“Finding Your Place” Matthew 10:24-39

What is your place in life?   That’s a question that we all struggle with from time to time.   “What is my place in this world?   How do I fit in?”

We get a lot of help with answering that question of course, from competing sources.  There are many who would like to tell us what our place in life should be.

I flip on my public radio station and am greeted as being a “listener”.  Dear listener, this is what you should be doing, how you should be supporting KCUR, how much you depend upon us as your news station.  I am to be a listener, that’s my “place.”

“This is MY place on the radio dial.”

I flip on my Television and there I am a “viewer”.   I am reminded of the importance of the station and am invited to become a part of the “family.”

This is my “place.”   “We are your place for news, sports and weather.” The announcer assures me.

I go to a sporting event, and am invited to be a part of the “home” team.  I am a JayHawk, or a Wildcat, or a Tiger, or a Husker.  My place is defined by which side of the field I sit on, and what colors I wear.

In my work place I may be identified as a “valued employee” or a “member of the team” or a “leader.”  Each comes with its own set of understandings about place and position, about what I should do and should not do for the sake of the company, business or firm.

Even in the church, we engage in assigning a place.   “You are a disciple.”  We say.  “You are to be a follower of Jesus,” “You are a child of God,” and depending upon what that label conjures in your imagination, you sense the weight are responsibility of that “place.”

The church asks you to give from your abundance to support the ministry.  Stewardship, we call it, but it is a place.  It is a place of considering what you have and what you can and should share with others, and what the God who has given all things to you asks of you in thankful return.

The church asks you to serve, on this committee or this task force, to teach in Sunday School or usher or to set up for communion or any number of other “places.”  We want to put you in a place of service.   We tell you it will be a blessing.   We remind you that you will grow and find fulfillment in that place.

But, like all these “places” we are invited or assigned, there are questions that arise from time to time.

Is this really the place I want to be, or am supposed to be?

The Gospel today is a collection of Jesus’ thoughts on the matter of place and finding it.   They are three loosely connected sayings, maybe even delivered at different times and places, but Matthew has brought them all together, seeing them as saying something important as a unit.

So it is that we should look at them as a whole, and try to figure out what they can tell us about our “place.”

A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

Point number one about finding your place appears to be “Know who you are in relationship to others.”  

“If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”

We may puzzle over what Jesus means by this, but it’s not that difficult to see if you think about it.   Don’t be surprised if those who don’t have anything good to say about Jesus, won’t have anything good to say about those who follow him either!

In fact, we watch this observation play itself out in the political arena nearly every day.  So many disparaging things get spoken by one party against the other for what they profess to stand for or believe.

People in authority are belittled or labeled, and name calling is engaged.

Snide comments are made about this candidate, or that person in authority. It is often done from an implied perspective of the speaker of the comments being “above” or superior to “those other folks.”

Your place is not above, and so be careful when you malign others or those in authority, for that has a way of reflecting back upon you and undermining the very qualities you most desire.  Name calling and labeling to assign people a place has a way of opening things for the darker side of life to enter in and take control.

Point number one:  Know who you are in relationship with others and choose to speak well of others.  Place is something you discover, not something you are assigned by the other.

Then there is this matter of acknowledgement, of recognizing.   Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

If point number one was knowing your place, (who you are in relationship to others) then point number two is this: Know how the relationship works.

There is nothing hidden that won’t come out.

There is nothing that goes on that God doesn’t notice, including falling sparrows and thinning hair.

Here is how relationship works.  It appears that God is intimately interested in your day to day life.

God wants to be there with you.

God gives words for you to speak into the circumstances of this world.

God guides and protects your life.  There is nothing worth worrying about in all that physical stuff.  What is worth worrying about is being attentive to the relationship.

God wants to be there with you, be seen with and in you!

That’s the gracious gift we have to share with a world full of falling sparrows and thinning hair.   The gracious gift you have as a disciple is that you can share God’s love and care with a world that is often terrified and wondering if God is even around anymore.

This is how the relationship works, for you to speak that gracious word, you’ve got to be willing to be seen as one connected to and in relationship with God.

God wants to be seen through you and your actions, but the question back in response is, “Do you want to be seen with God?”

If one denies God’s presence or involvement in their life in a public fashion with their words or actions, it’s very difficult to even imagine someone like Jesus mounting a defense of them to his Father.

How is Jesus supposed to argue on your behalf to the Father that you won’t even recognize as real, or refuse to believe has any influence or power over you in this world?

When you want to be seen with God, God has a way of showing up for others through you!

If you don’t want to be seen with God……what can Jesus do?   How can he point to you in pride to his Father?

It’s therefore not so much that Jesus will not speak up on your behalf, it’s more of a matter of not really having anything to say.

This is how the relationship works, it is mutual, give and take, connected in all things, not a “part” of your life, a “segment” of your time.

And what about all this “sword” stuff, this language of division even with families?   What has that got to do with knowing your place?  Well that would be point number three.

Jesus is simply pointing out that the sword of division in this life is real.

If you follow Jesus when you find your place in this world, there will likely be divisions that will spring up.  None perhaps will be more difficult or more poignant than those that take place within families.

In Matthew’s time, this very scene was being played out in earnest as those who follow Jesus are now being put out of the Synagogue.  Following Jesus was literally breaking up families in a culture where extended family was really everything, and it was incredibly painful to watch and to experience.

In our day, that doesn’t happen in exactly the same way, but the potential for following Jesus to impact families is there within each generation.

This relationship with God stuff is a source of division in families as children exert their independence, as parents try to control or impose their expectations.

It becomes a source of division as parents and grandparents try to influence the belief systems of children who may for a time go their own way, or may be trying to figure out how to forge a life with a beloved of a different faith or faith expression.

The sword is real.  We do get cut down, and divided, and separated.

Choices will be made, to follow Jesus in our own path, or to leave long standing traditions, or to abandon old ways that no longer work, or to adhere to the past.  In each choice made the relationships of extended family end up being tested and redefined.

Know who you are in relationship to others, know how the relationship works, (that it is mutual) and realize that the sword is real and divisions will happen.  That’s the general sense of these sayings of Jesus.  They all point to how it is that we come to understand our place in relationship to God, to one another, and to those closest to us.

The Good news in all of this is found in that assurance that God pays close attention to us.

Relationship work is indeed hard.

It causes us to question just where we are, what our place is, how we relate, and what we are called upon to do and to be.

Can we ever truly find out place, amongst all the competing pulls and tugs?

Yes, because God accompanies us into every place, and God tells us we are of incomparable value to God, or at least worth more than “many sparrows.”

Maybe that feels like small comfort.

Or maybe that’s all the comfort we really need.

In a world of falling sparrows and thinning hair, we are assured that nothing escapes God’s notice.  That is a promise worth holding on to as we find ourselves searching for our place in all things.

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Sent? Really? Me? Matthew 9:35-10:8

When it comes right down to it, we don’t much like being told what to do, even and especially when we are perfectly capable of doing it.

I was reminded of this fact just the other day when the grandson was visiting. Children are often the best reminder of essential human nature.

Toward the end of lunch as the final urging came from parents and grandparents to take another bite of the delicious meal, he extended his arms in cruciform fashion, fork in one hand, spoon in the other, and with a look of delight in defiance and full intention upon his face, he opened his hands to let the utensils drop to the floor.

The statement was made:  “I may be capable, but I choose this….not what you would have me do but what I choose to do.”

We don’t like being told what to do, even when we are fully capable of doing it.

That’s why preaching on the Gospel for today is a little tricky.   It is Jesus giving marching orders to his Disciples. The first thing worth noticing in this story is the premise upon which the marching orders rest.

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness

The authority is given. You can do this! Jesus is not raising any unrealistic expectations of the disciples that he has chosen and taught at all.  They are capable!

The second thing worth noting is the need.   When he (that is, Jesus) saw the crowd he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” 

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few…”  Jesus says a moment later.

So, not only is authority and ability given to the disciples, but the need to do something is also a clearly identified.

Who could possibly turn down an opportunity to make a difference in the world and do this work since indeed, you are given the ability to do it?

The third thing worth noting in the story is how clearly the people who are to be sent to do the work are identified.  This is no generic “disciples” or “apostles” or “the seventy” story.  No, here we get the apostle’s names, by name!  “These are the names of the twelve “apostles” … “Apostles” which in Greek means in fact means “sent ones.”   It couldn’t be any clearer!   Here is the task, here is the need, here are the folks specifically named and able to do it!

In the face of such obvious need and freely given authority, who would do anything other than go?

But, here’s the interesting thing about Matthew’s Gospel.  Unlike Mark and Luke where Jesus sends the disciples out and then we have a scene of him rejoicing at their return and praising them for what they were able to do, in Matthew there is no such “homecoming” recorded!

Instead of hearing about the great work the “sent ones” were able to accomplish, Jesus launches into a series of teachings and parables as if they were still very much in his presence!

In fact, in chapter 11 we will read “Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.”

It appears as though while instruction is given, and the command is made, the actual launch of the apostles on their own is much delayed!

Now, it could be that the disciples really did go out as instructed and Matthew just didn’t record a homecoming because he didn’t feel any need to.

Or, it could be that even though authority was given and need was identified, instead of going and doing what Jesus told them to do, they did …..this….(drop the fork and spoon.)

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I’m also trying to make sense of our own actions or rather, inaction at the call of Jesus.

You see, in baptism we hear the same call as those first named disciples.  This is, in fact, where we get our naming.   We are given the first command to “go” and to do the things that we are given the authority to do.  We talk about the hope and promise that God will cause the little one’s light will shine.  We are baptized into a world filled with quite clear and obvious need.   It’s all done with the expectation that the call will come to “Go!”

That call to “go” is reiterated in Confirmation or Affirmation of Baptism, when we lay hands on young ones and commission them, asking that the Holy Spirit be “stirred up” within them to be able to take the baptismal promises on as their own.   It’s a celebration of that authority given, and the ability to now glimpsed to step out and respond to that authority and empowerment that God bestows with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Heck, every Sunday we end the service with “Go in peace, serve the Lord…”   Which we might say perfunctorily, but is not really meant as a mild suggestion, or hopeful wish but rather as a commissioning.  Now that we have been fed at the table and have received the teaching from Jesus, the task of the Disciple should be to follow the example or to do as the teacher directs, and if the word is “Go” …well then….Go!  Serve!

Not “Go” and be the first one to hit the Father’s Day Brunch Buffet.

You and I are the “sent ones” now, which brings me back to the illustration of my Grandson.

While we fully trust in Jesus, and know that God has given Jesus all authority, and that authority to do the work of healing and liberation is given to us, why is it then that we tend to…..(extend hands, drop silverware.)

Sent?  Really?  Me?  You expect that?   You can’t be serious Jesus!

We read this Gospel lesson and are torn in our response.

Part of us really wants to lay claim to this confidence that Jesus has in us, to go out and heal, to release those captive, welcome the outcast, confront the demons that afflict our society.  We look down at the plate before us and wonder just where we can “dig in” to make a difference.

But another part of us has doubts, and to be honest, a little streak of stubbornness and independence.

It’s not that I’m not capable of doing these things Jesus says I can do, but what would happen if I did them?  Would that be the expectation of me from now on?

And so, our willful self (much like in my Grandson) rears its head, — the part that doesn’t want to be told what to do.

Sent?  Really?  Me?   I don’t think so!

Honestly, I think that’s much of the difficulty we have with Jesus’ words here.   The commission comes off to us as a command, and we don’t like being told what to do, and so we do the very human thing when we hear a command.

We rebel!

Now, typically, the first instinct of a parent when rebellion kicks in is to exert authority.  Be honest here, you’ve struggled with an independent child, an adolescent.

You’ve cajoled them.

You’ve threatened them.

You’ve warned them.

You’ve tried to encourage them.

You’ve laid down expectations, …counted to three, …shown them how to do it.

No display of your authority over them really works in the long term.  You get short fits and starts of results, but the rebellion returns.

We don’t like being told what to do, what we need to do, what we are capable of doing, or what we ought to do.  Church has been really bad about that in many ways, appealing to guilt or gratitude to try to launch the “sent ones” into activity.

We have 2000 years of uneven response from God’s children to show in that regard.

So, what does work?

Honestly?   Maybe what we see Jesus doing here, and what you have done as well.  Diversion!

If you throw the focus away from what the child feels as the “ought to do,” and toward another activity, you will likely be able to motivate them better to do what they are fully capable of doing on their own.

So, it’s not about taking one more bite, it’s about what we get to do next.  “When you eat all of that we’ll be able to….”

It’s not about putting your shoes on and then struggling to wrestle down a leg and make them put it on, it’s about where we are going to go once the shoes are on the feet.   “Hurry up, we’re going….”

It’s not about picking up the toys because you have to, they need to go back in the box or the room has to be clean, …it’s about the game of who can get to that toy first….

Seen in that light, I wonder now if Jesus isn’t engaging in a little diversion as well?

Go…

Send forth laborers…

But not followed by compulsion, rather with instruction and accompaniment.   The “do it with me” approach.

So, of course there is no homecoming celebration in Matthew!   The understanding here is that while Jesus uses the language of sending, he actually accompanies!  Jesus goes along with them into all the villages and into the cities.

What if we read Matthew as one big diversion by Jesus toward doing the word of Discipleship?

What if instead of chafing at the command of God to “go and do” something, we began to look to watch for what God is already doing, and listen to the story that God in Jesus tells along the way as we join with God in that work?

What if instead of trying to figure out how to bring in the Kingdom of God, (though we are fully authorized so to do) we looked for where Jesus is doing that very work already.   What if we watched and joined him in the task, listening to what he might be teaching us along the way?

Can you catch the difference?

Just because Jesus says “go” doesn’t mean we have to try to figure out which direction to launch off toward, and then check over our shoulder to see if we’re getting it right.

Maybe, just maybe — Jesus is accompanying us already and inviting us to go along with where God is already at work and leading the way.

That’s what our Visioning process here at St. James will be looking at this summer.  Less about where we need to “go” and more about where Jesus is already at work and joining in and joining with that work already under way.

“Sent?  Really?   Me?”   Yes, and probably already liberating and healing.  What remains is to have the eyes to see it in what Jesus teaches us to do along the way.

“Dance” Matthew 28:16-20

This is Holy Trinity Sunday.  Isn’t that exciting?   It’s one of those opportunities that preachers tend to dread really.

First of all, Holy Trinity is a doctrine or church teaching and if there was one thing drilled into us in seminary it was “never preach on doctrine!”  Why?   Well,  because,

  1. It’s boring.
  2. The act of preaching is about speaking a word that transforms, and while various doctrines have gotten a lot of people killed over the centuries as they have been fought over and debated, few church teachings have really been transformative.

Living into a doctrine’s implications can be life changing, but the doctrine itself is not really what changes things.

So, for instance, “Justification by grace through faith” is the Reformation “rally cry” doctrine, but it’s all just words.   It’s the living into what those words mean, the act of choosing to forgive.  The action of accepting others with their flaws, the stepping out to do the Christ-like thing because you realize that you are justified for Jesus’ sake –discovering that God loves and accepts you no matter what — that is what brings about transformation in people, not the proper arrangement words.

It’s like the difference between talking to your spouse about the importance of love in a relationship (which is doctrine, teaching, explanation, and may all be true) and instead saying as you gaze deeply into that other person’s eyes, “I love you.”   Which will transform the moment?     And,

  1. Don’t preach doctrine because…well, did I mention? — It’s boring!

Secondly, preaching on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is just not a fruitful effort because all attempts to explain it lead you down a pathway of heresy.  You can’t really explain the unexplainable.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not something that was just “decided upon” at some church council or meeting, it’s more of a description of how God has expressed God’s own self, — how God has revealed God’s self to humanity in the perichoresis of Father, Son and Spirit.

See, even saying that gets boring, doesn’t it?

So then, if I can’t preach on the doctrine itself, or wax eloquently on how to explain it, what am I to do?

I decided to just show you this instead. jr. high danceThis has everything in it to help you understand the Holy Trinity and what it means for you.  Can you figure it out?

Okay, let me help you out just a little bit.   It has nothing to do with those three boys there on the right.  I’ll bet that’s where you eye went right away.  ‘Hey, there are three dudes, they must stand for Father, Son and Spirit.

Nope.

In fact, just because there are three of them doesn’t mean anything at all. In fact, they are sort of the antithesis of that Perichoresis thing I mentioned a bit ago.

You know, that boring word you don’t understand and have never probably heard of before.  “Perichoresis”

Holy Trinity really has more to do with the girls pictured on the left up there, particularly the one in the black dress with the bow.  What is she doing?

That right, she looks like she’s dancing, or about to, if she can just find a partner… I wonder where one might be?

I really want to thank the journalism students from Italy, Texas, who posted this picture on the internet from the ubiquitously awkward experience that we have all had at one point in time, which is the Jr. High School dance.

You remember this scene perhaps from your own dark recesses of your mind.  Quite often the Jr. High dance left deep psychological scars that we processed for decades after the event, alternatively kicking ourselves for what we did, and what we didn’t do.

You entered the decorated gym, and there they were.

All the boys on one side of the gym, trying their best to look cool while simultaneously also looking disinterested –but in reality trying to nonchalantly check out the girls, but not look too obvious, or too interested, either to each other or, God forbid, make eye contact with a girl across the gym.

In the meantime, on the opposite side of the gymnasium, the girls were sporting various dresses that accentuated parts of the anatomy that were just beginning to become more interesting to young people of this age group.

In other words, people who previously had been just another playmate or classmate were now beginning to take on different characteristics under the influence of crepe paper and low lighting.

As the music would start, (at least way back in the dark ages when I was in Jr. High,) the guys engaged in a form of merging their molecular structure with the concrete block wall.

Meanwhile, across the gym floor the girls would begin to make fluid motions, creeping out onto the floor little by little to move and gyrate to the music, at first with one another, all in hopes that perhaps one of the brave souls who had caught their eye might disengage from their “wall meld” and timidly, tepidly attempt perhaps, to dance….

I just love the “deer in the headlights” expression of that young man with the Coke bottle.   “Was she just looking at me??????”

Ah, the Jr. High Dance, the beginning of things yet to come where the bewildered and the beguiled begin to learn how to take that first small step and start dancing into a wider world.

What does this have to do with the Holy Trinity?

I think we live this Jr. High Dance over and over again in our relationship to God.

God wants us to join in the dance of life.  “Perichoresis” means “rotation, to dance.”   It’s what we watch God do with God’s own self, as God finds ways to weave in and out of people’s lives, entering and moving, speaking….coming as Word, as Spirit, as incarnate Son who strikes up conversations with women at wells and men hiding in trees.

We have a God who appears to love to dance, to move lightly in this world and among God’s people.

But we are more like Jr. High Kids….. “deer in the headlight looks” come over us when the invitation and opportunity to join with God in the dance of life.

Isn’t that what you feel, sense in the Gospel lesson for today.   Here is Jesus’ great command, the great invitation to the Disciples.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,….”  Jesus says.

Jesus says “Go…” and we try to meld into the concrete wall, or sit, hoping he won’t see us, won’t make eye contact with us.  “Who me?  Go?   I like it here.”

Jesus says “Make disciples…” and we shuffle around, mostly saying things like “well, I really don’t know how to do that!”  — much the same way Jr. high boys will argue they don’t know how to dance.

Jesus says “teach”…and we respond we’re not sure what to teach, or how.  We wouldn’t want to offend anyone, get this wrong, teach them the wrong thing.   “If only I knew my bible better, or my catechism better, maybe I should take a few classes myself first before I try to teach anyone else.”

You get the picture here.

We have a God who wants to dance, but we quite often come off as awkward, unsure, lacking confidence, …   much like kids at a Jr. High dance. – at least when it comes to living out our faith.

That’s really the issue, isn’t it?

Our lack of confidence is what gets in the way.

It makes us begin to doubt, to wonder, would anyone really want to be seen with us, let alone God?

I want to believe that I can get in step with God’s plan for my life.

I want to trust that I can step out on the floor, and be accepted, and seen as someone with gifts, talents, abilities.. but I’m afraid, and awkward, and so I hang back.

I’ll bet you do too.

Which is why it’s so important that we hear the closing promise that is made by Jesus, because it is all about how you join in the dance!

“And remember I am with you always to the close of the age.”

What gives you confidence when you’re awkward?   Isn’t it a partner who believes in you?   One who sticks with you no matter what?   That’s how you learn how to take that first small step and start dancing into a wider world.

The promise Jesus makes changes the end of Matthew.   It’s not just a command of what we are to do now that Jesus is leaving.

No, this is an invitation into the dance of the Trinity itself, and a glimpse into how God is hanging around.   Not hugging the walls to see what we will do, but rather helping us step out in faith using every dimension of God at God’s disposal.

This is Jesus saying that as the Spirit and the Father and I have been weaving into the lives of those whom I have met these past three years… your lives… so now you have the promise of that continued presence.

When you “Go…” I go with you.  That’s the promise Jesus makes.

When you make disciples, it’s by living as you lived and learned with me, from me, from my presence, and the Spirit’s presence, and my Father’s presence… all wrapped up in one.   Disciples learn by following, and so when you live in ways that mirror the life of Jesus, others will learn how to follow by your actions and example.

“Teach”… well, where did you learn?   Where did you learn to be generous, or gracious, or loving, or forgiving?  Where did you learn that God loved you with an everlasting love?   You teach what you have learned, and what you have taken into your own life, and you do it by moving in the ways that you observed Jesus moved…

In other words, you know this dance of faith, and God in Holy Trinity is and ever will be your partner in it.

There is no need to stand around unsure or awkward.

You move, and God moves with you, light and confident and leading, or following your lead, or simply swaying at your side.  But God is there!

God is here!

That’s what Holy Trinity is about. Perichoresis, the dance of faith seen in how God moves, helping us learn how to take our own first small steps so that we can start dancing and bringing God with us into a wider world.

It’s Holy Trinity Sunday, and the music is playing, care to dance?

“Fear of the Spirit” John 20:19-23

I’m reading the Pentecost story a little differently this year.

I’m afraid of the Holy Spirit.

Let me explain myself a bit, lest you think that I’ve been infected with the general mood of fear and foreboding that passes for politics or national security these days.

I’m not afraid of immanent terrorist plots.  We spend far too much time and energy removing shoes and scanning bags in my estimation.   If all that screening went away I would still board a plane without fear.   And, if I were in London today, I would purposely take a walk on London Bridge because I refuse to live in that kind of debilitating fear.  That is how we defeat the power of terror, by going about our business undeterred, even if things occasionally go badly and if we do put ourselves at risk.  We have to show them the chosen tactic will not work.

I’m also not generally afraid for the future, despite the best efforts of current and past administrations to try to stir up fears of dire circumstances within me.   People are basically people, and they will do dumb things.   Individuals will act irrationally, occasionally go off the rails and strike out in a self-interested fashion to get their own way.  There is really nothing new under the sun to strike such fear in our hearts.

No, my sense of fear of the Holy Spirit resides not in the actions of others or the events of seasons and epochs turning.   I’m rather afraid of the reality of the Holy Spirit, and how that Spirit will come and what it will call upon us to do.

I’m afraid it will not act as I might think it should, or as I might expect it to.

Fear is present and very real in both the Acts account and in John’s Gospel.

In John’s Gospel fear is in fact the motivating factor for those first Disciples, and it is very much like our “TSA” kind of fear.

They live in fear of their fellow Jews.

They live in fear of those who are in the same city they are in.

They fear the actions of the mob, for they were able to get their hands on Jesus and dispatch him.

If “those people” could take out the teacher, what would stand in the way of them snuffing out the students?

So, the door is barred lest anyone who they do not know or trust come to find them and deliver them into the same fate as Jesus.  As long as we steer clear of “others” and keep to ourselves here behind these locked doors, we should be o.k.

Locked doors are a comfort when you are afraid are they not?  You can check them.

You make sure the bolt is secure.   You can test the hinges and latches by pulling and rattling, and the solid feel will allay your fear for a moment or two.

But really, not much more than that.

For even with locked doors, you still find yourself living in fear.   You catch yourself straining to listen to see if you can detect any sign of someone lurking just outside.

This is where Jesus finds his disciples in John’s Gospel, behind locked doors, which appear to be no deterrent at all to Jesus who simply pops up in their midst.

I have always pictured this as a serene moment, Jesus popping in as a relief, “Oh thank God you’re here Jesus…”

But then in the same instant that I catch myself thinking that, I remember that the reason those disciples are behind locked doors is because Jesus is dead and buried and they fear that they could be next.

In that mode of operation, (always watching out for someone to break in,) it is really no comfort at all to have someone suddenly apparate in your midst, is it?

What Jesus said when he appeared to them is recorded by John.  “Peace be with you.”

What is not recorded is what the disciples said when Jesus suddenly appeared. Maybe that couldn’t be written down!

Maybe it was “How the BLEEP did you get in here!?”

You see what I mean?  Fear is palpable in this story, and you would think to alleviate the fear, the best thing that Jesus could have said to them after the “peace” would have been to talk about how it’s going to be all right now, we’re all safe with me behind the locked doors.  Let’s just stay here.

But that is not what Jesus does.

No, the gift of the Spirit is breathed upon them and that is followed not by a promise to keep them safe but rather by a command that they are to be sent out.

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you….”

I’m afraid, you see, that’s what Jesus has in mind for you and for me as well.  As much as we like it behind these doors.

I’m afraid that while our preference would be to figure out how to get more people in here, into the safety of the church, a place where we can sit behind our doors siloed and locked away with other people who are just like us, people we feel we can trust, that’s not Jesus’ interest!   That’s not the Spirit’s interest!

I’m afraid that when the apparition of Jesus appears in our midst, the Holy Spirit that he breathes on us will talk about us having to go out into an unsafe world.

“Peace”  Jesus says… and then “As the Father sent me… I send you….”

That should strike some fear in us.

The Acts passage has the same effect on me.   I grew up probably like many of you celebrating Pentecost as a kind of “Birthday of the Church.”  We would even have a party in Sunday School, bake a cake and light the candles to symbolize those tongues of fire and then sing the happy little song of “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love.”

In my mind that song was always connected with the little rhyme “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.”

We would light the candles, sing the song, and blow the “wind” of the Holy Spirit over the candles and then enjoy get the cake… all done for us.

Pentecost was about Christendom, how we would be adding to our number day by day with every birth and with every baptism, and how the church would grow and grow safely from the inside with people who looked just like us.

After all, that’s again an image that fits the “locked doors.”   Here we all are safe and gathered in, here we are with all the people we trust.

But looking again at the Pentecost event as it is recorded in Acts, it is the element of fear that jumps out at me.  This is no birthday party!   The disciples are minding their own business when all at once a sound like a “violent wind” filled the house, flames leapt around.

This is not a birthday party, it’s a thunderstorm!

This is not a gentle sending of the Spirit, this is a wind whipped blast of fire!

I can’t help but imagine some weather channel meteorologist standing out in a storm, buffeted by winds that he cannot stand against, shouting into the microphone.  “What does this mean????”

I can’t read Acts now without conjuring up a vision of a reporter with a team of smoke-jumpers at a forest fire, trying to take in the scene as flames leap from tree to tree and whirlwinds of fire curl heavenward, shouting into the camera   “This is the scene here, and it reminds me of catastrophes of biblical proportion, And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.  The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood….”

And to whom is the Pentecost event directed?  Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Residents of Cappadocia….all those strangers visiting Jerusalem for the festival!    All those immigrants!  All those people who speak a different language than we do, who are different from we are.. and the amazing thing is that somehow these “Galileans” are able to communicate with them in their native tongue, connect with them in their own language.

This is the picture Acts wants to convey.  This is what the Holy Spirit is like.

It drives some to stand up.

It compels some to speak out in ways they are not accustomed to speaking.

It makes others hear what they need to hear, in the way it needs to be conveyed.

It makes some think the speakers are drunk!

It makes others stand to deliver defense.

It reminds some of the end of the world, and others of the great and glorious ‘day of the Lord.”

It gathers in the disparate, appeals to the outsider, and loops in those we would otherwise wish to exclude, distrust, or avoid.

In other words, how that Spirit works is much less predictable than we might like it to be.

This is Pentecost.

This is different from the way we usually think of listening to the Spirit.  We usually think of the Spirit as confirming our own convictions, being used as a kind of proof that what we are doing is the right thing.  “We’ll listen to the Spirit” we say in all confidence.

But the Pentecost event reveals that sometimes the Spirit speaks and it comes as a shock.

John’s Gospel reminds us that the Spirit’s work is not to make us comfortable, but rather to accompany us in the activity of entering this world as God’s agents. The world can be a dangerous, contentious place, often set in opposition to God’s gracious intention.

But it is still God’s world and it was for the redemption of the world that Jesus was sent.  God has something to say to this world, and we are the ones called to proclaim God’s intention in a way the world can understand.

Acts pushes us out into a world filled with those who are different from us, and calls us not to make them like “us”, but rather to learn how to speak their language.

So this Pentecost I’m developing what I like to think of as a “healthy fear” of the Holy Spirit, and I would invite you to as well.

Be afraid with me, not of the world, but of what God will call us to do in it.

Be afraid with me, of this God who pushes and sends and makes us act and speak in sometimes unpredictable ways, in order that Jesus may be made known.  Amen.