Drama in the Early Church: Identity Crisis in Galatia

Scripture: Galatians 5:2-14

I love when we read a Scripture passage like this, where Paul’s telling people to go castrate themselves, and then we all say with a straight face, “The word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God.”  We’ll get to that in a minute though.

Right around the time I started here at Arlington Temple, a friend of mine started a PhD in history.  She had been dreaming of this for a while, ever since she graduated college.  Her advisor had specifically recruited her to be a part of this program.  She had a passion and she had a gift, and she was ready to take it to the next level.

Only once she got there she began to suspect that she shouldn’t really be there at all.  She realized quickly that all the other students were smarter than she was, and more accomplished than she was, and more articulate than she was, and of course showed much greater promise as historians than she did.  She didn’t know how she had even gotten into the program.  Clearly someone had made some sort of huge mistake.  Clearly it was only a matter of time before someone was going to find her out.

But there she was, and what was there to do but try her best to convince everyone else that she really was supposed to be there?

Since it was right around the time I was starting here and also had no idea what I was doing, we talked on the phone a lot those days about the new things we were doing and how we lived with this nagging fear that someone was going to figure us out.

They call this Impostor Syndrome.

My friend is actually a really smart and gifted person who is going to make a great historian.  After a few years in the program, I think she’s doing well.  What’s more, I don’t think she’s the only one there who suffered from impostor syndrome in the beginning.  I visited her once that first year and went to a study group with her, and as far as I could tell, everyone there was attempting to convince the others just how much they deserved to be there.

My guess is that most of us have experienced impostor syndrome at one time or another: in a new career (“Everyone’s going to find out that I have no business calling myself a diplomat”); or as parents (“Everyone’s going to find out I’m not really a good mom”) or maybe even at the gym (“maybe if I dress like I belong on a treadmill, no one will realize I’m not a real runner.”)

I wonder if that’s how some people feel in church.

Ever walked into a church and think, “Everyone here has it together except me?”  Ever looked around during the sermon and think, “These people are all better Christians than me?”  Ever scanned the room during prayer time and thought, “Surely all these people pray and read the Bible more than me?”  Or, “All these people help others more than I do.”

Maybe if you’ve been involved in church for a long time you know the truth, you’ve known enough Christians to know that none of us really have it together, but I wonder especially for someone wandering into a church for the first time, if that’s what they’re thinking.

If so, they might not be the first ones.

And that brings us back to the mid-first-century CE to a place called Galatia, in modern-day Turkey.

And it brings us back to a pretty unique letter from the Apostle Paul.

This is one of those places where actually knowing a little bit about the structure of Paul’s letters helps us out, even if it sounds boring, because if we do, we know that Paul always starts out with a greeting, and then thanksgiving for the community, and then the body of the letter, and often ends up with an exhortation and conclusion.  If we go back to the beginning of 1 Thessalonians, for example, we’ll read: “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:  Grace to you and peace.  We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, remembering before God the Father your work of faith and labor in love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1-3).

But Galatians starts this way: “To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different Gospel.’

No thanksgiving!  What does that tell us?

Paul’s mad!

Why is Paul mad?  What delicious drama is going on in this early church?  Well, let’s find out.

First, it’ll help to know a little bit about the context Paul was ministering in here.  As you probably know, Christianity started out as a Jewish movement.  The first Christians were Jews.  That meant they were circumcised like they were supposed to be, as a sign of their covenant with God, and they observed Jewish holidays like Passover and Yom Kippur, and they didn’t eat shrimp, and altogether followed Jewish law.  Now, there were some instances where Jesus encouraged them to be a little less rigid about it and follow the spirit of the law rather than the letter.  But as Jesus himself said, he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17.)

But then the disciples went out to make disciples of all nations.  And Paul, especially, found his calling as the apostle to the Gentiles, i.e. everyone else.  And so you started to have Christians in the church who weren’t actually Jews at all.

You can imagine this was a recipe for some church drama, right?

It did start to raise some serious questions among church leadership.  These Gentiles weren’t circumcised, and they didn’t follow Jewish dietary law or a lot of other parts of Jewish law, either.  Now, no one seemed to be arguing that the Gentiles should be excluded altogether.  People saw God doing a new thing.  The question was, did they have to be circumcised and follow all the same laws and rituals as the Jews did?  In other words, did you have to be Jewish to be Christian?

It kind of sounds like a strange question now, but it was a serious one back then.  And some of the church leaders thought the answer should be yes.  But Paul thought the answer should be no.

This was the question that led to the first church council meeting.  We have one account of this meeting in Galatians 2 and one account in Acts 15, and they’re a little different, but the gist is that Paul sits down in Jerusalem with some church leaders like Peter and James and John and they set some minimum requirements and they all agree that Paul is free to tell people that they don’t have to be circumcised in order to be a Christian.  In Galatians 2, Paul writes, “They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.”

So, OK!  Crisis averted!  The church can move on in mission and ministry!

Theoretically.  But as it turns out, just because a decision is voted on somewhere in the church hierarchy, that doesn’t mean everyone is automatically on board.  (Shocking, right?)  In fact, in those days, a lot of people might not even have heard about this important church council meeting.  So what happens in Galatia is that after Paul has left, some other missionaries come through, and what these other missionaries start telling people is you have to be circumcised after all.

So Paul is angry.  All his hard work, down the drain.  “You foolish Galatians!” he writes.  “Who has bewitched you?”

What’s the big deal, Paul?  we might ask.  Why on earth does something like this get raised to the level of early church drama?  Who cares if someone wants to be circumcised?  Plenty of non-Jewish men are today.  It sounds unpleasant, maybe, if you’re a grown man, but let’s just agree to disagree here.

Yeah, Paul’s not the best at agreeing to disagree.  Instead he says, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!”  The word of God for the people of God.

So what’s actually at stake here, Paul?

Well, everything, actually.  Because for Paul, what’s at stake is whether you really believe that God’s grace is enough.

“You who want to be justified by the law,” he writes to the Galatians (5:4), “have cut yourselves off from Christ.”  (See what he did there?)

Do you believe grace is enough?  Is grace enough to save you?  Is grace enough to include you in this new community called the church, whether by birth you’re supposed to be there or not?  Is grace enough to make you belong?

Or do you think you have to become something you’re not?

I’m not just talking about the Galatians anymore.

Do you come to church believing that God wants you just as you are, or do you come feeling like an impostor?

I suspect there might be a lot of people who come feeling like an impostor.

I’m too poor.  Too weird.  Too loud.  Too dumb.  Too smart, even.  Too wild.  Too broken.  I have too much of a past.  Either I have to become something I’m not to belong to this community, or at least I have to pretend.

One of the main criticisms leveled against the church today is that Christians are hypocritical, and maybe that’s because we’re all trying so hard to convince others we’re something we’re not.

The wonderful thing about Galatians is that Paul doesn’t just soothingly reassure us that we’re OK just the way we are.  He is angry about it!  Paul is angry that you would think you have to be someone you’re not!  Because if that’s what you think, you have absolutely missed the whole point.

Once for a seminary application I wrote an essay about how God was like the movie Bridget Jones’s Diary, which is one of my all-time favorites.   I wrote about this scene where Bridget, who is this thirtysomething woman who definitely does not have it all together, embarrasses herself during a toast at an anniversary party in front of Mark Darcy, who’s this successful lawyer who always acts like he’s better than everyone else.  He comes down the stairs after her as she’s leaving, and she thinks it’s to make her feel like even more of an idiot, when he “really needn’t bother.”  But instead he tells her, “I don’t think you’re an idiot at all.  There are elements of the ridiculous about you.  Your mother’s pretty interesting.  And you really are an appallingly bad public speaker.  But the thing is, what I’m trying to say is that, perhaps despite appearances, I like you very much.”

“Ah,” she says, “Apart from all those things…”

“No,” he says, “I like you very much.  Just as you are.”

I’m not saying God is like Mark Darcy.  OK, maybe I’m saying that God is a little bit like Mark Darcy.  I like you very much, just as you are.

Of course the tricky part is that it’s not actually enough to say we’re fine just as we are, it’s not enough to say that none of us is ever supposed to change.  You may have heard the saying, “God loves you just the way you are, but too much to let you stay that way.”  Grace, after all, is supposed to change us—that’s John Wesley’s key point right there!  God’s grace is supposed to make us less selfish, more loving, less prideful, more willing to serve, less vengeful, more forgiving, less bitter, more thankful, less anxious, more prayerful, less judgmental, more merciful.

But there’s a difference in being the best version of the person God made and called me to be, and being someone God never intended me to be at all.

Someone once pointed out to me that Paul himself never really changed, despite that whole Damascus Road conversion experience.  Who was Paul before he encountered the risen Jesus on that road, while he was going along persecuting Christians?  He was this zealous, passionate, fierce kind of guy.  Who was he after, as he traveled to distant lands to spread the Gospel?  He was this zealous, passionate, fierce kind of guy.  He just used his powers for good instead of evil.  God’s grace was enough to change him, but God’s grace was also enough to call him to be just the person he was—for God’s glory.

I’m going to take this into what may be dangerous territory, now.  I told you before that many of the resolutions we voted on at Annual Conference last weekend had to do with the church’s stance on homosexuality.  I know this is a controversial issue and it brings all sorts of questions with it like how we interpret the Bible, and I know not all of us here agree on it.  There are different Scripture passages which inform our various points of view.  And I know the stakes are even higher with Friday’s Supreme Court decision.    So I want to tell you this knowing that you won’t all agree.  For me, as much as we can quote Leviticus or Romans or 1 Timothy, passages that mention something like homosexuality, Galatians has just as much to do with the whole thing, and I believe Galatians shows us a God who invites all of us in without distinction, and who doesn’t ask us to be something or someone we’re not.

Now, could you argue with me on that and tell me that’s not the only way to interpret Galatians?  Yes, you could.  Of course you could.  But in the midst of our own modern-day church drama, I’m going to leave it there as something to think about.

Are you a Gentile? Paul asks.  Is that your origin, your history, your experience?  Is that the story God gave you?  Then be a Gentile for the glory of God.  God wants you, just as you are.  God’s grace is enough for you.

Are you a Jew?  Paul asks.  Then be a Jew for the glory of God. God wants you, just as you are.  God’s grace is enough for you.

This is God’s church and from day one it has been filled with people with different gifts, different perspectives, different stories, Jews and Gentiles, rich people and poor people, artists and engineers, dreamers and doers, weird people and other kinds of weird people, rule followers and rule breakers, and God wants all of who we are.  God wants all of who you are.

Not someone else, not something else, but you, for God’s glory.

That’s what God needs, that’s what the church needs, that’s what the Kingdom needs.

And God’s grace is enough.  God’s grace is always enough.

Drama in the Early Church: Grief and Doubt in Thessalonica

Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

The Church today has some issues.

Let’s just put that out there.

I’m not talking about this church, specifically: surely we have it all together.  And I’m not talking about the United Methodist Church, specifically, although I suppose I could talk about some of those if I wanted to.  But I mean the big-C Church, the Body of Christ, the whole crowd of Christians in this world and the institutions that lead and are led by us.  We have some issues.

Should we name some?  We could, for example, talk about priests in the news for abusing children.  We could talk about megachurch pastors with their own personal jets.  We could talk about our seemingly endless conflict over what to do about same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT people.  We could talk about civil religion masquerading as Gospel religion.  What would you add?

We could also talk about how the church is dying.  Maybe you heard the latest numbers from the Pew Research Center that show that Christianity is losing adherents in the US, as a share of population, across the board.  Have we failed to convince people that any of this really matters?

Of course if we went back in time we could name some others: the Crusades, excessive popes, the church splitting over slavery….  The good and/or bad news is that even if we go back as far in church history as we can go, to the earliest writings of the New Testament, we’re confronted by the image of a church that’s basically as much of a mess as we are.

And also as much the Body of Christ in the world as we are.

This summer, sporadically, we’re going to look at Paul’s letters and the communities he wrote them to.  They all have their own issues and their own drama, but I think we’ll find that their church drama is in some ways not so different from our church drama 2000 years later.  So maybe as Paul addresses these issues and calls them out and counsels these communities through them, he actually has something to say to all of us too.

But first, here are a few things you should know.

First, there are a lot of letters in the New Testament.  Not all of them are by Paul.  Some of them are explicitly not by Paul, like the letters of Peter or John.  Some of them don’t say who they’re by but tradition has for no real reason assumed it’s Paul, like Hebrews.  Some of them say they’re by Paul, but a lot of scholars kind of doubt it, because they don’t sound very much like the other stuff Paul wrote, like Colossians and Ephesians.  This summer we’re going to be focusing on the undisputed letters of Paul, which is not to say these other communities didn’t have their own drama going on.

Second, we have to keep in mind that these are letters.

Think of one of the last letters you sent or received.  If you don’t write letters much anymore then think  of a recent email or text.  And then ask yourself: if someone found this letter or email or text, say someone from the future, would they be able to tell what was going on?

I went back through a few of my recent emails and here were a few of them:

“When do you want to come get your stuff?

“Are you coming on the retreat?  Kathleen is bringing snacks.”

“Brian finally told me he loved me.”

Depending on the topic, you might want to know more!  What stuff?  What kind of snacks?  Who is this Brian character and what took him so long?  Of course, actual letters tend to be longer and might fill in some of the context for us.  But it’s likely that we’re also missing some of that context, because Paul and his community both know what they’re talking about.  For example, in 1 Corinthians 5 when Paul writes about a man living with his stepmother, in the biblical sense, I want to know all the juicy details!  But Paul doesn’t give the juicy details, because the community definitely already knows.  Or later in 1 Corinthians 14 when he writes that women should be quiet in church and let the men speak, we don’t actually know what was going on in that particular community that would have made him say that, or how it might have been different elsewhere.  It can be dangerous to read letters to a specific community at a specific time as if they are universally applicable to all of us at all times—although people clearly did find some timeless truth in what Paul wrote, or they wouldn’t have become Scripture.  It’s important to try to read Paul’s letters in context as much as we can, while still letting the Holy Spirit speak through them to us today.

That’s our job as we study Paul’s letters this summer, and today we travel back in time to about 50 CE to the Greek city of Thessalonica and the mostly Gentile Christians who lived there.  Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is the oldest book in the New Testament and probably the earliest Christian writing we have.

Here’s what we can piece together about what’s happening in Thessalonica these days: Paul at some point founded a church there, and then went on his way, and one of these days he’d like to get back to see how the church in Thessalonica is doing.  For some reason, he hasn’t been able to do so.  The only reason is gives is that “Satan blocked our way.”  But eventually Paul is able to send his associate Timothy to go check on them, and Timothy comes back with a good word.  The Christians of Thessalonica are persevering and keeping the faith.

So what’s the problem?  Where’s the drama here?

Well, first let me tell you something else about the world in which these early Christians lived: it was a world in which, as Anne Lamott once put it, Jesus was “coming back next Tuesday after lunch.”  That was the expectation.  Jesus was resurrected, ascended back into heaven, and now his followers were waiting for the Kingdom of God to come and everything to be made right.

Remember, 1 Thessalonians is the earliest piece of Christian writing we have.

So they are, as far as we know, the first community to have to wrestle with the fact that maybe this isn’t happening quite as soon as everybody thought.

While the Thessalonians are waiting, some of the Christians in this community have begun to die.  Maybe from old age or illness; maybe from persecution.  The letter doesn’t really say.  The point is, as far as the Thessalonians were concerned, this apparently wasn’t supposed to happen.  This wasn’t part of their theology.

Now, for many of us this might not be an issue that we readily identify with.  Most of us simply probably don’t think that Jesus is coming back that soon.  I mean, I’ve heard some predictions that we’re living in the last days, and depending on what’s going on in the world, some days that’s easier to believe than others.  But anyone who tries to put too fine a point on it ends up seeming a little questionable.  I remember maybe three or four years ago some preacher claimed to have figured out the exact date of the apocalypse and people were stocking up on the canned food and all.  One of my friends threw an apocalypse party, and midnight came and went, and there we still were, just as we had expected.

One of the shows Jon and I have started watching recently on Netflix is The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and it opens with four women being rescued from a bunker where they’ve been held for years by a man they refer to simply as “The Reverend.”  Of course, his predicted apocalypse has come and gone with little to show for it, too.

So these days, if you talk about the apocalypse or the end of times or the imminent return of Jesus, you take the risk of coming across a little like The Reverend.

But not so in the mid-first-century CE.

A couple thousand years of waiting will definitely change your mindset on something like this, and so most of us tend to go on with our lives as if Jesus is coming back much, much later at best—like maybe when the sun explodes or something—or possibly not at all; we’ll all die and go to heaven and that will be the end of things.

I am afraid there’s something we lose in that—a sense of urgency, maybe?  A sense that how we live this life immediately matters?  A certain intensity of faith that it’s easy to maintain when you’re in the midst of this cosmic war that will come to a climax any day now, but harder to maintain over a lifetime, and even harder for a community to maintain over thousands of years?

But then, on the other hand, when you believe the Kingdom is coming any day now, there’s not much incentive to make this world look like the Kingdom of God.  And that, for example, is maybe why the New Testament can be so ambiguous on the institution of slavery, or the role of women.  Why worry too much about your place in the social hierarchy when it’s going to be toppled any day?

In any case, these expectations that the Thessalonians have are starting to seem like they might not be true after all.  And maybe they are starting to worry.

Imagine that feeling in the pit of your stomach as you start to question whether something you’ve staked your whole life on was really worth it.  It’s not that you know it wasn’t.  It’s just that you’re waiting and waiting and each day you wake up and Jesus hasn’t come back that feeling grows, just a little.

Paul doesn’t go into all of what they might be thinking, but we can imagine: have we invested all of this for nothing?  Has God forgotten about us?  Does God break promises?  Is it not actually real at all?  Are we just down in the bunker with the Reverend, so to speak?

They are not the first people to ask questions like these, and they are certainly not the last.

I remember a friend from seminary asking once, out of the blue, “Do you ever wonder, what if none of this is real?”

In the end, I certainly don’t believe that or I wouldn’t be here, and I’m sure he didn’t in the end believe it either, but still:  there’s a question for you.

We may not all struggle with the questions of if and when Jesus is coming back like the Thessalonians did, but we may be familiar with questions like these.

For the Thessalonians these questions arise out of grief—they’ve lost people.  Maybe that’s been the case for us, too.  Grief is one of the most powerful things that can make us doubt the way we thought the world worked and the things we thought we knew.  The death of a loved one may make us question whether God is good or whether God is there at all.  When we read about the decline of the church in the US we may question whether God is with us or whether God is really planning to emerge victorious in this world or whether the church we’ve invested so much in is the church God wants or, again, whether God is there at all.

There’s that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach.

But sometimes these crises of faith born of grief help us come to a new understanding, because the old one doesn’t work anymore.

What I love about Paul’s response is that he doesn’t berate them for their lack of faith or their questions.  Instead, he helps the Thessalonians rethink what they think they know.  “Don’t lose hope if people from your community have died,” he says.  “That doesn’t have to spell the end of this whole thing.  Those who have died in Christ will still be part of the Kingdom when it comes, just like you who are still alive will.  That’s what the resurrection is all about.”

He goes on to say in chapter 5, “The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”  In other words, no one really knows—just like Jesus himself said.

The truth is we need to keep letting our experiences change the way we view the world and God and faith.  We need to for faith to be authentic.  We need to have a faith that is allowed to bend without breaking, and that’s what the Thessalonians are beginning to learn.

It’s not rationalization and it’s certainly not elevating your own experience over everyone else’s—this is the struggle of a community, after all.  But it’s also not desperately holding on to things that aren’t working anymore—it’s time to come together and think again.  God did, after all, give us the capability to do that.

The day of the Lord isn’t coming in exactly the way we thought?  Well, maybe we need to think about it differently.

The death of a loved one calls into question your assumptions about God’s goodness and fairness?  Well, maybe God’s goodness plays out in this world in a different way than we thought, and we can believe in it without believing that everything that happens in this world is part of God’s will.

The decline of the mainline church makes us wonder whether God is with us?  Well, maybe high numbers and social status and cultural Christianity aren’t really what God wanted from the church at all, and God actually has something new for us to do.

What does Paul say to do in the meantime, as they figure all of this out?

“We urge you, beloved,” he says, “to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.  See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.  Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.” (5:12-22)

In other words: keep the faith.  Even while you struggle, keep the faith.  That’s not a contradiction.

Keep the faith.  But don’t necessarily keep the same exact faith.

Keep a faith that will see you through the drama and uncertainties and challenges of life, that will bend and grow and change shape with you; a faith that is tested and tried in the reality of your experience and the experience of your community; a faith that can speak hope into the darkness around you but also let the darkness speak back so that maybe then it can speak hope in a new way.

Keep a faith that is real and authentic and genuine and strong.

The early church had its drama.  So do we.  But that’s the kind of faith that can see us through all of it.

Jesus’ Kind of People

Scripture: Mark 3:20-35

When I was growing up, I loved the show Full House.  You may remember it—it was the story of a family consisting of widowed father Danny Tanner and his three young daughters, their Uncle Jesse, and Danny’s friend Joey who lived in the basement.  As the seasons went on, Uncle Jesse got married and he and his wife Becky had twins, and they moved up to the attic, and the whole family somehow kept on living in their narrow rowhouse in San Francisco.  That was one example, in my childhood, of what it meant to be a family.

In college I got into Friends.  I was late to the game—it was already the second-to-last season my freshman year.  But I got drawn into the story of Ross and Rachel and Phoebe and Joey and Monica and Chandler and their lives that always revolved around each other.  They had biological families, of course, but they never factored all that much into the show (except for the fact that Ross and Monica were brother and sister.)  They never seemed to go home for holidays, or anything like that.  Instead, this group of six friends was a family of its own.   It was just at the time in my life when my parents and brother suddenly weren’t the primary people around me all the time, and that was another example of what it meant to be a family.

In seminary it was Brothers and Sisters.  This show was comparatively short-lived but featured Sally Field as the mother of five grown children who still all got together and drank wine a lot.  The complicated part was that it turned out their deceased father had an illegitimate child, Rebecca, who then, along with her mother, gradually became part of the family too.  It actually turned out later that Rebecca wasn’t even the real half-sibling, it was another guy named Ryan, but the show got cancelled soon after they found him.  In any case, there was a different image of family, right there.

These days Modern Family is in my lineup.   Do we have any Modern Family fans here?  If so, you know that it’s a mockumentary about Jay Pritchett, his much-younger Colombian second wife Gloria and her son Manny; Jay’s daughter Claire and her husband and three kids; and Jay’s son Mitchell and his husband and adopted daughter from Vietnam.  Encompassing, I suppose, many of the features that a modern family might encompass.

We won’t even get into the Duggars.

My own family was pretty standard and nuclear in comparison, I guess.  I grew up in suburban DC with my mom and dad and younger brother. Even so, I knew that Christmas with my mom’s family was different from Christmas with my dad’s family.  My mom has two sisters and they all had kids within a reasonably similar time period and so my brother and five cousins and I spanned a grand total of maybe ten years, with a clear division between generations.  My dad was the youngest of six kids and by the time I came along some of my first cousins were practically grandparents already, and there were second cousins and cousins once removed and people who had grown up together but we weren’t quite sure how they were actually related, and they all seemed to live in a several-block radius from each other and came and went from each other’s houses without calling first or feeling the need to knock.

Basically, there are a lot of different ways that family can be.

Stepparents, godparents, biological children, adopted children, foster children, half-siblings, second cousins, cool aunts who aren’t actually your aunts, grandparents who raise grandbabies,  second marriages, interfaith marriages, in-laws, family friends, friends who are like family, neighbors who don’t knock…

There are a lot of different ways to be a family.

And yet what Jesus gives us in today’s passage is a vision of family that’s different from all of them.

There he is, back in his hometown, surrounded by people who are needy in every sense of the word: who need food, who need healing, who need demons cast out, who need some questions answered.  They’re crowding around him so much that the story says he can’t even take a moment to eat.  And worse, people are starting to talk.  They’re starting to accuse him of being demon-possessed himself.  Because what other business does he have hanging around with all these needy, demon-possessed people?  And where exactly does his power come from, anyway?

This is all happening in his hometown, right under the nose of his biological family, and you could see why they would be concerned.

So they call to him and say, “That’s enough, Jesus.  Come on home now.”

He needs to take a break, and it’s getting dangerous out there, and besides, maybe they don’t exactly know where Jesus’ power is coming from themselves.

The crowd passes on the word, “Your mother and brothers are calling you.”

What would you do?

Jesus replies: “Who is my mother?  Who are my brothers?”  It seems almost cold to us.  Or worse, something you’d expect someone in a cult to say.  And then, looking around at this needy, bedraggled, insistent crowd: “Here are my mother and brothers.  Anyone who does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

These people?  Really?

Again: a very different vision of family.

But it’s Jesus’ vision of family, so we’d probably better pay attention to it.  Somehow, these people are Jesus’ kind of people.

Granted, there is a lot of other stuff going on in this passage, too.  Like this bit about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  Last week, when I preached on Nicodemus, our job was to figure out how a few very different-and-tangential-sounding pieces of one story came together, and I guess that’s our job here, too.

This piece about the sin against the Holy Spirit has to do with what happens when the religious leaders arrive and start accusing Jesus of being demon-possessed.  “If you think I’m working for Satan,” he tells them, “why I am driving out demons?  Why am I fighting against Satan’s minions?  That’s no way to fight a cosmic war between good and evil.  It’s not a way to fight any kind of war.”

And he says, “Be careful what you call demonic, when this is the work of the Holy Spirit right here.”

It’s the work of the Holy Spirit bringing this unlikely family together, meeting their needs, bringing them healing.  And apparently the worst sin you could possibly commit is to call something demonic when it’s really the Spirit at work in this world.

This stuff about an unforgivable sin is scary stuff, and I’m sure it’s kept more than one person awake at night wondering if they’ve accidentally committed it, but it’s scarier when we take it out of context of the rest of the story and apply it to whatever sin we happen to think should be unforgivable.  In the end, God help us all if we are condemned for sometimes not recognizing the work of the Holy Spirit right in front of us or around us or among us or inside us; I’m pretty sure we all miss the boat on that one sometimes.  In the Bible, God forgives some pretty heinous sins.  I truly think that this passage isn’t meant to condemn us who read it, but the religious leaders Jesus clashed with so much who should have been able to tell the difference.

But then it does challenge us all to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit around us.  Because that—doing God’s will, wanting to be a part of what God is doing—is what constitutes Jesus’ family.

If you happen to remember the first ever sermon that I preached here, when I told you all my call story, you might remember that my call to ministry had to do with discovering I was part of a family.  Armed with the theology of Desmond Tutu, I started getting involved in service opportunities and meeting new people of all colors and ages and backgrounds and abilities and stories, and my growing realization was that this was what God’s family looked like, and I wanted to be a part of it, and I wanted to tell people.  My call to ministry is based largely on the idea that we are all—all of us, everyone, whether we know it or like it or not—part of God’s family.

I will carry that conviction to the grave and beyond, but even I have to admit that, here at least, that’s not what Jesus says.  He doesn’t say “everyone is part of God’s family, like it or not.”  He more says, “Everyone is part of God’s family, like it…”  It’s just that if you want to be, you have to accept that a bunch of these other guys are too.  As the saying goes, when you accept Jesus into your heart, he always asks if he can bring his friends.

Jesus still draws some boundaries around his family here.  There are still some minimum requirements for belonging.  Namely, people who do God’s will.  Or at least try.  Or at least want to.  People who believe that the Holy Spirit is up to something in this motley crowd and who want to be a part of it.

He still draws some boundaries, but hey, he does blow our normal family boundaries wide open.

The boundaries of Jesus’ family are not biological—definitely not biological.  They’re not based on what neighborhood he’s from, or who he grew up with, or who has kids the same age.  They’re not based on where anyone went to college, like, “Our William & Mary family.”  Family isn’t even defined by common interest, such as bowling or marathon training or Dungeons and Dragons or organic living.

Jesus’ family is made up of, quite simply, the people who want in.


How different is this than the families we are born into or create for ourselves?

In all the different ways we have found to be family, what are the boundaries we consistently draw?

I know that when I’ve traveled various places in the world, and have found myself in a culture very different from what I’m used to, I’ve tended to find myself drawn to people who look and sound like me.  Sitting at the breakfast table in my guest house in India, an American accent was music to my ears.  Even a European one would do!  It was like, Finally, someone who will understand me and how I’m processing everything around me!  Of course, I was there for the express purpose of meeting people who weren’t just like me!  But given the chance, I gravitated towards the people who were, in some recognizable way.

And to be honest, I don’t think that’s just true when I travel.  It’s just more obvious then.  I also don’t think it’s just me.  We are all drawn to people who are like us—who look like us, talk like us, think like us, are the same age as us, have a similar background to us, like the same kind of things as us—and even our chosen families tend to be chosen around these things.  These people are our kind of people!

And it’s not always because we hate other people or are scared of other people—though sometimes maybe it is—but simply because it’s easy.

But I wonder if being a Christian means being part of a family that is hard.

It’s hard, I think, because it includes all these different people—people who are richer than us and/or poorer than us, people who are younger than us and/or older than us, people who are more and/or less educated than us, people who have different needs from us, people who come from different places than us and different cultures than us, people who think differently from us, people who do different jobs and have different interests and like different things than we do.

I think the beauty of church, at its best, is that it brings together a group of people we might not otherwise know.  If I wasn’t a part of this church, I might not know anyone who speaks Mongolian.  Except for visits to my parents’, I might spend most of my time with other 20- and 30-somethings.  I might not have any real reason to stop and talk to the people I see panhandling as I walk up Wilson Boulevard—but I do, because I know I might see them here on Sunday.  Here, in church, it is a perhaps unlikely group of people who shake hands, sing together, pray with each other, break bread together, have coffee together.  And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: here, in this church, it may be an unlikelier group than most.  Which I mean in the best possible way.

And yet even here we might be tempted to stay in the safety of our own row, to shake hands with all the people we know, to gravitate during fellowship time, if we stay, to the same people we always talk to, so that we don’t have to make awkward small talk.  Or maybe we slip out the door after the service.  Maybe we don’t try to stop the people who do.  It’s just easier that way.

You know what?  Maybe as he was being jostled around by that crowd of people who all needed something from him, and he heard those words, “Your mother is calling,” maybe, just maybe, all Jesus wanted to do is go home and be with the people who knew him.  Who looked like him.  Who had the same quirky habits as him.

But he didn’t, because that’s not who his family was.  Not in the Holy Spirit sense of the word, anyway.  Because the Holy Spirit was busy at work creating a new family that was maybe sometimes harder to be a part of but also more beautiful than anything else you could be a part of.

And we can be a part of it, too.

Welcome to the family.  It’s unlike any other family you’ll ever be a part of.  We won’t always like each other, and we won’t always get along.  But we will gather together every week, and we will sing, and we will pray, and once a month at least we will cup our hands for bread from the same loaf.  When we’re baptized or become members, we will make a commitment to each other.  And, on our better days, we will extend that beyond these walls, and we will pray for each other and help each other and care about each other and run into each other at Safeway and know each other.  And we’ll invite others in.

Welcome to the family.  The Holy Spirit is at work here, and the only requirement is that you want to be a part of it.

For God So Loved the World

Scripture: John 3:1-17

I have this Bible that I’ve been using since college, and when I read it, I always write in the margins.  That’s my way of interacting with the text.  I might draw an arrow to a line I find particularly inspiring, or “LOL” where something is funny (sometimes the Bible is funny!), or sometimes I’ll get into fights with authors and write things like, “Oh no you just did not, Paul!”  I don’t always have the last word, by the way.  But I remember things better and kind of make them my own this way.  Plus, when I reread passages, it’s fun to look back at the conversations I’ve already had with the text.

Well, this week since we’re not in a sermon series I went back to the lectionary, that three-year cycle of readings that a lot of churches use, for some inspiration on what to preach on.  The Gospel reading for today was the story of Nicodemus, and I flipped to it in my Bible, and there was Nicodemus, and there was Jesus going on about being born again and ascending and descending from heaven and serpents in the wilderness and eternal life and saving the world.

And at some point I had written in the margin, “Yeah, I really don’t follow this story at all.”

Which is weird, in a way, because it’s a really famous story, right?!  Most of us have heard of Nicodemus, right?  Surely if you went to Sunday School as a kid you heard the story of this guy who sneaks out to talk to Jesus at night and finds out he has to be born again, whatever that means.  And surely some of us have had to memorize the line that comes near the end of this passage in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Did you know those were part of the same story?

I didn’t, or at least I didn’t remember, until maybe last year or something.

It’s weird how we tend to chop this story up into little pieces that we like by themselves instead of telling it all together, thought I guess we do that because it’s easier to follow that way.  But it can be a dangerous thing to do, taking Scripture out of context like that.  St. John tells all of this as part of the same story for a reason, after all: Nicodemus, rebirth, serpents, for God so loved the world, and all.  John also admittedly has his very cosmic, ethereal-sounding way of writing things that can kind of make us scratch our heads a little sometimes.

It all makes me feel a little sorry for Nicodemus, who seems to go away scratching his head, too.

What’s more, I never even liked this story all that much, as famous as it is, because “born again” can be a really fraught term these days, something that seems to imply that you’ve had a certain experience that other people haven’t had, and that separates you somehow, like the wheat from the chaff.  But there Nicodemus was in the lectionary, challenging me to appreciate him and his story.  The lectionary can be good for that.  So what I did this week is I read this passage a lot and I read stuff about this passage and I tried really hard to make sense of what Jesus is actually saying in it.

The funny thing is that after all of that I actually like it better now, because I actually think it’s a story not about separating the wheat and chaff by who’s been born again, but a story of love and invitation to someone who comes to Jesus looking for something.

And furthermore I can see myself in Nicodemus, and I wonder if we all couldn’t see a little bit of ourselves in Nicodemus.

I believe that sometimes famous stories need retelling once in a while, so I want to tell this story again, hopefully in a way we all can follow, and as I do I want you, if you can, to imagine yourself in the place of Nicodemus.

Nicodemus, the story begins, is a Pharisee.  He’s part of the Jewish sect that is most concerned with following the rules to a T; most concerned with who’s clean and who’s unclean and who’s holier than who.  This is the group of people Jesus is least likely to get along with.  Nicodemus is a leader of it.

He comes to Jesus, as we know, at night.  It is a very intentional trip.  He doesn’t just bump into Jesus outside the Temple, though maybe he has in the past.  Nicodemus picks a time to go and see Jesus when no one is going to see him, no one is going to question him, no one is going to laugh at him, no one is going to stop him.  You can see why it would look bad.  You can see why the whole thing would have been embarrassing.  People like Nicodemus didn’t go and see Jesus unless they were trying to get him in trouble.

He comes without a specific question in mind.  Others come to Jesus and say, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” or “Settle this dispute between my brother and me,” or even with intentionally tricky questions pertaining to Jewish law, and some of us come to Jesus that way, seeking specific answers.  But not Nicodemus.  He comes to Jesus here in the dead of the night and it’s like he doesn’t even know where to start.  Maybe he doesn’t even know why he’s there.  He just knows he had to come.

It’s a little like meeting someone you really admire and you’re trying to think of something pithy and memorable to say to them, or a meaningful question to ask, and all that comes out is something like, “I just love your work.”

That’s like Nicodemus, except he’s a little more cautious with his words, because I’m not sure he knows whether he really admires Jesus quite yet.  But there is, after all, some reason Nicodemus is there, in the middle of the night.

So he says: “I love your work.”  Except what he really says is, “I’ve seen the kinds of things you do, and I know you must be sent by God.”

It’s like he’s fishing for a way to articulate why exactly he is there, and he can’t quite find the words.  He has some question, but he doesn’t know what it is.  He’s looking for something, and he’s not quite sure what it is.

Aren’t we all?

So Nicodemus just puts what he knows out there: “I know you must be sent by God.”  And he waits for Jesus to explain.

The thing is, Jesus is so good at knowing what we’re looking for even when we don’t.   Even when it’s different from what we think we’re looking for.  He says, “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”  (Born again, born anew—they’re all the same in Greek.)

Notice that it’s an answer to a question Nicodemus never asked.  At least not out loud.  Sometimes Jesus is sneaky like that.

And there’s Nicodemus, scratching his head.  Because that doesn’t really sound right.  Born again?  Born from above? What is that, some kind of Zen koan?  A riddle?  It’s such familiar language to us, but try to imagine hearing it for the first time.  “No one can enter the kingdom of God without getting a heart transplant.”  Or something like that.  OK, Jesus…not exactly what we were looking for.

Or maybe that’s not it.  Maybe the problem isn’t that that doesn’t sound right.  Maybe the problem is that is does.  Maybe the problem is that it actually strikes Nicodemus as very, very true that he needs to be born again, born from above, start over, that he needs a second chance, or a clean slate, or a mulligan, because whatever this life has been up to this point, it isn’t really enough, which of course is why he’s there in the middle of the night.  Not that he would admit that, even to himself.  Maybe the problem is it strikes him as a little too true, and that’s why he pushes back, a little sarcastically, saying, “OK, Jesus, well, you can’t be born again.”

All the while fearing that maybe you can be.  That maybe you have to be.

And Jesus says, no, that’s not what I’m talking about, and perhaps, with an arched eyebrow, “Nicodemus, you know I don’t mean literally.”  You’re the one who came to see me.  Don’t give me that.

And then he says, Nicodemus, do you want a life with meaning and purpose?  Do you want to live life in the love and grace of the Kingdom of God?  It’s possible, Nicodemus; you can start over; be baptized into a new life; let holy water cleanse you of all of that old stuff that was never enough; let the Holy Spirit breathe life into you just like she did when you first emerged from the womb.  It’s possible, Nicodemus, if you want it.

By this point Nicodemus has let down his guard a little, and so he doesn’t push back this time; he lets those words hang in the air a little while and then he shakes his head a little and almost whispers, “How can this be?”

Ah, but it can be, Nicodemus.

Now this is the point in the story where it starts to get a little weird, where Jesus seems to start going in a lot of different directions, with ascending into heaven and serpents in the wilderness and John 3:16.  But they are all somehow telling Nicodemus something he needs to know.  They are all an attempt to give Nicodemus this thing he is looking for, which is, in the end, how to find a life that is meaningful and abundant and eternal, because that is what he senses in Jesus’ presence, even before he can put it into words.

I’m sure he wishes that Jesus would just spell it out, like we probably all do somethings.  What exactly is it that I need to know here, God?  What exactly is it that I’m supposed to learn?

But sometimes these things can’t be put so easily into “earthly” words.  Sometimes they have to roll around in our heads and our hearts for a little while until they coalesce into something.  Rebirth into the kingdom of God, eternal and abundant life, maybe isn’t as easily articulated as we would like.  Jesus speaks in parables and riddles so that we’ll leave going, “hmm.”

Apparently it has something to do with serpents, though.

Do you know this story of Moses and the serpents in the wilderness?  It’s from the book of Numbers, which we rarely ever read.  It’s after the Exodus and the Israelites are complaining during their 40 year sojourn in the desert. And God gets so fed up with their complaining that God releases poisonous snakes to bite them and they start to die.  Moses, then, asks God to please stop, and God says OK, and tells Moses to take one of the serpents and put it on a pole.  And then, God says, whoever gets bit by a serpent and looks at it shall live.

It’s its own weird story, but it is a story of healing.

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness…

This is who Jesus is, too, Nicodemus.  He’s someone you can look to and find this new life you are looking for…just as you are already starting to do.  Look closer, Nicodemus.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

For God so loved the world.  That is to say, God so loved you, Nicodemus.

It’s about love, Nicodemus.

It’s an invitation, Nicodemus.

This is the kind of love that can give you new life, Nicodemus, if you let it, the kind of love that can make you a new man, that can give life that sense of meaning you are looking for, that will never end.  Maybe not all at once, but you can grow into it, Nicodemus, just like you grew to be the man you are today.

But you have to believe it, Nicodemus, because otherwise nothing will change.  Believe that God fiercely loves this world and that God fiercely loves you.  Believe that Jesus came to this earth to heal you from all those wounds you can’t even quite find the words to articulate. Believe it in broad daylight.

Nicodemus, if you really knew just how much you were loved, could you even go on living the same old life?

Or would it feel like being born again?

You see, this story I never much liked rings true to me that way.

We never do find out what Nicodemus said next.  He doesn’t speak again in this story.  Maybe, like the rich young ruler, he went away said, because he had a lot invested in this old life, and it was too much to let go of, even if it was weighing him down.  Maybe he returned another night to ask more questions that he didn’t quite know how to ask.  Or maybe, in the midst of all this seemingly jumbled talk, something clicked, and Nicodemus put his finger on why he felt different in Jesus’ presence.  For God so loved the world.  And something new began.

We do hear from Nicodemus again, twice, in John’s Gospel.  One is in chapter 7.  The Pharisees are trying to persuade the Temple police to arrest Jesus, and Nicodemus reminds them they can’t judge him without a fair trial.  The second time comes at the end of the story.  Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, the other secret disciple, come on Good Friday bringing burial spices, and they are the ones to lay Jesus in his tomb.

Did new life begin that night that Nicodemus visited Jesus?  Well, maybe there are no easy answers to that question.

But we can write our own endings.

Are you looking for something, Nicodemus?

I think I know where you can find it.  But you can’t be the same person you are, Nicodemus.

You are loved, Nicodemus.  You are loved.  Do you hear that?  You are loved.

Do you believe it?