To Know God: Thoughts on the purpose of the “CHURCH” and our church.

To Know God

Last week was kick-off Sunday.

The Sunday when we start our new program year.

We had a picnic on the day before, a new sermon series, Children’s Church, communion and coffee hour after.

It was a very good day.

But it was also the weekend where we commemorated the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attack.

I have vivid memories of that terrible day.

One of the things I found interesting was that there was a good bit of remembrance type TV and radio programing on what 9/11 was about and how horrible it was.

What concerned me most was the realization that so many people either remembered very little – or nothing at all – of 9/11.

My son was 15.

He knew it was horrible but had a limited understanding of the attack happened that day and few of the details.

My daughter was 9 years old when the attack took place.

She remembers almost nothing about it.

What she knows, she learned in history class and maybe a college course she took on terrorism.

Kids born only a few years after my daughter have no memory of it whatsoever.

They only know what we teach them.

9/11 was a terrible day in American and world history.

It’s something we need to remember.

And more importantly, something we need to teach our kids about.

That’s one reason why there are memorials built.

There is one near us.

The Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, PA.

There we honor the 43 passengers who sacrificed their lives to prevent a group of terrorists from crashing the plane into … well … they did not know what the plane was going to be crashed into.

It was likely the US Capital.

The purpose of that memorial is to remind us of that day and specifically what those people did.

But it is also a place where we can take our children.

They might ask, “What is this all about? What happened to these people?”

And then we can tell them the story.

So that they can do the same for their own kids.

Who can then do the same for their own kids …

And so, the story will never be forgotten.

And so, they might have the courage to do the same, if such a thing happens again.

That’s what our scripture readings are about today.

Matthew 28: 16-20

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Joshua 4: 1-8

4When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua: 2‘Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, 3and command them, “Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.” ’ 4Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. 5Joshua said to them, ‘Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, 6so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, “What do those stones mean to you?”7then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial for ever.’

8 The Israelites did as Joshua commanded. They took up twelve stones out of the middle of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, as the Lord told Joshua, carried them over with them to the place where they camped, and laid them down there.

Last week we started our series about the Church on Purpose.

We talked about why we – JMPC and the church generally – are here.

What is our purpose here at JMPC?

What is the purpose of the “CHURCH” generally?

We learned that the purpose of both is to make disciples.

Integral to that purpose is to teach these disciples about Jesus and to obey everything Jesus commanded.

To do that we need to introduce folks to Jesus.

Then, when they ask, “What’s this Jesus all about?”, we can tell them the story.

Teach them about his way of life and the requirements for discipleship.

Then they get to know Jesus and so get to know God.

It’s part of our vision statement here at JMPC.

We provide a way for us, and the community surrounding us, to know God.

So that is one of the reasons why we are here.

It’s our purpose.

To teach about God.

So folks can know God.

This has been the purpose of the church since Pentecost.

It has been our purpose since 1965.

And there has been what we call a great cloud of witnesses over the centuries since Pentecost who have passed this knowledge from generation to generation all the way down to us.

And a smaller but no less great cloud of witnesses here at JMPC who have passed this knowledge from generation to generation all the way down to us.

Generation after generation has passed the baton of discipleship and teaching.

So far, the baton has not been dropped.

But the handoff has always faced challenges.

And just like we would not like to answer questions about Flight 93 with, “Well, we don’t know!”, we don’t what to answer questions about Jesus with, “ We, we don’t know!”

Like the baton in the race, we are always one fumble away from the end of the race.

I think each generation has faced challenges similar to those we face in 2021.

How do we pass the baton?

How do we fulfill our part of the continuing purpose?

How do we make disciples and teach them about Jesus?

How this handoff has been done has changed over time.

But it has always kind of looked like our scripture reading from Joshua.

It’s kind of an object lesson.

Here is a bit of context.

Moses has died after leading the Israelites out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and then for 80 years in the wilderness on the way to the promised land.

Joshua now leads the Israelites as they approach that promised place.

To get in, Israel has to cross over the Jordan River.

This is a very big deal.

It was the end of a long and difficult journey.

It was the achievement of God’s purpose for God’s chosen people.

Joshua is told by God to select a person from each of the twelve tribes to get a stone from the middle of the Jordan and pile them up on the other side where the people can see them.

Why does God want this pile of stones?

It’s a memorial.

Like the memorial for Flight 93, the stones are meant to be a teaching opportunity for those who see them.

These stones are an invitation for anyone seeing them to ask, “What do these stones mean?”

Then they can be told the story.

The Exodus, the wilderness, arrival.

And most importantly, that God chose them and was with them the entire way.

So, God tells Joshua to pile up some stones.

“Whenever you look at the stones, you will remember.”

“Your kids will look at the stones and do what kids do.”

“They will see those stones and ask why they are there.”

“You will tell them the story.”

That is how the community memory will get passed down.

That is the purpose of the stones.

That is how the purpose is achieved.

This was nothing new.

The people of Israel have many such things that remind them of what God has done for them and that God is with them.

The Hebrew Scriptures are full of them.

Everything from altars to phylacteries, to prayer shawl tassels, to religious festivals and even the sacrificial system.

They give names to things and places that describe an event they want to remember.

And their kids ask about it.

They tell the stories to the kids, and each other.

In this way, the communal memory of the covenant between God and his people is passed on and not forgotten.

As disciples of Jesus, we also have memorials that remind us of important stories.

Our most important are the sacraments.

Like today’s baptism.

What are the words of institution of this sacrament?

In baptism God claims us, and seals us to show that we belong to God. God frees us from sin and death, uniting us with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection.

By water and the Holy Spirit, we are made members of the church, the body of Christ, and joined to Christ’s ministry of love, peace, and justice.

Baptism is a visual image, a sign, that God marks us as his own.

That God loves us.

That God loves us even though we don’t know it.

It’s something we know about God.

It’s why we come to this room.

And we do this in public so folks, like the children who come in to watch, can ask, “What does that mean?”

And so, we can tell them.

What we are here to do.

To teach.

An object lesson.

To pass the baton.

Our purpose.

Then there is Communion.

What are the words of institution for the Lord’s Supper?

The Lord Jesus, on the night of his arrest, took bread, and after giving thanks to God, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take, eat. This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. In the same way he took the cup, saying: This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me. Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the saving death of the risen Lord, until he comes.

The Lord’s Supper is a visual image, a sign, that Jesus died for the forgiveness of our inability to live the way God wants us to live.

It gives each of us reminder of our reconciliation with God.

That God forgives us.

That God forgives us even though we don’t know it.

It’s something we know about God.

It’s why we come to this room.

And we do this in public so folks, like the children who come in to watch, can ask, “What does that mean?”

And so, we can tell them.

That’s what we are here to do.

To teach.

An object lesson.

To pass the baton.

Our purpose.

These are stories and histories with meaning that are worth remembering and passing along.

There are other object lessons many of us can point to here at JMPC and in the “CHURCH” generally.

The principle one is the Bible.

We show people the Bible and hope they ask, “What do these words mean?”

And on this first day of the new program year, we start to teach, again, what these stories are and pass them on to the next generation.

We have Children’s Church.

We have Confirmation Class.

We have VBS.

We have Kids Club.

We have Youth Group.

For adults, who also need some education as well, we have ABC’s of the Bible.

We have the John Covenant Group.

We have book reviews.

We have Bible studies.

And we are prepared to do whatever anyone needs to learn the stories and be prepared to pass them along.

Why are we here?

What did we come here to do?

That.

If we don’t do it, who will?

When our kids ask why they should go to church, or watch it online, what will we tell them?

That we don’t know?

We need to know the reason.

Our kids are really asking:

“What do these things mean?”

Our answer needs to be:

“Glad you asked.”

To teach us how to know God.

It’s why we come here.

It’s what we came here to do.

It’s the Church on Purpose.

Why are we here? Thoughts on the purpose of the “CHURCH” and our church.

Why Are We Here?

Over the next few weeks, we are going to talk about what it looks like to be a “Church on Purpose”.

We will have 4 themes.

How do we purposely know God?

How do we purposely glorify God?

How do we purposely serve God?

How do we purposely change lives?

How did this series sprout?

A few weeks ago, I had coffee with a long-time member of JMPC.

We talked about many things.

As we talked there was one thing that this member was very concerned about.

“Jeff, what do you think about the future of the church?”

I asked for clarification.

Our church?

Or the “CHURCH”?

The answer was the “CHURCH”!

What is the future of the “CHURCH”?

I offered some ideas about that, and will investigate it further when we read “Christianity After Religion” for our October book review.

But I have had the time to ponder the question a bit more.

One thing I came to realize is that the future of JMPC and the “CHURCH” depend on how we answer one question..

“Why are we here?”

Another way to ask this question is this:

What is our purpose?

What is the purpose of JMPC?

What is the purpose of the “CHURCH”?

Once we understand our purpose, we need to ask the next question.

How do we achieve that purpose?

And finally, what will the church look like as we do that?

To answer these questions, we need to look to scripture.

Matthew 28: 16-20

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Acts 2: 42-47

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

What was the purpose of the church?

19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

How did the early church carry out its purpose?

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

What did that church look like?

43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Do you see the distinctions here?

There is a difference between the why, the how and the what.

The why?

Make disciples.

Change lives and so change the world.

The how?

Gathering in community to learn, have fellowship, eat, and pray.

The what?

A community where people love God and each other.

Over time, the how and the what change.

But the why never does.

And that is critical.

If you have read the book, “Start with Why”, by Simon Sinek, you might see that the “why” question is foundational to the success of a task.

If you have not read it, you can watch his TED Talk where he explains this idea.

He says this:

People like Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and the Wright Brothers had little in common, but they all started with WHY. They realized that people won’t truly buy into a product, service, movement, or idea until they understand the WHY behind it.

He goes on.

And by “why” I don’t mean “to make a profit.” That’s a result. It’s always a result. By “why,” I mean: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist?

Sinek uses Apple as an example.

Apple does not simply say it makes good computers.

Here’s how Apple actually communicates. “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?”

And Apple changed the world.

What about the wright brothers?

Sinek says this:

Orville and Wilbur were driven by a cause, by a purpose, by a belief. They believed that if they could figure out this flying machine, it’ll change the course of the world.

And they did change the world.

When Sinek talks about Martin Luther King, Jr., he asks why so many folks followed him into the streets and almost certain arrest, injury and death.

King told them his purpose:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

That was the why.

What they were going to do was going to change the world.

And while many think that the world has not changed enough, there is little doubt that the world has changed.

That was also true of the early church.

Their purpose was to make disciples.

To change lives and change the world.

How they did it was to gather, worship, learn and share.

The early church seems to have been a kind of commune.

That seemed to work well as they gathered more and more disciples every day.

And while these early Christians had a rough time of it for a few centuries, they did what they could to change the world.

And they did.

If we apply that to JMPC we see all three.

Our purpose is to further a movement we call the Great Commission.

Make disciples and teach them about Jesus.

How have we done that?

Let’s look at some history.

John McMillan Presbyterian Church was founded in 1966.

It was planted with the combined efforts of Westminster Presbyterian Church and Bethel Presbyterian Church.

It is a little over a mile from Westminster and Bethel Pres.

Why was there a need for another Presbyterian Church so close to those others?

As realtors like to say – location, location, location.

Bethel Park was growing.

People were moving to the suburbs.

Its population was increasing fast.

Housing developments were springing up everywhere.

A lot of people new to the area looking for churches.

In the 60’s folks wanted their church to be pretty close to where they lived.

So, what better way to offer a faith community to new residents around Clifton Road than to plant a church in their midst.

How we let people know about it was by knocking on doors of those folks in the neighborhood.

That’s why we are here geographically.

But the big “why” was to make disciples in Bethel Park, baptizing them and teaching them about Jesus.

Our purpose was to be a faith community for new residents of Bethel Park.

We were to change lives and change the world, at least around Clifton Road.

And I think we have.

I know that some might look around and say, “Well, it does not necessarily look like it in 2021.”

Attendance seems to be down.

Offerings seem to be down.

But we need to be careful not to define accomplishment of our purpose with “noses and nickels”.

Our purpose remains to make disciples in Bethel Park, baptizing them and teaching them about Jesus.

Changing lives and changing the world, right here.

How we do it and what it looks like in the end is what has changed.

And we need to adapt.

It was that way in the early church.

While their purpose did not change, how they furthered the purpose did.

The communal living changed into a community that shared out of its abundance.

Collections were taken to meet the needs of others.

This was necessary because the church was becoming a multi-location entity.

Each location cared for the people in its location and then shared with other less wealthy communities.

That’s how they shared.

And in doing that, disciples were made in far off places.

Disciples the local communities of faith never even knew about.

It’s the same with us.

Just because folks don’t show up here on Sundays does not mean their lives and the world aren’t changed by our activities here.

I can confidently say that they are.

It just looks different.

But the underlying purpose remains.

Go … and make disciples …, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

That is the “why” we are here.

Our Session is doing something interesting reading.

We are reading an article about JMPC written in Presbyterian News in 1989.

We are also reading the JMPC 2013 Annual Report.

We are also reading the 2013 JMPC Mission Statement that described JMPC to potential pastors looking to become the senior pastor.

That’s the one that attracted my application.

If you want to read them, let me know and I can email them to you.

In our first discussion, some of the longer-term members talked about their fond memories of 1989.

The church was a big part of the young families’ lives.

Central, in fact.

We talked about the underlying reason folks showed up here.

While we didn’t share all things in common, we did have fellowship, worship and most importantly, we cared about and for each other.

And together, we learned to know, glorify and serve God.

In other words, we love God and love each other.

That we can still pursue in 2021.

It just won’t look like 1989.

To do that we need to be a church on purpose.

And when we do that, we will change the world.

The Holy Catholic Church: Thoughts on what it means to believe in that.

Religious but not Spiritual?

If you read my Sunshine piece this week, you know that I like to play golf.

I am not a very good golfer, but I still like to play.

A couple of weeks ago, I played in a golf outing that benefited the Baptist Homes Foundation, a part of Baptist Senior Services where I serve as Board Chair.

The golf outing was at Southpointe Golf Club.

It is a beautiful golf course.

But for my meager skills it is virtually unplayable.

The fairways are narrow, the greens are uneven and fast, the rough is deep and if the ball goes beyond the rough, it will never be seen again.

Many of the holes have blind approaches to the greens.

Most have hazards between the tee box and the fairway and the fairway and the green.

Basically, you must hit the ball accurately in both direction and distance.

I have trouble with both of those.

So, unless the Foundation has their outing there again, I never intend to play that course again.

It’s just too hard.

Golf is hard enough to play, so why would someone design a course that only a select few could play with any hope of success?

Or fun.

Or joy.

I mean, what is the point of it?

Just 18 holes of frustration and lost balls.

Not much fun.

I prefer a more genteel form of golf.

It took me a while to figure it out.

Play easier courses.

Play the gold (senior) tees.

Use mulligans (do-overs for you non golfers).

And most importantly:

Don’t keep score.

Then golf is not “a good walk spoiled” as it has been referred to by many over the years.

It is a chance to get outside, walk around some pretty scenery, hang out with a couple friends, and occasionally get the swing right so you hit a great shot or long put.

Much more fun.

All these things are what bring me back to play again.

What does this have to do with the Apostles’ Creed?

If we take the Creed to be a list of things we must believe in order to be “Christian”, it might look to some to be just too hard.

That’s why we have been talking about the Creed for the last few weeks.

This is particularly true when we affirm our belief in the “holy catholic church”.

A lot of people find that too hard.

What does it mean to believe in that?

What if that is one of the holes on the course that makes Christianity too hard to play?

Well, while we might think it’s too hard, it really isn’t.

And once we understand that, we might keep coming back.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

Acts 11: 1-18Peter’s Report to the Church at Jerusalem

11Now the apostles and the believers* who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers* criticized him, 3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me [by Cornelius] from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.* These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

We need a bit of background on this passage.

Our text is Peter’s description to the Apostles in Jerusalem of his visit with a fellow named Cornelius.

This is the second time Luke tells this story.

The full story takes all of chapter 10 of Acts.

This second telling takes up the first half of chapter 11.

This must be a very important story!

And it is.

It would be hard to overstate the impact of Peter’s visit with Cornelius on the spread of Christianity.

It resulted in the transformation of a small local Jewish sect into the Christian faith community we see today.

Peter followed the leading of the Holy Spirit and did something profoundly against everything he had been taught as a Jew.

He visited a gentile.

And Cornelius was not just any gentile.

He was a Roman Soldier from Italy.

He was a foreign enemy conqueror.

He had large family and household in what was once Israel.

He had been there for a while and planed on staying for some time.

To Jews, Cornelius was unclean and profane.

But there is a nugget about Cornelius that should not be ignored.

Luke describes him as a God-fearer.

What is a God-fearer?

Today we might call such person a “seeker”.

Or maybe “spiritual but not religious”.

Someone who is looking for an encounter with God.

Not looking for a set of religious tenets.

So, Peter goes to him, says a few words to Cornelius and his household and then … the Holy Spirit lights up their heads with fire.

Just like the Apostles at Pentecost.

Peter didn’t see that coming!

And when Peter sees what the Spirit does, he remembers something Jesus said.

16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’

Cornelius and his household had been touched by the Holy Spirit.

Just like the Apostles at Pentecost!

So, Peter understands for the first time that God sends the Holy Spirit all humanity, not just the Jews.

What does this have to do with the Apostles’ Creed affirmation that we believe in the “holy catholic church”?

We know that the Apostles’ Creed is written in three sections.

Father – creator.

Son – redeemer.

Holy Spirit – sustainer.

Each stanza has a few items in it that describe what we are to believe about that particular subject.

The third section is about the Holy Spirit.

We believe in the Holy Spirit.

And immediately after that, we say we believe in the “holy catholic church”.

This means we believe that the holy catholic church is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Which makes sense because the church was born on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the heads of the disciples.

They spoke in tongues and 3,000 people became disciples that day.

So, that was the church that was “born” on Pentecost.

It was the Apostles and 3,000 new disciples.

Not a building.

The Greek word we translate as “church” is ekklesia.

Ekklesia simply means a gathering of people assembled for a particular purpose.

The purpose of the Christian ekklesia is to worship God.

What do we need to believe about that?

That the Holy Spirit inspires the assembly.

In the context of the Creed, it means an assembly of Christians gathered for worship with the expectation that the Holy Spirit is present and active.

This is one of the ways we commune with God.

That is what the early church thought the Holy Spirit did when the people gathered.

And it added to the ekklesia.

But that thinking did not last.

It seemed the Spirit was pushed to the sidelines of the church.

As Reeves and Chester say in their book, “Why the Reformation Still Matters”:

Where did the Spirit go in late medieval Roman Catholicism? That is no easy question to answer, since for most of the Roman Church the sacramental system and the clergy seemed effectively to replace the Spirit. God’s grace was a blessing accessed through the … seven sacraments … . And the clergy were the ones who turned those taps on and off. With such a hermetically sealed plumbing system for grace, the Spirit was left with nothing to do.

Is that the church we claim to believe in when we recite the Creed?

Well, no.

Sure, we say we believe in the holy catholic ekklesia, but we don’t mean the Roman Catholic Church.

The Greek word we translate as “catholic” is katholikos which means universal or whole.

So, we are actually saying we believe in the universal or whole assembly of Christians.

Why is it holy?

Because that assembly is a product of the Holy Spirit.

So, what does this have to do with our text?

The Holy Spirit gave birth to the universal assembly of disciples of Jesus and is inspired by the actions of the Holy Spirit.

That is what we believe.

3,000 members on Pentecost.

Why did those folks sign up?

They witnessed the actions of the Holy Spirit.

They, themselves, experienced the divine.

They all had an encounter with God.

It was spiritual.

But the spirituality of the event was sidelined pretty quickly.

Because the Apostles were Jews.

And the Jews were a people of the Law.

The Law of Moses.

The Torah.

They took the position that to be a Christian, one must first become a Jew and follow the Law.

They were religious, but not spiritual.

Don’t get me wrong; there is nothing wrong with religious tenets or polity.

Remember, I was the Stated Clerk of Pittsburgh Presbytery and responsible for the interpretation of our Book of Order.

All part of that “religion” thing.

But we have to be careful when we lean too far into religiosity.

When we do that, we tend to push the Holy Spirit to the sideline.

That is the challenge the Apostles had.

They were “religious”.

You want to be part of the assembly of disciples?

Follow the law.

But then something happened that changed all that.

Peter’s baptism of Cornelius.

Entirely a spiritual thing.

Yet, Peter is scolded.

You did what?

You ate with the unclean?

You baptized them?

Then Peter told the story.

About his meeting with Cornelius.

And the fact that the Holy Spirit was who did the baptizing.

The power of the story silenced Peter’s critics.

They stopped scolding Peter and praised God.

They praised God because God turned out to be more merciful than they could ever have imagined.

Even gentiles were welcome.

Why is this important?

It’s important because churches sometimes tend to focus on the religious but not spiritual.

We list tenets of the faith and tell people that they must believe them to be part of the ekklesia.

That is what happened in Rome.

And for some affirming all that becomes really hard.

They want to be spiritual.

And they miss the experience of the divine because they are worrying about what they have to believe.

And maybe they don’t come back.

That was not happening when the ekklesia was growing in the first century.

People were not showing up to be circumcised.

They were showing up to be in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

They were showing up to encounter God!

That is what they found.

We need to find that, too.

So, when we say we believe in the holy catholic church, we are talking about the ekklesia of the Holy Spirit!

A place where we expect to experience the divine and encounter God!

So, what might it look like to have an encounter with God.

Such experiences are different for everyone.

I’ve had a couple.

I would guess many here have, too.

Some have had them right here at JMPC.

It might surprise you.

It might happen in the music.

It might happen in the liturgy.

It might happen in the prayers.

It might even happen in the sermon!

It’s a spiritual thing.

Not a religious thing.

When you become spiritual, not just religious, you will most definitely come back.

Jesus in Hell? Thoughts on why we say Jesus went there in the Apostles’ Creed.

Jesus in Hell?

A couple of weeks ago, I had a bit of a reunion with some college friends, Jim, Bill and Mike.

We have stayed in touch over the years and get together for long walks and talks from time to time.

Mike told us this entertaining story.

When he was in high school, his dad let him use the family car to go out with his friends.

One winter evening Mike took the car went with a bunch of kids to a snow and ice covered grocery store parking lot.

They were there to “bumper surf”.

The idea is that you wear slippery shoes and then hang onto the bumper of a car as it drives over the parking lot snow and ice.

One person holds onto the bumper and then the rest form a sort of conga line as the car does donuts on the parking lot.

The “surfers” slide around like water skiers at the end of a rope.

This is, of course, unsafe.

When a passerby saw what was going on, the police were called

They came and put an end to the fun.

Meanwhile, Mike’s dad was listening to his police scanner at home and heard the report of the call to the parking lot.

The license number of the offending car was announced on the radio.

It was his.

When Mike got home that evening, his dad had two questions.

“Mike, where were you this evening and what were you doing?”

Mike knew immediately that his dad knew exactly where Mike had been and what Mike had been doing.

Busted.

How many of us have similar stories?

Parents want to know where their children have been and what they have been doing.

And unlike Mike’s dad, those questions are asked because parents just don’t know.

This story comes to mind with Jesus, believe it or not.

If you were a disciple, knew that Jesus was crucified, died and buried on Friday, then was alive again on Sunday, wouldn’t you be tempted to ask, “Where were you and what were you doing on Saturday, Jesus?”

It turns out that Peter might have done something like that.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

1 Peter 3: 18-22

18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. 21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

Before I get down to Jesus “descent into hell” I need to say that our scripture passage today is packed with difficult theology that is far from clearly understood.

This passage, and much of 1 Peter needs a lot more time than I have this morning and so will be the subject of our first Bible study this fall.

Today we focus on one particular point that is associated with the Apostles’ Creed.

Do we believe that Jesus descended into hell?

One of the requirements to graduate from seminary is that you have to do what is called “field education”.

For most people this is a yearlong internship at a local church.

I spent mine at Bethany Presbyterian Church over in Bridgeville.

On my first Sunday there, we recited the Apostles’ Creed.

When we got to the Jesus stanza, we said this:

“And in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried, on the third day he rose again from the dead …”

 Wait … what?

Something was missing from the Creed.

We did not say Jesus “descended into hell”.

After church I went up to the pastor and asked about that.

His response was, “Yeah, Jesus doesn’t go to hell at Bethany.”

Wait a minute!

Isn’t that a central tenet of the faith?

It’s part of the Apostles’ Creed!

How can a church just drop that?

Well, it turns out we can, because it isn’t really a tenet of the faith.

There’s virtually no scriptural support for it, and it is a poor translation of the original Greek version of the Creed.

Now would be a good time to review a bit of Apostles’’ Creed history.

Tradition has it that the creed was developed by the Apostles after Pentecost and before they went out on the Great Commission.

Each Apostle added one phrase.

There is no evidence that the Creed was written by the Apostles, though it is based on apostolic traditions handed down through the early church.

Its origins are obscure.

The Creed we recite today seems to have been developed over many years as a Q&A catechism for folks who were seeking baptism.

“Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?”

“I do.”

And so on.

Kind of like the questions we ask parents when we baptize their children.

The earliest evidence of this is in Rome around 200AD.

One question was not asked in those days.

“Do you believe that Jesus descended into hell?”

That was not part of the creed until the 4th Century when a popular tract called the Gospel of Nicodemus was going around.

One part of that tract describes what came to be know as the “harrowing of hell”.

For some reason the author tried to explain where Jesus was and what he was doing on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Briefly, Jesus is said to have descended to hell to deliver the Old Testament patriarchs from imprisonment there.

Is there scriptural support for this?

Not in anything Peter wrote.

Anyway, the Creed reached its final form in the late 6th or early 7th century and was accepted as a sort of official statement of faith in the western churches by the 12th century, though the Methodists and other individual churches reject the phrase “he descended into hell”.

The Apostles’ Creed is not accepted in any of the eastern orthodox churches.

Focusing in on the word “hell” is worth a moment.

The Creed was originally written in Greek.

In Biblical Greek it said Jesus descended to Hades.

This was a place the Jews called Sheol.

It is the place of the dead.

Hades is not the eternal inferno.

It’s a place where the souls of the dead just sort exist in a sort of meaninglessness.

Unfortunately, the Latin word used for Hades was hell, which became confused with the endless inferno.

Jesus’ descent into Hades is something we can believe because we know Jesus died.

So, where was Jesus on Saturday?

Where the dead were, because he was dead.

This is all important, because we would never understand this from 1 Peter.

1 Peter is hard!

Jesus is dead … bodily.

He is alive … spiritually.

What does that mean?

Who are the “spirits in prison”?

That is where things get really confusing.

They were, according to Peter, the ones “who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark …”

So, taken literally, they were the Sons of God who conceived children with the human women in disobedience to God.

Because of that they were wiped out in the flood and their spirits were imprisoned.

Does all this help?

No?

Where is the “prison”?

Peter does not say.

What did Jesus proclaim?

Peter is silent.

What Peter does talk about is the meaning of the crucifixion.

Christ … suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.

This is not limiting to the living.

Particularly when we read what Peter says later in the letter.

1 Peter 4: 6

6For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.

Was Jesus preaching the Gospel to the “spirits in prison”?

Is that what Jesus told Peter?

Who can say?

And what do we make of this?

Here are two interpretations of all this passage from Peter.

The prisoners are the troublemakers from Noah’s time.

They are imprisoned someplace away form God.

Jesus went to them to show them that their disobedience to God and the attempt to the death of all humanity was in fact unsuccessful.

Jesus’ resurrection proved these folks lost that battle.

The other is that Jesus went to the place of the dead to proclaim the Gospel to those who died before Jesus lived and gave them the opportunity to accept Jesus and rise with him to God’s kingdom.

That is what these pictures describe.

Jesus is ascending and taking the patriarchs and all the people out of eternal Sheol.

So, what about the folks who lived and died after Noah and before Jesus?

Did Jesus come for them, too?

And what about the folks who never heard of Jesus?

Peter seems to suggest the answer is that Jesus did come and comes for them, too, though not in our text today.

That is a happy sort of interpretation.

It’s all just supposition.

A mystery.

Alister McGrath says this:

[Jesus’] sufferings on the cross were not pointless or accidental, but the mysterious and wonderful means by which God was working out the salvation of the world.

Maybe that is why we just say Jesus went to hell and leave out all that other stuff because we just don’t know.

So, what do we say we are believing if we say Jesus died, went to the dead, arose on the third day and then ascended into heaven?

I like this:

Here is where we begin to see theology.

Why does God become incarnate?

Because God is love and wants to rescue God’s loved ones.

God descends.

It starts with Jesus’ birth.

Jesus is God.

He is born of Mary.

He is moving further and further from his home.

To those further and further from their creator.

He suffers.

He dies.

He is buried.

Now that he is dead, he must go to where the dead go.

He is moving to where death reigns.

It is as far from God as can be.

Jesus went there.

Why did Jesus go there?

To get those who had died before he came.

Jesus informs the citizens of Hades that this thing called death is no more.

Death is where they are.

Life is where Jesus is.

Then I have an image of Jesus surveying all those there and saying:

“Who wants to come with me?”

Jesus then starts his ascent back to his home and takes them with him.

This makes sense to me if we believe God is love.

If God is love, why would god allow God’s loved ones to be excluded from God eternally.

I believe God would go get them.

That’s what Jesus was doing there.

A rescue.

And in some ways, that Jesus suffered, died, was buried and descended to the dead is why we look on Jesus as a worthy savior.

He knew what it was like to be one of us.

He knew pain.

He knew suffering.

He knew death.

Why is that important?

I would be hard pressed to trust in a savior who could not be sympathetic to me because he had never experienced what I have experienced.

How could such a person understand my circumstances?

And that is important.

Jesus does understand my circumstances.

The one who stands beside us when we are in pain has been in pain.

The one who is present at our death, has himself died.

Jesus has been there and done that.

He did not get a t-shirt, but he did get the scars.

He is the wounded healer.

Psychiatrist Carl Jung first used the term wounded healer in his book: Fundamental Questions of Psychotherapy which was published in 1951.

He believed that disease of the soul could be the best possible form of training for a healer.

Jung held that only a wounded physician could heal effectively.

Jesus is truly that.

He is with us.

He knows us.

Jesus was the divine man who experienced the ultimate distance from God.

An brings us back to God regardless of how far away we might go.

I believe Jesus descended – and rose again.

So can you.

Born or the Virgin Mary: Thoughts on what we believe when we say we believe in the virgin birth of Jesus.

Born of the Virgin Mary

My brother became a grandfather for the second time this week when Mason Andrew D’Adamo was born.

The story of his birth is circulating.

Many days late.

C-Section.

Wailing away as soon as he entered the world.

Beautiful, as all babies are.

It made me think that one of Karen’s and my favorite things to share with our children is their birth stories.

Most often we do that when we are with them on their birthdays.

We would tell the story of Karen’s three days of induction because AJ was two weeks late.

“We thought you would never come out!”

“But you did and we brought you home on our first anniversary!”

But the better story is about Julz.

Julz was early.

We went to a neighbor’s Christmas party, Karen had an eggnog then we went home early.

At around three in the morning, I woke up and saw Karen looking at her watch.

“What’s up?”, I asked.

“I’m timing my contractions.”

“Oh? How far apart are they?”

“Ninety seconds.”

“Oh? Shouldn’t we be at the hospital?”

“Maybe …”

I won’t go into the rest, it is a long story about a quick delivery, and it ends with my comment, “I think she has red hair!”

Every time we tell the stories, the kids are attentive.

They like to hear their birth stories.

They like knowing their roots.

Their origins.

Their identities.

We love to tell the stories, too.

And the details are important.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

It, too, is a story about a birth that is yet to come.

Luke 1: 26-38

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we say we believe that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the virgin Mary.”

This passage from Luke is the source of that creedal statement.

It is the story of the beginning of Mary’s pregnancy.

We have heard it over and over and over.

Every Christmas Eve during Lessons and Carols at least.

For as long as any of us have been able to comprehend this story, the focus has been centered on what follows Gabriel’s announcement that Mary is going to have a baby:

“How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

And Gabriel’s response:

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

Our interpretation of those words is what we say in the Apostles’ Creed.

Conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary.

The virgin birth.

And when we hear the story read to us, as soon as it starts, our minds jump to that point, and we don’t hear the rest.

But the story has a bit more complexity.

So, let’s listen to the story with fresh attention.

This story is our introduction to Mary in scripture.

Who is she?

We are burdened by theological hindsight.

One author describes our preconceived notions about Mary this way:

[W]e’ve buried her under so many layers of theology, piety, and politics, she’s nearly impossible to excavate. Some of us pray to her. Others ignore her on principle. Some call her a victim of divine coercion. Others, “Theotokos,” the Mother of God. For some, she represents a troubling model of pious femininity — ever sinless, ever virgin, ever mother. For still others, she is child prophet extraordinaire — a young girl who fearlessly announced the arrival of God’s kingdom to earth.

Why pray to her?

She is “full of grace”.

According to Roman Catholic theology, and I am no expert, Mary has grace to give, and we all need it.

So, we ask her for it.

Why ignore her?

That’s kind of what we do in the reformed tradition.

Mary is just a vessel for the Messiah.

Some say she is the victim of divine coercion.

God forces Godself on a young girl for God’s own purposes.

Is Mary the “Mother of God”?

Well, she gave birth to one member of the triune God, right?

Is Mary the eternal virgin?

That s the Roman Catholic point of view, but the Bible says Jesus had brothers and sisters.

Is Mary a prophet?

You bet!

Her call from Gabriel and their conversation looks like a pretty typical prophet call story.

And soon after we get the Magnificat, Mary’s prophetic announcement.

Others simply read this passage with skepticism and believe Luke is using Old Testament like metaphor.

But we are not told any of that here by Luke.

And we certainly don’t hear any of that in the Apostles’ Creed.

Luke’s depiction of Mary is that she was mostly an ordinary young woman who reacts to this visitation in an extraordinary way.

We have before us a brief ordered, factual narrative that cites no source.

Mary herself maybe?

Kind of like a mother recounting her pregnancy.

Maybe this is how she talked about it with Jesus.

“Where do I come from Mom?”

“From God, son.”

So, let’s look at the story for the details that might tell us what we can believe about it.

When the story opens, we are given background by the narrator, Luke.

Mary is a teenaged girl of marriage age who lives in Nazareth and is engaged to a fellow named Joseph.

Her father has arranged for her to be married to Joseph.

The marriage will be consummated when she moves in with Joseph.

That has not happened yet.

Now the action begins.

Mary is occupied in her normal life.

Then enter Gabriel!

We know who he is.

He’s one of God’s Archangels.

Gabriel calls prophets and is the protector of Israel in the Old Testament.

Mary’s reaction to this unexpected and no doubt terrifying visit evolves over the course of the encounter.

At first Mary is afraid.

It is the rare exception in the Bible that on finding oneself in the presence of an angel one is not absolutely terrified!

I have an image that she is cowering behind whatever she can find to cower behind with wide eyes and gaping mouth.

And we know Mary was afraid because the angel tells her not to be.

Then she is mystified.

One writer describes her response this way:

Me? Who am I? Why am I favored? How can the Lord be with me? She knows her place. She knows who she is. And this should not be happening. She’s a teenager, and from the wrong side of the tracks. 

Why does Mary get a visit from Gabriel?

Does God even know she exists?

I have an image of her dropping her chin to her chest, shaking her head – No, no, no …

“I think you have the wrong Mary, Gabriel.”

Then the big reveal!

She’s going to have a son.

Gabriel says the boy will be great, called the son of the Most High, will sit on the throne of David reigning over the hose of David forever!

Mary does not seem to have heard who the boy will be.

She is more concerned about how that is going to happen?

How is it she is going to have a baby?

Then the next big reveal.

This is going to be God’s doing.

Gabriel says this:

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. Elizabeth, too?

There it is.

What exactly does that mean?

The translation might best be put, the Holy Spirit will make this happen!

Mary just needs to agree.

Which brings us to how Mary might have responded.

She is still skeptical!

So, Gabriel offers Elizabeth’s pregnancy as proof.

If Elizabeth can be pregnant, nothing is impossible with God.

Even a virgin birth.

If you want to get an image of what Mary’s reaction might look like, take a look at some annunciation artwork.

Depictions of what people thought it might have been like.

Particularly Sandro Botticelli’s painting, “The Cestello Annunciation”.

In it, Botticelli portrays Mary as withdrawing from Gabriel.

Creating distance between them as if she might flee.

Her hand is out in a “keep your distance from me” gesture.

Mary is looking down, averting her eyes.

Mary’s expression is not particularly joyful.

More ambivalent.

Is Mary telling Gabriel, “I need to think about his.”

Gabriel is on his knee, looking up into Mary’s face, as if trying to get her to look at him.

Is he afraid Mary is about to say no?

Is he begging her to say yes?

How long does this all go on?

Gabriel must be relieved when Mary utters her famous phrase:

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

He departs.

Mary has said all the right words, but then does something interesting.

She runs off to see Elizabeth.

Why would she do that?

Maybe to see if Gabriel was telling the truth?

Is Elizabeth really pregnant?

Mary’s trip to see Elizabeth suggests a certain skepticism and pause before Mary believes it all.

Mary sees that Elizabeth is in fact pregnant and hears Elizabeth cry out that Mary is pregnant, too.

Mary then sings her famous song:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name.

Mary believes.

Do we?

What does the story of Gabriel and Mary ask us to believe?

Something like this, I think.

Mary was called by God for a particular task.

She was the human being through whom God became incarnate.

She brought the Son into the world from her womb.

At God’s request.

By way of the Holy Spirit.

And Mary agreed to do it.

When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, this is what we claim to believe.

That God became one of us through Mary.

Like the Trinity, how exactly that happened is a mystery.

But there is a meaning beyond how Jesus was conceived.

For God nothing is impossible.

If, like Mary, we believe that nothing is impossible to God, we can believe that we, like her, are the human beings through whom God acts in the world.

We too can give birth to the holy!

Are we willing to let God intrude into our lives and, despite the cost and discomfort, emulate Mary’s “yes” to God with our own “yes”?

Can we as a church respond like Mary?

So here is my image of what that might look like:

Me: “Greetings, favored ones. The Lord is with you and intends to do great things through you.”

Congregation: “How can this be? We are ordinary, everyday people.”

Me: “Yet you have found favor through God, and the Holy Spirit will come upon you, guide you, and work through you to care for this world and people God loves so much. For nothing is impossible with God.

Congregation: “Here we are, servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your word.”

So may it be.

Three in One? Thoughts on how we understand the Trinity.

Three in One

One of the most interesting things about going to many sporting events in the United States is that before the event begins, we are asked to stand, remove our hats, and sing the national anthem.

The Star-Spangled Banner.

That tradition is so ingrained in me that whenever I hear the Star-Spangled Banner, I want to cry out, “play ball!” when it ends.

And when someone does not stand, remove their hat and sing, many lay the stink-eye on them and might want to say something like, “What’s your problem?”

And God forbid that the person singing the anthem forgets the words!

They are ridiculed and mocked.

And now recently, there have been a lot of folks, athletes in particular, who “take a knee” during the national anthem in protest of some perceived, and often real, injustice.

They are often derided and scorned by those who believe such a protest is inappropriate.

Then there is the other end of the national anthem spectrum.

Many Americans who win the gold medal at the Olympics literally weep as soon at the Star-Spangled Banner starts to play as the Star-Spangled banner is raised.

We take our national anthem seriously!

And so, most of us do stand, remove our hats, and sing the national anthem whenever we are asked to do so.

And hopefully we remember the words.

But why?

What I find interesting is that our national anthem is about the “Star Spangled-Banner” not the United States of America.

The flag, not the country.

America the Beautiful might be a better anthem, in my opinion.

But most don’t really care about what the anthem is about, because the words of the anthem are not so much a statement of what we believe but are a statement of who we are.

We are Americans!

And that is our national anthem!

We have an anthem of sorts in the church.

Most Sundays in church, we recite an “affirmation of faith”.

It is a statement of what we claim to believe that is central to our faith.

The one we recite most often is the Apostles’ Creed.

The Apostles’ Creed is a brief three stanza declaration of several things we hold to be true.

The first stanza is about God the Father.

The second stanza is about Jesus Christ.

The Third stanza is about the Holy Spirit.

Overall, the entirely of the Creed proclaims our belief in what we refer to as the Trinity.

One God in three persons.

That is a hard sell.

It is a hard sell because we can’t visualize it and don’t really understand it.

But we say we believe it because it declares who we are.

We are Christians.

We believe in the Trinity.

So, where do we find the trinity in scripture?

In fact, the word “trinity” does not even appear in the New Testament anywhere.

So where does it come from?

Let’s have a listen to today’s scripture.

John 15:26 – 16:15

26”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

16”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. 2They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. 3And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. 4But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

7Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. 12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When 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. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

If you are scratching your head right now, you are not alone.

At our Wednesday staff meeting, we talked about this passage and there was a good bit of confusion.

It’s hard to understand.

And John is quoting Jesus!

Jesus is talking about God, himself and this “Advocate” who will come only after Jesus leaves.

Can you imagine being one of the disciples when Jesus tells them about this?

They have been following Jesus for three years and have just started to understand that Jesus was sent, not by God, but from God, as a part of God.

Now Jesus is saying that the “Advocate”, the Spirit of God, will be coming next.

And this Advocate or Spirit is also sent not by God, but from God, as part of God.

I have this image of the disciples looking at Jesus with their mouths open in confusion.

We just got used to two and now you tell us there are three?

One God.

Three … what?

Parts, persons, manifestations, presentations?

Christians have been asking those same questions for 2000 years.

The Trinity is one of the great mysteries of our faith.

And mysteries cannot be described, explained or depicted.

At times they are just to be accepted.

As Augustine pointed out back in the 4th century:

If you can comprehend it, it is not God.

 The Trinity is a good mystery.

A mystery that preserves God’s majesty and holiness.

And this is a mystery that goes back to the beginning.

Genesis.

The first 5 verses of the Bible.

The creation.

God. The Word. The Spirit.

All three were there.

We need to know that.

But there is only one God.

God is all three.

How do we explain that?

One of early explanations of the Trinity went this way.

It’s called the Creed of Athanasius and was written in the 5th or 6th century:

[W]e worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the persons … The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. … And yet there are not three incomprehensibilites, nor three uncreated, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.

Got it?

Good because there will be a quiz.

Many different depictions of the Trinity have been offered over the centuries and most have been labeled heretical.

Meister Eckhart, a 14th century German mystic who described the trinity this way.

God the Father laughed, and the Son came forth. God the Father and the Son laughed together, and the Holy Spirit came forth.

When all three laughed, humanity came forth.

Thus, the universe at its center is a joyful community.

And then there is a modern fanciful depiction the Trinity.

It comes in the book, “The Shack”.

In this short book, William P. Young writes about Mack, someone whose daughter was murdered some time back.

He is drawn to a shack near the site of the murder.

He enters the shack and encounters manifestations of the three persons of the Trinity.

God the Father takes the form of an African American woman who calls herself Elouisa and Papa.

Jesus Christ is a Middle Eastern carpenter.

The Holy Spirit physically manifests as an Asian woman named Sarayu.

Athanasius is now twirling in his grave.

But for some, perhaps many, and certainly for those who have experienced trauma and loss, the Trinity depicted in The Shack might be a spiritual balm.

I like what Oxford theologian Alister McGrath says about the Trinity:

“The doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t invented—it was uncovered. The doctrine of the Trinity…is not some arbitrary and outdated dictate handed down by some confused council—it is the inevitable result of wrestling with the richness and complexity of the Christian experience of God.”

We discover the Trinity by looking at what God has done.

 We first experience God who created the world and continues to do so and whose glory can be seen reflected in the wonder of nature.

We next experience God who saves us from ultimate darkness and death, and whose love is depicted in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Last, we experience God who is present and active in our lives.

These experiences lead to the conclusion that God has revealed his one being in these three unique ways.

Creator.

Redeemer.

Sustainer.

God created us.

Jesus redeemed us.

The Holy Spirit.

These are not different forms of God.

These are different acts of God.

God creates.

God redeems.

God sustains.

Eternally.

So what do we do with all this?

What does it all really mean?

What is it we believe?

Brian McLaren puts it this way:

If …there’s only one God but not three Persons within the one God, then we would expect that the ultimate reality behind the universe could be silence. It could be power. It could be peace. It could be domination. It could be any of those things. But there’s one thing that it could not be. The ultimate reality could not be love. Because for love to exist, there has to be a sharing, and there has to be a communication, and there has to be a self-giving. But if there’s only one, there’s nothing to give the self to.

We believe that for love to exist, it must be in community.

If God is love, God is somehow a community.

And if we are to love the way God loves, we must also be in community.

I think the Trinity we believe in teaches us that because God acts as a community, we, if we are to be his followers, must also act as a community. 

We must worship in community.

We must do mission in community.

We must do fellowship in community.

We must do stewardship in community.

We must do leadership in community.

We must teach and nurture our children in community.

We must get in community and stay in community.

The Trinity asks us, “How can anyone draw closer to God without being in some kind of community?”

I might not understand how God can be three in one, but I am glad God is.

And if God loves us, we are invited into that triune community.

Listen to the story I read this week.

Henri Nouwen, Roman Catholic priest and theologian was depressed for a long time.

As part of his own therapy, he meditated on an icon that depicted the Trinity as three persons sitting around a square table.

One on each side.

His interpretation of the image was that the three stared at each other in a manner where there was no fear, no greed, no anger, no violence, no anxiety, no pain, no suffering, not need for words.

All that was present was love and trust.

The fourth side was empty.

It was where he was.

He felt he was invited to be the fourth at that table, and to participate in the divine community.

That makes me think of the communion table.

Jesus invites us there to join him in the community of the Trinity.

That is what communion is.

We join the triune God at the table in community.

Who’s Hungry? Thoughts on feeding people what they need — an experience of God’s presence.

Who’s Hungry?

In the summer of 2019, my family took a trip to California.

My son was running the Napa Valley half marathon and my wife the Napa Valley 5k.

The whole family did a good bit of hiking, too.

One day we decided to hike a fairly tough, but scenic trail that was pretty popular.

The trail ascended a tall slope through woods to an overlook and then descended down a steeper hillside through scrubby bushes.

AJ and Adam only went up to the overlook and then turned back to check out some other local attractions.

Karen, Julz and I kept on going.

The hike turned out to be a bit harder and longer than we anticipated.

It was hotter, too, particularly when we were on our way down which was mostly in the sun.

We realized we had not brought enough water.

But our water shortage was manageable.

The real problem was that we really did not know how far from the trail’s end we were.

When we had emerged from the woods, we knew we were halfway home.

But that was as the crow flies.

The descent turned out to be a series of switchbacks.

We would walk a ways, make a U turn, walk a ways further and realize we had only gone about 20 feet further down the hillside.

This went on for a while.

We could not see the end of the trail.

We were getting tired, frustrated and really wanted the hike to be over.

And we started to get really thirsty.

Not because we were getting dehydrated, but because we didn’t know when we would get to a water source.

When would this end?

As an old Boy Scout, I knew there were ways to find water when necessary.

But those ways were not going to work for us.

But we did have another way.

We called AJ on my cell phone and asked him to bring us water.

He would come from the end of the trail and would meet us.

Not long after that, we saw AJ coming up the trail toward us.

Our spirits soured.

AJ was coming to lead us home and he was carrying several large bottles of water.

We were saved!

It was like a religious experience.

We drank all the water and then finished the hike.

Later, we celebrated the fact we hiked the entire trail despite the difficulties, uncertainty and anxiety.

OK.

I might be making this adventure a bit more dramatic that is really was, but I thought of our hike when I read our scripture reading this week.

It’s about providing for people who are in need.

We were thirsty.

The people in today’s scripture needed something else.

Let’s see what it says.

John 6: 1-14

6After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.  2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ 10Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’

Before I begin, I want to point out that this story appears in all four gospels.

In fact, there are two such stories in Mark’s gospel.

That tells me that we need to pay attention to these events.

They illustrate an important lesson from, and about, Jesus.

We all know the story generally.

Jesus feeds the 5,000 folks who have been following him around with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.

But if we dig a bit deeper, we see a bit more of what Jesus might have been trying to teach his disciples and the people following him – like us.

First, the background.

Jesus is preaching and teaching and healing in Galilee.

Jesus has gone viral.

He has become, in today’s jargon, an influencer.

He has many followers.

At least 5,000 are literally following him around.

One day Jesus asks Phillip where the disciples might find bread to feed all these people.

This is a test of Philip, according to John, because Jesus already knew what was going to happen.

Jesus had a lesson to teach about the Kingdom of God.

Phillip basically says, “Even if there was such a place to get that much food nearby, we don’t have enough money to buy it.”

I have this vision of Jesus smiling.

Phillip could only think of one way to feed the people.

Buy food and hand it out.

That would not work here, though.

Too many people, no food available, not enough money.

But Jesus knew of a different way.

Take what was available and make it work.

He tells the people, sit in groups and watch what happens.

A boy comes forward with two fish and five loaves.

He is willing to share.

Low and behold, loaves and fish turn into enough food to feed all the people – with some left over.

People have argued over the years about what happened.

Was it a miraculous replication of loaves and fishes?

Or was it a viral act of sharing of what was available?

I don’t know that it makes a difference.

The result was the same.

The food shared by boy fed all the people.

So, what was the lesson?

Remember that these people were following Jesus because he was offering signs that he was from God.

They were looking for more signs.

They wanted to be convinced that following Jesus was a way to experience God’s presence.

So, Jesus gave them one.

Food aplenty.

His lesson was that following Jesus would provide what the people wanted – a sign.

But following Jesus would also fill their need for an experience of God’s presence.

Which might have brought to mind the words of the Psalmist to them.

Psalm 23

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2   He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3   he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
   for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
   I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
   your rod and your staff—
   they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
   my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
   all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
   forever.

What were they hungry for?

Green pastures.

Still waters.

Soul restoration.

Right paths.

Protection.

Comfort.

Sustenance.

Love.

Goodness and mercy.

God’s presence.

And right in the middle is the most important promise.

For God is with you.

That’s me.

Emmanuel.

God with you.

The folks there were hungry for that.

And Jesus fed it to them.

And Jesus feeds it to us, too.

Jesus is teaching us that he is indeed with us.

Even in darkest valleys.

Even in the presence of enemies.

Always.

And so, we need to follow him.

He will take us into the Kingdom of God.

Those following Jesus in out text got the message pretty clearly.

The people recognized him as a prophet.

They had a religious experience.

But not just because Jesus gave them food.

Because Jesus gave them hope that he would lead them into God’s Kingdom.

So, what does his have to do with us here at JMPC?

How do we reach people who are looking for a sign that Jesus is from God?

In our scripture reading, Jesus had a crowd of people following him.

All he had to do was shout out orders and use some divine intervention.

What can we do?

Well, there are no crowds here, or at any other church, for that matter.

We are emerging from a year and a half of quarantine.

People are still skittish about gathering in groups.

But they are gathering with us.

In the time where people could not come to this sanctuary because it was closed, we used a new way to talk about Jesus and his leadership.

Streaming on the internet.

I remember back on March 16, 2020, when Session decided to close the church.

Matt, Carolyn and I scratched our heads wondering how we were going to lead you all in worship.

We, like Philip, had no solution to the problem.

Then Toni Sulkowski said, “Why not stream from an iPhone?”

It was like calling AJ and telling him to bring water.

It was like Jesus deciding to perform a miracle.

A new way to get something done.

And that is what we did.

We proclaimed the word to you all here, and you all out there, over the internet.

It worked.

In our new way, we started to gather a new following.

People who had never been to JMPC started worshiping with us.

When I read today’s scripture, I started to think about you folks out there online.

What are you looking for?

What do you need?

And then I realized that, like the rest of us, you need hope.

You need a word or two, and maybe a sign, from Jesus.

You need to know that whatever is going on in your lives, God, Jesus, is with you, forever.

Keep streaming us and we will keep telling you that.

A Perennial Garden: Thoughts on why we have hope, even for the church.

A Perennial Garden

My family has owned a cottage on Edinboro Lake for 94 years.

I spent most of my summers there when I was a teenager.

Those were some good days.

But the cottage was a seasonal residence.

Seasonal because in the winter Edinboro is pretty isolated, and the weather is brutal.

There is always a lot of snow, at least there was 50 years ago.

So, we never went to the lake in the winter.

When school started each fall, we would close the place up.

The boat was towed away for storage.

The dock was taken out and put in the backyard garage.

Shutters covered all the windows.

The heat was turned off.

The water was turned off.

The pipes were drained.

It was always made me sad.

But it wasn’t just the weather that changed.

It was also the people.

In the summer there are many, many vacationers.

Those vacationers included the kids I hung out with.

The lake was packed with boats.

The streets were filled with bikes and pedestrians.

There were lots of activities.

All those folks leave in the fall.

All those activities end.

Snow piles up.

The lake freezes.

Edinboro becomes dormant.

But we would anticipate opening of the cottage every spring.

Up to the lake we would go to reverse all we did in the fall.

And all those people and all those activities return.

It was like a new beginning.

Another Summer at the lake.

Like a perennial garden, Edinboro resumes.

It’s not a resurrection.

Edinboro did not die, it just went through its normal seasonal cycle.

Vibrancy and dormancy.

In my parent’s later years, they made that cottage their permanent home.

They moved there from Florida where they had lived for a while after my dad retired.

One of the reasons they moved back north was that they missed these changes of seasons.

I know that well because my mother took a picture from her chair on the front porch of our cottage of each season.

It was the exact same scene, but in the different season.

She would put them in four frames and hang them on the wall.

It seemed like she wanted to document the fact that the change of seasons … well … never changed.

I think my mother took comfort in that.

Though the seasons changed, Edinboro was still there.

Like a perennial garden.

My mom’s little example of the Kingdom of God.

Which brings me to our scripture reading.

Mark 4: 26-34

26 He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’

30 He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’

33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Our text today is a combination of two parables used by Jesus to help teach the disciples something important about the Kingdom of God.

But to get that message, we need to understand the illustration.

This parable follows the Parable of the Sower.

Most of us know that one.

The sower is a farmer.

The farmer plants the seeds by throwing them around the property.

The seeds land on four types of soil, only one of which is good for the seed.

This parable is a follow-up about the seed that lands on the good soil.

What happens to it?

It sprouts and grows.

First the stalk, then the head and then the full grain.

And the farmer has no idea what makes that happen.

The farmer just watches it materialize.

Once the full grain appears, it can be used for its intended purpose.

To feed the community.

Jesus says that is what the Kingdom of God is like.

Then there is the mustard seed.

Everything is the same but its purpose.

That small seed grows into a really big bush that feeds and protects and houses important wildlife.

Jesus says that is what the Kingdom of God is like, too.

That’s what we see here at JMPC in our SHIM garden.

Every year we plant vegetables, watch them grow, harvest when that are ready and feed the community.

We also have plants that house and protect important wildlife.

The pollinators which are necessary for most plants, and us for that matter, to survive.

And while we are able to help all these plants along, and know a good deal about them, we still don’t understand how these plants came to be and how they became so intertwined with our world.

Just like Jesus’ parables.

Our little example of the Kingdom of God.

But if I can be so bold, I would like to compare the Kingdom of God to a perennial garden rather than a vegetable garden or a barley field.

For those who don’t know, perennials are plants that come back year after year.

Perennials tend to have fewer flowers than annuals, because their energy is put into developing strong roots, generally called bulbs, instead of flowers and seeds.

They usually only bloom for one season each year, either spring, summer, or fall.

Most then go dormant at the end of the growing season.

They seem to die.

But when spring comes, we don’t have to replant them, they just come back.

We have them all over the place here at JMPC.

Day lilies, irises, lambs’ ear and coneflower, among others.

Take a walk around.

And what is more important, and really fascinating, is that these perennials spread!

They spread wildly!

Karen planted a few Shasta daisies in our front yard a few years ago.

They were a nice small bunch of flowers in our font yard landscaping.

They come back every year.

They spread like crazy!

Without any effort on our part.

And while I do help a bit with fertilizer and weeding and mulching, I let God do what God does.

I don’t really understand how that works.

And I don’t worry about it.

I just wait for it to happen every spring.

And I have no idea why perennials turned out different from the annual flowers that must be replanted from seeds every year.

Like my mom’s comfort with the return of every season, a perennial garden comforts me with the return of those flowers every year.

That’s why I like to think of the Kingdom of God as a perennial garden.

It only has to be planted once and it keeps on going.

Once planted, it survives.

It might go dormant from time to time, but it is always there., ready to come back to vibrant life.

Like Edinboro.

Like a perennial garden.

Like the church.

If we study the 2000-year history of the church, we see pretty clearly that it resembles our two parables.

Once planted, it grew.

And its growth is a kind of mystery.

How did a small group of disciples from a backwater area of the Roman Empire convince most of the world that the Gospel was true?

While there are many suggested explanations for this, the only certain answer is because God planted it.

Sure, the Apostles were the workers in the field, but God was the sole source of their success.

The church flourished for centuries, spreading like perennials.

In the 20th Century, our denomination, the PCUSA, flourished greatly because of its vibrancy and community.

But recently, we have seen some disturbing trends.

The most recent Gallop survey on church membership reported that for the first time in Gallop history, fewer than 50% of the respondents said they belong to a religious community.

The PCUSA can certainly attest to that.

Like other “main line” denominations, if not Christianity as a whole, we appear to be heading into a season of dormancy.

It’s hard not to get discouraged.

But this is nothing new.

God’s people have been there before.

That is one of the reasons I like the Old Testament.

It is a story of a people who rise and fall and rise again from season to season, era to era.

The New Testament is much the same.

That’s why Paul wrote many of those letters.

The churches he planted were getting a bit … well … dormant.

Dormancy to vibrancy … over and over.

Why?

Like Jesus says, we don’t know.

But we can see it happen and be comforted by it.

The kingdom of God, and the church itself is like a perennial garden.

That gives me comfort.

What does that have to do with JMPC?

We, here on this hill, are one of Jesus’ bulbs.

We’ve only been around for 55 years, but we can testify to the change of seasons.

The alternating vibrancy and dormancy of a perennial garden.

Started in a school.

A small church building built.

An education wing added.

Vibrancy.

Then there were financial problems and development stopped.

I don’t know why, but I suspect it was, in part, because of the loss of so many industrial jobs in this area back in the late 70s and early 80s.

Dormancy.

But not for long.

Soon new life.

As a suburb of Pittsburgh, Bethel Park grew.

The congregation grew.

A new sanctuary built.

New missions and ministries.

Vibrancy again!

That season of vibrancy lasted a while but inevitably, JMPC started to return to a dormancy.

Why?

Pastoral changes.

Theology.

Sports and entertainment.

Politics.

Pandemic.

Surrounded by people who think the church has nothing to offer.

The vibrancy returned over the last few years.

Finances were solid.

Our youth programs were exciting.

Missions and ministries abounded.

Then the pandemic.

It would be hard not to feel like I did when we closed the cottage in Edinboro every fall.

Didn’t we all feel that way while we were in exile from our building?

A kind of sadness.

Dormont again.

But not dead.

Just not as visible.

We were a perennial waiting for spring.

Then last week we returned to the building.

And it was joyous.

We were always here, but like perennials in the winter, we were invisible.

Now it is spring, we can be seen again.

Our inevitable return to vitality.

God has planted this bulb on this hill and God will use it, and us, to accomplish God’s purpose.

Our job is to tend that garden.

A little water.

A little fertilizer.

A little patience.

And then the harvest!

A vibrant church again!

What does that look like here at JMPC today?

The water is our financial support for the ministries and missions.

The fertilizer is our missions and ministries.

The patience is to understand that we will go through these seasons of dormancy and vibrancy as long as we are here on this hill.

The seasons of winter and summer come and go, but the garden remains.

The seasons of the church come and go, but the church remains.

Now is the time for us to tend this garden and prepare for the harvest.

We are still here.

We always have been.

It’s springtime at JMPC.

Exchanging Vows: Thoughts on the sacraments and what they mean.

Exchanging Vows

On June 26, I will conduct the wedding of my niece Alyssa and her fiancé Eric.

As with every wedding, there are three principal parts.

They will first publicly declare their intentions to live together in a particular way that we call a marriage.

Next, they will exchange vows of love, loyalty and support that will bind them together as a married couple.

Finally, they will exchange rings as a visible sign of an invisible truth.

When those words, “with this ring, I thee wed” were spoken, two became one.

But the wedding is not a one-off moment in time.

It is an event that should be celebrated at least annually.

To remember our vows and the moment two became one.

Some of those celebrations are more than just flowers and a card, though flowers and a card are good.

Two weeks ago, my son’s in-laws celebrated their 40the wedding anniversary.

It wasn’t just a party; it was a reenactment of their wedding vows.

It was both reminder and celebration.

A reminder of their vows they exchanged 40 years ago and a celebration of their continued determination to keep those vows.

All this wedding stuff seems almost sacramental.

But weddings are what I call a secular sacrament.

Why secular?

Because we in the PCUSA don’t consider marriage a sacrament.

We define a sacrament as a symbolic act instituted by Jesus that he commanded his disciples to continue or observe.

These sacraments are practices of faith in what God has done for us.

They are our symbolic testimonies of our faith.

Symbols of what we believe.

And there are only have two.

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Which brings us to our scripture readings.

Matthew 28: 18-20

18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Luke 22: 14-20

14When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

Why is baptism a sacrament?

In our scripture reading this morning, Christian baptism is something Jesus defined and ordered us to perform.

 [Baptize] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and [teach] them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

Instituted and ordered.

So, baptism is a sacrament.

Why is the Lord’s Supper a sacrament?

In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus defined the meaning of the Last Supper and ordered us to continue.

 [Take] a loaf of bread, [give] thanks, [break] it and [share it] saying, “This is [Jesus] body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of [him].” And [then do] the same with the cup …, saying, “This cup that is poured out for [us] is the new covenant in [Jesus’] blood.

Instituted and ordered.

So, the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament.

So why did Jesus institute and command baptism and the Lord’s Supper?

How are they symbols of our faith?

Baptism first.

Listen again to the words we use in our ceremony.

Obeying the word of our Lord Jesus, and confident of his promises, we baptize those whom God has called.

In baptism God claims us and seals us to show that we belong to God.

God frees us from sin and death, uniting us with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection.

By water and the Holy Spirit, we are made members of the church, the body of Christ and joined in Christ’s ministry of love, peace and justice.

Baptism is a gift to those whom God calls.

It unites us with a community of faith, a church, the body of Christ.

It unites us to all  the others who are baptized in the ministries and missions of Jesus.

Today God called Gracelyn Joy to be baptized at JMPC.

That we baptize babies symbolizes to us our faith that God calls us as his own before we even know it or could possibly understand it.

But even when we baptize an adult who confesses faith and asks to be baptized, the water symbolizes their willing acceptance of that same call of God.

While I do love baptizing babies, my two favorite baptisms were of adults.

On both occasions, tears were shed when the water was poured and they felt the connection to God.

Babies maybe feel that, too, but they can’t tell us about it.

Baptism is one way our faith is carried down through the generations.

We bring the next generation of disciples to the font where the water is poured and they receive God’s great gift.

And while the water dries, the invisible truth it leaves on the head is that this person is not part of the body of Christ.

It is much like the ring at a wedding.

The Lord’s Supper does much the same thing, but in a different way.

Jesus shared his last Passover with his disciples and gave them symbols of his mission.

Bread symbolizes his body.

Wine symbolizes his blood.

Both symbolize an act by Jesus creating a new covenant between God and us that we are reconciled to God forever.

And we are told to continue this symbolic act in order to make sure we remember that.

So we invite believers to the table regularly.

We recite the words Jesus used to establish the custom.

And we pray a Great Prayer of thanksgiving that includes these words:

You are holy, O God of majesty,

and blessed is Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.

In Jesus, born of Mary, your Word became flesh

and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

He lived as one of us, knowing joy and sorrow.

He healed the sick,

fed the hungry,

opened blind eyes,

broke bread with outcasts and sinners,

and proclaimed the good news of your kingdom to the poor and needy.

Dying on the cross,

he gave himself for the life of the world.

Rising from the grave,

he won for us victory over death.

Seated at your right hand,

he leads us to eternal life.

In this prayer, we proclaim our faith.

In the sharing of the bread and cup, we remember what Jesus did and why he did it..

We remind ourselves of God’s great gift and how we are united with God.

It is much like a celebration of the anniversary of the new covenant.

Both sacraments are to be done publicly, so that anyone who happens to be present can see them.

Such a person might be compelled to ask, “Why do you do this?”

At which point we can tell them.

We tell them that these are our ritual celebrations of our vows of love, loyalty and support that God gives us and that we return to God.

And all of this is what Jesus instituted and commanded us to do.

We proclaim to the world in these acts what we believe to be true.

We are loved.

We are forgiven.

We are thankful.

We are obedient.

We belong to God.

Forever.

So, in a sense every time we observe or participate in these sacraments they are like anniversaries.

Celebrations of our commitments – dare I say vows? – to God.

When we baptize, we are reminded that we belong to God.

When we come to the Lord’s table, we are reminded that we are loved and forgiven.

These sacraments are acts of reverence, homage, thanks and praise.

They are our testimony that we love God and God loves us.

Thanks be to God who has given us these symbols of our faith.

And we are celebrating both today!

Which I think is appropriate for the occasion of our reentering the sanctuary after our 14 months in exile.

What better way to commemorate this day than to celebrate the sacraments?

To be reminded that God has called us to be God’s own.

To be reminded that God so loved us that God gave his only son so that we might live.

To proclaim these truths in this public space so that all here and all streaming this worship service may see or hear what we believe.

And to recommit to God our love, loyalty and support for the missions and ministries we have undertaken to know, glorify and serve God.

The exchange of vows with God.

So let us remember our baptism!

Beloved people of God, our baptism is a sign and seal of our cleansing from sin and our being grafted into Christ.

Through the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ, the power of sin is broken, and God’s kingdom entered our world.

Through baptism we were made citizens of God’s kingdom and freed from the bondage of sin.

Let us celebrate that freedom and redemption through the renewal of the promises we made at our baptisms.

I ask you, therefore, once again to reject sin and profess your faith in Jesus Christ and to confess the faith of the church, the faith in which we were baptized.

So I ask you these questions:

Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?

I do.

Who is your Lord and Savior?

Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love?

I will, with God’s help.

Remember your baptism and be thankful and know that the Holy Spirit is at work in you.

In a few moments, we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper as well.

And we will remember.

And now join me in a prayer of thanksgiving for our church.

When I say, “We give you thanks…” please respond by saying, “We give you thanks, O God.

Eternal God, in whom we live and move and have our being, hear our prayer.

For the Church universal, and for this congregation, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For this place in which we gather for praise and prayer, witness and service, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For your presence among us whenever your word has been proclaimed, your sacramental gifts of bread and the cup shared, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For those who have been made your children by the waters of baptism. we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For disciples young and old who have been nurtured here in faith, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For all who come here asking your blessing on their marriage and seeking to love with your love, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For deacons and elders and pastors who have led and loved us, and by the offering of their gifts equipped us for ministry, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For faithful stewards among us who have supported this church with generous tithes and offerings, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For all the saints who have stood among us, whose memory still enlivens our faith and emboldens our witness, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

For the ministries of worship and mission, nurture and fellowship, and forall whose lives have been touched by them, we give you thanks.

We give you thanks, O God.

Receive our gratitude, O God, for the years through wich you have led us, and open our future to your promise.

In the years that lie ahead, grant us your encouragement in the work of ministry, your consolation in our troubles and your challenge to our complacency.

Give us such trust in your abiding Holy Spirit that we may find joy and peace in our common life, strength and courage to live in the world of your reign, and hope in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

AMEN

A Mighty Wind: Thoughts on how to let the Holy Spirit revive us.

A Mighty Wind

On Pentecost Sunday, I admit I am a bit envious of the disciples sitting in Jerusalem waiting for something to happen.

The Holy Spirit descends, lands on their heads and they begin to preach.

These basically uneducated men from rural Galilee preach to a throng of people who not only hear the words but hear the words in their own languages.

Must have been nice.

That’s not the way it works for me.

When I felt called by God to ministry, I did not think it was a call to become a church pastor.

I believed, and still do, that I was called to teach people what God was trying to tell us through the inspired words of the Bible.

In other words, I thought I was called to lead Bible studies.

I started doing that then and I have been doing it ever since.

Ultimately, I realized my call was to ordained ministry.

Then I became a church pastor, and had to start preaching sermons.

That turned out to be a whole lot different than teaching a Bible study.

Teaching a Bible study is reading the Bible, then reading a few books that explains the meaning and context of what is being studied.

Then you talk about it.

Maybe come to some conclusions about what the passage means.

A sermon is much, much more.

A sermon is what we call the prophetic moment.

Speaking a necessary truth to people who need to hear it.

It takes a good bit of work.

The work starts with prayer.

God’s guidance is requested on what passage is to be preached.

Sometimes it’s obvious.

Sometimes you have to go to the lectionary.

Today I am preaching the Old Testament text from the lectionary, where I believe God sent me.

Then you start the research.

What was the context of the passage?

How did the people of that time hear it?

What did they understand it to mean?

Then you ask God, what do these current folks need to get from this?

What truth do they need to hear in the current circumstance?

Then you ask God, how do you want it proclaimed?

What words should I use that will be true to the context?

Then you start to write.

Then you rewrite … and rewrite … and rewrite.

All the while gaining new insight into the meaning and purpose and application of the passage to the gathered community.

Then you have to preach your well-crafted sermon.

One pastor, Rev. Marcia Sebastian, once described the process of sermon writing and preaching as giving birth to her sermons every week.

When she retired, Marcia told me she was glad to be done with it.

After all that preparation and preaching, it is tempting to ask a random sample from the congregation what they got from the sermon.

What was the message they heard?

It’s best not to do that, really.

Because God often ignores all your work and gives God’s own message to each listener which might be far different from what was preached.

You hear things like when you said such and such, it really spoke to me.

But you know you never said such and such.

And this is a good thing.

Because then you know God was in charge.

What does this have to do with Ezekiel?

Let’s hear what our text has to say.

Ezekiel 37: 1-14

37The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ 4Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’

7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

11 Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’

Wow!

A sermon preached to dry bones in a pile.

A sermon so effective that the bones come back to life.

No preparation.

No research.

No manuscript.

Just God’s guidance.

But pay attention to one thing.

It did not really happen.

It was a vision.

A sermon illustration that was given to Ezekiel so he could give hope to his audience.

Here is some background on Ezekiel, both the book and the prophet.

Who was this guy?

Ezekiel was an upper-class intellectual priest in Judah who was taken away to Babylon when Judah was conquered.

He was called by God in a vision to prophecy to the exiles.

Ezekiel’s words and actions been described as both eccentric and even bizarre.

If you take the time to read the Book of Ezekiel, you will see what I mean.

The book itself is long but does have two main themes.

Ezekiel first responds to the question the Judahites had been asking God since the captivity.

Why have we lost our land, our temple and our nation?

Ezekiel bluntly tells the Judahites that their misery and captivity is entirely their fault.

They have made one bad choice after another and as a result they are suffering the consequences of those bad choices.

The Babylonian captivity, according to Ezekiel, is the judgment Judah deserves.

But then we get to our scripture reading where Ezekiel’s tune changes.

Though Ezekiel has been scolding the Judahites for over 30 chapters, he now offers them hope.

That hope is depicted by that sermon illustration from God.

Ezekiel is taken to a valley of dry bones.

The bones represent the Judahites.

Unburied, unclaimed bones.

To Ezekiel and his people, this is a vision of hell.

These bones represent the people of God.

Judah.

Now dead and gone.

Beyond redemption.

Forgotten.

But not so fast, God says.

God’s people would be revived.

Even though they did not deserve it.

God asks Ezekiel if he believes this can happen.

Ezekiel has no reason to believe so.

He seems to shrug his shoulders and give an evasive answer.

“Only you can answer that one, God.”

So, God says, “Do what I say and watch what happens.”

God orders Ezekiel to speak to these dry bones and to call them back to life.

He does and they do.

The dead people of God are raised, sort of.

When raised, they are – well – zombie like.

They aren’t really alive because they are not breathing.

Then God tells Ezekiel to speak to the wind.

He does and a mighty wind sweeps over the raised people and they begin to breath.

Now they are alive again.

They are restored.

By God.

Not because they deserve it, because they don’t.

God does this to demonstrate God’s power.

God has the power to restore Israel, and intend to do so.

Revival!

So, what might this have to do with Pentecost?

Let’s set the stage for that.

The disciples have been with Jesus from the beginning.

John’s baptism, the healing and teaching, the passion, the resurrection, the commission and the ascension.

Now they are alone.

Their leader and messiah, Jesus, is gone.

They are idle in Jerusalem.

The disciples were similar to the zombie-like revived bones of Ezekiel’s vision.

Directionless and basically spiritually lifeless.

Maybe holding their breath.

Then the Holy Spirit showed up like the mighty wind that had brought the zombie Judahites back to life.

The Holy Spirit descended on the disciples and they became ecstatic – speaking in tongues and preaching to the masses.

These men who were lifeless became life filled.

Their illustration was not from a vision.

It was resting on their heads.

It was in the way their words were heard.

In the mighty wind.

3,000 people joined them.

And the church of Jesus Christ was born.

In 300 years that church would become world wide – well at least European wide.

The dry bones of the world brought back to life.

Revived.

None of this was because anyone deserved it.

No one does.

It happened because God had the power to do it and chose to do it.

And how did this revived people respond?

According to Acts, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

And their lifestyle spoke to the world.

The dry bones of humanity were given new life.

Not because we deserved it, but because God wants it and has the power to do it.

So, what does that have to do with us here at JMPC?

It might have seemed to many that during the last 14 months, we were becoming a pile of dry bones.

A community of people who had ceased to be a community.

A scattering of people who needed to be revived and restored to that community.

How do we get our communal life back?

With the easing of recommended restrictions and the seeming control of the virus through vaccination, we can start the process of revival.

But we don’t want to be zombie-like without direction or breath.

We want to be Spirit filled.

We need to do what the early church did.

They were devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Here is what that might look like for us.

  1. Devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching is pretty easy.

It simply means listening to the sermons offered every Sunday either in person or watch them streamed online at your convenience.

  • Devoting ourselves to the fellowship is pretty easy as well.

Fellowship can be gathering together here at the church on Sundays or in smaller groups for food or drink or games or mission and ministry work.

Fellowship can also be financial support to the community, its mission and ministry much the way we are doing it today with the planting of fruit trees and breaking bread (or pulling pork) as a community.

  • Devoting ourselves to the breaking of bread includes participating in the Lord’s Supper as a reminder of the one who died so we could live.

Celebrating the sacraments together so we can remember and understand all that God has done for us.

  • Devoting ourselves to prayer is easy when the prayers of the people, Lord’s Prayer and Prayer of Confession is offered in worship.

This might be the most important of our devotions.

But it is something that many struggle with on their own.

Here is one place the Holy Spirit works with us.

While we are not preaching, we are praying and we are told that the Holy Spirit does for us what the Holy Spirit did for Ezekiel and the disciples.

The Holy Spirit give us the right words.

That is what Paul talks about in Romans:

Romans 8: 26-27

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We might not know what to pray, but the Holy Spirit understands our groans and translates them into prayers that the will of God answers.

And when we do these things, we will be God’s people.

People inspired by the Holy Spirit.

People with life.

Revived.

Because God wants it, has the power to do it, and has done it.

Now I don’t know what it is you actually heard, but I hope it is life giving and spirit filled.

And for whatever it was, thanks be to God.