Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hope Filled

Hope Filled

Trinity Sunday, May 30, 2010

©copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder

Romans 5:1-5

Since we are justified by faith

we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ...

and hope does not disappoint us,

because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

In these computerized times, when what was once called typing has become a potentially error-free sort of thing we refer to now as “word processing,” I remember the old days when writing term papers and graduate theses meant dealing with typewriters with ribbons, and those maddening little bits of white, chalky paper which could be found in any office, and which could blanch out mistyped letters and words. I remember spending a good deal of my time while seeking higher education also seeking well-used little slips of correcting paper for blank spots to eradicate those term paper typos. One task I never even tried to master, though I knew secretaries who were very adept at it, was justifying the right hand margin of a typescript page.

Now justifying the left hand margin is no big trick. Unless you accidentally hit the tab key, the old typewriter carriage would always return to the same spot on the left hand side of the page. But the right hand side is a different matter. For those extra-special documents that some people wanted to look as crisp and finished as possible, secretaries had to master the multiple tasks of typing out a rough draft with a ragged right edge, counting spaces on lines of typescript, then retyping while adding enough additional spaces to make the right hand margin look as even as the left. These were no small tasks, and one little misspelled word could ruin a whole page, along with an entire afternoon’s work.

Now, with computers, justifying margins, right or left, even centering – which was for me the most thankless of all tasks on a typewriter – is no big trick. It can be done automatically, accomplished with the click of a button. So I’ve often thought it was strange that computer word processing programs include fonts by which documents can be printed in an undetectable imitation of a typewriter, including the option for the old ragged, non-justified right hand margin of typewriter days. Why this deliberate regression? Actually, though I use a computer every day, I have gone back to using the ragged right hand margin, I just kind of like it. I have supposed that those who send us clever solicitations in the mail with a typewriter-type font probably do this to try and make us think that their letter was hand-typed especially for us. I wonder if anyone is really fooled by this any more? If a company actually wanted to send out hand-typed letters today, where would they go to find such a machine? Or people who could operate them?

Anyway, in the old days, justification in the printing business had to do with lining words up in a right relationship with the page on which they are printed and with each other. Frederick Buechner once reminded his readers that the religious sense of the word “justification” is very close to this old print-shop jargon. Being justified means being brought into a relationship which can best be described as “right,” correctly lined up.

When Paul was still a Pharisee named Saul, and still believed that the rumor about Jesus rising from the dead was just that – a rumor, he was knocked down one day while on his way to see about locking up some of these new Christians. And though the voice that spoke to him that day belonged to the One whose resurrection he had disbelieved, the One whose church he had taken up wrecking, the One who had every reason to fry him on the spot, what he heard the voice saying to him was not “And now you’re going to get what’s coming to you, you wretch!” but, instead, “Now I need you as a witness.”

Paul never got over it, the sheer gift of it, the way in which it arrived totally unannounced and clearly without any meritorious acts on his part. This told Paul a lot of things about the person of Jesus Christ, among them was the fact that Christ could use even those who at one time had scorned him, that he was quite willing to put his finger on those who had done nothing to deserve being chosen. It’s more than a little unsettling when we think about it, isn’t it? From Paul’s experience we learn that we are not safe from the call of God even we are deep in a self-declared apostasy, that Jesus will not even disdain those who have made a profession out of disdaining him.

Apparently there is nothing we can do or be to merit this attention from God. It’s on the house. It is justification freely given to those who only need to receive it in order to have it. God has justified us, lined us up, made us right. It’s even a bigger miracle than computers.

Well, this is a great thing to know, but where does it lead us? Paul says being justified by faith leads to peace with God. Now that’s not some little personal, prayer-closet peace which stands for a lack of conflict, but the old Hebrew “shalom,” a peace, a serenity which stands for a life so in relationship with God that no matter what suffering or tragedy, or hoplessness or violence life might bring, there still exists a deep assurance of God’s love undergirding all of life.

The mid-twentieth century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, is often credited1 with having written what has become one of the world’s most famous prayers. The first part of the prayer is the part that is familiar as the “Serenity Prayer” to 12 step folks, indeed, to people the world over:

God grant us the grace to accept with serenity the things which cannot be changed,

courage to change the things that should be changed,

and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Whether Niebuhr originated that little prayer or not, it is less well-known that Niebuhr finished the prayer with the following, seldom-quoted lines:

Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as the pathway to peace; taking, as [Jesus] did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will. That I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.

Today is Trinity Sunday on the church calendar, so here is some trinitarian thinking to stand alongside that prayer. Ending with only the first sentence of the prayer, serenity or peace could be understood as a sort of indirect affirmation of the power of positive thinking. The second part of Niebuhr’s version of the prayer is so key to understanding that the person who authors the peace that passes understanding is God himself through Jesus Christ. And here we can see the wisdom of thinking of God as Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit, faith, love, and hope. For the person of God the Father reminds us that we may have faith because God has proven faithful from the very first dawn of creation and the experiences of the people Israel in the whole of the Old and New Testaments; the person of God the Son has expressed the ultimate nature of the love of God by going to the cross for our sakes; the person of God the Spirit expresses the hope that fills us, knowing the God of faith and love will also be the God of hope who moves with us into the future.

Later on in his letter to the Romans, Paul declared that those who live in the relationship of peace and serenity which God has granted can be assured of the love of Christ in any and every circumstance. Such peace can turn the suffering we may know back on itself. Instead of bringing the horrors we may expect suffering to bring, the gift of the shalom of God’s justification means any suffering we may come to know can bring something quite unexpected:

  • Instead of causing us to live with a perpetually short fuse... unexpectedly, suffering redeemed by God’s shalom could even bring us patience, serenity, and endurance!
  • Instead of making us into small, mean little people... suffering, infused with God’s shalom, can actually produce good character!
  • Instead of the despondency and depression we might expect, suffering in light of God’s shalom can actually, serendipitously, bring hope!

None of these possibilities in a life justified by the peace of God are spoken prescriptively. That is, Paul is not unloading a container of guilt on those who in suffering have occasionally felt short-tempered, mean, and despondent. Rather, he is saying that while those may seem like the only possible fruits of suffering, the peace of God can produce a new thing, an unexpected thing. The accent is not on our work but on God’s gift. If Christ can save even someone like Paul, a thug who once persecuted the church, imagine what he might do for us!

As we look into our lives, what is the good news we least expect to hear ever again? Could it be that the gift of God’s life-transforming peace means that that might be just the news that is coming our way? That, rather than despair, our lives might be hope-filled?

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Justice and Mercy: Reinhold Niebuhr, Ursula M. Niebuhr, ed., Harper & Row, 1974, title pages.

Sunday, May 23, 2010



© 2010, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2010
Acts 2:1-21

How can we know if ours is a Spirit-filled church? If we are Spirit-filled people? The very first two verses of the second chapter of Acts give us a significant clue: Here the evidence of the presence and power of the Spirit of God is both as audible as a mighty wind and as visible as flames of fire. The work of the Spirit is heard - as in mighty winds and in the brave proclamation of the message of the apostles to an unbelieving world, and seen - as in the tongues of fire distributed to every believer and in the lives of incredible compassion and risk which the the believers undertook from that Pentecost Day onward.

Whatever else we may know when we read this particular passage, we may be assured that where we neither hear nor see evidence of the Holy Spirit, we can be reasonably certain that the Spirit of Christ has not yet successfully invaded that person or gathering. Not yet. By the same token, where we hear and see Spirit-empowered ministries of proclamation and care taking place, we may be assured that the Spirit of Christ has graced that person or gathering.

Isn't it somehow surprising - given a natural tendency to human activism - that instead of concocting a plan of attack and inflicting themselves on the world by sheer human effort, the church began instead by withdrawing to wait and pray to see what God had in store and to ask that God live up to God's promises? “The next move was up to God, and the church recognized the wisdom of waiting for God's time to act.”1 When we pray the Lord's prayer, we are simply praying that God will be true to God's promises: “Thy kingdom come...thy will be done.” What could appear to be a swaggering or even a manipulative prayer for kingdom and power is in reality a deeply humble prayer, recognizing as it does that only God can give the church what it most desperately needs. All our human maneuvering is pointless unless it is empowered by the Spirit of God.

One preacher said, “[God] is never nearer than when [God] excavates a sense of emptiness in us.”2 Whenever we gather for the Lord's Supper, for example, our invitation includes these words like these: “And so our Savior invites us to come and feed the hunger which bread alone can never fill.”

Filled as they were with the gift of Jesus' companionship for three years of ministry, the grief of the crucifixion, the exaltation of the resurrection, one thing was lacking in the hearts of the disciples, an emptiness remained. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, those who were disciples and apostles were empowered to become the one thing they had not been: witnesses. And what is witnessing, really, but the audible and visible willingness to say what we believe to be true, and to try to live by the guidance of that Word?

As if to give special emphasis to that dramatic empowerment, unlikely Peter - the one who, when Jesus was arrested, could not find within himself the boldness to own up to his discipleship to a serving girl in the courtyard of the High Priest's house - suddenly Peter, of all people, found within himself the courage to witness to thousands in the middle of Jerusalem on one Spring morning. Whatever else we may not be sure about, there is little question that the Holy Spirit empowers us to be what we had not had the strength within ourselves to be before.

Finding ourselves at a gathering where the good name (or even the questionable name) of someone else is being trashed, being a faithful witness to Christ might mean no more than turning away and refusing to participate in hurtful gossip, but it might also mean speaking up. Only each of us knows the call to which the Spirit is leading us. But we can rest in this assurance: No matter how bad the consequences of faithfulness in the face of opposition might seem, the Spirit continually gathers the church around us, the Spirit will never forsake us.

How can we comprehend this presence of the Holy Spirit?

Right there in the Bible it talks about it like a sort of liquid presence, “I will pour out my Spirit on everyone.” In our neat, family-kitchen-thinking we may imagine this to be a pouring like pouring a glass of milk from a pitcher. But I think that mental image is much too tidy for us to use as a mark of the work of the Holy Spirit. I think there are much better ways to conceive God's Spirit being poured over God's people. Think of other ways we generally use the word “pour”:
  1. When we have been estranged from one another, our emotions all bottled up, when we have suffered the emotionally constipating effects of a heart filled with sorrow and anxiety combined with a mind and mouth that refuses to allow us to share what consumes us from the inside, when after that the dam has finally broken and in tears we have been able to tell another human being about the fears and emotions that have been eating us alive, have let go a torrent of hurt and heartache, we call that pouring your heart out.
  2. When our team is ahead of the other team 65 to 7 and there is only one minute left in the final period, and we score yet another touchdown, and the coach sends in the play from the sideline telling his team to go for 2 extra points instead of 1, the fans turn to each other and say, “Wow, they're really pouring it on!”
  3. When the sky turns not grey but black, the lightning creases the thunderheads, the thunder cracks like a volley of canon fire, we run for cover, saying to each other, “We'd better hurry; any minute it will be pouring down rain.”
Pouring, as it is used in the second chapter of Acts, has nothing to do with pouring into a glass from a pitcher. It is more like pouring into the glass from Niagra Falls. Either way the glass gets filled, but by the second method there can never be any doubt about whether there will be enough.
Pouring out his Spirit, God gives to people the power of God's love not in sufficiency, but in superabundance. There is enough, there is more than enough of God's Spirit to empower the work of the church. It is not a zero sum game. God's Spirit is available in such plenty that to be touched by it can mean being overwhelmed by it and changed completely and absolutely.

The late Clinton Marsh served for years as president of Johnson C. Smith Theolgical Seminary in Atlanta, and was once moderator of our Presbyterian Church's General Assembly. Jokingly, he characterized himself as one half Presbyterian, and one half African American. About 35 years ago at the meeting of the General Assembly I heard Dr. Marsh say to the assembly that he hoped the Spirit would change us so that, if we could not be one half Presbyterian and one half African American, some of us could at least develop a little better suntan. The Spirit, poured over the people, drenches us, changes us, so that we are not the same people we once were.

Dr. Martin Marty has served for decades as a contributing editor of Christian Century magazine, a journal highly respected among clergy and lay leaders. He also once taught second grade Church School - one wonders which is the greater honor! He tells a story that shows the pouring-out of the Spirit can even come upon 8 year-olds, demonstrating that the Spirit is alive and working in places we might never expect. His story is about an 8 year-old boy who once attended his classes. Stephen was a special child, and by the time he had reached second grade, his progressive mental and physical disabilityies had become obvious to his friends. Dr. Marty said that one of his greatest concerns in teaching Stephen's class was whether the other eight students could hold on to their love for Stephen as they came increasingly to realize he was falling behind them and that he was different. In April of that year, he asked his students to bring to class a small object they could hide inside one of those plastic egg-shaped containers that some products are packaged in, something that represented the gift of new life. But because he was afraid Stephen might not have understood, he placed all the unmarked containers in the center of the table, and asked Stephen to open them, one at a time.

The first one held a crocus, and one of the students erupted with the pride of possession, saying, “I brought that one!” Next came a rock which Dr. Marty thought would surely be Stephen's, since rocks don't symbolize new life. But one of the other students shouted, “That's mine! The rock has moss on it, and it has just turned green again!” A butterfly flew from the third container, and another student beamed that her choice had been the best so far.

But the fourth container was empty. Dr. Marty thought it had to be Stephen's and was going to move quickly to the next egg, but Stephen objected and said, “Don't skip mine!” You know how second graders can be; they all shouted with one voice, “But it's empty!” “That's right,” Stephen said. “The tomb was empty. New life for everyone!” Stephen knew.

That Summer, Stephen died. At the grave, mourners found eight small egg containers. All of them empty. The story is true. So is the mystery, and Stephen knew.

What Stephen knew was that when God's Spirit is poured out, there is no controlling it. The black, the white, the blind, the lame, the healthy, the sick, the disabled, the frail, the husky, the slender, every one can be drenched in the Spirit. It was poured out on all believers without discrimination. There's more than enough. There's no limit to the power of God's Spirit to reach us and make us understand, even by means we might never have anticipated.

The disciples were drenched in the Spirit that first Pentecost day. Not dribbled, not sprinkled, aerosolled, misted, dampened, daubed or dipped, but drenched. They were overcome with the power of God's Spirit, poured out upon them. May God drench our fellowship with his Spirit in our own day, in our own times.

1 Acts, by William Willimon, John Knox, 1988, p. 27.
2 Drumbeat of Love, by Lloyd Ogilvie, Word Books, 1976, p. 23.