Thursday, May 14, 2009

Evangelicals All

ACTS 8:26-40; PSALM 22:25-31; 1 JOHN 4:7-21; JOHN 15:1-8

What’s the name of this church? (Lutheran Church of Hope) And it belongs to what larger church body? (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) How often do you think about that denominational title? While the age of denominational affiliation may be ending, that title still says a lot about who we are as a church. Or, at least, who we are supposed to be?

Yet, when you think of yourself, on your own terms, do you think of yourself as an evangelical? What does evangelical mean? (Based in and recognizing the authority of Scripture) Evangelical comes from the Greek word, evanggelion, which means “good news”. This is not only the gospel, but all of the good news, the entirety of Scripture, which points to the saving work of Jesus the Christ.

When the smaller church bodies merged to form the ELCA, the foundation for the church was not our ethnic heritage, our emphasis on education, our mission work, our ecumenical outreach or any other extraneous source of identity- the merging congregations went to the church’s one foundation, Jesus Christ our Lord. We are his new creation, by water and the word. Thus, we are rooted in the good news.

The same was true for the early church in the days after Christ’s sending of the Holy Spirit. The twelve apostles suddenly got their legs under them and began to preach in all kinds of places. They then appointed seven other elders to take care of church matters, like feeding people, buildings, local ministries, etc. However, these new elders couldn’t keep the Spirit from moving within themselves. (Nobody can keep the Spirit from doing what the Spirit will.)

The Philip we encounter in today’s reading from Acts is from this new group of elders, appointed in Acts 6. He ended up leaving Jerusalem, the apostles’ jurisdiction, and traveled to Samaria. If Jesus was going to include them in so many stories, perhaps they needed to hear the good news as well. It would seem the Spirit was already at work in their hearts.

Philip was a fantastic success for the Lord in Samaria. People heard his preaching, saw his signs and miracles and came to believe and were baptized. The word of the Samaritans faith got back to Jerusalem and even Peter and John came out to pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit.

Then Philip receives a new mission. He is sent out into the wilderness. There’s nothing more specific, just out to a certain road and start walking. The wilderness in Scripture is hardly ever positive. The Israelites wandered in it. Jesus was tempted there. Sheep have to be rescued from it. Things are lost. But Philip is sent and he goes out into this desert wilderness.

Lo, and behold, here comes a chariot with an Ethiopian eunuch inside. Now if Samaria already seemed like the outer reaches for the Gospel, Ethiopia was a whole other world. And a eunuch? The Pentateuchal laws prevented people with certain bodily injuries or handicaps to enter into the presence of the Lord. So this man was as far on the outskirts from what the apostles previously imagined as preaching to Martians or Venusians would be to us.

Yet, there he was and there was Philip. And where two or more are gathered? There is… Christ. In the reading from Isaiah, the eunuch is moved by the Spirit to know that he is reading more than the story of a mere martyr. And Philip is placed there to guide his understanding, by revealing to him the good news of Jesus.

And, so through the work of the Spirit, the eunuch desires to be baptized. What is to prevent him from being baptized? (Being Ethiopian, being a eunuch) EVERYTHING is there to prevent him from being baptized, but nothing can. After the resurrection, all bets are off. Everyone and anyone can hear the good news. God’s work through the Spirit in water and the Word is unstoppable. Even the distances of the known world at that time cannot contain it.

God is calling people to faith and people hear the call. The apostles, elders, teachers and followers of the church guide first one another and then their neighbors in that walk of faith.

God’s calling does not end with the book of Acts. Consider that Philip was moved to be right where God wanted him to be. Maybe it was wilderness, but the Spirit had work for him there. Do you doubt that God will do any less with you, right where you are, right now? Tomorrow? Next week?

We long for the world to understand God’s message of justice and forgiveness, of judgment and grace, but how can they understand it unless someone guides them. And who will guide them?

How about the evangelicals? That’s not the people on TV. That’s not the people at Anchorage Baptist Temple. That’s not missionaries in Africa or Latin America or in Anchorage. The evangelical is every person who has been baptized, who believes, who understands in their heart that the love of God is the greatest gift the world has been given.

If I am not mistaken, that would be you. You evangelicals. Does that mean you know exactly what to say, how to explain the whole Bible, how to make clear the nuances of the Trinity or details about everlasting life? No. You are evangelical because of what you believe, in the good news of Jesus Christ, the Word of Life revealed by God’s Word. And if you believe in that, then you may also believe that you do not go into the world alone.

When the queen uses the royal we, to whom is she referring? (Herself and the Holy Spirit) Well, the use of that we doesn’t come through coronation, it comes through baptism. You are never just a me, you always go into the world as a we. Philip did, the eunuch did, I do, your mother does or did, you do.

Your faith comes to you from God and the God who grants you that will not abandon you, even as you are lead to new places to speak up, speak out and speak for Christ. And so, do not be afraid, of the wilderness or of uncertainty. Do not be afraid to be evangelical. What exactly do we believe? Christ is risen. (Christ is risen indeed.).

After the resurrection, all bets are off. The Spirit moves where the Spirit will and there is nothing to stop it. Everyone and anyone can hear the good news. All they need is someone to guide them. And that may well be you.


What a Friend We Have in Jesus (but what about in each other?)

This week's text, John 15:9-17, talks about Jesus' followers as his friends. John 15:13 reads, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."

So needless to say, I've been thinking about friendship this week. Also burned in my brain is the following incident: I was recently chatting with a friend who happens to be a couple years older than me. I don't think of this that often and she doesn't either. In the course of our conversation, a mutual acquaintance came up and mentioned our age difference. The acquaintance proceeded to ask my friend why, since I was younger, I was already married and had a baby on the way. The underlying implication was that there was something wrong with the friend since she was so far behind the curve in these areas.

This compounds my mixed feelings about Mother's Day (Father's Day/Valentine's Day/Grandparent's Day/etc). Everyone does have a mother, but on that particular day- we acknowledge the people who are mothers. While I'm all for honoring your mother (see Proverbs 31), I think these specialized days also detract from the people for whom mothering conversations are painful.

Let me make it very, very clear that I fall into the camp of "not everyone is the same". Not everyone is married, a parent, single, white, purple, pierced, a veteran, peacenik, etc. And I don't believe it is possible to always offend none of the people all of the time. Sometimes, some people just aren't in a group. Sometimes you need to have a Bible study for married people. Sometimes for single people. Sometimes you honor parents. Sometimes you honor teachers. Not everyone is everything, but everyone is something.

We are called to abide in Christ, to bear one another's burdens in love and to lay down our lives for one another- at least those we consider friends. Therefore, beloved, it is important to consider each person as a person. A person's worth comes not from marital status, parenting status, age, rank or serial number, but because they are created and loved by God.

People are generally aware of their life circumstances and probably don't need you or me or anyone else to point it out to them. I know I'm 6 months pregnant. I don't need anyone to tell me or to try to guess how far along I am or to wonder if I am sure I'm only having one baby. Rejoice with me in a healthy pregnancy and give me good wishes for a safe birth. Be my friend.

Laying down your life may mean laying down the expectations that everyone has the same goals or is on the same timeline. It may also mean acknowledging that not everyone's goals are achieved in the time their heart desires. Be their friend.

Branches get intertwined and it can be hard to separate them, but apart from the vine- they bear no fruit. Sever not your fellow vines, but support them in mutual love and friendship. Be willing to lay down your life for them.