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Now What Do We Do?

Sermon - 5/06/07
Richard Hamm
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Acts 2:1-18

Great to be with you, and grateful to Dan and also to the Visioning Committee for the hospitality this weekend, it really is great to be back with you [Editor's note:  Dick is working as a consultant with First Christian Church on a visioning process throughout 2007].

Eugene is just such a lovely place, I love coming here.  I would do this for nothing [to shouts of "good!" from the congregation J].  I intend to bring my wife with me next time -- she wasn't able to make this trip due to surgery, but she's doing great, and we're thankful for that.

I don't think I need to tell you, even though Dan would never tell you, that you have one of the finest preachers in the country, right here in this congregation [applause from the congregation].  There's a lot more going on here every Sunday morning than there is in those radio and T.V. pulpits that get so much play.  I so much appreciate Dan's ministry, such a pleasure to work with him.  And also with this congregation, because you really are a flagship church for the kind of church I think God is calling all Disciples congregations to become.  I'm proud to be associated with you and to be able to work with you all.

I'm going to jump ahead this morning to Pentecost -- I know we're still in Easter time, but I wanted to move to Pentecost and read for you this morning from the second chapter of Acts.

We remember at this time of the church's life that Jesus had been crucified and resurrected just 50 days before the occasion of Pentecost.  At this point in the church's history, all Christians were Jews.  And so they were gathered for the Jewish celebration of Pentecost, in Jerusalem, 50 days after the resurrection.  The resurrection appearances of Jesus were over, so the church was now in a very real sense on its own.

The question of the hour was:  now what do we do?

I suppose they could have called a convention, instead of meeting in Jerusalem for the celebration of Pentecost.  They could have had a General Assembly, and someone could have brought a resolution to answer that question -- now what do we do?  They could have voted on it, and they could have moved forward that way.  Thanks be to God that's not what they chose to do J.  Not that the Holy Spirit can't move through the occasional General Assembly resolution, I've seen it happen, but as a general way of doing its discernment about how to move forward, I think they made the better choice.  They just determined to be open to the Holy Spirit on that occasion of Pentecost.

And the Holy Spirit showed up.  And this is a timely word for the church today, I think, because we are in these post-modern times.  I talk about post-modern a lot, and people say "well, what does post-modern mean?".  And I have to respond "Well, mostly we don't know.  The name itself says it all -- it's 'post-modern'.  It's after the last thing that we really understood, the modern era.  Now we're after that, we're in a post-modern time".

A time of transition.  It's a time, really, a lot more like the first century (which is where this text comes from) than it is, say, like the 19th century, when this congregation was shaped and formed.  It's more like the first century even than it is like the 20th century in some significant ways.

So the operative question today for this congregation, as for every congregation of Christians in this post-modern era, is "Now what do we do?  What does God have in store for us now?  What is God calling us to be, and to do?".

With that in mind, let's look at the second chapter of Acts, a wonderful story, one of my favorite stories:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them:

Now, remember, this is the same Peter who just 50 days before had denied his Lord three times.  He had been uncharacteristically quiet for these last several weeks.  Peter, who was always, it seemed, the first to speak.  Maybe the boldest of the apostles.  The one who boasted 'I will follow you to your death, Lord, I would never betray you'.  The same Peter who then turned around and betrayed his Christ three times.  He had lost his voice.  But on this occasion, seeing these tongues of fire, he found his voice again.  Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them:

 ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. [I love that little footnote J] 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

And then Peter goes on to quote directly from the prophet Joel, you can find it in the book of Joel in the Old Testament -- it's word-for-word the same speech.  He says:

17“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
   and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
   and your old men shall dream dreams.
18Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
     and they shall prophesy".

 

Now, a couple of things about this passage.  First of all, it says "In the last days".  Peter understood that after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we were in the last days.  We are in the last days.  We don't know how many 'last days' there will be -- there's been 2,000 years of last-days so far.  And, you know, it might be that there's only 1 more last-day.  There may be an asteroid hurtling toward the earth right now that we don't know about.  Or, it may be millions of years.  We don't know.  I hope it's awhile -- not too long ago, I bought a pop-up tent trailer, and I'd really like to get some use out of that J.  But, we don't know how many days there are left, we just know it is the last days.  It's time, you might say, to get busy.

The other thing we want to say about this is that Peter, the one who had betrayed his Lord, is now quoting from Joel.  And we see that this is an equal-opportunity Holy Spirit that we have.  The spirit is poured out on men and women, on slave and free, and on young and old.

That means a lot to me, because recently I have made the passage from being a young man to being a not-so-young man.  And so I focused in on those two verses -- "Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions".  And I wondered about that.  I thought, well, maybe this is just a Hebrew couplet.  Hebrew writers do that a lot -- they'll say something one way and then they'll say the same thing in a slightly different way, just to give emphasis.  So maybe that's all that is.

Then I thought, what if there's more going on here?  What if I need to take it a little more literally?  What would be the difference?  I thought about it and I thought, maybe, young people get to see visions because they don't know all the things that are not possible.  Young people have not become so cynical, that they know ALL the things that God cannot do, in spite of the fact that we say that with God all things are possible.  They haven't learned that yet, and so God can just give them a vision.  God's got something in mind for us to do, God just gives a vision, and young people can see it and run with it.

But when we get older, we learn all those things that are not possible.  We become so cynical that the only way God can get a fresh word into us is when we're unconscious J.  We have to be asleep.  And then, when all our senses are disconnected, God is able to lay on us a challenge that God has in mind for us.  Hmmmm.

Well, not everybody who was gathered on that Pentecost day in Jerusalem recognized the Holy Spirit.  Some thought they were just filled with new wine.  But the rest of them began to discern what God was leading them to do.

Discernment is messy business.  To discern, you have to engage in the spiritual disciplines.  There's a difference between democracy and discernment.  Each one has it's place.  But democracy is determining the will of people.  Discernment is seeking to understand the will of God.  And as you know, those are not always the same thing.  Although we seem to have confused discernment and democracy in the American church (and not only the American church).  So that our axiom is:  "Is this the will of God?  We don't know, so let's vote on it and see".  But as you know, the majority can often be dead wrong.  So there's a difference between discernment and democracy, and discernment is kind of messy business.

To discern, you have to engage in the spiritual disciplines.  Especially prayer, and dialogue with one another, in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  There's really two primary enemies of discernment, I find.  The first enemy of discernment is all of those things that we are absolutely sure of.  That's the first enemy of discernment -- all the things that we're absolutely sure of.  Discernment requires our suspension of all the things we think we know.  Long enough to be able to hear a new word from the Sprit.  Discernment, then, like all true spirituality, begins with humility.  

That's why the prophet Micah answers the question "What does the Lord require of you?" with:  "To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God".  That's why Jesus, when he gives us the beatitudes, gives us the first one first:  "Blessed are the poor in spirit".  Or, more helpfully translated from the Greek, "Blessed are those who recognize their spiritual poverty".  Blessed are those who recognize their spiritual need.  Discernment begins with humility.

So the first enemy of discernment is everything we're absolutely sure we know.  Because it's hard to learn a new thing when you think you already know the answers.  

The second enemy of the Spirit, and enemy of discernment, is anxiety.  Anxiety drives us to do exactly the wrong thing.  Favorite example -- when a person is drowning, they will forsake a life ring or a rope and continue grasping at straws that cannot save them.  But in their anxiety, in their panic, the straws are all they can see.  Or it's like a person who marries too soon, on the rebound after the death of a spouse, or after a divorce.  It's a bad time to make a choice, when you still have that anxiety that remains.

So, two enemies of discernment -- everything we think we know, and anxiety.  You have to be able to rest in the Lord, and wait on the Lord, to allow the Lord to speak to us.

I love this sanctuary.  We all, as protestants, refer to this room as a sanctuary, but church architects have another word for it, they call it a 'nave'.  This comes from the same Latin root as the word "Navy".  Has to do with boats and ships and such.  Why would they refer to this room as a nave, a boat?  In the first century, you'll remember that the Christian community was not always greeted warmly.  Sometimes they were persecuted.  Many of the early Christians were fishermen in Galilee, and one of their practices when they would gather on the first day of the week to break bread and worship God was to gather under an over-turned fishing boat.  So that they were not so obvious to the community.  It was a place of sanctuary, under that over-turned boat.  And that image stuck for the church.  It's been called the 'ship of faith' through the ages.  A frequent symbol used for the church is a sailboat.  That's where that allusion comes from.

Now, this (First Christian) is a marvelous kind of architecture, but it doesn't have quite that traditional ceiling, where it's pretty obvious you can see all of the works of the bottom of the boat over the top of you.  This is a little more like rub-a-dub-dub, three-men-in-a-tub J.  But you get the point.  It's a nave, it's like an over-turned ship.

 

So, if the church is called to be a ship, what kind of boat are we called to be?  Maybe we're called to be an ark.  An ark has no means of propelling itself, it has no way even to steer.  An ark is more like a tub, and it's something in which people huddle against the storm hoping to God that when the storm is over they'll come somewhere worth being.  I don't think that's the kind of ship God is calling the church to be.

Or, there's cruise ships.  I love cruise ships, my wife and I love to cruise.  I don't think there's anything wrong with cruising from time to time, you know, it's a way to get away for a week.  The most stressful thing you have to do on a cruise is decide which buffet you're going to eat off of next.  It's a wonderful thing -- it's a hotel that follows you.  But I don't think God is calling the church to be a cruise ship, where everybody is just getting their own needs and desires met without regard to what's going on in the rest of the world.

When I think of what kind of ship God might be calling the church to be, I think of those tall ships.  The tall ships in New York harbor with sails unfurled.

Now, I want to tell you something about ships.  I'm not a sailor.  I am a pilot.  And I enjoy telling my sailor friends that sails are really nothing but wings.  And that's true.

 

Most people think airplanes fly by the force of air pushing up against the bottom of the wing.  But that's exactly wrong, actually.  Look at a wing sometime -- you'll notice that it's relatively straight across the bottom of the wing, and it's curved across the top of the wing.  The idea here is that when the air meets that wing, it splits and in order to meet up again at the back of the wing the air going over the top has to go faster than the air going across the bottom.  This creates a low-pressure area on top of the wing, which creates a force pulling upward -- that force is called lift.  And so an airplane is actually lifted by the air, not pushed up by the air.

That's exactly how a sail works.  When a sail fills with air, it creates a dead space behind the sail, and the front of the sail is curved.  And so as the wind passes over the sail it passes across the front of the sail faster than it goes across the back of the sail where it takes a shortcut.  In the process of doing that, it creates a low-pressure area on the front of the sail.  So you see, sailboats are not pushed by wind, they are drawn by the wind.  They are actually pulled by the wind.

Now, hold on to that thought, and move to the gospel of John and the story of Nicodemus.  One of my favorite stories in the New Testament.  You remember Nicodemus, he was a wonderfully religious Jew.  And he came at night to Jesus to ask him some questions, even though it was dangerous for him (which is why he came at night), because he was a leader among the Jews.  But he wanted to ask some questions.  It says:

"Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." 3 Jesus answered him, [recognizing that he had somebody here who was a serious student of religion, he went right to teaching]  "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." 4 Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" 5 Jesus answered, [it's a metaphor, stupid.  Oh, no, that's not here in the text.  I'm sorry, that's a note I had in the margin J.  Don't you think there were times, though, when Jesus wanted to say "that's a metaphor, stupid"?] "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." 9 Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" 10 Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?"

  

The key to understanding Jesus' teaching here is to know that in Greek, which is the original language in which this appears, the word for 'wind' and the word for 'spirit' are the same word -- pneuma, like pneumatic tires.  Pneuma, wind, spirit.  The wind, or the Spirit, blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

Nicodemus said to him "How could these things be?".  And Jesus answered him "Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?".

We need to let the Spirit blow through the church.  But right now, in a post-modern era, our churches are suffering from what I might call "ecclesial sclerosis" -- a kind of hardening of the spiritual arteries.  It is time for us to once again open ourselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  To allow ourselves to be drawn in the Spirit's tether.

I don't like the idea of God pushing us around.  But I love that image, from the gospel of John, where Jesus talks about the Spirit as drawing us.  The Spirit goes where it will, and it draws us forward.  Let us be drawn in the Spirit's tether, as the song says.

Now, maybe you've done this with me before, so if you have, just join right in.  You know about this, I learned about this on the 'left' coast, and here I am, so just do it with me.  This is the mantra of the unchanging church:

"Ohhmmmmmm. . . but we've never done it this way. . . . ."
"Ohhmmmmmm. . . but we've never done it this way. . . . ."

You're not ohhmmmming J.  Let's do it the opposite way, the opposite mantra -- you know this one:

"Ohhmmmmmm. . . but we've always done it this way. . . . ."
"Ohhmmmmmm. . . but we've always done it this way. . . . ."

 

Like all institutions, the church needs to change.  I call that "Ohhmms Law" J.  First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, in Eugene Oregon -- be that tall ship.  Be led and powered by the Holy Spirit.

I love your vision statement -- calls you to be a light in the heart of Eugene.  Yes.  But let me give you one last image before I close.  My sailor friends tell me about those little strips of cloth that are hung from the mast of a sailboat.  They're called "telltales".  A telltale tells the pilot of the boat which direction the wind is blowing, so he or she knows how to steer into the wind.  

May each of you, as members of this body, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, Eugene Oregon, be telltales of what the Spirit is seeking to do among us.  Amen.  

 


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