Monthly Archives: May 2015

Understanding Holy Mystery

John 3:1-17

 

Nicodemus comes to Jesus with a vague idea of who Jesus is. “I think I see in you something so deep that I can’t fathom it.”

Jesus replies, “What you’re seeing is a glimpse of the kingdom of God. But, you’ll need the help of the Spirit to understand it.”

Nicodemus is listening on a literal level. He pushes on the literal meaning
of a word that can mean both, “born again” and “born from above.” He’s arguing how someone can be born again from their mother’s womb.

But, Jesus is speaking in spiritual terms: not born again, literally. “Come on, Nic, you’re a teacher! I’m speaking about being spiritually born.”

All he can do is stand there with his mouth open and that deer in the headlights look.

“Okay, look at it this way.” And Jesus describes Spirit or God’s Breath using wind as a metaphor. You can feel the wind. You can hear the wind. But you don’t know exactly where it comes from nor where it’ll go. “The Spirit works the same way. Don’t try to figure her out.”

Nicodemus closes his mouth and blinks his eyes. He’s still on that literal plain. “How can that be?”

For a learned teacher, he’s not very bright. And I know how that feels. Sure, I understand a lot about the Bible. I can see God’s love at work. God’s broken heart; God’s people attempting to make it right only to mess it up.

But, I don’t completely understand why bad things happen to good people. I don’t know why babies are born to bad parents while good people are left barren. I don’t understand why poverty will always be with us or why peace on earth is still a vision rather than reality.

All too often, aren’t we Nicodemus with that blank stare and our literal minds
not able to comprehend?

So Jesus turns to those who are listening in on the conversation, including you and me. “We speak,” he says. “We testify, but you all don’t get it. You’ll need to start slow, learn the easy stuff and build to the more complicated.

“But if you want to know the core of my teaching, here it is:
God so loved the world
God gave the Son
That whoever believes
Won’t die
But will live.”

God, the great lover of all time did this for us.

So while our idols of money or politics or material possessions…
While our anger, our worry, our need to control…
Whatever gets in the way of our worship and love of God…

Well, know this. Jesus came with Good News. He didn’t come to condemn;
we’re condemned already if we are of the world and choose the darkness.

Jesus came to show us that not even death can stop God from acting in and
loving this world.

So, to the Nicodemus in all of us, there’s no need to worry. The Spirit will speak when she’s ready. Our job to is try and remain open to what she has to say.

Father, Son, Holy Spirit
Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer
Love, Offering, Presence

This Trinitarian God is at work 24/7 to
create,
redeem,
sustain,
love and
be an offering and
a presence in the world.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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Discerning the Spirit

It’s been 40 days since Jesus’ resurrection. He has spent time with the disciples, teaching them and fellow shipping with them. As they watch him ascend into heaven, they wonder. What’s next? Well, he did tell us to wait for the Spirit in Jerusalem.

So to the Upper Room they go. Together with some 120 other people they spend the next 10 days in prayer. During this time, Peter announces that it’s time to find a replacement for Judas. He has been led by scripture and has most likely discerned God’s call.

Whoever is selected must be a witness to Jesus’ ministry going to back to the beginning: the Baptizing ministry of John. Two men are nominated: Justus and Matthias. Nominations are closed and they enter into prayer again.

“Oh Lord, you know our hearts.” We can only see the outside. You see it all. Then they use the voting mechanism of their day: lots. Matthias is chosen.

Perhaps, now the healing can begin. It must have been so difficult when Judas betrayed Jesus. He not only betrayed Jesus but also his followers. Judas was one of the 12; he ministered and taught and healed alongside the master. He was one of the “sent ones.”

There’s an empty hole in their hearts and they’re trying not to fill that emptiness with anger. Perhaps with Matthias as replacement the healing can begin.

Their discernment began with prayer. Prayer peppered the process. They tried to leave themselves open to the working of the Spirit and they submitted themselves to God. Ultimately, they left the decision to God.

Discernment today is much the same way. Prayer, study, more prayer. Sometimes we need to spend time with trusted friends and get their help with the discernment. Bible study can also be helpful.

Discernment centers itself on God’s call in our personal lives and the life of our congregation. Corporately and individually, God speaks to us and calls us into new things.

So, the only way I know to conclude this post is to ask the question that’s begging to be asked: When have been in discernment with God and have you heard his voice lately?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen


Enabling the Spirit

“Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holay Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:46b-47 (NRSV)

Sometimes the God of heaven and earth breaks the rules, breaks down the walls and causes us to reevaluate our beliefs. Peter can tell you all about that.

He’s a devout Jew. He knows Jewish scripture by heart. He studied at the feet of the Master learning from and watching him. He was sent out with the other disciples to spread the Good News. Peter would be the first to admit that he stumbled at times; that he said and did the wrong thing at other times.

He tried to get Jesus to change the tone of his ministry only to be told, “Get behind me Satan.” He tried to hang onto the moment on the Mount of Transfiguration. He vowed to follow Jesus to the cross and within hours denied him three times. But, today he understands what Jesus is about and has become an able, highly capable Apostle.

For all his insight and talent, though, this week has been strange and wonderful. Let’s go back to the beginning of the story.

It all began with a Roman centurion. Cornelius was a devout believer: he was generous with his money and God was his constant companion. Not only were his entire household followers of Jesus, but at least some of the soldiers under his command.

There’s a problem, though. He’s a gentile and a Roman soldier. He represents all that is wrong with the world from the Jewish perspective. He is an unclean gentile who cannot be in the company of Jews lest they become unclean, making them unable to enter into worship.

God knows all this. After all, it was God who gave the laws to Moses back in Exodus and Leviticus.

God, being God, and beholden to none of us sends a messenger. God has taken notice of Cornelius: his charitable giving and his prayers are a pleasing aroma to God. He has need of Cornelius to help spread the Good News. His directive is to send men to Joppa and find Peter.

Two slaves and a soldier pack a suitcase and head to the airport. While they’re arranging for transportation to the seaside home, Peter goes up on the roof to meditate. But, he’s hungry so he sends someone to prepare a meal. While he’s waiting for lunch, he slips into a trance.

Many of you remember what happened next: heaven opens up and “something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners.” Then it gets weird. “In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.”

Peter is invited to kill and eat.

“I can’t do that, Lord. These animals are unclean. I’m a devout Jew. My Jewish roots define me. I only eat what you permit by law. I will not and cannot eat anything profane or unclean.”

The response is unexpected: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

“But, Lord, these are your laws. You gave them to Moses thousands of years ago. Look, it’s right here in Leviticus.”

After this conversation is repeated two more times, Peter wakes up and puzzles over what he’s heard. Can God change God’s mind?

While he’s scratching his head and trying to make sense of it, Cornelius’ men arrive and pull Peter from his reverie. Peter hears their message. He knows he’s to go with them. God is definitely at work; he can see that now.

With a change of diet running through is mind and his prayers, they travel back to Cornelius’ home and Peter hears the message that Cornelius had heard from the angel. And now, for Peter, everything falls into place.

No one is profane or unclean. Those boundaries and barriers erected to keep the Jews separated from the world are torn down just like that temple curtain that was ripped from top to bottom the day Jesus died. Peter’s mind is open to new things and fresh ideas. So he enters the formerly unclean home of Cornelius and shares with them the story of his time with Jesus.

He hasn’t even concluded his sermon when the Holy Spirit irrupts and a sort of Gentile Pentecost occurs in Peter’s presence. “How can I stop any of you from being baptized?” he asks himself.

Peter can no longer stand in the way of God and God’s will.

When have you experienced this sort of Holy Surprise? What if the Bible says it otherwise? What if it’s right here in black and white? Yet, the Spirit comes along and changes everything. God is doing something new and now we must deal with it.

Sometimes we panic. If this is true, then the entire foundation of my belief is shaken. Maybe my faith in God is for nothing. What if I’ve been wrong all along?

That’s scary. I’ve been there a few times: questioning my own faith and God’s intent. After a while you get used to it. Like stretching well-used muscles you find the challenge invigorating and illuminating.

It’s a process, though. A process that we have to check out through prayer and discernment. If we miss it, if we refuse to look at it from all angles, we could be guilty of squeezing out the Holy Spirit. When we allow legalism to shape us and we cling too hard to it, we hurt ourselves and others.

If it’s a process, it’s also a tight rope. How do we know if it’s time for us to change our thinking?

Prayer. Bible study. Prayer. Conversation with others. Prayer. It may take a short bit of time or weeks or years. Those are the questions you hold in your heart until God has spoken clearly. Don’t judge too quickly. Be ready to be transformed, but do it out of a sense of understanding and illumination.

This scripture this morning is the culmination of the story. Peter understood that things had changed and he was more than willing to move forward in accepting Gentiles into the Christian community.

But, he had an upward battle to fight. When he returned to Jerusalem, he was confronted by the believers and witnessed to them his story of change beginning in Joppa. I imagine some didn’t like it and refused to accept his word. Others were okay with it and felt themselves being opened up to the movement of the Spirit.

And it’s no different today, is it? We can learn from Peter to be open to the Spirit or we can close ourselves out to new possibilities.

And, I can’t help but wonder: What would Peter’s response to some of our issues be? How would he lead us to discerning the Spirit’s movements in our own lives and the lives of our various Christian denominations?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


Abiding in the Vine

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. (John 15:1-4 NRSV)

We live in a great nation. It’s a country where we can make something of ourselves if we’re willing to work hard enough. Men and women come to this country knowing that they stand a chance of pulling hemselves up by the bootstraps. It just takes hard work and perseverance.

And we’ve done that well. We’ve done such a good job of it, that we’re a nation of individuals, going it alone, depending on no one for anything.

“Can I help you with that?”
“No thanks, I’ve got it.”

“Let’s call someone and get expert advice.”
“No. We can do this ourselves.”

We don’t need anyone. And if we do, we pay for it. To rely on someone to assist us is anti-American. We can’t stand to be in debt to someone else.

And that’s what makes this scripture passage so difficult. Jesus is saying that he’s the vine and God is in charge. God cuts out the dead wood; prunes the producing branches so that they can bear better fruit; and even determines what that fruit will be.

Being disciples of Jesus isn’t a particularly private matter. You don’t hide it in your purse or under the kitchen cabinet. You can’t stick it in the trunk of the car until you’re ready for it. It’s out there and people know it and see who and what you really are. Disciples are just that: followers of Jesus bearing fruit as God determines.

About twenty years ago I came down with mononucleosis. Yes, the so-called college disease caught up to me much later in life! After several months of working half-days and sleeping the rest of the time, I got over it and resumed my life. A month later it came back. All the same symptoms had returned.

Only this time, it wasn’t mononucleosis. It was Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Imagine going 72 hours without any sleep at all. You’d move slowly, Your thinking wouldn’t make sense, you’d forget basic words and you’d be too worn out to do anything but sit. That’s what CFS feels like. You can’t sleep enough and sometimes you can’t sleep at all.

I took sick leave and sat in my favorite chair in the quiet of my home not caring. I prayed to God, “I’m tired of fighting to get well. I know you didn’t do this to me; chances are good that I brought it on myself through overwork. Lord, I’m in your hands. Do as you will. I’m too worn out to care.”

God took out the pruners and starting snipping at dead branches. God pruned out the guilt and shame that I felt and tossed it into the fire. He snipped away worries about the small stuff. He pinched off and cut away the unnecessary.

As I look back on my life, I can see now that God pruned away the bad stuff and helped me learn a new way of thinking and being. By the time I returned to work a month later I’d begun to change.  God was transforming me to be someone better than I thought I could be. When I began to bear fruit I was surprised. I learned that I was good at my job and that I could do it while abiding in the vine.

It would take a lot longer to learn that fruit-bearing wasn’t something I controlled. We bear fruit when God determines it’s time. And the fruit we bear
may surprise us. Look at your lives and see where you have made a difference in the world. Ask yourself:
Who determined this direction?
Me?
Or God?

The intimacy of the branch to the vine is one that you can hardly tell where the branch ends and the vine begins. That’s the intimacy we have with Jesus. As growing disciples, we have an intimacy that is so close that when we pray, we know what to pray for because we are so centered on God’s word.

We aren’t stand-alone human beings. The poet John Donne reminds us that no one is an island.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians about being the body of Christ.  For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body —Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (I Corinthians 12:12-13 NRSV))

This is, indeed, Good News: we need each other and we are connected to Christ in whom “we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:28 NRSV) In him we thrive so that we can make a difference in the kingdom.

You don’t know exactly what fruit you’ll bear. You can’t be sure when it’s time to be pruned. God is in charge. And, that’s the exciting part.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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