Saturday, May 19, 2018

A Glimpse of the Last Day

Acts 2:1-21
May 20, 2018
William G. Carter

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

In the midst of a lot of wind and fire, a new community was formed. That is the miracle of Pentecost. Beginning with the Jews who gathered from “every nation under heaven” – or at least, every nation known in the Mediterranean world, God’s Spirit blows open the windows of a fearful church. The lungs of a multitude are filled with the Holy Spirit. Bold testimonies about Jesus are preached. Everybody hears the message in their own language, and they all discover that they belong together in Christ.

That’s the miracle of Pentecost. A new inclusive community is formed. Everybody belongs.

Know what we need? Another Pentecost.

In the small town where I began my ministry, there were two Lutheran churches. They were two blocks apart. Now, I know there are a lot of Lutherans in the Lehigh Valley. The Germans are pretty dense down there. But two blocks apart?

And they told me the story: the first Lutheran church was founded in 1851. It took them a year to get moving, but by July 4, 1952, they put a cornerstone on a plot of land that they purchased for $300. The Rev. Jeremiah Schindel preached a dedication sermon on Christmas Day, and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church was begun.

By 1868, the church was in trouble. The worship services were spoken in German, and some wanted to worship in English. For a while, they solved the problem by have a German service in the morning and an English service in the evening. The church council, consisting of two old German guys, decided it wasn’t worth the effort, so they cancelled the English service... and a faction departed to create an English-speaking congregation two blocks away.

In time, the German-speaking congregation switched to English-speaking services, but did the two congregations apologize and recombine? Of course not. We need another Pentecost.

Is this exclusive to the Lutherans? No. For a while, my wife played the organ for a Presbyterian congregation that was worshipping in a Roman Catholic sanctuary. Located on a street named after an American League umpire, it was one of three Catholic churches located on corners of the same block. One was Irish, another was Italian, and the third was made up of leftovers (i.e. neither Irish nor Italian).

On the fourth corner is a Russian Orthodox church, and around the block is a Ukrainian Catholic church. All of them wanted a priest who would speak exclusively to them. It took a bishop with the subtlety of a bulldozer to get any of them to work together, and he paid a harsh price to get it down.  We need another Pentecost.

And it’s not exclusive to Lutherans and Catholics. In 2003, in the very next room, a retiring Presbyterian minister met with a committee to discuss the congregation he was leaving. It began as a Welsh congregation, but the neighborhood had changed. There’s a Mexican grocery on one corner, a soul food kitchen on another. Down the street, a Polish funeral home sits near an Italian restaurant.

The minister was troubled. As he was preparing to retire, he reported a faction in his congregation wanted to hold the line and resist all these newcomers. One of his elders proposed that they only allow new members into their church if they spoke Welsh or had a Welsh last name. The motion did not pass, but the sentiment did not go away. In time, the church sold the building rather than reach out to their new neighbors. I think we need another Pentecost.

On the first Pentecost, Luke says there was every nation under heaven. They had gathered for a religious festival fifty days after Passover (hence the name “Pentecost”), and instead got a multilingual sermon about Jesus raised from the dead. Everybody understood it. The Holy Spirit brought voice and understanding. An inclusive community was formed. It was a miracle of God.

It can happen. God willing, the wind can blow, and it can happen.

In 1906, a one-eyed preacher named William Seymour was invited to preach for a series of revival services on Azusa Street, in a run-down part of Los Angeles. The newspaper called the building a “tumble down shack,” but Rev. Seymour kept preaching and the Holy Spirit came down. Within a few months, a couple dozen people grew to crowds of 1500 a week, all crammed into that tumble-down shack.

The remarkable thing is not that there were signs, wonders, and miraculous healings – but that the crowd was so diverse: women, men, children, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, rich, poor, educated and illiterate. This was at the height of Jim Crow discrimination laws, and yet the races were “mingling” for Christian worship. Women “got the Spirit” and stood up on tables to preach. They didn’t wait for the Pope or the Presbyterians to give them approval, either. The Holy Spirit said, “Preach the Gospel,” and they preached. A new community was formed.

It’s an appealing memory, don’t you think? In our time, we could use more of this sort of thing.

In historian Jon Meachum’s latest book, The Soul of America, he reminds us of what he calls “a universal American inconsistency” – we uphold life and liberty for some and hold back others deemed unworthy. If you know about the immigration waves that have come through our region for the past 150 years, you know that yesterday’s immigrants were always beating up on the immigrants that arrived today.

The truth of the Gospel is that every human life matters. Every one. If you tuned into yesterday’s royal wedding, you may have been blessed to hear that marvelous sermon by Archbishop George Curry. He spoke the truth, the Pentecost truth, that love is the way to live, that it is the only way.

Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. … When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry ever again. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the Earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more. When love is the way, there's plenty good room for all of God's children because when love is the way, we actually treat each other well, like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all and we are brothers and sisters, children of God. My brothers and sisters, that's a new heaven, a new Earth, a new world, a new human family. (

I’m ready for another Pentecost. How about you? Because this new heaven, this new earth, this new human family is where everything is headed in the glory of God. Pentecost is the first glimpse of what God wants for the world through Jesus Christ our Lord. And it can happen, if we get out of the way and let love become the way.

Last June, my wife and I were invited to spend a weekend in Placitas Presbyterian Church in northern New Mexico. The pastor was gone on a sabbatical and they were desperate for a preacher, so we went. The congregation is a bit smaller than this one, about a half hour north of Albuquerque. The people have a great gift of hospitality, provided a comfortable bed and a lot of tacos.

When we arrived at the church, they said, “By the way…” (Usually that means, “Uh oh, what did we get ourselves into?”)  They said, “By the way, the service is bilingual. It’s in two languages, Spanish and English.” Did that mean the service was twice as long? Oh, no. They did the hard work of blending everything, speaking both languages, singing both languages, welcoming both, and making room for all.

As we drove away, Jamie said, “There was something magical about that place.” I blurted out, “The Holy Spirit was there.” She looked at me funny, like she often does, as if to say, “You’re talking preacher-ese again.” I said, “God was there, with all of us. That’s difficult to quantify by easy to tell. Everybody was welcome. Even us.” The Gospel was for everybody. That’s Pentecost.

This afternoon, I’m preaching at a new minister’s installation. Another desperate church, I’m afraid. It is the Presbyterian Church of Lamington, New Jersey. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the church is a quarter mile from the gate of Trump National Golf Course. Right after the presidential election, Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence worshiped there, with a half hour advance notice from the Secret Service. My friend Carlos is just starting as the new pastor.

So I said to him, “How’s that going to work out for you?” He said, “It’s a remarkable church. It’s purple. There are red voters and blue voters. Many have deeply held convictions on either side, but they get along with another. They believe the Gospel is a lot bigger, a lot more inclusive, than one opinion or one political position. We want to be a church for all people.”

What can we say? It’s Pentecost. And on Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, to push and shove the church beyond its own boundaries, because the Gospel is for everybody. Isn’t that what we want?

We ordain our elders to led us to be a church for everybody. We ordain our deacons to help us care for all people, regardless of who they are or what burdens they carry. For the truth is clear: when God breathes the Spirit on us, when God puts the Gospel in the air for everybody to hear it, there are no longer insiders or outsiders; in the grace of Jesus Christ, everybody belongs… because today is Pentecost, when the love of God is poured out on a crowd so much larger than we ever imagined.

And if we lean in real close, we will hear God say, “This is what I intended from the beginning.”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, May 12, 2018


Luke 24:44-53
Ascension / Easter 7
May 13, 2018
William G. Carter

Then Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

One summer night some years ago, I watched a hot air balloon launch at Lackawanna State Park. My kids were a good bit younger and a friend called to tip us off. “They are going to love seeing this,” she said. We all enjoyed it.

We arrived just in time to hear the thunderous sound of hot air filling up those enormous balloons. The balloons began to inflate and rise. The passenger baskets turned upright and the lines grew tight. Pretty soon somebody shouted, “He’s off.” We watched as the man in the basket began to rise into the sky. It was a thrilling sight!

I’m not afraid of heights, but I do like to have a solid floor beneath my feet. So I was only a little envious to see the man in the basket go higher and higher. It was enticing. He was leaving all his cares down here on the ground, lifting above our distress, going up and up. I would guess he was at least three hundred feet beyond reproach. Soon he was up even further. It was an amazing, dazzling, almost other-worldly sight.

Some people were discussing this passage at the very end of the Gospel of Luke. They knew about the Easter story; everybody knows about Easter. But they had not realized the story goes on a bit more. Jesus goes up into the sky. “He was carried up into heaven,” says Luke. He ascended into the sky.

One of the ladies in the discussion group said, “I can’t blame him.” Why do you say that? She said, “He got out of here as soon as he could.” The group giggled, but she pushed here point. “Oh, I’ll bet Jesus was in a hurry to get back up into heaven,” she said. “After all, don’t forget how they treated him when he was here.”

Going up – is this an escape? I remember James T. Kirk, captain of the star ship Enterprise. How many times did he say, “Beam me up, Scotty, there’s no intelligent life down here.” The lady in that group made it sound as if Jesus was talking the same way to God in heaven: “Get me out of here.”

I had never thought of the Ascension quite that way. We say the line from the Apostles’ Creed almost every week: “he ascended into heaven.” Is that intended to suggest an escape from the mud, the muck, and the evil here on the ground?

In 1830, a young girl named Margaret McDonald had a vision. Or a dream. Or some kind of something. She was attending a healing service, and suddenly pictured a two-stage return of Christ from heaven. First, he will come secretly to snatch away all his believers, and then later he will come to judge whoever had been left behind. She described the scenario to John Nelson Darby, a British preacher.

Darby was a bit of sensationalist. He took the idea and began to develop it. He would preach it, and then preach it some more. Soon the idea began to develop into many stages, which he called “dispensations.” He began to categorize different historical eras: this happened, and that happened, and then finally this is going to happen. He described the whole thing as if it was a scientific system, an unfolding account of the End Times.

To support it, he plucked a single verse from one of Paul’s letters. Not just any letter, but First Thessalonians, probably the earliest composed document of what would later become the New Testament. In chapter four of that letter, Paul was writing to comfort the believers, who expected Jesus to return at any moment, just as he said he would. When Jesus comes, all the believers will be “caught up in the air to meet the Lord.” (1 Thess. 4:13).

Darby called this “the rapture.” Nobody had ever said anything about this in 1800 years of Christian history. Darby invented it and declared it to be true. And at heart, here’s what it is: an escape plan.[1] When everything falls apart, the Christians get out for free, but only the true Christians, you understand. So Darby and all his kind have come up with one test after another, to learn who the true Christians are. I guess if you pass their test, string together the same verses plucked out of context, and arrive with the same conclusion, then you can escape the world and spend eternity with all the people who agree with you.

These are notions that have infected the American church and split it into splinters. These ideas have invaded our politics and twisted our policies on the Middle East. They have given birth to unholy conspiracy theories and plundered the soil of God’s good earth. “We might as well strip mine the mountain tops of West Virginia and make some money now,” say some, “because Jesus is coming to snatch us away to fly up to heaven.”

Maybe you’ve heard about that sort of thing, or maybe you find the notion appealing. Just take note: a rapture like that is never mentioned in the Bible. Never! It is not mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Westminster Confession, or any of the other historic summaries of the faith, for two very good reasons: First, John Nelson Darby invented the “rapture” in 1830. Second, people who love Jesus and follow him are never looking for an escape hatch, or a hot air balloon to be lifted above difficulty. Why? Because they believe in the Ascension.

So what is this Ascension stuff really all about, anyway? I think it’s about three things.

First, it means that Jesus is not here. He is risen from the dead, and now he is risen to the Father. He is gone from the earth. He doesn’t live here anymore. He lives in complete unity with the Creator. And he did not return to the Father as an escape, because when he was here, he was really here. Jesus lived a completely human life: he worked in a Nazareth wood shop, he fell asleep in the back of a fishing boat, and he ate a lot of fish.

Jesus preached the truth, he healed the broken and the broken-hearted, he took nails in his wrists and feet and was mistreated like all of God’s prophets. Killing him was the great human mistake, says Luke. Raising him from the dead was God’s work of justice: it confirmed that everything Jesus did was right and true. And now, he is lifted to the highest place of authority. He sits with God the Father; he is not here.

Second, it means that Jesus is free to come back as often as he wants. There are stories of the Risen Christ appearing on earth. The scholar Raymond Brown says those appearances are always “from heaven.” Jesus keeps returning again and again and again. And the purpose is clear: just as heaven and earth were united in the person of Jesus Christ, heaven and earth have been reconciled in the death and resurrection of Jesus. They have been brought together, and it’s not our place to separate what God has brought together.

It is possible to discover the Holy in the every day. That is what it means. Christ is not here, but he keeps returning here. That’s what we mean by “the Holy Spirit.” Jesus tells his friends to stay in Jerusalem “until they are clothed in power from on high.” (24:49). To state it another way, God will come – the Risen Christ will come – in a way to stay with all who love Jesus, who return to him after pushing him away, who receive his forgiveness. The same Jesus who walked among us on two feet now rules over all of us. He is not done with us; neither is he “done” with the world.

So (1) Jesus is not “here” anymore, not in the way we once knew him, and (2) he is free as Lord to come among us in the power of his Spirit, that means, third, that there is work for us to do. In his physical absence, we are his hands and feet on earth. We speak his word with our tongues. We heal others in his mercy through our kindness. We continue his first century work in our twenty-first century world.

We don’t escape the world; we enter it more deeply.

So there are mothers to cherish and women to lift up in dignity; that’s a good part of our work. The Jesus we meet in the Gospel of Luke is One who honors women as equals in the human race. He converses with them when the men of his time refused. He tells stories of women as heroines (15:7-10). He speaks of God as a Mother Hen who wishes to gather all her chicks (13:34).

He goes to the woman who is so bent over she can only look at her sandals and lifts her up so she can look around in God-given dignity (13:10-17). He welcomes the women who support his work out of their own pocketbooks (8:1-3). And on Easter morning, Jesus goes first to the women to show them he is again alive (24:1-12).

My friends, if we celebrate Mother’s Day by honoring the women in our lives, it’s a good beginning of the work Christ gives us to continue. As he honored women as equals and children of God, we continue that work when we let them know they are cherished.

There is no “escape” allowed, not for those who love Jesus, not for those who honor those whom he honored. We are the living witnesses of what he did, what he had begun, what he can continue through the likes of us. And that’s why we are here today, and last week, and next week…because we are part of an ongoing work called the Gospel. God has put us in this place, at this point in human history, to continue the Gospel right here, in the places where we live and work. The Christ who is above us promises the power for us to make the Gospel real here and now.

Years ago, when I was in Sunday School, one of our teachers gave us a true and false quiz after Easter. True or false: Jesus was raised from the grave. True or false: Jesus is alive again. True or false: Jesus lives with God in heaven.

Then this question: true or false, after Jesus went up into heaven, after Jesus went out of sight, his friends didn’t have to go to church anymore. That was, and still is, an intriguing question. I’ve noticed some people slip away from the sanctuary after the Easter hymns are over. So I answered “True,” because I was a kid, and I wanted it to be true.

The teacher said, “Billy, read the last sentence in the Gospel of Luke.” And I read: “They worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” There is no escape from the Lord who went up, no escape from the travails of Jerusalem, no escape from the things that promise great joy. Jesus is not here, he will come back regularly at any time, and in the meantime, there is work for us to do.

See you next Sunday.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] See, for instance, Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed (New York: Basic Books, 2004) pp. 19-46.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Sinking In and Sticking Around

John 15:9-17
April 22, 2018
William G. Carter

"As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete."

 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

To live with scripture is to pay attention to the power of words. In our own time and place, that’s easier said than done. We are deluged with words. There are speedy words like “accelerate,” and slow words like “turtle.” There are rich words like “Cadillac,” and modest words like “Ford.” There are young words like “Instagram” and there are old words like “lavender.” There are even made-up words like “Dilly dilly” and “Bada boom bada boom.”

So what are we to make of a word like “abide”? It sounds like an old word, older than my grandmother who died at 102. She wore lavender, by the way. “Abide” is not a common word, not any more. No one says, “I rented a condo at the Jersey shore and I’m going down there for a week to abide.” No, it’s a verb that most people would store on a shelf in the attic, right up there with “sojourn” and “tarry.”

So it may strike us as unusual that this is one of Gospel of John's favorite words. He uses it again and again. The verb pops up as early as the first chapter. Some upcountry folks see Jesus and ask, "Rabbi, where are you abiding?" (1:38) Some translate that, "staying." Others translate it "remaining." That’s fascinating, given that John says, “He pitched his tent” (1:33) and presumably kept moving.

“Rabbi, where are you abiding?” they ask. And John writes, “So they came and saw where he was abiding, and they abided with him that day” (1:39). 33 times in the Fourth Gospel, 18 times in John’s first letter, it’s the same word. It is his favorite word.

Dale Bruner says this is a relationship word. Abiding signifies more than a visit for tea. It’s different from bunking on the couch. It signifies something deeper than a sleepover with friends. Bruner says to abide with Jesus is “make our home” with him. And specifically in this section of John’s Gospel, to make our home in Christ’s love. To stay there. To remain in that. To dwell there. .

In a restless world of distractions and enticements, what would it look like to stay in Christ's love? When there is another 5K to run, another chore to do, a family gathering to enjoy, anotheractivity to run to?

Sometimes I have the conversation with parents with young suburban children. They will say something like, "We love the church, we want to get out kids there, but there's so much going on elsewhere. We don’t know what to do." We can talk about priorities, about putting God first, about any number of things, and any advice lasts as far as the parking lot. In a hyperactive culture like this, what would it look like to abide anywhere, much less in a church pew?

And please notice, Jesus does not say, “Abide in my congregation,” but “abide in my love.” That’s easier said than done. It might be more difficult than 

A couple of weeks ago, I had a difficult exchange with a man in the community, a member of another congregation. I’m not going to get into details. Suffice it to say it was a clear difference of opinion. Each of us believed he was right, and this guy was convinced I was wrong. I received nasty, contentious emails. Finally, I had to just let it go. There are some battles that are simply not worth fighting.

As I reflected on the matter, it struck me that the whole thing was a distraction from the love of Christ, a love so deep that it covers even the people who are envious, boastful, arrogant, and rude, insisting on their own way. The more I fussed about that small conflict, the more I could sense it was blotting out any love I had - for him, for anybody. 

On human level, could say "the matter is not worth it." On a clinical level, could say "He hasa lot of issues." But on a Christian level, had to let it go and hand it over to God, and wish this man well. He has his own journey to undertake; I have mine, you have yours.

What would it look like, to abide in the love of Christ?

First, it looks like staying. Staying there, not to scurry around, not to look for some other source of solace, but to remain. That's what the word "abide" really means.

I wonder how many human relationships blow apart simply because one person or the other does not stay. Somebody flits emotionally from branch to branch. Or daydream about other fish in the sea. Or for those disenchanted with their circumstance, to proclaim with manufactured righteousness, "The grass is greener on the other side of the fence." People who say that overlook the fundamental truth that it's still grass. It's only grass. It’s not carpet, it's grass. Even for those with big aspirations, it's only more grass.

There is a tendency to overinflate our relationships, to expect too much from them, to demand that the person, or the job, or the church should meet all of our unchecked, unwarranted needs, and then to blow it up with dynamite when it doesn't fit our requirements. That’s not staying. That's something else.

Like the woman who was talking about her marriage, not talking, really, but complaining. It turns out Mr. Right wasn't so perfect after all. Why did she think he would be? “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe if I had a firefighter to rescue me out of a burning building. Or someone to ride along on the roller coast. Or at least somebody who didn’t bore me.” So we had a conversation about it. Was it possible for her to live with a mere human being? 

And if we cultivate such discontent with our human relationships, is it any wonder that we have discontent in our primary spiritual relationship? The sassy kid said to his youth group advisor, "I think I will try Buddhism. Jesus just isn't doing it for me." It was the last straw in a long conversation, so the youth worker sassed him right back, “Tony, why do you think it's all about you?"

Tony said, “What do you mean? Of course it’s about me.” And this very gracious youth worker said, “In that case, let me tell you about you. You never come to worship two weeks in a row,much less one week out of four. We never see you at a Bible study, you never show up when the rest of the gang is engaged in a service project, never volunteer to help anybody out. What do you think Christ is, your own personal faucet that you can tap for living water whenever you're in need or in the mood?"  Pretty direct, but it was the appropriate word.

Then she got to the heart of it all. Tony,” she said, “I’m going to tell you something out of love: Jesus is risen. He is present. Hcontinues to wait for you to stay with him.

The spiritual life, the Easter life, is one of staying with Christ. We won't see him, we can't know him, until we stay with him and abide in his love. So it’s more than merely remaining with Jesus, it’s sinking in. It’s putting down roots in his grace. And it’s praying through our dissatisfactions until we are consumed by his sufficiency.

To draw on John's language, abiding in Christ and his love is to sink into the two gifts of his incarnation: grace and truth"The law came through Moses," says the Gospel, "but grace and truth come through Jesus Christ."
The law is good. God speaks. The words are a gift. They are Torah to teach us how to walk, how to work, even how to rest. God’s Words are a gift. 

But when the Light comes into the darkness, we see who we really are. In the face of holy brilliance, we discover our own shadows. When we are smug about all our activity, we avoid the truth that comes when we must receive and not produce.  People like me are especially so full of words that we are afraid of what might bubble up in the silences. To face all of this is to sink into the truth, to face the truth that no matter how competent and put-together we want others to think we are, there are fractures and shadows. 

We are incomplete without the Love that can heal, hold, and re-commission us, the love that binds us to both friend and stranger. And in that truth, Christ reveals the grace. The heart of the Gospel is that the cleansing power of love will stay with us as we are, promising to scrub away the dirt between our toes and the grime within our hearts, a Love that renews us again and again so that we might love others.

This is the end of it all: to sink into the love of Christ so that we find ourselves by loving others. What Jesus reveals about God is that love is expansive, not restrictive. Love abounds and doesn’t reduce. The more deeply we love, the more we are able to love. If we could abide in such love, it would be enough. Enough for us, enough for others.

Abide – the Greek word is “meno.” Someone told me that is the root word for “mansion” or “manse.” It’s a place to dwell, a place to be at home.

It reminds me of a little pamphlet somebody gave me in college. Maybe some of you have seen it somewhere in your journey. It was called, “My Heart, Christ’s Home.” When I was nineteen, it was helpful tract, offering a guided tour of how Christ can come into all the rooms of the place where you dwell. 

These days, however, I have come to sense the title of the little pamphlet may be too small, too individualistic. So let’s flip it and see how big it is: “Christ’s Heart, My Home” – and your home, his heart is the true home for others. In fact, it can be the home, God willing, even for our enemies: Christ’s Heart. 

So the Spirit of God invites us today sink into that, to stay with that. And as we do, we discover all over again that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 3:16).

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Best Way to Overcome Ignorance

Acts 3:12-26
Easter 3
April 15, 2018
William G. Carter

 And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. 

A week after Holy Humor Sunday, the expectation lingers that there might be one more joke. So here’s one that I like:

A guy is sitting at home when he hears a knock at the door. He opens the door and sees a snail on the porch. He picks up the snail and throws it as far as he can. Three years later, there’s a knock on the door. He opens it and sees the same snail. The snail says, “What was that all about?”

That’s the point of Peter’s speech. In the days after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Peter addresses the question, “What was that all about?”

Peter and John are up on the steps of the Jerusalem temple. In the name of Jesus, they have just helped a man crippled from birth to stand up. Not only to stand, but the text says he started “leaping and praising God.” It’s an orthopedic miracle, performed free of charge. The man used to beg for handouts, and now he’s up and jumping around. Peter and John are instant celebrities. What’s that all about?

Peter says, “It’s about Jesus.” Don’t stare at Peter and John. Don’t scratch your head. Don’t ask them for an autograph. This is a sign that Jesus Christ is alive. Easter was not a single day; it is an ongoing reality. Every once in a while, the evidence bubbles up. A man who couldn’t walk for his entire life is now up and dancing. The Christ who spent a lot of his time among us healing other people is alive and still healing.

It’s an astonishing moment. The storyteller says the healing created a crowd. People rush in. They are curious. They are dazzled. How can this be?

Peter is never one to turn down an available microphone. He turns the question back on the crowd to say, yes, indeed, how can this be? Jesus was among us. He healed scores of people. His power changed a lot of lives. The were no longer weak, no longer ignored, no longer reduced to begging those going to pray in the Temple for a couple of bucks for bread. Jesus gave life to people. That’s what he did and everybody knows it.

“Yet you rejected him,” says Peter. “You rejected him and handed him over to be killed.” What was that all about?

It’s a good question. We don’t ask it very much once Easter is over. Why did they reject Jesus?

If the question comes up, it’s usually sometime between the hosannas on Palm Sunday and the triumph on Easter. One of the curious things about American Christianity is that we have shouts of joy on Palm Sunday, and then we have more shouts of joy on Easter. Some people never notice that, in between, somebody dies.

From time to time, I’ve done an informal survey during Holy Week. I wander up and down the aisles of the supermarket and wait until I see somebody I recognize.

  • Then I ask, “Are we going to see you on Maundy Thursday?” “Oh, I don’t think so,” somebody will say. “It’s too dark and it’s kind of depressing.”
  • Are you able to come to worship on Good Friday? “Well, no, we are going to hard-boil some eggs and color them. It’s a good day to take off.”
  • So I change my approach. We chat for a bit, then I say, “One of my favorite worship services of the year is on Maundy Thursday. Do you think you can come?” “We have to pack for Disney World.”
  • In quiet desperation, I try one more time: “Hey, we have a fresh approach to Good Friday. There’s a service at noon; it used to be three hours long, with six sermons (that was kind of grim), but we’ve shrunk it down to 58 minutes. It’s not so bad. I hope you can come.” He said, “Does anybody go to that anymore?”

Why do you suppose people in our own day celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus by ignoring the death?

Maybe it’s because of our cultural obsession with success. Nobody likes a downer. Just think positive thoughts. Put together a little dance troupe and sing, “Look on the bright side of life.” Jesus is victorious over death? Right? Isn’t that the point? He is stronger, mightier, more powerful. I believe I’ve said some of those things myself.

If that’s the message that gets you through the bumps in life, I understand that. There is some hard-earned wisdom that comes from an upward-orientation. So much so, that I hate to bring up two small warnings. First, just because you expect everything to turn out well doesn’t mean that it will; we still have to deal with the truth that we are unfinished human beings, with flaws, failures, and feelings of inadequacy.

That reminds me of a psychological study somebody did about ten years ago. A team of researchers visited a number of those mega-churches that emphasize positive thinking and uplifting music. Know what they discovered? The rate of clinical depression is far greater in places like that. That might be why the people go there, to feel better… and it’s not working.

But there is a second warning for those who wish to avoid the dark side and emphasize the positive. Here it is: the Risen Christ has scars. He comes back and says to those who love him: see the nail prints? Easter does not patch him up. Christ is alive, thoroughly alive, and he is scarred. His scars are a reminder of what kind of world this is, even though he is alive.

So that’s what Peter’s speech is trying to address. He will not let the crowds sweep him away after a miracle; Jesus did plenty of miracles and somebody nailed him to a tree. “This Jesus was the Holy One, the Righteous One,” he says. “He was the Author of life, the one whose very name made this man strong and gave him perfect health. And you killed him. God raised him from the dead – but God did that because you killed him.”

And dare I ask, one more time: “What was that all about?” What was that cross – and that resurrection - all about? Peter answers with a single word: “Ignorance.” “You and your leaders killed him out of ignorance.”

Now, that’s a harsh description, don’t you think? We are Presbyterians, most of us. We believe in the power of education. Wherever Presbyterians have gone, we have started schools and colleges. We expect our preachers to have a lot of schooling, and if there are lapses (and you know that there are), we expect the preachers to study and keep learning. We want to eradicate ignorance!

And yet, a handful of years ago, our denominational offices had a financial crisis. They had to make some cuts. So do you know the first thing they cut? The fundraising department – the stewardship department.

Do you get a sense, maybe, of what kind of ignorance Peter is talking about? It’s not a lack of knowledge; it’s a lack of something else.

When I was in seminary, I spent my summer vacations working for a highway road crew. It was probably the last honest work I ever did. Here’s the way it worked: I was working on a master's degree, so I was at the bottom of the employment ladder. That meant filling in the potholes and scooping up the woodchucks. And when word leaked out I was going to Princeton, they gave me a nickname: The Professor. It was not a compliment.

It was a good corrective to the rarified air of my Ivy League seminary. My co-workers were good people, hard-working people. Some of them had a high school diploma. Some didn't even have that. But they were full of hard-earned wisdom. And they also knew that you could have a lot of schooling and still be a fool.

One day, a guy in a suit and tie ran through a traffic stop on a work site. In his haste, he almost hit one of the workers. One of the other men on the crew stepped out into the lane, blocked his passage, and waved a shovel wildly at the transgressor’s windshield. The man in the suit rolled down the window. The crew boss yelled, “Hey, Mr. Einstein, didn’t you see the signs or the guy with a flag?”

The man in the suit said, “I’m late. Get out of my way.” He rolled up the window and sped away. I will spare you some of the language he never got to hear. Suffice it to say, the men on the road crew didn’t think of him very highly. They thought that very self-important man was a fool.

Can we see Peter’s point? The government officials of Rome were the most privileged people of the empire. The religious leaders of Jerusalem were the best educated people in their city. To accuse them of ignorance is not a critique of their education or intelligence. It is a description of the darkness in their hearts.

It is easy to identify when smart and powerful people are afraid. They lie, they misdirect, they create alternative controversies. They will stop at nothing to eliminate those who speak the truth. At the root of it all is the presumption that they can save their own skin by deception and cunning.

“God told us it was going to be like this,” said Peter to the crowd. “God sent the prophets, one after another, to speak the truth to power, and power did everything it could to silence the truth.” This is the age-old script, recurring in every age. And the diagnosis, according to Peter, is “ignorance.”

We have heard this diagnosis before. On the cross, Jesus looks upon a fearful, angry world and prays for this world’s redemption. Remember the prayer? “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) They “know not,” agnostos – it’s the same word. “Father, forgive them, they are ignorant.”

The diagnosis will be given again. Another apostle, Paul of Tarsus, will make his way to Athens, home of the great thinkers and philosophers. He is no intellectual slouch, so he goes into the market place of ideas to talk about Jesus. On the way, he passes by one statue after another, each one dedicated to a different Greek god or goddess. Apollo, Athena, Aphrodite, Dionysus, Hermes, Poseidon, and Zeus are all there, plus one more – a statue to the “unknown god.” Just in case there was one that they were missing!

Paul says, “Let me tell you about that unknown god. That is the ‘agnostos’ god, the God you do not know, even though he is the source and destination of your life. That’s the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Smart people of Athens, this God has overlooked the seasons of human ignorance, but now commands all people everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:30)

“This is a strange kind of ignorance,” Fred Craddock says. "Repent of your ignorance. Of all the things to do with ignorance - repent of it! It must lie somewhere deeper, like some unwillingness to open the eyes and heart to God, to always be knowing and therefore not knowing. Always be on my own and therefore not God's own. To work hard as a student, get a 4-point average, and miss the point. That's what Luke is talking about.”[1]

Indeed it is a strange kind of ignorance. I think of that moment right after God calls the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah listens, objects, pushes back, and then breaks into song, “Here I am, Lord! Is it I, Lord? I have heard your voice calling me in the night.” He’s excited, thrilled really; it is on the threshold of becoming a Broadway musical.

But then God gives him the commission: “Go to my people and say, “You keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.” And God gets sarcastic: “Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10)

There is a kind of ignorance that has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence. It’s the kind of ignorance that declares, “I’m always right, it’s all about me, and I don’t need anybody but myself.” How tragic are the consequences of the kind of stupidity that lodges in the heart!

There is a way out. That’s the good news which Peter announces. And if you promise not to cheapen it, I’ll tell you what it is: humility. The best way we renounce it, the only way to renounce it, is to trust there is a God wiser than we are, a God who sees clearly even when we distort, a God who is committed to healing what we have broken, a God who ultimately will make all things right. Repentance is returning to that God, the real God, the God who would not let our great mistake of crucifying his Son cancel the great love he has for us and the world.

And that’s why we are here, and why we return to worship every week. It’s our way to turn from our sins and turn back to God. This is more than an empty ritual; it is the means by which we are cleansed and renewed. If the world could be saved by our own strength and wisdom, it would be have been saved by now. Even our best efforts, no matter how good they are, are flawed and temporary. Sometimes we do all the right things, but not for all the right reasons.  

But we can return. We can begin again. We can always begin again. And our humility is God’s opportunity.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Fred B. Craddock, sermon “The Universal Dilemma.”