Day of Pentecost, Year C

Acts 2:1-21 or Genesis 11:1-9
Romans 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17, (25-27)

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be among you.

This is Jesus' promise in the gospel for this Sunday, the Day of Pentecost. Some translations render the last clause as "in you," but "among" is grammatically at least as good a translation, and it's one that I think makes much better sense theologically.

After all, what are Jesus' "commandments" in the Gospel According to John? The word "commandment" is used ten times in the Gospel According to John. Once (in John 11:57), it is a "commandment" (or "order") from certain Pharisees to report Jesus' whereabouts that he might be arrested. In John 10:18, 12:49-50, and once of the two times the word appears in John 15:10, the word refers to a command from the Father, in each of these cases a command from the Father to Jesus. So if we want to know what Jesus means in the Gospel According to John when, in John 14, he talks about "my commandments" to be kept by disciples, we should look at the remaining times the word "commandment" appears in John, in the same extended discourse:

John 13:34-35 -- "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

John 15:9-12 -- "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love ... This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."

I have thought often of these words and others like them over the past few years, as painful conflict has led many people in my life and in communities I've worked in to question whether we (and everyone thinks of "we" in different ways, including and excluding different groups) might really be better off making a stand with like-minded others and forgetting about the rest. I'm not talking about blithe disregard for others, but of a position born of some combination of pain and principle -- a position a lot of us find ourselves in, or sometimes think we're in, in which we're struggling honestly with how we can live with integrity and also live with these others.

There are a plethora of reasons we need one another. When I think about God's mission in the world -- the audacious vision of a world transformed by God's love in Christ, a world in which poverty and war are unknown and every child has the chance to live and grow and make use of her or his gifts from God, and world in which God's love finds flesh in every relationship in God's Creation -- I can't imagine saying that anyone's gifts are dispensable for realizing such an encompassing vision.

But this Sunday's gospel makes clear something even more basic than that. It's simply not possible to follow Jesus on our own; we need one another -- ALL of us. It's not possible to keep Jesus' command to love others if we're living in some metaphorical cave, isolated from those we are commanded to love.

Somehow, though, I can't imagine anyone being really inspired to love -- especially to stay in loving relationship with others even when that's difficult or painful* -- by a finger-wagging admonition to OBEY THE COMMANDMENT.

That's not all we've got by a long stretch, though. We've got the Spirit, the person of the Trinity we focus on particularly on the Day of Pentecost.

The Spirit is closely tied not only in John, but also in the Luke/Acts and Paul's writings, with love for one another in Christian community. When I say "love," I'm not talking about warm and fuzzy feelings for people. Take a look at Acts 2, when the Spirit comes upon those gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost. These people didn't even speak the same language; they hardly could have imposed a test of doctrinal or political orthodoxy on one another. But they gathered anyway. We tend all too often to think of the order of things as "we come to agreement, and then the Spirit comes," or at least "we know the Spirit has come among us when we have come to agreement," but that's not how it happens in Acts 2. The Spirit is not hanging out in the heavens saying, "oh, now THAT looks like an amazingly well-organized and harmonious gathering, with everyone looking at things in the same way; I think I'll go there." The room in which the believers are gathered when the Spirit comes upon the gathering probably sounded at least superficially rather like Babel -- and THAT is where the divided tongues of the Spirit unite those gathered in an astonishing reversal of Babel.

Is that so surprising? There were, after all, some important differences between the Christians gathered at Pentecost and the builders at Babel. It may sound odd at first that Babel, where everyone speaks the same language and all are united in a common enterprise, is where humanity is divided, while Pentecost, where people don't speak the same language, let alone think in the same ways, is where the Spirit unites the people. And it certainly sounds odd to many -- especially to some of us Anglicans who value all done 'decently and in order' -- that the effect of the Spirit could lead to such turmoil -- women and slaves and young men speaking up alongside the elders who could take their voice for granted in a patriarchal culture -- that onlookers would think that all were drunk.

And that isn't the half of it. This isn't just a particularly raucous worship service from which everyone goes home scratching their heads and everything resumes as it was in the morning. People are baptized, and as we remember in our Baptismal Covenant, "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers," and "all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:42-45). Acts 4 makes the tie between the Spirit's work even clearer. I've written both in The Witness and here (among other places) on SarahLaughed.net about the conjunction missing in most English bibles' translation of Acts 4:32-35, which I'm putting in boldface below:

Now the whole group of those who trusted were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possession, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, for there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

And that's just the kind of turmoil -- that radical change in behavior that makes a radical change in the world -- that characterizes the Spirit's work. That's how people divided at Babel become one in the Spirit. In other words, we experience the power of Jesus' resurrection and great grace when we love one another -- not just by holding hands and singing "Cumbaya," but with deeds showing real love. We all love our children, and none of us would choose to allow our own children to grow up in extreme poverty -- without clean water, sufficient and good food, decent medical care, or the basic education to be able to make their way in the world -- just so we could hold on to an extra one percent of our income. Who could do that to their children and call themselves a loving parent? So I have to ask the question: can we say that we "love one another" as Christians in an increasingly small world when we do that to someone else's child, whether on the next block or another continent? Can we say that if we hold on to our money OR fail to lift our voice when just ONE percent more of the wealthiest countries' wealth would more than eliminate extreme poverty by the year 2015? Or let me put it this way:

Personally, I am energized by the vision of a world without extreme poverty; nothing that could happen at Lambeth 2008 excites me as much as thinking about the celebration that could happen at Lambeth 2016 -- the celebrations that could happen all over the world -- in a world in which extreme poverty is history. Think of the power to which we could testify to Jesus' resurrection, the stories we could tell of new life, having engaged in God's compassionate mission and seen such a wonder. Do we want to know Jesus? Do we want to experience the joy and the peace, the freedom from fear and worry, the power of the Spirit that gives us new life and new life to the world? Then we know what to do: we follow Jesus, and love one another as he loves us. I'm just one person, but I am one person who is part of the one Body of Christ. I am one with children in extreme poverty, and I am one with many even more privileged and powerful than I am. And the Spirit who makes us one is calling us to gather -- in all of our diversity of language and culture and thought and experience, in our riches and our poverty -- to love as Jesus loves.

Thanks be to God!


* I want to be absolutely clear: I am NOT talking about someone continuing to live in a setting of domestic physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. If you're being abused, please GET OUT and get help as soon as you possibly can; any healing or reconciliation that could happen needs to start with your safety. I'm talking about staying in community when there's serious and painful conflict.

(Click here to return to the reflection.)

May 25, 2007 in Acts, Community, Current Events, Evangelism, Genesis, Holy Spirit, John, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pentecost, Power/Empowerment, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C

Acts 16:9-15
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

John 14:23-29

O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

That's the collect we pray this Sunday. We ask God to "pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire." It's language of abundance -- such abundance that it can't help but overflow, and powerfully.

It reminds me of the story of the calling of the first disciples in Luke 5:1-11. Poor fishers who were haunted each day by a single question -- Will I catch enough fish today to feed my family and myself? -- meet Jesus, and catch such an abundance of fish that it actually threatens to swamp the boat. In a moment, the guiding question in these fishers' lives has changed from "Will I catch enough fish to survive?" to "Can I gather enough people to help take in this abundance?" That's what it means that in becoming disciples, they became "fishers of people." There is such abundance in God's love for us and God's blessings in our lives that once we see it and begin to understand its limitlessness, our priorities shift quite naturally. If we know Jesus, we know that there is enough of everything we really need -- enough love, enough blessing, enough courage and joy and peace -- that we can't actually take it in if we're stuck in a model of competing with others for the goods; we understand that these overwhelming blessings can only be taken in if we call in everyone whom God calls -- and who isn't in that number?

Luke has this story at the start of Jesus' public ministry; it explains what Jesus' earliest followers experienced that made them not just willing, but eager to leave everything to follow him. John places his version of this story after Jesus' resurrection (John 21:1-19), and this Easter season, it strikes me as an appropriate place to tell it. In Jesus' ministry in Galilee, powerful things were accomplished; the blind saw, those oppressed by powers were freed, the poor received Good News, and the rich were challenged to join in solidarity with these outcasts to experience God's healing, reconciliation, and liberation.

And at this point, I'm reminded of the Passover song: Dayenu, "It would have been sufficient." Jesus' ministry prior to his crucifixion was powerful, astonishing, liberating. When I pause to take in all that meant, I want to say, "It would have been enough." But it was more. Everything sinful about humankind put Jesus on a Roman cross, and even as he suffered that, he was speaking words of forgiveness and blessing. It would have been enough.

But the glory of the Easter season is that this wasn't the end, or anywhere near it. The God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead and set him at God's right hand; we know now that the Jesus who showed us such immeasurable love and forgiveness is the one who will judge us -- and if that isn't a liberating word, I don't know what is. It would have been enough.

And yet there's more, another astonishing, miraculous, immeasurable abundance of blessing to come. Jesus is sending the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, as an ongoing presence to teach us all things. No human being could be such a tutor, but God's Spirit walking with us is, teaching us both to recognize how Jesus gives -- not "as the world," but with limitless generosity, limitless love, and with limitless blessings to impart -- and to empower us to give more and more as Jesus does.

You may have heard the old joke: "She lives for others. You can tell who the others are by the hunted expression on their faces." I've seen something like that a great deal in churches especially -- people who are in pain that they take as a call to martyrdom. They minister out of their pain in ways that spread it; they take the misery they feel as confirmation that they're on the right path, and the misery that others experience as a result (and often send back in the form of anger) as the inevitable persecution of the righteous. But look at the kind of dynamic in our readings for this Sunday.

Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth -- the imperial color, rare and very expensive -- may have thought she was rich before she knew Jesus. God opens her heart, and she knows how rich she really is and what it's for; she "prevails upon" her brothers and sisters in Christ to enjoy her hospitality.

Jesus' Revelation to John gives a vision of the holy city of God's redemption. By conventional reckonings, it would be the poorest of cities -- no temple, no gates keeping invaders out, no aqueducts, no lamps. It is the poorest of cities by conventional measures because those measures are utterly irrelevant in the economy of God's kingdom. God's presence and God's light are everywhere; people bring in not weapons but glory and honor; the very water of life flows from God's throne and from the Lamb through the city.

That's the dynamic of abundance we are called to take in this Sunday, and every day in the life God gives us. When Jesus says, "those who love me will keep my word," it's not a whiny attempt to guilt people into doing something that they ought to do because there's no joy in the task to motivate them. He is expressing that dynamic of God's abundance: not, "those who love me ought to keep my word, or I'll be really cross and you'll feel even worse," but a declarative statement of how it is to live in Christ: when we love Jesus, we DO keep his word -- and it's worth underscoring that his word, especially in John, is to love one another.

It is, of course more than that -- much more. But the "more" isn't the 'catch' of what otherwise would be an appealing offer; it's the "more" of God's abundance. The journey we're on to learn about that, to take it increasingly in and live it increasingly out, will stretch us. We need to be stretched, as finite creatures learning to live into God's infinite love. I'm not saying that it's all fun and games; such a process of stretching can be painful. But in the light of God's abundant love, that pain is transformed; it becomes the ache one feels after waking up in darkness, barely knowing where you are, and opening the curtains to see that you're in the most gorgeous surroundings and witnessing in a moment the most indescribably gorgeous of sunrises -- something so exquisite that you gasp. Do you know what I mean?

The aches of the world in the context of God's love -- and please believe me, I've felt them -- can become something of astonishing beauty in the context of God's love. That aching moment is a moment of glimpsing redemption -- all the more beautiful for knowing that it is a moment of transformation, not eternal, but showing something of the Eternal nonetheless.

That's the feeling I have when I gasp at a sunrise. It's a feeling I get when I see a moment of transformation in a human life -- of someone who was told by too many for too long that she is worthless finding her voice, her power, and a sense that she is of more worth than human beings can measure; of someone who was told that having made this mistake, he would forever be outside community and beyond grace find his feet and seeking in honest humility to be a part of what God is doing in the world. It's the feeling I have when I look at another human being -- even when I use the imagination and compassion God gave me to put faces and names to statistics in the newspaper -- and am willing to see their suffering and to care about it with God's love, which goes far beyond my ability or even my comprehension.

In those moments, I understand a little more what an Advocate is; I know a little more of the one who walks with me as I seek to follow Jesus. It's such a gift that I can't help but feel grateful, and I can't help but pray to be an instrument of that grace I experience. It's love. It's peace. It's freedom. It's power. And it comes in such abundance that I wonder even now who I could invite that I'm missing, how I could gather community to take in even the smallest fraction of that limitless grace, love, and peace. It seems too much -- but I have an Advocate to help me on the journey.

Thanks be to God!

May 10, 2007 in Acts, Call Narratives, Discipleship, Easter, Holy Spirit, John, Love, Luke, Power/Empowerment, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Day of Pentecost, Year B

Acts 2:1-11 - link to NRSV text
Isaiah 44:1-8 - link to NRSV text
1 Corinthians 12:4-13
- link to NRSV text
John 20:19-23 - link to NRSV text
OR John 14:8-17 - link to NRSV text

Sometimes, in my more cynical moments, I think that the phrase "Holy Spirit" for us tends to be something we stitch into sentences to lend them more authority. "Spirit" is for many people a nebulous kind of word denoting a vague feeling of enthusiasm. We "get in the spirit of things" and have "spirit squads" at football games. It's interesting to me also how frequently the word is used in everyday situations in which the speaker is trying to get those listening to conform to an expectation: "where's your team spirit?" for example.

It's often not all that different in the church. The Holy Spirit doesn't get all that much airtime in a lot of pulpits aside from the Day of Pentecost, and when she does, this talk often functions primarily to lend a spiritual authority to a proposed course of action in a way that people find it difficult to contest. Say "I think that this candidate for youth minister is the best fit for the congregation" and people can talk about whether or not that's so; say "as I prayed about this, I sensed that the Spirit is calling this candidate" -- especially if you're wearing a collar -- and a lot of folks will find it difficult to refute, or even to find more evidence to affirm except for similarly vague testimony: "oh yeah ... as soon as I hard you say that, it just resonated with me." I'm sure you can think of examples you've heard in which "this is what the Spirit is doing" translates roughly to "I feel pretty good about this course of action."

I don't believe it's quite as nebulous as that, and this Sunday's readings are an excellent starting place (to which I'll add a couple more as we go on) from which to think about discernment of the Holy Spirit's activity, the question of what the Holy Spirit is doing among us and how we can participate in it -- something that I think has some important things to say especially to those of us in the Episcopal Church who are looking toward General Convention this month.

Most of what I have to say boils down to this:

The Holy Spirit is the person who empowers those called by God to participate in God's mission.

That mission is reconciling all the world with one another and with God in Christ. That's the grand arc of what the Spirit is doing -- empowering participation in that mission.

We see it in Isaiah 44 and Acts 2. Isaiah says:

For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring.
They shall spring up like a green tamarisk,
like willows by flowing streams.
This one will say, "I am the LORD's,"
another will be called by the name of Jacob,
yet another will write on the hand, "The LORD's,"
and adopt the name of Israel.

Acts 2 describes a community gathered from all nations -- people divided by language and culture brought together on pilgrimage and sent forth in mission. Prior to Acts 2, this assortment of pilgrims were not a people. They gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the feast of the giving of the Law in the desert, where wandering tribes were formed as one people of Israel. And as we follow the story of these pilgrims of Acts 2 who were gathered, empowered, and scattered to see others of every nation similarly empowered, we see more of what God's mission is.

As I've written about before, we see in Acts 4 in particular that the reconciliation in which these people were to participate was no pious abstraction; it had and has dramatic material consequences for how we live together in the world. Acts 4:34 says directly (in the Greek -- most English bibles are missing a crucial conjunction here) that the apostles' testimony had power, FOR those who had houses and lands sold them to make sure that there was not a needy person left. And lest we think that's just about a local congregation and we have no obligation to others whose faces we haven't seen, the collection for famine-stricken Jerusalem (portrayed in Acts 11:27-30 as well as in St. Paul's writings) shows that all who are Baptized into Christ's Body, all who share Christ's Body in the Eucharist, are bound to care for others around the world as for their own family, their own flesh. As surprising as it was to see that kind of care between people from across the known world in Acts, perhaps it shouldn't have been so very surprising given how prophets such as Isaiah portray the Spirit's activity: in drought that brings famine, the Spirit brings the waters that give life to the land and those who live by it; and among those judged to be no people, beyond the bounds of those for whom one need care, the Spirit testifies to adoption as God's beloved children and our family.

That's what the Spirit does. The Spirit makes us one -- not like people bound to one another and tossed into a sea where their ties to one another paralyze and drown, but brought into relationship with one another that is as free as it is close, that is life-giving air and light. It's a unity that is not, as Paul makes clear, uniformity. Sisters and brothers in Christ have distinct gifts for ministry and mission. Like Peter and Paul in the conflict Paul describes in Galatians 2, they may hold radically different or even mutually exclusive opinions on vitally important issues -- issues all sides hold to be about the very truth of the Gospel and the call of God's people. What Christians may NOT do, however, is treat one another as expendable; they may not leave sisters and brothers hungry, thirsty, bereft of family and of honor.

That's not a "thou shalt not" in a finger-wagging way, or in a "do this or get kicked off Christian island" code; it's a function rather of our very identity. Those immersed in the life of the Spirit are caught up in what the Spirit is doing. And the Spirit is fueling the reconciliation of the whole world with one another and with God in Christ. We can choose to fight it or we can choose to ride it (and those who have done both know very well which option is exhilarating work and which is solely exhausting!), but that's the wave swelling in the world God made and loves.

What does recognizing that mean -- and what does it mean especially for discernment? St. Augustine put it very concisely when he said, "Love God and do what you will." At first glance, that sounds like a recipe for libertine excess. Do WHATEVER I will? But that ignores the first part of the statement: "Love God." Loving God isn't a warm fuzzy feeling, though we may have those feelings at times; it's a choice to be in relationship with God, to align oneself with what God is doing in the world. That's not the same as trying to accomplish on our own steam what we think God wants to happen. I've blogged before about the common misconception that surfing is about paddling hard enough to propel oneself down the wave, when really it's about finding a spot on the wave and pointing oneself in a direction such that the gravity which pulls you down its face is also moving you parallel to the beach, always to that next section where the wave hasn't yet broken. In that sense, surfing isn't so much about paddling as it is about falling; gravity is the chief force at work, and the wave arranges things such that gravity can take you where you need to go if you point yourself in the right direction. The Spirit is moving; the wave is swelling. Love God: point yourself in the direction the wave is going. The rest is graceful falling.

That's why Jesus could summarize the Law as loving God and loving neighbor -- a statement that Paul echoes in Romans. Paul spent most of his ink trying to help communities figure out what all that implied in practical terms, of course, and communities from before his time to our own time and beyond have disagreed passionately about the specifics. Paul's list of specific was pretty short, if Galatians 5 is any indication: exploiting one another, treating people as objects and objects as God, is out; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are in. There is no law against this fruit of the Spirit. One may as well try to outlaw the tide, for all the luck you'll have enforcing it and all the fun you'll (NOT) have in the attempt.

So how do we experience the Spirit? We look for places in ourselves, in our communities, and in our world in need of reconciliation and we plunge into the healing and wholeness that God in God's grace is bringing into being. We participate in racial reconciliation, in sharing resources and passing laws that narrow the gulf between rich and poor, in looking for signs of that reconciliation happening and fruit of the Spirit growing in those around us and those seemingly unlike us -- because we're not so different in the one thing that matters, in whose children we are and in our call to live more deeply into that reality.

That's be to God!

June 3, 2006 in 1 Corinthians, Acts, Galatians, Holy Spirit, Inclusion, John, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pentecost, Reconciliation, Romans, Year B | Permalink | Comments (0)

Day of Pentecost, Year C

Acts 2:1-11 - link to NRSV text
John 14:8-17 - link to NRSV text

A Pentecost liturgy pet peeve of mine: having several (or bunches) of parishioners join in on the Acts 2 reading in a variety of languages that very few people in the congregation understand. This especially bugs me when it's a bunch of ethnically homogenous parishioners reading the text in a variety of languages they learned in classrooms.

Believe me, it's not that I have a problem with multi-lingual culture, community, or liturgy. It's about the text of Acts 2, in which the miracle is that all present hear what is spoken as being in their own native language, whatever it is.

Or maybe that's the second miracle in the story. The first miracle was that all of these diaspora Christians took the time to gather together. These were people who literally didn't speak the same language. A cursory survey of what Judaism looked like in the first century also shows that these were probably people who had some very different ideas about what some might be tempted to call "orthodoxy," about how to interpret the canon and even which books should be in it. The fact that they were all devout speaks to how painful some of these cultural divisions must have been. Shouldn't they all know Hebrew if they were all Jews (proselytes were Jews too, after all)? A lot of folks would have said so. And there were quite a few people arguing that the inability of those who worship the God of the Hebrews to read the Scriptures in Hebrew was the root cause of the diversity of theology and praxis they saw as fracturing Israel, threatening its very existence.

So how was it that all of these people were gathered together? They didn't come for the great sermons, since they didn't understand the same language. Yes, they gathered to break bread together, but what drew them to do that much, when they had so little in common?

I've got to think that it was the call of the Spirit promised by Jesus that brought them there, that the Spirit's call was what gathered them to break bread together first, before they understood one another. The Spirit's call, and their response to that call before they understood it, enabled them to hear what the Spirit had to say to the gathered church at the birth of the church.

I think about that when I read John 14.

"You know [the Spirit] because he abides with you, and he will be in you."

By the way, the "you" is plural. I hear this as a word to the church: we know the Spirit because the Spirit abides with us. God's Spirit is in the assembly of God's people. And we don't have to do something to make that happen. We keep Jesus' word to love one another as he has loved us not so that God will send the Spirit, but to honor the Spirit who is present as we gather in Jesus' name.

We gather to meet the Spirit in response to the invitation set upon our hearts by that same Spirit. We're not gathering because of our shared understandings or our common language, but because we are sisters and brothers called to the family table at the invitation of the Father. And when we learn to recognize Christ in the faces of those gathered, we too will have seen the Father.

Thanks be to God!

May 24, 2004 in Acts, Holy Spirit, John, Pentecost, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)