08 June 2009

The Church’s First Mistake

Acts 1:3-17, 21-26, 2:1-12
Rev. Chris Shelton

It didn’t just come from nowhere, you know – that Pentecost Spirit. The rush of the wind – the dancing flames – the seemingly drunken disciples…it didn’t just show up, as if returning early from some delightful South American vacation. The Spirit came, not because its Blackberry reminded it, or because the Presbyterian Planning Calendar told it that the day was appropriate. The Spirit came and took the disciples by storm because it had to…it couldn’t delay another minute.

To get there, though – to listen for why the Spirit so urgently arrived, we have to go back. We have to rewind the tape we so eagerly fast-forwarded. We do love the pyrotechnics, the mystery, the drama of it all…let’s face it, the flames… But that’s not where the story starts. First, we return to a hillside near Jerusalem.

Listen for the Spirit speaking in these verses from Acts, chapter 1.

3 After his suffering Jesus presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of God. "This," Jesus said, "is what you have heard from me;
5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"
7 He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the our great Parent has set by his own authority.
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two mysterious ones in white robes stood by them.
11 They said, "People of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day's journey away.

15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said,
16 "Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus--
17 for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry."

21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us,
22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us-- one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection."
23 So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.
24 Then they prayed and said, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen
25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place."
26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

I think Luke deserves a commendation. Luke, you may recall, is the traditional author of our story, the author of the New Testament’s two volume series – Luke and Acts. Tradition also tells us that Luke was a physician. What tradition has never revealed until now, is that Luke was clearly a Southern Gentleman. Trust me, it takes one to know one. This is clearly revealed here in chapter one. Did you see it? I know it’s tricky – you actually have to listen for what Luke didn’t say. He didn’t say, for example, that Peter could occasionally be a blathering idiot. Eh, perhaps I’ve been among the Yankees too long. Suffice it to say that Luke gently, mannerly, overlooks the fact that the disciples have made the first mistake of the post-ascension church. They did not do what Jesus asked them to – they did not stay put and wait for the Holy Spirit…they tried to go it on their own. And in so doing, a rather unfortunate pattern of the church was established…

But Luke doesn’t say a word about this – he just tells the story in a gentlemanly way. And I don’t fault him for it…and I don’t fault those early disciples either. I mean, really, they’ve been on an emotional roller-coaster these last several weeks. Jesus leads them into Jerusalem on a stolen donkey as the crowds celebrate. Next thing you know he’s in the temple, turning over the tables. By Thursday, he joins them in a meal of memory and promise – mystifying them with the broken bread and the outpoured cup. Before they know it, they’re out in the cold of the night, trying to keep awake with little success, when soldiers are on them and Jesus is lead away. In fear they scatter – just a few of them seeing the trials, and ultimately the crucifixion. After fleeing as they did, who knows how, but somehow they found each other – fear draws people together, I guess. After hiding out for a couple of days, they get the rumor from some of the women that the tomb is empty – and then Jesus seems to be popping up all over the place…on roads, through walls, at tables, in gardens…sometimes you can touch him, sometimes you can’t…

Some of them, bewildered by it all, try to go back to work at their fisher boats – but Jesus turns up at the seashore, as if to call them again.

Finally, they’ve come back together and are gathered on a hillside. It’s been 40 days, and it’s just settling in that Jesus is really alive and with them. Someone dares to ask what they’ve all been thinking – “Is it time, Lord, are you going to restore Israel now?” It’s awfully hard to shake an idea once you have it. Even after all this, they still think his mission was to set Israel back apart from the rest of the world. They have yet to embrace that his Kingdom, his Israel, is without borders.

“Just wait,” Jesus says, “God’s timing for all things – not yours…no matter how much it may drive you crazy.”

And then, he’s gone – lifted into the clouds. They stand there staring, mouths again agape. (I editorially suspect that Peter thought back to the last time Jesus had done such a physical miracle…remember, the walking on the water bit and how he had wanted in on it …and thought to himself, “I wanna fly.” But I digress.)

Angelic types have to swoop in as if to say, “People – stop staring and get back to doing what Jesus asked you to do.”

So – somewhere in all of this – a mistake was bound to happen. Did they go home and wait until the Spirit moved? Did they follow Christ’s lead and prepare themselves for the coming of the Spirit? Did they reflect on Christ’s call in their lives and how they would soon be sharing the Good News in all the world, and inviting others to join in the witness? No. They did what all good Christians seem to do when avoiding Christ’s call. They tried to figure out ordination standards.

I mean, I do give them some credit. Their system was much less bloody than our Presbyterian one. Thinking they needed to fill in the gap left by Judas, they hold a lottery to see who gets to be the new number 12. Peter says that this is to help them decide who shall “become a witness with us to his resurrection.”

Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater… By now you’d think he’d understand that they all are called to be witnesses to the Resurrection – that we all are called to be witnesses.

Peter posed it as a choice, a vote, between Joseph Justus and Matthias. The lot fell on Matthais. My heart goes out to Joseph Justus – the first ordination denied by the church. I suspect, and tradition tells us that he went on to preach anyway, with or without the credential, and with out without the pension plan. But we keep living out this pattern – we forget the joyous news of the Resurrection will not be confined, any more than Jesus was confined by a tomb, and it is for everyone to share… we’ve kept out persons of color, folks who’ve been divorced, persons with disabilities, the struggle for women goes on, and the journey toward inclusiveness for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons in the church seems an especially long one, lately… But I digress again, or do I?

Gentlemanly Luke doesn’t point out this mistake… He simply records that they did what they did. But now, you see, here’s where we get to flip the page to see what happened next. Narratively speaking, at least, the wind begins to blow, fire from heaven comes down, and before you know it everyone is speaking, and everyone is hearing in their own languages. The Pentecost Spirit comes storming in, because it had to, it couldn’t wait another minute. Charging in as if to say – “this Church, this message, this New Life will be for everyone…and no walls, no votes, no nothing, will stand in my way.”

Not as gentlemanly as Luke, that Spirit, I guess – or as ladylike if you prefer…but still willing to put up with a lot…

I want to celebrate that just last week we glimpsed that Wind still at work. Our church of ancestry, the Church of Scotland, did what our own PCUSA has been struggling to do. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has affirmed the call of the Rev. Scott Rennie – who becomes the first openly gay and partnered minister in the history of that denomination. I am proud to call Scott and his partner David dear friends. I like to think that Joseph Justus is proud, too – knowing that there’s one less person who has to know the sting of a vote that tries to confine the Spirit.

It’s fear, that restless demon, that we face down in the long run. It was fear that got the better of Peter…and I know I’ve been hard on him, but God loves Peter, by the way. But Peter fell prey to his fears – he didn’t wait for the Spirit like Jesus said. He wasn’t sure what the Spirit was going to do anyway – or what it looked like. He thought maybe he could control the Spirit by getting out ahead of it…keep it in line…keep it comfortable, keep it safe. He was afraid of what might happen if it got out to everyone. And so, Peter figured, let’s keep it to ourselves…let’s define an “us” so that we can keep out the “them”… and we can decide this thing by a vote.

Scott, in the week leading up to the vote in Scotland, was asked by the Press about the anxiety of it all. "There is so much fear in this debate," Scott said. "And fear is the antithesis of the gospel. The gospel is about hope not fear, love not loathing.”

Someone else asked him, “what do you have left if you lose?” I’m sure he gave a bright smile as he responded, “What is left? Well, the good news and the hope of the gospel is left. The constant possibility that people and society can be transformed to be more just, more peaceful, more loving. The whole notion that the kingdom of God can come. It's not bad to be getting on with."

Now there’s a Scottish gentleman for you.

Indeed, friends, as we grapple with the grief of this vote…mixed with the joy of the strides we have made…we must surely keep in mind that we grapple with nothing new. The Church is still reckoning with its first mistake. And thank God, the Spirit still is, too.

And there will be more mistakes to come, goodness knows – but as Scott reminds us, and as Joseph Justus surely knows – the Good News is still there, and we all are included in it. Not one will ultimately be left out. The Resurrection is still unfolding! And, no matter what some may say – no matter what the ballots read – no matter what Peter or Parker or any Presbytery may try to tell you – we all are called to be witnesses.

And I feel the wind blowing.

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