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Sunday, May 23, 2010

“Power to Speak”

A sermon based upon Acts 2: 1-21
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost Sunday,  May 23, 2010

Fred Craddock tells of a young pastor visiting an elderly woman in the hospital. The pastor finds the woman to be quite ill, gasping for breath, and obviously nearing the end of her life. In the midst of tubes, bags, and beeping medical machines, the pastor reads Scripture and offers spiritual comfort.

He asks, "Would you like to have prayer before I go?" and the lady whispers a yes.
        The pastor says, "What would you like me to pray for today?"
        The patient responds, "That I would be healed."
        The pastor gulps. He thinks, The poor lady can't accept the inevitable. This is like asking God to vaporize the calories from a dozen Krispy Kremes. She isn't facing reality. The young minister keeps this to himself and begins to intercede, sort of.
        "Lord, we pray for your sustaining presence with this sick sister, and if it be your will, we pray she will be restored to health and service.  But if it's not your will, we certainly hope she will adjust to her circumstances."

Have you spoken prayers like that? The kind of prayers we pray when we don’t know exactly what to say.   And they are “safe” prayers.  They give God a way out, an excuse, just in case things don’t work out and it’s not his will.

Immediately after the pastor puts an amen on his safe prayer, the woman opens her eyes and sits up in bed. Then she throws her feet over the side and stands up.   "I think I'm healed!" she cries.   Before the pastor can react, the woman walks over to the door, pulls it open, and strides down the hospital corridor. The last thing the pastor hears before she disappears are the words "Look at me, look at me. I'm healed."

The pastor pushes his mouth closed, gets up, and slowly walks down the stairs and out to the parking lot. There is no sign of the former patient. He opens his car door and stops. Looking up to the heavens, the pastor says, "Please Lord, don't ever do that to me again."

But God keeps doing it to us, and it can be for good reasons.   What I’m talking about is that God keeps putting us into situations where the Spirit will take us in a direction we did not expect.  Isn’t this exactly what Jesus told Nicodemus?  “The wind blows where it pleases.  You hear the sound, but you don’t know where it is coming from or where it is going.  So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8).

There is always some unpredictability when it comes to following God’s Spirit.  Just like you can’t and shouldn’t try to put God in a box, you also can’t put the work, will and way of the Spirit in a box.  “The wind blows where it pleases.” 

Last week I had to return the church community where I used to be pastor.   It was a difficult ministry there because many in the church had trouble “letting go” of their former pastor.   Nothing seemed to work as the Search Committee said it would, or as I would have liked.  After three years of giving it my best, I felt it was time to move on and let the church face the future without me.   I left on good terms with the church, but we all knew that something wasn’t right. 

When I went back there last week to take care of some business, I stopped to see a sick friend and occasioned upon a man who was on the pulpit committee to find my successor.   He told me that even though he had worked to bring the new pastor, it was not working out and some were already leaving the church.   Amazingly, he also said that “he missed me.”  “I didn’t always agree with your sermons but at least you taught me something”.   As he was “singing my praises,” I was thinking to myself, it’s really is interesting how quickly the wind can change.   The wind blows where it pleases and even “when” it pleases, not when we please.    

On this Pentecost Sunday our Bible text from Acts 2 is about this “spirit-wind” blowing, not only where it pleased, but also blowing as it was promised.   In Luke 24: 49, Jesus said, “I am sending upon you what my Father promised…”   

This “promise” goes all the way back to the preaching of John the Baptist who said, “I baptize you with water, but one more powerful than I is coming….HE WILL BAPTIZE YOU WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT AND WITH FIRE.” (Luke 24: 16).  That was the beginning of the promise in the “new” covenant, but in many ways this promise goes back even further to the promise God made to Abraham (Genesis 12: 1-3) when God said, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and …you will be a blessing.”  This promise started it all and was the promise of all promises which the apostle Paul picks up on in Romans 4:20 when he says of Abraham, “20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. (Rom 4:20-21 TNIV)

God makes a promise.  Abraham lived his life toward the promise.  Jesus makes a promise.  His disciples were to stop everything and to focus their lives by “waiting” on the promise.   Both Abraham and the first disciples  lived toward the promise because they were “fully persuaded that God had the power to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:21).

When it comes to God, those who trust in God are called to live their lives not always based on things as they are, but based upon God’s promises of what ultimately will be.   These kinds of “spiritual” promises, which are both “real” yet not fully “realized” are made to us too, both through Abraham and also through Jesus Christ.    We don’t always know where we are going.   We don’t always know which way the wind will blow.  We don’t even know exactly how the flaming fires will baptize us and this world with God’s truth, but we trust in the promise.

Most of you know that I had a German visitor last week.   She was one of the youth that became a Christian during our ministry there in eastern Germany.   She not only came telling us stories about how God was still working in her life, but she also reconnected us with some of the other youth who were in the group.  What was thrilling to hear is how several of them have either become Christian or have married Christian’s in the years after we left.  As we heard story after story of their lives, we rejoiced because there were times for us then, just as there are times for all of us that we find ourselves wondering what we are doing or whether or not it is having any real, lasting impact.    But the stories from our visitor made us rejoice the most, because they reminded us of the “promise” we made to God to serve him in those days and how God is keeps his promise by continuing to bless our hearts and our lives with those young people and their own lives as they either grow in faith or toward faith.         

Before we look directly into today’s Bible text about Pentecost and the fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit, we need to keep in mind that this is often how God works in our lives.  He calls us to live toward the promise, though sometimes we don’t see it realized, at least not fully.  Just as Jesus called the first disciples to “watch and pray” (Luke 21:36); just as he told them to “stay in the city until they were clothed with power from on high”  (Luke 24:49) and just as he told them that “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13),  sometimes our lives made full because we are living toward the promises and sometimes our lives are made full because we find ourselves “standing on the promises” that are being fulfilled.  Either way, Jesus makes his promise to us and he calls us to “wait” on him.  

In today’s text, we see exactly what the disciples were told to “wait” upon.  Maybe we might just get a glimpse of what we too should be waiting on and we live in and toward God’s promises.  

This story in Acts 2 is the story of the fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit which came blowing into that upper room on Pentecost.   But notice a couple of interesting points about what kind of “wind” was blowing.   I don’t want to belittle the image you have of what took place on Pentecost, but this was no ordinary “wind” and it was no ordinary “fire”.  Notice that in our text every one heard the “sound like the rush of a violent wind” and it “filled the entire house”, but we never read that they either felt or were injured by it (Acts 2:2).  Also, we read the “divided tongues” were “as fire” or “seemed like “ fire and was  “resting on them”, but no one got burned.  

What we should already see is that what was happening was the fulfillment of a “spiritual” promise and these images point toward spiritual realities that could be just as real in our lives as they were in there lives.   The “wind” that might take us where “we don’t fully know where we are going” because of a “fire” that burns around us or within our hearts; could this be something we might imagine not just for them, but also for us?  The promise being fulfilled is the promise of having God’s power come upon us in ways that makes the invisible, visible, the unimaginable, imaginable and hope for, begin to come to pass.   It is this kind of power that spins them around in their seats and is the very power that fires up everything that is going to happen next. 

What kind of “spiritual power” fans the flames of what could happen next in our lives?  It is wind fanning a flame or is it a dying ember?   Do you see where this story might be going for you and for me?   Everything that is about to happen next is based, not only upon God’s promise, but it is also based upon these disciples and their willingness to “wait on the Spirit” and to be “together in one place.”   Their willingness to be obedient to Jesus and their faithfulness to come “together in one place” as Jesus commanded was the prerequisite for the power that God was about to unleash.  

Do we realize how, in this way, the hope and realization of God’s promises doesn’t change, even after all these years?   All the spiritual power that can be released in our lives is also based upon our own willingness to “obey” God and is based upon our own “coming together” with each other in the upper rooms of our own lives.

Last year, Newsweek magazine told how scientists are currently working on a tiny pellet, about the size of a multivitamin, that will contain a few chemicals along with some isotopes hydrogen that when you blast them with a laser “you can create a reaction like the one that takes place at the center of the sun.  Can you imagine that if you harness this reaction, you’ve created a star on earth, and with the heat of that star you can generate electrical power without any pollution—no coal, no plants, no oil, and no wind or solar.  All in a tiny pill blasted with a laser---controlled nuclear fusion---a power that is clean and green so that with 10 gallons of water you could produce as much power as a super tanker of oil.  (Daniel Lyons in Newsweek, Nov. 23, 2009)

The key to unlocking God’s power in obedience”, says Rick Warren. “God waits for you to act first.  Don’t wait until you feel something, but do something, be something and most of all obey God.  Move ahead even in your weakness, doing the right thing in spite of your fears and feelings.  This is how you cooperate with the Holy Spirit and as a result your character develops.”    The other side of unlocking God’s power is to be obedient to God “together.”  The power that was unleashed at Pentecost was released because it was their obedience to God that brought them all together in one place.  Being together with each other in our obedience to God opens up all the spiritual resources of God. 

But now comes the final question: What for?  What kind of obedience and what kind of power does God want to release in our world?      This is where the wind might just take us in another direction than we thought we were going.  Do you see it in the text?  The power of Pentecost and the filling of the Holy Spirit was the “power to speak” the good news of the gospel.       

I guess this is where you expect me to tell you give you something you can take home with you?  But here is where the text tells us why you came to church (or why you are supposed to come to church) and why we are the church and what we are supposed to be doing as the church of Jesus Christ in this world.  You and I are not to be filled with the Spirit just so we can get the power we want for our lives, but we are supposed to be filled with the Spirit to do what God needs.  We are to receive the Spirit and power so that we can speak on behalf of God. 

This whole “Pentecostal” experience and even the whole Christian experience has been so misunderstood, because it’s not about getting the power you need for your life, but it’s about receiving the power we all need, as God’s people, to say and do something for God.  This is really what happened on that day we call Pentecost.  The church of disciples had waited 50 days to start telling the world about this man God had raised up from the dead.  Did you catch that?  They waited 50 days to start getting the world out.  Why did they wait?  Why didn’t they get on with it until the Spirit came down?

Last week I came across an interesting little survey saying that the number one fear of all human beings used to be speaking in public.  That is no longer the case.  Today’s number one human fear is similar but a little more defined as “the fear of saying something stupid”.   God needs us to speak people to say something “smart”, something “good” and definitely not something “stupid” in this world.  It is the only reason we are here today.  We are not here for me, for you or even for our neighbors, but we are here for God, and to learn to speak for him to each other, for our neighbors and for our world, and what we say needs to be said and it needs to be heard, now more than ever.

What is this “smart” and “good” thing that needs to be said by us as a church and by us a followers of Jesus?   Look at verse 11: “we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongue”    I began this message with a story from Dr. Fred Craddock, let me tell you something else he said recently at a Preaching conference.  Craddock said that when he started preaching in 1954, The New York Times would publish the full text of sermons from all the major pulpits in New York City.  What was said on Sunday morning was believed by the NY Times to be important enough for society in general and the Times felt they needed to report it.”

Well, for better or for worse, those days are gone.   We can’t count on others to do our publicity anymore.  Now it is especially important that we know how to speak, because they’re more stuff out there being said, and there’s a whole of stuff that doesn’t put the Christian faith in good light, and most unfortunately, some of them who put us in a bad light are Christians that are not talking so “smart”.

But didn’t the same kind of thing happen at Pentecost?  When the Christians started speaking for God some “made fun of them, saying they have had too much wine” (2:13).  Don’t you see?  There has always been and will always be people who don’t understand and even don’t want to understand what the faith is about.  They have not had the experiences we have had or they have had negative experiences and are against God altogether.   

When people are against us, this is when we need the power to be really smart.  We don’t need to argue, nor do we need to be afraid or worry about their opinions or opposing beliefs.  Often we get trapped trying to defend ourselves or defend God, when what we need to do is what Peter did.  We need to stand up and explain, “the reason for the hope we have” (1 Pet. 3:15) and trust as Peter did, that God is at work and that there are still people who need and want God’s salvation as much as we did.  

Keith Herron reminded me recently of a story I also heard on NPR about the behavioral phenomenon called “hoarding.”  New York City Social Services had become increasingly concerned about people who accumulate so much junk in their apartments that the places becomes safety hazards, in which their occupants are threatened with being literally overcome with all their stuff.   NPR interviewed one woman who described herself as a hoarder.  She said she could not pass a newsstand in the city---and you know how many there are in New York---without stopping to buy several newspapers and magazines.  She made several of these purchases daily, and never threw any away.  When asked why she did this, she had a very poignant response.  She said she bought all that stuff because she knew that somewhere in all that printed material, there had to be the once piece of information that would change her life.  So she was going to keep looking until she found it.
(From a sermon by Lisa Kenkermath, “Spirited Speech” at, May, 2010).

One thing for sure, the disciples gathered on that first Pentecost Sunday knew that “wonder” God had done and was still doing in Jesus Christ.   It was the one piece of information everyone needed to hear, and still does.  It is the information that is different that all the other tons of “stupid” information that continues circulates the airways and internet.  It was the kind of information that made the disciples says, even when their own lives where threatened, “we cannot keep from speaking.” (Acts 4:20). 

Do we have the power to speak on behalf of God and his good news?  And even more important, do you have a reason to speak on behalf of what God has done in your life?  For me, this is the core issue.  Do you not have something to talk about?  What about that time when you overcame your fear with faith?   What about that moment you felt indescribable joy?  What about that day you came to understand that Jesus “died for us”?   What about the situation you were in just a few years or maybe months ago and there were all kinds of hurt feelings, bitterness, anger or heart break.  But here you are today, with a chance to make a new beginning and God is that forgiven presence giving you confidence of his love and giving you the power to forgive.  Faith, joy, forgiveness, confidence, and hope, these are “God’s deeds of power” (vs. 11) that give you good reason and the power to speak and give the gift a story of redemption that someone still needs to hear.  Amen.

© 2010 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

One Way with Two Directions

A sermon based upon Luke 24: 44-53
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
The Ascension of Our Lord
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Today’s text has a rather “strange” ending, if you can call it an “ending” at all.

The Resurrected Jesus has just explained his death and resurrection to his disciples, then charged them to go and preach repentance and forgiveness to all nations.    Now, in verse 51, we read that “while he blessed them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”  

It is strange enough to grasp this description of Jesus being “carried up” into heaven (carried by whom, angels?), but the text becomes even stranger when it says in verse 52, that after this, the disciples of Jesus “returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”   Why are these disciples overjoyed that the Jesus they have come to know and love is now leaving them?  Is this a rather strange joy?   

There are all sorts of “strange” parts of the Scripture.  By strange, I’m referring to moments in the Bible which are out of the ordinary for us, which shock our sensitivities and our normal way of thinking.   Just reflect on the text where Jesus says, that unless you “hate your father and mother”, you can’t be his disciple.  Or what about that other text where Jesus says, “If your right eye offends you, pluck it out?” 

I don’t think any of take Jesus’ literally in either of these texts, but we still must take him seriously.  We do know that in order to be an adult in this world, we must move from “obeying” our parents to “honoring” our parents while being our own person.  We also know that there are “pains” in this world that are worse than physical pains.  Jesus is not literally given us commands, but describing spiritual wisdom we could not otherwise grasp, unless it came up and grabbed us.  

One the “strangest” of all Bible stories is the story of God’s request for Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  Even though God stops the “follow-through”, one still wonders “how could God dare suggest a father to give up his own son?   You might never understand such a text until you see a parent so focused or obsessed with their child, the child ends up spoiled and all hope of a future is lost.   Now, this text is not so far-fetched.  It even comes into more focus, when we realize Abraham is no ordinary father of faith, and this is no ordinary son, but the son of the promise.  While still “strange” in our minds, we can see why Abraham as the father of faith needed to keep his focus on the God of the promise, not just his child of the promise.

The Ascension is also a very strange part of gospel story.   It is often omitted from the original formula of preaching Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection (1 Cor. 15: 4) and even Mel Gibson left it out of his movie, The Passion.   Perhaps for many, the Ascension is kind of like a less than dramatic, even “unnecessary” ending to a very dramatic movie having trouble finding a place to land.   But in reality, when you grasp it’s truth, the “Ascension” is actually more like the gospel needing to find a place to launch, rather than a place to land.   With the Ascension the gospel takes off, not into “never-never land” but into the “real world” of you and me.  The Ascension is where the story of Jesus, turns from being just a story going in one direction---needing an ending, into a story that now goes in two directions---so that it finds a beginning in our own lives.   What you don’t find in the Bible or in your own life is a “failure to launch.”   You want a story that takes you to new horizons, new possibilities and gives you new directions for your life.  

The first ‘new’ direction of the gospel in the Ascension of Jesus is that Jesus changes.  Jesus is no longer  the man from Nazareth or a man of mere history, but from now own Jesus is the son, who is “seated at the (Father’s) right hand of power” (Matthew 26:64) or as Paul wrote, “seated at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1.20).  

What is very easily grasped from this ancient biblical language is the old world understanding of kings and their absolute authority.  If the Bible were being written today, I doubt that it would use such language to describe God’s power in this way (The Ascension of Jesus into heaven does sound a lot like the Ascension of a King to his throne, doesn’t it?)    But what we must keep in mind is that the “ascension” of Jesus to the Father’s right hand of “power” is an ascension to a very different kind of “power” in the heavens just like the cross is a very different kind of “victory” in the world.   In Jesus we are not talking about the kind of power than makes people do what the king wants or wishes, but we are talking about the kind of “power” which enables people to do what they need to do—in order to live, in order to be saved, and in order to be “empowered” with a power that is beyond their own strength.

What “takes off” at the Ascension is what God wants the gospel to do in the world.   God wants “good news” of repentance and forgiveness of sins to empower our own lives.   And this “empowerment” can happen, not because of who Jesus was, but because of who Jesus still is.   Through his ascension into heaven, Jesus cannot be regarded as a mere man found in history, which every-one has been looking for through all kinds of theoretical speculation, but through his Ascension Jesus becomes the “Christ of faith” who is the Jesus who can be lose “anywhere” in the world.

There is a lot of difference isn’t there.  Its one thing to try to read the Bible or to try to uncover in history what Jesus might have been like.  A lot of people have been doing this and it can be a very interesting adventure on its own.  Did you see that Discovery Channel special around Easter with computerized graphics depicted what Jesus might have looked like in 3D?   While we can all appreciate trying to look at Jesus as a real man and a real Jew from the ancient world, and trying to get away from the more Romanized images of Jesus as some blond-haired, blue-eyed, long-haired bearded “hippie” from Palestine, none of these “images” whether religious, mythical or scientific can get us to the real Jesus.  They far very, very short of the Jesus, who no longer lives somewhere in history-past, to the Jesus who can show up anywhere and everywhere in the world.   

I recall asking my home Pastor a question about his life as a pastor when I was headed for college to study for the pastoral ministry. 
             “Have you ever been to the Holy Land?”  I asked.
            He answered: “I don’t need to go to the Holy Land, because the land where we live right now is just as holy.”  
            While the answer took me a little off guard, there is a wonderful truth her that we must not miss and it is part of the truth of the Ascension.   Because Jesus is everywhere and can be anywhere, there is no place on earth that is more holy, more special, or more important than the other or more special than the moment and place where you live right now.   The point of the Christian gospel is not to make a pilgrimage in your life, as in some religions, but the point is to live as a pilgrim with a destiny for your life right where you are living right now.  

Jesus is not somewhere to be discovered, he is everywhere to be uncovered.  He can be revealed to us not in the place we want to get to, but he can be revealed in the place where we are already find ourselves.   Jesus is not “out there” to be found on a mission trip or mission experience (though you might also find him there), but Jesus can also be known “right here” in the place where we want to find him.    The Ascension means that Jesus is no longer restricted to any one time or to any period in history nor even to a single people nor (surprisingly) to a singular religion.   Jesus is the son who has “ascended” so that he can be in any time, any place, or revealed to any people who are open to encountering him and letting him “ascend” to the throne of their own heart and lives.   More than anything, the Ascension says that Jesus is not restricted, unless we restrict him.   

The Gerald Manley Hopkins has written,
“For Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his,
to the Father  through the feature of men’s faces”  (From the poem: “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” quoted from Christology: Gerald O’Collins, SJ, Oxford Press, p. 334).   What the poet is trying to say is that through Jesus Christ, God can show up in “places” anywhere and everywhere thorough the “faces” of people who live and look like Jesus.   And with the mention of “faces” this great poem brings us to a second important truth about the Ascension of Jesus. 

The Ascension of Jesus is also about Jesus living in us---in our faces as we reflect the love and life of Jesus in our lives.  

Remember we said that when Jesus “ascends” to the Father’s right hand, we are talking about Christ coming in “power”, but it is a very different kind of “power” than we might imagine.   Most amazingly, the power Jesus attains and gives is never a power for himself, but it is a power in me and in you for the living of our lives.    Do you notice what the ascending Jesus tells his disciples to do?  He tells them to “stay here in the city until (they) have been clothed with power from on high.” (vs. 49).  This “power” they are to wait for is Christ’s power and at the same time it is the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.  It is a power that comes to them as Jesus ascends to the Father.  It is the power that comes from the “right hand” of God’s throne, which is “on high”.  It is the “higher power” which can empower and deliver the soul from self-destruction and it is the power of eternal salvation, but most of all it is the power of Jesus who was once “someone” living in the world, who is now, someone who can live in anyone.

I’m not sure that we can fully grasp the “power” of having Christ live within our own lives in today’s world.   We understand the power of the internet to shape and ruin lives.  We can understand the power of the gas engine to move mountains or the power of the atom or even the possibilities harnessing solar powers for our future needs.  But what does it mean to have Christ’s own power available for having the power to live our own lives?

The truth is, we might not fully grasp “Christ’s power to live through us” or our own “life in Christ” until day we find ourselves completely and totally devoid of it.   When that rich young man at the University of Virginia, who was big, strong, and powerful in his own right, used his own “strong” but very violent hands and killed his young ex-girl friend, we can say, at least, that there was a “power” that he did not have---a power to deal with his own violence, his own demons and his own pain.   We might not grasp the power of Christ in a man, until it is missing. 

In the same way, we might not fully grasp “Christ’s power inside of our lives redeeming our minds and hearts” until we have found ourselves or someone in need of being redeemed from some terrible tragedy or some negative force in our lives.   I’m thinking right now of that young Muslim man, who, even though he spent 10 years in America, became so possessed by his fanatical religious and political understanding, that he armed a Nissan Pathfinder with a bomb, powerful enough to take the lives of all kinds of innocent people.    While we might wonder what in the world he was thinking, but what we can know for sure, is that this Muslim man was not thinking with Jesus Christ.  He was not thinking with Jesus how to change the world, nor was he thinking with Jesus how he could love the world, but he was making deals with the devil.   And even though we might not grasp all that it means to have Jesus in us, if someone has a gun, a knife, or a hate toward us, we would all wish that he had “Jesus” in him.  This would then be something we could easily understand.

But what does it mean for you to have Jesus ascend to the throne of your own heart and life, right now, in this day and in this moment?  Could that be a question you should wonder about and not take for granted?  I realize that for some of us plain spoken, get real, tell-me-what-I-should-do, preacher kind of listener, you would like for me to answer for you a question that only you and God can answer for yourself.   To find this Jesus in you, this Jesus who is “lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his” which are the also “lovely” to the Father, is not something I can answer for you, but it is something you must answer for yourself.   You must understand, what it means to have Jesus ascend to the throne of your own life, in this, your moment, your history, and in this, your own time.   I can’t answer that, but what I can answer is this:  Whatever the repentance and forgiveness of Jesus means in your life now, when you let him and his truth ascend the ladder to determine your life and destiny, YOU WILL BE A WITNESS!   Isn’t this what Jesus said: “You are witnesses of these things…” (vs. 48), and “I am sending upon what my Father promised, stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power form on high.”

Rosemary Brown makes raises a very important question when she asks herself:  “Am I waiting
The Second Coming, or am do I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus Christ comes to me every moment of every day when I receive the fullness of his presence?”  (As found in her sermon: Sent Forth By God’s Blessing” at      That’s a good question, isn’t it?  It’s a good question because it forces us not to “gaze up into the heavens” (Acts1: 11) wondering and doing nothing, as some of the first disciples did when they saw Jesus ascending, but it made them focus on the power of Jesus made available to them now, each and every day, so that they could have the power to live their own lives with creativity, with promise and with hope.

When a Christian burial is performed, part of the language usually says something like Jesus said on the cross, when he said, “Father into Your hands I commend my spirit.”   When a Christian dies, we say something like, “now we commit this body to the ground, but their spirit we commend to God.”   In a very different way, at the ascension Jesus’ body and spirit both go back to God so that God can “commend” Christ’s Spirit back to us (Rosemary Brown).   After ascending into heaven, whether it is up, around or simply the language of the eternal, spiritual realm, God now sets Jesus’ own spirit eternally free from his body, so that we can now receive Jesus’ spirit into our own hearts and lives.   Only the one who has ascended, is able to be the one who descends and lives within those of us who live on earth.

I realize this is a visual description of a great spiritual truth, far beyond our human ability to grasp, but again, we can grasp what it means better than how it happens.   What it means is that this Jesus who was once somewhere, can now be everywhere and this Jesus who was once someone, can now live in anyone, through the Spirit, whenever a person allows Jesus to ascend to the throne of their own heart and soul.   But what does this mean?  Can we finally wrap our minds around this cosmic Christ who was once somewhere, but is now everywhere and this spiritual Christ who was once someone, but can now live in anyone who surrenders to His Spirit?

 To understand the indwelling, living, spiritual and even the cosmic Christ who can live in us today, we must get out heads out of the clouds and finally look into our own hearts and even examine our own lives.  We must ask ourselves:  Where is it that we need both the repentance and forgiveness of sins?  Where is it that we need to both be and give a witness to goodness and truth?   Where is it that we need the “power” from “on high” to face the challenges and disappointments of every day?   Can we know the Jesus who is more than a name in a book from history?   Can we know the living Christ who calls us by name, whose voice we can hear within our hearts and can distinguished clearly from all the other voices of the world?  How will we recognize Jesus and be “clothed” with the power he has for our own living?

The message of the ascension of Jesus to God’s throne in the heavens is finally about the Jesus who must ascend again to the throne of our own hearts.   Without letting him ascend in our hearts, minds, wills and wishes, we cannot understand and we will not experience the forgiveness nor find the power we need for living.   Maybe this is the greatest message of all the Bible, when you think about it?  For what good is Jesus’ life, what good is Jesus’ mission, and what good is even his death, burial, and resurrection, if we do not let the Christ of the cross and the Christ of the resurrection ascend to the throne of our own hearts?

What is perhaps the most power-filled message of the entire life of Jesus is Jesus did not just come for them (the Jews), but Jesus also came for all of us.   Jesus was Jewish and he was a Jewish prophet, who by his rejection, and through God’s plan of salvation, became the global savior of the whole world.  This “transition” from them to us did not begin to take place until Jesus ascended into heaven.  And this “transaction” of grace, for lack of a better word, does not become realized in our own hearts until we allow Jesus to ascend the throne of our own lives.  

So let me ask you, on this Ascension Sunday, May 16th, 2010:  Do you have the power of the risen and ascended Christ living in you?  Do you have his power which comes from repentance of your sins so that you can find the forgiveness to live in your own skin?  Do you have his power of witness, of mission, or of purpose, which empowers you with strength from beyond yourself?  

The Christ who has ascended in heaven is still the Christ who wants to ascend in your life.  He wants to bless your life with “great joy” and the continual blessings of God, but you must put him on the throne of your own life and worship only him.   As the apostle Paul also came to understand in his great letter to the Romans in chapter 8.   Jesus wants to indwelling and rule our lives, not because he wants to “own us”, or because he needs to “control us”, but his spirit comes to empower us to live in hope and he wants us to know, more than anything else, that he is “for us”, even when the worlds seems to be against us.    
31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?
 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?
 33 Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies.
 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.
 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?.... 3
7 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,
 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Rom 8:31-39 NRS)  

This is the kind of “power” a Paul experienced when the Christ who lived, became the Christ who ascended to the throne of his own heart and now lived in him.   Jesus did not just come to be “the way”, but he also came to be “your way” and “the right way.”   He is still only the true ‘way’ in our world, when we allow his truth to go in two directions as the one who descended from God’s heavenly place, becomes the one ascends to the throne of our own hearts.   Amen.

© 2010 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Promise in the Presence

A sermon based upon  John 14: 23-29
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Mother’s Day, Easter 6, May 9th, 2010

“A child wakes up in the night, perhaps from a bad dream.  Finding himself surrounded by darkness, alone, beset by nameless threats, perhaps imaginary but to this child no less real.   In this moment of sudden fear, when the trusted lines of reality and stability are blurred, the child cries out for his mother in terror. 

In that moment, what any good mother will do is become “the high priestess of protected order”, says Sociologists, Dr. Peter Berger.    This mother will take the child and cradle him, turn on a lamp, encircling the scene with a warm, glowing and reassuring light, and then she will speak or sing to the child, but the major content of the communication will always be the same: “Don’t be afraid---everything is in order, everything is all right.  And if all goes well, the child will be reassured, his trust in reality will be recovered, and in this trust he will fall back asleep.  (From Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatual, Doubleday, 1969, pp. 54-55).

“It will be alright.”  This is what any good mother will routinely say to her frightened child.  It’s a beautiful picture of what motherhood means: caring, nurturing and giving a child the kind of loving and trusting foundation so they can have the strength to face the “real” challenges of life and the world.  

Today, in this text from John’s gospel, we encounter the “mothering” promises of God, which came from the lips of Jesus and were spoken to his own disciples in the night, just before he went to the cross.   With all the fears, confusion, and doubts swelling up in their hearts, Jesus spoke some of the most reassuring words ever recorded in Scripture, beginning with these words echoing what any mother might say,  “Let not your heart be troubled….”   (John 14:1). 

But can Jesus back up these words of comfort, hope and promise?   Today’s Scripture, John 14: 23-29, is very much an answer to a question one of the disciples (Judas, but not Judas Iscariot who is already dead),put directly to Jesus.  While hearing Jesus own words of promise, this disciple asked: “Lord, How is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” (vs. 22).   It is as if he was asking, “Jesus can you back up what you are promising when the whole world is against you and us?  Why should we trust you?

Jesus’ answer begins with a reminder of who God has made us to be: a people of promise and hope.  Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my word….” (Vs. 23). 

Do we realize that our human lives are made possible by the promises we make and keep?   How would life be possible, in human terms, without both the making and the keeping of promises to God or to each other?   Even if you take God out of the equation of our lives, as many are doing today, having a life worth living would still be practically impossible without people who make and keep the promises they make to each other.   We become who we are by the promises we make and the promises we keep. 

Once a sophomore student came to their advising professor, saying he was ready to drop out of college.  
            “Tell me what’s going on!”, the professor asked the student, taking a mothering role.
            The student’s eyes became glassy as they longingly looked out the window and responded in a way the professor had heard before. 
            “Doc, I need to go out and find myself.   Everyone expects me to be someone that I’m not.  Friends, family, church and society, they’ve all got these expectations and definitions of who I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to do.   I just need to get away from it all.  I need to find the real me.”

This is when this professor turns directly to the student and talks a like a good mother: 
            “What if you after you’ve peel away all these layers of expectations that everyone has put on you and you find out you are an onion?
            “An onion?”  The student answers in bewilderment.
            “I know you might think this sounds crazy, but what do you get when you peel away all the layers of an onion?”  Nothing, right?   An onion is nothing but the sum of its layers.  Many people spend their whole lives trying to peel away “who they are” only to discover that there is no “real me” other than the commitments and promises we make and keep.   (From Tony Campolo as told by Regan Clem in “Pulling Weeds Out of Potholes” from his blog entitled, , April, 2010.)  

We are an onion.  We are the promises we make and keep to God and to each other.   “If anyone loves me,” Jesus says, “he will keep my word.”   At the very center of a mother’s love is the promise she makes to herself to care for the child even than she cares for herself.  All the trust, reassurance, and stability a child needs to grow and become a healthy person is wrapped up in the gift of the mother’s promise.   Without such a foundation of promises made and kept, children can become lost for a lifetime.  

In the same way, the promises we continue to make and keep to God and in our human relationships make our world trusting, reassuring and stable place where humans can live and thrive.  Even in anxious times, just like those we live in today, our future rests on the self-fulfilling promises that we make and keep with God and each other, because the promises we keep are the same promises that keep us.

But, as we all know, we live in a world that does not value the promise as it once did.  Not only are promises more easily broken, but promises are being made less and less.   We find people living together without promises.  We find people even coming to church without joining or making any kind of promise to God.  The whole national movement called “Promise Keepers” was really about the fact we have become a nation of “Promise Breakers”.   And when we fail to make and keep the promises we make, not only do we keep peeling back the onion and finding less and less value in our souls, but we also find less value and worth in our world.  What good is a world, a life, a family or a relationship filled with brokenness and the distrust that comes with failed promises?   It’s kind of like owning an HD TV’s with their brilliant picture today.  Just about the time they are able to make a near perfect TV, there’s very little of value to watch on it.   Don’t you just hate it when that happens?  In this world, just when we thought we had everything we wanted, without making and keeping promises to God and to each other, life can so very quickly become so much less than what life should be.  The value of everything in our lives now and the hope we have for tomorrow, resides in the promises we make and keep. 

Jesus knew that his disciples could not trust the future without the “keeping of their promise”.  But what Jesus says next matters even more.  Jesus describes that the greatest promise of hope is found not in only in the words we keep and deeds we do, but the greatest source of stability, hope and trust comes in our promise to be there for each other.   He says, ”Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”   Trust is built on God being with us and our being there for each other.  The promise is in the presence.

A promise is only as good as the one who backs it up with their presence.   This is what child knows, though they might not always be able to verbalize it.  The greatest promise a mother or parent fulfills with a child is to back up their words with their abiding presence.   Without the abiding “presence”, the promises we make have no meaning or saving impact on our lives.

One of the most unforgettable parts of German culture, were the formal, serious way people make, keep and honored the promises they made, even in church membership.  They made a big deal out of promises and presence.   In America, when you join a church, you go take the pastor’s hand and say, “I want to join this church”, and that’s about it, unless there is some kind of new member class which follows.   In happens this way in our churches, because to most people church membership is about choice, not promise.  But in the German situation church membership is taken with more formality and seriousness.  You don’t simply join a church by choice but by promise: you make promises to the congregation and the congregation makes promises to you. 

What I found most intriguing was not just what the German Baptist did when they joined a church, but what happens when they decided to leave a church, whether it was for good or bad reasons.   When you leave, you left visibly and honorably, coming before the church and allowing the church to bless your leaving so that it would be shown that even though you are leaving, you are not breaking your promise to God or to the church.    That is how serious promise making and keeping was taken.  You were not just making a promise, but you back it up with your presence.   It was very much the same way, even if you just miss one Sunday.   Because you promised to be there, you let someone know where you were, because it was always most important that your promise be backed up with a presence.

Interestingly, the Scripture calls the greatest human failure and the one unforgivable sin “the sin against the Holy Spirit.   The greatest sin is not committed by doing great evil, but the greatest sin is a sin “against the presence”.   Why is the greatest biblical sin the against the presence?  It is in the presence that we find the greatest promise and hope and when we sin against the presence, especially God’s presence, there is no other hope.  

We know, beyond any doubt, that without an abiding, stable, promising presence in their lives, a child will die.  Of all the creatures on the earth, a human child is most vulnerable.  Without this caring presence, they child will die physically or they will suffer extreme emotional, psychological and spiritual scars that can last a lifetime.   But the “abiding presence” is not only important for the child, but for our whole lives.   This is what God does to give his own disciples the assurance and trust they need.   Jesus says in verses 25 and 26 (in the KJV translation): 26 But the Advocate (comforter, KJV), 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. (Joh 14:26 NRS).   Even the promises of God or the promises we make to God are only made real through the abiding presence.  God backs up his promise through his abiding presence through his Spirit and we are to back up our own promises by our own “abiding” with him and with each other.    

Isn’t this what we need most to bring back trust, assurance and hope in these difficult, anxious and uncertain times?    When we are not with each other and when we don’t keep our promises, we struggle to find the trust we need to build stable lives for ourselves and for our children?   We don’t have to have the answers to the hardest questions, nor do we have to solve all the world’s problems, or have all the monies, securities and everything else we think we have to have.  The truth is, we can live without many things, if we are really present with and for each other in his spirit and in his name.  As someone has rightly said, “we are the promises we keep.”   Nothing brings value, hope, trust and confidence, back into our lives more than backing up our promises with our presence.  This is what God does for us, and it is what we must learn to do again for each other.       

This is exactly what the mother did in Peter Berger’s story, isn’t it?   When the child cried out in fear of the unknown, the known, or of the imaginary, the mother backed up her promise with her presence.   Motherhood is more than anything else, an abiding presence.   And it is this gift and blessing of “presence” we can carry in our heart and souls, even after our mothers are gone.  The abiding “presence” we experience becomes the abiding “peace” that resides in our hearts and in our souls.  This is what Jesus tells us when he says:  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (Joh 14:27 NRS)

 A new book was released this week, telling the heart-breaking story two infertile couples in Michigan whose embryos got mixed up.   When the expecting mother, Carolyn Savage was told of the mix up and that the child she was carrying belonged to another couple, Paul and Shannon Morell, who could imagine the pain, the hurt, and the disappointment both families experienced.  What made this “Misconception” (the book’s title) a very tragic, but also a story of hope and redemption in the worst situation, is because the woman carrying the child was able to rise above the situation and do what was best for the child.   The associated press reports that Carolyn Savage and her husband, Sean, never considered an abortion nor raising th child.   She was willing to carry the child to birth and give that child back to its rightful parents.  (

I can’t imagine the “right thing to do” being any harder than this.  She made and kept this promise for the sake of a child she would not get to keep for herself.   It was a situation still filled with hurt, but what you could also see rising up in this story was not just the pain, but also promise of peace.  Since the couples were still friendly and talking to each other, the mother who received the child also made a promise to stay in contact.  It was a situation where there was peace, even though there could have been so much hate, anger and strife.         

Interestingly, the word “peace” in the Bible does not imply the absence of strife, war or pain. The Greek idea of “peace” is not dependent upon what’s happening around you, but it is a peace that flows from within.  It is not the “state of the situation” which brings peace, but it is the “state of the soul” at peace in their hearts with both God and humanity.  This is the kind of peace that cannot be taken away even when life hurts and hits us “below the belt”.  

It is this kind of peace that we need in our own anxious, nervous, and frightful world.  It is the kind of peace so beautifully visualize in promising presence of a mother’s love.   Such life-giving promises we make to God and to each other are backed up by God’s own promises to us.   When Jesus promises to abide with us, not just in words and deeds, but with his spiritual presence we can grow, live and even die with full trust and we don’t have to be afraid of the dark or the night.   He is with us.  He keeps his promise.  We can have “his” peace, even when we can’t manufacture our own.   Amen.  

© 2010 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Change in the Menu

A sermon based upon Acts 11: 1-18
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
May 2nd, 2010,  Easter 5

When it comes to food, we all have our “likes” and “dislikes” or we have the things we should be eating and the “no-no’s”; the things we shouldn’t be eating, due to health restrictions or health consciousness.      

Today’s text is about food and diet, but it takes us into some very unfamiliar territory for most of us.  It speaks of food that is directly connected to our obedience or disobedience to God.  

Have you ever heard such a thing?  Maybe you once had a neighbor who was Roman Catholic and only eats fish on Fridays or gives up chocolate or sweets for Lent.  Or maybe you’ve heard about Muslims fasting for the festival of Ramadan or you’ve heard about the Jewish Kosher system which forbids the eating of pork.    

Even though these kinds of dietary restrictions might be familiar to some of us, we are much more prone today to think of food as a “choices” rather than a “requirements.”   Well, perhaps you do recall the idea you learned in elementary school about “daily food requirements”, but hardly ever have most of us ever had even a thought that food had anything to do with our “obedience” to God.   Can’t you just imagine person in the window at McDonalds, asking “Would like Bacon on that?”  “Oh, no thank you!  I’m eating Kosher.”  That sound’s really strange to most of us.  The biggest problem any Baptists might have when it comes to food, is to worry which kind choice to make at Homecoming. 

For most of us, mixing food with religion is about as bad as mixing religion and politics.  But First century Jews understood their diet as having a direct relationship to their obedience to God.   In other words, in that world there were “boundaries” to what one could and couldn’t eat.   While it might sound “strange” at first, to imagine religious boundaries to food, it is not so unfamiliar for us think of “boundaries” or “restrictions” to food for personal reasons.  Remember the stir former President Bush caused when he said he didn’t like Broccoli.  Although parents respected his choice, they wish he hadn’t said that, cause then, when Tommy was told to eat his broccoli, he said, “Ah, Mom, I want to grow up to be president someday.”

The truth is that we all make choices and even have our own personal “boundaries” when it comes to food.  I recall how my brother-in-law, when he was young, used to only eat meat and nothing else.  My Father-in-law will not eat any food at church homecoming or anywhere else, unless his family fixes it.   I didn’t like green beans nor tomatoes when I was a kid.  When my mom told me I needed to eat them anyway, I would quietly feed them to our dog, whose bowl was hidden next to my seat.  Even the dog didn’t like green beans and tomatoes much either until I started putting a little gravy on them.   

While we all might have some kind of personal “boundary” or “limit” concerning food, it is still very strange for us today to think that food choices or requirements might have anything to do with God.  But they did.  If you turn in your Bible to the book of Leviticus, chapter 11 and Deuteronomy chapter 14 you can read about these food choices and requirements.  The point was clear: If you want to be the holy people of God, there were things you can eat and things you can’t.  When you eat them, you will be considered “unclean” “defiled” and by eating the “abominable” thing, you shall be an “abomination” to God (Deut. 14:1-3).   Listen to these strong, defining words from Leviticus:

44 For I am the LORD your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.   45 For I am the LORD that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.   46 This is the law of the beasts, and of the fowl, and of every living creature that moveth in the waters, and of every creature that creepeth upon the earth:   47 To make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the beast that may be eaten and the beast that may not be eaten.   (Lev 11:44-47 KJV).

Did you catch that word in verse 46?:  “This is the law……”    Hearing the Bible own words we can recognize clearly we are not talking about suggestions nor mere regulations, but this was the “law of the covenant.”  There wasn’t a law against “strangers” eating “unclean” foods, but for those who wanted to be in the covenant there were strict rules and regulations.   It was the law.  It was a direct command from God.  It was in spelled out in black and white what a person in covenant with the true God could and couldn’t eat.  This was how God set things up.  

With this “legal requirement” in mind, what is happening in today’s text from Acts is quite amazing, even astounding, especially when we, like so many Jews did, understand God to be “unchangeable” (as in Malachi. 3.6, “I am the Lord, and I change not”) and “unmovable” (1 Cor. 15: 58).   How could this God who does not change, change his mind about the menu?  

This was very hard for Peter to understand too.   Can you see his very strong resistance in the text (vs. 8)?  In Peter’s own mind the law was the law and the boundaries had long been fixed.  It was clear.  It was legal.  It was law, and it was in black and white.  It was probably good enough for his Jewish mama, and it would be good enough for him, too.   Jewish adults had lived and believed this way for generations.  They had taught their children to believe and live this way.  This is what the whole Jewish community and now the young Jewish-Christian community was most accustomed to believing.  By obeying these dietary rules and laws, they were not only fulfilling God’s requirements about food, this was how they proved to the world and to their own children that they were not like the rest of the world, but were God’s chosen people.  Can you imagine Peter, going home to tell his own children what he had taught them was now wrong?   No wonder he protested.  When the angel came to him saying, “Arise, kill and eat.”  He complained proudly and boldly:  Not so, Lord: for nothing common or unclean hath at any time entered into my mouth”. (Act 11:8 KJV).  

How could God overturn his own commandment and law?   Lisa Kenkeremath rightly suggests that this change was so big that it was going to require a lot of convincing evidence (Lectionary Homiletics, Volume XXI, Number 3, April-May 2010, p. 47).  This is why it takes up 3 chapters, along with a “trance”, 2 visions, an angel, and the Holy Spirit to finally convince Peter.  But now even this most stubborn disciple has been convinced that God’s menu indeed has been changed.  He was eating pork and other unclean food with unclean and uncircumcised people.

Now, let’s notice what happens next.  Our text comes in with other believers criticizing and even opposing him because he was eating from God’s new updated menu.  “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” (v. 3).   It’s really bad to be doing what God wants you to do, and the people who oppose you the most are not the sinners, but the saints.  This is why Peter turns and explains to the “step by step” (vs. 4 NIV, NRSV) exactly what happened.   

What I think is most interesting about Peter’s explanation is how he goes back to whewre it all  began.  In verse 5 we read, “I was in the city of Joppa praying…..”   Normally, we think of prayer as being the beginning of finding a solution to a problem (and it can be), but in this case, prayer is how the problem starts.   That is if you call “love” a problem.  Because what we are about to see is that the change in the menu, particularly God’s menu came about about because of God’s love problem.   What I want you to begin to grasp and understand is that love is always a problem, but that it is a good problem to have.  But first, let’s continue with what happen.

As Peter began to pray, he went into a trance and saw a vision.  In this vision a large sheet came down from heaven and on that sheet were all kinds of forbidden “foods”, which was all the animals God had told his people not to eat.   Some of them were more appetizing than others---but God was even giving Peter permission not just to “pass the bacon” but also to eat snakes.   As Peter sees all new items (not just snakes), suddenly a voice from heaven comes and says, “Get up Peter! Kill and eat!.”   This happened three times, but each time Peter protested, saying he would not eat it because it was “profane” or “unclean.”   (I find it interesting, that while Simon Peter had been very sincere in keeping his kosher diet, he had not been so clean with his “verbal” diet, when he denied the Lord and treated him as “common” or “profane”.   Peter hadn’t eaten pork before, but he did have to eat some of his own words {Luke 22.61}).   But now, the voice from heaven answers Peter’s protest once and for all: “What God has made clean, you must not call “profane”, “common” or unclean” (vs. 9).      

What we must see is that up to this point, Peter had been a “good” Jew.   Even though he had denied Jesus, he was still seen by all as a “good” Jew.  He was keeping all the laws.  But that is now exactly the part of the problem.  Being a “good” Jew was not getting the job done.  Of course, being good wasn’t wrong, it just wasn’t enough to help people know God’s limitless love.   This is part of the reason that when the Rich Young ruler came to Jesus calling him a “Good” master (aka, a good Jew) Jesus immediately protested, “Why do you call me good, there is none good but God” (Matt. 19:16).    Good is good, but being good is just not enough.   Being good is never enough to get the love done which needs for us to do.  

Since being good is not good enough, this is part of the reason God has decided to change the menu.  Did you see this coming?  As Peter comes to the conclusion of his explanation as to why he is eating unclean food with unclean people, we come to the most powerful and most dangerous explanation of all, which we read in verse 12.  “The Spirit told me….”   Now, that’s radical, that’s astounding, that’s earth shaking and practically inarguable.   How do you argue with the Holy Spirit who says, “go with them making no distinction” (v. 12), and how do you also argue with the Holy Spirit who baptizes this man with the gift of Jesus Christ?” (vs. 15-17a). 

So now, Peter puts the whole matter at rest and back in their court when he says in verse 17: “who was I that I could hinder God?”  In other words, who can stop God from changing the menu and loving whomever he decides to love?   The next line is the clincher: “When they heard this, they were silenced.”  But the next line gets even better: “And they praised God.”  With the explanation of a trance, a vision, an angel, the Holy Spirit, and a man on fire for Jesus, we’ve gone from opposing and criticizing to reverence and praise.  God has changed the menu it has quickly gone from being a total disaster and disgrace to being the greatest thing that could ever have happened.

Now, we come to the how this text comes home to us.  I want to put it to us in a direct question: Are we willing to change our menus?   We all come to church for a lot of things, but sometimes I wonder whether we really know how to have “love” on our menu.   A lot of us have all kinds of things “on our plates” these days and we can have all kinds of agendas.   “What do you think about this “issue” or “what do you believe about this or that?”  We’re pretty good at coming up with our own particular versions of religious, political, even social menus of “likes” and “dislikes”.  But Peter’s big vision of the sheet of “no distinction” coming down from heaven reminds us that God has changed his menu and some of us still haven’t changed ours.

This is brings us to the really “disconcerting” and even “dangerous” part of this story.  What Kind of a God do we have, when he is a God who can change his mind about some things?   I brought this idea up recently in a discussion, explaining that long before this, God “changed his mind” or as the Scripture says, “It repented the Lord” or he regretted that he made us (Gen. 6:6) and then another time, when he was angered at Israel, it says the Lord “repented of the evil he was about to do” (34:14).   I don’t know which is more difficult to grasp, that the Lord repented or that he was about “to do evil.”

What we need to see in these difficult texts is that they are both about love.   The loving relationship which was rejected by humanity for God and righteousness is why “it repented the Lord that he created humankind.”  Later, when in Moses’ day, the Lord “repented of the evil he was about to do”, it was about mercy and it was about the love and righteous God wanted the world to have.  And the same goes for today’s text, the only reason God would ever change the “rules” is only for love.  Don’t take this to mean God would “do anything” for love, but also don’t be caught underestimating what God will do.   When God changes the regulations and commandments about “food requirements”, he was changing it so that more people would be able to love him and he could spread his love to more people.

Love is the only purpose that God will change the menu.   What I think this means for us today is that this powerful and very dangerous text of God’s changing the menu is not as much about God changing, as it is about how God wants to see us be change and be changed.  God does a “new thing” in the world only because he wants to do a “new thing” with us.  

If you still have trouble understanding why God might be open to changing the rules in mid-stream, think of it this way.   Let’s say you have a child and you’ve been telling them exactly what they should and shouldn’t do.  Then one day, finally, you realize you’ve done all you can to instruct that child and it’s time to start cutting the cords.  The parent-child relationship was one of giving commands and making rules, but one day it has to change.  It has to change for the sake of love.   As the parent, because you love your child and you want them to succeed in life, there comes a time it’s much more important to give your child choices rather than  commands.      

I believe this is exactly what is going on in this story.  When God changes to menu for “anything”, he does not mean that they should eat and try “everything”.  When God opens the door of freedom for Israel, he is calling them to be more responsible in their choices, not less. .  And the greatest choice God wants Israel to choose is the choice to love others and to include even strangers, and not to exclude people who are very different from them. 

The menu now offers more selections, but there is still one choice that defines all others, that is the choice to make Jesus Lord and Savior or their lives.   Of course there will always be differences between us and other believers and the devil will always be in the details.   But when God opens up the menu, his intention is that we will include love in both the large and  small details of how we emphasize the need to include others rather than excluding them.  Even when we have to make distinctions, as we know we can’t accepting anything and everything, I hope we won’t forget the gospel is never about “who’s in” and “who’s out”, but it’s always about “getting everyone in who loves Jesus.  

One word that gets to me every time I read this passage is the words that God gave to Peter, “Kill and eat.”   Now that word “kill” is really a loaded word.  Can you even wrap your mind about God commanding anybody to “kill” anything?  But if you look closer at this text, it is not really a text that is commanding Peter to “kill” for the sake of “killing”, but it is calling him the “kill” for the sake of eating and living.  Even more than this, although the dream uses the image of “kill” or “slaying” (KJV),  the point is that the word “kill” is use to get Peter’s attention, not to tell him to go hunting for his dinner.   What God is trying to get Peter and the others believers to do, is to move beyond all the “killing”, especially all the killing in God’s name, and move to loving the people whom God loves.

This new menu of God is a tall order, especially for those of us religious type who are used to trying to be good, and who sometimes mistakenly think it is our calling to take the message of “goodness” to the face of the earth.   But nowhere in the Bible are we suppose to equate the gospel with “goodness” except in the “good” we are not, because we are all sinners, and the “good” we are suppose to be doing for those whom God loves.  “Jesus went around doing good,” the text says, and so are we too.  Never does the Bible merely say that Jesus went around “being good.”   He was good, and he was even perfect, and “without blemish,”  but he did not want people calling him “good” because being “good” is not what the gospel is about.   When we get that mixed up we start judging, criticizing and eventually, with words or deeds even start “killing” people, instead of loving them.       

What our mission is not to separate the “sheep” from the “goats” or the “wheat from the tares”, but we are to grow together.  This is what the Bible says because this is the new why God has decided to reach out in the world.   But since God has changed his menu, I wonder how many of us have still changed ours?

Fred Craddock, tells about a church he knew. He remembered it as the status church, First Church Downtown, it was called. Everybody who was anybody went to that church, when Fred was a boy. Not just anybody could walk in there and join. Income and proper attire seemed a membership requirement at First Church. Need I say, People of Color need not apply?   As you might imagine, First Church did not receive many new members. Members simply grew older. As an adult, Fred learned that First Church had closed. Too few people of the "right type," I guess.
Fred had occasion to go back to town and discovered that old First Church was still standing. But now it was a restaurant, a fish restaurant. He walked in the big gothic doors and, sure enough, where there had once been pews, now there were tables, and waiters, and diners. He looked down the nave of the old church and where the communion table had once stood, now there was a salad bar.
He walked out the front door, back down the steps, muttering to himself, "Now, I guess everybody is welcome to eat at the table  ( From a sermon by Will Willmon entitled “When Outsiders Become Insiders, 5/10/1998).

God changes his menu because he wants all people to be welcome to sit at his table.  If God hadn't changed his menu, we wouldn’t have been at his table either.   Think about that.  We too must be willing, for the sake of growth, for the sake of love, and for Jesus' sake, to change our menu from time to time to include rather than to exclude others from God's table.   This is what grace means.  "Grace" is not some something we say at the table, it is God's main course.  Amen.

© 2010 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.