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.

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