13 October 2008

“If It Is of God…”

Preached by Laura Cunningham
Presbyterian Welcome Revival
September 8, 2008 at Rutgers Presbyterian Church (NYC)
Acts 5:27-39

Thanks to Mieke and the rest of the Presbyterian Welcome board for the invitation to be with you tonight. It’s always a little risky when a girl from Georgia (me) and a boy from Texas (Chris) get together to plan an evening worship and start using words like “revival” and “testimony.” You can take us out of the south, but that old time religion – it sticks to you longer than leftover grits in a cast iron skillet.

I’m from Atlanta, though. Atlanta Presbyterians don’t do revivals, especially when their church is on Peachtree downtown next door to the “symphony awchestra” and “museum of aht”, as mine was. I had to learn about revivals from my Cumberland Presbyterian cousins on the farm in Tennessee, or my mother’s stories of growing up in a small town in North Carolina. Or from TV. Or movies.

Or more recently from political campaigns – all of them carefully staged events designed to convert believers to a cause.

Here’s what I know about revivals. There’s no order of service, at least not on a bulletin. A revival is singing, praying, preaching by someone, often a guest preacher. A person gives their testimony, and folks are invited forward for an altar call. In my mama’s hometown – especially at the Baptist church – these revivals could last until late in the night.

Hard to imagine that a real revivalist might have chosen the passage for tonight from Acts, but after this year’s General Assembly, after reading blogs and hearing accounts from those who were there, I found myself thinking back to what some might call the first Christian revival, the visitation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. What happened to carry that Spirit forward? What made it such a success?

The beginning pages of Acts are filled with people giving their testimony about the work of the Holy Spirit, about Jesus of Nazareth and the power of God they experience in him. The apostles carry on Jesus’ work of healing the sick and teaching about The Way, just as the God of Israel had been at work through Jesus Christ. The religious authorities were none too pleased with these apostles, which meant that ministry was very dangerous work, often culminating in harsh punishment or prison time.

This evening’s passage comes from the second time Peter and John and other apostles are brought before the Jewish council. The first time they were arrested for proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection in the temple, but released on account of the power of a healing. They are arrested again, imprisoned, and then released by an angel of the Lord, whereupon they go right back to the center of worship in the temple and start teaching again. These apostles just can’t help themselves. And the temple police bring them right back to the council.

No matter what the consequences, though, Peter and John are right back at it.
They are part of a gifted group of people. God’s Spirit keeps sending them back, not just to the streets outside, but to the temple courts, to the heart of the worshipping community, and to homes, the places where the Spirit lives and moves every day. They keep speaking the truth they know. And they keep enraging those in charge, to the point that the council wants to kill them – force them to break one of the commandments.

This is bloody, painful business. Jails… violence… flogging… I’ve wondered if anyone on the Council took Peter aside and said look, there’s this group called the Essenes, over at Qumran- you all have a lot in common with them. Ever thought about joining them? It might make things a lot easier on you and on us.
I have wondered if I would have made it as a Christian back then, if I could have gone through the excruciating pain that these apostles went through, if I could have gone through those lengths to obey God rather than human authority. Or would I simply have said forget this, who needs this kind of abuse?

I don’t need to tell anyone here that these last few years have been bloody, painful business for a gifted group of my brothers and sisters, many of whom have been asked, “why don’t you consider the UCC, or MCC?”, many of whom have migrated to other denominations. I have wondered, if I were in their situation, would I have gone through all this stuff that smells like a bull’s back side, or would I have simply said forget this, who needs this?
For many of my sisters and brothers, speaking God’s truth, giving testimony to God at work in their lives is bloody business. Nothing I would wish on anyone.

But in Acts, there’s some crazy Holy Spirit stuff going on. The church grows through all of this mess. Something powerful is happening. The book of Acts describes people lining up on the streets of Jerusalem, just so Peter’s shadow can fall on them.

The Holy Spirit speaks in words from Gamaliel, a member of the Jewish council, “if this plan is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them…” At least for some folks, it was obvious that something bigger was going on. For those with a love for the same God these apostles had witnessed at work in Jesus Christ, their testimony pointed to something greater than the differences that divided them. A wisdom that God, in the end, would not let this fail.

Gamaliel, a reputed teacher of Saul of Tarsus, a great persecutor of the apostles, eventually became known for his own testimony.

These words are powerful testimony. In our day of an image culture, when it seems like pixels put together in colors and shapes make the most difference, it’s hard to imagine. But it was the words and actions of the apostles that were causing all of this trouble. The power of their experience of God, as they had known God in the person of Jesus, caused this trouble. The Spirit was at work in them and through them when they were put on trial, and nothing was going to stop it!

In this day and time, I don’t know if this new amendment is going to pass all of the presbyteries. This is what I know: that you can keep bringing people, people who are called, who are gifted with the Spirit, who know how to share the story of Jesus Christ with others, you can keep bringing people up on charges, keep flogging them with whatever part of scripture or the book of order or confessions seems most convenient. But the Spirit of God is more powerful.
According to the wisdom of Gamaliel, if plans or undertakings are of human origin they will fail, but if they are of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even be found fighting against God.

In this case, I have seen the Spirit at work in too many of my brothers and sisters who have shaped my own call to ministry. My own spirit has been revived by the witness of too many of my brothers and sisters whose identities intersect somewhere with the letters GLBTorQ. You know those stories, too – you could tell too many of your own, or you wouldn’t be here tonight.

Tonight, I want to ask you to bear some witness yourself. I’m asking you to let the Spirit keep working in you, to help our church be a place that looks less like the Jewish council and more like the early apostles, to help us to be a community where all can share their faith.

Having recently returned from my native region, I can tell you that we need people to share their stories across presbytery lines, who can go north and south and east (maybe not much further east) but at least west, who will be witnesses to the Spirit at work in regions where people have tried to silence it.

In our Presbyterian order of service, we have what we call an “invitation”, but my Tennessee cousins would look you straight in the eye and say, “Shoot, honey, that’s an altar call.” Tonight I invite you to feel that same Spirit, unleashed at Pentecost, that blew through the early apostles, in the midst of their trials, and that keeps blowing within and without General Assemblies, even in the midst of today’s trials. May the Spirit move you, as it did the early apostles, to speak about new life. May all of our plans and undertakings be of God, because if they are, they will not be overthrown. Amen.

1 comment:

Magdalene6127 said...

Beautiful. Powerful. Thank you.