Sunday, June 12, 2011

God Loves You. You are Loved. Come and See.

Acts 2: 1-21

Happy birthday to you all, and happy birthday to every church in the world! Today is the celebration of the birth of the church! Pentecost, when the flame of the Holy Spirit came to each of the followers of Jesus, and all of the followers of Christ spoke in the native languages of the people who stood around them watching what happened.

It’s a great story, one of renewal and new promise. These followers of Christ, as you remember, had kind’ve been in hiding since Jesus was crucified. They certainly weren’t carrying around coffee mugs and wearing t-shirts that said they were followers of Jesus Christ in those days. They were wounded. They were traumatized by what had happened, and by the seeming death of their dreams. They were fearful of those around them, because after all, some of these people may have been the ones who were in the mob crying for the death of Jesus. It was a scary time.

But even when they were scared, they remember Jesus saying “stay in Jerusalem until the promise of God” comes. So they did.

So they stayed there, kept a low profile, nursed their wounds, worried a little, I’m sure, but did all of the things that a community does to take care of itself. They replaced Judas in the leadership team with Matthias. They fed themselves, housed themselves, and cared for their widows, took care of their orphans. And they went to the temple.

So then one day comes, when they are together in one place. Acts says that they were in a house, but I always think of this huge painting of the Pentecost event in (Big D) Dallas that I always think of in this story, that has them in a portion of the temple that wasn’t especially holy, and that the Holy Spirit comes to them in a very public way (funny how our Bible interpretation is colored by pop culture, isn't it? How many people still understand the creation of the 10 Commandments through the eyes of Cecil B. DeMille?). The Holy Spirit did exist before this-there are occurrences of what we can call the Spirit of God throughout the Hebrew Bible, and it was the tool of Jesus to heal at a distance, as well as those he touched up close. The Holy Spirit descended like a dove at Jesus' baptism, too. But this is a very public occurrence; the rush of wind, the sound of it, the roar of it, attracts a crowd, and these tongues of fire came to each person who was a follower of Christ.

And they speak in the languages of everyone around them who had gathered in that crowd. Now, these followers of Christ weren’t linguistic scholars. Some were learned, some could read, but the average person in that time couldn’t, and the average person had perhaps never traveled any further than Jerusalem from their hometowns. They generally spoke Aramaic, and those who could read probably could speak Hebrew, the language of the Scriptures. And yet they were speaking the languages of people hundreds of miles away, even thousands. It would be like us never traveling any farther from here than Tunkhannock, or maybe Wilkes Barre or Scranton. And yet, without any study, we all of a sudden can all speak Spanish, French, Chinese, or Arabic.

That’s how weird this was. And everyone knew it was weird. It was obviously a supernatural event, and a very public one at that.

As Keanu Reeves is famous for saying, “Whoa.”

Now, what do you think these people were saying? Acts tells us that everybody standing around them could hear their own languages, but Acts doesn’t tell us what they said. They probably said things like “what the heck?” and “this is amazing!” and “This is what we were told to wait for!” Perhaps some of them even said “whoa.”

And Peter takes the opportunity, while everyone around him can understand him anyway, in this moment, to tell them about Christ. It's the first sermon about the risen Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit, ever, so he kind of has to start at the beginning. But he does get to the point, which is; “y’all see these flames? Y’all hear this wind? Y’all hear us ordinary folk speaking in your languages, even though we’ve never been there? Yeah. That’s the power of this God we believe in, that’s the power of this Jesus that was killed a couple months ago. You see, he isn’t dead. And when he was here, he told us about the love of God. Now we’re able to tell you, in your own language, because he sent this wind, sent these flames, sent this power of language. Come, be forgiven for everything you’ve ever done, and know the love of God.”

Come. Be forgiven for everything you’ve ever done. Come learn that you are loved by God, because you are one of God’s own children.

Acts doesn’t say what it is that the followers of Jesus said to each other in that moment, but I’d like to imagine that, while they had the power to speak to those who were around them, they shared the simple message, God loves you. You are loved. I know, it’s hard to believe, but come and see.

God loves you. You are loved. Come and see.

The rest of Acts is story after story after story of people traveling, writing, Philip running up to chariots, and Stephen dying under hails of stones, to tell this story, deliver this message.

God loves you. You are loved. Come and see.
We, as the church, exist to deliver this message. Everything we do should be pointed toward delivering this message.

Folks, we too have been through a hard time. You know what has happened to me and my family. You all have shared in that pain, in that woundedness. We’ve all had other hard times in our lives, as well, and we are all marked by them. We are all wounded. We are all hurt, somehow. But God loves us in that woundedness, and wants us to be whole, in love. God wants us to grow in love, and have our lives be public examples of the healing power of love. God wants us to be graceful, compassionate, forgiving, with each other, with ourselves, and with the whole world.

God wants us to share the same message that the Disciples and followers learned-God loves you, you are loved, come and see.

And we can deliver that same message now, in this time, in our lives. With our lives. Sometimes we can use words, but our greatest testimony isn’t what we say, it’s what we do.

So go, and like those early followers, deliver that message with your lives.

God loves you, you are loved, come and see.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Doing what We’re Told

Acts 1:1-11

Today is Ascension Sunday, which is the last Sunday of the Easter Season. Next week is Pentecost, which begins the long church season of “ordinary Time”, or “Kingdomtide”. The paraments hung in front of the pulpit and lectern will be green, except for the Sundays of Communion, when they will be white. And that will continue all the way to the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Ascension celebrates the occurrence in the bible that we heard read just now, the bodily ascension of Jesus out of the sight of the disciples. It’s only reported by Luke. In the Gospel of Mark, the most reliable ending of the book, at chapter 16:8, leaves the women running away in terror, and it is only a later, tacked on ending (according to the scholars) that talks about Jesus’ being raised to heaven.

Much energy has been spent about why this particular occurrence is important. I remember one energetic young man when I was in college insisting to the point of fanaticism that if you don’t believe that Jesus ascended into heaven bodily, meaning that his actual body rose into heaven until it was no longer in sight, and that he is sitting in a physical chair on God’s right side right now, you are not a Christian. I wasn’t knowledgeable enough back then, nor brave enough either, probably, to ask him if that meant that John and Matthew weren’t really Christian.

It’s always been comforting to me to find out, in the midst of differences, to figure out what the four Gospels have in common. And in this story, in the time between Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit in Pentecost (which also only appears in Acts), what all four gospels have in common is a propulsion toward service.

In today’s passage, which is generally understood to be the continuation of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the Disciples that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes to you, and you will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth.” Then he rises into the air, and they stand there, gawking, mouths open, like I think anyone who had just seen such a thing would do. Two men in white robes, who weren’t there before say to them “Hey, why are you still standing here? He’ll be back, just the same way you saw him leave”.

Matthew ends with the Disciples joining Jesus on a high mountain, and his telling them “go and Make Disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
Mark, in the tacked on longer ending, which is verses 9-20 in many Bibles, he also sends them out to heal, and exorcise demons, and do other stuff.
John ends with a series of appearances of Jesus to the Disciples, and the last thing he says to Peter is to not worry about others’ paths, but for him to follow me.

If Good Friday can be a day to think about the seven last words of Jesus before his death, Ascension Sunday is a day to think about the Last words of Jesus after the resurrection, the last words Jesus says in each Gospel, even a less than reliable, tacked on statement.

Go and Make Disciples.

Follow Me.

You will be my Witnesses.

In a very clear sense, we are in the same boat as those early disciples and followers. We live in the same in-between time that they did, we have received the Holy Spirit, but we are waiting for his return. And, like them, sometimes we need to be reminded what it is we should be doing while we’re waiting.

The people of God are a people who are waiting to see the return of Jesus, and are not afraid. It’s interesting to me to note that most of the hue and cry about the predicted Rapture a couple of weeks ago was generated by people without understanding of the Christian faith, and people who believe in the Rapture. The majority of Christians, including most of us here today, watched with gentle amusement, or were, frankly, completely oblivious to it. Our actions and faith are not motivated by the fear of Jesus’ return, and we don’t necessarily care how he returns. We believe in him, and we have our commands.

Go and Make Disciples.

Follow Me.

You will be my Witnesses.

Let the world do what it will, let them spin themselves up and get all kinds of excited over the latest thing, the latest false prophet with an advertising budget.

We will continue to serve Christ in the way that we were told, by our mothers and fathers, our teachers and our preachers. We will do what we were told, and when Jesus comes back, in peace, in love, and in glory, and for the whole world at the same time, we will be found doing what the last words we have recorded from him say.

Go and Make Disciples.

Follow Me.

You will be my Witnesses.

May it be so for us all, in all the ways we can think of.