Pour Out the Spirit

Acts 2:17-18 – June 4, 2017

 

Acts 2-3 pentecost

“Pour Out the Spirit”

Waiting can be difficult. We wait for buses and trains. We wait for school to let out and for work to end for the day. Waiting in a doctor’s or dentist’s office can sometimes be long and painful, too. In fact, time seems to pass much more slowly as we wait, with caution, questioning, or with fear and trembling.

Let’s consider the followers of Jesus as they waited. Were they eager? Were they fearful? How did they feel, not knowing what was going to happen? What was their situation, after the ascension of their leader, Rabbi, our Lord Jesus Christ?

Remember our service last Sunday, how we celebrated the Ascension of Jesus? After several weeks of post-Resurrection appearances, Jesus went to the top of a hill and addressed His friends for the final time. Jesus gave the followers specific instructions to go to Jerusalem and…wait. Wait for power. Wait for some Spirit to come from somewhere. Then, He rose from the earth, and ascended bodily into heaven.

Shortly after the ascension, the followers of the risen Jesus do go back to Jerusalem, in obedience to the final words of Jesus. These followers include Mary, the mother of Jesus and His brothers, plus the disciples and the women who followed Jesus faithfully, as well. And—they all wait. They wait for several days.

The followers of Jesus stayed in hiding, keeping a low profile, not wanting to attract the attention of the religious leaders or the Roman soldiers in Jerusalem. Remember, these leaders were still really angry that someone “stole” the body of the Rabbi Jesus several weeks before. Of course the friends of Jesus wanted to lie low, in case any of these religious leaders wanted to drag any of them in for questioning.

Then—something happened, all right! It was another important feast of the Jewish calendar. Let’s listen to what Dr. Luke says in Acts 2: “When the day of Pentecost came, all the believers were gathered together in one place. Suddenly there was a noise from the sky which sounded like a strong wind blowing, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.”

The followers’ time of waiting suddenly was interrupted! Can you imagine a strong wind blowing, so strong you could feel it almost blow you over? Except, they were all locked in that closed upper room, inside, and they actually felt the strong wind inside the building.

But, that wasn’t the end—by no means! “Then, they saw what looked like tongues of fire which spread out and touched each person there. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other languages, as the Spirit enabled them to speak. There were Jews living in Jerusalem, religious people who had come from every country in the world. When they heard this noise, a large crowd gathered. They were all excited, because all of them heard the believers talking in their own languages.”

We are not going to describe the differences in speaking foreign languages, or speaking in ecstatic utterances. No, I will leave that for specialists in biblical interpretation. I am more of a general biblical interpreter, as a pastor and preacher. What I see from this scripture passage is that God sent the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus in a powerful way. What is more, a huge audience gathered when this Holy Spirit phenomenon happened in Jerusalem that day—a multicultural audience who had traveled from all over the known world to worship God.

We are all aware of the multicultural, multi-ethnic community we live in, here in Morton Grove, Niles, Des Plaines, Glenview, and Skokie. Such wonderful, diverse neighborhoods we all share! That was very much what the disciples and other followers of Jesus were dealing with, in Jerusalem on that grand feast day.

Sure, the followers of Jesus had the mighty power of the Holy Spirit poured out upon them, as they spilled out into the street and started talking what God had done in their lives, crying out, excited and overjoyed. The awesome power of God filled them, energized them, so much so they could not hold it in.

The audience—the gathered crowd in Jerusalem had a few reactions to this action. Surprise, certainly! “In amazement and wonder they exclaimed, ‘These people who are talking like this are Galileans! How is it, then, that all of us hear them speaking in our own native languages?’” However, some in the audience scoffed: “But others made fun of the believers, saying, ‘These people are drunk!’”

As commentator Mitzi Smith says, “Confounded, the men do not agree about how to interpret the event that they have all witnessed together at the same time. Some translate what they hear as babble resulting from a midday drinking binge (2:13).” [1] Many of these people were confused—confounded, as Mitzi Smith says.

How often did the disciples have problems understanding what was going on, while Jesus was with them? How often do we misunderstand the words and acts of God? Didn’t the people of Israel need to be reminded again and again and again of the lessons and works and words of God? Is it any wonder that these multicultural Jews had difficulty comprehending the mighty works of God through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit?

Then Peter stood up with the other eleven apostles and in a loud voice began to speak to the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, listen to me and let me tell you what this means. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose; it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 Instead, this is what the prophet Joel spoke about: 17 ‘This is what I will do in the last days, God says: ‘I will pour out my Spirit on everyone.’”

Can you picture this scene? More than a hundred excited believers in Christ, newly energized by the Holy Spirit, spilling out into the streets of Jerusalem. They are not like robots, emitting a canned message, like a cookie cutter, exactly the same as everyone else. No! The pouring out of the Holy Spirit is truly an amazing event.

As Mitzi Smith says, “the first act of God’s Spirit at Pentecost honors the diversity and individuality of the believers.” [2] Each person who believes is still an individual, and each one who hears is celebrated in their diversity! Each one hears God’s mighty acts in the heart language they grew up with. Listen: “Devout males, Jews and proselytes, from every nation, and who had traveled from Africa, Rome, and Asia hear this group of disciples speaking to them about the mighty acts of God in their own languages (2:8-11).” Plus, here is the kicker, the most important part: “God’s acts remain God’s acts in every language and culture.” [3]

God pours out Holy Spirit power that enables us to do God’s work on earth.  God inspires us, gives us gifts (talents), and works through us.  God expects us to “do something in God’s name.”  This is a powerful self-image.  We are powerful and God has work for us to do. [4]

The followers of Jesus told others about what God had just done in their lives! It doesn’t matter when or where we talk about God. We are still witnessing. (Just like the disciples.) We can still talk about God’s mighty acts in our lives, today.

Can you name something that God has done in your life, recently? You, or someone in your family? Are you excited about what God has done in your lives? I encourage you to tell someone about it, today! What is more, we can look forward to what God will do in our lives, tomorrow. We can all celebrate the mighty acts of God with joy, with praise, and with adoration.

Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=823 Mitzi J. Smith

[2] Ibid, Mitzi J. Smith.

[3] Ibid, Mitzi J. Smith.

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/05/year-pentecost-june-8-2014.html Worshiping with Children, Pentecost, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

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He Was Taken Up

Acts 1:9, Luke 24:51 – May 28, 2017

Acts 1-9 Ascension ENLUMINURES HILDERSHEIM

“He Was Taken Up”

Mentors often teach and assist their followers through conversations. Whether it’s a one-on-one relationship or a small group mentorship, many respected, learned teachers often are in a position where their followers are hanging on every word that comes out of their mouths. Imagine how much more closely our risen Lord Jesus’s followers listened to His words in the weeks following His resurrection!

This whole situation after Easter was totally unprecedented. The Rabbi Jesus, God’s Anointed, the Messiah, come back from the dead? Being resurrected, and brought back to life?  How can such a thing be? It was a blessed miracle of God, that’s how!

Jesus walked and talked for forty days with His disciples. We do not know for sure, but I suspect He gave them further information about why He had come down from heaven, setting aside His divinity, being born of the Virgin Mary as a human baby. From our Gospel passage this morning: “44 Jesus said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.”

Wouldn’t that be absolutely fantastic, to have Jesus, the Word made flesh, interpreting Scripture so that we could more fully understand it? Talk about an in-depth bible study! Those would be some awesome conversations. I know I would be sitting at Jesus’s feet, like Mary of Bethany, hanging on His every word.

I also suspect our Lord Jesus significantly affected and touched His followers while He realized His time was becoming shorter and shorter. Don’t you think Jesus must have told them He would be going away—soon? We know how upset the disciples became when Jesus told them such things before His crucifixion. In John 16, at that Last Supper the night Jesus was betrayed, He spoke plainly about His departure. But, that was the last thing His followers wanted to hear about, or think about, either!

If we reflect more deeply on that thought—the thought of Jesus going away—it’s similar to the idea of our loved ones dying and going away. Many people become deeply distressed at even the thought of it, much less the actuality. Even if we know our loved ones have died and gone to heaven, and we will eventually be reunited with them, it still can be distressing, even traumatizing for us to contemplate their departure.

This common feeling may well be similar to the feeling of the disciples as the time of Jesus’ departure got closer and closer. One of the commentators on the passage, Bob Deffinbaugh, wrote, “While we know that God’s will has been done and that those who have died in Christ are with the Lord…We do not find great comfort or joy in reminiscing over the departure of our loved ones. So, too, I believe the gospel writers did not have any predisposition to write of our Lord’s departure to return to His Father.” [1] That may be part of the reason why there was not much mention of the Ascension in the biblical record.

Taking a look at our companion reading from Acts 1, we can see that the disciples still do not quite understand. Even though Jesus opened their minds to the Scriptures that they might have fuller comprehension of the purpose and coming of the Messiah, as foretold by the biblical writers, they still had some misconceptions.

Reading from Acts 1: “Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

We can tell that the followers of Jesus are still thinking “of the day when the nation of Israel will be reestablished as it was in the days of Solomon. They dream of themselves as the chief executives in the new kingdom.” [2] They are having a glorified view of a powerful earthly kingdom.  I cannot imagine our Lord Jesus being unclear about this, so I think the problem is on the disciples’ end. They have faulty presuppositions that just do not match up with the clear things Jesus is telling them. The followers of Jesus need to have their vision clarified. The kingdom Jesus is preparing is not of this world, but instead of the spiritual world.  

How often are we like the disciples? So often, we focus on unimportant issues. Things like denominational differences, whether to baptize by sprinkling or by immersion, how often to offer the Lord’s Supper, social justice, church growth, choice of church music: all of these pale in comparison with the foundational purpose of Jesus and His coming to earth.

As we can see, the followers of Jesus were narrowly focused on the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. They were completely missing the larger picture of our Lord Jesus reconciling the entire world to God, His heavenly Father.

For Jesus, His followers have one overarching assignment—a far greater purpose than these unimportant things. “For Jesus, that purpose is witnessing. His disciples are witnesses of His life, death, resurrection, and now, His ascension.” [3]

We all are familiar with the words of the Apostles Creed. I quote a portion: Jesus Christ, “born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” These words are the very words I am preaching about here, today. They are not just the dusty old words found in some theological tome or some stilted book of creeds of the church. No! These words of the Creed are faithful, true, and powerful.

While the disciples were being distracted by their pie-in-the-sky view of the restoration of the kingdom of Israel to home rule, Jesus had the cosmic view in mind. In other words, it is like Jesus is telling His followers, “Forget that other stuff. Look, I am going now. I will send you all a Helper, an Advocate, to help you in the important work of being My witnesses. So, BE my witnesses!”

Acts 1:8 tells us where the followers are to be witnesses: “you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Then, in verse 9, Jesus rises and is taken up into heaven.

Do we understand yet? The ascension of Jesus was glorious! He rose up into a cloud, most probably the Shekinah glory that surrounded Him at the Transfiguration, earlier in the Gospels. He ascended into heaven, just as we confess in the Apostles Creed. And, in Acts 1:11, we are reminded that the return of our Lord Jesus will be like His ascension.

“The ascension was a display of the splendor and glory of the coming Kingdom. As such it was a reassurance to the disciples that this Kingdom was the same as they had previously been instructed.” [4] A glorious, heavenly reassurance!

Remember, the followers of Jesus were not left to undertake this purpose, this task in their own power. Jesus tells us, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” And then, “you will be my witnesses.”

The followers of Jesus did not know what to expect. But, we know.  This ascension may be the end of Jesus’s time on earth. He may be going away for a time, but no fear!

We are going to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit next week, on Pentecost Sunday. Talk about coming attractions! Praise God, today we have the power and help of the Holy Spirit assisting us as we share the Good News of Jesus, reconciling us to God. Jesus assured us of the help of the Holy Spirit, whenever we witness to Him. What a promise! Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/41-ascension-luke-2431-acts-11-11  “The Ascension,” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

[2] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/studyot/ascensionot.html  “The Ascension,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://bible.org/seriespage/41-ascension-luke-2431-acts-11-11  “The Ascension,” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

 

Jesus Knows Our Needs

John 14:18 – May 21, 2017

John 14-18 not leave you, coin

“Jesus Knows Our Needs”

Today in our service, we focus on Mental Health and Mental Illness. All across the United States, one in four people are affected by mental health issues each year. Whether the health difficulty is mild, moderate or serious, still—one in four people have challenges or difficulties that affect their daily lives. And if you add the families and loved ones of those who are affected, you are talking about a lot of people! Often times, people with mental health challenges do not have much to look forward to, and not much hope at all.

In our Gospel reading from John 14, Jesus gives us all some hope and comfort.

This reading is from Thursday night in the Passion week, the night before Jesus was crucified. Jesus knew He was going away. He told His disciples so. However, Jesus tells His friends about a Helper He is going to send when He is gone: “16 And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept Him, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. But you know Him, for He lives with you and will be in you.”

Jesus promised us to leave us another Advocate—another Helper. We will explore Jesus’s message to all of us for those times when we are feeling alone, afraid, separate and isolated. Just like people who are dealing with mental illness. Just like their loved ones, too.

The disciples still don’t understand a lot of what Jesus was telling them. Even though He had been with them for many months, even years, they still do not get it. Of course, we have better understanding of what Jesus told them in that Upper Room, looking back on it from our fuller point of view, today. But even now, many people have a challenging time figuring out exactly what Jesus was saying. Helper? Advocate? Spirit from God? What is that all about?

In a magazine, Vision New England’s Ministries with the Disabled, a minister writes “How many families in your [acquaintance] have a loved one who struggles with a serious, acute or chronic mental health issue?” Carlene Hill Byron says that “Someone is probably hurting and they’re afraid to tell you.” [1]

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness. NAMI teaches us that “Mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.” [2]

Do you think Jesus understands how we feel? How about everyone, absolutely every person—does Jesus know how each one of us feels? What about individuals who are suffering from major depression? What about schizophrenia? Bipolar disorder? Obsessive compulsive disorder? How about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Are all of these afflictions diseases that Jesus understands? Can He come alongside of each of us, in whatever mental state we happen to be in? Or, will Jesus desert us, like so many people do who just do not understand us?

The next verses in John 14: “18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see Me anymore, but you will see Me.”

Where Jesus mentions “I will not leave you as orphans,” that is exactly what He said, and exactly what He meant. “Orphan” (orphanos) “was a common metaphor to describe disciples left without their masters.” [3] Dr. O’Day mentions a special poignancy in Jesus’s words here, where He talks about a special family relationship He has with His friends and disciples. Especially here in the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to His friends as “little children.”

“I will not leave you as orphans.” Sometimes, in this imperfect life, things happen. Loved ones die. Listen to this personal recollection from the Rev. Dr. Anna Hosemann-Butler: “Orphaned. Alone. Without guidance. Without support. Without parents. Without anyone. Mostly, “orphaned” means being so isolated in this world that it feels like no one cares whether or not we live or die. Orphaned. Really depressing. At least, it can be—and terrifying, too.

“Although an image of children first comes to mind when we use that word, any of us can be orphaned at any age. In fact, on any given day, a lot of us are orphaned, at least in spirit.

I lost my father to cancer when I was eight years old, and so became a “half-orphan,” and thus appropriately half-terrified.

“I became a child who on the surface was fine, but inside was frantic in my love for my mother, always on the edge of panic where her well-being was concerned, desperately afraid that something would happen to her and I would be completely alone in the world. Anxious fear was a constant childhood companion. There was no way around it, it seemed.” [4]

Imagine fear and anxiety like that, every single day. Dr. Hosemann-Butler describes her childhood feelings so vividly here as she relates how filled with panic and anxiety she was at the sense of being orphaned. I suspect many, many people with mental illness go through similar feelings of panic, fear, anxiety, and loneliness. It is not just fear and desperation at being left alone for people with mental illnesses, but it’s also a dark cloud of stigma that surrounds them. Many times, they can be unfairly labeled, bullied at school or work, excluded or shunned in social situations, and marginalized in many different ways.

But, Jesus never does any of those things. Can anyone imagine our Lord Jesus bullying someone? Or, shunning anyone? Certainly not! He would be likely to go out to the parking lot or in back by the alley, where the shunned and excluded ones are hanging out. Just as Jesus thought of His friends and disciples as His children, that is the same way He thinks of any of His modern-day friends and followers, too.

Remember what Jesus reminds us: “16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth.” Even though Jesus might have known He was ascending to heaven in just a few weeks, He knew the Holy Spirit would come to be with the disciples. Just as Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit is with us today as well, indwelling us and coming alongside of us.

I would like to encourage all of us, today—be friends for someone who is hurting, today. Come alongside of someone who struggles with mental illness, or one of their family members, today. Provide a warm welcome for these friends, so they don’t feel alone any more.

I want to reiterate: Jesus will not leave anyone as orphans—not grown ups, not children, not seniors, not people who are blind or deaf or with speech impediments, not people who are developmentally disabled, and not people with mental illnesses. No one. No one.

Remember Psalm 23, where King David talks of walking through the valley of the shadow? Sure, the road ahead may be dark sometimes, and take unexpected twists and turns, but the Holy Spirit will be right by our sides. Always. Jesus has promised, and we can take His word for it. Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

[1] A quotation from Carlene Hill Byron, from Vision New England Ministries with the Disabled, http://mhn-ucc.blogspot.com/p/mental-health-sunday.html   https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1-I-16TIdciVlprWldQOTEtdUE/edit , page 11.

[2]. http://mhn-ucc.blogspot.com/p/mental-health-sunday.html   https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1-I-16TIdciVlprWldQOTEtdUE/edit

[3] O’Day, Gail, The Gospel of John, The new Interpreter’s Bible: general articles & introduction, commentary, & reflections for each book of the Bible, Vol. 9 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 748.

[4]  http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Orphaned-Anna-Hosemann-Butler-05-20-2014 , “Orphaned?” Anna Hosemann-Butler, Edgy Exegesis, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Gift of the Holy Spirit

“Gift of the Holy Spirit” – May 15, 2016

Acts 2-38 repent, be baptized

Acts 2:38

What does it mean to know someone?  Can you know a sports star? Know all of his or her stats, his earned run average, how many sacks he got last season, how many assists she had to her credit in the last game?

We can know a lot about some really famous people, and yet not know them personally. I suspect you’re all familiar with the movie star Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones, Han Solo in the Star Wars movies, Jack Ryan in a couple of Tom Clancy movies). I know just a few things about him. He is a very private person, and a licensed helicopter pilot; he started in Hollywood years ago as a carpenter until he got his first movie role. I know things about Harrison Ford, But I have no illusions about being close to Harrison Ford.

What about Jesus? Do we know things about Jesus? Can we describe things about His life, His ministry, or the things He said? What about the last week He was alive? His passion?  His trials, crucifixion, and death on the cross? Do we know about all that?

Peter did. Peter knew all those things intimately. Peter was also one of the disciples who had a very close relationship with the Rabbi Jesus throughout the three years of His ministry. We know that, through the Gospel accounts. But now, now is the morning of the Pentecost festival. A whole host of Jews from all over the region have gathered together in Jerusalem for one of the important feasts, one of the celebrations on the Jewish calendar. Peter had quite a crowd for his impromptu sermon. For—that was what he delivered. A sermon.

But, a sermon on what? Why did he feel like he had to speak out?

For that, we need to go back to our Scripture passage for the morning. I am reading from Acts chapter 2: “When the day of Pentecost came, they [the disciples and followers of Jesus] were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.”

What happened to the disciples? The Holy Spirit happened, that’s what! The Holy Spirit blew into that house, buffeting all inside with a violent wind. Then, on top of that, tongues of fire appeared over each one’s head. The Holy Spirit came and dwelt within each one of them—with each believer in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. These tangible and visible signs of the Holy Spirit were genuine proof that the Holy Spirit was real. This coming was huge. And, this arrival was life-changing.

After such a momentous event inside the house, the newly-filled, newly-energized believers spilled out into the street. Can you see their excited faces? Can you hear them as they share about this amazing experience that had just happened?

I can just imagine a roving reporter, reporting on the noisy crowd in the streets of Jerusalem that day. “Here on the streets of Jerusalem are God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. I understand that a strange sound was just heard. You all can see the crowd coming together in bewilderment. Each person is hearing their own language spoken. Everyone here is utterly amazed! “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in many different tongues! I keep hearing again and again from these eye-witnesses, “What does this mean?” The minority opinion is, however, less flattering. Some are making fun of theses Galileans and saying, “They have had too much wine.”

You can see how brash, outspoken Peter couldn’t help himself. Energized by the Holy Spirit, he began to tell people what happened. Why all of the disciples were so energized, so filled with the Holy Spirit. And—about Jesus Christ, Jesus the Jewish Messiah, crucified, died and resurrected from the dead.

Listen to the words of Peter: “But God raised Jesus from the dead, freeing Him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on Him. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, He has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.”

Does everyone here understand? Peter finally gets it! So many times previously, Peter and the other disciples just didn’t understand the words of Jesus. They miss His message completely, and Jesus needed to patiently backtrack, go over the same information again and again. Except—not now. The disciples—and Peter—finally understand! The Holy Spirit is now indwelling them, and Peter lets everyone in the crowd know that this Jesus, this Messiah, has come for them, too.

This Jesus, this Messiah, is the long-promised Messiah, foretold by Moses and the prophets.

Many people in the crowd had heard something about the Rabbi Jesus, who had been put to death just a few short weeks ago. Yes, and some even knew a lot about this Jesus, this supposed Messiah, long-promised and foretold by the Hebrew Scriptures. But, the words of Peter, energized by the Holy Spirit, went straight to the hearts of those who listened that day.

Listen to the words of our scripture passage today: “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

Wait a second. What is Peter talking about? Believing, and immediately getting baptized?

That is exactly what he means. Baptism was an established practice in the first century. Not done by everyone, but practiced by a number of people. To show cleansing, and repentance, and renewal of life. Jesus elevates this Jewish practice to what we call a sacrament.

As in the rest of believers’ lives, so also in the receiving of the sacraments, it is God who takes the initiative in approaching the believer. It is then the believers’ turn to respond joyfully to God, as a result of God’s sovereign gift of grace. Baptism is our response to God’s gracious gift of salvation, grace, and forgiveness of sins.

Let me explain in another way. Out on the cattle ranches of the West the unbranded calves that roam at large are known as “mavericks.” Theses calves are claimed by the rancher who is first to get his brand on them at the annual round up. A little girl from a Western state had been baptized one Sunday by the Methodist minister of the town. Her friends at school questioned her the next day as to the meaning of the ceremony. “Well,” she said, “I will just tell you. I was a little maverick out on the prairie. That pastor put the Jesus mark on my forehead so that when He sees me He will know that I am one of His children.”

That Jesus mark was what so many new believers received, that morning of Pentecost. That Holy Spirit gift was what we received when each of us was baptized. Before we knew the Lord, each of us was a maverick calf, wandering on the prairie. Whether we are baptized as adults, young people, or babies like Christine, baptism is a joyful, outward expression of God’s love toward us. And, we know that Jesus will know that each one is His child.

Do you know things intellectually about Jesus? Or, do you have a close relationship with Jesus? Like the other believers on that Pentecost morning, has the Holy Spirit blown through your life and heart? I invite you all into a close relationship with Jesus, today.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)

Well Pleased

“Well Pleased”

Baptism of Jesus Coptic icon

Baptism of Jesus
Coptic icon

Luke 3:22 – January 10, 2016

It’s a joyful day indeed when we celebrate a baptism in church.

We follow the command of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, showing to all an outward sign of an inward change. Here in this church, we often celebrate infant baptism, showing the sign of God’s grace to all who are present. The congregation has an important part, too. They promise to teach the little one the ways of God, and to help the family bring up the child in a manner pleasing to God. Truly, a joyful, grace-filled sign and sacrament!

Well, that’s today, here and now, a long time after the first century. That’s one common understanding we now have of baptism.

Our Gospel reading today features John the Baptist, baptizing people in the wilderness. John was a prophet of God. He was set apart for a special purpose, to give out a special message from God. Here John the Baptist preaches to the nation of Israel, before our Lord Jesus has even started His ministry.

This message ought to be familiar to most of us. We heard some of John’s prophetic message read as our Gospel lesson only a month ago. Doom and gloom! He identifies everyone in the crowd as part of the brood of vipers—as sinners! Exactly what John the Baptist has been saying to the people of Israel for some time.

Another way of looking at John’s message is: “You are dirty, inside and out! Come get clean, both symbolically and physically!” Through God’s grace, John offers the people the opportunity to be obedient and to clean up, to show God and to show others that they repent and turn from their sinful, wicked behavior, speech and thinking. Many people respond. It’s a mini-revival going on at the River Jordan. Amen! Hallelujah!

Let’s pull back for a moment, and consider the larger situation.

At that time, the nation of Israel was an occupied country. Under the boot of the Roman Empire, the people of Israel were oppressed and subjugated. Many people in Israel were looking for the promised Messiah, the Anointed One of God, who would be a Savior for Israel. We can see from our Gospel reading today. Verse 15: “The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.”

John does not mince words. He does not pull punches. John identifies his listeners as a brood of vipers, as sinful and separated from God.

Just think about identity today. How do people identify themselves? In an excellent commentary on this Gospel passage, David Lose says many of the traditional elements of a person’s identity have been diminished. Think about it. The majority of people today change jobs and careers frequently. The majority of people live in multiple places and different residences rather than growing up and living for their whole lives in a single community. He comments, “fewer families remain intact – there is a craving to figure out just who we are.” [1]

John tells the people of Israel straight out, ““I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John the Baptist responds with a clear message: he offers the people baptism to remedy that flawed, sinful, separated identity. They can identify themselves with God, and be identified as God’s beloved children.

And then—and then—Jesus shows up. Jesus is about to begin His public ministry. But before that happens, He comes to the River Jordan to listen to His cousin John the Baptist. And, to get baptized.

Lo and behold, the companion Gospel accounts of Matthew and Mark tell us that John is surprised to see Jesus there. But Luke’s account makes Jesus’s appearance natural. The next right thing that happens. Verse 21 says, “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.” At first, John is the star actor, the one doing the main action of baptizing. Jesus is the next one baptized, along with many others. However, what happens next?

The spotlight shifts in the following sentence. Dr. Luke turns his focus on Jesus. “As [Jesus] was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form like a dove.”

Can you see this on a movie screen? We open to a wide shot of the River Jordan. Large crowd of people on the river bank, and a number lined up in the water, waiting their turn. John the Baptist in a rough woven tunic with a leather belt around his waist. John is doing his thing—baptizing people who have repented of their sin. And—Jesus is one of them.

The camera pans in to a close-up shot on Jesus. Next in line. John slowly takes Jesus, baptizes Him. We are not sure whether John dunks Jesus in the water, or whether he pours water over Jesus’s head. (I prefer the idea and the image of pouring the water.) Regardless, everyone gets pretty wet. Next thing we all know, the heavens open wide.

Can you see it? The bright light from heaven? Perhaps sound effects, too? Heavenly music? Maybe even a low rumble of thunder? Dr. Luke paints a show-stopper of a scene. He tells us the Holy Spirit appears as a dove, descending on Jesus. The capper of the scene is the voice of God. Quoting from Luke’s account: “A voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with You I am well pleased.’”

Just in case anyone was not sure, God’s own voice tells us the identity of Jesus.

Jesus is God’s own beloved Son. Not only that, but God is well pleased with Him, too. Plus, the Holy Spirit as a dove is a visible and physical sign of the presence of God.

Here in this act of baptism, we find out about identity. As the commentator says, “The voice from heaven is addressed to Jesus in the first person: “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Baptism teaches us who we are – God’s beloved children – and confers upon us the promise of God’s unconditional regard.“ [2]

God not only proclaimed Jesus’s identity, on the banks of the Jordan River, God also proclaims our identity. We belong to God. It is not our doing, but God’s, instead.

Did you hear? Do you understand? No matter what happens, or how often we fall short, we cannot erase or eradicate God’s love. We love God because God first loved us. God has given us that sign, that seal of baptism, sealed by the Holy Spirit.

It does not matter whether we have been brought to baptism as a baby or a child, or have come as a young person or an adult. Perhaps there are people here who have not been baptized yet. God calls for all to be baptized. God calls for all of us to remember our baptism, as well.

God’s arms are open wide. God’s grace is abundant, for you and for me. God’s grace is poured out freely upon us in baptism. We are cleansed to do God’s gracious work in the world. Can you hear God’s voice talking to you? Telling others about you? “This is my beloved child. With you, child, I am well pleased.”

Alleluia, amen.

[1] Preaching a More Meaningful Baptism – David Lose, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1624 .

[2] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my sometimes-blog: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

Cleanse Your Hearts!

“Cleanse Your Hearts!”

Acts 15 Jerusalem council stained glass

Acts 15:8-9 – August 23, 2015

Conflict resolution is never an easy thing.

I hate to make sweeping statements, but I definitely think that that is one everyone can agree upon. Conflict resolution is never an easy thing.

We could be talking about the rough and tumble of sibling rivalry: “Mom! He started it!” “Did not!” “Yes, you did, too!” Or, a difficulty between neighbors that might get worse and worse, and escalate out of control until someone puts up a spite fence. Or, what about a problem between two employees in the workplace? You know the sort of thing. A disagreement starts between two people. Words are exchanged. Each side is sure they are right! Next thing you know, the whole office has chosen sides, and is squared off against each other.

We have a situation very much like this, in Acts 15. The whole group of believers—in all of the congregations scattered around the Mediterranean by this point—has escalated to the point that we heard about today, during the New Testament reading.

To recap, back in Acts 2, a number of days after our Lord Jesus ascended in to heaven, the few dozen believers have a Pentecost experience! The Holy Spirit comes upon them all, and Peter preaches his remarkable sermon. Not remarkable in and of itself, but remarkable because of the incredible response he got. Hundreds and hundreds of people came to belief in the risen Lord Jesus, in just one day! These were all Jewish believers. And, they continue spreading the Good News to any Jew they encounter. Many more believe, too.

Then, in Acts 8, Philip preaches in Samaria. The Holy Spirit comes upon these half-Jews, and even more people believe in the Good News! The circle of belief and faith continues to become wider and wider. In Acts 10, Peter preaches the Gospel to a Gentile—Roman centurion named Cornelius, and his whole Gentile household. They all believe, too! And, the Holy Spirit comes upon all of them, as well. Peter and the other apostles have the witness of their own eyes. They see that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to Him.” (Acts 10:34b-35)

The Holy Spirit continues to move. The believers continue to preach the Good News to anyone and everyone. It doesn’t matter whether they are Jew or Gentile, slave or free, high class or low born, or any other distinction. All are welcome to come to faith in the risen Lord Jesus.

Which brings us to the beginning of Acts chapter 15. A large number of believers has squared off, one side against the other, over keeping the Jewish laws. Should we, or shouldn’t we? What about Jewish people who never really kept kosher, before they started believing in the risen Jesus? Should they keep 600-plus rules in the Jewish law, now? And what about Gentiles who might have never had any idea about the Jewish laws, before? Should they turn themselves inside out and start keeping kosher, and wearing special clothes, and observing special holidays?

I went to one of the textbooks I had for one of my seminary classes, called Church Administration. (One of the best classes I ever had, in all my years of school!) This book is called Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior by Arthur Boers. Such helpful material on church conflict in this book!

Our situation at the beginning of Acts 15 seems black-and-white. We can see that from verse 5: Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”’ We have group A (or, Aleph) on this side, yelling ‘You’ve got to keep Jewish Law!” and group B (or, Bet) on the other side yelling back, “No, we don’t!” As they continue to bicker and snarl at each other, the argument gets worse and worse!

This argument is a classic case of polarizing! “Reducing issues to ‘black-and-white’ solutions and giving little time to discovering other options.” [1] What will they do now?

Yes, the controversy has busted wide open. Sometimes, people get stuck. They either don’t or can’t move. There they are, in that big, black-and-white argument, no way out. Or, so they think.

At the church council in Jerusalem, there was some discussion. I don’t know how long the discussion went on. There may have been some name-calling, or possibly even getting into fist fights. (I don’t know for sure—this was before the days of reality television.) Adversarial comments could have happened! “using ‘we/they’ language and ignoring or dismissing what is held in common.“ As the argument escalated, I can imagine threatening ultimatums being issued, back and forth. [2]

Here’s an illustration Boers uses: “One snowy morning I drove the high school car pool. I backed my fully loaded van onto a downwardly sloped street. On the slippery pavement, the van would not budge uphill in a forward gear. I could have pushed the accelerator, spun the wheels harder and faster, and gotten nowhere. Instead, I backed partway down the hill, tried the forward gear again, discovered my wheels had found a purchase, and was able to move forward.” [3]

Similarly, we find the apostle Peter taking a step back. Just like the van in this illustration, he backs up. And, he “seeks the common good over the interests of particular parties.” [4] He tries to find some common ground that all can agree on. Peter says, “God, who knows the heart, showed that He accepted the Gentiles by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as God did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for God cleansed their hearts by faith.”

Did you hear? Peter makes the statement, again, that God wants to enter into a relationship with each and every person. That means, each person in his time, in the first century, just as much as today, in the twenty-first century. God does not discriminate! And, neither should we.

What’s more, God cleanses everyone’s heart! Praise God, we don’t need to meticulously follow the Jewish Law code. We don’t have to wear special clothes, or observe special holidays, or have restricted food choices. God has cleansed each of our hearts, through faith! Peter goes on to say, “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

Praise God! Alleluia! We are not saved by following each and every little rule in the Jewish Law code. We are not saved by following each and every little rule in recent rulebooks, like no dancing, and no card-playing, no movies, and no mixed bathing.

It was a little early in the formation of Christianity for the apostle Paul to formulate his theological statement in the letter to the Ephesians, some years down the road. But I can hear the beginnings of it being hammered out, right here. Paul’s triumphant words from Ephesians 2:8-9. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Praise God! Not just Jews, not just Greeks, not just people with brown hair, not just people who are right-handed. But everyone. God does not discriminate! What’s more, God cleanses everyone’s heart! We can all say Alleluia! Amen!

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

[1] Boers, Arthur Paul, Never Call Them Jerks, (United States of America: the Alban Institute, 1999.), 72.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 64.

[4] Ibid, 72.

To the Ends of the Earth!

To the Ends of the Earth!

Acts 13-47 go into all the world

Acts 13:47 – August 16, 2015

Every month, St. Luke’s Church has a Church Council meeting to deal with the everyday business of running the church. We are going to have our August meeting this coming Friday. This being a congregational church, any member is more than welcome at our council meetings.

Let me ask: what would you think if someone from the Church Council were to get up in front of the congregation next Sunday morning, and say something like, “This past Friday at the Council meeting, the Holy Spirit told us to send two of our church leaders—two Council members—off to the mission field full time. We prayed over them, and we sent them off. They’re gone, and we’re not really sure where they’ll end up”? What would your reaction be to such a statement?

That’s just what happened. That’s just the situation, here at the beginning of Acts chapter 13. Except, I suspect the whole congregation gathered around Paul and Barnabas, as well as several others who intended to travel with them. Dr. Luke doesn’t specifically say, but I think the whole congregation prayed over them before they sent them out.

Paul and Barnabas were chosen by the Holy Spirit to go out. To tell others about the Good News of the risen Jesus. They, and several of their friends, left for parts unknown.

It’s a wonderful thing, to be noticed, recognized. Chosen as a messenger, a missionary for God. In the several churches I have attended over the years, I have seen dozens of people go on both short- and long-term mission trips, just like Paul and Barnabas. I’ve been involved with mission committees, and led prayer teams and prayer efforts in support of many of those same missionaries. However, I—myself—have never gone anywhere on a mission trip. Nope. Not even a short-term one.

How many of us, here, can say the same thing? I am not asking for anyone to raise hands or otherwise identify themselves. But, in your hearts, how many of us know that we have never gone to the mission field? Either overseas, or in this country?

Let’s define terms. What is a mission field, anyhow? What does it mean to be a missionary?

A simple definition? A mission field is somewhere on the other side of a boundary or barrier. I know seminary professors and people who study the history of missions might quibble with the specifics of this definition. However, I think most everyone would agree that a mission field involves crossing some sort of a boundary. That can be a boundary or barrier of race, nationality, language or culture. Those are the easiest to see and recognize! But a mission field can also be on the other side of an economic boundary, or a societal barrier.

Take my friends, Jim and Amy. Both trained as doctors, they both worked here in the Chicago area for a long time. But, they were mission-minded. They intentionally went to the South side of Chicago regularly, for years, to work at a Christian medical clinic. An inner city mission, right here in Chicago. They are now in sub-Saharan Africa, working as missionary doctors. Still with that mission mindset. But, it was only recently that they went to Africa.

For years, before that, they were using the training they had to work for God—as medical doctors. To communicate the Good News that God loves everyone. Here in Chicago, but in a radically different community, with a different culture. Were they missionaries then, in Chicago? Are they missionaries now, in Africa? I say, in both cases, yes!

Let’s consider our scripture passage for today. Pretty new idea, for these early believers to preach the Good News to a multi-cultural audience! Take a look at the list of prophets and teachers from the beginning of Acts chapter 13. “1-2 Now there were in the Church at Antioch both prophets and teachers—Barnabas, Simeon surnamed Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen the foster-brother of the governor Herod, and Saul.”

Just looking at this list, off the top of my head, I might not notice anything particularly different. But, let’s dig a little deeper. My research tells me that this assembly of believers in Antioch was the first truly multi-ethnic local church. This church had Jews and Gentiles together in one local congregation, according to Acts 11:19–22.

            We have Barnabas, a Jewish man, a Levite from the priestly class, born in Cyprus. Next, Simeon—he’s also called Niger. That’s a black man, from Africa. Then, Lucius, the North African from a large town called Cyrene. Then, there is the upper-class Manaen, the foster-brother of Herod—raised in the palace of the ruler Herod Antipas. And finally, we have Saul (or Paul), one of the most pre-eminent Pharisees of his day, born a Roman citizen in Asia Minor, and educated in the equivalent of an Ivy League school.

            We have some heavy hitters. Men of spiritual substance, described by Dr. Luke as both prophets and teachers of the church in Antioch. And, they are VIP’s. Very Important People, from many different regions and cultural backgrounds! It was these church leaders—the Church Council of the church in Antioch—who commissioned Paul and Barnabas and their friends. These missionaries left a multi-cultural local congregation to go to the multi-cultural world.

            As we read further in the chapter, Paul, Barnabas and their friends traveled further. “13-15  They continued their journey through Perga to [another] town called Antioch. They went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day and took their seats. After the reading of the Law and Prophets, the leaders of the synagogue sent to them with a message, “Men and brothers, if you have any message of encouragement for the people, by all means speak.”

We can see Paul goes first to the congregation at a synagogue. Dressed as a Pharisee (because they did wear distinctive clothing), the synagogue leaders knew he was learned in the Law and the Prophets. Paul gets up to speak. He gives them the Gospel, in a way they could understand.

Using the Hebrew Scriptures, he spoke about the coming Messiah, and about the death and resurrection of the risen Jesus. He spoke in a clear way that Jewish people could easily relate to. And, many of them came to faith in the risen Jesus, the Messiah.

However, Paul did not stop there! He spoke of the risen Jesus to God-fearing people who were not Jewish! He spoke of the resurrection to Gentiles, to Romans, to people without regard of their ethnic origin, or of the color of their skin.

Listen as chapter 13 continues: “44-47 On the next Sabbath almost the entire population of the city assembled to hear the message of God, but when the Jews saw the crowds they were filled with jealousy and contradicted what Paul was saying, covering him with abuse. At this Paul and Barnabas did not mince their words but said, “We felt it our duty to speak the message of God to you first, but since you spurn it and evidently do not think yourselves fit for eternal life, watch us now as we turn to the Gentiles! Indeed the Lord has commanded us to do so with the words: ‘I have set you to be a light to the Gentiles, that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

“48-50 When the Gentiles heard this they were delighted and thanked God for God’s message. All those who were destined for eternal life believed, and the Word of the Lord spread over the whole country.”

Did you hear? The Gentiles were delighted when they heard that they were welcomed by God, too! The Gentiles were—are as much God’s beloved children as are the Jews. All people are welcome to be saved. Salvation is for anyone, to the ends of the earth!

            What about the rest of the church, where Paul and Barnabas came from? Were they just sitting at home, twiddling their thumbs, or hiding their heads in the sand like ostriches?

I think the other believers in the church at Antioch had an important job to do, too. True, they may not have been sent out, called by the Holy Spirit to be missionaries. To go far away, like Paul and Barnabas, to suffer hardship and travel and preach the Good News in a different town every few weeks. However, God called these believers who stayed in Antioch to follow God, too. The Lord wanted each of them to share their story to the people around them, to share the Good News of the risen Jesus, too.

And, what about us, today? Do we have to be sent out as missionaries to Africa, like my friends, Jim and Amy? Or, can we share our stories, here? Can we show others the Good News of the risen Jesus? Tell them what Jesus has done for us, lately? Or, show them God’s love? Or what God has done in the lives of people we know?

What can you say about what God has done for you, or for a loved one? People almost always listen to stories. So, tell a true story. Tell how God has worked in your life.

How can you share about God, today?

I’d like for everyone to think of one person you might talk to. And, think of something that God has done in your life. And, prayerfully, go and tell! Here in multi-cultural Morton Grove—and Niles, and Des Plaines, and Skokie, and Chicago—most people we meet are from different ethnic groups or various cultural backgrounds. Just like the church in Antioch, the first truly multi-ethnic local church. So, go forth! Go and tell! That’s our challenge today.

Alleluia, amen!

 

(The scripture readings of Acts 13 were taken from the excellent translation by J.B.Phillips; ; J. B. Phillips, “The New Testament in Modern English”, 1962 edition by HarperCollins.”  And, thanks to the wonderful people who prepared the bible studies on Acts at http://www.intervarsity.org/bible-studies – The study on Acts 13 was quite helpful, and gave me some great jumping-off places from which to preach!)

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!