April 24, 2016

Named

Acts is the sequel to the Gospel according to Saint Luke. It begins where Luke’s Gospel ends: with Jesus’ Ascension. From there, the story moves to Pentecost—the day on which the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples with a sound like rushing wind and “divided tongues, as of fire.” That day, Peter preached to a huge crowd of Jews gathered from throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. Thousands believed his message and were baptized on Pentecost, and a new community emerged in Jerusalem; a community devoted “to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Despite the expectation that their group would offer an alternative to the world’s judgmental and stratified ways of organizing itself, or maybe it was because they expected more from themselves, the growing community of Jesus’ disciples tackled divisive issues among their members head and ministered to and with people traditionally pushed to the margins of society and excluded—people accustomed to being counted among the lonely, the last, and the lost.

When the Apostles learned, for example, that old prejudices and a language barrier were causing poor widows who spoke Greek to be excluded from the church’s food assistance program, they ordained deacons to oversee the program and ensure that it included all who had need.

When Phillip met a traveler from Africa who had been told that the medical procedure that made him a eunuch rendered him incomplete in the eyes of God, he told the man that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought Good News to all people, including him, and he baptized the Ethiopian eunuch in a roadside stream.

And when Jesus—in his resurrection splendor—came to a man of violence named Saul who was also known as Paul, the church’s first great enemy was blinded so that he might truly see what God was doing in the world.

The opening chapters of Acts catalog the social and theological barriers smashed by grace in Easter’s aftermath as the community of disciples spread out from Jerusalem and began to count the lonely, the last, and the lost in their number.

Then the same Holy Spirit that showed up on Pentecost descended on a group of Gentiles. Acts 10 recounts how God arranged a meeting between the Apostle Peter and a Roman soldier named Cornelius. It tells how Peter protested at first—doubting that grace could be so amazing, so powerful as to overcome the social and cultural chasm dividing these two—but God intended for the two to be reconciled.

With a vision on his mind and a believing Gentile standing before him, Peter repented of his protest and realized that God’s grace was for—and God’s people should welcome—everybody.

The apostle confessed,

God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean…[for] I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
“If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ,” Peter reported to his colleagues in ministry, “who was I that I could hinder God?”

News of Peter’s breakthrough spread among the disciples like electricity, bringing power and light to ministries that once seemed impossible. Acts chapter 11 tells us about the most significant of those ministries.

When chapter 11 begins, we find Peter in Jerusalem telling the believers there about Cornelius and the amazing things God was doing among Gentiles—people long regarded by many to be beyond the reach of God’s grace.

When [the church is Jerusalem] heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
The chapter then shifts our attention to a town called Antioch.
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen [that is after a group of religious leaders in Jerusalem stoned a man because he refused to renounce his faith in Jesus] traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch [a city favored by Rome in modern day Turkey, near the northeastern Mediterranean shore], and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists [Gentiles] also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus.

The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord.

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”

What happened in Antioch is a very big deal. This is the place where Saul also known as Paul first assumed a leadership position in the church. Considering all that Saint Paul would go on to accomplish, we must, then, count the church at Antioch among the manger in Bethlehem and Peter’s fishing boat on the list of Most Holy Humble Beginnings. More importantly, this is also the first recorded instance of believers who were raised Jewish and believers who were raised as Gentiles worshipping together in any significant numbers, the first example of a truly diverse and multi-cultural congregation.

And isn’t in incredible, isn’t it noteworthy, that in this place, in the city where Jews and Gentiles first came together in a new way because of the Good News of Jesus Christ that “the disciples were first called ‘Christians’”?

We have a name and it is Christian. However, we did not receive that name when we heard Jesus preach, saw him die, or beheld his empty tomb. It wasn’t when the Spirit moved within us, when we were baptized, or when we broke bread in remembrance of him. We earned the name Christian when our experience of the Risen Christ led us to release the reigns with which we’d been trying to restrain love so that barriers could come down, a new fellowship formed, and the full expanse of God’s grace celebrated.

According to Acts, the disciples didn’t become Christians when they correctly figured out everything about Jesus. They became Christians when they channeled the gifts and graces Jesus gave them into a community in which former strangers and sometimes enemies became brothers and sisters in the family of God.

And Paul was there, right in the middle of this amazing community.

Even though there’s no letter to the Church in Antioch in the New Testament, the evidence that his time in that place had a tremendous influence on his thinking abounds.

When Paul proclaimed that the Church’s mission is a ministry of reconciliation, I have no doubt that he was thinking about Antioch.

When he declared that all who have faith in Jesus are one body—the Body of Christ—surely he remembered the barriers in saw come down in that place.

When he preached that whatever we were before Jesus came into our lives—that who we were and where we came from were irrelevant because in Christ we are a new creation, don’t you think we remembered the how Barnabas sought to include him? Don’t you think he remembered what grace did for him and how God used him, of all people, to shape the newborn Church?

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Without love—without a willingness to sacrifice, without a commitment to see barriers come down, without Christ-like humility—all that the Church accomplishes, all that we achieve amounts to nothing and falls short of the name Christian.

Paul could write so boldly because he was there in Antioch. He was there when the disciples earned their new name. He was their when we discovered the “ministry of reconciliation” at the heart of the Gospel.

Dearly beloved

We are gathered here today

2 get through this thing called life

And life in the Resurrection Reality has a name. The name is Christian and it is the name we claim for ourselves when we respond to the call of our risen and living Savior and Lord to be agents of reconciliation and love in the world. Like the saints of old, we, too, become Christians when we channel our gifts and graces into a community in which former strangers and sometimes enemies become brothers and sisters in the family of God.

In Acts the Spirit creates and electrifies a community that smashed old barriers because of God's desire to see God's children gifted and empowered to love one another boldly and I think that's incredibly relevant to our journey to be a church in which everyone--gay and straight, rich and poor, liberal and conservative--discovers just what God can do in and through and for them.

Let’s work to make this community called John Street Church just such a place.

Let’s count ourselves among the lonely, the least, and the lost and celebrate the Good News that God’s grace is sufficient for us, God’s grace is sufficient for all.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

April 18, 2016

Bedside Manners

Long ago, while the first chapters of church history were still being written, the witness and faith of a woman named Tabitha made a tremendous impact on the community of Jesus’ disciples.
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha…She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.
If we pause for just a second and consider this albeit brief description of Tabitha, we need not stretch our imaginations to see the place of honor she held in the hearts of her friends.

Remembered as one “devoted to good works and acts of charity,” undoubtedly, there were in the community persons inspired by her generosity, others who were touched by her kindness, and even more who could point to the positive difference she made in their lives. I think it’s fair to assume that the people loved, respected, and revered Tabitha. That’s why her death was such a crushing experience for her friends.

At that time [Tabitha] became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.
When Tabitha died her church family came together for the funeral.

They prepared her body to be buried and came together to grieve their friend.

But they also sent word to the Apostle Peter “to come to them without delay.”

Given what happened next, we have to wonder what Tabitha’s friends expected Peter would do.

Did they expect him to perform a miracle? We don’t know.

Was Tabitha a close friend whose death Peter would need to grieve, too? We can’t say.

Was this congregation simply reaching out to their spiritual leader—like a family calling their pastor from the emergency room? The Bible doesn’t tell us.

What the Bible does tell us, however, is that Peter wasted no time in going to the grieving people.

So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that [Tabitha] had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed.
And after praying, Peter did the strangest thing.

He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.”

And then something stranger happened. She did.

[Tabitha] opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.
In a wonderful sermon entitled “Lady Lazarus,” Barbara Brown Taylor points out that at least one biblical scholar has criticized the way Acts presents Tabitha’s story. This scholars says that Luke shouldn’t mention Tabitha’s good works, because that might trick us into believing that the miracle was a reward that she earned. This person is also critical of Peter’s actions. After all, he didn’t even say anything about Jesus.

“To avoid misunderstanding,” this scholar writes, “the miracle needs to be clothed in explicit theological meaning.”

Barbara Brown Taylor’s answer to this scholar’s criticism becomes the touchstone of our encounter with God’s word today.

She writes,

[Criticizing the story’s lack of explicit theology] strikes me as an odd statement in itself…As far as I can tell, that is less of a problem for most people than the fact that they are not able to reproduce this miracle no matter where they line up theologically. They too pray for people they love who are dying if not dead. They too call on the most powerful help they can think of, but their prayers do not work the way Peter’s did. Their [loved one’s] eyes stay closed…while they stain their tunics with their tears.
Barbara Brown Taylor invites us, then, to hold together the scripture that is before us and the pain of grief and loss that is within and all around our human experience. In essence, she invites us, as does Saint Luke, to go into the upstairs room with Peter and to discover there the power and wonder and hope of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

There is Good News at Tabitha’s bedside because her experience helps us understand the impact Christ’s resurrection has on life in the here and now—life that is simultaneously fragile and finite, yet verdant and overflowing with God’s amazing grace.

After his resurrection, the reality of death continued to confront Jesus’ disciples. Even after Easter, Christians still died, but they also came to believe the Risen Christ was God’s pledge and promise to them that nothing, not even death, could separate them from God’s love.

That’s what’s going on in today’s passage from Revelation in which one of the heavenly elders reveals the identity of the white robed multitude to Saint John.

These are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb…They will hunger no more, and thirst no more…for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
These were people who had suffered and died because of their faith, yet even still, they had not lived and died in vain because God was still with them. God had not forsaken them.

In the midst of turmoil and hardships, grief and persecution, the faithful trusted Jesus to lead them beside still waters and restore their soul—now and forever.

They had faith that he was the Good Shepherd who would lead them through the valley of the shadow of death.

This is the faith Peter brought to his dead friend.

Now we need to be clear. Tabitha’s experience was not normal! Our ancestors did not believe that faith worked on the dead like Tylenol works on a headache. This is a story of a supernatural physical event that reveals a deeper spiritual reality, as all miracles do.

The reality is that the bonds of God’s love are greater than death’s sting.

In fact, Peter and all the saints believed that no created thing had the power to tear them away from God’s love.

“For I am convinced,” declared Saint Paul in his Letter to the Romans, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I think Paul’s defiant attitude is present in Tabitha’s story—encouraging the faithful to live in the light of love and life, not the fear of death’s darkness.

You see, even though the Church taught its members not to fear death, Christians always believed that this life was worth living to its fullness.

Life—flesh and blood, ups and downs, laughter and tears—life wasn’t something that the faithful thought they had to tolerate until they got to the good stuff with God when they died.

If that was the case, Tabitha would’ve been pretty ticked off when Peter woke her up.

But she wasn’t ticked off. She and her friends rejoiced the day that Peter came to town because they knew that every minute of every day was a gift from God.

They knew that joy and love in this life are worth savoring, and they knew that new life through Jesus Christ wasn’t limited to life after death with God in heaven.

Our ancestors didn’t fear death for they knew it wasn’t the end. They also didn’t seek death because they experienced life as God’s great gift to them.

We share this same faith with our ancestors.

There’s a beautiful prayer in the service we offer when a member of the church dies that underscores this point. Spoken in the midst of death, it is a prayer for the living.

[O God] Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are accomplished, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you…
In life and in death, we rest in Jesus Christ.

This is why Tabitha’s story matters to us.

Because Tabitha got up, we can get up and get through whatever we face.

A difficult week at work or a fruitless job search, a dark night of despair or a season of grief—the Risen Christ has the final say in our lives, and he speaks love, mercy, grace, power, and truth.

Because those who came to mourn Tabitha became the first to rejoice with her, we find God’s strength made perfect in our weakness.

Because their weeping turned to dancing, we have confidence that when we walk with God, we will never walk alone.

Because the crucifixion led to an empty tomb, we know that our story does not end in Good Friday’s darkness but carries on into the new light of Easter morning.

In life and in death, we rest in Jesus Christ because he is the Lord of life, holds the keys to death, and hears us when we pray.

May, then, the Good Shepherd, the King of Love, Death’s Conqueror, and Fear’s Fiercest Foe “help us to live as those who are prepared to die” so that “when our days here are accomplished” we may “die as those who go forth to live.”

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.