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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A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: The Power of Poetry

By Jackson Thomas

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

This is an excerpt of a sermon by Jackson Thomas from 18 October 2017, preached at Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers, Georgia during the church’s annual Christival: A Celebration of Faith and the Arts series.  Jackson Thomas serves as Youth Ministry Coordinator at Trinity Baptist Church.

Words are incredible tools. Speech is one of the many things that sets us apart from the rest of creation. We have a uniquely human ability to communicate with each other in a very definite way. If someone speaks with a different language, we can even learn that language.  Words are such powerful tools that with the advanced ability to communicate afforded us by the use of words, we have done some truly incredible things as a species.

The way we express ourselves using these tools is multi-faceted. We use words in the form of writing, speaking, and singing all to spread a message.  We have always tried to find a way to make our particular message be remembered for generations. Most prominently, we write the things we want remembered.

The written word is incredible and has an interesting history.  As writing gained popularity it was alleged that Socrates actually hated the concept of the written word because it would “create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls.”  Obviously, this thinking didn’t catch on as writing has become the cornerstone for spreading information.

In fact even that way of thinking wouldn’t be known about today had Plato not written about it for later generations to read. And more than passing along information, writing allowed for an entirely new form of art to express feelings or tell fantastic stories and even worship; especially worship.

The other interesting thing is the forms writing would take. Originally the only proper way of writing was poetry. Prose was considered lazy and uninspired.  There’s a bit of a pattern here, but poetry does provide a particular boon in that the human brain is predisposed to pick up on patterns.  We love patterns. It’s why there have been studies done in which the letters in the middle of a word are jumbled, but so long as the first and last letter are in their proper places, we can generally read what it says.

What’s truly interesting is where these patterns come from.  It’s as if when God breathed life into us, He did it in a song. Because of this rhythm, we have written poetry for as long as the written word has existed. Poetry was most notably utilized as worship in the forms of the Psalms, of which biblical book makes up the single largest text in the Bible.  Psalms express the whole spectrum of human emotion and how it all relates back to God. If God is the Word, how could we ever fully express our truth to Him without utilizing words?   God gave us perhaps an even greater gift in the concepts of meter and rhyme. So, in an attempt to fully utilize God’s gifts, so that we may fully worship Him, I’d like to share a poem.

Breath of life, expand my lungs
And make my life feel whole
Create a song behind my tongue
And let me sing my soul

Let my worship fill the air
And fully resonate
Within the souls of all who hear
So we may celebrate

And when the silence overcomes
And all the songs do end
Then let the rocks cry out their praise
Let them make us understand

Breath of life, expand my lungs
Help me find the words to say
Let me heed the words sang by the rocks
Who taught me to how to pray

It is fascinating to me that music and poetry always fit so nicely together. Probably because music is designed to take advantage of the rhythm poetry so naturally exploits anyway.  It is the most natural progression from poetry, and music is absolutely a fantastic form of worship that became so prevalent it is still actively practiced by most modern churches.  Because of that, music is one of the most fantastic and influential forms of worship, even if the actual words are unknown.

There is a song being sung throughout creation, and that song will never really be silenced. Jesus said as much when he talked about the rocks speaking up were everyone else to be silent. And while only humans respond to rhythm, we certainly aren’t the only beings who sing. We are but one voice of many on the choir of creation.  We, along with all other beings, are singing the song breathed into us during creation. We are writing and singing the creation song at all times. We are a part of something great, put together by God to connect us all so that we could understand what it is to really be a part of creation.

There is also song in silence, just as musicians are encouraged to “play the silence.”  Silence reveals parts of ourselves we probably would not have been able to see otherwise. For some, silence is uncomfortable. In a world as loud and hectic as it is today, is there any wonder why?

There is a song being sung throughout creation. There is poetry in the silence. In silence, it is possible to hear the voice of God speaking to us. It is because of this, Jesus often went off on His own to pray. So He could hear God speak back to Him. Silent prayer is often the best way to hear the words to write and, by allowing ourselves these moments of silence for writing, writing itself becomes worship and connects us to the song God breathed into our lungs at the beginning. We can connect wholly with God, the Word and truly begin to understand what that means.

That said, there is a sort of responsibility on our part to utilize those words correctly. Especially when it comes to what we write, our words will live on in some way. So when people hear you speak or read your writings, are they hearing the song of creation? Are you connected with God, the Word who spoke the world into creation? As we go out about our daily lives, I implore you to listen to the song creation is singing, and when you hear something that stands out as significant, write it down. Take a silent moment to really hone in and listen to the song and put into words the song being sung. Let God, the Word, speak through your life and your writings, so all of God’s gifts can be shown through you.

Moving On: An Ascension Sunday Reflection

By Joe LaGuardia

I once watched my father knock his brother half-way across a boxing ring with a single right cross.

I saw it on one of those old black and white films, homemade from some ancient camera and later transferred to a DVD.  There they were, sparring: My dad, the short, stocky 18-year old with what we–his kids–liked to call his Popeye arms; and my uncle, the tall, athletic Golden Gloves champ.  They were both in their signature Everlast trunks.

My uncle had the awards, the height and the reach.  He is beautiful to watch in the ring, like Muhammad Ali, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”  My dad, however, was the slow one, more passive.  All he had to go on were the size and strengths of his short arms.

In the film, I saw my uncle dancing around my dad.  Jab, jab, jab.  Body blow, slap to the helmet.  Jab, some missed crosses.

Then I saw it: a split second and a misstep by my uncle.  He got too close, and bang!–my dad’s right cross, like a cobra strike.  My uncle went across the ring into the ropes.  I’d never seen anything like it.

****

When I was young, I asked my father why he didn’t become a boxer like his brother or his father, Grandpa being the one in the family who coached his kids and the neighborhood kids, who trained the likes of Tony Danza and others who lived in their Brooklyn community.

Dad gave all kinds of excuses: bad knees, too smart to box, too busy, spending too much time chasing the women and marrying my mother.

When I pressed him again years later, the truth finally came out:

“I couldn’t hit another man,” he said, “I felt bad about it.”

The fact is that the man, my father, had hands of stone, but he couldn’t put them to good use in the ring.  He wasn’t at home there.  It was familiar, but foreign.

That’s how I feel when I look at the disciples on the day of ascension in Acts 1:1-11.  There Jesus was–back from the dead, a miracle, and the disciples did what all of us who lost a loved one only dream about doing: they held his hand again, was able to hug him and heard his voice.

But just as soon as Jesus came, it seemed, he left again and they thought all was lost.  It happened again, but this time Jesus whisked away into thin air.  Jesus couldn’t stay; he wasn’t at home on earth, not yet at least.  It was time for him to ascend to his father in heaven.  Just as Christ birthed the divine life into this world, it was time for him–as Barbara Brown Taylor once noted–to birth flesh into God’s world.

And just as my father wondered what good it was to have hands of stone without being able to use them, the disciples were left with hopes and dreams and an anticipation that seemed all but lost yet again.

They asked Jesus, “Now will you restore God’s kingdom of earth?”  And Jesus left them.

How do you live after a miracle like that?  How do you take the next step when that kind of question goes unanswered?

It was at that very moment that two angels showed up and tapped the disciples on the shoulders.

“What are you doing?  What are you looking at?” They asked, like divine security guards waving people on, “Nothing to see here, folks, keep it moving!”

The disciples, however, were just in the ring with Jesus.  Jesus was on their side, a spirit of stone, but now Jesus was gone just like that.  No butterflies and no bees.

*****

I think that the disciples did what any of us would have done: They headed back to a familiar place, an upper room in Jerusalem.  Maybe they figured that since Jesus appeared to them in this room after he resurrected from the dead, that maybe he will appear to them there again.  They stayed there and devoted themselves to prayer.

Peter seemed to be the first to speak, but its not about the future and there is no sign of some anticipation of things to come–that doesn’t come until Pentecost.  Rather, Peter seems to be just filling the time to do something, which is often better than doing nothing.  He speaks about Judas, talks about the scriptures for a few minutes, and gets down to business.

There, between Jesus’ ascension and the downpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, we have what may have been the first Nominating Committee meeting in the church: They have to replace Judas, twelve is such a godly, biblical number after all.

There doesn’t seem to be any power in it, though.  There is no life, no authority–and theologically, that’s correct.  Jesus had yet to send the Spirit, the Comforter, whom Jesus promised would give the church power and authority to do what Christ did, to change the world, and continue to bridge heaven and earth.

The disciples had hands of stone, but no use for them yet.  They had a ring, but no authority to wipe the floor with their greatest nemesis, Satan.  And, although we feel badly for them, we get this eerie feeling that we somehow know exactly how they felt.

Who among us hasn’t had a dry spell?  Who hasn’t had a day or even a season in which we felt powerless, short-sighted, a day in which we only piddled around with busy work rather than anything exciting that has the power to change the world?

****

In a sermon on this passage of Scripture, one-time priest Barbara Brown Taylor commented that we feel for the disciples because we are no different from them half of the time.  We join them on that mountain with our necks crooning up towards heaven, and we wait.  We become aware that, at times, God seems absent, as if we are left in the ring to fight life’s fights alone.

But it is that very absence that also has the power to provide a sense of wonder and awe, that, in Taylor’s words, “brings us to church in search of God’s presence,” to go back to that sacred, familiar place again and again, where we saw Jesus last, “to recall best moments and argue about the details, to swap all the old stories until they begin to revive again,” to remember, to pray and rejoice.

Another scholar, John Polhill affirms that this text reveals a major plot thread in the book of Acts.  Acts does not have endings or conclusions.  Even as far as the last chapter, the book does not really end.  Rather, the book shows intermissions, followed by opportunities, promises, and new beginnings.   We are never sure whether church is an intermission or a new beginning, or both.

It is in that very search as a community of God’s people, however, in that recollection and retelling of the old, old story, that extraordinary things begin to happen because we do have an Advocate who fights on our behalf.  In a week, when we recall another old story of Pentecost, we will be reminded that we are not in the ring alone — we have all the power and authority that heaven can muster.  We will learn how God will put our hands of stone back to work, not to harm or punch or hurt, but heal and deliver and reconnect.

****

For now, I guess we just have to live with the fact that we are looking up.  Angels may come and tap us on the shoulders and tell us to move on, move on because when we get stuck looking up, we fail to look around.

When you look around, that’s when you start to notice things–that’s when you begin to see Jesus working in your midst, when you sense the Holy Spirit ready to empower you.

It may not lead to living into the New Heaven and the New Earth that is promised us just yet, but we’re getting awfully close.  Awfully close.

“People of God, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven….Keep it moving, keep it moving.  Nothing to see here.”