Friday, May 22, 2015

May 24, Pentecost: Life #4: The Lord and Giver of Life

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, Romans 8:22-27, Acts 2:1-21

Today is the Day of Pentecost, the eighth Sunday after Easter, and the consummation of the Easter season. We have finished a journey we began three months ago, on February 18, when it was still freezing outside, on Ash Wednesday. From ashes to tongues of flame. Ashes for death and fire for life. We put ashes on your faces. Shall we light your heads?

Ashes are the residue of fire. Fires can mean death too, and speaking scientifically, a fire is no more alive than ashes are. Yet many cultures use fire as a symbol for life. I guess because it’s energy. When you light a fire in the woodstove you also warm the heart. So what the flames on the heads of the disciples signify is the life of God.

Well, so does the breath, as in the prophecy of Ezekiel, the animating breath of God. When God breathes into you, you get a soul. But the flames mean that you get God’s soul too. The flames are the sign of God’s own private inner life, God’s own native energy, the inner heat of God’s personality. This is the hot breath of God, the inner soul of God, who has now come into these people.

Where does God live? In heaven? Or in God’s people? Or both? Do you want that for yourself? How much do you want God inside you? Would you rather keep God in heaven and keep possession of yourself?

It struck me this week, for the first time in my ministry of thirty-five years, how strange is the exchange that happened in those last ten days of the Easter season, from the Ascension to Pentecost. An earthling moves into heaven and then the divine soul moves into earthlings. It’s not so much trading places as a mixing up. Why does God do this?

Let me lay it out more carefully. If we say that the Lord Jesus is at once both God and man, then on Ascension Day, as the Son of God he returns to heaven, but as the Son of Man, he enters heaven for the first time. (This story cannot be explained without some logical conundrums.) If we say that he took his seat at the right hand of the Father, that means that somehow God has taken into God’s self the flesh and blood humanity of a real human being, with his original fingerprints, and of Jewish ethnicity. An earthling is mixed into God. Does that mean that God has changed? (What this does to the eternal changelessness of God I can’t begin to comprehend.)

And then, ten days later (at least from our perspective from within time, because heaven is outside of time), we say that ten days later this flesh and blood Jesus sent the Spirit of God down to the ground to live inside other earthlings, and to do so for keeps. And when we say the “Spirit of God” we don’t mean just one third of God, or just an energy from God, but the soul of God, God’s inner self. So now what we’ve got is a human in heaven who sends God down to earth! (I’m just working it.)

Why this exchange? Why this mixing up and trading places? I may say that this is where our sister religions of Judaism and Islam think we Christians go off the rails. Especially Islam. How dare you bring down God like this? How dare you raise one of us up to the level of God? And even as Christians we might well ask what the point is. What’s the value in it anyway? What good does it do anyone?

Well, it has no value, for example, if the goal of salvation is just to get us to be good. All this mystical traveling and exchanging is essentially superfluous mythology which is better jettisoned to stop distracting us from trying to be good. Similarly it has no value if the goal of salvation is to get you into heaven when you die. If the point is to get your sins forgiven so that you won’t go to hell when you die, then this strange exchange that brings God down to earth is only an expediency like a lifeguard in the water, who gets in only to get you out.

You were probably taught that the point of the gospel is primarily that, to get you into heaven when you die, and, secondarily, that you live a good life here until you get there. Like in the gospel songs: “This world is not my home, I’m must a travelin’ through, if heaven’s not my home, Lord then what will I do. The angels beckon me from heaven’s open shore, and I can’t feel at home in the world anymore.” “When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.” I love those songs, but I am teaching you that God means this world to be your home, and that you’re not just traveling through.

Because it will be God’s home too. So instead of the images of escape, our epistle today gives us the image of pregnancy. The world is pregnant, and expecting, and, yes, is in some pain and discomfort until the birth. This is the discomfort of cleansing and sanctification and transformation, sufficient for the world to become the mansion of God.

This global salvation story gets personal for you by the Holy Spirit living in you already, invisibly but effectively, preparing you too, converting you and developing you and enriching you and blessing you. Then, finally, by means of your death and resurrection, the Spirt transforms your soul and body to be capable of carrying in your flesh the life of the world to come.

I’ve been saying that life on earth is not just an accident of physics and chemistry. I’ve been saying that life on earth is a gift of the Holy Spirit, to plants and animals and humans. We’ve been repeating that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of life. I have said that the source of life is the inner life of God, of which the energy is love. But now we’re adding something more, the second stream of life within the world, which was not there at creation, but which comes from the new creation, the life of the world to come.

The first life is the breath, and the second life is the hot breath. The first life is the creating love, the general love, the philosophical love, the love of a father for his children, and the second life is the passionate love, the suffering love, the sacrificial love, the groaning love, the love you hear in labor pains, the love that sighs too deep for words.

The epistle says that the whole creation groans because of us. The glaciers are groaning as they calve too fast. The ground is groaning in Oklahoma from what we’re doing beneath it. The migrants and the refugees are moaning on their open boats. Do we even dare to hope that this might be the birthpangs?

The groaning of creation becomes the inner tension of your souls in you who are believers. In this time in-between you feel like you are double, with two lives going on inside you, the original life, which has been corrupted and polluted by your sin, the life that is judged by God, but yet is still and no less loved by God, and then also the life of the world to come, which never replaces your old life but constantly converts it and revives it.

Your soul and God’s Spirit, your breath and God’s heat. On the one hand you are enduring, you’re waiting, you’re sorrowing and sighing. On the other hand you feel your contractions, the movement and the heat and every contraction gives you hope, and I’m telling you that your hope is not a delusion. I’m telling you that you can believe that your life already belongs to the life of the world to come.

So the Holy Spirit is for you personally, to comfort you and inspire you and quicken your personal spiritual gifts. But the Holy Spirit is also beyond you and beyond the church and beyond the Christian religion for the whole life of the world, and for the future of this world.

What this means for us as physical human beings we are just given hints of. What it means for plants and animals we can only wonder at. What it means for the planet we can only hope for, but our hope can inspire us to witness and action. The Holy Spirit moves you to think beyond your own practical benefits and applications. It wants joy for the world. The Spirit calls you to wonder and to the pleasure of your imaginations. It’s like being pregnant. Start imagining. Start envisioning. Dream dreams.

My take-home is for us as a congregation, and for our future and our mission. Look, if the work of the Spirit is to get us into heaven when we die, then our space for worship might as well be an ugly windowless mega-church with mega-screens and sound equipment. If the goal is just to get us to be good, then we might as well worship in a public auditorium.

But if our vision is the sanctification of this real world as the mansion of God, then you have sufficient spiritual reason to renovate that sanctuary as a witness to what God’s mission is. It’s a Pentecostal mission, it’s a Holy Ghost building. It speaks in the tongues of its stained-glass and its stenciling and its multi-colored arabesques. You should renovate that sanctuary not only to express your mission but also as your witness to God’s mission, who is reclaiming this created world as God’s beloved sanctuary, and who is giving you your own place with God within it. You should renovate that sanctuary to bear witness to all the riches and wonder of the love of God, that God so loves the world, and all that dwells therein.

Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, May 08, 2015

May 10, Easter 6, Life #3, The New Life of the World

Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

This is the third sermon in my series called “This Is the Life,” and what we’re doing every week is asking our scripture lessons what they can tell us about Life. And I don’t mean just spiritual life, but life in the broadest sense, the life we share with animals and vegetables. There’s something about life in all three lessons, and I’ll take them in the order that we read them.

The reading from Acts is a snippet from a longer story. Peter had a dream of a great sheet let down from heaven full of unkosher food that he was told to eat. When he awoke he was brought to the house of Cornelius, an Italian, a Roman army officer, who’d gathered his colleagues and family. Peter preaches a sermon, and then our snippet opens with God interrupting him. God comes down into these pagans just as God had come down into the disciples at Pentecost. Now there were good reasons for Peter to hold off baptizing them, but the Holy Spirit didn’t bring Peter there to say No!

God was coming back into the larger world outside of Israel. Yes, God was always there, but now God was coming actively, openly, publicly, vocally, visibly, savingly. For a very long time before this, going back to Abraham, the Creator of the world had been purposely confining his saving presence to Israel. And Israel got used to that, and figured that the temporary was permanent, and that the means was the goal. This narrow expectation did not change automatically among the first Christians. But God did not wait for them to be ready. God suddenly enters into the lives of Italians as fully as the Jews. God is coming into the whole wide world. Not just individuals, but the nations.

The Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life, and that means not just spiritual life but the Life of the world. I want you to think of God’s salvation and God’s interest as widely and holistically as possible. So that when the epistle speaks of conquering the world, it doesn’t mean defeating the world, it means winning the world!

If you think of the broad Biblical story, when God created the world, it was empty of life until the Holy Spirit breathed on it. And when God created human beings to be stewards of the world, they were just lumps of clay until God breathed into them and they became living souls. But we rebelled against God and fled from God and got bad breath and corrupted our own lives and began to pollute the world within our care.

We developed a life that the Bible calls the old life. But a new life begins with the resurrection, and the Holy Spirit brings that new life into the old life. It doesn’t replace the old life but it enters it and judges it and purges it and cleans it and heals it and loves it and wins it to transform it. That’s the patient work of God in your own life, and what you experience in your own life is a smaller version of the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.

That’s my first take home. The Holy Spirit inhabits not just your so-called spiritual life, but the whole of your life, your speaking and thinking, your working and eating, your politics and economics, your home and family, your sleeping and loving, your laughing and playing, your singing and dancing. Not just for hymns but also for opera. God started with the Italians, after all.

From our epistle reading we get four signs of Life. Being born, and then water, and blood, and breath. The epistle says that you are born of God if you believe. You who were born into the old life are born again into the new life of the resurrection that the Holy Spirit is bringing into the world through you. It’s called being “born” because it’s all encompassing, like a whole new life, and also because you didn’t choose it.

You didn’t choose to be born the first time. Your birth was the result of the choices made by other people. And Jesus says this in the gospel: “You didn’t choose me, I chose you.” It’s one of the great mysteries of Christian experience that although in your perception you have to choose it and you keep on choosing it, yet behind the curtain of experience it was God who was choosing you. Why you? Why not somebody else? God does not answer that.

But here is what you can believe, and to your comfort. As I said two weeks ago, no creature alive today has generated its own life. Just so, you cannot generate your own new life, so you don’t have to, it does not depend on you or how good you are at it, you just receive it.

How can you be certain that you are receiving it? Not by measuring your own experience. When I’m in Canada, I often don’t feel like a Canadian, I feel like a native of New Jersey. But my passport testifies that I have become a Canadian. Well, your baptism is your passport that testifies to the certainty of your being in this new life. The epistle calls that the testimony of the water. And the testimony of the blood is the display, in Jesus’ crucifixion, of God’s sacrificial love for people like you. Your certainty is not your own experience but in the nature of God and the fact that God has claimed you.

Water and blood: the liquid necessary for life and the liquid full of life. But in the Bible, your life is carried in your breath. In Greek, the words for breath and spirit are the same. The Holy Spirit is the Holy Breath of God, the inner life of God. You have been taught to think of your soul as like a ghost, immaterial and immortal, non-physical, but the Bible is more concrete, it regards your soul as seated in that vital column of your breath inside your body, moving in and out.

Let me point out here that in Bible terms, and despite what many churches teach, your personal life did not begin at your conception. You did not yet have a soul with your mother’s womb. In Bible terms you first came alive at your first breath. And as your very first cry was greeted with joy as proof of your life, that you could breathe on your own, just so those Gentiles in the story broke out in tongues with joy, infant believers, newly born, and with new life.

And as your breathing connects you with the atmosphere outside you, so your soul connects you to the Spirit of God. And as the springtime breezes can enter your lungs to refresh the air within you to revive you, so the Spirit of God enters your soul and blends in with you to give you new life within your old life.

Our gospel reading gives us three aspects of life that we have seen before. The first is living as abiding. The second is bearing fruit. We talked about them both last week. The third is laying down your life. We talked about that two weeks ago. I said that it’s as much about laying in your life or putting your life. He says this: “Greater love has no one than this, that you deposit your life for your friends.”

Don’t understand this only as, “Well, because I love you so much, I will sacrifice my life for you.” It doesn’t exclude that, it happened to him the next day. But it’s more about living than dying. There is no greater love than investing your soul in your friends, putting your life into your friends. Really? Friendship? Is that the new life of the Holy Spirit? Everybody has friends.

Look, families invest in each other naturally. As the epistle says, if you love the parents, it’s natural to love their children. Even in the old life, that kind of love happens all the time. We share the same traits, we share the same habits, we look like each other, we have the same color. We are family. It’s not wrong to call the church the family of God. But did you ever notice that I never do?

You must have seen those internet videos of animals of different species who are friends. A dog and a chicken. An owl and a cat. By nature they’re enemies, because one of them is the other’s food! Their friendships go beyond raw nature and even against raw nature. So what I’m saying is that in the life that the Holy Spirit is bringing into the world, it’s friendship love more than family love.

In our gospel, at this climax moment in Jesus’ life, this most intimate hour with his disciples, he doesn’t call them brothers, he calls them friends. That’s an unprecedented category of salvation in the Bible. It’s one great step past the family of God. And I’m so glad of it.

Friendship means freedom. You don’t choose your siblings, but you do choose your friends. Friendship has no birth order and no hierarchy, so friendship means equality. God loves you as a friend. Not that God is reduced to sentimental human friendship, like Jesus is your best friend, but rather that you are raised to be a friend of God to share in the life of God. Of course you can’t be God’s equal, but God most certainly respects you, and gives you freedom, and no matter what you do or say or think, will never stop loving you and will always want to, well, just be with you.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

May 3, Easter 5, Life #2, The Life Abides

Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:24-30, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

We’re going to celebrate a branch on the vine today. The branch on the vine has a name, her name is Frances. She’s a little girl, and by the way she lets me hold her in my arms, I like to think that she knows me. Let me think that. Her baptism is her grafting onto the vine. Not that we do the grafting, or even that it actually takes place today. The Holy Spirit does it, outside of time. But we claim that as certainly as we celebrate it in our history so certainly does the Holy Spirit do it in God’s mystery.

This is a baptismal cross. It’s from Ethiopia. It’s one of my favorite things. It was given to me by a member of my church in Grand Rapids. Jetts Bass was a great lady of great faith. She got sick while I was there and she died just after I left there, so I didn’t get to do her funeral. But she loved me and she blessed me and her blessing is on this cross, which signifies the power of love that crosses from life to life, through death to life again, across the generations of the faithful, life begetting life.

The Christian Church in Ethiopia is one of the most ancient churches of all. It dates itself back, of course, to the eunuch whom Philip baptized. Maybe so. There is no historical documentation of the eunuch afterward, or that he actually founded the church in Ethiopia, but neither is there any proof he didn’t.

There may well have been Jews living in Ethiopia back then, of which the Rastafarians bear strange witness, and this eunuch might have been a Jew or been influenced by Jews, which could account for his pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. And then after his return he might have witnessed to the Jews in Ethiopia. But we don’t know. Nor do we know enough to say it wasn’t so.

In any case, Philip had good reason not to baptize him when he asked for it. Philip could have said, Baptism is not an individual thing, it’s a communal thing. Baptism is crossing the river into the promised land and for abiding within the congregation of Israel. But you are crossing the waters in the wrong direction and you’re leaving the Christian people and you’ll be all alone, so baptism is not indicated! The vineyard is here and the vine is the people of Israel. You can’t be a branch on the vine when you’re down there. Philip had reasons to say No. To say Yes was to stretch baptism in new ways, to do it as a risk, and with no guarantees, to do it and to leave the outcome up to God.

I can imagine the eunuch answering, “That doesn’t count for me, because I’ve already been cut off. I’m a eunuch. The book of Deuteronomy says I’m not included anyway. The Bible calls me a branch cut off the vine, a dry branch, a faggot of firewood, which is why when I got to the temple I got turned away. Even though it was not my choosing to be castrated in my childhood, the Bible is clear, I’m not allowed in the congregation of God. But why not baptize me anyway?”

How can he say, Why not? Because they’ve been reading from Isaiah, which counters Deuteronomy. He had already been reading the passage in Isaiah about the suffering Messiah, and later in that passage comes the promise that when the Messiah comes, even the eunuchs will be welcome. He was looking for hope in that prophecy. He’d been reading Isaiah as a prophecy for himself, and then Philip shows him how those same chapters spoke of Jesus. So then, does the promise of Isaiah trump the prohibition of Deuteronomy? “If my branch is cut off from the vine of Israel, can’t you graft me onto the vine of the Messiah? Here’s water.”

Philip has to make a judgment call. He’s got to decide between two scriptures, and both of them with authority, and judge which one has authority over the other one. He’s got to read both of these scriptures in terms of what he has seen and heard in Jesus. Because of Jesus, he takes Isaiah over Deuteronomy. That’s how Biblical interpretation works. I can imagine Philip thinking he’d like to check with the apostles first, him being only a deacon. But the Holy Spirit is the third character in this story, and the Holy Spirit is breathing down his neck. Philip makes the call because he can feel the Spirit pushing him. “Philip, I didn’t bring you here for you to say No.”

The story shows us the Bible being read out loud, and Philip running to keep up with it, and the Holy Spirit driving it all, so that Philip must do a Christ-centered merging of the Bible and real-life human experience. That’s what we try to do here every week. And because Philip knows that it’s the Holy Spirit driving him, he has to believe that, yes, the vineyard is also Ethiopia, and the vine is certainly planted in Ethiopia, if the vine is Christ himself, and the eunuch’s branch is already on the vine, so he will baptize him, and give the eunuch reason to rejoice the whole way home.

The vine of Christ is very tall and it’s still climbing. Way down on its trunk is the branch of the eunuch and up at the top is the new branch of Frances. And just below hers you all have your own branches on it too. You abide in him. He is your abode. He is your residence. He is where you live. This is another sermon about life, because your abode is where you live. Philip runs, and the Spirit moves, so that you can settle down and abide in him, who offers to be the source of your life.

Abiding is another word for living, for long-term living. Living-in, living-with, living-through. Last week it was abundant life, this week it’s abiding life. The way to keep your life abiding is to keep drawing your life from someone else, your life support, to choose to not live your on your own. Philip could baptize someone who’d live his new life all alone only by trusting that the Holy Spirit would keep on working in ways he couldn’t see yet. When we baptize Frances we are claiming and celebrating that her life is not her own, and that she belongs to the life of Christ.

The second aspect of life this morning is bearing fruit. Reproduction is basic to living things of any kind. Yes, inorganic crystals replicate, fires spread, and isotopes make chain reactions, but only organisms do self-directed reproduction. Living things bear fruit; they make new organisms like themselves, and they nourish them and feed them and care for them and work for them.

Living things get creative in their bearing fruit, like making gorgeous flowers and offering nectar for the bees and food for other animals. There is of course self-interest in this, and the drive for survival, but what Christians see in the astounding abundance and extravagant variety of life on earth is a testimony to the Holy Spirit who is the Lord and giver of life. And we see in the bearing of fruit a symbol of love. As even the birth of a child is literally the result of her parents loving each other.

You are commanded to bear fruit. You are commanded to love. Even Frances is commanded to love, and right now that’s easier for Frances than for you. The way that she’s loving is accepting the love of her parents. Her love is to live within their love. And there’s a lesson in that for how you practice the love you are commanded to love with. You love your neighbor accepting by God’s love for you, and then loving your neighbor from within God’s love for you.

Don’t try to love your neighbor with the love that you yourself generate, but put yourself within God’s love. Does that sound rhapsodic? Let me compare it to music. I love music, but I can’t make music the way I’d like to. I am literally a failed musician—I took an F in college orchestra, and I had to leave it. But even if I can’t make it, I can rise into it when I hear it as other people make it, and I let it fill me and inspire me and I can even share it with others. The love of God is like that. The love of God and the love of neighbor is one, it is a single love, a single energy. You let God do the loving, and you rise into it and live in it. That means quieting your own inner voice, and letting God’s love do your thinking and your speaking. That means not chasing other loves, it means not seeking other sources and satisfactions, it means abiding in God’s love. And then you can bear fruit.

God loves us. But our epistle lesson goes further than that. God is love. That’s not an abstract principal. It means that if you trace all of love within the world back to its ultimate source, there you will find the living God who generates the love. And it means that all of God’s many activities are loving activities. God’s creating is a loving creating, God’s ruling is a loving ruling, God’s judging is a loving judging, and God’s sustaining is a loving sustaining. It means that as Frances gradually discovers all the business and actions and attributes of God within her life, she can believe that binding all of them is love.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.