Today is Pentecost – that day when we hear the reading from the second chapter of Acts which strikes fear into the hearts of lectors around the world. “Capp-uh-do-sha?” All of those people from those ancient cities and territories gathered together and hearing the praises of God in their own languages … it must have been quite a sight. Pentecost is often called the birthday of the Church, but I think the story lies in what happened as the disciples were transformed by the Spirit into apostles who were both chosen and sent.
I the spectacular nature of the phenomenon of speaking in tongues can detract from the transformational miracle at work. On that day, the Holy Spirit transformed the disciples’ belief about themselves. Consider the small band of Jesus’ followers was a group of frightened, bewildered people after the crucifixion. Remember, all of them ran away when the hour came and went into hiding. Peter, the “rock”, denied even knowing Jesus. They were all confused by the empty tomb. And even as they began to encounter the risen Lord, they still had very legitimate fears of what the Jewish and Roman authorities would do to them. Guilt by association was good enough to send many people to their own execution in first century Palestine. But on Pentecost, something happened.
Gathered together in Jerusalem to celebrate Shavout (the Jewish celebration of first harvest and the giving of the law to Moses), the disciples were transformed from frightened, to fearless – from timid to confident. They no longer considered their own safety and they went out proclaiming the Gospel boldly – even to the point of dying for it. Pentecost was when the disciples understood they were both chosen and sent.
We often think of being chosen as something relegated to the biblical story: like God choosing Moses through the burning bush, Jesus choosing his disciples saying “follow me,” or even Paul’s dramatic conversion on the Damascus Road. Being chosen was very familiar to Jesus and his followers as the Jewish people understood themselves to be chosen by God through the covenant with Abraham. But how does work for us?
Well, let me pose a question to you: Why are you here? Why are you here? Younger members will probably answer, “Because Mom and Dad make me come!” That may be true, but if it is, then ask, “Why do Mom and Dad come?” Why? There is no “church police” out there rounding up non-churchgoers and making them come to church. There is no “church boss” that will fire you from your job for not going to church. So, why are you here?
I’m sure the voice in your head has begun to make a list of reasons why you are here at Grace – and every list would be different. But the mental list you have made of why you come here is not really why you are here. Instead, I submit to you the things you’ve cited are “trigger points” or “leverage points” that the Holy Spirit has used to move you to this place. What you have listed is God’s call to you. The real reason you are here will be the same for all of you – you are here because you were chosen to be here and you said “yes” to that call. Just as Jesus chose his followers 2000 years ago, He chooses them still today. As Christians, we are chosen and the Good News is that in God’s realm, all may be chosen who have ears to hear the message and hearts to respond “yes” to God’s call. As Henri Nouwen stated in his book “Life of the Beloved,” our earthly definition of “chosen” implies that some are chosen, while others are not; however, that is not how God’s kingdom works. In God’s kingdom, all of creation is chosen; but it is up to us to say “yes” to God’s offer of relationship.
This relationship with the Living God through Christ is a gift and it carries an obligation: that we share it with others. This makes us a people who are also sent – just like those first disciples. On Pentecost, the disciples went boldly into the streets of Jerusalem, and from there all of the known Roman world, to tell their story of how they experienced God in the person of Jesus Christ. We are also called to be sent into the world to share our story. Being sent calls us to walk out those doors into a world which is often indifferent to Christians and where it isn’t always easy to tell our story. And if you feel like you don’t know how, that’s ok too. Remember, the disciples didn’t know how either, but they trusted God and each other to help them each find their own way to tell their story. That’s what the Church does for us – it provides a community of support to help us tell our stories.
Now you may think you don’t really have much of a story to tell. That little voice in your head may be saying, “I’m not that special. My story isn’t very interesting.” You may not think it is, but don’t be too quick to judge. You see the gospel isn’t just a book from which I read on Sunday mornings. It isn’t just what we hear from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Each of you is a living, breathing, incarnate gospel of Christ. And your stories of how your relationship with Christ matters and makes a difference in your life are frankly far more compelling and accessible to those outside the Church than anything in some 2,000 year old book! You may very well be the first gospel anyone “reads” and you can only be read if you are willing to tell your story.
We tell our stories in both words and actions. It isn’t about preaching on a street corner. When we go the extra mile to help another, when we live our lives as genuine, authentic, “warts and all” Christians, when we offer to pray for a friend, a teacher, or a coworker – all of these are simple examples of telling your story.
Our call as Christians on this day of Pentecost is accept and embrace that we are both chosen and sent because we are “marked as Christ’s own forever” in baptism. My charge to you on this most holy day is to trust the power of the Spirit that you may be a living gospel in a world which longs to hear the good news of what Christ is doing right here, right now.
We are living in an in-between time in the Church year. This in between period is known as Ascensiontide – the ten days between Ascension Day and Pentecost. On Ascension Day this past Thursday, our readings spoke of Jesus’ ascension into heaven and how when he departed this time, the disciples returned to Jerusalem with prayer and rejoicing. They had been promised that they would receive “power from on high” and they waited with joyous expectation. Jesus’ departure in the ascension was a necessary thing because it meant that Christ was no longer bound by space, time, physicality and the particularity of his culture. Because of the ascension, Christ is present at all times and in all places. But at times, it might seem we are disconnected from Christ and the images of the ascension can bring out in us the sense of Jesus’ absence. There is a longing in us to have seen and known Jesus the same way the disciples did. While we have a relationship with Christ, at times we may wonder what that relationship looks like from his perspective.
Today’s Gospel reading gives us a glimpse of Jesus’ longings for us from his perspective. It is part of what is known as the “high priestly prayer” of Jesus: a prayer which he prayed on the night before his crucifixion. In this prayer, he prays specifically for his disciples who “do not belong to this world.” And while Jesus was taken out of this world, first by execution and then by his ascension, his prayer for us was that we would not be taken out of this world.
When Jesus speaks of “this world,” he is talking about the powers of the world in which we live: rulers, governments, wealthy people and economic systems. And those systems often become ones of oppression where a relatively small number benefit while many are exploited. This seems to be our human nature and it hasn’t changed in 2,000 years.
I don’t know about you, but there are days when being taken out of this world appears like a reasonable solution. Just pick up the paper and read all about the violence in our world – systems of oppression and death which kill and destroy people and our environment. There are those who believe strongly in the imminence of the second coming to the extent that they abdicate all responsibility for the environment under the belief that since God won’t let us live on an unsustainable planet, we might be able to force the time and circumstances of the second coming by trashing the earth! These folks are hoping to be taken out of the world … and very soon. But this isn’t what Jesus asks, is it? No … instead, he prays for us to remain in the world and to be protected from the evil one instead of praying for us to receive a celestial evacuation.
Jesus is clear – we are in the world and that is where we need to stay. But he also says the disciples do not “belong to this world.” “Being in the world but not of the world” thematically appears as a contrast in various places in scripture but what does that mean? Jesus gives us a clue about what the sign is of being in the world but not of it means: the world hates his disciples because they do not belong to this world. In essence, the sign of discipleship is being hated by the oppressive people and systems which exploit and destroy what God has created and blessed.
Jesus says his disciples do not belong to those systems. Do we belong to them? Let me ask you this … when was the last time the powers of this world hated you because of your faithfulness to Christ? Have you ever been hated or despised because of your opposition to the some system in this world for Christ’s sake? Has the world ever even been mildly uncomfortable with you for the sake of the Gospel? If the answer is “no,” perhaps it is because we are more “of the world” than we want to admit. Economically and politically, Americans are the consummate “insiders” – those “of the world.” When you consider our political and economic systems, as a country we are in the top 1% as are most of the countries in the G-8 which just met at Camp David. What about those in the 99%?
This should give us pause to think. In light of Jesus’ prayer, it appears that the mark of discipleship is being hated for not going along with the world. The mark of a true disciple is to not fit into our culture and to be hated for it. But what does it mean to be different and out of step with the world in our day and time? Admittedly, this was easier in the early church because Christians were actually barred from specific activities: serving in the government, being in the military, etc. But in this day and time, Christians are not excluded from the culture as they once were. Attempts to come up with ways of being different – such as the Puritanical rules of “no drinking,” “no dancing,” “no smoking,” “no gambling,” “no going to movies” – seem a bit shallow as they are self-imposed by Christians upon themselves. There are Christians who claim we are persecuted in this country – compared to those who lose their lives for their faith in places like Nigeria, Uganda, and Pakistan, this claim seems pretty hollow.
We know that following a set of behavior based “rules” is far too simplistic to be marked as not “of the world.” But when we think about the decisions we make with respect to our baptismal covenant do matter. Things like respecting the dignity of every person, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and striving for justice and peace do call us into action which names and confronts those powers which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. This covenant calls us to reorient our priorities about the use of the time, talent and treasure which God gives us and those decisions can lead us to question and confront the powers of this world. Often this can lead to personal consequences for us ranging from being fired from your job for being a “whistle-blower” to being arrested for protesting government actions.
As Christians, we are marked as Christ’s own forever in baptism. We are called to be faithful in this world but not to belong to it – not to buy into its false and empty claims for power and wealth which corrupt and destroy. And while this relational covenant calls us into a place where we may be hated because of our relationship to Christ, this prayer of Jesus reminds us that we are not alone and that he continues to intercede for us that we may continue his reconciling work of redemption in our own day and time.
“This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus gives this commandment for a reason: “… so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
Love one another. On the surface this seems pretty simple. Love one another. OK … sure thing Jesus! But then after a while real life sets in. That person I’m supposed to love is … well … kind of getting on my nerves. You know how it is. Even the people we most love, in fact especially the people we most love, know us well enough to know exactly where our last nerve is and how to poke it. So Jesus’ commandment is simple … but it is not easy! It’s not easy with the people with whom we choose to share our lives, let alone having to love people that God chose for us.
That’s the situation confronting Peter in our reading from Acts. Now what we are hearing today is just the very tail end of a longer story about the earliest days of the Church. The very first controversy to confront the early followers of Jesus was the question of who could consider themselves part of this community. After all, Jesus was Jewish and his disciples were all Jewish too. And the Jewish people lived their faith according to the law of Moses which laid out some pretty strict rules about how one should live in relationship with God and what exactly made one Jewish in the first place. Many of the early Jewish followers of Jesus, like Peter, believed that you had to be Jewish to follow this Jewish Messiah. This excluded more people than it included when you consider the span of the Roman Empire.
Paul was likely the earliest follower of Jesus who came around to the idea that Jesus didn’t only come to be the savior of the Jews but also the Gentiles. He had some clashes with Peter over this very issue. He even wrote in his letter to the Galatians that he called out Peter for acting one way when the group consisted of only Gentiles and then refusing to eat with the Gentiles when the representatives of the Jerusalem church (who were Jewish Christians) showed up. Paul called Peter a hypocrite in his letter.
But we need to cut Peter a break. He was formed by his Jewish faith: a tradition with beliefs which warned him not to mix with Gentiles, not to eat certain foods, not to mix the crops in his fields, not to weave his tunic from two different kinds of thread. Judaism had an obsession with staying pure primarily because when the people mixed with others, they forgot about God. So for Peter to eat with Gentiles just went against everything he’d ever been taught.
At the beginning of the 10th chapter of Acts, we hear about a Roman centurion named Cornelius who is devout and believes in God. He is generous in giving to the poor and praying to God. An angel appears to Cornelius and tells him to send his men to Joppa to bring Peter back to his house. So Cornelius does so. In the meantime, Peter is praying on the roof and goes into a trance. He has a vision of a sheet descending from heaven and when it is opened, there are all kinds of animals in it: animals which are considered “unclean” for Jews to eat. Peter hears a voice commanding him to “get up, kill and eat” one of these animals. Peter’s response is, “I have never eaten anything unclean!” And the voice from heaven said, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” He has this vision three times and immediately afterward, Cornelius’ men arrive. Peter hears the Spirit of God tell him about these men who have come for him and commands Peter to follow them. Cornelius’ men tell Peter that they have been sent because Cornelius had a vision telling him to send for Peter so that he could receive Peter’s message for him.
Well, at this point Peter is under the impression that God has given him a message to take to Cornelius. But God has another surprise for Peter. When Peter arrives at Cornelius’ house and hears that God has found Cornelius’ prayers and alms acceptable to God, Peter is confronted with something he had not expected: that God had chosen a Gentile. This certainly would not have fit Peter’s understanding of how the God of Israel works! But Cornelius’ words coupled with Peter’s vision gave him a new understanding of what love one another means. It means welcoming and embracing as family those whom God has chosen and not just those whom we would choose based upon our own criteria.
Peter begins to speak and states that God shows no partiality but shows favor to anyone who fears God and does what is right, regardless of their circumstances. Peter then goes on to tell Cornelius and all his family gathered about Jesus the Christ. Peter’s testimony about Jesus is powerful and God’s Spirit is poured out over all of these Gentiles and they believe. Now Peter had some Jewish Christian traveling companions who were with him and they were amazed that God would send the Spirit onto Gentiles. And this is where we pick up the story. Peter essentially asks, “Who are we to tell God where and upon whom he can send the Spirit?” He orders these new Gentiles to be baptized just as surely as any Jew who wished to follow Christ. Peter learned that God does the choosing and it was not for him to judge who would or would not be part of this new community Christ had called into being.
“You did not choose me but I chose you.” In Christ, God chose a new family for Peter and the other disciples. He has likewise chosen a new family for us. When we look around here at Grace Church, there are people we would readily choose to be part of our family … and, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, some we would not choose. I know there are some folks at Grace who would rather have a different priest than me and would have chosen another. But the choosing isn’t up to us, is it? The choosing is up to God. What is up to us is to commit to the willful act of loving one another just as we have been loved by God in Christ. Loving one another as Christ loved us isn’t easy … it’s a simple command but it isn’t easy. It requires a willful commitment to be in relationship and to leave the judging to God.
But remember, there is a reason for committing to this love, even if it is hard: “that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” Christ’s joy is the goal. Joy isn’t the same thing as happiness, although it can feel like happiness at times. Happiness is dependent upon external circumstances. Joy is a gift of the Spirit and comes from within. I have met people who have many reasons to be unhappy, and yet have great joy. The promised fruit of loving one another is receiving the gift of joy – a joy which Christ promises will be complete. A wonderful example of this involves Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Back when apartheid was the law in South Africa, Archbishop Tutu was in a church preaching one Sunday when soldiers burst into the church and surrounded the mostly black congregation. Anxiety was high – when soldiers showed up, it usually meant you would be beaten or arrested when you left. But Archbishop Tutu was not going to be intimidated. Instead, he flashed a wide grin and said to the soldiers, “Gentlemen! Welcome! It is so good to see you have decided to join the winning side.” The anxiety in the room diminished and he finished his sermon. As the congregation rose to sing, the soldiers filed out of the church and left the area. This is joy! Joy born out of loving – loving even one’s enemies who were likely there to do harm.
Each of us has been chosen by God to be members of the new community we call the Church. And Christ calls us to love one another, even when it’s not easy, so that his joy may be in us and it may be complete. It is a promise of transformation – a promise of a resurrected life for each and every one of us. Thanks be to God.
“Abide in me as I abide in you.” “I am the vine, you are the branches.” “… apart from me, you can do nothing.”
When I was about 8 years old, we lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. My great-aunt and great-uncle lived in San Jose and, in a sense, became like surrogate grandparents to me and my sister. Uncle Frank was Italian and he had the greenest thumb of anyone I know. Rumor has it he fed the whole block out of his victory garden during World War II. But one of Frank’s passions was grafting fruit trees. I remember going to visit one day and he took me and my sister out to his backyard, pointed to a tree and asked, “Hey, have you ever seen a tree like that?” We both nodded, thinking it looked like any other tree. But he said, “Noooo you haven’t! Take a closer look.” We walked up under the tree, looked up into the branches and saw … peaches … and plums … and nectarines … and apricots. I know we must have looked pretty confused because Uncle Frank started laughing. He came over and showed us what he did – he’d grafted all those different fruit trees together onto a peach tree root stock. “Anything with pit grafts to anything with a pit. Anything with a seed grafts to anything with a seed … and all the citrus go together.” Sure enough, he had an apple tree that grew several kinds of apples and pears, an orange tree that grew oranges, tangerines and grapefruit, and a lemon tree that had both lemons and limes growing on it. It was the first time I’d seen grafting up close.
Grafting is such an ancient agricultural technique that nobody really knows how far back it goes. Ancient Greek texts which predate the life of Christ give detailed instructions on the art of grafting. And it is the image of grafting Jesus is using in today’s gospel reading. “I am the vine, you are the branches … apart from me you can do nothing.” In our baptism, we are grafted into Christ and apart from Christ and his Body we know as the Church, we can do nothing. But when we are grafted into Christ, we are capable of far greater things than we can imagine.
I have been thinking about what this means in light of the terrible tragedy which occurred last Thursday at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Most of you have heard by now that Douglas Jones, a homeless man, shot and killed Brenda Brewington, the parish administrator, and shot the co-rector, the Rev. Dr. Mary-Marguerite Kohn inside St. Peter’s Church before turning the gun on himself. I did not know about this until just before the opening of our Diocesan Convention on Friday morning and neither did many of our delegates. What does it mean to abide in Christ and have Christ abide in us when such tragic and senseless violence can enter even the places where we should feel safe?
For me, it meant gathering with the people of God in that convention hall. Abiding in Christ meant talking with our sisters and brothers about our feelings of anger, betrayal, fear, grief, loss, numbness, vulnerability and shedding tears in a safe space knowing we were surrounded by friends who care. Christ abiding in us meant reaching out in support to our diocesan staff who ministered to the victims and their families. Christ abiding in us meant praying the litany at the time of death together for Mary-Marguerite+, who was being kept alive on life support so her family could make plans to donate her organs and give life to others in the face of death. Christ abiding in us allowed us to gather for Eucharist and offer thanksgiving for the lives of Brenda and Mary-Marguerite+ and all who minister to the suffering in all of our churches. Christ abiding in us meant we could pray our forgiveness towards Douglas whose reasons for doing this we could not understand and offer up prayers for the repose of his soul just as we did for Brenda and Mary-Marguerite+. Christ abiding in us made it possible for two Episcopal Churches to reach out to Douglas’ family and offer their churches for his burial service.
But Christ abiding in us and we in him also leads us to name and confront the root cause of this violence which has beset us. We live in a culture of violence where guns are too readily accessible and proper mental health care is not. Our culture has raised individualism and autonomy to an idolatrous status and neglects to offer appropriate care for those suffering from mental illness who need support. In May 2005, PBS’s Frontline did a story called “The New Asylum.” They cite the following:
"Fewer than 55,000 Americans currently receive treatment in psychiatric hospitals. Meanwhile, almost 10 times that number – nearly 500,000 – mentally ill men and women are serving time in U.S. jails and prisons. As sheriffs and prison wardens become the unexpected and often ill-equipped caretakers of this burgeoning population, they raise a troubling new concern: Have America’s jails and prisons become its new asylums?"
I’m afraid the answer to that question is “yes.” We have become a society where those with severe mental illness or addiction are deemed disposable: locked in prisons where we don’t have to deal with them, or who, like Douglas Jones, live in the woods under tarps and in tents. You see, the mentally ill and addicted have the right to autonomy – to live their lives as they see fit, even if they do not necessarily have the capacity to make grounded judgments about treatment options which can improve their quality of life and ability to integrate into society. Access to proper mental health care is difficult for those who have supportive families and insurance: it is impossible for those who lack both.
Living as members of the Body of Christ and grafted into him, we are called not only to pray and console but also to act on behalf of the most vulnerable members of our society. Already there are people questioning why St. Peter’s had an outreach to the homeless in the first place and saying the church shouldn’t do this kind of work. Really? Well, if that’s so, who will reach out to the forgotten ones? Who? That’s right … if we as the Church don’t, nobody else will. And Jesus told us plainly: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” Abiding in Christ and he in us means we must continue to have the courage to carry out the gospel in both our words and actions.
“Abide in me as I abide in you.” Apart from Christ, we can do nothing for we would be paralyzed in our fear. But grafted into Christ, we can do whatever God asks of us – and it is always more than what we can imagine.