Are You Sure About This, God?

Sunday May 5 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights spent some time reflecting on an ordinary person who was asked by God to do something truly extraordinary… We talked about the ways that fear can blind us and reduce our ability to trust God to work in our lives and the lives of those around us.  Our scripture was Acts 9:1-19.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

The party was going on and on – speeches were made, the band was playing, and all the passengers on the cruise were having a great time.  Because of the celebration, the ship’s captain had ordered an extra special buffet, and each of the passengers was taking advantage of it. Sitting at the head table was a man of about 70 who was looking a bit embarrassed, but trying to accept the praise that was being poured on him.

Earlier that day, a young woman had fallen overboard, and within seconds this same man was at her side in the dark, cold water.  The woman was rescued, and this fellow was an instant hero.

When the time finally came for him to speak, the room fell silent to hear the words of the brave hero.  He approached the microphone and offered what might be the briefest “acceptance speech” of all time:  “All I want to know is…” and he paused to clear his throat, “…who pushed me?”[1]

Jew at Prayer, Marc Chagall (1913)

I think that in a lot of ways, the disciple Ananias would probably deliver the same sort of speech if he were given half a chance.  As we continue to look at the development of the Christian community in the months and years that followed that first Easter – the people who lived into the reality that Mark described – we are presented with a couple of very different personalities this morning.  Ananias, who is our subject for this morning, is one of those people who is crucially necessary for the “big picture”, but not really well known.  Saul, on the other hand, is better known by his Greek name, Paul, and responsible for half of the New Testament.

My hunch is that if we were to ask Ananias and Saul the question of the day, namely, “are you sure about this, God?”, that they might offer two answers.  Is God sure? Well, friends, the Lord is right behind you, pushing you out the door.  And that same Holy Presence is out in the distance, preparing the way for you, dwelling with you in the future.

Because you have probably heard more about Saul, I’m going to center our discussion this morning around the guy whose name you’re not sure how to pronounce. Ananias is a normal Christian. He’s no apostle, he’s not one of the twelve, and he didn’t write a book of the Bible.  There are three men named Ananias mentioned in the book of Acts: our friend here in Damascus, an earlier follower who, along with his wife Sapphira, lied to the community in Jerusalem following the sale of some property, and the High Priest who’s mentioned at the end of Acts.  Perhaps as much as anyone in the scriptures, Ananias is just a regular guy leading a regular life trying to be faithful.  And God uses Ananias in a huge way.

When we meet him, he’s praying, and he receives a vision.  God calls his name, and, according to the author of Acts, Ananias responds by saying, “Here I am, Lord.”  What’s interesting about that is the fact that in all of Scripture, there are only three other people who happen to be wandering along, minding their own business, and they hear God’s voice calling their name.  Any ideas on who that might be?  Who might hear their name?  “Abraham, Abraham.”  “Here I am, Lord.”  “Moses, Moses.” “Here I am, Lord.”  “Samuel, Samuel.” “Here I am, Lord.”  Yet unlike these three men who became prominent in the narratives of the faith, Ananias is just an ordinary follower who comes on the scene, does his job, and then disappears.

So God calls Ananias without mincing words any words.  In his vision, Ananias is instructed to go over to Straight Street and meet someone.  Not just anyone, but Saul.  Not just any Saul, but Saul from Tarsus.  God spells it out pretty clearly.  And Ananias says, “Lord, not to be disrespectful or anything, but haven’t you seen the news?  This Saul of Tarsus is, well, problematic.  All my sources are telling me that he tries to kill people like me.  Think for a moment, God: I’m sure you must have heard from the church down in Jerusalem about this guy.”

And what is God’s response when Ananias shares his fear? “Go!”  God tells Ananias that Saul is God’s “chosen instrument”, and that whereas up to now, Saul has been one to inflict suffering upon the church, from now on, he will suffer on behalf of the church.

And Ananias stops arguing with the Lord and simply does what he is told. He is so sure that God is in this that he believes that God will protect him even against the chief persecutor of Christians.  He obeys God and marches down to the house on Straight Street and goes in to pray with Saul.

And look at how he does it!  Don’t you wish, at least a little bit, that Ananias would have an attitude?  I mean, if Saul was going around persecuting and perhaps even murdering Christians, it’s logical to assume that Ananias would know at least some of the people involved.  And when you read this story, don’t you find yourself wishing at least a little bit that Ananias would show up in the room on Straight Street and say, “Oh, well, look who’s found religion now!  What do you think, Mr. ‘I’m here to beat up the Christians’? You’re not so tough away from your goons, are you?”  After all, Saul was a bad guy.  Why is Ananias so nice to him?

Because he not only did what God told him to do, but he believed what God told him.  And when God said that Saul was God’s chosen vessel, that was good enough for Ananias. He walked over to him and greeted him tenderly.  “Brother Saul…” he said.  And then he prayed for Saul, and the scales fell away from his eyes.

Whose eyes did the scales fall from?  Saul’s, right?  But did you know that they could have been in Ananias’ eyes?  Sure they could have.  It’s possible that Ananias could have been blinded by his own fear.  I here to say that there have been times where I’ve been blinded by fear.  It may be that when God asked Ananias to go and meet with Saul, that Ananias could have been so scared that he couldn’t even see straight.    Ananias could have allowed his fear to incapacitate him, couldn’t he?  He could have been so frightened for his own safety – or perhaps that of his wife, his friends, his children –  that he’d be simply unable to do what God wanted him to do.

But it might have been more than that, too.  Ananias could have been blinded by the fact that Saul was an enemy. Saul sought to do harm to all that Ananias loved.  And it could have been that even though God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, changed Saul from an enemy into a friend, that Ananias couldn’t see that change.  I think that you’ll agree that it’s at least possible to think about the fact that Ananias could have chosen to treat Paul as a failure, a threat, or an outsider.  But he didn’t.  He simply called him “Brother Saul” and did as he had been asked to do.

Beloved, I see at least two things in this passage that teach my heart today.  First, I see an affirmation of the truth that there is not really anywhere in the Bible where the problem of evil is spelled out for us and solved.  Ananias heard God talking about Saul and asked God if it was really safe.  And God didn’t tell Ananias all about how Saul had seen the light and heard voices and had met Jesus.  God didn’t tell Ananias about the possibility of real healing in the inner psyche, about regeneration, about a transformative experience.  No, instead, he essentially told Ananias, “Look, friend, you leave Saul to me.  I’ll take care of him.”

The promise that comes through Scripture is not that we’ll understand the nature of evil or be able to solve it.  The promise is not that we’ll avoid the pain associated with sin, or be free from suffering.  The promise is simple, and if I had another bible verse to throw at you this morning it would be one of my favorites: Psalm 34:4.  “I sought the Lord, and he answered me.  He delivered me from all my fears.”  The promise is that with God’s help, we can somehow get through the pain and the evil and the sin that surrounds us – in spite of our fears.

What are you afraid of?  What is it that hangs like scales in front of your eyes, blinding you to the things that God is doing in the world?  Are you afraid that you don’t really have any value or worth apart from your children, and so you are living your life through them, instead of seeing what God is calling you to do?  Are you wishing you could leave your job and try something new, but not sure how you could ever explain yourself?  Do you have ideas about what could make things better for someone else, but you’re hesitant to share them because you’re afraid that no one will listen anyway? Are you afraid to really care about someone else because you’ve been alone for too long?

There is no fear that is greater than God’s ability to meet your needs. The Psalmist says that “the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him.”  In other words, as you draw close to God through obedience and love, God will equip you to deal with whatever gets in your way.  Look, it’s not wrong for you to ask, “God, are you sure about this?” But when you do, be prepared to accept the fact that God moves and acts in and through people like you all the time.  Ananias could go and meet Saul not because Saul wasn’t scary, but because God was powerfully present to an ordinary Christian like Ananias.

The Baptism of St. Paul, mosaic from the Palatine Chapel (Sicily), c. 1140

The second truth that this passage teaches can be a hard one for us to accept.  God’s power turns enemies into family.  When God first approaches Ananias about Saul, Ananias calls him “that man”. “I’ve heard about HIM, Lord. I know all about HIM.”  Yet when God equips Ananias to meet Saul, he is called “brother Saul.”  The stranger, the alien, the enemy – in a heartbeat becomes the brother.

Beloved, you do not know on whom it is that God will pour out his favor. But how many times do you hear yourself saying, “Oh, that one.  Don’t talk to me about that one, Pastor.  I know that one.”  One of the incredible strengths of a faith community like this one is that many of you have known each other for years – ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years. You went to school together.  You married each other, or your sister married her brother, or something like that.  And you formed impressions of each other in 1966 or in 1988 or in 2001.  And sometimes, you treat each other as if you were the same people now as you were in 1966 or 1988 or 2001.  You hold a grudge against him because of something he said to your child ten years ago.  You are bitter because of the ways that she treated you in days gone by. Oh, you won’t say anything about it. You’ll be polite, and hand each other the pew pads when we ask you to.  But in your heart of hearts, you maybe find it a little hard to believe that God would work with someone like that.

OK, let’s just start with this: there is no one in this room, including the one who is standing up and talking to you now, who is worthy of the grace of the Lord that is poured out.  When we remember that, we can know that if God can take someone like me and do something with me, and God can take someone like you, and do something with you, then surely God has the freedom to take that one that you think you know so well and work a miracle in that one as well.  So be challenged, brothers and sisters, to keep thinking the best about each other.  And be encouraged, brothers and sisters, to keep praying for the ones that God hasn’t touched yet.  And be willing, brothers and sisters, to look for those changes and to bless God when you see them – and to join in with one another in fulfilling the ministries to which God has called you.

After these few verses in Acts 9, we never meet Ananias again.  He went back to First Church of Damascus and probably told a few people about what had happened to him.  And then he disappears from our view.  But do you think that Saul ever forgot how beautiful Ananias looked the instant that those scales fell from his eyes?  You know that he didn’t.  Who will remember you?  And why?

[1]  Told in The Tale of The Tardy Oxcartby Charles Swindoll, p. 119

After the Fireworks

Sunday, May 31 many of our sisters and brothers in faith were contemplating the mysteries of Trinity Sunday.  At Crafton Heights, we held on to the notion of Pentecost a little longer, and I wondered what life was like for folks after the big displays of God’s power.  Our scriptures included I Kings 19:9-18 and Acts 2:42-47

Think about a time you were in the middle of something – doing a job or working on a project, the only thing you wanted was to stop doing that thing. Have you ever felt as though what you really wanted was to quit whatever you were doing, but for whatever reason, you just couldn’t?

If that’s the case, then you can really identify with the story of Elijah. We’ve only read a portion of his story this morning, but let me tell you that he is THE prophet of God in the Old Testament. There are no books that bear his name, but Elijah is the one to whom people are looking when they want to know what the Messiah will be like. Elijah is HUGE in the Old Testament.

Elijah on Horeb, by Sieger Köder (German, 1925-2015)

Elijah on Horeb, by Sieger Köder (German, 1925-2015)

In our reading, we meet Elijah as he’s fresh from the biggest victory of his prophetic career – and that’s saying something. He’s been at Mount Carmel, where he’s challenged the pagan-worshipping leaders of Israel to a prophetic duel. There were 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah who were defeated by the power of the Lord. Elijah presided at a mass conversion of the Israelites back to the way of the Lord. God’s power was displayed in a mighty fashion. It was amazing.

And then the Queen of Israel finds out about it, and she sends Elijah a death threat. He throws up his hands and heads for the wilderness. He tries to quit his job as a prophet – he asks God to take his life. He’s burnt out. Take a look at Elijah here – he sounds like he is dealing with a classic case of depression.

He brings his complaint to God, and he seems to forget everything that’s just happened. “I alone am left,” he says. He overlooks the mass conversions, the incredible demonstrations of God’s power. “They want to kill me,” he says.

And God says to him, “I’m coming. Go out and stand before me.” But Elijah doesn’t do it! He stays hiding in the cave. And God unleashes some incredible fireworks – there is rock-splitting wind, there’s an earthquake, there’s a tremendous fire. But what does Elijah do? Nothing! He’s still hiding in the cave. The fireworks don’t impress him. “I’ve seen it,” he says. “I know the tricks. I just want to quit. I’m all alone, and I want to die.”

After the fireworks, there’s a silence and a calm — and that’s enough to draw Elijah from the cave. But look at him. He’s still hiding – wrapping himself in his scarf, hiding his face. He’s still miserable – he repeats the exact same speech to the Lord. He’s unchanged by the very appearance of God!

Have you ever been depressed and someone has tried to cheer you up? Someone has tried to talk you out of it? Doesn’t work very well, does it? Look at what God does with Elijah. He listens to the little speech. He doesn’t argue with the Prophet. But he doesn’t let him quit, either. He gives Elijah a new mission – to anoint the kings of Aram and Judah. He gives Elijah a new partner – Elisha. He promises that there are at least 7000 faithful servants who have not bowed and worshipped the idols. Now you could say that God not only doesn’t let Elijah quit – he puts him on a committee! But I prefer to say that God shows Elijah his place among the people of God. He reminds him of the fact that he belongs to God – and to God’s people.

Now, if we flip ahead to the New Testament reading, you’ll see that there are fireworks here, too. Last week we spent the Sabbath remembering all that happened on the day of Pentecost. There were tongues of flame resting on the heads of the followers of Jesus. People were given the gift of speaking in new languages. Peter preaches a powerful sermon, and more than 3000 people are converted that day. And Luke could have stopped the story there, but he didn’t.

We Are All One in Jesus Christ, by Soichi Watanabe, (Japanese, 2009)

We Are All One in Jesus Christ, by Soichi Watanabe, (Japanese, 2009)

Luke goes on to tell us that after the fireworks, those who believed in Jesus were regularly gathering for teaching, fellowship, shared meals, and prayer. And what happened is that God used this time after the fireworks to change the church. What had been a group of a couple of dozen followers of Jesus who were scared to death slowly changed into a community of vigorous believers who found their identity as being the People of God. They came together for teaching, fellowship, shared meals, and prayer — and found that God had transformed them into the Body of Christ. After the fireworks of Pentecost had gone off, that Body continued to be together. They continued in faithfulness, even when in the days after that outpouring of the Spirit their leaders are arrested and jailed. They continued to meet together, to dwell together, and share life together.

So what? What is the application for those of us who are seeking to be faithful Christians two thousand years later?

Is it just me, or did many of you come into this room because of, or after, the fireworks? I know, you weren’t up on the mountain and you didn’t live through the windstorm or the earthquake or the firestorm; I know you didn’t all of a sudden start speaking in other languages. But you’ve seen fireworks, all right.

Some of you are here because you had a baby, once upon a time, and you figured that God’s hand was in that and you ought to figure out what it was all about. Some of you are here because a marriage started, and you wanted to start if off right. Others of you got here because a marriage ended, and you were looking for God’s presence in the midst of that firestorm. I think it’s safe to say that there are a lot of us who are here because of the fireworks.

The question is this: are you in the room, or are you in the family of God? Are you a part of the furniture, or are you a part of the body of Christ?

For a while, we’ve been easing out of the “high holy days” of Lent and Easter. Pentecost marked the last big holiday in the church for a long time. From here on in, we’re in “ordinary time”. Time that is given to us to discover what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ as we go through the ordinariness of our lives. I would suggest this morning that one of the core truths of scripture is that consistent investment with and involvement in the body of Christ is essential for faithful living.

What does that mean? Well, it means that being here is important. That it’s important for us to be together in worship, as we are now; it’s important for us to be together in study, as we were during FaithBuilders and as many of us are at other points in the week; it’s important for us to be together in the business and administration of the congregation in venues such as the Preschool Board or the Congregational Life committee.

Now, beloved, I know that these things are true:

I know that your living room sofa is far more comfortable than these pews ever will be. And I’m pretty sure that your TV room is a lot cooler than this old building is right now. You can get a better preacher by turning on the television or checking out YouTube. Our music here isn’t bad, but let’s be honest. If it’s sheer talent and performance you’re after, you’d be better off visiting iTunes.

Some years ago, I left this building and was convinced that we had just witnessed a profound worship event. Everything just clicked, if you know what I mean. There was special music. The sermon was good. Prayer time was open and honest. There was a crowd here. You know the kind of service I mean… So a friend of mine was unable to be here. I gave him the recording and said, “wow, you really missed something special. Check this out.” The next day he called me back and I asked him what he thought. His first reaction was, “the soloist was very flat on the special music, and the choir was out of synch. Also, you mumbled quite a bit on the sermon. And it was too long.”

I was convinced it was a worship service that changed lives. I still believe that. But he wasn’t here to experience it. He didn’t see the face of the soloist as she led us in worship. He couldn’t see the faces of the people listening to the choir. He didn’t see the Jr. High students paying attention to the sermon. He had the recording, but he wasn’t in worship.

There’s something about being together with a group of believers that makes all the difference in the world. You could find more comfortable seats, better preaching, and more quality music in other places, but you’d miss something essential to faithful living — you’d miss being able to participate in this part of the body of Christ.

“Uh, Hello, Dave! You’re preaching to the choir, now. Take a look, Pastor. We are here.”

Yes, you are, but now you take a look. I’m not really preaching to the whole choir, am I? There are some empty seats. There are people missing.

And the world – and our culture – says, “Hey, it’s their choice. They know how to get here. I’m not going to be pushy or nagging.” The culture would say to us, “You know, they were here last week. Can’t expect too much. After all, summer is just beginning…or it’s softball season… or I’ve got people coming in from out of town…”

Yet the Word of God tells us that we are one body. That we belong to Christ, and that we belong to each other. Who is not here this morning? Why aren’t they here? And do you realize that we are diminished by their absence?

Oh, it’s not about the numbers. Sure, our numbers would be higher if everyone was here. But it’s much more important than that. Scripture tells us that people who belong to Christ and to each other spend time together doing things like teaching, and fellowshipping, and sharing meals, and praying. And if a significant number of us start behaving as though our presence or absence here is insignificant, then we’ll lose our ability to really behave as the body of Christ. And if that happens, then we’ll find that we are not effective in the ministry to which the Lord calls us. And if that happens, we will find that we succumb to the same depression and alienation that threatened Elijah’s ministry.

So what am I asking you to do, my friends? Two simple things. First, I want to encourage you to be here in worship each week. If you’re not traveling and you’re not ill, then you ought to be here. Because worship is different than anything else in your life. Going out to brunch or playing in a sports league or getting a head start on your shopping are all things that you do. Worship is where you find out who you are. The culture will tell you that it’s one item on the menu of choices that you’ll make this week. And I’m telling you that if you lose your connection with the Body of Christ, none of your other connections will have much relevance or impact. So will you be here – not for me only, but for you, and for those other members of the body in which you share.

The second thing I’d like you to do is to look for the people who aren’t here, and tell them that you miss them. I’m not asking you to call people and harangue them for not showing up. I’m not asking you to play detective and try to find out why they’ve missed the last two weeks. I’m simply asking you to reach out to one of your fellow disciples and say, “Gee, I missed you at worship today. Are you all right? You’re in my thoughts.” In fact, why not take a peek around during the offertory and see who’s here. Then pull out your phone and send a text to someone saying, “I’m here, and I don’t see you here. I wish you were here.”

Tell them that you miss them. Because we do, you know. We are called to an incredible mission. We are given a great responsibility. And we can’t do it without everyone being represented. It is one we share as the body of Christ in this place at this time. Right now, you might not even know why you miss that person; but I pray you’ll have a chance to discover her gift or his ministry as they have the opportunity to share it here, with the rest of the disciples whom God has called in this place. Be here. And look for those who aren’t. Amen.

The Church on the Move: Philippi

The church in Crafton Heights is using the time between Easter and Pentecost to consider how the earliest Christians grew from being timid, hesitant “followers” to being bold, courageous “apostles”.  In so doing, we’ll visit some churches around the ancient world and seek to learn from our older brothers and sisters in faith.  On May 18, we visited Philippi, and talked about the ways that Paul and the others took a risk on preaching to those on the margins of that society.  You can read about it in Acts 16

In 1996, a group of people got together and wondered if we could create a reality wherein the poor of the world could be served by giving them a market for their unique handcrafts. We incorporated a little non-profit, called KingdomCome, and began to sell these goods at church bazaars, craft shows, and so on. As the word spread, and as sales grew, it became apparent that schlepping our inventory back and forth from the 3rd floor of the Crafton Heights church wasn’t the best way to accomplish our goal of allowing people to support themselves and their families. We needed to open a storefront.

So we checked out locations all around the city – from Edgewood to Fox Chapel to Southside to Downtown, and eventually settled on a piece of property ten feet wide and a hundred feet deep on the south side of Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill. We chose that location because it had these features:

–  A strong retail history with a flair for independent and so-called “destination” shops

–  A lot of foot traffic

–  An upscale neighborhood filled with people who not only shop, but BUY.

It has worked out very well for everyone concerned as that little experiment has become one of the most successful Ten Thousand Villages stores in North America. When a business is looking to expand, it’s all about location, location, location, right?

GreecePosterNow, let’s rewind and back up time a couple of thousand years. The faith movement spawned by the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is growing by leaps and bounds. From its roots in Jerusalem and Galilee, it has spread through the Middle East and up into Asia Minor. While certainly not a traditional business, it is expanding rapidly. One of the leading Apostles, Paul of Tarsus, feels led to explore the as-yet-untapped European market, and makes plans to sail to Greece. Greece – the cradle of Western civilization. Home to Athens, the Parthenon, democracy, and a really good pita, lamb, and cucumber sandwich. Excellent choice, Paul!

Except he doesn’t go to Athens – not right away. The first Christian foray into the continent of Europe takes place in the town of Philippi. OK, Paul, that’s not a bad choice. It’s a Roman Colony, a city founded by Alexander the Great’s father, Philip of Macedon. There are gold mines nearby; there’s some legacy wealth – a lot of “old money” – around. You could do worse, I suppose.

EarlyChurch3One thing, though, that makes this choice curious is that Paul, who usually preached first to the Jews, chose to go to a town that didn’t even have enough Jewish men to open its own synagogue. Up to this point, although they had begun to admit Gentile believers, the Jewish population made up the largest percentage of the early church.

As a result of that, this particular Sabbath day finds the pre-eminent apostle of the Way of Jesus preaching the Good News for the very first time on European soil…to a small group of women, including some foreigners, who were down at the river doing their laundry.

It is, I believe, a curious way to launch a movement.

Lydia as portrayed by an unknown artist.

Lydia as portrayed by an unknown artist.

One of those present, a woman named Lydia who was apparently a foreign convert to Judaism, is so moved by what she hears and by the power of the Spirit within her that she asks for, and receives, the sacrament of baptism. In fact, not only Lydia herself, but her entire household, including what we believe to be a number of other women as well as slaves and children, is baptized and enters into the Jesus Way. She is bold enough to invite Paul, Luke, and Timothy to stay in her home so that she and her household might be further instructed in living as Jesus would have them live.

Unfortunately, her hospitality is not emblematic of the entire city, however, and Paul and his companions are treated “shamefully” (I Thessalonians 2:2) in Philippi. They are arrested, beaten, and run out of town.

But the church remained. And it appears to have been one of Paul’s favorite congregations. Whenever he speaks of that place, and in his letter to that congregation, he speaks with great warmth and affection. He commends the church that began on the day of Lydia’s baptism for their willingness to participate and share with Paul in the life to which he was called. In fact, this is one of the only churches from which the stubborn and prideful old Apostle was willing to accept financial support – because in some way, they “get” Paul and what he’s about.

We are spending the time between Easter and Pentecost looking at how the early church grew from a disorganized, dispirited group of doubting, betraying, and hesitant followers of Jesus into a movement of apostles and churches that changed the world. Philippi gives us a good example of the apostolic conviction that the church is called to risk itself on “nobodies” every single day – seemingly insignificant people like Lydia and the women of Philippi.

Faithful friends of Jesus, of course, would not be surprised by this. In Luke 4, when Jesus sets out the road map for his own life and ministry, he says that he’s been sent to preach Good News to the poor, to release the captive, and proclaim God’s favor to all. The first disciples themselves were not exactly the “cream of the crop” and so they evidently followed Jesus’ own model of ministry and preached about him to whoever was willing to listen. Which is why, I suppose, they found themselves on the outskirts of town preaching to a group of women and receiving hospitality from people who were clearly on the margins of acceptability.

In fact, that became a common refrain amongst those who were critical of the Jesus movement. A 2nd-century writer named Celsus has the distinction of being the first author to publicly condemn and criticize Christians. In his work The True Word, he rails against this new religion that appealed to “the foolish…slaves, women, and little children” who could be found at “the wooldresser’s shop, or the cobbler’s, or washerwoman’s” place.[1] Celsus is especially indignant that various social classes could come together in Christianity, and is in general appalled at the church’s willingness to extend forgiveness to those who had fallen into sin.[2] In short, Celsus and much of the ancient world believed, Christianity is a religion for pathetic losers – people who ought not to be accepted in refined society.

I’m sad to say that there are many in the church today who have lost touch with the call to live a faith that is so radically inclusive and welcoming of “the other”. A lifetime ago, when I was being trained for youth ministry, I was taught to build my youth group by looking for the popular, successful students and trying to engage them first. If I could get the quarterback and the head cheerleader to come to my youth group, I was told, then the group would grow like crazy. Why? Because if “the cool kids” are doing it, then everyone will want to.

Isn’t that, to some degree, how the church in the USA continues to operate? Isn’t that why we get all excited when a rock star or a pro athlete or a movie star shares the fact that she or he is a Christian? “Oh, yeah, Tom Hanks? Donna Summer? Tim Tebow? Johnny Cash? Bow Wow? Yep. They’re all believers…”

Our adult mission team used a little book called Coffee With Jesus as a part of our devotional reading. One of my favorite comic strips in that volume pokes fun at our fascination with celebrity believers:

Coffee With Jesus, used by permission of the artist.  For more, see www.coffeewithJesus.com

Coffee With Jesus, used by permission of the artist. For more, see http://www.coffeewithJesus.com

You see, that’s one of the reasons that I tend to be a fan of baptizing babies and children before we know who they are going to be. Is little Sam going to grow up to play High School baseball and slam them out of the park like his dad? Or is he going to be a weak-hitting right-center fielder with a mysterious overconfidence in his own baserunning abilities like a certain pastor we know?

God doesn’t care.

Neither should we. In baptizing him today, we claim that Sam is already surrounded by God’s grace. There are no “cool kids” in the Kingdom of God, because the call is for all who will listen!

If we are going to grow from being disciples into being apostles, we have got to be willing to invest ourselves in those who are seen as insignificant. As individuals, as a congregation, and as The Church, we’ve got to claim the fact that the things that unite us in Jesus are more powerful than those that would divide us by race, income, geography, gender, or anything else. We all belong to God every bit as much as little Sam – no more, no less.

That means that where we can, as individuals, we’ve got to support the kinds of one-on-one ministry that exist here. Will we do what we can do to empower the people who volunteer or work at the preschool, the Open Door, or the Youth Group? If we can’t personally volunteer with those vulnerable neighbors, can we create a climate that encourages them?

That means that we’ve got to pledge ourselves to refuse to see people as belonging to a category: when you look at someone, do you think, “Oh, that’s the black kid…the white guy…the drunk…the user…the loser…the stuck-up rich person…”? That kind of labeling has no place in the Christian world.

That means that we’ve got to find ways to celebrate the real love of Jesus with real people. We commit to sharing meals together. To listening to stories. To sharing moments of laughter and friendship on the bus or in the check-out line. We’ve got to risk engagement with the people around us, even when they seem to be “other” than we are.

Do we have to be cautious? You bet we do. But we can’t, in the name of safety or fear, reject other people just because they appear to be different.

And how do we get there?

By remembering, deep within our own sense of self, that we are, well, nobodies ourselves.

I’m not saying that we are all losers and none of us are the cool kids and that Christianity is, as Celsus claimed, a religion for ignorant, weak, uneducated people.

I am saying that we are all people who have been bent, broken, bedraggled, bankrupt, or bereft at one time or another. And, it seems to me, the only way that we can move forward is to pray like bent, broken, bedraggled, bankrupt, and bereft people for others who are bent, broken, bedraggled, bankrupt, or bereft.

In his book The Way of the Wolf, Martin Bell points to this truth. He writes,

I think God must be very old and very tired. Maybe he used to look splendid and fine in his general’s uniform, but no more. He’s been on the march a long time, you know. And look at his rag-tag little army! All he has for soldiers are you and me. Dumb little army. Listen! The drum beat isn’t even regular. Everyone is out of step. And there! You see? God keeps stopping along the way to pick up one of his tinier soldiers who decided to wander off and play with a frog, or run in a field, or whose foot got tangled in the underbrush. He’ll never get anywhere that way. And yet, the march goes on…

If God were more sensible he’d take his little army and shape them up. Why, whoever heard of a soldier stopping to romp in a field? It’s ridiculous. But even more absurd is a general who will stop the march of eternity to and bring him back. But that’s God for you. His is no endless, empty marching. He is going somewhere. His steps are deliberate and purposive. He may be old, and he may be tired. But he knows where he’s going. And he means to take every last one of his tiny soldiers with him. Only there aren’t going to be any forced marches….And eve though our foreheads have been signed with the sign of the cross, we are only human. And most of us are afraid and lonely and would like to hold hands or cry or run away. And we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t seem to trust God – especially when it’s dark out and we can’t see him. And he won’t go on without us. And that’s why it’s taking so long…[3]

Paul’s trip to preach to Lydia and a handful of other women by the river in Philippi was not a stroke of genius that was applauded by the head honchos in the church marketing department. In fact, it’s a good thing we didn’t have a marketing department then, because maybe the nobodies in Philippi would never have heard the good news about Jesus. And maybe the nobodies in my neighborhood wouldn’t have, either. But thanks be to God, he gives us a model to follow. We’re not here to celebrate the fact that God loves the rock stars or the celebrities or the athletes. He does, of course, but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because he cares for us, and expects that we will show our neighbors his care in our daily lives.

Listen: choosing you and me to live out his love every day may not be the smartest thing God’s ever done, but he didn’t ask us for advice. He’s asking us to do it. Thanks be to God, he’s asking us to do it. Amen.

 

[1] Quoted in Will Willimon’s Interpretation Commentary On The Book of Acts (Atlanta, John Knox, 1988), p. 138.

[2] See Bernhard Pick, “The Attack of Celsus on Christianity” in The MonistVol. 21, No. 2 (APRIL, 1911) (pp. 223-266)http://www.jstor.org/stable/27900311?seq=14

[3] The Way of the Wolf: The Gospel in New Images (New York: Seabury Press, 1968), pp. 91-92

The Church on the Move: Ephesus

The church in Crafton Heights is using the time between Easter and Pentecost to consider how the earliest Christians grew from being timid, hesitant “followers” to being bold, courageous “apostles”.  In so doing, we’ll visit some churches around the ancient world and seek to learn from our older brothers and sisters in faith.  On May 11, we visited Ephesus, and talked about the controversy that took place when the Apostles challenged the status quo.  You can read about it in Acts 19.  

I have had the privilege of traveling to Malawi in Central Africa a number of times. Because I am profoundly grateful for that, and because our friends in Malawi have some significant needs, I rarely travel empty-handed: I usually try to bring along some relief or community-building supplies.

Generally, I fly into the airport closest to where our sister church is, and I am met by some sort of a delegation that helps me to sort out my luggage, etc. However, on one trip I was flying alone and happened to be landing in the capital city, a six-hour drive from my close friends. I’d be on my own.

As it happened that day, there was an extremely zealous Malawian customs officer on duty who was very curious about the contents of my second piece of luggage – a foot locker containing sports and medical equipment that was clearly not for my own use. I explained that these were gifts for friends, and she explained that she didn’t care about that, and that I needed to know that I was liable for several hundred dollars in import tariffs and had a long afternoon of government paperwork to look forward to…

I was wearing my collar, I was trying to look kind and compassionate and, well, meek. She was having none of it. She handed me a sheaf of paper and a pen and instructed me to itemize everything in both suitcases and assign it a value. Just as I resignedly took the paper, I heard a voice calling from across the terminal. “Abusa! Abusa Davie Cava! Abusa! Stop right there!” And, looking up, I saw a uniformed police officer sprinting toward me. He had his baton in hand, and he grabbed the paperwork from me and laid it on the table. He smacked the papers with his baton and went to town on the woman from customs. He was talking so quickly and with such animation that all I could pick out were the words “Abusa” (that’s the Chichewa word for “pastor”), “mzungu” (Chichewa for “white guy”), and “Davie Cava” (Chichewa, evidently, for “Dave Carver”). They had a rather energetic discussion, during which point he was placing items back in my luggage and attempting to close it up whilst she was taking items out of my luggage and pointing to the paperwork.

He packed faster than she could unpack, and he slammed the lid on the footlocker, gave it a whack with his baton, and said, “Abusa, come with me.” She started to argue, and he smacked the footlocker again and said, “No!” They were ANGRY!

We went around the corner and he broke into a huge grin, hugged me, and said, “I can’t believe you have come back to Malawi!” I hugged back, a little tentatively, because I had no idea who my rescuer was. It turns out that he had been a member of a congregation in a very remote area that I’d visited about ten years previously. So far as he knew, my family was the first American family to visit his village, and he remembered my preaching in his church – and he was going to be darned if he let someone like me pay taxes on relief supplies that were heading to a village like that! He told me I was famous in Makanjila, one of the most sparsely-populated areas in Malawi.

I realize that doesn’t help me get a discount at Shop N Save or good seats to the Pirate game, but, hey – I’ll take what I can get.

Where are you famous? Who knows you, and where do they know you? I’m thinking about that this morning because our scripture reading tells about the day that Paul found out that he was famous in Hell. Did you catch that? These charlatans are going around trying to cast out demons in the name of Jesus, and the demon says, “Jesus, I know. Paul, I know. But who are you?” and then goes ahead and gives the would-be exorcists a run for their money. Those who would drive out the demon are themselves driven away.

EarlyChurch2As we continue to look at the process by which disciples and followers mature into apostles and those who are entrusted with a ministry of real import, our venue shifts this morning to the town of Ephesus, a port city in what is now known as Turkey. What were the characteristics of the Body of Christ in that place, and what can we learn from them in our attempts to be faithful?

One thing that Luke wants us to know about the church there is that it was a powerful, powerful place. The church in Ephesus came about because of a deep investment by some really gifted people. [1]In fact, we’re told that Paul stayed in Ephesus longer than he stayed anywhere else. His commitment, and that of the rest of the believers, left a profound impact not only on the local population, but, as we’ve seen, on those in the next world as well! The stories of handkerchiefs and aprons are significant because they reveal the strength and power that is attributed to the presence of Paul and the other leaders in that community.

In the same way, I have been encouraged by some real signs of the presence of the Holy in and around Crafton Heights. Oh, so far as I know, we’ve not seen any healings as a result of used handkerchiefs, but we also haven’t had any botched exorcisms, either – so I’ll call that a draw. What we have seen, though, is a community that is growing stronger as people engage in long-term commitment and the intentional practice of ministry – a commitment to a place and a people that is remarkable in our mobile, 21st-century American culture. In fact, one of the things that drew me to this place more than thirty years ago was the depth that I saw in friendships shared between people like Dorothy Larimer and Peg Morse and Margaret Tranter and John McConnell and Beebe Lightell. Prior to coming to Crafton Heights, I’d never really seen a community where people valued long-term friendships like this. If anything good is happening in and through this church, then it is happening at least in part because a group of you have decided that you are called to invest yourselves in each other and in these neighbors. Do not, my friends, underestimate the power of that commitment.

Icon of St. Paul by an unknown artist, c. 5th century

Icon of St. Paul by an unknown artist, c. 5th century

There’s a danger, of course, to that. In Ephesus, we see that the power and strength that comes from the witness of the Christian community leads others to have a certain familiarity with the name of Jesus and the trappings of faith, but no real relationship with Christ or his people. The “Seven Sons of Sceva” see that the name of Jesus is associated with big things, and so they try to appropriate that name without knowing the One it represents. To them, the name is a magical incantation.

I thought about that earlier this week as a few friends and I engaged in a conversation about the ways that sometimes people will look at me and say, “Well, what do you think, Dave…will you say a little prayer about this for us?”

What, exactly, is “a little prayer”? Is it a brief prayer telling God what we think we need and which he already knows? I’m ok with those kind of prayers. Or is “a little prayer” an incantation that we send out when it doesn’t seem like anything else is going to work, anyway?

Prayer is a powerful gift. But it’s not magic. I have to remember that when you shake my hand and tell me that your family reunion is on Saturday and will I please pray for good weather – and then the next person through the line reminds me that she’s planted more tomatoes than ever before, so will I please pray for rain. I can only pray for us to experience God’s best in the place God has given us. That’s not magic, and it’s not a little prayer. It’s recognizing the power that is given in the context of a relationship with the Lord of all creation.

The third thing that I notice about the church in Ephesus is the stark contrast between the faithful, intentional, long-term ministry that the church is seeking to build and the fly-by-night hocus-pocus that the Sons of Sceva are attempting to sell – and the ways that that contrast is an invitation to the church in Ephesus to take a step forward in faith and demonstrate what really happens when a people know not just his name, but Jesus himself.

In our context, I think that begs the question, “How do we create a climate that constantly invites deeper growth and maturity in faith?” To put it another way, are we showing up at worship because we want some of the “good luck blessings” that seem to come to Jesus’ friends to rub off on us? Or are we growing in our ability to trust that Jesus, not chance, rules the world; that service and humility, not fame and fortune, are the hallmarks of successful living; and that obedience, not convenience, is what God wants from us?

I was getting ready to assist in a baptism in Malawi when my friend Pastor Ralph engaged in an animated conversation with the young couple who’d brought their daughter forward. The baby was wearing a lovely little necklace, and Ralph spoke sharply and pointed his bony finger at the parents, then roughly grabbed the necklace and threw it to the ground, grinding it to dust with his heel.

I discovered that the “necklace” was an amulet given to the baby by the local witch doctor, who had assured the parents that if their daughter wore the charm, she’d be protected from all evil spirits and bodily harm. Ralph insisted that when we baptize our babies, we aren’t guaranteeing them anything – we’re insisting that they grow up knowing that they belong to God and are called for his purposes. He said, “Look, you can’t have it both ways – are you going to worship the god of the witch doctor, or learn the Way of Christ?”

In our world, we face a similar choice. Every year at this time, I get a litany of complaints about the fact that the sports leagues schedule their games on Sunday mornings and how we wish that Johnny could come to church, but he made a promise to the team to show up there, too.

Now, hear what I’m saying, people. Pastor Dave is not capping on the folks who have to go to Dance recitals or softball games. And Pastor Dave is not making the world a place where it’s all black and white, and where church is the only place that God’s intentions are revealed. After all, if we act like that, we’re acting as if this place is magical and we’re treating our baptism like it’s the good-luck charm.

But Pastor Dave is (in addition to talking about himself in the third person) saying that we have a responsibility to learn for ourselves, and to help our children learn, that our primary identity is that of being part of the Family of God. How and where and when we choose to work, to shop, to socialize, to engage in the day-to-day aspects of living are reflective of the values that underpin those choices. Seeing ourselves as the family of faith who wear the name and carry the power of Christ in this place means that there will be days when we go for the team event or the family reunion because Christ plays in those arenas, too. But it will also mean that we integrate our spiritual lives into the fabric of those other areas so that we play, shop, eat, and vote in ways that reflect the glory of God.

St. Paul and the Burning of the Pagan Books at Ephesus, Lucio Massari (1569-1633)

St. Paul and the Burning of the Pagan Books at Ephesus, Lucio Massari (1569-1633)

The rest of Acts 19 describes in vivid detail a riot that ensues when the church in Ephesus lives into its call to walk in faith in humility before God. In particular, the local metal workers create a disturbance when they realize that if everyone adopts the Way of Christianity, then the market for their shiny idols will drop and they’ll lose business. The Church, carrying and living the name and power of Christ, represented a real threat to the status quo and the powers of the day. We can do the same thing, you know. In fact, we are called to do so.

What if our embrace of the radical call to follow Jesus prompts us to follow the example of the church in Ephesus?

Listen: the early church was filled with people who believed in Jesus AND in sorcery and witchcraft – until they saw what happened to folks like the Sons of Sceva. Then the believers in Ephesus decided that they needed to purge their homes of the scrolls and books that guided them in that aspect of spirituality. We read where they burnt their libraries – worth 50,000 silver pieces – because they felt as though those libraries were holding them back in their ability to follow Jesus effectively. A silver piece was a day’s wage – so if I do the math right, that’s more than 150 years worth of wages for a single person. It’s a huge number…and it represents the fact that the Christian community was willing to pass on something that was attractive in order to gain that which was eternally important.

Do you need to purge something from your life today? If you are going to be a follower of Jesus in ways that bring forth power and really make a difference in the world, what do you need to set aside?

Maybe you need to trust God to be your comfort, not the rocky road ice cream or the drive-through at the Taco Bell. Maybe you need to quit looking for relaxation and “inner peace” by zoning out with bad television or substance abuse. Maybe you even need to stop spending so much time doing something good so that you can be fully engaged by something great. I don’t know what it is for you – but I know that the Lord Jesus Christ is calling you to drop anything that stands between you and whole-hearted obedience so that his name and power are more clearly seen in your life.

Ruins of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus

Ruins of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus

I had the privilege to visit Ephesus about six years ago. I went to the site of the Temple of Artemis – one of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.” I saw the temples that were built to the local goddess, and the images in stone and marble that had once been incredibly beautiful but now bear witness to decay and death.

DSC01388

The Grand Theater, Ephesus

I served communion in the Coliseum where the riot described in Acts 19 took place, and where Christians later met their deaths at the hands of gladiators or the claws of beasts.

And as impressive as all of that old architecture was, I was more overwhelmed by the power of the Name that was proclaimed in the homes and churches of this ancient city. Scratched into a paving stone in the ancient sidewalk was a small, insignificant shape – it looks a little like a pizza – but it is the coded shape that the earliest believers used to say “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Savior.” The graffiti has lasted as long, or longer, than the temples to the idols. And the message it represents is eternal: the Gospel of Christ that freed slaves and fed the hungry and drove out demons and unleashed dreams… May we be able to receive the call to purity so that we can focus on that which is most important even as we hope for the transformation of what we see before us.

Using the lines of this shape, you can make the Greek Letters for I, C, T, H, U, S - the early acronym indicating the lordship of Christ.

Using the lines of this shape, you can make the Greek Letters for I, C, T, H, U, S – the early acronym indicating the lordship of Christ.

If we are able to commit ourselves to seeking the truth of Jesus single-mindedly, we probably won’t become famous here or anywhere else. But we’ll be participating in the kind of lifestyle that builds the Kingdom in our children and grandchildren – the only Kingdom that will last forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Church on the Move: Antioch

The church in Crafton Heights is using the time between Easter and Pentecost to consider how the earliest Christians grew from being timid, hesitant “followers” to being bold, courageous “apostles”.  In so doing, we’ll visit some churches around the ancient world and seek to learn from our older brothers and sisters in faith.  On May 4, we considered the little town of Antioch in Pisidia, and the controversy that took place when the Gentiles were included.  You can read about it in Acts 13 (note that there are TWO Antiochs in this chapter).  

The women behind the registration table were staring at me as if I had come from outer space. Finally, the one in the middle regained her composure and said, “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t catch your name. You would be…”

I simply pointed to the little nametag in front of her, and to my name on the list of those who had RSVP’d, and said “Him. That’s me. Rev. David Carver.”

She smiled, looked at the list again, at me, at the list, and finally, she slid the nametag toward me and said, “Of course, you’re Rev. Carver. The Secretary and other guests are down the hallway in the room on the left.”

President George Bush and his Secretary of Education, Rod Paige.

President George Bush and his Secretary of Education, Rod Paige.

Some weeks before, I had received an embossed envelope from the White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC. The then-Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, was going to have a series of meetings with inner-city pastors in an attempt to rally their support behind President Bush’s initiative called “No Child Left Behind.” The ornate invitation indicated that Secretary Paige was eager to meet with me and others of my station.

The meeting was scheduled for one of the downtown hotels, and there were all sorts of signs welcoming both Secretary Paige and the urban pastors. Finding the registration was easy. The four women behind the table, presumably volunteers from one of the congregations, were all African-American. And, as I said, they were all rather surprised to see me.

GeorgeWashingtonCarverWhen I went down the hall and into the conference room, I realized why they were so shocked. There were probably fifty people in the room, and forty-nine of them were men of color. Clearly, when the White House sent out the invitations, and they saw my name, they assumed that I was from the George Washington Carver branch of the family tree. And if you look in phone books, particularly in the southern part of our country, you’ll find that many of the Carvers are named Roosevelt, or Tyrone, or Otis – names that carry a certain ethnic implication. When lunch was served, Pastor Woodworth and myself were the only Caucasians in the room – a circumstance that was handled gracefully by everyone involved, even though it was clear that we were not the target demographic.

“What are you doing here?”

“Who let them in?”

We have all experienced that at some point or another, I suppose. Who is included in “we” and “us”, and what are we going to do about “them”?

The Covenant with Abram, by Michael Winters.  Used by permission of the artist.  For more: http://daniel-montgomery-sojourn.com/images-of-our-shared-history/

Count the Stars, by Michael Winters. Used by permission of the artist. For more: http://daniel-montgomery-sojourn.com/images-of-our-shared-history/

Jesus and his earliest followers were all Jewish. Jesus saw himself as the unfolding of all that God had been doing since the beginning of the world. God had made the world to be beautiful and perfect, but sin interrupted that and brokenness and division seemed to reign. God steps in, all the way back in Genesis, and promises to straighten what has been twisted, and we read of how God, in Abram, called a people to himself. He does this, he says, so that all the people of the world might be blessed (Gen 12:3). These people who are called, whom we come to know as the Jews, are then shaped by a series of behaviors and practices as they continue to point to the promise of God’s blessing for all. And finally, two thousand years ago, Jesus said, “I am that blessing. I am that to which you have been pointing.”

Many of the people who had been longing for the fulfillment of the promise believed him. As we discussed last week, those first followers of Jesus became apostles, who were sent out to proclaim the good news of this promise and its fulfillment to those who had been waiting for it and to those who did not even know that a promise like that existed!

However, they soon discovered that some of those folks who were living lives that were shaped by certain behaviors and practices were more committed to the behaviors and practices than they were to the promise itself! For many people, “being faithful” was less a matter of holding to the promise, looking to God, and wanting to participate in what God was doing than it was a matter of what you wore, what you ate, and who you spent time with.

St. Paul Preaching in Athens, by Raphael (c. 1515)

St. Paul Preaching in Athens, by Raphael (c. 1515)

The book of Acts is full of situations where someone shows up to a group of those who believed themselves to be called by God and said, “Hey! I have great news! I’m here to tell you how God has kept his promise!”, and the reply is, essentially, “Not wearing that you’re not! Not with those people, you’re not.”

Acts 13 is a description of how some people refused to hear the apostles’ message because it was far too inclusive for their tastes, even when the Old Testament is full of reminders that the promise is intended for all of creation and the call is to care for all people. And by the end of the chapter, which is our reading for this morning, we are confronted with a reality in which the Holy Spirit is alive and active and moving; a community through which joy and hope and love are flowing. It’s just that those things are not present in the community that for so long had been a steward of the promises of God.

In fact, the community of those who had been called by God was so hostile to the messengers that God’s Spirit had sent that they persecute the apostles, who wind up leaving town and shaking its dust from their feet.

I want to make sure that we point out that the people who persecuted the first Apostles were not bad people. The folks who filled the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia were decent, honest, God-fearing people.

They were people who for generations had been committed to preserving what was. They wanted to sustain the truth. They hoped to point to the promise.

And these good, loyal, stalwart people are suddenly confronted with a group of apostles who are more excited about dreaming of what could be than they were about conserving what was; they were more eager to share the truth than they were to sustain or steward it; and they said that they were called to carry the promise, not merely point to it.

Do you see the difficulty? The people who had lived in Pisidia for years were like a group of folks who owned a car that they kept in nice condition, and every now and then, if you cleaned yourself up right and asked nicely, they’d take you out for a little spin. But the Apostles came barging in talking about good news and grace in Jesus Christ were like the outspoken neighbors who didn’t just have the car, they tossed you the keys and invited you to go give it a whirl yourself, whenever you needed to.

And when those Apostles started talking to the Gentiles about the way that God’s blessing was available to them, well, that was too much. If we let them in, then how in the world are we going to keep control of where this is heading?

Yes, the folks in Antioch saw what was happening, and they acted fast. If they were going to preserve their habits, customs, and way of life, then these new folks were going to have to leave. They were pushing the boundaries a little – no, a lot – too far.

Last week, we spent time with the church in Jerusalem, and we saw that it was a church of survivors and witnesses – those who had lived through the ministry years with Jesus, and followed him, and been taught by him. In the days after the resurrection, that church became empowered and somehow changed from a group of tired, timid, deniers and betrayers into a force of bold, energetic, zealous missionaries.

EarlyChurchThat boldness got them into trouble, and some of their number were killed by the authorities, and the church then scattered. Some of those apostles wound up in a town called Antioch in Syria, an important city in the Roman Empire. The congregation in Antioch became a hub of early Christianity, and in fact was the church that really became known as the sending church – men and women like Paul and Barnabas and Priscilla and Aquila were empowered for ministry by that congregation. And some of those men and women found themselves in places like Antioch in Pisidia (just for point of reference, the difference between Syrian Antioch and Pisidian Antioch is like the difference between Washington, DC and Washington, PA – that is to say, a huge difference!). And it was in little, out-of-the-way places like Pisidian Antioch that the rubber met the road for the first Apostles. They had been emboldened, and they were sent, and then they told of what they knew. And the world was changed by the promise they carried – and shared.

It seems that there are several implications for the church in the 21st century. Chief among these, I’d suggest, is that we cannot be more in love with the way that we do things now than we are with Jesus.

We can’t love our music more than we love the One about whom and to whom we sing. We can’t love our clothing more than we love the One for whom we get dressed up. We can’t love our building more than we love the One to whom it is dedicated.

More than that, I cannot love my whiteness, my maleness, or my ideas about what it means to be a person who inhabits race and gender more than I love the One who created me in some degree of whiteness and maleness. I cannot be more committed to my wealth or my American-ness than I am to the One to whom I must render an account of how I used that wealth and citizenship in His service. Do you see? HE must come first, and my ideas and practices and habits and theories about Him, about me, about you, and about “them” must come afterward, and in the light of, HIM.

I understand – I really do – the conflict that filled the synagogue that day. Because while things aren’t perfect, I’m at least used to them. And I don’t like change. And I am a little afraid of if we do things differently, then we will lose meaning. But the promise itself is always more important than the things that we do that point to the promise.

Another implication for us is that we have got to remember that no one of us has a lock on the truth. We know our story, and we may know it well. But we only know our story – and we have got to learn the other’s. The way that God’s goodness and grace have come to me may not have much in common with the ways that they have come to you, and neither your experience nor mine may be of great use in helping that person over there to see God’s goodness and grace. Because, thankfully, God is God, and I am not. God has, and is, the truth. I can only point to it from my little corner of the balcony.

And if we remember to love Jesus more than we love our ideas about Jesus, and if we remember that we only know some of what there is to know, then we can be free to look for the fruit that is growing where the Spirit of God is present. Where is there joy? Where is there love? Where is there kindness, or truth, or justice, or hope? When we see those things, can we go to where they are and celebrate?

When we leave this worship today, can we commit to pointing to the promise in all of the ways that we know how – and trust that the promise is greater than our ability to understand or explain it?

“What are you doing here?” I got an invitation from the guest of honor. So did you. That’s all that matters. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Church on the Move: Jerusalem

The Sunday after Easter found the saints in Crafton Heights trying to do the same thing that the first followers of Jesus did: explore the process growing from being merely “disciples” (students) who were a step behind Jesus for three years to being “apostles” (those who are sent) carrying the Good News of the reign of God into the world.  Our scriptural basis was Acts 4, selected verses.

Star Trek captainsWho was the best captain of the USS Enterprise? Are you a fan of Captain Kirk? Or do you go with Jean-Luc Picard? Which Star Trek is your favorite? The original? The Next Generation? Deep Space Nine? Voyager? Enterprise?

I’m thinking about spin-offs this morning. In television, a spin-off is defined as a series in which some characters, setting, or ideas have come from an existing show. We met Dr. Frasier Crane on Cheers, but he had a much deeper character after he moved out to Seattle with his own show. The Oprah Show has spawned Dr. Oz and Rachael Ray, and just think about all the different Law and Order or CSI programming that fills the airwaves.

St. Luke, as seen by an unknown artist.

St. Luke, as seen by an unknown artist.

This week, we’re going to begin looking at certain aspects of a sequel that we find in the Bible. Our New Testament contains a two-volume set that features an exploration of who Jesus was and the effect he had on his world. We know volume I as the Gospel of Luke, and it introduces us to Jesus of Nazareth: his birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection. The same author wrote volume II: the book of Acts, a spin-off that focuses on the ways that the Holy Spirit moves in and through the community that came together after Jesus left this earth.

Like any good spin-off, much of the story line remains the same. Many of the characters and settings look familiar. But just as The Jeffersons moved on and up from Archie Bunker’s All in the Family, there are some significant differences in the plot lines and character development between Luke and Acts. There are two differences that strike me especially this morning.

First, when Luke’s gospel tells us about the people who associated with Jesus, they are usually called “disciples”. The Greek word for that, mathetes, most often means “learner” or “apprentice”. But when the action shifts over into the book of Acts, these same people are called “apostles”. An apostle does not merely follow along, like a disciple, but is sent out on a specific task, or with a message. Something happened that caused a change in the ways that these men and women saw themselves and were viewed by the world – there was a deepening of character, an enlargement of mission, and a heightening of responsibilities.

It's only about 90 miles from Capernaum to Jerusalem.

It’s only about 90 miles from Capernaum to Jerusalem.

And the other thing worth noting this morning is that all of the action in Volume I (Luke’s gospel) takes place in Galilee or Jerusalem. Jesus and the disciples lived and worked and taught in a fairly small area of a rather remote part of the world.

By the end of the fourth century, the Gospel had spread through much of the known world.

By the end of the fourth century, the Gospel had spread through much of the known world.

And yet the book of Acts describes a group of apostles who travel the entire Roman Empire as they seek to carry out their calling. The Gospel shows us the church in training, and Acts shows us the church on the move.

The lynchpin in this, of course, is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. That is, I believe, the seminal weekend in human history – and it changed reality for the disciples and the rest of us.

I am fascinated by the shift from disciple to apostle, and for the next few weeks we will be considering the characteristics of this community that grows among and around these early Christians. How are they transformed from a frightened group of tentative followers and learners to being self-assured, confident agents of the risen Christ? What changes them from a group of deniers and betrayers to a community that was known for its willingness to die not only for its convictions and beliefs, but for each other? I believe that much of the groundwork for this change took place in the time between the first Easter and the festival of Pentecost, which was seven weeks afterwards. We will mark “the birthday of the church” on Pentecost Sunday, June 8, this year, and between now and then, we’ll look at the places that the early church went and consider how they were able to grow into the ministry that Jesus gave to them.

St Peter Preaching in the Presence of St Mark, Fra Angelico (c. 1433)

St Peter Preaching in the Presence of St Mark,  Fra Angelico (c. 1433)

Today, we find the apostles in Jerusalem, just a few months after the resurrection of Jesus. Peter and John have emerged as the public “face” of the Jesus movement, and they are preaching to a primarily Jewish audience. There is some real receptivity to the message, and we read of great miracles and mass conversions that take place. There are three thousand new believers in Acts 2:41, and the number has climbed upwards of five thousand by the time we get to Acts 4:4.

The author of Acts presents us with a dynamic tension between the leaders of the establishment religion and the new Jesus way. Peter and John are “uneducated, common men”, while the leaders of the people are “rulers and elders and scribes…”

This isn’t the first time in the Bible that we read about a conflict between someone who has some measure of earthly power or prestige and someone who has been given a charge or a story to tell. The scriptures are full of accounts that describe what happens when someone who is commissioned to tell of God’s new thing is forced to deal with the status quo. And here’s a tip: in the Bible, whenever there’s a choice between someone who has a title and someone who carries a testimony – always bet on the testimony.

Last week, we had the privilege of hearing Tony Campolo preach. A long time ago, Tony taught me that Pharaoh had all of the prestige and the power. He carried the title. But Moses had the testimony and the presence of the Lord. Ahab, Nebuchadnezzar, and Xerxes had titles. But Elijah, Daniel, and Esther had the testimonies. Pontius Pilate, according to those in the know, had all of the best titles. But Jesus had the real power, didn’t he? And now, once again, we see the powerful and the titled seeking to limit the presence and authority of those whom God has sent. If you have any familiarity with the way that the Bible is written, you know who is going to come out ahead in this exchange: God makes a way for those who testify to what he is doing.

But how do you get a testimony? How does one go about obtaining that kind of authority? It seems to me that the church in Jerusalem teaches us two things about living into that kind of faith.

In verse 20, we read that Peter and John stood up to the authorities by saying, “Look, we’ve got to obey God, not other humans.” As they say this, we are given a glimpse into a fascinating pattern in the book of Acts regarding the relationship between God’s words and human response. Throughout this book, there is a strong correlation between God’s moving into the community and God’s speaking truth and then the apostles and other faithful believers pointing to that truth with their actions.

We see in this episode the imperative of knowing God’s word – of studying scripture and digesting it, of savoring it, of understanding what the intentions of God are in the world – so that when it is time for action, the church is not groping blindly, but rather doing exactly what God would have us do. And the only way that we can know what we ought to do is to be alive with the Word that is from God. As the church moves in Jerusalem, it is a church characterized by obedience – even when that kind of obedience winds up costing the church something, as it clearly does when Peter and John wind up in prison.

Many-Christian-victims-of-persecutionAnd when that kind of trouble comes to Peter and John, I’m fascinated by their response. If you or I were to be arrested or taken away, I think that I would join the early church and pray. But I confess that my prayers would not sound like those we read a few moments ago. I think that I’d be praying for safety or for deliverance or for protection. I’d ask God to guard you and make sure that nothing bad happens to you.

But that’s not how the Jerusalem church prays, is it? The prayer of the earliest church is, “Lord, make us bold.” Help us to do that which is right – even when it scares us.

Can you imagine the disciples – even at the Last Supper – praying a prayer like that? But somehow, the power of the resurrection was such that it changed these men and women into a cohesive group with a common testimony – that Jesus Christ is lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Can you imagine me or you praying a prayer like that? How can we grow from mildly interested, sort-of-religious people who don’t mind getting up early on Sundays as long as there’s free coffee and the knucklehead up front lets us sing at least some of the music we really like into a body of believers who boldly proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in acts of healing, love, sacrifice, and joy? I mean, that’s an amazing transformation, isn’t it? Or wouldn’t it be? Is it possible for us to grow from being disciples to being apostles?

crossroads.jpg.w300h225It is, if today we are attentive to the places where God is speaking. If we are willing to dive into the scripture and ask God to help us interpret it truly and rightly. If we are willing to sit with our sisters and brothers and hear from them what they think the Bible might be saying, and be willing to share a word as to what we think God is up to.

And we might grow into apostles if we are willing to ask for boldness to walk in God’s ways – and then to set our directions and go in those ways. For some of us, that might mean standing up for someone who is being bullied; it might mean drawing attention to an injustice that needs to be corrected; it might mean that we commit ourselves to providing some resources that others may need to experience God’s best in their lives. Those are frightening steps for some of us, but ones to which we may be called.

For others, though, it may be that there are some bold steps that need to be taken that will cause us pain or discomfort. Perhaps you are in a relationship that is toxic to you, but you can’t bring yourself to end or change it. Maybe you need to come out from behind a lie, or own up to something in your life that is not right, and ask God (and each other) to help make things different. Maybe you need to be bold to ask God to help you do what you feel you cannot do – and cannot even desire doing – on your own.

In either case, there’s a warning to be found here. When Peter, John, and the Jerusalem church practiced obedience and boldness in their faith, they were not transformed into superheroes or celebrities. They were still “ordinary, uneducated men”. But because they were willing to act with such bold obedience, the world around them saw God better.

The scenery is different, and the characters have changed. But the plot remains the same, my friends. Let’s do a spin-off right here – let’s move First Church, Crafton Heights, from a church full of disciples to one populated with apostles. Let us commit to walking obediently and praying with boldness to the end that we might be given the opportunity to testify to what God desires in his people and his world. Thanks be to God! Amen.