Romans 8:22-27: What is our story?

Presence in the Midst:  John Doyle Penrose

Presence in the Midst: John Doyle Penrose

Sermon for Irvington Friends Meeting, May 24, 2015

Reading:  Romans 8:22-27

For the past several weeks, Rex has given some rather excellent messages. We don’t often think about it, more liturgical churches have a whole Easter Season where they focus on the reality of Christ’s presence. Rex has honored this season by sharing what we believe and experience about the risen and present Christ. From Easter to Pentecost is 7 weeks. About 6 of these weeks have Christ so present that the disciples sat and ate with him, could touch him, and listen to him continue to teach. We should be grateful to Rex for continuing to remind us of this very real presence.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that sometimes stories really grab onto us. We feel like we are characters in the story. The stories convey some truth that we experience in our lives. I’ve said that Friends are an Easter community before, and Rex has connected us with Jesus’ promises to be present, in a very real way. Last week Rex connected us with Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit and this week churches all over the world will be reading Acts 2, and talking about the powerful way the spirit connected with the Church.

Instead of reading Acts 2, I want to point out that Pentecost is just the end of a crazy, exhausting 2 months. Easter, Ascension day and Pentecost are not so much individual events as different points in the same story. I would like to give a summary of the story, and some thoughts about how Friends have seen themselves as part of this story.

When Jesus was crucified and buried, the disciples were scattered. A few women, mostly named Mary remained. There was also the disciple Jesus loved, Joseph of Arimathea who gave Jesus a burial place, and of course Peter who had to watch, but tried to hide any connection with Jesus. Even though Thomas said “lets go die with Jesus”, when it came time, nobody seemed willing. On the day before the Resurrection, there was no community, just isolated people who were without hope.

When Jesus rose from the dead, he met with individuals, he ate with them, he showed them that he was actually with them, for real. He managed, in less than a month to rebuild the community — Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that Jesus got together a group of over 500 disciples after he died. These 500 were all together with him. At the end of his ministry on earth, (as Paula reminded us last week,) the disciples were saying: “Is it time to overthrow the Romans?” Jesus ascended into heaven, and told this group of over 500 to wait for the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem.

The group had a business meeting where they elected an officer to replace a vacancy, then they waited. Ascension day was the Thursday before last: This means that the group waited for for the Holy Spirit for 10 long days. By the time the waiting was over, the group of 500 that Jesus gathered after he resurrected was reduced to 120. “When the day of Pentecost was fully come, the Holy Spirit descended upon them like fire”. Pentecost is exciting, powerful, and explosive. Pentecost is the day when the 120 suddenly become three thousand.

Right now, I want to ask, where do we connect with the greater story of Easter and Pentecost? Rex kept reminding us that we identify with the real presence of the risen Christ — and, we do. Many of you have seen the painting by John Doyle Penrose: “The presence in the midst“, where Jesus is standing in a Quaker meeting. This painting is a powerful visualization of what George Fox said so many times, that “Christ has come to teach the people himself.” Quakers have always identified with the resurrection community where Christ is present in a tangible way.

As Rex reminded us, we also sometimes exist in the time between the Ascension and Pentecost. Sometimes we are waiting, and it feels like we are waiting forever. Sometimes we even go about our daily business, knowing that we have to do something, but we have no idea what to do. We wait, and it seems like we are alone and God has abandoned us. We have a promise, but sometimes that promise feels empty. When people cynically describe Quakers, our story is the story of last week. Sometimes, we wait for the Spirit to come, and it seems that the silence is never broken. Sometimes it feels like we live in the empty time between Jesus being taken up to heaven and of Pentecost.

One thing that we rarely do is think of Friends as living in the spirit of Pentecost. When we read scripture, Pentecost was almost unique. The spirit descended this way once in Jerusalem, then again (to prove that God’s spirit was for gentiles too) onto Antioch. The biggest reason that few us us identify with Pentecost is that it is not at all respectable — so much so that people were speculating that the people were all drunk. The funny thing is that in 1658, at least one Friend: Edward Burrough did associate the Friends movement with Pentecost, writing:

After waiting upon the Lord in silence… we received the gift of God’s eternal spirit as in the days of old, our hearts were made glad, our tongues were loosed, and our mouths were opened, and we spoke with new tongues”

And, like the early apostles, the first generation of the Friends movement both grew rapidly, and its leaders (including Edward Burrough) spend much of their time in prisons. Edward Burrough was an important Friends minister for a very brief time, as he died while imprisoned in Newgate Prison in 1663.

I identify with these stories. My faith is affirmed by the present Christ — but, when I think more about this I have to admit that these are not exactly my stories. Unlike the early Christians, and the early Quakers, I don’t expect to be imprisoned nor die because of my faith. If I feel that Jesus is absent, nobody says: “Touch my wounds.” While I believe I’ve seen the Holy Spirit active in people’s lives, I have never experienced anything like Pentecost. These stories demonstrate the reality of my belief, but they are greater than my experience.

Even though I look to these stories at my best and my worst moments, and I see them as true to my own experience, my story is somewhat more mundane. When I am most deeply discouraged, I still know about Easter and Pentecost. I do not feel abandoned in the way the disciples must have. The greatest thing is that when I hear these stories, I laugh at Peter and Thomas, and the others. I love how close God is to them, and they still don’t get it. No matter how close these stories are to my heart, and how true they ring — I am far enough away to know what is next, and much of what the disciples were supposed to learn. Today we remember Pentecost — but, if today were Pentecost, there would be quite a bit of confusion.

I chose the Romans reading, because Paul was speaking to people who lived after Pentecost, yet this description of the Christian life is true both to those who had these sudden world changing experiences, and those who have lived with a quieter faith with a much more subtle realization of God’s presence. Paul spoke of living in a world where Pentecost was a reality, where Christ’s teachings are known, and when we have the experience of seasoned Christians, yet times come when we groan and don’t even know how to pray.

I love how this passage shows that God is generous and graceful. God gives us what we need. Christ promised, as we heard, an advocate — and Paul describes an advocate perfectly. When we don’t even know how to represent ourselves, when we don’t know how or what to pray, we have an Advocate that will pray for us. I thank God that even in the worst of times, I have an Advocate. I have never experienced the devastating absence that the disciples endured on Holy Saturday, and between the Ascension and Pentecost.

Also, it remains easy to identify with the Disciples who wait, because both life and faith are about waiting. As Paul writes, we hope for what we do not see, and wait for it in patience. We might laugh at the disciples who Paula quoted when she pointed out the disciples wanted the Risen Christ to conquer Rome, but do we not ask the same question? Those who pray the Lord’s prayer pray for God’s Kingdom to come. I know many who pray that it may come quickly, and speculate on the nature of it’s coming. Like the disciples before Pentecost, we wait for a new miracle — and if Pentecost teaches us anything, when new miracles come, they are entirely different than expected.

The prayer of Noah

When we think about Noah and his prayer life, we remember that God talked to Noah quite a bit:  God gave instructions to Noah before the Flood, and God made a covenant with Noah after the flood was over.  When we read God speaking to Noah, we imagine responses for Noah, but the odd thing is that we imagine them.  God speaks to Noah, but scripture does not record if Noah responded to God with anything except obedience.

Genesis 9:25-27 is the only prayer of Noah that is recorded, and like the first two prayers, it hardly seems a worthy example:

Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
he will be to his brothers.

Worthy of praise is the Lord, the God of Shem!
May Canaan be the slave of Shem!
May God enlarge Japheth’s territory and numbers!
May he live in the tents of Shem
and may Canaan be his slave! (NET)

The only recorded prayer of Noah is a prayer that one of his grandchildren be cursed, and that two of his three sons be blessed.  The prayer is odd in that Canaan is cursed, and Ham is not, even though Ham was the person who shamed his father, why would Noah want to curse the son for the sin of his father?

One thing that this prayer does is it sets up the ongoing story of Israel.  Canaan meant something to the people of Israel.  The Hebrew people moved to the land of the Canaanites, and conquered most of it.  Over time, they intermarried with the Canaanites and adopted the language of the Canaanites, so that the Hebrew scriptures are written in the language of the Canaanites.  Not unsurprisingly, this assimilation included (at times) the adoption of the Canaanite gods.

Shem (Israel) and Canaan lived together for thousands of years — while there was integration, the fact Jesus mentions the final judgement of Tyre and Sidon (as light compared to the final judgement of various Jewish cities) shows that even at the time of Jesus a distinct Canaanite culture (and whole cities of Canaanites) still existed.

Noah’s only recorded prayer was a curse: and this curse did describe the way of things throughout the kingdom periods, but in many ways, Israel became Canaanite by conquering.  When we read the genealogy of Jesus, we see several women named — three of these women were Canaanites.  Noah’s prayer might have shown things the way they appeared, but over time:  Canaan might have been Shem’s slave, but over time Canaan became Shem’s family.

The prayer of Cain

Reading: Genesis 4

The story of Cain and Abel is one of the ‘Sunday school’ stories that I remember the best.  I remember speculating on why Cain’s sacrifice was rejected, and I remember the phrase: “am I my brother’s” keeper quite well.  Thinking back on the guidance I received in interpreting this passage, I realize that I was very lucky to have such thoughtful adults who read the text carefully.

I remember the suggestion that Cain did not give his best.  This could have come from two places:  It could have come from observing that the passage describes the quality of Abel’s gift while it only describes the source of Cain’s.  This suggestion could have also come because my teacher was aware of this tradition of interpretation, which comes out of reading the Septuagint, where Cain is accused of ‘wrongfully dividing’ his gift (i.e. not carefully selecting a worthy gift.)

Whatever the reason was that God rejected Cain’s gift, the narrative has God approaching Cain about his attitude, and trying to correct him.  Even though God reaches out to Cain, Cain continues in sin and jealousy and this ends with the death of his brother.

What is remarkable is that God and Cain have a conversation after the murder of Abel.  God asks Cain, “where is your brother.”  Cain responds in a way that implies that he does not know — and God tells Cain where Abel is, and that he will be cursed.  Cain’s response is that the punishment is unbearable, and points out that he just opened up the possiblity that somebody might just kill him.  God then somehow marks Cain to show that he is not to be killed.

The prayer of Cain is remarkably like the prayer of Adam in that God approached Cain in his sinfulness.  God appeared as a judge passing sentence.  What is also remarkable is that when God passed sentence, God listened to the prayer of the guilty, and God mercifully gave the guilty what he needed.  Just as God gave clothing to Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness, God marked Cain as somebody who was protected — giving him the safety that he needed.

In the first chapters of Genesis, God is shown as a merciful judge, and as a provider that gives according to a person’s needs rather than a person’s merit.  God gives the sinner what is needed, even in the face of condemnation.  While God does not allow Cain to get away with murder, he hears the prayer of Cain, and grants his request.

The Prayer of Adam and Eve, Genesis 3

Reading:  Genesis 3

When I read early modern writers talking about Salvation, they almost always point to Genesis 3, and move on to write about the idea of restoration from the effects of the fall.  There is almost always a suggestion that God’s presence in the garden was something that was accessible therefore our first parents must have had a rich prayer life.

If these post-reformation theologians are correct, there is nothing of that prayer life recorded in scripture.   Unfortunately, if the goal is restoration to the condition and relationship that existed before the fall, our scripture fails to produce a picture of what that looks like.  The only prayer that is recorded comes at the time that they are expelled from Eden.

At the time we see Adam and Eve’s prayer, they are in a pretty sad state.  Their first response to the presence of God is to hide from God.  Adam’s first words to God express that he is ashamed, and does not want God to see him naked.  God questions Adam about the fruit, and of course Adam tries to shift the blame to Eve, and Eve shifts the blame to the snake.

In this prayer, we see something that cannot very well be considered a model to emulate, however it is a pretty good picture of what it means to be human.  There are times when we feel guilty and ashamed and there is nothing we want more than to hide.  If we cannot hide our guilt, we sometimes attempt to give it to somebody else.  Of course, the guilt was still there — scapegoating did not change that all were banished from Eden.

For me, God’s actions tell me quite a bit about how God relates to humanity.  God approached Adam and Eve when they were unable and unwilling to approach God.  When Adam tried to pass his guilt to Eve, God listened, but God did not excuse Adam.  The scapegoating stopped with Adam, and Adam stood in the face of God’s judgement.

When we read the end of the chapter, we see that God was not only a judge, but that God provided for our first parents’ needs. At the first of the encounter, they told God that they hid because they were naked. When the encounter ends, God provides Adam and Eve substantial clothing so that they are no longer naked, and thus they no longer have an excuse to hide from God’s presence.

Prayer in the Bible (Introduction)

Today I was thinking about prayers in the Bible. Perhaps this is because over the past few weeks some friends from seminary were discussing the prayer life of Moses, and other Old Testament prophets. About 15 years ago, I remember one prayer burred in a genealogy turned into the model prayer, and I remember the criticism that it had a very different nature from the Lord’s prayer.

Recently I read a suggestion that Dr. Wilkerson discovered something new when he wrote “Prayer of Jabez”. While I can’t find ancient examples of Jabez-spirituality any more than that reviewer could, there is nothing new to Wilkerson in the book. Charles Spurgeon preached on using the prayer of Jabez as a model. John Newton wrote a hymn setting of the prayer. This little prayer has been remarkable for the very reason that it is an example of God answering a ‘selfish’ prayer.

I remember that I was somewhat concerned about the interpretive methods of the book, because it assumed that the model for every-day prayer was to be found buried in genealogy.  The book raised up the prayer of Jabez above the prayers of the prophets, and above the way Jesus taught the disciples to pray.  I disliked that one of the most self-serving prayer in scripture became the model for daily prayer life.

Over time, I’ve come to think that our selective reading of scripture gives us an idea of what is Biblical that is far removed from the contents of scripture.  There is nothing in scripture to justify Jabez being raised up as that we should all emulate, but the prayer is something that the writer of 1 Chronicles felt should be included.

I believe that instead of seeking the magic model prayer we should pray every day for the next thirty years, we should recognize that scripture records the prayers of all kinds of people.  When we read scripture, we read the prayers of Adam, Cain, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Saul, David, Solomon etc. We read prayers of not only people of great faith, but people who were deeply flawed.  When we read the Psalms, we read not only praises to God, but prayers of desperation, isolation, and even anger.

Few of the prayers in the Bible are set forth as models for us to follow.  They are narrative that tell us about the person who prayed and the relationship that the person had with God.  If there is an overarching message, it is that God hears, and at times answers the prayers of all kinds of people.  Biblical prayer is many things, but often it is not pious, “theologically correct”, nor ‘censored’.  The prayers we see throughout scripture is one where people speak to God as they are — and we find that God listens.

Unity?

One Lord one Faith one Baptism
A people who read the same Book
A people with a shared history
A people who call one another Brethren

It is a community that survived
The leaders were burned
Governments stood against the membership
They were scattered through persecution

The community survived the fall of governments
The community survived crossing the Atlantic
The community survived plagues of dust and locusts
The community survived a culture with a different morality

Today the community fights
There is a fight for the conscience of the nation
A sense that an election might decide moral character
The community fights the arguments of today

They survived when their voices were silenced
Can they survive when invited to elect congress?

Holidays and atonement

When I was a child,  I was taught penal substitution when I was told about how I was saved and what I was saved from.  When I first learned about other theories of atonement, the question that crossed my mind was which one is right?  The temptation was to approach them in a way that showed how all but one of them was flawed.

When I look back at my childhood, I realize that even while people only talked with “salvation terms” about one of the theories, the others were pretty well accepted.  When I graduated high school, one of my youth leaders gave me a copy of Sheldon’s In His Steps, which is  the source of the phrase: “What would Jesus do.”  WWJD is a very brief way of describing the moral influence theory.  I also remember being encouraged to see the film version of “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”, because of the parallels between the lion Aslan and Jesus.  In this story, the white witch holds Edmond, the traitor, and Aslan gives himself as a sacrifice to save Edmond from the white witch.  What follows is a resurrection where the witch’s power is ultimately destroyed.  The parallel that I saw was Ransom theory followed by Christus Victor.

The funny thing is that whenever the people who introduced me to these other theories talked about salvation, they talked in terms of penal substitution.  My early theological education was one based on separating right answers from wrong answers — only one theory could be correct.  Clearly, multiple theories rang true for them, but there was a strong desire to use salvation so narrowly that it only fit one theory.  This caused me some confusion when I started studying more formally.

When I studied more formally, I started to read the Church fathers, and learned the Recapulation theory, which truly appealed to me. I had some conversations with some Orthodox Christian friends who were from a theological school that built this up into what they know as Theosis.  It did not take me too long to realize that I appreciated Theosis, because it had many parallels with my strong Holiness background.  My big challenge was that people divided “Salvation” from “Sactification.”  Over time, and because of my Orthodox friends, I’ve started to accept that salvation is progressive: by God’s grace, I am being saved.

As I sat through another Holy Week, I started to think about how Jesus lived, died, and rose again for our salvation.  One thing all these theories have in common is that they are tied to the work of Jesus Christ — whatever shape one’s personal salvation might take, it is Christ’s work.  My experience is that salvation comes in many ways.  I am a Christmas, Easter, Pentecost Christian.

Christmas and the life of Christ is extremely important to the Eastern Orthodox understanding of Theosis, and the Recapulation theory it developed from.  Irenaeus writes that Jesus did not despise nor evade any period nor part of humanity, but lived it, modeled it, and sanctified it.  In this, we see a combination of Moral Influence, and recapitulation.  Jesus not only shows us how to live, but even by Jesus, being both God and Human, living as an infant, Jesus sanctifies infancy.  By living a human life, Jesus changes what it means to live as a human life, being human is no longer incompatible with being holy.

The life and teachings of Christ are also the main focus of the Moral Influence theory.  In this theory, we see that Jesus saves us, and by extension human societies by teaching us better ways to think and live.  Not that long ago, this theory was shown through WWJD bracelets, but it has been demonstrated throughout Christianity by repeating those words that Jesus said and taught.  The very idea that a government can be somewhat Christian is dependent upon the idea that that government has been changed by Christ’s moral influence — and, while Christian Rome is an imperfect example, one cannot deny that the nature of the Empire changed because of Christian influence.

Penal Substitution, Ransom, and Satisfaction are all Good Friday theories.  In these theories, Jesus’ death is what saves us from our sins.  Whether we need ransomed from Satan, or saved from the penalty of sin, the Crucifixion of Jesus saves us from the trouble we brought upon ourselves.

Christus Victor on the other hand is an Easter theory.  In Christus Victor, Jesus is raised up after suffering death.  Rome cannot keep Christ down, nor can anything that Satan throws at Jesus.  We who live in an unjust world, waiting to die find salvation in that Christ is more powerful than the powers of any world.  Christ defeats both an evil society and death itself for us.

I don’t think that there can be a unifying theory.  Us humans are very good at destroying our lives and relationships.  We are very good at getting ourselves in bigger messes than we can fix.  Not everything an individual needs saved from is even the individual’s fault.  We are messy and complex, our needs for salvation are complex.  Jesus addresses more than one need, so when we look at theories of atonement, we see simple models that miss things that we need.  We will understand best if we try to see how these models complement one another.  If I propose a unifying theory, it might sound nice, but it will leave many questions unanswered.

Currently, my best ‘unifying theory’ looks forward to the Feast of the ascension.  I believe that Christ has not abandoned us, but invites us to walk with Him.  The exact ways that we are saved (or sanctified) are less important than that Christ saves us.  I believe, ultimately, if we walk with Jesus, we might follow Jesus to the cross, but Jesus will take care of us.  I believe that Christ leads us to the place prepared for us.