Questions and Reflections

May 2015

A reflection on Isaiah 6:1-8

Our first reading is Isaiah 6:1-8.

King Uzziah, the good king, has died. So now what? 

That's the question facing Isaiah in today's first reading. Isaiah is young, possibly a child, and he's in the Temple when he sees God. Actually, Isaiah only sees some of God. God is so big and vast, only the hem of his robe can fit into the giant Temple. Around God are divine beings called seraphs. Isaiah is confronted by the amazing majesty of God's presence, and while a seraph can shout praises for God, Isaiah can do nothing but see his own unworthiness. I imagine it's a bigger version of what happens when we have a hobby that we're good at, only to meet a master in our craft. I love photography but when I'm in the presence of true artists, I'm humbled. I'm fully aware of what I lack and awed by this person with this gift and talent. Isaiah can't even express with words and sounds what he's witnessing. So God God takes the initiative to prepare Isaiah to speak. And speak he will.

This text might seem a bit odd to hear on Trinity Sunday. The Old Testament doesn't explicitly explain the concept of Trinity (and neither does the New Testament - the word Trinity wasn't invented until a hundred years after the Gospels were written). Instead, what we hear today is an image of where God dwells. And where God lives, community happens. God isn't hanging out alone; the seraphs are there. God is the "Lords of hosts" where "hosts" refers to "armies" (God isn't just great at throwing and hosting fantastic dinner parties). Where God dwells, communication, conversation, and relationships grow. God is busy communicating to others in a multiple of ways, through words, song, images, and touch. As Christians, we see community as part of God's very nature. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God's own identity is rooted in God's community.

And since God embodies community, so are we to do the same. We gather together on Sunday. We pray together, read scripture together, and spend time getting to know those inside the church and those outside. The faith journey is an individual journey fully expressed when it's located within community. We need to see and experience God through others and through ourselves to fully experience all that God is. There's more to faith and Jesus than what we personally experience and we're called to see all of that by gathering together as a church, as a community, and as neighbors within God's world.


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A reflection on Acts 2

Our first reading is from Acts 2:1-21.

This story from Acts 2 is such a visual story. It almost deserves a Hollywood treatment. The apostles are gathered in a house, there's a sound that sounds like a tornado, and then flames of fire that show up on people's heads. This is a dream scene for a special effect artist. In the current miniseries on NBC, "AD: After the Bible," they creators did just that. There are clouds, flames, and bright lights where the apostles are gathered. This feels like a special effects kind of story.

But Pentecost isn't about visual effects; Pentecost is about something much less flashy. Pentecost is about the power of voice and understanding because the gospel isn't only centered in flashy moments. The gospel is centered in relationship; a relationship with God and with other people. For such relationships to exist, communication and commitment are more important than some visual effects we would see at a rock concert in a stadium. 

When the Spirit comes to the apostles, the apostles are given a voice. We know the apostles could speak (they do question Jesus a lot) but they were a community that is at a loss now that Jesus was no longer physically with them. They've lost their voice. Then the Spirit comes, filling them with a strange ability: they could speak languages they didn't know. So they spoke, and people who were visiting Jerusalem from other places heard these apostles speaking in their home languages. Nothing in the text says that the apostles could understand each other. Instead, it's only after the apostles hear from the crowd that they are being understood that Peter finally understands what's going on. The Spirit is transforming the band of apostles to be something it wasn't before: a community full of people who don't look, talk, or act the same but who are united in their faith in Jesus and their love for each other. This community will include old and young, men and women, slaves and free. The community will prophesy, calling the world to live as God wishes the world to be. God has always been active on earth but this new community will purposefully include different kinds of people. And this community will be invited to be Jesus in the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit to follow Jesus' commandments: loving God and each other. To do this, we, like those early apostles, need to engage with people who aren't like us, learning their stories, and discovering just how God is working in them and in the places they call home. 


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A reflection on Acts 1:15-17,21-26

Our first reading is Acts 1:15-17,21-26.

This Easter season our texts from Acts have focused on how God breaks down the barriers we create to signal who is in God's family and who isn't. The early Christian movement grew with people who were not like the apostles and who were not Jews. As God brought different kinds of people into Christ's body, the early followers of Jesus were pushed beyond their comfort zones. The story of the early Christian movement is not just a story about a group of people who survived Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. The story also shows how different the makeup of the movement became after Christ died. 

Today we're zooming to the beginning of Acts. The Christian movement is small and scattered. They're still figuring out what to do now that Jesus is no longer physically walking alongside them like he used to. The early disciples restructure themselves, realizing their 12 is now 11. The number 12 had special meaning for the people of Israel. It represented the 12 original tribes who settled the promised land after the Exodus from Egypt. 12 felt like a complete number so the apostles decided to find a replacement for the one who betrayed Jesus. 

Replacing Judas must have been a difficult job. We know little about Judas except for what he did. The gospels might disagree in the details about how the betrayal happened but they are firm that Judas turned Jesus over to the authorities. Judas, who was probably one of the earliest followers of Jesus, betrayed their teacher, friend, and Messiah. He broke their trust deeply and severely. Even though Acts tells us that this had to happen, that reason doesn't negate the brokenness Judas caused their community. 

So the disciples did what we do in times of transition, change, and healing: they gathered together and prayed. They asked God to help them move forward and they did this collectively, intentionally, and trusting that God would bring them through. Judas' memory and the wounds he inflicted in the community still remain. But we trust that they will be scarred over, reminding us that healing isn't only a return to how things were because even Jesus's wounds are still with him.      


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A reflection on Acts 10:44-48

Our first reading is Acts 10:44-48.

Today's first reading from Acts is the climax of a much longer story. A roman soldier named Cornelius receives a vision from God to invite Peter into his home. Cornelius represents a kind of spirituality prevalent in Jesus' time: the God-fearers. God-fearers were Gentiles (non-Jews) who believed and worshiped God but they were not full converts. They had not fully joined the Jewish community. So an angel of God tells Cornelius to invite Peter into his home so that Cornelius can hear more about Jesus. 

So, in response, Cornelius sends a few people to find Peter. Before they arrive, however, Peter has a strange dream where a picnic blanket falls from the sky that's full of foods he shouldn't eat. Peter's a practicing Jew who believes Jesus is the messiah so he follows the food laws. He knows what God has told him not to eat. But God tells Peter to eat what's considered "unclean" because God has cleansed it. When Peter wakes up, he's confused by what's happened but before he can think about it too much, the visitors arrive. Peter greets them and offers them food and housing for the night. Refreshed, all return to Cornelius the next day. And as Peter and Cornelius talks, Peter finally gets what God is telling him. 

God is doing something new in Jesus. The traditional understanding of who is part of God's family and who isn't is broken down. God is opening the faith community to those who aren't Jewish. God is inviting unexpected people into God's family and Peter is called to recognize that. Peter isn't causing new people to join the Christian community; he's recognizing how God is doing that and he's just welcoming them in. 

Today's text is funny because it occurs when Peter is preaching. The Holy Spirit interrupts him so Peter stops and sees God at work around him. Peter recognizes God operating in people who are not like him. And the only thing he can do is to baptize them and include them more fully into Christ's body. We're invited to be like Peter, to see God at work in unexpected people and in unexpected places. God is busy making the Christ known in amazing ways. It's our job to find where it's happening and walk with God there.


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A reflection on Acts 8:26-40

Our first reading is Acts 8:26-40: Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. 

There's something fantastical and boundary breaking by being part of the body of Christ.

Today's story in Acts comes at a time when the Christ movement starts to break out from Jerusalem. For the first 7 chapters, Acts is laser focused on how the early church grew and developed around the Temple. But then chapter 8 starts and the movement expands. Stephen is killed and everyone but the apostles flee the city. As these early disciples enter the surrounding areas, they begin to bring Jesus to new people and new groups. Philip meets the Samaritans, a religious and cultural group that shared much with the Jewish identity but disagreed with how (and where) God was worshipped, hear Christ's story. The cultural and religious boundaries between the Jews and the Samaritans are transcended by Jesus and many Samaritans become believers. Then Philip is told to take a long walk between Jerusalem and Gaza where he happens upon the Ethiopian Eunuch.

Up until the modern era, eunuch's served a variety of roles in the courts of kings and queens. They were viewed as "safe" since they wouldn't be able to produce offspring with women (or feel the need to). So eunuchs were given important roles, serving as generals, secretaries, and oversaw the money in the treasury. Even though eunuchs could be politically powerful, they were also viewed as outsiders. Eunuchs wouldn't be allowed to worship like others or participate in religious rituals that non-eunuchs found life giving and wonderful. The Ethiopian eunuch who goes to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem is a complete outsider. He wouldn't be welcomed to worship like everyone else and those living in Jerusalem view him with suspicion. There is a large cultural difference between the eunuch and Philip and, in many ways, they shouldn't interact at all. But they do. The Holy Spirit actually orders Philip to breakout of his own cultural story and interact with someone from a completely different background. 

When Philip arrives at the eunuch's side, he finds the eunuch reading Isaiah 53 out loud. In these words pointing to the Suffering Servant, Philip hears and recognizes Jesus. And once Philip hears Jesus, he is compelled to tell the eunuch about him. Jesus' story breaks through the differences between these two. Their different cultures, nationality, and sexual identity doesn't interfere with the Spirit including both of them in Jesus' body. Once the eunuch is baptized, Philip is whisked away and Philip's journey continues. The Spirit continues to use disciples to breakdown social barriers and making the body of Christ bigger and more diverse than it was before. The Spirit doesn't seem interested in making sure we're all the same. The Spirit, instead, wants everyone to know that God loves them and Christ died for them. And that's a message that can't be contained by any one culture, nationality, race, or group. 


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