Archives for June 2011

Bible Study: 2 Pentecost, Proper 8 (A)

June 26, 2011

Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

Genesis 22:1-14

Many contemporary Christians find this text to be very challenging, for it raises uncomfortable questions about the nature of God and how God interacts with us. Why would God test Abraham by ordering him to sacrifice his son Isaac? One explanation is that the authors of Genesis were attempting to clearly and definitively forbid human sacrifice, a practice that still survived in the earliest era of Israel’s history.

Other see this text as a statement that God does indeed test us to measure our faith. We have often heard our fellow Christians explain hardship in life by saying, “God is testing me.” But would a loving, merciful God actually do this? After all, we don’t expect adults in our lives who love and care for us to test us. If they did such a thing we would refer to it as “playing mind games” or something less charitable. No, adults don’t test each other and many people of mature faith wonder if God would do such a thing either.

Perhaps this passage and the idea of testing makes more sense if we admit that life can sometimes test us with adversity and God watches us to see how we will respond.

Do you feel that God tests us in the spirit that God tested Abraham? Why or why not?

What have been instances in your own experience of faith and life that have tested your character? Did you have a sense that God, and others, might be watching your response?

Psalm 13

This psalm takes the form of an individual’s lament. The psalmist words of sorrow and hopelessness express the biblical notion of poverty, i.e. the reality that one has nowhere else to turn but God. The enemy of verse 4 might be an adversary or perhaps death itself. The psalmists often expressed their anxiety and dread with allusions to death and descent to the underworld. It seems almost as if the speaker in this psalm is trying to shame God into acting, as if to say, “You, God of justice, how long will you allow this injustice to prevail?” Nonetheless the psalmist is confident that God will transform a situation that appears to be hopeless through an act of mercy and salvation.

What have been times in our experience of life and faith where God’s absence and silence is particularly felt? How do the psalmist’s attempts to elicit God’s action resonate with our own experiences of prayer when we are experiencing despair?

How does the psalmist’s hope for salvation presage the New Testament’s message of resurrection? What are the common threads of this overarching narrative of God’s power to transform death into life?

Romans 6:12-23

Paul has just concluded a lengthy discourse concerning what Jesus has accomplished through his death and resurrection, and how we share in the effects of those events through our baptism. Above all, Paul is saying that we are no longer enslaved by the power of Sin (to distinguish this power from an individual action, we shall use the capital S). Paul understood Sin to be more than simply a wrong action. Rather, Sin was a cosmic power that ensnared everyone. But Jesus, through his death and resurrection, has freed us from the false value system of Sin. Paul attempts to explain this reality in today’s epistle through the analogy of slavery.

The question is, “Whom do we serve, Sin or God?” For Paul, the answer is clear, but he recognizes that sinful forces still have great influence over us, even though we are committed to living as Christians. God suffuses our lives with grace that makes living by the values and example of Jesus possible. The great challenge remains to admit those areas of our lives that still serve Sin, and accept God’s gift of grace.

How/where/when have you experienced the enslaving power of Sin of which Paul speaks?

How/where/when have you experienced God’s free gift of grace which empowers us to live lives free of Sin’s false values?

Matthew 10:40-42

Do we recognize those people that Jesus sends into our lives to minister to us? Jewish law had a well-developed legal tradition regarding emissaries. One text said, “A man’s agent is like himself.” Jesus’ teaching here invests Christian ministers with a great deal of dignity and a sense that one’s ministerial commissioning originates with God. But this is of little use unless the minister is received with an open heart. Those whom Jesus sends will not always be recognizable though. Some will be prophets (people the world might think to be a bit eccentric or strange). Others will be righteous people (perhaps those who suffer for the faith and otherwise bear witness to their discipleship – people the world might view as foolishly and naively standing by their convictions.) Notice how Jesus refers to some of those who will be sent as “little ones” (v. 42.) Scholars suggest that in Matthew’s community these “little ones” might have represented the lowliest and simplest members. These are people that we might easily dismiss because we hastily assume they have nothing to teach or offer us. Jesus invites us to be open to his unexpected ways of working in our lives.

Who have been among the “little ones” who have ministered to us in unexpected ways?

Is Jesus calling you to be one of his emissaries? What are the signs of this call? To whom shall you minister?

We always have a choice, Proper 8 (A) – 2011

June 26, 2011

Genesis 22:1-14 and Psalm 13 (Track 2: Jeremiah 28:5-9 and Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18)Romans 6:12-23Matthew 10:40-42

“The wages of sin is death.” Pulled out of the context of the majestic letter to the church in Rome, this short statement sounds ominous; we have all sinned, according to the same letter. If we read this standing by itself, we might conclude that there is no hope for us.

Or we begin to justify ourselves. We try to imagine what we’ve done that deserves the death penalty, and can’t come up with anything – and so we choose to ignore this statement, assuming it’s for someone else.

Part of the truth is that Paul is writing to someone else. This letter was written to a specific church, in the first century, by someone who probably never imagined that Christians in a far-distant place and time would be reading his words and looking for good news in them.

Another part of the truth is that we owe the author the respect of reading his words with attention to the context in which they were written. Paul did not write “the wages of sin is death,” and never say anything else. These words appear in the context of a whole piece of writing, in which Paul writes a thorough examination of his theology of grace, to a church he has never visited.

A third part of the truth is that Christians have, for centuries, affirmed the work of the Holy Spirit in this letter, and therefore, we believe that it has good news in it for us.

If we treat this letter with care, looking at its original context and reading the whole case Paul is making, we don’t need to avoid the parts that make us uncomfortable and skim the “good parts” off the top.

In Paul’s writing, the concept of “sin” is tied closely to his sense of the general state of human life for two categories of people: those who have tried to live under the Law of Moses – that is, his own people – and those who have worshipped other gods. Both these groups have the opportunity to affirm instead the hope of new life, embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This letter is written to people who have more experience with worshipping other gods, or worshipping no god at all, before hearing the good news of Jesus. To them, Paul writes that those who choose to follow their appetites wherever they may lead are engaged in sin; those who choose to die to their old ways and be born anew are accepting the free gift of God, the grace that changes everything.

To those who have spent years sitting in the pews of the church, this might sound like old news. God’s gift of Jesus and the life-changing power of grace that comes to us through him is basic stuff. It is basic; but more than that, it’s fundamental, meaning it’s a concept on which we build the life of faith, the practices that feed us, and the self-examination that challenges us. We are never free from the need to look closely at the lives we are living right now, to see if we are choosing behaviors that lead to death.

Most of us feel fairly well-insulated from the kind of sins that we imagine require punishment. The pews of our churches are full of nice people, even good people, with good intentions and the occasional brilliant program to love and serve our neighbors. The consequences of many of our actions are actually life-giving, flowing from our sense of God’s grace and its availability to everyone.

Perhaps, though, we are operating with too narrow a definition of “sin” and “death.” If you kill someone, you have sinned, and the consequences of your actions may well be literal, physical death for you, as a punishment, depending on where you live. But there is death, too, when a life is lived without regard for God’s deep love for oneself, for others, and for creation itself. “Death” isn’t just punishment for sin; it’s a way of being in the world that contributes to diminishment of life for others.

We are called to careful examination of our entire range of behaviors. There is more than one way to do harm. In our time, one of the simplest ways to do harm is simply to fail to pay attention. Where do your clothes come from? How far did your food travel before it reached you? Are you aware of where your water comes from? Whose labor is involved? How is the planet affected by your choices? Do you cut people off when you’re driving? How do you treat your money? These are all choices with real consequences for the earth and for other people.

If we behave as though our entire stay on earth is an opportunity to purchase and consume and make money, we have missed the point entirely. If we assume that our desires take precedence over the needs of other people, other countries, or other species, we have failed completely to understand God’s love and grace.

But perhaps far more important in this entire discussion is the second half of Paul’s sentence: “the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.” We are not just talking about living a moral life in order to avoid punishment. We are talking about two completely contrasting ways of living: there’s a life that has only negative consequences, because there are only selfish and negative behaviors, with no purpose or moral compass; and there’s a life shining with possibility, a life of growth and movement, a life that touches other lives with joy – because of the presence in that life of God’s grace. This is the life God wants for each one of us. God’s grace is available in everyone’s life; our choices invite grace in, or keep grace on the outside.

Paul is working up to his comprehensive statements about God’s grace and love, coming up in Chapter 8. He wants to be clear at this point that his readers understand the basic need we all have for grace; it’s part of the basic design.

Paul says, “Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” This is far more glorious than merely avoiding the commission of sins in order to avoid the negative consequences! Paul says that we can be much more than sin-avoiders, people afraid to make any choice lest it prove to be the wrong one; we can be righteousness-enacters, agents for God’s agenda of grace and love. We can do the things that Jesus did, because we have access to God’s Spirit. We can feed people. We can bring healing to people whose lives have been turned upside down because of personal tragedy or natural disasters. We can teach. We can make the earth greener, our neighborhoods safer; we can welcome the stranger and nurture our children. We can do these things by presenting ourselves to God, trusting that God’s grace is sufficient to begin and continue the work of resurrection in us.

We always have a choice about where we will put our energy and allegiance. If we make no choice except to sit in front of the television, that’s still a choice. The glory of God’s grace and love is that whatever choices we make, we are given an opportunity every day to imagine God’s kingdom, enact God’s love, and do everything in our power to bring God’s grace into every day, into every choice we make, for the good of the world God loves beyond imagining.

 

— The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the assistant rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tustin, Calif. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader, and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment.

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist (A,B,C) – 2011

June 24, 2011

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85 or 85:7-13; Acts 13:14b-26; Luke 1:57-80

Much has been made in the popular press in recent years of so-called “helicopter parents.”

Never heard of them?

Well, they, of course, have nothing to do with flying machines. The term refers instead to parents who seem to “hover” over their children constantly, making many of life’s decisions for them – sometimes giving them no room to make their own mistakes or, for that matter, to soar on their own to heights which the parents themselves might never have dreamed possible.

Whether this is a recent phenomenon or has always been a part of the parental and societal impulse to protect children we can leave to the experts to decide. Far too many parents are blamed – or take responsibility upon themselves – for developments in their children’s lives that are more or less out of their control anyway, no matter how much they hover. Even under the best of circumstances, parenting is not an exact science and probably never will be. In every generation, there are sure to be a lot of parents who quite understandably want their children to be like those of Garrison Keillor’s mythic Lake Wobegone – “above average, every last one of them.”

In our gospel text today, the people of the “the entire hill country of Judea” ponder the birth and naming of the child John – hovering closely over him and his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah. “What then will this child become?” they ask in amazement mixed perhaps with some confusion. It is a question of course that parents and family members have asked for millennia at the birth of every child, whether in ancient Judea or contemporary New Jersey or Nebraska. For the birth of any child is a reaffirmation of life itself and its mystery. No one can hold a small child and not wonder – perhaps sometimes even fear for – what the future has in store.

There may not have been helicopters in the ancient Holy Land but, it seems, parents and relatives do not much change over time either. It is perhaps reassuring to learn from scripture that a child’s birth could stir an entire community and get them thinking and involved. Sometimes, it does indeed take a village – or an “entire hill country” – to raise a child. And Zechariah’s words are a profound declaration of one parent’s faith as he, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” begins to speak in prophecy to his own son. “You, my child,” he says tenderly and perhaps even with a parent’s pride, “shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”

“What then will this child become?” This is the answer. This is what John will become. As we know well from our Christian perspective, he will become the last of the great prophets, the one to baptize our Lord and prepare his way.

But in some larger sense, the infant John – and every child – is already a “prophet of the Most High” because every child is paradoxically an image of the loving Father who sent to us not only John, but his very own Son Jesus, whose ministry John will grow to affirm. After all, “the child is father to the man,” as the poet Wordsworth reminded us. The Father knows well that only a child is truly capable of calling us back to the simplicity and fullness of divine love. John did not need to grow to manhood to prepare the Lord’s way. And the Lord did not need to hover. The child himself prepares the Lord’s way; and it is from John, and every child, that we must learn.

Yet sadly, it is exactly the child that our world today too often forgets. We read with horror of the abuse of children in our own country and elsewhere. Their images haunt us in scenes of famine and war in faraway lands, situations from which not even the most obsessive helicopter parent could rescue them. On the other hand, in some quarters of our contemporary consumer society, children seem to have become little more than nonessential commodities – neither profit centers nor revenue enhancers – perhaps at best parental status symbols and fashion accessories.

All children are in themselves signs of the abundance and bounty of a loving God. Zechariah knew this instinctively. It is a lesson that each generation of children teaches us anew. That is, if we are willing to understand. Our gospel text today ends ominously enough with John “in the wilderness,” surely not a place Zechariah – much less any self-respecting helicopter parent – could ever have wished his child to be. There was to be no Ivy League for John, no high-paying job in software development or finance. But what John learned in the wasteland, he proclaimed at the Jordan. And it is the most valuable lesson of all. It is the very thing Zechariah foresaw at John’s birth: that the Lord “has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.”

And it is a lesson learned from the child.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, www.anglicanbudapest.com.

Bible Study: 1 Pentecost (A)

June 19, 2011

Stephen P. HagertyBerkeley Divinity School at Yale

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19)

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

This biblical passage concerning humankind’s “dominion” over nature has affected the treatment and use of animals as well as the care of the environment. In particular, a certain understanding of this biblical passage, where humankind is set as master/controller of every other created thing, has been the justification for tremendous environmental destruction and cruelty to animals. How can “dominion” be understood in a more positive way as responsibility?

Psalm 8

Today’s psalm rightly focuses on the majesty of God, in particular, God’s transcendence. It speaks of women and children praising God so as to silence God’s enemies. Talk of God’s love for us can often minimize the truth that this psalm so rightly speaks of in the form of a haunting question:

“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,
What is man that you should be mindful of him?
the son of man that you should seek him out?”

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

There is something wonderfully comforting about Paul having to remind the earliest Christian communities to get along and be of one mind! A Christian writer was once asked what the hardest thing was about being a Christian and his reply was simple and to the point: Other Christians! We need to be reminded to take the time to treat our brothers and sisters in Christ well – to make the effort!

Matthew 28:16-20

How do you understand Jesus’ clear command to “make disciples of all nations?” Are you comfortable sharing your faith with others, i.e., coworkers, friends, family? Does this feel pushy or too aggressive? How can “evangelism” be reimagined?

You cannot capture nor contain God, Trinity Sunday (A) – 2011

June 19, 2011

Genesis 1:1-2:4aPsalm 8 or Canticle 2 or 13; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13Matthew 28:16-20

God. Is too big for your brain. You cannot capture nor contain God.

In the movie “Three Weddings and Funeral,” the hapless priest repeatedly butchers the name of the Trinity: “In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spicket,” he says at one wedding, and at another, “Father, Son, and Holy Goat.”

Which reminds me of the girl visiting the United States from India. Her hosts take her to church, where she hears the prayers. Later, she asks her hosts, “Why didn’t you pray for the West Coast?”

“What do you mean?” they ask.

“Well, you prayed in name of the Father, Son, and whole East Coast. You didn’t pray for the West Coast.”

As Christians, we say a lot of things about God. What we say about God is called theology: theos, which is Greek for “God,” and ology, “the study of.” The study of God.

For example, we say this about God:

• God pre-existed, chronologically, came before all of created order, all that you see.
• God is all powerful, more powerful than anything in the created order, including atoms.
• God is ubiquitous, existing in all places, all at once.

When we do not understand these enigmatic concepts, we make jokes, or poke holes. For example, “Can God make a rock so big God cannot pick it up?”

On Trinity Sunday, we pay particular attention to this enigma: God is simultaneously three persons in one. Not three persons that seem like one, or one person with three aspects. Rather, we acknowledge something that is physically impossible: three equals one.

Tradition has reduced theological statements about God to writing. You can find them in the Book of Common Prayer, in treatises, and even – in summary form – in the creeds: the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.

The problem with reducing articles of truth to writing is that we end up confusing what is written with the truth itself, the ink with the meaning. Words are finite, and truth like God is not. The writing merely reflects the truth that has been experienced – the writing cannot and does not contain the truth. When you are searching for truth that is contained in written or spoken communication, remember this: experience precedes the communication. In the case of the Trinity, we experience God as triune before writing the word, “Trinity,” on paper. The words, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” followed the experience of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Thus, these three words express some semblance of description of the church’s experience, but they are not the experience itself. For example, one person might identify God as “Father,” while some other person might identify God as “Parent,” or perhaps “Mother.” Or “Creator.” It is the experiential relationship being defined that counts, not the word used. No words can contain God fully – God is much larger than ink and letters. None of the creeds can contain God fully – God is much larger than paragraphs.

Think of the trinitarian words as forming a box, and imagine how silly it would be to try to stuff God into any box, much less one bounded by only three words.

Because modern Christians are learning just how limiting words can be – although Christian tradition has long held this position – we moderns have begun using other words to expand our understanding of God. Greek words, such as sophia, logos, and spiritus. Parallel words, such as “creator,” “redeemer,” and “sustainer.” Some dialectic, metaphysical words, such as “energy,” “wisdom,” “light,” and “justice.”

What is attractive about this redemptive approach is its freshness and flexibility. Like the ancients, people of this generation want to use words that more accurately describe their experience of God. People are trying desperately to understand God. People want to know God.

But of course, it is and always will be impossible to apprehend God. This is why the Hebrews refused to name God, because the word, the letters, are insufficient. They wouldn’t even speak the name of God, exactly because speaking the name limits God.

And before you conclude that the concept of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has always been settled in the church, it took centuries to get to the point of actually reducing the concept to three-in-one and committing the concept to creeds. Plus, the church itself actually split because it could not agree on elements of this stuff. To this day the church is split – east from west – because of disagreement over what the Trinity means.

Well, what is the point of it all?

The point of Christianity has never been to figure God out by reading and learning, but to experience God. The pertinent question is the same question it always was: how do we find God? Where do we find the love and acceptance and redemption?

Finite Humans. We are finite and contained, substance in mortal bodies. At best, we each occupy, let’s say, three cubic feet of geometric space. Three cubic feet, and yet we tend to expect all of the truth of the universe to find a home inside our unique brain and soul.

God, on the other hand, is infinite.

When one fellow was a new priest, his mentor said, “I challenge you to preach on the Trinity without using the word ‘mystery.’” The new priest could not, for indeed, Trinity is a description of experience, as well as a received truth. It is not a scientific description of God. God cannot, after all, be contained, either by the human brain or its soul. Trinity is and will remain mystery.

If we wander outside at night on a crystal evening and look up, there are stars and constellations and meteors, there is a sliver of moon, and Mars and the Milky Way. And these are the few elements of the universe we can actually see, that we can experience with our eyes. But what about the part we cannot see?

The heavens are like God. We look up to the lights of heaven and in them we see God, but what about all in the infinite universe that we do not see? Now we know in part; now we see in part.

But in the part we cannot see, in that lovely black sky, beyond the stars and Milky Way, there is God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, Energy, Wisdom, Light, Justice, Hope, Perfection. In what we cannot see in life, there is God, hidden, yet eternal.

There is both a smallness to the human person, and a largeness. The smallness is our finite structure, but our largeness is the capacity to dream and imagine.

Mystery is about the dream and the imagining. There, in the mystery, is the goodness of God. Who cannot be captured.

 

— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the interim rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, Calif. Originally from the Diocese of East Tennessee (serving at St. Luke’s, Cleveland), he also served in the Diocese of Easton (St. Paul’s Church, Chestertown). Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years. Rob is the author of “The Episcopal Call to Love” (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.

This is the work of the Comforter, Day of Pentecost (A) – 2011

June 12, 2011

Acts 2:1-21Psalm 104:25-351 Corinthians 12:3b-13John 20:19-23

The story of the coming of the Holy Spirit in an almost visible form – a form that was perceived by the senses – is one of the most dramatic stories in the New Testament. Ten days have passed since the One who had filled their lives with meaning, then with unbearable sorrow and bewilderment at his death, to culminate in the supreme joy and surprise of resurrection, that One is no longer with them. He left them encouraged after his appearances, yes, but filled with longing for his actual presence. He also left them with a tender promise: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you,” he said to them as recorded by John. “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high,” is recorded by Luke in his gospel.

Now, they are gathered together in one place, someone’s large house. Besides the eleven remaining disciples, there are others who followed Jesus through his years of ministry – the ones who never abandoned him. So obviously there are many women among them. They are all in a state of waiting: they know their Scriptures and this time they will not make a mistake – after the resurrection, they know that they must believe in the promises.

They are together and they are waiting, probably praying in total silence. And it is at that point that their senses are invaded, assaulted: a violent wind makes a terrifying noise; those who have suffered through hurricanes and tornadoes know the sound. Fire that is seen rushing toward one is equally terrifying: they see it like a divided tongue burning on other people’s heads.

But this time they are not afraid. They look at each other and they laugh with a delight that breaks forth in uncontrollable babbling. They pour out of the house because they have something to say – aloud, and in a manner understood by others, no matter what language they speak at home. It’s a delirious moment. It cannot be contained. It must be shared; otherwise how can they possibly believe that they are not dreaming?

The streets fill with their sounds until strangers think them drunk. Peter, the man who had denied his best friend in the most critical moments of his life, that Peter, is unrecognizable now. He must be laughing as he says, “How can they be drunk at nine o’clock in the morning?” He is filled with words – the words of the prophets. He sees so many different kinds of people in front of him that he strives to address all of them. To the girls he says, “You will prophecy! You will preach through the Holy Spirit.” To the young men he says, “You will see visions.” And to the old whose eyes are clouded and who no longer see clearly he promises, “You shall dream dreams.” These are the words of the prophet Joel, but Peter makes them his own knowing that they apply to the crowd before him; he understands the meaning of “all flesh.”

The resurrected Christ is not a possession of some but a gift to all! The wondrous drama of the day continues with miracles: the miracle of language understood by all; the miracle of Peter’s ability to rise above his humble Galilean accent and upbringing; the miracle of hearts being touched and changed. What a dramatic day, that day of the coming of the Comforter, that day of understanding glossolalia

By contrast, the teaching of Paul to the Corinthians on this gift of glossalalia is subdued. We go from the spectacular to the restrained. The day of Pentecost, full of drama and energy, was necessary for the beginning of the new age. But as is the habit of the human race, even good intentions are corrupted when we forget the common good in order to promote our own ego, our personal good alone.

The Corinthians, in this first century of the new life in Christ, are quarrelling about the gifts of the Spirit. Former pagans most of them, they remember ecstatic pagan rites and they are confusing them with the speaking in tongues, no matter that most of the time they are not making sense. Reasonably and quietly Paul cautions them that speaking in a tongue not understood by the listeners is of no value. Gifts, like laws, are corrupted. Jesus refused to keep the Sabbath if it meant ignoring the needs of those who suffered and needed his healing. That law had been corrupted by those who kept the law at the expense of human beings. The gift of language is corrupted when we abuse it or when we claim it for our benefit even when no one else understands it. What good is human brilliance if it harms others instead of helping them?

To Paul, the manifestation, the presence and gifts of the Spirit, are as nothing if they are not used for the common good. He sees the Spirit as one and all- encompassing. He recognizes gifts of wisdom, knowledge, healing, faith, preaching, discernment, and interpretation as valid; but they must all work together, even when they are given to separate individuals, because we all belong to one body, that of the church, that of Christ.

How petty all our differences appear in the face of such conviction. To Paul, even the spectacular ability to perform miracles becomes as nothing when there is no love, he will write in a few minutes to the Corinthians when he presents them with “a more excellent way.” To Paul, also, divisions that move us away from drinking of one Spirit, are dangerous and destructive. The spectacular does not interest him when it comes to the communal good; it is like a clanging cymbal, he says. The working together as one body in Christ is of huge value to him.

In the years that follow, Paul will sacrifice his life to this end: teaching his churches that we are one in Christ. He was not present on the day of Pentecost, but he is filled with the Holy Spirit who reveals all these things to him.

This then is the work of the Comforter, the one promised by Jesus to his disciples: the Comforter was with Paul and the Comforter is with us. So let us not lose heart if we don’t have dramatic and miraculous events in our lives. Listen to how quietly Jesus gave the Spirit to his immediate friends in one of his post-resurrection appearances: “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.”

May we all feel his holy breath on us today.

 

— Katerina Whitley is the author of “Walking the Way of Sorrows” among other books of Biblical monologues. She lives and writes in Boone, North Carolina. 

Pray for renewal, 7 Easter (A) – 2011

June 5, 2011

Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

The apostles wanted and needed safety. They asked Jesus whether this would not be a good time to restore David’s Kingdom, a moment in the history of Israel when the nation seemed in retrospect to be secure. Jesus’ reply must have increased their insecurity.

The women and men who met with Jesus before his Ascension had, to this point, never left the tiny land area that made up their own country. Now Jesus orders them to go to the ends of the earth and tell the Good News that the Kingdom of God has broken into human affairs by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Rather than assuring his disciples of a safe haven in political terms, he challenges them to take enormous risks for him.

We have a terrible time with the word “evangelism” and even more with the concept that we should leave the safety and security of our buildings to engage others with the Good News. More likely than not, our “outreach committees” plan meals for the poor and our church’s presence at community events, splendid things in themselves, but the very thought that we have a responsibility to speak about Jesus and his Kingdom scares us to death, or perhaps worse, offends our sensibilities. After all, religion should not be the subject of polite conversation!

In today’s gospel we find Jesus praying to the Father to give his disciples protection once Jesus was out of the picture. Note that Jesus doesn’t ask the Father to restore the kingdom of Israel. Divine protection was to be something other than security. The Spirit was to protect and energize. But what on earth was the Spirit? The disciples, as devout Jews, knew who God was, and they knew Jesus. Perhaps they remembered that in the Genesis account of Creation, the Spirit broods on the waters and cooperates in that new creation. The Church would come to believe that Jesus was present in Creation – “through him all things were made,” as the Nicene Creed puts it – but as yet these frightened followers of Jesus knew nothing of the power of the Spirit as the Spirit cooperates with Jesus in a “new creation,” the Kingdom of God on earth, of which we are now citizens through baptism.

Pentecost would change all that, but as yet in our narrative, we aren’t yet there. Instead we share the disciples’ insecurity and huddle in our little kingdoms we term “churches.” We hope and pray that others will join us, people who like the way we do things and will help pay for a new heating system. We hope they will access our website, read the rector’s blog, or the advertisement lost among so many others on the church page of the newspaper, or be attracted by the sign outside the church that tells them that the Episcopal Church is there for them. Nothing yet pushes us out through our red doors into the marketplace to tell the Good News that Jesus transforms and makes all things new.

Will this year’s Pentecost make any difference? Or will we still ask God to restore the kingdom, when the churches were full and rich people paid all our bills?

We must pray that our parishes will be renewed by God the Holy Spirit, who always shows us Jesus and through him brings us to the Father.

There’s one further step. We must pray that each of us in our own way will hear Jesus telling us to go out beyond our own comfort zone to tell out the glory of the Lord.

The disciples feared being killed. We fear ridicule. So perhaps our prayer should be that God will remove from us our fear of seeming ridiculous and replace that fear with courage to live out our baptismal promises. “Go into Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost part of the world” as today’s reading from Acts says.

Or shall we sit in our upper room and wait for a kingdom?
— Fr. Tony Clavier is a retired priest and a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.

God will be there with you, Ascension Day (A) – 2011

June 2, 2011

Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47 or Psalm 93; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

Did you ever wish you were a bit thinner? Or maybe taller? Or had a little bit more hair on your head? Or maybe it’s something more serious, such as an addiction you wished you didn’t have. Or maybe you have had some trauma or grief in your past that you wish wasn’t so present in your heart. Or maybe you have elderly parents you’re taking care of and whom you can’t stop worrying about. Or maybe you have been unemployed for months and don’t see a job in your future anytime soon. Or maybe, just maybe, you are wondering what this all has to do with the Ascension of Jesus. Quite a bit, actually!

Like the Trinity or the Incarnation, the doctrine of the Ascension is open to quite a bit of misunderstanding. Many works of art depicting it have Jesus with clouds around his feet, his hands lifted upward, while his disciples are below him looking up, sometimes in awe and sometimes with blank expressions on their faces as if this is somehow a normal occurrence. And taken to their logical and literal conclusions, these works of art seem to imply that Jesus would have ascended up and up, breaking through the clouds, then through the earth’s atmosphere, and, eventually, Jesus would have started orbiting the planet, like a satellite. Pretty ridiculous, right?

The end of today’s gospel passage, St. Luke describes the Ascension very briefly: “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up to heaven.”

That’s it. One sentence. Jesus blessed them and left to go to heaven. Then the passage goes on to describe the response of the disciples: “Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.”

Whatever happened had something to do with the divine. How do we know this? The clue is in how the disciples respond. They don’t freak out or start debating what just happened. What do they do? They start to worship and they return to Jerusalem filled with joy.

So why would they respond like this in joyful worship?

Before Jesus ascends, he instructs. He wants to make abundantly clear that his story is a continuation, in fact, a fulfillment of a much larger story: the story of Israel. The gospel reading continues, “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.”

He goes on to open the minds of the disciples because the story of Jesus’ life, his suffering and rising from the dead, and his ascension, is not what they had in mind for the Messiah. And this is understandable. If we are really honest, most of us want a Messiah who will give us the answers, tell us what to do when things get rough, and certainly not leave us when we still need them!

But with Jesus, it is more complicated and more real. He is there blessing the disciples, and then suddenly is gone. He is present, then absent. He is on earth, then in heaven. He dies, then comes through death to new life. He visits, then abruptly leaves.

Jesus being taken up to heaven by God means something quite particular. It means that Jesus in all his full humanity – his whole life, all his emotions, memories, actions and relationships – is taken up to the divine. It is not his spirit or his essence or some disembodied soul that ascends. It is the transformed and resurrected Jesus, the Jesus in today’s reading from Acts, who for forty days met, ate, and instructed his disciples. The Jesus who still bore the scars from his earthly life.

This event is important not because it depicts some amazing feat of flight, but because it confirms that the life of this particular person, Jesus of Nazareth, is intimately connected to the life of the Creator of all that is, was, and ever will be. This is why we say in the Nicene Creed, “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”

The particular gift of the Christian message is not that you will never suffer or struggle, but that when you do, God will be there with you. And not just with you, but helping to redeem these very experiences so that you don’t have to run from them or deny them or be ashamed of them, however awful or painful. The Ascension of Jesus means that humanity – all of us, everyone who ever existed, and whoever will exist – no longer has to hide any part of our lives from God. The Ascension is the message that humans matter in heaven. Our whole lives matter in heaven, not just the parts we like.

There will be times when you feel that you need to hide some part of your life from God. Maybe you have hurt people who are close to you. Or maybe you have been hurt so badly you feel particularly stuck in your life. These things are what the Ascension of Jesus speaks to – these very real moments. God wants to know all parts of your particular life so that all of us will be fully present in heaven.

“While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up to heaven.”

Thanks be to God!

 

— Stephen P. Hagerty is a postulant in the Diocese of New York and will be pursuing his Master’s of Divinity at Yale Divinity School in the fall of 2012. He currently resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his spouse, Fred, and two Chihuahuas.