After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
“6I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
“11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (NRSV)
Today’s reading begins with a transitional clause: “After Jesus had spoken these words…” The words to which John refers fill four chapters. They include: Jesus’ teaching as he washed the disciples’ feet, his foretelling of betrayal, his command to love as he has loved, his promise of an Advocate, his warning about the world’s hatred, and his promise of lasting spiritual peace.
When reading these words, knowing that they are the words of a man whose mysterious and solemn “hour” is arriving, we feel the pathos building like an incoming tide. Jesus’ hour has to do with his own and God’s glorification. It also has to do with Jesus sending the disciples out to continue his work. As Jesus prays for his disciples, he reaffirms their call: God, they were yours, he says. You entrusted them to me. I’ve taught them, and they know the truth. They’re ready to follow me, to love each other, and to glorify you. I give them back to you.
To love, to follow, to glorify God—in John’s gospel, this is the very substance of believing in Jesus. That’s great Sunday school material, but between Thursday and Sunday, and even beyond, the disciples seem anything but ready for an apostolic commission.
How does Jesus do it? How does he project confidence and hope knowing that his beloved disciples will betray and abandon him? To begin understanding that question, let’s remember this line: “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”
In John’s gospel, Jesus knows that, in the unfathomable depths of the Creation, his being is inextricably confluent with the eternal and universal Flow of Holiness and Purpose we call God. This is the oneness Jesus refers to when he prays, “Holy Father, protect them…so that they may be one, as we are one.” In his Thursday night prayer, Jesus is actively loving everyone, whether they oppose him, forsake him, or crucify him.
The capacity to love those who oppose and oppress is not something we can achieve on our own. That gracious strength arises from our own oneness with God. It arises from that place of confluence between our individual human being and the eternal Being-ness of God.
When Jesus loves and blesses his disciples, knowing that they will turn their backs on him, he receives their brokenness, baptizes it in his oneness with God, and transforms it into genuine discipleship. That’s how he transforms Peter’s denials into compassionate leadership.
Peter do you love me?
Feed my sheep. (John 21:15-17)
By receiving the hatred and taunts of those who crucify him, Jesus loves his enemies as they are loved by God, and, with his life, he prays for those who persecute him. That’s the point of the resurrected Christ transforming Saul’s scorched-earth hatred of Christians into a zealous commitment to love all whom Jesus loves, especially those who don’t know that they are loved. (Acts 9:1-22)
We expect all that from Jesus, but taking up our cross and following him can feel impossible. And it is impossible when we’re not seeking oneness with God through Christ. When we lose that connection, we tend to look for and find opponents rather than companions. When connected only by externals—political loyalties, racial/ethnic identities, doctrinal precepts, economic class, and so forth—we lose sight of the humanity of both self and neighbor. At that point, we’ve reduced love to alliances between like minds, alliances that are always conditional because when one ally’s thinking changes or evolves, the deal is off. Many marriages fail because at least one partner considers the relationship an alliance rather than a holy union.
When Jesus prays for his disciples, he is praying for the well-being of men who have yet to learn that Messiah transcends the label of ally. As the Incarnate Word of God, eternally one with the Father, Jesus can do nothing less than love, even when facing blind and brutal opposition.
Last week, my wife and I watched “The Best of Enemies.” While this 2019 film received mixed reviews and underwhelmed at the box office, the real-life story is worth remembering. In Durham, NC, in 1971, the city was dealing with integration. Two people, C.P. Ellis, a white man and leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and Ann Atwater, an African-American woman and community civil rights leader, became the faces of the two sides of the debate. In time, the two not only overcame their mutual disgust, they discovered their deeply-connected, holy and human beings. Without that discovery, the two sides may have hammered out a compromise, but Atwater and Ellis would not have found the enduring friendship that transformed their lives.
I was moved by that relationship, and as much so by Bill Riddick, the man who led the series of interactive meetings through which the community explored the issues and voted on an outcome that didn’t please everyone, but which everyone agreed to accept.
Riddick, also an African-American, had a profound dilemma. On the one hand, he had to deal with Ellis’ overt racism. On the other, he began to see that Atwater’s all-too-understandable fury at and suspicion of Ellis also threatened to derail the process of integration. After the first session, Riddick went home realizing that he had the same issues as Atwater and Ellis. He told himself that “until I’m able to harness my own feelings and have greater respect for these individuals, then I’m not going to be successful.”1 Unifying Ellis and Atwater was the key to bringing the community together.
It wasn’t until years later than Riddick had the language to speak of that experience spiritually. All those “years ago,” he said, “I really thought it was me. As I have become more God-fearing…I realize that the Lord gave me a grace and helped me.”2
Riddick’s grace was the same grace Jesus demonstrated on the night of his betrayal and the abandonment by those who claimed to love and follow him. That very grace is available to us when we confess our selfishness, pride, and fear. To lay aside that brokenness is to begin opening ourselves to the deep, God-given oneness we have with all things through Christ.
As our culture becomes more deeply divided, God’s call to spiritual communities within the wider community is all the more urgent. As followers of Jesus, our specific call is clear: Jesus prayerfully summons us to seek a oneness with each other that bears witness to the Son’s oneness with the Father. What oneness we embody is never our own doing. It’s always a reflection of God’s oneness with the Creation.
What, then, can you and I do to help all of us claim our holiness, our oneness with God so that, together, we embody the oneness that, through the power of Resurrection, grants us the freedom and the will to love as Christ loves us?
Earlier this week I was making some phone visits, and everyone asked the same question: When will we hold open worship in the sanctuary again? The responsible answer remains the same: We don’t know.
This Tuesday night, Session will meet and talk about all our normal business, and among the routine things we discuss these days is the progression of the pandemic and the recommendations from our Emergency Response Team (which is keeping a very close eye on the latest reports and trends). While no one knows where that conversation will lead, indications are that we will continue online worship at least through June. Until we see a verifiable decline in the number of cases, love for neighbor will continue to require us to be patient with our circumstances and with each other. We simply can’t afford to risk gathering a high-risk population for in-person worship.
A friend of mine shared a great image to help us think about how easily the coronavirus spreads: Imagine a Sunday School room full of five-year-olds. It’s early December. Their teacher has a wonderful art project planned for them—they’re going to make Christmas cards for shut-ins. When the kids enter the classroom, the teacher opens bottles of red, green, gold, and silver glitter. By the time Sunday school is over, how many kids will look like enormous sugar cookies covered with sprinkles? What will the table look like? What will the floor look like? What will the restrooms look like?
See where this is going?
The coronavirus is more contagious than glitter, and it’s harder to clean up. I, for one, cannot encourage us to get together when there’s just so much potential for “spreading the glitter.” It may be that if people in our area suddenly get much more serious about practicing social distancing and wearing masks, we’ll see enough of a drop in a couple of months to consider a partial re-opening. But go to a grocery store, or Lowe’s, or watch people in town on a Saturday afternoon and you’ll see just how lightly people are taking the risk of infection. It seems that many people consider the virus as harmless as glitter, and that masks signal weakness rather than a strong love of neighbor and self.
While we’re all tired of separation, we would forget that fatigue in seconds if we had to get used to losing people we love. I love all of you and want to keep on loving you. If you’d like to, mail me a greeting card. Cover it with Elmer’s Glue and glitter. I’ll open it and enjoy it. And when I quit finding glitter in my kitchen, I’ll call you and thank you for it.
While you wait for me to call, do something constructive. Write a novel. Restore an old car. Become fluent in Urdu. I look forward to our talk!
13I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
I will pay you my vows,
14those that my lips uttered and my mouth promised
when I was in trouble.
15I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,
with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats.
16Come and hear, all you who fear God,
and I will tell what he has done for me.
17I cried aloud to him,
and he was extolled with my tongue.
18If I had cherished iniquity in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened.
19But truly God has listened;
he has given heed to the words of my prayer.
20Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer
or removed his steadfast love from me. (NRSV)
I’m a PC(USA) Presbyterian through-and-through, and gratefully so. We’re known for decency and order in our ecclesiology and rigor in our reformed theology. The downside of our reputation is evidenced in our tongue-in-cheek label: The Frozen Chosen. And indeed, we could afford to embrace certain spiritual practices a little more warmly—testimony, for example. Presbyterians often dodge that word like we might dodge a snake, and we lose something of value when we do. Living in a storytelling atmosphere, though, Jonesborough Presbyterians may have a slight edge because at its heart, testimony is storytelling.
Like much of the storytelling heard at the International Storytelling Center next door, and at the National Storytelling Festival each October, testimony is more than entertainment. Testimony shares intimate memories of God’s active presence in the world and in our lives.
Here’s the rub, though: Testimony is a biased memory. As a library of oral and written testimonies dating back more than four millennia, Christian scriptures are the collective spiritual memory of generations of people who claim to have experienced God through all manner of heroes and villains, joys and sorrows, teachings and dreams, and through interpretations that many people dismiss, and rationally so perhaps, as wishful thinking, superstition, or even neuroses. And honestly, testimonies can no more be proved than disproved. They’re faith statements, and sharing a personal memory in which we claim to have experienced the transforming presence and love of God can leave us vulnerable to both self-doubt and ridicule. One gift of the psalms is affirmation for those who claim sacred memories. This anthology of ancient poetry encourages us to keep our hearts and minds open to God’s often-hidden but ever-faithful ways.
The poet behind Psalm 66 praises God for faithfulness and goodness to the Hebrews during slavery in Egypt and through the Exodus, and he testifies to how painfully and continually real those experiences are. As a resource for coping with trauma and exile, Psalm 66 is a gift handed down from generation to generation.
Let’s remember something important here: It was common in the psalmist’s context to connect human suffering with God’s judgment. “You…have tested us…You brought us into the net…you let people ride over our heads.” What was real to him we dare not judge. Jesus helps us to remember differently, though. As Emmanuel, God With Us, Jesus reveals God’s heart as a suffering-with-us heart. God prepares for us and accompanies us to a “spacious place,” an oasis of redemption and peace where we find faith strengthened even in hardship.
While the psalmist may have the Exodus in mind, he writes in generalities that invite all readers to remember their own tests and burdens. None of us need reminding that life includes suffering, but sacred memories remind people of faith that we stand with our feet in two realities—the here-and-now and the kingdom of God. Faith is the lens through which we perceive and proclaim God’s kingdom even when all we feel or remember feeling is the world’s arbitrary spite and turmoil. That makes lament and praise two sides of the same coin.
Richard Hendrick is a Capuchin Franciscan friar living in Ireland. About two months ago he wrote a poem entitled “Lockdown” and published it on his blog. Like Covid-19 itself, the poem has gone viral. In it, Brother Hendrick expresses with heartfelt compassion and unvarnished candor both the lament and the praise humankind is feeling in and through our shared experience of pandemic. Listen to Brother Hendrick’s testimony to his grief and to his awareness of God’s ongoing presence.
Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise
You can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
The sky is no longer thick with fumes
But blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
People are singing to each other
across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone
may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman I know
is busy spreading fliers with her number
through the neighbourhood
So that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
are preparing to welcome
and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary.
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
So we pray and we remember that
Yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul
Yes there is even death.
But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic
The birds are singing again
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.
Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able
to touch across the empty square,
With concrete images, Brother Hendrick’s sacred memory illustrates what the psalmist means by “a spacious place.” The New International Version translates it: “a place of abundance.” In The Message it’s “a well-watered place.” However one translates it, God’s “spacious place” is the kingdom itself, the even-now-available realm of compassion, mercy, justice, and love. And scripture is consistent: We discover and enter that spacious place not when “God is in the heavens and all is right with the world,” but when we join hands and hearts as, together, we pass through burdens, nets, fire and water, and viruses. The redeeming Nonetheless of faith creates the stories that become our sacred memories, stories that we are called to share as testimonies celebrating God’s faithful presence in the Creation’s suffering and struggle.
We’re not celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper today, but the table before us is always set with the bread and the cup, with reminders of the foretaste of God’s most spacious, abundant, and well-watered place.
This table, which is not confined to this sanctuary, is a place of sacred memory, a place of lament and praise. Here we remember Resurrection so that beyond these walls we might, in Christ’s name, re-enact Resurrection.
On Sunday, April 14, 1996 my family and I were preparing to leave the mountain house in Little Switzerland, NC. After spending the weekend in that no-frills and beloved summer retreat built by my paternal grandparents in the late 1960’s, we cleaned the kitchen and the bathrooms. We swept and mopped the floors, tidied books and maps on the coffee table, and secured things like paper towels, toilet paper, and soap so the evidently fastidious mice wouldn’t get at them. We packed our little blue Toyota Corolla station wagon with all our luggage and still had room for Biscuit, our golden retriever. (I don’t remember how we managed that.)
Biscuit needed a walk before we made the 4-hour drive, so did our six- and four-year-old children. Marianne took all three of them and began to walk down the mountain road while I took care of the last few details and locked up. When all that remained was to close the door behind me, I sat down for a moment—in a familiar chair in that familiar house and thought about the fact that the next day I would be in a very unfamiliar chair in a very unfamiliar situation. I had a theological degree, but two months of supervised ministry was the extent of my pastoral experience. As I sat there, reality began to overwhelm me. I wept and prayed something like God, help me, for I know not what I do.
After that tearful prayer, it was time to go home.
Home. Physically speaking, home was a place we’d lived for less than a week before those two nights in the mountains. It was the manse of Cross Roads Presbyterian Church in Mebane, NC. (Pronounced meh´-bin). The next day, Monday, April 15, would be my very first day on the job as a pastor. So, home included my brand-new vocation.
That Sunday in April, twenty-four years ago, was the last day of the life I had known for 33 years. I had always been a Christian. From April 15 on, though, I would be The Reverend, or Preacher, or Pastor Allen. (That’s my preference if someone can’t just call me ‘Allen.’) While I would still be the same person in most ways, I would never be the same. For better and for worse, I was about to enter a new way of being in the world. And it terrified me.
Facing change, transformation, and virtually any other new circumstance or reality can upset and stress us. In and of itself, that’s not a weakness or a flaw. It’s just part of being human. However, when we resist it by violently projecting our fear and anxiety onto others, or by trying to force our way back to a past that feels comfortable and familiar, we can damage ourselves and others. We may also—and we almost certainly will—miss out on new things that God is doing in our lives or empowering us to do. That is where our human weaknesses and flaws tend to take over and derail us.
Maybe that’s why Peter “wept bitterly” after hearing that blasted rooster crow. He wept not only because he denied Jesus, but because he knew that he would not deny him again, and that following a crucified Messiah would mean living a very different life than he expected. And it terrified him. For that matter, Jesus himself wept by Lazarus’ tomb knowing that if he raised a man from death, the Powers-That-Be would decide that they had no choice but to kill him. Neither the Pharisees nor Caesar could compete with that kind of authority. To raise Lazarus was, even for Jesus, to choose a new life and new future.
It’s been just over 24 years since that April Sunday at the mountain house. And in that time, I have handled many changes, both professional and personal, more like denials than invitations from God. If given the chance, I hope that I would approach them quite differently now. To the extent that I have learned from my mistakes and errors, though, those mistakes have not been in vain. That’s what redemption is all about.
Isolation, online worship, and meetings by Zoom are both new and transformational for us. Many of us are grieving, and I’m right there with you. We’re also learning and growing. We’re learning that the world is a much smaller place than the “big ol’ world” of which we often speak. The earth is truly a neighborhood, and we’re far closer and more intimately connected to people on the other side of the planet than we ever thought possible. That’s a challenging lesson. We are one humanity, one Creation, and all of us beloved by God. Individuality is necessary and good. Individualism is another story. Behind the radical selfishness of individualism lie things like “invisible hand” theories which encourage everyone to seek their own self-interest. Societies based on selfishness don’t survive things like pandemics, though. They only fuel the contagion with fear.
Followers of Jesus are called to something new, something bigger, something greater, more gracious, and more just. We are called to proclaim and inhabit the kingdom of God in which we make decisions based on love, mercy, and the well-being of all people and all things, because (and I know this sounds cliché) we really are All in This Together.
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5He asked, “Who are you, Lord?”
The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (NRSV)
Acts 2 records the story most often associated with the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost—fifty days after Passover, wind, flames, and the utterance of many languages. In John 20, during his very first appearance on Easter, Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending them as God sent him. Then he breathes on them saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Often called the Johannine Pentecost, this scene echoes the second creation story in Genesis when God breathes the “breath of life” into Adam. More and more, I read Creation and Resurrection as two metaphors for the same initiative of God’s incarnational grace.
Paul seems to confirm this in 1Corinthians 15 when he refers to the first and last Adams: “The first man, Adam, became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (1Cor. 15:45)
Spirit—ruach, pneuma. These words also mean breath, which is itself a symbol of God’s active presence in the creation. Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples stands in stark contrast to Saul, who, in his twisted devotion to God and Torah, is “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”
Talk about your bad breath!
The thing I find redeeming in this story is that even in the very midst of Saul’s deliberate hostility toward those who follow Jesus, the Persecuted One affirms Saul’s foundational, God-imaged faithfulness. Having created him for something far greater than waging holy war, God calls Saul to serve as the first and still-most-influential Christian evangelist.
There’s a detail worth considering—an omission. Luke tells Saul’s Damascus Road experience in Acts 9. In Acts 26 Paul recounts it before King Agrippa in Caesarea. And, in neither telling of the story does God ask for, nor does Saul offer, repentance.
Think about it: Jesus doesn’t ask the eleven disciples to repent after having doubted, denied, and abandoned him. He simply breathes the Holy Spirit on them and sends them out in his name.
For that matter, when Jesus called his disciples, he didn’t demand that they qualify themselves through repentance. He just said, “Follow me.”
Given such precedent, why has the church decided that true faith requires public confession and renouncement of not only memorable sins but also pre-natal guilt? Hold that uncomfortable question. We’ll come back to it.
Not long after Saul is struck blind, we meet Ananias, a disciple of Jesus living in Damascus. God tells Ananias to go and lay hands on Saul so he can see, again.
Ananias says, What? God, I know this guy, and he’s pure evil.
Raising its serpent’s head, fear causes Ananias, a freshly-minted New Creation in Christ, to assume authority to judge and condemn. He and Saul now have that in common!
Does anything create more evil in the world than the spiritual halitosis of fear? Fear leads humankind into politics of vengeance and economics of scarcity. Behind these all-too-comfortable philosophies lies the selfish anxiety that I won’t get my share—more accurately, the anxiety that you may get more than me. This is particularly true in First World cultures, and ours may be one of the most fearful on the planet right now. During the stress of pandemic, listen as our political and economic rhetoric grows louder and more accusatory. Watch as we wrestle with trying to balance desires for individual autonomy and the need to seek the common good. We’re like fish in a polluted river gasping at the surface for undissolved air.
Yes, the world is changing through this pandemic. And we all feel the pressure of the changes, which, in all likelihood are not momentary, like some rain delay during a baseball game. The changes we’re experiencing will probably ask every human being to enter new ways of being human in the world. If we learn anything from this experience, it will affect us more like the changes of adolescence, the loss of a loved one, or, as with Saul, transformation by an ineffable reality into an unimagined holiness and vocation.
It seems to me that in our emerging situation, the Church is being called to open ourselves to ways that we can embrace and embody love—agape, philos,eros, all of it. What new things is love creating in us and asking of us right now?
Love changed Saul. And what was it that this death-breathing terrorist would eventually say about love? Wasn’t it something about patience, kindness, gratitude, humility, and hope? And didn’t he say that the lack of love reduces us to “noisy gong[s] or…clanging symbol[s]”? (1Cor. 13:1-7)
Being no different than anyone else, I give in to fear sometimes. And when I do, I have terrible breath—cynical, selfish, threatening, noisy-gong breath. When that happens, I live outside of faith, hope, and love, and my heart is to fear what stagnant water is to E. coli.
The difference between faith as the church often teaches it and faith as Jesus demonstrates it is Jesus’ utter lack of fear. Fear always wants to retreat to an idealized past. It always wants to close doors, build obstacles, blame some scapegoat. Love and faith always look forward. They always see potential.
I know all about Saul, God says to the fearful Ananias. And yes, he’s caused a lot of suffering. But he can take it, too. And he’ll do that for Jesus. I’ve chosen Saul. You, go help him.
God’s always doing this kind of thing.
Moses says he has no authority, no voice. And God says, You have a bold heart. I choose you.(Ex. 3:1-15)
When Samuel was looking at Jesse’s sons for a new king of Israel, Jesse leaves his youngest son, David, in the fields with the sheep.
Call him in, says Samuel.
That one, says God. I choose David.He’s got a leader’s heart, fearless enough to be kind and just. (1Sam. 16:1-13)
I’m just a boy, says Jeremiah. I can’t do this.
Nonsense, says God. You have a perceptive, truth-telling heart. I choose you. (Jer. 1:4-9)
“How can this be?” asks Mary.
And Gabriel says, You have the perfect heart for this, like God’s own heart—loving, faithful, trusting, mothering. God chooses you, Favored One.
“Here I am,” says Mary. (Luke 1:26-38)
Within each one of us there stirs the heart of a fresh-breathed New Creation in Christ. Knowing that heart, God calls us to fearless discipleship. And when we develop bad breath, God calls us not simply to admit that we’re guilty of sin, but to recommit ourselves to lives of fearless and loving service in the manner of Jesus. His love transforms us into New Creatures who take the risk of trusting God’s desire and power to breathe new life into us, to redeem even our foulest breath.
As we learn to trust Resurrection, we begin to recognize and celebrate the gospel truth that both Paul and Ananias learned the hard way—the truth that because nothing can separate us from the love of God, no one lies beyond the grace of God.
Now, isn’t that the point, and even the very process of repentance?
I’m sitting in my study right now. Wearing a flannel shirt. And a jacket. It’s 49 degrees outside, and I’ve got a fan in the window pulling air inside. (Brr! Georgia boys don’t cotton to sub-sixty-degree mornings in May.) If you were to walk around the first floor of the education building today, you’d see all my books scattered in random stacks in the nursery. The two “visiting chairs” in my study are also filled with books, prayer shawls, photos, diplomas, and the obligatory knick-knacks that one finds in offices. It’s a mess.
So, what’s going on?
Graham N. is what’s going on. Graham has built some new shelves, including a beautiful corner cabinet for the pastor’s study. For months he’s been taking exact` measurements, constructing, squaring, sanding, matching stains, planning configurations, patiently waiting on a certain someone to rise to the occasion and move all his stuff out of the way. And now he’s installing them. The stain has been on for a while, but the tang is just enough to require some fresh air, so the window is open to yet another chilly run of blackberry winter.
The pastor’s office is in disarray right now. And when the new shelves are in, it will be time to reassemble all that stuff. The arrangement will be different. It may take a little time getting used to looking for things in different places even though I will be the one to decide where they go. But this is a splendid upgrade. When things begin to get back to normal-ish, I hope all of you will drop by to see his work. Graham is a true craftsman, an artist. Thank you, Graham!
By the same token, the fellowship hall is a wreck right now. Tim W. and Rick G. have been restoring the front doors and rebuilding the threshold. The doors are on saw horses above drop cloths. The tables where we have meetin’s and eatin’s are covered with tools, paint cans, and door parts. The guys have been plotting, problem-solving, sanding, painting, cleaning—and laughing. Those two don’t just work well together, they have a good time doing it. Rick and Tim are also extremely careful, artful craftsman. Thank you, Rick and Tim!
Like the pastor’s study, the nursery, and the fellowship hall, our lives and the world around us feel out of kilter right now. What was orderly and “normal” appears disorganized and chaotic. And disruption can drive us nuts.
When the world dissolved into chaos and uncertainty, the Israelites, God’s chosen people, asked Moses if he had led them in the wilderness to die. At least in Egypt we had plenty to eat, they cried. When fleeing from the murderous Jezebel, Elijah, God’s chosen prophet to Israel, not only feared for his life, he asked God to go ahead and take it. I guess he figured God would kill him more humanely than Jezebel—probably a fair assumption. When God showed mercy to the Ninevites, Jonah, God’s chosen mouthpiece calling for repentance, felt double-crossed. So, he went out in the desert, built himself a hut and wished himself dead.
When the world, created and beloved by God, seems to be falling apart, our storied faith asks us to remember that the world always appears to be falling apart, at least somewhere for someone. Our faith tradition also asks us to remember that whatever is happening, God is in the midst of it, not causing suffering, but, as the ultimate opportunist, redeeming it. God redeems even our worst choices and our most painful experiences.
On the other side of redemption, life is always different. It feels new. Some things are rearranged. And it may smell strange. Whatever the case, though, it forever remains God’s beloved creation. And our calling will continue to be to nurture a grateful, worshiping, servant-hearted community that doesn’t exist for its own self, but to reach out in grace and love to those whose lives are being turned upside down and inside out. Our calling won’t change. It’s who we are. And that’s who we are because that’s who the stories of Israel and of Jesus show us that God is: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1John 3:16b)
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (NRSV)
Today’s text is brief, only six verses, but everything that happens through the first and second chapters of Acts culminates in this moment. Jesus ascends. The disciples choose Matthias to replace Judas. The Holy Spirit sweeps in upon the disciples who then proclaim the Gospel in every known language. Peter preaches a powerful sermon to those who think that Jesus followers are nothing but a bunch of day drinkers. Afterward, the number of followers swells from a mere handful to thousands. All this heady stuff crests in a community of transcendent wonder, gratitude, and generosity.
Maybe it’s like hikers reaching a campsite on some high country bald along the Appalachian Trail, their boots glistening with already-fallen dew. Their legs burning from the climb. Their shoulders and hips aching beneath the weight of their packs. They’re tired and hungry, and yet, when they look on one side of the panoramic view, they watch the sun setting. On the other side they watch the moon rising. And in between, a few bright stars shimmer in the darkening sky. Below them, deep in the forest, the rhythmic call of a whippoorwill is a voice reaching from back in time. That voice, in that place, reminds the hikers that the very stuff of their own bodies is as ancient as the rocks in the mountain beneath their feet. Mesmerized by this holy moment, they stand in speechless awe of the Creation’s beauty and their fleeting place in it.
Wherever our “mountain tops” may be, these blessed plateaus become moments of Shalom, and oases of numinous community.
When the fabric of a community includes experiences of collective awe, and celebration of things mysterious and eternal, people often find a profound capacity for gratitude in their human lives and generosity with material things. Such was the case when the infant church began to grow by leaps and bounds. Having devoted themselves to studying the apostles’ teachings, to intentional spiritual fellowship, to the celebration of a new ritual called eucharist, and to praying with and for one another, the followers of Jesus found themselves overwhelmed with a richness that wealth could not deliver and a confidence that power could not promise or protect.
For Luke, all these spiritual practices, shared in community, become catalysts for grateful and generous response. And all this together is the substance of discipleship.
Now, the almost utopian scene Luke describes at the end of Acts 2 is a rare experience. It does seem to me, though, that many people within the Church want and even expect it to be the norm. And bless their hearts; those folks are neither happy nor fun to be around. It also seems to me that many people outside the Church judge the community because it is a place where everything is not always peaceful, where people are not always kind and welcoming, and where people are, and I admit my failure in this, far too possessed by their possessions to part with excess and give with joyful abandon to those who are in need.
Our brokenness and hypocrisy are more provably real than the presence of Christ in the Sacraments we celebrate. That’s why we begin worship humbling ourselves in confession. We know that we do not live up to God’s calling.
The early church struggled, as well. In Acts 5, we meet Ananias and Sapphira, a couple who sold a piece of land and withheld a portion of the profits for themselves. When the truth came out, Peter challenged them saying that they had not lied to anyone but God. Terrified, Ananias immediately dropped dead.
Who among us would sell a possession of some sort and feel obligated to share more than ten percent of the profits, if anything at all? And if, as Paul says, God loves cheerful givers who give “not reluctantly or under compulsion,” (2Cor. 9:7) would God even want us to give under duress, or out of pride, or fear?
One point of the idyllic scene described in today’s text, is that living more gratefully and giving more generously than we imagine are community-creating gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Sure, what we do matters. The extent to which we show grace to each other, welcome the stranger, care for the poor and the forgotten, the extent to which we “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly” with God (Micah 6:8), all this matters a great deal. In it we witness to our faith that real life and true humanity are found in loving as Jesus loves. In all this, we witness to our counter-cultural conviction that the world’s selfish ways and violent means may build nations for a time, but ultimately, those ways and means destroy the very things they build. What lasts is beyond human capacity to create. As disciples, we simply participate—for a brief time—in that which is eternally creative, holy, and true, but we do not own it. Indeed, the only way to experience spiritual gifts is to give them away. Like a candle flame, the joy of God’s grace and love is made brighter and warmer only by sharing it.
One reason that these days of isolation are so difficult is that we’re being forced—and, let’s be honest, we’re being forced not by leaders or laws, but by love of neighbor and the gift of human reason—to withhold from sharing expressions of grace that we so enjoy when we’re together. Our community, though, is not being destroyed. If we approach this season of separation as a kind of spiritual retreat, we will find ourselves and our community strengthened. When we return, there will be differences in our gatherings that we can’t anticipate. And if we don’t expect the unexpected, we will have learned nothing through this difficult but potentially transforming experience. And that would be a terrible loss.
So, even now, “day by day,” with “glad and generous hearts,” we continue engaging scripture (through Facebook worship and Zoom meetings). We continue to enjoy fellowship (by telephone, cards, and brief visits from safe distances). We continue to break bread around this table and at our homes (alone or with only the people closest to us). And, without restraint, we continue to pray for one another and for all Creation.
When we return, there may be an Acts 2 moment, a period of peace and joy to match that of the disciples in Jerusalem and the hikers on that Appalachian bald. There will also be a new beginning, a new calling for us. I don’t know what it might ask of and offer to us. I simply trust that whatever it is, just as the Holy Spirit has held the Church together for two millennia, that same Spirit is holding us together now, and will be in our midst, creating in us and for us new joy, gratitude, and generosity.