I had one of those unexpected fun weeks when it comes to planning the liturgy. I try to stay far enough ahead of Tina that I do not slow her down. One of those places where I can gum up the works is in the readings. We often have choices of readings during the Season after Pentecost. I’m sure everyone here remembers my brilliant sermons on the so-called history tract reading three years ago. If you are hoping for reruns, though, you will be disappointed. This year, we will journey the prophets’ tract. But do not worry. Three years from now we will be back to the history readings.
Anyway, I had a choice to make this week and had not ahead of time. Tina needed me to choose. Just so you know, our choices were Genesis, Romans, and Acts 2. Since it is the Feast of Pentecost, we had to do Acts 2, right? I mean, it would be weird not to read the story of the Holy Spirit alighting on the Apostles and causing them to speak Median and Persian and whatever other languages. That meant I had to choose between Genesis and Romans, which is from my perspective, unfortunate, as one cannot understand Paul’s teaching on the body in Romans 8 without understanding his view on creation. See the dilemma?
I suppose I was already in a Romans frame of mind thanks to the evangelical work of a relatively new attendee at our services at the Fountains. This actually serves as a bit of a reminder about the nature of Christ’s Body, the Church, in the world. Something that is made possible by the coming of and empowering of the Body by the Holy Spirit.
For those new to Advent, we do a monthly service at a step up facility down in Franklin. Thanks to the work of Bobbi Krieger and a couple ladies at that home, we were invited starting a couple years ago, to come and celebrate the Eucharist for those living there who are liturgically minded. The parish’s investment in this particular ministry is more emotional and volunteer time consuming rather than financial. I go every month, as do those who give time to serve as Chalice Bearers. Joshua always goes to help lead the Psalm. Attendance can range from as few as two or three to a high of two dozen or so. It can be emotionally taxing for volunteers as we tend to value big numbers, right? So I have to remind us from time to time that we are ministering to our brothers and sisters who are ministering constantly in the valley of the shadow of death. Few months go by where The Fountains residents are not talking about the loss of another resident. That means few months go by where those who attend our services do not need to be reminded of the truth and promise of the Resurrection and to be nourished again by the Body and Blood of our Lord in the Sacrament. To the extent that everyone present gives or prays or volunteers in that work, you make that ministry possible. In a real way, it is a Pentecostal ministry of this parish.
Last week, a new lady showed up and asked beforehand if she could come. She shared she was a faithful Jew, but that Bill had invited her. At first she thought he was hitting on her, but he was clearly excited by things he had learned in our church service. When she commented that she really did not know why churches did the things they did, Bill told her to come and ask me like he did! So, she asked if it would be ok if she stayed. Immediately, my mind went to Romans. For those who work to spread the Gospel of Christ among our Jewish brothers and sisters, Romans is the template. If you want to understand how a faithful Jew views the world and God, Romans is awesome reading. If you want to point out how Christ was the promised seed of Abraham and even Eve, again, Romans is the place to be.
I tell you all of that so you know why are readings are what they are. It’s not always random. Worse, I don’t always get it right. I may have been working from Romans early in the week, and Romans may not be the reading and teaching you need to hear today, but at least you know I have not lost my mind today. OK. Maybe that’s a bit too ambitious. Maybe you understand the method to my madness this week! It’s ok, it’s a festival day. You can laugh and be joyful.
Before we delve into these four verses penned by the Apostle Paul, we need to do a bit of background work. One cannot read chapter 8 of Romans without some deep foundations in Paul’s understanding of God and the cosmos. I know folks in the modern Church love to cast aside Paul, present his writings and teachings, as if he has a different Gospel than that of Jesus Christ. You may have heard preachers from time to time express regret that so-called “Pauline Christianity” dominates the world rather than the teaching of Christ Jesus. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Paul was a zealot for the Lord long before his encounter with the resurrected Jesus. Paul went to the best schools, studied under the best rabbi of the time, and was a fast riser in the Temple leadership. Our introduction to Paul by Luke shows him in his former office as the chief persecutor of those who follow Jesus of Nazareth. He holds the coats of those who stone Stephen to death, approving their actions in light of what he views as Stephen’s blasphemy.
Paul is so steeped in the torah and the prophets and the wisdom of God that he finds Jesus’ claims, and those of His disciples, that Jesus is the Son of God and the Son of Man to be blasphemous. To claim sonship in Paul’s mind is to claim equality. No human being is equal to God. Exclamation point!
Then, on a journey to Damascus, he has an encounter that completely changes his life. He encounters the Risen Jesus. Use whatever expression you like, but Paul’s mind is literally blown. Things like this cannot happen. Jesus died on a tree—clearly He was cursed by God. Jesus dies—the Romans are really good at killing people. It’s not as if those soldiers were incompetent. Yet, Jesus stood before him and asked him why he was persecuting Him. I see the nods. You remember the story.
Skeptics or doubters among us will, naturally, wonder if Paul was that bad of a guy. Was he really a good persecutor of the Church. Never mind, for a second, Jesus’ question of Paul. How do the followers of Jesus respond to the Lord’s instruction that they pray over Paul? Uhm, Lord, you know he imprisons and sells our brothers and sisters, and he confiscates their wealth. You sure You have the right guy in mind to take Your Gospel to the Gentiles? Again and again we will read accounts of the early disciples distrusting Paul. Understandably so. But Paul, as single minded as he was in his zeal for the Lord still is!
What happens in the interim is that Paul goes off, tradition has it for three years, to reconcile what he knows and what he has been taught to be true about God and his experience with the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. Using fancier language, we would say that Paul has a new piece of data for his systematic theology. God does not honor blasphemers; yet he met the Risen Jesus. How can this be? I can easily imagine Paul combing the torah, the prophets, and the wisdom literature of God in order to reconcile what seems in his mind, and maybe even to ours, to be irreconcilable. Like us, Paul is led to that wonderful conclusion that Jesus really was who He said He was and is. As Jesus reminds Philip today in our Gospel, the works that He did testified to Jesus’ identity. He exhibits power over demons. He controlled the weather. He fed crowds in the wilderness. He raised the dead. He healed in the synagogues and in the Temple on the Sabbath. Who but God could do such things? And Paul has met Him!
Meeting Jesus after His death, Resurrection, and Ascension causes a foundational shift in Paul’s understanding about God. Though he did not understand his preparation at first as such, he, a Jew’s Jew and zealous for the Lord, is perfectly prepared to become the Apostle to the Gentiles and instructor for even the wider Church.
Today, we see one such teaching spelled out in four simple verses. Well, they are four easy to read and easy to understand verses, but the significance is anything but easy. First, those of us who claim Christ as Lord are what? Time to wake up and participate--this is the liturgy of the Word, after all. What are we, according to Paul? That’s right. Children of God. What does that mean? Two things, right? First, we should remind ourselves that we who have been baptized into Christ’s death and promised a share in His Resurrection and glory, share in all things with our Lord Christ. First among them is this leading by the Holy Spirit.
Think back fourteen weeks ago or so. Who was first led by the Holy Spirit? Jesus. That’s right. Where was He led? To be tempted by Jesus? Technically, that happens as a result of the locale, but where was He led by the Holy Spirit? I heard it. The wilderness. Now, we know what happens in the wilderness—Jesus undergoes the Messianic Temptations. Satan tries to lure Jesus from the path ordained by the Father, in much the same way as he lured Adam and Eve. Satan offers Jesus false glory but no pain and suffering. Jesus chooses the path of the Cross and the glory that comes from God that we might all be redeemed. With me so far?
Have you ever stopped to consider that you are led by the Holy Spirit? You are. Some of us just do not recognize the promptings and urgings of the Spirit as well as others. Use the Fountains as an example. What, do you think, prompted Bobbie to ask me about doing a Eucharist there? What prompted her to go to the staff? What prompted the staff to decide that a Eucharist might feed or help some of their residents? What prompted volunteers to give up a couple hours on Sunday afternoons to minister to a small crowd? What has kept us, as a Church, from making secular judgments about the “success” of that particular ministry? The Holy Spirit. Again, skeptics may think all this a coincidence or just a church doing what churches do, but do either of those seem likely? I mean, that’s a lot of coincidence. It’s not exactly random forces and atoms bouncing around to create a solar system and life on earth, but there’s a bunch in this little ministry, if it is not of God. And as to churches being churches, do churches really have a reputation right now of ministering to non-members walking in the shadow of death?
You and I are prodded by the Spirit, just as was our Lord, to the wilderness. You might call it work; you might call it your club; you might call it your school; you might call it your exercise facility. But you and I are driven to unsafe places in the world and anointed as God’s heralds, as His ambassadors, in those places. Here, at church, we are taught and fed and prepared. But there is where the real work begins. There, through our persistent ministering, through our persistent presence, through our persistent obedience, God is glorified in our lives and people hear and see His Gospel in our lives. To put it in simpler, but far more comprehensive terms, it is in the wildernesses of our lives that we begin to claim Christ’s Resurrection.
Think I’m nuts. Let’s consider it. When Rich came eighteen months ago and talked about hunger insecurity in our midst, and y’all were inspired by his talk, who here thought we had the resources or energy to end hunger in our area? Come on, raise your hands high! What, nobody thought we’d end hunger around us if we joined that fight, if we followed the prodding of the Holy Spirit into that particular wilderness. Why? Lack of young energy? Lack of money to buy enough food for that many people? Lack of vision? Lack of organization? All the above and more?
How has that ministry played out? We have distributed tons of food. Not pounds of food. Tons! Has it impacted our operational budget at all? Hmmm. You mean we had enough financial resources, after all? Ok, then, we are all exhausted from the doing it, right? I mean, Hilary and Nancy and Jerry and my kids and me and others who have really done some heavy lifting are exhausted and moaning and barely moving because we are so tired, right? Wait, you mean we’ve had enough strength? You mean others have joined us to lend their strength in the middle of this feeding effort? Well, at least Hilary knew how it would play out when she came and volunteered to take leadership of the ministry off my plate, right? I mean, she knew we would be supplying clothes and personal items to those who came to our new pantry way back when she started. She had a plan for getting our food to the local schools. She had a plan for plugging in with ESL and other groups to expand the reach of the ministry. Heck, she knew we needed those red bags long before Andrea ever had the idea. She just had to wait for Andrea to figure it out. Why is everybody laughing? Hilary, I don’t think they think you plan and organize as well as I think you do!
I see the elbows and hear the chatter. That ministry has led to other tangential but important ministries, right? How many Adventers does it take to cook 22 casseroles for the homeless in Nashville? I’m not entirely sure, but I know a lot of you have a lot of fun gathering for cooking, wine, and fellowship in the kitchen to prepare a bunch of them, and others of you love cooking them on your own.
Have we conquered hunger in our area? Of course not. People are still hungry. But what of those who have received the food we have provided or prepared? How do they view us? Ask those who work the pantry. They have heard the stories. We helped something like 113 individuals last month. They see us as the difference between starving and paying electric bills or buying gasoline. They see us as the church that helped them bridge a gap in income due to illness. I have had elderly folks thank me that you gave them food so that they could purchase medicine. I have had children hug me because you had “fancy chocolate Advent bunnies” for them. We may not have conquered the evil of hunger in Nashville, but there are hundreds of folks who thank God for you, who see you as life savers.
What other evils do we attack because of the prodding of the Holy Spirit? Good Neighbors has no delusion that they will fix the attitudes that some have toward immigrants and refugees, but that reality does not prevent them from trying to live into their name. I don’t think any of us thinks we can fix all that is wrong with our local school system, but our ministry to students and teachers, particularly over time, will remind them of the truth and hope they can have in the Gospel of Christ. Heck, I get credit and blame around here for my work in the fight against slavery. Neither of us have any delusion that I will stop that abomination, but some of you encourage me in that work, and many of you tolerate it, confident that God will do more than we can ask or imagine.
What of your personal ministries? What is it that God has called you to do that, had you understood before you said yes, you would never have done? Those, too, were proddings of the Holy Spirit into the wildernesses of your lives.
Why this focus on the proddings of the Holy Spirit in our lives, collectively and individually? One, those proddings remind you that your are children of God. You have a share in Christ’s ministry in the world. For reasons known only to Him, God wants to use you to reach into the lives of those around you. Put differently, He wants to use you as little “i” incarnations. Your obedience and your sufferings will cause Him to be glorified in your life, and others will turn to Him because of your faithfulness and His empowerment. All that, of course, is made possible through the coming of the Holy Spirit, which we celebrate this day in the Church.
The second reason, though, is to remind you that God is not satisfied with you thinking of yourself simply as a child of His. I know, we think that’s a great compliment, and it is the way we think of it, but it pales compared to Paul’s understanding. Paul lived in a time and culture that thought of paternity and children much differently. As the footprint of the Roman Empire increased, so did emulation of its cultural practices. One horrible practice was the absolute power of the patriarch over every aspect of life in the family. One extension of that power was that the patriarch decided whether the child born to the wife was his and/or whether he could afford to raise it. If the dad had suspicions about a wife’s fidelity or worries about his ability to provide financially, fathers could have the babies discarded. They could even sell the babies or other children into slavery, such was their authority in the Empire. Places that emulated Rome more thoroughly had the infants placed in what you and I call the dump, where the infants were left to die of exposure.
Ladies, imagine yourself in such a culture. You have carried a life within you to term. You have felt the kicking, the hiccups, the life within you, and your ability to care for that little child was dependent upon the whim of the father, or in some instances, the grandfather. Can you imagine the anxiety of birth? As bad as the physical pain is, what would be the mental anguish of birthing into such circumstances?
Understandably, a big sigh of release was heard when a husband or other patriarch declared a child a member of the family. I can well imagine the tension in the household being physically oppressive in the weeks and days leading up to the birth. When Paul speaks of a spirit of slavery and spirit of fear and oppression, it’s that spirit that I hear as a student of Greek and Roman culture, in particular. I know it’s hard for us to imagine family dysfunction in other families because our own families have no subscriptions or issues, but can you imagine someone with whom you had a fight making that decision? Can you imagine an estranged relationship playing into that decision to keep or expose a child?
Dads, and God, of course, were not done. Being named a child was one thing. Being named an heir, though, was quite another! I know, you all know the stories about how emperors would play family members against one another. It seems cruel and mean-spirited by our standards. But being made heir of the patriarch was, at least locally, as important as being made an heir to the emperor. Heirs were educated. Heirs were trained. Certain legal rights were bestowed upon them at the naming. Perhaps most importantly, of course, was the fact that the heir would receive the power and influence and wealth of the patriarch when he finally died. Oh, and lest we forget, daughters could not be heirs. Daughters could not inherit any of the rights, privileges, or benefits available to a son. Daughters were often viewed as a drain on the family. Dowries were provided to marry them off, to shift the burden of them to someone else.
And I get that what I have shared with you was especially true of the aristocracy. The more powerful you were in Rome, the more these social conventions governed your behavior. But, as today, the rich and famous unduly influenced those beneath them. Just like so many today were particular designers or fragrances or follow particular diets because of the endorsement of the rich and famous, commoners wanted to be like those who ruled them.
It does not take us long to begin to understand the intrigue and plotting that occurred in families during Roman times, does it? Heck, we who claim God’s people as our spiritual ancestors have no similar story. Ooops, what about that whole Jacob and Esau fiasco? What was the point of Jacob adopting Joseph’s sons as his own? Inheritance was an important aspect of family life even in the far away lands of Judea and Egypt.
Now, when you hear Paul talk about child and heir, you should be hearing a polemic against the culture in which Paul ministered. When you hear any of the early Church Apostles and disciples talking about a simple phrase, Our Father in heaven, you should have a greater appreciation for the relationship described in that prayer. Our Lord is the Father we all wanted. Our Lord is the Father who rules the family for the welfare and benefit of all its members, not just the favorite ones. Our Father in heaven is THE father of His daughters, daughters who were created in His image and bearers of His image on earth every bit as much as the boys. And, unlike the society in which Paul ministered, girls. . . women have no cause to worry. They are His children—loved and adored and cared for by that loving Father in heaven.
More significantly, as Paul reminds us this morning, that coming of the Holy Spirit that we celebrate today confirms us all as heirs of God, not just children. We are promised by God, and we receive that Holy Spirit and its proddings, cognizant of the fact that He has named us not only His children, but His heirs! And though we do not live in a day and age nearly as patriarchal, we should all begin to grasp some parts of its significance both in that culture and our own.
If we are being driven into the wildernesses of our lives, then we know we are inheritors! If we are in that place where we think of our Lord as our Father in heaven, we are inheritors! If we pledge ourselves to God in baptism, and work to do as He taught, we are inheritors! My brothers and sisters, do you understand the significance? We often speak of God doing more than we can ask or imagine because we do not understand at all what He intends for us, but how many of us think of us truly sharing in the glory of Christ, truly sharing in the reign of Christ, truly being exalted and vindicated before all in the next life? So many of us would be happy just to live forever on a cloud with a harp. So many of us would be happy to discover we won’t be cast into hell for eternity. How many of us really ponder the significance of God’s promises to us, promises that are confirmed by the gift of the Holy Spirit which we celebrate this day! And Paul sums it up for us in four short but significant verses.
Brothers and sisters, Pentecost occurs at the end of that season where our primary focus has been resurrection. We begin the season focusing on our Lord’s Resurrection and meaning for us. But, as we progress through the season, that resurrection that we have all come to expect as a future event in our lives becomes a pressing expression of our present. Do we live as if we believe the Tomb is empty? As Paul will continue in this letter, accepting His adoption of us is made possible only through the Resurrection. Because we trust in Him and cling to His promises, we trust that He will keep His promises to us and rescue us even from death. That rescue, nay even those promises, are trustworthy because we have seen His Spirit at work in the life of our Lord Christ just as we have seen His Spirit at work in our own lives and the lives of those around us. And like our Lord, who was obedient and trusting, we lay down our lives, we lay down our privileges, and we lay down our expectations that others might be drawn into His saving embrace and live! And in that laying down my friends, we are confirmed as heirs of His eternal glory! That is something worth celebrating every bit as much as it is worth sharing, both 2000 years ago in the Roman Empire, and today in this Empire we call home!
In Christ’s Peace,