Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Doing What Jesus Did

Doing What Jesus Did
Jn. 14:8-17[1]
  To the average person looking at the church from the outside, Pentecost must be the strangest of our celebrations.  According to the account in the book of Acts, a bunch of guys have flames coming out of their heads and start talking in every imaginable language.  It sounds like some kind of drug-induced hallucination that even Timothy Leary would have been proud of![2]  Christmas is somewhat acceptable to the outside world, because of the spirit of giving and peace.  Of course, that ignores the most important meaning of Christmas, but it’s palatable.  Easter is more of a stretch, but the Easter Bunny has become the focus for most people.  Again, it ignores the point, but it’s the cultural version of Easter that has become acceptable. 
  But there’s no cultural version of Pentecost.  I’m not sure there’s any way to have a cultural version of Pentecost.[3] And yet, in its own way Pentecost is just as important to our faith as Christmas and Easter.  At Pentecost, God pours out his Spirit on all people.  And this has special significance for the church, because the Spirit creates the church by producing faith in our hearts, by gathering us together in community, and by empowering us with gifts to serve one another and those around us.
  I’m afraid, however, that as with most of the supernatural aspects of our faith, we tend to take an all or nothing approach to Pentecost.  There are many in our day and time who look at events like this with skepticism.  After all, it’s not something that happens every day.  And the Bible is full of stories about events just like Pentecost.  For some people, that’s what makes it really hard to take the Bible seriously.  They tend to assume that stories about supernatural events must be some kind of myth.  In a very real sense, from this point of view it would seem that God is barely involved in our lives.
  Others take a completely opposite approach.  Every supernatural event, even what most strains our ability to accept, is taken as literally, factually true.  And not only that, but it would seem that similar events take place all the time.  God actively causes everything that happens in all of our lives on a daily basis.  In a very real sense, from this point of view, God waves a “magic wand” to grant our wishes.
  As with most aspects of our faith, I think the truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes.  While I certainly don’t believe in a God who waves a magic wand, I also don’t believe that God is separate from our lives.  I believe in the God of creation.  From the very beginning, God chose to “get his hands dirty,” so to speak, by creating a world full of flawed and fallible people.  And I believe in the God of covenant.  In calling Abraham and Sarah (some 4,000 years ago!), God determined to work through them and their descendants (both physical and spiritual) to redeem the world of humanity.  And I believe in the God of incarnation.  When the time was right, God became one of us in Jesus the Christ in order to take on our brokenness and transform it into a new life of peace and freedom and love. 
  The idea of God who can magically fix any problem is comforting to most people.  I think a lot of people in our world assume that’s what it means for God to be “God.”  But if you think about it, if God could have just waved a magic wand, why did he go to all this trouble?  It would seem to me the answer is that’s not the way God works--it’s not the way God has ever worked.  God has always gotten involved in the ordinary experience of human beings. And at least part of the reason why God has chosen to work in this seemingly frustrating way is that God wants us to respond to him in love--as a choice that we make freely.  God doesn’t want puppets he can manipulate.  He wants people who choose to accept his love, and who in turn choose to share that love with others. 
  That’s why God created all this world in the first place--as an act of love.  And that’s why God entered our human existence in Jesus--to demonstrate what that love looks like in the life of a flesh-and-blood person.  And the whole project is designed to develop you and me into people who freely choose to share that same love with those around us.  That’s what God’s design has been from the very beginning--shaping us into people who try to be like Jesus in our daily lives.
  And, in my mind, that’s what Pentecost is all about. Notice that in our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells his disciples that when the Spirit lives in them, they will “do the works I do, and in fact will do greater works than these” (Jn. 14:12).  I’m not sure what “greater works” Jesus had in mind, but I can think of no “greater work” than people living out the character of Jesus, doing the things he did, relating to people with love as he would.  And it seems to me that was the purpose for God pouring out his Spirit on “all flesh” at Pentecost.[4]
  This may sound like a much tamer version of Pentecost that we’re used to.  We’re used to the whole idea of the Spirit poured out as a means of enabling mere humans to work miracles.  If you read the Book of Acts from a certain perspective, that’s the impression you can get. But John’s version of the Spirit coming to create the church gives us a different perspective with which to view the Acts of the Apostles, and the whole Christian life, for that matter.[5]  Throughout the story of the Church there have been people who have become so filled with the Spirit that it’s almost as if they become the living presence of Jesus himself in our midst.  I think that’s the point of it all--creation, covenant, incarnation, and Pentecost: to enable us to live our lives by doing what Jesus did.[6]

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX on 5/19/2013.
[2] On Timothy Leary’s advocacy of expanding the consciousness through hallucinogens, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timothy_Leary.
[3] Cf. Barbara Brown Taylor, “God’s Breath,” Journal for Preachers 26 (Pentecost 2003):37, where she observes the lack of “Pentecost Cards” in the Hallmark line.
[4] Cf. Adreas J. K√∂stenberger, “The ‘Greater Works’ of the Believer According to John 14:12,” Didaskalia 6 (Spring 1995): 41, where he says that it is the Spirit poured out on the disciples “who continues the revelation and work of Jesus who is now exalted. ... The ‘greater works’ are thus works of the exalted Christ through believers.”  Cf. also Gordon Fee, “John 14:8-18,” Interpretation 43 (April 1989): 174, where he says that “the ‘abiding Spirit’ is also the key to their continuing the ‘works’ of Jesus.”
[5] cf. Brown Taylor, “God’s Breath,” 39, where she observes that, according to John’ story of the birth of the church, “the church has received the Holy Spirit, the world has not, and it is the church's job to bring the Spirit into the world.”
[6] Cf. St. Augustine, Tractates on John, 71.3, where he explains the “greater work” of the Apostles by saying “it is all by His doing such in or by them, and not as if they did them of themselves.”  Cf. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf107.iii.lxxii.html.

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