When I was twenty-one years old, I studied abroad for the year in Marburg, Germany. My trip there marked the first time I had ever flown on a plane, and while I knew I would be greeted by a friend when I landed, I was terrified. I had studied German for four semesters in college and while I could read with some facility, my speaking ability was quite limited and I my aural comprehension was weak as well. In the year I spent there, I gained considerable fluency that returned when I spent another year in Germany a decade later, and even when I traveled back some years ago. Continue reading
“Come, Holy Spirit, descend upon this place and upon us, and fill us with the fire of your love.” Amen.
Today we celebrate Pentecost—the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, and the spread of the Spirit’s power and love throughout the world. We are also marking the end of our program year, and our young people are participating in the service, reading lessons and prayers, among other things. And then there are two baptisms as well. Such a celebratory feeling seems like a respite from our world. To rejoice, to come together as the body of Christ across all of the generations takes away from the distress and despair in the world around us. Continue reading
Yesterday was one of those remarkable days in ministry that are inspiring and full of joy even if it meant I couldn’t have a relaxing afternoon, or work around the house. In the morning, the “More Just Community” task force gathered for an update on members’ engagement with issues of racism, mass incarceration, and inequity. With the chaplains at the Dane County Jail, we are developing a proposal to engage with prisoners during and after their stay in jail. We heard from members who participated in the Course on African-American history organized by Justified Anger and others who are working to build relationships with other churches and community groups. By the end of the summer, we hope to be able to roll out some exciting new programs and opportunities. Continue reading
One of the things that most annoys me about contemporary popular Christianity is the domestication of our practices, or really the infantilization of them. In our attempt to help outsiders make sense of what we do and what we believe, we have a tendency to dumb things down. It may also be that language and imagery developed to help children understand our worship, practices, and doctrine have become so ingrained that as adults we reach to them as well. Continue reading
We’ve become accustomed to rapid change in our culture and in our lives but still, sometimes, the speed and amount of change can be breathtaking. Take gay marriage for example. Two or three decades ago, it was unimaginable. Less than a decade ago, voters in Wisconsin passed a constitutional amendment banning it. Still, in the months since the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Defense of Marriage Act, courts all over the country have struck such bans down, including the one in Wisconsin. And over the weekend, we’ve been treated to scenes of marriages taking place at the City-County building a few blocks away. Wherever one stands on the issue, the rapidity of the change is unsettling. In this, as in so many other aspects of our lives, we’re often not sure what it all means, where our culture and world is moving, and where we as individuals, and as the body of Christ, should take a stand. Continue reading
Today marks the Feast of Pentecost, the day when we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples in Jerusalem, to the church, and to us. It also is the end of the Easter Season, the 50 days during which we celebrate Christ’s resurrection. Today, the liturgical color is red, the color of the flames of fire that rested above the disciples head in our reading. We are marking a turning point in the liturgical year, the end of the long cycle that begin last December with Advent. We begin the liturgical year looking forward to the birth of Christ. In the intervening months we acknowledged several moments in his life, and then we commemorated his death and resurrection. Next Sunday, or the Sunday after, depending on which liturgical scholar you read, begins the long season of Ordinary Time that will continue right through November and the very end of the church’s year. Continue reading
This week’s readings are here.
On the Feast of Pentecost, our attention turns to the Holy Spirit, whose coming to the disciples we remember this day. Each of the three readings offers its own distinctive perspective on the Holy Spirit. With our focus on the drama of tongues of fire and the miraculous speaking in tongues, we tend to overlook the readings from Paul and John.
While Luke and John offer significantly different understandings of the Holy Spirit, there is one way in which they converge. In today’s gospel reading, we hear “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (Jn 14:25). Later Jesus will say, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (Jn 16:26).
We see that very thing happening in the Book of Acts, as the Holy Spirit repeatedly leads the disciples to make new discoveries about the Spirit’s power and about the meaning and extent of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. There are moments when we see the radical action of the Spirit, when Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch; when Peter baptizes Cornelius and his family, and in Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. We see the Spirit working both on a cosmic scale and on a personal level, as with Paul’s conversion. But we also see the Spirit working as Luke writes. When Peter quotes from the prophet Joel in today’s reading, there are two significant alterations from the original text, which reads:
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
Peter (or Luke) changes the introducton from “then afterwards” to “In the last days” providing an urgency, an eschatalogical focus to the events of the day. Second, where the verses in Joel end with “I will pour out my spirit;” Peter (or Luke) adds “and they shall prophesy.”
There is a significant interpretation and adaptation of the passage from Joel to fit this new context. It’s evidence of early Christians re-reading and appropriating for new uses the familiar texts of the Hebrew Bible. It’s also evidence of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit to, as Jesus puts it in John, “guide you into all truth.”
There’s a danger here, of course. There’s a tendency among many (progressive) Christians to appeal to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit (“The Spirit is doing a new thing”) whenever they seek to introduce innovation in doctrine or practice. The lesson in Acts (and John) is that the Holy Spirit can’t be controlled: “The Spirit blows where it wills” (Jn 3:8). The Holy Spirit may certainly be doing a new thing, but that new thing may not be something we are comfortable with, just as many of the disciples weren’t comfortable with Peter’s actions regarding Cornelius. I’ve often thought that it’s best to declare the Holy Spirit’s working only from the benefit of hindsight, when we can look back on events in which participants couldn’t necessarily see clearly, but were certain they were heeding the Spirit’s call.
Paul offers us a glimpse of an appropriate caution. In Romans 8, there’s a sense that the Spirit sometimes speaks on our behalf, or speaks with us; and that when it does so, we are incorporated in Christ (a spirit of adoption making us children of God and joint heirs with Christ). At first glance that might seem to lead to an even more self-interested understanding of the Holy Spirit. But Paul adds, ‘if in fact we suffer with him.” So he brings it back to the cross, to power made perfect in weakness.