While Christmas is celebrated as the birth of Christ, Pentecost is celebrated as the birth of the church. Early in my ministry, I was introduced to the writings of Lyle Schaller, a pastor and prolific writer on church systems and growth. Among the many lessons I learned through his works was the key fact that the church has a birthday, too, because if it is born, it will also die. Dying can be a blessing, too, because it is in death where we can truly find life!
Schaller points to the fact that the church is in a perpetual cycle of life, death, and resurrection. Sometimes this happens all in one location, and sometimes this happens in the diaspora, but regardless of what happens within a congregation, the church will always be reborn. I see us in the resurrection time in our life cycle, standing on the threshold of rebirth. Our great question that is before us is whether or not we can translate the Bible into the contemporary context and language that is relevant to our local community.
It is true that churches who cease to exist are ones that refuse to be reborn, holding fast to ways which are no longer relevant or translatable to their communities. This is one of those biblical teachings we have lost in the story of the Pentecost. One of the most important things that happens when the disciples start speaking in tongues is that everyone is able to hear the story in a way they can understand. This is interesting, because it suggests that not only do they hear the story in a language they know, but it is presented in a way that they can relate to.
As congregations transition from dealing with their own self-motivations and allow a healthy death to occur, by that very action they are handing the work of the church back to the only one who can really make a difference, that being the Holy Spirit.
It reminds me of the passage from Romans chapter 8 verses 5-6:
5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
A church focused on the spirit is infinitely more connected to God and its mission than those who use the standards of this world. We have to set the example as a congregation and take the necessary leaps of faith. This is, after all, why we are all here, celebrating life as an expression of God. We must labor and continually ask if the order established by the church is a catalyst for the spiritual growth in faith that brings an understanding of hope and salvation, or has it become a rigid law and thus a hindrance boxing in the Holy Spirit. Our job as the church is to be a faithful expression of God deeply rooted in the spirit which has been given as a gift to us. We are called to lift up and not tear down, and we are called to live in the celebration of the Holy Spirit every day!
If there is one thing that we can learn from Pentecost, it is that God still has great plans for this place and there is a powerful seed for the spirit here!
This week in the United States, we mark the beginning of summer, Memorial Day weekend! It is a time for picnics, parties and genuine goodwill. The unfortunate thing about Memorial Day weekend is that for many, the actual remembrance of Memorial Day gets lost in the overarching theme of the start of summer. This is not to say that the parties and other celebrations are wrong or bad, but it is important to take time to remember.
Remembering those who came before is incredibly important because it helps us to understand the world we live in today. It also helps us to humble ourselves by recognizing that most of the things we think are our own accomplishments are just building on something that someone else started. As for Memorial Day, this is a day specifically to remember that the freedom that we have in this country came at a great expense: the lives of men and women who sacrificed their being so that we can be free. That is something that never should be forgotten!
This week, the lectionary provides us with such an interesting passage. This passage is a sermon of Christ to the disciples foretelling his death, but also laying the foundation for what was to happen when he ascended to heaven. He reminds his followers that while he will ascend, he is not abandoning them, for the spirit will be left in his place. This assurance is important, because it provides us with a continuity and link from generation to generation back to Christ.
Think of it this way: the spirit that Christ promised to the disciples is the exact same spirit that we encounter today. This is very important, because just as Memorial Day is about the freedom of this nation, the freedom to move and live and be, this link to the spirit and to Christ is about our freedom as Christians to not be bound to the things of this world. This is why so many clergy struggle with traditions that claim wealth or comfort in this world, because that is akin to celebrating Memorial Day and forgetting that it is a day of remembrance, that we have what we have because someone else suffered for us.
I will be honest with you, one of the greatest struggles I have in faith is answering the question “Are you saved?” It is not that I have any doubts about my salvation or faith (at least today). It has to do with the fact that I believe that my salvation is not mine to claim, but that it is Christ’s, and that he claimed me. Like you and all of the other faithful, we are Christ’s legacy. Our salvation comes from him. We must never forget that, and we must never forget those who have come before so that we can be who God has called us to be.
Do You Love Me?
I think it is fitting that just coming off Confirmation Sunday, we are confronted with a passage of love. For me as a teen, this was one of the biggest questions and fears¾the fear that I would never find love. The interesting thing was that as a teen, my fears and concerns were around one particular kind of love, that being the romantic, and I did not realize the love that had been around me my whole life.
For me, one of the most powerful pericopes in the Gospels is John 21:15-17. This pericope is focused on one question asked by Jesus to Peter three times: “Do you love me?” This is both a parallel to Peter’s three denials and an opportunity for him to find redemption. Peter, God bless him, is a bit slow on the uptake. He does not connect with how this discourse is setting the stage for a different relationship between him and Christ.
As you read the passage, you cannot help but see Peter’s frustration with the repetition. But with each ask, Jesus is giving a clue as to what his love is all about. God’s love is different than the love we experience in this world because it is all-encompassing. It is always both forgiving and comforting, but also relational. We see the forgiveness and redemption in the three questions, but what we often overlook about God’s love is the relational aspect. When it comes to God’s love, there is an expectation that we do something in return. In this case, with each affirmative from Peter, he is also being commissioned to care for Christ’s followers.
This is interesting, because it stands in contrast to the love that is commercialized in our society. God’s love is not an emotional state or feeling; rather, it is a relationship and an understanding. In the Greek New Testament, there are two words which are translated as love: philo and agape. “As to the distinction between [agape] and [philo]: the former, by virtue of its connection with [agape], properly denotes a love founded in admiration, veneration, esteem, like the Latin diligere, to be kindly disposed to one, wish one well; but [philo] denotes an inclination prompted by sense and emotion.”
Thus, agape love is actually a very different type of love than philo. Philo love is a temporal love, one based in emotion; this is your sexual love, the desire-of-your-heart love, the love of the moment. However, the agape love is neither temporal nor is it even emotional. Some might even call it a transcendent love.
One of the great problems in the English language is how we lose a great deal of meaning when we meld the two loves into one. Within the Christian context, it leads to so many problems. I can think of the televangelist asking the gathered, “Do you feel God’s love?” Unfortunately, that changes what the love relationship is between man and God. It is not a temporary feeling. It is a long-term calm. When you mix the temporal emotional love with the powerful transcendent love, we reduce God to good feelings and warm thoughts.
God’s love is more than a mere emotional experience. To be honest, this is where people have used emotion to take advantage of others. Because it feels good, it must be the right thing to do! But looking back to the love we see in the pericope of John 21:15-17, we need to remember that this pericope is not painting a picture of a comfortable love. Peter is uncomfortable pronouncing it, and as he is called to practice it, we all can see the foretelling of great struggles to come. But the thing about God’s love that is so remarkable is that we can know that through this love, we will always find welcome and strength.
One of the cool things about being Presbyterian is that someone always knows someone you know. Sometimes they even know you, or a previous version of you. A few years ago when I was at a conference, I met a man who, after a long discussion, realized that he had been at my baptism. We quickly changed from talking about the churchy stuff and he began to tell me about my baptism. It was pretty cool to hear about something so important in my life from someone whom I would have thought a complete stranger. As he told me about my baptism, I began to realize how connected our church is, and how important baptism is for the community of the church.
Over the time of my ministry, I think one of our most misunderstood practices is baptism. In the simplest of terms, baptism is an outward expression of one’s inward grace. It is a sign to the community that God has blessed the child or adult and that they are accepted into that community. But baptism in our tradition is multilayered. The session approves and ordains the service. The individual or the parents take their vows. And most importantly, regardless of whether the individual is an infant or an adult, the congregation also takes a vow: “Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ, promise to guide and nurture ________ by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church?”
There are many ways we do this, from Christian Education to pastoral care, but one of the most important for me is confirmation. The purpose of confirmation is to give children who were baptized an opportunity to confirm for themselves their baptism, and for children who are not baptized, a place for them to come to a deeper understanding of their faith before they are baptized. More than anything, for the way I do confirmation, it is a time for our youth to explore their faith without judgment.
On Sunday we will celebrate the first confirmation class we have had in our church in many years! As any of the elders who were there this Sunday and met with the confirmands would say, this is an exceptional group of youths! Over the past year, while enjoying fancy doughnuts and orange juice, we created a space where we went over many of the basics of the Bible, our theology, our history, with a lot of time for spiritual discernment. From worship to mission, to being part of a connectional church, our hope is that the youth come to see confirmation as important step on their spiritual journey and a calling from God.
A few weeks ago, I entered into a conversation with a member of our congregation about what it means to be Presbyterian. Now, I have to state at the outset that a good portion of our congregation did not grow up Presbyterian, and even those who did would have a hard time explaining it. I remember my first meeting with my Committee on Preparation for Ministry when I started the ordination process. They came back at me and asked why I chose to be Presbyterian. The answer I wanted to give was “because my family was.” I did not give that answer, but that is another letter. An understanding of the Presbyterian Church is elusive at times.
Often times we hear a joke here or there about Presbyterians. In the ’70s television show M*A*S*H, at one time or another at least half of the main characters claimed to be Presbyterian. Other shows have alluded to it. One person claimed that the television show 7th Heaven supposedly featured a Presbyterian pastor. I don’t really know, I never saw the show. The point of this is that the Presbyterian Church is a fixture within the American culture and is an active participant in it, though what we believe and understand is elusive to many in our community and in our churches.
The funny thing about the Presbyterian Church is the fact that most Presbyterian churches are a mix of people from various ideologies and backgrounds. An observant person once pointed out to me that as Presbyterians, we all have the right answers; they’re just not always the correct ones. How can that be? It comes to a basic understanding of our relationship to God and to the world. First of all, we are not perfect; in fact, we believe that human nature will always compel us to make the wrong choice over the right one.
This is because sin pervades all areas of our life. Thus, we have to keep our actions in check. However, no action, good or bad, can offer or reject salvation. It is God’s choice to save someone based in the love and freedom of God. We believe that God sent his son to die so that those whom God has chosen to be his elect might be saved. Thus once God has chosen you, God’s grace is irresistible; and once that has happened, though you may fight it or try and run away, like in the story of the prodigal son, the love of God will ultimately win out.
This basis is called TULIP theology: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. These five Calvinistic theological points are from the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) and they become very central in the later reformed theological dialogue. Though much of our theology has evolved from the basic TULIP theology, there is a simple truth, as we see in many of our basic theological understandings, that God is in control and we are not.
Within our greater society, we see people trying harder and harder to get “control,” whether political, social, economic, or otherwise. Unfortunately, as many people observe, the more we think we are in control, the more we realize that we are not. Maybe in the short term we can fool ourselves, but in the long term it becomes clear who really has control, and that is God. Thus, as an imperfect bunch, we rely on God’s work to transform us and reform us.
During my first Doctor of Ministry class, I made the crucial mistake of misquoting one of the central statements of the reformed tradition. I wrongly said, “As Presbyterians, we are reformed and always reforming.” Dr. Stroup, one of the two professors for the class, quickly corrected me stating, “No, we are reformed and always being reformed.” Granted, I knew as those words came out of my mouth they were wrong, but as I have thought about it, I realize how a different phraseology can make a world of difference.
It is God’s work within us that makes the difference. NO church can be THE church. And no church can have a faithful life with God unless we open our hearts and minds to the transformative nature of God. It is amazing what happens when you do that.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen