Reflection for May 1, 2016

Acts 16:9-15; Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5; John 14:23-29

I was tempted this week to focus only on the story in Acts. There are so many things here. The decision to move the mission from Asia Minor across the sea to Macedonia, northern Greece, opens a new chapter in the history of the church. The church goes into heavily Gentile territory. The vision is what makes it happen. We all need a vision when we open a new chapter of life.
And did you notice that the author of Acts needs to explain where Philippi is? That means that the reader may not know this city. Why? Because it is too small. Philippi is a departure from the overall blueprint used by first Christians to expand the church. The plan was to get something going in all the major cities of the Roman Empire. It was an urban strategy. And by the close of the first century there was a Christian group in every major Roman city. Quite an accomplishment.
But Philippi was not large. It was a small town. Actually from what we can tell it was sort of a sleepy retirement community. You had to tell people where it was. And the description puts a positive spin on Philippi’s importance: even though it is not large, it’s important. We all need major blueprints for how things should go, but once in awhile we need to do something out of the box. Just like Paul.
And then there is the missional organization. It’s not Paul alone who goes. No, there is a “we” in this mission organization. This mission to Roman cities was actually financed out of Antioch and involved teams of people moving back and forth. We all need to remember the importance of the “we,” as we go through life and get things going.
And there is the founding presence of women. Men did not found this church in Philippi. It was a women’s group, led by a strong entrepreneur, Lydia. In the empire, men were in charge of the public things. Women ran Roman households. And so Lydia’s entire household followed her lead. Actually her household, like many in the empire, was a small factory. She dealt in purple cloth. Perhaps most of the first and founding Christians were women. Some churches were founded in Jewish synagogues. They would feature men in leadership positions. Others were founded in households. They featured women in charge. Others were founded in cemeteries as memorial societies by which Roman’s honored the dead. The funerary societies founded in the name of Jesus remembered the last days of his life each year in the spring with a special feast. Roman funerary societies were women’s organizations and men were not part of these groups.
Here we have a church founded in a household, run by women, led by Lydia. We all need to remember that the Christian church was led by all sorts of people, and took different shapes in not only the urban centers but also the small towns. We all need to remember the women in our lives who founded the faith in our hearts.
And on a day when we are lifting up mental health, the importance of finding one’s vision, of the support of the group, of the need to wander off the plan now and then, and of the roles of founding women are all important in finding our way in healthy life and relationships.

But I did want to say something about the gospel reading today. It is from John, a remembrance of the words of Jesus. This readings comes from Asia Minor, probably near Ephesus, and is written later than the story from Acts, probably much later. Jesus’ remembered words remind us of the Trinity, but his Trinity sounds and feels different from the doctrine of the Trinity.
That’s because the doctrine of the Trinity comes much later than the New Testament. But here we can sense how the Trinity was beginning to be assembled. Jesus is somehow united with what is called the Father and what is called the Paraclete, or Holy Spirit.
Now it may be the case that this threefold construction is the oldest religious political compromise in our Christian history. Early Christian churches involved not only both genders in leadership, but also bridged the broad cultural gap between Jew and Gentile. Jews would embrace the concept of God, Father, and Creator, the source of all being. Gentiles, in their religious perspective, were really focused on the spirit and expressions of the spirit. Here John embraces both traditions as Father and Spirit come together in the life of Jesus. This may be an old negotiated common ground between opposite points of view. This Trinity may stand as a tribute to the capacity of early Christians to forge common ground.
But also, there is some ancient philosophy going on. There are not three gods here. But in John’s mind, with the divine enterprise, whatever that is, there is an origin, a foundation, a grounding, a source. That is God as Father here. But with the same divine enterprise there is also an embodiment, an engagement, an incarnation, a reality. That is Jesus. But with the same divine enterprise, whatever that is, there is also sustenance, a sustaining force, an intangible will to continue. An origin, an embodiment, and sustenance describe together the nature of God’s intention.
Now I know this is abstract. John is abstract. But think about a great love story. A love story between two people that is deep and long and filled with turns and growing affection through struggle, until there is some sense of a happily ever after. That love story will involve a powerful origin, a full and rich embodiment of the affection, and a sustaining spirit as the plot unfolds.
Think about the Trinity as God’s love story. A love story for humanity that is deep and long and filled with turns and growing affection through struggle, until there is some sense of a happily ever after. God’s love story involves a powerful creation or origin, embodiment of the divine affection in the life of Jesus, and a sustaining spirit as the plot continues. Father. Jesus. Paraclete in John.
There is an origin, an embodiment, a sustaining spirit. In John. In Macadonia. In our congregation. In your heart, on your way to that happiness you intend. The origin, embodiment, and spirit of love is with us: whatever needs to be negotiated, regardless of changes in plans, no matter who is in charge, as the “we” continues to open new possibilities.

Reflection for April 24, 2016

Acts 11:1-18, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

Of course the gospel reading is the most important thing. Jesus talks about the importance of love. Love is the new commandment. We are called to love one another, to be people of love, and to strive for the justice and peace grounded in the love of God. Let us begin today by remembering to practice love in our homes and families, in our congregation, in our public life, as we care for this planet, our home, and its creatures. Love is the mark of the Christian. By this we are called to be known. They will know we are Christians by the quality, scope, and consistency of our love. Do not leave this room until you have made an inner commitment to demonstrate love this week in some concrete way.
If the third reading is ground zero for the morality of the people of God, the second reading is ground zero for human destiny. Our destiny, our future, and the future of all creation brings us finally and fully into the presence of God. Eventually, we will be beyond all the groaning of the creatures, all those concerns that are in our hearts: beyond all suffering, struggle, pain, want, war, fear, sorrow, longing, frustration, anxiety, grief, and loss. Our destiny is with God. The Lord of the universe, bringing all creation back into the arms of God, will wipe away the tears. That is the outcome.
But it is in the first reading that we may find the practical wisdom we need for those times in life when we are going through substantial change, when we are moving from one view to another, from one place to another, to a new vision or possible way of looking at things.
Embedded in these verses from Acts 11 on the First Council of Jerusalem on the Gentile Problem is the insight that we personally and publically need to accomplish a few great transitions in our lives. What are those transitions? For us, they may involve changes in our health, the loss of one we love, ending high school or starting college, getting married, retiring, becoming parents for the first time, making the decision to quit an addiction, reframing our faith to be a more loving Christian, or something that changes at work. And then there are social transitions that humans experience. We are going through one of those transitions in this specially called meeting of the congregation this afternoon. But we also sense that we are going through many transitions in the public area as we consider economics, the state of the planet, our educational and correctional systems. We actually go through many transitions. And the wisdom needed to navigate these shifts in perspective is embedded in these verses.
The transition facing the First Council of Jerusalem is deciding whether non-Jews or Gentiles could be Christian. This is a big deal. The future of the church is at stake. Should Christianity remain in the womb of Judaism or can Gentiles become followers of Jesus. In some ways this is the major issue facing the churches of the New Testament.
Eventually the council decides that the Spirit of God belongs to Gentiles as well as Jews. God is for all. And the Spirit calls for a mission to the Gentiles which eventually and permanently shapes the people of God for the centuries to come. Christianity becomes its own religion. In these verses it decides to leave the womb. That is the transition taking place.
What we have here is the witness of Peter at the council meeting. This is his speech when he has the floor of the assembly. In this speech, we see what goes into making a transition happen and work well. And whenever we are facing a major change, these verses help us through that process.
How does the transition happen in Acts? First there is a dream, a vision. Peter’s vision is of animals on a canopy or trampoline all coming down from heaven, all mixed together, clean and unclean. The traditional division of creatures and people into clean and unclean, holy and profane, is challenged by this vision. All are clean, all are included, all are welcome in God’s kingdom which lies beyond human distinction. That is Peter’s dream. And God instructs him now to eat food forbidden by the Jewish dietary restrictions based on the old way of thinking about divisions.
All transitions begin with a vision. Remember the I Have a Dream speech of Martin Luther King. The transition into greater acceptance begins with a vision.
Within this dream or vision is always a central image. For the image of King’s speech the central image was a mountain to climb. Here the central image is all creatures of God belong together.
And as we live into the dream, there is a thickening of the description. Peter’s call to change his diet happens not once, not twice, but three times. The call to change and renew gradually thickens, as we hear more and more of the need to move along. The description of the vision of the heart deepens and thickens.
As the vision is owned by others, there is a growing group of witnesses whose testimony becomes important. Witnesses come from all sides and perspectives. Peter in his speech refers to the people who have come with him to present the case: the six, if will, who with Peter make a sacred seven who testify to the importance of accepting the Gentiles into the fellowship.
As visions mature and grow, as the central vision moves us along, as the understanding deepens and thickens, as witnesses testify, eventually a threshold is crossed. In Joppa the threshold is literal. Peter actually enters the house of a Gentile, a tanner no less, to share food. This is something unheard of. The threshold event is the turning point in the transition.
And as the transition matures even further, a memory is refined. Old memories used in new ways give fresh insights for our own times. Peter remembers the sense of how baptism involves the Holy Spirit, and now this Holy Spirit is coming not only to Jews but to Gentiles. He re-members that we are called together by the same Spirit in which we were baptizing all along. Previous ideas, concepts and memories are refined, as we are united by one God, for whom all creatures are good, who loves us all and who calls us to love one another. In Acts 11 the size of that “one another” has grown by leaps and bounds. And a church for all is born at this First Council of Jerusalem by means of this great speech of Peter.
You and all of us together may be facing a transition in our lives. Remember the importance of having a vision, a central image, the thickening of the description, the testimony of others, the importance of crossing the threshold and refining memories as we are quickened, deepened, and united by the Spirit of Love by which Jesus wants us to be known.

Reflection for April 10, 2016

Acts 9:1-6, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19

Why do we read what we read from the Bible? Why is it that we have readings today from Acts, Revelation, and John? Well, for the most part, we try to follow the Common Lectionary or reading schedule recommended by the ELCA and many denominations. These are the assigned readings for the second Sunday of the Easter season.
In the season of Easter, for centuries, the church has read a passage from Acts of the Apostles. The second readings coming from Revelation often speak of the vision of the redemption of all creation that comes through the resurrection. And the third reading continues the post-Easter appearances of Jesus recorded in the closing chapters of John. So these are traditional readings for Easter.
Each reading in its own way speaks to how God opens the door to hope in our own lives. Each reading speaks of a different way in which God enters our souls and renews us for life, hope, and courage.
The reading from Acts is the story of the conversion of Saul. Saul is a vicious persecutor of Christians. And then God seems to almost hit him over the head with a vision. He discovers that he is completely wrong and that the people he has been rejecting are actually the future of the faith. His name is changed from Saul to Paul, and he becomes the great missionary to the Gentiles in the name of Jesus, eventually writing a third of the New Testament in letters to new Christian congregations he has helped to found.
Encountering the God of hope. Sometimes God enters our lives by hitting over the head with a new insight or vision. We realize that we have not been right, even though we were certain in our opinion. Gosh, what was I ever thinking? We change course, we turn around. We find ourselves thinking, acting, and responding in new ways in our families, relationships, financial affairs, political persuasions, loyalties, and even the foods we think are good for us. Sometimes, God just suddenly intervenes with a new idea, and we are no longer stuck in a rut, bogged down in the mud, but on the road again: the road of hope, and confidence, and graceful, renewing joy.
But sometimes God enters our lives and hearts in a completely different way. God touches our soul with beauty, and music, and poetry, and song, lifting our spirit with a new vision. Sometimes God does not hit us over the head. Sometimes God calls us to sing a song of hope to build the courage in our hearts. This is the divine encounter held in the second reading. The theme of Revelation is the completion of God’s movement of all things back into the everlasting arms of God. This movement back into the arms of God always involves struggle. But crucifixion is overcome by Easter. Death by life. Despair by hope. That is the Revelation of St. John. And to capture this mystic confidence, it is best really to sing. So the book of Revelation is filled with songs and poems with deep images that bring us into this stirring hope.
This is what we have this morning. The great hymn of praise from Revelation: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
We know this song. It is our This is the Feast. And instead of me talking about it, let’s sing it. (Here insert one of the settings.)
In our song, our singing together, we are united not only with those in this room, but all those who have gone before us. And all creation. And we are united with that destiny which brings us through whatever disaster currently preoccupies our hearts and minds.
Encountering the God of hope. Sometimes God hits us over the head. Sometimes we sing a song. Sometime God just walks with us along our way, appearing to be a part of our everyday life, yet deepening and repurposing us in our journey. This is how Jesus approaches the disciples in this post-Easter encounter from John, the third reading. There is no massive miracle here. There is no great celestial hymn. No, the disciples have gone home and back to fishing. Jesus on the shore offers fishing advice, has breakfast ready on the beach, greets them, and talks about the importance of forgiveness. And then Jesus shapes the morning’s fishing into the invitation to do a different kind of fishing. This entire mysterious encounter with Jesus is grounded in the everyday conversation of friends. And yet every aspect of this encounter moves the disciples into a different way to live their lives. They will listen for the voice to guide their efforts. They will break bread together. They will be a people of forgiveness. And they will feed others and fish on different shores. Sometimes we encounter God in the everyday details of our lives, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Sometimes we discern the deeper purpose of God in, with, an under the most mundane things.
Encountering the God of hope. Sometimes God hits us over the head. Sometimes we sing a song. And sometimes God transforms the details of our lives. How is God knocking on the door of your heart this morning? What is God calling you to do?