Unbridled Spirit

Church in the western world has enjoyed an elevated status for many years.  That status, as we are painfully aware, is no more. And so we mourn the loss of what once was.  But how intently do we look for what will be? Like the exiles in Babylon, do we hang our “harps” on our trees, refusing to sing songs of praise to God (Psalm 137)?  Or, like Jeremiah, do we seek the welfare of the city where we find ourselves planted, no matter the circumstances (Jeremiah 29:7)? Perhaps what’s lost on we who have had the fortune of growing up nurtured by Christian culture is the notion that God’s spirit is not absent, even when we feel it is.  When the Holy Spirit finds welcome and space to work, there is still no holding it back. Which means many churches need to do some soul searching. Because culture has shifted away from the institutional church, will we become paralyzed and thus unreceptive to the Holy Spirit? Or, might this be just the time when God is prepared to do something new among those who are looking for God’s Spirit, loosed among the people?  With this in mind, Acts 8 and its surrounding context is instructive.

Throughout the gospels, we see God at work in a new way through Jesus.  Jesus is not against the purpose of the law, the function of the temple, and the role of those who serve it.  Jesus’ growing concern is that the law and the temple have become a means unto themselves rather than something that points participants to someone far greater.  But the Jewish religion had become an institution that conferred power and prestige back on those who served in its system – giving priests, pharisees, sadducees and the ruling class meaning and clout.  Citizens of Israel identified with the Temple, too. It was the most important monument and the most significant national and religious institution for Jews of the first century. Over time, the function of the temple as a place to worship God had morphed from a dynamic, formative act to an institutional checklist.

Jesus’ challenge to the temple institution, to rediscover and implement true worship, is much of what sends him to the cross.  And the story continues as the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to those who follow the Spirit into places and to people that the temple doesn’t touch or allow.  This movement of the Spirit is acutely evident during pentecost, when the Spirit enters people who are able to see God working in new and even unexpected places. And it doesn’t stop there.  As those among the ranks of Christ followers grow, so does the anxiety of those institutionalized places of power and privilege. In earlier chapters in Acts, we read of the growing power of the apostles who can’t help but continue to proclaim Jesus as Messiah, who call for repentance in order to receive forgiveness, who heal all sorts of sickness and mental illness, and in doing so expose the failings of the current temple culture.  The Sanhedrin’s response to each episode is to react defensively, with fear that this new movement could mean a diminished place of power at best and at worst lead to a change in the people’s traditional view of the temple and God’s unique work in it.

Before completely dismissing the Sanhedrin as selfish men who tried to stand in the way of God’s new Spirit work, can those of us nurtured by the traditions of Christendom try to relate?  In the Temple system, people practiced thousands of years of tradition that, in its best practice, pointed them to the saving work of a God who called them to live committed lives for God’s sake and the sake of the world.  It did have meaning and power. But its meaning and power had shifted over the centuries from an empowering movement to an institutional power that was controlled at all costs. The deliberations of the Sanhedrin in Acts show shrewd planning on how to handle the growing Jesus movement but no active discernment of God.

“What are we going to do with these men?” they asked.  “Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have performed a notable sign, and we cannot deny it.  But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no linger to anyone in this name” (Acts 4:16-17).

However, what marked the Apostles growing movement was prayer and discernment.  What were the apostles response after the threatening words of the Sanhedrin?

“On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them.  When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God… After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (Acts 4:23-31).

So, as we approach our focal scripture in Acts 8, we see tension mounting between the temple tradition and the apostles who demonstrate a new power and authority found outside of the temple.  The apostles continue to gain an audience and larger numbers of followers until things come to a head when Stephen is seized and stoned to death. This, according to Acts 8:1, marks the beginning of a persecution against the Jerusalem church which leads to its scattering throughout Judea and Samaria.  But instead of having a cooling effect on these new believers, it galvanized them more as they continued to preach the word, wherever they went. It is as if the Spirit, not being welcomed in the temple or the holy city, went wherever it was given room and welcome.

This seems to mirror a similar scene in the gospels of Mark 6:8-11, Matthew 10:9-15 and Luke 9:1-6 where Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs with authority to cast out demons and cure diseases and to proclaim the Kingdom of God.  He instructed them to taking nothing with them for the journey but to depend on the hospitality of strangers. Further, he told them if no one is welcoming of them, to shake the dust off their feet as they leave the town. Here, it seems striking that the very city that hosted God’s presence in the temple is the same city that cannot contain the new movements of the Holy Spirit.  And so they scatter to the outcast places, like Samaria, where people receive them and are eager to hear their message.

Enter Philip, one of the deacons chosen in Acts chapter seven.  He makes his way to the place where devout Jews would never want to be found – Samaria.  Yet it is the Samaritans who are enthusiastically responding to the gospel message; who are being healed and cured.  What is most striking is the free way in which the apostles share the Holy Spirit with these new believers. Rightly recognizing that they cannot contain the Holy Spirit, Peter and John pray for the Samaritan believers to receive the Holy Spirit.  The alternative, of course, would be to try to withhold the Spirit from these new converts. What would be the outcome of such a decision other than a repeat of the disaster unfolding in Jerusalem? But the Holy Spirit cannot be bridled. It cannot be controlled.  It moves where God directs it, in unlikely places, among unsuspecting people and in unpredictable ways. Either we get on board with following the Spirit or get out of the way. The apostles chose to follow.

Which makes Philip the perfect candidate to follow the Spirit further, into more unexpected and unchartered waters.  Our focal scripture tells of an angel instructing to Philip to “go south to the road – that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”  This is a unique set of instructions. So much so, many Bibles footnote it. Check it out. The Greek word is used as both a location (south) and a reference of time (noon).  In this case, the wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza is a southward direction. But the timing may also be important. After all, who sets out by foot down a barren road at the noon hour?  Traveling habits of the day incorporated morning and evening travel. In other words, no one travels when the sun is at its highest and hottest. And who else would be out on such a road? Yet, Philip obeys and who does he find but an Ethiopian eunuch on his way back to his home country from Jerusalem.

This Ethiopian traveled in style, shaded by the heat and sun by a chariot and all that came with such travel.  I take that to mean he had at least a driver. Maybe an attendant, too (8:38). He had to have someone else driving the chariot; after all, he was reading from the Isaiah scroll.  This Ethiopian is a fascinating character study. He was wealthy and in charge of an even larger wealth as the queen’s treasurer. He was a foreigner, and is described as an Ethiopian.  If he had dark skin, he was not looked down upon because of his color. Rather, Ethiopians were idealized in ancient classical writings as people of great piety and beauty. Herodotus extolled the ‘burnt-skinned’ Ethiopians as the tallest and most handsome of all humankind; and Diodorus of Sicily commented that ‘it is generally held that the sacrifices practiced among the Ethiopians are those which are most pleasing to heaven.’” Further, the Jewish scriptures speak highly of Ethiopians for their upper-class status as powerful people economically and militarily.

The Ethiopians high standing, however, does not get in the way of his humbly seeking and accepting the instruction of divinely-directed wisdom from the prophet Isaiah and the interpretation of a fellow traveler on this wilderness road at such a strange hour.  In fact, it is humility that has intrigued the Ethiopian as he reads the scripture of the suffering servant found in Isaiah 53. Perhaps it was not just humility in the positive sense of the word that attracted him to this scripture. Of course, I haven’t mentioned his other descriptive quality that was certainly humiliating; his identity as a eunuch.  It is likely that his role as treasurer to the queen, which brought wealth and prestige, also brought with it the necessity to be castrated in order to serve in her court. For the Jews, whom he had been worshiping among in Jerusalem, his state as a castrated male would have placed him in a position of dishonor and impurity. Deuteronomy 23:1 states that no male in his situation should be admitted into the assembly of the Lord.  Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, regarded eunuchs as unnatural monstrosities who must be shunned on account of their gross effeminacy and impotence. Philo considered eunuchs as ‘worthless persons.’ Whatever economic and political worth he possessed in some circles and whatever value he attached to the Jewish faith, the Ethiopian eunuch was regarded as socially and religiously worthless among leading segments of Israelite society.

Yet, the Jewish prophetic scriptures also offers more hopeful prospects for eunuchs.  Isaiah foresees a day when pious eunuchs and foreigners, which this man was both, would be welcome into the temple and given a permanent place in the household of God (Isaiah 56:1-8).  In fact, one cannot escape the imagery here: eunuchs will be given a monument and name better than sons and daughters (which they cannot have) and a name that cannot be cut off (well, you know how that works for eunuchs).

So the eunuch is certainly intrigued by this suffering servant Isaiah describes.  But there has been no one to help him understand who Isaiah is speaking about. “How can I (understand what I am reading) unless someone guides me?” he asks.  And how could he know? While he was in Jerusalem to worship, his status prevented his acceptance in the temple courts. As he was heading back to his home, there must have been a mix of confusion and frustration as he continued to wrestle with the scripture in front of him.  He identified with the situation of the man described in the scroll. But what became of him? What did it mean? And Philip was there, as directed by the Holy Spirit, to help him understand the scripture in light of Jesus.

The scene ends with the eunuch’s simple question:  “what is to keep me from baptized?” The answer seems so clear to us: nothing!  There is water, there is his confession that Jesus is Lord. But for the Ethiopian eunuch, the question also points to more than function and pragmatism.  What lingers in his question quite possibly is the rejection he has felt among the temple in Jerusalem. There, as the law made clear, he was not allowed such privileges.  Would the Jesus way be any different?  Philip’s response gave a clear indication. And since Philip was directed to this desolate desert road by the Holy Spirit, his purpose was to continue the kingdom building Christ had started in Jerusalem by replying to the eunuch’s question in the affirmative.  Nothing is to keep you from being baptized! Nothing is to keep you from being given a name that cannot be cut off.
The work of Jesus has opened up to the outcast, foreigners and the unclean what once appeared to be off limits.  The early Christians sensitivity to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit provided them the joy of participating in God’s growing mission in the world.  For Christ followers today, What traditions in the current church may keep us from sensing the movement of the Holy Spirit?  What practices can we foster so that we can recognize and be responsive to God’s mission and movement in our culture?

The Model Shepherd

John 10:11-18; Ezekiel 34; Psalm 23

Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story which we all can relate.  Her husband and a friend went duck hunting on the Flint River.  After a full day on the river, the time came to return to shore and load up for the trip home.  After beaching their boat on the shore, the two men began loading their decoys and guns in a car parked near the shore.  When they returned for the boat, it was no longer there but was floating back in the river some ten feet from the bank. As they waded in after it, the motion their bodies made in the water only pushed the boat farther from them toward the main current of the river.  It soon became apparent that one of them would have to jump into the water and swim to the boat. Taylor’s husband told her he knew it wouldn’t be him. “After all, it wasn’t my boat.”

Jesus is making the same point when he identifies himself as the good or model shepherd. And this metaphor works for his purposes because the vocation of shepherding was both a major economic activity in Palestine in Jesus’ day and was emblematic for the relationship between  God and God’s people in the Hebrew Bible. Here is what we know about shepherding during the time of the gospels, from Jesus and His World, An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary:

Shepherds led their flocks by walking ahead of them, in contrast with butchers who drove them to slaughter.  Shepherds had individual vocal signals to call their own sheep, and it was effective even if the animals were mixed with other flocks.  The sheep recognized and obeyed the voice of their own shepherds.

Shepherds were expected to see that sheep had food and water; they had to account for the animals in their charge.  When a sheep stumbled into a ditch or crevice, the shepherd pulled it out with a crook or curved staff. If the sheep was injured the shepherd carried it to a safe place across his shoulders and attended to its wounds.  In order to protect the flock against thieves and many predators, including wolves, hyenas, jackals, bears and leopards, shepherds were often armed with a slingshot, a rod, a club and a knife.

In the winter, flocks stayed within a few miles of the villages and at night were brought back to the enclosures of individual farms or put together in a communal fold kept by a guard or doorkeeper.  In the spring and summer, the flocks were driven to higher pastures, in the mountains of Upper Galilee, Samaria and Judea. There, shepherds found large caves or built sheepfolds of dry stones to keep out the wild animals.  In that case, they slept at the door which was the only opening in the wall without a gate.

Shearing occurred twice a year, at the end of the winter and summer grazing; as in the case of the harvest, it was a festive occasion.  Despite the idyllic image of the relationship between shepherd and sheep in popular tradition, the reality is that the animals were raised to be sold, offered as sacrifice, sheared, and eaten.

Shepherding was so much a part of the life of Israel that the word sheep and its cognates, lamb, ewe and ram, appear more than five hundred times in the Bible.  In biblical imagery, God, the king, the leaders, and in the New Testament, Jesus, were allegorized or symbolized as shepherds. The leaders in the biblical story were not always the good “shepherds” they should have been, and many prophets are critical of the corrupt leaders.  (See Ezekiel 34, for a strong example.) The same imagery is found in John 10.

So what does this mean for our lives?  Sheep need a leader. Once they learn the voice of the shepherd, they trust this voice to guide them to green pastures and still waters and deliver them from enemies.  Really, sheep do not know right from wrong without the steady hand of the shepherd. Is Jesus calling us to become “dumb” like the sheep and uncritically trust his voice?  He seems to say a similar thing when he admonished his disciples, saying: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14).  and “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

I think it is clear that Jesus valued children and didn’t see them as dumb.  Rather, Jesus is pointing out that children and sheep do tend to depend upon and trust adults who have their best interests in mind.  And when both children and sheep recognize a good shepherd, they put their faith in their leadership completely. In other words, they no longer need or want to be the shepherd.  They are willing to be led. What does Jesus’ words about sheep and children say about our need to be in control? How easy is it to relinquish control to someone else? In varying degrees, this is one of the western world’s largest challenges and our biggest sins.  We think we know best and are completely capable of steering our own ships.

So how do we do it?  We learn the voice of the shepherd.  And this is the daily task of learning his voice.  This voice is found in scripture, for sure. It is found also in prayer that begins with placing God as the focal point of our life (Our father, who is in heaven, how holy is your name!).  And prayer that invites God’s values to become our values. (Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.) When the practice of prayer, Bible study and worship become routine in our life, the voice of the good shepherd comes to us more clearly over the cacophony of daily life that wants the individual to be in control and thus to be threatened by others outside of our control.

In contrast, the voice of the good shepherd tells us that he is in control of all the situations around us.  That he would even sacrifice his own life in order to save ours. So there is no need to worry about safety or what’s around the bend.  And there is no need to be threatened by the other sheep who are in other pens. If the shepherd knows them and they know his voice, then they too are ultimately a part of one flock.  In the shepherd’s flock (God’s Kingdom), all are welcome.

The challenge Jesus left his disciples as he ascended to heaven was that the shepherding will still go on.  But, in the short time between his death and resurrection, something happened to his first followers. Their identity as sheep had been transformed to shepherds.  Once their ears were attuned to the sound of Jesus’ voice and hearts equipped with the guidance of the Spirit, their vocation became like that of their master. They were sent out to find flocks of their own and to “do for them as I did for you.”

  • How does our desire for control keep us from trusting the good shepherd?
  • Why does fear keep us from trusting others and from embracing the diversity of God’s Kingdom?

Excerpts taken from:

Taylor, Barbara Brown, Bread of Angels, p. 80.Crowley: Boston, 1997.

Arav, Rami and John J. Rousseau, Jesus and His World, An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary, p.251-253. Fortress: Minneapolis, MN, 1995.

A Living Picture of God’s Kingdom

Jesus does a lot of amazing things in Luke 36-49.  He “appears” out of seemingly nowhere; but he’s not a ghost.  He’s got the skin, the bones, and the scars to prove it. And he eats with them; ghosts don’t get hungry.  And, as if he hasn’t done this over and over again before his crucifixion, he explains why, despite his indiscriminate love, he suffered and died and rose again.  And finally, the light begins to turn on for the disciples!

But maybe the most amazing thing that Jesus does in this scene is something overlooked by we contemporary readers.  Jesus calls them witnesses of these things (Luke 24:48) Jesus doesn’t give them a choice. Not, would you like to be my witnesses?  Can you be my witnesses? No, he states a truth. Because you are here, because you followed me and because I’ve explained to God’s plan as I stand before you in a resurrected body, you are a witnesses.  No avoiding it. No going back.

This may make sense for those disciples who were present in the room where it happened; who saw the risen Lord and experienced his teaching first hand.  But what about us, with 2,000 years of separation between those first eye witnesses? How are we witnesses to this good news we read about in the gospels?

Truth is, Jesus’s empty tomb work is showing up everyday, all around us, if we have the eyes to see it.  For the longest time, I thought I had to be the one to create these situations, as if it was up to me to do the resurrecting!  No wonder witnessing carries a negative connotation for most of us, though many of us wouldn’t want to admit it. But that’s a burden too large and heavy for us.  Besides, God’s already accomplished the work. We just have to point it out when we see it!

Too often, I think I have to be a witness to Biblical theory or doctrine instead of being a witness to the simple story of God’s work.  When I do that, however, I’m making the good news all about me. Its bound to go wrong with that approach. Rather, instead of being in control of God’s witness, I’m learning that God is at work all around me.  Oftentimes, it’s in the hard places in life. All I need in order to be a witness to God’s salvific activity is be present to God’s spirit moving around me. If we believe what Jesus said, that we are witnesses to God’s good news, then we have the eyes and the ears and the heart to be aware of this.

Jesus promised God would aid us in this work with the gifting of the holy spirit (Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:8), so we shouldn’t be under the impression that this witnessing work is on our shoulders.  If we believe God still works through the Holy Spirit, all we have to do is daily ask that we be aware of God’s Spirit at work and then look for it expectantly. God will use our story and the resurrection story to point out in our work, in our families and in our neighborhoods that resurrection still happens; that there is another story at work rather than power and dominance. The alternative or real story is the Kingdom of God and that everyone is invited to experience.

David Fitch, Professor of Theology at Northern Seminary address this posture of witnessing in his short volume entitled Seven Practices for the Church On Mission:

Every day in our neighborhoods, amid strife, broken relationships, and tragedy, whether we are Christians or not, we need the gospel.  Christians must play host to spaces where the gospel can be proclaimed. As we gather around tables and the various meeting places of our lives, if we will be patient and tend to Christ’s presence among us, the moments will present themselves for the gospel to be proclaimed contextually and humbly out of our own testimony.  And in these moments, Christ will be present, transformation will come, and onlookers will catch a glimpse of the kingdom. This is faithful presence.

The Psalm for this week reminds us that people long for stories about resurrection – that life can be good.

“There are many who say, ‘oh that we might see some good!

Let the light of your face shine on us, Oh Lord!’

You have put gladness in my heart

More than when grain and wine abound.

I will both lie down and sleep in peace;

For you alone, Oh Lord, make me lie down in safety.”

Psalm 4:6-8

We are witnesses to Christ’s resurrection story and the Spirit’s ongoing resurrection work today.  People are longing to lie down and sleep in peace, which is to say, they long to be whole. It’s not up to us to make this happen.  Rather, we just need to be available to point to where these deep needs in everyone can be found. And do it with gladness in our heart.

  • What does Jesus mean when he calls his disciples witnesses?
  • What are examples of being a witness in society?  (Witness a car crash, a winning shot, a wedding, etc…)
  • Does a witness do the acting or simply the reporting?
  • What emotions come with being a witness for Christ?
  • What stands in our way of being a witness?
  • What help do we have in being a witness?
  • Do Christians sometimes make witnessing harder than it has to be?