Our Strange Family: A Pentecost Sermon

“What does all of this mean?” That is the question folks gathered in Jerusalem were asking two centuries ago. Jews from all over had come to gather for the Feast of Weeks and found themselves a part of something rather unexpected. In May, Kevin at Anchor Community Church (Fort Wayne, IN) was kind enough to let me preach on the story of Pentecost in Acts 2. The whole sermon reflects on the question, “What does all of this mean?”

The answer to that question exceeds our grasp, in the same way the gusty wind that filled the disciples exceeded their grasp. Yet we have part of the answer. It means the Holy Spirit is on the loose — and is busy at work among us even still.

Sermon Text:

Did you know that Christians were once thought to be cannibals? In the second century, Roman citizens who passed by the small houses in which early Christians worshipped would overhear Christians saying, “This is the body of Christ broken for you, take and eat; this is the blood of Christ, poured out for you, take and drink.” I imagine those Roman citizens probably put a spring in their step after they heard those words, not wanting to be the next body broken for Christian consumption. Those Roman citizens did not know that in Christ through the Spirit the bread and wine draw us into Christ and Christ into us.

Did you know that Christians were once thought to be practicers of incest? Roman citizens who passed by Christians in the public square would hear husbands call their wives sister and wives call their husbands brother and suppose that Christians married their blood relatives. Those Roman citizens did not know that in Christ through the Spirit wives and husbands become sisters and brothers.

We Christians are strange folks, in case you didn’t know. We believe strange things — like God is three yet God is one — and we do, or at least we’re supposed to do, strange things — like love our enemies and turn the other cheek. It is no surprise, then, to find out that the story of the church’s birth is as strange as any story you’ve ever heard.

The story begins normally. “When the day of Pentecost had come,” Luke tells us in Acts chapter two, “all of the disciples were together in one place.” These Jewish men and women were gathered together, doing as Jesus had told them to do in Acts chapter one. They were waiting for God the Father to fulfill a promise. Just ten days earlier, Jesus promised the disciples they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit. And a few years earlier, as Luke wrote in his Gospel, John the Baptist told his disciples that Jesus would baptize with “the Spirit and with fire.”

So now, this group of disciples are waiting. During Sermon Sequel last week, Kevin asked what the disciples must have thought after seeing Jesus ascend into heaven. One among us shouted, “Where are you going!?” And now, ten days later, the disciples are still waiting—waiting—wondering where their Lord has gone. Perhaps they prayed, as Jesus taught them, “God, let your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” Let our Lord return to us.

And though they had their doubts, their fears, their disagreements, and in spite of their frustrations, their questions, and their worries, these disciples gathered together, in one room, and waited. Not each one on her own. Not one by himself alone. But all together, waiting.

If you’ve read the Bible, then you might be aware that God likes to make a grand entrance. And so, as we continue in the story of Pentecost, we should not be surprised at what comes next. “And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.”

Suddenly, ἄφνω, abruptly, unexpectedly, without notice, God unleashes the fulfillment of God’s promise into the room where the disciples were gathered. The Bible says the room was filled with “a sound like the rush of a mighty wind.” It is interesting to notice the word Luke uses to describe the wind. He calls it a “rushing” wind. That word, “rush,” in the Greek refers to the kind of gusty winds that fill the sails of a ship, moving it toward its destination. But the Jews gathered in the room on that day would have known what a mighty wind can accomplish. They would have remembered in Genesis 1, that a wind from God swept across the waters of God’s creation. They would have remembered that after the great flood, God used a mighty wind to push back the floodwaters and make earth habitable again. Those Jews gathered in that windswept room would have remembered with great comfort that God used a “strong east wind” to create a passageway through the Red Sea, so that they could be liberated from an oppressive Pharaoh. And the disciples gathered in that room would have remembered that God called upon the four winds of the earth when he raised to life the Valley of Dry Bones with Ezekiel as his witness. The wind in each of those stories — Creation, the Flood, the Exodus, the Valley — led to God doing something new.

At the same time, those Jews who are our ancestors would have recalled the many Proverbs that tell us how impossible it is to lay hold to the wind. We cannot control it. We can feel it, we can see its effect upon water or snow or trees, but we cannot hold it in our own hands. We can harness it for power but we cannot keep it from moving. When so suddenly a sound like the rush of a mighty wind entered the room, those gathered in the room must have known something out of their control was happening.

This would have been confirmed by the next wild thing that happened on Pentecost. “Tongues like fire,” Luke tells us, appeared over each one of the disciples’ heads. Imagine. What a strange thing to see! I am reminded of a conversation I had with Bryan Ranney recently. Bryan was telling me about a vision that he saw. He described the vision as “loud and clear.” Now that’s an interesting thing to say. When I think of seeing a vision, I do not usually think of noise. Yet for the disciples gathered on Pentecost, the vision was both sound — like a rushing wind — and sight — like tongues aflame. They heard the wind and they saw the tongues. The vision described in this story of Pentecost is loud and clear. God did not only engage the minds or the hearts of the people gathered, God engaged their bodily senses, their earthiness. This baptism of Spirit and fire did not simply change minds or give comfort. Luke tells us that “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” They were overcome by the presence of the Lord. They’ve been converted and prepared for whatever this new thing is that God is up to.

What happens next is perhaps the strangest thing of all. Having been filled with the Spirit, the flames encouraged by the rushing wind, these disciples go into the streets and speak. They speak in other languages as if they were their own. Luke says that they “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Pastor Kevin preached for several weeks about the last words of Jesus on the cross. And last week he preached about Christ’s final words before ascending into heaven. And now, today, we hear about the first words of the Holy Spirit.

But Luke doesn’t tell us what words the Holy Spirit spoke. We are only told about the response of those who heard the disciples. “And at this sound the multitude came together,” Luke tells us, “and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?…What does this mean?” Whatever the disciples said drew people together and bewildered them. This is a miracle. People from all over the known world were being drawn together, united, because of this strange thing that was happening.

“What does all of this mean?” Well, the answer that was given by some wise guys in the crowd was that all of these disciples were drunk on wine. Peter answers, saying “These folks aren’t drunk, it’s only ten o’clock in the morning.” Yet we know drunkenness doesn’t miraculously allow you to speak another language as if it were your own. If it did, I’m sure that Budweiser would put that on a Super Bowl commercial. So what is going on here? What does all of this mean?

It means that the Spirit is loose in the world. Only a little while earlier, sometime in the morning, the disciples were gathered, yet unsure of what God was doing. Then suddenly, suddenly, like a great squall of wind, the Spirit swarms into their room and fills it and then sets blazing tongues upon their heads and they promptly sends them out to speak. And, miraculously, the Spirit draws all different kinds of people together to hear the good news proclaimed. The Holy Spirit is loose and busy at work fulfilling promises and uniting Christ’s witnesses for their mission. We will see throughout the rest of Acts that the Holy Spirit is the gusty wind in the sails that drives the church to the ends of the earth, from Jerusalem all the way to Rome and to us today.

But church, Anchor, do not think that the Holy Spirit has gone away. Think about your own history. Have you heard the story of the United Brethren church? Two hundred and fifty years ago, actually two hundred and fifty years ago from this coming Wednesday, in a barn in Pennsylvania, a man named Martin Boehm was preaching. Martin was an uneducated Mennonite. Another man, named William Otterbein, was also at the barn, listening eagerly to the sermon. Otterbein was a Reformed minister with extensive education. For a little background, the Mennonite and the Reformed traditions have very little in common theologically speaking. On about all of the hot button issues of the 1800s, they disagreed. Yet, after Boehm’s sermon, Otterbein stood up and grabbed his hand, and shouted, “Wir sind bruder!” We are brothers!

Boehm and Otterbein, for the next many years, did not try to create a new denomination, another faction. Instead, they encouraged others across denominational lines to seek unity within and across their churches. Boehm is even remembered to have said “I ask you not to leave your church. I only ask you to forsake your sins.” I imagine that Boehm might have though division was one of the worst sins. What a simple, but radical, notion. We do not always have to leave behind our differences to remain brothers and sisters because the Holy Spirit is on the loose, uniting us, converting us, into the body of Christ.

And for us, gathered in this room in Fort Wayne in the Indiana springtime, we need no further evidence. We know the miracle of Pentecost continues today. We are a church filled with weird people, a group of folks the world would never think to bring together. We have people of all kinds in this place. Different races, different jobs, different interests and hobbies, different needs, different hopes. Yet we continue to gather together, like the people in Acts who heard their language spoken when they did not expect to hear it. Though we as individuals are not always speaking the same language, we still gather and are still amazed. And we continue to ask “What does all of this mean?” Nevertheless, carrying in the long tradition of Christ, we call one another brothers and sisters. Brüder und Schwestern, in the words of Boehm and Otterbein.

*****

There has always been outside pressure to divide us. I told you that Christians were once thought to be cannibals and thought to be practicers of incest. This sometimes got them in trouble. In the first and second century, Roman officials, governors and emperors, were trying to establish how to put down the Christian movement. A man named Pliny wrote to the Roman Emperor Trajan in the early second century. This is what he said:

Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced, or accused, to me as Christians, I have followed the following procedure: I interrogated them as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.

Pliny and Trajan hoped, by violence, to break apart the body of Christ in the first and second century. There are still people who want to see the church divided today, because division compromises mission.

Yet we do not need to worry about outside pressure. We come from a long tradition throughout which God has sustained his people even through violence of cruel Pharaohs and crooked Emperors and dangerous Kings. What we need to trouble over is our own divisiveness, our own tendency to divide ourselves among party lines or opinions or class or race or whatever it may be. Brothers and sisters, we are not like the world in this regard. Paul tells us, in Galatians 3:28, that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” We are all members of one body, drawn together by the Holy Spirit, and it is essential for us to live as if this is true.

This call to unity is not the same as politicians calling for “bipartisanship”; nor is it the same as universities or businesses calling for “tolerance.” Those words simply overlook differences that will inevitably lead to division. Our call to unity is a call to conversion. A call to repentance. A call to live according to our baptism into the Body of Christ, a baptism that knits us together into an inseparable whole. This is a call to share all things in common. This is a call to work alongside the Holy Spirit who is at work among us and within us.

In light of the incredible amount of division in Christianity today — in light of the more than 30,000 Christian denominations — we must confess that Christianity still exists because of the miracle of Pentecost, because of the loving care of God who is the Holy Spirit. Yet, in light of the incredible amount of divisions in Christianity today, we must also acknowledge that we have work to do. And even within our own congregation there is work to do.

The good news is this: the Holy Spirit has been working with divisive people for quite a long time. Paul’s letters, which he started writing about ten years after Jesus’s resurrection and ascension, tell of a great deal of division within the church. People in Corinth were divided over their favorite preachers; people in Galatia were divided over whether or not the Jewish Law should be observed; people in Thessalonica were divided over whether or not Jesus had already returned. Even the United Brethren, whose name makes us fundamentally concerned with unity, had an enormous split during the late 1800s. But Jesus knew what he was getting into when he decided to build the church out of divisive people. And so he sent the Spirit to work among us and to draw us into unity.

We are compelled to ask, then, is there a way to bridge the gap between us? Between those of us here at Anchor Community? Between Anchor and other churches in the area? Have we been given a way to nurture unity and reject division? We have. We have at least been given the example of the the early church who by the Spirit and through their practices shared a common life. At the end of Acts 2 we read: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” These are the practices that will draw us together, for they allow us to see ourselves as a family, as a people who share the experience of baptism. When we devote ourselves to the apostles’ teachings, we remember that we are students of the same gospel. When we devote ourselves to fellowship, we realize that we are in the same community. When we break bread together, we recognize that the Lord feeds all of us and that we are all in need. When we pray together, we remember that we are loved by and give our love to the same God. Each of these practices reminds us that, through baptism, we have been born into a new family: a family whose home is in Christ.

Through devoting ourselves to these practice, we discover who we are. Are we primarily individuals whose highest good is our ability to decide for ourselves? Or are we the body of Christ whose life depends on the wellbeing of all of its parts? Are we mainly persons who are independent and concerned with our own progress? Or are we a people with a calling that goes far beyond ourselves?

We really do belong to a strange family. A family whose wives and husbands can be called sisters and brothers; a family who believes that its Lord meets them in the humble meal of bread and juice. The people in this early chapter of Acts went all in for their family. As Luke tells us, “all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.” Let us strive to be that kind of family, a body of Christ undivided, but may we never forget that unity is a miracle, a gift from the Holy Spirit, who comes like a gusty wind and lights upon us like a tongue ablaze and sends us to be witnesses.

Weekender: May 27, 2017

Weekender: 05/27/2017

Welcome to the weekend! Each week, we like to offer a few quick highlights from our week that we think will give you something worthwhile to think about over the weekend. Enjoy this week’s Weekender and add to it in the comments below!

Quote Worth Repeating: “Preaching’s value is often in the subtle but powerful ways it forms us into people who have empathy for others, who assume responsibility for the needs of strangers, who feel that we are under judgment from a higher criterion than our own consciences, and who believe that, with the Holy Spirit set loose among us, we can be born again.” From Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism by Will Willimon (Abingdon Press, 2017: review forthcoming).

Blog Post to Read: “Fear” by Marilynne Robinson is a thought-provoking essay on what motivates us and what should motivate us. “Fear,” Robinson writes, “is not a Christian habit of mind.”

Interesting Insight: Christianity Today reports on a study by LifeWay Research that seeks “to discover [American’s] feelings about fear, shame, guilt, and other issues.” The results are interesting and, potentially, insightful for practitioners within the Church.

After seeing the results, you might want to read Kent’s posts on shame. You can find them here and here.

Questions to Ponder: At the church where I’m interning, I’m helping with a small group about the Bible and Christian theology. A member asked an important question: Why does it matter what we call God? The question was in response to me, perhaps arrogantly, correcting what I saw as a flaw in the curriculum a week earlier. Under “Great Doctrines of the Bible,” the author lists “God,” “Jesus,” and “Holy Spirit.” I suggested that a more helpful naming would be: “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.” “Each of them,” I explained, “are God, and all together they are God. One is not God and the others something else.” This must have jostled his thoughts throughout the week, so I pose the question, and some follow ups, to you now:

  • Why does it matter what we call God? Or, I think, why does it matter that we call God the Trinity?
  • How would you respond to that question pastorally? How do you encourage congregants to see the significance (i.e. not telling them, “You’ll never understand so don’t worry too much about it.”) without frustrating them?
  • Are there helpful resources you’ve found to assist congregants and students with a fairly basic theological vocabulary to better understand the Trinity?

Recent Posts on Theology Forum:

  1. We Are Here to Love by Kent Eilers
  2. Dear Publishers by Kent Eilers
  3. Ascension Thursday: Salvador Dali and Karl Barth by Zen Hess
  4. Baptism, Preaching, and Politics by Zen Hess

“We are here to love” (Von Balthasar)

I stumbled onto these remarks by Von Balthasar while reading Edward Oakes this evening. Ponder this:

The calling to love is an absolute one, admitting of no exception, and so ineluctable that failure to observe it is tantamount to total corruption. Let there

be no doubt. We are here to love—to love God and love our neighbor. Whoever will unravel the meaning of existence must accept this fundamental principle from whose center light is shed on all the dark recesses of our loves. For this love to which we are called is no a circumscribed or limited love, not a love defined, as it were, by the measure of our human weaknesses. It does not allow us to submit just one part of our lives to its demands and leave the rest free for other pursuits; it does not allow us to dedicate just one period of our lives to it and the rest, if we will, to our own interests. The command to love is universal and unequivocal. It makes no allowances. It encompasses and makes demands upon everything in our nature: “with thy whole heart, with all they soul, and with all thy mind.” (Christian State of Mind, p. 27. Quoted in E. Oakes, A Theology of Grace in Six Controversies [Eerdmans, 2016], p. 45).

Oakes brings Balthasar into his treatment of grace to emphasis that grace is about love, but not in the romantic sense. And I must say, this just seems incredibly important to me at the moment. Continue reading

Dear Publishers

Dear publishers,

Please print more pocket-sized theology.

20170522_065301Sure, I see the argument: why print pock-sized books when I could carry thousands on my smart phone (Kindles seem so passé now, don’t they?). But I hate reading on my phone! The experience couldn’t be more sterile. Yes I’m probably the exception, I know this dear publishers, but I have no interest in digital reading unless I’m sitting next to a pool and my kids’ raucous splashing may dampen the pages. My hands want a finely bound little book of theology to slip in and out of my pocket, or from the corner of my briefcase. Little cracks of time populate my days and a few lines from Augustine could inspire, or a finely tuned quip from Jenson may set my mind reflecting.

Before this letter goes into the bin, consider how Penguin bound Augustine’s classic in a stylish, beautiful cover, or the many Fathers of the Church made accessible by St. Vladimir’s press, like St. Gregory’s theological poetry, On God and Man, or Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule. My little copy of Pastoral Rule never crowded the coffee mugs at the small Starbucks table where I discussed Gregory’s sage advice with a young pastor, burned out on church-marketing and sexy church-growth strategies. And I can’t help mentioning Wiley’s gift of Pallasmaa’s classic essay The Eyes of the Skin in small format (even though its not theology). Thank you.

Please, print more theology that fits in my pocket, where an app or text or email alert won’t compete on the same screen for my attention in those little cracks in my day where I find myself in some in-between moment. Give me some little book that will lead me to pray, to remind me of God’s goodness through the voice of my brothers and sisters in faith, and to point my eyes back to Scripture’s witness of the victorious Christ.

Happy Ascension Day,

Kent

Weekender: May 20, 2017

Weekender: 05/20/2017

Welcome to the weekend! Each week, we like to offer a few quick highlights from our week that we think will give you something worthwhile to think about over the weekend. Enjoy this week’s Weekender and add to it in the comments below!

Quote Worth Repeating: “Frequently biblical scholars will claim a doctrine has no scriptural basis because they do not understand what is truly at stake in the doctrine itself.” From Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament by Gary Anderson.

Blog Post to Read: “Be Not Afraid” by Amy Laura Hall is an essay about fear and hope — among other things.

Old School Trending: One specific topic is garnering fresh attention from some renowned theologians. Fleming Rutledge, N. T. Wright, and Greg Boyd have all published books in the past couple of years about the crucifixion. Here is a collection of resources related to these publications:

  1. Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion was published (November 2015) by Eerdmans. Here is an interview with her regarding the book. You might also enjoy listening to her discuss preaching Christ crucified today.
  2. The Day the Revolution Began (Harper Collins) is N. T. Wright’s effort to “challenge commonly held beliefs” about Christ’s crucifixion. Here is an interview with Wright about his book.
  3. Fortress Press published Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God (two volumes) in April 2017. Boyd is responding to reviews of his book over on his blog ReKnew.

Wright and Boyd joined Dennis Edwards in a MissioAlliance webinar to discuss the crucifixion (it costs $3 to download the video). Perhaps we will be fortunate enough to see all three of these faithful theologians together for a discussion in the future.

Questions to Ponder: After preaching last week, I have continued to consider ways to introduce the movements of the liturgy into non-liturgical worshipping communities. I have some ideas, but I would be interested to hear some of your thoughts:

  • How have you creatively maintained liturgical movements in a church whose worship is more (for lack of a better term) contemporary?
  • How have you educated congregants about the liturgy so that they know what it is they’re doing?

Ascension Thursday: Salvador Dali and Karl Barth

As an intern at Anchor Community Church (United Brethren), I have the opportunity to plan an Ascension Thursday service. This is something new for this community and, quite honestly, for me. Several things make this a tricky service to plan. Some of them are practical: the church never gathers on Thursday evenings. Others are theological: many of the congregants aren’t sure why the ascension matters. I have a few ideas to draw folks to the service and a few others to help them leave praising God for presiding as the Church’s heavenly priest.

One way that I hope to do this is to encourage the church to see the bizarreness of the ascension. This, I hope, will not leave them confused, but help them to experience the wild reality that Christ’s ascension, similar to the incarnation, unites creatureliness within the divine mystery. To do this, we will reflect together on Salvador Dali’s The Ascension of Christ (see below).

dali_1_3 Continue reading

Weekender: May 13, 2017

Weekender: 05/13/2017

Welcome to the weekend! Each week, we like to offer a few quick highlights from our week that we think will give you something worthwhile to think about over the weekend. Enjoy this week’s Weekender and add to it in the comments below!

Quote Worth Repeating: “As long as even a poor theologian is capable of astonishment, s/he is not lost to the fulfillment of her/his task. S/he remains serviceable as long as the possibility is left open that astonishment may seize her/him like an armed man.” From Evangelical Theology: An Outline by Karl Barth.

Blog Post to Read: Robert Jenson’s “How the World Lost Its Story” is over two decades old. Yet, in the past year, I’ve read it numerous times. Its relevance for today is striking.

Watch this: In this video, Yale professor Willie Jennings reflects on a theology of Joy. “I look at joy,” Jennings says, “as an act of resistance against despair and its forces. And joy in that regard is a work that become a state that can become a way of life.”

Questions to Ponder: Following the conversation between Jennings and Volf in the video:

  • What do you think joy is? Is it resistance to despair? Is it a gift? Is joy a virtue?
  • How do you cultivate joy? As a community? As an individual? As a pastor? A theologian?
  • How do we resist the commercialization of joy?
  • How is your joy shaped by your space, and the elements that make your space unique? And how does joy act as a unifier across spatial, and perhaps other, divisions?