Saturday, May 29, 2010


I learned in English class that you really shouldn’t start a sentence with “Therefore.” At least I think I learned it there. When you get as old as I am then things tend to blur together. It might have been English class. It might have been something I read in a comic book. It might have been a dream I had. Or something my mom told me. Who knows? Does it matter? Not really. Except that I wanted to have little bit of authority behind the statement. Since I was going to take on Paul.

OK, I’m not really going to argue with Paul about grammar. Especially since he was writing in a different language. And remembering Greek grammar rules is even more of a stretch than remembering English ones. Just sayin’.

But it doesn’t feel right does it? Just jumping in with a “therefore” as Paul does so often. Whole sections, completely new ideas, thoughts seemingly out of left field just appear with a “therefore” as though the connections ought to be obvious. But they aren’t. Sometimes.

Some people just talk like that, I know. As though you were supposed to remember everything that went before. There is a story of a United Methodist pastor who was serving a church when he got called to be a District Superintendent. He served in that capacity for six year and then when it was time to receive an appointment, we was sent to the church he left six years earlier. His first sermon back in the pulpit began “As I was saying...”

“Therefore” implies a connection, a line of argument. What follows “therefore” is built on what goes before. It is a pointer to a conclusion, or at least a resolution of some sort. It is also an indicator that something important is coming. Pay attention, it says, here’s is where we were heading, this is what I mean. Here we go!

Romans 5:1-5 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Therefore, since, says Paul. Because of this one thing, this one relationship, then everything else follows. So, it must be important for us to understand what came before. “Since we are justified by faith,” he says. Ah, pretty important. For Paul this is the center of everything. Justification by faith. It is what captured Luther’s attention so radically that he launch the whole Protestant Reformation. Important stuff, then.

There is a problem, though. I hesitate to bring it up, because it doesn’t really affect this passage. It is a part of what comes before. Yet, it is important because of the “therefore.” It is a part of the “since.” It is the foundation of the peace that is offered here. It is the foundation of the hope we end up with. So, I can’t help but trouble you a little bit with this debate. Forgive me.

The problem is in the phrase “pistis Christou” (at least that is the transliteration from the Greek). “Pistis” is the word for faith, and “Christou” is the genitive or possessive form of Christ. So, you are asking, where’s the problem? Well, most of the time the genitive form gets translated with an “of,” but then sometimes it is translated with an “in.” So, the problem is which is it?

Funny how a two letter word can cause such turmoil in biblical scholarship. But it does. There are opposing camps, and have been almost from the beginning of the church, that are aligned on each side of this debate. It is almost as though you can see those marching around with T-shirts emblazoned with “OF” and those with tattoos in gothic script reading “IN.”

OK, not quite. Makes an interesting picture of a bunch of scholarly types in gang attire with appropriate colors, snarling at one another in their turf wars, though. Doesn’t it? Maybe not. Sorry.

“Faith in Christ” verses “faith of Christ.” That’s the struggle. That’s the debate. Reams of paper have been used in making the case for each, and I don’t propose to present the arguments adequately. But to grossly simplify it is basically asking the question who’s faith is doing the work here? “Faith of Christ” implies that it is the faith of Jesus, the life he lived and the sacrifice he made that brings salvation. “Therefore, since Christ’s faith has saved us, we have peace with God.” And peace in this sense means a relationship. Because of what Christ has done, we now can approach God, we now can be reconciled, made right with God. It was his action, his faithful living and dying that did this. We are saved by the faith of Christ. But then, we don’t have to, in fact really can’t do anything. It is Christ’s faith, and we are simply blessed recipients of the benefits.

Unless, it is “faith in Christ.” Because that means that it is us, that we generate this faith, we are responsible for it. It is our effort, our work to have faith. We are engaged, we have to claim the gift, it is up to us. It is a choice we make. But, it could lead to the understand that we have to have the right kind of faith, or the right amount. It provides an escape clause for unanswered prayer, for suffering - “if you only had enough faith.” Which troubles us to no end. Or it should anyway.

So, which is it? Uh. Jesus provides the access, according to verse two. Access to the peace, the relationship with God that we crave. But then we are shaped as we go through suffering, we learn to endure - to hold on to faith. We create character, by taking the pieces of our lives, the good and the bad and the ugly, and work to shape them into something resembling the life of Jesus. And we live in hope because we see ourselves in process of becoming more like Christ. It is the labor of living, the working out of our own salvation with effort and energy.

But then this hope does not come from within. It is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Which means that the answer to the question of whether it is the faith of Christ or our faith in Christ must be “Yes!”

Is that cheating? Sorry. But it also seems to be true. It is an odd, no wait, it is a mysterious combination of our own efforts and the grace of God; it is our spirit and God’s Spirit intertwined in this wonderful dance called faith. The truth is we can’t know what is our effort and what comes from God, or rather we don’t usually know until afterwards.

Therefore, we live in hope, we reside in peace with God, we act in love in all things. Therefore.


Other Tongues

Sitting in Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville Tennessee, two rows up in front of me I saw a woman whose name tag announced that she had come from Columbia City, Indiana. I didn’t know her, but it still had that small world feel to it when I spied her point of origin. I also ran into a former associate pastor, and a couple I had worked with at Choir School and various other conference events, not to mention a fellow pastor from here in town that I knew was going to be there.

But that familiarity was not the real eye-opener. No, I think it was the diversity. There were Lutherans and Presbyterians, Baptists and Disciples, Canadians and Europeans, Northerners and Southerners, Parthians, Medes and Elamites. Uh, sorry, got carried away and jumped ahead into the text for a moment there. Forgive me.

It is just that there was a feeling of Pentecost about the place. Surely you were aware that this Sunday is Pentecost, one of the big three festivals of the Church from the beginning. Easter was the biggest, of course, and Epiphany and Pentecost were the sign posts around which the Christian life oriented. But, while Easter and Epiphany are self-explanatory in their importance; why Pentecost? If Jesus is the center of the faith, then his Resurrection and his Incarnation would be natural foci for us. But what is it about Pentecost that puts it in such a position of importance?

One commentator states that the debate on the importance of Pentecost centers around the issue of birthday or broadening. Which explains everything, doesn’t it?

The familiar reading for Pentecost Sunday is the recounting of the event in the second chapter of Acts. Take a look and see if that importance is revealed.

Acts 2:1-21 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All 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. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" 13 But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine." 14 But 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. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 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. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'

You can’t help but notice that Luke struggles to describe this event. He uses words that come close, but aren’t quite it. “A sound like” he writes, “tongues as of fire.” It was sort of like wind, but not quite, it was kind of like fire but that wasn’t it either. It is an event that goes beyond description, beyond experience almost.

But the something that happens has an effect. It leaks out into the street beyond. And passers-by are caught up by the sound that they hear. Voices, words, wrapped in the language of home. That is what makes them stop. I imagine in a cosmopolitan city like Jerusalem, that is difficult to keep the noise down at the best of times. So, overhearing would be a common experience. But this one was different. They were drawn by the familiar language that they heard. It made their hearts stop for a moment as they tuned their ears more carefully to the words.

There is a story of an American tourist in Germany. The tourist had no knowledge of German whatsoever, and had wandered off the tourist trail and found himself in a small village where he was having trouble making himself understood. He was about to panic when he was caught in a sneezing fit. A passerby smiled and nodded at him and said “Gesundheit!” The American rushed after the man and declared, “O good, you speak English!”

We all long for a familiar sound, for the language of home. We long for a connection. That was what was heard on that Pentecost morning. That was what the languages offered the passers by. So, they stopped and listened. Some wondered and, I suspect, hoped. Others scoffed, being of a cynical bent. “They must be drunk!” they shouted. If there is an alcoholic beverage that allows you to speak in foreign languages, I’m going to get me some.

You would have thought that Peter’s defense might have been that. Drinking teaches you languages? Intelligible languages, that is. Nonsense. You’re the ones talking crazy! But that wasn’t his defense. Instead he went with the “it’s only 9am” defense. It’s too early to be drunk! Or as Bishop Will Willimon said in a sermon about the Pentecost event - “Peter said, we’re not drunk ... yet.”

The tongues that were not quite like fire, and not really like tongues either, but some visible manifestation of an invisible presence, were making connections. It was one, divided and settling on each, says Luke in his struggling for words. It was one presence, one sound, and it was heard by each, who then echoed the sound so that more heard. It wasn’t an experience to keep to one’s self, that much is plain. It was meant to be shared. It was meant to be community building.

So, whether it was a birthday, the beginning of the church, as some argue; or a broadening, the opening of the doors of the church to include all, either way it was a building of community. It was making connections. It was building up the body. Pentecost is about the church being the church. Pentecost reminds us that this is a small world, and wherever you go you are likely to find members of your family gathered around the living Word and the winds of the Spirit.


Saturday, May 8, 2010

Shall We Gather?

A week from today I’ll be on my way to Tennessee. I am attending my favorite Conference of the year, the Festival of Homiletics. Every year in May many of my favorite preachers gather for a conference, a festival of preaching and worship. From Monday through Friday I will listen to sermons and lectures and musicians all designed to help me do this thing I love to do called preaching. It is for inspiration and instruction, for connection and application. It is, as I said my favorite time of year. You should thank me for going. Otherwise, I would be even more boring than I am! Which might be hard for some to imagine, I realize.

This year the Festival is in Nashville, which means it is only a couple of hours from my folks. So, it only makes sense to go a couple of days early and spend some time with them. It means we have to shift Maddie’s birthday a little bit (for which she is being sort of gracious about - sort of) and to plug Pastor Kent in to preach for another Sunday. He also was gracious in accepting the additional burden. So, I get to check in on the folks in Paris before heading to Nashville for the Festival.

Nashville, yes that Nashville, the one you’ve been reading about in the papers. The Nashville that got over fourteen inches of rain in one twenty-four hour period. The Nashville around and through which flows the Cumberland River that crested at fifty one feet, some twelve feet above flood stage. That Nashville! Which is also the Nashville that is home to some of the denominational offices and the publishing house for the United Methodist Church.

The Festival organizers have been sending almost daily email updates, telling us that all is well with the sites we are going to use. They are even sending some suggestions as to how we might help. (Which we plan to do through out usual channels - which is why I included the statement about United Methodist connections there. As usual UMCOR is already at work - you can donate too, if you want. Call the church office or check out UMCOR online.)

But you can’t help but wonder if it is a good idea to go. Gathering at the river doesn’t seem like smart thing to do right now. I remember my dad telling me about the people who lived on the banks of the Mississippi River in his hometown of Memphis. They were frequently washed out by the rising waters, and yet time after time they returned there. It didn’t make much sense to him as a boy, and it doesn’t make much sense to me now.

Yet we seem drawn to the rivers, despite the danger. The river was a means of transportation and commerce, on the one hand. But it was also where the most fertile land was. In Egypt, the growing season was defined less by the weather, and more by the rhythms of the River Nile. When the waters receded, the farmers would swoop in and plant and grow and harvest, hopefully before the waters began to rise again.

Despite the danger the river was a source of life. So people are willing to put themselves at risk for the sustenance of that life. It is that passion, that desire, that longing for life in all it’s fulness that John the Evangelist taps into in the concluding chapters of Revelation. He sees the culmination, the destination of that striving. And, interestingly enough, the destination is a city with a river running through it.

Revelation 21:10, 22 - 22:5 And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. ... I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day-- and there will be no night there. 26 People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4 they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

OK, the river is only a small part. In worship I plan to focus on a different image. There are just so many to choose from. One commentator suggests that the best thing the preacher could do would be to simply read the poetry of the passage and then invite folks to meditate on the imagery and then sit down. Oh, I wish I were brave enough for that.

Instead, let me gaze with you at the river for a moment. Verse ten is included in the reading to give us some perspective. Instead of watching the city being lowered down on top of us, we now stand with John on a mountain. Mountains in apocalyptic literature are places of wisdom and refuge. We have been brought to this mountain in order to gain some perspective.

What we see first is light. Light everywhere, but not from any usual source natural or human made. Instead, we can see, the light is from the Presence of God. And then we are surprised to note that we can see the Presence of God, we can see God face to face and not be destroyed. Amazing.

Then we note the river. The water of life, clear as crystal, meaning clean and pure and safe. The source of the river is the throne, that very Presence we noted earlier. And alongside the river is a tree, that is twelve trees. Wait, what? John describes it as “the tree of life” but that it has twelve kinds of fruit. Not your average tree, you might say. However you might picture it, the meaning is abundance, constant abundance. There is no dry period, no out of season. There is always something ripe and ready and sustaining.

It is, in short a perfect place to gather. Rivers in the bible are often barriers, things that have to be crossed to reach a destination. Until this one. The river is the destination. It is the source of life and health and wholeness. To gather at the river is to find your way to all that you need, and all that you are. But we gather with the saints, it is also a place of community and connection. We gather together, not just go by ourselves.

I’m going to visit my parents to check on them, true. But also to be checked on. To gather with those I love and be sustained and strengthened. Gathering, whether it is weekly at worship, or with colleagues for inspiration and instruction, or on special occasions with family, is like entering the kingdom, like coming home to where our Lord is and where we are most genuinely ourselves. Shall we gather?

Besides it is the best Mother’s Day I could come up with! Happy Mother’s Day, Mom! I love you.