Sunday, August 6, 2017

8-6-17 “Hero Central" Series “God’s Heroes Have Power!"

8-6-17 “Hero Central Series”   “God’s Heroes Have Power!"

   So if we agree that God’s heroes have power, then as we have also explored hope, courage, heart, and wisdom in both God’s heroes as well as superheroes, it naturally makes one wonder which one of the superheroes was considered most powerful, right? 
I mean, I know you’ve all been wondering when we would get to this most vital of questions. So in engaging the quest for this kind of particular knowledge, I did what anyone seeking ultimate truth would do - I Googled it. And Holy Alternative Facts, Batman, there are all kinds of opinions out there on this subject. Now, true, most of them are offered up by middle-aged men who still live in their parents’ basements, but there is no lack of input on this question. 
And of course, there is little consensus, so with that in mind, I offer up to you top 10 most powerful superheroes in comparison, from the websites and

10. The Hulk      10. The Green Lantern
9. The Flash 9. The Flash
8. Superman       8. Black Bolt
7. Jean Grey (one of the X-Men)       7. Franklin Richards (son of Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Woman)
6. Dr. Strange 6. Dr. Strange
5. Nova       5. Sentry
4. Thor       4. Silver Surfer
3. Martian Manhunter     3. Superman
2. Dr. Manhattan     2. Goku
And surely we can agree that the #1 most powerful superhero of all time is… either the Silver Surfer OR Thor, depending on who you ask!

1. The Silver Surfer 1. Thor

   Now we do have consensus on The Flash at #9 and 
Dr. Stange at #6. And 5 of the 10 are on both lists. 
But of the 5 on each list that are unique to each list, for me at least, 4 of those 5 I’ve never heard of before. And how one list can have Superman at #3 while the other has the Man of Steel only at #8 baffles me.
   So, needless to say, that wasn’t really that helpful. Honestly, I’ve never heard of most of these so-called superheroes. The website screenrant came up with five others in their top 10 who weren’t on either of these list and concluded that listed Dr. Stange as the most powerful. However, the site references with links, always helpful, a study done by the University of Leicester in England on the subject, and their research indicates that the most powerful superhero in the world is…

   So Superman has the power! Which, I think, is what we all suspected anyway. Or, at least Superman has some kind of power. Our scripture passage today is all about a totally different kind of power and is a story usually heard on Pentecost Sunday, a day on which we remember and celebrate when the power of the  Holy Spirit was first given to Jesus’ disciples. In fact, other than the birth narratives and the passion story, there is probably no other story in scripture that is better known than this one. Or, at least we THINK we know it. 

   What became known as Pentecost in early Christianity was birthed as one of the three major festivals of Judaism, and was known as the Festival of Weeks, 
or Shavuot. Shavuot was the third festival of the year, the harvest festival, where the first fruits of the annual harvest were offered to God in the Temple. 
It was also when the people of Israel celebrated Moses - the first superhero of the Bible - being given the Law from God on Mt. Sinai. So, there was a two-fold celebration going on. And this festival took place fifty days after Passover. The word “Pentecost” literally means fifty days. And as Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection occurred over Passover Weekend, the Christian celebration of Pentecost happens fifty days after Easter. So, there is a synchronicity between the two celebrations.

   And as our scripture tells us, Pentecost is when those gathered in Jerusalem received the power of the Holy Spirit - remember Jesus was with the disciples for forty days after the resurrection but told them, before ascending, that they were to remain in Jerusalem until the Advocate came. Now, they didn’t really know what Jesus meant when he said an “advocate” would come, but they were obedient and waited. And while we know, looking back, what Jesus was talking about,  scripture isn’t exactly clear about the nature of this advocate that we know as the Holy Spirit because words are hardly adequate to describe her, but we understand the Spirit is a who, not a what - the third person of the Trinity. And we remember, when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism, it said she came down “like a dove,” not as a dove, but “like” a dove. A bird didn’t land on Jesus’ head, but the best description the gospel writers could come up with was “like a dove.” There are some things, are there not, that just aren’t easily described - love, for instance. So in our story from Acts 2, there are some uncertainties in the descriptions.
   For example, who was present when all of this went down? When it says “they were all together in one place,” some suggest Luke is talking about just the remaining eleven disciples, while others say he was also including the close at hand followers, while still others say he meant EVERYONE who was considered a follower at that time, which is reported to be about 120 people. 
So, exactly who and how many were present is uncertain.
   Then the passage says there was a “sound from heaven LIKE the howling of a fierce wind.”  It doesn’t actually say there was a wind but a “sound LIKE a wind.” And then it says they saw “what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them.” Other translations say “tongues AS of fire,” or “like fire.” So these tongues were like fire, but they weren’t really fire, there was a sound “like a wind” but not really a wind. So, there’s a whole lot of vagueness in the descriptions that we just have to accept. And that’s okay. I mean, think about it. We don’t have any descriptions of how the resurrection worked either do we? We have Matthew’s account that says there was an earthquake before they found the open tomb, and surely Peter, or James, or John, or someone ASKED Jesus just exactly what happened and he likely told them, but we’re never told in scripture. Maybe it was just too indescribable, too powerful for words. That’s okay - we can live with the lack of clarity - we’re people of faith after all. 
And we’ll continue to use images of fire and wind in our celebration of Pentecost, understanding them to be, like all metaphors, inexact.

   But the truth is many of us in the church today are baffled by the Holy Spirit. We gather on Sunday mornings and say prayers and recite creeds together that say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” But how often do we really talk about the Spirit or the nature of the Spirit? Sure, we have our vague notions about how the Spirit works. When we think of the Spirit, we often think of her as Comforter or Sustainer. We think of divine nudges, soft whispers, gentle presence. And all of that is true. The Holy Spirit is our Comforter and as Jesus said, our Advocate. In fact, it would be easy to preach a sermon about that very thing: how the Holy Spirit is not just loud and fiery, like she was on the day of Pentecost. The Spirit is often quiet, gentle and subtle, easy to miss. We don’t all have to be fiery to be filled with the Holy Spirit. And that’s all true.
   But when we look closely at the second chapter of Acts, we realize there’s no getting around it in this story. 
The Holy Spirit IS loud, fiery, and earth shattering. 
Listen to how Luke recounts the story of Pentecost: “Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house . . . divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” Did you hear Luke’s words? “Suddenly,” “rush,” “violent wind,” “fire.”
   There’s nothing subtle or hushed here. This story loses its meaning, loses much of its impact if it’s whispered, or spoken softly. This is a story that almost demands TO BE SHOUTED! The Holy Spirit arrives loudly and dramatically. And she sets the disciples on fire. We prefer to think of this as like when the acolyte brings the light of Christ into worship, but in fact the Holy Spirit came wielding, not a candle lighter, but a flame thrower.  

   And the disciples were never the same after that. 
And neither was the world. The Spirit brought about radical change. In that moment on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit transformed a ragtag, disheveled gathering of Jesus’ disciples, however many there were, into the body of Christ, the church. Peter the impulsive, James and John the competitive, Mary the meek, Thomas the doubtful—everyone in that room that day - known and unknown - was changed. Fear transformed by the crucible of fire. Some became prophets, some healers, some preachers, some caregivers—some would travel the world preaching, others would stay behind-the-scenes caring for the poor—but all of them were set on fire. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, they changed the world. 

   Now, here we are two thousand years later—the twenty-first century church — and the story of Pentecost begs the question: “Where’s the fire?” 
When we invited the Holy Spirit into our worship this morning, did we really know what we were asking for? Yes, we want the Comforter. We want the Advocate. We want to come here and feel the gentle presence of the Spirit. We wouldn’t even mind a little nudge or two. But, if we’re honest, do we really want the fire? We like the Holy Spirit to be warm, maybe lukewarm . . . but hot? Do we really want to be changed? Would we truly call upon the Spirit if we knew it meant that we’d have to live and love differently? Do we even realize what we’re doing when we call upon the Holy Spirit?

   When those first disciples were anointed with the Spirit, it was a pretty wild scene. People on the street thought the disciples were drunk. They were so excited, so fired up (if you’ll pardon the pun), so full of the Spirit that people thought they were crazy.Do people on the street ever look at us here at Crossroads and think we’re crazy? I know some of you look at me that way sometimes - some of you are doing that right now, as a matter of fact -  but do we as a congregation look different enough from the world that people notice us at all? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we’re called to be what are often called “Holy Roller Christians” - I know I’m not at least. We don’t all have to be fiery and loud. You don’t have to be a Pentecostal or Charismatic Christian to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Even John Wesley only ever claimed his heart was “strangely warmed.”

   But what I want to know is, how crazy are you? That is, are our hearts really on fire for God’s mission? Or put another way, is God really at the center of our lives, at the center of what we do? Do we love our neighbors in a way that is radical, or just lukewarm? Are we extravagantly generous, or just comfortably so? Do we forgive the unforgivable, or just the ones like us? Do we seek out, reach out to, and invite the least and the lost, or just hang a welcome sign at the door and wait for them to find their way to us? Are we so loving, so compassionate, so giving, so humble, that the world thinks we’re crazy, or do we just look like everyone else in the world, like every other church in the community, like our faith hasn’t changed us - or makes no different in our lives - in any way. Would our neighbors know that we’re Christians by our love, or do we just blend into the amorphous crowd of lukewarm Christians?
   When someone is baptized, or when we celebrate a baptismal remembrance, we all pray for the Holy Spirit to work within that person and within us. 
But do we take that prayer seriously or are those just words we say to fit in, to go along? 
Do we really want the Holy Spirit to fill them, or us? 
As part of that liturgy I could say nicely and warmly, “Welcome to the church. I hope you get involved. I hope you’ll serve in some way. I hope you enjoy it here. I hope your activities at church are as enriching to you as camp, or soccer, or card club, or any of your other activities.” I could…but I won’t, because that’s not what the call to the Christian faith is about.

   I feel led by the Spirit to say something else this morning. What I really feel led by the Spirit to say to the baptized, those newly baptized and those baptized decades ago is —Watch out! If you really want to take this step, if you really want, or claim to be, a follower of Jesus Christ, if you really want the Holy Spirit to work within you, then you better put on your crash helmets. Get ready, because the Spirit will ignite an inferno in your hearts…and then pour gasoline on it!
   Your relationship with God in the Spirit is not just another good activity to keep you busy, something we squeeze in between the hairdresser and an oil change. It’s the most important thing in this life, because if you mean it, it changes everything. And if you really want to say yes to God, then you’d better be ready. Our passage today warns us that the Spirit will make you do crazy things like loving your enemies. The Spirit will make you reach out to people who are different, outcast, maybe not like you at all. The Spirit will make you spend and give your money differently. The Spirit will make you cry for the suffering of others. The Spirit will make you want to change the world.

   But while the Holy Spirit comes armed with a flame thrower, many in the church fight back with fire extinguishers. As we invite the Spirit to set our hearts on fire, some push back that we should be “more sensible and moderate.” But we’re not called, as disciples, to fit in. There’s nothing sensible or moderate about the Gospel. In last week’s Scripture, Paul called it “foolish” by the world’s standards. No, as disciples we’re called to be crazy with love for God and God’s children, over-the-top in our compassion for others, radical in our hospitality, extravagant in our kindness, and unstoppable in our commitment to God and God’s people. All God’s people. Because you know the other part of what happened on that Pentecost day so many years ago, is that the Holy Spirit brought power to all the people of God that day. Power to light fires not just in the usual places with the usual people, but to light welcoming home fires for all God’s children all around the world.

   That list of names of peoples and countries that we always fear having to read as liturgist on Pentecost Sunday is not there to trip us up. It’s there to remind 
us that the Spirit came to all people, every where, in all times and all places. That list of countries and peoples represented the entire world to them. It’s there to remind us that the same wind that blew over the face of the entire earth in the Genesis 1 creation story continues to blow, continues to blow unceasingly throughout the vast diversity of God’s creation, then and now.

   We sometimes hear this passage preached or taught as a reversal of the Tower of Babel story, where God intentionally confused the peoples’ single language by introducing many different languages that they couldn’t understand. But if there a reversal, then we would see all of the languages turned back into one. But that’s not what happened here. What happened is that the many languages were made to be understood by all. It was an exponential explosion of the Word of God being given to all people in all nations through the Holy Spirit in a way that would allow all people to receive it, to hear it in their own language - the biblical equivalent of what in the world of Star Trek would be called a “universal translator.” It was the breath of God breathing on God’s created world once again, that we might ALL be born again into that image of God. 

   The image of God in which we were created is the image of the triune God of grace, a God of love. When we talk about God as Trinity, we’re saying that God is in God’s own being a community,  “a holy family.”  In the image of the God, who as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit IS eternal and living community, differentiated in three persons while united in irresistible love, we are ourselves created for community. And further, we never fully live into God’s image until we live in community, in communion, with God and one another. Communion among people assumes there is difference, there is diversity — not uniformity, not conformity to a single idealized form of life, nationality, ethnicity, or tribe - but a God-created diversity, while at the same time it invites us into unity around the grace that is God-breathed to all peoples and all nations. 

   When in the communion liturgy we call down the Holy Spirit to be present in the bread and the cup we aren’t saying that the bread and the juice become anything other than what they are, two of the most common and universally known and  widely accessible food and drink items.  But at the same time they are also nothing less than what Jesus said they were, sign and symbol of God’s invitation to us to come together, in community, in communion with Christ, through the Holy Spirit, that we might be in ministry together to all the world.
   So as we move into our celebration of communion today, let us feel the presence of the Holy Spirit breathing its hot, fiery breath down the back of our necks. Let us hear and respond passionately to the Spirit speaking to us, in tongues we’ve so often ignored or denied, when it tells us to love those neighbors who are not like us, to feed those neighbors who don’t worship like us. And let that Spirit feed us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation that Jesus gave us.

   But let’s do more than that. Let’s allow that Spirit to teach us, and to teach others, how to stir up a little Spirit-led trouble in the world. You see, you’re all God’s heroes. And God’s heroes have heart, and they have courage, and they have wisdom, and they have hope, because that’s the power that the Holy Spirit gives. Because regardless of what those nerd websites say, the Holy Spirit is, without a doubt, the most powerful superhero of all time.  Amen? Amen! 

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