“Tabitha, rise!”

Sermon on Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23:1-3 God is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. God makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. God revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for God’s Name’s sake.

Introduction

In my last call I had the privilege of being a high school teacher at a private Episcopal high school in deep south Louisiana. I taught theology and religion, and I also participated in some of the pastoral care of the students. I had many conversations with students, but some of my favorite ones were with seniors fretting over what college to go to. Them, frantic: Rev. Larkin…Rev. Larkin I don’t know what to do! They had sweet and endearing intentions but they were stuck. They weren’t merely stuck because they were waiting for that frontal lobe to fully kick in, but because they worried about doing God’s will for fear that anything else would cause God to become displeased in them. What college should I go to, Rev. Larkin, what’s God’s will for me?

If there’s any question in the world that I both value and understand and disvalue and dismiss it’s that question. If you ever want to see this enneagram 5 go full tilt wut. just ask: What’s God’s will for me right now? Me:

Robot Monkey GIF by Giphy QA - Find & Share on GIPHY

Now, while my internal monologue looked something like that, my external pastoral side always kicked in. I loved these kids and hated how tied up they were in fear of not knowing God’s will. In these moments, I loved leaning back on Luther. His conception of seeking God’s will as a form of magic and divination (he’s no fan of either, by the way) and the freedom we have in Christ, gave me the power and authority to declare to my fretting and worried beloveds: my dear one, God loves you through and through and through; a college choice isn’t going to ever ever ever take that from you no matter how bad it all turns out. You can just transfer. Also, and this is going to sound a bit blunt and maybe even mean and I intend this with the biggest amount of love for you: God isn’t worried about where you go to college. Literally. God’s will for all of us is written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit and in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Pick a school and live in God’s already existent good pleasure and love for you…and care for the poor and vulnerable.

When it comes to our own questions about what does God want for us, what does God want us to do, it’s clearly laid out for us in scripture through the examples of many of the main characters. Even if we rationalize away the example of Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, leaning heavy on Christological formulas: Well, Jesus is the Son of God, fully human and fully God thing…there are still many more examples. In the book of Acts of the Holy Spirit, we’re given plenty examples of people who are both fully human and called by God and live out the will of God in the material world by the power of the Holy Spirit. Saul-Paul is one. I know he’s a bit intense, and he seems to have a penchant for getting into heaps of trouble with the religious and state authorities, but he’s fully human and a converted follower of the way (like many of us).

But maybe Saul-Paul isn’t your cup of tea, too much drama that he clearly could’ve avoided if he was just a bit more reserved and taken with common sense…There’s always another contender: Peter. He seems a bit more practical.

Acts 9:36-43

Now, it happened in that day [Tabitha] became weak and died. And having bathed [her], they laid her in an upper room. Now, Lydda being near Joppa the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda and they sent two men to summon him, “Do not hesitate to pass through us.” And Peter rose and went with them. After arriving, they lead him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and displaying the tunics and many cloaks [Tabitha] was making being with them. Now, Peter sent them all out and [getting on his] knees, he prayed and turned toward the body he said, “Tabitha, rise.” And she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up.[1]

Acts 9:37-40

Last week, looking at chapter 9 of the book of Acts we encountered Saul who was encountered by God in the midst of his self-determined obstinance to reclaim Israelites for the glory of God. Saul was disrupted, and his life changed in a short moment. This week we are being asked to consider Peter who returns to the story as the one who has followed Jesus and continues to do so. Where Saul represents being suddenly disrupted; Peter represents continual and persistent disruption. Peter knew Jesus and continues to get to know him in deeper and more profound ways.[2] Specifically, the blessed mingling of human and divine of the incarnate Christ raised and now ascended beckons to Peter by the power of the Holy Spirit asking him to see how much more that divine and human mingling goes beyond Jesus the Christ. Peter is caught up in the divine pursuit of disruption and disturbing the status quo by shaking up the divine and human distinction through drawing the regular time and regular people into the holiness of God.[3] And he’s about to be thrusted into the middle of such a moment of disruption and disturbance.

In our story here in Acts, Peter dares to do what Jesus did. In other words, to quote Willie James Jennings, “Peter repeats Jesus.”[4] Like his friend, sibling, and savior did, so, too, will Peter do: bring light where there is darkness, liberty where there is captivity, life where there is death. In other words, Peter, like Jesus continues to spread God’s never-stopping, never-giving up material and tangible love for the entire cosmos (from the biggest to the least).[5] Most notably Peter steps into and brings[6] this proclamation to weeping widows in the presence of the death of Tabitha—one who lived well and loved these widows deeply.[7] Here we see how willingly divine power and love will sink and seep into the most narrow crevices of society: the grief of the widows and the death of Tabitha matters to God—these women matter to God, so much so that death is refused the final word.[8]

The final word is God’s power through Peter, “Tabitha, rise.” The echo of Jesus’s “Lazarus, come here! outside!” “Peter repeats Jesus.” Resurrection happens, life triumphs over death. The widows’ grief and sorrow (also fear and anxiety) is heard, and their Tabitha is brought back to life.[9] Our scriptures record this incredible and astounding story: the first disciple to experience resurrection after Jesus’s is a woman. God gives a big heck about bodies, all bodies.[10] And this message doesn’t cease with Tabitha; soon Peter will find himself with a body considered unclean, Simon the Tanner. Peter’s on a divine journey, discovering the depth of God’s love for all people, diving deeper into being disrupted and disturbed by the heart, love, grace, and will of God. [11]

Conclusion

This story from the book of Acts about Peter and the widows and Tabitha reminds us that all bodies matter to God, and not merely the bodies of the wealthy, the powerful, the capable, but, the bodies of least of these, the bodies of the oppressed and poor. Women’s bodies matter. Black bodies matter. Trans bodies matter. Differently abled bodies matter. Imprisoned bodies matter. Your body matters.

So, back to the beginning: What’s God’s will for us? What does God want us to do? I guess God wants us to raise the dead. Or, rather, bring life where there is death. The ultimate interpretation of what it means to liberate the captives is: resurrection. “Tabitha, rise.” And we, like Peter and Saul get to be encountered by this radical and profound divine pathos, divine love for the world and then we get to spread it where ever we go. We, like Saul and Peter, get to say: “Tabitha, rise.” Yes, you! You, too! You, too, rise! Death has no claim here anymore only life, no longer darkness, only light. You are the beloved of God, dearly loved and deeply cherished. From head to toe, without shame, without hiddenness, without secrecy, with all boldness and bigness. “Tabitha, rise.”

You, the Beloved, rise!


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 99. “Peter returns to center stage and engages in a bit of wayfaring life, echoing again his history of following Jesus and doing as his savior had done. He is on the road and comes to Lydda to be among the living saints.”

[3] Jennings Acts 99. “Jesus is God drawing the everyday into holiness, into God’s own life. Everyday people are made holy in Christ. Everyday people are made holy by Christ, and this is a holiness that will last, not be episodic, and constitute a new space for living life and knowing ourselves. ‘Saints’ are those marked by the new gestures of belief in Jesus. They worship a crucified Lord in the Spirit, and in the Spirit they live the everyday, knowing that each moment has been made sacred by God’s faithful presence.”

[4] Jennings Acts 99.

[5] Jennings Acts 99-100. “He is with Jesus, following where his savior wants to go. Once again a marvelous act, a touchable miracle, will turn people to the Lord (v. 35). This is repetition that illumines the inexhaustible riches of God’s love for the fragile creature and God’s desire to constantly touch us, hold us, and announce the victory over death.”

[6] Jennings Acts 100. See also Cassidy p.30. “Here glory joins strong grief because to lose someone who cares for the weak and vulnerable, whose life is turned toward making a difference in the world and who is making a difference, is a bitter loss. The widows have lost Tabitha and a disciple is gone. This is what Peter steps into in Joppa.”

[7][7] Jennings Acts 100. “We come to the story of Tabitha with Peter at the very end. There is glory and grief at the end. The glory is a life lived well, lived in service to others. Tabitha’s life, even in the fragments we gain in this story, hangs together beautifully as someone devoted to helping people, especially widows.”

[8] Jennings Acts 100. “Peter’s presence declares an unmistakable truth: women matter. This woman matters, and the work she does for widow’s matters to God. It matters so much that God will not allow death the last word.”

[9] Jennings Acts 100-101. “’Tabitha, get up.’ Peter repeats Jesus. Tabitha is an activist who lives again in resurrection power. Her body has been quickened by the Spirit, and her eyes are opened again to see a new day. She has work to do and joy to give to the widows: you have not been abandoned, dear widows, God has heard your weeping and returned her to you.”

[10] Jennings Acts 101. “We know that death imagines a special claim to the bodies of women. Their deaths are normalized and naturalized in social orders that value men’s body far above all others. It will not be so among the disciples. They will find Peter standing next to Tabitha, a gift of God who has been given again the gift of life. It is no accident that the first disciple to have this little taste of the resurrection is a woman…”

[11] Jennings Acts 101. “Tanners worked with death flesh—the skin of animals and tanners were, theologically speaking, unclean Few if any pious Jews would normally or easily stay with a tanner, but here was Peter with Simon the tanner. Peter is indeed moving from saints to saints, and soon he will find out just how far the generosity and mercy of a holy God reaches. Soon he will see just how far God will extend holy place and holy people. Peter is with a man who touches the unclean, and soon he will see God do the same.”

Desired and Disrupted

Sermon on Acts 9:1-6

Psalm 30:2-4 My God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health. You brought me up, God, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave. Sing to God, you beloved of God; give thanks for the remembrance of God’s holiness.

Introduction

Encounters change us. They can be big or small, prolonged or brief. Sometimes the change is little, sometimes it’s big. Sometimes the encounter is good, sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes we’re left with warm fuzzies; other times we’re left with the cool pricklies. The encounters can be with other humans, an animal, out in nature, up in the mountains, and down on the beach. Everything and everyone we encounter changes us in some degree. We’re all material girls in this material world; we’re bound to be changed by other materials floating and flitting about.

And then there are the encounters that not only change us, they overhaul us. These are encounters that blend the material and the spiritual, physical and metaphysical. They reduce us to the marrow of existence, hand us over to death, and then beckon us into resurrected new life. We’re new creations facing new directions, walking new paths with new eyes to see and ears to hear; suddenly, everything looks and feels and sounds and tastes and smells different.

These encounters are with God in the event of faith. They can happen anywhere, at any time, and they are completely out of our control. We cannot fabricate them, plan them, cause them, manipulate them, or repeat them. There’s no doctrine to be determined from them, there’s no dogma to be latched on to. They happen, and they change us forever and make us new, wrapped up in this encounter with God. They can be with another living being or not at all; they can be in the four walls of the church or completely outside of them. God decides when God encounters us, and they can happen even in the least likely of places, when we are the furthest from the goal, completely dead set on our way or the high way, headstrong and determined about our own doing and goings on. And they will always be personal and they will always incorporate our entire selves.[1]

Acts 9:1-6

Now, Saul, still breathing with threats and murder towards the disciples of the Lord…Now while journeying it happened to him nearing Damascus, suddenly a light flashed around him like lightening from heaven and after falling up on the earth he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And [Saul] said, “Who are you Lord” And [Jesus] said “ I, I am Jesus whom you are persecuting…” [2]

(Acts 9: 1a, 2-5)

Saul’s story—told by Luke here in Acts—is a story about God encountering Saul. This story tells us something of God and of Saul. Saul was, by no stretch of the imagination, a killer, a man bent in on himself and his own human logic of things divine. And, he was travelling to Damascus with authority to imprison and if necessary execute those who will not obey his exhortation to return from following (and worshipping!) this dead man, Jesus.[3] And here we see privilege drunk on its own power: those whom Saul hunts—the followers of the way—have no recourse, no chance, no ability to fight against Saul and resist him.[4] He is like a mountain that is about to fall on them and they have only meager stones to fight back. Saul will seek, and they will be found; they will lose, and Saul will win.

But not even Saul, with all his earned power and privilege and authority to pursue,[5] will be able to outrun the One who pursues him. As God meets up with Saul, Saul is forever changed. Saul is knocked off of his donkey on to his “donkey,” and when he gets up he is a brand-new person. Saul is 100% disrupted on his way to Damascus; his old ways disturbed and brought to death as he is consumed and enveloped in bright divine light. In this light, even before Jesus speaks to Saul, Saul experiences the love of this desiring God in his own person—his entire being[6] is about to be caught up in God.[7]

Even if this was enough, something more happens to Saul: Jesus speaks and asks Saul a profound question. Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me? Saul, why are you doing this to me? Saul knows this the Lord—Who are you Lord?—and would never persecute the Lord. Yet, he is persecuting those who are following this (same!) Jesus of Nazareth. And herein Luke tells us a fabulous story of the intimate bond between this Lord and the people of this Lord.[8] In this moment, the solidarity of God with the disenfranchised and oppressed, the hunted and hungry, the threatened and thirsty, is made known to Saul in dramatic and sudden fashion.[9] In other words, mess with the beloved, mess with God.

And as Saul encounters God in this moment in Christ’s self-revelation, Jesus the Christ and God become one. And, Jesus’s presence and God’s people become one. Saul moves from abstract to concrete, from theory to praxis, from ritualistic and traditionalist obedience to law to disruptive and redirecting activity of divine love.[10] Saul will have no choice but to set out on a new path in this new life found in the incarnate, crucified, raised, and ascended Christ. Saul will not be able to justify continuing on with his previous desires to imprison and execute the Followers of the Way;[11] in his entire being and presence, mind and heart, in his actions from here on out, all is changed, all is different, all is disrupted, all is new.

Conclusion

While every encounter changes us, when God encounters us God disrupts us. God does not affirm our former paths, the ones we were dead-set on, the ones we were determined to cling to certain we are right. When we are encountered by God, we’re rendered unto death and are resurrected into new life…not a nicer version of our old life, but a completely, new life. When we’re encountered by God, we’re made more ourselves being wrapped up in divine love and desire for us. And then we’re unleashed back into the world to love others as we’ve been loved, participating in Christ’s mission in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit, spreading divine love in passive and active ways, in expected and radical ways, in peaceful and revolutionary ways. We get to participate in another’s encounter with God in the event of faith; we get to be those who bring light into the dark, liberation where there is captivity, release where there is oppression, community where there is isolation, life where there is only death.

In a text by Dorothee Sölle, she refers to (at length) Helmut Gollwitzer’s personal confession of encounter with God in the event of faith, I will close by quoting a portion of it:

The most important thing, from which all the rest follows is that through hearing what can be heard of him I have never been alone. Certainly, like anyone else, I have often enough felt alone, abandoned, helpless, but he has spoken to this solitude with his ‘I am here.’ ‘I spoke to him, asked him, heard very clear words which be said to me, had to take account of them—and the spell of solitude was broken.

He gave me – still gives me – things to do. He is involved in a great work, the greatest here on earth: the revolution of the human race, the individual and all people, for a new life, for real, fulfilled humanity. That is what he is involved in, that is what he is winning for his disciples. To become involved in that is already to participate in the new life oneself. …The connection with Jesus’ great work given an eternal significance even to the most unlikely things: nothing will be lost. A joyful meaning enters into all action.

He makes people dear to me. Some of them are dear anyway, and many others are not. He tells me that he loves those who are alien, indifferent or even unattractive to me. In so doing he helps me to behave in a different way, to be capable of talking, listening to others as openly and seriously as I would like them to listen to me and take me seriously, never writing anyone off, never pronouncing a final judgment on anyone, always attempting new things with them in hope… They all become my neighbours.

In this way he disturbs to me. Because of his intervention I cannot behave as I wanted to at first. Of course, unfortunately I often do just that. But be does not leave me to my inclinations and moods. He struggles with me, there are arguments, and sometimes he prevails. To be disturbed in this way is the healthiest thing that can happen to us. … He does not restrict my freedom; he is not I despotic superego against which I have to fight to come to myself; on the contrary, the more I allow myself to be governed by his intervention, the forces, the more open, the more friendly and the more joyful I become.[12]

Helmut Gollwitzer qtd in Dorothee Sölle

As of Easter, in light of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, in tune with Saul’s encounter with God, you are the wonderfully disrupted, disturbed, and desired beloved of God. Go forth, and disturb, disrupt and desire by the power of the love of God and Christ and the Holy Spirit.


[1] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 93. “The revealing God yet remains hidden in revelation. This hiddenness is not because God hides, but because, as Karl Barth says God controls God’s own self-revealing, we do not. God comes to us one at a time, specifically, uniquely in the singularity that is our life. God comes to you and to me, as only God can come to you and me, as God, our God. The coming is a calling. A drawing, an awakening of our life to its giver and lover.”

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] Jennings Acts 90. “Saul is a killer. We must never forget this fact he kills in the name of righteousness, and now he wants legal permission to do so. This is the person who travels the road to Damascus, one who has the authority to take life either through imprisonment or execution. No one is more dangerous than one with the power to take life and who already has mind and sight set on those who are a threat to a safe future. Such a person is a closed circle relying on the inner coherence of their logic.”

[4] Jennings Acts 91. “The disciples of the Lord, the women and men of the Way, have no chance against Saul. They have no argument and certainly no authority to thwart his zeal They are diaspora betrayers of the faith who are a dear and present danger to Israel. This is how Saul sees them. His rationality demands his vision of justice. But what Saul does not yet know is that the road to Damascus has changed. It is space now inhabited by the wayfaring Spirit of the Lord. Saul pursues, but he is being pursued.”

[5] Richard J. Cassidy Society and Politics in the Acts of the Apostles Eugen, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1987. 80. “Within Luke’s portrait of his activities, the fact that Paul received approval for this initiative implies that he had emerged as a dedicated and trusted ally of the chief priests and was no longer to regarded merely as the young custodian of their cloaks.”

[6] Jennings Acts 92. “’The Lord and Jesus have been connected in Saul’s body, and they can never be separated again.”

[7] Jennings Acts 90. “God disrupts the old order by interrupting lives. Luke has removed every temporal wall that might separate in our thinking the God who moved in ancient Israel from the God present in the world in Jesus from this God of untamable love. This is the same Holy One, and Saul too will fall into the hands of this desiring God.”

[8] Jennings Acts 92-93. “Jesus is one with the bodies of those who have called on his name and followed in his way by the Spirit Their pain and suffering is his very own. This too is scandal, this too is a crossed line. The mystery of God is found in human flesh, moving in and with the disciples who are a communion of suffering and a witness to life. Saul is meeting a God in Jesus who is no alien to time, but one who lives the everyday with us. The shared life of Jesus continues with his disciples as he takes hold of their horrors and they participate in his hopes. Yet just as he confronted Saul, this God is no passive participant in the suffering of the faithful, but one who has reconciled the world and will bring all of us to the day of Jesus Christ Saul has entered that new day.”

[9] Jennings Acts 91. “The power of this event almost overwhelms its textual witness. Luke is handling holy fire now. The question comes directly to Saul. This is a question too massive for him to handle because it is an intimate one. ‘Why are you hurting me?’…In our world, this genre of question flows most often out of the mouths of the poor and women and children. The question casts light on the currencies of death that we incessantly traffic in, and it has no good answer. The only good answer is to stop. But now this is God’s question. It belongs to God. It belongs with God. Hurt and pain and suffering have reached their final destination, the body of Jesus.”

[10] Jennings Acts 92. “This is the bridge that has been crossed in Israel. The Lord and Jesus are one. This is the revelation that now penetrates Saul’s being and will transform his identity. He turns from the abstract Lord to the concrete Jesus. …Saul moves from an abstract obedience to a concrete one, from the Lord he aims to please to the One who will direct him according to divine pleasure. Discipleship is principled direction taken flight by the Holy Spirit It is the “you have heard it said, but I say to you—the continued speaking of God bound up in disruption and redirection.”

[11] Jennings Acts 90. “There is no rationale for killing that remains intact in the presence of God.”

[12] Helmut Gollwitzer qtd in Dorothee Sölle Thinking About God: An Introduction to Theology Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1990. Gollwitzer’s statement is from H. Spaemann (ed.), Wer ist Jesus von Nazareth—für mich? 100 eitgenössische Zeugnisse (Munich: 1972) 21ff.

Not Isolated Monads

Sermon on Acts 8:14-17

Psalm 29:1-2 1 Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

Introduction

We are not isolated and autonomous monads[1] floating about disconnected from everything and everyone.

I know that it is tempting to think I am. There are times it feels like I can do whatever I want at any moment, and times I’m convinced I’m the master of my own destiny, that I control things with my will and reason, and that I live autonomously, laying hold of what is “mine”.

As we view our presence in the world in an isolated and autonomous way (as in: we are “laws unto ourselves”) we will fall to the notion that we must cling to, grab, seize, and take for ourselves that which we need and want…at the expense of our neighbor. We will seize for ourselves food, space, land, money, even God in terms of our doctrines and dogmas, our holiness, righteousness, forgiveness and grace, purity, and worship. (This is mine, not yours!) As soon as we wrap our hands around anything with a vice like death grip, we will position ourselves above others and will then be fine with sacrificing our community, our friends, our partners, our children, any other human being to this having and grasping. But this is death because, to quote one of my favorite scholars, Frau Prof. Dr. Dorothee Sölle, “Everything that we grab hold of and cling to means death. Life destroys itself wherever it is based on having, on privileges over against those who have nothing. Because we grab hold of it, it perishes.”[2] As soon as we drag whatever it is (even God) into our realm with our vice like death grip, it is dead; and so too are we.

Lynnda Ebright shared with me a part of a poem she read one morning:

“…feel your naked belly button where
you were tied to your mother. Kneel and thank
her for your jubilant but woebegone life. Don’t
for a moment think of the mood of your parents
when you were conceived which so vitally affects
your destiny. You have no control over that…[3]

“Mom and Dad” by Jim Harrison

We do not spontaneously generate into the world without genetic or ancestral history. We are born into a story—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—with an origin prior to us and which will continue to be told beyond us. Any notion that we are autonomous persons without profound connection to the world and to others is lie sent to destroy the fabric of vibrant and healthy community (this goes for any ideology centering an “us v. them” mentality). From our birth into our family of origin to our rebirth into our family of spiritual origin, we are bound one to another in our humanity.

We are not isolated and autonomous monads floating about disconnected from everything and everyone.

Acts 8:14-17

Now, after hearing that Samaria received/welcomed the word of God, the disciples in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to them, those who went down and prayed on behalf of the Samaritans in order that they might receive the Holy Spirit…Then John and Peter were laying hands upon them and they were receiving the Holy Spirit.[4]

Acts 8:14-15, 17

In our passage from the book of Acts, we get a brief glimpse of the interconnection inherent in the early community of Christ. Luke gives us a few lines speaking to profound spiritual connection between the disciples in Jerusalem and the newly converted in Samaria. Learning Samaria received and welcomed the word of God, the disciples—so moved by God’s Holy Spirit—sent two of their own to visit with the Samaritans and ensure they also received the baptism of the Spirit.[5]

It is important to point out that what looks like a secondary step for the Samaritans is actually a primary step for Peter and John coming from Jerusalem.[6] It’s not the Samaritans who must be yoked to the disciples in Jerusalem by the baptism of the Spirit; rather, it’s the disciples from Jerusalem who must see they are yoked, by God’s love, to the new believers in Samaria—those who were unclean and forbidden from mixing with the Israelites are now part of God’s people. The Samaritans are accepted and declared clean, they’re received and welcomed in the very core of their being and bodies. In one quick rush of wind, the Israelites and the Samaritans became one body.[7] What was segregated is now desegregated.

God’s proclaimed word of good tidings rumbles through the land like an earthquake. The epicenter is the activity of God in the event of the cross and resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ. From there, like waves, the proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ raised, moved through Jerusalem into the wider area of Judea and then through the human made boundaries separating Israel and Samaria, the clean from the unclean (Acts 1:8). The great overhaul of the Beloved of God began the moment the Holy Spirit transcended human made boundaries erected to keep out those who are deemed unworthy, unclean, unloved, unrighteous, un-pious, un-whatever; boundaries built to contain the supposed purity of the elite and the sacred things of the privileged by forcing out the poor and disenfranchised; boundaries designed to draw deep lines in the sand keeping good bodies in and bad bodies out. As the Rev. Dr. Willie James Jennings writes,

“…God will draw near and give lavishly in an intimate space created by bodies and created for bodies. God’s drawing and claiming of the beloved creation continues, reaching through the apostles … from Peter and John through Philip and now to the Samaritans. The Holy Spirit has come.”[8]

Willie James Jennings

The Holy Spirit has come and has highlighted the very real fact that we are all connected one to another; none is better than the other and no one is more loved by God than everyone. According to Luke’s record of the movement of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts, all bodies are the target of God’s divine love unleashed in the world through Christ and the Holy Spirit. Being ones who are called beloved by God, we must see that this yokes us to those others who are also the beloved of God. We cannot cling to this thing we call God as if God is our own and only for us, We must see that God is for those who are not us. We, like Peter and John, must be converted out of desperately clinging to that which is “mine” thus dead and be brought into communion with others thus into the living.

We are not isolated and autonomous monads floating about disconnected from everything and everyone.

Conclusion

The presence of the Spirit disabuses us of this notion that we are isolated and autonomous people, fighting to keep our own as our own. “Disciples of Jesus,” says Jennings, “must be convinced not only of God’s love for the world but also God’s desire for people, especially peoples we have been taught not to desire.”[9] Our dwelling in God and God’s dwelling in us by the power of the Holy Spirit yokes us intimately to other human beings and the divinely created world; we can’t not love that which God loves. We share in the very Spirit of God—the same Spirit that fueled the ancient prophesies of God’s love for the suffering and grieving, those who mourn and weep, those who struggle and fight under oppression and threat of death; the same Spirit that moved in Jesus’s body and through his words and deeds into his world and context, that caused him to seek and save the lost who were isolated and abandoned.

And we are connected not only in a theoretical way but in a physical way; it is good to tell people that God loves them, but I pray that we can go the extra step with our feet to show them this divine truth with the deeds of our hands. The spirit of God in us causes us to transcend our own social boundaries of clean and unclean, in and out, through the laying on of hands…not just in terms of blessing in a religious sense or setting apart in a sacred way, but in the real practical way of lending our hands to ease the burdens of our neighbors, those close and those far, those here in this room and those outside of it.

“As long as life continues to be grounded and secured in the privilege of having, it destroys itself. Life is life only when everyone belongs to it with equal right and with equal share…If grabbing hold means death, then sharing and communication mean life. No one can save himself alone and no one is forgiven alone, if forgiveness is taken seriously in the sense of being born anew.”[10]

Dorothee Sölle

We are not isolated and autonomous monads floating about disconnected from everything and everyone; we are the beloved of God, intimately and profoundly yoked together by the Spirit of God in us, charged to love our neighbor as ourselves and as God loves us. We are the beloved exhorted out of our curved in, dead state, called into the new upright posture of new life in the Holy Spirit, and caused to see others as the beloved, too.


[1] “In metaphysics, an individual and indivisible substance.”.

[2] Dorothee Sölle Political Theology Trans. John Shelley. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1974. 103-104

[3] “Mom and Dad” by Jim Harrison

[4] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[5] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 80 “This is a beautiful moment orchestrated by the Spirit. The journey begun in baptism will now continue with the Spirit. A processional has begun. Peter and John travel to Samaria from Jerusalem, and now gifts will be given.”

[6] Jennings Acts 80. “The delay of the Spirit was not for a defect of faith or of life for the Samaritans. Could it be that God waited for Peter and John so that they could watch the intimate event?”

[7] Jennings Acts 80 “Here and now these disciples, especially Peter, will see a love that extends into the world. They will watch as God stretches forth divine desire over the Samaritans. They must see again the Spirit descend and sense afresh the divine embrace of flesh.”

[8] Jennings Acts 80

[9] Jennings Acts 80

[10] Sölle Political Theology 104

Refiner’s Fire

Sermon on Acts 19:1-7

Psalm 29:10-11: The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore. The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

Introduction

The chorus of a Vineyard hymn, “Refiner’s Fire,” goes like this:

Refiner’s fire/My heart’s one desire
Is to be holy/Set apart for You, Lord
I choose to be holy/Set apart for You,
Ready to do Your will

I remember singing songs like this. I remember wanting “holiness” to be my one desire. I was so moved by this desire, I dedicated myself not only to the holiness of right thought but also to right action. This is the way active holiness was explained to me: not having anything to do with vile “secular” culture that is the playground of Satan and his demons waiting for unsuspecting Christians to wonder in and partake of his pleasing fruit and fall from grace through his seduction to damnation. I had to avoid anything deemed morally “bad”. This is what it meant to be set apart for Christ and holy: to keep myself clean from the stain sin (of “not Christian”). So, following recommendation, I tossed “secular” CDs, avoided “secular” movies, made sure my books were either the Bible or “Christian”, and ditched friends who weren’t Christian. I’d keep my mind on heavenly things and make sure my deeds aligned with them. I would go to Church every Sunday, memorize scripture, submit to men, and attend every bible study. This is how I was holy, and this was God’s will.

Sadly, that definition of holiness ran me into the ground. I had to spend my time focused on myself, on my image, on my presentation of myself so I could appear right with God. That definition of holiness was killing me, making me judgmental, condescending, angry, and starved for personal substance and presence and action. I didn’t reckon with myself, I just tucked everything I didn’t like in a box and shoved it somewhere else. It turned me so far inward that I couldn’t follow Jesus and I couldn’t see my neighbor and her needs. I was inside out, self-consumed, dysfunctional, and dead. This was holiness? This was being set apart?

Refiner’s fire/My heart’s one desire
Is to be holy/Set apart for You, Lord

Acts 19:1-7

…[Paul] said to them, “did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” But they [said] to him, “But we heard nothing if there is a Holy Spirit.” And [Paul] said, “Into what then/therefore were you baptized?”

Acts 19:2-3a; translation mine

The way the introductory Greek reads suggests Paul has intent to go to Ephesus to find those who believe in Jesus to ask some interesting questions.[1] When he finds them, Paul asks if they’ve received the Holy Spirit. This is Paul’s current crucial mission.[2] Paul wants to know: has God taken up residence with you and in you? The disciples reply they’ve not heard there is a Holy Spirit. Paul’s response? Another question: into what therefore were you baptized? While the question is simple the impact is profound. The disciples explain they were baptized by John. Wellokay…Paul says…but…: there is John and then there is Jesus; there is the verbal assent of repentance and then there is the bodily assent of practice; there is cleansing the outer person with water and then there is the refining fire of God’s cleansing the inner person; there is water and then there is Spirit.[3]

For Paul, John’s baptism with water is for the confession of sin and repentance. But it’s not enough. There’s more. There’s a trajectory involved in baptism that necessitates the presence of God in the life of the believer; it’s this presence, this Spirit, that unites us to God through faith in Christ. This trajectory is started by John, according to Paul, and it is finished by Christ. [4] John is the herald and Jesus the message. Not only their bodies must be baptized, washed, and dedicated to God but also their work, their discipleship must be baptized in Christ. It’s through repentance we die and are submerged in water; it is through this death we find life in the baptism of Christ and the Holy Spirit.[5]

“I have baptized you with water,” says John the Baptist. “[B]ut he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mk 1:8

The one who is baptized last in the Jordan by John is now the first of New Creation, of the new order, of the new age, of the “new day.”[6] In being last in the waters of the Jordan and receiving the baptism of repentance with water by John, Jesus is the one who stands among the people and in solidarity with God. As the first of the new divine action in the world, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, Emmanuel, the promised divine child of Mary, is God incarnate in solidarity with humanity in those same waters of death and new life. Jesus is in solidarity with God in God’s mission to seek and save the lost[7] and with humanity in its plight.[8] This is the one who will leave the Jordan and begin his ministry in the world focused on bringing in and including those who are shut out and excluded, mending the wounded, soothing the brokenhearted, and calling by name those whose names are forgotten.

In the event of baptism, Jesus’s history becomes our history[9]–we, with our histories (past, present, and future), are grafted into the history of Christ (past, present, and future). It’s in this event where our activity in water baptism is paradoxically identical with the activity of God in the baptism of the spirit.[10] It’s here we’re made holy, receive holy gifts, and do holy things because of the presence of God. (Where Christ is proclaimed there Christ is and holy activity is worked out in and through us.) We’re baptized by water and Spirit into Jesus’s mission and ministry. One by one, each of us is encountered in the waters of the Jordan, in repentance; one by one, each of us is encountered by God in the event of faith. Thus, in this baptism, one by one, each of us must reckon with ourselves and ask: will I follow Jesus out of the Jordan?

Conclusion

To follow Jesus means to love others and to love God, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and to stand in solidarity with God. To follow Jesus in this moment means to come against empire (the deeper theme of Acts 19),[11] like Paul did, like the disciples eventually did, and just like Jesus did in his divine ministry and mission in the world. When Jesus leaves the Jordan the kingdoms of humanity come under judgment and are exposed for what they are: realms of death and darkness.

This week we witnessed a coup. A coup to uphold and maintain systems, ideologies, authorities, and persons in opposition to life. White supremacy and its dominant culture of whiteness reared its head and stormed the state house and demanded democracy be silenced so the empire of man can remain standing. It wasn’t solely about supporting Trump but ultimately what Trump represents: the old age of the evil empire of death and destruction. The message sent to black indigenous people of color, to the lgbtqia+ community, to our Jewish brothers and sisters, and to womankind was loud and clear: power and privilege and me and mine is worth destroying your life, liberty, and democracy. This is what narcissistic power does when it’s challenged; this is the fit privilege throws when threatened. I thought 2020 exposed just how bad things are; I stood corrected on Wednesday. We are in the process of being exposed. We have racial capitalism[12] deep in our bones and it’s dragging us, each of us, into darkness and death unto death. Be sure: this is not a “them over there” problem; it’s a problem for us. We are held captive and are complicit here. I am held captive and am complicit here.

Willie James Jennings writes,

Both the water and the touch become the stage on which the spirit will fall on our bodies, covering us with creating and creative power and joining us to the life of the Son. Through the Spirit, the word comes to skin, and becomes skin, our skin in concert with the Spirit.[13]

The word comes to skin, becomes skin, our skin in concert with the Spirit… This means that we, in our baptism with water and the presence of the Spirit and word come to skin, are intimately connected to the rest of humanity—in all shades of melanin. Thus, in no way can we support governments, people, actions, ideologies, institutions and systems designed to hinder and threaten lives. As sons and daughters of life and light, we are exhorted t to live in ways to make this world free and safe for our black and brown brothers and sisters in light and life. Womanist[14] theologian Kelly Brown Douglas writes,

It is time for us to be embodied realities of the black prophetic tradition and with moral memory, moral identity, moral participation, and moral imagination begin to create the world we ‘crave for our daughters and sons’…Now is the time. It is the time to live into God’s time and to create that new heaven and new earth where the time of stand your ground culture is no more.[15]

For those of us encountered by God in the event of faith, we must harken back to our baptism of water and the refining fire of the Spirit. We must begin with ourselves. Without this deep and painful self-reflection and self-work, there can be no substantial change. We must ask those very hard questions: how do I participate in these death dealing systems? How have I squandered divine holiness for human power and privilege? Where does anti-black racism live in my body, my mind, my heart? Following Jesus out of the Jordan demands we step into the light and be exposed, and we repent of our guilt. It means we begin again washed clean through the water of repentance and resurrected into the new life of the Holy Spirit in the name of Christ in union with God and God’s mission in the world on behalf of the beloved for this is holiness and for this we are set apart.


[1] Εγενετο δε εν τω τον Απολλω ειναι εν Κορινθω Παυλον διελθοντα τα ανωτερικα μερη [κατ]ελθειν εις Εφεσον και ευρειν τινες μαθητας… (Acts 19:1). I’m taking the aorist active infinitive ευρειν to have intentional direction of action thus as apposition in relation to the aorist active infinitive of [κατελθειν] which completes the thought of the aorist active participle διελθοντα: Paul passed through the higher part and came down into Ephesus. Why? Well, namely, to find some disciples. In other words and looking at the questions that follow in the dialogue between Paul and the disciples, he is intentionally looking for disciples to make sure they’ve received the Spirit.

[2] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 184, “These were not people who needed convincing. Their commitments to a new way were clear. Yet the questions are crucial.”

[3] Jennings Acts 184, “John was preparation. The way of repentance he declared in Israel was the stage for the one who lived that life of repentance for his people. John was a person, but Jesus was a person and a place of living. John was an event that flashed across the landscape of Israel. Jesus was the bringer of a new time that extends to all space.”

[4] Jennings Acts 184, “These questions expose not simply gaps in their discipleship but lack of clarity of its telos, its end, goal, and fulfillment. Clearly John the Baptist presented a renewal movement in Israel, a calling home, a clarifying work establishing the divine claim on a beloved people with a purpose. That purpose was to trumpet a new day in Israel. Paul is of that new day, and soon these disciples of John will also be of that new day.”

[5] Jennings Acts 184, “The saving work of God is always new, always starting up and again with faith…Paul invites these disciples to baptize their discipleship in Jesus, and thereby join their lives to his in such a way that they will lose their life in the waters only to find it again in the resurrected One.”

[6] Jennings Acts 184, “Baptism in Jesus’ name signifies bodies that become the new day.”

[7] Joel B. Green“The Gospel of Luke” The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.187, “Working in concert with the endowment of the Holy Spirit, this divine affirmation presents in its most acute form Jesus’ role as God’s agent of redemption.…His mission and status are spelled out in relation to God and with reference to his purpose mission of redemption and establishes peace with justice in ways that flow determined by obedience to God’s purpose that the devil will test in 4:1-13.”

[8] Green 186, “Now however Jesus’ identity in relation to God and God’s redemptive project is proclaimed by God himself. Heaven itself has opened providing us with direct insight into God’s own view of things. That the voice of God agrees with those earlier voices (i.e., of Gabriel, Elizabeth, and the possible responses to Jesus. One can join Elizabeth, the angels, the narrator, an others who affirm Jesus’ exalted status an/or identity as God’s Son, or one can reject this evaluation and so pit oneself over against God.”

[9] Cf W. Travis McMaken The Sign of the Gospel “Barth’s discussion of Spirit baptism comprises a dialectical movement between two poles. One pole is God’s objective work of reconciliation in Christ and the other is the faithful and obedient human response to that work. Spirit baptism is where these two poles meet in a dynamic event of effectual call and free response. Barth’s discussion of this event draws upon and brings together many important strands in his theology, for here culminates the movement of the electing God’s divine grace as it reaches particular women and men among as elected in Jesus Christ. In this discussion, Barth walks the fine line between Christomonist and anthropomonist positions, neither creating the history of Jesus Christ as that which swallows the histories of human individuals, nor relegating Christ’s history to merely symbolic significance. Barth also does not denigrate the work of the Spirit or separate it from that of Christ. All of these things comprise a differentiated and ordered unity in Barth’s thought, aimed at grounding faithful human obedience on God’s grace in Jesus Christ.” 174

[10] McMaken Sign 174. “Spirit baptism comprises the awakening of faith that actualizes in one’s own life the active participation in Christ to which every individual is elected. This awakening demands and necessarily includes faithful and obedient human response. In the first instance, this response is faith itself. However, Barth argues that there is a paradigmatic way in which water baptism comprises this response. Water baptism constitutes the foundation of the Christian life precisely as such a paradigmatic response.”

[11] Barbara Rossing “Turning the Empire (οικουμενη) Upside Down: A Response” Reading Acts in the Discourses of Masculinity and Politics eds. Eric D. Barreto, Matthew L. Skinner, and Steve Walton. Ny NY: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017) p. 154 “‘In the οικουμενη all are Romans’: this fact—mourned by Agrippa but celebrated by Aelius Aristides—describes the first-century context both geographically and politically. It is the context we have to assume also for Acts. So, I would argue οικουμενη in Acts means ‘empire’. And this proves important for the reading of Acts 17 (both the account of the incident at Thessalonica as well the Areopagus speech) and acts 19 along with the trial scene we find there. What Paul is turning upside down is not the ‘world’ in the cosmic sense but rather the ‘empire’ or imperial world.”

[12] David Justice defines this term in his paper “Negating Capitalism: The Beloved Community as Negative Political Theology and Positive Social Imaginary” presented at AAR/SBL 2020 Annual Conference Virtual/Online forum Black Theology and Martin Luther King, Jr. 12/2020. Justice writes, “Racial capitalism, wherein racism and capitalism are mixed such that race is exploited to gain capital from racial identity…” p.1.

[13] Jennings Acts 185

[14] Womanism  is a social theory based on the history and everyday experiences of women of color, especially black women. It seeks, according to womanist scholar Layli Maparyan (Phillips), to “restore the balance between people and the environment/nature and reconcil[e] human life with the spiritual dimension” (from Wikipedia)

[15] Kelly Brown Douglas Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. New York NY: Orbis, 2015. 227. Lorde quoted.