Archive for May, 2013

Spiritual (spirited) but looking for a new way to be religious

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Acts 2
Pentecost 2013 (May 19)
Steve Hammond

In 2010, Beverly Gaventa, Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary did a google search for the phrase, ‘spiritual but not religious.’ She came up with 1,360,000 hits. That was three years ago. Many people have commented on how that phrase, spiritual but not religious, or sbnr in the crowds I travel in, suggests an implicit and explicit disdain for religious communities. What Professor Gaventa draws attention to, though, is how spirituality has become a personality trait. People describe themselves as quiet, or friendly, or intense, or laid back, or spiritual. She writes this. “The celebration of Pentecost invites us to reflect on the spirit (or spirituality) as something other than a trait attached to certain individual personalities (and presumably not to others). In the context of biblical tradition, spirituality, instead, is a gift poured out by the Holy Spirit, one that astonishes and empowers in the present even as it anticipates God’s future triumph.” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=595)

I doubt the folk hiding out in that room on the day of Pentecost would have described themselves as spiritual people. But when that thing that happened in that room happened, something in them changed quite dramatically. Instead of staying hidden in there less the authorities find them and do to them what they did to Jesus, they went running out into the streets ‘proclaiming the mighty works of God.’

These were the same people who were so clueless all that time they were with Jesus, including after his resurrection. But suddenly inspiration (or in spiriting) struck. As they were filled with that inspired, or spiritual, knowledge of Jesus, their fears fell away. They became spirit filled or spiritual people.

We don’t know what exactly happened in that room. A mighty wind. A room full of smoke. The Spirit alighting on all their heads like a flame. It’s the stuff the dreams of Pentecostals are made of. But notice when they went running out into the streets they didn’t talk about what just happened in that room. And the tongues they were speaking were not the ecstatic language of angles that were their tickets into the Charismatic renewal, but the languages of the people who had come from all over that part of the world for the festival.

Some call the day of Pentecost the undoing of Babel. Do you remember the story of the tower of Babel? That’s the story in Genesis 11 where the people decided they were going to build a tower to reach to heaven, evidently to raise themselves to the authority of God. God’s response is to give them different languages so they can no longer communicate with each other. The story behind the myth may well be the propensity for people to divide themselves off from each other, and withdraw to their conclaves of not only language, but race, and nationality, and gender, and class, and sexuality, and all those other confines.

On the day of Pentecost, though, everybody understood what was being said. The walls were coming down. And that is the heart of what Jesus was about. That’s the work of the Spirit; not getting everybody to speak the same language but starting to listen to each other and hear something they never expected to hear. The preacher Bruce Epperly writes this about the day of Pentecost, “Good news can’t be sequestered or kept to ourselves. Spirit bursts forth. The first Christians are driven to the streets, sharing good news, speaking in unfamiliar voices and being heard across culture and ethnicity. Everyone gets the message. Diversity is no longer an impediment to unity but precisely the vehicle for the Spirit’s movements.” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2013/05/the-adventurous-lectionary-pentecost/)

That’s the spirituality of the book of Acts, something that creates community, something that understands that the walls we erect don’t serve so much to keep others out, but to keep us in. Maybe it’s not only that fear of the other that drives us behind the walls, but what we fear about ourselves. So we set the boundaries not only to keep others from stepping into our space, but to keep us from stepping out. But here comes the Spirit not only invading our space, but sending us beyond our own walls of fear into the spaces of others. And we start understanding each other. And the point isn’t that they change, but that we change. That seems to be something we can call spirituality.

When those first Jesus followers went running out into the streets of Jerusalem, all they could do was talk about Jesus. Their spirituality wasn’t a statement about who they were, but who Jesus was. They began to realize that all those Parthians and Medes, Egyptians and Libyans, and even Cretans were not only people Jesus loved, but people Jesus respected. This Good News of the Realm of God could fare just as well in the hearts and hands and voices of the Elamites and the people of Mesopotamia as it could in that small little band of Jesus followers who were now raising their voices in the streets of Jerusalem. Jesus welcomed everybody. Here was Peter proclaiming that the Spirit of God was being poured out on everyone, women as well as men, the young as well as the old. These limits about who could understand God and speak God’s word were being cast aside. This was the stuff of the spirit, the spirituality of Pentecost.

Like the spiritual but not religious folk of our day, they too were rejecting the religious order. But they weren’t rejecting religion. Jesus had shown them something about how connecting with God connected them with others and vise versa. He had boiled it all down to two commandments, love God and love each other. This was the spirituality he had been talking about. And even though Jesus saw what religion could turn into when it went bad, he never told anybody to give up on religion, but to do something about it.

In John’s gospel Jesus had this long discourse with his followers before he was crucified. He knew his time was at hand, but he also knew, or believed anyway, that didn’t mean the end of the movement. In the 14th chapter he talks about his followers doing greater things than he has done. That is such an amazing statement. How can we even imagine such a thing? And if we can’t imagine it, how could Jesus? But he followed up that statement by talking about the coming of the Spirit. That’s the key for Jesus. It’s the Spirit of Truth that will enable and inspire and conspire with us to do those greater works Jesus had in mind.

And it started happening pretty quickly. When Jesus died they could only muster about 120 folk who were willing to name themselves as his followers, and it looked like it was going to get smaller. By the end of that Pentecost Day, though, there were more than 3,000. And it went from there all the way to here.

I guess you could argue that Peter and the others were just better evangelists than Jesus. That argument might work if there hadn’t been that detail about the coming of the Spirit. These folk were changed. And they were ready to change the world, to challenge the Roman empire with the Realm of God. It makes this trinity thing seem kind of like a group project.

The Spirituality of Pentecost was not seen as God offering some kind of personality trait, or even suggesting what Christians so often do by saying that a really spiritual person is a person who prays and reads their Bible a lot and goes to church all the time. Spirituality isn’t something we possess, but something that possesses us. And there is something scary about that. But those people in that room on the day of Pentecost were more afraid when they came slinking into it than when they left. They were having their own dreams, they were seeing their own visions of a world that could be. They were beginning to see the world Jesus had been trying to get them to see for all that time.

They were spiritual, (spirited) and looking for a new way to be religious. But religious they were going to be because they were learning that Jesus really did reveal God in a new way to them. They knew the windstorm of the Spirit wasn’t limited to that room they had just vacated. It was going to take them to unexpected places and with unexpected people. It was going to be wild and crazy, but it was the pathway of spirituality.

Jesus is a Better Deal

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

Revelations 21 and 22
May 5, 2013
Steve Hammond

Anybody here want to try to sum up in a sentence or two what you think the Book of Revelations is about? Not what you think about the Book of Revelations, but what you think it is about. How about this? Jesus is a better deal than Caesar, and the Realm of God has way more to offer than the Roman Empire could ever imagine.

Granted that’s a much different take on Revelations than what you read about in things like the Left Behind books or hear from radio and TV preachers or radio and TV preacher wannabes. But, I think, it’s one that makes more sense. I think it’s good, to think about the Book of Revelations in a new way, or rather a way people used to think about it before it got occupied by the end times folk.

One way to begin looking at Revelations in a different way is to consider how its author ended up writing it. The text says it was written by somebody named John. He was writing it from the Isle of Patmos. And why was he on Patmos? He was exiled there. And why was he exiled there? Because he thought Jesus had a better deal to offer than Caesar did.

It’s not enough to say John was exiled because he was a Christian. Rome was more than willing to tolerate Christians or any other religious group. All they had to do was acknowledge that Caesar was Lord and that the Roman empire was established by the gods and worthy of its citizens ultimate allegiance.

The trouble came for John and other early Christians when they proclaimed Jesus as Lord, not Caesar, and offered their allegiance not to the Roman Empire but the Realm of God. That’s what got Christians top billing at the Roman Colosseum or an all expenses paid trip to places like Patmos.

This last book of the New Testament was never meant to become this really scary and confusing story we have made it into. It was written to encourage Christians of its age and, indeed, all ages to stake their claim with Jesus, no matter what the empire offers to or forces on us. John knew that all Caesar and the Roman Empire had was the power of death, while Jesus and the Realm of God has the power of life. That’s a big difference that the empire would rather that we not take into consideration.

So throughout the story you have this unfolding drama of Jesus and Caesar, the empire and the Realm of God. And it culminates with what we read today about the new Jerusalem descending from heaven, swallowing up the Roman and all other empires. And who is at the center of the new city? Jesus, the one that Rome thought they had dealt with by killing him. Do you see why John thought Jesus had a better deal to offer than Caesar did?

The challenge the Book of Revelations offers us is not the challenge of deciphering the code of the end times, like so many claim it is. Rather, I agree with a much older understanding that suggests the challenge the book offers us is that of figuring out how we live as followers of Jesus in the Empire.

That’s why we can’t let interpretations about the Book of Revelations let us deny that followers of Jesus really have any connection to this world. They say Heaven is our home, not this earth. Caesar is neither here nor there for them. The Realm of God is all about heaven, and the empire is all about this forsaken world.

I don’t think John imagines there is this gulf between heaven and earth that can’t be bridged. There is not just one left standing, heaven or earth, at the end. The end of his story is not about the destruction of the earth, as so many claim it is. The end of his story is about a new heaven and a new earth. It’s about the new city, the new Jerusalem descending to the earth, and all things being made new, not all things being destroyed by a Jesus led blood bath.

One of the things that gets confusing about the Book of Revelations is that John keeps switching between heaven and earth. He can’t keep them separated in his mind, because the living Jesus occupies both. In John’s vision heaven and earth have become one.

What does it say in Genesis about what God thought of the world when the creation was finished? “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” So why would we think that all God wants to do now is evacuate the chosen ones to heaven? Do we think the incarnation was nothing more than a hit and run? If that were the case why would Jesus ask us to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven? It ought not to surprise us that the last scenes in the New Testament are not in heaven but here on earth.

When I read the end of Revelations, it’s like reading the beginning of Genesis. There is the river that runs down the center of the city just like the rivers that formed the boundaries of Paradise. There is no violence or corruption there. And there by the banks of the river in the middle of the city is the Tree of Life, and it’s the leaves of that tree that heal the nations. And all kinds of people are there. Different tribes and different races. Even the kings of the earth are there, the folk who have been the sworn enemy of Jesus throughout John’s story.

It was stories like this that led the early Christians to make the symbols of their faith things that the church doesn’t tend to use much these days. Do you remember what Jesus said to that women about the living water bubbling up into eternal life? The early Christians did. And when they portrayed what it meant for them to follow Jesus it made more sense to use symbols like water and rivers, and other images of Paradise like trees and plants overflowing with fruit. They were symbols of the power of life, like that Tree of Life in our Sanctuary. The cross, which was the Empire’s sign of the power of death, did not hold central place in the life of the early church. It didn’t become a major symbol for the church until the time of the crusades. I guess the church had bought into the power of death. But we don’t have to.

John’s vision showed that heaven is close by, that there’s not this insurmountable gap between heaven and earth. The book of Revelations shows that the power of life that is in Jesus is right here and right now. The testimony of the Gospel is that we can be about the work of healing the nations. And there is plenty of healing to be done. Sure the nations have the power of death, but we have the power of life. And that power means we don’t abandon the nations to death, but bring the power of life to the nations, bring healing.

That’s what makes Jesus such a good deal, I think, in John’s eyes. Even if the nations can’t imagine a power greater than their power to bring death, we can. And if we have a hard time imagining that, John says just listen to the saints who now occupy heaven. They know the power of that life in its fullness. They just want us to hang on to that life no matter what the empire does, because they know that life, not death, is the end of the story. I agree with John. That’s a pretty good deal, if you ask me. The empire can never match it, much less beat it.