Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Fire of Judgment and Baptism of Death

August 15, 2016 –– 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 38:4–6, 8–10 / Psalm 40 / Hebrews 12:1–4 / Luke 12:49–53
The Fire of Judgment and Baptism of Death

Early in Luke's Gospel angels sing to the shepherds when God's Son is born: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace…. What a contrast with what Jesus says here: Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. That does not sound like the angels’ message. Jesus even speaks of bringing division to family. What is going on here?

The usual tendency is to over-simplify our understanding of Jesus for our own tastes and convenience. Yet anyone who is honest will recognize that Jesus said some hard things. They can be hard for two reasons: they are either hard to understand or hard to accept. Mark Twain once quipped that it was not the things in the Bible that he did not understand that bothered him; it was the things he did understand.

The Gospel today is one of the hard sayings of Jesus. He talks of setting the earth on fire (v49). There is a baptism that threatens even Jesus (v50). Then he says he comes to bring division (v51ff). Here it helps to remember two important elements in our faith: understanding and commitment. One can have understanding of Christian faith without commitment to it, but commitment is impossible without an understanding of what you would be committed to. We need a good understanding of Jesus to be able to give him the obedience of true commitment.

Luke earlier told his readers (9:51): As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. This is the context for everything after that. Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die. He is aware of what lies before him; it’s never far from his mind.

So we come to these words today: I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing (v49). What is this "fire" that Jesus came to bring? Think back to Jesus' baptism. As he was doing his water baptism, John was speaking of a fuller event: I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come.… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Lu 3:16).

The picture here is of cleansing judgment. Jesus' death brought judgment on sin. And having died for our sins, the day is coming when the wind of God's Spirit will blow across humanity and separate the grain from the hull (the Bible calls it the "wheat and chaff").  In Psalm 1, the wicked are like chaff which the wind drives away. Wind and fire are both images of the Spirit. John was foretelling the Coming One who would unleash God's Spirit in the world, and one result would be shining forth of the true children of God’s kingdom. Saints are people who are enveloped with the very fire of God (e.g., Isaiah 33:14–15, Luke 24:32, and Hebrews 12:29). We have an incredible honor and privilege: Our lives can burn with the love of God!

It is here that the third part of Jesus' words begins to fall into place. As Jesus thinks about all that lies ahead, he tells what the result will be. It will be division––a division between those who embrace his way and those who will not. It has been that way since the first disobedience. Those who hated God’s truth wanted to kill Jeremiah. The reading from Hebrews tells us that Jesus endured such opposition from sinners that he endured the cross. Godliness draws opposition.

It helps here to differentiate between effect and purpose. When Jesus said he had not come to bring peace but to bring division, he was talking about the effect of his coming, not that this was the purpose of his coming. Later in his Gospel Luke reports Jesus clearly saying, For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (Lu19:10). God desires our salvation; that was the purpose for Jesus coming. Yet God gives everyone free will––the freedom and responsibility to choose, and there are some who will not submit to God. Again, allegiance to Jesus Christ always carries the threat of conflict.

That is what it meant when Jesus spoke to his disciples as they walked toward Jerusalem. That is what it means for us today. First, there is basic faith. We are invited to believe that Jesus did undergo that baptism of death, and that in so doing he forever altered God's judgment on people who believe. This is the essence of baptism and professing Christian faith.

Then there is living it out––“proving” our faith. When a conflict of interest comes up, what is our response? Where is our commitment? Think of the criticism and animosity that comes from the press and and the general culture when the Church confronts evil with God’s truth. Do we stand up for our Faith? People who are “Christians” in name only do not want to draw conflict. It is hard to pick an argument with a person who has no convictions, but who really cares about a church that doesn't stand for anything?! Half-heartedness did not take Jesus to the cross,

In a more recent context, think of Martin Luther King, Jr. His was a message of peace and justice and love for all people. On the other hand, it is also true that almost everywhere he went, hate and violence accompanied him. He carried such a positive force of justice and spoke with such authoritative love that evil forces of hate could not help but retaliate.

As Jesus goes to his death, he is calling disciples who will follow him to the cross, to be people who are willing to sacrifice everything else for loyalty to God and his ways. This part of the Gospel asks: what passion fills my life? What is my supreme loyalty––above love even of husband, wife, father, mother, sister or brother? For what are we willing to sacrifice life itself? We honor people who will die for their country and call them patriots; people who sacrifice everything––money, status, and even family––for Christian faith are too often called fanatics.

Jesus did come into our world to bring peace––God’s peace. But that is not a “surface” peace, and Jesus did not teach or model a peace that denies the implications of obedience in a rebellious world. As we follow Jesus it is ours is to obey, as he did, all the way to the cross. If others will not go, if our obedience causes division, so be it. We cannot choose an inferior allegiance and at the same time say “Jesus is Lord.”


The fire of judgment and  baptism of death….  In Jesus Christ, this is the way to life.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Regarding Prayer

July 24, 2106 –– 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Genesis 18:20–32 / Psalm 138 / Colossians 2:12–14 / Luke 11:1-13
Regarding Prayer

Today’s readings focus on prayer. Last Sunday’s Gospel told us the story about Mary choosing to spend time with Jesus instead of helping Martha with the serving.

What do you expect of prayer? Some people approach prayer with the theological sophistication of Huckleberry Finn:

Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing came of it. She told me to pray everyday, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn't so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn't make it work. I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn't make it out no way.

Haven't there been times when you felt that way? You asked God, praying quite sincerely for something, and it didn't happen. So prayer becomes a big mystery, and like Huck Finn, we can't "make it out no way."

The disciples recognized that Jesus was a man of prayer. Jesus once said, when fully trained, the disciple will be like his teacher (Lu 6:40). The disciples must have recognized that if they could follow Jesus in prayer, then they would grow to be like him. Jesus wants his disciples to follow him in prayer. So Jesus gives a story that, at the end, shows a contrast to the way we can easily think of prayer. There are three common misconceptions in this story Jesus gives.

The first is that prayer mainly rises out of desperation. The arrival of the late traveller caused the householder an embarrassing situation. Because the cupboard was bare he could not fulfill the sacred obligations of hospitality. He was desperate, so he went to a friend way past acceptable hours. Jesus is warning that it is easy to view prayer as begging and the last resort in a desperate situation.

That sets the stage for the second misconception about prayer, that prayer is an imposition on God. Certainly the request in Jesus’s story was an imposition on the friend.

In the east no one would knock on a shut door unless the need was imperative. In the morning the door was opened and remained open all day, for there was little privacy; but if the door was shut, that was a definite sign that the householder was not to be disturbed. But the seeking householder was not deterred. He knocked, and kept on knocking (William Barclay).

It was an imposition to go to the friend after bedtime. And sometimes we can feel that it's an imposition to go to God with our needs. We can feel guilty asking him for something, especially if we've allowed God to be distant and only go to him as a last-resort desperation.

Well, the man finally received what he wanted, but he did so on the basis of a third misconception about prayer, that earnest prayer is mostly persistent begging. We must be careful here because there is a legitimate persistency in praying––Jesus does say ask… seek… knock, but prayer is not just begging for something long enough to get it.

So what is prayer? Rather than a desperate last resort, prayer is the natural breath of a human spirit that was created to know God. Prayer is a way of always being in touch with our Father in heaven. Just as we breathe constantly, we are to pray without ceasing (1Thess 5:17). This is being persistent in prayer. We are have a standing invitation to confidently approach the throne of grace (Heb 4:16). We are given repeated assurance for coming to God: Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith (Heb 10:22). Come near to God, and he will come near to you (Ja 4:8). The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer (1Pet 5:12a).

Jesus wants us to know that if an unwilling householder can finally be coerced by a friend's shameless persistence into giving him what he needs, how much more will God, who is a loving Father, supply all his children's needs? If human fathers know how to give their children good things, then how much more does our perfect Father in heaven know to give us good things! (But we must remember that God is the one who defines “good”.)

This brings up one other question about prayer: Why do we ask God for something when he is our perfect Father and already knows what we need? We do not pray because God needs to know. We pray because we need to have that kind of contact with our heavenly Father…. and he loves for his children to come to him. But, God has left the initiative up to us.


Yet our loving Lord has even provided for that initiative. The best gift from God is his Holy Spirit. In the name of Jesus we are invited to believe that the Father gives us his Spirit so that we can both talk to him and know what to talk about. When that happens we are already on our way to being like Jesus–– being able to pray like Jesus prayed because we know the Father through the Spirit he has given us. So as we commit ourselves to have quiet time with God––to be like Mary with Jesus, and like Jesus with the Father––we come just as those first disciples when they said, Lord, teach us to pray…. If we ask that and mean it, we will be a praying people. We will become more and more like our Lord, and we will make a difference in our world.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Faith: Seeing Obstacle or Opportunity?

July 10, 2016 –– 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Deuteronomy 30:10–14 / Psalm 69 / Colossians 1:15–20 / Luke 10:25–37
Faith: Seeing Obstacle or Opportunity?

There is a sense in which everyone is motivated by faith. Faith activates our will when we do anything. Reason usually provides a foundation, but then we take a step of faith. When we get into a car very few of us understand how the thing totally works, but we “believe” two things implicitly: we believe a car can actually transport us, and we believe––perhaps with greater faith––that we will actually arrive safely at our destination. If we did not believe those two things, we would not get into the car.

Sometimes people have warped perceptions that prevent them from taking a reasonable step of faith. When this happens, we call it a disorder. People who are afraid to go out into the “big world” often have agoraphobia. People who will not get in elevators can have claustrophobia. Acrophobia prevents many from flying or even going up into high-rise buildings.

This dynamic is true in the spiritual world. Faith is simply the way one sees and understands greater reality. When God’s revelation through Israel, and ultimately through Christ, is truly believed, the world and its issues are seen very differently in contrast to those who do not believe. Paul wrote to the Colossians, that in Christ Jesus all things were created through him and for him… and in him all things hold together. If we can’t “see” that, our lives will be disordered.

In C. S. Lewis’ final Narnia story, The Last Battle, the dwarfs are sitting inside a stable with all Narnia around them having just been renewed. They refuse to believe it. In their minds they are safely huddled inside a dingy stable and refuse to see anything else. They say, “The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. We won’t be taken in.” So Aslan (the lion King) explains: “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison, and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”

We live in a world created by God. We are people who, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, have been loved and offered healing from all that hurts us. It is right here. The ancient words of Moses are even greater today than when he first gave them to Israel: this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off…. But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

Christian Faith is a gift from God that is meant to open our eyes to an entirely new and different way of seeing. We are immersed in love and goodness. We are given every reason for hope.

Of course there is also pain, hatred, and evil. But it is important to understand that love and hate, goodness and evil are not equal competitors. Bad things exist because people, for now, are free to make choices in defiance of the love of God. God’s love is the ultimate reality. God’s love is what will endure. Faith is able to see this. That is why the greatest commandment is love.

Is it reasonable to have this kind of faith? Some say no, but two things support a reasonable Christian Faith. First, there is a witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that has not been able to be discredited or stamped out, despite intense effort, for almost two thousand years. Second, Christian Faith, rightly understand, best explains and answers the most basis issues and hardest questions of our existence. Those who are open to faith will increasingly “see” it.

When we exercise Christian faith, life begins to change. God’s kind of love starts to imprint our lives and affect the things we do. This is one way to understand Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan. Think about this contrast: Having or not having faith in God’s kind of love makes a difference between seeing either an obstacle or an opportunity. Luke tells us that the lawyer who questioned Jesus wished to justify himself. His world revolved around himself. He wasn’t really concerned with loving God; he wanted to look good. And so in Jesus’s story the priest and Levite, for all their outward stature as religious people, looked at the ravaged victim and saw an obstacle. Maybe helping would have made them late to an appointment they thought more important than giving love. Maybe they were afraid the same violence would happen to them if they tarried too long in the area in order to give love to the stricken man. Maybe they thought the wounded man just wasn’t worth it. All they saw was a situation that, if they got involved, would derail their own priorities. They saw an obstacle. 

The Samaritan, to put it simply, saw an opportunity to love. It’s relatively easy to talk about God’s kind of love. (And talk can be good IF if leads to appropriate action; that’s one reason we  have sermons and confess the Creed each week.) But truly choosing to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself will mean doing something…. something with two of the commodities we treasure most: our time and and our money. The Samaritan gave time and used his own money to help the man who had been assaulted.

If we choose to use our time and money to love in godly ways it is because our hearts are open to the reality of faith. We all make a choice of faith. We will either see the unpleasant things around us as obstacles which hinder our personal pleasure, or we will see them as opportunities to show the love of God. We all model a “faith” by what we do and how we do it.

Can we dare to believe, every day and all day, that we are immersed in love and goodness simply because God has given himself to us in Jesus Christ? Jesus is calling us to love like him and see the world around us as an opportunity to live in the love of God.


This past week our nation has been in shock at the recurring violence. What if all who profess faith in Jesus would simply choose to love like our Lord? Can you see it? It is not too hard for you, neither is it far off…. it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Keeping our hearts "above"

Thinking (and grieving) over the infiltration of "the world" into the way so many Christians today think, speak, and act. There is a loss of civility and a seeming ignorance of what was once basic morality.

Foul language is deemed common (and acceptable); nastiness toward others is justified by standing up for one's "rights". So much for the spirit of Jesus...

Perhaps a daily reading of Paul's exhortation to the Colossians would be helpful (this was written to CHRISTIANS):

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you once walked, when you lived in them.

But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator….

Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Christian Freedom

June 26, 2016 –– 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 19:16b, 19–21 / Psa 16: 1–2, 5, 7–8, 9–10, 11 / Galatians 5:1, 13–18 / Luke 9:51–62
Christian Freedom

Throughout my forty-plus years of pastoral ministry I have listened to people complain about the difficulty of understanding St Paul. There are a number of reasons for this, but a crucial one is that Paul cannot be read superficially. If you try to read a few verses of his letters apart from their context (which means reading the whole letter and discovering its setting), you’ll not understand Paul very well. It’s also important to learn about the issues Paul often addresses as well as some words Paul uses in a technical way. The letter to the Galatians is a great example. We discover a very Pauline vocabulary with words such as freedom, law, love, flesh and Spirit. 

One of the gifts God gave to his human creation was freedom. We have a “free-will” that can make rational and autonomous choices. That is why our world is broken today; Adam and Eve chose to disobey. Inherent with freedom is an inevitable repercussion. The Catechism says: Freedom makes man a moral subject. When he acts deliberately, man is, so to speak, the father of his acts. Human acts, that is, acts that are freely chosen in consequence of a judgment of conscience, can be morally evaluated. They are either good or evil (CCC 1749).

St Paul’s letter to the Galatians is about the interplay of God’s law, human freedom, and the tendency to commit sin (this is one way to understand his word flesh). This is in contrast to the way God’s Spirit works in us. Grace works in our lives to help us obey God––to be the kind of humanity God intended when he first created us.

What should we expect from God? Some people mistakingly think grace and Christian faith is merely "forgiveness." There was a popular bumper sticker that said Christians aren't perfect, only forgiven. The Christian gospel does offer forgiveness, but forgiveness is only the beginning. God has made a way to forgive our sins so that his life––his Spirit––can come into us. Salvation is given to restore us to what God first intended, before disobedience and sin entered our world.

This means God's work in us creates change. St Paul told the Corinthians: If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come (2Cor 5:17). The way to understand what Paul says here about freedom is to see it within the big picture of salvation. Christians do not keep God’s law in order to earn grace. We are forgiven through the death of Jesus. But here is the question: does "freedom" mean that Christians are free to sin?

Let's consider this thing of freedom a bit more. Freedom means we are not in bondage to guilt and fear just because we fall short of God’s perfect law. Freedom is the joy of knowing God loves us and wants our best. Freedom means Christians have been loosed from the tyranny of self-effort. Freedom means a liberty to respond to God from our hearts.

We need to hear that last one again and again: Freedom means a liberty to respond to God from our hearts. This is the crux of "Christian living." Because of what God's Spirit does, Christians are “free” to respond to the God who saves them––but not “free to sin”. The freedom we have in Christ is God's gift. It is incongruous that God would give us a gift that sanctions sin. What St Paul says in his letter to the Galatians is that God gives us a gift that frees us to be like him––a gift that frees us to love.

There is a sense is which every human being is free" to love whatever he or she desires. We all have a God-given desire for happiness and fulfillment. Every one of us is "free" to respond to that––and we do. Yet left to themselves, people want to do what they want to do. We too easily desire wrong things. Self-will is at war with God’s will; there is a warped view of “freedom” in our world. Paul calls this life according to the flesh. It’s also true that a Christian (a person in whom the Holy Spirit dwells) can, in specific actions, act like someone without faith. We live in a world that tells lies about values, and morals, and happiness, and having once had our identity in those lies, everyone is susceptible. But a person who has been born of the Spirit does not have to live that way because God's work is always urging a person on to true life and obedience. This is what Paul is talking about here:
For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want. But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law (vs 17,18).

The good news of the Gospel is that Christians are “free” ––truly free to love and obey God, but not free to sin. We are free to love because love is such a basic character of God. When God sets a person free, it is a freedom to respond to God and be like him. St Augustine has been quoted: “Love, and do what you will.” God-given love is not just a sentimental feeling; God-given love is a Christ-like attitude that his Spirit works into us. God comes into his people so that they can be like him. So Paul says the whole law is fulfilled in one statement: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (v14).


And yet, as important as it is, “trying to love” is not the focus. We cannot love, God-style, by ourselves. Love is a by-product: Jesus loves through us as we focus on him. Paul says if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law––in other words, we live unto Jesus instead of trying to keep a list of what Christians “do” (or don’t do). The essence of Christian faith is that God comes to live in us so that his life can be expressed through us! Think what would happen if everyone in the world always lived in the Spirit and said no to the flesh! It would be heaven on earth. We are “free” to love God. Are you doing your part? Are you staying open to God’s Spirit?

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Being Real About Forgiveness

June 12, 2016: 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Samuel 12:7–10,13 / Psalm 32 / Galatians 2:16, 19–21 / Luke 7:36–8:3
Being Real About Forgiveness

Two things are crushingly hard: trying to live up to something you’re not, or for most people to think of you as an awful person. We see both in the Gospel reading.

We probably do not think often enough of how we live in a culture obsessed and warped by image. People often give more attention to looking good than being good (in so many contexts). What if everyone spent as much time caring for the soul as the body? Yet we too easily focus on the veneer. It’s threatening to us simply to be real.

This comes into focus in the two characters from the Gospel reading. First, consider Simon. Simon used other people of reputation to elevate himself. His hospitality was actually patronization. Being at his table was a big deal. That is why he was not courteous to Jesus; Simon's mind was on himself. He wanted to look important. Simon had no spiritual discernment in spite of his outward religious identification as a Pharisee. His assessment of things was based on the outward appearance. Simon wanted Jesus in his house because Jesus was reported to be a mighty prophet. He could tell everyone that he knew Jesus–– "had him over for dinner the other night.”

Then there is the woman. Luke tell us she is a sinner. This means something specific, beyond what is generally true of all us. Tradition says this woman was a prostitute. She suffered from a horrible image. We have no details, but almost never does a person choose a sordid lifestyle as a preference. Sometimes it’s “collateral damage” ––people crash to an awful bottom when they’re caught in a bubble that bursts. Others try to live in a fantasy of their own making. Both are crushing, and God wants better for us.

These are the dynamics at work between Simon and the woman. Simon is focused on his image, even as his projected image of Jesus fades––If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him… Simon was thinking of himself and his reputation. What would happen when the word spread about this incident at his dinner? There was no concern nor consideration of the woman, and Simon did not really know Jesus.

Simon had two options. Simon could have recognized and rejoiced at this woman’s demonstrative but humble display that said so powerfully: I need forgiveness and love. But to do that Simon needed to recognize his own sin, and that's hard to do. Simon had a respectable image. How could he identify in any way with this groveling wretch of a woman who had disrupted his dinner party? Simon had never faced his deep need of forgiveness, so how could he appreciate what this woman experienced?

The one who recognized the most about Jesus was this woman. The woman had no difficulty  showing her need. At first it seems odd that such a person would have that measure of intuition. Yet when you think about it, the greater a person's need, the greater the awareness. It's the person with no pretenses, the person who is humble and honest, that is most open to the reality of love and forgiveness. It was because this woman was down and out––because she needed love so badly––that she recognized what kind of man Jesus was. She was so close to bottom there was nowhere else to go. That comes into focus when we look at Simon, this woman, and Jesus.

I have an outward reputation as a Christian. But if that’s all it is, I’m in serious trouble. Think also of David. He was king, and that certainly carried the pressure of an outward image. What if David had chosen privilege and image over honesty and repentance? This is an issue for most of us who are regularly in church. There is an external pressure to be outwardly righteous and we sense that. At one level that can be good. Yet it is here that we need to guard against the world’s exaltation of image. Sin tries to tell us it doesn’t matter as long as the outward appearance looks good. It’s easy to fall into an attitude that's more like Simon than the penitent woman.

If we try to live behind an image we are being like Simon the Pharisee––and we could end up like the woman before her restoration. Today we are reminded that forgiveness is a basic issue for all of us. We all need to be forgiven. Early in the Liturgy we have the Penitential Act. The Confetior reminds us: I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned…. Do we mean it? Do we embrace an awareness of our need for love and forgiveness that can only come through Jesus? Do we extend that mercy to others?

We can be like Simon and be more concerned with what other people think of us instead of what God thinks of us. We can be critical and unforgiving toward others, especially if we think doing so can make us look outwardly good––but that’s only image.

We need to be like this woman. We can admit our need of forgiveness, and in doing so, find the kind of forgiveness that causes us to respond to our Lord with abandon. 

When you respond to the “altar call” at Communion, do you come freely admitting that you are a sinner who need forgiveness? The invitation is to come just as this woman did. In our hearts we can fall before him and bathe his feet with our tears. Then we can become models of the love we have received. Having received grace, we respond to God in gratitude. Having been dealt with graciously, we practice graciousness toward others. That's what this story tells us, and that's what we are called to in every Eucharist.


Let’s be real about forgiveness. It’s so much more than image.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Personal Pentecost

May 15, 2016 –– Pentecost Sunday
Acts 2:1–11 / Romans 8:8–17 / John 14:15–16, 23b–26
A Personal Pentecost

Today is Pentecost Sunday. All around the world Christians look back to that day in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and fulfilled the promise of Jesus. Each week we “confess” I believe in the Holy Spirit… So here is a question for us on this Pentecost Sunday: What are we expecting to happen today because we believe Jesus has given us his Spirit?

Think for a moment about the things Jesus said the Spirit would do. Jesus will no longer be with his disciples to give them guidance, so the Spirit is the Counselor. Jesus will no longer be with his disciples to teach them, so Jesus says the Spirit will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus himself, and the effect of the Spirit is that Jesus is made known and glorified in and through his followers.

Before Pentecost the Spirit had not yet come as promised. The disciples did not have the power to stand firm. When the soldiers came to the garden to arrest Jesus, the disciples had flushed like a covey of quail. Peter did follow “at a distance.” But in the courtyard, when he was accused by a servant girl, Peter cursed and denied that he knew Jesus at all. Then, after Jesus' death and resurrection, the disciples locked themselves in a room because they were afraid. Were these men really the ones Jesus said would do greater works than these in my Name?

Then it happened….. a noise like a strong driving wind…. what seemed to be tongues of fire resting on each of them…. speaking in different tongues. It so affected them that onlookers thought they were drunk. Now here is a big question: Do we believe the Holy Spirit wants to do the same thing in us? I do not mean a copying of all the particular phenomena and events. Rather, do you believe the Holy Spirit so wants to invade and control your life that unbelievers will think something is “wonderfully different” about you?

One brief reading of this Pentecost story is enough to show that these were changed men. The Spirit had come in power and it was evident. Where before things were not fitting together, now these so-called ignorant and unlearned men have the power to understand. They remember the Old Testament teachings and the words of Jesus, and see them come together in the death and resurrection so that their lives are totally transformed.

A holy boldness entered the lives of people who had previously been characterized by timidity and downright fear. Peter, who would not own up to a slave girl that he was a follower of Jesus, is now able to give a contextual teaching of who Jesus was in terms of Old Testament prophecy.  And Peter is bold––even confrontational––as he proclaims the resurrection of Jesus while at the same time accusing his hearers of being the ones responsible for crucifying God's Messiah. This is the fulfillment of Jesus' promise, But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…

So each week we confess, I believe in the Holy Spirit…. We would likely say we believe that the Spirit of God is powerful. It was the Spirit who brooded over the earth in creation. It was the Spirit who was at work raising Jesus from the dead. So why shouldn't the people in whom the Holy Spirit dwells understand the plan of salvation and have boldness declaring it? Or for that matter, why shouldn't people who have the Spirit living in them almost routinely be a channel of healing and other miraculous signs? The Spirit did that through Jesus, and––because of Pentecost––did the same through those early followers.

I assume most of us believe that, at least “conceptually.” We believe the Holy Spirit indwells Christian believers. But that should only heighten a crucial question for us: Where is the boldness among so many who say they are Christians to give public witness to their faith? Where is the miraculous in our fight against sin? How often is world looking at us in the Church and saying, “Wow, what is it with you?!” You see, what we believe about the Holy Spirit is not only found in our doctrines. It is fleshed out in our day to day lives. Life in the Spirit means we open ourselves to be invaded, as it were, by an outside entity––to allow someone else to come in and control our lives.
I think part of the problem is that much of our faith formation does not make it clear and does not emphasize that Christians are people who give their lives away. Maybe we try too hard to make things easy and inviting. Jesus did not do that. He told people to count the cost. Paul told the Romans that life is either controlled by the “flesh” (the temporal, that is passing away), or the Spirit (who is the very power and holiness and life of God). The “world, the flesh and the devil” tell us lies; we are tempted to be seduced by giving our priorities––our hearts––to things that have no lasting value. God wants to give us his Spirit––the very source of life and love.

There is one huge question for each of us on this Pentecost Sunday: Have you had a personal Pentecost? Have you come into a living relationship with Jesus through a conscious indwelling of the Holy Spirit? This is more than confessing right things about the Holy Spirit; it’s about his living presence and control in your life. Jesus wants to transform our lives.


God is doing some wonderful things in our congregation; the life of the Spirit is evident. We have much to be thankful for. But periodically we need to examine ourselves, and Pentecost is a great time for that. I freely confess to you that I regularly need to face whether the Spirit is free and powerful in my own life, or if practices and patterns have crept in that grieve and quench the life of the Spirit. On this Pentecost Sunday we are reminded that we are here to be changed so that our lives are becoming more and more like Jesus. Jesus calls us to an indwelling intimacy of his Spirit within each one of us. Jesus wants us to be his witnesses so other people will give their lives away to him. You see, Pentecost is not only something that happened in the history of the church almost 2000 years ago. Pentecost is what Jesus wants to do in us.

 
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