When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
Peter Addresses the Crowd But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Tales of Our Demise
Some of you may have seen the Apocalyptic-sounding headlines over the last two weeks. By many folks regard, Christians in the United States are in trouble. USA Today introduced the idea with the headline: "As Protestants Decline, Those With No Religion Gain." The Talking Points Memo's headline was "Study Finds Sharp Decline in Americans who Identify as Christian." The Washington Post heralded, "Christianity Faces Sharp Decline As Americans Are Becoming Even Less Affiliated with Religion." Christianity Today intoned: "Evangelicals Stay Strong as Christianity Crumbles in America." And, these are just newspaper and new site headlines. Bloggers were even more hyperbolic, predicting the ultimate doom of all of American Christianity, and moving quickly to explain why there has been such a decline. You'll be happy to know that both liberals and conservatives are at fault, as are young people who think they don't need religion and self-righteous old people who push Christianity on people. The terrible secular culture has destroyed Christianity, or Christianity has destroyed itself by being a bunch of mean-spirited hypocrites, depending on who you ask. Either way, it's been a rough couple of weeks to be a Christian who hopes that your religious community will live on after this generation.
What, you may ask, has brought on all of these predictions of doom? Data. Data has made everybody think that the sky is falling. Two weeks ago now, the Pew Research Center released the results of it's most recent study of American religiosity. Pew surveyed 35,000 American adults regarding their religiosity and the numbers indicate that a major change is happening in how Americans identify religiously. There are significant changes even from 7 years ago when Pew last made a significant survey of the population of the United States. What the researchers have found is that, though the US is still home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and just over 70% of Americans identify as Christians, the percentage of Americans who identify as Christians has dropped at least 8 percentage points in the last seven years. That is a significant decline in a very short time. In Maine, the numbers are even more dramatic. In the last seven years, Mainers have shifted from 72% identifying as Christian down to 60%. Nationally, during that same time period, the percentage of people who consider themselves to be religiously unaffiliated, that is the atheists, agnostics, spiritual but not religious, and nothing in particular folks, has risen nearly 6%. Now, almost 23% of the US population identifies as a None, as someone who is not actively religious. Here in Maine, 31% of the population considers themselves to be religiously unaffiliated.
The future looks even more grim when you begin to look at individual Christian groups. Among all of the various Christians groups, two groups in particular lost more than any of the rest: Mainline Protestants and Catholics. We are Mainline Protestants. We dropped by more than three percentage points of whole US population. That is a lot of people. Like, somewhere between 3 and 5 million people. And, when we look at religiosity among different age groups, we discover another trend that seems to spell trouble for the church. Young people are increasingly joining the ranks of the Nones. 35% of adults under 29 years old are not religiously-affiliated. 37% of adults between 30 and 49 years old are unaffiliated. Adults under 29 years of age only make up about 16% of Mainline Protestants. Though you may not know these exact numbers, I bet these trends don't surprise you. You have seen them in your neighborhoods and in our own church. I bet you've seen them in your family, too. American Christianity is changing, and many people are worried.
Now, just as quickly as some people have shouted out about the "terrible decline in Christianity," others have come in to explain why it may not be such a bad thing or may not be that big of a deal at all. Evangelical author Ed Stetzer argues that American Christianity isn't dying as these numbers might suggest. He says that the declines in Christianity are not from the devout but from those who think of themselves as Christians in name only. For those for whom Christianity is simply how they were raised or part of their cultural, regional, or ethnic identity, they no longer feel compelled to identify as Christians. Stetzer seems to think that it's not necessarily a bad thing that people who don't actually understand themselves as Christians no longer feel the need to identify as Christians. I'm inclined to agree. I want people to be able to honestly describe their religious beliefs, even if that means that fewer people openly identify as Christians.
Others have argued that a significant portion of this decline is simply part of the ebb and flow of Christian religiosity that has been part of the United States for as long as people of European descent have been on this continent. In their book Prophecies of Godlessness: Predictions of America's Imminent Secularization from the Puritans to Postmodernity, Charles T. Matthewes and Christopher McKnight Nichols argue that in every century since Europeans landed in what has become the US, significant religious and philosophical leaders have believed that Christianity was in decline. Now, they didn't necessarily agree on whether this was a good or bad thing. But, nevertheless, predictions of Godlessness are a significant part of our American Heritage. Our own Puritan forebears were experts in predictions of Godlessness and moral decline. Hear these words from Samuel Hopkins, preached in 1776, on the decline of true Christianity due to the influence of slavery:
Can we wonder that Religion is done to decay in our Land, that vice and profaneness have
overspread the whole Land, when the Ever glorious God has been blasphemed openly in the
practice of Slavery among us for So long a time? or can we wonder that God is now breaking us
down and plucking us up, and thretning Soon to make us no people who have So long
blasphemed his holy name that is Seases now to be any longer a refuge for us, affords no plea
in our favour, but is really against us, God being obliged for the Glory of his own name now to
destroy us from being any Longer a people if we will not reforme.
Now, that is a prediction of Godlessness if I ever heard one.
As a student of history, I find Matthewes and Nichols argument compelling. This is not the first time that we have heard of the decline of Christianity, and it probably won't be the last. However, that being said, we do have some hard data now that shows just how much American religiosity is changing, and Christianity seems to be on a down-swing. We have the history of our own church as an example of this change. Just because there have been other periods of transition doesn't mean that we aren't in a period of transition now, and that doesn't mean that we can ignore changes in culture that are all around us. All of our structures for being church were developed when Christianity was on an up-swing. If we ignore the changes in our culture, we can certainly count ourselves among the denominations and congregations who have lost the battle with brunch and sleeping in on Sunday morning.
Now, you might be saying to yourself, Jeez this is a bunch of depressing information for Chrissy to be hauling in here on Pentecost. This is supposed to be a day of celebration. It's the church's birthday. Shouldn't we be talking about something a little cheerier than the impending demise of the religious institutions that we love? Well, you're probably right. I could have brought something a little cheerier in. But, Church isn't really about being cheery. It's about being honest. And, if we are going to be good stewards of the faith community that we have inherited, we have to be honest about these changes and open to the Spirit's inspiration for how we can address them. Churches close everyday because they lose hope in their traditions and because they don't know how to live out the Gospel in new way for a new time. We in the United Church of Christ recognize that each generation is called to make this faith our own. It's now our time to make church in this new generation.
So, what does this mean? I think it means we have to take a few things seriously. One is how we welcome new people to this community. People have learned that they can be good people and not go to church. I'm glad that they've learned that. There are plenty of good people in other religions and of no religion. Being part of church isn't about being good, though, just like it's not about being cheery. It is about loving God and loving your neighbor. Each of those things is done better in community. In a world where people are increasingly seeing spirituality as something that is primarily individual and personal, our goal then is to help people see why being in a church community is important. How can we love God and our neighbor more deeply as part of a worshiping community? Why does being here, in this place, matter? That's the question we need to be prepared to answer.
In his article, Stetzer makes a good point. Christianity is losing what he calls it's "home field advantage." Christians can no longer presume that people we meet will be familiar with our faith practices or scriptures or even believe that active participation in a religious community is a good way to spend their time. As you know, if our language around our religious faith includes too many code words that unchurched or barely churched people don't know, they won't feel welcome and they probably won't come back. This church has already made some great strides in this area when you started calling parts of this building by names that most people, even people without a church background, can know and understand. Narthex is a fun word to say, but most people don't know what that means. A lot of people know what a Foyer or an entryway is. I'm glad we use the latter words. Now, our next step may be to make sure that we explain what all our acronyms are and not presume that everyone knows what they mean. We use the phrase Open and Affirming a lot, too. But, it is another phrase that people outside of the UCC don't know. How can we be more clear about what we mean when we say that we are an open and affirming church?
One more thing seems important for us to remember. In another study I've read in the last few weeks, the people surveyed, all of whom were under 35, were asked if church was a safe place to express doubt. Nearly 60% of the respondents said not too much or not at all. More than 50% of the respondents felt like they could not really be themselves at church, either. If people feel like they have to hide themselves or hide their questions, how can they truly be a part of a worshiping community? We do no service to the Gospel by pretending that we don't have questions or that we don't have problems in our lives just because we are Christian. Jesus' primary commandments are about love. Love accepts doubt and love accepts frailty. Now, since I've been a part of this church, I've seen many of you engage with doubt and human frailty in faithful and loving ways. Let's keep doing that.
One final thing. We are not the only generation of Jesus' followers who have wondered what our future holds. Perhaps we can recognize ourselves in the scared, huddled together disciples. After the crucifixion, the Disciples must have wondered if they could keep Jesus' mission going without him. Their hope was renewed through the Resurrection when Jesus gave them a mission to continue preaching and healing. That renewal made room for the Holy Spirit to fill them with a holy fire that carried with it new ways of communication that that could not have accomplished without the Spirit's help. The Spirit allowed them to speak with all kinds of different people who had never heard of Jesus before. So, you see, we're not the only ones who have been challenged to communicate the Gospel in a new way and to people who may not even think it's worth their time. Christians have been doing that for as long as there have been Christians. I pray that we can feel that rush of the Holy Spirit, too, even if we're not sure where it will lead us. There is something worth working for in this church community. There is a particular expression of the Holy Spirit that is present here. Now, let's make sure we share it with the world.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
Pew Research Center's survey on America's Changing Religious Landscape:
Here is where I found the most hyperbolic article titles:
Frank L. Couch's commentary on Acts 2:1-21: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2457
Ed Stetzer, "Nominals to Nones: 3 Key Takeaways from Pew's Religious Landscape Survey," http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2015/may/nominals-to-nones-3-key-takeaways-from-pews-religious-lands.html
Charles Matthewes and Christopher McKnight Nickols, Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of America's Imminent Secularization from the Puritans to the Present Day (London: Oxford University Press, 2008).
The Barna Group, "Making Space for Millenials," https://www.barna.org/spaceformillennials
Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnessesof these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’
The Ascension of Jesus Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
For the World
Not all of the Gospels tell the same stories about Jesus. If you want a birth narrative, you only can find them Luke and Matthew. If you want the turning water into wine miracle, you need to look at John. Mark is the only Gospel that ends with people poisoning themselves as a demonstration of faith. And, it is only in the gospel of Luke that we hear about the Ascension. The Ascension, that moment when Jesus was carried away, is the last story we hear in the book of Luke. Since we have spent most of our Easter and post-Easter time in Mark and John, in order to understand what the Ascension means in Luke, it may be helpful to have a little recap of what has been happening in the rest of the story. After the Resurrection, two men appeared to Jesus' women followers who had come to tend to his body. The men told the women that Jesus had been raised. The women quickly told the disciples, who did not believe them. Peter was the only one who would got to the tomb. He saw that Jesus was gone and was amazed.
We did talk about the next part of the story, when Jesus appeared to two of the disciples as they walked to Emmaus. In that part of the story, they only recognized that it was him when he broke bread and shared it with him. We haven't heard the next part of the story. Luke tells us that when they were telling the other disciples what had happened, Jesus appeared among them, showing himself to all of the disciples for the first time. He showed them his hands and his feet, and then ate fish to show that he wasn't a ghost. The very next part of the Gospel is our reading for today. Remember last week when I talked about how the goal of the parts of the Gospel of John that we had been reading was to comfort Jesus' followers. The parts of John that we have been reading, and that was the second reading today, all happened before Jesus' death. This story in Luke shows Jesus comforting the disciples after his death and resurrection.
He does this by offering an explanation of why he thinks everything that had happened happened. I'm sure his friends were yearning for an explanation. You see, while you and I have had seven weeks to think about the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection, in Luke, this story happens a mere two days after Jesus was crucified. We are catching a glimpse of the disciples right in the midst of their deepest, earliest grief over the loss of Jesus. We are seeing them at a time when they are undoubtedly asking questions about their future and how they go on without Jesus. They must of wondered if all their time with him had been wasted. Their lives had been changed by their time with him. They couldn't simply go back to fishing or farming or tax-collecting. What would they do now?
Much like the image of Jesus in John, who cared enough to try to prepare his friends for the tragedy to come, Jesus in Luke tried to help them make meaning of tragedy of the crucifixion and help them understand the resurrection. As many of us who have gone through tragedy know, many people need to hear that the tragedy they went through had a meaning. If it did, then, somehow, it is easier to bear the weight of it all. In this section of scripture, we see Jesus giving his disciples something that countless people would like to have: An answer for why he was killed. He sat with them and spoke of Hebrew Scripture. He explained, once again, that his life was deeply embedded in the stories of redemption and salvation that they all learned from the time they were children. He explained to them that death and new life were parts of that story, no matter how much it hurt. He showed them that, though death will come, in the end, love will win and life will win and repentance and forgiveness are possible.
Here Jesus is, at one of his most pastoral moments, making sure the people who are closest to him in the whole world are ok. Jesus said that I know this was hard, but I think it had to be this way. Here I am now. Death did not have the final answer. And, death will not stop God's reign of love and justice. Even though I won't be physically here anymore, my mission and my Spirit will go on, and they will go on through you. That's right. Not only did Jesus help give them a sense of meaning of their shared tragedy, he also helped restore their sense of purpose. He gave them a job. He said that his message must continue to be proclaimed and they are the witnesses to what has happened. It is their job to continue his work, and he will make sure that they can do it. He said that they would be clothed in power. The Spirit will come. And, the Spirit will guide their work. After offering them meaning in the face of tragedy and commissioning them to continue his work, he blessed them one more time. As he did so, he withdrew and was carried away. Even as he was leaving, he made sure that they knew they were blessed and beloved by God. And, they are felt great joy and returned to the temple where they continually blessed God.
One of the scholars I read this week pointed out something interesting. His name is Troy Toftgruben. He points out that many people talk about the Ascension primarily as an excuse for Jesus' physical absence from the rest of the story. Jesus raised up and now we don't have him with us and more's the pity. Think of all the good he could have continue to do had he stuck around a little longer. Think of all the people he could have healed. Toftgruben says that Luke, and it's sequel, Acts, are actually stating quite the opposite. The Ascension isn't primarily about Jesus' absence, but the ways in which he became present in a different way. Toftgruben argues that the author of the Gospel describes it as a story about all that Jesus "began to do and teach." The doing and teaching did not stop with Ascension. They simply changed. As we read through the book of Acts, we will see that when the disciples speak during a healing, they will often say, "Jesus Christ heals you." They understood that this was a way that Jesus was still engaged with humanity, but now, primarily through the actions of those who act in his name. Jesus is not gone, but is simply present differently.
It seems that it is not simply the disciples who carry Jesus with them as they heal and speak of God's love. I think all who follow Jesus have access to his presence. Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila said it this way: "Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless his people." How are you being the presence of Christ to people who need healing? How are we as a church demonstrating Christ's presence in our community? Here's a couple stories of churches being Christ in their community that I read about this week.
One Sunday morning, Mary Martha Kannass, pastor of Hephatha Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, welcomed a young man back to church. He had been gone for a while because he had been in prison. The first Sunday that he was out of prison, he came back to church with his mother and siblings. Pastor Kannass said this to him during worship: We have been praying for you every Sunday during your incarceration.” Asking him to stand him to stand, she also said, “And we will continue to pray for you, that you will be able to find a job, continue your education and witness your faith to us at Hephatha.” The church applauded his return, and Pastor Kannass invited him to help her serve communion. I probably don't have to tell you that not everyone is welcomed back to church so heartily upon being released from prison. The congregation went on to pray for 14 more people who were in prison and also had some connection to their church. Not only did they pray for them during worship, but they also took the names home and continue to pray for them at home.
Cross Lutheran Church in Milwaukee also discerned a need to follow Jesus' call to visit those in prison and to tend to captives. They realized that there were four minimum security prisons within a few blocks of the church, and every year 600 people were coming through their doors. People who have been in prison need help finding jobs, finding housing, and, often, restoring relationships to the community. In response to this huge pool of need, the church began an outreach program called RETURN, Returning Ex-Offenders to Urban Realities and Neighborhoods. Since this program began in 1980, they have served hundreds of people. These people found restoration of familial, communal, and congregational relationships that would have been very difficult without a program like RETURN. People have found healing in this place, all because the church wanted to continue to show people Jesus, and the power of love, repentance, and forgiveness.
I'm pretty sure that urban parts of Milwaukee aren't the only places that need to feel Christ's presence in order to receive healing. I bet our town, and this church, could use a little presence of Christ, too. Maybe that's why you volunteer at the food pantry, because you know that the folks who come in there could use a little Christly love. Maybe that's why you participate in Special Olympics, because you know the power of healing that comes through good fun and comradery. Maybe that's why you help clean up the little part of the earth that this church is in charge of, because you know that the planet we live on needs some healing, too. However, you do it, know that when you do those things, you do so in memory of Christ. You do so as Christ's hands and feet in the world. I pray that we all may remember that we carry Christ's presence with us, and not be afraid to share it with the community around us. After all, we're all the body he's got left.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
Troy Toftgruben's commentary: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2385
Barbara Lundblad, "Don't Ask Jesus to Say the Table Prayer (John 17:6-19)":
Erica Schemper shared Teresa of Avila's prayer in "After Easter: A Series for Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and Beyond": http://www.reformedworship.org/article/march-2014/after-easter
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
A Great Love
As I sat down to write my sermon this week, I realize that I had made a grave mistake. Ok. Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. It was not a grave mistake. More of a missed opportunity. Nevertheless, as I returned to the scriptures late in the week, I began to regret some choices that I made earlier in the week. Let me explain. I've learned that the week's run much more smoothly if I can get worship put together some time on Tuesday. That gives Cyndi time to edit and format the bulletin and Rosalea time to work out what music to play for the processional, the offertory, and at the end of the service. And, it gives me time to work on the sermon later in the week. I'm not sure why I didn't catch it on Tuesday. I read through the scriptures as part of worship prep. I think another part of the passage caught my attention at the time. I think I was interested in the "abide in love" or the "laying down your life" part. Actually, I think I was more interested in the Acts text, where, yet again, a group of people you wouldn't expect becomes part of the early Jesus' movement. Either way, early this week, as I read this scripture, I missed something important. I missed that Jesus began to call his disciples "friends."
There it is plain as day. "I do not call you slaves any longer, because the slave does not know that the master is doing; but I have called you friends." Now, on a day when we are reading about the disciples as friends, how great it would have been to sing "What a Friend We Have In Jesus." It is such a lovely hymn, and so many people know it.
"What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
The hymn goes on to speak of the joy that prayer brings to the singer. During times of trial and temptation, the singer is relieved to know that Jesus is always there to offer comfort and share in our sorrows. When we are weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care, Jesus is our refuge and we can go to him in prayer. As the author of the hymn wrote, "In his arm's he'll take and shield you, you wilt find a solace there." This is a hymn that is nearly perfect for singing when you feel burdened and sorrow-filled. It reminds us that we are beloved of God, so close that we may even speak of Jesus as our friend. Yeah, too bad I didn't catch that on Tuesday.
This passage is the only time in the whole book of John that Jesus calls the disciples his friends. It is interesting, but perhaps not surprising, that he does so in the midst of crisis. Though we are in the Easter season, working to fully embrace the Resurrection, today's reading comes from the period just before Jesus was crucified. In the book of John, Jesus seemed to know that something bad was about to happen. This section of the book of John shows us Jesus trying to comfort and prepare his disciples for what is yet to come. So, he told them that he was the Good Shepherd, reminding them of the work of the Psalmist. They would not need to fear because the shepherd never leaves his sheep. He told them that they were the vines to his branches, and that they had been empowered to bring good fruit to the world. They would bring glory to God through their work on Jesus' behalf. And, in today's reading, Jesus offers his disciples joy, love, mission, and, yes, friendship.
When Jesus speaks of his love, he invites his disciples to "abide" in his love. Scholar Meda Stamper reminds us of something important about this word "abide." In the book of John, this word is often used to indicate more than just the simple act of resting. To abide to make a comfortable home. For example, early in John, Jesus spoke of God has having many mansions for God's people. The word that gets translated as mansions is actually better translated as abiding places. God will provide for people not opulence, but instead, homie-ness, a place to feel safe and comfortable and wanted. So, when we talk about Jesus asking the disciples to abide in his love, he is asking them to make a home in love... to find safety and rest in love. That must have been a comfort for them as they followed him, itinerant and homeless preachers who would be threatened for doing the Gospel work and run out of town. Regardless of their physical home, they could always abide in Jesus' love.
Then, he tells them how to abide in his love. He says that they will abide in his love if they follow his commandments, just as he has abided in God's commandments. Now, as we've talked about before, commandment so often has harsh connotations, as though it will be a burden to follow them. Notice, though, that Jesus does not tell people that the commandment will be hard. He tells them that it will bring joy. He says, "I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete." And, what commandment will bring people such joy? The commandment to love one another just as Christ has love them. That's right. Loving one another will bring them joy and allow them to make their homes in Christ. And, it is through the act of loving one another that they become friend's of Christ.
Now, up to this point in the passage, Jesus' statements seem to be doing something very similar for his community as the song "What A Friend We Have in Jesus" does for many of us when we hear it. That is, they bring comfort. The song assures us that Jesus will provide us with comfort and care. Jesus offered his friends a home of love and joy and mutual concern. But, this passage does something that the song doesn't do. In John, Jesus demonstrates that there can be a real cost in loving another person. In fact, love of another person can result in death. Or, more clearly, love can provoke a willingness to put one's own life at risk for the people that one loves. Jesus said, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." In this one sentence, Jesus reminded his followers that love and joy are not saccharine, shallow things. They are deep things, things that abide in the very life and love of Jesus.
Jesus loved loudly, proclaiming healing to the broken and justice to the oppressed. He took joy in the healing work he did. But, his love and joy did not lead him to safe places. It lead him into dangerous conflicts with the ruling elites and to bedsides of the sick and dying. His friendship with the disciples, a relationship that defined by mutual responsibility and common goals, and his love of humanity, put him at risk. But, I guess love always puts us at risk. There is always a danger is loving one another as Christ loved us. Inside the joy of the Gospel also dwells the potential for deep pain when the Beloved people of God are wounded. But, friendship with Christ, and love for one another, calls us to move towards that possible pain, knowing that Christ's ultimate joy and our beloved friends can help carry us through it.
This way of being a friend of Jesus sounds pretty different than the hymn we sang together. That doesn't mean that the hymn is useless to us or untrue. But, it does mean that we may need to supplement it with some other stories that show not just how Jesus' tends to our needs but how we also tend to the needs of our beloved friends in Christ. Let me share two stories from Love Wins Ministry, a ministry of presence and pastoral care for homeless and at-risk populations in Raleigh, North Carolina. Hugh, a pastor in the ministry, wrote a letter in where he answered a question about why their hospitality house, a place where people can go for support, is only open four days per week. This is his response:
"But no matter who asks it, I always tell them the truth. 'Because that is all we can handle.'
Because, quite simply, this work is hard. Not hard, like I dug a ditch all day today, hard. But hard, like I want to go home and crawl under my bed and weep until someone slides a tray of comfort food under the bed and leaves, hard.
Take just two samples from this week:
Two different couples in our community learned they were pregnant. Of course, they are barely housed. Of course, they can’t afford to feed themselves. Of course, they have no income or prospects for a job. And of course, they are so excited that they did this thing that other people on the planet do all the time, this normalizing thing that proves they are human and that gives them hope.
And of course, we will celebrate the birth of these kids, and of course we will hope for the best, and of course we will mourn with them when the state takes these kids away from them, just like they took their last kids. And you can look forward into the future and see how this will play out as clearly as you can see the sunrise.
Or take my friend Jeff, who is back in jail, for violating the terms of his probation. That Jeff is a registered sex offender makes this no less complicated. That Jeff is a devoted member of our worshiping community and a far better Bible scholar than I am complicates if further. And that I will go see Jeff and pray with him is never in doubt.
The reality is, we are tired. All the time."
This is what it is to abide in Christ's love. This is what it is to love your friend as Christ loves you. Hugh loves the people of his worshiping community and this love has split him wide open. He worries about the people who struggle with mental health and addiction. He fears for those who can't find jobs because they have prior felony convictions. He tries to help the impoverished find the resources they need to rise out of poverty. He even risks arrest to feed people in a public park because the city he lives in has decided there's something wrong with feeding hungry people in public parks. Even with the threat of arrest looming, he feeds people anyway. He's been called to love his friends, and his joy will be complete when all of his friends have a community that loves and welcomes them. He dies a little everyday to the unjust world around him. And, yet, he knows the joy of Christ as he worships, and he has found abiding love in his friends. Here's one more story he shared. It's about a man named Ron:
"One of the tasks Ron has assumed is taking the trash to the curb on Thursdays. When he doesn’t do it, we often forget, and then the trash piles up. But Ron doesn’t forget.
He also, like a lot of members of our community, has bad teeth. Dental care is hard for our folks, with all the carbs and sugar everyone wants to push on them, and the lack of free or low-cost dental clinics. But strings were pulled and sources were hunted for and finally, Ron had a much needed oral surgery.
Yesterday morning, the phone rang. I was in the office, and Elizabeth answered the phone. She shifts from professional voice to casual register, and chats for a minute. Then she hangs up.
'That was Ron,' she said. 'He wanted us to know he made it through surgery and is doing fine. He also said to remind everyone that the trash needs to be taken to the curb today.'
And there you have it. Community in action. Calling not because he needed something, but because a) he knew we would want to know he is okay and b) because he wanted to make sure the community continued to function, even when he wasn’t here."
Now, if that's not a little bit of Resurrection on a regular afternoon in Raleigh, I don't know what it. May we all be broken open by this kind of love. May we all find an abiding place in Christ, take our we take our prayer to Christ while we remember to take our trash out to the curb.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
For the stories about some hard days, read Hugh Hollowell's post, "We Are Tired. All The Time": http://www.lovewinsministries.org/2014/08/we-are-tired-all-the-time/
For the story about a good day, read Hugh Hollowell's post, "Sometimes This Stuff Works": http://www.lovewinsministries.org/2015/04/sometimes-this-stuff-works/
Meda's stampers comentaries: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2435 and https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2434
Kathy Huey at Sermon Seeds: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_may_10_2015
Karoline Lewis, "Choose Joy": https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3608
Fred B. Craddock, "Being a Friend of Jesus, " in The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 189-193.
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’
The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
I'd like to tell you a story about two men. One of them was named Frank. As far as I can tell, if he wasn’t a founding member of my home church in Tennessee, he joined the church early on, in the late ‘50’s through the late ‘60’s. He was very wealthy, but he could be very hateful. Once, when a black family visited the church, which was predominantly white, he became so incensed that he stomped out of worship, went downstairs and cut off the lights during the middle of the service, and went home. He was so racist that turned the side of the building in which he ran his business into a giant billboard from which he could broadcast racist message after racist message.
The other man I want to tell you about was named John. He became the pastor of that congregation in the early 1980’s. John was deeply shaped by anti-racism work and the Civil Rights Movement. Where Frank felt as though his faith supported his contention that black people deserved to be second class citizens, John's faith taught him that all people are equally God's children. With such drastically different ideas about faith and race, you might wonder how they managed to be at the same church. A good relationship between the two of them might seem impossible. But, for some reason, maybe pure bullheadedness, John and Frank did not give up on each other. One day, they were talking after church, and Frank said, “Oh, the wildflowers must be beautiful right now.” And John said, “Well, Frank, let’s go look at them tomorrow.” Surprisingly, Frank agreed. And so began an amazing relationship between two people who should have not gotten along.
Something powerful bloomed as they walked along the path looking at flowers in the wilderness. Starting that day, very slowly, things began to change. One major turning point was when Frank stood up in church and said, “I love everybody, even blacks, except for Martin Luther King, and I’m working on him.” Eventually, it would seem that Frank was putting in as much time trying to make up for his racist past as he had put into actually being racist. He even helped develop a program called Servant of All, a program that is a bit like our Deacons Love Fund, that was meant to help all people, congregants and outsiders, who came to the church looking in need. Today, one of the greatest honors in that congregation is be given the Frank Haile Servant of All Award. When they remember Frank, they hope to inspire all of us to push beyond the boundaries of who we have learned are acceptable in the eyes of God, and offer hospitality to all of God’s creation, not just people like us.
Honestly, I don’t know if I could have been so gracious to a man who cut off the lights during worship because a black family dared walk in the church door. But, John found a way. Some of it had to do with the way that John chose to use his privilege. As a white man who was supported by broader congregation and who knew he could probably find another job if he needed it, he had some freedom to engage with Frank. He came to understand that talking to him, one Southern white man to another, would do far more good than ignoring or avoiding him. Maybe if John could tell him about how he learned to reject the racism he was raised with, maybe Frank could see that a different life was possible. It worked. It probably wasn't all John. But, due at least in part to these pastoral conversations, Frank changed. To this day, when John talks about their time together, John says Frank was his only conversion.
John and Frank's story is not the only story about an unexpected relationship that you have heard today. The author of Acts tells a story that is just as fraught with ethnic, class-based, and religious conflict as the story I just told you about two men from my home church back in Tennessee. The more I read about the complexities of navigating the social world as a eunuch, the more I'm surprised that Philip and the Ethiopian were able to develop any relationship, even one as short as the one described in this encounter. They probably shouldn't have even been talking to each other. But, as we learned from John and Frank, the Spirit can lead us in places we never expected.
Philip was a leader among the Greek-speaking Jews who followed Jesus. He had a particular calling to leave Jerusalem to preach the Gospel. It is interesting that he went to preach in Samaria when he left Jerusalem. As some of you may know, one would be hard-pressed to find many groups of people more reviled than the Samaritans in Scripture. Though Samaritans and Jews shared a common religious and ethnic history, disagreements over ritual observances had created such a rift between the two groups that they hardly recognized one another as kin anymore. Samaria would seem like the last place Philip would go. But, as I noted before, the Holy Spirit can lead us down some unexpected paths. The Spirit seemed to lead Philip to preach among people whom he had been taught to hate. He, and the Holy Spirit, must have inspired some other folks because John and Peter followed him there. But, the Holy Spirit did not stop with the Samaritans. There was more Gospel to share and more boundaries to push. So, the Holy Spirit took Philip to the Ethiopian.
For as strange as it would have been for Philip to be told that he was supposed to spend time with Samaritans, spending time with an Ethiopian eunuch would have been almost as difficult. Eunuchs were among some of the most reviled people in his culture. Though this eunuch appears to love the Jewish God, eunuchs were expressly prevented from being a part of the covenantal community in Deut. 23.1. He would have never been allowed to convert to the religion that he appeared to find so meaningful because he was unable to fit into the social and religious roles that all men were expected to fill. He could not procreate, thus passing on his covenantal relationship to offspring. Also, he could not be circumcised, an essential ritual act for all Jewish men. As a eunuch, though he was definitely not a woman, they were not considered true men either. They existed in an in-between gender role as a sexual minority. This in-betweenness meant that they were not considered whole and therefore could not be considered to be part of God's holy people. The fact that most people who were eunuchs were enslaved and had been castrated as punishment or a sign of their subjugation did not seem to matter. Even though this eunuch had high status in some ways (he was wealthy and had a trusted position in a foreign court), he would always be an outsider.
At the outset, Philip and the Ethiopian seem to have so little in common, less even, than Frank and John. But, the Spirit led them together. And, as we heard this morning, Philip took the Ethiopian's faith seriously, treating him as a whole person asking honest questions about God. And, the Ethiopian, likely accustomed to rejection due to his status outside expected gender norms, accepted Philip's offer to teach him. Imagine the strength it took him to trust someone who he knew had been taught to reject him. No matter how much wealth he had, the eunuch could never have bought his way into community with Philip. Only the Holy Spirit could have inspired the eunuch to accept Philip’s hand of welcome, filled with the waters of baptism and an offering of spiritual relationship. Despite everything that stood between them, the Holy Spirit brought them together, and the Ethiopian learned not only the Good News of Jesus Christ, but also encountered a disciple who was a living embodiment of the power of the Holy Spirit to overturn all of the prejudices that we have learned that keep us from fully knowing God's love.
Now, I realize that Frank and John's story and Philip and the Ethiopian's story are not exact parallels. Frank and John were men of similar privilege and status, similarities that likely helped create a foundation on which they could build their relationship. Similarity aided transformation in their case. They seem a little more like John and Peter who saw Philip preach to the Samaritans and followed him into the lands of people they had been taught to avoid. Philip and the Ethiopian had few parallels beyond their faith in a Jewish God. Philip had a certain amount of privilege as a man who fit common expectations of manhood and as one welcome in his religious community. He was low status in other ways, particularly in his poverty and his strained relationship with the ruling elites. The Ethiopian was wealthy and educated, but would never be fully welcome in the community of faith where he had found God. They were able to meet across differences and still able to find common ground in faith in Jesus.
I think both of these stories can teach us something about how to be followers of Christ primarily by showing us two different ways that the Holy Spirit can push us into unexpectedly fruitful relationships. In some cases, we may be like John and Frank, and the similarities we have with people with whom we disagree will be the foundation for the relationship we build together. We can use our privilege as a way into a relationship where we can share the story of how we came to know a more just, move loving life through Christ. In other cases, we will find ourselves in the wilderness with people whose lives could not seem more different from our own. In these cases, the Holy Spirit will flourish when we're not afraid to go against the prejudices we've learned and recognize the dignity that exists in the people we've been taught to fear. The Holy Spirit can push us to see wholeness where the culture has taught us to see brokenness, and new faith can be born.
Any of us who watches or reads the news is probably deeply familiar with the brokenness that, while always present, is now getting a lot of attention in our country. It could be very easy to ignore the people with whom we disagree about the root causes of the conflicts among poor people, people of color, and people who serve in law enforcement. In the press of a button on my computer or the change of a channel on television, I could easily spend all of my time with people with agree with me. But, these two stories show me that I am doing no service to the Gospel by ignoring the people I disagree with and avoiding the people whose life experiences are drastically different than mine. In the story of the Ethiopian and Philip, we see that the Gospel does not prevent anyone from living as whole children of God based on their ethnicity or gender identity. Those kinds of prejudice have no place in this God's reign of love and justice. So, I'm continually called to use my privilege to talk with people who trust me because of it, as well as being called to hear the words of people with lives different than mine, and understand them to be faithful. This isn't always easy work, but, if we're lucky, sometimes it can be a walk among the flowers.
Works that Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
Coleman Baker's commentary: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2445
Mitzi J. Smih's commentary: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1235
Richard Jensen's commentary: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=307
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.