Friday, May 13, 2016

Pentecost: Spreading Spirit Seed

Laurie and I recently purchased a bird feeder.  It was advertised as “squirrel-proof”.  It wasn’t…

The Kingdom of God is like a bird feeder
overflowing with seed...
The feeder was supposed to close under the squirrel’s weight thus allowing only birds to feed.  Well, the squirrels wouldn’t be deterred.  They figured a way past the barriers to get to the tasty food within.  In fact, the little varmints were so tenacious they even broke the plastic rendering the barriers pretty much useless. Sigh. Back to the drawing board…

Mark’s Gospel records a scene where some people bought their sick friend to see Jesus.  When they got to the house where he was, they found a “barrier” between them and Jesus—a crowd of onlookers prevented them from reaching him.  But like the squirrels at our feeder, these men weren’t deterred.  They stopped at nothing to get to Jesus, literally digging through the roof and lowering their stricken friend into the house so he could be close to Jesus—Mark 2:1-4.

The Message of Jesus is even more tenacious than a squirrel at a bird feeder; it will do its best to break down every human barrier we try to impose to bring all people closer to God.

That’s sort of what happens as the Church was born and begins to spread, which we celebrate each year on Pentecost Sunday.  This is the story that Luke tells in the Book of Acts; it’s volume two of Luke’s saga, the first being his Gospel account of the life of Jesus.  Christianity begins as a sect of the Jewish faith and Luke tells the tale of its rapid expansion throughout Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the EarthActs 1:8—knocking down barriers every step of the way.

Luke begins Acts where the Gospel left off—see Luke 24:45-53.  The last “scene” of Volume 1 is “replayed” to open Volume 2—kind of like a TV cliffhanger.  The believers have gathered for the Ascension of Jesus. His last words to his disciples is that they should return to Jerusalem and wait…  He assures them they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comesActs 1:1-11.

Come Holy Spirit, Come... (Acts 2:1-12)
Ten days after Jesus ascends, if you will, the “bird feeder” overflows with Spirit seed in Jerusalem.  Luke describes how the Holy Spirit floods the space where the believers are gathered on the day of Pentecost, a long-standing Jewish festival celebrating first fruits—Acts 2.  The Jewish believers “eat their fill” of the seed and then go forth from that place to spread it.  The Message of Jesus is proclaimed throughout Jerusalem.  More and more people become followers of The Way.  The rulers and authorities of the city are threatened by the growth of “the Church” and begin to persecute the believers. 

Maybe we could view the persecution as “squirrels” and the disciples as “birds” forced to leave the “feeder”. Luke tells us that, following the stoning of Stephen—Acts 7:54-60—the believers began to face “severe persecution”—Acts 8:1.  Many of the disciples flee Jerusalem, but as they go, they carry Spirit seed with them and scatter it as they go throughout Judea and Samaria. 

According to Luke’s story, Spirit seed radiate out further and further from the mother Church in Jerusalem.  The first seeds reach “Samaria” via Philip, who began preaching and baptizing there.  Peter and John hear the news and come to investigate.  The believers receive the Holy Spirit and we have the so-called Samaritan PentecostActs 8:14-17. 

A while later, Saul, the same man who stood and watched approvingly as Stephen was stoned—Acts 8:1, and who had been the most zealous persecutor of the early Church, has a transformative experience on the “Road to Damascus”—Acts 9:1-19—after which he becomes Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles. Immediately, says Luke, he begins spreading Spirit seed in Damascus—Acts 9:20.

A believer named Barnabas takes Paul under his wing and brings him to Jerusalem to meet Peter and the other Apostles.  In order to vouch for Paul, Barnabas must cross “barriers”.  He steps out in faith and trusts this man who not long ago wanted to kill him—and all his friends.  This must have been an awkward meeting, the former persecutor standing before the leaders of the fledgling Church.  (Oh, to have been a fly on the wall for Paul and Peter’s first meeting.)

Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48)
In Acts 10, the Spirit prompts a Roman Centurion from Caesarea named Cornelius—i.e., a Gentile believer—to send men find Peter in Joppa. Almost simultaneously Peter experiences an intense vision, after which the men arrive at where he is staying.  Peter invites the men to lodge with him, which would violate “boundaries” for a proper Jew—Acts 10:23.  Later, when Peter goes to Caesarea to visit Cornelius, he presumably stays at Cornelius’ home—Acts 10:33. As Peter is speaking to Cornelius and his friends about his vision Luke says that the Holy Spirit fell upon them—Acts 10:44-48.  This Gentile Pentecost experience has a profound impact on Peter. He begins to realize that “God shows no partiality” and that “even the Gentiles” are included in God’s Kingdom.  I also have to wonder if God used this experience to help convince Peter of the legitimacy of Paul’s calling to be Apostle to the Gentiles.  (Peter seems to struggle with consistency in living this out, which brought him in to conflict with Paul—Galatians 2:11-14.)

At my church, we are currently doing a sermon series on the life of Paul based on Adam Hamilton's book: The Call.   The story of this "long distance" Apostle to the Gentiles is fascinating to study—and to look for connections between Paul's story and our stories.  Paul would go on three (possibly four) missionary journeys visiting numerous cities throughout the Roman Empire spreading Spirit seed everywhere he went.  Communities of Christ followers were established at most of the places he travelled.  Paul returned to some of these places several times in the course of a few years.  Eventually, Paul made it to Rome, where a community of Christ followers began.  (He may have travelled even further to the east toward Spain, though there is some debate about that.)  Either way, it is believed that both Peter and Paul reached the end of their earthly sojourns in Rome, but not before the Gospel reached “the ends of the Earth”, by which Luke probably meant the city of Rome.  The symbolism of the Kingdom of God gaining a foothold in the capital city of Caesar’s Empire would not have been missed by his first century audience.

Of course Rome, or even Spain, really wasn’t “the ends of the Earth” was it?  No, it was really just the beginning of the journey for the Way of Jesus.  In a sense, Pentecost has never stopped happening.  What Jesus began, and Peter, Paul, and the other Apostles continued, has carried on for over 2000 years.  Every time the gospel was proclaimed in a new place, seed kept spreading propelled by the wind of the Spirit, until eventually the seed literally circled the globe.  

Whether we grew up in Church, or came to faith just yesterday, or even don’t know if we believe yet, every one of us are here today because someone spread Spirit seed to us.  Our calling as followers of Jesus is to, in a sense, write the "next chapter" of Acts, spreading Spirit seed wherever we go.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Sandwiched

The term  sandwich generation refers to people who have young children with active lives at the same time they have aging parents.  I am one of those who live my life in the “sandwich” and particularly after the last couple of weeks, I understand why the term is used to describe us.  In early April, my family had a wicked stomach bug pass through.  While I never succumbed to the illness, I had to help my family through it, losing some work hours along the way.  Then, about a week later, my dad was taken by ambulance the hospital with dizziness and chest pains. For now, at least, he has escaped needing major surgery, which is a relief.  Nevertheless, it made for a stressful few days travelling back and forth to hospitals to visit him and coordinating with my brother to make sure my mom had adequate care. All the while, life went on around us. Events happened in the broader world and in our daily lives. There was still work for both my wife and me, school for the kids, church activities, baseball for my son, and dance rehearsal for my daughter, and more.  We had to balance it all as best we could. 
"Sandwiched" by life.

I feel smack-dab in the middle of the “sandwich” right now, surrounded on all sides by the “bread” of life.  It’s not exactly a comfortable place.

We were at dinner at our favorite Chinese place when I found out about my dad.  Becca was at a sleepover with a friend but Brady was with us.  Upon hearing the news that his pop was ill and we would need to go visit him in the hospital, his first question was: Can we finish eating? (Clearly, he is his father’s son.)  

A humorous story, yes, but also illustrative of our lives.  We’re busy living our life and all of a sudden, something unexpected happens; suddenly we are find ourselves in a crisis and must decide how to respond.  Life typically doesn’t stop to accommodate us in these moments.  We still have to eat and take care of ourselves so we can function and do what is needed in our particular situation. It’s easier said than done though; it can feel like “just one more thing” to fit into our already ├╝ber-busy lives. I know I have felt more stressed and tired than usual the past few weeks.

When we found out my dad was ill, whatever plans we had that night and in the days that followed had to go “out the window”.  We had to rearrange our schedule to make time for hospital visits and so forth—not exactly what we planned to do with those days, but it’s what you do in these situations if you have even an ounce of compassion for others in need.   Even when I managed to do something “normal” during that time, like work for a few hours or go to the gym, my mind was occupied with thoughts of him.  

Times of crisis of have a way of putting what we say we believe about God to the test.  We like to speak of a God who walks with us—but it’s when the rubber of our faith makes contact with the hardscrabble road of life that we find out what we actually believe.

Particularly during times of crisis, I find that plans for tomorrow have to be “written in pencil”. Hard as it for me to do sometimes being a strong Meyers–Brigg “J” personality, I have had to learn to be flexible, to take it day-by-day, and to wait on God and see what tomorrow brings—Psalm 27:14.   When Jesus taught the disciples to pray, he told them to say: Give us [today] our daily breadMatthew 6:11—and not to worry about tomorrow.  Tomorrow will like have its own laundry-list of problems and God already knows about them—Matthew 6:31-34. Many times the past couple weeks my wife and I just prayed for God to, “give us what we needed for today” and, as always, God has been faithful to provide.                                                                                                                     

"Sandwiched" between Easter and Pentecost
We’re also in a “liturgical sandwich” right now.  We’ve come through Easter with the celebration of the remarkable news of the empty tomb and we await the “birthday of the Church” with the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Jesus ascends into heaven after 40 days and then the Holy Spirit comes 10 days later on the day of Pentecost.  If we attend church, we know this story well; we repeat it every year in our liturgy. 

But travel back in time with me to before the invention of liturgical calendars; place yourself in the sandals of Jesus’ first followers as they process the remarkable reality of the empty tomb for the first time.  They don’t know yet that the Ascension “comes next”, followed by Pentecost.  They have to take things day-by-day—they have to take it on faith, which is no doubt frayed by recent events.  Scholars might say they are living in liminal space—a place where the old familiar reality they knew is gone and a new one is emerging, but is not yet fully formed.  Passage through such space is usually not easy or comfortable.

To say it another way, these disciples are no longer who they were before Easter, but they have not yet become who they will be after Pentecost.  They are in an uncomfortable place; the “sandwich” is closing in around them but the only “way out” is to “pass through” it. 

I think Mark’s Gospel does the best job conveying the liminal space between the empty tomb and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Mark’s original ending[1] contains none of the post-resurrection stories that have become familiar to us: no walk to Emmaus, no Great Commission, no doubting Thomas, no restoration of Peter.  All we know from Mark’s account is that the woman that had come to finish burying Jesus are told by a mysterious figure clad in white that Jesus is not here, he is risen and going ahead of them to Galilee.  After that they, went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraidMark 16:8.

I’m not surprised by the women’s’ reaction; I think they are suddenly sandwiched between two realities.  They came expecting to bury the dead that morning and now they hear that Jesus is not here—he is risen.  Whatever plans they had must now be completely changed and reoriented.   I think I would be confused and afraid and reluctant to talk about what I didn’t understand too. It takes them a while to process what is going on and adjust to the new reality.  Now from the other accounts of the story, and even the extended ending of Mark, it’s clear that the women do “adjust” fairly quickly and share the remarkable story with the other disciples. 

All the disciples needed time to absorb the implications what the women proclaimed to them, and what they subsequently witnessed for themselves.  Clearly, that change happens—eventually.  Consider the case of Peter, who goes from a fearful denier of Jesus at the end of the Gospels to a forceful proclaimer of the Word on Pentecost—Acts 2. In fact, as we read Acts, we see that similar transformations happened to the other Apostles—including Paul’s later transformation after encountering the Risen Lord on the Damascus Road.

But in order for that change to “take root” all these individuals had to spend time in liminal space, “sandwiched” between an old reality that no longer fit them and a new one that had not yet completely emerged for them.  

I wonder if the weeks between Easter and Pentecost on our liturgical calendar could be seen as symbolizing liminal space which, while uncomfortable to pass through, is so essential to our spiritual growth?

If so, then perhaps there is hope for me—and for any of us who feel “sandwiched” by life right now.  Perhaps God is using our passage through liminal space to do important work in us as he did with those first followers more than 2000 years ago. Who knows, he might even be setting us up to change the world.  




[1] It is generally agreed that Mark 16:9–20 were not originally part of the narrative. It’s almost as if the original ending that sort of left us hanging about “what happens next” was unsatisfactory to some, so they “tacked on” these 11 verses that seem to summarize the post-resurrection stories from the other Gospels.