Monday, May 31, 2010

God's Invasion: His Fullness

Preached May 30, 2010, Trinity Sunday

Scripture Readings: Acts 2:22-41; John 16:5-16

There was something going on in the streets of Jerusalem during the Jewish festival of Pentecost. The disciples had been praying together in one of the houses of Jerusalem. The first chapter of Acts tells us who would have been there: the apostles, the women, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the brothers of Jesus, and perhaps others. (Acts 2:1; Acts 1:13-14)

A sound of rushing wind filled the room and there was fire in the air coming to rest upon them. It was as if they were human candles or human torches, and they began speaking in languages that they did not know.

They went out into the crowded holiday street and there were people in the crowd, on that street, who understood them. Some of the people on the street heard them describing what they called, “the wonders of God”. Other people on the street only heard giddy babbling and said, “These people are drunk!”

Have you ever heard of people who don’t like it when other people are happy? They criticize it, or try to put a wet blanket on it. The fact that other people knew something about the wonders of God, that they didn’t, put them on the spot. They had nothing to compete with it. This made them intensely unhappy, and they could only be happy again by finding fault with the joy of others.

Still there were these wonders of God. What were they? Peter explained what these wonders were. They had to do with Jesus. They were what Jesus had poured out. They would have been the things that had lately happened with him.

Some of the things seemed absolutely horrible, and others seemed impossible; unless God could do such things. Could God do such things?

Jesus had been hated by the authorities, and their hatred had grown until they couldn’t stop themselves from arresting him. He had been put on trial in a mockery of the law. He had been presented to a manipulated crowd during the Passover festival, and denounced by them. He had been falsely condemned, beaten, and whipped, and killed on a cross. Jesus’ bloody body had been laid to rest in the cool darkness of a tomb, and Jesus had risen from death to life on the third day.

Then Jesus spent those wonderful weeks with his disciples. Then he had taken them out of the city walls, to a quiet place, where he went up into the sky and disappeared in the clouds. Angels told them that Jesus would come back the same way they had seen him leave. These were the wonders of God.

Peter said that all these things were the doing of God; the work of God. “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.” (Acts 2:32-33)

Then Peter did a strange thing. He accused his audience of being guilty of crucifying Jesus. This was probably not true, but they believed it anyway. They knew where they had been and had not been. They knew what they had done and had not done. Jerusalem had many holy festivals and the calendar made Jerusalem a revolving door of religious crowds; people on pilgrimage. One crowd would stay the week of Passover and go back to their homes, only to be replaced by a new crowd who decided to come to Jerusalem for Pentecost, fifty days later.

Some of the Passover crowd had helped crucify Jesus. The Pentecost crowd came after the fact, but they somehow knew that the events of the cross and the resurrection included them, even so. In the same way those events include us and everyone in the world.

Jesus had said this would happen. Jesus had said that, even when he seemed to be gone from their sight, the Holy Spirit would “convict the world of guilt.” (John 16:8) The Holy Spirit would take the work of Jesus and make a powerful statement of it all in the consciences and hearts of those who would hear the message.

The injustice and the sin that were laid on Jesus on the cross would become the injustice and sin felt in the heart of those who heard the message. The wrongness of not believing in a God who would take upon himself the sins of the world would come home to the conscience and heart of those who heard. The righteousness of the one who had identified himself with us on the cross, and rose from the dead to give life to the world, going up to heaven to command the world (the truth that this was good and right) would sink into the conscience and heart of those who heard. The clear failure of the devil, the so-called prince of this world, in his effort to defeat God by capturing the human race in sin; and the power and beauty of God’s way of dealing with this sin, and setting us free, and giving us new life would be brought home to the conscience and hearts of those who heard. The Holy Spirit would have the power to convict and convince the conscience and the heart of those who heard the message.

In Jesus, sin, and death, and the devil got their proper judgment. The Holy Spirit would shine his light on the hearts and minds of those who heard, so that they could see the truth and be changed by it.

When Peter told the crowd that what they were seeing and hearing had been poured out by Jesus, he meant that our knowing our need for Jesus, and our knowing how Jesus has met our need, was being poured out that day. The crowd at Pentecost had not crucified Jesus, but their part in the injustice and sin of the world had crucified Jesus. It was not true that they had shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” and yet they had. We all have. And we all find grace, and life, and freedom through Jesus standing for us, dying for us, rising for us.

And this all goes together with the strange way Jesus describes his presence. He says he is going away and neither this world we live in nor we ourselves will see him, and yet we will see him, and the Holy Spirit will bring Jesus and his Father to us. “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.” “The Spirit will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.” (John 16:16 and 16:14-15)

All this tells us essential things about our selves and the world we live in. Although we live in a world of many conflicting and confusing messages, we also live in a world where God is speaking; where Jesus is speaking, through the Holy Spirit, and the Father is speaking too.

We live in a world where we can see Jesus. Seeing by faith is not sightless seeing. Through Jesus we live in a vast mystery every day, living in the presence of the fullness of God. The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit are always there to make themselves known to us.

This means that we do not live for Jesus, or live for God. We live in Jesus. We live in God: the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

We don’t only speak for God. We speak in a chorus of voices; the voices of our brothers and sisters in the Lord, and also in chorus with the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

We are never alone as individuals. And the church is never alone. This also means we must stop thinking and acting as if we were on our own, and as if we have to hold on for dear life to what we have got. We can be free. We can let go. We can take up a cross and follow Jesus because we are not walking somewhere behind him at all. And we are far more than with him. We are in him, and he is in us. Through Christ we are “filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:19)

We can know this and live this, because Jesus has poured it out upon us and upon our world.

Monday, May 24, 2010

God's Invasion: Heaven Comes Down

Preached on Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2010

Scripture Readings: Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-20, 23-27

A minister, a priest, and a rabbi stood along the side of a winding canyon road with signs that read: “The end is near. Repent and turn back!” They waved and yelled at the first car that came by. The driver opened his window and shook his fist at them, “Leave me alone, you fanatics!” After the car rounded the curve they heard the squealing of tires, and a crash, and the rabbi said, “Do you think we should have made signs that just said, “Bridge out”?

The first Pentecost was confusing, too; and, more than confusing, it was mysterious. There was the sound of a wind, but was there an actual wind? What was the sound that drew the crowd? Did the crowd in the street see and hear what the disciples saw and heard; or did they only see and hear the disciples? What did they have to go by?

All of the mysteries of the first Pentecost have something to tell us: the wind, the fire, the languages, the message of the wonders of God, and the people who heard the message and called on the name of the Lord and received the Lord into their lives as a result of it. Sometimes the wonders of Pentecost are described as part of what we call the birthday of the Church. Sometimes I have called them that. And yet it seems misleading.

Your birthday is your special day. It is the day when the attention is on you. Your birthday is all about you.

Pentecost is not about us at all, except that it is about what God intends for us to be and do. Pentecost is the anniversary of God pouring out his Spirit on all flesh; or, at least, it is the beginning of that. Peter says that the great thing about what God was doing that day was this: “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my spirit on all people.’” (Acts 2:16-17; Joel 2:28-32)

This talks about God making himself accessible and approachable to everyone, as well as empowering them. The last days (as the Bible talks about them) are the time when God does justice, and sets all things right. God restores all things to their intended purposes. It is a time for judgment. It is also a time for healing and grace. This gift of accessibility, approachability, and empowerment are part of the healing and grace of God making us human beings what we ought to be; God’s real children.

God made himself accessible and approachable, and empowering through the gift of becoming human in Jesus, and through the gift of taking our sins and death upon himself on the cross, and through conquering sin and death by rising from the dead.

When God did this in Christ, he began a new day. God set in motion the day of the Lord; the beginning of the last days, when all things are to be made new. The day of the Lord began on that first day of Pentecost and it continues onward to this time; and, so, it is a very long day indeed.

The day of the Lord is the movement of the kingdom of God coming to earth as it is in heaven. Heaven is the place where God is; where the beauty of the Lord is visible, and where it is seen in his creatures.

Our first Pentecost was the beginning of earth becoming a place like heaven; a place where it is easy to tell the mighty acts of the Lord and to see those acts in your own life and in the lives of others. This is what was happening that day of Pentecost.

A foretaste, a first installment, of heaven: in a sense Pentecost is like the world of heaven becoming a practical experience on earth. It is heaven invading earth.
One of the signs of the last days was the existence of people from all nations who were filled with the Spirit of God. Peter told the crowd that this was what they were seeing on that street in Jerusalem.

By the time of Jesus and his disciples, Pentecost was a Jewish feast or festival that celebrated the giving of the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. But, all along, it had also been a harvest festival called “The First Fruits”.

When anything began to be harvested, a token of the beginning of that crop was given to the Lord. That was the first fruits of that particular harvest.

But there was a special week, in the Jewish year, which represented all the harvests of the world. That was the time when the first sheaves of wheat were to be offered; and that was during what became known as Pentecost. (Leviticus 23: 9-21; Numbers 28:26-31)

The crowd would have understood that Pentecost was the feast of the harvest. They also would have understood the last days, the day of the Lord, as the final harvest of the world and the human race.

In light of what they saw, and in light of what Peter said, they would have understood that the harvest of the last days was not being finished before their eye, but it was beginning before their eyes; and Peter, and his friends, and his hearers were part of the first fruits of the harvest. As far as we know, we are also part of the first fruits of that harvest that will be finished at a time known only to God.

The point is that the Holy Spirit is meant to dwell in us, in its fullness, so that we can be signs of what God intends to do. We are designed to be signs of what the kingdom of God will be when it comes. We are designed to be signs of hope and promise. The role of the Holy Spirit in our lives is given to make this possible, to make us this sign hope and promise in the world. Every gesture of our lives, every gesture and action of the church, is meant to be a sign of the kingdom of God, a sign of salvation, as sign of grace, and access to God.

When Jesus was talking to the disciples about sending them the Holy Spirit (who is also known as the Counselor, or Comforter) Jesus told them that he would not leave then as orphans. He would come to them. (John 14:18)

This is not a promise that is separate from the Holy Spirit. This living presence of Jesus is part of the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit is the gift of Jesus, and Jesus is the gift of the Spirit. And this is part of what he means when he says, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Let not your hearts be trouble, and do not be afraid.” (John 14:18, 27)

Through the Holy Spirit we carry Jesus in us. We carry within us, and among us, the king of the Kingdom of God. We are the advance forces of the invasion of the Kingdom of God. We are part of heaven’s invasion of the world. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the last days (for the past two thousand years till now and beyond) means that there are countless little Jesuses walking around and living all over this planet, doing the work of Jesus, because we carry Jesus in us: not Jesus the meek and mild, but Jesus the King.

This is why Jesus said we would do greater works than he did. Jesus glorified his Father and his Father glorified him. (John 17:1) Now (even though Jesus is only invisibly present) there are men and women, old people and children, who glorify the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, because the Spirit makes all the fullness of God to live in them.

In the world, as it is, it is hard to see the fullness of God at work. In fact, we seem to see just the opposite. We don’t see the human race and the people around us living in patterns that show the fullness of God.

The time for the visible presence of the fullness of God has not come yet. But the church is called to share with the world the kingdom of God that lives and works through Christ.

We witness to this kingdom by being the kingdom in its first installment. We are to be a family, a tribe, a band of little Jesuses; really living like Jesus, in a world that seems to contradict everything we know about him. And we have been given the power of the Holy Spirit to live and speak in ways that contradict the spirit of the world we live in.

If this is to really happen, if this is what we really are called to be, then something fundamentally radical has to happen. We have to have something different in us. Jesus has to give us something that the world cannot give. We have to have something in us as surprising and strange as wind and fire; something that the world cannot give. We have to have the Spirit of the living God blowing and burning in us, and through us.

In fact the church can only exist as a result of Pentecost. The church can only be the living witness to Jesus that it is called to be when the power of the Holy Spirit is given to it. (Acts 1:8) Otherwise we don’t have much to offer.

Would we see Jesus in us if we were looking at ourselves through others’ eyes? When we make choices, when we set our course, do we ask, “What would Jesus do?” If we seriously and faithfully, and sacrificially consider this, we are on the right course. By the power of the Holy Spirit, this makes us the church.

In a sense, we are not the church. The church is what we let God make of us. What we really bring to God, in the church, is mostly our sins, and our repentance, and our prayers, and our surrender, and the offering up of our lives to God in Christ. The rest of the church is what God does with us and through us.

Tom Wright (N.T. Wright) is a great, faithful Biblical thinker of our time, and he says this about the lesson of Pentecost: “The point is to transform the earth with the power of heaven, starting with those parts of ‘earth’ which consist of the bodies, minds, hearts, and lives of the followers of Jesus, as a community…” (“Acts for Everyone: Part One” pp 22-23)

If the hearers in the crowd figured out anything, it was that the spiritual leaders of Israel, and the secular leaders of Rome, were no friends of this group of happy, babbling fishers and villagers. The odds were long against them. The world would be against them. But something they could not see, or hear, or touch said, “This is the place to be. This is the Day of the Lord, call on the name of the Lord.”

To be honest, the apparent odds are against us too. The times we live in seem to be against us. Our mission depends not on the odds but on listening to what the Holy Spirit is saying to us as his church. We are blessed to be living in times like these, when we cannot live confidently as Christians by sheer force of habit. We can only be confident by faith.

That puts us back with those first disciples who knew that they were living in the Day of the Lord when anyone could call on the name of the Lord and be saved. We can call upon the Lord and find that he has made himself accessible to us and to everyone, and that this is the message of the good news of Jesus.

Monday, May 17, 2010

God's Invasion: Horizon-Sighted

Preached at Kahlotus United Methodist Church, May 16, 2010.
Scripture Readings:
Acts 11:19-26; John 12:17-33

When I was a child it became clear that I had some vision problems. When I was ten, I realized that other kids in my class didn’t have to squint to see what was on the blackboard.

I found out that I was near-sighted. I remember struggling with the concept of being near-sighted; that being near-sighted meant you couldn’t see far, and being far-sighted meant you couldn’t see near.

Early on, I had another vision problem. It seemed as if I was always tripping over things, and bumping into things. When my dad saw me do this, he would order me: “Watch where you’re going.”

And he was right. I wasn’t looking where I was going at all. I was usually looking somewhere else; or probably not looking at anything in the real world. I was (and am) an incurable daydreamer.

Near-sightedness can be treated by wearing eye-glasses, or contacts, or (nowadays) laser surgery. After almost fifty years my glasses are almost a part of me. I would be a different person if I didn’t wear glasses.

We live in a part of the world where most vision problems can be corrected. A lot of us need this kind of correction.

On the other hand, I have never found a correction to my incurable day dreaming. I go around oblivious to a lot of things that are going on around me. This could be dangerous. On the other hand there may be times when a person who is seeing things that other people are not seeing can be helpful.

There is a kind of spiritual vision that comes from our being created in God’s image, and that also comes from our being reclaimed by God: coming into God’s ownership and being transformed by the love of God entering our lives through Jesus. Through the life of Christ, through his dying for us on the cross, through his rising from the dead in power, we die to our dysfunctional and selfish self, and we live a new life of forgiveness, and grace, and the wisdom and power of the Lord. And we learn to go around seeing what a lot of other people don’t see.

We have a wide range of sight. We have a spiritual near-sight that gives us an understanding of personal life: our need for God, our purpose in God’s plan as part of his kingdom and his new creation, the quality of our close relationships, the issues of the part of our world that is nearest and dearest to us.

And then there is a spiritual far-sight that enables us to understand the sending nature of God pushing us, pulling us, calling us beyond our normal field of vision. Our spiritual far-sight not only enables us to be aware of the things that are part of the larger world. Our spiritual far-sight enables us to see the things that are far from our heart.

Something that wasn’t important to us in our family, our church, our community, our world becomes important when our spiritual vision is corrected. We become sent: sent to that cause or that issue.

When our far-sight is corrected, people outside our normal range of living (even if they live within sight of us), people we see but we do not know them by name, people who just move in other circles, people with whom we have quarreled and from whom we have become light-years’ distant, all come into the range of this spiritual far-sight. All of this comes near to us. All of this becomes important because spiritual nearness is a matter of seeing.

The disciples were spiritually near-sighted. They saw Jesus, and the gospel, and the kingdom of God, and the gift of the Holy Spirit as something that mainly involved themselves and their own people (the people of Israel). They were comfortable sticking to the people who were most like them, with whom they had the most in common, with whom they got on the best.

They needed corrected vision. Unless we are better than the disciples, we are in the same boat and need the same correction.

Jesus told his disciples and us about his pattern for correcting their vision and ours. In the first scene of the Book of Acts, Jesus said: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Some of the disciples who heard Jesus say these words probably never went any where. They probably died in Jerusalem. They were probably killed in Jerusalem. And so they were planted there, and they bloomed where they were planted. But they were also people who heard Jesus’ words of sending.

No matter how planted you may be, you are always “sent”. Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, gives you near-sight to be witnesses to the world right under your nose. But even the people and issues that exist right under your nose may be spiritually a million miles away.

By the miraculous power of God (and we must realize that when we are dealing with the Holy Spirit we are living in the realm of the supernatural, we are living in the world of miracles), by the miraculous power of God the issues and people that seemed so far from our concern, even though we live in their vicinity and work around them every day, become close. They become our mission. They become the place for our giving and our sacrifice, as witnesses for Jesus.

Jesus told his disciples to see the movement from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth not as something that might apply to others but as something that applied to them. It was as if Jesus gave them a picture of the ripple effect, not as if they were a drop or molecule of water lifted by the ripple and almost at once set down again, but as if they were in the very force that went outward from the center.

In your personal spiritual growth and in your growth in ministry (because each one of us has a ministry or many ministries) there is this ripple effect that Jesus talked about. You can stay in one place and travel millions of miles spiritually in your growth in wisdom and faith. You can stay planted in one place and travel millions of miles spiritually in your awareness of God calling you to service here, to the people here.

I think that the more we know of Jesus the more we are aware of not just the ripple effect that raises you and moves on, but we are aware of the ripple force that carries us on and on.

In the case of the earliest disciples in the Book of Acts, they had to be persecuted into this ripple force. They are examples to us of how it is our very nature to miss the clear calling of Jesus, and how God must drive us to it. It is as if we will never do it until we are driven. And so, the more we know of Jesus the more likely we will ask ourselves what we are missing. Is God letting us stick in our near-sightedness? Have we not let the power of the Holy Spirit take us the millions of miles we need to go in our ministry, even right at our very doorstep.

If we were to think over Jesus’ words about “to the ends of the earth” from a purely human point of view, we would know he was talking about something that went so against our nature that it is something simply impossible for us. But, since we are talking about the words of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, it challenges our faith and makes us ask what the Lord wants us to do that we don’t want to do?

No one knows better than I do that I shouldn’t be in the ministry. My earliest remembrance of calling to the ministry came when I was twelve years old. It was the very last thing I really wanted to do. I have always been extremely shy and awkward. I knew this calling would be impossible for me, and that I could never manage it. I could never survive the simple ordeal of it.

Anyone who knew me as a child or as a teenager would have agreed with me. Some people who know me now may very well agree with me. I had to be carried a million miles spiritually in order to even try to do what I do.

For us, life, as planetary beings, means that our horizons are the normal natural limit of our vision. We don’t see beyond our horizon just as we don’t see around corners. It’s the same principle.

The far-sight of Jesus sees beyond our horizons. The “ends of the earth” of the non-Jewish world were over the horizon for the disciples. It wasn’t only a distance measured by physical miles. It was a distance of seeming spiritual impossibility.

Where we stand is the center of a circle of vision. The circle, or the circumference, moves when we move.

For the disciples, the center of their circle, the center of their spiritual vision and universe was Jerusalem. They thought Jesus was going to Jerusalem, the center of their universe, to begin his rule as king. But in the Gospel of John a strange thing happens. Jesus felt he was ready to establish his kingdom not because he stood at the center, but because the horizon came to meet him, because the Greeks came to meet him. (John 12:20-23)

The Greeks were people who lived beyond their horizon, even though they didn’t live all that far away in physical miles. The Greeks were some of the people at the ends of the earth spiritually from the disciples and from Jesus; and at last the ends of the earth came to the center. And Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:23)

Jesus is horizon-sighted. He is sees the people who live off the edges of our map. The power of the Holy Spirit has a job description and part of that job is to bring what is over our horizon to a place right under our noses.

We can only truly understand the sending nature of the kingdom of God, of which we are a part, if we ask about our own horizon-sightedness. Who do I not want to talk to or deal with? What don’t I want to do? How do I need to bend? Where do I need to give in? What is unthinkable for me? What is impossible for me?

We are supposed to have a full range of vision, and use that full range.

We have to look nearest to us in order to know who we are, and who and what we are comfortable with. We have gifts and ministries for our near-sight. It is not an absolute rule that God only calls us to what is hard and unwelcome. He gives us ministries that give us peace and pleasure.

But God is also a sending God; a God who makes us look beyond our horizon.
In Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. Christ means king. “Christians” means “The King’s People”. They were always talking and acting like they belonged to someone they called “The Christ”, “The King”.

The ancient disciples were not the ones to call themselves Christians. It was a nickname that came to them from outside the church, and it wasn’t a complementary nickname. It was a nickname that poked fun at a strange group of comically obsessed people who made strenuous efforts to live lives that stood up for the nature and personality of someone they called the Christ, the King.

The name Christian came to them (and ought to come to us) from outside the church. The name of Christian should reflect how we are seen by others. They should call us by this name, first, because they misunderstand us and, then, because they see Christ in us.

We are the people who are beyond the horizon of some people who see us every day. Just as in the days of the ancient church in Antioch, we can only expect to be truly named as Christians if we cross over into the lives of those other people by crossing over our own horizon and over their horizon to meet them.

It may not be a distance of many miles, physically. But it may be a journey of light-years, spiritually. We are not wrong to be in awe of the distance to be travelled. We are not wrong to be apprehensive about the effort, and the changes, that the journey we make to meet them will require of us.

Of course it’s scary. Of course it’s unwelcome. But it puts us on the course that Jesus himself has set for us. Making that journey, riding that outward rising wave, acquiring the horizon-sightedness of Jesus, is the clearest course to a great name: the name of Christian.

Monday, May 10, 2010

God's Invasion: Breaking Barriers

Preached Sunday, May 9, 2010

Scripture Readings: Acts 8:1b-25; John 4:4-30

A little boy handed his mother the Mothers’ Day card he had made all by himself, and he gave her a big hug and said, “Mommy I love you from my bottom to my heart!”

Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman and the disciples preaching Christ to the Samaritans, and laying hands of prayer upon them, are examples of the law of love in the kingdom of God. Jesus’ talking with the Samaritan woman was for the purpose of giving her life in that kingdom. But, as soon as Jesus began talking with her, she came under the influence of the laws of that kingdom, because Jesus is the king of the kingdom of God and you cannot come into his presence without feeling the pressure of the laws of his kingdom, and the center of that law is love, from your bottom to your heart.

The Samaritan woman at the well found that law of the kingdom, and the pressure of that law, to be shocking: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” And John explains her shock this way: “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (John 4:9) By simply talking to her and, more than that, by asking her for help, Jesus was dismantling ancient barriers of conflict, and envy, and distrust, and prejudice.

The Jews and the Samaritans were enemies. There was a long history behind this hatred, going back hundreds of years.

The conflict was ethnic, and spiritual, and political. It was ethnic because the Samaritans were of mixed ethnicity. They belonged to the northern tribes of Israel, but they had intermarried with the other tribes that had been settled in their land after the northern kingdom of Israel had been conquered seven hundred years before the time of Jesus.

The people of Israel had been told by God not to mix with other people. The Jews considered the Samaritans to be “half-breeds” and, as such, the descendents of traitors; as good as traitors themselves.

The holy book of the Samaritans was essentially the same Torah that the Jews read: the first five books of our Old Testament. But they didn’t recognize the other Jewish scriptures, the Old Testament books that were written later: the Psalms and the Prophets and the histories of the Old Testament.

The Samaritans had built themselves a temple of their own that a Jewish army had destroyed during the century before Jesus. The Jews and the Samaritans considered each other to be heretics, betrayers of the truth about God.

By talking to the Samaritan woman and offering her the living water that would well up to eternal life, Jesus was dismantling the barrier of a long history of hostility.
And then Jesus broke the barrier between men and women by simply talking to the woman. The rabbis said: “One should not talk with a woman on the street, not even with his own wife, and certainly not with somebody else’s wife, because of the gossip of men,” and, “It is forbidden to give a woman any greeting.” (In “The Message of John” by Bruce Milne, p 83)

By talking to the Samaritan woman Jesus dismantled the barrier of the status of gender in the kingdom of God. Jesus made this disreputable woman into an apostle to her town. She led her whole community to Jesus. (John 4:39)

Later on, her community told her that they didn’t need her witness any more (4:42), but that was a good thing. There is no greater success in the kingdom of God than to work oneself self out of a job.

Jesus broke down the barrier of sin and guilt. Jesus didn’t need to be told about this woman he had just met. He knew how she had failed in life (married five times) and he knew how, in her failure, she had given up on even pretending to be able to live in the faithful, loving commitment of marriage.

In her conversation with Jesus, the woman was mocking, and manipulative, and dishonest; and, one by one, Jesus tore down all the defenses she had raised against seeing the truth about herself. He tore down all the defenses she had raised again letting the truth and power of God into her heart.

Jesus told her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (4:10) Later on, in the seventh chapter of John (7:37-39), Jesus makes the same offer to a whole crowd of listeners; “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” And John explains this and says: “By this he meant the Spirit whom those who believed in him were later to receive.”

The living water stands for the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the person of God working to bring home to us the experience of the fullness of God. The Holy Spirit is the person of God making our relationship with God into a fully personal relationship. In the sixteenth chapter of John, Jesus says this about the Holy Spirit: “He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.” (16:14-15)

By the time Jesus was finished talking with the Samaritan woman, he had opened the spiritual door to her heart. She understood herself, and she saw who Jesus was, and she received the gift to bring others to him, even though they were the very neighbors and relatives who knew everything about her.

Because the Holy Spirit was at work, they listened to her even though their contempt for her was the reason why she came to the well at midday, when the desert sun beat its hottest, instead of in the morning when all those neighbors fetched their water in the cool of the day. The Holy Spirit broke down the barriers between her and them.

Jesus came to die for us to take away our sin and our guilt. But even before his cross he brought forgiveness and cleansing of guilt to those who came to him. Even then his forgiveness was powerful and life changing. Her neighbors found themselves listening to a changed woman; a new, eager, and tender soul.

Jesus dismantled the barriers. This was his work as the king of the kingdom of God. The law and order of his kingdom was the law of love. This law of love, even before the cross, not only made this woman his child. It made her a sister to those with whom she shared her faith. This was the power of the “living water” welling up to eternal life.

This was the work of the Holy Spirit empowering the kingdom of God in the hearts of the people who received and trusted Jesus. The work of the Holy Spirit is the same work as the work of Jesus. It is to dismantle barriers: the barriers between us and God, and the barriers between us and other people.

In the Book of Acts we see the same thing going on. The believers in Jesus are mostly in Jerusalem, the Jewish capital; and, when a persecution breaks out against them, they run for their lives. And yet, even on the run, they don’t forget to trust Jesus and share him with others. They do this even when their path of escape takes them through the enemy territory of Samaria.

Samaria was just a day’s walk or so from Jerusalem, but they had never gone there before to share Jesus with the Samaritans. The persecution was the Spirit’s motivation to get the believers to go where they were supposed to be. Jesus told them, before he ascended into heaven, that they would be his witnesses there.

The Book of Acts was written to tell its readers what Jesus continued to say and do through his Holy Spirit. So Acts tells us how the Spirit worked to break down the barriers that could have developed between the Jewish Christians and the Samaritan Christians. The new believers in Samaria were baptized, but the fullness of the new believers’ experience of the good news seemed incomplete.

Perhaps there seemed to be no gifts of the Spirit. Or perhaps there was no inner transformation. Perhaps there was no gift of prayer. So Peter and John, two of the twelve apostles who remained in Jerusalem in spite of the persecution, came down to Samaria to investigate. They came to the Samaritan church and they were guided to lay their hands in blessing on the heads of the Christians there.

To lay your hand in blessing on the head or shoulder of a brother or sister in Christ is very personal and powerful. And this gave the Samaritan Christians an experience of the fullness of the Spirit, and the fullness of the Father, and the fullness of the Son.

It must be noted that there can be no fullness of the Spirit’s presence when God’s people are not practicing the work of the fullness of the Spirit. The work of the Spirit and the work of the kingdom are the same; to take barriers down.

The Jewish Christians and the Samaritan Christians were the heirs of centuries of conflict and deliberate separation. The odds were that this conflict and separation would continue by sheer laziness.

Ordinary Jewish Christians, like Philip, had shared the good news of Jesus with the Samaritans. That was the gift of love. But was that love enough to truly end the conflict and the separation?

Philip represented the growing foundation of the church. Peter and John represented the top of the church. When Peter and John came to see them, the Samaritans received from their visit the evidence of the law of love from the bottom to the top. The Jewish Christians were saying, “Dearest Samaritans, we love you from our bottom to our heart.”

That is the work of the Holy Spirit. When that work of the Spirit ruled in the laying on of hands, then the fullness of the Spirit and the fullness of God could be present. All was well in the Body of Christ. The Body was one and whole.

God’s invasion (the invasion of the kingdom of God) comes from your bottom to your heart. The Holy Spirit may not change the heart of another person toward you, but you must not forget that the Spirit is given to change you; to make the person and the work of Jesus absolutely real in you toward those other people, without reservation.

Other people may see you as their enemy but, by the Holy Spirit, they are not your enemy. You may oppose what they say and do because they are wrong; but they truly have ceased to be your enemy because of Jesus. Or else, if they are still your enemy, then Jesus commands you to love them, bless them, and pray for them. (Matthew 5:43-45)

But this speaks most of all to the people of God and to those closest to us. This dismantling of barriers relates to churches, and to families, and to communities.

The church in Acts included the Jewish Christians, the Samaritan Christians, and (soon) the Gentile Christians. According to the laws of the kingdom of God they could not truly find the fullness of the Spirit unless they were willing to find each other. We cannot find the fullness of the Holy Spirit until we are willing to find Christ in others or are willing to bring Christ to others, and demonstrate his love to them any way we can.

The Holy Spirit is the power of the kingdom of God. We cannot make the Spirit accomplish what we want, as we want. But we can allow the Spirit to build his kingdom in us and through us to others, as he leads us.

One of the matters of first importance is to know that the Holy Spirit is in the business of dismantling barriers and lifting people up to the good news, and to partnership and ministry. The work of the Holy Spirit is to make absolutely anyone into full fledged people of God and servants of God: witnesses of Jesus who is the king of the kingdom; crucified for us, risen for us, and pouring out his gifts on us.

It is our nature to always see barriers before we see anything else. God wants us to stop visualizing and acting on these barriers. God wants us to see first to the business of taking the barriers down.

Monday, May 3, 2010

God's Invasion: Through Sending Us

Preached Sunday, May 2, 2010

Scripture Readings: Acts 1:1-11; John 20:19-31

At Sunday supper a family discussed the sermon from that morning. It had been about “The Second Coming of Christ.” The teenager had a lot of questions, and the parents did the best they could to answer them, but they were deep and hard questions. The father finally said, “We don’t have all the answers we might like, but we have all we need to know. The best thing is just to live each day as if it were your last.” To which the teenager answered, “Aw come on, Dad; I tried that once, and you grounded me for a month!” (Robert Jarboe, in “Parables’ Etc” July ’93)

The disciples had a lot of questions for Jesus, even after his teaching them for three years, from the time of his baptism to his crucifixion and resurrection. The questions weren’t about his second coming because they didn’t understand, yet, that he was going away and coming again.

Of course he had told them he was going away and coming back, and they should have known it, but there you are. That’s the disciples for you. It’s too bad they weren’t as smart as we are!

Well, maybe they were just as smart as we are. Then where does that put us? That puts us in the place where we can learn from the things that Jesus told those disciples so long ago. It means we need to learn the same things. And that’s a good thing because that’s exactly what the Bible gives us.

It’s obvious that Jesus’ priorities were different from his first disciples’ priorities (meaning our priorities). It’s clear that they were (and we are still) like children on a road trip asking, “Are we there yet?”

Jesus’ first priority, for his first disciples, and for us as disciples, is not for us to arrive, but for us to be sent. That’s his first priority. In the Gospel of John, Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21) And in the Book of Acts, before Jesus left his disciples for heaven, he told them and us, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Jesus often defined himself as one who was sent (Mathew 10:40; 15:24; John 4:34; 7:16 and many others), and that is how he defines us. We are always sent, or ready to be sent. Being “sent” means having a purpose. It means always having a mission.

Mission is a Latin rooted word. The Latin root means “to send” or “a sent thing”.
Jesus sent his disciples and us outward. His priority for us is that we know that we are sent; to think of ourselves as sent people. We are sent on a mission.

In Acts the mission of the first disciples was to begin where they were, in Jerusalem. Some of them would never get any farther in their life. They would die in Jerusalem. But they needed to know that they should be ready for anything, anywhere.
The disciples’ question to Jesus in the Book of Acts is worth looking at. The question and Jesus’ answer clear up some issues that we still have trouble understanding.

The disciples asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

Jesus answered their questions and ours about the time when the plan for the kingdom of God was to be finished. This is the, “Are we there yet?” question. He said, “It is not for you to know the times and the dates the Father has set by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7)

It is not for us to know the times. And in this sense we are not in a different boat than the first disciples. We are not better then they were. We are not wiser, or more holy, or more qualified to know when Jesus is coming to complete the kingdom of God. Nowhere does the Bible say that people coming later in time will be able to know the time.

Knowing the time is not the point. The point is living faithfully as sent people.

Both the Gospel of John and the Book of Acts teach us that being people sent by God in Christ cannot be separated from the Holy Spirit. Jesus always puts together being a person who has been sent with being a person full of the Holy Spirit. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) In John, Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so am I sending you.” And with that he breathed and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them they are not forgiven.” (John 20:21-23)

Part of the nature and experience of the Kingdom of God is the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon God’s people. The Holy Spirit is described by Jesus as the power to be his witnesses. The Holy Spirit is the part of God that brings us, as persons, into the full experience of God as a personal reality. In the sixteenth chapter of John Jesus said, “The Spirit will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.” (John 16:14-15)
In other words the Spirit makes itself real by making everything about Jesus and his Father real for us. The Spirit in all its fullness brings us the Son in all his fullness and the Father in all his fullness. Without the Spirit, we ourselves are not spiritually real; our faith and experience of the Lord are not real, and we cannot be witnesses.

In the verses we read in John, Jesus breathed and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22) It was Jesus’ way of saying that the presence of the Holy Spirit within them came from his true resurrected presence with them; his living breathing presence. In Matthew, Jesus said, “I am with you always.” The living presence of Jesus is the key to the living presence of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:20)

If we have Jesus, we have the Spirit, but we have to make sure that we are going about our lives at the prompting, the timing, the guidance, and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said as much when he told his disciples and us to wait for the Spirit to act.

If we are not obeying the Holy Spirit’s power and direction then, again, our spiritual lives are unreal. We are living out our own independence; not from the life of Christ, and we have nothing of value to say about Jesus. Without the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives we can only talk about ourselves.

Without the waiting and praying linkage of the Holy Spirit the routine of our Christian life and the routine of the church are just routines. They are just activities. They have nothing to do with any witness about Jesus, only about ourselves, and about the church as a social and service club. Jesus warned his disciples and us against the danger of Christian mission and the life of being sent without the reality of the Holy Spirit.

There is another danger. And that is the danger of trying to be spiritual and full of the Holy Spirit without the bother of being sent. As Christians we are tempted to want to sit and cuddle with God. The God who reveals himself in Jesus is a God who takes joy in sending. He himself is sent. God sent himself to us, and he can find no greater honor to give us, as his children, then in sending us to others.

Jerusalem and Judea were the place where the disciples were at the time. This has been used to say that mission must begin where you are. And this is a good lesson. Let’s begin where we are.

But the disciples didn’t want to begin where they were. They didn’t want to be where they were. Jerusalem and Judea were the places where they were in danger. Galilee was their true home, and the place where they were safest. Even when we are in our own little personal environments, there are places close to us where we try to spend the least amount of time and attention. There are places where we have to watch what we say and do, and cannot really be ourselves, and we don’t want to risk taking Jesus there. This might be our family, or our neighbors, or the people we work with. The closest places may be the places we least want to be sent.

We want the safety of our own Galilee. We want our comfort zone. We don’t want to learn to do things we don’t already know how to do. We don’t want to think about new things, or try new ways of doing things, or try to say something important in a new way. Being sent requires faith, and courage, and humility, and enough love for God to listen to him above our own fears and prejudices.

We are sent to be witnesses of Jesus, but we misunderstand this because we think that being a witness is a matter of talk. That was always a hard thing for me, because I was never a good talker anyway.

In a court trial it is sometimes said that a witness “gives evidence”. There must be evidence. There must be an integrity between the talk and the reality that you represent. Your talk and your reality have to match, or your fail as a witness. There is the old saying that, if you were put on trial in a court of law for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Jesus’ mission was in what he said and did. Do our talking and our living clearly give evidence of who sent us? Does the Spirit empower what we say and do? Is there spiritual life in what we say and do?

Looking at life this way changes our life. We do not live lightly. We pay attention. We look for God. We look closely at other people. We listen to them and watch them, in order to understand them and to be ready to be the person in their life that God may send us to be.

We look at our world in a different way. We look at the needs of our world and our community. We are waiting for the prompting of the Holy Spirit to show us what to say and do in this world to make the righteousness, the justice, the faithfulness, and the love of God real.

Living in the promise of the Holy Spirit takes us out of our rut. It makes us both observers of life and participants in life.

Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” The Father sent Jesus as a servant and as a sacrifice. How do we serve the love of God and the kingdom (the justice and righteousness) of God with the people around us; our families, our church, our school, our community? How do we serve sacrificially? Do we serve only when it is easy or when it suits us?

“As the Father sent me, I am sending you.” Jesus died to make the kingdom of God a reality. Most of the first disciples died for their faith. In some parts of the world, today, Christians are being persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, raped, and killed for their faith. Those Christians know the meaning of fear in the sense that they usually face those fears faithfully.

When American Christians see the values of the kingdom of God challenged in such a way that it appears that Christians may be placed at a disadvantage, or in such a way that living the values taught by the Bible may be challenged by law, we feel fear and doom and anger.

That is to be expected. But we often do not show the calm, the courage, the faith, and the love that Christians living in dangerous lands show. We are really not ready to take up our crosses to follow Jesus.

“As the Father sent me, I am sending you.” The sending of Jesus was the most important thing that has happened since the creation of the universe. What if his sending you and me is as important as that? We love the fact that Jesus was sent to us. Do we love the fact that we have been sent into the world in the same way?

Somehow we are called to be, for this world, what Christ is for us, and for this world we live in. This is the plan for the coming of the kingdom of God, until the time that only God knows, when he will make it complete.

“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” When Jesus was sent, he was never alone. Because Jesus has sent us as he was sent, we are never alone. The one who sent himself goes with us. Through the Holy Spirit the living Jesus, with all the fullness of God, goes with us.