Ancient Answers


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A Community of God’s Spirit

 

Let’s start with an interesting contrast of biblical paradigms:

Exodus paradigm: Revolution →→ Revelation

Pentecost paradigm: Revelation →→ Revolution!

The Pentecost paradigm can be illustrated with these two passages from the New Testament.

Luke 6:12-19 == Prayer (Solitude) →→ Community →→ Ministry (Mission)

Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

The events at Pentecost followed the same pattern.

Acts 2 == Prayer/Spirit →→ Community →→ Ministry & Mission

A Coptic icon for Pentecost. It’s a wonderful feature of Coptic icons to include women, in contrast to the more heavily or exclusively male presence in Byzantine icons.

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

[Peter preached to people of many races in Jerusalem…] 

… So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe (φόβος) came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day 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, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Can you see from that last paragraph why I speak of revolution?

Henri Nouwen wrote (in Bread for the Journey):

It is the Spirit who offers us the life that death cannot destroy.

God’s selfie. Baptism of Christ icon in our Holy Trinity church

Dynamic images for the Spirit – wind, cloud, fire, water – all essential to life. The dove? Ah, that was just God’s selfie – a one-time shot. Nothing more. The other images are the important ones!

So today we celebrate life. The life the Spirit gives. The life that is revolutionary. Pentecost is an invitation to join the revolution of God’s love and the love that we humans are capable of giving and sharing. Yes, we are capable, if we can just overcome the ease with which we fall into selfish and combative ways.

As the  Spirit hovered over the darkness that covered the earth at the beginning of time (Genesis 1:2), may the same Spirit move among us in the prayer and community of this day, and prepare us for new life.

A beautiful blessing that I found in the book Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. I slightly modified it so that instead of “the peace of the Lord Christ” I have “the Spirit of the Lord Christ.”

May the Spirit of the Lord Christ go with you: wherever he may send you;

may he guide you through the wilderness: protect you through the storm;

may he bring you home rejoicing: at the wonders he has shown you;

may he bring you home rejoicing: once again into our doors.


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The Fire of Love

 

What a wonderful wedding yesterday. Wasn’t it? The pomp and pageantry of British royal tradition with a refreshing dose of American energy. Fabulous! And the African-American Episcopal bishop who gave the homily! And that gospel choir singing “Stand By Me”!

But that African-American bishop, he spoke of love – as one would expect at a wedding. But he didn’t speak of love in the trite, sentimental ways that we expect to hear at a wedding service. He brought fire into that wedding service – the fire of Christ’s love. The Archbishop of Canterbury was seated right behind him as he delivered his homily. He sat very still, and probably saying to himself, “Why can’t I deliver a sermon like this?” But he can’t; he’s British and he’s high Anglican. And let me tell you why that thought entered my mind about the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s because that’s what I was thinking. Why can’t I preach like a black preacher? Because I’m not black. I’m Greek and I’m Orthodox, and I’m boring. I’m supposed to be boring!

The good African-American bishop spoke of love, spoke with love, spoke love. He spoke of love as fire. He spoke of love as redeeming. He spoke of love of God and love of neighbor. He spoke of a love that if it were to exist, there would be no wars; there would be no poverty; no hunger. When love is the way, there would be justice and righteousness for all. “When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary,” he said. He spoke the love that Jesus brought into the world. The transcript of Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon can be read here.

Love is everywhere in the Bible. As examples, here are passages in the writings of John in the New Testament.

John 13:1  Having loved his own, he loved them to the end – εἰς τέλος ἠγάπησεν αὐτούς – to the maximum, to perfection.

John 15:12  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

John 13:34-35   “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this all people (πάντες) will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Do you hear that last sentence? Is that why there is no peace, no justice or righteousness in the world? Because the world does not see love even in the lives of the followers of Jesus?

1 John 3:16  We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.

1 John 4:8  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

1 John 4:19-21  We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

But who is my brother or sister? you might ask. You really want to ask that question of Jesus? You know what his answer is going to be. Just like he answered the rich man’s question, “Who is my neighbor?”

This is why love is fire. And this is why the fiery American preacher was right on yesterday at that royal wedding. Half the congregation probably didn’t quite know what to do with him. They don’t hear sermons like that in high Anglican churches. They got a bit of a taste of American fiery preaching. And we need some preaching like that to shake us out of our own rut and our own satisfaction with ourselves and our holy tradition and our sense of entitlement. 

Jesus ascended. He carried with him every human experience, everything that makes us human. He carried with him to heaven every human race, every form of human existence. That’s how great God’s love is for humanity. What do we do with that love? Fly flags at half mast? Pray with trite words while doing nothing to prevent the killing of our children? Is that the extent of our love? Where is the fire? Next week, on Pentecost, we will hear of how the Holy Spirit came down on the first disciples after Jesus ascended. And the Holy Spirit came down as fire. Jesus carried our shared humanity to heaven so he can send down fire – the fire that makes the world new, the fire that brings the new heaven and the new earth. That is the dream. That is the fire of love.


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True Images

 

The book of Exodus describes the escape of the Jews from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses, the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, and the long journey through the wilderness. The people were quickly frustrated by their escape from Egypt and they turned against Moses and his god, lamenting that perhaps they were better off as slaves in Egypt! It’s perfectly normal in human nature to do this: After the exhilaration and the excitement of liberation comes the harsh reality. Faced with the harsh realities of life, most people are willing to give up even their freedom!

Idolatry is at the very heart of human existence, and we each have our own idols. Some are religious idols; some are idols of achievement; some are idols of physical appearance and attractiveness; etc. And the greatest idol, of course, is money. Almost every human being worships that idol. So when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, idolatry was confronted head on. You shall have no other god… You shall make no image… You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain… You shall honor the Sabbath… You shall not covet. Five of the ten commandments are explicitly against idolatry! No other gods… no images or statues… no use of God’s name the way idol-worshippers use the names of their gods, for magic and manipulation… honor the Sabbath – a protection against enslavement to money and earthly masters… do not covet – coveting is the root of the idolatry of money!

But when Moses went back up on the mountain to receive further instructions from God, the people quickly gave in to idolatry. He took too long up on the mountain; maybe he’s abandoned the people; maybe his god deceived them to take us out of Egypt so they can die of hunger and thirst in the desert. Build us an idol, Aaron, another god we may worship, a god we can see! This is the comfort that idols bring – they are gods we can see. Money is a god we can see. Images and statues we can see. A god who does not reveal himself and only speaks to one man – well, maybe that’s not a god we want to trust or believe in.

pristine_world_book_illust_____the_golden_calf__by_joulester-d7v32le

The Old Testament injunction against images is something that the Orthodox Church has had to face throughout its history because icons are such an important part of our tradition. We have good theological reasons for icons, and we certainly are not bound to the commandments and laws of ancient Israel. But even though we can work our way around the commandments of Sinai, the danger of idolatry persists and is a constant temptation. And let’s face it: rules didn’t work for the ancient Israelites, they don’t work for us either. So God found another way – the way of Pentecost.

Back in the First Book of Kings we read of Elijah on a mountain. “And a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12) – all external manifestations of power, but God was not in any of them; God was in the small voice instead. In the ancient world there were gods of thunder and storms; gods of earthquakes and fire. All the powers of nature were associated with gods. But not the God of Israel, who preferred the still small voice. 

pentecost

But notice what happened on the day of Pentecost. “And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:2-4). A mighty wind and fire! Just as with Elijah – but with a difference, a big difference. The wind and the fire were no longer the weapons of fictional gods; they were now the message of the coming of the Holy Spirit. For pagans, the forces of nature were controlled by gods and were used to strike fear and superstition into people. On Pentecost, God chose these forces of wind and fire to announce a new way. Wind and fire, to manifest the power of the Holy Spirit to drive away evil from our hearts and to cleanse us and inspire us to new life, new hope and vision! And the Gospel gives us an even third image for the Holy Spirit: rivers of living water (John 7:37-39). Water, the greatest power on earth; the power that can erode whole mountains and continents given enough time! Water destroys when its fury is unleashed; and yet water is the source of all life.

Wind, fire and water – images of God’s power to transform our lives. That’s the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit may have appeared as a dove at the baptism of Jesus – but we do a great disservice when we turn the Holy Spirit into a bird! Not a bird, not a plane, not Superman – but the infinite power of God. Pentecost provides us with the truest images of God. Tongues of fire rested on each disciple in Jerusalem. May tongues of fire rest on every one of us today and every day: the Holy Spirit in our lives!