs. That’s what God is like.

But the authors of scripture don’t stop with just describing what God is like. They don’t stop at simile. The apostles tell us that, in Jesus we have moved beyond the realm of metaphor. We have transcended the old world, when to look upon the face of God was to die. In Jesus, we have seen God and lived. The apostle John writes that, in Jesus, God is come in the flesh and in glory – “the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The apostle Paul reaffirms this idea in his letter to the Colossians, when he writes that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” The image of the invisible God. 

The image of something is not “like” something. It’s not like saying, “God is like a flashlight.” An image is not metaphor, it is faithful representation. To say that Jesus is the image of the invisible God means that he truly demonstrates who God is. When we look at Jesus, we behold God. When we imitate Jesus, we become like God. When we follow Jesus, we walk in the footsteps of the Lord.

Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

Who else is the image of the invisible God?

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. In the beginning, in the first chapter of Genesis, it is says that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.” In the image of God he created us.

The church teaches that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, at once both God and man. We don’t know how this works, but we have seen and experienced it to be true. Through the incarnation, Jesus has conquered the world – the powers of sin, death, and the devil.

Throughout the centuries, different groups of Christians have emphasized different parts of Jesus’ identity – human and divine. Some have made him so Godlike that it’s hard to see him as a brother – his humanity gets erased. Others have brought him so down to earth, that it can be hard to see how he’s different from any other historical “great teacher.”

But the church affirms that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. Jesus is the living word of God, come in the flesh. He is also a human being, just like you and me.

Just like you and me.

Jesus is us. He’s the best of us. The fullness of us. The completeness of us. He’s what we were created to be. Fully human, fully divine – united to God in a family relationship. Sheep of the shepherd. Branches of the vine. Children of the father. 

To know Jesus is to become like him. And to become like Jesus is to become fully ourselves. Dwelling in the divine, and embodying him. Becoming sons and daughters of God by adoption. God wants to make us like Jesus.

This is why, in our reading this morning, John says that “everyone who has faith that Jesus is the Messiah has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.” When we know and love Jesus, we know and love his father. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Before, we did not know God, but now we know him, because we have met Jesus. And Jesus gives us this commandment: That we love one another. 

God’s commandments are not a heavy burden. When we listen to God, when we follow his commandments, he frees us to love one another as brothers and sisters. He empowers us to become children of God. We participate in Jesus’ triumph over the powers of darkness and death. Standing in the faith of Jesus, we experience the victory that conquers the world.

The last verse of John’s words to us this morning are a little strange. He says that Jesus came by water and blood – “not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.” What is John talking about here?

These are the kind of verses that generate a lot of discussions among theologians. How does this passage relate to Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus, in John 3, when Jesus teaches that everyone must be born of water and the Spirit? Is John talking about the relationship of water baptism and spiritual baptism – the spirit and the flesh? Is this a reference to the water and blood that came from Jesus’ side as he died on the cross?

Maybe.

But when I read these words this morning, I am reminded of what birth is like. Real, actual, non-metaphorical birth. When George, and Francis, and Amos were born, it was messy. There was a lot of water. There was blood. It was kind of scary. It wasn’t clear what was going to happen, even though we had trained people with us to help us. Because birth is uncertain, even dangerous.

And so when I hear John saying to us that Jesus is “the one who came by water and blood… not with the water only but with the water and the blood,” I can only say, “amen.” That’s how birth is. Watery. Bloody. Scary. Amazing.

I think of Jesus on the cross, and the victory that he won there: Over the world, over the power of sin, death, and the devil. Was that a kind of birth?

What does this birth mean for us? What does it mean for us, as his brothers and sisters by adoption? What does it mean for us as we obey his commandments? As we become more and more like him. How is God calling us to be born, “not with the water only, but with the water and the blood”?

This sounds scary. It sounds painful. But we don’t have to be afraid, because the one giving birth to us is God. The one caring for us, acting as midwife, is the Holy Spirit. We can trust our mother. We can trust the midwife. We can trust our brother Jesus, who has shown us the way and gives us power to be born again, triumphing over all the confusion, and pain, and obstacles that hold us in the darkness.

We know we love God when we love one another. We conquer the world when we trust that Jesus is the Son of God. 

Because Jesus was born, we can be, too. Because Jesus died, we can live. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we can become sons and daughters of God, coming through the water and the blood. 

The Spirit is the one that testifies, and the Spirit is the truth.