Arguments of the Apostles, or, The First Membership Committee Meeting of the Local Christian Church

Aside

So I had a really hard time getting traction on this week’s text. And I finally realized, it’s because it is the minutes of a committee meeting. And that just doesn’t preach. I have to come up with something to say about something that most of us seek to avoid at all costs. But when I thought about what committee it is that’s meeting, I realized it was the membership committee, and that reminded me of several stories that have been in the news lately. There is a church in Seattle, a large non-denominational congregation called Mars Hill, that has cut off a member from the community because he had an extra-marital affair. The pastor has threatened everyone in the congregation with the same fate if they have contact with this man for any reason other than to admonish him for his failings and encourage his repentance. In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a court has just decided to turn over the keys and the ownership of a congregation to the 67 members who remained affiliated with the ELCA (our denominational body here at Peace), while over 700 others were shifted to “associate” member status, because they had affiliated with a new Lutheran denomination in reaction to the ELCA’s change in policy regarding ordination of gays and lesbians. In St. Clair last year, a UCC congregation was kicked out of the softball league because their pastor was openly bisexual. Two weeks ago, the Facebook pages for ELCA clergy lit up like Times Square when a synodical bishop was arrested for vehicular manslaughter and driving while intoxicated. Reactions ranged from grief to vitriol, as people struggled to understand how someone so connected to our hierarchy, could fail so badly.

In a way, the whole Bible could be read as the minutes of the membership committee.

Four thousand years ago, God spoke to Abraham and gave him a promise. It’s recorded in Genesis 12 – “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And God gave Abraham a sign, the mark of circumcision, to identify those who were his descendants, members of this great nation, the in-crowd. And so began the debate over who counted as descendants of Abraham, inheritors of the promise.

Thirty-five hundred years ago, God spoke to Moses, and gave him a promise, a promise to share with all the people of Israel. It’s recorded in Exodus 20 – “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” And God gave the people a sign, the law, to identify this people as God’s own, as those who owed allegiance and worship to no one else, as a free people. And so began the debate over who kept the law well enough to be considered in, who kept the law well enough to be counted as saved, who kept the law well enough to be called free.

Two thousand years ago, God became human, became Jesus of Nazareth, and lived among us, and died on a cross, and broke the bonds of death for us. And before he died, he established a new covenant, made a promise. It’s recorded in several places, but we read it most recently on Maundy Thursday, in Luke 22 – “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” It is the promise of forgiveness of sins for all people. And a sign was given for this promise, too. The Holy Spirit, who works faith in us, faith that we live out when we celebrate the sacraments of baptism and communion. And so began the debate over who could participate in these sacraments, who was in and who was out, what it meant to be saved, who could be in the community of the church, who could be called Christian.

Some have said that Acts of the Apostles, could have been called Acts of the Spirit, which is true. But I think it could also be called Arguments of the Apostles. Because so much of this book is the story of how the Apostles are busy arguing while the Spirit is busy acting. How the Apostles are constantly having to run to keep up, as God’s Holy Spirit runs ahead of them, drawing everybody in, while they sit around holding committee meetings about whether this is okay or not. As they are in today’s reading, while the Spirit is out claiming Gentiles for faith, the sign of the new covenant. And the apostles run to catch up, stumbling over their own notions of God’s proper activity, stumbling over their own preconceived ideas of who is in and who is out, based on what we can do, rather than on what God has done.

This is, in many ways, the story that we have claimed. The story of God read through the minutes of the membership committee. But that is not the only story here. Because, while we humans have been busy paying attention to our own actions, the things that we can see and do for ourselves, things like circumcision and keeping the law, however imperfectly, or baptizing and sharing bread and wine where we see fit; while we people have been steadily excluding and eliminating people from our activity, God has been running ahead of us.

God blessed Abraham, so that all nations would be blessed through him, blessed to be a blessing.

God freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt so that they could share that freedom with others, welcoming the widow and the orphan and the alien, and caring for them, taking care of others who have been oppressed or forgotten.

And then, in Christ, God fulfilled these promises. God blessed all nations through Abraham’s descendant, David’s descendant, Jesus of Nazareth. In Christ, freed all nations from the slavery of the law, writing the law on their hearts and giving them the authority to share that salvation with everyone. At the beginning of the Book of Acts, the risen Christ tells his disciples to take this good news out, to share it, to spread it far and wide. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” It’s not a command. It’s a promise – you will be my witnesses, to the ends of the earth. And the sign of this promise is not like the others – it is not something that we can do, though we try; it is not something that we can prove, though we would like to; it is not something that we can test in others, though we do our best. The sign of this covenant, of this promise, is faith. It is the work and action of the Holy Spirit, bringing each person to faith. And as much as the early church wanted to, as much as we want to, it is not something that we can measure, not by circumcision or by the measure of the law or by the raising up of kings. It is not even something that we can asses in the breaking of the bread or at the waters of baptism. Because faith is a relationship, a relationship with the living God. It is not to be judged, it is to be lived.

Which is where community comes in. The community where people are invited to live out their faith, to experience their relationship with God as a gift of the Spirit. To experience the love of God with others living out this covenant, this promise that we have received. The Christian faith community is invitation, rather than exclusion. What if the life of the Christian community is about recognizing the boundaries that the Spirit is already breaking down, and pushing through them, knowing that God is leading the way? What if the Spirit is in charge, and we are given the privilege of going along for the ride? This is the promise of faith, this mark of the covenant. You have been marked for this gift, because you are here. You do not have to do anything more, faith is being worked in you. You do not have to decide who else is worthy, who else has been marked, who else has the sign. That is the Spirit’s work. And God’s grace, the grace that we saw so clearly on that Easter morning 2000 years ago, that grace that we experience at this table and in the waters of baptism and in the life of the community, that grace is busy reconciling everyone and everything to itself; That grace is at work in the life of the church – in Seattle, bringing hope even in the life of a community torn by judgment; in Wisconsin, bringing unity even in the grief of a community broken by disagreement; in St. Clair, bringing a way forward even for a community shattered by doubt; bringing forgiveness and grace to the life of a bishop struggling with addiction, pain, and heartbreak. The grace of the Spirit goes ahead of us, paving the way for us, even as we, in our broken fumbling, stumbling way, try to keep up.

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Just Breathe

In many prayer and mediation practices around theworld, the first step is to find yourbreath. To breathe in such a way that you are paying attention to your breath and only your breath. Doctors and researchers have found evidence that simply listening to your breath for a few minutes a day reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and has all-around positive effects on health.Spiritually, taking a few minutes to practice simply breathing, being present to the breath, allows us to begin the practice of being present to what is happening now, to God’s presence with us just where we are. It is how we start to obey God’s command in the psalms to “be still and know that I am God.”

So I would like to invite you to take a moment. Put your feet flat on the floor. And breathe. You don’t need to change your breath, just breathe as you normally would. But of course as soon as someone says breathe normally, you change your breath, and that’s okay. Just notice what your breath is doing. In. Out. In. Out. Close your eyes if you feel comfortable enough. In. Out. Place one hand, or both hands, on your belly, or your chest, and feel the way that your breath moves you, even when you are sitting still. Feel the breath filling you, sending oxygen through your blood stream, waking up your limbs and your brain. Some of you have a hard time breathing. Some of you are short of breath much of the time. For a moment, if you can, try to simply notice your breath, without judging it. Try not to think about whether it is deep enough or long enough, but simply notice that it is. It is there, and it is moving you. It is there, and it is doing its job, keeping you alive. Just. Breathe.

Now, if you haven’t fallen asleep on me, keep your eyes closed for a moment longer, and think about the Holy Spirit. What images come to mind? A dove? tongues of fire? A rushing wind, like we heard in the Acts reading today? What about breath? When you think about the Spirit, do you think about breath? (Okay, you can open your eyes if you like.) The words for spirit in all of the Biblical languages, in both Hebrew and Greek, are also the words for wind and breath.

At a meeting last week, we were reading through some of these texts, and someone asked the question that has been on the church’s mind for the last 2000 years. What is the Holy Spirit? I think she felt a little silly asking the question, but it’s not a silly question at all. We might think we should all know the answer, having spent at least some time inside the walls of a church, each week confessing in the words of the creed that we believe in the Holy Spirit, baptizing and blessing people in the name of the Father and the Son, and then throwing the Holy Spirit in there for good measure. But I’m going to be honest. I went through 5 years of seminary and took at least 2 full classes with the words Holy Spirit in the title. I have one book on my shelf actually titled “The Holy Spirit,” and countless others with chapters and sections about it. And the conclusion I’ve reached is, we really don’t know. We don’t know what the Holy Spirit is, we can’t explain it, we can’t describe it, we can’t even draw a picture of it.

What we do know is this: God acts in the world. God is not hiding up in some distant heaven, God did not create the world, set the clock to ticking, and then step back to watch. God did not put us here for God’s entertainment. God created the world, created us, for relationship. Which means that God acts in the world. And yet, I have never had a direct face-to-face encounter with God. So how do we know that God is acting? How do we know that God is engaging us, is in relationship with us, is moving and inspiring us? We know because of the Spirit. The breath of God. I know, it’s maybe just another metaphor, and it doesn’t exactly solve the problem. What is the Holy Spirit? I don’t know. What is breath? What is wind? Can you catch it? Can you put it in a box? Can you nail it down? That’s the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, the wind from God, sweeping over the face of the waters in the beginning when all was formless and void. The Holy Spirit is the way that God continues to create, to sustain the world, even as the very forces of the world seek to pull it apart. It is the way that life turns to death turns to life again each generation, each year, each day. As today’s psalm reads, “You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth.”

It’s nebulous, I know. It’s not a precise or concrete answer, and we like precise and concrete answers. We like to understand how things work, we like to know the mechanisms that drive the world around us. But the Spirit is not one of those things. It’s not something we can explain or describe. We only get it by metaphor, and then only barely, not entirely, not precisely. And so we talk about what we experience, not what we see. The ways that we feel the Spirit present, the ways that we feel God’s breath on us, even though we can’t quite explain what it is.

The Holy Spirit is the breath of God. Breathing in. Drawing us toward God. Breathing out. Moving God toward us.  The way that the earth sighs at the end of a long hot summer day, and suddenly you feel that breath of cool air driving down off the mountainside into the valleys, or up off the river bank and out of the hollows, onto the hills, and the whole world breathes a sigh of relief as the heat is overcome. That’s what Paul is talking about in the reading from Romans today. The whole of creation is groaning in labor pains, all of the world is longing for relief, the way that it does at the end of a long hot summer day.

You can feel it, the tension in the world – the culture wars, the gender wars, the class wars, the religious wars, the outright money-grubbing, land-grabbing power wars; the politics that divide us, that drive us to polar ends of some arbitrary spectrum that suits the political ends of one group or another, but don’t really reflect our daily lives or our true opinions; the feeling on the right and the left and in the middle that we are not being heard, that we are being marginalized and alienated, that we are being persecuted; the changes in the weather, whether you think it’s caused by humans or not, the loss of animal and plant species, the disappearance of rain forests, the melting of the glaciers; the nuclear disaster in Japan; the friend who is grieving; the loved one who is dying; the relationship that is broken; the shame that won’t go away. The whole of creation is groaning, in labor pains, longing for relief, longing for a glimpse of hope that will breathe a breath of cool air, driving it down off the mountainside, down out of the heavens and into our lives, as we wait for redemption for all this broken world. And into all of that pain, all of that brokenness, comes a breath, the breath of God, the Spirit, groaning alongside us, assuring us that we are not alone, reminding us that God is active in the world, that God is here, that God is moving us, drawing us closer with each inhale and then sending us out with each exhale. So that when, in the face of all the world’s pain, in the midst of all this brokenness, when we can’t find the words to pray, when we are too overwhelmed by our own pain or grief or shame, when we can’t even find the strength to believe anymore, much less to pray, God breathes on us, and into us, and moves us: in. out. in. out. and the Spirit intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words to express. And so we confess in the words of Luther’s Catechism: that I cannot by my own strength or understanding believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. I cannot by my own strength or understanding draw breath, find hope, feel the cool relief of God moving in the world, drawing the world into reconciliation and redemption and new life. But the Holy Spirit has breathed into me, has breathed for me, so that I am moved, drawn toward God, and then sent, breathed out toward others. No wonder the French word for “hope” has the word “spirit” in it.

When the Day of Pentecost came, all the disciples were together in one place. And they were wondering how they could do it. How could they keep their faith, when the One in whom they had believed had been drawn up into heaven? How could they go out there and face the crowds, who were ready to stone them as heretics? How could they keep on believing in something so strange? Maybe they were meant to keep this to themselves? Maybe that was the safest route, to stay in that locked upper room, reassuring one another that they were chosen, until even the most certain of them would begin to doubt. But then, as they sat there, figuring out how to structure their little enclave, forming committees and selecting the next council member, there came from heaven a sound like the rushing of a violent wind, and God breathed. God breathed out, and the Spirit drove them out of that room, out of their comfort zone, out into the streets. God breathed in, and drew all the people to God’s self. Look at the list of peoples in verses 9, 10, and 11. These were all Jews from all over the world, indeed from all over time. Some of these, like the Elamites and the Medes, were wiped out centuries ago, and yet here they are, being drawn in by God’s inhalation, by the Spirit of God, by God’s inspiration.

God’s breath draws all the people in, from across the world, from across time. And then God breathes out. And they are sent. This book, The Acts of the Apostles, is sometimes called the Acts of the Spirit, and as you read through it, that is the picture that you get. God breathing in, drawing people together, drawing people toward God; and then God breathing out, sending people to stranger and stranger places. Sending people where they would not otherwise go. First a small band of disciples locked away in an upper room; then the Jewish people of all times and places gathered in Jerusalem, and the Spirit sends them out to all of Judea and Samaria, all over the Jewish diaspora; then one day an Ethiopian eunuch is drawn in, and breathed out, and the gospel spreads into Africa; then God breathes in and Cornelius and Peter find one another, and God breathes out and gentiles are brought into the church; and God breathes in, and Saul, a persecutor of the church, becomes Paul, called and sent by the spirit to bring the good news to all the known world, even to Rome itself. God breathes in, drawing people toward God, into relationship, into faith; God breathes out, sends people toward one another, into relationship, into service.

Close your eyes if you will. Place your hand on belly, or on your chest. And breathe. In. Out. In. Out. God is breathing here, God’s spirit is moving here. In. Drawing us together. Drawing us together toward God. Calling us through the Gospel, giving us the gifts of faith and of passion and of service. And Out. Sending us out. Sending us toward one another, toward our neighbors. How is the Spirit moving us? How is God’s breath drawing us in and sending us out? What boundaries are being blown down before us, so that we can be the hope for the world, that cool breath of air being blown down the mountainside into the sweltering heat of the world’s deepest need?