Whaddya Call It?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On February 11 we considered three groups with whom Jesus was associated: disciples, “unclean spirits”, and apostles.  Our scriptures included Mark 3:7-19 and II Peter 1:16-18 To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Does what you call something affect what it really is? Do job titles matter? These are the things that I think about when you leave me alone for too long.

For instance, did you know that the BAI beverage corporation has a CFO – “Chief Flavor Officer”, and that position is held, I kid you not, by musician Justin Timberlake. Microsoft employs someone with the title of “Galactic Viceroy of Research Excellence”. Google pays someone to be their “In-House Philosopher”, and a man named Richard Scheuerman has been featured on the Food Network as a “Shredded Cheese Authority”. Time Magazine recently hired a “Bacon Critic” and Mr. Bernie Paton of Oakland, CA, is a “Bear Biologist and Paper Folder”.

As I thought about that, I remembered the 1995 film The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down a Mountain. That tells the mostly true story of Taff’s Well, a village near the border between England and Wales. They’d billed themselves as “the first mountain inside Wales”, and had a hospitality industry that catered to climbers from Britain. In 1910, a team of cartographers visited the town and discovered that their peak, Ffynnon Garw, is only 986 feet above sea level and therefore must be termed a “hill” and not a “mountain”. Enraged, and afraid of losing their tourist attraction, the locals conspire to strand the map-makers in the town until they can build a pile of rocks at the top of the hill. The scientists re-measure, and determine that the highest part of the structure is actually 1002 feet and therefore, officially, the first mountain inside Wales.

That matters because in today’s Gospel reading, Mark throws around a lot of labels and job titles, and I think that they have an implication for our lives today.

In Mark 3:9, we see that Jesus counts on a group of people known as “disciples” to get things done. The Greek word that we find there, mathétés, is used to describe one who is a “learner” or a “follower”. When Latin became the official language of the church, mathétés became discipulus, from the root word disco, meaning “to learn”. It also spawned one of the most awesome band names of the 1980’s: the Disco Disciples.

We read of disciples who listen, serve, worship, and generally clear the way for Jesus to do a lot of stuff. Like most Rabbis, Jesus relied on his disciples for a lot of things. In the Gospels, disciples prepare boats, ask fantastic set-up questions, bring friends, fix dinner, and (as we’ve already seen with Levi) throw amazing parties. We like the disciples, Jesus likes the disciples, and everyone agrees that Jesus’ ministry was really strengthened by the team of disciples that he gathered around him.

One of the Earliest Known Images of Jesus – Coptic Museum, Cairo (3rd century)

Because these folks were important to Jesus and to the world around him, we know some of them. So let me ask you, how many disciples did Jesus have? Some people might say 12; Luke mentions a group of either 70 or 72, and later in Acts he says that by that time the group numbered about 120. It seems that the number of disciples was fluid, and increased as Jesus’ ministry matured.

The role of disciple is crucial throughout the history of the church and even today, of course. In fact, if you look at the Annual Report of the congregation, you’ll find that this church has not one, but two groups of people who are officially termed “Discipleship Teams”. We need those who are committed to creating conditions whereby people can become hearers and listeners and learners and doers so that the way is cleared for Jesus’ message to get through. Disciples take care of kids in the church nursery and set up chairs, make copies, and track administrative data. The body of Christ, no less today than two thousand years ago, would be nowhere without faithful disciples.

The next group that Jesus encounters are termed “the unclean spirits”. Whereas most of the people around Jesus either have no clue who he is, or (like the disciples) are just beginning to get an idea about this, the unclean spirits are constantly shouting the truth: Jesus is the Son of God; they know Jesus to be the Holy One. Yet as soon as these spirits begin to acknowledge the truth about who Jesus is, he shuts them up and forbids them from speaking.

Think about that for a moment – he’s constantly gathering followers around him, trying to teach them, helping them to see something of who he is…and much of the time, they don’t get it. Yet as soon as he walks into the room, unclean spirits recognize him for who he is and announce it – and they are told to remain silent.

It seems to me that the implication here is that you don’t get to talk about Jesus until you show that you have listened to Jesus and been shaped by him. These spirits know the truth – but they don’t really know Jesus.

Similarly, our world today is filled with those who claim to speak for, or at least about, Jesus but who seem to be ignorant of what he really was. There are so-called authorities who are happy to yell out that Jesus wants you to be rich, happy, thin, and young. Spirits cry out that Jesus prefers a particular system of government or a political party. We’re told by “leading teachers” that Jesus wants you to protect yourself and your family from “those people” at all costs. Worst of all are the voices who cry out that Jesus hates the gays, the foreigners, those on the left or those on the right.

Before you invest any of your time and energy listening to these people, ask yourself, “Is that person actually spending time with Jesus? Does he or she look, or act, or think, like Jesus would?” When someone claims to tell me who Jesus would hate, or bomb, or ostracize, or destroy… I have to question the spirit that is driving that discussion, and often times it’s hard to believe that it is indeed a spirit of the Christ behind those sentiments.

Ethiopian Icon featuring the Twelve

The third group of folks with whom Jesus spends time in our Gospel reading for today are called apostles, from the Greek word apostolos. That word refers to a messenger, an ambassador, or a delegate: one who has been commissioned to convey a particular message or accomplish a specific task.

Let’s play a game that we’ve already played once this morning: how many apostles did Jesus have?

I know, the “gimme” answer seems to be twelve, because that’s what is listed here. But later on, after Judas abandons his post, the eleven believe that Matthias is called to join their number. Moreover, the New Testament refers to Barnabas, Paul, Andronicus, Junia (who happened to be a woman, by the way!), Timothy, Silas, and Apollos as apostolos.

Like disciples, the apostles were incredibly important to Jesus and to the later church. We should note that in today’s reading, all the apostles are disciples, but not all disciples are apostles.

The apostles are called to be “with” Jesus. They are given authority to cast out those unclean spirits and demons and to proclaim the message of Christ. Throughout the New Testament, the Apostles are taking trips on Jesus’ behalf; they are preaching and healing and generally speaking for Jesus (which sets them apart from both the unclean spirits and the disciples). In reflecting on this, Peter wrote to his friends, essentially, “Look, it’s not like we had a choice or anything: we saw it with our own eyes. You can’t make this stuff up! Jesus was the real deal, and we were compelled to share it with you all.”

So what does all of that mean in our context?

Here’s a clue: when the language of the church transitioned from Greek to Latin, the Greek apostolos was sometimes simply shifted to the Latin apostolo; however, the preferred term was often the Latin word missio. As in “mission”, or, in this context, “missionary”.

How many of you here today are anticipating being a part of a Mission Trip this week? Can you believe it? We have seventeen adults who have some level of connection with this congregation who are preparing to leave next Sunday morning for Houston, Texas. When we get to the Pittsburgh Airport, we’ll be joined by another dozen from the John McMillan church in Bethel Park. Almost 30 people who are taking time away from their so-called “normal” lives in order to dwell with each other and the folks on the Gulf coast of Texas who have suffered through the horror of Hurricane Harvey.

And we are calling this a “Mission Trip”. Why? Because we believe that framing walls and cleaning out muck and removing moldy drywall and laying new sewage lines and helping people sift through generations of family mementos and memories are all a part of demonstrating and proclaiming the reconciling work of God in Jesus Christ. We use that terminology because we have gathered in this place and heard the call of Jesus and sought to follow – that is, we have become disciples; and now we understand that we are being given an opportunity to share in the purposes of God in the context of the Texas Gulf coast, and therefore we are sent as apostolos. The labels matter. If this is indeed a mission trip – and I am convinced that it is – then that makes the 29 of us missionaries, right? We are called to become that which we are sent to accomplish.

So, that takes care of a couple dozen of us… is that what we’re here to talk about? 29 people planning a mission trip this week? What about the rest of us? What are you planning to do?

Let me ask you this:

Is the healing power of Jesus Christ needed on the campus over at CCAC this week?

Are there people with whom you work who need to hear a word of grace, encouragement, or hope?

Would the scene at the grocery store, your family’s dinner table, a blind date, or a board meeting be improved by the presence, spirit, power, and love of Jesus of Nazareth?

In short, would our world be better if the stuff that we talked about while we’re in this room somehow managed to find its way out there? Would the lives of our neighbors be blessed if some of the life and ministry and teaching and love and hope and justice of Jesus was lived and shared and conveyed into the arenas in which those neighbors live and work and play?

Yeah, yeah, yeah… now that you mention it, Pastor, it would. But how is it going to get there? How?

If only there were people in this room today who were willing and able to hear from Jesus; someone who wanted to learn from him and follow him around as he does such amazing things in our world… if only there were people like that who would also be liable to show up on campus or at work or in relationships with neighbors and family later this week. But where could we possibly find people who are both here, with Jesus as followers, and out there in the world that he loves?

You might have come in here willing to be a disciple. And that’s great. It’s a fine job title. Yet I hope and pray that you will find in you a hunger to become an apostle. Next week a fraction of us will be going to Texas. My deep prayer is that each of us would recognize that we are being sent on a mission. Oh, that all of our trips would be mission trips.

Thanks be to God, they can be – because that is who you are.

Hear our prayer, O Lord.

Amen.

Bridges and Harbors and People I Love

Our congregation ended the month of August 2016 by sending our friends Michael and Rachel Weller back to Ethiopia after a season in which we had enjoyed each other’s company for eight months.  You can read more about their ongoing work as mission co-workers by clicking here.  Our texts for the day included Luke 10:1-12 and selected verses from Romans 16 (included below).  

 

If you have spent any time with me on the river this year, you’ve probably been forced to hear me wax poetically about two bridges that exist almost side by side on the Allegheny River just upstream from the Point.

The Northside terminus of the 16th Street Bridge

The Northside terminus of the 16th Street Bridge

The Sixteenth Street Bridge (also called the David McCullough bridge) is my favorite span in the city. It is a thing of beauty and strength as it connects the North Side and the Strip District. I love the sculptures – winged seahorses in spheres – that symbolize the four corners of the earth; I love the engravings of fish and of Poseidon that adorn the columns; and I love the fact that you can walk across it. It’s a bridge that points to awe and wonder and reminds us that it’s good for communities to be connected to each other and we ought not to take that for granted.

Veterans Memorial Bridge

Veterans Memorial Bridge

Just downstream from that structure is the Veterans’ Bridge, an imposing platform that whisks traffic from Interstate 279 to Interstate 376 as quickly and efficiently as possible. It is a giant, ugly conveyance that seems to regard the communities over which it towers as little more than distractions or inconveniences. The only way to cross that bridge is in a vehicle, preferably as fast as you can – because that bridge is not designed to create wonder or awe or thanksgiving – it’s designed to get people from someplace way over there to someplace way over there as smoothly and rapidly as possible. “Here” does not matter to those on the Veterans’ Bridge.

And if we were in a boat under those bridges, I’d tell you that I think the Church of Jesus Christ ought to be more like the Sixteenth Street Bridge than the Veterans’ Bridge. The Church ought to create wonder and awe as we celebrate connections that can be made and progress that can be measured.

Carrie Furnace Hot Metal Bridge

Carrie Furnace Hot Metal Bridge

And as I pondered this, I drove my boat under the Carrie Furnace Hot Metal Bridge, which goes from Homestead to, well, something that isn’t there anymore. And it occurred to me that a lot of our churches are more like this bridge than either the Sixteenth Street or the Veterans’ Bridges. That is to say, someone has gone to a lot of trouble to create an elaborate structure, characterized by strong support systems and rock-solid foundations – and yet, that structure doesn’t really go anywhere, make any connections, or lead to any accessibility. In terms of functionality, the Carrie Furnace Hot Metal Bridge is a useless relic.

That said, if you offered me a chance to visit one of these bridges this afternoon… I’d choose the Carrie Furnace, hands down. I think it’s fascinating.

Why does any of this matter?

Because I realized a long time ago that I would have made a horrible apostle – at least initially.

This is my idea of a great day!

This is my idea of a great day!

I think I would have been a great disciple. It would have been so cool following Jesus around, engaging in long, drawn out conversations about stuff that really matters, and having deep and intimate relationships with other followers. I like that kind of stuff. And so when I heard Jesus say, “Pray that God will send out some people to do God’s business in the world,” man, I’d be all over that prayer. “Come on, Matthew, Andrew – let’s pray that God sends some people!” And then, after the prayer, before I can say, “Hey, Simon, what are you doing for lunch? I know this great shawarma place over in Capernaum…”, Jesus says “Go! I am sending you!”

Um, really? Me?

Look, I understand if you don’t believe me now, but the truth is that “Go!” is not my first nature. I’ve learned something, and there will be more about that in a moment. But if I had been in charge of the early church, it would have looked much, much different.

We’d have been hanging out together, and we surely would have missed Jesus after his ascension and all that. And I’d make sure that we got together each night for a little singing, and then I’d probably ask some awkward and intrusive questions that made you want to avoid eye contact for a while. We’d keep building the relationships amongst the disciples, and we’d dive deeper and deeper into that small group…

Yet fortunately for everyone who’s ever lived, I was not in charge, then or now. The first disciples (translated from the Greek word for “follower”) were shaped to become the first apostles (translated from the Greek for “one who is sent out”). And as that happened, they left the relative safety of their own homes and culture and families, leaving the delight of constant relationships with each other in order to follow God’s call into the rest of the world.

If it had been me, we’d have hung around in Jerusalem, Bethsaida, or wherever, mooning and spooning about the good old days and wondering if God would ever use us again. But thanks be to God, the real Apostles did what Jesus told them to do.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure that the intimate relationships continued. You know that when Peter and John were in the same town, they got together and prayed and talked and maybe even sang a few of the old songs. I am certain that personal relationships are the fabric from which the church was created.

The text that taught me that was today’s Epistle reading, Romans chapter 16. This chapter, incidentally, is the number one reason you have never signed up to be a reader in church – because you’re afraid that I’m going to stick you with something like this.

Here’s the background: Paul, the Apostle who traveled the most, is also the Apostle who left the best record of his deep and intense personal connections with people. Here, he closes his letter to the church in Rome, which happens to be one of the heaviest theological treatises in the New Testament, with a list of names. In so doing, Paul turns the discourse on correct theology and Christology into a love letter as he names names, sparks memories, and points to the web of relationships that sustains the church.

I’m going to read it now, and in the split second that you hear a name, try to imagine each name as a real person; someone with a story, a home, a friendship, and a joy. Listen for the intimacy that is here…

Be sure to welcome our friend Phoebe in the way of the Master, with all the generous hospitality we Christians are famous for. I heartily endorse both her and her work. She’s a key representative of the church at Cenchrea. Help her out in whatever she asks. She deserves anything you can do for her. She’s helped many a person, including me.

Say hello to Priscilla and Aquila, who have worked hand in hand with me in serving Jesus. They once put their lives on the line for me. And I’m not the only one grateful to them. All the non-Jewish gatherings of believers also owe them plenty, to say nothing of the church that meets in their house.

Hello to my dear friend Epenetus. He was the very first follower of Jesus in the province of Asia.

Hello to Mary. What a worker she has turned out to be!

Hello to my cousins Andronicus and Junias. We once shared a jail cell. They were believers in Christ before I was. Both of them are outstanding leaders.

Hello to Ampliatus, my good friend in the family of God.

Hello to Urbanus, our companion in Christ’s work, and my good friend Stachys.

Hello to Apelles, a tried-and-true veteran in following Christ.

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (Fra Angelico, about 1423-24)

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (Fra Angelico, about 1423-24)

Hello to the family of Aristobulus.

Hello to my cousin Herodion.

Hello to those who belong to the Lord from the family of Narcissus.

Hello to Tryphena and Tryphosa—such diligent women in serving the Master.

Hello to Persis, a dear friend and hard worker in Christ.

Hello to Rufus—a good choice by the Master!—and his mother. She has also been a dear mother to me.

Hello to Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and also to all of their families.

Hello to Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas—and all the followers of Jesus who live with them.

Holy embraces all around! All the churches of Christ send their warmest greetings!…

And here are some more greetings from our end. Timothy, my partner in this work, Lucius, and my cousins Jason and Sosipater all said to tell you hello.

I, Tertius, who wrote this letter at Paul’s dictation, send you my personal greetings.

Gaius, who is host here to both me and the whole church, wants to be remembered to you.

Erastus, the city treasurer, and our good friend Quartus send their greetings.

All of our praise rises to the One who is strong enough to make you strong, exactly as preached in Jesus Christ, precisely as revealed in the mystery kept secret for so long but now an open book through the prophetic Scriptures. All the nations of the world can now know the truth and be brought into obedient belief, carrying out the orders of God, who got all this started, down to the very last letter.

All our praise is focused through Jesus on this incomparably wise God! Yes!

Paul, the Apostle who was sent by God to amazing places – was Paul in each and every one of those places. He had long conversations, and he asked irritating questions. He interceded in arguments and started a few, and there were some old songs along the way. But everything he did was in service of the mission on which he’d been sent. Paul was who he was, where he was, for the sake of the One who had called him and sent him.

I started this message with thoughts of bridges, and I talked about how the church of Jesus Christ ought to be about bridging divides, revealing wonder and awe, and so on. And as I think of our own little expression of that church – the community of people here in Crafton Heights, I am drawn to a slightly different metaphor: that of a harbor.

Ships in Harbor, by George E Lee (1925-1998)

Ships in Harbor, by George E Lee (1925-1998)

According to our friends at dictionary.com, a harbor is “a part of a body of water along the shore deep enough for anchoring a ship and so situated with respect to coastal features, whether natural or artificial, as to provide protection from winds, waves, and currents… any place of shelter or refuge.”

This place – this building, this set of relationships, this collection of ministries… this needs to be a place of safety. We are called to be a refuge to which you can come as you are with no fear of judgment and no pressure to be perfect; the church is a community in which you can let down your guard. When you’ve been out to sea for a while and you feel beaten up and drenched and overwhelmed by storms, this congregation is the place to which you come for healing and restoration and refreshment.

And this is a place for equipping – you ought to be growing while you are here. Learn about yourself, discover resources that will help you on the next leg of your voyage. Become enlarged in your capacity to serve, give, or lead.

And remember that like all harbors, this is a place from which you will be sent. No one is here forever, soaking it all in, hiding from the peril and adventure of the open sea.

A harbor, after all, is valuable only inasmuch as it is a place where vessels come and go. Ships, of course, are made for sailing. Ships are specifically built to transfer people and cargo, knowledge and ideas, from one place to another. Harbors exist to make sure that when it’s time for a ship to sail, it’s ready for the journey.

A harbor that is full of vessels that never go anywhere is a waste! There is no benefit to the community that surrounds the harbor, and in discouraging ships from sailing, a harbor is seeking to prevent them from accomplishing their created purpose.

A vibrant harbor is an active, confusing place: it is complete with vessels that are coming and going, transferring resources from one crew to another, sharing advice or notes as to where to travel, how to deal with storms, or amazing sights that the open sea will bring. A harbor that is working as it has been designed is a place of vibrancy and life.

This morning, in our little harbor, we say “God be with you” to Rachel and Michael Weller as they prepare to return to their home in Ethiopia. It has been good having you in port these past eight months, and we hope that you are somehow a little better equipped for the next part of your journey.

In our little harbor, a lot of collegians have already left, and more will head out tomorrow. We’ll welcome a new musician next week, and an additional staff person at the Open Door the week after that. The programs at the Preschool and Open Door are getting ready to kick into gear, and some of you are going to get a call from the Nominating Committee in the next few months.

Beloved, let’s remember with gratitude and affection those with whom we’ve been privileged to spend time, but who now find themselves at sea – on the journey elsewhere. And let us pray that they find the next harbor when it’s needed.

Beloved, let’s include those who have made it here safely, and who need some respite, equipping, and a place to share their gifts.

Beloved, let’s encourage each other to live into the purpose of being the church in this place, at this time, with these people. And let us not be afraid of the journey that is to come – this afternoon, this week, this month – knowing that the One who calls and sends us is the One who guides and protects us. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Who’s Up?

During Lent 2015 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights spent some time looking at people who turned – and re-turned – to Jesus during the course of his ministry.  One of the people who did that time and time again was Mary of Magdala.  Our first service on Easter Sunday included a reading from Matthew 28:1-10.

If everything goes as planned, sometime after four p.m. tomorrow afternoon, Francisco Liriano will throw the first pitch of the 2015 Pirate season. It would seem as though thoughts of resurrection and hope are not limited to theological themes this week.
LineupCardAs I think about tomorrow’s game, I am struck by the notion that there are two kinds of ball players in the world. Some of you come in from the field and know exactly where we are in the batting order. Many of these folks not only remember the order, but are happy to issue a report as to how previous batters have fared against the current pitcher. And others of us, perhaps more focused on defense, strategy, or how good a burrito would taste right now, come to the bench and say, “Who’s up?” We have forgotten where we stand in the order.

Ever since my grandfather took me to a game in Connie Mack stadium nearly fifty years ago, baseball has been magical for me. I love it because it’s good to listen to on the radio, and it’s better in person. I appreciate how it is a wonderful blend of individual and team competition, and I love to see how choreographed it can be, such as when there are two men on base and the batter lays down a bunt. It is poetry.

And beyond the mechanics, there is a cerebral element. How will the manager construct his batting order? Speed up top and power in the middle, usually. Ask people down below to be smart, and don’t embarrass themselves or the team.

One by one, the procession of teammates goes out to stand at the plate and share in the common goal of advancing the runners and achieving victory. And I have noticed that there are two types of batters in a lineup. Some folks are chomping at the bit, and saying “whoo-hoo! I get to hit! Come on now, let me at ‘em.” And others are sitting in the on-deck circle silently pleading, “please, God, not me, not now, no with two outs and a man on third…”

Who’s up?

Believe it or not, that’s the question that came to mind as I pondered this morning’s scripture.

I know – believe you me, I know – that it’s dangerous to compare the arc of history and the message of salvation to a game. But bear with me on this, because I think that Matthew 28 reveals a significant shift in God’s dealings with humanity – and that has implications for us.

Think about it: for thousands of years, God’s promise was an idea. Every now and then, one of the prophets would pipe up and say, “Hey, don’t forget – God is moving. Things are going to happen. I’m not sure exactly how or when or where, but stay tuned. This will be big. Really big.”

Prophets

The Prophets

 

angelsicon

…and Angels

The prophets – God’s leadoff men, if you will, set the table, and then the heavy hitters come up. When the time is right, the angels appear. Angel, from the Greek word angelos, means messenger, and these messengers show up in droves. Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds all receive visitations with some real specificity. You will have a son. You will give him this name. You will find him here, wearing this. Who’s up? Well, mostly it’s Gabriel, it would seem. God had a message, and he sent messengers.

holy-apostles-icon

…then the Apostles

And then, about thirty years later, Jesus begins his ministry and we quickly discover that he not only has a message, he is the message. For three years, Jesus works to transform human history and experience by raising up a small group of followers. The most prominent of these, of course, are the twelve apostles. Apostolos, meaning “one who is sent”. It is fairly obvious to even a casual reader of the Gospels that Jesus is preparing the twelve for something. To follow my baseball analogy, for much of the Gospels, Jesus is “up” now, and they are “on deck”.

And then the unthinkable happens. He is betrayed by one of the twelve. There is an unjust trial, a cruel execution, and a hasty burial. In a twist, the Apostles are not sent anywhere. Instead, they scatter and hide.

But God is not through. Jesus is not through. We heard this morning about the ways that God has turned this unthinkable tragedy into an even more unthinkable victory. The next phase is set to begin.

How will it begin? Are we going to see Gabriel, Michael, or one of the other angels again? Not really.

When God started the whole Jesus thing, there were angels everywhere: in the Temple, in Joseph’s dreams, in Mary’s home, in the fields around Bethlehem. That’s the way that God chose to get the news out then.

Now, when the best news ever is unleashed, it comes in the quiet corner of a graveyard at dawn. And not only that, but the news comes to a woman who, if ever there was a person to say this, is saying, “Please God, not me. Not me. Not me…”

Penitent Magdalene Donatello c. 1454

Penitent Magdalene
Donatello c. 1454

The best news in the history of news is entrusted to a woman named Mary from the town of Magdala. We don’t know a great deal about her, although Luke tells us that at one point Jesus drove not one or two, but seven demons out of her. It is difficult for any of us to imagine what that life would be like – a life filled with uncertainty and shame. Mary evidently connected with Jesus fairly early in his ministry and after having experienced the transformation of his presence, she became totally devoted to him.

He treated her with love and respect and encouragement, while most of her peers no doubt continued to remember her as she had been.  You’ve been in high school – you know how long people remember (“you know, Mary, the woman who used to be… the chick who always had… You know, Mary?”).

Penitent Magdalene Donatello c. 1454

Penitent Magdalene
Donatello c. 1454

When the Apostles all scattered, Mary was unable to leave his side. Even as he hung on the cross, she could not see herself anywhere else. After all he had done for her she only wanted to show a little respect. She was, as Frederick Buechner says, “one of the women who was there in the background when he was being crucified – she had more guts than most – and she was also one of the ones who was there when they put what was left of him into the tomb.”[1] The least she could do was to make sure he got a decent burial, and so she arrives at the tomb at first light that Sunday morning.

When she arrives, however, she runs into an angel. Unlike the previous angels in the gospels, though, this one is not telling her something that God is going to do. He simply instructs her to get back to the disciples and tell them to make their way to Galilee, where they will meet the Lord. Not long after that, she runs into Jesus himself, who demonstrates the truth of the angel’s message of resurrection and reminds her to send the apostles to meet up with him.

This is far and away the most incredible bit of news that anyone, anywhere, has ever heard, and to whom is it entrusted? Her. That one. Mary of Magdala receives the promises of Jesus: I can be found. I will be seen.

Penitent Magdalene Donatello c. 1454

Penitent Magdalene
Donatello c. 1454

The only way this makes sense for me is for Mary to be crying out, saying, “No, Lord! Not me. Send Peter. Send John. Don’t make me carry this news. What if I blow it?”

“Don’t worry, Mary. I will give them their job. Right now, it’s your turn. You are up, Mary.”

Listen, if the resurrection is a fairy tale, then we’re just wasting our time.

If the resurrection is an allegory or a myth, then maybe it’s a harmless enough way to spend a few moments before breakfast.

If the resurrection is merely history – an event that happened once upon a time, a specific occasion in a particular place, then maybe someone ought to put up a plaque or historical marker.

But I believe that the resurrection is better and truer than any of that. I believe that the message still holds. I believe that the Message is still operative in our world.

God, in Christ, is moving in and through the world to bring sight where vision fails, to build up what has been torn down, and to heal what is wounded.

Jesus With Mary Magdalene Bruce Wolfe Contemporary Used by Permission http://www.brucewolfe.com/sculpture/liturgical/

Jesus With Mary Magdalene
Bruce Wolfe – Contemporary
Used by Permission
http://www.brucewolfe.com/sculpture/liturgical/

Jesus Christ, God’s own messenger and Message, said, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

That is not yesterday’s news. Jesus is, in all of the most important ways, still visible. Apostles, like Mary and the twelve are still, in every significant way, being sent. Do you know this?

Are you aware of someone who needs to have vision restored, hope re-planted, sin forgiven, oppression lifted, enslavement ended?

Go and look for them. And show them Jesus.

The angels are not going to do it. Nor can Mary, Peter, John, Paul, Priscilla, or Aquila.

It’s you and me. Come on, church. You’re up. The world needs to see Jesus. Can we show him here and now? Can we be his body in this time and this place?

The Lord IS risen. He is risen indeed!

[1] Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979), p. 102.

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.