Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Who is the Holy Spirit? Thoughts Towards Pentecost

The Blog is Back
It is over a year since I last wrote a sermon blog. So much of good intentions! The purpose of this blog is to share some of my research and thoughts towards the sermon on the Sunday following the blog. So, today I share research and thoughts towards the sermon this next Sunday, which looks at who or what the Holy Spirit is through the lens of the Pentecost story in the book of Acts, in the New Testament of the Bible. Here is the scripture reading itself:
Acts 2:1-21
1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
Peter Addresses the Crowd
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
Pentecost, which refers to the fiftieth day following Passover, is also called Shavuot in Hebrew. It was an agricultural festival celebrated in Jerusalem, and at some point in time (the discussions among Jewish scholars vary as to when this occurred) it also celebrated the giving of the Law (the Torah) to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It was as pilgrimage festival, which meant that Jews who were able to travel to Jerusalem would come from around the Mediterranean to make offerings in the temple.

This is the occasion upon which the Holy Spirit chooses to descend upon the nascent Christian community. Many followers of Jesus had been drawn to Jerusalem to be with the core group of disciples who had been told to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). As they were there worshipping and praying, suddenly the language of their praise expanded beyond the Aramaic, Hebrew or perhaps Greek of their normal conversation and worship. Many other languages began to be spoken, each of which corresponded to the languages spoken by the Pilgrims coming to Jerusalem. Apparently, this was a new phenomenon. Perhaps it was a contrast to the official prayers being offered in Hebrew within the temple precincts?

Thoughts and Reflections

The experience at Pentecost with the different tongues speaking is not the same as what is frequently presented as “speaking in tongues.” These are the differences:
  1. In Acts, the languages are real, living languages, not some special “prayer language.” Visitors coming to Jerusalem heard God being praised in their own native languages.
  2. Glossolalia, or "speaking in tongues," as is practiced in many Pentecostal or Charismatic churches, is an ecstatic utterance, perhaps induced by the presence of the Holy Spirit, or perhaps as a result of an individual’s internal experience. It is not the same as what is depicted in this story from Acts.
  3. The Holy Spirit spoke through the gathered believers in all the various language in order to present a testimony about Jesus Christ and to begin the process of spreading the teachings of Jesus out into the world. The Book of Acts is the beginning of this history of the spread of the Good News of Jesus Christ. 
  4. In the Gospels, the Holy Spirit is presented as being a guide who will lead the followers of Jesus into all truth, who will speak through his followers in order to give witness to Jesus and to convey his teachings, and to be also an experiential presence of Jesus and God within the lives of his followers. There is nothing said here about the Holy Spirit being a special dispensation to a select or privileged few. It is available to all followers of Jesus, because it is the means by which all followers of Jesus grow into the “full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
  5. Guidance by the Holy Spirit is not the same as the personal conclusions we reach about an issue or situation. We often wrongly attribute our own personal opinions or even prejudices to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual discernment is a long, careful process that often involves deep challenges to our preconceptions and personal ideas.
  6. At the same time, the HS can and does work within us to create the conditions whereby we may discern something spiritual.
  7. The HS dos not contradict or change the teachings of Jesus (not the same as teachings about Jesus). Example, if a person preaches or proclaims that God hates or despises another person or group but Jesus either said nothing about that person or group, or in fact said and did things that indicate he would have welcomed them and accept them, then one cannot claim to be speaking according to the Holy Spirit. 
The presence and active engagement of the Holy Spirit is vital to our growth as followers of Jesus. Now is the time for us to be doing the stuff Jesus was doing – greater things than even what he did (John 14:12-14). We do these things because the presence of the Holy Spirit empowers our actions, transforms our minds, reshapes our lives and priorities and dissolves the barriers we erect against one another. It helps us transcend our own human limitations and roadblocks. 

Any authority on earth must derive its authority from Jesus, and must support and carry out the work he established. And what was that work? Jesus described it this way himself: 
… the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. (Matthew 11:5-6)
These are the things the followers of Jesus are to do. In the 10th chapter of Matthew, Jesus sends his disciples out into the countryside telling them “proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (Matthew 10:7-8). This is the program for all who bear his name. In fact, in the Upper room in Jerusalem, celebrating his last meal with his followers, Jesus says: 
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (John 14:12-14)
Any group of people, any organization, any political entity, any government, whatever, that claims to be under the authority of Jesus Christ has to be about the business of doing these things, or seeing that they are done. These are the words of Jesus. This is Jesus’ commission to all who would follow him.

But how do we accomplish all this? Jesus is very clear: not on our own. “I will do whatever you ask in my name.” The very next verse makes clear how this is to happen:
John 14:15-23 - The Promise of the Holy Spirit
15 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
18 ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ 22Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’ 23Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

From Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, XII-XXI:
“Belief in Jesus will bring to the Christian power from God to perform the same works that Jesus performs, because, by uniting a man with Jesus and the Father, belief gives him a share in the power that they possess.” (p. 633)

“But Johannine theology has introduced into prayer in Jesus’ name an emphasis that goes beyond the use of a formula. A Christian prays in Jesus’ name in the sense that he is in union with Jesus. Thus, the theme of asking “in my name” in xiv 13-14 continues and develops the indwelling motif of 10-11: because the Christian is in union with Jesus and Jesus is in union with the Father, there can be no doubt that the Christian’s requests will be granted. This context of union with Jesus also suggests that the requests of the Christian are no longer thought of as requests concerning the petty things of life – they are requests of such a nature that when they are granted the Father is glorified in the Son (13). They are requests pertinent to the Christian life and to the continuation of the work by which Jesus glorified the Father during his ministry (xvii 4).” (p. 636)

“In my name,” therefore, implies a situatedness, a dwelling and abiding in Jesus, and having Jesus abide within us. The promised Paraclete, Holy Spirit is what affects this. The Holy Spirit is God’s Presence abiding within us. The purpose of this divine indwelling is to continue the works that Jesus started on earth: proclaiming the Good News, curing the sick, casting out demons, caring for the poor, healing those who are lame, blind, afflicted with diseases, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry. 

Concluding Comments:
The Holy Spirit is given in order to empower the followers of Jesus to continue the work Jesus began, and to carry that mission out to the whole world. The Holy Spirit works within persons and within communities as a Presence of Abiding - in which people share in the dynamic life of love shared between the three persons of the Trinity: "I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you."

The presence of the Holy Spirit is vital to our work of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This should be obvious, because the Holy Spirit comes just for that very purpose. It's time for us to get on board with the Holy Spirit, then.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Forming Disciples: Connecting With God

John 16:12-15:
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you."
This week I begin a sermon series based upon our congregation's model for the Formation of Disciples of Jesus Christ. Our overall purpose as a congregation is to build a caring community of Christians where we accept, renew and change lives by sharing God’s love in ways that make a difference in our world. The formation of disciples of Jesus Christ is how we do that. There are four aspects to our mission and ministry that accomplish this: Connecting with God, Connecting with Others, Connecting in Ministry, and Connecting with the World. The diagram to the right illustrates how these flow together.

The mission of the Church, according to the 2008 Discipline, is "to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  I have always thought it better and more Biblically and Spiritually correct to say “to form disciples…” in acknowledgement of the long tradition in the Christian community of spiritual formation. On this Sunday following Pentecost, when we reflect upon the work of the Trinity, it is important to note that Jesus bestows the gift of the Holy Spirit to continue the work he began in the flesh. Luke’s Gospel is constructed around the theme of how the Holy Spirit works to inaugurate the life and ministry of Jesus, and how it empowers and infuses everything Jesus does. 

When we stumble into using the language of “making” we wander into the morass of applying our human standards of achievement and progress such as defining “metrics” based upon business models of financial and administrative success , circumscribing our work in order to maximize gains and avoid losses of numbers or influence, and viewing our ministry as a product or artifact that is somehow finished or a goal that has been reached.

Jesus’ words, commandments and teachings reveal these notions to be misunderstandings at best and perversions at worst of his intentions for our continuation of his life work.  For instance, when promising the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. This indicates a dynamic and ongoing process about how we live and the persons and communities we become. In summing up the most important commandments, Jesus cites the Shema and a comment in the Levitical law that frames the laws in terms of a basic inclination in life towards loving people rather than dominating or conquering them. A command to establish institutions that run according to business models is significantly absent from his mandate. If he had wanted to adopt a business or mercantile model, there were plenty available to draw from. 

There is a model of the Trinity that draws upon insights from the the Cappadocian tradition in Greek Orthodox Christianity that helps us understand the dynamic, processual activity of Trinitarian Divinity. The term in Greek is called perichoresis, a term that literally means "dancing around. The perichoresis of the Trinity describes the activity of the Divine within the Godhead that is never static but ever-evolving, unfolding and creative. This eternal, universal dance is what empowers the work of disciple formation. 

Our work here in the church is to participate with God in the continual unfolding and development of the universe. We are a vital and significant part of this process and of the destiny of the universe, particularly in this very small part of it. Human consciousness, creativity and freedom are not accidents and aberrations from a well-ordered universe – they are part and parcel of its ebb and flow. Thus we must take our task very seriously and work carefully to align ourselves with the movement and course of this great purpose and intention of our existence. That is the essence and foundation of any disciple-making or formation.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Build Wisely: Part 1

John 12:12-19
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

12 The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
    the King of Israel!”14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:15 “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
    sitting on a donkey’s colt!”16 His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. 17 So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify.[a] 18 It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. 19 The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”

Matthew 7:13-27
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

13 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy[a] that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits.21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”

This coming Sunday two events come into a fortuitous collision: Palm Sunday and the final sermon in a sermon series based upon a careful look at the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-7 of Matthew. The scriptures above serve as two points of focus for the sermon, and speak to each other as well as to us in enlightening and profound ways. The comments below are some of my initial reflections on this dialogue between the scriptures and my own thoughts. Throughout this whole sermon series, beginning way back in January, I have been challenged by what Jesus says, poked and prodded in many ways, and usually humbled by how far from the path I have strayed over the years. Jesus' words are even more pointed this week. But even in the midst of this probing through the scrap-heap that is my spiritual life, a word of hope arises for me. See what speaks to you:

1. The main overarching theme is be careful who you follow, and upon whose words you build your life. 
2. This meshes very neatly with the story of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The crowds all went after him, but by the end of the week they called for his crucifixion. The way is indeed narrow, and few travel it. Jesus always says that his way is not ease and comfort. It is not about success, in spite of the perversions of the Gospel that circulate around the U.S. Jesus warns against false prophets who proclaim his name, but profane his words through their actions, and their perversions of his message. 
3. We dodge our responsibility and work as followers and disciples if we think all there is to being a Christian is to soak ourselves in the blood of his sacrifice and think that that is enough, that nothing more is required of us. As if all Jesus came to do was to hang upon a cross so that everybody could get into heaven. This is perhaps the most self-centered perversion of the Gospel there is, but it does sum up a lot of the personal piety of many “devout” Christians. Rev. Frederick Ward Kates put it this way: "The purpose of religion -- at any rate, the Christian religion -- is not to get you into heaven, but to get heaven into you." Jesus is not a ticket into the afterlife. He is the blazer of the path into the abundant life here. 
4. This way is hard, and not easy to follow. It by definition and necessity changes us. It shakes up our prejudices and preconceptions of what life, God, Jesus and Christianity are all about. The crowd proclaimed Jesus as he entered into Jerusalem, and the religious and political leaders in Jerusalem all worried that the whole world had gone out after him. They needn’t have worried. As Jesus fully understood and predicted, by the end of the week, after they listened to his words and discovered that he was not going to raise up a violent revolution against Rome, they all fell away. Even his closest followers fled, betrayed or denied him. 
5. So who are we going to follow? Upon whose words will we build our lives?
6. I suspect that none of us are capable of doing any of this fully. All of us are shaped and seduced by the myths, stories and fantasies of our society: that we can be rich beyond our wildest dreams, that being number one is the highest achievement in life, that we are free to do whatever we want in the world, that everyone else in the world should cater to our wants and desires, that we have endless rights to do or possess this or that with no attendant responsibilities, that the fewer rules, if any, the better, that the earth exists strictly for our own usage and we are free to extract everything we can from it simply because we are human beings, and so on. The teachings of Jesus, as we have begun to discover, cut against this grain. And so we each struggle to fit ourselves in this picture of the crowd who followed after Jesus. I suspect that, like the crowd, most of us drop away from him at some point. 
7. This is why Holy Week begins with this story of a palm-waving, exhuberant crowd cheering Jesus on, and ends with them jeering him off to the cross. All our solutions, all our misconceptions of Jesus and his way, everything we do to get off the hook religiously, morally, economically, and politically need to be crucified, destroyed, and laid to rest. We need to be as empty as a tomb before we can receive the new life Jesus talks about, and then step by faltering and stumbling step we can start fo follow in reality, having learned about the cost to us and what will need to change in our lives. We will huddle afraid and dismayed. Troubling and wild reports will come to us. Just like those first disciples, we will need to consider how we have fled from Jesus, how we have denied him, how we have misunderstood him. But we will also need to consider how we have begun to risk, how we have stood at the foot of the cross, how we have received his broken body into our care, and how we long to understand him even as we anoint his body and seal it behind a stone-enclosed tomb. We are all in this Holy Week story some place because this story is not only about what happened in Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago, but also about our own modern struggle to follow Jesus.

Image sources:;;;;;   

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

“Okay, Jesus, What Now?” Answered

In the movie Secondhand Lions, the character Hub, played by Robert Duvall, gives his speech about “what every boy needs to know about being a man” to young Walter, played by Haley Joel Osment. He says,
"Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good. That honor, courage and virtue mean everything; that power and money ... money and power mean nothing. That good always triumphs over evil. And I want you to remember this.... that love....true love never dies! Remember that boy ... remember that. Doesn't matter if it is true or not, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in...... got that?"
Religion and Spirituality are all about how we live according to the things that are most important to us. These things are spiritual in that they form us at the deepest places in our lives, and they provide for us a way of life steeped in meaning and significance. Spirituality and Religion are about “the things worth believing in,” and then seeing how those beliefs play out in our lives.
Spirituality, then, has to do with how we live our lives in relation to that which is both beyond us and within us, which empowers life, and which teaches us about that life and how to live it.
When Jesus refers to himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6), he is speaking directly about how he embodied this deeper purpose-filled and significance-drenched aspect of life. Simply put, a Christian spirituality means to enter into the heart of Jesus, to explore his Way, his Life and his Truth, and to live it out in daily life. It is more than thinking correctly about doctrine or agreeing with religious ideas or statements. It is all about how we live our lives in the world, how we treat the members of our families, our co-workers, with what sort of integrity we go about living out our values and beliefs. Putting it another way, the integrity of our lives is reflected in how congruent our everyday actions are with what we believe.
The spirituality of Jesus is concerned with aligning one’s heart with God’s heart, and with living the life that arises out of that alignment. Jesus taught that if one had seen him, they had also seen the Father. So in order to understand the heart of God one must study and follow closely how Jesus lived his life, and to look to its congruity and integrity.
Our journey these past several weeks through the Sermon on the Mount has been very revealing to me just how coherent and interconnected Jesus’ teachings are in terms of revealing what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and a resident of the Realm of Heaven. When Jesus began his ministry, he said to repent, for the Kingdom (or Realm) of heaven was at hand (or within). The word he used was a Greek phrase, metanoiete, that best translates as “move into the greater mind,” which describes the Presence or Image of God within us.
We have considered in these sermons our journey into what Jesus called “life in abundance.” It is a journey to realm of a higher consciousness, a more expanded understanding of the universe and of what it means to be human. Because, as Irenaeus understood, the glory of God is a fully alive human being, it is also a journey of becoming fully human, filled with the Divine Life within us. It is a way of connecting into the mind of God that Jesus came to reveal and into which he leads us.
In order to make room for the realm of heaven in our lives, we need to empty our hearts of everything that is not heaven. That is the key to true happiness. True inner work of the realm of heaven involves a careful self-assessment that looks at our own strengths and shortcomings, which then helps us to focus on what we need to do within ourselves. When we open our hearts, minds and souls to the Presence of God, we are entertaining a Royal Guest.  The more we enter into that Realm of Heaven, the more we entertain that Royal Guest, the more radiant we become, and the greater is the light of God shone out into the world.
The key to understanding Jesus’ teachings is this: we are to look inside ourselves first, and deal with what is in our own hearts, minds and souls before we even attempt to cast a judgment or provide commentary upon another person. Jesus puts the responsibility right squarely upon our own shoulders, the work is ours to do, not thrust it upon someone else.
It is important always to keep in mind as we do this work within ourselves, not to beat ourselves up with these scriptures, and don’t let someone else beat you up, and by all means don’t beat anybody else up. God wants you to love yourself as much as you love others, and you need to love yourself as much as God loves you. We all have enough stuff within our own lives to work on, behavior to get better at, injuries to heal from, things to stop saying or doing. There is enough to keep us busy for a lifetime  - or two.
Throughout the Gospels, we find Jesus engaging in a wide variety of spiritual practices such as prayer, fasting, engaging in acts of forgiveness and healing, doing acts of mercy and justice, spending time in nature, engaging in religious rituals and worship. These practices set up the physical conditions whereby the Holy Spirit can do its work within us. One of the things that Jesus addressed in this process was how to transform the violence we receive from our society in creative ways that do not perpetuate that violence. His way was a way of nonviolence that nonetheless stood up to oppressive systems without becoming oppressive itself.
Since Jesus’ spirituality is a means to align our hearts with God’s heart, prayer becomes a means to keep us in alignment, and the Lord’s Prayer is a guide to that alignment. We begin by aligning our wills with the will of God. We simplify our wants according to what is truly needful. We loosen the bonds of indebtedness and seek forgiveness where we have offended or transgressed against others. Then we resolve to live a life that works for the good of everyone in every situation.
None of this is easy. Jesus never said it would be. But this is the pathway to the abundant life that is the glory of God and fullness of humanity. May God bless us all as we seek to live the Way of Jesus, the Realm of Heaven within us.

Image sources:;   other images from my personal files.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Our Own Houses

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.  (Matthew 5:21-26)

This week we continue with some thoughts towards the Sermon Series, “Okay, Jesus, Now What?” Throughout this Sermon Series we are looking closely at what Jesus said in the collection of teachings in chapters 5-7 of the Gospel of Matthew known as “The Sermon on the Mount.”

Last week, we looked at what he said about fulfilling the commandments of God by entering into them deeply and expansively, opening our souls to the light of God within, and then letting that light radiate from us through how we treat others. The key to understanding Jesus’ teachings is this: we are to look inside ourselves first, and deal with what is in our own hearts, minds and souls before we even attempt to cast a judgment or provide commentary upon another person. Today’s readings expand upon this idea.

This is a saying that is directed towards the behavior of his followers in their faith communities. He has just said, “You are the light of the world,” and “You are the salt of the earth.” But how can we be light for the world if we continue to act like children of the darkness? For example, this is what other New Testament writers  say about this:
Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness. (1 John 2:9-11) Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. (James 1: 25-26)

 If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.  How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species,  but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.  Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?  Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.   Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.  But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.  Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.  For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.  But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.  And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. (James, chapter 3) Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. For:
“Those who desire life
and desire to see good days,
let them keep their tongues from evil
and their lips from speaking deceit;
let them turn away from evil and do good;
   let them seek peace and pursue it.” (1 Peter 3:9-11)
The method of Jesus for dealing with these things is for us to take the initiative and examine our own situation. If we have spoken unkindly or harshly, it doesn’t matter what happened, we must be responsible for our own comments. And there is the reverse of this situation, if we are aware that we have offended someone, it is upon us to seek to set things right. Sometimes, though, we may not be aware we have caused offense. Then it is important for the person who is offended to approach the person who committed the offense. The point is, if we have committed an offense and it comes to our attention, we need to seek some way to reconcile our division. I’m not talking about differences here, I’m talking about those situations when something has come between us that creates hurt feelings, or anger at how a decision was reached unjustly or against agreed-upon procedures.

But there is a caveat here – the offense must be real, and not imagined, and not a product of our own pride or exaggerated sense of our self. There are those who go around with a chip on their shoulder, and who seek out conflict, even generate it. Often these same people twist situations out of context or even spin falsehoods in their thinking in order to justify their supposed injury. These are people who seek to sow seeds of discord. Sometimes people do this not even being aware that they are doing so. Paul talks about them when he says:
All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;
    there is no one who shows kindness,
there is not even one.”“Their throats are opened graves;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of vipers is under their lips.”  “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” (Romans 3:12-14)
The point is for us to put our own house in order and to keep our own tongues in check – bridled, as James says. Divisions occur when people think their own version of the story is the most important one, or the only correct one. That refers to everything from our version of a conversation to decisions a church council might make. Isaiah the prophet says, “Come let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18) and that is precisely what we are called to do – talk together reasonably, truthfully and humbly.

Once we have carefully considered an issue, discussed options and a variety of thoughts concerning it and then made a decision as a group, either by voting or reaching consensus, then that is where the matter rests, unless new things come up, or new information and something happens that must be dealt with. It does not serve the church to have questions second-guessed or criticized by means of this person complaining to this person, or aspersions being cast upon the motives of people making decisions, or even false statements being circulated that are not based in facts. The church, more than any other place, must be the place where truth is upheld as the prime, cardinal, foundational principle of everything we do.

Along with thinking, speaking and acting truthfully, we must act with love and consideration towards one another, and with compassion. Before we say anything, we should call upon the Holy Spirit to serve as our editor that says to us, “If I were this person, how would I feel if this were said about me?” Also, when I talk about seeking to resolve anger between persons, I’m not referring to when people get their nose out of joint because they don’t get their way. There are those people who resort to bully tactics such as getting angry, yelling, storming out of meetings or other dramatic displays when things don’t go according to their dictates and desires. These are people who sow seeds of discord, and they are walking in the darkness of which John wrote in his first letter.

So, the basic instruction from Jesus is this: put your own house in order before trying to redecorate your neighbor’s.

 Image sources:;;;      

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The TARDIS of Heaven

Today I want to pause for a moment and look a little closer at a description of the Realm of Heaven about which I have been recently writing and preaching. I use the term “Realm of Heaven” as a translation of the Koiné Greek expression, basileian tōn ouranōn (βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν), which is often translated as “kingdom of heaven.” There are those who object to the use of hierarchical and monarchistic descriptions of God and heaven, redolent as they are with references to human despots, dictators and tyrants. This attitude is in keeping with the teachings of Jesus when he told his disciples:
“Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20: 25-28). 
The term “Realm of Heaven” is meant to indicate the basic idea that a realm is that region or state of being that is influenced or controlled or guided by something or someone, in this case, God, or heaven.

So Jesus is talking about living under the influence of heaven, which is that realm in which God resides. Another way to describe it is the state of being that shares in the bigger mind of God. On Monday, I discussed how Jesus said that our righteousness is to exceed that of those who merely observe the externalities of religious faith. This distinction between the externalities of faith and the inner life of faith is crucial to understand what Jesus was all about. 

In order to understand this, I can’t help but think of the Tardis in the BBC television series, Doctor Who. My daughters and I are big Doctor Who fans, so for those who are not familiar with the series, I will summarize the basic conceit behind the show. The Doctor is the (supposedly) last surviving Time Lord who hails from a distant planet called Gallifrey, which was home to a race of human-like beings whose advanced technology had developed ways to travel through time and space.

The means by which they traveled was through the use of a Tardis, which is an acronym for Time and Relative Dimension in Space. The Tardis of the BBC series is depicted as looking like an ordinary blue Police Box that was common in England at the time the series began in 1963. The interesting thing about the target that is germane to this discussion is that it was bigger on the inside than on the outside. In addition, the Tardis itself possessed sentience, and required the presence of a Time Lord to operate it, due to a special link of consciousness between the two.

As I have thought about the promises and perils of religious faith, I have come to think of the idea of the Tardis as a helpful way to understand how faith works. Externally viewed, faith can become a small, constrictive container. Just as the Tardis looks like a cramped box barely big enough for one person, faith can become a closed-in set of rules and restrictions that serve more like a straitjacket than the means to an abundantly rich life. But when internally experienced, it is expansive and multi-dimensional, just like the Tardis, which actually contains many rooms and passageways.

The Realm of Heaven is this internal expansiveness of awareness and consciousness. Just like the external appearance of the Tardis can do nothing, mere external observance of religious behavior cannot lead to the realm of heaven. It must be entered into and participated in from the inside. It is what is on the inside of faith that moves us through the various dimensions of the universe, and our lives.

But finally, just like the Tardis, faith is still empty unless one has a direct encounter and relationship with the Lord (not just a Time Lord, but the Eternal Lord). This is ultimately what it is all about: faith, like the Tardis, is simply a conveyance into a deeper reality and relationship with the Source of All Reality, whatever you choose to call it.

Image sources: Alex Grey image of prayer from;;;;