Jesus’ Paraclete

My friend Evan Garner, being the good Church Nerd that he is will hopefully find this next sentence very exciting.  Evan Garner and David Lose have me thinking.  In his post for today, Evan offers a quality reminder that even though 90% of sermons for Pentecost Day will focus on Acts 2, there is a deep and rich Gospel text ready and waiting to be mined as well.  Meanwhile, in his post for Pentecost B, David Lose works out his own issue with the Gospel text, specifically the word Paraclete (Advocate), in light of the Acts lesson.

I will, no doubt, preach on Acts 2 this Sunday, but thanks to Evan and David, it won’t be without at least some temptation to deal with Jesus’ promise of the Paraclete in John’s Gospel.  The more I think about it, the more I think I might even find a way to preach on both.  The Holy Spirit that appears with power and might and leaves the crowd in Acts 2 totally blown away needs to be jived with the Comforter/Advocate that Jesus talks about in John 15.  The Holy Spirit that works in the lives of the faithful, calling them out of their comfort zones, empowering prophets, lifting up leaders and voices for change, sending forth missionaries and reticent priests often doesn’t feel a whole like like she’s comforting us.  No, when the Spirit is at work in your life, things get downright messy; sometimes even dangerous.

The Holy Spirit compelled Peter to stand up before a crowd of bewildered, sometimes sneering people and tell them that Jesus is the Messiah, that he was killed by those outside the law, and that God had bigger plans, bigger even than the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, or Solomon.  As one who steps into the relative safety of a pulpit on a regular basis, it is easy to take what Peter did for granted, but the reality is that what he did was shockingly risky.  Jesus had been hung on a cross 53 days ago.  The religious powers-that-be were still on edge about the whole Jesus movement, and Peter and the disciples continued to, rightfully, be scared for their lives.

As David Lose says in his blog, “We tend to think of the Holy Spirit as the answer to a problem, but what if the Spirit’s work is to create for us a new problem; that we have a story to tell, mercy to share, love to spread, and we just can’t rest until we’e done so!”  That’s what the Holy Spirit of Acts 2 is all about.  As I said earlier this week, the universal gift and call of the Spirit is to preach the Gospel in the language of our circle of influence.,  That’s pretty damn frightening.  That’s why the Church is shrinking rapidly.  We’re too afraid to share our story, too afraid to let the Spirit do her work in our lives, too afraid to offend someone.

The Paraclete that Jesus promises is literally, “one who comes alongside” and when she does, hold on tight because the ride is about to get rough, for the sake of the Gospel and the glory of God.

Paraclete Tactical Body Armor Solutions is perhaps the best image of what the Holy Spirit does in our lives. She calls us out of safety, but promises protection along the way.

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What kind of sermon will you preach?

Sunday isn’t just the Day of Pentecost, but it is also the last Sunday before my sabbatical.  I’ll be out of the pulpit for eleven straight Sundays after this one.  As I prepare to preach, I am finding myself struggling with what, if any, challenges I should place upon the people of St. Paul’s in my absence.  At its best, a sabbatical isn’t just for the cleric taking time off to study, fish, travel, or whatever.  The goal of a sabbatical should be for clergy AND congregation to spend some time thinking about their ministry together.  Now this is different, of course, in a congregation with more than one priest.  At Saint Paul’s, TKT will be here all summer, and he is the Rector, after all, so that vision and goals go through his desk, and yet, TKT and I have the sort of relationship where we share that work of vision and goal setting, and my sabbatical will be a time for me and the congregation to reflect on our work together, but certain for him to be thinking about it as well.  So I wonder, how pointy a stick should I use on Sunday?  And you, dear friend, what kind of sermon will you preach?

How sharp a stick will you use?

The lessons appointed for Pentecost, Year B are ripe with opportunity to challenge the status quo.  The Acts lesson is all about the Spirit pulling the disciples further and further out of their comfort zones.  The text from Romans reminds us that things are still not what God wants them to be, and we know it, and we are called to join with all of creation in struggling and striving for the Kingdom of God.  Even the Gospel lesson asks us to re-think about what the work of the Holy Spirit really is in our lives.  There are real opportunities to push the envelope on Sunday and leave our congregations feeling not unlike the crowd gathered outside the disciples condo on the Day of Pentecost: bewildered, amazed, astonished, and perplexed.

Yet even those aren’t strong enough words to convey what the crowd was feeling that morning.  In his commentary on Working Preacher his week, Frank Crouch, Dean and President of Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem (PA, not that other one) notes that our popular English translations have watered down what people felt when the Spirit arrived on the scene.  “The Greek terms describing their reactions could be appropriately rendered… as confused, in an uproar, beside themselves, undone, blown away, thoroughly disoriented, [and] completely uncomprehending.”  Are we willing to risk, just as things are supposed to be settling down for the summer, whipping our congregations into an uproar?  Is it possible, through a story we think we know so well, to help our people feel thoroughly disoriented?  Isn’t Pentecost the ideal day to trust God enough to invite the Spirit to come with power and might, understanding that it might mean changing everything we think we know about the Kingdom of God?

I’d like to have a job to come back to on August 30th.  I’m just not sure how much risk I’m willing to take?  What about you?  What kind of sermon will you preach?  Will it be safe or will your people find themselves blown away?

Where do you belong?

Before Paul made it famous in Philippians 3:20, Jesus had already made it clear to his disciples that though they might be Jews living in a Roman occupied land on the eastern edge of the known world, they were neither citizens of Rome nor Israel.  Followers of Jesus do not belong to this world, but rather they belong to the Kingdom of God.

This is a timely lesson as a blog post by Tony Jones makes the rounds on Facebook.  In “There’s No Traffic Jam on the Canterbury Trail” Tony suggests that the recent conversion by famous Evangelical author turned Episcopalian, Rachel Held Evans is a chance for the [former] Mainline to reevaluate is citizenship.  In post-WWII America, the burgeoning Mainline was the American Establishment at Prayer.  It was so deeply tied into American politics and the capitalist machine that kept it all running that it lost the Gospel message as its members took up citizenship not in the Kingdom of God, but in the Kiwanis Club, the Country Club, and ultimately, the comfort of a Middle-Class lifestyle.

The downfall of the Mainline can be traced to the relative comfort of its members, and the same will ultimately be true of evangelicalism.  In order to claim membership in the comfortable things of this world, we must first renounce our citizenship of the Kingdom of God.  That’s Jesus’ main message to his disciples in the high priestly prayer: things are about to get really uncomfortable, but that’s OK because that’s what it means to live counter-culturally.

To be clear, I’m not saying that we all have to give up our houses, cars, and jobs and move to inner city Birmingham to preach the Gospel to under-served populations, but I am saying that following Jesus doesn’t assume a big house, a nice car, and cushy job.  For a disciple of Jesus, the goal of life isn’t cushy material things and political power, the goal of life is the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God: a place where the Good News is shared with reckless abandon, where the poor and the outcast are tended to, where the comfortable give sacrificially, and where the only language spoken is love.

I’m not there yet.  On my best days, I strive to help bring the Kingdom of God into my circle of influence.  Most days I end up worrying about the rat race.  Every moment offers the choice: where do I want to belong?

More than Words

On last night’s Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy was joined by Jack Black in a shot for shot remake of the classic jam, “More than Words” by Extreme.  Take four minutes to watch it, it’ll make your day.

Did you watch it?  Did you pay attention the lyrics?  I hope so, because they work perfectly with the main theme in Sunday’s lessons: love is a verb.  Both the reading from First John and the Gospel lesson explicitly say that loving God means keeping Jesus’ commandments.  In case you forgot, Jesus summed up his entire teaching, all the law, and the prophets, in two commandments.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Love your neighbor as yourself.

The kind of love Jesus is talking about requires a lot more than words: it requires a lifetime worth of actions.  Or as the writers of “More than Words” put it:

More than words is all I ever needed you to show
Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me
Cause I’d already know

Showing the love of God for the world is at least as important, if not even more so, than telling the world about it.  Following Jesus means loving our neighbors until they ask why, and it means loving them enough to have an answer ready when they do.  Following Jesus means reaching out in compassion, caring for the needy, and respecting the dignity of every human being.  Following Jesus means abiding in a love that is deeper than mere words: the very love of God.

Gentile Pentecost

In preparing for last week’s sermon, I ran across a WorkingPreacher commentary from 2009 written by the late, Richard Jensen, the Carlson Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.  One of the things I loved about Jensen’s piece was how he described the ongoing unveiling of the Spirit as various Pentecosts through the book of Acts.  There was the Jerusalem Pentecost in Acts 2, which we will celebrate in a few short weeks.  There was the Samaritan Pentecost unveiled by Philip in Acts 8.  And there was the Gentile Pentecost which we will hear read this coming Sunday from Acts 10.  It is a good commentary, and I commend it to you as a framework for preparing for a possible Easter 6B sermon on Acts.

I find it helpful to frame the experience of Peter and the Gentiles as a Pentecost story because of how caught off guard everyone is.  Think about it.  In Acts 2, the disciples are still huddled together 10 days after the Ascension.  After three years walking with Jesus, forty days learning from the resurrected Christ, and ten days after receiving their final commissioning, the Disciples still aren’t quite sure how to be Apostles.  They are waiting for a sign from the heavens when, all of a sudden, there is wind and fire and a cacophony of voices as the Spirit arrives in power and might, and Peter finds himself standing before a crowd of thousands, sharing the Good News.

Fast forward to chapter 10.  The fledgling Christian community has seen the Spirit at work in all sorts of unexpected ways.  Three thousand were baptized that first day.  Stephen spoke words that were not his own before the Council; as did Peter and John.  The ground shook as they prayed for boldness, and Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for their lack of faith, while Saul was converted on the road to Damascus.  Even the Samaritans had received the Holy Spirit!  Pentecostal experiences were happening everywhere the Apostles went, and now it was the Gentiles turn.

“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”  The Holy Spirit does not discriminate.  She’s ready and willing to fill the heart of all who put their trust in Jesus Christ.  The Gentile Pentecost of Acts 10 can be, and is, replayed over and over again as the Good News is shared and people believe.  The floodgates of the Kingdom have been forever opened, thanks be to God, so that we Gentiles can, by the power of the Holy Spirit, know Christ and make him known.

Life, Soul, Self

There I was, sitting at my home office desk, minding my own business, reading my sermon notes for this week, when about halfway through Scott Hoezee’s post at the Center for Excellence in Preaching, I learned something brand new.  It hit me right between the eyes.  It was one of those things that changes the way you read scripture: one of those moments when you realize just how less than ideal English translations really are.

“But then comes one of the most famous things Jesus ever said [that he never actually said].  Starting in verse 35 Jesus talks about the human soul, conveyed four times in three verses through the Greek word [psuche].”

The NRSV translates this word as life throughout verses 35-37, but the underlying meaning in Greek seems mean something closer to soul or self.

“Jesus is concerned about our souls, about that mysterious but undeniable spiritual center to who we are as marvelously complex creatures made in the image of God.  If Jesus is who we Christians say he is… then we ought to take seriously what Jesus has to say about our souls.  After all, we believe Jesus is the One who created those souls in the first place.  Who would know better than Jesus how they work?”

Whether you choose to translate this word as life or soul or self (my preferred translation) the deeper meaning in Jesus’ words need to be highlighted.  He isn’t telling the crowd to martyr themselves beside him on the cross, though some of them will meet that fate, but rather to be aware of, as the well worn adage goes, “who they are and whose they are.”  Giving up life, soul, self, is about a change in identity that comes through repentance (to change one’s mind).  When we turn away from our own selfish desires and turn to God’s will for our selves, for our family, for our Church, for the world God created, we have, in effect, laid down our selves and picked up a new identity as a beloved disciple, a child of God.

Formless and Void

I’ve linked to Rob Bell’s fabulously amazing video called “Everything is Spiritual” on this blog before, and I’m glad to do it again today, but things feel different now.  Bell is no longer the pastor of a congregation, having left Mars Hill Bible Church in 2012.  He is now living in California, doing spiritual weekend retreats, a Robcast, and hanging out with Oprah more than I’m comfortable with.  Like other pastors turned famous authors, Bell seems to have succumb to the pressure of his publishers to stay relevant and sales worthy, though I’ll readily admit he still has a strong voice and is certainly making a difference in the world.  I begrudge him partly because I’m jealous and partly because I can’t imagine being a priest outside of the context of a regular, ongoing community, but both of those are about me, not about Rob Bell.

Anyway, long preamble aside, this post isn’t about Rob Bell’s life choices, it is about the book of Genesis, which Bell opens up in a really neat way as his one hour and seventeen minute presentation/lecture/sermon begins in the video below.*

“The earth was formless and void… some translate it ‘wild and waste.'”

That’s where we find ourselves as the lessons open up on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, in a world that is formless and void; wild and waste.  The Spirit is hovering over the waters of chaos, and God is just about to act, simply by saying a word, the Word, but it hasn’t happened quite yet.  There is a tendency to rush to “let their be light.”  We want God to get to work fixing things so that they make sense to our human comprehension, but there is something quite beautiful about the Spirit of God hovering over the chaos.  I think, in times like these, in any times really, it would behoove us to pause, even if only for a moment and think about what it means that God was present, not just before it all, but in it all, especially in the mess and muck and wild and waste.  Think about what it means that God is present even in the chaos.

Just yesterday, an NAACP office was bombed in Colorado; a dozen people were killed in an orchestrated attack on a French satire newspaper; thousands of people were diagnosed with cancer; hundreds of women died in childbirth; and a child died of the totally preventable malaria every 30 seconds.  Some might say that the world is once again wild and waste, and they probably wouldn’t be wrong.  There is a tendency to rush toward the light, to ignore all the bad stuff and look only for God to speak a word, the Word, and make it all right, but there is something to be said, for all of us who live in the midst of chaos and void, for taking time to realize that God is present, even in the darkness.  Perhaps especially in the darkness.

In this Season of Epiphany, as we seek God in the light, I hope we’ll take just a moment to realize that many people live in deep darkness every day.  There is a (somewhat arrogant) tendency to insist that those people join us in the light, but as Christians, we have the opportunity to meet them in that darkness, knowing that God is there.  We aren’t called to stay there, mind you, for the Lord will speak a word, the Word, soon enough, and light will come and it will be good.  It might take a while for the spark to ignite.  In the meantime, we can join with the Spirit as one who is present, hovering over the chaos, offering a word of peace, of comfort, and most especially, of hope.


* You should totally take the time to watch it all. It is a beautiful example of Bell’s gifted storytelling and imaginative theology at work.