Friday, September 26, 2008

Speaking of Wonderful Things

Acts 2:1-21; John 7:37-39, 20:19-22[1]

When I lived in Germany, one of the wonderful things about it was that we lived about 100 yards from the main marketplace where there was a fresh market 3 days a week. Farmers would come to town from the surrounding areas and sell fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products. And the very first stall was a flower stand run by a local monastery. You could buy a beautiful arrangement of fresh flowers for about 5 bucks!

I think that was the first time I ever met a real-life “monk.” They were mostly younger men, clean-cut and always very friendly. The only reason you could tell they were monks was from the simple grey habit they wore. I must confess that, as I’ve grown more frustrated with modern life in the big city, I’ve always wondered what it must be like to live in a monastery. The idea of spending every day devoted to prayer, study of Scripture, and some sort of labor for the common good sounds good to me. I’ve always had something of an attraction to the monastic life as a kind of fantasy about finding a simpler life.

I think anyone who seriously tries to live the Christian life in this world will say that it can be frustrating and difficult. That’s what the Christians of the First Century learned, and as we have seen over the last few weeks Peter addressed them with the hope of the Gospel in order to sustain them in that effort. It should come as no surprise to us, then, to learn that it didn’t take too long for some devout souls to decide that they needed to withdraw from the world in order to live out their Christian faith. At first, it was a matter of individuals simply slipping off to some isolated place to live a hermit’s existence. But beginning in the 4th Century, Pachomius of Thebes formed the first monastic community in a deserted village in southern Egypt, where groups of like-minded Christians could live together, work together, and pray and study both together and alone.

Of course, an introvert like me who can be drawn to the fantasy of living a simpler life has to be reminded that the reality of life inside the monastery has always been just as complicated as life on the outside. The politics of pleasing the abbot, the “pecking order” of seniority, the various ways of “working the system” were all a part of monastic life, and still are. About the only way to avoid that would be to take a vow of silence and live in seclusion, like Thomas Merton did in the rolling hills outside Louisville, Kentucky. The biggest problem with this approach to the Christian life, for all the appeal of solace and simplicity “far from the madding crowd,” is that it frankly misses the point of what the New Testament says the Christian life is all about. Let me hasten to add that I don’t want to come across as if I’m saying something critical about the monastic orders. Some of the greatest Christian saints throughout history have spent their lives in a monastic order, and have done so in the service of humanity.

But the truth is that there is nothing in the New Testament about withdrawing from life in this world in order to spend our days in quiet contemplation and worship. That presupposes that what God is about in this world is the saving of individuals. However the New Testament insists over and over again that God is working to establish his kingdom in which his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. God is working to transform all creation and everyone in it. And toward that end, God sent the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, not to lead them out into the wilderness by themselves, but to empower the Christians to bear witness to God’s cause of “making all things new” right in the middle of the world around us.

That means that the goal and the purpose for our personal experience of God’s presence in our lives can never be for us to simply enjoy God’s blessings in seclusion from the world.[2] The gift of new life through faith in Jesus the Christ comes to us not so that we can sit back and enjoy it, but so that we will go out and share it with the rest of the human family. And the outpouring of God’s Spirit on all people at Pentecost was intended to equip us to do just that—to go out and represent God’s kingdom in this world, working individually and together to create a way of life that hastens the day when God completes his new creation.[3] That’s what Peter was talking about when he quoted from the prophet Joel: “in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:18). What that means is that the Spirit poured out at Pentecost makes it possible for all of us to proclaim the good news—to “prophesy.” I like the way the Good News Bible puts it: “Yes, even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will proclaim my message” (Acts 2:18, TEV).

That’s also what Paul told the churches he served. In several different letters Paul said essentially that although we have many different things we can do (our “gifts”), all Christians have some endowment from the Spirit enabling them to be witnesses to Christ and to promote the kingdom of God.[4] As he said to the Church at Corinth: “The Spirit's presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all” (1 Corinthians 12:7, TEV).

As hard as it may be to live the Christian life in this world, the whole point is not to withdraw from those around us, but rather to show them God’s love and tell them about the hope of new life. And when we do that, then those around us will be able to say, “we all hear these people speaking in … about the wonderful things God has done!” (Acts 2:11, NLT).

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/11/08 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.

[2] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:566-67.

[3] Cf. Barth, 4.3:840; cf. also 1.1:520-22; J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 220, 223, 294-95.

[4] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 300-304; cf. also Barth, 4.3:854-59; see also ibid., 859-901, where he elaborates on the various “gifts” or “ministries” in the Church.

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