Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Power to Love

The Power to Love
Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Seventh Sunday of Easter: May 20, 2012
Acts 10:44-48
Have you ever traveled to another country and discovered what it is like to be an outsider, one who does not understand local customs, etiquette, expressions, let alone the language? Sometimes the experience isn’t a result of a language barrier, at least not an official one.
I vividly remember a lengthy visit to Australia back in the 1970s with a team of six (then) young business and professional people, sponsored by Rotary International and led by a Rotarian from Medford, Oregon. As a matter of fact, our own Dick Kunkle was instrumental in my selection to be on the team. On one of our first days there, our group leader spoke to a large audience that had gathered to welcome us and host us at dinner. Our leader used an expression, common in the U.S.A., just tossed it off without thinking, the way any of us would with any of dozens of customary expressions like “check you later,” or “gotta run.” After he said it, there was a sort of gasp, then an eerie silence fell across the room. We looked around, wondering what was the matter. Most people realized the mistake was due to some idiomatic language differences between us, but some of our host folks appeared to be at least mildly offended.
Of course, the essence of this story is that the expression our leader used, while completely unremarkable in the US, has a rather crude and offensive meaning in Australia and some other English-speaking countries. And, no, I’m not going to tell you what the expression is unless you will soon be making informal speeches in Australia or New Zealand some time soon. I only tell the story to highlight the fact that the experience of being an outsider is not always a result of formal barriers of language.
When we are outsiders, our thoughts are often hampered by suspicion. That person on the street corner who is looking at me, is he hostile? Is she making fun of us? Does he think I am dressed in an odd or conspicuous way? I recall a time when the unofficial rules for wearing white athletic socks changed – suddenly they were to be worn rumpled above the ankle, not stretched out to their full length, and they were on some occasions OK to be worn with dark pants – strictly taboo in my youth, and I have yet to get this portion of the rule change completely mastered. I’m always last to get the memo on these things. In fact, for all I know, it has changed again! By the time I was informed of the new white socks standards by my daughters, I had had many opportunities to embarrass them. But of course, that’s what parents are for.
I also remember walking through Rome with a tour group a few years ago, realizing that everyone on the streets – everyone – was wearing dark colors, browns, grays, blacks – while I was wearing the one coat I brought: a neon green windbreaker quite at home in the Pacific Northwest, but as out of place in Italy as courteous driving.
To be an obvious outsider – it is a common human experience.
By all accounts, the early church began its life as a pretty exclusive group. All the first disciples were Jews, they followed the dietary laws first given to Moses, they were keeping a pretty low profile in Jerusalem after the execution of Stephen by stoning. Who wouldn’t? Then one day, scripture says, Philip found himself preaching to Samaritans, who were filled with the same Spirit that had come to the Jewish believers. Hardly a day had passed before Philip found himself baptizing a complete foreigner, an Ethiopian. Then, almost before you could say, “Give me a minute to think this over,” Peter found himself in the house of a Gentile, an officer of the Roman occupational forces, a sworn enemy of the Jewish people by ethnic origin, career choice, and religious practice. So, when this person was received into the church by baptism, there can be small wonder that some of the Jerusalem folks demanded an explanation.
Peter’s explanation was simplicity itself: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” He later asked his critics in Jerusalem, “Who was I that I could hinder God?”
And, of course, that is the point of almost the entire of the book of Acts. The Spirit came upon the church, and from that point on, it was like holding a tiger by the tail; no one knew what unexpected place the Spirit would take them next. But always it moved them toward people who had previously been excluded, outside the faith.
Thinking on this story, I recall the history of one church in a presbytery where I have served which has an interesting history. For the last couple of decades now, we have had resolution after resolution from presbyteries and General Assemblies, making various pronouncements on the need for church growth. Most are in favor, of course. “Presbyteries vote to grow by a margin of 3 to 1” might go the headline following one of these decisions. Problem is, Presbyterians for the most part, have not grown. All kinds resolutions passed by councils and presbyteries and hours of organizational planning don’t seem to be able to make it happen.
So along came a group of people in a small town who found each other over coffee or whatever, one thing led to another, and a few said, “Why don’t we get together for Bible study?” So they did. They discovered that many of them had been Presbyterians at one time or another, so they thought, “Why don’t we ask the Presbytery in our area to see if we can become an official church?” So they did.
Silly people. Didn’t they know that their town was too small to support a Presbyterian church? They had not done a feasibility study, they had not purchased ground for their church, they did not live in a town which would have an adequate population of potential Presbyterians who are, in late history anyway, generally around 1% of the population. In this and many other ways, the answer was, “No, your gathering cannot be a Presbyterian church.” They would have to remain outsiders.
 “OK,” thought these folks, “but let’s keep meeting for Bible study and fellowship anyway.” So they did. And so did quite a few others who wanted to join their happy company. Soon, no one could accommodate the whole group in their home. So they rented space. Finally they realized they needed to build space of their own. A retired Presbyterian minister was willing to organize worship services for them. So they did. Soon they were over a hundred people. They called the Presbytery officials again, who, to their credit, remembered the old adage that if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, chances are it is a duck. They saw what was happening in that town, and uttered their own organizational version of Peter’s words to his questioners in Jerusalem: “Who was I that I could hinder God?” Like it or not, we might have counted them out, but the Spirit counted them in!
J.B. Phillips is reported to have once said that the work of the Holy Spirit is frustrating to the tidy-minded.[1] This is never more in evidence than in the book of Acts, where the Spirit has disciples, willing or not, tearing around baptizing the most unlikely new believers anyone could imagine – in fact no one did imagine them as believers. No one, that is, except the Holy Spirit, who alone brings into being the power to love which makes disciples and builds churches.
A few years ago, I remember some conversation about starting a Spanish language Bible study in a church I was serving. The Hispanic community in town was growing rapidly. In a relatively short time, about 10 people were attending the study, led by one of our bilingual elders. Some people began to ask each other, “Where is this headed? Will we have Spanish-language services in the church some day? What will we do if the needs of some folks reach beyond the need for Bible study?” Well, of course, no one knew an answer to that question or others like it. But it was clear that fear was driving some of the questions. The church leaders hadn’t gotten all that far in their thinking. But they recognized early on that the plan and purpose for this was not really ours, after all. Sometimes in the church we begin not with strategies and organizational charts, but with simple surprise at who it is that shows up on our doorstep. Sometimes, we begin with the Spirit. Later we call in the constitutional experts to tell us what God has done and write a theology about it. But if we are led by the Spirit, it is important to keep things in their proper order.[2]
This doesn’t mean, of course, that the activities of the Holy Spirit among us don't scare us to pieces. Think how terrified Peter must have been when he set foot in the house of a Gentile army officer who possessed the power of life and death over him. Fear is not all bad. It means we recognize that we are risking something precious to us, whether it is our lives or our possessions. But do pray that the Spirit will be active within you and among us all here at 4300 Main Street. I urge you to pray for the Spirit’s presence and activity here. If you do, God will not fail to keep faith with you in the promises he gives you to make.

Copyright © Robert J. Elder, 2012

[1]Yet to the neat and tidy mind of the human planner few things could be more untidy historically than the entry of God into the world nearly two thousand years ago.” New Testament Christianity: 5 Ground for Hope. J.B. Phillips. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
[2] Here I am indebted  to William Willimon’s, article “Led by the Spirit,” from Christian Century.