The glory and end of the church

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Saturday

John 14:8-17, 25-27

26 The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

The rehearsal this morning and all the food in the kitchen fills me with anticipation for tomorrow (there’s a barbecue after worship). Sometimes I wish the culture had some connection to Pentecost like it does to Christmas and Easter. I would love there to be a big crowd tomorrow with the energy that comes from a crowd and a holiday. But, at the same time, I am glad that this holy day hasn’t been coopted by the culture. It still belongs to the church.

So the sanctuary is ablaze in red and candles. The bells will lead a festive procession. We will hear people reading in a host of different languages. We will be invited to come for a laying on of hands and a prayer for the Spirit to heal and renew. And this is the Sunday the bread and wine are brought down and blessed in our midst with an adaption of the ancient anaphora of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church attributed to John, the son of Zebedee.

It is a unique worship service in the year, the third of the three great festivals of Christian faith: Christmas, Easter, Pentecost; the mystery of the incarnation, the wonder of the resurrection, the miracle of the Spirit given.

The festivals are linked, of course. The birth of Jesus would be little remembered but for the cross and empty tomb. The Spirit poured out on Pentecost is the Spirit present in Jesus. And the gift of the Spirit to all nations is connected to the dawning of the new creation in the resurrection.

The world is being reborn. The Spirit of God is given. Death is losing its hold. The scattered are gathered. The broken made whole. The dead raised. The corrupt judged. The hungry fed. The peacemakers inheriting the world. The world may war around us, but the day is begun when swords are beaten into plowshares. And we are inspirited to live that new creation.

It is common for people to say that Pentecost is the birthday of the church. But it is more accurate to say that Pentecost bears witness to the end of the church, to the day when every heart is filled with the Spirit and preachers and teachers are no longer needed.

No longer shall they teach one another,
or say to each other, “Know the Lord,”
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord.

 

Picture: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A2004_orford_03.JPG  By Ziko-C (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Free to do the right thing

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Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath

Thursday

1 Kings 17:8-16

10When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.”

It seems like such a simple little request. But it is during a three-year drought. Water itself is scarce. Who knows whether Zarephath still had easy access to fresh water? Dry sticks, on the other hand, are sure to be available.

The prophet is in foreign territory. The widow refers to the LORD as “your god.” Her god – or, at least, the god of her people – is the god Ba’al. The worship of Ba’al is the source of all this trouble. He is the Canaanite storm god. The bringing of the winter rains. The source of water for the community and for the fields. The source of prosperity and abundance. Israel has adopted the worship of Ba’al. They have become part of the modern world. Tyre and Sidon are great cosmopolitan cities. They are the home not just of foreign trade and the rich abundance of this world’s goods; they are the home of art and culture. It is from Tyre that Solomon hires workmen to build him a temple – though Solomon at lead dedicated his temple to the LORD.

The king of Israel has married the daughter of the King of Sidon. She has come and brought modern sensibility to this backward nation in the hill country. They have built a temple to Ba’al and she has brought with her 450 prophets of Ba’al (and 400 prophets of the goddess Asherah).

She has also tried to stamp out the backward religion of this God of the desert who commands justice for all.

Few girls are named Jezebel today.

Jezebel is the one who schooled king Ahab in the use of ruthless power, taking Naboth’s vineyard – land God gave to Naboth’s family that now belongs to the king even as Naboth now lies in the grave.

So here is the prophet in the homeland of the queen. And he has asked for a drink. The widow shows hospitality to this stranger and goes to get him some water.

And then he asks for a bit of bread.

A bit is all she has. Her last handful of meal. Enough for one last small cake to enjoy with her son, and then nothing awaits her but death. It is why she is gathering sticks. Fuel for the fire to bake the one last small bit of bread.

The woman is faced with a challenge. Hospitality is the supreme value of the age. To feed the hungry is not only noble, but the one true thing. But this is her last bread. This her final meal.

She protests. She explains to this foreign prophet what she intends to do. “That’s fine,” he replies. “But first make some for me.”

First do the right thing.

And to this he adds an incredible promise: the jar of meal will not fail until the drought is over.

She is a hero of the faith. She dares to trust the promise of a foreign prophet and his strange desert God. She dares to do the right thing though it costs her everything. And she is sustained. She and her son and the prophet live from that small bit of never failing daily bread.  The gods of prosperity have failed her; the LORD, the God of justice and mercy has not.

It is a story like the manna in the wilderness: enough for today, trusting God for tomorrow.  It may seem like a hard way to live. But it is actually quite liberating. Let God worry about tomorrow. Let us be free to do the right thing today.

Image: Bartholomeus Breenbergh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“As for all the rest…”

Friday

Philippians 4

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Smiles of Innocence, By Pranav Yaddanapudi from Hyderabad, India

8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Finally.” This is not the last in a list of things Paul wanted to write about. It is the way he sums up everything else about which he has not written. You cannot address everything in one letter. You cannot speak to every concern in one sermon. So, as for all the rest: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

There are ten commandments, but they do not exhaust all that God would say to humanity about the way we should treat one another. There are four Gospels in which Jesus speaks about many things, but he has not and cannot address everything. He hasn’t spoken about the kind of music our young people should listen to. He hasn’t spoken about investment portfolios (at least not directly) or the jobs we take or the homes we build. Indeed, there is quite a lot of “the rest.” So, “as for the rest, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

It means we have to use some discretion, some judgment, some wisdom. Does listening to the snarky political commentators bleating loudly on radio and TV ennoble me? What about the distorted sexuality on television sitcoms? Or the semi-nudity of cable dramas? It’s not that there is a simple, black and white answer – as if seeing a breast or hearing a curse word makes it wrong – it’s a more complicated question whether the show elevates or degrades me, whether it elevates or degrades us.

Some Christians got Harry Potter all wrong, reacting to the concept of wizards rather than recognizing the stories portray young heroes struggling between good and evil, power and loyalty. Harry is a Christ figure in the end, giving up his life for the sake of the world, dying to destroy the evil Valdemort.

Maybe our reaction to Halloween is like this too. Costumes and pretend are deeply rooted in us human beings – the scripture itself is story that engages the imagination. This isn’t about the scripture’s historicity or reliability – this is about the nature of story. Stories are told to draw us in, and so to teach, to change, to expand our understanding of God, ourselves and the world. Imagination is fundamental to our humanity (compassion requires imagining what another feels). So we are – and should be – able to discern the difference between those costumes and stories that are fun and playful, and those that distort the image of God in which we were made.

None of this is simple. Some portrayals of evil are voyeuristic; others reveal truth and lead us away from harm. Some portrayals of tragedy are salacious and others deepen compassion. Some portrayals of goodness are simplistic and naive; others inspire and encourage.

And it’s personal. Different things affect each of us differently. Watching sports can be simple fun but, for some, it can be obsessive. At the end of the day, at the end of the activity, am I a better human being? More whole? More complete?

Christians needn’t be prudes, nor need we obsess on the morality of everything, but it is important to question the culture in which we live. We should be at home in our bodies, in the goodness of our createdness, but not necessarily at home in the values of the society around us.

Drinking, eating, dancing, sex, work, politics, exercise – all the many dimensions of life – for some there are pretty clear words of scripture, as for all the rest we have this guiding word: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”