Sermon for Trinity Sunday

John 3:1-17

There is a picture of a kitten going around on Facebook. This in and of itself is not unusual; we have all of the knowledge of the world at our fingertips and yet we generally waste our time watching videos of cats and dogs. But this particular kitten goes around among clergy each year at Trinity Sunday. The caption on this kitten picture says: How not to commit heresy preaching on the Trinity: Say nothing and show pictures of kittens instead. Well, tempting as that may be, I’m not going to do that today. The Trinity is probably the most perplexing teaching that we have about God. This whole Three-in-One and One-in-Three thing is beyond our power to comprehend, and every time someone in church history has tried to explain what it’s about, he (and yes, it’s been mostly men) gets condemned as a heretic and excommunicated from the church. And yet, this teaching about God that we as Christians are taught to believe, but without comprehension, is the God in whose name we baptize, including little Otto here today, in just a little while. So, what can be said about this God, this Trinity, this Three-in-One and One-in-Three, in whom we believe and trust, without lapsing into heresy, that is, wrong teaching about God?

Well, I think we can take a cue from today’s Gospel reading, when Nicodemus comes to Jesus. Nicodemus has questions. He has seen the signs that Jesus has done. He knows that no one can do these signs apart from the presence of God, and so he knows that Jesus has come from God. But he doesn’t understand how. And so he enters into a conversation with Jesus as he struggles to understand how this works. And Jesus does not turn Nicodemus away. He welcomes the questions that Nicodemus comes with, and he challenges Nicodemus with the answers that he gives. And this is what God does with us: by presenting us with the mysterious character of who God is, God invites us to ask our questions, but, when God gives answers, these answers will most likely invite us to ask more questions of God. And I think that God does this in order to keep us talking to him: to keep us in relationship with him. For if God is a relationship of three persons in one God, then the God whose very nature is that of relationship most surely wants to have a relationship with his creation.

So, let’s take a look at the relationship that Nicodemus and Jesus have in this encounter. The first thing that I think is significant to look at is that Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. This is important because Nicodemus is a leader of the Jews. He knows there is something special about Jesus, but, as a “teacher of Israel”, he doesn’t want it known that he is going to visit Jesus. Why? First, of course, because the other leaders may condemn him for being a follower of Jesus, but second: he’s a teacher. How would it look for him, a teacher of Israel, in the eyes of the people, to become a student? There would be some serious loss of honor going on here, and that could be dangerous for Nicodemus in the honor-shame society in which he lived. But Nicodemus, this man of faith who has received all kinds of religious training, is curious. He wants to know more. So he figures coming to Jesus by night is his safest bet. And Jesus does not turn him away, but welcomes him and enters into conversation with him.

The life of a Christian is a journey of faith. It is a recognition that, no matter how much we think we know, there will always be something more to learn. God is a God of surprises. God wants to be in relationship with us so much that God invites us into conversation with him, continues to draw us closer to him with our questions, and gives us answers that will have us continue to come back with more questions. Every time we think we have this Christian faith down, God will throw something new at us to think about. I will be the first to admit, for example, that no matter how many times John 3 comes up in the lectionary, no matter how many times I read it, no matter how many commentaries I read about it, I still do not fully understand what Jesus is telling Nicodemus in this conversation. The answers that Jesus gives are riddles, and any interpretation of those answers I read or hear just raises more questions in my mind. So God uses this passage of Scripture to keep me coming back and asking those questions, so that God can continue to have a conversation and a relationship with me.

And this time around, the Holy Spirit has given me some images to wrestle with in this passage. The primary one that stands out to me is that of new birth. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Now, as Lutherans, our minds instantly think, “He’s talking about baptism.” And I think that the baptism imagery is definitely there. But, just for a moment, let’s ask ourselves if Jesus is also talking about the act of physical birth. There is water involved in physical birth, and there is also spirit. When God created the first human beings, he breathed his breath, his wind, his spirit, into their nostrils so that they would live. Just so, in the process of physical birth, at some point God breathes his breath into each one of us, so that we might live. So, if we look at Jesus’ statement again, it’s possible that he’s saying that, in order for us to enter the kingdom of God, we first must be live, flesh-and-blood human beings.

Many of us, if not all of us, who have been brought up in the Christian faith either consciously or subconsciously have this idea in our heads: anything physical is bad, because it is inherently sinful, and anything spiritual is good, because that is of God. But if we read Scripture attentively, we will find that this is not the case. In the account of creation in Genesis 1, we find that, as God created, he called each thing good, and on the last day, it was all very good. In the creation account of Genesis 2, we find God molding human beings out of dirt: basically, God is playing in the mud and makes a human being. If the physical creation is not good, then God would not be doing that. If the physical creation is not good, then God would never have deigned to come to earth, to be one of us, to die on the cross for us, and to be physically, bodily, resurrected. But because God did all of these things, we know that, even though we human beings have messed up the creation, God still loves the creation and calls it very good.

So, in order to enter the kingdom of God, we must first be live, flesh-and-blood human beings. That is our first birth. Our second birth then comes in baptism, where we are given new life, where the Holy Spirit comes upon us again and claims us as children of God. But the mystery is this: when the Holy Spirit comes and claims us in baptism, we are not somehow removed from creation just because we are spiritual creatures as well as flesh and blood. No, we are still in creation and called to care for it. When Jesus says later, “For God so loved the world,” the Greek word translated “world” includes not only human beings, but also grass, trees, flowers, crickets, moose, elk, bears, wolves, even mosquitoes. And baptism is that promise that eternal life starts now, in the created world, and will continue in heaven and in the new creation still to come: a physical creation, where every good thing will once again be very good, and without the taint of sin.

This is the God that Jesus teaches Nicodemus about. This is the God that loves us so much, that wants so desperately to be in relationship with us, that he will go to the point of taking on flesh and dying for us. This is the God that loves us so much that he has promised us eternal life, and who loves us so much that he comes to us in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, giving us physical proof that as God’s children, we are both physical and spiritual beings. This is the God of relationships, who wants an intimate relationship with us, the beings that he created, and with all of the creation. And this mysterious, triune God is the God in whose name Otto will be baptized in just a few moments. Think of it: God loves us so much that he has even given us his name, so that we might be sisters and brothers with one another and with people all around the world. What an amazing gift! So it’s okay, then, if we don’t understand how exactly this all works, if we ask with Nicodemus, “How can this be?” It is enough for us to be surrounded with God’s love. Amen.

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Sermon for Pentecost 2015

Besides celebrating Pentecost, we also celebrated the confirmation of three of our young people on this day.

Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

I love the show “The Big Bang Theory”. This sitcom follows the adventures of four very geeky scientists, three of whom are physicists, as they try to make their way in the world in which the rest of us non-scientists live. One of the neat things about this show is that the writers try to make the science that they use as accurate as possible, with the benefit that the non-scientists who watch it can learn some scientific concepts. One of those scientific concepts that I think actually applies to today’s readings about the Holy Spirit is that of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. In quantum mechanics, this principle states that the more precisely you know the position of a certain particle, the less precisely you can know its speed, and vice versa. And I think that’s the way it is with the Holy Spirit: when you focus in on one aspect of the Spirit, you can see clearly how it is operating in one particular instance, but you may not be able to see clearly how it is operating in a different situation. And so that is why our readings today give us many different pictures of how the Holy Spirit can work in any given situation. This helps us to not get tunnel vision and to think the Spirit can only work in one way all of the time. The three pictures that we have of the Holy Spirit today are these: first, as a force that empowers and emboldens the disciples to go forth and spread the good news of Jesus Christ; second, as the person of the Triune God who intercedes for us when we don’t know how to pray; and third, as the Advocate who testifies to the truth about Jesus and who guides us into that truth.
First, let’s look at the Holy Spirit as the one who empowers us to boldly go and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Luke gives us this picture in today’s reading from Acts. Here is a group of disciples who, after Jesus’ ascension, go back to a house, appoint another disciple to take the place of Judas, and are huddled in prayer, waiting for the promise of the Father that Jesus had told them about right before he ascended to heaven. They’re not certain what this promise is, but they are faithfully waiting and praying, wondering what they are supposed to do next. Then, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes swooshing in, all wind and fire, something new that the disciples have never before experienced. And suddenly, they’re speaking in a foreign language as easily as if they’d grown up with it. I enjoy learning new languages, but even so, there were times that I wished the Holy Spirit would come swooping in and give me the instant ability to speak whatever language it was I happened to be learning at the time! The miracle on Pentecost, though, was not the wind, the fire, or the ability to speak in new languages. No, the miracle was that these disciples were now able to go out and boldly proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to all who were in Jerusalem that day. The wind, fire, and foreign languages were all just special effects—sometimes, the Holy Spirit likes a bit of drama!
Sometimes in our faith journeys, this is how we will experience the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will suddenly come upon us as we hear a certain word of Scripture, a certain devotion, a well-delivered sermon, or even when we are in private prayer, and we will be inspired and be given power to go out and spread the good news of Jesus Christ in a bold way. Perhaps the Holy Spirit would inspire one person to be a missionary in a materially poor country, where she would proclaim the mighty deeds of God both through word and through action. Perhaps the Spirit would nudge another to be a leader of a movement here in this country to walk with people who don’t have a voice, to help bring God’s justice to them. Or perhaps the Holy Spirit would simply have you boldly proclaim God’s love in Jesus Christ to a friend who is hurting and who may need that push to come back to a worshiping community. The boldness of the Holy Spirit takes shape in us as individuals in many different ways. The important thing is to be open to the movement of the Spirit; to trust in that fiery wind and to not be afraid.
Now, let us zoom out from this image of the Holy Spirit and zoom in to the image that the Apostle Paul gives us in his letter to the Romans. Here, Paul is speaking about how, through the original sin of Adam and Eve, all of creation is estranged from God, but still longs to be one with God. We, too, as part of God’s creation, are estranged from God, and we do not know how to talk to God in the right way. We do our best when we pray, but we still fall short of how we should be praying. It’s like we’re using a Microsoft program and God is using an Apple program, and the two programs don’t talk to one another very well, if at all. And so, the Holy Spirit takes over, using sighs that are too deep for words, in order to bridge the communication gap and help us to understand God and God to understand us.
In August of 2004, my paternal grandfather was diagnosed with AML leukemia. This is a particularly bad form of cancer, and my grandfather was 80 years old. The doctors told him that chemotherapy was just as likely to kill him as it was to cure him. And so, he opted for palliative care: that is, to let nature take its course and to only use medicine to ease his pain. When I first got the news from my family, I remember that I did not know how I should pray for my grandfather. I did not want him to die, but on the other hand, I did not want him to suffer, either. I then remembered this particular passage from Romans, which brought me great comfort: God knew that I didn’t know what the right thing to pray for in this situation was, and so the Holy Spirit would take over, bringing my thoughts, my sadness, and my love for my grandfather to God, and putting them into the right words for God to hear. These verses from Romans give us a picture of the Holy Spirit working for us in times when we do not know how to pray.
Besides the picture in Acts of the Holy Spirit as someone who empowers us to tell others about Jesus, and the picture in Romans of the Holy Spirit as someone who serves as an intercessor for us before God, we also have the picture that the Gospel of John gives us: the Holy Spirit as an Advocate. The Greek word that gets translated as “Advocate” means “someone who walks alongside”. Since we don’t have an exact equivalent of this in English, this Greek word gets translated in different versions of the Bible as Advocate, Comforter, Counselor, and Helper. All of these words are okay to use, and this is how John wants us to think of the Holy Spirit. In John, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as one who will come and bring comfort to the disciples after he is gone, and one who will guide the disciples into the truth.
In the times in which we live, many in our culture will ask the same question that Pontius Pilate asked of Jesus, “What is truth?” Perhaps even we who want to be disciples of Jesus have asked that same question as things we thought were true have been called into doubt by our shifting and restless culture. But the truth that the gospel of John speaks of is the truth that in Jesus, the Word was made flesh, and that in Jesus, we have seen God. Because Jesus was set apart to bring this truth to the world, we as his disciples have also been set apart to testify to the world that, as John says in chapter 20 of his gospel, Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing the people of the world may have life in his name. The Holy Spirit is the gift from God that walks alongside of us in our faith journey, who reminds us of this truth, who counsels us in how to witness to others about this truth, and who comforts us through the difficult times we have here on earth.
In just a few moments, after we have sung our next hymn, we will confirm three of our young people in the Christian faith into which they were baptized. At baptism, they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has always been with them throughout their lives, doing what the Holy Spirit does: making them bold, interceding with God for them, and walking alongside of them. These three young women will today affirm and acknowledge that gift that they received when they were baptized. But I want to emphasize that confirmation is not a form of “graduation” from the church. This is a milestone on their faith journey, but it is not the end of their journey. They will have times, as we all do, where God comes to them, everything is clear, and they will believe everything they have been taught. But there will also be times, again as we all experience, where there will be doubt as they continue wrestling with questions with which we all wrestle. They may stay away from worship for a while, as some of us do. But they do not stop being part of this community. As a community, it is our duty and our delight to continue to pray for these three young women, to support them, and to encourage them. This is part of what the Holy Spirit does within us as well: it forms a family with us even where there are no ties of blood, and sometimes the family that the Holy Spirit forms is stronger than the ties of our blood family. We give thanks for the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of these three young women, and we give thanks for the work of the Holy Spirit in and among all of us. Amen.

Sermon for Ascension Sunday, May 17, 2015

Acts 1:1-11

The ascension of Jesus into heaven is an odd event. Artists, not knowing quite how to depict this event, have come up with some really goofy-looking pictures of Jesus floating in the sky with slack-jawed disciples looking up after him. The question we ask today is, “What really happened?” Luke tells us that that Jesus was taken up into heaven, and the disciples were left staring up into the sky until two men in white robes told them to stop staring and go home. But where did Jesus go? We moderns have flown in the heavens and can say with certainty that there is no physical God figure sitting on a throne in the sky with Jesus at his right hand. This leaves us wondering: What is heaven, then, if it is not physically up in the sky? We grasp for answers from science-fiction books and TV shows, as well as what we think we know about physics. Is heaven some kind of alternate dimension that we can’t see? Was Jesus “beamed up” somewhere, like on the Star Trek TV shows? We simply don’t know, and in the end, it’s not important. The two men in white robes say, “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.” In other words, “All right, guys, Jesus is gone. Show’s over. He will come back one day, but not right now. So, you all need to get to work here on earth carrying on with what he taught you to do.”

The church council and the congregation have been working on discerning a vision for Hope Lutheran, that is, how exactly God has been at work in us, how God will continue to be at work in us, and how God wants us to continue to witness to him here in Powell, in Park County, in Wyoming, and in the world. As part of this process, we have had a couple of sessions with a study called “Story Matters,” where we have tried to pick a Biblical story which we feel describes our congregation and will help to give us a vision. Well, at the last session, the group that met in the fellowship hall was unable to pick just one story, so we decided to own all three of the stories that we had narrowed our choices down to. Today’s story from Acts is what we will focus on for May, June, July, and August. And one of the things this story tells us is the message that the two men in the white robes gave to the disciples: Don’t stand around gazing up into the sky doing nothing until Jesus returns. Instead, get to work. And what is the work that we are to do? It is what Jesus said earlier in the story: “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.”

Now, when many of us hear the word “witness,” we get scared. I think that word is right up there with “evangelism” and “stewardship” as some of the most dreaded words in the life of the church. What is it about the word “witness” that scares us so much? Well, here are my ideas, and you can tell me later if I’ve gotten it right or if there is something that I’ve missed. “Witness” means that we have to talk to other people about Jesus, and that’s not always the polite thing to do in our culture. We have pictures in our heads about standing on street corners and being the objects of ridicule as people pass by us. Or we think of knocking on doors, talking to strangers face to face, and again facing ridicule and rejection. We want to be polite; we want to stay friends with people, and witnessing to Jesus is not always conducive to that. Or, we realize that witnessing means we may have to open up about how Jesus has been at work in our own lives, and we either don’t know how to do that, or we are afraid of opening up to people about our own inner lives, things that we don’t normally share with others. Or, we’re afraid that we don’t know enough about Jesus to talk to other people intelligently about him; we’re afraid they’re going to ask us questions that we won’t be able to answer, and then we’ll look foolish.

I think the problem here is that we’re getting too wrapped up in ourselves, and not trusting enough in the Holy Spirit. For, as Jesus said, it is the Holy Spirit who empowers us. We have been baptized, and we believe that in that baptism, the Holy Spirit has come to us and is with us, always. (And if there are any here today who haven’t been baptized, please know that this sacrament is open to you, and please come and visit with me about baptism after worship today.) If we truly believe that the Holy Spirit is within us, then we do not need to be afraid of anything when we witness to Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the one who gives us the power to witness, both in word and in deed, and the Holy Spirit is the one who gives us the words to say. When we trust in the Spirit, we do not need to be afraid of anything.

I once heard a pastor describe the Holy Spirit like the pilot light that’s on our gas stove back in the kitchen. It’s always burning; when it’s not being used, the light and warmth are still there, and when it’s ready to be brought into service, all you have to do is turn the knob and the flame flares up, ready to give light and warmth in service of cooking food. Just so, I’d like for us to think of the Holy Spirit as a “pilot light” within us. The Holy Spirit is always within us, burning on low, but in our interactions with others, it flares up to a large flame, giving us the inspiration and the words we need to speak to others about Jesus. That Spirit, that pilot light, is what was given to us the moment that we were baptized, and it remains within us throughout our lives.

So, how do we get over those fears that we have? Those fears that can cripple our witness to those around us? Well, let’s go back to the Acts story for a moment. How did the disciples respond when the angels told them to stop staring, go home, and get to work? Well, we didn’t get to that part of the chapter in our reading today, so here are the verses: “Then they returned to Jerusalem . . . When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying . . . All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” The first thing the disciples did when they got back to Jerusalem was not to immediately go out in the streets to proclaim the name of Jesus, but instead to pray. Sometimes we (and I include myself in that pronoun) get so busy doing, that we forget to just stop and be: to simply be children of God, to come and talk to God as loving children to their loving Father, to talk with him, to listen to him, and to be reminded of his love. The life of a disciple of Jesus should be a life of continual prayer.

When our lives are steeped in prayer, then we can find it easier to witness to others about Jesus. One way to do this is to tell our faith stories. A faith story is the story of how Jesus has been at work in your life. It can be a story of how Jesus has called you to your vocation in life—and remember, a vocation is not necessarily what you do to make money, but it can also be the vocation of being a mother or a father, a brother or a sister, someone who makes quilts, someone who knits prayer shawls, and so on and so forth. About a week ago, I shared with the confirmation students an abbreviated version of how God has called me into the ordained ministry, and how, looking back, I can see how Jesus was with me every step of the way, loving me, providing people to listen to and guide me, and bringing me into the part of his church where he wanted me to do his work. That is how you tell your faith story: look back on your life, and find particular points where you can now see that Jesus was with you, guiding you. Then, share that with the person that you’re talking to.

I think that sharing your faith story is probably the most effective way to witness to others about Jesus. People like stories, and since it’s your story, they may be less likely to challenge what you have experienced. But let’s now tackle another fear that we have about witnessing: the fear of not knowing enough about Jesus. This is the fear that, when you’re in conversation with another person, they will ask you a question you do not know the answer to, and then you will look stupid. If I encounter that situation, my first response is to say, “I don’t know. But, if you like, I will find out what the answer is and get back to you.” People in this day and age value authenticity highly, and if you admit that you don’t know, I guarantee you will find more respect in the other person’s eyes than if you tried to make up an answer. But, another thing that we should be doing as disciples of Jesus, besides being in continual prayer, is to be continuously studying the Scriptures. This is why you will find me going to several continuing education events during the year, and one of the reasons that I devote Wednesday mornings to studying the upcoming Sunday Scriptures with my colleagues in the area. But, this is not something that the pastor does because she’s supposed to do that for the congregation. Every disciple of Jesus should be studying the Scriptures: whether that be in our Thursday morning Bible study, the once-monthly women’s circles, the children in Sunday school and confirmation, or a future Bible study group. If you have any ideas for new classes and new topics to study, please come talk to me. My desire is to see as many of you as possible involved in a Bible study of some kind.

Witnessing to Jesus doesn’t have to be hard, and it shouldn’t be. It should be as easy and as exciting as when we witness to others about anything else that’s happening in our lives. And this is the work that Jesus has given us to do. Don’t stand around staring at the sky, waiting for Jesus to return. Instead, get to work: be witnesses to others about the powerful, mysterious, and fun things that Jesus did when he was here on earth. Tell about how Jesus has worked wonders in your life. Be in continual prayer and continual study of Scripture. And, most of all, trust that the Holy Spirit is within you and is empowering you to be those witnesses here on earth. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 6B

Acts 10:44-48

Today I want you to come back in time with me. Come back in time to the days after that first Easter, after Jesus was risen from the dead. Come back to that first group of disciples, not only the twelve, but other followers of Jesus. Come back to the time when their little movement called “The Way” was just another sect of Judaism, and all who believed and told the story of Jesus were Jewish themselves. Now, I’d like you to imagine yourselves as one of them. You are now Jewish, born and raised Jewish your whole life. You keep kosher because that is what God has commanded you to do; this diet is not just an alternative lifestyle, but it is, rather, part of your faith, part of the covenant God has made with you. Circumcision of boys is absolutely necessary, because again, that is the sign that you are one of the group that God has chosen. As a Jewish person, you know that you are in a minority in a vast and foreign empire, and you are under pressure to conform to their rules just to get along in the system. But you refuse, and you continue to follow those laws that God gave you because you believe that is what sets you apart as one of God’s chosen people. Now, though, with the coming of Jesus, and his death and resurrection, you are part of a minority sect within a minority faith. You wait and you pray, relying on the community of followers of Jesus to help you and to strengthen you.

Then, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit sweeps in and gives you and the others the ability to speak in other languages. Peter gives a rousing speech to the assembled crowds in Jerusalem, and 3000 people are added to your number. And, these 3000 are all Jewish. You begin to hope that perhaps the coming of God’s kingdom is now at hand, for surely, with the growth in your numbers, that can only mean that Jesus will return soon, sit on the throne of his ancestor David, and rule a peaceable kingdom with no Romans and no other Gentiles lording it over you. You’re inspired, and you do your part to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to other Jewish people. Some listen and are baptized; others do not. But, with the power of the Holy Spirit, you continue to spread that word.

But then, one of your number, Stephen, is martyred. A large persecution of Christians follows, and you and your other comrades flee to different parts of the lands around the Mediterranean. You join a man named Philip, who heads into Samaria. You are with him as he starts preaching to the Samaritans, and they start believing. You question Philip, and you say, “These people aren’t really Jewish. They don’t believe the same things we do, and they’re mostly foreigners. Why are you talking to them?” And Philip tells you, “Don’t you remember what Jesus told us, that we are to be his witnesses not only in Jerusalem and Judea, but also in Samaria and to the ends of the earth?” And you say, “Well, yes, but surely he just meant Jewish people in these different places . . . didn’t he?” Philip says, “But look, the Samaritans are believing. We cannot withhold baptism from them when they confess Jesus as Lord, can we?” You grudgingly acknowledge his point, and when Peter and John come down from Jerusalem to see for themselves, then pray over the Samaritans who believe, and the Holy Spirit comes upon them, you say, “Who am I to question the Holy Spirit? Perhaps this is how God is bringing the Samaritans back to him.” Later on, Philip tells you he’s heading out to the wilderness, and you don’t see him again, but you eventually hear the news that he’s baptized an Ethiopian eunuch. You shake your head in disbelief, thinking that’s surely too fantastical to be believed, for God would surely not want to bring a Gentile person who has been maimed into the fold.

This is the setting for the little snippet of Acts that we get in our first reading today, and even this little snippet requires some more background to be truly understood. Christianity started out as a Jewish movement. The first believers were Jewish, they followed the dietary laws, they circumcised their baby boys when they were eight days old, and they did not associate with people who were not Jewish. They believed that God had chosen them, and they followed these rules not only as a matter of their deeply held faith, but also as a matter of survival: to not maintain their identity in this way would mean being assimilated into the Gentile masses around them and losing their distinctive identity. Thus, for the Holy Spirit to move them to proclaim Jesus Christ to Jewish people around them was one thing—that they could understand and they could handle. For the Holy Spirit to move them to proclaim the good news to Samaritans was starting to stretch things just a little bit. For the Holy Spirit to move them to witness to Gentiles—that is, to non-Jewish people—and, more than that, to have the Gentiles believe, is another matter entirely. And that is where today’s portion from Acts comes from. Peter, through the Holy Spirit, has been called to witness to a Roman centurion named Cornelius—a God-fearing man who supported the Jews, but a Gentile nonetheless, and more than that, a member of the force which occupied them and prevented them from ruling themselves. No wonder Peter is a little snarky when he comes into Cornelius’ house: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?” How condescending! I think it’s a wonder that Cornelius and his household told Peter why they sent for him and asked him to speak to them. Again, that’s the Holy Spirit working.

But, they did. Cornelius, this Roman centurion who has just been condescended to by a Jewish person who should be submissive to him, tells Peter of the angel of God who came to him and told him to send for Peter and to listen to everything that Peter has to say. Then Peter says this incredible thing, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation everyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” For the vision that Peter has had of not calling anything profane which God has called clean has just come true. And while Peter is proclaiming the good news of Jesus to Cornelius, the Holy Spirit interrupts him and descends upon Cornelius and the Gentiles. Peter and the other “circumcised believers” with him are astounded that God has indeed poured out the Spirit on Gentiles, and Peter finally bows to the inevitable, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

This story has been called the conversion of Cornelius. Some, though, have suggested that it be called the conversion of Peter, as he sees that when God says all people, then God means all people, even Gentiles. But perhaps we should title this story, “The Holy Spirit Moves in Ways that We Don’t Expect”. For throughout Scripture, we find that God chooses and works through the person we don’t expect and would never dream of: the youngest son instead of the oldest; the woman who comes to Bethlehem as a poor immigrant from the country of Moab, one of Israel’s mortal enemies; the young boy instead of the old priest; the prostitute from Jericho; the young woman of no name from the town of Nazareth; the Samaritan who returned to Jesus to give thanks for healing from leprosy when his fellow Jewish sufferers did not; and finally, a Gentile Roman centurion, part of the occupying force which has crushed the dreams of the Jewish people to have control over their own land.

Have we, in our own lives, seen the Holy Spirit work through a person we did not expect? Have we been completely surprised at the transformation of someone who we thought would never amount to anything? I’m willing to bet we have. And if we have, have we put up barriers and said something like, “No, you can’t be one of us. You still have to clean this up first and prove yourself before you can become one of us, much less even consider being a leader among us.” If we have, then we need to repent, for, as Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Sometimes we just need to get out of the way of the Holy Spirit working, whether or not we understand what that Spirit is up to. The Spirit may be working in you and me, good religious folks that we are, but the Spirit may also be working in the person who identifies as gay or lesbian. The Spirit may be working in us, but the Spirit may also be working in the homeless man who begs for money on a street corner in Billings. If the Holy Spirit can bring Samaritans and Gentiles into a Jewish minority sect and turn this minority sect into the largest faith in the world, then surely the Holy Spirit can be at work in those people who we might turn away. All means all.

This means that, as the Holy Spirit is working at bringing new groups of people into our midst, we might not be very comfortable. And that’s okay. The Holy Spirit can work through our discomfort, too, as long as we remain open to the Spirit and willing to listen to these new ones that the Spirit is bringing in. If you notice the last sentence of our reading from Acts, it says, “Then they invited him to stay for several days.” During those several days, Cornelius and his household, Gentiles, ate food with Peter and the Jewish believers who were with him. Not only would they have had to acknowledge one another as equals, they would also have had to learn about one another’s diet, and why they ate in the way that they did. We, too, when we welcome new people into our midst, share table fellowship with them, acknowledge them as our equals, learn about their ways and why they do things the way they do, and they learn from us as well. And as we learn to get along with one another for the sake of Christ, who unites us, we grow in our faith and continue to be transformed into the likeness of Christ.

This will not be easy for us to do. But, the Christian faith is never easy. We will stumble and make mistakes, but we will also have moments of clarity, when we seem to truly understand everything that God wants us to. We need to remember that there is forgiveness for those times that we fail. But our prayer should continue to be, “God, remind us that all means all, and help us to truly welcome those who we might otherwise shun.” Amen.

Sermon for Easter 5B

This sermon is somewhat different than what I would normally have done, as on this Sunday I was on a pulpit exchange where I preached at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, Montana.

Acts 8:26-40

The Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways. And this story from the book of Acts about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is one of the more mysterious accounts of the Holy Spirit’s activity that we have from the early church. It is the story of two people who are both on the margins of their society, neither one quite certain of the other at the first, but in the end, both of them being changed by their encounter that the Holy Spirit brought about.

On the one hand we have Philip. We know from Acts 6 that Philip was chosen as one of seven deacons who were to advocate for the Greek-speaking widows in the company of those who were followers of the Way, the first name of the movement that followed Jesus as Messiah. These Greek-speaking widows had been neglected in the distribution of food to the poor among them, in favor of those who spoke Aramaic. So the fact that Philip was one of the seven chosen to make sure that food got distributed to these widows says to me that he could empathize with these women, that he understood what it felt like to be neglected and pushed to the side, and that he would do his best to make sure this group of women did not go hungry. And all seemed to be well until Stephen, another one of the seven deacons, was killed for his witness about Jesus to the Jewish ruling council. In the wake of his martyrdom, a fierce persecution of Christians arose, and many Christians, including Philip, fled from Jerusalem.

Philip, however, was not one to hide in fear and sit around doing nothing. Instead, he went to the city of Samaria and began to preach the gospel. Like the Greek-speaking widows in Jerusalem, Samaritans also found themselves on the margins of “good” society: they were regarded as not quite Jewish and not quite foreign. They had some trappings of the Jewish faith: they read from the first five books of the Old Testament, but did not include the prophets, as Jewish people to the south did. The Samaritans believed that the proper place to worship was Mount Gerizim, while their Jewish cousins to the south worshiped at the Temple in Jerusalem. So, again, these were marginal people. Philip, fresh off his experience advocating for the Greek-speaking widows, spoke the gospel to the Samaritans, and they believed. Peter and John came from the Jerusalem headquarters to verify what had happened, prayed over the Samaritans, and saw the Holy Spirit come upon them. Philip had done the work that God had called him to do very well.

This brings us to today’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. An angel of the Lord prompts Philip to go to the wilderness road—we can tell just from this command that Philip is going to be asked to talk to someone who is on the margins of society again. But at first glance, the Ethiopian eunuch doesn’t appear to be someone on the margins. Other literature from this time period tells us that Ethiopians were widely regarded as the most beautiful people in the known world. So I’d like for us to picture a very elegant, supermodel type gentleman. The man was very well-off: he was a court official of the Candace, the queen of Ethiopia, and was in charge of her entire treasury. So, he was probably traveling with an entourage of servants: a high-ranking court official didn’t travel on a wilderness road by himself. There was nothing about this man’s appearance to suggest that he was not accepted by society. Being a castrated male was simply the price that one paid for power; eunuchs were common in many courts of rulers in the Middle East, and they had great power and great influence. Philip, someone without power and influence except for what the Holy Spirit gave to him when he preached, was probably pretty fearful of going up and introducing himself to this rich and powerful man. Can you picture it? “Hi, I’m Philip. Do you have a moment to talk about our Lord Jesus Christ?”

But then, again at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, Philip walked up to this elegant, rich man in his chariot, and heard him reading from the prophet Isaiah. Now he knew something about this man: he was either a Gentile God-fearer, that is, a non-Jewish person who was curious about the Jewish faith, or a Jewish proselyte, that is, a convert to Judaism. Acts tells us that this man had come to Jerusalem to worship, so this gives us a clue that he was not as he had seemed at first. Because he was ethnically non-Jewish, he would only have been allowed into the outermost court, the court of the Gentiles, in the temple. But because he was a eunuch, he may not have been allowed into the temple at all. There are two places in the law, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, that say that a man who is not whole in his body would not be admitted before the Lord. This rich and powerful Ethiopian eunuch who seemed to have everything going for him yearned to know more about the Lord, but was outcast, on the margins of society, when it came to worshiping God. Who better for the Holy Spirit to send than Philip, the man who ministered to Greek-speaking widows and to Samaritans, bringing them the good news?

So Philip asks the Ethiopian eunuch if he understands what he is reading. The eunuch looks at Philip, perhaps a little condescendingly—after all, who is this person to address him, a high-ranking court official, assuming that he doesn’t understand—and he answers, perhaps a bit sarcastically, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” But, he invites Philip into the chariot with him, and Philip begins with the Isaiah passage the eunuch is reading and proclaims to the eunuch the good news of Jesus Christ. I wish I’d been a fly buzzing around the heads of these two men, because I really would like to know what Philip said. What did he say that so convinced the Ethiopian eunuch to become a follower of Jesus, right there? My guess would be that Philip, an observant guy, probably saw that the eunuch felt like God could never love him because of who he was, and that Philip told him that Jesus loved him and came to earth to die for him, too, and that as a follower of Jesus, he could belong, and he could know that God loved him. And that such joy overcame him at hearing this good news, that he could hardly believe it.

“Look, here is water!” the eunuch said. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not even the leaders of the Jerusalem headquarters, who had to come and verify the conversion of the Samaritans, could stop Philip from baptizing this eunuch into God’s family. This man who seemed to have it all but who could not worship in the temple because of who he was, was welcomed into God’s family and knew that he could worship God as he was, for God loved him. No wonder he went away rejoicing, even when the Holy Spirit snatched Philip away from him. And Philip? The Holy Spirit placed him in a town called Azotus, which we think is located on the coast of Israel, in what used to be the territory of the Philistines. So once again, Philip is on the margins of society, proclaiming the good news and allowing the Holy Spirit to use him to bring people to follow Jesus and become part of God’s family.

Through this encounter, the Holy Spirit transformed the thinking of both of these men. One rich, one poor, one man whole in body, the other not, they couldn’t have been more different from one another. And yet, at the end of the encounter, they knew that they were brothers in the Lord. God is still doing this today. God is still bringing in people who think that they cannot be loved by God, bringing them into God’s family. The Holy Spirit whispers that nothing can prevent you from being baptized, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. Maybe there are some here today who feel that God could never love them because of who they are or because of something they’ve done. I’m here to say that this is not true. God loves you. There is nothing to prevent you from being baptized. Or, if you are already baptized, there is nothing to prevent God from loving you. And in God’s family, we show God’s love to one another and reassure one another that God loves each and every one of us. Let us go forth from here this day to proclaim God’s love to all whom we meet: rich, poor, powerful, weak, Chippewa, Cree, white, black, male, female, and so on. For we are all one in Christ Jesus. Amen.