Tuesday, January 1, 2019
This takes us to the wonderfully suggestive phrase in verse 1: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.” That is, Luke’s Gospel is what Jesus began; Acts is Luke’s narrative of how his people continued what he began. So, whatever Jesus did, we do the same kinds of things. WWJD? We can only answer this by becoming open-minded students of Luke (and Acts helps us) – as then it’s never mere niceness, or judgmental attitudes, but sharing property, touching untouchables, and more. Does the church today – does my church today – continue what Jesus began, and what the first disciples continued?
How humorous: Paul encounters a possessed woman, evidently traipsing around after him, and he gets annoyed! Background: for centuries, people had travelled to Delphi to consult the Oracle there - which was a temple where the priest would lead you to speak with the Pythia, the "pythoness," a woman who would breathe subterranean hallucinogenic fumes, and utter (allegedly) the words of Apollo. A famous case: Croesus, king of Lydia (fitting for Acts 16!) asked the oracle if he should cross the Halys and attack Cyrus's army. The response, "You will destroy a great empire," excited him. Then he asked if he would rule long. Her reply, "Your foe is but a mule." He crossed the river and was thrashed by Cyrus. Yes, he did destroy an empire - his own. And Croesus didn't parse that a mule is a mongrel, and so was Cyrus (his mother a Mede, his father a Persian). Delphi was so profitable that they set up branch establishments in cities around the empire - including Philippi.
Once this enslaved pythoness was healed, the reaction of the citizens in Phillipi – a “little Italy” of relocated Roman veterans – tells us about early Christianity and raises a question about our purpose today as Christians: “These men are disturbing our city… They are advocating customs that are not lawful.” Light years from us blessing America and the status quo. Paul clearly didn’t get the memo about keeping politics and religion separate… And so they are imprisoned in what must have been a cold, hard, dark stone cavern with zero amenities.
Ponder the Philippian church. Meeting in the home of relatively wealthy Lydia, we have her, a slave girl, and a middling government official, the jailer – and his wife and children. The Jesus movement fashions churches that cross social boundaries – and then there is a unity in Jesus that the world thinks impossible:
Our Gospel reading, John 17:20-26, shares Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers – and clearly Jesus continues to pray for that same unity. We talk unity quite well – but typically we mean “I want unity – my unity. Come be like me.” But real unity is about Christ, and real unity requires sacrifice. And repentance. And forgiveness.
I do recall that back in seminary we had a talent show each year. A favorite moment came when students would do impersonations of professors, and we’d guess who was being impersonated. My friend Pat walked on stage, spoke a complete sentence or two about the Trinity, then he began incomplete sentences, then took off his glasses and grimaced as he pressed his hand to his brow. We all rightly guessed Tom Langford, theology professor who did what preachers should do more of: embody the fact that we are speaking of something too vast, too complex - knowable, adorable, but mind-boggling.
So our epistle, Romans 5:1-5. I keep imagining Paul, pacing, thinking out loud, grimacing like Tom Langford, dictating to a scribe what we now read. He had to be uber-inspired as he sorted things out without the benefit of a New Testament or even one volume of theology on his shelf. He’s not figured out a Trinity yet, but he wrestles with the idea of “peace with God the Father through Jesus,” and “the Spirit poured into our hearts.” I wonder if a sermon might look like Tom Langford, and we simply restate, with uhs and sighs, the notion that we are at peace with God the Creator, through the agency of Jesus (his cross being, perhaps, like a wooden bridge from us into the heart of God, as Catherine of Siena suggested) – and as we weigh all this, our hearts pulsate with joy and energy, the Spirit not so much an emotional jolt but an undercurrent of understand, insight, aha!
And then I always like to repeat Paul’s stunning litany – and maybe without explanation: “Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.” I might pause there and say hope might not disappoint? Or rather, segue into what Christopher Lasch taught us about hope’s ability to cope with disappointment, and how it is so very different from optimism: “Hope doesn’t demand progress; it demands justice, a conviction that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope appears absurd to those who lack it. We can see why hope serves us better than optimism. Not that it prevents us from expecting the worst; the worst is what the hopeful are prepared for. A blind faith that things will somehow work out for the best furnishes a poor substitute for the disposition to see things through even when they don’t.”
Optimism depends on us; it’s Scarlett O’Hara’s naïve view that things will somehow be better tomorrow. Hope depends on God; it can bear tomorrow being worse.
Our Gospel, John 16:12-15, is so titillating. Jesus has “many things to say, but you can’t bear them now.” Jesus will continue to speak long after Good Friday and Easter, though the Spirit – and I wonder if there’s some hint in there that the fullness of Jesus’ truth is something you can only grasp over time, only after much pondering and getting ready. The preacher would be wise to remember this: that you can’t just download the riches of the Gospel into people’s heads. They aren’t ready for it all just yet. Be patient. Dole out some, hint at more to come.
This “spirit of truth” is perilous, as too many Christians treat “truth” as some sledgehammer to judge or belittle others. St. Ephrem the Syrian (4th century): “Truth and love are wings that cannot be separated, for Truth without Love is unable to fly, so too Love without Truth is unable to soar up; their yoke is one of harmony.” Denominations are lousy about truth; both “sides” blithely presume to have cornered it. I love Ephraim Radner’s insight: “When the greatest decision that human beings ever made was to be made, what did Jesus say? How did he contribute? When the truth was debated, did he speak his mind? They led him to Pilate’s bar, and he never said a mumblin’ word; not a word, not a word, not a word.” Indeed, “Jesus leaves behind his conscience as he moves toward those who would take it from him. So that his truth becomes a way into a life for others.”
Truth somehow begins, ends and may well be fulfilled in silence. Our people, and we clergy ourselves may feel uncomfortable with silence, or exasperated by it. Oscar Romero, speaking to hurting, fearful Salvadorans feeling forsaken by God – on Good Friday, 1980! – said, “God is not failing us when we don’t feel his presence. Let’s not say: God doesn’t do what I pray for so much, and therefore I don’t pray any more. God exists, and he exists even more, the farther you feel from him. God is closer to you when you think he is farther away and doesn’t hear you. When you feel the anguished desire for God to come near because you don’t feel him present, then God is very close to your anguish.”
Our text underlines what Frederick Dale Bruner once suggested – that the Holy Spirit is the “shy” member of the Trinity, preferring to glorify others, like the backstage help doing everything to make the star on stage shine.
We are having Holy Communion this Sunday at my place – which draws me to reflect on the Rublev icon. Once I spoke of it and imagined three friends at dinner, inviting you, us, to join at our viewer’s side of the table. God’s Threeness yearns for the one who’s not yet there, maybe like that shepherd leaving 99 sheep to seek out the one.
For me, this "still small voice" or "total, deafening silence" was enfleshed for me when my older daughter Sarah showed me her first ever tattoo. After announcing she'd gotten one, and that I was maybe the only dad who might understand and appreciate it, she pulled back her hair and showed me those Hebrew words, qol demama dakka, just behind her ear. It took me a minute... What a powerful image: the ear, right where we hear, it's God's small voice, or really better, that agonizing, wonderful silence.
God's silence is... okay, even good, perhaps stupendous, tender and beautiful. Silence for us is perhaps our most important labor for God and others. Proverbs repeatedly suggests that the fool chatters on, while the wise listen. Robert Caro, the great biographer of Lyndon Johnson, interviews people - and reports that his greatest tool in interviewing is silence. People will talk if you give them the space. So his notebooks from interviews constantly have jotted in the margin, in huge letters, SU, SU, SU. Shut up. Don't talk. Listen. Wait. Silence.
** Much of this Elijah section is excerpted from my book about biblical and modern leadership, Weak Enough to Lead.
Galatians 5:1, 13-25 arrives in the lectionary as if timed to stake out what freedom is (and isn’t) as we ramp into July 4. The text does not say You are free! So freely choose God! or God gives you freedom and hopes you’ll choose good instead of sin. No, it’s that Christ sets us free, implying we are (as Augustine, Luther, Wesley, Barth, all the great theologians have clarified) most assuredly not free. Our wills are bound, shackled, to sin, self, world. Our only hope is to be liberated by the miracle of God’s Spirit – and once free, it’s not so we might do as we wish, but so we might then bind ourselves freely and joyfully to God, to do God’s bidding – as Wesley put it, My life is no longer my own.
Holiness is not a matter of gritting your teeth and trying really diligently to do what God requires. We may grit our teeth, and we do try hard. But I am not able to do what God wants of me, I am not capable of the life God wants for me. A changed life is the gift of God's Spirit. Paul described this new life, the life for which we were made, as “the fruit of the Spirit.” Not “the fruit of my good intentions,” but the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.”
Not only are these not against the law. They are not the law! Paul does not say, “You must be joyful, patient, faithful.” Rather, if we just calm down and let the Spirit have its way with us, we discover to our delightful surprise traces of joy, peace, gentleness in our lives, all gift, all the work of God in us. These nine (love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) are what trees look like when giving glory to God, swayed only by the wind of the Spirit, watered by the grace of Baptism.
Luke 9:51-62. Luke’s overall plot are in evidence here. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up”: as we see in Luke, volume 2 (Acts 1), the climax of Jesus’ work is his ascension, when he leaves the church behind to be his Body. He turns his face to Jerusalem: in the first half of his ministry, Jesus is an actor, in control, impressive, striding across the stage of history – but then in part 2, he is increasingly passive, acted upon, headed to die. He is “handed over.”
This (as W.H. Vanstone pointed out in The Stature of Waiting) is the plot of our lives: we are active, but then late, we are increasingly passive, acted upon – and that is Jesus’ glory, and our glory (so counter-cultural…).
Hard not to think of John Wesley, missing his own wife’s funeral – not entirely out of zeal for the Lord, I might add.