Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Pondering the Power of Pentecost

God has poured out his Holy Spirit.  

I have been pondering the significane of that statement for about the last hour and a half and I am finding it difficult to write.  This is not because there is nothing to say but because there is too much to say.  It is difficult to overstate the significance of the story of Pentecost that Luke narrates in Acts 2:1-21.

Pentecost is a reversal of the Tower of Babel.  Genesis 11 tells the story of some of the earliest human beings trying build a tower that would reach to heaven, apparently a monument to humanity's own greatness.  God prevents this idolatry by causing all the people to speak in different languages so that they could not communicate with one another.  In contrast, at Pentecost the Holy Spirit enables the apostles to speak so that those present can all understand them in their own language.  God's action at Babel divides so as to prevent idolatry.  God's action at Pentecost unites those who hear to the glory of God.

Pentecost is the beginning of the harvest.  Before it was a Christian festival, Pentecost was a Jewish festival also known as the Feast of Weeks.  This feast was celebrated seven weeks from the time "you begin to put the sickle to the standing grain" (Deut 16).  Luke's mentioning of this festival at the beginning of Acts 2 may be a pragmatic explanation as to why there were Jews from so many other parts of the world present in Jerusalem on that day since they would have gathered for the feast.  However, it is also likely that their presence in the story is an indication that through the pouring out of the Spirit, the great harvest has began.  

Pentecost is what was spoken of by the prophet Joel.  Peter, empowered by the freshly outpoured Spirit, stands up and begins a speech by quoting Joel 2:28-32 and saying that what the crowd is observing is what Joel spoke about.  This appears an odd statement at first since part of what Peter quotes is to say that there will be "blood and fire and billows of smoke.  The Sun will be darkened and the moon turned into blood", none of which happens before or during Peter's speech.  However, when we look at Joel's words in their context, we realize that these words are a metaphorical way of saying that one day God will pour out his Spirit on all people and when he does it will be a world changing event.  It will be such a cataclysmic event that it will be like the sun being darkened or the moon being turned to blood in its world altering significance.  

Pentecost signifies a new age in which Jesus is the fulfillment of God's promises.  It should be obvious from the three Old Testament references above (Babel, Feast of Weeks, and Joel) that Pentecost is not something that can be understood apart from the story of Israel.  Pentecost is the ultimate fulfillment of God's promises to his people.  That is why Peter quotes the prophet Joel.  It is a way of saying "This is what we've been waiting for!"  The irony, of course, is that the promises were fulfilled in an unexpected way; through a crucified and resurrected Messiah who has now ascended into heaven rather than staying to rule over his kingdom.  We do ourselves a tremendous disservice when we limit salvation to "Jesus died for my sins."  Salvation is the fulfillment of Israel's hopes through Jesus and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon Jews first and then Gentiles alike.  

God's Holy Spirit abiding among us, making us to be the presence of Jesus in his absence, destroying the barriers that divide us, leading us to uncommon people in uncommon places, overturning the process of death itself, and causing us to point away from ourselves and toward Jesus, is the agent of God's promised renewal in our world.  

May God's Spirit renew us this Pentecost.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Beginning in the End

Luke says in the very first verse of the Acts of the Apostles that in his former account (presumably the Gospel of Luke) he wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach.  If you had never read the book of Acts before, this opening verse might lead you to believe that you were going to hear quite a bit more about all that Jesus continued to do and to teach in this second volume of Luke's work.  However, it is only nine verses later that Jesus ascends into heaven leaving the disciples behind on earth.  Jesus is often spoken of but rarely seen in the rest of this rather lengthy New Testament book.  One might easily wonder then how it is that Luke's former book was only about the beginning of Jesus' ministry if by the opening of this second book he has already exited the stage.  Does that not mean that Jesus' ministry is done?

The fact that Jesus' ministry is not yet finished even though he has ascended into heaven seems to be one of the primary theological points of the ascension and the book of Acts as a whole.  In other words, although the person of Jesus himself is mostly absent from the story of Acts, what Luke does go on to narrate is the actions and teachings of the early church empowered by the same Spirit which empowered Jesus.  That is to say that the Acts of the Apostles is indeed a continuation of the story about what Jesus did and taught; it is the narration of Jesus' work in the world through his Spirit-filled Church.  The Spirit empowered Church is the presence of Jesus in the world after his ascension into heaven.  

What a tremendoues and sobering responsibility we have been given.  After beginning his kingdom ministry here on earth, Jesus has left it up to us to carry it on.  That is why we must not be a Church that is constantly gazing heavenward..  Its not hard to imagine how abandoned and vulnerable the disciples must have felt as they watched their Lord and savior disappear from their presence.  But immediately, two heavenly messengers arrive to redirect the disciples gaze and to assure them that Jesus will return (Acts 1:11).  In the meantime, the Church's mission is not simply to gaze into heaven wondering when we will be joined with our savior once again.  The Church's mission is to wait on the Holy Spirit so that we might be empowered to continue the ministry of Jesus in our world.  

Monday, May 11, 2009

Destroying the Slashes

"Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?" It might be difficult for us to imagine how much of a change in Peter's worldview this single statement represents. A devout Jew, like Peter, was committed to maintaining certain standards of purity and that meant not eating certain foods and not eating with unclean Gentiles. Peter has spent his whole life believing that one of the most fundamental distinctions in life was the line drawn between Jew and Gentile. Peter's words here represent the culmination of a story that erases that distinction.

This particular story in the books of Acts begins with the start of chapter 10. "Cornelius, a centurion... a devout man and who feared God with all this household and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually" sees a vision in which he is instructed to dispatch some men to find Peter.

As Cornelius' servants are on their way to find Peter, Luke tells us that Peter is experiencing a vision himself. In this vision, a large sheet is lowered from heaven and in it are all kinds of animals that were considered unclean in Jewish law. A voice commands Peter to "Get up, Peter, kill and eat!" But like a good Jew, Peter refuses, noting that he has never eaten anything impure or unclean. The voice responds "What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy." This happens two more times until the sheet returns to heaven. While Peter is still reflecting on what this vision might mean, Cornelius' servants arrive and explain why they have come. They stay with Peter for the night and all set out to Cornelius' the next day.

Somewhere along the way, Peter must have realized that the unclean animals in his vision were a metaphor for the Gentiles that Peter had regarded as unclean but God had now worked to cleanse. Upon arriving at Cornelius' house, Peter says "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean." This conversation is quickly followed by another speech from Peter in which he shares the gospel story of Jesus.

Astonishingly, Peter is still speaking when the Holy Spirit descends upon Cornelius and all of his family and friends who have gathered to listen to Peter. This is astonishing because these uncircumcised, unclean Gentiles have not done anything to make themselves clean. They have not gone through any of the necessary rituals to be included as a part of God's covenant people. In fact, they have not even responded to Peter's message about Jesus with any kind of faith pronouncement. God acts decisively before any human characters in the story even have a chance to do anything, pouring out his Holy Spirit on these Gentiles just as he had on Peter and the other apostles in Acts 2. Peter immediately recognizes this as an act of God and calls for Cornelius and his household to be baptized as a recognition of what God has already done.

What are some of the fundamental distinctions that we make in the way we see the world? Although the Jew/Gentile distinction of first century Judaism may seem odd to us, we still do a pretty good job of splitting our world into comfortable polar opposites; conservative/liberal, gay/straight, successful/irresponsible, even Christian/non-Christian and if we think that you are on the wrong side of the "slash" then we are likely to do our best not to associate with you. But this passage in Acts shows us that God is in the business of destroying the slashes that divide our world and he calls upon his Church to be a slash destroying people. And we don't destroy those slashes that divide us by making people jump through certain hoops to become more like us and to make them look more like what a Christian is "supposed" to look like. Instead, like Peter, we must recognize where God is already at work and allow our entire view of the world and God's work in it to be adjusted accordingly.

Monday, May 4, 2009

What Is Success?

What does it mean to be successful? It's an important question in any endeavor because how we answer that question will largely determine how we spend our time, energy, and resources. If we are truly committed to success, however we define it, then we will trim out any hindrances that keep us from it and do whatever is necessary to achieve it. The athlete eliminates distractions that might keep him or her from the championship game and trains tirelessly toward the same goal. The business does whatever is necessary to turn a profit. But what about the Church? What does it mean for us to be successful?

In Acts 8:4-8, we find a summary report of Philip's ministry in Samaria. Luke tells us that Philip has the attention of large crowds, that he performs miraculous signs, that unclean spirits are cast out, that the paralyzed and lame are healed, and that there was much rejoicing in the city. Surely, if this described the ministry of our church we would consider it a success.

But later in the same chapter (v.26-40), Luke tells us that Philip was led by an angel of the Lord to leave Samaria. In fact, he commands Philip to go out into the wilderness without any explanation as to the reason why he is to go there. Nevertheless, Philip is obedient and along the way he meets an Ethiopian eunuch. Luke indicates that this Ethiopian was an important man in his own right. He was an important official in the queen's court who was in charge of her treasury. However, with regard to salvation and God's people, he was an outsider. His status as a gentile and as a eunuch would have been barriers to his inclusion in the people of Israel. Furthermore, as an Ethiopian, he is not only a religious outsider but also an outsider in a social and even geographical sense in so far as many ancient writers regarded Ethiopa as being at the end of the known world of the time. In other words, this is about as uncommon of a meeting in as uncommon of a place as Luke could possibly narrate.

In spite of all that, Luke makes it very clear that the Holy Spirit has led Philip to someone who is already urgently seeking God. We are told that he is on his way back home after worshipping in Jerusalem; a daring and costly trip which demonstrates this man's devotion. Furthermore, when Philip comes up to his chariot, he finds the man already reading Isaiah the prophet and he is eager to have someone interpret the meaning of this scripture for him. Upon hearing Philip's explanation, the Ethiopian eunuch is immediately ready to be baptized into the gospel faith Philip proclaims. It is difficult to imagine a quicker or more effortless making of a disciple. This man was ready for someone to proclaim Jesus to him.

What if Philip had remained in Samaria? It would have been reasonable for him to see how successful his ministry was there and to never want to leave; especially not to wander off into the desert where he was sure to encounter fewer potential converts. But Philip wasn't caught up in the success of his ministry. He knew that true success as a disciple wasn't defined by how many people he converted or how many he healed. The success of the disciple and the Church is measured by our level of faithfulness and obedience to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Unfortunately, the Church today too often finds itself unwilling to leave Samaria. We find something that "works", by which we usually mean it will fill our pews for a time, and we stick with it until the next trend comes along, imagining that in doing so we have found success. But as the Church, we are called to make certain that we never put our success ahead of the One who gives it. We are called to see that the Spirit is leading us to meet uncommon people in uncommon places.