Archive for April, 2008

Acting Out–Christian Civil Disobedience

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

This morning you are getting a glimpse of what we’ve been doing in the Acting Out Study where we’ve been looking at stories in the Book of Acts. You know that verse where Jesus says ‘where two or three of you meet together in my name, there I am in the midst of you?’ Well we’ve managed to meet the minimum in our sessions so far, but just barely. So part of what I hope to do this morning is whet your appetite, and maybe you will find yourself straying into Bible Study. This is great stuff we have been looking at. They are really good stories. And all these studies are self contained. So if you can’t come to all the sessions, it’s not like you are missing the flow of things. So we are going to begin our service this morning by reading a story from Acts 4. We’ll talk more about it in a few minutes, but now I simply want you to listen to the story (not read along), as we prepare ourselves for worship this morning.

In our Acting Out Bible Study we begin each story by setting the scene. So help me do that this morning. You can look at the story now. Who are the characters in the story and what’s the setting?… It begins in the Temple (you get that from the previous story) with Peter and John, the priests, the chief of the Temple Police, Sadducees, the crowd. The scene moves to the next day where all the religious big shots have called a crisis meeting in Jerusalem. The day before they had Peter and John arrested and now they make them come into the room where they start grilling them.

As we look at these stories in our study we try to imagine where it is taking place and what’s happening. Imagine Peter and John preaching in the Temple and then being arrested and dragged away. What are they feeling?… Afraid? Privileged? Amazed they are doing such a thing? Confident? Empowered by the Spirit? What do you imagine they are thinking when they are in jail?… Were they going to end up on a cross like Jesus? They knew people were praying for them, and they had support from that growing number of Jesus followers.

What are the Sadducees and the religious establishment feeling?… Anger. Frustration. They thought they had already put an end to the Jesus mess.

What about the crowds?… Some of them were becoming believers themselves. Some were skeptical. Some thought it was great entertainment. Some were afraid of the religious establishment.

What’s the background we need to know?… A man has been healed, that’s why they were dragged before the leaders. Peter and John and the others have been claiming that Jesus was raised from death by God. The Holy Spirit has come. Thousands have become believers themselves. 

So put your imaginations to work. Imagine the scene, all the people, the sounds, the smells, the soldiers, the crowds, Peter and John, the religious leaders, the threats, the new church that is taking root in Jerusalem.

It’s an amazing sight when you think about it. What do you remember about Peter?… He denied Jesus. He ran away when Jesus needed him most. When the book of Acts starts he is hiding out from the authorities like all the others, afraid that he might end up on a cross, too.

But we learn in the very first story of the Book of Acts that for the forty days between when Jesus was raised from the dead and when he ascended that Jesus spent time with the disciples where he talked to them about the things ‘concerning the Kingdom of God.’

We talked in that first session about how that was the same thing Jesus did before he was crucified. Mark 1 says that Jesus ‘went to Galilee’ preaching about the Kingdom of God. Matthew 4 says that Jesus went all over Galilee and ‘God’s Kingdom was his theme.’ And in Luke 4 we read that Jesus told the people that ‘I have to tell the message of God’s Kingdom, that this is the work that God sent me to do.’ So it’s really clear what Jesus understood his mission was. Proclaim the message of the Kingdom of God. So that’s why at the beginning, throughout, and the end of his ministry Jesus was teaching and preaching about the Kingdom of God. It was the reason he was here.

And by his life and words he showed people what the Kingdom of God is. Loving each other. Making peace. Accepting God’s forgiveness and forgiving others. Loving God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves. Trusting God more than money or possessions, or status. Walking in humility. Welcoming the outcast. Crossing boundaries and tearing down walls between people.

This was the movement Jesus came to advance, the movement called the Kingdom of God. And here at the end he was still doing it. Even though the disciples, like Peter, still didn’t get it.

Right before he ascended into heaven, we also read in that first story that Jesus told Peter and the others to stay in Jerusalem. There they were to wait for God’s promise of the Holy Spirit. And when the Spirit came, Jesus said, they would become Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.

In the next story we looked at, they were waiting holed up in a room, laying low. The Holy Spirit came, and suddenly everything changed. They came running out of their hideout and right in the middle of Jerusalem and started bearing witness to Jesus, with Peter leading the way.

Their message was that Jesus went all over Israel doing good and healing people. It was clear that God was with Jesus, they said. But he was betrayed and executed. They said, though, that wasn’t the end of the story. God raised Jesus from the dead. And then, that very day, God’s Spirit was poured out on all people, men and women, old and young.

That story ended with three thousand people hearing Peter’s sermon and being baptized. They became witnesses of Jesus too, not only in the things they said about the risen Jesus, but by the way they lived their lives. That story in Acts 2 ends with this, “They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal and prayers. Everyone was in awe–all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And the believers lived in wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met. They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.’

Look what’s happened to this little group that was hiding out in that room. The Spirit came to them, and together they were becoming the living presence of the living Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus has taken root in their lives and in their church. The Kingdom of God, the message Jesus came to proclaim, was unfolding before people’s eyes in Jerusalem.

Now I missed the next story, about the man Peter and John healed in front of the Temple. But evidently they raised quite a stir and in today’s story they’ve been dragged before the religious authorities.

Now we get back to Peter. He had previously done all he could to not be discovered by the authorities. Now he was at their mercy. They gave Peter and John an out. All they had to do was stop talking about Jesus, and this stuff about him being raised from the dead and go back home to Galilee.

But Peter and John said to them, we can’t do that. ‘We can’t keep quiet about what we have seen and heard.’ These people who had been so scared of the authorities are now engaging in Christian civil disobedience, refusing to obey the law and putting themselves at great risk by doing so. Remember the words of Jesus, ‘wait in Jerusalem for the promise of God’s Holy Spirit, and you will be my witnesses.’

And the story says their accusers were in a bit of a fix. After all, the man they Peter and John had healed was standing right there in front of everybody. So they couldn’t keep them in jail because the crowds wouldn’t have stood for it.

Peter and John go back and find the others and start telling their story. And the people break out in prayer and it says ‘they became of one heart and one mind. They shared everything they had. And the apostles gave powerful witness to the resurrection of Jesus, and grace was on all of them.’ 

When I think about that first community that knew so much persecution, so much joy, I think about what Paul writes at the end of Romans 8. ‘Nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.’ They were gripped by that love. There was nothing that the religious authorities or Rome or anyone else could do to them that was more powerful than God’s love. And it was changing how they lived in this world.

In the next chapter after this one, we learn that the apostles get arrested again and are dragged before the High Council. The leaders say to them, ‘didn’t we give you strict orders not to teach in Jesus name?’ They almost ended up killing the Apostles right there. But one of the members of the council, Gamaliel, said people ought to not get so worked up. If there is nothing to this business of Jesus it will fade away. And if it’s really of God, there is nothing they can do to do to stop it.

So they gave the apostles a thorough beating and told them, again, to stop talking about Jesus. It says the ‘apostles went out overjoyed, because they had been given the honor of being dishonored on the account of Jesus. Every day they were in the Temple and homes teaching and preaching Christ Jesus, not letting up for a minute.’

These stories in the Book of Acts are stories about what happens in our lives when the Holy Spirit gets hold of us. We become the witnesses of Jesus, seeking God’s Kingdom, building communities of faith that show the power of the resurrection. There is healing and hope, for ourselves and for this world.

And one of the characters of every story is the Holy Spirit. Wait. The Holy Spirit will come. You will be my witnesses. That very first story is still the story of the church. What are our stories? Reading some of these stories together on Wednesday nights might just help us do some acting out ourselves, engaging in our own Christian civil disobedience. As the Book of Acts makes abundantly clear, you never know what’s going to happen once the Spirit gets hold of us.

The following were comments after the morning’s offering…

In these studies we have filled out the stories a bit more. We have talked about things like what it means to bear witness to the risen Jesus in Jerusalem, or the heart of the religious establishment.

We’ve talked about Peter’s interesting spin on the whole idea of the last days.

We’ve talked in more detail about the Kingdom of God.

We took a closer look at that very first church. They were a radical lot, selling all they had and so everyone’s needs would be met. They weren’t just social activists, though. They also worshiped and prayed together and studied the scriptures together. They were evangelists, proclaiming Jesus was alive and they had found new life in him. They were on that inner and outer journey. And they ate a lot together, nourishing each other in so many ways.

Next Wednesday we will look at a couple of stories in Acts 6 and 7 but begin with this today’s. You are more than encouraged to help us fill in some of the details, especially the details where this story and all the stories we read in Acts meet our stories. But before we finish up, is there anything somebody wants to point out about this story we have looked at today?

Did you know that Charles Finney took inspiration from this story when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed? He saw the apostles obeying a higher law. So he began writing about how the higher law meant that followers of Jesus had to engage in what we now call civil disobedience. Christians could not in good conscience obey the government when the government opposed the ways of God. That drove the Presbyterians, not to mention the government, nuts. So Oberlin became a stop on the underground railroad. And in Oberlin they not only refused to obey the Fugitive Slave Act, but they actively worked against it. Hence the Oberlin-Wellington rescue.

And to this day Christians continue to engage in acts of Civil Disobedience because, like the Apostles, we follow a higher law.

Anything else about this story anyone wants to share?

When God Travels Incognito..

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

One of my favorite places to pray is Westwood Cemetery on Morgan Street. That might not seem to some a likely candidate for the “Top Ten Prayer Destinations in Oberlin,” but I commend it to you. Communing with the living Christ while surrounded by reminders of my mortality is truly profound. A larger sense of history and purpose captivates me, putting my own challenges into perspective. Sounds of life are everywhere, whether those of geese or birds, lawnmowers or dog-walkers. And then there’s the best part–it is quiet.

An elderly dog-walker once told me, “People think of the cemetery as a sad place, but I call it Cheers because I meet so many people and their dogs here.”

What we see depends on how we look.

Jesus is executed and his male disciples scatter in fear for their own lives. In the minds of these men, the gig is now up. They have followed the itinerant preacher for three years, a significant investment of their lives. They have believed with their whole hearts that Jesus would deliver Israel from the clutches of Roman occupation. And then he dies alongside criminals on a Roman cross.

The women who prepare spices for Jesus’ burial arrive to find the tomb empty. They come back to the men with this wild tale that Jesus is alive. What kind of craziness is this? Didn’t they stand at a distance and watch Jesus die that gruesome, awful, shameful death on a cross?

Without YouTube, texting, e-mail, telephones, or any of these means, the news of the past days travels like wildfire the ‘old fashioned’ way–by word of mouth. It seems as if everyone around Jerusalem is rehashing the shocking events, dissecting them, debating them, trying to make sense of them. So, too, are Cleopas and his traveling companion—is it his wife, Mary, as some sources suggest? Or is it another male disciple? We don’t really know.

What we do know, from Luke’s account of the story, is that the male disciples roundly dismiss the women’s story that Jesus is risen. For them, the resurrection is what we might describe as a “category error.” It defies all logic and reason. It fits neither their political and religious expectations nor their personal ambitions.

As Cleopas and his companion travel along, deep in conversation, another traveler joins them and inquires about their sad and perplexed demeanor. As the two unload their hearts, the stranger responds by opening the scriptures to them. He begins with Moses and continues through the prophets, de-constructing and reconstructing their way of seeing.

As the three arrive in Emmaus, the stranger seems poised to continue his journey, but Cleopas and his companion urge him to stop with them and rest. In the breaking of the bread that night, the two suddenly realize that the stranger is none other than Jesus. The instant they recognize him, he vanishes from their sight. Looking back, they remember how their hearts “burned” within them when he opened the scriptures to them.

As a fairly new Christian decades ago, I had a lot of questions about this story. I didn’t understand why Cleopas and his traveling companion couldn’t recognize Jesus right off the bat. Others more seasoned in the faith would remind me of the Apostle Paul’s discussion of the physical body that dies and the spiritual body that is raised, found in I Corinthians 15:42-44. How could Cleopas and his companion possibly correctly identify a “spiritual body”? I still wasn’t fully satisfied. “Surely, one would at least notice that the person next to them wasn’t a physical body or spoke with a familiar voice…”

While Paul offers powerful insights around bodily death and resurrection, such connections only nibble at the edges of this remarkable and puzzling story. As I study this text thirty-seven years later, two particular insights seem significant. First, the disciples on the road are clearly stuck in their way of interpreting scripture. “Don’t confuse me with the facts!” people sometimes argue.

Cleopas and his companion have understood scripture in one way for so long and have had these views reinforced by their faith tradition for so many generations that a new way of seeing is too dangerous and difficult to pursue. The women’s story doesn’t fit with their view of things, so it has to be abandoned as fiction. No wonder it is so hard to recognize Jesus! His presence is a “category error” of the highest dimension!

Secondly, Cleopas and his companion are perplexed, grief-stricken, and surely feeling abandoned. They have just endured the public execution of one they love. It is a turn of events they never, ever anticipated. Where is God in all of that?

Don’t we all ask ourselves this question at times when we have had the rug pulled out from under us just when we least expected it? Haven’t I wandered Westwood Cemetery, praying fervently in times of distress, as if the One whom I seek is nowhere near me to be found? Haven’t I at times neglected to notice that the Lord is right beside me, eager to de-construct and reconstruct my way of seeing, yearning to get me “unstuck,” much like Cleopas and his companion?

Recently, I got a letter from Cynthia. This was a real surprise. A graduate of Oberlin College over two decades ago, Cynthia hasn’t stayed in touch very regularly over the years. This was a form letter of sorts, a report from a mission trip she took with a Christian group to the rural areas of India, a trip focused on a ministry of healing and evangelism.

Like many of us who have seen instantaneous faith healings primarily in flashy television entertainment format, Cynthia confessed that she previously bore her own skepticism about such ministries. But there, in India, God used her as an instrument of just that kind of healing, and God used others on the trip in the same way.

Cynthia came back and wrote about her experiences, sending pictures and stories of her journey. The big question at the beginning of her letter was, “What does this mean for us, here in the United States, if God has done such work through us in India?”

Cynthia’s faith life was turned upside-down by this trip. Didn’t her heart burn within her as she touched and prayed with these destitute people hundreds of miles from any medical care? Didn’t Jesus appear on these dusty, rural roads in ways she never previously imagined? Cynthia is still de-constructing and reconstructing her understanding in light of this experience with the living and resurrected Christ.

Close to the time of receiving Cynthia’s letter, I heard from Karla in Zambia. She is working with the International Justice Mission, which helps destitute widows whose husbands have died of AIDS keep their property. Karla helps organize ancillary social support services. Two or three times in her letter, she uses the word “miracle” to refer to obstacles that dissolve through the prayers of the workers, opportunities for ministry that arise out of those same prayers. Once again, Jesus travels incognito.

Here we are, in Oberlin, Ohio, U.S.A., in 2008. Where do we miss the Lord because his very presence, or way of acting, is relegated to a “category error” that doesn’t fit our ways of seeing? Where do we miss the Lord, because we dismiss the testimony of others who bear witness to his presence in ways unfamiliar to us?

It seems appropriate that we would re-tell this story on Communion Sunday. 2000 years ago, in the breaking of the bread, Cleopas and his companion recognize Jesus, and then he vanishes from their sight. How brief is this moment of clarity and “knowing”! How long are the moments of dogged faith, of believing without seeing!

Here, in the breaking of the bread, we, too, recognize that we are in the presence of the Lord. He has not left. He is working powerfully throughout the world. He is working deeply in our own hearts and minds. I wager a guess that each of us will take the road to Emmaus many times over during our lives…yet, each time when we look back, our hearts will burn like a wildfire within us. And we will say to ourselves, “Ah, it is the Lord.” Amen.