Friday, July 05, 2019

July 7, Proper 9: How Close Is the Kingdom of God?

2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, Gal 6:1-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

“Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” What does that mean? That you will go to heaven? Maybe you know that I don’t think so. That’s not what the Bible means by eternal life. What the Bible means by eternal life is your sharing in the new creation of the world, whenever that might be.

So then what does Jesus mean by saying that? He means that your name is registered on the roll of the citizens, in the capital of that Kingdom that you are loyal to. Like if you’re a US citizen, your name is written on some list in Washington DC, but that doesn’t mean that you plan to live there. That your names are written in heaven means that your names are registered in the capital of the Kingdom of God, which, as we pray, will come on earth, as it is in heaven.

And that’s what’s happening in this story, that the Kingdom of God has come near you. How near, how close? Well, what do you imagine? What do you see when you imagine the Kingdom of Heaven? Something distant, faraway, or close? How far away is heaven? Way up there? I want you to imagine heaven as starting already an inch above the ground, and then it’s heaven all the way up. It’s heaven all the way up. Heaven is faraway and so close. The Kingdom of God has come near you.

Do you take this as mystical or practical? I hope you take it as both, as both mystical and practical, and as both spiritual and ethical. That’s always the concern of St. Luke’s Gospel. Although this story is a strange one, especially for Luke. Of the four Gospel writers, St. Luke is the most historical, almost modern. And yet a few of his reports don’t fit, and they lift us out of space and time. Today’s story makes no sense geographically. Last week we saw the Lord Jesus set his face to Jerusalem and begin his final journey to his doom. But now he zigzags all around the villages of Samaria and then back to Galilee and makes no headway, and this mission of the 70 is a timeless intermezzo.

And to what purpose? What does this mission of the 70 accomplish? If the kingdom of God was near it only disappears again. Peace came to their houses momentarily, and then they’re back to the same old grind. If you were thinking that only purpose of our religion is to escape this bad dream of a world and flee to heaven, you might read that into this passage, as many have.

But if we read it the other way, that the Kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven, including us, then you’d have to say that this Kingdom seems to have no staying power. It certainly does not compel us to accept it.

You see the same in the story of Naaman the Leper. If you were Naaman you’d have no reason even to respect the Kingdom of God. His own gods were more successful. The God of Israel was the god of a two-bit loser nation who apparently could not get victory for his people in war, and was so unimpressive as a god that not even the King of Israel worshiped him. A loser god of a loser nation.

The Kingdom of God is apparently weak and powerless and it compels no respect. Which is symbolized in the little slave girl. Her name is not written anywhere. She’s a person of no respect. And yet it’s she that gets the story going. As powerless as she is, she knows where power is found. This story is full of ironies. We should expect the irony if the Kingdom of God is contradictory to the expectations of all the other powers of the world.

Naaman is a big deal, so of course he goes to the King of Israel to find the prophet in Israel. But the King doesn’t know what the slave girl knows, and he assumes it’s war. The prophet Elisha has to rescue the King from his predicament, and his letter makes a joke of the King, who also can’t accept the lavish gifts that the King of Aram has sent him.

Elisha summons Naaman, but then treats him as no big deal. He’s doing his crossword puzzle and can’t be bothered to come out. This no-respect insults Naaman and he calls the whole thing off until the servants speak up. Their names are not written either, but they are just as pivotal as the little slave girl at the start.

Does the Kingdom of God have any power? Does it have power to heal and power for peace? If it does, it’s a strange power that never forces itself on us. It never compels us. It invites us and then waits for us to say yes to it. And that makes sense if the power of this Kingdom is most revealed in love. Because love waits. Love is patient and kind, and bears all things and endures all things. Love invites but never forces. This Kingdom of God conquers you only by making sense. The sovereignty of God compels you only by your conviction and belief. Your surrender to it is not the usual kind.

Look at the surrendering of Naaman. He had to agree to the terms, the strange terms of the invitation by the prophet. He had to surrender to the advice of his servants. And then he had to surrender to the shame, the shame of being naked in front of his underlings. In that culture to be naked  was shameful. It was a surrender.

As he gets into the water they can all observe him. He comes up the first time, and they can see the leprous patches still on his skin. He comes up a second time, it’s still there. A third time, a fourth time—this is getting dramatic—a fifth time, a sixth time, and the seventh time they’re afraid to look. Who is the first one to shout, “He’s clean?” “I’m clean, I’m clean!!”

His flesh was clean like the flesh of a little boy. He could rejoice in his flesh, but having had to submit to his nameless servants he would know better than to boast about his flesh. The mighty warrior had surrendered, he had died and rose again, he had been baptized. “May I never boast of anything but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” That’s the surrender, to agree to the terms, to accept the invitation on its terms.

When the Lord Jesus sent the 70 out, it wasn’t an evangelical mission but an ironic military campaign. What a conquering army does is quarter its troops in the homes of the people it is conquering, and the families have to feed the troops. But these troops have no weapons, no supplies, no boots, no sandals even. They can’t fight, they can’t defend themselves, they’re lambs among wolves, and their only campaign is peace. Because the foreign policy of this Kingdom of God is peace.

And no one has to accept it. They can turn you away. There is no compulsion, only invitation. But if they do not welcome you, don’t engage, don’t force, don’t plead, disconnect, their dust off your feet, be free of them, protest, but the only judgment is that the unwelcoming judge themselves.

Many Christians have read this gift of freedom to accept or reject the invitation as meaning that God does not claim full sovereignty over all the earth and all of our lives, that the Kingdom of God is only a private choice and a personal option. But the Kingdom of God is the Kingdom of Heaven, and if heaven is near and here and an inch above the ground and then all the way up, then the Sovereignty of God claims relevance over every single aspect of human life and culture, what we spend our money on, our civil rights and our citizenship, our systems of justice and economics, our criminal injustice system, and how we treat our planet.

The Kingdom of Heaven envelops the planet as an atmosphere, from the ground up. It claims everything, and yet it is so patient that it will not enforce its claims, and is willing to look soft and weak in order to never be anything that is not also Love.

It is both contradictory and ironical. Our relationship with God is often ironic. God loves us but is not impressed by us. God esteems us but knows we are unwise. God gives us freedom but has no illusions about our use of it. In a way, the joke’s on us, and that is to our good. This kind of surrender means laughing at ourselves and at the fools we are. But not a laughter of mockery. A laughter of sudden recognition and release, a laughter of reconciliation and of love.

Where will you find the knowledge that you need for the power that heals you and gives you peace? Well, who are the nameless slave girls in your life? Who are the underlings whom you take for granted but who are on your side anyway? Who are the shoeless visitors who come to your house uninvited? Listen to them. Eat their food, whatever they set in front of you. They may not even know that they represent the Kingdom of God, but you can see it because of how close it is.

As I said, it’s a very strange way for this Almighty God to exert God’s power and sovereignty. Unless God never does anything that is not also Love. And that is what I invite you to believe today, that the motive behind everything that God does, or doesn’t do, is God’s love for you.

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

June 30, Proper 8: Departures

2 Kings 2:1-2,6-14, Psalm 77, Gal 5:1,13-25, Luke 9:51-62

I’m thinking about departures—four of them. The departure of John Dyck for Auburn, Alabama, the departure of Karen Bulthuis for Seattle, the departure of Elijah into heaven, and the departure of the Lord Jesus into heaven by way first of Jerusalem. Not that Alabama and Seattle are up there with heaven, but in every case the rest of us are left behind to carry on, disconnected and detached.

Elisha does not want to detach from Elijah, and so he disobeys him every time he’s ordered to stay behind. “Oh no, I will not leave you.” How does he even know? How does Elijah know? I guess it’s a prophet’s business to know such things. Elisha is tested as a prophet—whether he can see the invisible army of the Kingdom of God. That he can see it means that he surely has that double share of Elijah’s spirit—to be the prophet in his place, and to do greater things than Elijah did, even if he is a milder man. The departure of Elijah does not mean the departure of Elijah’s God.

Elijah is the only person in the Old Testament to be taken alive into heaven. Even Moses had to die, on a mountain alone with God, and God buried him. There’s a tradition that Enoch was taken alive, but Genesis does not actually say that. Anyway it was not an Old Testament belief that heaven is our ultimate destiny. So for a man to be taken up into heaven was absurd, or wonderful, or both, and for what purpose? Does he live among the angels, eating angels’ food? The tradition developed that Elijah would return some day, and he would prepare the way for the Messiah.

Elijah is behind our Gospel today. It’s an Elijah story that James and John have in mind when they want to call down fire on the Samaritans, as Elijah had done with the ancestors of these Samaritans. And James and John had just witnessed Elijah on the Mount of the Transfiguration, only 21 verses earlier in this same chapter, talking with Jesus and Moses. St. Luke is specific that what Elijah and Moses talked about with Jesus was his departure, eventually to heaven but by way of Jerusalem. And the final journey of Our Lord to Jerusalem is what he sets out on in our Gospel today.

People want to go with him, like the other prophets with Elijah, but Our Lord brushes them off. With one-liners, with non-sequiturs. Our Lord is being provocative. Off-putting. Unreasonable. If you are plowing, you do have to look back to check your alignment. And it’s impossible for the dead to bury the dead. Not only that, if your father just died, then you should honor your father with an immediate burial. Does Jesus mean that he should break the Fifth Commandment? And, the Son of Man does have places to lay his head, like at the home of Mary and Martha. And finally, no one is fit for the Kingdom of God anyway.

What’s he doing with these non-sequiturs, with this verbal sparring that puts you off-balance? He casts his words like an offensive lineman throwing blocks to let the fullback through, is to clear his way to Jerusalem. He’s like Julius Caesar, crossing the Rubicon, or more like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the march across the Edmund Pettus bridge. Our Lord is talking about himself here and the deadly road he’s on—that he will not rest, and not look back, that he leaves his parents to others, and he himself is as good as dead and buried.

He is disconnecting and detaching. He has no enemies and no real allies. He fights no one but challenges everyone. If people oppose him he lets them be, because who can understand him! He must accept his doom, because no one is fit for the Kingdom of God. Yet unfit as you are, because of his death and resurrection and ascension, he gives it to you as a gift.

We do not build the Kingdom of God, despite what well-meaning Christians say. We receive it as a gift. The Kingdom of God does not belong to us. Neither does Jesus belong to us, or to the church. We call ourselves a community of Jesus, and we are, but not that we possess him. On Tuesday morning, as I meditated on these passages, that’s what hit me, and I don’t know if you can call it a take-home, or an application, but I felt the message that the Lord Jesus does not belong to us.

You know that I belong to Melody, my wife, and she belongs to me, and yet profoundly she does not belong to me. It’s only slaves that belong to someone else. Our children belong to us in many ways but finally we have to let them go for their own journeys. Karen has her journey and she does not belong to us, and John has his journey and he does not belong to us. Departures.

We will bless them and set them free from us. Just as the Lord Jesus is free from us and we have to get out of his way sometimes. We have to let him do his awful thing in Jerusalem. We have to let him die, and die alone, without us, detached from us and disconnected.

He must be free of us that he can set us free from the world, the flesh, and the devil—in which we are so thoroughly enmeshed that we could not otherwise be free of it. Call it slavery, or servitude, or merely attachment—it holds us and determines our choices and behaviors. But he detaches us and sets us free.

With this freedom comes uncertainty—so many free choices and options wide open. But freedom can mean chaos and anarchy and then new tyranny. When the Children of Israel were liberated from slavery in Egypt, the Lord God quickly gave them a full set of commandments to keep their liberty in order. It’s a task of all religions to control and limit human behavior. And Christianity has acted like any another religion by putting all kinds of rules on its believers.

Against St. Paul! His strategy is a whole new departure in human social organization. He doesn’t mean it just for the church, he means it for humanity in general. But it’s so radical that the church keeps failing it. He proposes that you channel your freedom not by new rules but by voluntary love, that you channel your social relations by voluntary service to each other, and that you control your own behavior by faithfulness and self-control. He says that against such things there is no law, so that this new way of human behavior is possible within any culture or legal system on the earth.

Human relations in his time were based on the obligations of class and race and ownership. It still is true. His radical departure is to base your relations on the freedom of the Spirit and the fruits of the Spirit. I call it the nine-fold test. With all your free choices and all your wide open options, how do you determine what to do? You base your choice on the nine-fold test. Three by three.

Will your choice of action tend toward love and peace and joy? Then go ahead.
Will your social relations exhibit patience and kindness and generosity? Then be my guest.
Will your personal behavior exhibit faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Then knock yourself out.
Experiment. Freely choose.

The church has ever doubted St. Paul at his word, and we keep falling back into legalisms. And yet his radical departure in human social organization has had its slow and simmering influence on global civilization. Just two examples are the liberation of women from property to partners and the liberation of LGBTQ persons to commit to faithful relationships. St. Paul says that if you are led by the Spirit you are not subject to the law. Your guide is not the Law of Nature but the Fruit of the Spirit.

The Gospel is on a long journey in world history like the journey of the Lord Jesus to Jerusalem. The Gospel clears away from its path all other competing connections and attachments, no matter how noble and even reasonable they might be, and all of our laws are judged by the message of the Cross. And where the path is free and clear the Holy Spirit enters in take you along on God’s own journey, and like Elisha you can see the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God does not belong to us but we receive it as a gift. The Lord Jesus does not belong to us but we love him because he first loved us. Karen and John have loved us and they will depart from us and disconnect and detach from us and be free of us. And their freedom is the opportunity for nothing else than love, and may our love for them increase with the length of their journeys until we all come home. We will love them as ourselves.

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

June 23, Proper 7: The Still, Small Voice and the Legion of Demons

I Kings 19:1-15a, Psalm 42, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

On the subway you see men like him, women too. You step into the car and the stench assaults you, from that silent mound of filthy rags and bulky bags in which there lives a human being. Going nowhere, no home but there, alone, unloved, dehumanized by a legion of demons or mental illnesses or both.

If he were naked like the man in the tombs they’d arrest him, but as long as he’s covered we tolerate his misery. We have somewhere to get to, things to do, money to make, a herd of swine to manage. Some social worker maybe could help him out, as long as that does not delay my train!

The Lord Jesus steps on shore and the man opposes him. His demons sense the power of Jesus and they are scared. These demons are not from hell (our English translation is misleading), they’ve never been there and they don’t want to go there. These are the natural spirits of the landscape (the natural spirituality to which we moderns are now insensitive), but natural spirits corrupted, spirits diseased, terrified, vicious like mad dogs, violent, destructive. And not smart. It was their own very bad idea to be released into the herd of swine. Self-destructive spirituality.

After that the opposition to Jesus moves to the local population. He’s delayed their train. Their pigs are gone. The misery of that man was tolerable but now what about them? Jesus, mind your own business. We have to live with chaos every day and keep it at bay—what little we can control. We live so close to disaster, an accident, a fall, we miss a payment. We know that our attempts at order keep some people out, but we’d rather you’d leave us alone to manage our own business.

How much do you want the Savior in your life? How much do you want the Kingdom of God to come into your space? It might upset things. What about business as usual? But yes, you do want what Jesus offers in this story, the healing and humanizing of the man, clothed, and in his right mind

You wish you could do it for the lost soul on the subway. You want this kind of Jesus in your life, you want his kind of healing and humanizing in the world. Forgiving sins, reconciling lost souls back among their homes and families—why can’t it be more frequent, more constant, more familiar, why so rare? Jesus, where are you? We want you, we do believe in you—where are you?

Psalm 42: All day long my enemies mock me and say to me, “Where now is your God?” Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul, and why are you so disquieted within me? This heaviness of soul, you know what that is, that’s depression. It’s more than that, but at least it’s that. It’s what you see in Elijah in our first lesson. He’s depressed, and depression usually means a combination of anger and grief.

He sees the Kingdom of God as a lost cause, as hopeless, despite his recent triumph over the prophets of Baal. The Baals were the same kind of corrupted natural spirits of the landscape that Jesus would face eight hundred years later. But after Elijah’s great win, one word from Jezebel casts him down. He’s got that notorious let-down after a triumph, the slump after success. He runs away, he mopes, he says he might as well be dead. Kill me now.

When I was in my second parish, in Ontario, Canada, I suffered four years of insomnia. I could not sleep. I was high-strung and hyper-vigilant, and productive, so I did not think I was depressed. My doctor put me on Ambien to get me through it. One day my doctor said to me, “Pardon me for saying this, but isn’t your real problem that you’re mad at God?” A wise woman. I was mad at God. I was aggrieved at God. For all kinds of reasons. And it was making me unhealthy, although not mentally ill or demon possessed. But this why I say that Elijah here is mad at God.

He’s a mighty prophet. He’s been jealous for God. But here he’s jealous of God, of God’s prerogatives. “I’m knocking myself out for you, God, and what are you doing? Where are you God?” Absent? Inactive? He doesn’t criticize God directly, but you can read between the lines.

The story is marvelously strange and it passes into paranormal. The prophet is like a wizard here, sustained by just those morsels of angelic food for his forty-day hike into the desert. He leaves the world of ordinary life for the wild world where humans die and spirits haunt, to the barren peak where God spoke to Moses. Whose idea was this? Does God even want him here? It is ambiguous. What else should we expect in this strange Marvel-Comics-world that Elijah has put himself into?

When he climbs Mount Sinai God questions him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” How do you hear that—as an open question or a challenge to a guy God knows is mad at him? Twice the question, and twice Elijah’s answer of despair. But God doesn’t comfort him. Prophets don’t get that kind of indulgence. God just commissions him again. “Go return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.” And then in the next verses, unfortunately cut off by the lectionary: “Get going, I’ve got a job for you there. And by the way, you’re not the only one left. I’ve got 7,000 loyal Israelites whose quiet service has been unnoticed by you in all your jealousy for me.”

So Elijah makes the long journey back and I wonder what he ate. Is he muttering, “Jeez, you don’t get much appreciation around here!” He’s got the lesson of the mountain, that God was not in the storm nor the earthquake nor the fire but the still, small voice. He has to learn God’s strategy.

Yes, we like the mighty acts of God, the mighty power of God, that God can do great miracles of vindication and liberation, but the way God chooses to assert the Kingdom of God is by means of the small and quiet voices who give their witness. Like the man that Jesus healed. Jesus commissioned him: “Go tell how much God has done for you.” That’s the power of God—your witness; not the wind or earthquake or fire but your quiet testimony, by what you tell and how you do what you do. In your witness comes the Kingdom of God. What you say about God and why you live your life.

In a few minutes you’re going to hear such a testimony, from our own Joanna Franchini. She will tell you of her still, small deeds of service to refugee mothers and children opposed by the hostility and intentional chaos of our current government. And she will ask for your support. Let her encourage you to endorse this strategy of God. It may delay your train. But here’s a take-home for today: your own testimony is everything, no matter how small and weak your voice may be.

Do you see the world as positive or negative, or even hostile and chaotic? Does your worldview run Marvel-Comics or mystical-spiritual or rationalist-scientific? (Mine runs Calvinist and Tolkien and I try to hold them together.) No matter what, in the middle is humanity, and the common trend of our two stories today is humanization: the Kingdom of God in small, quiet human voices and typically unnoticed service, and also the humanization of the man called Legion, now quietly sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind. A proper human being, a member of that new humanity that St. Luke has made a theme in both his Gospel and The Acts, the new humanity that is brought into the world by the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Look at the change. It might upset our business, but is this not what you want to see and to hope for?

Not Humanism as independent of God, but humanization because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, human beings as the image of God and object of God’s love, humanizing those who are dehumanized because they are sacred to the Lord. Whenever we encounter dehumanization we are judged with a judgment against idolatry, a judgment against demonization. You are not judged as an individual when you can do nothing for that person on the train, but is not our system judged and our way of life, that we tolerate such misery, and children in cages, and families cut apart?

What God does for us doesn’t always feel like love. God was hard with Elijah, and the Lord Jesus refused the begging of the liberated man to stay with him. God challenges us when God commissions us, and often when we’d rather be just held. But in the challenge is the larger love. You know how it works. In the challenge is the larger love. Your commission is to declare how much the love of God has done for you. 

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

June 16: Holy Trinity; Questions 1: How Can God Be One and Three?

Proverbs 8:1-4, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

One God in three persons. Yet not three gods, but One God. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity, a difficult doctrine. And the doctrine is not taught as such in the Bible, and the word “Trinity” never appears in the Bible. But the doctrine is how the church has accounted for the evident behavior of God in the Bible.

Especially right after Easter. On that first Easter, when the Lord Jesus rose from the dead, the disciples still had God in heaven and Jesus as only an exalted man. But the next Sunday, when the Lord Jesus showed himself, it was Thomas who first recognized Jesus as “his Lord and his God.” He called Jesus the names reserved for the One God, the God that Jesus prayed to as his Father. And yet Thomas knew him by the marks in his hands where the nails had been as a person distinct from the Father. So here we have two persons as One God!

Then on Pentecost God opened up further as the Holy Spirit, coming down upon God’s people, and not just an energy, but a person, but also not Jesus. So now we have three persons in One God. So today, the first Sunday after the end of the Easter Season, we pause to “acknowledge the glory of the Trinity and to worship the Unity.”

The doctrine of the Trinity is not just tacked on to a general belief in God that we share with other religions. It’s the heart of our belief, and the source of many other features of the Christian faith. The Trinity is the source of the high importance of love in Christianity compared to other religions. The Trinity is also the source of joy in our faith, and the reason for the high importance of community and fellowship. Let me lay these out today—love, joy, faithfulness, and community—with an intermezzo on whether the whole idea is believable, and I will close with how the Trinity allows us to deal with our suffering.

The Holy Trinity is why we say that God is love. God’s love is not some impersonal force, but a personal practice of God within God’s self: the love of the Father for the Son, the love of the Son for the Father, the love of both of them for the Holy Spirit, and the love of the Holy Spirit for all of them—with a love that circles both ways round and rises up and overflows into the world and onto us. God loves us with the love that the three persons love each other with. That’s why we say that “God is love.”

The Holy Trinity is the source of joy. These three persons eternally enjoy each other. This inner joy of God was described by ancient theologians as the dance of God, perichoresis is the word. These three persons dance with each other eternally and joyfully, moving elegantly between each other in-and-out, and then they share their mutual joy with their creation, with the stars and whirling galaxies and waving trees and singing birds and sporting whales that God created to rejoice in and the infants and children that God loves to listen to.

But how can this be? The contradiction is obvious. How can you claim three persons and still have One God? How could Jesus talk as he did in our gospel lesson, of three different persons, and still claim to worship the One God of Israel? We call it a mystery. Is that a dodge? Or can a mystery be a reality, like the mysteries of quantum physics, which we recognize as real, but which defy the rules of logic with apparent contradictions?

So let me say that the apparent contradiction of the doctrine of the Trinity is not totally illogical. It is not nonsensical. Here is how: the God of Israel is not confined to time and space. God is free from the laws of time and space, and God can be anywhere God wants to be at any time and in many places at once. God is free within the laws of time and space because God is the author of time and space and has authority over them.

The same is true of logic and mathematics. God is the author of logic and mathematics. Our first lesson claims this when it says that God created wisdom. “Wisdom” here means what ancient civilizations called all human knowledge, including reason and logic and even mathematics and natural science. If God created all of this, if God is the author of logic and mathematics, then God has authority over them, and so God has freedom in logic and mathematics.
That means that the mathematical number “one” is not more powerful than God—as if while being true of God it can control God and confine God. But God is free to be One and yet also seem not like One according to the rules that we creatures have to follow. God can be One and yet seem plural to us at the same time. God has given logic to us as a gift for our understanding, but logic cannot limit God, or it would be God’s prison. The one-ness of God is not controlled by the one-ness of other things in mathematics or logic.

Now this is not a proof of the Trinity, for it cannot be proven, but it is to say that it is not nonsensical or even completely illogical. My point is that God is always free to be what only God can be. But here’s the next thing: that while God is free, yet God is also always faithful to what God has been. God is the One, and God is the One you can count on. God is free and God is faithful. The Lord our God, the Lord is One!

This faithfulness of the One God is God’s very nature as the Trinity, it is built in to God’s own self as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who are always faithful to each other. This faithfulness is an expression of God’s love within relationships, because relationship is in God’s nature too, the eternal loving and joyful relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Yes, God is One, but not compact like a pebble, or a diamond or a perfect stone, but dense like a heart, a beating heart, with room inside, and inner movement, and tender enough for suffering. A movement, a dance, an inner relationship, an eternal fellowship, a divine community. Shall we not say that this God is the original community?

And if God is by nature loving and relational and faithful, then God will want community with you. With you as a distinct person, distinctly you, with your own name, and eternally you. Some religions teach that we all get absorbed back into a primal unity, but this Trinitarian God loves otherness and enjoys variety and lets you have it too, but in fellowship and communion and mutual rejoicing.

So, of course God wants you in communion with each other. Not a compact community like a clump or a hive or even a tribe, but a fellowship with room and freedom for each other right along with your faithfulness. Our values as a Christian community come from the very nature of the God who is the original source community: our values of room and welcome, of faithfulness, of joy, and of love. If our values are now considered humanistic, that’s fine, but we recognize them first as Trinitarian. Whenever our values are lived out in the world, you can tell that the Holy Spirit is out and active in the world.

In our second lesson St. Paul takes it the other way, from the world back into God—that we enter into the grace of God and we share in God’s glory. We are welcomed into God’s inner circle when we come in the name of the Lord Jesus as his adopted brothers and sisters. So the movement is reciprocal. The love and joy of the Holy Trinity pours out into the world and into us, and we ride that love and joy back into its source inside the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the in-and-out of Romans 5, and St. Paul is daring magnificent thoughts here, thoughts never thought before.

When the Lord Jesus ascended into heaven, bodily, with the hole in his side and the marks in his hands where the nails had been, he must have brought new moves into that inner dance of the Holy Trinity, some new steps to include his resurrected body, with its marks and wounds of suffering. And when God adopts us in as well, God adopts our suffering too. God suffers us as we are, we who are the cause of suffering.

So when St. Paul writes of the cycle of suffering-to-endurance-to-character-to-hope, that cycle is turned by the movement of God, because God suffers us in love, and God endures us in faithfulness, and God’s character is to rejoice in us anyway, and God’s hope is God’s plan and God’s will, which because of God’s love will not be disappointed.

I know that in your experience the cycle can go the other way round, from suffering-to-misery-to-hatred-to-despair. The choice is yours, you have the freedom. I invite you to choose again to turn the suffering of the world to hope for the world, and when you energize your turning by the love of God that rises and the Holy Spirit pours into your hearts, you will not be disappointed in your love.

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

June 9, Pentecost: Introducing the Holy Spirit

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104, Romans 8:14-17,  John 14:8-17, 25-27

This is a teaching sermon. It’s a catechetical sermon. I am not aiming to inspire or convict you, but, on the other hand, you might find the doctrine inspiring on its own. It’s the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

But first, for a moment, please think about your body. Your head, your chest, your arms, your belly, your legs. Where inside your body is your person, your personality, your inner you? In your chest? In your head? Behind your eyes? In your brain? In your mind? Behind your mind? Is your person more intimately you than even your mind? Would that be your soul? Are you a soul, and is your soul the seat of your person, your unique and intimate self, more you than your body is you?

The intimate personhood of God is what we call the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God’s soul. The Holy Spirit is not an afterthought to the Father and the Son, not the Harpo to Groucho and Chico, but the purest essential inner God—if there is a God, and if this God is the one who raised Jesus of Nazareth up from the dead. In our gospel lesson Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to his disciples on the night before he died, and he kept his promise fifty-three days later, at Pentecost, in our first lesson. Pentecost is fifty days after Easter, seven weeks plus a Sunday, and we celebrate the Holy Spirit, that third person of God who while always third is yet most intimately God.

The Holy Spirit is easily and frequently misunderstood, especially by Christians. The Holy Spirit is misunderstood as one-third of God, so that when you have the Holy Spirit inside you have one-third of God inside you. But the Holy Spirit is the whole of God–in the person of the Spirit, just as the Father is the whole of God in the person of the Father and the Son is the whole of God in the person of the Son.

This is the mystery of the Holy Trinity which tests our logic and which makes no sense to Jews and Muslims and Unitarians. But the orthodox Christian claim is that when the Holy Spirit came down upon the apostles at Pentecost, it wasn’t just one third of God but the whole of God who came down upon them, and into them, and out into the world in front of them.

The second misunderstanding is to take the Holy Spirit as more of a What than a Who, as not a person but a force. Well, after all, the Holy Spirit is revealed in fire and in wind, and is described as an energy, the original energy, and sometimes the life-force. And it’s true we don’t experience personality in the Holy Spirit in the same way that we experience God the Father as a personality (not always a nice one!) and that we experience God the Son as a personality (a nicer one!). It’s hard to attribute personhood to someone who doesn’t show much personality, like the Holy Spirit.

Yet the orthodox Christian claim is that the Holy Spirit is a person in her own right, and this must be if the Holy Spirit is the soul of God, God’s most intimate self, God’s unique self, just as in your case as a human being. The world experiences your person in terms of your body and your actions and your history but you yourself experience your person in terms of your inner soul that no one else can see. So if the Holy Spirit is the soul of God, then the Holy Spirit is a person.

Of course, if this analogy works, it may be that we are just projecting our own experience of our personhood as God, as the critics of religion claim, or it may be that the Holy Spirit really is the original person behind the universe from whom all personhood and other persons and personalities derive.

To be a person, you have to be living. If you’re dead you’re not a person any more, not actively so. And this remarkable thing that we call life, this unaccountable force and distinctive energy that is shared by all living things and only by living things, this is claimed by orthodox Christianity to be a gift to the universe especially by the Holy Spirit, who is the Lord and Giver of life, according to our Nicene Creed. And where the Holy Spirit gets this gift to share is from out of God’s own life.

In some religions, the gods are the personifications of the energies of the universe. Hinduism says as much. We experience the energy of life, and we project it as divine, and we call that God. But Christianity turns it the other way around, that God projects the universe and the Holy Sprit shares God’s life with the universe that God projects. It’s like an author who projects a novel, and the author gives to her novel the gift of story, and just as the author is the boss of her novel so the Holy Spirit is the Lord of life. The question is how much freedom do the characters have.

Imagine the novel as a living, open book, and that the author can speak to her characters, so that they can lead their lives within her story. The Holy Spirit is such a speaker. Our Nicene Creed says that the Holy Spirit has spoken through the prophets. Here too is personhood—that we speak. A person is a creature who can make meaning out of words and share those words with someone else. The persons who cannot speak only prove the rule by what we say of them. A person rightly speaks.

Of course many other living creatures communicate with sounds and even complex signals, but again, that proves the rule, when you consider the incalculable difference between the sounds of animals and the speech of human beings—from baby talk to nursery rhymes to poetry to daily gossip to great libraries to the calculations of astrophysics to the gazillion bytes of code that we pour into the universe.

The universe is full of information, because the Holy Spirit speaks, and because we are persons too we take that information and we answer back and elaborate and expand on it, and in so many languages that Jesus never spoke. As Jesus says, “You will do greater works than these!”

So it’s no wonder and yet a joyful wonder that the Holy Spirit reveals herself on Pentecost as speech within her fire, for she is a person with great energy. And, characteristically, the Holy Spirit speaks through the speech of other persons, and not in her own voice. The Holy Spirit is polite and even self-effacing. This is characteristic of love, is it not, as a loving mother wants her children to do works that are greater than her own.

If the Lord Jesus had not ascended, and remained on earth, he might have done great works, but instead, always the gentleman, he yielded his presence to the Spirit for the Spirit’s turn, so that the Spirit might do greater works precisely within you who do your works, as humble and broken and fragmentary as your works might be.

They are broken but the Holy Spirit is your Advocate on your behalf. Your Advocate with God is God’s own self. A mystery. The Advocate is your lawyer, your solicitor, your counsel and advisor. The Spirit tells us what to tell the world on God’s behalf and also what to say to God. And when we cannot find the words The Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. You have this Holy Spirit in you, and she is not confined to your directing her. She does more in you than you can track or trace. She takes responsibility for you, for she is the Lord and Giver of your life.

Let me close with a whole different set of images from our second reading, Romans 8. It’s easy to miss that St. Paul is using Exodus imagery. The Children of Israel were led out of slavery by the Glory Cloud of God, which St. Paul identifies as the Spirit of God. But in their freedom, as they journeyed through the desert, they could not shake their spirit of fear, and they kept begging to fall back to Egypt and the security of slavery, and surrender their inheritance, the Promised Land.

But now, since Pentecost, you are not the Children of Israel but the adopted Children of God. and your are given the same Holy Spirit inside you that was in God’s natural child, Jesus. So, if for Israel the Holy Spirit led them as a cloud up there in the desert sky, so now the Spirit is inside you leading you through the wilderness of human history and development, until you arrive at your inheritance, the ultimate Promised Land, which is the whole redeemed creation.

And as community of Jesus who are the children of God journey through history, the Holy Spirit inspires us to a freedom beyond the freedom from slavery to the positive freedom of children, of play and creativity. Oh, the generosity and love of God to us, that we should have room within God’s plan for our own play and creativity. Oh, the love of God for us, that we may do greater works than even Our Lord himself.

O Lord, how manifold are your works. In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. May the glory of the Lord endure forever, may the Lord rejoice in all his works. I will sing to the Lord as long as I live, I will praise my God while I have my being. May these words of mine please God, I will rejoice in the Lord. Bless the Lord, O my soul, Hallelujah.

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

June 2, Easter 7, The Power to Be Free

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-26, John 17:20-26

On the old state road between Holland, Michigan and Grand Rapids, as you drive by one of the few hills in that landscape, you pass a large billboard that, if you’re a Calvinist, you can’t help but notice. On the billboard in big letters it says: “Believe on the Lord Jesus and thou shalt be saved,” and in smaller letters, “Acts 16:31.” When we drive by it we say, “And thy house.” We assume that the billboard was put there by a Baptist against infant baptism. We know that verse by memory from catechism: “Believe on the Lord Jesus and thou shalt be saved and thy house—Acts 16:31.”

Why this emphasis on belief? It is not so in other religions. Is belief in Jesus like knowing the passcode to a computer? If you know the passcode, everything opens up to you. But if you don’t know it you can’t get in. The evangelical deal is that all you do is say that you believe in Jesus, and you’re in, you’re saved, but if you don’t, you’re out, no matter how good and loving you might be—it’s hell for you. So to be saved from eternal punishment, the password is “I believe in Jesus.”

Why do you believe? Both subjectively and objectively? Subjectively, why do you find this whole business convincing or compelling or attractive enough that you are here today? Do you believe thoughtfully, or out of crisis or desperation, like the jailer in our story? And objectively, what do you expect to get from your belief, what is the benefit that you desire, what are you saved from or saved for, what is the content of the salvation that your belief accrues? Why do you believe?

The jailer in our story is about to kill himself. When St. Paul stops him from doing that, he asks the apostle, “What must I do to be saved?” He doesn’t mean the saving of his soul, he means the saving of his neck, and the safety of his household from the retribution of the magistrates. We can tell how vengeful the magistrates were from how they treated Paul and Silas on minimal accusation. Philippi was a city of the army, and what is an army but the organization of violence. But violence can never fully be organized—it breaks out and feeds on itself. The jailer had cause to be terrified.

When he asked the question he was wanting an action plan, something to do to anticipate the magistrates and defend his household against the worst. So St. Paul’s answer will have been a puzzle. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, and your household.” What? So I should quick go to the shrine of your foreign deity and make a sacrifice? But no such shrines are allowed in Philippi, only the temples to Mars and Jupiter and Caesar. Or do you mean that some Jewish general will intervene for us tomorrow morning? Or some aristocrat will make a deal with the magistrates? Are you saying that all I have to do is depend on somebody I do not know to act on my behalf?

This invitation to believe was risky. It offered no action plan other than to believe in Jesus as the Lord who could save him from that very power of Rome that he had been serving till now. It was Caesar who was entitled “Lord and Savior,” especially among the army. The Caesars had saved the Roman Empire from self-destruction, at the Battle of Actium just up the road, and having saved the empire they claimed its lordship. St. Paul is inviting him to a different lordship and a different safety.

There is nothing to do but believe that this other Lord will save you. Of whom we have no proof. Only the ambiguous evidence of the earthquake, and the doors opened, and our chains unfastened, the signs and metaphors of Jesus’ resurrection, and we did already save you from your suicide. This other Lord has been saving you already. You can begin your belief with that.

Has he got a choice? How unlike with Lydia, in last week’s story, whose choice for Jesus was free and peaceful. The jailer’s choice is life and death. But if Lydia’s house became the church in Philippi, tonight the jailer’s apartment becomes a sanctuary—lamps lit, water poured, a space of welcome and safety in the violence, the light of Jesus shining in the dark, like in the stable at Bethlehem.

Inside that sanctuary unfolds a worship service. Already in their chains the apostles were praying and singing hymns, including Psalm 97, you’d have to think, by the correspondence of the imagery with what happened. Then the apostles spoke the word of the Lord to all in the house—the sermon. The jailer washed their wounds, which is an absolution, and then the baptism, and then Communion, the Eucharist, when, in the priesthood of believers, the jailer served the meal and they all rejoiced.

So what was the salvation here, how was he saved? Salvation here means that the jailer has been transferred to a different sovereignty. His household gets moved in place. He doesn’t cross a border but the border crosses over him, and in his baptism he gets naturalized, from the sovereignty of the Lord Caesar to the sovereignty of the Lord Jesus. We don’t know if he was a Roman citizen, but tonight he’s made a citizen of the City of God, the New Jerusalem. Salvation means a new sovereignty.

Lordship and salvation. The one goes with the other. The Caesars were lords of  Rome as long they were saving Rome. And if the Lord Jesus cannot save you, why have him as your Lord? What salvation does he offer you, that you can believe he will deliver for you? There are many salvation stories in the Bible, and many aspects to salvation, like the salvation of your souls at death, and salvation from the fear of death, et cetera. But what’s the aspect of salvation offered in this story?

Salvation here is freedom, and first it’s freedom from your circumstances and then it’s freedom within your circumstances. For example, the circumstance of the slave girl was the exploitation of her spiritual gift, and the circumstance of the jailer was the dominion of violence and the power of death, demanding his suicide. We are not told what happened to the slave girl after her liberation, nor do we know whether the magistrates left the jailer alone or let him keep his job.

But that’s the message here. The jailer was saved from the bondage of death for the freedom of the resurrection. He entered a freedom from the compulsions of circumstance, the freedom that Paul and Silas evidenced even in their shackles as they sang and prayed. So no matter what the magistrates might do to him, the jailer was free from the shackles of fear. That’s a precious benefit of salvation, the freedom of your mind and your soul within your circumstances. And what that freedom results in is joy. The story ends with their rejoicing. Salvation gives you freedom and joy.

The second yield of salvation is service. Not servitude or subservience, but service freely chosen. The guy who had shackled them now washed their wounds and fed them. Their guard became their nurse, their keeper became their host. He exercised his freedom directly within his circumstance. He remained their keeper, they did not run away, but the circumstance of hostility became the circumstance of hospitality. Salvation is freedom for service precisely within and for your circumstances.

That’s important for Old First. It’s a circumstance of our congregation that we have inherited this building. No other Protestant congregation around here has been handed such a heavy gift. A variety of missions is available to congregations, and we choose our mission within and for our circumstance. Our community of Jesus is freely choosing to serve God in paint and plaster. No other Protestant congregation is choosing this, but we are—we are choosing into our circumstance.

We do this for hospitality, for sanctuary, a space of safety, a suggestion of transcendence, and a shelter for souls. And thus our Respite Shelter for Homeless Men this July and August. I invite you all to take turns serving there. I invite you to practice the sanctuary service that the jailer practiced. I invite you all to be Philippian jailers this summer, serving food and hosting rest. And the men who come to eat here and sleep here—you will find them as agreeable as St. Paul.

I like to end my sermons on the love of God. So I invite you to believe that when you freely choose for joy and the service of hospitality, you are yielding to a power that is greater than your own, which is the power and glory of the love of God. So I end with the words of the gospel: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, . . . so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you loved me.”

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

May 19, Easter 5: The Power to Love II

Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

The Easter Season is seven weeks long, till Pentecost. All season we repeat that Jesus rose from the dead, in the flesh, spiritually and bodily, no less physical for being more spiritual, more truly human, the Adam of the new humanity, the Adam of the new, improved humanity, the model of what we shall be and the sample of the world to come. In him our familiar fallen human nature has been raised to a glory and power that we wonder at.

He is a wonder and he is a sign. His new physical humanity is a sign of the future physical reality. He is the first-fruit of a new creation, a very-much this-worldly creation. He is the Eve of the new life of the world. It is hard to imagine. We are so used to a fallen world, we are used to reality as corrupted, we are used to nature as bent and life as broken. But try to imagine a real world, a this-world, made holy and righteous, I invite you to believe it and to hope for it and also represent it in your life.

The Easter season counters the conventional take on Christianity that eternal life will leave this world behind in order to be up in heaven with the angels. Because the vision in our reading from the Revelation goes the other way. The New Jerusalem comes down, and the dwelling of God is here with humankind, forever.

This vision from the Revelation confirms the message of the season of Easter that the resurrection of Jesus in the flesh is the sign that points to the ultimate reconciliation of heaven and earth and the transformation of heaven and earth, which means not the obliteration of the earth nor of natural reality but the reclamation and rehabilitation and sanctification of this real world.

Which some people do not prefer. When I was in seminary our most popular professor said that he hoped to spend eternity as a disembodied orb of conscious light. Well, okay, but I can’t see how that is Biblical. Children get closer to the Bible when they ask if there will be dogs in heaven. Well, if the vision is the reclamation of the real world, why not dogs, but not in heaven, rather in the renovated earth, the world transformed, as Jesus’s flesh was transformed in his resurrection.

He is a wonder and a sign, he is the sign that the power of the resurrection is for our transformation. From what to what? From dumb to smart? From flabby to buff? From poor to rich? These aspects may be secondary effects of resurrection transformation, but so also may be persecution, and martyrdom, and exclusion, like for Christians today in some parts of the world.

The secondary effects will differ with where you live, but no matter where you live the transformation is always moral. It is called by such words as righteousness, and holiness, and goodness, so if you are not afraid of such words in your life as goodness and holiness and righteousness, then this transformation is for you.

I confess that there’s lots in my life that I don’t really want transformed. I like my envy and my vanity and my selfishness and lust. You have your own complex of what you don’t want transformed. But the good news about this problem is that the resurrection transformation is also in your confession. It’s not only in your possession of the good but also your confession of the not-good. It’s not an absence of sin but the reconciliation of sin. It’s the reality of your new in the reconciliation of your old.

Your transformation is not in the absence of your old nature but the power of your new nature to manage the old nature still in you, the daily conversion of your old nature into your new nature. Your new nature needs your old nature to be loving of, just as God loves you while you are yet a sinner. Your new nature is distinguished not by innocence, nor by perfection, but by the love which you have for yourself, your vain self, your weak self, even your worst self, and if you can love such a self as yourself then you can love your neighbor as yourself, who really is no worse.

Two weeks ago I said that the power of the resurrection is the power to love, and to convert your love. Today I am identifying that as the power of transformation—when your love loves even what is fallen. If you are nervous about such words as goodness and holiness and righteousness, then think of them as attributes of love, of God’s love, God’s love for the world, God’s love embodied by us, by you. It is a loving kind of righteousness, a loving kind of goodness, a loving kind of holiness.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus commanded his disciples to love. This was on the night before he died. And after his resurrection his disciples had gradually to discover what he meant by this new intensity of love, with its new patterns and expectations.

Which Peter is learning in our first lesson. In his dream he was challenged three times to take the unclean food and eat. Three times to deny his deep convictions, three times to deny, so not an easy dream for Peter, the denier. Should he not hold fast? Imagine how he felt in his gut each time he woke up, his stomach still feeling the dream, and all that disgusting food. Well, it’s in your body where you finally have to face the issues of love, even of spiritual love, Christian love.

What did it mean for Peter to love those Roman soldiers whose job was to oppress the Jews? To eat their unclean food with them? Unclean not just ritually, but morally, because it’s meat and vegetables that the soldiers have taken from his people. Such love will not feel natural, it has to come from the new nature of humanity as in the resurrection. To build a whole way of life on this kind of love is to imagine what life is like in the New Jerusalem.

What stops us? What did Peter have to reconcile? The disgust, and also disdain: They may be on top of us but we’re better than them. We may have less than them but we’re smarter. We don’t need them. Why should we love them? Also the feeling of fear: Look, I gag on rhubarb, I gag on turkey bacon, so I can imagine the fear in Peter’s body, smelling the food the centurions ate, and sitting among such violent men the first time in his life.

The fear in your body can hinder your love. You have constantly to reconcile that. Or the memory of pain, like when the Roman soldier beat you down to take the catch of fish that you were bringing to your family. And now you eat his food with him? Your suffering can keep you from love. Or your bitterness that these outsiders have taken over your land, that they have more success than you do. That they look down on you. And they make you feel ashamed. And you are poor compared to them, from the oppressed economy in Galilee, so how can you love them in your resentment and anger and shame?

What keeps you from love? What shame, what fear, what loss? What sin, what guilt? The point is not to deny these things about yourself but to recognize them, admit them to yourself, confess them to God and to someone you can trust, and then love them, love these aspects of yourself.

Because this resurrection love is not wasted on what is already lovable, but is practiced and proven precisely on the unlovely, on the fearful, on the guilty, and the losers. Just as God loves you, with you still in your old nature, so you can love others just as fallen as yourself, and that is the love that is transforming, the love which transforms them who receive it and transforms you who do it and transforms the world, this world, according to the model of the new Jerusalem.

This transformation is not magical and it is not supernatural, but it is spiritual and ethical. You don’t have to do much to get it but submit to it, because God wants it for you, and as certainly as you come every week, and offer yourself to the words of Jesus, so certainly does this transformation take place in you, constantly, repeatedly, seasonally, in and out, with variations. It is as varied among you as your varied personalities and histories. Yours will not be the same as mine, except in this, that no matter what particular form the transformation of the resurrection takes in your life, it will be in a form of love. Not love as the world defines it, but love as Jesus defines it. Believe it on the basis of God’s love for you.

It is our mission to model this for the world and to welcome people into it. This sanctuary is an expression of love in architecture and decoration. This sanctuary is an intimation of the great halls in the New Jerusalem. It’s a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven in plaster and stone, the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. We practice our worship and service to offer images of life within that city. We practice the love and the hospitality of God, the welcome home of God, who promises “that the home of God is among human beings, and God will dwell with them, and they will be God’s people, and God’s own self will be with them.”

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

May 26, Easter 6: The Power to Heal

Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:0, 22-22:5, John 14:23-29

The city of Philippi was like Gettysburg—it was known for the battle fought there a century before. Caesar Augustus had defeated the army of Brutus and Cassius. Caesar had made the town a military base, which defined the city’s population, and most of its residents were from elsewhere.

Here was concentrated the spirit of imperial Rome, in its pride and prejudice and arrogant aggression. Here Caesar was worshiped as a god, with Mars, the Roman god of war. Violence was assumed as the means to law and order. There was greed and exploitation but also commerce and prosperity.

The woman Lydia shares in this prosperity. She imports purple cloth, the costly fabric reserved for the ruling class. She owns property, she’s got enterprise and initiative, she has access to cash and capital. She’s an almost modern woman, and the text treats her that way. She is not identified by any husband’s name. She has an independent character, and apparently she does not buy the established religion of the empire, even though she depends on its defenders to be her customers.

Because Caesar was honored in Philippi as “Lord and God,” no synagogue was allowed. So any Jews had to say their common prayers outside the city gates. And only the women dared to do it. But why is Lydia with them? Why is this prosperous Gentile praying to this Jewish god who had been defeated by the gods of Rome?

One Sabbath, on the riverside, some strangers show up. They have a message. She listens to this message, and “the Lord opened her heart.” She believes it, she signs up, she gets baptized, and her household too. That means she puts her whole household under the sovereignty of God, the God of Israel, even inside a city of the gods of Rome. When she said at her baptism that “Jesus is Lord,” she meant that Caesar wasn’t.

Why put her business at such risk? What did she hear in the message, that she should do this, and choose to be identified with the followers of a dead man, executed by the soldiers and officials who were her customers? What in her self-interest was anything that Paul could offer her? We don’t find her miserable and enthralled in sin. She seems to be on top of things.

We can only reason that she must have believed that Jesus really had risen from the dead, and that behind him was the one God who had made the universe, and that his kingdom of justice and righteousness really was spreading in the world, and that she could join up with it. She believed the message and she trusted the messenger. She was skilled in trusting her suppliers and sizing up her customers, she was used to taking calculated risks, she lived by investing her current capital in long-term gains, and she trusted what the stranger told her. Well, faith is that which looks beyond self-interest, isn’t it. Faith is what brings you out of yourself.

She challenges Paul to have faith in her. She says, “If you judge me to be loyal to this lord, then stay at my house.” So direct. So open. This kind of woman you would build a church around. The Lord had opened her heart and she opened her home. Her house becomes the church in Philippi. Her hospitality gave them a sanctuary. Both safety and holiness.

The disciples can gather here for the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, and sit around her table and break her bread and pray. The Holy Spirit is among them. God has moved into her house. And for years to come her hospitality and her sanctuary will define that congregation, and it would always be St. Paul’s favorite church.

How strange, that the mighty God of the universe should work this way—compared to the very successful gods of Rome. This one God will conquer the other gods, the gods in power at the time, the gods of pride and prejudice, by means of a small-group-meeting in a businesswoman’s house. How typical, then, that this God’s mighty universal power works through grace and love.

How lovely, that what Jesus promised to his disciples in John 14 came true so quickly with this Gentile businesswoman and her staff and her Jewish friends, that, as Jesus said, “My father will love them, and we will come to them, and we will make our home with them.” The Holy Trinity at home with Lydia.

The Holy Trinity had moved in to Philippi, and was at home in Lydia’s house, and her little community of Jesus was the temple of this new God. The other gods had their splendid temples in Philippi, the temple to Mars, the temple to Caesar, where you could go to make your contact with those gods. But if you wanted to get close to this God of Jesus, you went to Lydia’s house.

Her house was an intimation of the vision of the Revelation, our second lesson. To her house would come the people of every nation who happened to live in Philippi: Jews, Italians, Gauls, Germans, barbarians, army veterans, their wives, their slaves, their sales people. Her house was the city of God inside a city of Caesar. And the food on her table was for healing, for the healing of the nations.

This vision from the Revelation, from the last chapter of the Bible—it has a double application. It’s a vision of the new world of the future, when Christ will come again, and stay, and the Father and the Holy Spirit with him, and the Holy Trinity will bring heaven down to earth. It’s the final answer to our Lord’s Prayer, when we pray, “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”

But it’s also a vision of the church today, the church as the witness and first fruits of the Kingdom, when we practice what we pray. The church as the practice of the City of God. The gates of the city are always open, which means calm security and constant welcome, a sanctuary city, perfectly hospitable to human life as it should be, within the holiness of God. It’s not meant to be the whole world, but the capital city of the larger world, and the nations will walk by its light, and the various peoples will enrich it with the gifts of their own peculiar cultures. The mission of the church.

This enlightened capital city does not conquer nations like Rome did or London or Washington DC, but it heals the nations. “The leaves of its tree are for the healing of the nations.” The Greek word for healing here does not mean a miracle cure, but therapeutic care, attendance—what nurses do in hospitals. It’s what God does among the nations by means of God’s word and by the service of God’s people. It needs no armies and no force. There is no struggle and no battle. It heals the nations by means of grace and peace and a very hospitable kind of holiness. The church’s mission.

In our Gospel lesson, this healing is the peace that the Lord Jesus promised his disciples on the night before he died, and this healing is the peace that he gave them three days later on Easter afternoon. It’s an active peace, and it makes all things well, and all manner of things well, the ultimate healing. Peace with God, achieved by his atonement and communicated by the Holy Spirit, peace with each other, achieved by forgiving sins, and peace for the world, by the Lordship of Christ, to whom we witness. The peace of the city, the peace of the kingdom, the peace in Lydia’s house.

At Consistory on Monday night we were discussing our new mission statement, and whether it’s better to say that we offer “a space of unconditional welcome” or “a sanctuary of unconditional welcome.” The word “space” suggests openness, a community of openness, room for you to be you, and the spacious feeling of this room. The word “sanctuary” suggests safety and holiness, but a sanctuary can be guarded and closed in and restricted to the holy.

And yet our City Councilmember Brad Lander was brilliant last Sunday afternoon when he challenged us to think of “sanctuary” as a verb,  an active verb, a doing, a campaign, a calling. By contrast “space” can be empty, unless it’s the space I spoke of on Easter, the space coming out of the empty tomb, full of the light and power of the resurrected Lord Jesus.

Whatever we end up saying, our lessons today challenge us, that though the marvelous sanctuary in which we worship is a great means of our mission, it’s the community of the congregation itself that by our life together offers active space among us and active sanctuary and active hospitality.

But it also means going outside our sanctuary, instead of just waiting for people to come in, but like St. Paul going out to look for people praying outside the gates, in the exclusion zones, non-citizens, where only women dare to go. There we will find the Lord Jesus in the persons of the Lydias of the world, practicing their healing before the church even notices them, who like Lydia will challenge us. But there too we will find the love of God.

Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.