Sunday, June 5, 2016

Pushing Boundaries: The Spirit-Prepared Life

Preached on June 6, 2016

Scripture readings: Ephesians 4:1-16; Acts 1:1-14

The 2016 Wahluke High School Valedictorian, Guadalupe Abarca, made a statement that is so normal to hear at any graduation, and yet it is very important. She said, “I believe this class will push boundaries to make this world a better place, whether in large or small ways.”
Photos at White Bluffs, Hanford Reach Nat'l Monument
May 2016
In the Book of Acts, Jesus, just before he returned to the command-post of heaven, called his people to push boundaries. 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) Is this a calling or an order? Is it a prediction or a challenge? “You will be my witnesses.” You will do it.
Somehow, I seem to remember a phrase from when I was a kid, and maybe it comes from the old World War Two Prison Camp comedy “Hogan’s Heroes”. My friends and I used it on each other for fun. A German officer said (in an American imitation of a German accent), “You vill do it; und you vill like it!”
Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” It’s as if Jesus gave us a crazy target laid out more or less flat on the ground of this round earth. The bull’s eye is where we stand and we find that the target is as big as the world; maybe as big as the universe. To hit the mark, and win, means going out, as far as you can. It’s a crazy target.
We Christians get the target completely wrong. You see how it is. Maybe it’s Jesus’ fault. Jesus is the bull’s eye. Jesus is the center. We come to Jesus. We find his love. Our target is the center.
No, his love finds us. And we find ourselves with Jesus at the center. Then Jesus does his magic (his sleight of hand) and the mark, the bull’s eye, moves to the outside. Who can play this game?
You see how we get it wrong. Jesus is the center, but we start out as Jesus’ target; Jesus’ mark. It’s hard to be an intense follower of Jesus (an intense Christian) unless we see how the target works for us; how (without Jesus) we are farthest out from the center, until Jesus hits us with his arrow of love. (Jesus is the best cupid.) But, without that, we are (each one of us, in our own way) one of the farthest out.
The great British preacher of more than a century ago, Charles Spurgeon, expressed this feeling of being farthest out. Spurgeon said, “While others are congratulating themselves, I have to lie humbly at the foot of Christ’s cross and marvel that I am saved at all.”
Charles Spurgeon was only 15, and he was a very, very good boy, when he met the living Jesus, but Spurgeon knew his own heart. And he knew that all human hearts, and every human life, have the same deep need. All humans are, in some way, furthest out, and they need to be found and given meaning by the infinite love of Jesus.
We never know that we have been farthest out until we understand why Jesus chose a cross as the only way to reach us, and hold onto us, and change us. We never understand what all people need until we know that only an arrow in the form of a cross can go the whole distance; all the way to the farthest out. We never understand what people need until we know that this arrow is never meant to hit anyone, except in the sense of winning them and loving them.
What brings this out (what powers us to understand, and motivates us to want to take Jesus’ arrow to those who are farthest out) is the Holy Spirit. We never understand this crazy game, and this crazy target of Jesus, until the Holy Spirit fills us.
The disciples are a good lesson for how it is with us. The Spirit was with them. Jesus was working on them with the Holy Spirit. We read that Jesus instructed them through the Holy Spirit. (The Holy Spirit is the life-giving power of God.) The Holy Spirit makes weak things powerful. The Spirit makes dead things, or inanimate things, alive.
The infinite love of God, in Jesus, is a living thing that can’t live in us until the Holy Spirit gives us enough life, within ourselves, to receive it. The infinite love of God, in Jesus, is a living thing that can’t reach out, through us to others, until the Holy Spirit gives us the living heart and the living will to reach out to others, even to those who seem farthest out.
Jerusalem, all Judea, and Samaria, and the ends of the earth are like rings of a target that really has an almost infinite number of rings.
Here the crazy target changes again. Here we are at the center again. Once again the whole point is not to stay in the center. Just as shooting at a target and hitting the bull’s eye is hardest, when you’re standing away and aiming at the target from a distance; so it is true that, when you are at the center, and the game is to shoot farthest out, then the farthest out is the hardest shot, and we don’t want to do it. We don’t even want to try. We pretend that aiming at the center (where we are) is best.
That’s one reason why the disciples asked Jesus for the target of restoring the kingdom to Israel. That was a model for a different target where it was best to live at the center and let the farthest out come to you. That would be easy. And a lot of Christians want the model of the target to be the one where it’s good to stay in the center.
There is a lot to learn from Jesus’ crazy target. We are called to be witnesses. Surely the most important job of a witness is to provide evidence.
It’s our job to provide our evidence for Jesus to the world. We are called to start by aiming at the center, closest to where we are. This part of the target is the part of the world that includes our families, and our friends, and our neighbors.
This model for the target means gradually moving out, geographically. We actually do this because we give our resources, including our money, and this supports mission around the world.
The churches of the early disciples helped to support Paul, and the other apostles, and the other witnesses, who went farther and farther out from the center. The Book of Acts tells us about Christians trying to fill the world with the message of Jesus who does fill all the world, and who wants to fill all the hearts of all the people in the world.
The Holy Spirit gets his way with us, and baptizes us with his truth, when we look at those who are nearest, and at those who are farthest, and (looking at both) we see people who will have a new life if they are filled with Jesus. Even the people we treasure the most may be full of so many great gifts, and yet they lack the gift of Jesus who would pull all their gifts together. Or maybe they lack the gift of Jesus in the same way that we may lack that gift: if we have the Holy Spirit teaching us, but our hearts are not being filled with the Spirit.
Jesus told his disciples not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the baptism, or the immersion, and the flooding, and the washing of the Holy Spirit. So we are often called to wait for the things that are most important. But you need to know that waiting is active. Waiting, in the Bible, is not like sitting in a waiting room.
Waiting means being ready for anything and, in this case, ready for something. Waiting is not about sitting, or puttering around, or doing what you normally do. I normally like to read. That’s how I like to wait. I like to read in a waiting room in order to get my mind off of what’s actually going to happen next. That’s not the waiting that Jesus asks for.
Waiting means praying, and praying means wanting, and also listening. When the disciples prayed, they realized that they also needed to be prepared. They needed to be prepared to be called and prepared to serve. That’s why they soon appointed a replacement for Judas, who had betrayed Jesus and hung himself. Waiting meant being ready to serve and being prepared to go into action, whatever that required of them.
So we are called to pray, and to pray for the Holy Spirit to find us ready for anything, and prepared for anything. They did that praying constantly, and they did it together. Each of us should have a consistent focus in prayer, not only for God to take care of us, but for God to show us how to be ready and prepared for what he wants us to do next.
But it’s not enough for you or me to do this on our own. I have to believe that Jesus wants us to pray for this together. It’s what he told his disciples to do, and our existence as God’s people is built on the same foundation as theirs. We are going to wait for what God wants us to do next by praying as a congregation, and learning (as we listen in prayer) to be ready and prepared.
We want to be ready and prepared by knowing, for sure, what Jesus has given us to live by; and by knowing how to share with others the difference that Jesus makes. We want to be ready and prepared for the crazy target of Jesus.
The disciples had trouble understanding the target. They liked staying in the center, and they didn’t even understand the center. Jerusalem was the holy city, the place where God focused his presence on his people. Jerusalem was the center, and yet it was also the place that was farthest out. Its people were the most resistant; just as we all are without the continual help of Jesus. Maybe you find the center of your own target and your own world to be the same way.
Providing evidence for Jesus by their words, and their lives, and their actions was not easy in Jerusalem, the center. You know this is not easy in our own centers. Our families and our friends who are not close to Jesus are a hard center to target.
And here the crazy target is easy to misunderstand again, because (as I have said) this is a target we don’t hit. The arrow of Jesus and the cross, and the change in our hearts because of him, are not things you can hit anyone with, although the other person may feel like you’re hitting them. If a witness gives evidence, then you are not hitting, but giving something to your target. Since the Holy Spirit is the power of God, and the power of God comes through Jesus, then you are giving them power, or offering them that power.
In that way, as witnesses, our job is to empower those who are closest to us. If we find that those who are closest to us are also farthest from us (as Jerusalem was) then our job is to empower those who feel farthest from us. It works either way.
Our own loved ones, neighbors, and friends need the empowerment that we have received, and Jesus says that the power of the Holy Spirit will make it possible to reach the outer limits and those who seem farthest from us. This can seem impossible, but the Holy Spirit empowers us and makes the impossible possible. This is what we believe.
The disciples believed this and it worked, even when they didn’t understand what they were doing. But their success, in the Spirit, was not easy. The Book of Acts tells us that every step of the way was strange to them. They were always moving into the unknown, and it was different every day.
This is the other strange thing about the crazy target of Jesus. The target in front of them was as big as the world, but there was another target within them. Jerusalem, all Judea, and Samaria, and the ends of the earth were not only boundaries “out there”. They were also boundaries within them. The boundaries were formed by what was familiar to them, and by what was unknown to them, and unwanted. These were the boundaries of where they were comfortable and where they weren’t.
The target of Jesus produced worry, and fear, and tension in the disciples. The Lord was requiring them to do today what they had never done before. Tomorrow they would have to do what they didn’t know how to do today.
They hit those boundaries right from the start. Even before they left Judea, which was the boundary of their comfort zone, they found themselves talking to the enemy Samaritans and the pagan Romans. (Acts 8 and 10) They were talking and worshiping with people they didn’t want to talk with, or worship with. They had to make decisions about how they needed to change what they did and how they thought, in order to meet the target of Jesus.
They had to push their boundaries. They had to let Jesus and the Holy Spirit push their boundaries for them. The Holy Spirit requires churches to change what they do, and how they think. The Book of Acts tells us this in every chapter.
To be filled with the Holy Spirit requires the waiting in prayer that will change us and make us ready and prepared for this. Or else, we may decide that what the Spirit calls us to is not for us. That is a decision for comfort, and comfort is nice, but comfort can be a far different thing from fullness. And that makes a difference.
Jesus died on the cross to give us a new life; a life free from everything that divides us from the love and purpose of God. He gives us a new life free from everything that divides us from the ability to truly love God, and to love others, and to love the whole world as God so loves it.
This new life begins with forgiveness and forgiveness feels a lot like comfort. But comfort is a word that originated from the idea of the strength and power to go forth and live.
The comfort that comes from the Holy Spirit always leads to the kind of life we find in the Book of Acts. In this life we have been made so alive by the power of the Holy Spirit that we grow, and we extend our reach. We reach out to others, and we change, because we have been made alive in Christ, and living things are always moving and changing.
Jesus is pushing our boundaries, and we are pushing the boundaries for Jesus.

That is what we are waiting for, and praying for, together: a new life that’s new every day: really new! running on the power of the Holy Spirit! Get ready for it to begin!

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