Seeking Approval

Galatians 1:1-12

1 From Paul, an apostle who is not sent from human authority or commissioned through human agency, but sent through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead; 2 and from all the brothers and sisters with me.

To the churches in Galatia.

3 Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 He gave himself for our sins, so he could deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. 5 To God be the glory forever and always! Amen.

6 I’m amazed that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ to follow another gospel. 7 It’s not really another gospel, but certain people are confusing you and they want to change the gospel of Christ. 8 However, even if we ourselves or a heavenly angel should ever preach anything different from what we preached to you, they should be under a curse. 9 I’m repeating what we’ve said before: if anyone preaches something different from what you received, they should be under a curse!

10 Am I trying to win over human beings or God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I wouldn’t be Christ’s slave.11 Brothers and sisters, I want you to know that the gospel I preached isn’t human in origin. 12 I didn’t receive it or learn it from a human. It came through a revelation from Jesus Christ.  (CEB)

Seeking Approval

I think every parent has had that moment when, upon seeing their child act in a way contrary to what they have been taught, they just kind of explode. Ah, who am I kidding. Most parents have had that moment multiple times. For me, every time I step bare-footed on a LEGO, I come close to losing my cool. Especially when said LEGO is on an upstairs floor, and all LEGOs are required by law to remain in the basement.

When children do things contrary to what they have been taught, parents can get upset over those situations. We end up saying things like, You know better! You know LEGOs do not belong upstairs!

Or better yet, when manners are at stake, we parents can lose our calm and proper demeanor. When a child once again sits with her knees above the level of her face, and moves her fork full of food in a mountainous arc from plate to mouth, traversing toes, shins, knees, lap, and stomach before finally arriving at the destination of her mouth, the parental frustration and distress such displays cause often lead to hair-pulling and outright explosions. Sit up! Use your manners! We taught you better than that! You know how to sit at a table and eat! You weren’t raised in a barn! For Pete’s sake! How many times do we have to go over this? We taught you how to eat!

Of course, we parents aren’t correcting our children just to be mean, whatever the children might think. We want our children to act in ways that are right, good, proper, and decent. Especially because how they act inevitably reflects back on us.

That’s what Paul wants for the churches in Galatia. They’re acting under the influence of others and have started behaving in ways that are not right. He’s exasperated that those to whom he originally preached the gospel have listened to the advice of some other people who came along and told them something else.

Now, our text doesn’t tell us what the something else is, but later on in Galatians we find out it was some Jewish Christians who followed behind Paul and told the Gentile Christians things like this: Really, you Gentiles have to become Jews before God will accept you. What Paul taught was only part of the gospel. Yes, Jesus is the Messiah promised by God. But you Gentiles have to be circumcised, take on Jewish traditions, and be Jews. Then, and only then, can you really be Christians. Because Christianity isn’t its own thing. Christianity is nothing more than a particular way of being Jewish. Therefore, you need to be like us.

You see, these Judaizers painted Paul as a sort of second-class apostle. They undermined his authority. Paul wasn’t a companion of Jesus. Therefore, Paul didn’t receive his apostolic authority from Jesus, so of course he didn’t really know what he was talking about. The Judaizers wanted to correct what they saw as Paul’s major mistake. To them, he had misrepresented what it meant to be a partisan of Christ.

And, to an extent, I can understand how the Judaizers felt. Paul’s missionary work had been wildly successful. More so than anyone could have imagined. And Gentiles soon dominated the early Christian Church. But the Jewish Christians could not imagine how any authentic Christian community could properly and appropriately function without Jewish practices in place. Christianity, to them, was a Jewish thing. Period.

Paul absolutely goes nuts over this. Not really because his apostleship has been called into question (well, partly. It was Paul, afterall), but because he believes the message of the gospel, the Good News about what God has done for the human race in Jesus Christ, is itself being undermined. Paul’s understanding of the gospel was based on grace, not genealogy or adherence to a specific set of religious practices. The point was not human observance of the Jewish Law, but God’s loving action toward all of humanity in and through Jesus Christ, his Son.

Now, a little clarification is in order because of the way Paul’s words here have been misused and misunderstood by Christians throughout the years. Paul is not saying that Jewish practices are wrong. Paul is not saying that Jewish adherence to the Law is a bad thing that they must give up in order to follow Christ. Paul would likely disagree with that as vehemently as he disagreed with the idea that Gentiles needed to be converted into practicing Jews. Paul never argued that the Jewish Law was wrong, or that practicing the works of the Law was a way Jews believed they could earn salvation. If we’re honest with our own history, we have to admit that was a false and malicious statement applied to Jewish practice by later Christians. Paul did not make that argument. In fact, Paul praised the Law.

If you were a Jew, you could follow every dot and tittle of Jewish practice and it would be perfectly compatible with belief in Jesus Christ. What Paul didn’t agree with was the idea that any specific set of human practices was essential to life as a Christian. Now, in saying that, I want to be clear that Paul is not advocating that Christian life is a free-for-all. There are certain practices that ARE essential to life as a Christian, such as honoring God in worship, loving our neighbors, and giving generously. For Paul, living out a life of love was absolutely non-negotiable.

We must love God, and show it in our lives.

We must love our neighbors, and show it in our lives.

We must have faith, and show it in our lives.

But adhering to the Jewish Law was not the one and only way living a life of love could be accomplished.

But that’s what the Judaizers were telling the Gentiles among the Galatian churches. In their case, the issue happened to be whether or not Gentiles had to become Jews. In Corinth, a similar problem revolved around whether or not people were real Christians if they couldn’t prophesy and speak in tongues. Some Christian communities today believe that if you cannot speak in tongues—as they define speaking in tongues—then you are not really a Christian. Paul would say, they’re full of it. He forcefully argues against any kind of pious practice, religious observance, or spiritual gift that makes anything other than the graciousness of God’s love the definitive characteristic of the gospel. Ultimately, the gospel is not about what we do, but what God has done. And that’s the essential difference!

As soon as we, or the Judaizers, or certain Corinthian teachers, or anyone else make the gospel about something other than God’s gracious love for the entire human race, we have cut God out of the equation. Paul argues that the only response to God’s loving and gracious action toward us that is required is love itself. How our love for God and others is practiced can—and will—vary from person to person and culture to culture. But we cannot put human practices in a glass box, hold it up, and say, “This is the gospel, and nothing else.” But that’s what the Judaizers were doing, and some of the Galatian Christians were swallowing it hook, line, and sinker.

Jesus Christ is a doorway through which anyone may come to God at any time. Paul was upset because those teachers who wanted to make Gentiles become Jews were trying to establish a doorway to God other than Christ alone. Christ is the one who sets us free from the present evil age. It is not the Law or anything else we have done or will do that frees us. It is God’s gracious work on our behalf. That is the good news.

Paul makes it quite clear that he is not seeking human approval, but God’s. If he were trying to make people happy, he wouldn’t be a servant of Jesus Christ. Paul may not have been a companion of Jesus before he died, rose, and ascended, but the gospel he received was from a direct revelation Jesus Christ. We can read that story in Acts, how Paul was traveling to Damascus to arrest Christians when he was blinded by light and heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him. Later, Ananias came and healed Paul of his blindness, and Paul began to preach the gospel message of salvation.

Paul says from the first words of his letter to the Galatians that he is an apostle who was sent neither by human commission or human authorities. He has come as an apostle precisely because Jesus Christ and God the Father sent him. His words remind me of the Prophet Amos, when Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, told Amos to get lost. He said, “You who see things, go, run away to the land of Judah, eat your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s holy place and his royal house.” (Amos 9:12-13, CEB). And Amos answers, “I am not a prophet, nor am I a prophet’s son; but I am a shepherd and a trimmer of sycamore trees. But the Lord took me from shepherding the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” (Amos 9:14-15, CEB). Amos prophesied in Israel, not because he chose to do it himself, but because God sent him to preach a message they needed to hear.

Amos and Amaziah represent two religious people, both sincere in their approach, who disagreed. It’s not always easy to figure out who’s correct, but sincerity is not the measure of correctness. As one of my seminary professors once said, “I’m not questioning your sincerity. I’m questioning your intelligence.” (Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon).

It can, at times of such disagreement, be sticky. Paul uses some harsh words in this text that our Bible translators tone down so as not to offend our tender religious sensibilities. But I’ll ramp it back up. Paul speaks a curse against the Judaizers and anyone else who might try to control access to God. “If anyone proclaims something contrary to what you received, let that person go to Hell.” (Galatians 1:9, My translation). Like Amos disagreed with Amaziah, Paul disagrees with the Judaizers. He doesn’t question their sincerity, rather he questions their intelligence.

Paul needed the Galatian Christians to hear and understand that it is God who always acts first. God acted on our behalf in order to set us free from the present evil age. That is God’s will: that we be free from the present evil age. The gospel—the good news—of Jesus Christ is that through the Son we have access to God in a way that no one has ever had before. The power of Christ sets us free from the things that keep us from loving God and neighbor in all the fullness of what that might mean. Loving as we have been loved: that is how we find approval from God. We are called to love as God first loved us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

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The Call of Wisdom

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

1 Doesn’t Wisdom cry out and Understanding shout? 2 Atop the heights along the path, at the crossroads she takes her stand. 3 By the gate before the city, at the entrances she shouts: 4 I cry out to you, people; my voice goes out to all of humanity.

22 The LORD created me at the beginning of his way, before his deeds long in the past. 23 I was formed in ancient times, at the beginning, before the earth was. 24 When there were no watery depths, I was brought forth, when there were no springs flowing with water. 25 Before the mountains were settled, before the hills, I was brought forth; 26 before God made the earth and the fields or the first of the dry land. 27 I was there when he established the heavens, when he marked out the horizon on the deep sea, 28 when he thickened the clouds above, when he secured the fountains of the deep, 29 when he set a limit for the sea, so the water couldn’t go beyond his command, when he marked out the earth’s foundations. 30 I was beside him as a master of crafts. I was having fun, smiling before him all the time, 31 frolicking with his inhabited earth and delighting in the human race. (CEB)

The Call of Wisdom

One of the most confusing sermons I have ever heard was on the subject of Wisdom. It was in 1999 at my Baccalaureate service at The University of Findlay. The preacher, who had been invited to preach because he was the father of one of the graduates, told us at the beginning, “I know that most baccalaureate sermons are boring and quickly forgotten, but I hope to change that today.”

Well, he did. Only, I don’t remember the sermon because of how wonderful it was but, rather, because of how confused I was when it was over!

The one phrase he kept saying over and over again throughout the sermon was, “Get wisdom.” I thought it was good advice. After all, wisdom helped Solomon out of a few pinches so it wouldn’t be a bad idea for me to get a little wisdom myself. But what confused and somewhat frustrated me about his sermon was that, while he kept saying, “Get wisdom,” he never once explained how to get it. You see, he spoke of Wisdom as though it is a readily available commodity that you just need to get a hold of.

Is Wisdom like that? Is it a commodity that you can buy? Can you go to Walmart or Target and pick up a carton of Wisdom? Can you find an old box of it in your Grandma’s attic? Solomon asked for wisdom after God promised him anything he wanted. So do you have to pray for it and hope that God decides to randomly bestow the gift of wisdom upon you? And if God does decide to give you some wisdom, how do you know you’ve got it? Does your I.Q. suddenly go from average to Einstein? Are you suddenly smarter than the average bear? Do you suddenly feel wise? How do you get wisdom? The preacher never explained that.

Part of me wonders if he didn’t explain how to get wisdom because he didn’t know himself. After all, if he knew about Wisdom he might not have talked about it as though it’s something a person can “get”; as if it’s a commodity or something that we can consume or obtain. Proverbs 8:1-4 says, “Doesn’t Wisdom cry out and Understanding shout? Atop the heights along the path, at the crossroads she takes her stand. By the gate before the city, at the entrances she shouts: I cry out to you, people; my voice goes out to all of humanity.” (CEB).

This tells me that Wisdom is already in the world all around us, and Wisdom speaks to us every hour of every day in the most prominent places of human life. Wisdom speaks to all people, but so does Folly. So the question becomes, not, How do we get wisdom?, but rather, Are we listening to the voice of wisdom or to the voice of folly? Both are speaking, but to which are we listening?

In the poem which is Proverbs 8, Wisdom is personified as a woman. Just in case we question the idea that Wisdom is already in the world speaking to all people, Lady Wisdom speaks to us of herself. She says, “The LORD created me at the beginning of his way, before his deeds long in the past. I was formed in ancient times, at the beginning, before the earth was.” (Proverbs 8:22-23, CEB). Wisdom was created by God before anything else had been made. God set Wisdom as the foundation for all of creation, and so the order of the universe is built upon Wisdom.

Creation is presented as a city, and Lady Wisdom lives within it with her children who represent human beings. Lady Wisdom is a mother who speaks to her children, giving them guidance in life as every good mother does. She is at the crossroads, on the heights, at the entrance of the city portholes, and most prominently at the city gates.

The gates of a city in the ancient world are where things happened. Every gate was a hotspot of activity. It was the place where people would congregate, and conduct the business of life: buying, selling, settling disputes, and arranging marriages. The gates are where you would find the judges and leading citizens of the city.

Even today, if you want to visit the Old City sections of Jerusalem, you have to enter through one of the city gates of the Medieval wall built in 1538 by the Ottoman Turks. The gates are crowded with people going in and out of the Old City, and there are shops lining the portholes where you can buy just about anything. Lady Wisdom is saying, I am everywhere! Listen to me! No one can claim not to have heard her voice because, as God’s agent, she speaks in and through all creation and its creatures, which give indirect testimony to her instruction.

One of my questions has always been, “What exactly is wisdom?” I’ve always thought of wisdom as something with mostly ethereal qualities. How do you pin down exactly what wisdom is? One of our many contemporary images of wisdom is an old sage sitting on top of a remote mountain. He knows the meaning of life and can share that meaning, that wisdom, with anyone who takes upon themselves the challenge of climbing up the mountain to meet him.

But according to this Scripture, wisdom really isn’t that difficult to find. Wisdom isn’t sitting patiently on some far-off mountain top waiting for us to arrive so she can impart to us a nugget of insight we might not even understand. Instead, Lady Wisdom is in our very midst, shouting at us every step of our every day.

If I had to name the qualities of Wisdom, I would say they include knowledge, reason, discernment, and love. Wisdom is the capacity to understand and then function accordingly, and you can’t do that without those four qualities. In fact, the parallel word for Wisdom in the Old Testament is Understanding. It designates practical competence, or know-how, by which things are accomplished.

In one sense in the Old Testament, wisdom includes craftsmanship. All the utensils for the Temple were made by craftsmen whom the Scriptures describe as being full of wisdom and understanding for the making of such things. In Greek philosophy, σοφία [wisdom] was sometimes associated with τέχνη [skill] (cf. Agathon’s speech in Symposium 196D-ff). So in a way, building a fort, swing set, and bunk beds for my children took some wisdom in order for me to accomplish those things. And, the fact that they didn’t fall down, suggests I used the wisdom somewhat properly.

But in the sense of Proverbs 8, wisdom is more closely associated with how a person lives their life. It has very much to do with the choices a person makes every day. And I think when you get right down to it, whether we are wise or foolish is revealed in the choices we make. The voice of Wisdom calls out for us to make one choice, the voice of Folly entices us to make the opposite choice.

Is there any area in any person’s life where Wisdom is not required? I don’t think there is such a thing as a human situation where wisdom is not needed. What are the areas of our lives where we could use some wisdom? How about our relationships and in our dealings with others? Maybe if I had listened to the voice of wisdom in some of my dealings with others I would have more friends and fewer acquaintances; meaning, some of those acquaintances might have become good friends had I listened to wisdom.

What about in our married life? Every married person, both women and men, ought to know that marriages require an awful lot of wisdom. I once heard a joke that went, A wise man once said, ‘The more you know about women, the more you know you don’t know.’ Of course, it goes the other way, too. A wise woman once said, ‘The more you know about men, the more you know how little they actually know.’ Marriages take wisdom on the part of the husband and the wife. That’s why marriages are so difficult: one fool can ruin the whole thing. But that’s also why marriages are so rewarding: two people who live together in wisdom find incredible joy, strength, and support in each other and all that God has given them.

What about our finances? These days we probably all wish a few more people had used some wisdom regarding their finances, because we’ve had to bail whole industries out with our tax dollars. But you know, the voice of Folly is very enticing. Almost every advertisement you’ll ever see or hear is full of the lies of Folly saying, You need to buy this. If you had this one thing, you could be happy.

Listen to what Proverbs says of Folly, which is described as the strange or mysterious woman, “The lips of a mysterious woman drip honey, and her tongue is smoother than oil, 4 but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword. 5 Her feet go down to death; her steps lead to the grave. 6 She doesn’t stay on the way of life. Her paths wander, but she doesn’t know it” (Proverbs 5:3-6, CEB); and, “She seduces him with all her talk. She entices him with her flattery. 22 He goes headlong after her, like an ox to the slaughter, like a deer leaping into a trap, 23 until an arrow pierces his liver, like a bird hurrying to the snare, not aware that it will cost him his life.” (Proverbs 7:21-23, CEB).

Wisdom says you cannot spend more money than you earn. But Folly says we can buy anything and everything we want because we only have to make that tiny little minimum payment on the credit card. Wisdom says that generosity is the cure for our financial problems. Folly says greed is the cure for our financial problems.

What about wisdom in our Christian faith? Are we doing the things we know we ought to do in order to grow in our faith and build upon our relationship with God? Do we listen to the voice of Lady Wisdom in regard to our development as disciples of Jesus Christ? It takes some time and effort on our part.

There is no part of human life that doesn’t require wisdom. Maybe that’s why Lady Wisdom says that she “delights in the human race,” because we need her so much that we can’t survive without her. It’s no wonder, then, that the ancient church used Proverbs 8 to point to Jesus Christ as both the Word and Wisdom of God. Wisdom is fully embodied in Jesus Christ. He made all the right choices.

The voice of Wisdom guides us to life in the Triune God. Wisdom, the first of God’s creations, is here with us now, pointing us to Jesus Christ, who was present with the Father and the Spirit before Wisdom was made. God set Wisdom in the world, and Wisdom is calling. We would do well to listen to Lady Wisdom’s voice. She orients our lives toward God and shows us the way to eternal life in God’s Son.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Cretans and Arabs…

Acts 2:1-21

1 When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. 4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

5 There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. 7 They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? 8 How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions. Your elders will dream dreams. 18 Even upon my servants, men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and a cloud of smoke. 20 The sun will be changed into darkness, and the moon will be changed into blood, before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes. 21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (CEB)

Cretans and Arabs…

Somehow Pentecost reminds me of the beginning of one of my favorite movies of all time: The Princess Bride. I’ve watched it so many times I can almost quote the whole movie, and it has so many great quotable lines it’s worth memorizing. But the reminder doesn’t come from the heavenly sound like a rushing wind, or descending fire, or the people speaking in languages they’ve never learned.

In the beginning of the movie, the Grandson is sick, so the Grandfather comes over to read him a special story that has been passed down from generation to generation in the family. The Grandson isn’t very impressed with the book. First of all, it’s a book, not a video game. Second, it’s old and shows a little wear. The Grandson asks, “Has it got any sports in it?”

The Grandfather passionately replies, “Are you kidding? Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Revenge. Giants. Monsters. Chases. Escapes. True love. Miracles.” The Grandson then leans back in his bed and says, “It doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try and stay awake.”

That’s why Pentecost reminds me of the movie. I think a lot of Christians are kind of like the Grandson. The story of Pentecost is dramatic, it’s full of action and the amazing activity of God and it’s the birthday of the Church, but I think a lot of American Christians put more stock in Federal holidays and Hallmark holidays than we do in Pentecost. Regarding any Christian holy day other than Christmas or Easter we’re often kind of halfhearted about it, “Well, it doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try and stay awake.”

Every Sunday demands our attention. Every Sunday is a little Easter. Every Sunday is a day we set aside to offer our worship to God. But Pentecost, especially, demands our attention! Are we awake to the moving of the Holy Spirit in and through the church? This day means new life for God’s people!

It’s no accident that the birth of the Church occurs on this important festival day. The Feast of Pentecost, or Weeks, as it is known in the Old Testament, marked the end of the celebration of the spring harvest, a Jewish liturgical cycle that began at Passover and during which devout Israelite families praised God for God’s grace and bounty. It was also the beginning of a period, lasting until the autumn festival of Booths, in which the first fruits of the field were sacrificed to the Lord.

Among some Jews, the Feast of Weeks was also a time of covenant renewal. The Hebrew word Shavuot could be translated weeks or oaths. The Book of Jubilees is a Jewish writing that dates from about 150 B.C., and it states, “Therefore, it is ordained and written in the heavenly tablets that they should observe the feast of Shavuot in this month, once per year, in order to renew the covenant in all (respects), year by year.”[i]

Pentecost, then, is a significant and expectant moment in the life of God’s people, and in the relationship between God and God’s people. It’s like that moment when gestation ceases and giving birth occurs. It is both an end and a new beginning, like graduating from high school or college. The end of the old thing is the beginning of something new.

Pentecost is not a time of completion, any more than baptism or accepting Jesus is a time of completion. You can’t say, “Well, I accepted Jesus and got baptized. Check that off the list, I’m good to go now.” Pentecost, like baptism and accepting Jesus Christ is a beginning; a time of moving forward into new dimensions of being. When we accept Jesus Christ, or when we’re baptized, we aren’t done. Those things are not the end-goal, but the very beginnings of Christian life. For the church, receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was not the end-goal, but the very beginning of the Church!

We follow the lectionary cycle in our worship, so we’ve been prepared for the arrival of this significant moment in time. Twice, in connection with Jesus’ ascension, the coming of the Holy Spirit has been promised: “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” (Act 1:8, CEB). At Pentecost, that promise is now realized in a manner which far and away exceeds the expectation of even the most faithful disciples. New life for the Church! New life for individuals within the Church! New life through the Spirit of God! The meaning and significance of Pentecost is that God has given us a new way of living.

In the early Church, Easter ranked first among all Christian holy days, and Pentecost ranked second—even ahead of Christmas. Have you ever thought of Pentecost as something that important? It’s the second-most-important Christian holy day! Pentecost is something we Christians ought to get excited about! If we’re as lackadaisical as the Grandson in The Princess Bride and say, “It doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try and stay awake,” then we’re really not seeing the significance of what God has done by sending his Holy Spirit upon us.

At Pentecost, no-one present is excluded from this display of God’s grace. Everyone was included, no matter their nationality. Cretans (I’ve been called a cretin before) and Arabs are included.

Unlike other important events in the history of God’s mighty acts in Jesus, the Christ, where only the inner circle of disciples were witnesses to the work of God’s Spirit, everyone is included at Pentecost. Everyone hears the noise like a rushing wind! The tongues of flame rest on each of the disciples, and a moment later the crowd comes surging forward because each one has heard the disciples speaking in his or her native language.

In order that not even the least astute person reading this text might miss the inclusiveness of the moment, the list of places that begins in verse 9 traces a wide sweep through the Greco-Roman world. Everyone, from every corner, is included.

When I went to Israel, my tour guides were Palestinian Christians. And they said that they traced the ancestry of their Christian Faith back to the Day of Pentecost, where Arabs are mentioned as those who were present in Jerusalem on this day, and who heard the noise like a rushing wind and heard Peter stand up and preach! I thought that was pretty cool, and it’s right there in Acts 2:11.

What happens on Pentecost is no mystical experience for the inner-circle alone, but an outpouring of God’s energy and power that touches every life present. This is an in-rushing, an unleashing of God’s Spirit in a way that has never happened before.

Still, people respond to God’s actions in different ways. Not everyone responded to the winds and fires of new life in positive ways. Even though they heard the in-rushing wind with their own ears, and perhaps even saw the tongues of fire with their own eyes, some mocked and in their unwillingness to believe the new and absolutely amazing thing that God was doing, reacted with sour words as they confused Holy Spirit-induced joy with alcohol-induced inebriation. “They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, ‘What does this mean?’ Others jeered at them, saying, ‘They’re full of new wine!’” (CEB).

Maybe it was the extravagance of the Holy Spirit’s outpouring presence that caused them to conclude that what they saw happening couldn’t really be happening. Nothing like this had ever happened before, how could they believe what they were seeing? It wouldn’t be the first time that people looked for another explanation when God did something absolutely extravagant. Yet, what it seemed to be is exactly what it was. God’s Holy Spirit coming in power, offering new life for all of God’s people!

Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost begins with a quotation from the Prophet Joel, and nothing could be more indicative of the nature of Pentecost than the change in meaning of this text. Joel says, “After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. In those days, I will also pour out my spirit on the male and female slaves. I will give signs in the heavens and on the earth–blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. But everyone who calls on the LORD’s name will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be security, as the LORD has promised; and in Jerusalem, the LORD will summon those who survive.” (Joel 2:28-32, CEB).

For Joel, this prophecy is a forecast of doom, destruction, and death; a time of fear and terror where you’d better call on God’s name or you’re toast! But for Peter’s sermon, the meaning of Joel’s prophecy is turned around, and he uses it as a declaration of new life. For Joel, the outpouring of the Spirit is a prelude to disaster, but for Peter these wonders have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, himself the greatest of God’s wonders, and their purpose, Christ’s purpose, is nothing less than the healing of the human race.

The Holy Spirit has invaded human life in ways that shatter old expectations. The reason for the Spirit’s visitation is not death, but new life. New life! God has poured out the Holy Spirit upon us, and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Are we excited? Or are we just trying to stay awake?

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

[i] Jubilees, O.S. Wintermute, trans., in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Vol. 2, James H. Charlesworth, ed., (Doubleday: New York, 1985), 67.

The Ascension

Acts 1:1-11

1 Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, 2 right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. 4 While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: 5 John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

6 As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”

7 Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

9 After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. 11 They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.” (CEB)

The Ascension

What in the world to we mean when we say that Jesus ascended? Surely, we don’t mean that Jesus is walking among the clouds, looking down on us from above. After Yuri Gagarin flew into space, Nikita Khrushchev addressed a plenary session of the Central Committee and declared, “Gagarin flew into space and didn’t see God.” The statement probably says more about Khrushchev’s lack of theological vision than anything else, but it is a point to consider. Where did Jesus go? What does it mean that Jesus was “lifted up”?

If the idea of heaven is that it is physically rooted up above us, our current understanding of cosmology can challenge any religion’s claim that someone was lifted up into heaven. So far, not even Voyager 1—which is currently traveling in the Interstellar Medium of the Heliopause—has broken into anything like the heavenly realm. Our telescopes can peer billions of light-years away, and we still can’t see heaven. We can’t locate it as a place in space-time, and that can confuse us. If Jesus is so removed from our existence, how can he do anything for us?

Jesus ascended into the sky like a comic book hero until the disciples lost sight of him in the clouds. So I suppose it’s natural for us to look up, wondering where Jesus is. Where is his physical incarnation now? Looking up, searching for that location, desiring to find heaven, is all well and good. It reveals in us the same longing the disciples had when they stood gazing heavenward after losing sight of their Lord. You can almost feel their forlornness in the way Luke crafted this scene.

You see, the disciples had different ideas, and they were left feeling like this wasn’t at all what they expected. All the time they spent with Jesus before his crucifixion, they heard him talk about the Kingdom of God. In fact, that topic is the one Jesus touched on the most. But, by and large, their understanding of the Kingdom of God was synonymous with the Kingdom of Israel. That’s the question they asked Jesus after he taught them about the not-too-distant arrival of the Holy Spirit. They said, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” (CEB).

The early church had an expectation of apocalypse now – the end was coming soon. Jesus had been killed, he had defied death itself by being raised and showing himself to the disciples by “many convincing proofs,” (CEB), and he would bring about God’s kingdom (also known as the kingdom of Israel) any moment now. That’s what they believed would happen.

There’s a good reason why it took the early followers of Jesus a few decades to start writing down the events that shaped their lives when Jesus walked among them. You don’t write church history when you expect the end to come at any second. It took the church a while to realize the new age they had entered was a time between times. The end would come, but not yet. The work of Jesus Christ spelled victory over sin and death, and the fulfillment of every promise God made to the human race, but not yet. God’s kingdom had come, but not yet in its full form.

Acts of the Apostles was Luke’s second book. The Gospel of Luke recorded the activity of Jesus in his earthly ministry. It ends with his triumphal resurrection and ascension to glory. The book of Acts picks up at the ascension, and begins with a recap. It’s like watching a TV show where they give a little recap at the beginning of sequential shows, Last time on Supergirl…

In the first book, Luke talked about the stuff Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the ascension. In acts, Luke sends the early church on a new trajectory. He recaps the instructions Jesus gave the disciples, tells of their impending baptism of the Holy Spirit, and answers their question about the Kingdom of Israel. Then, he’s ready to go.

When Jesus leaves, the initial response of the disciples to the ascension was sky-gazing. They probably wondered what in the world they were supposed to do. How could they go on without Jesus? How could they function without his leadership and guidance? But two men in white robes asked the Disciples what they were doing. He’ll come back, they said.

In the meantime, the church realized they had work to do. The last words Jesus spoke to them is the plot summary of the entire book of Acts: “Rather you will receive power with the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and to the end of the earth.” (CEB).

What is the rest of the book of Acts about? The followers of Jesus start with prayer. They receive the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, then they go out and live as witnesses in Jerusalem, then they move as witnesses throughout Judea, then they sweep across the known world telling everyone of the good news of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.

That’s the very activity we’re called to as the church. We are witnesses of the one who loved us, who served us, who taught us, who interceded for us, who came down from heaven to become one of us, who died for us, who rose for our sake, and, after the ascension, who continues to care for us and reigns at the right hand of God the Father. That kind of knowledge demands a witness! But are we doing it? Are we witnessing?

I remember one Annual Conference session with Bishop Robert Schnase of the Missouri Area as a guest speaker. I’m recalling this story from memory, so some of the specifics might be a little fuzzy, but it’s as accurate as I can recall. As a bishop, he travels a lot. And he learned that, when he gets talking to people, they kind of clam up when they ask what he does for a living and he would answer, “I’m a Bishop.” It’s understandable. Finding yourself next to a bishop might feel a little intimidating. So, instead, he started answering that question by saying, “I work for the United Methodist Church.” He found people responded better to that, and even started asking more questions about the church and his work.

One time he found himself in a car rental place, and was talking to one of the young men working there. When the inevitable question came up about what Bishop Schnase did, he answered that he works for the United Methodist Church. The guy at the rental counter wasn’t a Christian, and didn’t know about Jesus. But he kept asking questions. He was curious.

The kicker is that the manager came up and recognized Bishop Schnase. He started listing the stuff he does in his local church, and committees he serves on at the district and conference level. He said, stuff like, Oh, I’m a member of such and such committee in my church, I have this leadership role in my district, and I’ve done this at our Annual Conferences.

And Bishop Schnase looked at him, then looked at the employee who hadn’t known anything about Jesus before Bishop Schnase spoke with him, and he wondered where the disconnect was. How could this manager do all these things and serve in all these ways and fail so miserably at the one thing Jesus calls us to be? How could he not have ever told this spiritually famished employee anything about Jesus in all the time they had worked together? The manager had been standing in the middle of a ripe field, ready for the harvest, and hadn’t bothered to reach his hand out to pull in a single grain.

What is the point of a Christianity that doesn’t witness? What is the point of a faith that we keep to ourselves? It doesn’t mean that we have to go preach on street corners. It does not mean we beat people over the head and tread on them with self-righteous intrusions into their lives. We don’t wield Jesus Christ as a weapon to beat people into submission.

But being a witness does mean that we act like witnesses, that we share our stories, that we build relationships with others even if it’s just getting to know the guy at the rental car counter. We can be an un-intrusive witness like Bishop Schnase simply by talking to people and showing some interest in their lives.

The thing about the Ascension is it’s tied to the resurrection. What happened to Jesus: death, resurrection, and exaltation, will happen to us. The Ascension is this crucial piece of God’s revelation to us that we are a part of something greater and grander than we can possibly imagine. It’s one more piece of the story that tells us of God’s profound love for the human race, for each one of us, and God’s intention to bring us into full communion with God’s own self.

Until those promises are fulfilled in all their fullness, we have access to the Holy Spirit during this between-time. The Holy Spirit empowers us to move from passive waiting for Jesus to come fix all the world’s problems to working actively as witnesses to God’s healing power.

It’s almost like the relationship between a pastor and a congregation. Some people think pastors exist to do ministry instead of the church members. Like, you hire me to do your work for you. Let me tell you, I’m not here to do ministry for you. I’m here to do ministry alongside you as a partner, guide, and fellow servant of God. Part of my job description actually states that my role is to prepare and equip the people of the church to do ministry. God needs us to do ministry. God needs us to be witnesses. That’s our calling. That’s our job description. So, how are we doing with that?

Later on in Acts, the members of the early church were accused of upsetting the whole world (Acts 17:6). Another way to translate it is turning the world upside down. And honestly, when the church is busy turning the world on its head by witnessing to the values of God’s kingdom, we can be confident that we’re following in the footsteps of Jesus and the prophets before him who did the very same thing.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!