When Differences Bring Understanding

Pentecost 6-4-17 Acts 2:1-11, Ps: 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7,12-13, John 20:19-23

When Differences Bring Understanding

St. John’s description of the gift of the Holy Spirit is very different from St. Luke’s. Luke waits 50 days after Easter, until the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which celebrated God’s gift of the Law at Mt. Sinai.  John, on the other hand, tells of the gift of the Spirit occurring on the evening of Easter day.  How do we know that?  Well, verse 18 of John, Chapter 20, was Mary Magdalene coming directly to the apostles from the empty tomb, announcing that she had seen…and talked with… the Risen Christ.  Our reading today starts with verse 19, the very next verse: “On the evening of that first day of the week ( Easter)..”

John used this same expression, “that day”, when Jesus, at the Last Supper, promised the disciples, “The Father will give you another Advocate…the Spirit of Truth…On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in You.”  John’s community understood that Easter was “that day”.

Consequently, John’s community was highly centered on the Eucharist, which almost immediately became the custom of the disciples on the first day of the week.  And here in our Gospel, is the risen Jesus himself, on the first day of the week, with his disciples, just as he is with us in our Eucharist and in the Spirit.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is seeing his disciples for the first time since they abandoned him at his arrest in Gethsemane.  They have a lot to answer for.  They deserved to be fired, have their reputations blackened for life. What does Jesus say?  “Peace to you.”  Then he reveals himself by showing his hands and his side.  He literally opens himself up to them.  It seems to be in part self-identification. We might call his wounds his “credentials” to minister to all who suffer.  Next, he repeats “Peace to you.”  Upon hearing him and seeing him, then the disciples rejoiced and believed He was risen from the dead.

“Peace to you” is a Hebrew phrase which meant that something sacred was about to be revealed.   It is not just, “Hey Guys, relax.”  No.  It is a declaration of peace, a proclamation, an announcement. The risen Jesus brings them peace, gives them peace.  (You know: Peace I leave you, my peace I give you.)  Having prepared them to open themselves to the Spirit, he breathed on them.  This takes us right back to Genesis 2, where God breathed into Adam the breath of life.  It is as if the Spirit “re-creates” the disciples.

Early on, the breath of Holy people was presumed to have supernatural and healing powers. In fact, an early Patriarch of Alexandria filled a skin bag, like a balloon, with his breath, and sent it off to Ethiopia to ordain a Bishop.  Here in John, this breath, a sign of creation, is linked with the power to forgive sin, becoming a sign of restoration and fullness of life.

The differences between Luke’s and John’s Gospels can’t be reconciled. We have no chronological historical documents which focus on the exact time line. Besides, much of our scripture was written not with the intent of keeping a play-by-play, but with a much more important goal – that is- to explain the revelations of God to the generations to come.

These revelations are given in a way to help us understand, they help us make sense of what happened, in ways that are not bound by the swing of a clock pendulum, but by the movement of the Spirit in the heart and soul. Our job is to attend carefully and embrace the mystery.

Perhaps the best way for us to really enter into the revelation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is to talk about it in ways that we have experienced and with issues that we face. The Holy Spirit has been called “the love that God and Jesus have for each other”.  The Spirit brings closeness.  Think about the image found in Luke’s Pentecost of everyone in Jerusalem hearing the Good News in their own language.  We view that as being able to draw close and talk with someone we had never been able to communicate with before.  The barrier of language is removed, and we can share with a “foreigner” the truths we base our lives on.  We can listen intently to them, hearing them speak from their innermost self.  We are then drawn to love the very human-ness of each other, without stumbling over the clutter of culture or social customs.

What if this Spirit who is Love gave us the ability to listen to people we dislike, those people who drive us nuts, and the people we can’t talk to without getting into an argument. What if suddenly, with the Spirit, we could hear what they were saying, really saying, and suddenly realize that is so very much like what we, too, are really trying to say.  What if we wanted to share our time with them, what if our faith suddenly felt big enough to embrace someone else’s understanding?

This week, Trinity Episcopal Church in Pawtuxet, Rhode Island, offered the use of their chapel to a Jewish congregation who had lost their synagogue, saying, “Let’s loose the keys to the church to the community.”  Wouldn’t that be the sense of Pentecost?

In John’s Gospel, immediate after saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus brings up forgiveness. Without the Holy Spirit, the “power” to forgive sins – or not forgive – seems enticing.  But with the Holy Spirit, suddenly the thought comes – “When I offer forgiveness, the sin is gone, forgiven.  What if all the pain and hurt between me and that sibling I haven’t spoken to in years is gone?  What if my estranged friend and I could once again enjoy each other’s company?

What if then, we shed some of our defenses, let some perceived insult or meanness be forgotten, what if we felt the person who formerly had annoyed us was, in fact, really of great value. Wouldn’t that be the gift of the Holy Spirit?

Let me end by quoting Pope Francis. “Let us ask ourselves today: Are we open to ‘God’s Surprises’?  Or are we closed and fearful before the newness of the Holy Spirit?  Do we have the courage to strike out along the new paths which God’s newness set before us?”

 

Homily for the Feast of Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017

pent1Pentecost Sunday is a day as important as Easter and Christmas. What we celebrate is the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers and his new church. Our readings today tell us this is so, but at the same time we see different traditions and renderings of it. John places it on Easter night itself with Jesus appearance that first evening. Luke places it 50 days later. What we do know is that the early followers saw Jesus after his Resurrection and that in those times Jesus brought or sent his Holy Spirit to his Church and to the people of it. pent2Luke and John saw the Holy Spirit as a powerful force in the church and community and for its members. The enthusiasm of the disciples and the spread and growth of the community was something they clearly attributed to the Holy Spirit. Even today we see and experience the Holy Spirit in the church and in our parishes and communities. Christianity continues today not because men believe and work to keep it alive, but because the Holy Spirit keeps the Word alive. Humanity, unfortunately, has made a mess as we can see in the splits and divisions. Yet, in spite of that, Christ’s word continues to be present because his Spirit remains on the earth.

pent4The real lesson today of the Holy Spirit is to be open, to listen, to follow the promptings given out of sincere prayer. Like Christ, the Spirit moves and prompts us to move on to the way forward to His Father. As the world moves on, the Spirit prompts us to move with it. Over centuries of difficult learning the church and humanity has gradually learned the need to be open and to grow with the times and the unfolding of the wonders of creation as we get to know them better. Christ said the Spirit would teach them everything they would need to know, but first we must be open and listen and discern what the Spirit is helping us to understand. It is the Spirit who brings us to Jesus’ path to the Father. Like any path, it needs to be fresh and clear and ready for travel. Jesus led the way, and the Spirit keeps it prepared for us.

Riding the Roller Coaster

2nd Sunday Easter 4-23-17 Acts 2:42-47; Ps: 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-3

I have never been on a roller coaster. I am more than willing to die having never ridden on a roller coaster.   I have ridden some emotional roller coasters though, and the period of time from Palm Sunday thru Ascension would certainly be a fine way to illustrate one of those!  Just our readings today are good examples of the valleys and peaks of the emotional roller coaster the disciples experienced.

We read from the Book of Acts, of people devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles in the Jewish Temple, living in community, praying and practicing their Jewish faith together, seeing miracles and healings, everyone sharing their wealth and possessions, eating their meals with “exultation and sincerity of hearts, praising God.” New people were daily proclaiming their faith in the Risen Christ. This was a period of time when they had the approval of the people of Jerusalem.   Clearly this was a peak emotional time.

We get confused with the language, though. Was it a social commune or the beginning of communism?  Maybe they were a community that had Communion every day.  Maybe we unthinkingly forget that they lived in reality.  All the apostles had gathered in Jerusalem.  Many other followers, referred to as “the disciples,” had joined them.  They had brought their families with them for the Passover celebration.  They were fisherman, carpenters, potters & weavers from villages throughout Judea, but there were no Bargain/ Red Roof Inns in Jerusalem.  No Red Line to make the commute home easy.

Culturally, the Judean Jews lived in a much closer community than we do.  They were accustomed to open doors and open lives. So they were taken in, room was made for them in local homes. They were living together out of necessity.  What was happening to these believers was alternately too scary, too exciting, too amazing and too powerful to just… leave.  Their shared experience of Jesus’ death and resurrection made it easier to share their lives. Was it the end of time?  They were riding a roller coaster, waiting for the world to change.

We would like to think that time was perfect and maybe even something we could re-create, but Thomas and Peter both understood this was a bubble in time. We recognize bubbles in time.  Ask anyone who deals in “retro” or “antiques” or  even politics.

In the 1st letter of St. Peter we read,  “Blessed be God… who…gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection…an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading…Even though you do not see him now -yet believe in him, rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy…” That is certainly peak material, befitting the Peter we recognize.  But right in the middle of that he inserts a valley.  “…although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold…may prove to be for praise, glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Peter knew a lot about faith and failure, belief and betrayal, triumph and testing.  That’s how Peter learned to be The Rock.

Thomas was the holdout among the Twelve; he was a wise man and I have come to respect him. He was more than happy to be subjected to ridicule or rejection by the others.  He told them he didn’t believe everything people said; he wasn’t interested in the newest religious rumors or fads.  He needed proof, he needed to see and touch.  He was willing to risk being wrong, just as he was quick to believe when Jesus came to him.  He went from valley to peak in seconds! As I read some of the newest books out about Jesus and watch some of the more sensational “documentary re-creations” of the Crucifixion on Television these past weeks, I hear some strange mis-information – how Jesus had political motivations and so on, that directly contradict the Gospels.  We need more fact-checkers like Thomas.

Thomas reached possibly more people with the Good News than Paul did. Thomas traveled east, to the sub-continent of India, witnessing to his faith and establishing churches.  It wasn’t all good- he was martyred there, in 72 AD; he poured out his life for Jesus.  Records from the 16th century describe him as beloved by the Muslims, the Christians, and the Hindus.  In fact, at that time, a Muslim maintained his tomb.  If only we could live the faith like Thomas!  This Sunday is celebrated as the “Sunday of Thomas” by the Orthodox Catholics brothers and sisters.

Even our Psalm is a roller coaster reading, the lectionary just conveniently omits the valley part: “All the nations surrounded me on every side.  They surrounded me like bees; they blazed like fire among thorns.  I was hard pressed and falling, but the Lord came to me.”  It is a Psalm of Eucharist (thanksgiving) sung as the people processed to the temple, but it does not fail to acknowledge that life can be very hard; bee stings and thorns/ hard times and pain are part of life.  At the same time, we are reminded that God is with us always.

So today we remember that our heroes, those super-faithful followers of Jesus, were locked in a room out of fear. Thomas had serious doubts about the resurrection.  Even after a glorious Easter, our heroes were beaten and jailed and killed for their faith.  But the “inexpressible joy” is also a real part of our Faith.  We learn that goodness and love and faith are more complex than the emotion of success or fulfillment that accompanies them.  By bearing pain and sorrow, we find faith, too.  Our flaws and our wounds are refined and purified, like precious gold, in our resurrection faith.

 

Ending the Fear of Futility, Failure & Finality

Easter Sunday 4-16-17, Acts 10:34,37-43, Psalm 118, Colossians 3:1-4, John 20: 1-9

Ending the Fear of Futility, Failure and Finality

He is risen! He is risen indeed!  This is it -the highpoint- indeed the reason for the Christian faith.  After all, those who opposed Jesus’ message long ago saw the crucifixion and death of Jesus as a way to stop the growth of this strange renewal of the Jewish faith.  But his death was followed by resurrection, and everything changed.  It is a day of celebration, amazement, of remembering and claiming promises of life after death and a close, personal unity with God.

American Christians today struggle not against an oppressive Roman Empire, but against the promises and the amazement growing stale and feeling irrelevant; and this struggle occurs against a background of a chicks-and-bunnies-focused society – symbols of fertility borrowed, interestingly enough, from that same oppressive Roman Empire.

So, we must ask, “How do these readings apply to the world that awaits us as we leave here today? “How can our faith be faithfully and accurately interpreted into a hip-hop world?  It’s not always easy.  But for today, we can find 3 points of the Easter story that truly do make direct contact with our lives:  the fight against Futility, Failure, and Finality.

Futility is a widespread problem today. Research says close to 40% of Americans say they don’t think there is a God.  Instead people put their “faith” into clothes and cars and jobs and houses and social status – and substance abuse.  This approach to life is pretty futile.  According to the Center for Disease Control, the US suicide rate increased 24% during the last 15 years, with the rate of yearly increase doubling since 2006. Suicide is now the leading cause of death in teens and young adults. Heroin overdose deaths have increased 45% in 4 years.  It is called, “Death by Despair”- lives based in futility.

The Easter story is about a risen Jesus, who lives. But it is also about the personal decisions of people like Mary Magdalene and the disciples of Jesus who saw the truth of God, who witnessed healing and resurrection, who chose to believe, who learned their efforts were not futile, and who found value in their lives and their actions – beyond stuff & society.  They created a new cultural importance in the actions of individuals. This has opened a way of life that is filled with joy and certainty, even in the midst of hardship and suffering.  Life has become victorious over death.  We must live and share this truth!  Easter people show their joy, the goodness of life shines thru them. Even in difficult times, they can show love to the unlovable.

Then there is Failure. We, for the most part, live in a world where people don’t just fail, but they crash and burn, drowning in a sea of negativity on Facebook; they are crushed in the media.

Forgiveness and new beginnings are what the Easter story brings; Peter is not only reinstated as a disciple but in the Book of Acts he becomes a fearless and powerful preacher of the Word. The women at the tomb were broken and grieving; they had put their money, their reputation, and their lives into supporting Jesus, and thought it was all a failure.  Jesus and angels came to tell them otherwise. Jesus came to the scene of the disciples’ lackluster attempt to return to fishing and put the Spirit’s fire back into their hearts. Jesus picks them up, dusts them off and, by his presence, gives them new certainty and determination.

Easter people go way beyond the lukewarm, “Don’t worry about it,” and offer real forgiveness. They see pureness in the jumbled brokenness in people. The Easter church needs to be the place where failure can be embraced with forgiveness and love, where doubt and fear can accept truth, where our presence and support are available for those oppressed by failure.

Then there is finality. Jesus always left the door open for people.  He offered choices.  He did not reject people, but probed their motivations and offered alternatives.  Even after his resurrection and Ascension, he said he would return.  He did not leave us without the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort.  There is no end to God’s love.

Finality is one of the main reasons I am in ministry. To know that our lives are important to the One who created us – makes a difference.  Knowing that the transience of the material world is not to be feared, frees me to put my time and effort into people, not product.  I can find value in how life really is, without the glitter.  I find significance in the ritual of a holy, shared meal because time and finality do not exist in the realm of an Easter faith.  I don’t need my name engraved on a brass plaque, for my eternity will be found in union with God and in the love of God I share with God’s people.

The Easter church thinks in terms of eternity, so personality differences and petty disagreements shrink in importance. When we can keep in touch with Jesus’ humility, it becomes natural to treat others as more important than ourselves.  When we can operate out of that humility, our lives move people to want the faith we have and we get to share our joy with them.

In the weeks ahead, each of us will have opportunities to silence the fears of futility, failure and finality. May the Spirit of the Risen Christ lead you to bring hope, joy and love to all you meet.