The Uninvited Guest

Acts 2.1-4

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.

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I only have three opportunities left to proclaim God’s Word in this place. After preaching for 4 years from the Old and New Testaments, after listening for the Spirit’s movement for more than 250 sermons, I only have 3 left.

It’s hard not to think about what my final thoughts should be. I’ve been the pastor of St. John’s for some incredible mountaintop moments, and some frighteningly deep valleys. I’ve gone on a bunch of mission trips, taught lots of bible studies, and implored us to do some pretty strange things in this sanctuary all under the auspices of “worship.”

What do I want to leave with all of you? Should I try to whittle the entirety of the gospel down to an easily digestible sentence like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? Should I use my last three sermons to build you up with stories of love and grace and generosity? Should I use these final sermons to break you down with talk of sin, evil, and repentance?

I’ve got to admit that over the last few weeks I’ve found myself far more concerned with what I want to say than with what God wants to say.

 

Here we are my friends, today is Pentecost, the so-called birthday of the church. I know some pastors who will spend part of this morning in worship gathering their congregations around a giant birthday cake and will encourage an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Others will spend the service talking about how it is our responsibility to offer gifts to the church for her birthday and will then not-so-subtly move to the time of tithes and offerings. And others will use the church’s birthday as an opportunity to talk about inviting others to celebrate and make the whole thing into a guilt trip about evangelism and church growth.

All of which don’t have much to do with what God is saying in the text.

But, of course, Pentecost seems like a party. There are people gathered together in one place, the house is filled with something that propels the guests to do something, and everyone leaves with a gift.

But if Pentecost is a party, how long had God planned it? Who was on the guest list? Is it the kind of party we would hope to be invited to?

Pentecost may be the birthday of the church, the beginning of the gathering of disciples to worship the living God, but it is NOT the birthday of the Spirit.

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth… sound familiar? When nothing existed but chaos the Spirit of God swept across the waters and brought forth order. The Spirit is not new, it was there in the creation of all things, it rested on the likes of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, and the prophets. By the day of Pentecost in the upper room the Spirit had already overshadowed Mary’s womb, and called Jesus forth from the tomb. It was there at Jesus’ baptism, it compelled him to preach his first sermon, it fed the 5,000, it healed the sick, Jesus even breathed it on the disciples in the upper room shortly after his resurrection.

The story of Pentecost is not about the arrival of some previously unknown force that we call the Spirit; the entire bible is the story of the Spirit of God made manifest in and among God’s people.

What happened on Pentecost began long before that day, and will continue long after we’re gone.

Near the beginning, the people of God had grown restless. They wanted something more than life was offering, they wanted answers to their questions, and they began work on a giant tower. With brick and mortar, sweat and tears, they cut through the horizon in an attempt to reach God, and become like God. And God saw what we humans were doing and decided to confuse our language and scatter us across the earth. The unity and connection at the heart of our species was ripped apart and never again would we so brazenly attempt to reach and control our Lord.

Or so we thought.

Later, while Moses was on top of the mountain with God, at a place called Sinai, the people down in the valley grew restless. They wanted something more than life was offering, they wanted answers to their questions, and they began forming a golden calf to worship. With a gathering of precious gems, with kneeling and praising, they chose a new god to put their hope in. And God saw what we humans were doing and decided to wipe us from the face of the earth. But Moses pleaded with the Lord and instead only 3,000 were killed for worshipping the golden calf.

The Tower of Babel in Genesis and the Golden Calf in Exodus are stories we’d like to explain away. Not just for their strange and supernatural elements, but also because they don’t match with our anachronistic and modern sensibilities. We’d rather talk about what we think the text means than what it is actually saying.

But the stories of Babel and the Golden Calf do not end with a division of language or in a slaughter.

Pentecost is the undoing of Babel with God’s magnificent power reuniting God’s people under a common tongue: the Gospel.

            Pentecost is the undoing of the episode with the Golden Calf where, instead of 3,000 being killed, 3,000 were added to the budding church in order to redeem what happened in the valley long ago.

            The Spirit at Pentecost is the one who brings forth life out of death, hope out of despair, and a beginning out of an ending.

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We here in church like everything nice and orderly, or at least I do. I want to have a bulletin that is clear and organized, I want a theme that stretches throughout the entirety of the service, I want people like you to get exactly what you want and what you need.

But the Spirit is not one for white linens, and perfect bulletins, and calm consciences. On Pentecost the Spirit did not come with manners and a polite disposition. No, the Spirit comes with power that could knock someone to the ground, fill a room as if with fire, and even turn the world upside down.

The Spirit shows up at Pentecost like an uninvited guest.

During the height of segregation, there was a well-known church in the heart of Durham that was filled with proper looking white families every Sunday. They all made sure their children were quiet in worship, knew when to bow their heads, and stood to sing the hymns. Their clothes were always clean and coordinated, they always had plans for lunch after worship, and to them the church was perfect.

On one particular communion Sunday however, a young black man showed up at the main door and attempted to walk in. The ushers promptly blocked his path and used a few choice words to explain what they thought about his presence.

The next month he showed up with a few of his friends and there were even more ushers blocking the entrance.

Finally, in the deep heat of the summer, the young black community members decided to wait until the service started before walking in. They waited for the ushers to head inside and stand in the back and then they made their way through the doors precisely when the preacher stepped forward with the bread and with the cup and invited everyone forward.

At that cue the group pushed through the back pews and made their way down to the altar to receive the body and blood of Jesus.

I wish I could tell you in that holy moment the white people of the church were filled by the grace of God to receive their black brothers and sisters in love.

I wish I could tell you that the whole congregation stood to sing Amazing Grace and gather with their new friends at the altar.

I wish I could tell you that the whole white community of Durham came to their senses in that profound moment and began working to end segregation.

            But that’s not what happened.

The nice people sitting in the pews with their perfect families and their perfect worship service saw the young black men and women as uninvited guests, and they did what some people do when the unwanted show up, they kicked them out.

A fight broke out that Sunday in the aisles and in the pews, clothes were torn, blood was spilt, and windows were broken.

The police were called to break up the fight, which made matters even worse, and the church was evacuated before anyone even got communion.

The Spirit does not always arrive as a still small voice or a faint stirring of the heart. Sometimes the Spirit is electric, atomic, volcanic, and even violent.

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The human community divided by God at Babel, and punished at Sinai, was brought back together in the upper room on Pentecost. Instead of overwhelming confusion there was a new cooperation. At Babel and at Sinai the people of God wanted to move vertically to become like God. At Pentecost, God connected the people of God horizontally through the kingdom.

God, on Pentecost, offered us a new way, but sometimes we fall back to the Babels and the Golden Calves of the past. At that church in Durham, they believed that one’s skin pigmentation meant more than just about anything. And it took a fight between the pews to show them how far they had fallen.

For some of us we care more about what political party we’re affiliated with than anything else. We therefore ignore or even attack those who disagree with us.

For others we divide ourselves over ethnicity, race, sexual preference, age, socio-economic status, and a great slew of other factors.

But at Pentecost God did what God had to do to unite humanity back together. Like an uninvited guest God arrived as a violent wind rushing throughout the room and filled the entire house. Divided tongues like fire appeared among the disciples and a new tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that was there at the creation of existence, there in the virgin’s womb, and there in the empty tomb.

God interrupted the sensibilities and the gathering of the first disciples to offer a new way, a way filled with a frightening and powerful Spirit. God united the people under a common tongue of the gospel of His Son through the power of His Spirit and it forever altered the way we understand the world.

For at Pentecost we discover that WE are the church, and that “we” often includes people we can’t imagine; people who do not look like us, think like us, speak like us, or even worship like us.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the way we worship. I love our hymns and our prayers and even the way our sanctuary looks. I love the way we greet each other as we enter the building, I love the way we share signs of Christ’s peace, I even love how many of us are wearing red this morning in honor of Pentecost.

But the church should be a disruptive thing because that’s precisely what God’s Spirit did at Babel, at Sinai, at Pentecost, and it’s precisely what the Spirit did at that church in Durham, and frankly it’s what the Spirit is going to do to the youth of this church on our mission trip this week. The Spirit will upend our expectations and our hopes and our dreams. The Spirit is the one who will show us that WE are the church, all of us, and all of the people that we can’t imagine, they and we are the church, whether we like it or not. Amen.

On The Real Miracle Of Pentecost

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Jason Micheli and I recently sat down for a conversation about the celebration of Pentecost and what it means to preach about the Holy Spirit. Our podcast Strangely Warmed is dedicated to addressing the reading from the Revised Common Lectionary without using stained glass language and our recent episode brought forth some great topics such as the connections between Exodus and Acts, what it takes to be able to confess Jesus as Lord, and and the real miracle of Pentecost. If you want to listen to the episode (or subscribe to the podcast) you can find it here: Pentecost – Year A

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Devotional – Acts 2.1

Devotional:

Acts 2.1

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.

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When was the last time your entire family was together in one place? For some it probably occurred around a holiday like Christmas or Easter, for others it might have occurred at a funeral service or a wedding celebration, and for others the possibility of having everyone together might simply be an impossibility.

When an entire family is together in one place, magnificent things can take place. All the sudden you might overhear a distant cousin telling a story when you realize he or she sounds exactly like you, or you’ll notice that that you have the same color hair as an aunt, or you begin to see how really connected you are even without seeing the whole family very often.

However, being together with an entire family in one place can also bring about conflict. Old disagreements from the distant past can percolate to the surface, political differences can ruin an otherwise wonderful afternoon, or the swift judgments of family members about their family members can show the true colors of brokenness even within a group of people who share the same genes.

When was the last time the entire church was in one place? Across the country, at least in mainline Protestantism, most churches see the majority of their members only once a month. That is why there is such an abundance of churches with upwards of 400 members, but they see less than 100 on Sunday mornings. And, even if everyone showed up to be together in one place, you would get the good and the bad just like when an entire family gets together.

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But can you imagine what our churches would look like if we were all together in one place? And, if you can, think beyond the local church, what if The Church came together in one place? That, among many other wonderful blessings, is the miracle of Pentecost. When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples in a new and transformative way, they were all together in one place even though they were not of one mind. The whole of Acts reads like a bad family reunion in that whenever they gathered together they were forever disagreeing about some tenet of theology, and it is why Paul’s letters were necessary and instructional for the Church to figure out what it meant to be the Church.

Pentecost, though we celebrate it once a year, is actually still taking place in all of our churches whenever we gather together (whether we have all our people or not). The journey and mystery of the church is a group of people striving to be together without agreeing together, it is a miracle made possible by the grace of the Spirit that binds us together particularly when we don’t want it, and it is nothing short of a miracle.

When was the last time you were together with everyone in church? This Sunday might be a great chance to encounter the story of Pentecost that is still being written whenever we gather together.

The Oval Office Of The Universe

Acts 1.6-14

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 toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward 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.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

 

On Tuesday afternoon I went into the Preschool and sat on the floor of the yellow room with our Preschoolers. In mere minutes I would be walking with them into the sanctuary for their end of year performance and graduation, but for the moment we were sitting crisscross applesauce on the alphabet carpet.

Some of the kids were visibly nervous, rocking back and forth on the floor knees tucked into their chests, others were focused and practicing the words to the songs under their breath, and others were completely oblivious to what we were about to do and instead were making faces at one another and then cackling from the depth of their hilarity.

When I got the signal from our director that the time had come to stand, line up, and make our way into the sanctuary I bounced off the floor and called for attention. I said, “My friends, whose ready to have some fun?!” To which they responded with a conflated and cacophonous scream.

“Well,” I continued, “Before we go upstairs I want everyone to take a deep breath. Good, hold it, now blow it our slowly and listen carefully. I want you all to know that no matter what, this is going to be great, because your families love you, I love you, and Jesus loves you.

One by one they lined up in the hallway in their specific order and just before we started to move one of our boys grabbed me by the pant leg. “But Pastor Taylor, I have a question.” Figuring he needed to use the bathroom or some such thing, I got down on my knees and said, “What is it Keller?” He said, “I know my parents love me because they’re here, and I know you love me because you’re right here, but where’s Jesus?”

I said, “C’mon Keller! We’re seconds away from the program beginning and you want to know where Jesus is?! I don’t have time for this theological nonsense!”

Just kidding. But in the moment I thought about how to answer the question, what would satisfy his longing and curiosity. Where is Jesus?

I thought about placing my one hand on his shoulder and using my other hand to point toward his chest and saying, “Keller, Jesus is in our hearts!”

I thought about grabbing a nearby children’s bible to show him a picture of the Ascension, but of course, children’s bibles only contain stories like Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the Big Fish, and an Easter Sunday that has more to do with budding flowers than a dead man being raised back into life.

So I settled for this: “I’ll tell you where Jesus is after we finish the program.”

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When the disciples came together they asked Jesus, “Are you now going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” After years of listening to parables, watching miracles, and being fed out of nowhere, after encountering their resurrected friend, they still didn’t get it. Jesus replied, “There are some things you are not meant to know. But you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”

When he said this, the disciples watched as he ascended into the sky and a cloud took him out of their sight. And two men in white came by and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand with your eyes in the sky?” The disciples returned to Jerusalem and they devoted themselves to prayer while they waited.

The Ascension is important. Sadly, however, it is one of the Sundays that gets lost in the liturgical year and is overshadowed by the likes of Pentecost and Christ the King. This story of what took place 40 days after the first Easter answers our little preschooler’s question about where Jesus is, but it also does so much more.

The Ascension is not about where Jesus is, but where Jesus rules. In the Ascension, Jesus takes his place at the right hand of the Father and becomes the King who rules our lives here and now. In this spectacular moment, a vision that would keep our eyes in the sky, God brings full circle the incarnation that took place in Mary’s womb. God became what we are, and as Jesus returned to the Father the humanity of our existence was brought into the divine.

Far too often we use the Ascension story to explain Christ’s absence from our lives, we use it as the means by which we calm the questions of preschoolers, and comfort those who are in the midst of suffering. But the Ascension loses it’s beauty, majesty, and power when we limit it to the physical location of the Son of God.

When Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father he received the authority to rule here and now through a particular people called church; people like us.

Today, we throw the word “heaven” around like we throw around the word “love.” We use it as a filler or a descriptor to such a degree that it no longer means anything. And therefore when we say that Jesus ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, we no longer know what we are saying.

In the Ascension, Christ is exalted to the Oval Office of the universe to rule forever and ever.

I use the Oval Office specifically because the Oval Office means something to us, it embodies power and gravitas and even a little bit of fear. It is the place where things get done, where decisions are made that have an effect on our lives, it is where our leader rules.

But of course, our real Leader doesn’t reside in a White House, nor does our Leader work in an Oval Office made by the hands of morals.

Our Lord is Jesus Christ who rules from the Oval Office of the Universe.

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Just as we throw around the term “heaven” today without knowing what we are saying, the same thing happens with “the mission of the church.” Ask any good United Methodist about the mission of the church and they will tell you that we are here to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. However, the church is already the better place that God has made in the world.

It would seem then, that perhaps the real mission of the church, particularly in the world we live in today, is to reclaim the understanding and belief that Jesus is Lord.

            Because we either live under that reality or we don’t.

After my brief theological conundrum in the basement, I walked up the stairs with the kids and we entered the sanctuary for the program. The kids stood attentively as I welcomed the families and friends, they belted out the songs with such volume that they drowned out the sound system with the backing music, and then we came to the final song.

It’s really simple and it goes like this: “I like to jump every day, I like to jump every day, I like to jump every day because I know He loves me, Jesus loves me, Jesus loves me yeah, yeah, yeah, Jesus loves me, Jesus loves me yeah, yeah, yeah!” And of course, I popped out into the chancel area and jumped with the kids while we were singing. The second time through its all about clapping, so we did that. And then the third time through we sing about dancing, and we did that as well.

While performing with the kids I could hear the parents laughing and clapping along as I made a fool of myself with a bunch of 3, 4, and 5 year olds, but the thing is, they really meant it. The kids threw every bit of themselves into the three verses of that song and they jumped, clapped, and danced with reckless abandon.

After the last song I announced the graduates of the Preschool, those who are going to kindergarten in the fall, and then I dismissed everyone from the sanctuary for a meal in the fellowship hall.

While the families and children were milling about I went to go find Keller to finish our conversation about the location of the Lord. I scanned through all the people and thought about what I might say, what story I could tell, how I could make it intelligible to a 4 year old when I felt another tug at my leg.

Keller was standing there with a huge smile on his face. I said, “Keller, you did a great job and I have my answer for you about where Jesus is.” And he just stood there grinning from ear to ear and said, “I know now Pastor Taylor, I felt him up there when we were dancing!”

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Our Christ is a cosmic King who rules and reigns over us. In the ascension Jesus broke forth from the chains of being one of us, among us, into a freedom to rule with authority and power at the right hand of God. We are now his witnesses in Staunton, Augusta County, and to the ends of the earth. As Christians we believe that Christ is with us in the midst of being this strange, wonderful, and beautiful thing called church. Jesus makes himself manifest with us when we break bread, when we pass the peace, when we encounter the stranger, and even when we’re dancing in the sanctuary.

The story of the ascension is transformative for us Christians because in it we recognize our inability to go it alone. The first disciples met together, traveled together, worked together, prayed together, wept together, and rejoiced together, and even danced together all in Christ’s name. Just like them, we need each other’s witness and support, challenge and care, love and grace, to live into the reality that the church is the witness to Jesus Christ.

Jesus reigns from the Oval Office of the Universe at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. But for as much as Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, Jesus is also with us, the resurrected Christ is the one who makes possible our resurrection, who brings forth reconciliation in our lives, who offers us a story when we have no story, who dances with us, who weeps with us, who is our Lord. Amen.

The Politics Of The Church

Acts 2.42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

On Thursday President Donald Trump signed an executive order titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” This brought to fruition one of his many campaign promises that he would give “our churches their voices back.”

The order was designed to dismantle the Johnson Amendment that bans tax-exempt organizations, like churches, from endorsing political candidates and activities or they run the risk of losing their tax-exempt status. To be clear: fully repealing the Johnson Amendment would require congressional action, but the order certainly takes a step in that direction.

Basically, churches and other tax-exempt organizations are now on a path that will potentially lead to a time where preachers like me can stand in pulpits like this and tell you how we think you should vote according to the Lord. It means we, as a church, can give money from our tithes and offerings to specific political individuals or campaigns if we believe they match our religious convictions. And we can do all this without fear or retribution from the federal government.

Freedom.

On Thursday, the same day the executive order regarding religious liberty was signed into action, the House voted to approve legislation to repeal and replace major parts of the Affordable Care Act, another one of President Trump’s campaign promises. It still faces an uphill battle in the Senate, but the people who represent us in the House approved it.

In the wake of the vote, people on either side of the issue have been going ballistic. Some are thrilled that the bill would eliminate tax penalties for people who go without health insurance. Some are terrified that it would roll back state by state expansions of Medicaid, which covers millions of low-income Americans (40% of which are children).

Freedom.

So here we are, days after the executive order and the House vote, and I can’t help but imagine how many pastors are standing up in places like this one this morning, with a new found sense of freedom to speak either for or against what our government is doing. I can already imagine what a lot of the posts on Facebook and Twitter are going to look like this afternoon from either side of the political spectrum.

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In the early days of the church the disciples devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers. And during this time awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles’, perhaps most spectacular was the fact that the Lord was adding to their number those who were being saved. And what makes that spectacular? All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

Who signs up for something like that? Come join our group, we’d love to have you! And once you start participating all you have to do is sell everything you have so that we can take care of everyone. We believe in recognizing the inherent blessings of God in our lives and we don’t really believe in personal property. So join us on Sundays at 11am and don’t forget to sell your stuff!

That sounds a whole lot more like Communism than Capitalism.

            Where’s the freedom in that?

And here’s the point: Religious figures on the right and left have come out in droves about what the government has done as of recent, as is their right, but inherent in their declarations is a grave sin: idolatry.

Today we worship our government the way we once worshipped the Lord. We follow the never-ending political news-cycle like we once checked in on our brothers and sisters in faith. We read and repost articles about votes in the house and senate and executive orders like we once shared the story of Jesus Christ.

And I am guilty of this sin too; hence the great number of sermons as of recent that have revolved around the current political climate.

This story about the budding church sounds so weird and bizarre because we are so far removed from it. Instead of looking like this idyllic church community we’ve been co-opted by the assumption that our government is supposed to be the church, or at least it’s supposed to act like the church. Therefore we support political candidates who agree with our personal beliefs regarding issues like abortion rather than attempt to be present for women who wrestle with the fear of having an unplanned child. We spend more time talking about how our government should vet political refugees than pooling our resources together to bring them out of their war torn areas. We verbally attack people on the Internet for being politically opposed to our position instead of realizing that we often sit shoulder to shoulder with them in our church pews and that we have far more in common than we think we do.

Christians in America have played this political game for so long that we can almost no longer differentiate between America and God, something that scripture and Jesus call idolatry.

The church does not exist to serve our political aspirations, nor does the government exist to serve the needs of the church. The church does not represent a particular partisan agenda to be made manifest on Capitol Hill.

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The church itself is a politic. We do well to remember that we are a politic and that there are many ways for the church to be political. But the way to be the church is not synonymous with pursuing democratically elected representatives who can therefore represent our personal political opinions. As one of my former professors recently noted, “There’s only one instance of democratic voting in the gospels, and the people chose Barabbas.”

Gathering with others around the body and the blood of Christ is one way for Christians to be political, and it is the original way. For it is in gathering around a table such as this one, particularly with people who do not necessarily agree with us politically, we live and lean into the strange mystery that we call the kingdom of God. For us, this table is an ever-present reminder that we are not the authors of our salvation and neither is our government.

Here in America we greatly celebrate our freedom, and in particular our freedom of speech. But honestly, we are mostly only concerned with our freedom to say what we want. And the moment we hear someone speak from the other perspective we either cover our ears in anger, or we rush against them with vitriol.

For far too long we’ve limited our imagination of the church to being the mechanism by which we can develop strategies that can, to put it in political terms, Make America Great Again. But that is not the task nor is it the mission of the church. The task of the church is to be a community of character that can survive as a witness to the truth.

All of this is not meant to be a critique of the policies of the political right or the political left. Nor is in meant to be an endorsement of policies representing either side of the political spectrum. No, this is about our captivity to the presumption that our politics determine our lives more than the living God.

And that is why we worship, it is why we gather together to tell the stories of scripture and break bread and say the prayers. This is why we still do what they started doing back during the time of Acts. We gather together in witness to what the risen Christ is doing in and through our community. And in so doing we respond to the risen Christ by doing strange things like freely giving of our income to bless others who are in need, like giving of our time to work down at the Trinity Kitchen so provide food to those who are in need, like showing up in a different community every summer to help with modest home repairs for those who are in need, like breaking bread with people we disagree with to create meaningful relationships for those who are in need.

We’ve come a long way throughout the centuries as the strange community we call the church. You can tell how far we’ve come, or to put it another way how far we’ve moved, by how much we bristle when we read about selling our possessions and distributing the needs to all as any have need. That doesn’t match with what the world has told us life is all about.

Instead we’re captivated by a narrative that tells us to earn all we can and save all we can, that freedom is more important than faithfulness, and that the world is ruled by politics.

No. God rules the word. Faithfulness is more important than freedom. It is better to give all that we can rather than to gain all that we can.

And so we worship. We listen to the stories of scriptures, we enter the strange new world of the bible, and we learn to speak the truth. Worship id where we begin. In worship we develop an imagination capable of forming us into the people God is calling us to be, a people who can live into the difficult reality of Acts 2, who can be political, even more political than our government, by recognizing who we are and whose we are.

As Christians, we know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we do not need executive orders to grant us freedom to speak truth. We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we believe in taking care of our brothers and sisters regardless of whether or not our government does. We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we are not captivated by political policies geared toward keeping us “safe.” After all, we worship a crucified God and we seek to be in fellowship with the One who mounted the hard wood of the cross.

Being a Christian is not about freedom, denying responsibility, or being safe. Following Jesus is all about challenging the presumptions of the world with the truth of the lordship of Christ that often puts us in a place of danger. Because, as Christians, we believe in loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves, which is not the same thing as being a Democrat or a Republican. We believe in serving the needs of those on the margins, which means helping those who cannot help themselves.

We believe the greatest freedom we’ve ever received did not come with the Declaration of Independence but through a poor Jewish rabbi who was murdered by the state.

And as Christians, we know that we can act politically: we can vote, we can march, we can lobby all we want. But we also believe that gathering together to do this thing we call church is the most political thing we could ever do. Amen.

Devotional – Acts 2.42

Devotional:

Acts 2.42

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Weekly Devotional Image

“Why don’t you offer the prayer?” This is one of my favorite questions to ask in order to make someone uncomfortable when they least suspect it. I’ll be out at dinner, or some sort of communal function, and the moment right before the host inevitably asks me (as the pastor) to pray, I’ll lean over to someone and say, “Why don’t you offer the prayer?”

The question is often met with a blank expression that quickly morphs into terror. Some people feel like they can’t say no when a pastor asks them to do something so they start to pray; others begin to quake under the anxiety of publically praying though they muster something together; and others just sit there silently waiting (and perhaps praying) for me to start saying something instead.

But the more I’ve done this, the more I’ve realized how harmful it can be. And not just on an interpersonal level regarding the manipulation of the pastor over and against a lay person, but also because it leaves people feeling like they have to be able to make up a prayer and offer it on the spot in order to be a Christian.

Spontaneous and extemporaneous prayers can be difficult and problematic things. Instead of sitting silently and listening for the Spirit we often fill the void with our own words that may have nothing to do with what it means to pray in the first place. We assume that praying has to be original and new every time it happens, but it was not so for the first Christians.

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In the wake of Pentecost, the new coverts “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Notice the definite article: the prayers. They were given prayers to pray and this is entirely different than assuming that everyone can and should be able to make up their own prayers on the spot.

It is a great gift in the church to have prayers from the saints, to be able to look back and use the words that have been used so many times (and will continue to be used long after we’re gone) because sometimes we don’t have the right words to pray. Rather than struggling to come up with something on our own we can use the words from the Psalms, or reach for the Book of Common Prayer, or even read the words from a beloved hymn. Those words are our prayers, they are the prayers, and they have been given to us. Thanks be to God for providing the words of prayer when we cannot find them on our own.

Babbling Grace – Karl Barth and Genesis 11.1-9

Professors in seminary can make all the difference. Some can call you into the strange new world of the bible through their passionate lectures and you will never be able to look at scripture the same way again. Some can refers to moments of history in the church that decisively reshape the way you understand the church today. And still yet others can turn your entire understanding of the kingdom of God upside down through just a few lines in one lecture.

Stanley Hauerwas is one of those professors.

Hauerwas

In 2013, I had the good fortune of participating in his last ethics class before he retired. In it, he did his best to make us Christians more Christian. By highlighting problems that the church is facing, and has faced for a long time, he helped to provide a better grammar for what it means to be a Christian in the world.

During one of his lectures on the remarkable importance of the gathering community, he briefly mentioned a sermon he once wrote on the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11. At the time, the story of Babel was one that I remembered from my youth; the pictures we drew of people attempting to build a tower to God, the lesson it conveys about why there are so many languages on the earth. But I honestly hadn’t thought about it having much to do with my life as a Christian.

Dr. Hauerwas said, “The divisions at Babel are healed and reconciled at Pentecost. The language divisions were still present, but within the gathered communal identity of the church was a common Lord in Jesus Christ. Pentecost was a new day of creation, not unlike those we read about at the beginning of Genesis.”

In just a few sentences, Hauerwas jumped from Genesis 11 to Acts 2 and it blew my mind. Now it seems so obvious, that the Lord would bring together God’s people through the power of the Holy Spirit therefore redeeming what had happened at Babel. But when Hauerwas connected them in that lecture, it was like I was given a new lens by which I could read scripture.

For a time I attributed this new way of thinking and reading to Dr. Hauerwas, and it was only later that I realized he got it from Karl Barth.

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In Church Dogmatics III.4 Karl Barth uses the story of the Tower of Babel to evaluate the problem of nationhood in the modern period. For Barth, Babel contains every bit of the human desire to remain self-reliant and focused on pride, which has resulted in our divisions as a species. It is a story, not unlike Adam and Eve’s first sin, that reminds us of the brokenness in our world.

I have always seen Babel as a kind of means by which we can teach a lesson to children or young Christians about the dangers of pride. I have seen Babel as a shadow of what the church is supposed to be. But for Barth, Genesis 11 is all about grace.

Barth is quick to note that, “A Christian people is one in which heathenism and national egoism are broken, judged, and purified by the Spirit of Christ… As we are warned in Genesis 11, rebellion against God leads to the forceful disintegration rather than the organic development of national identities.”[1] Babel should frighten us, as a people, about what happens when we rebel against the Lord to such a degree, but the story is about much more than the Lord’s “punishment” at the end.

The Tower of Babel, for Barth, contains elements of both divine wrath and divine blessing. The story begins with: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (Gen. 11.1). As a unified people, they settled into the land of Shinar and decided to use bricks to make themselves a city and a tower, “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11.2-4). In response to this, the Lord goes down to examine the city and tower and eventually confuses humanity’s language to remind them of the divide between Creator and creature.

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Barth immediate questions the supposed sin within the story: What is inherently wrong with building a city or a tower? The constructions of such objects were not completed against God; attempts at civilization are never formally wrong.[2] For Barth, the thing itself, the object built, is not the fault but rather when a people want to create something for themselves in order to reach an attempted equality with God there lays the sin. The depth of humanity’s sin is the “arrogance of thinking that man himself can and must take himself as he takes the brick and mortar, and make himself the lord of his history, constituting the work of providence of his own work.”[3]

In light of humanity’s over-determined arrogance, God must respond with punishment. If God let humanity build the tower to completion, just as if God had let Adam and Eve stay in the Garden after eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, humanity would further perpetuate itself as a sinful people. The scattering of the nations at the end of the story is an example of God’s divine wrath, and usually where I would let the story finish, but for Barth (and Hauerwas) we cannot understand Babel without the rest of the Bible.

Barth sees grace at Babel through, of all things, Jesus’ parable of the sower: “The constant sowing of the seed of the divine Word will always find soil even if there is no true harvest in one place. Even in this passage we must not fail to see the Gospel in this sense. Even in the terrible decree of v. 7 (“Come let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”) we must not miss His grace.”[4]

Important for Barth’s understanding of God’s grace in his exegesis is the fact that God could have easily used an earthquake or another divine miracle to achieve God’s condemnation. But rather than destroying creation, as had been done through the flood in Genesis 7, God merely divides humanity and confuses their language. Instead of raining destruction upon humanity, God limits the punishments to linguistics.

Additionally, God does not abandon humanity to their own devices even after their construction. Regardless of the self-righteousness employed by humanity, God will remain faithful even when we are not. Babel could have been the end of the relationship between the Creator and the creature, but God remained steadfast.

Morever, Barth’s final move regarding the babbling grace of Genesis 11 comes in the recognition that, as Christians, we are aware that God has more in store for his creatures than the end of the story in Genesis; we know what happens at Pentecost. What transpires at the end of the Babel narrative is not the ultimate decree on the matter but rather, “only a penultimate word, and that the curves of the separated ways are so ordered in advance that they will finally come together again.”[5] Here is where Barth shines the light of God’s glory the brightest: even though the main emphasis of the Tower of Babel in on how the separation and division of people was right (at the time), God’s original desire is for humanity to be in unity.

For Barth, we cannot read Genesis 11 outside of, or in spite of, Acts 2. These two different stories, separated by thousands of years, though different in form and content, contain the beginning and the next step of God’s action toward creation. God intended for humanity to remain in unity, and through our own self-righteousness were have rejected the divine unity for our own division. And yet, according to Barth, we are to remain grateful to God’s out-pouring of grace which simultaneously remaining discontent until there is a total reunification of God’s creation.

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Barth, time and time again throughout Church Dogmatics, refuses to read particular texts as isolated witnesses. To read the bible is to read it canonically. Narratives from different places help to inform one another and the Old Testament reads into the New just as much as the New reads into the Old. Babel and Pentecost are connected. Eden and Revelation are connected. David and Jesus are connected. Exodus and Acts are connected. And so on.

As Christians reading scripture, we have the benefit of knowing how the story “ends.” We know that in the person of Jesus Christ the previously divided nations have come together. In the Holy Spirit of Acts 2 the conclusion of Genesis 11 takes place: “The miracle of Pentecost tells the us how the decision is take to look and break out from the nations to the one people of God, how the divine disposition of Genesis 11 is rightly understood as a teleological divine purpose, and how it is recognized in the form of the corresponding orientation from the near to the distant, the narrower sphere to the wider.”[6]

Barth’s reading of scripture, and in particular his exegetical work in the excurses of Church Dogmatics has directly influenced the work of Stanley Hauerwas and a whole mosaic of theologians over the last century. To be a Christian is to read, and to read well; to look for the connections from book to book; to identify the thread that God pulls through seemingly unrelated stories; to see ourselves as characters in God’s great narrative.

And for Barth, the story of Babel is not one for us to leave for children’s Sunday School rooms and flannel-graphs. It is one that we must read with conviction knowing full and well how the story ends. Just as with the construction of Babel, humanity still consistently places brick after brick of our own presumed infallibility in direct contradiction to the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Barth’s work reminds us that we have divided ourselves against God’s original and good intentions, and to complete the end of the story we must take seriously God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, desiring for humanity to one day be made perfectly one.

 

[1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III.4. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 306.

[2] Ibid., 314.

[3] Ibid., 314.

[4] Ibid., 316.

[5] Ibid., 317.

[6] Ibid., 323.