ritual purity

elements of the world

Have you heard the saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees”?  When I was young, I had no idea what that meant.  Why can’t you see the forest?  Isn’t it made up of trees?  If you can’t see the trees, then how can you see the forest?  Of course, the point is that, by focusing just on the individual details, it’s impossible to see the grand structure.

1 co Joan Chittister tells the story, “In the Middle Ages, the tale goes, a traveler asked three hard-at-work stone masons what they were doing.  The first said, ‘I am sanding down this block of marble.’  The second said, ‘I am preparing a foundation.’  The third said, ‘I am building a Cathedral.’”[1]

Surely all of them were focused on the precise aspects of what they were doing.  They hadn’t lost sight of what they were doing.  Still, as we move along, we notice an expansion of vision, a deeper understanding.  By not simply focusing on the individual details, a growing awareness of the grand structure becomes possible.

When Banu gives me the list of ingredients in a dish she’s preparing, I take notice of certain details, certain elements.  One of the big ones is “onions.”  I do not like onions.  I really do not like onions.  When she’s cooking them, I complain that she’s employing chemical warfare.

2 coShe often gives me the explanation that I won’t be able to taste them.  My reply is usually along the lines of, “So why use onions if I won’t be able to taste them?”  Because, she says, they combine with the other ingredients to bring out the flavor.  In a way, the onions serve as a sort of catalyst.  By mixing with the other elements, they bring about a change that otherwise wouldn’t happen.  So they serve a valuable purpose!  By focusing on that single detail, I miss out on the grand structure.

But I still don’t like them.

In his letter to the church in Colossae, St. Paul issues a similar warning.  (Though it has nothing to do with onions!)  His warning regards not embracing a full life in Christ.  He wants to warn them against certain errors.  A big part of his message involves a term that appears twice in chapter 2.

In verses 8 and 20, we have the Greek word στοιχεια (stoicheia).  Stoicheia is not an easy word to translate.  In today’s passage, it is rendered as “elemental spirits.”  In the New King James Version, it is “principles of the world.”  It’s not easy to translate, because it can mean different things.  Here’s a quick thumbnail sketch:

In 2 Peter 3:10, we hear of the day of the Lord arriving, the heavens passing away, and the elements (the stoicheia) being dissolved with fire.  This goes back to the ancient concept of the elements as earth, wind, fire, and water.

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In Hebrews 5:12, the author talks about becoming dull in understanding.  The hearers are told, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements (the stoicheia) of the oracles of God.  You need milk, not solid food.”  In effect, they need to go back to the beginning, to relearn the ABCs.

In Galatians 4, the church is reminded that they have been freed of the requirements of the Jewish law.  They’re no longer minors; they are no longer “enslaved to the elemental spirits (the stoicheia) of the world” (v. 3).  And so, we come back to Colossians.

I should quickly add, just to muddy the waters a bit, that the definitions I mentioned are not shared by everyone.  There has been plenty of debate down through the ages.  Included in the debate is that, in some places, actual demons or spirits are intended.  And then others jump in, saying stoicheia didn’t mean that until a couple of centuries later.

We might say that stoicheia are the most primary component of whatever we’re talking about: the basic element, the basic principle.

Just as with missing the forest for the trees and losing sight of the whole structure for the stone before one’s face, the apostle Paul cautions the Colossians to not lose themselves in unhelpful details.  These are details that threaten to bog them down, to take their eyes off the prize.

“See to it,” he says, “that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (v. 8).  Another translation reads, “Make sure that no one captivates you with the empty lure of a ‘philosophy’ of the kind that human beings hand on” (New Jerusalem Bible).

One place we can find plenty of empty lures, empty philosophies, is on Facebook.  A whole lot of emptiness gets posted there, emptiness which is designed to captivate.  This emptiness is not designed to inform in a sincere way but to lure and stir up strife.  For example, a video was recently sent to me purporting to be a current member of Congress expressing the benefits of spreading Islam throughout the US.  However, a simple look at the timestamp showed it dated back to 1989.  The member of Congress in question would have been thirteen years old at the time.  It’s safe to say the woman in the video was older than thirteen!

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In chapter 1, Paul celebrates how God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (v. 13).  To return to that darkness, to embrace the empty lure, the empty deceit, is to revert, to go back to slavery.  That slavery is more than what’s called “fake news.”  It is the whole range of bogus requirements promoted as the way of salvation.

However, there’s no need to be afraid.

For countless millennia, humans have observed the stars and noted their movements.  We have gazed and admired their awesome beauty.  And that word “awesome” should be taken literally.  We have been in awe—we have revered—those diamonds in the sky.  We have often thought of them as gods, or at least spirits, and made them objects of veneration, objects of worship.  We have worshipped the creation rather than the Creator.

In time, we devised practices and customs to direct us in faith and in life together.  Sometimes those traditions have come to be seen as divine in and of themselves.  Defying these elemental spirits, these principles of the world, could have dire consequences!

Robert Paul Roth comments , “Paul teaches the Colossians and us that we need have no fear.”  Speaking of those who insist on adding to Christ those elemental spirits, “We need no code of regulations, no bodily or spiritual exercises that we can add up on an account sheet to balance our debts with credits.”[2]

Sadly, we still have our own stoicheia, our own “elemental spirits of the universe.”  We worship our culture, our cars, our cats!  We worship our concepts themselves.  Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with having certain beliefs.  They identify us; they help give meaning to life.  Still, it’s possible to worship even our concept of God.  You know, the two are not the same!  We can put our economic or political system in the place of God.

Indeed, as Walter Wink notes, “No age has ever been more in the thralldom of the stoicheia; no age has been less aware of its bondage.”[3]

The good news, as verse 15 tells us, is that Christ has “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”  He has stripped them of their power and put them on parade.

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I’m reminded of the so-called perp walk, in which the arrested suspect is marched in public before cameras and shouted questions.  And then we might have the medieval-like spectacle of people gathering around and yelling, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at the unfortunate person.  (Well, at least, I’ve seen it done in movies!)

The apostle tells the church “do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths” (v. 16).  Those are some of the bogus religious requirements I mentioned earlier.  He adds, “These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (v. 17).  They are only a shadow.  Another way of putting it might be, “Don’t be scared of your shadow!”

6 coI like what Paul says in the last part of the chapter.  “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe [there’s the stoicheia again], why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” (v. 20).  I really like his question about their submitting to certain regulations.  “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? (v. 21).  I can’t help but think Paul’s injecting a lot of humor.  He’s having a good time!

Apparently, the late Eugene Peterson thought so, too.  Here’s how he sums up that last bit in The Message:

“So, then, if with Christ you’ve put all that pretentious and infantile religion behind you, why do you let yourselves be bullied by it?  ‘Don’t touch this!  Don’t taste that!  Don’t go near this!’  Do you think things that are here today and gone tomorrow are worth that kind of attention?  Such things sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice.  They even give the illusion of being pious and humble and ascetic.  But they’re just another way of showing off, making yourselves look important.”

Clearly, we can mess up, be led astray, by worshipping these unworthy things.  But that leads to the origin of the word “worship” itself.  It comes from the Old English word woerthscipe, which means “worthy-ship.”  As we just saw, there are those who pronounce us “unworthy” if we fail their expectations of worship.

There are plenty of those “elements of the world” floating around which would claim our allegiance.  Yet Paul says the elemental spirits have been overthrown by Christ.  We are reminded that we “are now under the rule of Christ who has disarmed the powers that formerly ruled over us.  Therefore we are now free to walk with the wisdom of Christ and not by vain and deceitful human traditions.”[4]

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What elements of the world do we face?  What thrones or dominions or rulers or powers rise against us?  Do we still live as though we belonged to the world?  Paul says we “were buried with [Christ] in baptism, [and we] were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (v. 12).  We don’t enter the waters of baptism alone.  We aren’t raised from the waters of baptism alone.  Christ is with us, in and through the church, which is his body.

Alone, we’re helpless.  The elements of the world are too strong, too secretive, too seductive.  They play on our fears, our pains, our hatreds.

8 coHowever, together with Christ in the one holy catholic and apostolic church, we are more than conquerors.  We are more than conquerors, because in Christ, the war has already been won.  We’re just on mopping up duty.  The sun is setting on those elements, those principles of the world.  We need not be scared of their shadow.

 

[1] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 111.

[2] Robert Paul Roth, “Christ and the Powers of Darkness: Lessons from Colossians,” Word and World 6:3 (1986), 343.

[3] Walter Wink, “The Elements of the Universe in Biblical and Scientific Perspective,” Zygon 13:3 (September 1978), 240.

[4] Roth, 343.


crafting another way

When Banu and I were at seminary, there were three floors in the main building set aside for residence.  We lived on the third floor (mind you, in separate rooms before getting married!).  Up on the fourth floor, there were a number of students from India.  Constantly emanating from the community kitchen was the unmistakable scent of curry.  I think the aroma had seeped into every counter and shelf.  That strong smell would waft up and down the hallway.

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When you live with people from all over the world, you learn about a lot of different cultures.  And that could mean learning to appreciate—or at least to tolerate—the smell of curry, whether you like it or not!  (By the way, I do like curry—just not a whole lot of it at once!)

Try not to salivate too much, because I’ll be returning to the subject of food in a few minutes!

Speaking of different cultures, Luke, the author of the book of Acts, mentions a variety of them, as he and his friends travel around the Roman Empire.

In today’s reading, we hear about Tabitha, who lives in Joppa (modern day Tel Aviv).  He calls her “a disciple” (v. 36).  It’s the only time in the Bible that the Greek word for “female disciple” is used (μαθητρια, mathētria).

We’re introduced to her while the apostle Peter is in Lydda, a nearby town.  While he’s there, Tabitha dies.  Knowing that he’s in the neighborhood, some people send word, giving him the sad news.

Luke makes a point of giving us her name, which means “gazelle,” in both Aramaic (Tabitha), and in Greek (Dorcas).  Luke’s the only New Testament writer who is a Gentile.  He has life experience in bridging the gap between Jew and Gentile.

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[“St. Tabitha” by reinkat]

Tabitha might be the same way.  One idea is that this woman with two names has, in her ministry, worked with people from all kinds of backgrounds.  She’s a “cultural hybrid.”  She’s at home in her own culture, but also in the cultures of the people around her.[1]

In other words, she has taken the time to expand her identity.  She can relate to many different people.  And she has done this in a loving way.  That’s why, as we see in verse 39, after Peter shows up, “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.”

We’re told that “Peter put all of [the widows] outside and knelt down and prayed.  He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’  Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up” (v. 40).

As you can see, the lectionary appoints this text for the season of Easter.  (Which makes sense, with all of this rising from the dead business.)  Because of that, it’s been said “wherever the power of death is overcome by the power of resurrected life, we see again the power of God alive in God’s world.”[2]  In raising Tabitha, Peter is showing—and he himself is being shown—how the Lord is crafting another way, a new way.

I use that word “crafting” quite deliberately.  It speaks to the sense of art and beauty that we see.  Tabitha crafted wonderful garments to share with others who both admired and needed them.

The Acts of the Apostles, according to some people, should be called the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.”  That wouldn’t be a bad name!  The Spirit is evident in what the young church is doing, in both success and failure.  The Spirit is certainly evident in the raising of Tabitha, but even more importantly, the Spirit is evident in the beauty that is her life—and also in ours.

Ac 3Aside from the drama and spectacle (raising the dead, speaking in tongues, etc.), the power of the Spirit is seen in the halting, stumbling efforts that this community of people from various backgrounds demonstrates in their life together.  Jürgen Moltmann calls them “the Pentecost community,” and he says they “always have ‘more than enough.’”[3]

Why is that?  “Because the power of the resurrection and the Spirit of fellowship have liberated them from the fear of death and from anxiety about life.  If God is for us, if God is in our midst, between each and all of us, then there is no longer any want, in any sector of life…”  [The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.]

“That is the message of the Pentecost community in Jerusalem, which made so many rich.  And that is their message to us as well.”

One of the amazing things about the Holy Spirit is that there is always more than enough.  Can we trust that?  Can we trust the call and receive the courage it takes to be a Pentecost community?  So often, we operate from a mentality of scarcity, and it affects everything we do.  We miss out on abundance of Spirit, generosity of Spirit.  We miss out on celebration of Spirit.

Luke makes a point about this at the end of our passage.  I like the way he closes the chapter.  After Tabitha is raised, just as in Lydda, celebrations begin.  Hear verse 42: “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”  For sure, that’s a cause for celebration.  Do we honestly think he’s talking about a bunch of folks with long, grim faces?

Ac 4Then, seemingly out of the blue, Luke ends the chapter by tossing this in about Peter: “Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner” (v. 43).  What’s going on with that?  Why should we care about his lodging accommodations?  Did his trip advisor screw up the itinerary?  Maybe a one-star rating is in order!

No, I think we can see a bit of another, a new direction of ministry.

As a tanner, one who makes leather, Simon is engaged in an unclean line of work.  That’s “unclean” in a literal sense.  Handling dead animals all day tends to make one dirty and stinky.  I imagine some of you know more about tanning than I do—which isn’t much!  It’s likely he would also be ritually unclean.  That is, he would be ritually impure, unable to worship in a proper, acceptable way.

So what might seem to be Luke’s casually throwing in a random comment turns out to be anything but random.  Peter, quite knowingly, stays in an unclean place.  Peter should be disgusted by Simon the tanner, with his filthy, stinky job.  But Peter sees Simon as more than a tanner; he recognizes him as a brother in Christ.  It hasn’t been an easy transition.  To move beyond what he’s been taught his entire life doesn’t come without effort and difficulty.

And it’s while he’s staying with Simon that he has a vision of God ringing the dinner bell, saying, “Come and get it!”  (I told you I’d get back to food.)  Hmm, so what’s on the menu?  Critters that fly around; critters that are creepy and crawly; critters that root around in the dirt.  In other words: delicious.  But then we have that ritually unclean business.

So Peter’s going nuts, breaking laws right and left.  But some laws should be broken.

It’s probably easy for us to dismiss ritual purity laws when it comes to stuff like food.  What about rules that say you can’t associate with certain kinds of people?  And you better not stay at their house!  Seriously people, in today’s society, we have to be vigilant against the transmission of cooties.  There’s a good reason for these guidelines.

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In reality, there can be a real problem with codes of purity.  The way they exclude and separate people becomes unjust and hard-hearted.  And in the book of Acts, that painful truth slowly dawns on Peter and his friends.  In the next chapter, when he is called to visit Cornelius, the centurion, Peter says, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (10:28).

What purity codes do we enforce?  In what ways do set up rules to keep people away?  How do we shun people, thinking that in doing so, we are serving God, even defending God?

Banu has noted, “I am always amazed about the churches where the main mission statement lists these words—‘Welcoming, friendly congregation…’  Then one wonders why nobody really pays any attention to the words.”  I’ve wondered about that myself.  Are they welcoming, regardless of socio-economic, sexual, racial, political, athletic, culinary orientation?

Peter and his friends, including the risen Tabitha, are learning to allow the Holy Spirit to craft a new way for them.  They are learning to allow the Holy Spirit to craft them into something beautiful.

Even though they are trying to follow where the Spirit leads, it is still quite unsettling to stay with the process and not rush through it.  Sometimes, staying with the process can seem tedious, maybe even painful.

Our prayer is to work towards paying attention to the movement of the Spirit.  We want an environment in which the wondrous promises of God will continue to be realized.  At times the journey of transition is arduous; its tasks may seem tiresome.  And if we learn anything from Peter staying with Simon the tanner, it might even be stinky!

Still, if we think of the Spirit as the master artist, and ourselves as the ones being crafted, again, it’s not a good idea to rush the job.  When we hinder or resist the movement of the Spirit in our lives and among each other, we rob ourselves, as well as the world around us, of the full expression of what we can be.

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We are crafted to face the truth about ourselves, no matter how beautiful that might be!

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1625

[2] www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Living-Power-John-Holbert-04-15-2013.html

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Power of the Powerless (San Francisco:  Harper and Row, 1983), 131.


worship that smells good

Once in a great while, I have noticed an unusual smell wafting out of the kitchen.  It has usually been something with an oniony or a vinegary note to it.  On rare occasions I have asked, “What is that stench?”  Sometimes I’ve added, “Is someone involved in gas warfare?  My eyes are burning.”  My wife has responded, “That’s dinner.”

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For some reason—which I have yet to fathom—describing the smell of food as having a “stench” is worse than commenting on its “aroma”!  (Still, aside from any poorly chosen words on my part, my wife really is a very good cook.)

The culinary arts are not the only arena in which something meant to be beautiful can be taken as something hideous.  Has anyone here ever given what you thought was the perfect gift, only to have it rejected?  (Or perhaps later, made the discovery that it was re-gifted?)  As we see in our scripture reading from Isaiah, sadly, worship can also be put into the category of “what we thought was amazing, but considered repulsive.”

On the face of it, what the prophet says doesn’t make sense.  We might feel like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, falling down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.

Speaking for the Lord, Isaiah lays into his fellow citizens of Judah.  “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” (v. 11).  The Good News Bible says, “Do you think I want all these sacrifices you keep offering to me?”  Of course, the book of Leviticus goes into detail about the need to offer sacrifices—sacrifices that are now being rejected.

In verse 12 he demands, “Trample my courts no more.”  Again, the Good News Bible says, “Who asked you to do all this tramping around in my Temple?”  They might be forgiven if they were to respond, “Actually, you did.”  There are a number of festivals in which they are told to come to the temple and offer sacrifice, such as Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles (Ex 23:16-17).

And reflecting my opening thoughts about “stench” versus “aroma,” verse 13 claims “incense is an abomination to me.”[1]  Some other translations are even less diplomatic.  Cases in point: “the reek of sacrifice is abhorrent to me”; “the smoke from them fills me with disgust” (Revised English Bible, New Jerusalem Bible).

What is going on, besides the often-competing points of view of priest and prophet?

As we continue reading, we start to understand why the prophet is telling the people their worship stinks!

2 worshipHe declares, “your hands are full of blood” (v. 15).  Worship alone—observance of ritual alone—is not the answer.  So what is?  “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (vv. 16-17).

If our worship doesn’t make us more sensitive to the condition of everything in creation (other people, the animals, the earth)—or worse, we become hardened—then something really is wrong.

Richard Rohr speaks of something similar, mystical moments, deep experiences with God in which we encounter God’s love.  This is what he says:

“If it isn’t an experience of newfound freedom, I don’t think it is an authentic God experience.  God is always bigger than you imagined or expected or even hoped for.  When you see people going to church and becoming smaller instead of larger, you have every reason to question whether the practices or sermons or sacraments or liturgies are opening them to an authentic God experience.”[2]

Our epistle reading has St. Paul encouraging his readers to be larger, not smaller, people.

1 Corinthians 11 includes what are known as the words of institution of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper.  (FYI: that’s what we say when we break the bread and pour the cup.  The long prayer before it is called the Great Thanksgiving.)

Banu and I were ordained in 1997, and we spent the next three years at the first church we served, which was in Nebraska.  For quite a while, whenever we celebrated the Lord’s Supper, I would read the words for sharing the bread and cup from our Book of Common Worship verbatim.  I didn’t want to make a mistake!

3 worshipBut in time, I got tired of doing that.  It seemed like I was speaking the words as if they were an incantation.  Mess up a phrase, and the spell would be broken!  What happened was that I started telling the story.  If you read something long enough, eventually, something starts to sink in.

Word has reached the apostle Paul’s ears of a quite unwelcome practice.  To appreciate why he’s upset, we need to understand something about their celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  It’s not the way we do it, with a nibble and a sip.  For them it’s something more substantial; it’s an actual meal.  The practice for much of the New Testament church is to host a love feast, an agape meal.

However, there is a problem.  It seems some of the wealthier Christians are going ahead and helping themselves to the tasty morsels they’ve brought.  They’re not offering to share with the others.  The result is, as the apostle puts it, “one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (v. 21).

So Paul lets them have it.  If you people want to pig out and get drunk, then do it at home.  Don’t pretend you’re worshipping the Lord.  You’re disrespecting your sisters and brothers who have less.  As he says in verse 20, “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper.”  He’s telling them their worship stinks!

They need to be reminded that the Lord’s Supper is a communal event; it’s not just a question of observing a ritual.  When Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me,” it’s not just some mental exercise (v. 24).  It means recognizing the presence of Jesus in their midst—discerning the body of Christ!

The failure of the Corinthians to honor Christ among them—by practicing selfishness instead of love—has had serious consequences.  The apostle is concerned because “many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (v. 30).  How in the world has this come about?

In the late 19th century, a famous preacher in London, Charles Spurgeon, spoke about this in a sermon.[3]  He commented on verse 27, which speaks of those receiving the bread and the cup in an unworthy manner—being “answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”

“Many have been troubled by this verse,” he says.  “They have said, ‘We are unworthy.’”  Spurgeon replies, “You are, this is quite true; but the text does not say anything about your being unworthy.  Paul uses an adverb, not an adjective.  His words are, ‘Whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord unworthily,’ that is, in an unfit way.”  Or, as the NRSV puts it, “in an unworthy manner.”  It’s not about us; it’s about the way we do it.

Some people decide not to receive the Eucharist, holy communion.  There may be any number of reasons for that.  But refusing on the grounds that one doesn’t feel worthy actually doesn’t make a great deal of sense.  In fact, according to another 19th century minister, the American, Charles Hodge, an unworthy feeling “is one of the conditions of acceptable communion.  It is not the whole [the healthy], but the consciously sick whom Christ came to heal.”[4]

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“They have said, ‘We are unworthy.’” Charles Spurgeon: you bet you are!

In other words, if you feel unworthy, then that’s all the more reason to receive the body and blood of Christ.  It is a gift of grace.

We hear the warning of verse 29, that those “who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”  All that leads to a good question: exactly what does it mean to discern the body?  Some say Paul speaks of those who come to the table with unexamined lives—for example, bearing grudges and being unforgiving.  As a result, they’ve been stricken with illness and death as divine judgment.

However, discerning (or not discerning) the body of Christ can be imagined in other ways, possibly more helpful ways.  We may fail to see Christ in people—people in whom we do not wish to see Christ!  It looks like this is what Paul’s talking about.  In our world, many Christians do not see Christ in those on the margins.  We fail to discern the body in the starving and the tortured and those seeking refuge.  We fail to see Christ in those without health care!  Over and over, verse 30 comes true: “For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”

It may come down to a twist on a question some people ask at Christmas: whose birthday is it, anyway?  Paul seems to be asking, “Whose body is it, anyway?”  If we, like the Corinthians, imagine we are the hosts of this celebration, then that means we get to decide who’s on the guest list.  And we get to decide who’s not.

But if we recognize Christ as our host—that it’s his body we both share and are a part of—our understanding of ourselves and the world gets a radical makeover!

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I’ll close as Spurgeon did so many years ago after reflecting on Paul’s words: “May we…keep this feast in due order under the power of the Holy Spirit, and may we find a blessing in it to God’s praise!”

That is worship that smells good!

 

[1] תּוׄעֵבָה (toebah)

[2] stjohnsquamish.ca/seven-underlying-themes-of-richard-rohrs-teaching/

[3] answersingenesis.org/education/spurgeon-sermons/2268-question-for-communicants/

[4] www.puritansermons.com/reformed/hodge02.htm


make way for the weak

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

“O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

Most of you have no doubt heard that prayer before.  It has been attributed to St. Francis.  There’s a lot of good stuff in it.  There is so much that is praiseworthy about it.  And none of it is easily reflected in our lives.  But there’s one thing in particular that I find challenging—and irritating.  It’s the part of the prayer which says “grant that I may not seek so much…to be understood as to understand.”

Misunderstood

I don’t know about you, but I hate being misunderstood.  It’s too easy to take things the wrong way, to take someone the wrong way.  Maybe that’s why emoticons (or emojis) have become popular online.  It might be difficult to distinguish between a comment being snarky or good-natured.  (Though, I think the overuse of emojis suggests a poor grasp of language!)

As for St. Francis, it seems clear he doesn’t believe that he has arrived.  He knows that he still prefers to be understood.  And that isn’t good for his spiritual growth.  To be honest, it isn’t good for simply living together in society.

This idea of understanding, instead of striving to be understood, is part of the background of our epistle reading.  St. Paul wants to emphasize the humility involved in that.  Learning to be humble means it becomes more difficult to throw our weight around.  As we’ll see, he uses our Lord Jesus Christ as the icon of humility and welcoming.

But first, here are some brief comments about Paul’s letter to the Roman church.  It is the longest, most theologically packed, and influential of his works.  Some people can’t praise it enough.  Its main theme is justification by faith.  In the letter, Paul covers a wide variety of topics.  Among other things, he talks about Abraham as a model of being justified by faith and not by law.  He addresses life in the Spirit and the role of Israel.

When we get to chapter 12, there is a big turn in direction.  This is where he starts applying what he’s already said to specific ways of living.  The apostle is talking about acting on what we believe, or at least, what we say we believe.

Again, among many other things, Paul says to not take revenge.  (Even though it’s a dish best served cold!)  He tells the Christians to be good citizens of the empire, and that includes paying your taxes!  He warns them against squabbling with each other over matters that divide them into factions—matters which at the end of the day, aren’t exactly of earth shattering importance.

Today’s scripture is part of that last section, which begins with chapter 14.  He kicks things off by talking about the “strong” and the “weak.”  That goes back to what I said about throwing our weight around.  “Welcome those who are weak in faith,” the apostle says, “but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions” (14:1).  Why not?  Doesn’t he know how much fun it is making other people look bad?

Strong and weak

And there were all kinds of ways they were doing this.  For example, there were arguments about food.  Actually, those arguments never seem to end.  I like what he says.  “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables” (v. 2).  My guess is that Paul heard other people calling those vegetarians “weak.”  I don’t imagine he had a beef with them.

(I should add:  those folks’ abstaining from meat wasn’t necessarily for reasons of health or helping the environment, as they tend to be today, but for reasons of ritual purity.)

The point is, they were arguing over what they thought is vital to the faith.  At least, that’s the presenting issue.  There’s much more going on below the surface.

The so-called “strong” have knowledge, and they might dismiss the concerns of the “weak” as irrelevant.  The so-called “weak” want to defend the faith, and they might condemn the self-appointed “strong” as too cavalier, too casual.

As Paul continues through chapter 14 and then into today’s reading in 15, he yearns for them to get some perspective.  Don’t cause each other to stumble.

Our text begins, “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.”  (By the way, isn’t it convenient that Paul counts himself among the strong?)  Another version puts it this way: “Those of us who are strong must accept as our own burden the tender scruples of the weak, and not just please ourselves” (Revised English Bible).  The strong must accept as their own burden the tender scruples of the weak.[1]  Just because it’s your right to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it.

When I was a kid, my mom told me to not set things out where they could be a temptation to others.  Something really blatant would be, “Don’t show up at an AA meeting, and plop a bottle of Jack Daniel’s on the table.”  In a similar way, if the cops do something like that to get you arrested, it’s called entrapment.

We are such fragile creatures.  In the Lord’s Prayer, don’t we ask that we won’t be led into temptation?  St. James says in his letter, “all of us make many mistakes” (3:2).

I like a prayer by St. Philip Neri, who lived in 16th century Italy.  He was known for being both humble and for having an offbeat sense of humor.  This prayer seems to sum up his approach to life: “Lord, beware of this Philip or he will betray you!  Lay your hand upon my head, for without you there is not a sin I may not commit this day.”

Sometimes I insert my name into it.  Lord, beware of this James or he will betray you!

Taking all of that into account, Paul presents Jesus as the model of humility and welcoming I mentioned earlier.  He tells them to emulate Christ, who didn’t put himself first.  He is the example of understanding, rather than insisting on being understood.  He “did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me’” (v. 3).  He accepts insults; he accepts weakness.  In a way, he gives us permission to be weak.  He becomes weakness.

During Advent, we prepare the way; we make way for the weak.  The voluntarily weak one is the one of understanding and welcome.

But we aren’t to be left floundering in weakness.  This passage is shot through with hope.  Verse 4 says by the steadfastness and encouragement of the scriptures we discover hope.  They aren’t dusty, stale documents of times gone by.  They are brimming with life.

In the book of Isaiah, the scriptures promise that “the root of Jesse shall come,” that is, David (and the son of David).  One day, the Gentiles will find in him hope (v. 12).

And of course, our passage ends with the awesome blessing, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (v. 13).  These aren’t empty words.  They provide the sure basis of the hope that doesn’t disappoint.  Though at times, to be honest, that hope might feel like it’s a million miles away.

Our scripture passage hinges on verse 7, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  Welcome one another.  Practice hospitality.  That can be just as tough as the petitions in the prayer of St. Francis.  Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.  And do it, not for your glory, not for our glory, but for the glory of God.

Sometimes I see on church signs, “All are welcome.”  Really?  Do they sincerely mean that?  All are welcome, without any preconditions?  If so, that’s great.

Some people say that Paul’s appeal to welcome one another applies to welcoming both the strong and the weak.  Others say it’s about both Jews and Gentiles.  Maybe it’s about both meat-eaters and vegetarians!  Whatever the case, it seems to be a pretty expansive, wide open statement.

image from 2.bp.blogspot.com

This business of welcoming one another also has certain ramifications, certain implications, for congregations in transition.

Banu and I have mentioned these on several occasions, so let me review the developmental tasks for interim time.  Five are usually cited.  They are (1) Listening to History and Celebrating Heritage, (2) Discovering a New Identity, (3) Leadership Changes and Empowering New Leaders, (4) Rethinking Denominational Linkages, and (5) Commitment to New Leadership and to a New Future.

Right now, I want to look at number 3, Leadership Changes and Empowering New Leaders.  This is where Paul’s appeal to welcome one another is especially relevant.

I serve on our presbytery’s Committee on Representation.  It’s a strange committee, I have to say.  It’s like an ugly duckling.  It is mandated by our Book of Order (G-3.0103).  And there are a good number of presbyteries which list it, but in name only.  They don’t function; there are few, if any, people who staff them.  And it’s not hard to understand why.  A Committee on Representation can feel like a quota system.  We have to check off boxes in various categories.  What can get lost is the call to welcome one another, to be sensitive to the Spirit’s call to welcome all voices.

In congregations, leadership changes and empowering new leaders might be easier said than done.  We might feel like we’ve tried that, to no avail, or we might feel like we’re filling spots with warm bodies, so to speak.  In the nominating process, creative approaches are often called for.  Too often, we neglect a valuable resource, or at least, we don’t take it seriously enough.  We neglect bringing the matter before the spirit of creation, the Holy Spirit.  Where we don’t see a way, the Spirit of God does.

Sometimes those creative approaches might mean letting a position remain vacant.  Sometimes certain ministries or activities fade away, due to lack of interest.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Ultimately, it’s not about us.  It really isn’t “our” ministry.  It is the Lord’s ministry through us.

It can be difficult to commit to empowering new leaders.  It is important to be open to the fresh wind of the Spirit.  The wind blows where it chooses.  We use our gifts and abilities, but the true empowerment doesn’t come from us.  “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  Our task is to create the space where the glory is not ours, but God’s.

So as we move deeper into the season of Advent, let us be mindful of our call to welcome one another, in both our strengths and weaknesses.  Let us dare to seek to understand, rather than to insist on being understood.

[1] “accept as their own burden”: βασταζω (bastazō), “bear,” “carry”

[The bottom image is from the movie Antwone Fisher, starring Derek Luke and Denzel Washington. It’s from the powerful scene near the end, when Antwone finds his extended family. They are gathered for a banquet when the matriarch calls him over. She places her aged hands on his face and says, “Welcome.”]


words written, words living (do we bless or distress)

I’m about to make a confession that I consider to be dangerous.  The confession is this:  I love the Bible.  I love reading and studying the Bible.  This August will mark the thirtieth anniversary of my baptism.  Back then, each day I read three chapters from the Old Testament, two from the New Testament, and a psalm.  I didn’t understand why some people would voluntarily deprive themselves of this rich treasure.

I gradually slowed down my pace.  For a long time now, each day I’ve usually read a psalm and a chapter from the rest of the Bible.  I no longer feel the “need for speed.”

Scripture studyWhy do I say that this is a dangerous confession?  Among other things, it can be dangerous if the written word becomes an idol.  There’s even a name for worshiping the Bible in and of itself:  bibliolatry.  And bibliolatry is alive and well.  I think it’s really demonstrated when people assert, even defiantly assert, that their reading of the scriptures is the only legitimate one.  Some might even use violence!

Picking up on that theme of violence, I must say even though I love the Bible, to be honest, there are some scriptures that I find detestable.  For example, I’m thinking of places in which genocide is advocated.  There are places that promote (or at least wink at) the abuse of human beings.  It can be based on gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical disability, and social status, just to name a few.

However, we need not turn the Bible into a weapon.  We can keep the life-giving word of God from becoming an instrument of death.

“Yes, but how can we do that?”  Thanks for bringing it up!  That’s a good question!  We’ll look at that in a few moments, but for right now, I’ll say this much:  it involves Jesus.

Actually, even before we get to Jesus, we can see an evolution of faith in the Bible.  We can see it in stuff like forced labor and the death penalty.  But let’s deal with something that might be a little less controversial, a little less threatening.

“What are we going to eat for lunch?”

In our society, we are aware of those who have certain rules about what to eat.  There are Jews who keep kosher, Muslims who observe halal.  And on the point about Muslims, a few years ago, we hosted a forum on Islam in America since 9-11.  We had representatives from various kinds of Islam.  I made sure to remind the folks putting out the goodies in the fellowship hall to avoid anything with ham or bacon in it!

And of course, there are those with allergies and those who insist on only eating healthy food!

The business of kosher and halal involves food that is ritually clean and unclean.  In the Bible when we have regulations on what to eat and what to offer as sacrifice, ritual cleanness and uncleanness are the main focuses.

So how does Genesis 7 start out?

When we think about Noah and the ark and the great flood, we have a certain image in mind.  We learn it when we’re little kids.  Here come the animals, two by two!  What a heartwarming picture; it works very well in songs.

But then we have this.  The Lord says to Noah, “Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate” (v. 2).  I don’t know about you, but for me, this kind of kills the vibe.  It puts a damper on the spirit.  By the way, it’s the only place where Noah is specifically told to bring seven pairs of clean animals.

Why only this one time?  Maybe somebody didn’t want to hear the alternative version.  Here come the unclean animals, two by two!

Still it’s true, in chapter 6, later in 7, and in chapter 8, we’re always told that the animals arrive in pairs, whether they’re clean or not.  Some say the reason for the extra clean animals was so Noah would have enough to offer as sacrifice when the flood was all over.

Whatever the case, we have a memorable early example of clean and unclean food.

In Leviticus 11, it becomes codified, almost engraved in stone.  This is where we come to the law of Moses.  Some say certain animals are considered unclean because of concerns about hygiene, or maybe certain animal behaviors, or who knows what.  One thing we can say for sure is that this is where the priestly system, the religious institution, flexes its muscles.

As we saw earlier, pork is off the menu.  So is rabbit, which Banu and I have enjoyed from time to time.  And regarding seafood, how about shrimp and lobsters?  Unclean!  And insects (if that’s your thing)?  Some are okay, like locusts and crickets.  Butterflies and bees?  Not so much.  I wonder, does anyone know about chocolate-covered ants?

image from 3.bp.blogspot.com

One of the problems with purity codes, in this case instructions on what to eat, is that they can become an end in themselves.  Like the Bible, they can degenerate into becoming an idol.  If we’re following this particular guideline, we can deceive ourselves into thinking that’s what pleases God.  We fool ourselves into believing we can earn God’s favor and mercy.  If we consume and offer as sacrifice only clean food (or whatever the equivalent behavior is for ourselves), we might feel that we are placating a God who, at the end of the day, really doesn’t like us!

That brings up one of the common themes among the Hebrew prophets.  It is to offer, as it frequently is, correctives in worshiping and relating to God.  For example, the prophet Hosea delivers this word from the Lord: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (6:6).  So often, the people lapse; their hearts become divided.  They substitute outer observances instead of living in the grace and love of the Lord.  And it’s reflected in their actions.

Then Jesus arrives on the scene.  He stands in the tradition of the prophets.  As with them, there continues an evolution of faith.  Jesus holds on to what is good and true and holy in the tradition, and he also re-interprets the scriptures to fit the changing realities.  He does a lot of that in the Sermon on the Mount.

We see that enlightenment about the deeper meaning of the scriptures in Mark 7.

One day, some disciples of Jesus sit down for a little snack.  That’s fine, but some Pharisees realize that they haven’t washed their hands in a ritually-approved way.  How dare they eat with defiled hands!  So they tear into Jesus and chew him out.

Jesus points out the way they’ve idolized their traditions—things that really have nothing to do with God’s love.  In fact, they put up barriers to that love.

Then he gets to the matter at hand.  He says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile” (vv. 14-15).  He turns the argument that was hurled at him upside down.

With their usual clarity of understanding, his disciples later ask what the heck he was talking about.  Jesus wonders why they still haven’t got it.  Here’s where he again re-interprets and deepens the understanding of the scriptures.  Being defiled isn’t a matter of what food to eat, since it only goes into the stomach.  Being defiled is a matter of the heart, who we are in our innermost being.  That’s what clean and unclean are all about.

What comes from the outside doesn’t defile, because it travels through the body and “goes out into the sewer” (v. 19).  Most English translations are a bit squeamish in dealing with the Greek word ἀφεδρῶνα (aphedrōna), which actually means “latrine” or “toilet.”  So in case you haven’t noticed, Jesus is rather blunt in his opinion on questions of clean and unclean food.  That might be why Mark adds as an editorial note, “Thus he declared all foods clean.”

That’s a nice save Mark, considering we’re talking about what goes into a toilet!

Speaking of the toilet, Jesus lists a bunch of nasty qualities.  In verses 20 to 23, he unloads some unclean stuff.  These come out and defile us.

If Jesus hasn’t done this already, St. Paul brings in a specifically social and neighbor oriented dimension to eating clean and unclean food.  In Romans 14, he says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (v. 14).  He follows Jesus in saying all food is ritually clean, but then admits there might be things people avoid for the sake of conscience.

He continues, “If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.  Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died” (v. 15).  Examples might be sitting at the table with one who finds alcohol offensive and then getting in their face with a bottle of wine or whiskey.  (Come on, have a snort of this!)  Or perhaps offering your observant Jewish neighbor a big helping of barbecued pork!

More specifically in Paul’s time, there was food that had been offered in the temples of pagan gods.  After such a ceremony, the food would be distributed to the poor.  If you’re eating with someone who makes a point of saying, “This was offered to such-and-such a deity,” then Paul says to politely refuse.  Someone might think you’re agreeing with the worship of other gods.

Again, we see the re-interpretation and deepening of the meaning of scripture.  He fits the teaching of Jesus into his own time, into his own situation.  “Do not,” Paul warns, “for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.  Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat” (v. 20).

People are more important than food.

I began with the “dangerous” confession that I love the Bible.  But as I hope we’ve seen, the written word can also serve the powers of death, not life.  It can become a weapon.  To prevent that, we need the living Word.

I said that we would look at the “less threatening” subject of food.  As I also hope we’ve seen, it can wreak its own kind of havoc.

On revisiting the question of preventing the Bible from becoming a weapon (which I said we would do), I want to offer a few comments by Richard Rohr.

“We can only safely read Scripture—it is a dangerous book [there’s that word again]—if we are somehow sharing in the divine gaze of love.  A life of prayer helps you develop a third eye that can read between the lines and find the golden thread which is moving toward inclusivity, mercy, and justice.”  He’s referring to the evolution of faith I’ve been talking about, the one that leads to greater enlightenment and deeper understanding.

image from tufsreception.files.wordpress.com

What happens when we’re not moving in that direction?  “Any ‘pre-existing condition’ of a hardened heart, a predisposition to judgment…any need to win or prove yourself right will corrupt and distort the most inspired and inspiring of Scriptures—just as they pollute every human conversation and relationship.”  Quoting verses to win a fight, often quoting them out of context, turns the Bible into a weapon.  Weapons kill.

“Hateful people will find hateful verses to confirm their love of death.  Loving people will find loving verses to call them into an even greater love of life.”  That goes for all of us.  Hate leads us to search the written word and find death.  Love leads us to search the written word and find life.

As I draw near my conclusion, I want to add something that got me thinking about my subtitle: “Do we bless or distress?”

In last week’s e-letter that our presbytery’s stated clerk publishes, he mentions an incident that left him angry and hurt, but mostly sad.  He is among those who will be at the PCUSA General Assembly which begins next Saturday in Portland, Oregon.

He says he heard from a friend and colleague who he has known for decades.  This person made comments about the committee on which our stated clerk is serving and about its written statements which will be coming to this year’s Assembly.  He said the comments “were dismissive at best, derisive at worst, of the careful, deliberative work of the committee.”  He has reached out to his friend in hopes of reaching some understanding.

Still, he laments, “Disagreeing with someone’s opinion about an issue rarely can seem to take place without viewing that other person as ‘stupid,’ ‘uninformed,’ ‘ignorant.’  One can scarcely express a different viewpoint from someone without being attacked, shamed, or ridiculed.  We see it in national political discourse.  We see it in our communities.  Sadly—and shamefully, I believe—we sometimes see it within the Body of Christ, the Church.”

Unfortunately, that verifies what we’ve been looking at.

Our stated clerk commends to us a document adopted by the Presbyterian Church in 1992, “Seeking to be Faithful Together: Guidelines for Presbyterians During Times of Disagreement.”  (It is included in the Zebra links on this blog!)  He especially focuses on numbers 1 and 5: “Treat each other respectfully so as to build trust, believing that we all desire to be faithful to Jesus the Christ,” and “Focus on ideas and suggestions instead of questioning people’s motives, intelligence or integrity.”

In closing, remember that the written word without the living word, Jesus Christ, becomes rigid and stale.  It leads to death and distress, rather than to what it is meant to be, life and blessing.


crafting a new way

Would you believe that one of the key ministries mentioned in the book of Acts is a prayer shawl ministry? Well, not precisely shawls, but something close to it. It’s mentioned in chapter 9, all because of the woman who excelled in making “tunics and other clothing” (v. 39). In any event, those who are involved in ministries like prayer shawls have a noble heritage!

Luke, the author of Acts, includes plenty of “local color” in his writing. That applies to Tabitha, whose work leaves everyone positively glowing!

She lives in Joppa (modern day Tel Aviv), and she is called “a disciple” (v. 36). It’s the only time in the New Testament that the Greek word for “female disciple” is used (mathētria).

We’re introduced to her while Peter is in nearby Lydda. It’s about ten miles away. While visiting there, he presides over the healing of Aeneas, a man who has been paralyzed for eight years. Sadly, while people there are celebrating and turning to the Lord, Tabitha falls ill and dies. The disciples in Joppa, knowing that Peter is close by, send for him.

Luke makes a point of giving us her name, which means “gazelle,” in both Aramaic (Tabitha), and in Greek (Dorcas). Maybe that’s because he’s the only New Testament writer who is a Gentile. He has a perspective on bridging the gap between Jew and Gentile that many others do not. And it’s also likely that Tabitha herself has lived a life that has bridged that gap.

image from www.lds.org

In her ministry, “devoted to good works and acts of charity,” she no doubt had the opportunity to work with people of various backgrounds. This doubly named woman, Eric Barreto suggests, is “herself a cultural hybrid of sorts.… That is, she is at home both in the comfortable cultural confines of her faith but also in the different cultures that surround her.”

In other words, she has taken the time to expand her identity. She can relate to more people. And she has done this in a loving way. And that’s why, as we see in verse 39, after Peter arrives, “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.”

As we’re looking at this story, I also want us to keep in mind something that runs throughout the book of Acts. It is a list of the developmental tasks of the congregation during a time of transition. The early years of the church, which we see in Acts, were most definitely times of transition! Of course, this is only a rough comparison to what a congregation in interim times tries to achieve.

I’ll go through these very briefly.

* The first one is coming to terms with history, or celebrating the history. In a way, Peter does this on the day of Pentecost when he talks about where they’ve been and where they’re going. He uses the prophet Joel’s words about the Lord pouring out the Spirit to help him out.

* The next one is discovering a new identity. That goes along with the reality that change is happening anyway. We see this with the welcoming of the Gentiles and recognizing how, quite literally, people are speaking different languages. Today’s scripture, with Luke the Gentile, telling the story of Tabitha / Dorcas is a very good example of that.

* We also have the allowing and empowering of new leadership. In chapter 6, the church saw the wisdom of appointing deacons to assist the apostles in the work. And again, in today’s story, we have another hint of the rising profile of women in the early church. Making room for new leadership is especially important in terms of injecting new blood into the system, and also for giving a voice to those who previously were voiceless.

* The next one doesn’t fit quite so easily, since there weren’t exactly denominations then—though that doesn’t mean there weren’t groups of like-minded believers. We have a sort of reconnecting with the denomination, with the wider church, when Paul goes to Athens and appeals to the Greeks with the broader faith traditions. (But admittedly, that might be shoehorning that one in!)

* The final developmental task of the congregation can be seen in committing to new directions of ministry, looking to the future. I give the example of the early missionary enterprises. We might see a hint of new direction of ministry in today’s story. So let’s return and see what Peter’s up to.

We’re told in verse 40 that “Peter put all of [the widows] outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.” Some people notice a similarity between that and Jesus’ raising the daughter of Jairus: “‘Talitha cum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’” (Mk 5:41). Tabitha…Talitha…perhaps?

In the lectionary, this text is read during the Easter season. On that note, John Holbert says that “wherever the power of death is overcome by the power of resurrected life, we see again the power of God alive in God’s world.” In raising Tabitha, Peter is showing—and he himself is being shown—how the Lord is crafting a new way.

I use that word “crafting” quite deliberately. It speaks to the sense of art and beauty we see in the book of Acts. Besides the creativity and sharing of Tabitha’s work that earned her so much love, we also meet Lydia in chapter 16. She is a dealer in purple cloth, something that is both colorful and lucrative. Lydia is a model of hospitality.

And what about the day of Pentecost, when the disciples are speaking in tongues? They’re not out there asking traffic directions; they’re singing the praises of God! And one language just isn’t enough!

The Acts of the Apostles, according to some people, should be called the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” That wouldn’t be a bad name! The Spirit is evident in what the young church is doing, in both success and failure. The Spirit is certainly evident in the raising of Tabitha, but perhaps even more importantly for us, the Spirit is evident in the beauty that was her life.

When we welcome the Spirit in crafting a new way, the result is not only beautiful, but it’s also practical!

Aside from the drama and spectacle (raising the dead, speaking in tongues, etc.), the real power of the Spirit is seen in the halting, stumbling efforts that this community of people from different backgrounds demonstrates in their life together. Jürgen Moltmann calls them “the Pentecost community,” and he says they “always have ‘more than enough.’”

Why is that? “Because the power of the resurrection and the Spirit of fellowship have liberated them from the fear of death and from anxiety about life. If God is for us, if God is in our midst, between each and all of us, then there is no longer any want, in any sector of life. People share everything and share in everything, divide and confide all that they have. That is the message of the Pentecost community in Jerusalem, which made so many rich. And that is their message to us as well.” (131)

One of the amazing things about the Spirit is that there is always more than enough. Can we trust that? Can we trust the call and receive the courage it takes to be Pentecost people? Too often, we operate from a mentality of scarcity, and it affects everything we do. We miss out on largesse of Spirit, generosity of spirit.

image from 4.bp.blogspot.com

I think Luke makes a point about this at the end of our passage. I like the way he closes the chapter. After Tabitha is raised, just as in Lydda, celebrations begin. Hear verse 42: “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”

Then, seemingly out of the blue, Luke tosses this in about Peter: “Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner” (v. 43). What’s going on with that? Why should we be interested in his lodging accommodations? Maybe we can see a bit of that new direction of ministry I mentioned earlier.

As a tanner, one who makes leather, Simon is engaged in an unclean line of work. That’s “unclean” in a literal sense—handling dead animals all day tends to make one dirty and stinky. But it’s also “unclean” in a ritual sense. According to Leviticus 11, contact with a dead animal requires ritual cleansing (vv. 39-40). But if that’s your job, you’re never going to be clean, at least as far as the priests are concerned.

So what might seem to be Luke’s casually throwing in a random comment turns out to be anything but random. Peter, quite knowingly, is staying in an unclean place. Luke is foreshadowing the story of Cornelius the centurion, who we see in chapters 10 and 11.

Peter should be disgusted by Simon the tanner, with his filthy, stinky job. But Peter sees Simon as more than a tanner; he recognizes him as a brother in Christ. It hasn’t been an easy transition. To move beyond what he’s been taught his entire life doesn’t come without effort and difficulty.

(And it’s while he’s staying at Simon’s house that he has the vision of unclean, non-kosher food, which leads him to Cornelius the Gentile, the Roman centurion. Entering his home is also a ritual no-no.)

Peter and his friends, including the risen Tabitha, are allowing the Holy Spirit to craft a new way for them. In addition, they are allowing the Holy Spirit to craft them into something beautiful.

Even though they are trying to follow where the Spirit leads, it is still quite unsettling to stay with the process and not rush through it. Sometimes, staying with the process can seem tedious, maybe even painful.

Still, if we think of the Spirit as the master artist, and ourselves as the ones being crafted, it’s probably not a good idea to rush the job. When we hinder, or even abort, the movement of the Spirit in our lives, we rob ourselves, as well as the world around us, of the full expression of what we can be.

During intentional interim times (with both of the words “intentional” and “interim” being important), our prayer is to work towards paying attention to the movement of the Spirit. We want an environment in which the wondrous promises of God will continue to be realized. As I indicated, at times the journey of transition is arduous; its tasks may seem tiresome, but the Spirit is indeed crafting a new way.

[originally posted on 21 April 2013]