Pentecost: In Unity and in Christ, there is Boldness

By Joe LaGuardia

My Pentecost sermon this Sunday is on the unity of Christ’s Church.  Based on Acts 2:1-11, unity comes when God’s people gather to preach God’s Word, listen to God’s Word, and act on God’s Word.I won’t go over the whole sermon here–you will need to come to church for that!–but I was impressed that one of the results of unity (at least in Acts) is boldness in Christ.

Boldness is a major theme in the book of Acts.  Luke, the author of Acts, mentions at least eight times that the Church is bold when empowered by the Spirit.   But it not about speaking only, but the boldness that the righteous exhibit when they are pursuing God’s purposes.

When a church is united in Christ, there is boldness to…

Announce the Lordship of Christ. The disciples in Acts needed boldness to preach that Christ was Lord and Savior because that message was treasonous in Rome.  Back then, the Caesar was lord and savior–claimed as “God’s son,” by Roman writers–and to claim that there was another who was king over Caesar was a dangerous message indeed.

The disciples preached boldly in the face of hostility and danger.  When they were imprisoned, they did not relent, nor did they try to defend themselves by way of violence.  They saw every circumstance as an opportunity to preach Christ and him crucified.

Live as Christ’s Ambassadors of Reconciliation in the world.  Another important theme in Acts is that, in Christ, God bridged the divide not only between himself and the world, but between Jew and Gentile.  Christ’s salvation is inclusive, it is not a monopoly of one ethnic, religious, or socio-economic group.  Rather, the message of Christ’s salvation is one of reconciliation: that anyone and “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21).

Christians are ambassadors of this Word.  Ambassadors are not citizens of the countries in which they venture; rather, they are citizens of a host country and go afar to foreign and strange places to bring people together and build coalitions of peace.  As “ambassadors” (according to 2 Corinthians 5), we are citizens of the Kingdom of God, sent into the world to speak on Christ’s behalf.

We represent not the interests of the world, but the interests of God.  I am not a big fan of St. Augustine’s theology which posits that we are citizens of two worlds–the kingdom and the country in which we reside.  The Bible makes clear that once we call Christ Lord, we belong to Him and Him alone.

To Stand on the Side of Justice.  We represent Christ’s prophets, those harbingers of hope who declare what God is up to and communicate the deepest values of God in a world that has misplaced priorities.  We follow a Lord who claimed that “the first shall be last, and the last first,” and that we are not to worry as the world does.  We seek the kingdom of God first, and let all other things fall into place as God so allows.

This message of justice reaches back into the heart of the Old Testament.  From the very details of God’s Law given to Moses to those proclamations by the likes of prophets like Isaiah and Amos, justice insures that we don’t push for what is always “fair”, but for what is moral and right.  Christ plants churches in local communities to anchor those communities in the morals and values that are godly, biblical, and just.

So goes boldness in the Bible.  My sermon this Sunday will hit on boldness briefly, but I thought that this fuller treatment will provide you with something to ponder until then.  I hope to see you Sunday!

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The violence of Pentecost and the peace of the Gospel

By Joe LaGuardia

Its not everyday that I get to try a new hermenuetic on for size.  Hermenuetics is the study of interpretation.  Like scientists who can switch out microscope lenses to vary magnifications, we Bible geeks can swap out various interpretative lenses in order to read scripture differently.

I stumbled upon a review by Tony Jones of Adrian Goldsworthy’s Pax Romana that offers a new lens.  Goldsworthy claims that we westerners have understood Roman culture and politics through the eyes of the New Testament for far too long.  The review recommends switching the lens, to read the New Testament through the larger worldview of citizens of ancient Rome instead.

Goldsworthy argues that Palestine was quite insignificant to the Roman Empire.  It was too small to call a “true province,” too poor to justify a Roman legion to police the area, and too unwieldy to pay too much attention to policies that affected the area.  Palestine was, in fact, too hostile and violent to create anything other than a modest military presence that quelled protests every now and then.  Jones notes,

“The internal strife in Judaea was among the worst in the empire: Jews hated Samari­tans, Samaritans hated Jews, and they both hated gentiles. Constant civil conflict in the territory vexed the governing Romans.”

In other words, Romans had prejudices against Palestine and its people.  This may be helpful in reading the Bible in general and the Book of Acts in particular.

According to tradition, Luke authored both the gospel and the book of Acts as a two-part work to a mysterious benefactor named Theophilus (although some scholars argue that Theophilus is a community rather than an individual; I beg to differ), who was likely a gentile–Roman, in fact!–who stood on the verge of making a decision about either hosting a Christian church or funding church starts in his community.

The fact that Luke’s Gospel includes more teachings on money, resources, and hospitality than any of the other three gospels combined points to this rhetorical thrust in Luke’s motivation.

Yet, if Theophilus was indeed the gentile that we all assume he was, then it is also safe to assume that his outlook on Palestine, and the Jews that made up this early Christ movement, included the very  same prejudices Rome espoused.  There is little reason not to think that Theophilus, like others in his time, saw Palestine as a place of hostility, conflict, and discrimination.

There is little reason not to think that Theophilus, like others in his time, saw Palestine as a place of hostility, conflict, and discrimination.

The first two chapters of Acts affirms this reading of Palestine in several ways.  In the first chapter, for instance, the disciples are still set on having Jesus–now risen from the dead–to recruit an army and usher in the kingdom of God.  This is not unique to Jesus’ disciples.  Other Jewish movements sought to inaugurate God’s kingdom, which meant funding and recruiting an army, overthrowing the Roman Empire, and establishing a theocracy once and for all with Jerusalem at the center.

In Acts 1:6, the disciples asked Jesus, “Is now the time that you will restore God’s kingdom?”  It is the “now” and the “restore” that tip us off to the violent intentions of the disciples.   John Polhill quoted R. Pesch when he wrote that Jesus did not reject restoration; rather, Jesus “depoliticizes it,” moving an agenda of restoration out of the purposes of the disciples and into the providence of God.

Let me put it another way: Even if the disciples didn’t have violent intentions, there is good reason for us to assume that Theophilus likely surmised as much.

In God’s economy, Jesus flipped the coin on its head.  Just as Jesus argued in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus here posited that the reign of God is neither bound by region nor vested in the violent protest of an army with sword and spear.  Judas’ failed attempt at trying to force Jesus’ hand was in the past–his replacement in Acts 1 points to the fact that Judas’ own motivations stood firmly on the forefront of the minds of the disciples.

In addition, Luke clearly utilizes the rhetoric of violence, hostility and discrimination to reinforce Jesus’ peaceful and non-violent gospel message in a way that further turns violence on its head in Acts 2.

Acts 2:1, for instance, describes the advent of the Holy Spirit as a “violent” or “mighty” wind.  This is not accidental or a mere poetic word choice; it is a purposeful rhetorical device that calls into question the type of violence that God’s reign enforces.

Second, the Spirit fell on the disciples like a fire.  Fire was a common weapon of war that would have certainly been used to raze villages and incite destruction and intimidation (see Joel 1:19-20; 2:3).  If the symbol was there merely to reflect the life-giving nature of the Spirit, why not use water  (Joel 2:23) or another natural element more fitting for the birth of the church?

Third, the Spirit empowered the disciples to cut across lines that Jewish discrimination would have perpetuated.  The disciples spoke in languages shared not by their families or villages, but by regions that Jews would have perceived as enemies, the Parthains, Medes, Cretans and the like.

Pentecost is an assault on nationalism, racism, sexism, classism–every way in which we separate one another…It is a surge of the Spirit that pushes the church out of the building and into the neighborhood.  –Rev. Dr. Brett Younger, Plymouth Church, Brooklyn

Acts 2 recalls that a crowd gathered as a result of what appeared to be the formation of a violent uprising in an upper room in Jerusalem during a high holy day.  Certainly, Pentecost, like other Jewish holidays that attracted pilgrims, created a hot bed for violent protests.

Peter spoke with brilliance not common among illiterate fisherman in the first century, and he quoted Joel to articulate the kind of movement for which Christ’s church will become known.  It was neither violent or hostile; rather, it was an inclusive message in its embrace, and peaceful in its purpose.

The words of Joel’s poetry reinforces what Jesus preached all along: God’s reign would not be defined by the prejudices, conflicts, and violence for which Palestine was known.  Rather, it would be a reign that disrupted status quo, turned the world upside down (a blood moon!), and broke down gender, generational, and socio-economic, class boundaries.

From Joel’s point of view (see Joel 3:9-10), this is a call to war as a result of God gathering nations for the purpose of executing judgment.  Peter’s rhetoric, combined with Jesus’ vision of salvation and community, declared different terms for peace– a peace brought not by weapons of destruction, but by life-giving proclamation, visions, dreams, and “portents”.

Judgment was on its way, but not before the work of the church was fulfilled.  Pentecost was a “day of the Lord” in which the church was born to reach across all boundaries, to communicate with urgency the coming of another “day of the Lord” in which God and Jesus would administer justice upon the earth.

Luke wrote his gospel and Acts to a Roman audience, an audience that held certain prejudices towards Palestine, the Jews, and, naturally, Christ-followers who made their way out of Jerusalem and Galilee.  It is no wonder that Luke utilized the rhetoric of conflict and violence, not to perpetuate a caricature of a violent Jewish community, but to redefine Christ’s Church and its mandate according to the peace, hope, love, and joy that resulted from being a follower of Christ, a Savior who knew–and knows–no bounds, who longs to save all who are both near and “far away” (Acts 2:39).

Enacting Race Reconciliation for an Eternal Impact

Pastor Layne Fields of Old Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, Conyers.

Pastor Layne Fields of Old Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, Conyers.

By Joe LaGuardia

Last week, I published an article on the importance of collaboration.  This week’s article is on collaboration of a different kind: Working together in a culture of distrust.

We start with the facts.  Rockdale County has experienced a major demographic shift in the last ten years.

If my memory serves me correct, the county consisted of nearly 80% Caucasian residents as of the 2000 census.

By 2010, that number shifted dramatically.  Now, the county is made up of approximately 49% African American and 48% “white” residents.  If you only take “all-white/non-hispanic” residents, the percentage decreases to just over 37% of the county’s population.

This shift has created some tensions within our neighborhoods, although not as profound as what other counties in our nation have experienced.

In fact, community development, economic stability, and recreation in Rockdale has remained largely undisturbed aside from more traffic on the roads (the result of an improving economy).

Our local government, churches, and businesses have done a good job of integrating and reflecting the reality of our neighborhoods.  We do not have a “Ferguson” problem in which one race dominates over another.  And, although government agencies are not always in harmony with one another, things get done quite efficiently–as efficiently as can be expected, at least.

Yet, it is also not a secret that race relations have been strained despite the good efforts of public and private sector efforts.  Regardless of schools and agencies still being rated among the best in the state, there is a still an undercurrent of distrust and (in some cases) fear within communities where segregation persists.

We can see this in the opinion columns in the local newspaper, for instance.  Many people insist that Rockdale County is becoming a hotbed for crime and perceive this community as a place of hostility in the wake of racial change.

The facts, once again, do not fit this erroneous worldview:  Crime rates have actually decreased over the last two years.

Participation in the non-profit sector by the entire community is vibrant and flourishing.  Hospitality, not hostility, has created an environment that I am proud of and that my family enjoys.

This type of trust-building, bridge-building ethos must be intentional.  No person — and no organization — is an island, and we must constantly work to reflect our neighborhoods in our rate of integration and partnerships.

This Sunday, as many celebrate Memorial Day at home and Pentecost at church, we are doing just that.  Trinity Baptist Church and its immediate neighbor, Old Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, will come together for a joint worship service that acknowledges our unity in Christ and the Holy Spirit’s transformative power.

We will read Acts 2 together, which tells the story of the Holy Spirit bringing Christians together from various cultures to birth the church.  We will worship, preach, and fellowship based on this theme.

Although it will last a little over an hour, it will impact our neighborhood with eternal significance: We will stand united in reaching our community for Christ.

This is important now more than ever.  Historically, Trinity Baptist Church has been primarily a “white” congregation, whereas Old Pleasant Hill Baptist has been primarily African American.  Even economic differences have kept these two churches worlds apart although they sit across the street from one another.

Sunday will not be the first joint worship we shared together, but it will be the first in recent memory in which strained race relations have made national news.

In worshiping together, we say that God is One over all creation, and that no one community speaks on God’s behalf.  We boldly declare that, although our worship services may flow differently and our preaching styles vary, we still have a unique and singular mission to reach a community in which 70% of the population is unchurched.

There is only one heaven in which we all share, and only one mission God has given.

We hope you will join us in this effort.  Worship begins at 11 AM at Old Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, and we welcome all who are seeking after God’s own heart in this time and place.