"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

A Sermon for Easter 5 – Revised

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Acts 11:1-19; Rev 21:1-6; John 13:31-35 Easter 5C

I have to admit that in the past few years I’ve been astounded about the amount of talking that has been done around presenting issues – the elephant in the room – and how little of that endless discussion has involved a focus on the core mission of this mystical body we are members of, and today’s readings tell us about that mission as a call back to what our proper focus and role is in the greater world.  I also have to point out that the last sentence before the Gospel reading today, right after Judas leaves the last supper, is ‘it was night’.  This statement is deliberate as the last supper is on the edge of the crucifixion, and for the disciples it is literally and metaphorically night.  In many ways the last few years in our greater Anglican communion have felt like nighttime, with brief glimpses of joy for certain, but still night.

We hear of Peter being called to account for his actions with the Gentiles, and in particular this man Cornelius, a Gentile Centurion or officer in the Roman army.  This portion of Acts is, you might say, the account of the birth of our church – the encounter with Cornelius and his household in Chapter 10, this accounting by Peter in Chapter 11, and finally the Jerusalem Council retold in Chapter 15.  Cornelius’ encounter with God is called by some as the Gentile Pentecost, and so we anticipate a little early what will come in a few weeks, the feast of Pentecost.  I’ve always wondered why we Gentile believers use the Acts 2 reading for Pentecost, when it is Acts 10 that recounts the entry of we Gentiles into the Way.

The earliest Christians were all Jews and this new movement, this Messiah movement, was just an extension of their Jewish faith.  They still attended synagogue, read the Hebrew Scriptures and lived Torah but additionally followed The Way of Jesus the Christ.  As the Word spread, the work of the Spirit attracted more and more Gentile believers into the Christian movement.  This Spirit, which gives diverse gifts to all believers, who first gave these gifts to the Jews (Acts 2), was now giving these gifts to those assumed to be beyond God’s plan for salvation: the Samaritans (Acts 8) and now even non-Hebrews (Acts 10, 11 & 15).  A game changer.

This was a huge problem, for what do you do with non-Jews who start showing up for worship in the synagogue?  The answer, at least at first, was that they had to convert to Judaism, become circumcised and live Torah.  This was considered the normal path to salvation.  But, there was a growing body of adherent followers of the Way of Christ who had not converted and this, the church’s first cross-cultural experience (or denominational conflict) was entered in to.  The question: what do we do with Gentile followers of the Messiah movement?

This all circles around Peter’s vision of the sheet full of clean and unclean creatures.  This, in spades, is a real example of “God doing a whole new thing” with his people Israel, demonstrated dramatically and personally.  What is being undone for followers of The Way, that is the Messiah Jesus, is the Jewish bondage to the body of purity regulation.  So when Peter is told, “Kill and eat” as a good observant Jew he responds with more than a bit of shock and outrage, saying, nothing unholy or unclean has ever passed my lips.  The voice, God’s voice, contradicts him directly and issues a command: “What God has made clean, do not call profane or unholy.”

There is a strong tradition in Judaism tied back to the purity regulations in Leviticus, as a people set apart, God commanded them to follow sets of rules, like this one about food: “And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, These are the living things that you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth. Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat.” (Lev 11:1-3)  Even we who take Scripture seriously, as a literal life and death matter of faith, find these passages, well, a little quaint.  To understand the importance of these restrictions we need to know that the purity rules were an overwhelming requirement that guided all of a Jews relations and actions, and the implication of becoming unclean was an exclusion from community until they could ritually purify themselves.

The three Gentile men who ask Peter to come visit would normally pose some problem for a Jew, and particularly if a meal was involved, as this would result in some ritual impurity.  The passage here turns on the Spirit’s inspiration to Peter – that he was to accompany these men, making no distinction.  This is a profound moment and Peter, taking some cue from his encounter with the sheet full of creatures, goes with them.  As Peter continues to account for himself, he explains that as soon as he began to speak the Holy Spirit fell on all the Gentiles in the house…just like it had fallen on the Jews on the Jewish Pentecost of Acts 2.  This is an obvious and overt outpouring of the Spirit that has undeniable physical manifestations (contrasted with how many times we seem to hear today, ‘the Spirit is doing a whole new thing’ and yet when I look around all I see are others telling me what they feel).  Here the purity requirements were is all undone by God, when He pours out His Spirit even on those whom the Jews would have considered unclean.  So the command from above – what God has made clean do not call profane – echoes for these Gentiles, and indeed for all of us here today.  Peter is called to account by the members of the ‘circumcision party’, those who promoted adherence to Torah, and Peter is asked: how can you say that these people are safe to break bread with when you know that they are unclean?

Peter’s answer is instructive.  When Peter is called to account he tells them of these dramatic happenings where the Spirit moved in a physical and visible way, in what I would have no problem calling a miraculous way, in the home of Cornelius the Gentile soldier.  Once his story is told, we find out that the adversaries are silenced, and then turn to give praise to God Almighty because “God has given, even to the Gentile, the repentance that leads to life.”  It’s an interesting response to a man who has just told you that you are completely wrong about God’s will in this matter, isn’t it?

What I find really interesting in this Acts 10, 11 and 15 accounting is that there is no protracted polite and painful dialogue, no lengthy theological papers, no carefully articulated theological treatise as to why Peter was wrong. They didn’t rebuke Peter for his actions or label him a heretic. And they didn’t make a motion to enter executive session to discuss what they had just heard so they could render a verdict.  Instead, they fell silent for a moment in awe of what God was physically doing in their midst. And then they rejoiced, praising God for extending to the gentiles “the repentance that leads to life.”  What made the believers joyful was God’s generous grace with the gift of salvation.

What follows in Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council is also interesting.  The elders and apostles at that gathering, once they’ve heard the first hand evidence, and James speaks up to confirm that this development was fortold by the prophet Amos, the body immediately turn and appoint additional missionaries to go forth and bring the Gospel to the Gentile believers (Acts 15:22-35).  This sequence in the encounter with revolutionary change in the structure of the church is important: they hear the physical evidence of the Spirit’s overt action; they respond with praise; they send out more missionaries.

I’m not suggesting that this debate was passionless and quiet.  We sometimes think about the early councils of the church to be dignified polite events, much like our synods of today.  All the history suggests otherwise – these gatherings were times of intense debate, much emotion and occasional violence.  I’ve found at times I’ve longed for some emotion and real debate over the issues that confront us as Christians today, real engagement in place of endless polite platitudes.  I also have no doubt that the changes in the early church involving the Gentiles left many reeling and feeling lost – another thing that has characterised our faith communities from the earliest days.

This sequence offers an important model for us to notice, in how the church deals with change.  First, the believers look for physical proof of God’s action, that physical proof is submitted to the test of Scripture to ensure that it is consistent with God’s prior revelation.  Third, the believers turn to praise and immediatly turn back to mission.  This model of the Body’s action in the world helps us to keep our mission clear as we deal with the sadness, anger, frustration and sometimes despair we experience and see in the church around us.  The call is to remain a mission-focused church where the primary business is to enable the Body of believers to get out and to transform the world.  And yet, our lives as people of faith are often full of sadness and a great sense of loss, supported because our faith gives us a way to handle what can sometimes seem to be overwhelming if we were alone in dealing with these challenges.  I want to talk about this question of the role of lament in the life of a person of faith.

Steve Bell’s last album, Keening for the Dawn, engages the question of what it is that we are all about as Christians – endless disappointment in this world, and infinite expectation of the better world to come after this first earth passes away.  He draws on the ancient concept of keening, a primal wailing in lament that expresses what C.S. Lewis described as the “inconsolable longing” of the human heart.  I want to close by following this image, because of lie that exists in our modern corporate church, that we are always supposed to be happy followers of Christ, all the time, literally already living in heaven.  The reality of our history is that the path of the church throughout time has been marked by God’s great glory, but also by spectacular failings tied back to our intense humanity, and even for believers, the warring that goes on within our souls.  A second great lie in the modern corporate church is that the salvation of our organization will come about by following modern business practices: budgets, rules of order, secular law, business plans and endless committee meetings with PowerPoint presentations about goals and milestones.  Most of this is pure idolatry, and forgets that we serve a different master (see Guite’s poem Descent, at the bottom, to see the relationship between Jesus and these ‘old gods’…we no longer have to worry about Zeus or Athena, but the modern gods of business process, PowerPoint, budgets and business plans have largely taken their place)

Our challenge today is that we don’t understand how to lament, as we’ve been informed by the culture’s expectation of contentment throughout all, by nature if possible, and by multiple large screen TV’s if not.  We live in an era of such abundance; it is hard to imagine that we can be unhappy or sad for any reason.  Yet, if you spend a few minutes reading through the Psalms, the other thing you realize quite quickly is that God’s called and chosen people regularly experience the full sweep of human emotion.

This question of lament, and how important it is in our lives of faith is something I have found sustaining in the past few years.  Can we ‘keen for the dawn’?  Can we, along with the Psalmist cry out, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13)  I’ve been lamenting for several years now, and while there are periods of joy, I seem to sit with the Psalmist more often, asking that same question, How long, O Lord? will you forget me forever?  Poet George Herbert brought this out in his poem Bittersweet, describing this tension between the infinite hope of the believer, and the infinite sadness and fatigue at the brokenness of the world and ourselves.

Ah, my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.

At our core we are called to be people of lament and love – a challenge, a difficult path, in fact an impossible path for a human, but possible for a human filled with the Spirit of the Almighty.  We forget this when we decide we have to solve the problems ourselves, using our wiles and intellect instead of placing the insolvable back in the hands of God.  We seem to be in an era of lament in the body of believers, and our call now is to follow that pattern of the Acts church: watch to see if God will act decisively and visibly, and until that happens continue to praise and go forth in mission, even while lamenting, because that is what we are called to be in the world.  Lament does not mean aimless sadness and tears, or standing in a corner wailing about how unfortunate life has been.  Rather lament is sadness with direction, lifting that grief and sadness before the throne of the Almighty.  Lament, far from being depressing, brings us to a place of great hope, for lament is at its core intense prayer before God.

What we hear in the Acts account today, and the parallel readings in Revelation and John’s Gospel, is a call back to who we are intended to be.  A community of believers, unified in the Spirit, and focused on one goal: promotion of the Great Commission.  When differences arise, the first question is how God has dramatically and observably moved within the community, if our discernment and Scripture confirms, then we change and immediately turn to praise and mission.  If we can’t detect God’s overt involvement, or if it is inconsistent with the record of Scripture, we discard and immediately turn to praise and mission.  In both instances our response is to remain focused on praise and mission.  Sometimes that will bring us to a place of joy, and sometimes to a place of lament.

Our anchor in this time of Lament is, as always, Jesus.  I know two truths from my faith and from Scripture: first, I constantly fall short of what it is that God calls me to be, as my intense humanness seeks to control what is properly in God’s hands; second, because of the new creation displayed through the resurrection of Christ, God offers me forgiveness, profound and frequent, to wash me clean of those sins.  And so, each time I partake in confession, each time I gather with my brothers and sisters in Christ in this mystical body to partake of the Lord’s Supper, God moves me a bit closer to that new creation that awaits us all at the end of time.

And so, we echo the words of the Psalmist (30) who reflects that tension of lament and praise:

To you, O Lord, I cry,
and to the Lord I plead for mercy:
“What profit is there in my death,[d]
if I go down to the pit?[e]
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?
10 Hear, O Lord, and be merciful to me!
O Lord, be my helper!”

11 You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
you have loosed my sackcloth
and clothed me with gladness,
12 that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!



Portions of this sermon were inspiried by Steve Bell’s song from the album Keening for the Dawn, released in November 2012.  The specific song that undid writers block and opened me up to the musings of the Spirit was “Descent”, a song based on a poem of the same name by Malcolm GuiteThe comments from Steve Bell and the poem on Guite’s blog both informed this journey of discernment.

Descent  (Malcolm Guite)

 They sought to soar into the skies

Those classic gods of high renown

For lofty pride aspires to rise

​But you came down.

You dropped down from the mountains sheer

Forsook the eagle for the dove

The other Gods demanded fear

But you gave love

Where chiselled marble seemed to freeze

Their abstract and perfected form

Compassion brought you to your knees

Your blood was warm

They called for blood in sacrifice

Their victims on an altar bled

When no one else could pay the price

You died instead

They towered above our mortal plain,

Dismissed this restless flesh with scorn,

Aloof from birth and death and pain,

​But you were born.

Born to these burdens, borne by all

Born with us all ‘astride the grave’

Weak, to be with us when we fall,

​And strong to save.


Written by sameo416

April 27, 2013 at 10:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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