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Loving the Violent Wind

This post covers the readings from The Acts of the Apostles for Day of Pentecost, Acts 27:13-28:44. For a list of all the readings through the Easter season, click here

We end our journey through Acts where we began – with the rush of a violent wind. One rushing, violent wind brings the Holy Spirit. This one brings a shipwreck. Paul and his companions find themselves adrift, hungry and thirsty. After their ship strikes a reef, the ship’s passengers, including Paul and his companions, land on the island of Malta and meet new people before eventually journeying to Rome, where we read the closing words of Acts: He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance (Acts 28:30-31, NRSV).

Altar detail, Friesach Dominical Church, by Neithan90, Wikicommons

Yesterday many churches celebrated the feast of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit to empower us to go forth and preach the Gospel, to proclaim the kingdom of God, and to proclaim the love of Jesus Christ for all people. We may wear read. We may read some of the scripture lessons in languages other than the one predominantly spoken in our community. We join together for the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.

And we all remember our responsibility, our charge from Jesus: Go and preach this love.

This rushing of the violent wind of the Holy Spirit does not mark the end of our journey. Pentecost, while bringing an end to the Great Fifty Days of Easter, does not absolve us of allowing the love and joy of Jesus, crucified and resurrected, to burst forth from us in our thoughts, words, and deeds each moment, each day of our lives.

In fact, it reaffirms that very charge from Jesus. The Holy Spirit rushes into our lives, upending our plans and ideas, pushing us forth into communion with people we call friend and people we’d rather not speak to. The Holy Spirit fills the spaces between our self-centered ideas and strategies for comfort and runs us aground on this self-seeking bend of love. In those cracks and fissures, the Holy Spirit settles in and expands, enlarging us and our capacity for the love preached and lived by Jesus.

We – all of us who claim the faith of Jesus – are called to preach, to live, and to embody this radical, merciful, and eternal love. Each day, not just on Sundays.

Make no mistake, this love is rarely comfortable. Comfort keeps us locked in the rooms of our own expectations. The love of Jesus rocks the ships of our own schemes, running them aground and forcing us to enter new communities, to open our selves and souls to new insights, and to act boldly to serve all in the name of Jesus. Walking, preaching, living, this love is work, and embodying this love will almost always cause us to run aground on the qualities the social culture values. Like Peter, Paul, and the early followers of Jesus, if we’re loving right, we will find ourselves at odds with those who preach affluence at all cost, caring for the poor and needy only if they deserve it, and rhetoric that dehumanizes those people. Living Jesus’ love requires commitment, courage, and work.

Work Jesus is convinced we can do.

Will we make mistakes as we strive to live this love of Jesus?

Yes, as did the disciples as we’ve read in Acts.

We will all agree on exactly how we live this love of Jesus?

No, and neither did the disciples, as we’ve read in Acts.

Will being blown forward by the Spirit into this love lead us to new and extraordinary places, especially places far outside our personal comfort zones?

Yes, as it did to the disciples, as we’ve read in Acts.

The rush of wind of the Holy Spirit moves us, as She moved the disciples gathered in the room, as She moved Paul from the Damascus Road to a life as possibly the most prolific missionary of the early Church. The Holy Spirit moves us to welcome all who come to us, to proclaim the kingdom of God, and to teach about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.

Go forth, and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus. Love boldly and wildly. Bring down walls. Welcome all.

And love each other.

Amen. Alleluia.

This marks the last post on our journey through the Acts of the Apostles as part of Fifty Days of Fabulous. Thanks to all who read, shared, and commented on posts. Forward Movement has several resources to continue an in-depth study of Holy Scripture. To explore the many ways Forward Movement can empower your life as a disciple, click here

Goaded by Jesus

This post covers the readings from The Acts of the Apostles for the Seventh Week of Easter, Acts 21:27 through 27:12. For a list of all the readings through the Easter season, click here

This section of Acts continues with more of Paul’s adventures. Or, rather, more of Paul’s rabble-rousing adventures. As we study the final chapters of Acts, we read about Paul’s encounters with several powerful figures of the day. And not once, but twice, we hear Paul share his conversion experience on the Damascus Road.

Paul’s accounts don’t differ significantly from what we read earlier in Acts. He’s honest about his role in persecuting Christians and encouraging those who persecuted unto death early Christians. He recounts being struck blind on the Damascus Road and hearing the voice of Jesus ask, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” in the Hebrew language (a verse in Acts my Hebrew professor in seminary suggested God preferred language is Hebrew).

But the line that follows in Paul’s testimony in front of King Agrippa fascinates me. Paul says Jesus continues speaking, telling a blinded Paul, “It hurts you to kick against the goads.”

Venezuela. Man with goad holding one-handle plow drawn by oxen, sugar-cane field (June 1910), from New York State Archives, for educational use.

That particular phrase is from a play by Euripides written some 500 years before the events of Acts take place. It had become a popular Greek proverb by the time of Paul. Goads were sticks with a metal point on the end used to drive large animals like cattle and oxen. In the Ancient Near East, a farmer plowing the field would use a goad to motivate an ox who decided to stand firmly in place to move forward. The more an animal resisted the guidance by kicking against the goad, the more discomfort the goad would inflict. The word is a root from our modern use of the verb goad, as in provoking someone to elicit a reaction.

First, I love that as Paul relates the story, Jesus uses popular phrases of the day to make a point. Far too many people think God and Jesus only speak in King James English, and our prayers with them will be graded and, perhaps even answered, on our ability to speak likewise.

Here’s textual proof of exactly the opposite. Jesus speaks with us in the language we use, the words we use, and in the phrases we use. Jesus today might appear to someone persecuting those Christians striving for justice and dignity among all people by asking the persecutor of the faithful, “Why aren’t you woke?!”

That’s Jesus.

Second, this proverb Jesus says to Paul has something substantial to say to us, too. Jesus loved agricultural images. Not surprising, given the culture in which he lived and moved and had his being was significantly agricultural. Just as we embrace the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd using a shepherd’s crook to guide the sheep, we can also imagine Jesus the Oxen Driver, guiding a pair of oxen yoked together forward to plow the field.

And we are the ones who need guiding to do the work Jesus has given us to do.

Our work of love in the world, serving especially the least of these, sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with others, and being a witness of forgiveness and reconciliation in the world is hard work. Make no mistake, living a life mostly focused on what’s best for us and letting those people deal with their own problems, keeping our Jesus talk contained to an hour on Sundays a few times a month, and being a witness to the percieved power of holding grudges and retribution is far easier. We meander wherever we want, unconcerned with the voice of Jesus asking us why we persecute him as we put our wants and desires and our own comfort above love of neighbor and enemy.

Jesus, however, will not let us meander or stay stuck forever. Gently, even sharply, we will feel the prick of the Gospel pushing us onto the Way of Christ.

Maybe, in response to this prick to our souls, we move forward to follow Jesus more closely when the sharp pang of awareness, of empathy, and of compassion unsettles us.

Or maybe we become more stubborn. We rationalize why we can’t love our enemies, why we think justice and equality should be delayed as we have yet another committee meeting or avoid doing anything that might cause controversy or be considered “unseemly” by those in power, or any of the number of reasons we would rather envelop ourselves in illusory busy-ness than do the challenging work of love in the world. And Jesus, in his persistent, loving way, keeps urging us forward, pushing us out of our illusions and explanations and excuses.

We do not, as followers of Jesus, get to stay stuck in our own images of God. We do not get to tell those crying aloud in the wilderness for justice and equality to wait. We do not get to talk about acting in love while refusing to let love act on us and change us.

And yet, too often, we say we follow Jesus and do exactly all these things. We are the oxen with fields to plow, but we stop in our tracks, refusing to move. We keep resisting any movement forward. And Jesus pokes us, prods us, and tries to move us through the voices of those who yearn for love, who cry for welcome, who ask us to see Jesus in them and help them.

And yet, we kick against Jesus’ goad of love.

Jesus, being Jesus, does not silence those voices pushing us forward into love. In fact, Jesus continues to ask us, “Why do you persecute me?” and holds a steady pressure on our selves and souls to move us out of our ruts, out of our excuses, out of our fears into the way of Jesus.

Saul realized that. He knew the only way to relieve his personal discomfort that resulted in his harassing, tormenting, and persecuting Christians was to embrace the Good News they preached. He quit kicking against the goad and began walking the Way of Jesus.

Walking the road, by cogdogblog – https://www.flickr.com/photos/cogdog/5295231922/, CC BY 2.0, Wikicommons

This Way, as we’ve read, was not effortless or without hardship for Paul. But it was life-giving, filled with a love that made Paul venture into cities and towns across Asia Minor preaching the Gospel. This love transformed a man who persecuted Christians into a man who propagated the faith as no other person did at the time. This love reaches into the places in our hearts where prejudice lives and wants to clear our vision so we can move forward.

As you reflect on your life of faith, can you identify times where you have been stuck, not able to see Jesus in a group of people whom Jesus loves, not wanting to shift from a firmly held position  you believed to be correct? Did you experience Jesus compassionately yet firmly goad you forward? What were the circumstances? What kept you stuck, not wanting to move forward? How did Jesus’ love manifest to get you unstuck?

How are you now following Jesus on this new Way?

 

 

Remembering the Names

This post covers the readings from The Acts of the Apostles for the Sixth Week of Easter, Acts 16:16 through 21:26. For a list of all the readings through the Easter season, click here 

I have several place markers in my life – the universities where I earned degrees, the small towns where I lived, and even the Episcopal Church where I serve. When I meet new people in the course of leading retreats or attending an Episcopal Church conference, I almost always encounter someone who, too, went to the University of Alabama or lived in Mississippi or attends an Episcopal Church. Our conversation almost always treads the road of, “Do you know Jane or John? S/he’s from…” with the end of the statement locating that person in a place familiar to me.

Then we usually have a lovely moment  with each other held together by this common person we both know.

Obviously, there are risks. The do-you-know question always runs the risk on the answer being, “Yes, and he’s a full-on jerk.” But mostly, it’s a reminder of the ties that bind us together in our vast community. We realize we are, in fact, connected by those we know and the people we’ve encountered.

In Acts, we encounter names…lots…of…names.

In this last portion of the book, the main name we encounter is Paul. Paul, often accompanied by Silas, has arrived, proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. Paul, as you will remember, was formerly known as Saul and first appeared in the narrative of Acts watching the death of Stephen with approval. Paul, formerly known as Saul, persecutor exceptional of those early followers of Jesus. Paul, formerly known as Saul, who had an encounter with God that then-Saul allowed to change him.

Last week we even had the tiny, almost overlooked explanation about Saul’s new name. We simply read he is now known as Paul. No real explanation. Maybe he changed it to avoid the baggage that most certainly accompanied the name Saul. Paul could have been another given name to Saul. Whatever the reason, Paul is now among us in the narrative.

Paul, however, is not alone.

The writings of Acts are filled with names. We have the names of some of the twelve disciples, some historic figures, and many names of those involved with the early church.

So why all these names?

My imagination sees Luke and Acts, copied from original scrolls by early scribes, being read in the midst of early Christian worship. They gathered in the home of a fellow Christian, praying together, celebrating the Eucharist together, and sharing a meal. They also read the scrolls that would eventually become Acts or perhaps a letter from Paul or maybe even sayings about Jesus compiled by a disciple that have been long-lost to our modern church.

And to those Christians gathered, sometimes in a large group situated in a larger city, sometimes in a small group of people settled in a remote outpost, they likely recognized a name.

“Oh, Lydia! Yes, remember when we met her last year when she came to the market. She told us all about the community and how she and her entire household were baptized!”

“Did that letter mention Timothy? My son traveled with him briefly last year. His mission travels are awe-inspiring.”

“You’ll never guess who I met last month when I was in Ephesus – Priscilla and Aquila! They said they were traveling with Paul again and hoped to come through here soon.”

The names we read in Acts were real people, many influential in the early church and whose names invited those who would come after to tell their stories and recall their place in our church. Many became official saints of the church. They are mentioned so that people would remember them and their ministries. The names are not exclusively of powerful men. In fact, the few powerful men who are named almost always serve as cautionary tales of selfish choices.

The names include women, important women in the early church who were leaders, evangelists, and preachers. The names include those who were on the margins of the culture of the time who reminded those who were in the center of the culture to welcome, always welcome, in the name of Jesus. The names include those who died for their faith, those who gave away all they had and followed Jesus, and those who died to self and rose to new life in Christ.

Their names serve to remind us of our heritage, the acts of the apostles of the early church that inspire us in our acts of the modern church.

By Bill Sutton – Lynched in Alabama eji, Montgomery, CC BY 2.0, from WikiCommons

We can, however, in the church become too enamored with the names of the past. We etch them in memorials, singing praise to famous men while reducing the story of those who have also built our faith and challenged us to love more to a footnote in a church history or ignoring those names all together.

How many of our churches have significant plaques and memorials that remember the names (or, in some cases, the unnamed) of slaves who built many of our churches? How many of our churches lift up the names of the countless people who cared for children throughout centuries of ministry with children or who fed the hungry or who cared for the sick, often costing their own lives? How many of our churches have equal memorials to laity and clergy?

Names are placeholders for the story of the church. The people we remember by name tell us what acts, what ministries, what message of the Gospel we hold important. The names we don’t memorialize also tells us something about our Church.

This week, walk around your church or a church in your city. Whose names are memorialized? Do you know their stories? If not, ask someone in your church about them and their ministries. What message do you think remembering this name says about what the church holds important?

Do you notice names that aren’t mentioned? What might that say, as well? What might happen if you approached your congregation about remembering some of these names in a prominent way?

 

 

Video: Sufjan Stevens, “The Greatest Gift”

As we reach the halfway mark of Acts, and read about Committees, Councils, and Knowing Better, this week’s music video comes courtesy of Sufjan Stevens.

Lyrics for reflection:

Praise the mountain and the rain
All the gifts that still remain
But the greatest gift of all
And the law above all laws

Is to love your friends and lovers
To lay down your life for your brothers
As you abide in peace
So will your delight increase

Committees, Councils, and Knowing Better

This post covers the readings from The Acts of the Apostles for the Fifth Week of Easter, Acts 13:13 through 16:15. For a list of all the readings through the Easter season, click here 

We’ve reached the half-way point in the book of Acts, and things are happening. The story begins to shift. The well-known older personalities are saying their final words, and new characters come onto the screen. The small band of Jesus followers is growing. Leaders who didn’t know Jesus personally are appearing and sharing their story. Change is happening.

In an earlier chapter, we read the Jesus movement has been given a name. In Antioch, the disciples were first called Christians. This suggests the Jesus followers were different enough from their original communities (likely forms of Judaism) that people in the city gave them a distinguishing name.

These newly-named Christians are on the move. This shouldn’t be surprising. Remember, Jesus says they will be his witnesses to the ends of the earth in the first verses of Acts. At this point, the ends of the earth include Antioch, Cyprus, and Iconium.

Most study Bibles have maps that locate these places, as well as other major cities of the era. Take some time this week to see the journeys of the apostles of the early church. Remember most people walked or took boats to get from place to place, so a journey that takes us a few minutes to read took Paul and Barnabas weeks to walk, which is a good way to remind us all we aren’t reading a series of event that took place in a few weeks or months, but over almost 30 years.

We are introduced to Paul and Barnabas. Several other people are mentioned, but these two are the headliners of the next part of Acts. The Holy Spirit picks them for particular work, and off they go. And here, we read, that Saul is now called Paul. And Paul, we read, tends to create passion for Jesus and no small amount of controversy wherever he goes.

The Church, then and now, is a loose association of people who believe in the Gospel of Jesus. How they expressed this belief started with the fundamentals of a confession of belief in Jesus Christ, repentance of sins, baptism, and the fits of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38). But as the community of early believers expanded from a fairly homogeneous, mostly Jewish community into one that integrated gentiles, how people followed Jesus became nuanced and varied and remains so.

As we can imagine, these newly-formed groups of Christians had various ways of following Jesus. We can surmise they all practiced baptism, but from there, I suspect communities developed distinct ways to follow Jesus, reflective of their communities, cultures, and experiences.

And this diversity, this multiplicity of people and ideas leads to controversy. We have, in this week’s reading in Acts, the response to that controversy, the very first church council, the Council at Jerusalem.

By and large, church councils are called to address points of divergence and reach some consensus. Most ancient councils were called to address heresies, but this ancient practice of the church to come together to discuss points of disagreement and enable the church to talk with each other as we discern how we follow Jesus continues in our Diocesan and General Conventions.

The Council of Jerusalem addressed the issue of circumcision; particularly, did those gentiles who became Christians have to be circumcised? As you can imagine, adult males in the world before anesthetics and antibiotics had a very practical reason to be concerned about this particular aspect of following Jesus. This controversy arose because the church expanded beyond the Jewish community. One party, we read, held that all males who became Christians had to be circumcised in accordance with Mosaic law. Paul, Barnabas, and others disagreed, and they traveled to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and the elders.

Petrus et Paulus (4th century) Wikicommons

After much debate, Peter speaks (for the last time in Acts) and the Council makes a decree: no, gentile converts to Christianity don’t have to be circumcised, but they, along with, we may presume, all Christians, should abstain from that which has been sacrificed to idols, from blood and from what is strangled (some texts do not have this part) and from fornication.

I imagine the letter being read to the early Christian communities with some relief, but also with some confusion. What, exactly, is this blood and strangled business? And how much bewilderment (and no small amount of violence, pain, and shame to many people over the ages) has the mandate to abstain from fornication caused the church? Some scholars relate these back to Levitical mandates, but again, how many early Christian communities, especially those with a majority of non-Jewish members, would have been intricately familiar with Leviticus? How many of us now are?

Church councils seem to clarify one issue while adding confusion to twenty-five new issues. We want sure and certain, not only in our faith, but in how we live our faith. But we must remember we are trying to form structure around the great mystery and diversity of the body of Christ and a holy love for God and neighbor expressed in daring, different ways. Add in the passionate, unpredictable movement of the Holy Spirit, and we can see the soil for conflict. That does not mean we exist without any structure, without any order. But it might mean we realize that our insights, our deliberations, and our mandates, guidelines and rules about Christianity must be nestled in humility because they might be wrong.

Maya Angelou has a wonderful quote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Too often in the Church we do the best we can, then when those among our community invite us to know better, we ignore them while clutching our decrees of the past.

We are, instead, invited by God to open our minds and hearts, selves and souls, to knowing better and doing better. Peter, Paul, and the early followers had distinct ideas about what being a Christian meant – and they didn’t agree. So they made some decisions, some helpful, others not. Then time went forward, and we made more decisions. Some of those decisions have stood the test of time; others have not. We now know better or have admitted we need God to help us know better and do better on slavery and racism and its deeply damaging legacy to the body of Christ, how we have denied equality to women, and our destructive relationship with human sexuality, particularly how we as the church have treated LGBTQ members as less than beloved by God.

We are constantly as Christians being touched by the Holy Spirit to know better, and then to do better.

This week, I invite you to pray for the councils of the church, from your local church councils, vestries, and leadership to the national and international disciples who gather to make decisions. Pray that they will be guided by the Holy Spirit and sustained in courage to make decisions that expand love and empower disciples. Perhaps share with them that you are praying for them.

Pray that we will have the humility to admit we are still learning to know better, and when we do know better, that we will have the courage to do better. Encourage church leaders, lay and ordained, in their ministry on these councils and, if you have not served on a council, perhaps pray and discern if you are called to engage in this ancient and orthodox Christian ministry.

This summer deputies (elected church members, both clergy and laity, from each diocese) and bishops of the Church will gather in Austin, Texas at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention. We will worship together. We will pray in our diversity. We will disagree in our diversity. We will consider legislation that will address issues important to our Church and to us as Christians as to how we live out our faith. You can click here for the official General Convention website to follow the work of General Convention. Add the General Convention to your prayers – the ministry and work of the Convention and the people gathered.

Almighty and everliving God, source of all wisdom and understanding, be present with those who take counsel in the church for the renewal and mission of your Church. Teach us in all things to seek first your honor and glory. Guide us to perceive what is right, and grant us both the courage to pursue it and the grace to accomplish it; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.