Adventures in Church: Double-Checking the Will
Since I’ve been your pastor, it has been my practice to offer a kind of “state of the church” reflection on Pentecost Sunday. This year, we’ve been having an extended remix of that through our small group dinners and our Town Hall Forum immediately following worship. And on this Pentecost day, when we celebrate the birth of the Church through the gift of the Spirit to those early disciples so long ago, it is an appropriate moment for us to take stock of where we are as a congregation that gathers in the name of Christ.
The church as it exists today looks so very different than it did back then. You had a handful of disciples, wrestling with what it meant to be followers of Christ after his death and resurrection, and after he had spent forty days ministering with them before his ascension into heaven. And there they are, once again, gathered in one room together in Jerusalem. It is almost as though they were still so afraid and unsettled by the events of the past few months that they weren’t willing to take it at face value. The fear that caused Peter to deny Christ and the disciples to hole up seems to have taken sway.
That is, until the Holy Spirit comes bursting in, a fierce wind seemingly forcing them out onto the street into the midst of the gathered Jerusalem festival crowd. The other details are familiar to us: the diversity of language made irrelevant as all can understand what is being said, the long-list of the many nations from which people had gathered in Jerusalem. And it is then that the disciples finally break out of their shells and begin to share the good news to which they have been heirs.
We’re not so different from those disciples, are we? Many of us tend to be risk-averse. We like to know what’s coming next, don’t particularly appreciate surprise. And even when we learn a lesson like, “Trust God,” we may have to re-learn and re-re-learn it again and again.
It reminds me of the story of the four guys arguing about who was the greatest baseball player of all time. Three of them were convinced it was Ty Cobb; but Bill was sure it was Hank Aaron. “Sorry, Bill, it’s 3-1. Ty Cobb it is.” Bill turned to divine intervention at that moment: “Oh God, give me a sign to prove to these guys that I’m right!” At that moment, a green cloud appeared above Bill’s head and seemed to do a little dance. “See, I told you!” The other three said, “Nah – green clouds happen all the time!” Bill, frustrated, screamed, “God, give me another sign!” At that, the cloud took the shape of the number 44. “Are you convinced?” he asked. “No,” they said. “Clouds are always taking different shapes.” So Bill called again, “God, please help me out with a sign!” At that moment, the sky split open, and a voice boomed, “You idiots, he’s right!” There was a pause. And then one of the guys said, “OK, it’s 3-2.”
We each have moments where we have been reminded that God is trustworthy. And yet, we continue to hole up in fear like the disciples refusing to accept that God might really be at work and convinced that it is all on our shoulders. And it is at moments like this that we do best open ourselves to the possibility that the Spirit might shove us out of our comfort zones and into places where the signs of God’s grace can be evident to us.
It is on days like today that we tend to return to the same texts again and again; on Pentecost, we open our Bibles to Acts 2 and focus on those early disciples. So today, perhaps it’s time to pay some attention to one of the more neglected little side texts; in particular, these verses from Romans.
In it, Paul is addressing a church he has never even met; unusual for Paul’s letters. And he is writing them hearing of their issues and their faith; most strikingly, this early in the church there is already division between Jewish and Gentile Christians. And Paul’s letter is an urging toward reconciliation. In short, Paul takes advantage of his apostolic authority to say that cultural differences are not enough to break apart the church; it is in the richness of different heritages that we can see God at work most fully. And in that, there are echoes of the swirl of languages that Pentecost day.
In the text from Paul today, he is focused on this notion of inheritance. Even though Paul is the one who most often uses this image of servant or slave to talk about our relationship with God, here he is taking it apart to say that it is more appropriate to consider ourselves sons and daughters of God. Think about how radical that is! Jesus is the son of God; as we say in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son…” Unlike the Apostles’ Creed, however, Paul is not making a doctrinal statement about Christ’s uniqueness and divinity. Instead, this is a rhetorical statement about our value in the kingdom of God and, indeed, our value within the community of faith.
For ancient Jewish and Gentile Christians, Paul has just forced them into one family, united by Christ, by divine adoption, as heirs of God’s kingdom alongside Jesus.
And just so we don’t think that this gives us the opportunity to “Lord” it over others, Paul clarifies just what it means to be heirs alongside Christ our brother: it means we suffer with Christ; and thus share in his glory.
“You almost had us, Paul,” I can hear the ancient church of Rome saying, and perhaps even us joining our voices with theirs. “We thought this whole inheritance thing was pretty cool, and we were willing to put aside our differences and say we’re one family, until you brought up this suffering thing. It’s a good thing we double-checked God’s will and testament. Suffering? Not so much…”
I hear you…The whole notion of having to take up our cross is a fearsome one. The thought that the faithful thing is to suffer and even be willing to risk our own lives for the sake of the gospel is one that sends most would-be and even self-described Christians packing for the doors. “That’s all fine and good for those who want to go be missionaries to cannibals, but not for me. I’ve got a job and a family to support, a mortgage, car payments, a retirement to enjoy or look forward to, exams coming up, summer break and college and graduation just around the corner! I’ll take the inheritance; the suffering, not so much…”
But I think this is exactly what binds Paul’s message to the church in Rome to the Spirit’s shove to the first disciples. It is an antidote to our fear – fear of those people who are different from us, fear of the notion that we might suffer at the hands of the Romans, fear of a future that is ultimately unknowable to us. Risk is an inherent part of faith. And for those of us who are risk-averse, this hits us right between the eyes…
So let’s go back to our text from Romans. And let’s not get stuck on suffering. Paul’s keeps writing – to share in suffering is to share in glory. As Paul described baptism elsewhere, to be buried with Christ is to rise with him. To work alongside Christ our brother is to rely on God so fully that even when we’re not sure what might be next we can lean into that trust that God is at work, that the Spirit has bound us to one another and to God’s very self, leading us into a future that is ultimately, no matter how much we might like to think we’re in control, a future that is ultimately in God’s hands.
Over the next few months, as we move into the summer and begin planning for the Fall, we are in the midst of transition. We have talked in great detail about all of this in our small group dinners, and we will do so again at our Town Hall Forum immediately following worship. We may like to think that each of us knows what the future holds for OPC. The good news, my friends, is that God is trustworthy. OPC’s future is in God’s hands – not in the hands of our members, our community, our Session, our staff, our pastor. It is God who leads, it is Christ who encourages, and it is the Spirit who binds us together. And no matter what might come, trusting in our faithful adoption will lead us to inherit God’s glory.