Archives for May 2014

Bible Study: 2 Pentecost, Proper 7 (A)

June 22, 2014

Jordan TrumbleBerkeley Divinity School at Yale

“I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.” (Matthew 10:35)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

Genesis 21:8-21

It seems that every night on the news, there is some story involving religion, often a story involving religious intolerance or persecution by one group or another; these stories are a steady reminder that even if most of our friends and family are part of our own faith tradition, the world is filled with many who are part of myriad other religious traditions. This lesson from Genesis, in which we hear the story of Abraham’s slave Hagar and their son Ishmael who would go on to be a forefather of Islam, reminds us that the conflicts we read about in the newspapers and hear about on our evening news are not simply modern conflicts, but rather ancient conflicts. And so, when we consider difficult passages such as this one, we must remember that it is not just a moment in history we are reading about, but rather part of an ancient struggle that continues to this day.

Yet, despite how difficult this story can be when we consider its broader implications, it is also filled with hope, as God hears and responds to the cries of Hagar. Although she and her son were cast out by Abraham, God was listening and provided the wellspring that sustained Hagar and Ishmael.

In times of hardship, how do you interact with God? Do you call out to God in your pain, or do you quietly rest in your sorrow alone? The next time you are struggling or you feel as though God may be distant, remember Hagar, and consider setting aside a few extra minutes to talk through your hardships with God.

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

This week’s psalm reminds us that having a relationship with God cannot be limited to only petition or only praise, but rather must be a balance of these two acts. The psalmist’s petitions for God to “bow down,” “keep watch,” “be merciful” and “gladden the soul” are followed by the statement that “You, O Lord, are good and forgiving, and great is your love toward all who call upon you” (v. 5). This back-and-forth of petition and praise continues throughout the psalm and concludes, fittingly, with the statement that God has already acted, as the psalmist notes, “You, O Lord, have helped me and comforted me” (v. 17).

How do you understand the relationship between petition and praise? In your own prayer life, are petition and praise an either/or proposition for you, or do you understand them as a both/and entity?

This psalm wonderfully complements the reading from Genesis and, in a sense, seems to give voice to the cries of Hagar we read about earlier. As you are studying this week’s lessons, consider revisiting the Genesis text after studying this psalm and imagining Hagar’s situation as though the pleas from the psalmist are her words. By giving word to Hagar’s cries, is your experience of this story changed?

Romans 6:1b-11

At first glance, this lesson from Romans can feel a little heavy. With seven references to sin and five references to death, this just does not seem like a pleasant or happy little passage. Yet, in this passage, Paul is explaining how, through Christ, our lives are not limited to sin and death. Rather, through the grace of God, we may be united with Christ and escape the bonds of sin and death.

While it may seem like the answer (be united with Jesus) is simple enough, it can be harder to tell what this passage is talking about. Must we literally die to sin in order to be united with Christ? Are our old selves actually crucified, with a cross and nails just as Jesus experienced?

Buried amidst all these references to sin and death, though, is one brief but important statement: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (v.4).

For Paul, baptism is the answer to all the confusing questions that this passage may raise for us. It is through baptism that we are united with Christ and come to share in the joy of the resurrection, but also how we come to participate in Christ’s death. Unlike Christ’s death, however, the death that we encounter through baptism is not a literal, physical death, but rather a death to our old selves. Baptism marks new life, new beginnings and a transformation of the self, a transformation that is only possible through the grace of God.

In this passage, we hear that we are united with Christ through baptism, but what does baptism mean to you? If you are baptized, does baptism play a role in your identity? How has baptism played a part in your life so far?

Matthew 10:24-39

If anyone has an idea of Jesus being meek or mild, this week’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew must surely disabuse him or her of that notion. In what is another difficult lesson, we encounter Jesus preaching what could almost be considered a rallying cry against unity, or so it seems. Indeed, we hear Jesus proclaim, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (vv. 35-36).

Ultimately, this passage teaches us that following Christ and living a life of faith will not always be easy and that, sometimes, doing what is right may cause conflict or damage relationships. Yet, ultimately, we will be rewarded for doing what is right and be acknowledged before God (v. 32).

Consider times in your own life when you have been faced with conflict or with a situation in which you had to take a stand against family or friends. How did you handle the situation, and how did you feel?

In times of conflict, taking a stand is one matter, but ensuring you are engaging conflict in a loving and respectful way can be particularly difficult. How does God shape these difficult interactions in your life and provide guidance for your relationships?

Sarah Taylor

Sarah Taylor is a rising senior at Virginia Theological Seminary and is a postulant in the Diocese of Texas.

Read Sarah’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for Trinity Sunday (A).

Bible Study: Trinity Sunday (A)

June 15, 2014

Sarah TaylorVirginia Theological Seminary

“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)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 1:1-2:4aPsalm 82 Corinthians 13:11-13Matthew 28:16-20

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

The text today is commonly thought to be written in the Priestly tradition, most likely addressed to a community in exile. The story of creation focuses on God, who carves out order in the realms of time and space, pushing back the waters of chaos and creating light, dark, sea, sky, creatures (even sea monsters) and finally, humankind, Adam.

The repetitive text begins to take on a rhythm throughout the seven days. God speaks, and suddenly creation is. Then God sees that it is good – seven times over. The Hebrew Bible mentions the number seven more than 500 times; it is a symbol of wholeness and completeness. God’s creation is good and whole.

We learn much about God from this text. From Genesis 1:1, we know that God creates. We also know that God speaks, which is intricately tied to his act of creation. It is that much more important to notice, then, the sudden divine plural when God comes to the creation of humans. Previously he said, “Let there be,” and there was. Now, God says “let us make humankind in our image.” Finally, God blesses, telling both animal and humankind, “be fruitful and multiply,” granting humans dominion over the rest of creation.

How is humankind God’s unique creation in the story? What special responsibilities were humans granted, and how have we done in upholding the goodness of God’s creation?

Psalm 8

The psalmist bursts out in a song of praise of God, building on the theology encountered in Genesis 1:26-28. In 8:4 he wonders how a God who created the heavens, moon and stars, could “remember” and “visit” humans, and even establish them as royal regents in his kingdom. In the theology of this psalm, God is the divine cosmic monarch who has put the human race in the status of king. Humanity’s dominion over “all things” is emphasized in this psalm, but in his Bible commentary, James Mays reminds us that dominion can become domination when humans forget that they are subordinate to God. We must remember that there are many different strands of theology represented in the Bible. When we read canonically, we can compare Psalm 8 to Psalm 104, another psalm of praise to God, which celebrates God’s creation, but scarcely mentions the role of humans in the order of creation. The second creation story, which begins in Genesis 2:4, also sets a different vision of humans as co-laborers with God.

What differences do you see between Psalm 8 and Psalm 104? What do the conversations among various authors of our Holy Scripture tell us about how God reveals himself to us?

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Paul concludes his second letter to the Corinthians using a standard form. He gives a farewell, final exhortation, sends greetings from the “all the saints” who are with him and ends with a blessing. Yet we can learn much about the community to whom he wrote from Paul’s exhortations. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates Paul’s words as “put things in order,” but it could also mean “may your ways be mended”; furthermore, “listen to my appeal” could mean, “encourage one another.” Both suggest that the community needs to be strengthened, especially since they are followed by recommendations to “agree with one another” and “live in peace.” Paul promises that God will help heal the community’s divisions with his love and peace; they will not have to do it alone. We do not know the community’s specific struggles, but all of us have experienced division, quarrels and disagreements within community. We know how difficult it is to encourage one another at these times.

Might we be strengthened, knowing that even the earliest Christian communities also struggled with one another? Greeting with a kiss was a common practice amongst family members. Do we consider our Christian community to be family? If so, how might that change our communal and individual practices?

Matthew 28:16-20

On a mountain again, the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples one last time. In the Gospel of Matthew, mountains are where important things happen: the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ final temptation, the Transfiguration and now the Great Commission. Earlier, in Matthew 10:5, the disciples were commanded specifically to proclaim the Good News only to “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” not to the gentiles. Now that God’s saving mission is complete through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the commission is expanded to the gentiles. The disciples’ task is to make disciples, baptize and teach all that Jesus has already commanded them. That commission extends to us today. Churches tend to focus on at least one of the three commands: They are good at teaching, or expanding the flock by baptizing members, or nurturing lives of faith through discipleship. It is much harder to do all three.

In which, if any, of the three commands does your church excel, and why do you think so? In what ways might your church grow or be enriched if you focused on the other commands? What are the challenges in making disciples, baptizing and teaching?

A glowing oven full of love, Trinity Sunday (A) – 2014

June 15, 2014

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

Well, friends, today is Trinity Sunday, the day in the church year when we ponder the mystery of the Triune God, how God is Three in One and One in Three.

It is also the day when, throughout the world, rectors usually decide that it is a good Sunday for their assistants to preach.

Ask your average assistant pastor, and he or she will probably tell you his or her files contain several Trinity Sunday sermons, along with several on Doubting Thomas, John the Baptist calling people a brood of vipers, and Jesus saying if you don’t hate your father and mother you cannot be his disciple. And this, ironically, is too bad for the rectors! They are missing out on a great opportunity.

Some of the most creative and important theology being done today is about the Trinity – about how the Trinity helps us to understand ourselves, our place in the world, and our relationship to God. Perhaps this doesn’t rise to the level of “a best-kept secret,” but it does sometimes surprise people to find out how much the Trinity influences Christian thought today.

Because this is an area of research that is rapidly expanding, we can only focus on one major insight today. There is a lot more to be said, but there will be other Trinity Sundays and a lot of assistant pastors scheduled to preach.

So the major point about the Trinity to lift up this morning is this: God is social, and so are we.

Martin Luther once said, “God is nothing but burning love and a glowing oven full of love.” And if God is love, then God cannot exist is isolation. Think about it. To love is to be in relationship, and to love perfectly is to be in eternal relationship. If God is perfect love, then God must be social.

God is not some simple, solitary, isolated, individual being. God is not some kind of Wizard of Oz hiding out behind the curtain of the stars. God is not personal in that sense. That’s anthropomorphic. Rather, God is personal in the sense that God is the love that creates, redeems and sustains everything that exists. The life of God is like a divine dance of persons in love from which sparks fly, the love that moves the sun and the other stars. At the heart of the universe is the divine dance of persons in love, and if God is the love that creates and reconciles and transforms all that exists, then God must be relational in God’s essence. So when we say that God is Trinity, it is a way of saying that God is love, nothing but burning love and a glowing oven full of love, a love that overflows into all of creation.

Now, if God is social, then we are social too. If we are created in the image and likeness of the Triune God, then we are also created to be in loving relationships. Now, this is actually quite a radical statement because it runs counter to the pervasive individualism of our culture. Whether or not we are still living in the Me Generation, many folks, philosophers and theologians, have noted that the rampant individualism of our society is one of the greatest problems facing us today.

In his book “God in Public,” Mark Toulouse writes:

“Personal success and consumption have become the primary ends of American life. Even religion has become a competitive item for sale. As Carlyle Marney used to say Americans are addicted to salvation by successing. This statement might today be altered to include salvation by consuming. The pursuit of private gain has become the great American sport in all walks of life.”

And this is bad. It is bad not only for society, but it is also bad for people themselves. The loneliness and isolation and despair that are so prevalent in our society stem from this view of people as isolated, individual selves.

But the doctrine of the Trinity tells a different story. It tells us that we are created for loving relationships. We are hard-wired for relationships of mutual fellowship and love.

Did you know that many scientists are also saying that we are hard-wired for social connections? In an article on trust in the Harvard Business Review in 2009, Roderick Kramer wrote:

“Within one hour of birth, a human infant will draw her head back to look into the eyes and face of the person gazing at her. Within a few more hours, the infant will orient her head in the direction of her mother’s voice. And, unbelievable as it may seem, it’s only a matter of hours before the infant can actually mimic a caretaker’s expressions. A baby’s mother, in turn, responds and mimics her child’s expressions and emotions within seconds. In short, we’re social beings from the get-go: We’re born to be engaged and to engage others.”

Now this is really amazing, but it really ought not to be all that surprising if God is love. The Triune God is nothing but burning love and a glowing oven full of love. That love has created us and redeemed us and sustains us. Our life, our breath, our very existence is a gift. When we enter into loving relationships, we not only find our truest and deepest selves, but we also find God, because we are created in the image of the Triune God.

God is social, and so are we. The divine life is a dance party. When we join the party, when we enter into loving relationships, then we participate in the very life of the Triune God, in whom we live and move and have our being. We are created to participate in God’s love, and we are created to share that love with others.

Here’s how Miroslav Volf puts it in his book “Free of Charge”:

“The flow of gifts is God’s arms opened to the world, enabling us to partake of the gift exchange that makes up eternal divine life and supreme bliss. … The purpose of the outbound flow of God’s gifts is for us to receive living water from God’s eternal source, and to thereby come to mirror among ourselves the loving gift exchange of [God].”

If God is love, then the purpose of human life is to participate in that love, and to share that love with others. That is why, when Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

This may be the key to the universe.

God is love. Participate in that love. Share that love.

So God is social, and so are we. God is nothing but burning love and a glowing oven full of love, and we are created to participate in that love and to share that love. These insights that come from thinking about the Trinity could really transform how we think about God and ourselves and our place in the world.

A theologian and priest recalls that when he was teaching, students would often say things to him along the lines of “I just can’t believe in a God who sits up there in heaven and allows all the terrible things that happen in the world.” And his usual response was to say, “Well, neither do I.” This surprised many students, who seemed to think that priests are somehow contractually obligated to defend God at all times. But their view of God as some kind of aloof Wizard of Oz hanging out alone behind the curtain of the stars is not worth defending. More importantly, it is not the God we know who poured himself out completely for us on the cross of Jesus Christ.

The Trinity is a way of saying, that costly love, that vulnerable love, that suffering love that we know in Christ, that love that continues in the new life given to us in the Spirit is who God most truly, most fully is. God is Emmanuel, “God with us” and for us, who suffers with us and for us, not hanging out in some far corner of the universe watching all the pain and sorrow of the world, but rather hanging on the cross for us and for our salvation.

The Trinity, at its heart, is a way of pointing to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the new life that comes from this, and saying that is what God is most truly like. The love that moves the sun and the other stars is the same love that poured itself out for in the self-giving love of Jesus. God is nothing but burning love and a glowing oven full of love. And if we are created in the image and likeness of God, then we are to find our true selves not in being aloof and alone and apart and above it all, but rather in giving of ourselves away in love, in our vulnerable and suffering hearts, and in all those ways we are with and for one another.

God is social, and so are we.

God is nothing but burning love and a glowing oven full of love.

We are created to participate in and share that love.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md.

 

Click here to download a large-print PDF of this sermon.

 

 

Bulletin Insert: Day of Pentecost (A)

[Scroll down or click here for ready-to-print PDFs.]

June 8, 2014

Stained-glass window in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Jensen Beach, Fla. (Photo by Stephen B. Calvert)

Stained-glass window in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Jensen Beach, Fla. (Photo by Stephen B. Calvert)

Today the church celebrates the Day of Pentecost, 50 days after Easter Day. The word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek word Pentēkostē, which means “the 50th day.”

In the Old Testament, “Pentecost” refers to  the Feast of Weeks, a seven-week agricultural event that focused on the harvesting of first crops. Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, also used the word “Pentecost” to refer to the 50th day after the first day of Passover.

In the New Testament, “Pentecost” refers to the coming of the Spirit shortly after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension: 

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each” (Acts 2:1-6, NRSV).

Christians came to understand the meaning of Pentecost in terms of the gift of the Spirit, and the Pentecost event as the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise concerning the return of the Holy Spirit.

Speaking in tongues, a manifestation of receiving the Spirit, is interpreted by some to symbolize the church’s worldwide mission, and the Day of Pentecost is thought to be the origin of sending the church out into the world.

The Day of Pentecost is identified by the Book of Common Prayer as one of the feast days “especially appropriate” for baptism (Book of Common Prayer, p. 312). Because of this, Pentecost is also known as “Whitsun” or “Whitsunday”  (“White Sunday”), a  term used to describe the white baptismal garments worn by those who were baptized at the Vigil of Pentecost and then worn to church on the Day of Pentecost.

 
Download bulletin insert as PDF:
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half page, double-sided 6/8/14

black and white, full page, one-sided 6/8/14
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Spanish bulletin inserts are available on the Sermones que Iluminan website.

Steven M. Balke, Jr.

Steven M. Balke, Jr., is a transitional deacon in the Episcopal Church. He is from the Diocese of Indianapolis and is a senior at Virginia Theological Seminary. He is a strong supporter of Restorative Justice groups, the importance of the pedagogy of preaching and lifelong theological formation. Steven lives with his wife and 1-year-old son in Virginia.

Read Steven’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for the Day of Pentecost (A).

Read Steven’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for the Proper 19 (A).

Read Steven’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for All Saints’ Day (A).

Read Steven’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for 2 Christmas (A,B,C).

Read Steven’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for 1 Lent (B).

Read Steven’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for Palm Sunday (B).

Read Steven’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for 7 Easter (B).

Bible Study: Day of Pentecost (A)

June 8, 2014

Steven BalkeVirginia Theological Seminary

“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 to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:21-22)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23

Acts 2:1-21

The Holy Spirit empowers people in many different ways, but these gifts carry with them a responsibility to share them with others. By the grace of God, the Holy Spirit gives some the ability to withstand great trials and adversity (look at the Judges) and others inspiration to see great truths (see the Prophets), and here the Holy Spirit gave Jesus’ disciples the ability to speak to and be understood by the people of scattered nations and languages – a kind of reversal of the Tower of Babel story.

But if the disciples or anyone else takes their gifts and keeps them to themselves, they are wasted. The Good News that God has given us is likewise wasted if we do not then share it with others and welcome them into finding the love of each other and love of God to which we are all called.

It is not enough, however, to share God’s Word with those who are like us, think the way we think, and speak the way we speak. God’s Holy Spirit at Pentecost points to our responsibility to share our gifts and our love with those who are different from us. The Holy Spirit gave the disciples the power to literally speak to others in their own language, but we can also approach people where they are in life. We cannot place the burden on others to cross cultural, social, and language barriers to find us – God empowers us to stand up and bring the gifts of the Spirit to them.

Where are the barriers that keep you from loving others?

In what ways are you empowered to go out into the world and love others?

Psalm 104:25-35

Looking for God’s presence and God’s love in the world around us can be a great habit to form. Noticing God in the world is just like exercising: It is an easy habit to pick up if you commit to it, and it adds to your life; but it is an easy habit to fall out of in a world where it is easy to just let it get away from you. It is easy to get trapped into thinking about God only when God is being explicitly mentioned, and fall into a habit of not thinking about God while you are out in the everydayness of our world full of pressing concerns.

As with exercising, do not start out too ambitiously and turn it into a dreaded chore. It really only takes a small moment to recognize God in something: the beauty and majesty of the sea, the breath on your lips, a smile from someone at the store. In time, these small moments become a habit and you will automatically start noticing God in the world around you. It is not that God has become more present, but that you have been recognizing what has been there all along.

The times that are the most difficult in life are the times you will appreciate having developed the habit of seeing God in your life, because it is in times of great crisis when we are the least prepared to start the work of seeing God’s presence and love, and yet it is then we need to see it most of all.

Where have you noticed God’s presence or God’s love out in the world today?

Ask yourself tomorrow where you notice God’s presence or God’s love.

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

We live in a world that often prizes individualism more than community. People will tell you that you should be more proud of an accomplishment if you did it without the help of others – that somehow going it alone makes the work superior. This can, unfortunately, lead to an impression that needing help is a bad thing and, also unfortunately, leads people not to ask for help when they need it.

There is more work that needs to be done in this world than any of us can do alone. That should not be taken as a sign of our inadequacy as human beings, but as a sign that God intended us to be in community with one another, deeply living into our relationships with God and with each other. That we are all gifted in different ways is no accident, because we are less beneficial to people who are like us than to people who are different from us; we can help overcome each other’s challenges and empower each other’s strengths – and in so doing the entire community can become a stronger body of people.

Our goal in life should not be to become self-sufficient and not need others. Instead, our goal in life should be to recognize what gifts we have to offer the world and also, importantly, to recognize what gifts we have in those around us. The sharing of everyone’s gifts of the Spirit knits together the Body of Christ.

What of yourself can you offer those around you today?

How are you receiving someone else’s gifts of the Spirit offered to you?

John 20:19-23

We are all subject to doubt sometimes. The story that follows John 20:19-23 is the story of “Doubting Thomas,” where Jesus implores Thomas not to let doubt get the better of him. Carefully look at today’s story, though. Notice that the other disciples also have trouble believing in Christ’s return. It is not until they actually get to see Christ’s wounds that they believe what they are seeing, rejoice, and really see Jesus (v. 20). Even after all the miracles they witnessed – the healings, the walking on water, the raising of Lazarus from the dead – they still struggled with doubt.

The question, then, is not whether or not we are going to be subject to doubt, but instead, what we are going to do about it. Jesus tells his disciples to go out into the world, challenging them not to let their doubts get the better of them. When we are going out into the world and forgiving others – loving others and spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ – we are not letting doubts get the better of us. God knows that it is hard to do sometimes, which is why we have had the Holy Spirit breathed upon us. We have been empowered to struggle with doubts and still be the loving, rejoicing, forgiving, disciples Christ called us to be.

Where are doubts stopping you from loving or forgiving others?

Where can you find strength to keep loving and forgiving despite those doubts?

Things like that don’t happen anymore, right?, Day of Pentecost (A) – 2014

June 8, 2014

Acts 2:1-21Psalm 104:25-351 Corinthians 12:3b-13John 20:19-23 or John 7:37-39

Picture it: The disciples are gathered for worship, as was their custom. They’ve brought with them some bread and some wine, and perhaps some olives or a few pieces of broiled fish. They arrive at the specified location, greet one another with the kiss of peace, and then begin their simple and intimate worship service. One of them reads from the Hebrew Scriptures, another offers a meditation and all of them share in the communal meal.

But all of a sudden, a violent rush of wind bursts into the room and flames descend upon the heads of the disciples! They try to communicate what is happening, only to discover that they are all speaking different language! The commotion in the house where the disciples are gathered is so loud that it quickly draws the attention of the people outside. As a crowd gathers and sees what is happening, many are amazed.

“What does this mean?” some wonder. Others approach the scene with a healthy dose of skepticism: “They are filled with new wine,” they scoffed. In other words, “They’re drunk.”

Just then, Peter jumps up and says something to the effect of, “Hey, we’re not drunk. It’s only 9 o’clock in the morning. What has happened to us isn’t because we’re full of wine, it’s because we’re full of the Spirit!” Peter continues, repeating the prophet Joel’s foretelling of the outpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh.

In the two millennia that have passed since the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on that first Day of Pentecost, Christians have associated this day with the beginning of Christianity as its own distinct religion – the experience of God doing a profoundly new thing.

Through the centuries, this day has become a celebration of that new thing – a celebration of something that happened a long, long time ago. After all, we’ve come here today to read ancient scripture about an ancient event, and aside from a few of the liturgical trappings, our worship surely doesn’t feel all that different.

But when Pentecost becomes just another nice, neat conclusion to a story that began thousands of years ago; or just another nice, neat liturgical celebration of something that happened a long, long time ago, it loses its ability to speak to us in the here-and-now. It loses its power.

Imagine a Sunday, not all that different from today. The weather is getting warmer, the flowers are blooming and final plans are being made for summer vacations. The faithful gather here at the church for the annual observance of Pentecost – or as our Anglican forebears call it, Whitsunday.

The service leaflets are proofed, folded and distributed with a caring smile; the baptismal font is adorned and prepared for the congregation to renew their baptismal vows; and the red paraments have been set out on the altar for the morning’s services.

The music begins to play, the people begin to sing, and the acolytes begin to make their way down the aisle when, all of a sudden, a violent rush of wind bursts into the nave and flames descend upon the heads of everyone who has gathered for worship! And just as the faithful attempt to put the experience into words, they realize that everyone is speaking a different language!

Of course, we can be assured of two things: If that happens here today, all of us will make the six o’ clock news and somebody is going to be having a lengthy chat with the bishop. Things like that just don’t happen anymore, right?

But what is still happening is that, just as they were 2,000 years ago, people are still crying out for salvation. Everywhere we look, people are imprisoned – physically, mentally and emotionally – behind walls of depression and loneliness and addiction, shackled with burdens that keep them from living into their identity as beloved children of God.

The cry for salvation is not a simple problem with a simple solution; it is a deep, guttural groaning for deliverance. It is a cry that the quick and easy formula of  “Say these six words and the rest of your life will turn out OK” can’t hush. It is a cry that a date on a calendar or a memorial of what happened a long time ago can’t soothe. And it is a cry that Christians who are content to let somebody else do the hard and dirty work can’t pacify. No, this cry can only be answered with a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit – a Pentecost right here in our midst!

But that’s impossible, right? Rushing winds and howling storms and spontaneously learning to speak different languages – the whole bit – that just doesn’t happen anymore, right?

Well maybe it doesn’t happen anymore. But that’s not the question Pentecost dares us to ask.

The question Pentecost dares us to ask is, Could it happen?

Could a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit happen?

Well, chances are that if we sit and wait for the Holy Spirit to send fire and wind and all of the trappings we’ve come to associate with the first Pentecost, we are going to be disappointed. But if we allow ourselves to imagine what a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit might look like, we may be surprised at what we find.

Maybe a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit causes us to approach a long-severed relationship with a loved one with new hope and fresh patience. Perhaps a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit nudges us to commit to a ministry – either here at the church or in the community. Or it could be that a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit draws us into a deeper, stronger, more life-giving relationship with God.

The Day of Pentecost calls us to keep watch – to imagine what a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit might look like in our own lives. Of course, if we sit and wait for the same old thing to happen, we’ll always get what we ask for. But if we allow ourselves to imagine something new, something fresh, something holy, then anything is possible.

God promises, not that the Holy Spirit was poured out a long, long time ago; not that the Holy Spirit might be poured out a little bit, here and there, on a chosen few; but that the Holy Spirit will be poured out upon all flesh and that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved!

Can you imagine that?

 

— The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church in Florence, Ky., in the Diocese of Lexington. He earned a B.A. in American Studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. 

 

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Bulletin Insert: 7 Easter (A)

Ascension Day

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June 1, 2014

Fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript depicting the Ascension of Christ (Image via Wikimedia)

Fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript depicting the Ascension of Christ (Image via Wikimedia)

The Feast of the Ascension of Jesus Christ is celebrated 40 days after Easter Day, marking the conclusion of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances and his ascension into heaven. Although Ascension Day was on May 29 on this year’s liturgical calendar, many parishes will observe it today.

Celebration of this holy day dates back at least to the late fourth century, and scriptural references to Jesus’ ascension occur in both The Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of Mark:

“So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’” (Acts 1: 6-11, NRSV).

“So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19, NRSV).

The Ascension of Jesus is also professed in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed:

“He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father” (Book of Common Prayer, pp.120, 358).

2 Lilium_candidum_2_(lit)Collect for Ascension Day

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen (Book of Common Prayer, p. 226).

 

 

 

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Bible Study: 7 Easter (A)

June 1, 2014

Brian PinterGeneral Theological Seminary

“All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.” (John 17:10)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Acts 1:6-14Psalm 68:1-10, 33-361 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11John 17:1-11

Acts 1:6-14

This text from the Acts of the Apostles serves several purposes. First, the disciples of Jesus are not to occupy themselves with trying to decipher the time of Jesus’ return. Second, the nature of the Kingdom of God that Jesus had preached in his earthly ministry is clarified. Third, a “table of contents” for the remainder of the book of Acts is established here to prepare the reader for how the narrative will unfold.

The most significant lesson lies with Luke’s first point. A peculiar form of Christianity has developed over the centuries that is obsessed with predicting when and how the end of the world will occur. The most recent and perhaps most notable manifestation of this was the late Harold Camping’s failed rapture prediction for May 21, 2011. This kind of Christianity is a diversion, and Luke was wise to warn us off it. Ultimately, doomsday predictions distract us from doing the hard work of the Kingdom – caring for the poor, working for a just social order, reconciling the estranged and doing our own spiritual work. Three times in Luke’s writing he addresses this problem: here; Luke 17:20-37; and Luke 21:7-9. We are better served by listening to the advice of the two interpreting angels who tell us not to worry – when Jesus returns, we’ll know it.

What are diversions you face, from within and without, in your efforts to do the work of the Kingdom of God?

Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36

This psalm has long posed challenges to interpreters – is it a collection of fragments or a unity? The text might have been a processional psalm utilized in Temple liturgical procession. Through the first 10 verses, we imagine the assembly gathering behind the sacred ark as it is carried to the holy place. The power of God’s presence is tangible in the quaking of the earth and the pouring down of the rain (v. 8).

Notice also that the themes of justice remain foremost in the mind of the people as they experience the awesome presence of God – father of orphans and protectors of widows; the God who liberates prisoners; the God who provides for the needy (vv. 5,6,10). It is not by accident that poetry crafted for a liturgical procession strikes these themes.

Our ancestors in faith understood, as the best of the Christian tradition has held, that the reflective action that is the substance of our daily living should flow out of liturgy; it is not something separate from it. In other words, attendance at a worship service cannot be compartmentalized. If our daily patterns of living and the choices we make do not reflect an ethos of biblically based justice, then that worship is false. Ultimately, liturgy must serve as a conduit of divine nourishment for all of life; a way that God’s grace comes to “give power and strength” to God’s people (v. 35).

How have you experience liturgy as nourishment for Christian living?

1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11

The way of Christian discipleship is the way of the cross. These verses from the first letter of Peter illustrate this essential doctrine of the faith. Apparently, members of the community to which the author wrote were suffering persecution. Historically speaking, these trials were not at the hands of Roman government officials as the persecution of Nero was, but rather it was “pagan” converts who were facing harassment at the hands of their former co-religionists. The affirmation in faith that suffering and trial can be, and will be, transformed by God into something life giving, something glorious, is once again proclaimed.

The second half of our reading from Chapter 5 is a heartfelt and compelling testament of Christian hope and solidarity. The forces of the devil (from the Greek diabolos, related to the word “divide”) are seeking to cut through the disciples of Jesus, both personally and collectively, but do not have the power to ultimately triumph.

These closing exhortations of 1 Peter carry a cogent message for us today. The power of the Spirit bestowed upon us in baptism never leaves us, and stands to support us as we face divisive life trials. Adhering to Jesus and his vision can seem like a constant test, for so often what the world values, how the world tells us to define ourselves, is antithetical to the gospel. And we face these challenges knowing that many other sisters and brothers in faith stand with us, strengthening us in their solidarity.

What are the powers of “division,” diabolos, which you face as you seek to live out your call to Christian discipleship?

John 17:1-11

Chapter 17 marks the culmination of what are known as the Farewell or Last Supper Discourses. Preceding chapters saw Jesus speak to his disciples of the Holy Spirit, the vine and the branches, and the expected hostility they will face in the world. Jesus concludes here with a final prayer. He underscores a consistent theme of John’s gospel; i.e., Jesus has come from God, is God, and is going back to God. As the gospel crescendos to a close, a further theme of the handing of the Spirit is drawn. We see in the scene of Jesus’ death, John 19:30, Jesus’ spirit is “handed over.”

In today’s text, the disciples have been given the “words” of God (v. 8), just as previous chapters have spoken of Jesus bestowing “life,” “water,” and “light.” As the gospel draws to a close, the disciples of Jesus have grown in faith, from partial understanding, to the point of verse 8, “they have believed that you sent me.”

For John, faith has been a journey, inaugurated in the waters of baptism, but only matured through being with Jesus, day after day, and through trial. We see in this how the experience of the first Christians mirrors our own in so many ways.

How does this text serve as a measure of your own journey of faith?