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What? (Sermon Janurary 10, 2016)

Acts 8:14–17 (NRSV)2014-1202-stphilip

14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15 The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16 (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17 Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

 

We live in a very interesting period of time. I would say that it is an exciting time for the church. I have said this on many occasions because I truly believe that just over the horizon God is about to do something amazing in the Church, and particularly among Friends. I say this because we are living in a period of time, an era of history where the Church is vulnerable.

When people are vulnerable our natural instinct is to protect. We often withdraw from the potential dangers and fortify our positions so that we can make a defense when the attack comes. This frequently occurs when there are significant cultural, economic, technological, and natural events causing changes within a community or people group. If we were to remove all political connotations and opinions away from the Syrian refuge issue we would be able to see that this natural instinct to flee danger and protect themselves is at the root of the mass exodus. If we were to just contemplate our own response to the situation if the tables were turned we may even see that we may possibly respond in a very similar manner. And in many cases we are responding in a similar manner, because it is a base instinct that was created within our genetic code.

Many leaders across the nation are teaching those that listen that the end is near, that Christ is about to return. I find this form of teaching repugnant because Scripture clearly teaches that no one not even Jesus Christ knows when that great day will occur. When I mention that to people, they often pull back and say just look at the world around us clearly this is the end. No, I believe that it is the beginning of something great (and yes the Lord’s return would be great.). I agree that there are pressures on the church that have been building for decades that are now causing presenting themselves as significant cultural shifts that cause us to look at what has occurred in the past as being the golden age and the future is only darkness. The problem with that type of thinking is that it depends on the perspective. The “golden age” of the church was also seen as the dark ages of culture in Europe. And the church has remained and thrived for centuries after that golden age.

It would be foolish for me to say that there is not a crisis of faith occurring throughout our land. It would be foolish to say that our culture has not changed significantly over the generations. Science has shown it to us in multiple ways. I mention science because the scientific method of observation and exploration in search of truth is just one of the ways our culture has shifted. Some of the shifts cause us to step back but other aspects of these shifts can make our testimony even greater. Again it is all about perspective. In many ways the dynamic shift within our culture is similar in degree to the greatest movements within church history. The eighth chapter of the Book of Acts is a testimony of just how important these cultural shifts and the response of the faithful can be to the future of the Kingdom of heaven.

The passage today speaks of the people of Samaria becoming believers of the word and being baptized after Phillip teaches them, then Peter and John come to visit and the people are filled with the Holy Spirit and the church grows. This is wonderful but we really need to look deeper to understand just how meaningful this is.

Samaria is in many ways the remnant of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. If we look into the history of the people of Israel we would see that after the reign of Solomon the nation split and only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to the house of David, all the others gained their independence, united together and named their own king. Fast forwarding through history the leaders of the Northern kingdom, the tribes that rebelled essentially over the high taxes imposed by the house of Solomon, quickly fell away from God and judgement commenced. When we read about this division we often think that all of the nation was opposed to God but that is not reality. The Levites or the priests still had cities of refuge and centers for worship and faith continued. We do not often hear about the faith of the Samaritans because they opposed the temple of Solomon. They opposed this temple because it was linked to political ideology that they did not agree with. So we see the first division of faith based primarily on nationalism, and nothing about religion.

Samaria, we are told fell to the Assyrian Empire, because their leaders opposed God. But there is something interesting about their religion, it still remains. They were a people group that were rebellious and independent and they were free to live as they saw fit, yet through their occupation they still maintained their central place of worship. And just as the people of the southern kingdom they anticipated the coming of the Messiah. Do not hear this incorrectly, I am not saying that the Northern Kingdom was more faithful, it is very clear that many within the northern kingdom opposed God, what I am saying is not all in that kingdom were faithless.

Now let us move forward and speak about Phillip. Phillip was a second tier disciple. This is not to say that he was not important because it is very clear from the book of Acts that he was, but what I mean is that he was not one of the original twelve, he was among the second wave of leaders. Philip along with Steven the first martyr, and five others, were appointed to be deacon by the Apostles. This office was created after a dispute emerged between the Jewish and Hellenistic factions of the church over the use of offerings, in short many believed that the Gentile Christians were being treated unfairly by the Hebrew believers. Each of the seven deacons were chosen by the community of disciples, not the Apostles, they were to be upstanding members of high integrity and the apostles laid hands on the seven chosen without prejudice and the seven were to minister to the needs of the Church. Phillip is a man of faith who emerged from the Hellenistic side of the church, he may have come from a Hebrew family but his family by his very name favored the benefits of the Greek culture. If you were a member of the assembly who came from the Hellenistic side of the church would see Phillip as your guy.

Well not long after the dispute within the church, the persecutions from the Jewish people in Jerusalem began. One reason for the persecutions was because Gentiles were becoming accepted among the followers of Jesus and the traditional religious community feared it would not be long before the Temple would again be desecrated by these Gentiles. So eventually all the non-Hebrew believers were forced out of Jerusalem. Phillip, a believer with a Hellenistic name, left Jerusalem and went to Samaria, and began to continue the work he had been doing among the people around him.

I want to stop there for just a moment because we have two groups of people being discriminated against by the establishment in Jerusalem.  The church was at that moment open and welcoming to all people, accepting both Jew and Greek not only in their assembly but in leadership. There was a cultural shift occurring within the religious community, and many felt that this was unacceptable. Does God really intend for people of all cultures to be followers or does He require that all people submit to the hereditary leaders of the promised people. Accepting Greeks that live in and around Jerusalem is one thing, they lived there, now they hear that there are people in Samaria that have become followers?

I want us to consider this from a different perspective for a moment. Phillip is a member and leader within our Meeting and because of financial reason he is forced to move from our community to work in another nation. It just so happens that the only place he can find work is in the lands occupied by a group we oppose. Let’s just say he was hired by a company that required him to move to Iraq because he is a petroleum engineer and they needed him to work on a new project. Well Phillip is a well-respected member of our Meeting and we will greatly miss him and his family. After a few weeks we get an email saying that he was worshiping among a group of people in Iraq. He sounds very excited about it and goes on and on about the amazing life changing occurrences that are happening while he works among the people of that nation. He then adds even ISIS Militants are coming to faith and are going to start an Evangelical Friends Church with him. We were with him up till then. ISIS is an enemy they cannot be accepted. Why?

This scenario is fictional, but is similar to the situation Phillip had in Samaria. Samaria was the enemy of Judah. They are the enemy of God. They oppose coming to the Temple in the capital city to make sacrifices and leave offerings to provide assistance to the people of the nation. At this moment the Church has a huge problem does God love the people of Samaria and can they be Samaritans and Christian?

The church of Jerusalem quickly met to discuss this unprecedented event, and it is decided that Peter and John will go to meet with Phillip and the Samaritans. They send them because by Luke’s writing we see that they are baptized but do not have the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. And Peter and John want to know and pray with them to see if they can be accepted into the Church.

Notice that I said accepted into the Church. The reason I say this is because there is a phenomenon occurring. After Pentecost God did not withhold the baptism of the Spirit from believers, even the Gentiles were filled with the Holy Spirit. As they drew close to Christ it became apparent that they were authentic not only in word but in their actions. But there is hesitation when it comes to Samaria. Is God withholding his blessing from those dogs for the long history of rejection of the true faith or is something else going on?

I do not want to get into a debate over what it means to have the baptism of the Spirit. We in the Friends Church are very liberal in this area, it can mean many things but it can always be summed up into one statement: It will be evident in our lives that we are true believers. I want us to consider is what God is doing in the Church at this moment.

Peter and John go. Peter the outspoken person and obvious leader, and John the one whom Jesus loved. Both were members of the Apostolic ranks, both were in the inner circle, the closest of Jesus’ friends. Peter was the one who witnessed the vision and evidence of God’s acceptance of Gentiles into the church but it is very clear that at moments Peter falls back into a very Law focused expression of faith. John is probably the most accepting of outsiders, because of this he almost comes across as being opposed to his own people in his writings. These two were chosen to represent the church as they consider the people of Samaria.

They go because they do not trust Phillip, they do not trust that these Samaritans could be believers if there was no evidence of the Holy Spirit being present. But I ask a simple question: Who was the Spirit hidden from? Phillip obviously saw something because he was reporting that they were believers. But the apostles in Jerusalem were not convinced.

Could it be that even the Saintly Apostles, the first disciples of Jesus, the ones that walked in the very dust behind the greatest teacher and Messiah, could have been blinded by their own flesh? Could it be that they could not see the truth of the Samaritan faith because they were too wrapped up in their own nationalistic religion? I only mention this because Phillip does not have an issue with the ministry that he has among the people, but the Apostles. I do not mean to cast shame or doubt on the heroes of my faith, I only wish to get a glimpse of the truth.

Peter and John go. They do understand that God might be working a great thing among their Samaritan neighbors. They go and they meet with them, they speak with them, they lay hands upon them, and pray with them. The result of this is Samaria is accepted into the Church, the blinders have been removed and all can see that God is at work. There are some lessons we can learn from this short passage, the first is that if we question we should seek to find the answers. And the second is we need each other to become fully aware of the truth surrounding us. This is the great Epiphany of this season, the great revaluation and insight from God. That he is working in ways we do not fully understand among people we do fully know. And he is calling us to meet with them, to speak with them, to encourage them, lay hands of on them and pray with them. He is calling us to know and get to know all people from all over and let them know the Word of God. The Word that they are loved and accepted, they are forgiven and redeemed, they are restored and glorified through the birth, life, death and resurrection of our Lord and God, Jesus.

As we enter into this time of open worship. Let us reflect on the ministry of Phillip to the people seen as enemies of Israel and God, let us consider our own changing culture and vulnerability that it causes within our church, but let us also consider the great hope and insight that we have received from Jesus. We have a future and a reason to be here. And it is so we can encourage others along their journey with Christ.

In the Eyes of a Baby (Sermon January 3, 2016)

John 1:1–18 (NRSV) Anthony_pereda

The Word Became Flesh

(Gen 1:1–2:4a)

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ ”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

 

The Christmas season is one of great importance. For most of us we get to December 25th and we imagine that the season is over. But in the liturgical calendar the season of Christmas extends twelve days beyond the 25th day of December (which is the first day of Christmas) to January 5th, the last day of Christmas. Today is the ninth day of Christmas, the day our true love gives to us the nine ladies dancing. Of course the ever kill joy website Snopes has said that the popular Christmas carol has nothing to with teaching Christians of faith but what they don’t realize is that anything can be used to teach others about the grace and love of God.

Why do I bring up the concept of the twelve days of Christmas? I mainly do this because the fullness of Christ coming, the theological implications of the very birth of Christ cannot be fully contained in a celebration of one day. Christmas must be a season, we need to reflect on the meaning and implications of the divine taking on flesh and being born as a human, over the course of several days. If we try to push it into one day we lose the fullness of the event. And if we lose focus of the fullness of the event we can focus in on singularities surrounding the event and quite possibly lose focus of what the meaning really is.

Just consider the birth of any child. How many days do we consider the child a newborn? Western cultures all see that it is very important to give parents time for bonding with a new child in the family. Both mothers and fathers are given legally protected leave from their jobs for a limited period of time so that the child can bond with the family. Why would we make laws about this sort of thing? Because it is scientifically proven that without this period of time social development can be hindered. Bonding takes time. We celebrated the birth of Jesus nine days ago, and we are now in the season of bonding, learning, recognizing, and understanding. This is not something that happens overnight but it takes time, it requires a season.

So let’s take this time today to bond with Christ. To look into his eyes, to study his features and enjoy his presence. I said a couple of weeks ago that the prologue of John’s Gospel is probably my favorite Christmas passage and I stand by that statement today. I say this because this passage goes deeper than just a mere description of what happened on that day 2000 years ago, but it is as if we are sitting with the babe just after the late night feeding looking at the face of the child and trying to determine whose nose his closest resembles. It is a description of the event that is more relational and personal than any other. It is looking into the eyes of the child and seeing the universe.

Many scholars believe that the prologue to John’s Gospel might possibly be an ancient hymn of some sort, a poetic profession of faith that can easily transmit theological ideals. That is pretty much where the agreement among scholars stops. Some go on to say that these first few verses were corrupted by early heretical movements of the Gnostics because the words revolve around the central theme of divine or secret wisdom or knowledge. Other say that it dives deeper into the ancient Jewish concepts of creationism. It does not really matter what the scholars want to debate because the truth remains that these words all point to Jesus as being the Word of God, or the true source of Life.

I want to focus on this for a moment. John’s Gospel was and still is the most theologically packed gospel of the New Testament. Every group from the most heretical to the most orthodox group uses the words penned by John to hold up their teachings, or to tear down their competition. The Gnostics would use these verses to point to the secret knowledge, while others use it to point to the supremacy of God. We as humans tend to pick favorite passages to support our ideas and build on them. Just like focusing on the singular ideas of Christmas causes us to lose the reality of Christmas focusing on singular concepts in scripture can cause us to lose focus of what true faith is. What I want us to consider is the idea of Word of God. For most of us we would say that the word of God is scripture. That is not what this is saying. The Word of God is God Himself. It is the meaning behind the words that we can read. It is the inflection behind the words that we speak. In the Word there is life, it is not because the words themselves have power, but because there is power within the Being the words describe. Scripture is important, it is very important, it is inspired writing that speaks directly to the core of our being but it is powerful only because of Who and what the words written about describe.

Let me explain a bit further. In the second section of this passage, the author leave the abstract mystical realm and begins to speak about a man by the name of John. In the other Gospels we are introduced to him as John the Baptist but here we are just told that he was a man sent by God as a witness to the light. The teachings of John though inspired and powerful are only witness to something far greater. Scripture as well is a witness of something far greater. It speaks of events that happened among people that either followed or neglected to follow God. It has poetry that causes our minds to be redirected to a concept that is just beyond our comprehension but can allow our finite spirits to commune with something greater. The words written reflect the light but the words and those that wrote the words are not the Light, or the source of Life. The words of scripture are only witnesses to the true Word which is God.

The author begins to speak of the abstract mystical concepts of Jesus in the precreation era, he then speaks of the finite tangible ideas of humanity’s understanding, and then goes back into the abstract of the precreation personality of the Word, coming into the world. Again this is heavy stuff that we cannot just quickly go through without considering the implications. He says that, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

Think about this. God, the Word, the source of all wisdom and knowledge, the very essences and spring of Life, came to dwell among us and though everything about us still sings the hymns of creation that echo the Words of Life did not know the voice that first sang the song. How is it that we could lose this? How is it that we could miss something as vitally important as the very source of life? It is a refrain that has been repeated through all of human existence.

We have ideas that we find as being wise, we pull authoritative texts to support our ideas, and then we build a following up around those ideas. In the process we neglect all the rest of the testimony of Scripture and we become an empty shadow of the truth. John was not the light, he was only a man sent by God to bear witness to the light. We are only humans that bear witness to the light, we do not and cannot possibly know all there is to know about creation. We have only begun to understand a miniscule portion of meaning of Life. Yet often we go around claiming to know the Truth.

“And the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” This phrase rips the very heart out of my chest, because it says that in my humanity, though I might think I am following God I might actually be far from Him. Though I might know quite a bit about scripture, though I spend hours upon hours in study and prayer over what I read and what I say I might have missed the entire point of what God was actually trying to say.

John wrote these words to a group of people that knew the ancient customs of the first century Jewish people. If there is one thing that can be said about these ancient people it is that they valued education. Every community had a synagogue and in that synagogue they would teach the scripture to every boy in the community. They would memorize the Torah, or the books of the law until they came of age to be seen by the community as Men. From that moment on they would learn the family business and while not working they could come and listen to higher teachings of the rabbis. If they happened to exhibit a mind of a scholar a rabbi may ask them to become a disciple where they would leave the family business and engage a life fully devoted to the study of Torah and the writings of the prophets. There is one thing for certain, every man knew the scripture. Jesus came into the world to a people that knew scripture, they lived and breathed scripture it was the central aspect of their lives the foundation of their businesses. And it was to these people a child was born, a child whose flesh contained the infinity of creation, yet these people looked into His eyes and they did not know him. Yet some would look a bit deeper and would catch a glimpse. Some would be drawn just a bit closer and their perspectives were widened to see beyond the surface. “No one has ever seen God. It is God, the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made Him known.”

We need twelve days of Christmas, we need a season to reflect, a timeframe to contemplate the implications of Emanuel. We need time to become accustomed to the child that was born in the flesh but contained the wholeness of all. We need to be able to hold his tiny hands and look into the wide eyes of the baby so we can begin to grasp the true meanings of what Christmas really is. We need this time. We need it because when we hold the baby, the truth of life is revealed. Life is precious, it is fragile, beautiful, wonderful, delicate, amazing, and worthwhile. It is also hard, whinny, unexpected, unavoidable, dirty, and full of surprises. It makes us laugh and makes us cry. Life is worth it all. Time magically stops for a moment when we look into the face of a baby, and yet at the same moment the universe spreads out before us. The babies among us are reflections of God’s creation hymn, witnesses to the Word. They are reflections. As we enter into this time of open worship and communion among Friends, consider the first time you held a baby, it doesn’t matter if it was a kitten, a calf or a child just think back and look at him or her in your mind. Reflect on the tiny body of flesh and the vastness of the night’s sky. Consider the vulnerability of the babe and the fullness contained within. Reflect on the joy, sorrow, and hope for the future. Do not rush away from the moment look at the baby. No one has ever seen God. It is God, the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made Him known. Jesus came to the world as a baby, and even as an infant He shows us the True Word. What does that child say to you?

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