Prayer of the Day
O God, on this day you open the hearts of your faithful people by sending into us your Holy Spirit. Direct us by the light of that Spirit, that we may have a right judgment in all things and rejoice at all times in your peace, through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Acts 2:1-21 – When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b – When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 – Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
John 20:19-23 – When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
Many thanks to Pastor Don Carlson who did much of the research and writing for these next 12 posts.
The movement of Luke is from the world to Jerusalem. The movement of Acts is from Jerusalem to the world.
Pentecost is the signal that the outward movement is to begin. “Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.”
This “world > Jerusalem / Jerusalem > world” movement also bears witness to the ongoing activity of God through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is mentioned in Luke/Acts more than in any other gospel – 34 times in Luke and 67 times in Acts.
Pentecost is not the birth of the Holy Spirit. It is the launch of the Post-resurrection church. There is plenty of Spirit in Luke/Acts before Pentecost. You only have to get to Luke 1:15 before the Holy Spirit is mentioned; to 1:2 in Acts. Spirit is president Jesus baptism. And we read about the spirit plenty in the Hebrew Scriptures as well. Isaiah says, “the spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…” In fact, the Spirit is mentioned in the opening verses of Genesis, where the Spirit moves over the face of the deep.
Most of the early Christian community – Paul included – believed that Christ would return in their lifetime. When Luke/Acts was written (85-95 CE?), some questioning must have arisen within the community. “What’s going on?” “Why the delay?” “Were we wrong about Jesus being the one?” The answer of Luke/Acts is found the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. “Just look at what’s happening. The ‘delay’ of Jesus’ return in no way truncates the saving activity of God!”
Now we are at almost 2,000 years of “delay”. What do people make of that? Perhaps we should ask our congregations to find the many places where the Holy Spirit – which is also “the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:19) – is working and active (Trinitarian formulas will be addressed next week).
It is also helpful to listen to the rest of Peter’s sermon (which goes through 2:36) and to begin to hear the anti-imperial subversiveness of the text. Luke/Acts is very much an anti-imperial counter cultural work. Just a sampling:
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
– Luke 1:51-53
They said, ”If you are the Messiah, tell us.” He replied, “If tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.”
– Luke 22:67-70 (See: Pantocrator mosaic from the Hagia Sophia.)
Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.”
– Luke 23:1-2
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
– Luke 23:42
As Borg and Crossan point out in The First Paul,
To proclaim “Christ crucified” was to signal at once that Jesus was an anti-imperial figure… The empire killed Jesus. The cross was the imperial “no” to Jesus. But God had raised him. The resurrection was God’s “yes” to Jesus, God’s vindication of Jesu – and thus also God’s “no” to the powers that had killed him. The twofold pattern executed by Rome and vindicated by God appears twice early in the book of Acts. The authorities crucified Jesus, but God raised him up (Acts 2:23-24).
A few verses later, in only slightly different language, it is repeated: this Jesus who was crucified by the authorities God has made both Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36)… Vindicated by God-raised by God – meant Jesus is Lord, and thus the powers that executed him were not. In language that confronted and countered Roman imperial theology: Jesus is Lord-Caesar is not.
(BORG, MARCUS J.; CROSSAN, JOHN DOMINIC (2009-02-19). THE FIRST PAUL: RECLAIMING THE RADICAL VISIONARY BEHIND THE CHURCH’S CONSERVATIVE ICON (PP. 131-133). HARPERCOLLINS. KINDLE EDITION.)
As individuals and as congregations, in what ways are we as followers of Jesus the Christ called to live counter to the imperial theologies of our day?
In the midst of crucifixion confusion, The Spirit’s plan was Pentecost pluralism. A multi-sensory, multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic event. The Spirit’s plan was an explosion of diversity.
Look at this map. This is my favorite map of Pentecost in Acts 2.
“Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven in Jerusalem… Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphyllia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes… Cretans and Arabs…” Sounds like Houston.
And they were amazed and astonished, because it worked. “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” Eric Law asks, “Is Pentecost a miracle of the tongue or of the ear?” “How is it that we hear… each of us in our own native language?”
The Spirit empowers them to bridge the cultural gap. All were amazed and perplexed, so they said to one another that great catechetical question: “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
I love that. There’s so much creative disruption. Remember the word that John Nunes used at assembly last year with us? “Creative disruption.” There is so much creative disruption, so much energy, that the newcomers think they’re drunk. So much so that Peter has to begin his sermon with the words, “These people are not drunk as you suppose…”
When was the last time you had to begin your sermon “These people are not drunk…” More like, “These people are not dead as you suppose, it’s just 9 o’clock in the morning.”
And then Peter quotes the prophet Joel. God will pour out the Holy Spirit on all flesh. All flesh. Not just prophets, priests and rulers like Isaiah and David, but all flesh. All flesh. Not just men. Men and women. Sons and daughters. Old and young. Rich and poor, even slaves. All flesh.
The power of the Spirit was given to all people to proclaim a new world, a new vision, a humanity, a new hope that transcends race, culture, ethnicity, and gender identity, for there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The reign of God knows no borders, no boundaries of culture or language. What then becomes of our human divisions? They are irrelevant in the reign of God. This is the church we are called, enlightened, sanctified, and empowered by the Spirit to be: not a culture club, but a church that includes Parthians, Medes, Elamities and residents of Mesopotamia, Samaritan women, and Ethiopian eunuchs – a church without walls, a house of prayer for all people, not defined by culture but defined by faith, hope, and love.
This can only happen with the power of the Spirit. Without the Spirit, our divisions define us, because they are so very compelling. But good news, God has promised to pour out the Spirit freely to all who will receive it. You are empowered to lower your walls, your defenses, and allow the Spirit to blow your life, your congregation, and your community.
This is “Pentecost” in the Gospel of John. Just a couple of things about this text; which was also the text back on Easter 2.
First, what does it mean to “forgive sins”? I suggest that we think a bit broader than just the pardon of individual transgressions. Remember all the great dialogues and encounters in this gospel.
- Nicodemus needed to see the “light”
- The Samaritan woman needed restoration to community
- A paralyzed man at the pool Bethsaida needed to walk
- The crowds following Jesus needed to be fed
- The woman caught in adultery needed freedom from condemnation
- The man born blind needed his sight
- Lazarus needed to be restored to life
In short, since the consequences/effects of sin are multifaceted, the understanding of forgiveness needs to be multifaceted as well. From Speaking Christian:
Imagine Christian liturgies and preaching that emphasize that we are Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt and need liberation, that we are exiled in Babylon and need a path to return home, that we are blind and need to see again , that we are sick and wounded and need healing and wholeness. And, yes, that we are sinners who need forgiveness.
Imagine- to become more specific than I wish to be- that a confession of sin and absolution were part of the liturgy one Sunday out of five. Imagine that on the other four Sundays, the confession of sin were replaced by images of our predicament as bondage, exile, blindness, and infirmity.
Imagine the absolution replaced by the proclamation that God wills our liberation from bondage, our return from exile, our seeing again, our healing and wholeness. Sin matters. But when it and the need for forgiveness become the dominant issue in our life with God, it reduces and impoverishes the wisdom and passion of the Bible and the Christian tradition.”
BORG, MARCUS J. (2011-04-12). SPEAKING CHRISTIAN: WHY CHRISTIAN WORDS HAVE LOST THEIR MEANING AND POWER-AND HOW THEY CAN BE RESTORED (P. 152). HARPERCOLLINS. KINDLE EDITION.
We need to be spiritually cognizant of the complexities. If a person has been raped, a narrow understanding of “forgiveness” is not the immediate real issue. One does not proclaim forgiveness to slaves or victims of abuse.
Second, and this ties in with the first point, Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Jesus’ words are not some theory as to who holds the “heavenly purse strings of grace.” His words are simply the truth about where and how the Spirit functions. If Jesus’ disciples don’t forgive, Jesus’ forgiveness – freedom, restoration, healing, wholeness – cannot come. If we leave people in their sin, Jesus cannot free them. If we do not grant people the “peace of God”, they cannot know it. If we exclude people, Jesus cannot include them.
The Spirit is not just given to bring us comfort and assurance as we face the doubts and uncertainties of our lives – like Thomas in the upcoming part of the story. The Spirit is given so that, through our lives, the risen Lord might be alive in the world.
Thursday, May 25, 2017 is Ascension of Our Lord, celebrated on Sunday, May 28, 2017.
Acts 1:1-11 – As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
Ephesians 1:15-23 – God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Luke 24:44-53 – While he was blessing them [at Bethany], he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
The Feast of Ascension
The Feast of the Ascension marks a novena, nine days of prayer for the gift of Holy Spirit after Ascension Thursday, before the Feast of Pentecost on Sunday.
The ascension is a foreshadowing of our entrance into heaven. It is a mystical understanding of the transition from this life to the next both in body and spirit.
Several characters in the Bible are declared to be assumed into heaven: Jesus, Enoch, and Elijah. Lutherans do not subscribe to the Assumption of Mary, but in 1950 Pope Pius XII declared:
By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.
Other religions, besides Judaism and Christianity, believe in ascensions. For example, in Hinduism, Yudhishthira of the Mahabharat is believed to be the only human to cross the plane between mortals and heaven in his mortal body. In Islam, Muhammad is believed to have ascended into heaven at the site of Dome of the Rock. The Ascension, therefore, was a mystical way that ancients proclaimed the uniqueness of the human character with divine qualities.
The Ascension is professed in all three creeds. Ascension is a public holiday in some countries. It is not mentioned by Matthew, Mark, or Paul (of the undisputed epistles), though the author of Ephesians mentions cryptically that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, who has placed all things “under the feet.” It is unknown if Matthew, Mark, and Paul are unaware of the story of the ascension or if it simply doesn’t figure prominently in their theology. It appears in Acts (Luke) and is mentioned in John.
There are at least five Ascension sermons by Luther, in Luther’s works. You can find them in The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, volume 3. They tend to focus on the things that the post-resurrection Jesus said to the disciples in the 40 days between the resurrection and ascension. Two things strike me about these sermons: first, I am struck with how long these sermons are. I have been told by Luther scholars that Luther’s sermons were actually shorter than those of his contemporaries, but these particular sermons are not short by modern standards. Second, I am interested in how mission-focused these sermons are. It’s Luther the evangelism guy. The John sermons are shorter, focused on faith and gospel, as usual. None of them spend time on the actual physical act of ascension. Luther seems more interested in the implications: Jesus’ expectations for his church.
Our texts consist of Luke 24:44-53, the very last verses of Luke, and Acts 1:1-11, the very first verses of Acts. The texts for Ascension, one of the six great feasts of the church year (including also Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Trinity, and Pentecost) are the same for all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary. There are only two post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in Luke, both unique to Luke: the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and this appearance to the disciples which includes the ascension. Here are both texts from the NRSV:
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Acts is volume 2 of Luke’s gospel. The first words of Acts, “In the first book,” refer, of course, to the Gospel of Luke. In Luke 24:49, Jesus orders them to stay in Jerusalem until clothed with power from on high. The same admonition is made in Acts 1:4. There are a number of similarities. This story connects Luke and Acts.
Walter Brueggeman picks up the theme of the Ascension in his 2007 Christian Century article. The Ascension is about Jesus’ departure, instructions, and promise to return. The instructions are the church’s marching orders – its action plan. To wit:
- Stay here
- Receive the gift of power
- Be witnesses
Acts 1:8 is the theme verse for Acts. The rest of the book is based on the words spoken by Jesus in this verse:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Acts begins in Jerusalem, then moves to Judea, Samaria, and then to Paul’s missionary journeys throughout the Roman Empire, or what the writers would consider “the ends of the earth.” Peter, John, Stephen, and the disciples begin in Jerusalem and Judea. By Acts 8, Philip is in Samaria. Eventually we spend the largest part of Acts following Paul to the ends of the earth, in places from where our synod delegation is just returning: Turkey and Greece.
I have always been struck with the outward-focus of these instructions. Jerusalem was the city in which they were currently located. Judea was the wider region in which Jerusalem was located. Samaria was the area to the north, the people with whom Jews did not associate. The ends of the earth left the mission field wide open: the rest of the world. This vision would be realized on Pentecost when people came from all over the Roman Empire to Jerusalem to experience the wind of the Spirit, and then return home to spread the good news and be witnesses of what God is doing.
The net effect of all this mission activity was to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6).
Would we get accused of this today? Would we be accused of having a witness so compelling and a vision so expansive that it was turning the world upside down?
Homiletical opportunities abound. What is witnessing? In North America, immersed with frontier conversion theology, the idea of witnessing leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths, but a witness simply testifies as to what they have seen and experienced. We are not called to convince, cajole, or arm-twist, but only to testify to our own experience, in word and deed.
The ascension looks to the future, to being clothed with power, power to go forth and be a witness to hope in Christ and to Christ’s return. “Why do you stand there gazing into heaven?” Perhaps this is a warning for a hyper-spiritualized church. Getting lost in an otherworldly spirituality that doesn’t focus on the suffering of this world is not consistent with Jesus’ reality-engaging, earthly ministry. Don’t stand there gazing merrily up into heaven. Engage in a gritty earthly ministry as Jesus did. Jesus’ church is called to mission.
Tie your sermon to evangelical efforts.
Jerusalem: What does it mean to be witnesses in Jerusalem, among your people? How are we growing our own people?
Judea: How about Judea, as our wider community? How is God calling us, as a congregation, to reach the community around us?
Samaria was the home of those crazy Samaritans, who were considered “other” because of their race and syncretistic religious practices. How are we called to engage those who are racially or religiously different? You may want to recall the fact that Jesus made a Samaritan the hero in one of his stories.
Ends of the earth: Finally, how are we proclaiming the gospel to the ends of the earth? What does global mission look like? How are we supporting it? Are we tithing and beyond? Are we sending missionaries?
Perhaps this is a good Sunday to preach a sermon on mission, as did Luther.
Life-giving God, before leaving, Jesus commissioned his followers to be witnesses. Grant that your church today may proclaim the love of Christ and the hope of the resurrection at home, in the community and to the ends of the earth, through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Acts 17:22-31 – Paul at the Areopagus/Mars Hill in Athens. Altar to an unknown God. In him we live and move and have our being, as your own poets have said…
Psalm 66:8-20 – Make a joyful noise to God all the earth. Come and see what he has done.
1 Peter 3:13-22 – For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.
John 14:15-21 – If you love me, you will keep my commandments and I will ask the Father to send the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth.
On his second missionary journey (Acts 15-18), in 50 A. D. Paul arrives in Athens, the philosophical center of the universe. Plato established a school there, just outside the city gates, in 387 B.C.
Paul would have heard Plato’s ideas filtered through Cicero and Seneca, who believed that virtue was its own reward and that righteousness was a human quality. They believed righteousness was a craft that could be learned. In The Republic, Socrates says that righteousness is beneficial to rulers (whereas Thrasymachus says that crime does pay). But Paul teaches that righteousness is unattainable by humans. Righteousness is not a human quality but a divine quality.
For Paul, to reflect on the law is to contemplate the huge gulf between human perception of what is good and our ability to attain it. (Romans 7). No one can do good except by the grace of God. The world has gone awry. The condemned criminal, the crucified righteous one, becomes not just the savior of Israel, but of the whole ruined cosmos. The powerless tentmaker is laying the foundation for a European religious/political/cultural upheaval: a confrontation between Caesar and Christ. The exalted divine emperor versus the crucified powerless criminal.
Aristocracy versus the people.
The Areopagus is the Hill of Ares (or Mars). It is a spur, jutting out from the western end of the Acropolis, and used as a place for legal processes and debates. The pictures here was taken by Pastor Don Carlson on the LEAD trip “In Search of Paul” April/May 2014.
The first is from the Areopagus (Mars Hill), looking up at the Acropolis. The second is from the Acropolis looking down upon the Areopagus (Mars Hill).
The legend had it that Mars here cleared himself of the murder of Hallirhothius, son of Neptune, hence its other name: Mars Hill. (A. N. Wilson, “Paul,” p. 156).
Here we have a study of interfaith dialog. Paul respectfully interacts. He does not denigrate their religious beliefs. He affirms their religiosity. “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way (v. 22).”
Rather than smashing the idols, he picks one. Looking through their pantheon, their “objects of worship,” he points out an altar to “an unknown god.” Let me tell you about this unknowable deity you worship. He doesn’t exclude, he incorporates. Later there will be other things to work out, but this is a beginning conversation. One step at a time.
Let me tell you about the God who gives life, who doesn’t live in shrines, “in whom we live and move and have our being, as your poets have said. We too are the offspring.”
Paul is quoting Epimenides and Aratus (a Stoic), their own philosophers. I find this a fascinating lesson in interfaith dialog. Paul makes his case for the gospel not by trashing their beliefs and philosophers, but rather by quoting them. He immerses himself in their thinking and uses their symbols and ideas. Imagine having a respectful dialog with Muslims and quoting the Koran to them. One cannot dialog without immersing oneself in the other’s worldview.
Paul is building bridges, just as Jesus did with the woman at the well in John 4, where Jesus did not trash her beliefs. “Yeah, you worship on this mountain and we worship on that one, but the days are coming when we will worship God in Spirit and truth.”
The apostle who wrote the “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13, follows closely the Lord of love, who taught that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor (Shemah, Deut. 6:4-5, Lev. 19:18, Matt. 22:36-40). In the coming Sunday’s gospel, Jesus says, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” This phrase “my commandments” or “my commandment” only appears four times in the New Testament, all in John (14:15, 21 and 15:10, 12). What is Jesus’ commandment? John 15:12: “My commandment is this – to love one another just as I have loved you.” And how did Jesus love his disciples? To the end, as a shepherd, as a servant, washing their feet, and in the end by giving his life. “No one has greater love than this – that one lays down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
Living in the love of Christ means sharing our faith in a respectful, loving way. “Love does not insist upon its own way.” (1 Corinthians 13)
Here then is Paul’s proclamation of God in Christ, his apologetics in Athens, according to Luke.
An Athenian creed if you will:
- God made the world and everything in it
- God does not live in temples made by humans
- God is not served by humans, as if God needed something
- God gives life and breath to everyone
- God made every race from one person
- God set times and fixed the limits of the places where humans live
- God is somewhat hidden, so that we must search, but those who do inevitably will find God (Echoes of Jesus: “Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened…” This is also picked up in Luther’s lectures on the Deus absconditus, the hidden God).
- God is not far, not removed (as the Greek gods are)
- We live and move and have our being in God
- We are God’s offspring
- Even pagan poets understand this
- This God is not made out of handcrafted silver and gold
- This God calls us to repent
- God will judge the world on judgement day
- God has appointed Jesus to be that judge
- Jesus’ resurrection is proof of this
This kerygma has considerable shades of Luke’s theology (it is Luke’s document after all), but we still get a glimpse of Paul’s missionary preaching and approach through the eyes of a third party.
This text may help us think through how we talk about the gospel to unchurched folks out in the world, who are nevertheless religious. At our synod assembly Dr. Michael Pasquier reminded us that most of those “nones” (no religious affiliation) believe in God, pray and believe in ghosts.
Even more, for the preachers, I hope it will remind us that we do not preach to a homogenous group as we sometimes imagine. Every Sunday we are preaching to a pluralistic community with a wide range of beliefs. In our increasingly secular society, we must imagine ourselves standing before the Areopagus, speaking in love about the God of Jesus in whom we live and move and have our being.
Founded in 1867 by Wendish families from Serbin, Texas, United Lutheran Church in Swiss Alp is celebrating 150 years.
Here’s some more background on the Swiss Alp and “Swiss Alp Church.” http://www.fayettecountyhistory.org/swiss_alp.htm
Just south of LaGrange, United is the westernmost congregation in our synod,
United Lutheran Church’s history goes way back to the 1860’s when pastor C. C. Rudi moved from Serbin to Swiss Alp, gathering German immigrants together for worship and schooling. He taught children out of his home.
Philadelphia Lutheran at the time, organized and built a church in 1867. By 1889 it was too small, so they built a new building for the unbelievable price of… $975. Sixty years later, the transepts were added.
United Lutheran Church merged from 3 churches in 1967: Philadelphia Evangelical Lutheran Church, Black Jack Springs Evangelical Lutheran Church, and Salem Lutheran Church of Freyburg. They have been served by Lemae Higgs (2003-present), Walt Hildebrandt (1995-2002?), Arlyn Hausmann, Clements Richards and many others.
They have produced two pastors, Clarence Hagens and Brad Otto (Messiah, Cypress). They supported Pastor Jen Kindsvatter through seminary.
They supported Dr. Don Just as he teaches in seminaries at Papau New Guinea. They have also supported Dr. Murray Greenwood, pastor and pediatrician in Ecuador, and a missionary to Malawi.
Next week Pastor Brad Otto will preach.
Pastor Lemae Higgs:
I see my visit made the paper, just under marijuana arrests. 🙂
Founding pastor C. C. Rudi’s grace in the church cemetery.
Former pastor Walt Hildebrand:
Coffee and kolaches with the bishop at the gazebo on a beautiful day.
The stairs to the organ loft appear to be a harrowing experience.
Nora Otto, Pastor Brad Otto’s mom, welcoming the troops.
Swiss Alp Church in 1910.
Acts 7:55-60 – The stoning of Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 – In you Lord, I seek refuge. Do not ever let me be put to shame.
1 Peter 2:2-10 – Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
John 14:1-14 – In my Father’s house there are many rooms. I go to prepare a place for you. I am the way the truth the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.
Preaching Deacons: How to Not Get Stoned to Death
Peter preached, and 3,000 got baptized.
Stephen preached, and he got stoned to death.
You never know.
Crucifixion was a Roman method of torture and execution. Rome controlled capital punishment. But if the people wanted to put someone to death on their own, they had a way that was effective, painful, and inexpensive: stoning. If the Jewish religious leaders had wanted to execute Jesus without the Roman’s consent, they would have stoned him or thrown him off a cliff. In fact, they almost did (Luke 4:29).
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would have none of it!
Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34
Prophets, people who speak the hard word that people don’t want to hear, tend to get stoned. Even Peter finally got his. So what’s going on?
Luke in Acts tells us that Stephen was a man of faith, filled with the Holy Spirit. This is Acts 6, a passage that never appears in our three-year lectionary. In the Roman lectionary, Acts 6 is read as the first lesson on Easter 5, in place of our text for this coming Sunday: Acts 7:55-60.
It’s a shame Acts 6 never gets read in our lectionary. It forms the early church’s understanding of the diaconate, something that has been a bit muddled in our ecclesiology. Here is the text of Acts 6:1-9:
Now in those days, when the disciples were growing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Greek-speaking Jews against the native Hebraic Jews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the twelve called the whole group of the disciples together and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to wait on tables. But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” The proposal pleased the entire group, so they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a Gentile convert to Judaism from Antioch. They stood these men before the apostles, who prayed and placed their hands on them. The word of God continued to spread, the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith. Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen.
This sets the stage. The disciples are growing in number, Luke tells us. Things are going well. As often happens in any human community, a conflict arises. “Their widows are getting more food than our widows,” or something to that effect. The widows of the dominant Hebrew-speaking culture in power are receiving privileges the Greek-speaking widows are not. There is an injustice taking place. This is brought to the attention of the Hebrew-speaking disciples.
Notice this is not a religious problem. It is a racial problem, which the religious leaders are asked to address. So they select seven people “well attested, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” to be in charge of the daily food distribution. Notice their names. They are Greek names. The Hebrew-speaking disciples address the racial problem by putting Greek-speaking leaders in charge.
It is good to note this: Daily food distribution to the needy was a central part of the church’s work.
There is also a clear division of leader responsibilities: the twelve attend to the ministry (diakonia /διακονίᾳ) of prayer and word (Word and Sacrament) and the seven attend to ministry (diakonia/διακονίᾳ) of tables (trapezais/ τραπέζαις).
Finally, notice both are serving, just in different ways.
Based on my reading of the early church, I imagine them spending time in the Temple, then breaking bread together in small groups in homes, as Luke tells us in Acts 2:46, and taking the leftover food to those in need, primarily orphans and widows, but also prisoners, the sick, and wanderers (immigrants). Matthew 25:35-36 reflects these priorities.
In the ELCA, besides pastors we have deacons. Ordination means one is chosen and called, not simply self-appointed. It also means one is inaugurated with prayer and laying on of hands.
The interesting thing about this passage is we have all these elements present. The seven were chosen (verse 3). The apostles prayed and laid hands on them (verse 6). Is this not an ordination? Did the apostles not ordain deacons to a ministry of Word and Service?
One of these deacons is a man named Stephen. We learn that Stephen did great signs and wonders. It’s exciting when things go so well that amazing things start happening.
We also learn that Stephen preached, which eventually got him crossways with some folks, who accused him of blasphemy and threatening the Temple or perhaps the Synagogue. Sound familiar? This Acts 6 text sets the stage for our text in Acts 7.
In Acts 7, Stephen is taken to the High Priest who asks him if the accusations are true. Stephen uses this to launch into a sermon. Clearly, deacons in the early church preached. Stephen’s sermon is controversial. It hits a nerve. He begins with Abraham and circumcision, walking them through his Heilsgeschichte (salvation history). Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Sinai, Joshua, David, Solomon. He points out the people worshipping idols, insinuating that animal sacrifice was borrowed perhaps from Molech. Then he thumps them over the head:
You stiff necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, like your ancestors did! Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold long ago the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become!
The echo of Luke 13:34 cannot be missed. Stephen is on the same trajectory of Jesus, being accused of blasphemy and sedition (destruction of the Temple). Perhaps rule #1 for not getting stoned is do not start your sermon with “You stiff necked people…”
By just about any standards, this is not a very good sermon. It rehearses the Hebrew Bible stories after the flood and then ends with a few graceless sentences of rebuke. The listeners’ response is predictable.
“When they heard these things, they ground their teeth at him.” (Acts 7:54) Across many centuries, many cultures and a language barrier, still, this image is pretty universal. All this has been prolegomena to our text, Acts 7:55-60:
But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.
This is the only passage in Acts 6 or 7 that finds its way into our lectionary, so we have to make the most of it.
I don’t think God wants us to throw ourselves over a cliff or intentionally catch passing dogs by the ear. On the other hand, sometimes we are called to speak the truth to power. Even if we do so in love, someone’s probably not going to like it. If they are in power, you will be in trouble. The example of Jesus, the apostles, and the many martyrs of the early church is not to shy away from our moment of trial. This itself is a hard word for those us of who live in comfort and the lap of luxury.
In fact the word martyr, comes from the Greek word martyria, which is translated “witness.”
Stephen, with the face of an angel and filled with the Holy Spirit looks into heaven and sees visions. Covering their ears, they don’t want to hear it. Because stoning is an exhausting business, they take off their outer garments and set them at the feet of the one in charge: Saul of Tarsus. This is the first mention of Saul/Paul in Luke’s narrative.
Notice how Stephen’s last words echo Jesus’ last words:
“Receive my spirit” sounds a lot like, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”
“Do not hold their sins against them” sounds like “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
What might the preacher do with this text?
Perhaps this is a time to talk about giving your life to something. For what are you willing to die? For what are you willing to go to the mat? What matters?
How about non-violent resistance? Stephen doesn’t take up arms. He doesn’t join the sicarii (knife men, terrorist assassins of his day). He uses his words, maybe not as effectively as possible, but words have power, when we have the courage to use them. This is an old story: people threatened by non-violent preachers. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi are in this succession. Before what injustices have you remained silent? Where is God calling you to speak up, even if the risk is high?
This could be a great opportunity to talk about the ministry of the laity – the ministry of the whole church. How do we identify and live our calling? Are we clear that the pastor is not the church, but the shepherd, called to equip the saints for the work of ministry?
We would do well to remember that God works through the ordinary, hidden, and often unexpected.
We do well to remember, the first martyr of the post-resurrection church was a deacon, a table-server, not a pastor, a bishop, or an apostle.
We would do well to remember that the first martyr was not from the dominant culture, but one of the foreigners appointed by the disciples, a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian.