Friday, May 26, 2023

Sorry, We Are Out of Spirit

 Sorry, We’re Out of Spirit


John 7:37-39
7:37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,

7:38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.'"

7:39 Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.



Well, dear friends, it’s PENTECOST, the “stepchild” of Christian Holy Days. Charismatics and Pentecostals have celebrated it as long as they have been around, while the larger “organized” denominations have observed it as the “birthday of the church.” We know the history: Jesus told the Twelve to “stay in Jerusalem” until the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and then to “move out” as witnesses to other regions, even to the “ends of the earth,” as we saw in last week’s Acts text. On what we acknowledge as “Pentecost” (fifty days after Easter), the Holy Spirit DID come upon the Twelve and around 100 others gathered in the “upper room,” and plenty of “Hollywood” pyrotechnics transpired—“tongues” of flames hovering over each one of the Spirit’s recipients, a loud, clambering wind, and each one “witnessing” to the Gospel in various languages they purportedly did not know, but that were understood by the various “pilgrims” to Jerusalem that time of year, each in her or his own tongue. In the language of “Seinfeld,” things got “jiggy.” 


Ever since, the debate about how and when the Holy Spirit is at work, and among whom, has raged on. Charismatic Christians and Pentecostals often use their “speaking in tongues” as proof of the Spirit’s presence and work among their fellowships. However, there again the debate continues. Is the “prayer language” kind of speaking in tongues the same thing as what happened at Pentecost? It seems not, as the bystanders recognized those manifesting glossolalia as speaking earthly, known languages, not some “heavenly tongue” that is often seen as what is ”given” to Pentecostals as a kind of prayer or meditation tool. Then there is the kind of “speaking in tongues” that is listed among the gifts of the Spirit, whereby one person in a fellowship or worship service “speaks out” a message in “tongues” to those gathered, while another is “given” the translation of the message. Supposedly, this “message” is right from the throne of God. When this “prophesy” is a simple encouragement, or a message that edifies the Body of Christ who hear it, maybe it is. However, sometimes those messages “go off the rails,” and may fall prey to the kind of spiritually-juiced “ecstasy” that creates more problems—or doubts—than affirmation. For example, when I was a young adult growing up in my hometown, a charismatic prayer group had grown up among a group of folk influenced by the then popular “Charismatic Conference” held annually at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. This local group claimed some renown as one whereby occasional “prophesies” that came to them via a “tongues” message would seep out into the community at large, and create no small degree of havoc. One time, a “warning prophecy” got transmitted by a tongues-speaker that if our town didn’t “forswear its wicked ways,” God was going to send a flood that would be up to the level of the site where the prayer group met, in an old church building beside the junior high school. Two facts will demonstrate that this message was not transmitted by anything divine: our town used to flood often during ice jams on the river during Winter, so people were generally afraid of floods; and if that prophecy were ever to come true, most of the Eastern United States would have been submerged, as the junior high was high on a large hill, overlooking the town. This wasn’t the only time a few “inspired” locals got “jiggy” with the Holy Spirit and shook up the populace.


Not to disparage the Pentecostal-types, as they certainly have their place in the Body of Christ, but my own brief foray into the charismatic movement as a young adult taught me to be much more cautious with peddling any “message” I might receive as coming from God. I am proud to be a member of a religious denomination that does NOT disrespect the “sign gifts” of the Holy Spirit, but generally steers clear of them, for the most part. And while we United Methodists DO have a strong belief in the work of God’s Holy Spirit, as evidenced by Mr. Wesley’s own “heart strangely warmed” experience on Aldersgate Street in London on May 24, 1738, we have not ended the debate, even internally, about when and where the Holy Spirit is working, and through whom. 


This is the last Pentecost that many of our current United Methodist Churches will celebrate together. Both “sides” are claiming that the Holy Spirit is leading them to go in different directions. The disaffiliating churches are claiming a variety of different “leadings” of the Spirit, some having to do with maintaining a prohibition against persons of the LGBTQ community being able to be in a covenant relationship with each other with God’s blessing, or of being ordained to Christian ministry by the church. Some go even farther than this, disavowing that persons may even BE gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender at all, and still have a vital relationship with God, even via the grace-giving and forgiving agency of Jesus Christ. Others in the disaffiliating churches maintain that the current United Methodist Church is not “faithful” to a view of “scriptural authority” they believe is “right” or “orthodox.” There are other objections to United Methodism these parties have, depending on whom you ask, but they all DO claim to be “following the leading of the Holy Spirit.” Some of these churches (and pastors as well) may stay “independent” after their “divorce” from the UMC, while others will align with the new Global Methodist Church, but already several OTHER factions have been forming, in an attempt to “sell” yet a different “vision” of where the Spirit is going. 


Meanwhile, in the United Methodist Church, differing views of how “inclusive” the church will become will still abide and argue, hoping their view will be the one endorsed by the upcoming General Conference in 2024, and become the official “rule” or policy of the post-separation United Methodist Church. This post-separation denomination will continue to have its traditionalists, its centrists, and its progressive voices, I’m sure, and all of them will continue to lay claim to being “led by the Holy Spirit” to their views. 


So, who is right? Can such divergent claims ALL be “of the Holy Spirit”? Well, ask yourself, barring any fringe groups or cults out there, are there any of the other “mainline” Protestant churches (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, varieties of Baptists) that you would want to write off as “apostate” or just plain “wrong” in their interpretation and practice of the Christian faith? Most likely not. We may not agree with them on some points of doctrine, but we would feel quite “guilty,” were we to dispatch them as so errant that they are no longer “Christian”—a judgment WAY beyond our “pay grade.” So we acknowledge our differences with these bodies, and yet engage freely in ecumenical mission and ministry with them. Why can’t we do the same thing with our differences within our own denomination? What caused these differences to rise to the level of such a church-wide “divorce” as is the Paragraph 2553 disaffiliations? And what of the Roman Catholic Church? I have not heard a single member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association condemn the Roman Catholic Church like some have their own “flesh and blood,” the United Methodist Church.


Is it possible the Holy Spirit IS leading in all of these different directions? And IS it possible that, like the Christian practice of ecumenism, could have been a model for keeping the UMC together? You tell me. I, for one, believe this is what Paul was getting at when he talked in Corinthians about a “variety of gifts,” but the SAME SPIRIT. The Holy Spirit CAN and DOES lead Christians in many directions, all designed to diversify the Body of Christ, and to help the Gospel appeal to the widely diverse human community. When did the Christian faith degrade to “circling the wagons” of “doctrinal purity” or “scriptural orthodoxy”? Wagons have wheels. Our various “wagons” were meant to carry us to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth with the inclusive, forgiving, and accepting Gospel of Jesus Christ. 


Today’s text is obviously written of a time BEFORE Pentecost, but it is an account of Jesus’ own dream of what the coming Holy Spirit could mean for his church. “Let anyone who is thirsty, come to me,” Jesus says here. The “anyones” and “whosoevers” in the Gospel of John—and in the messages of Jesus, for God’s sake—are about as inclusive as can be. How dare we develop litmus tests for EITHER “orthodoxy” or “inclusion.” Both factions are guilty, when they do. The church today needs to HEAR ANEW that the Gospel is for the “whosoever believes in me” crowd, and the “anyone who is thirsty, come to me” folk. Period. 


So, if the Holy Spirit might actually be afoot in ALL of these “factions” or “flavors” of the Christian faith, where is the UNITY? Unity is a person—Jesus Christ. Jesus tells us in this text today that there was, as yet, “no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” What if this is true, even in the post-Pentecost time? The Spirit goes into hiding when we aren’t glorifying Jesus Christ! 


Friends, I have to say that this whole disaffiliation thing has been a personally painful thing to me, and I know I am not alone. I am still praying that I can believe the message I am currently sharing with you! Can I believe the Holy Spirit may be working in all of these divergent factions? And can I come to accept that God will USE those who have inflicted such pain during the disaffiliation process? I know I have to, but currently I’m inclined to just keep arm’s length, as the insinuation that my “household” is errant, “not orthodox enough,” or doesn’t “believe the Bible,” just vexes me. My problem is that I love Jesus, and Jesus says, then “just love these people.” So, I’m having a little problem with Jesus, right now. I’m sure it will pass. It has before. 


I don’t know about you, but I NEED a fresh Pentecost! And I need to get back to the business of glorifying Jesus so the Holy Spirit will not run out on me—and on us! I know the Holy Spirit will continue to offer the Good News of Jesus Christ to “everyone who thirsts,” and to all the “whosoever believes,” be they gay or straight, and anything in between. Won’t you join me in “working out our salvation with fear and trembling,” in our effort to glorify our Lord Jesus Christ? And in doing so, may we untether again the Holy Spirit of God to search for souls in need of redemption. And while we are on this quest, may we also re-embrace that old UMC chestnut, “Open Minds, Open Hearts, and Open Doors.” Amen!




Friday, May 19, 2023

Range Anxiety


Range Anxiety 

Acts 1:6-14
1:6 So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"

1:7 He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.

1:8 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."

1:9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

1:10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.

1:11 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."

1:12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day's journey away.

1:13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James.

1:14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.



But you will receive power…that phrase, depending on what you are thinking when you hear it, may invoke either fear or favor. Right off the bat, let’s acknowledge that it is JESUS promising his disciples that they “will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” not some crackpot, or even a “prophet of the Lord.” This is Jesus. What kind of power? And what can we do with it? Interestingly, Jesus tells them this “when they had come together,” and in answer to the question they pose: "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" 


In order to ask the question in today’s narrative, the gang had to “come together.” They had scattered themselves throughout the city, out of fear that they would be next in line for the capital punishment being doled out to “blasphemers.” We already know what Jesus went through, and his followers might be next. We could assert that because the Holy Spirit had not yet “come,” they were operating on the very, very low power of the human spirit, and fear can drain that in a quick hurry. We also have to realize that there are two divergent agendas at work in this story: the disciples who still think Jesus is the kind of messiah who will restore ISRAEL to the seat of power in Jerusalem and Palestine; and Jesus, whose kingdom is ”not of this earth.” The kingdom Jesus is designing is for ALL people EVERYWHERE, and is not temporal, although its reach, or “range” in the modern vernacular, will be out into the eternal future. I say that Jesus is “designing” this realm or kingdom, but its earthly foundation will be built with God as the architect and human believers—empowered and led by God’s Holy Spirit—doing some of the early heavy lifting. It is a kingdom that starts with words—a witness—and these speechless ones (if you don’t count their continual questions and Peter’s verbal diarrhea) will be helped to form a simple, yet elegant witness across the known world. They will witness to the Christ Event, to God’s power, love, and grace, and eventually to people they don’t even “like,” due to the disdain between Jews and Gentiles, and most especially, Samaritans. Maybe this “kingdom” is being launched, not built, as here in 2023, as you read this, the building continues. Those early ones set the plan in motion, but we continue to do the building, as we—the church—are led and empowered by the Holy Spirit. 


A brief word about the word, “kingdom.” I tend to eschew that word, as it is rooted in a hierarchal structure that we don’t really understand in our time, culturally. In my preaching a few years before retirement, I had tended to gravitate to the term, “realm,” which may be an inadequate translation for the New Testament word, basileia. This is the Greek word we typically translate as “kingdom,” but it means something much larger, and far less temporal. One dictionary defines it as, “of the royal power and dignity conferred on Christians by the Messiah, Jesus.” God’s basileia is growing, person by person. It is of an eternal “range,” and is not restricted by any boundaries other than “whosoever believes in him (Jesus).” With this realm comes not just the power to be God’s witnesses, but also God’s imparted dignity—something so many people never got to experience before Jesus touched their lives. Unfortunately, using the more accurate descriptor, basileia, proved even more confusing than “kingdom,” for many of my listeners. Besides, they have been acclimated to thinking of the resurrected, “cosmic” Christ as the “King of Kings,” if not by the Bible, Handel’s Messiah.


I want to spend some time on “range,” or a term that has recently entered the public lexicon, “range anxiety.” This Acts passage has Jesus telling his followers that once they “receive power,” they will be God’s witnesses, yes in Jerusalem, but also “in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That’s some range, and surely much beyond what those timid characters might have been thinking. They may have actually, in that moment when Jesus told them that, been the first victims of “range anxiety!” WHAT is “range anxiety,” you might ask?


Dara and I just made the final “leap of faith” from our plug-in hybrid Toyota sedan to a fully electric car. It’s actually called an “EUV,” for Electric Utility Vehicle. Kind of an SUV with Ready Kilowatt under the hood, instead of what is now being called an “ICE,” for Internal Combustion Engine. (Bet you didn’t know that.) We are both environmentally minded folk, due to our respect for the creation over which God has given humans stewardship. Dara has read more widely than I, the myriad experts and authors covering how we may “reduce our carbon footprint.” She is even a graduate of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, when it offered its intense training in Pittsburgh a few years ago. We purchased our first hybrid (a Toyota Prius) in 2014, basically as soon as we could afford one, and traded our 2012 Subaru Forrester in on a plug-in hybrid (a Toyota Prius Prime) in 2018. Two weeks ago, we traded the Prime in on a new Chevrolet Bolt EUV, a fully electric vehicle with a “range” of 250 miles before requiring a fresh charge. (The 2014 Prius straight hybrid we sold to our son a year or so ago, and now our other car is my 2008 Mazda Miata. While the Miata is not a hybrid, it IS very fuel efficient, getting 30 miles per gallon, which is really great for a sportscar!)


The advent of electric cars has conjured up the term “range anxiety.” I certainly had a case of this before finally taking the EV leap, and it was nurtured by a related case of the “wallet woes,” as up until the Chevy Bolt, EVs were pretty much out of our price range. In short (sorry for the pun), range anxiety is a fear of running out of power before reaching a recharging station while on a trip. And while the 250 mile “range” of our Bolt EUV is pretty good, in the current (sorry for another pun) state of electric car offerings, our Prius Prime would travel almost 500 miles on an 11 gallon tank of gas and on a full charge! And, as you know, gas stations are everywhere, while charging stations are still an infrastructure-in-progress. The 250 mile range of our new Bolt helped heal some of my electric anxiety, but the car’s “rapid DC charging” capability is credited more with soothing it. Rapid chargers are the fastest growing charging stations offered by companies like ChargePoint, EV Go, and Electrify America. (Tesla has built their own charging network, and if you can afford a Tesla, it’s a real comfort to know they are so widespread, when traveling. They have just recently begun to partner with Washington to open some of their chargers to non-Tesla vehicles, but it will take some time for this to happen.) 


Our Bolt EUV will add 95 miles to its “tank” in about 30 minutes at a rapid charger. If we stay for an hour, we will be able to top off the 65 kilowatt battery nicely. Since Electrify America is locating their new rapid chargers in places like Walmart and Meijer parking lots, which are also near restaurants, spending an hour is not a hardship for the Sterlings. More expensive EVs will charge even faster than our Bolt at rapid chargers, but they are, well, more expensive! And since we have already owned a plug-in hybrid, I had added a home “Level II” charger to our garage, meaning we can charge our own vehicle overnight, right at home. Full disclosure, we haven’t yet taken the Bolt EUV on a long trip, but have several planned for the coming months, so my “range anxiety” does kick up, from time to time. Since we are now both retired, time is something we have, when we travel. (Recent polls have shown that the bulk of EV “early adopters” are retired folk, for this reason.) 


I’ve been having fun imaging a few metaphorical parallels between electric cars and the Christian Church, and it’s participation in the Spirit-led unfolding of God’s basileia. Even as those first disciples may have experienced “range anxiety” when told by Jesus that they would be expected to witness for Christ to the “ends of the earth,” so we first-time EV owners have at least a bit of fear when planning longer trips than commuting around home. For example, a trip to Louisville to visit our daughter’s family could be made on a single tank of gas and a full charge of the 30-mile battery in the Prius Prime. Now, we are looking at two hour-plus charging stops on that trip, and may still roll into Kentucky with a need for a charge. (Since my son-in-law doesn’t have a charging station in his garage, we will probably park our car at a nearby YMCA for a few hours, and walk “home” while the Bolt charges.) Our Chevy is “maintained” via an app on our smartphones, and GM (as well as others) provide a “travel mapping” aid that will plot your trip for you, based on your car’s range, with scheduled traveling stops along the way. These apps must not only know where the charging stations ARE, but must know if they have POWER, if they are still WORKING, and if a “port” will be available to you when you arrive. 


Many times we have thought of the church as a kind of “charging station” where our faith was nurtured and empowered, akin to what happened when the Holy Spirit first descended on the Upper Room at Pentecost. More than one of my parishioners has shared in a Bible Study or prayer group how they worship each week to “get their batteries charged” to face life that following week, and to live an empowered Christian witness while they do! And who hasn’t experienced a type of “range anxiety,” wondering if the events of the week ahead might overpower the “charge” we picked up on Sunday? There’s nothing like getting to Wednesday or Thursday in a trying week, only to find oneself “drained” of the necessary power to continue the journey. A good prayer life is like having a home “charging station,” but believe me, they are no “fast DC charger!” It takes time and commitment to them to get anywhere close to a “full charge.” And what of our churches? Wouldn’t it be nice if new Christians could have an app that let them know which churches have POWER and are still WORKING? And will there be “room” for me to “plug in” when I arrive as a first-time visitor? (For those looking for a United Methodist Church, there sort of IS an app. It’s the “Find-A-Church” link on the website, where one may plug-in a city or Zip Code to see what UMCs are in that area. The site also provides simple statistics of each church, and even more data, if a given church has taken the time to enter their own information. A small, struggling church will show up as a kind of “weak charging station,” while thriving, vital churches will, likewise, show their mettle on the site.)


With the whole disaffiliation thing going on within United Methodism, our Western PA Conference has joined a movement launched by the “post-separation” United Methodist denomination whereby churches that “stay” may become “Lighthouse” congregations for loyal United Methodists whose current church has voted to exit the UMC. These “Lighthouse” congregations are designed to welcome those who have been disenfranchised by the disaffiliation of their church. They are, in essence, “charging stations” on the journey, and in joining the lighthouse movement, they are putting the word out that they have POWER, and they are WORKING, so those needing a boost are welcome to stop by! 


The post-separation scene will be a challenge for both individual United Methodists AND the churches that remain. Sounds just like the budding world of electric vehicles, breaking in to a mobile society that has, heretofore, been totally “transported” by gasoline and internal combustion engines! The electric infrastructure is far from complete, and “early adopters” may face “range anxiety,” as did those earliest followers of Jesus, when told they would “receive power” to witness “to the ends of the earth.” It may sound daunting, but I recently watched a YouTube video of a man and his loyal companion, “Major” (a Golden Retriever) on a 2200 mile journey to Las Vegas in a Chevy Bolt. While they had many required “charging stops” along the way, their journey was a joyful one, experiencing restful stops, new people, and some unexpected good meals, as they traveled and “recharged.” Just watching it lowered my personal range anxiety! Reading the Bible, committing myself to a daily office of prayer, and believing that we United Methodists have an exciting new—different, but new—journey ahead of us, has done the same thing for my personal, spiritual range anxiety!


As my wife would say, “What’s the worst that could happen?” And with that, we will anticipate the next, fresh arrival of God’s Holy Spirit—a “Bolt from the Blue!” Amen!


Friday, May 12, 2023

Paul and the Town Hall

 Paul and the Town Hall


Acts 17:22-31
17:22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, "Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.

17:23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

17:24 The God who made the world and everything in it, the one who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,

17:25 nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since God gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.

17:26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and God allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,

17:27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God--though indeed God is not far from each one of us.

17:28 For 'In God we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we too are God’s offspring.'

17:29 Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.

17:30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now God commands all people everywhere to repent,

17:31 because God has fixed a day on which God will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom God has appointed, and of this God has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."




This week’s text from Acts is a “convicting” one for me, personally. You see, the Apostle Paul demonstrates something here that is not a natural impulse for me, as a Christian, nor as a person who tips the scales on the Myers-Briggs personality inventory as an “ENFP,” or “Extroverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving.” We love a good argument, and even when making a public witness for our faith, we can easily get drawn into a contentious conversation, just for the “fun” of it. Even if my “opponent,” or shall we say the “protagonist,” enjoys the sparring, me, as the antagonist, is not necessarily providing a good witness of the love of the gospel and the story of my faith in Christ. On a grander scale, this is the problem with “apologetics,” the once-venerated skill of putting up a good “argument” or “case” for the gospel. “Defending the faith” may have its place, but the arena of witnessing for Jesus Christ is not one of them. Hence, apologetics has become an archaic pursuit. Arguing for the “truth” of the gospel will not persuade someone to accept and believe it. Faith is a matter of the heart and the soul. The mind generally comes later. An apologeticist may be “right as rain,” but turn off her or his audience to the transforming power of the Good News. And while I do not see myself in this regard, I DO like to “contend” in conversation more naturally than listen, acquiesce, and lovingly persuade. Again, Paul hits me right between the eyes with the story we read today in Acts 17. More on that later. First, let’s look at the story, itself.


Paul, a very learned man, is on a mission to witness for Christ, wherever God leads him. In this account, he is in Athens, and has arrived at the Aeropagus, a rock outcropping used predominantly as a judicial or trial venue. Some doubt that this is the site of Paul’s message, and the Acts author may have set the story there, as future readers would understand why such a philosophical discussion would have taken place. It may have actually been in the Agora, but later readers would have any idea what that was. The text doesn’t directly say whether Paul is in Athens as part of his missionary journey or just as a tourist passing through, but it is clear that his intellect has him fascinated at the statues to the various Gods of the Greek culture. And yet, Paul turns his observations into an opportunity to witness for the gospel. Earlier in the chapter, we read that Paul was “greatly distressed” by all of the idol/statues he encountered in Athens, but when he gets his chance, he shares a witness that does not confront, but that begins as information to his listeners. He begins by showing respect to their pagan faith, offering to “name” for them the “Unknown God” they worshipped as the highest of their deities. As he tells of the power, grace and “exploits” of this God—his God, and the Father of Jesus Christ the Savior—he draws them into his sphere of interest. Paul describes the God of the Bible and the God of Jesus Christ—a God who is “not far from us” and fully engaged with God’s human creation. This is not a “rock” God who is cold and uncaring, and for whom the worship of this God elicits nothing but an inanimate “stone stare.” Paul invokes one of the most powerful and thoughtful descriptions of our God one will read anywhere: “In God we live and move and have our being.” Paul’s description of God as a deity who is directly engaged with us, especially in the incarnate “man” Jesus Christ, obviously moves some in his audience, which included some very powerful leaders in Athens, including Dionysius and a woman named Damaris. The latter part of chapter 17 tells us they became believers! Paul’s sensitive and compassionate “conversation” became a transformational moment for these two, and apparently several others. 


Paul effectively staged what we might call a “town hall” meeting, today. There was a time in American history when town hall meetings were held to bring citizens together to express concerns or opinions to civic leaders and elected officials, who then might properly act to remedy the situations discussed. Modern “town halls” are often staged by the news media on TV, radio, or streaming services, with a “cross sectional” audience selected to ask questions or express concerns. Honestly, they have mostly become campaign forums today, such as the one that CNN hosted on Wednesday night with former President Donald Trump. Unfortunately, unlike Paul’s peaceful and intellectual exchange with the folk near the Aeropagus in Athens, most of them today are one-sided and often contentious. Trump’s “town hall” appearance on CNN this week turned out to be just a one-sided forum where he could continue to prevaricate and try out his election sound bites. The host was all but powerless to stop him from steamrolling the “dialogue.” The Apostle Paul could teach all of us a lesson, today!


Back to my being “convicted” by this story: I love a good argument, and tend to “push” conversations with those who may disagree with my theology to a point of contentiousness. I don’t know whether it is the competitiveness in me, or just the “devil’s advocate” part of being an extroverted, intuitive person that tends to make me more confrontational in theological discussions? But Paul, here, is empathetic to his listeners, which is NOT a bad idea for someone when witnessing to “unbelievers,” or even as a preaching model. My Friday conversation group has been reading the sermons of Fred Craddock, the late master preacher and professor of homiletics (preaching) at Chandler School of Theology. Craddock was famous for a kind of “aw shucks” type of folksy sermons that led his listeners to “over hear” the Good News, meaning they listened, and were “lured” to draw their own conclusions. When we get to do that, we are first informed, and then transformed by what we hear. What I get from Craddock—and Paul—is that our witness, and our preaching, can be one of three things: confrontational, informational, or transformational. The latter should be our goal, if we are serious about turning the world around toward faith in Jesus Christ, who is, himself, a transformational figure. 


As Christian witnesses, and as preachers, for those of us who answer to that calling, we are beckoned to learn from Paul’s “town hall” by the Aeropagus, rather than from the bashing, slashing, and fabricated disaster that was Donald Trump’s “town hall” on CNN on Wednesday. The funny thing is that Donald Trump posted on his personal social network afterwards that he believed he “changed many minds” with his diatribe the other night. I severely doubt it. He may have even ticked some off and lost their support. I thought that my own public witness for Christ may too often be somewhere between Paul and Trump, and no where near Craddock’s, in terms of my preaching. It’s never too late to listen and learn, Dear Ones. How about you?


If one reads more of the stories of the New Testament about the life and ministry of Paul the Apostle, one will clearly see that Paul is often confrontational, but usually in the face of opposition or “stuckness” from other church leaders. But in front of “unbelievers” he encounters, whether people like Festus, Dionysius, or even the Philippian jailer, Paul is sensitive, gentle, and inviting with his words and his actions. His public witness is simple, soft, and extremely effective. And even in his “town hall” in front of the Aeropagus, when he could have hotly debated those who had been advocates for a system of heartless, power-craving “deities” they had idolized in stone, Paul came on with compassion, understanding, collegiality, and a goal of persuading them to switch allegiance to a God who cared enough to walk among us and offer his life for us. 


Friends, this text should challenge us all. Paul didn’t seem to “worry” that his careful, respectful witness might result in no change in the faith of his “learned” audience. My guess is that if that happened, he just would have dropped the subject, in order to return another day with more inviting rhetoric, rather than scared them with the threat of “going to hell” because of their “devilish” or pagan beliefs. Do we believe in the power of God to transform individuals through the work of the Holy Spirit and via the agency of Jesus Christ? If so, do we believe enough that our witness MAY not be the “last word” our listeners will ever hear? Or do we believe that our witness may need to be borne out over more than one conversation? How much trust do we have that God will offer us many opportunities to be “missionaries” and witnesses to those we encounter? Or that God may well use our testimony as but one part of what is needed to construct a transformational message for some of the folk we encounter? Perhaps one of the most destructive things we have been seduced by is the idea that “we may be the only one” some people meet who may persuade them to put their faith in Christ. Paul reminds us, “Who’s in charge here?”  


Again, what the author tells us in verse 28 is all we need to know (and to witness to!):  “For 'In God we live and move and have our being; as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we too are God’s offspring.” Amen!

Friday, May 5, 2023

X-Ray Vision


X-Ray Vision


Acts 7:55-60
7:55 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.

7:56 "Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!"

7:57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.

7:58 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.

7:59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."

7:60 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.



When we were kids, Superman’s x-ray vision was a real “super power.” Imagine being able to see through walls, or into sealed objects by just gazing at them! Of course, as young boys, some of us fantasized about being able to see under clothing, without thinking that what x-rays actually see are bones and cavities in molars and bicuspids. Of course, to the early writers of Superman comics, x-rays were magic, and their character would be one step closer to “super” by having the ability to see with them, built in. Superman’s super vision did have limitations, however. Do you remember the entertaining scene from the blockbuster film with Christopher Reeves as the Man of Steel, and Margo Kidder as Lois Lane, on her penthouse balcony, where she asks Superman by asking him to prove his x-ray vision by asking him the color of her underwear? After a quick, lascivious glance at Lois, standing on the other side of a rooftop flower box, Superman says, “This planter must be made of lead.” His super-power vision can’t see through lead (neither can x-rays emitted by an x-ray machine), but when she steps out from behind the planter later in the interview, he exclaims, “Pink!” Had he really had x-ray vision, he might have said, “Well, your pelvis is intact.”


Speaking of anti-super powers, at age 68, my personal vision is clouding over. It would be nice to have a small dose of that GOOD kryptonite! As a victim of myopia (nearsightedness) since before the third grade, with a nice measure of astigmatism, eyeglasses or contact lenses have been my almost life-long companions. I did wear contact lenses for almost 20 years, but the aging process eventually sent me back to Ben Franklin’s trusty eye jewelry. And now, between those spiderweb-like “floaters” and budding cataracts, just seeing the book I’m trying to read is a chore, let alone peeping at someone’s underwear. Routine cataract surgery later this year will swap out God’s lenses from a couple of artificial ones, and I’m hoping I can read better through the spider webs, which are permanent residents, I’m afraid.


Speaking of seeing, I also have to say, as one who grew up in a basement film processing darkroom, and who minored in photojournalism in collage, how exhilarating it has been to see the rapid evolution of digital photography! After a lifetime of painstakingly processing and printing or mounting my own pictures and slides, and owning a wide variety of cameras from Kodaks to those of exotic Russian or German construction, the ability to “take pictures” on a pocketable, battery-powered marvel that saves the photos in a digital memory is truly miraculous, in my mind. My first digital camera was an “experimental” one from Kodak labs that took a maximum of seven, low-resolution photos. Still, it was a wonder. Within two years, my next digital camera was 20 times the resolution, and would store over 200 photos on a removeable memory card. My current two “mirrorless” digital camera bodies with interchangeable lenses will each store over 3500 high-res pictures on their memory cards. And if that isn’t miraculous enough for your taste, take a look at your Android smart phone or your iPhone! My Apple iPhone 13 Pro currently has over 6,000 VERY high resolution photos (mostly of Dara and our grandkids) stored on it, with room for MANY more! 


Okay, one more story about miraculous vision in our lifetime: all of us have been absolutely stupefied by the incredible images caught by the Hubble Space Telescope or the latest, the James Webb Telescope. We have peered into the center of the galaxy and to the edges of the known universe—so far away that in being able to capture them, we are actually seeing millions of years back into time, they tell us. Wow.


And yet, from Superman’s x-ray vision to my Olympus OM camera or crazy-great smartphone, or even the telescopes parked in space, nothing holds a candle to the story this weekend’s lectionary text from the Book of Acts relates about the kind of super-power vision Saint Stephen demonstrated! He looked into the heavens and saw GOD, and God’s Son, Jesus Christ, standing at God’s right hand—in the words of the text, he “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God.” Take THAT, Hubble!


The story of Saint Stephen is, in itself, quite miraculous, but also one that should inspire the “everyman” in all of us. We first meet him in the Bible when he is one of several early disciples who are chosen by lots to “wait on tables.” As I understand it, this was a benevolent practice of righteous Jews, who would collect the leftover food at restaurant tables to take it to the poor. The early Christians, most of whom were Jewish before coming to believe in Messiah Yeshua (Jesus), felt compelled to maintain this ministry, so they needed “volunteers” from within their ranks to do so. Stephen was one of those chosen, and while it was certainly a laudable act of compassion, it surely must have been also considered quite “custodial” among the exciting, emerging ministries of the budding church. And yet, in fairly short order, we read this in verse 8 of chapter 6: “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” What gives? The “waiter” becomes a super-apostle?


Let’s finish the story, first. Because of his impact as a public witness for his faith in Jesus Christ, and most likely because of the “wonders and signs,” St. Stephen was hauled before the religious authorities (“high priests”), probably some of the same crowd that condemned Jesus. All of Acts 6 and 7 are worth a good read, for our table-waiter launches into an eloquent telling of pretty much the whole history of Israel, detailing the many ways the historical people of God busted up their relationship with the Almighty, eventually invoking the colorful Old Testament phrase, “stiff-necked” people. His story is like prosecutor’s summation in a court of law than ends with an accusation that his listeners—these vaunted religious leaders—continued the unlawful history by “murdering” Jesus, the Messiah. This obviously did not sit well with the priests, but they really lose it when Stephen exclaims that he is looking directly into heaven and seeing God and Jesus, which they quickly label as blasphemy, condemning him to death by stoning, the “mandatory sentence” for blasphemy in that day.


Stephen is a kind of “missing link” in the glorious and explosive history of the early church. The humble “busboy” who, filled by the Holy Spirit, becomes a powerful witness for Jesus and performing signs and wonders, pleads God’s case against Israel in front of the “court” of the high priests. In the midst of being pronounced guilty, he has this transcendent vision. The text renders him as sounding almost trance-like as he tells all present of what he is “seeing.” Jacob saw angels descending and ascending a great ladder to heaven. Peter, James, and John were witnesses to the transfiguration of Jesus and his “guests” for that theophany, Moses and Elijah. But Stephen uniquely gets to see right into heaven and sees God on the throne, with Jesus standing just where he should be, after his ascension! His account must have been so spectacular that it jarred the priests and they jumped on the “security” of blasphemy as a way to show their incredulity. So, the Stephen “link” moves from humble servant, through signs and wonders, on to accusations of the religious leaders using their own history to plead his case, and then to the vision of heaven, just before he is stoned to death. Sound familiar?


Stephen sure sounds like a “Christ figure” to me, in this story. The link continues, as we read on, for who is holding his cloak while he is being stoned? An enforcer from the court of the priests named Saul. Saul, whom we have come to know as Paul the Apostle, becomes the kind of “resurrection” story for Stephen. Witnessing the death of Stephen may have been the first domino to fall in Saul’s spiritual transformation to being a Christ follower that culminates on the road to Damascus. 


So, as you see, Stephen’s “vision” goes way beyond his glimpse into eternity. Or, should we say that God’s “system” of raising common people up to be the true “superheroes” of the faith is a vision that just might hook our wildest imagination. Throughout the history of Christianity, this visionary system has produced monumental heroes of “waiters” and mothers, teenagers and those from the disenfranchised margins of humanity. The story of Stephen reminds us we are all susceptible to both God’s “promotions” beyond our simple servitude. We never know where we may end up, while serving God in our simple ways. 


Fred Craddock, the late highly celebrated, yet “simple” preacher, once said in a sermon there were two things that really troubled him about the Bible: what it told him he didn’t like; and the places it would put him where he didn’t feel he had any business being. Saint Stephen is one of those biblical witnesses to this fact! 


We should be both inspired and a bit unsettled by Stephen’s “x-ray” vision of God in God’s high heaven. No other vision has so set the wheels of the Christian church in motion, and no energy source greater than the Holy Spirit has kept them fueled. While we may be awed by the images from Hubble, humbled by our own waning eyesight, or even amazed by the stories of Marvel Comic superheroes, it was the vision and life of Saint Stephen that gave us the “big picture” we will all someday see, face to face—God on the throne and Jesus at God’s right hand. Amen!

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...