Leaning Into Death: An Alternative Reading of Acts 2.42-47

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Preaching from Acts 2 this Eastertide, it dawned on me this familiar passage was saying something much simpler, yet more profound, than providing fodder for theological arguments between Pentecostals and, well, every other Christian.

The early portion of this chapter (tongues of fire, upper room, etc.), gets most of the attention in the chapter, and rightly so.  It’s bizarre, unusual, and produces a proclamation that had never happened before.

In Chapter 1, Jesus ascends into heaven and the disciples go to Jerusalem (to the Upper Room) to wait, for something unaware.  Chapter 2 continues the action answering the proverbial, “so what now?  If Jesus isn’t here, what happens and where are we going?”  The tongues of fire episode is the first part of the answer.

But the tongues of fire is the easiest part of the answer.

I mean, who doesn’t like a religious experience?  Plenty of people thrive on experience, feelings, euphoric highs that charge our life.  We have all been witness to the power of religious experience, perhaps even experiencing something religious ourselves.  The two fastest growing segments of Christianity in the world are the two that offer an experience, a doing, with God: Pentecostalism and Catholicism.

Ok, so you’re not religious and don’t like that analogy?  Do you like sex, the experience of sex?  Or is it better to think and talk about sex as opposed to having sex?

Do you enjoy the experience of cheering for your favorite sports team, cheering for your child, experiencing joy?  If you’d rather go to Disney World than talk about it, you prefer experience because participating in something powerful makes you feel.

Thus, we understand how powerful, and preferable, great experiences are.  You don’t have to be religious to appreciate that we humans LOVE to experience FEELINGS.

It is little wonder Acts 2 and an experience of the Holy Spirit gains the traction it does.  Its powerful, it’s refreshing, it’s renewing.

Yet, the early portion of Acts 2 is not the end game.  The end game begins when the experience of the first part of this chapter takes a form of life, a form of life in Acts 2.42-47 that is a daunting reminder/request.

Acts 2.42-47 is a troublesome text that offers a vignette of life in the early church while simultaneously making the rest of us nervous at the consequences.  It reads:

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

There’s just something about the implication that we should fellowship, commit ourselves to the teaching of the apostles, pray, break bread and praise God that seems like too much work.  And lest we get too comfortable, let’s not forget this idea of “holding all things in common and selling our possessions” in order to provide for those who have need that makes us spiritually wriggle and physically convulse.

While this list seems odd to us, it is not uncommon for Luke to give us these summary statements about life in the early church, brief portraitures of how they organized their communal living.  He does so in several places throughout Acts, such as chapters 4, 6 and 9.

In so doing, Luke is not only telling us how the early church lived, but he is gently nudging us to go and do likewise.

The trouble with these summaries, however, is that they are often lifted out of the chapters in which they occur.  These summaries, like Paul’s lists of “dos and don’ts” that keep people out of heaven, are summarily read and rehearsed with little regard to the stories preceding and following them.

While debates about religious experience and the political ideology of Acts 2 are intriguing, I have a different question: Why does this summary occur here, in this part of the Acts 2?  What larger narrative is at work behind this summary?  And why does the Lectionary ask us to read this text at this point in the Easter Season?

The problem with reading Acts chapter 2 is that it is read as two separate texts.  We have a 2.0 and a 2.1 version: a Pentecostal experience and a purview into life in the early church.  We preach an experience OR we preach a political obligation.  Rarely do we seek the coherence of this chapter.

Simply put, Acts 2.42-47 is impossible apart from Pentecost.  This is a way of life that cannot be lived apart from the Spirit.  The episodes of this chapter are episodes but they must remain a singular chapter, parts of a larger whole.  But let’s not stop there.

Acts 2.42-47 cannot happen apart from the Resurrection in Luke!  The Resurrection of Jesus in Luke, the Ascension of Jesus in Acts 1, and the Giving of the Spirit in Acts 2 are three stages of a singular event in which Jesus is glorified and given back to creation.

If Christ be not raised, then living in the kind of community discussed in Acts 2 is laughable.  If Christ be not ascended, then there is no giving of his presence to the Church.  If there is no giving of the Spirit, there are no tongues of fire, no empowered proclamation, and no Church.

Therefore Acts 2 is part of our Easter readings.  At first blush, one would surmise we should read Acts 2 during the season of Pentecost, but if we understand this larger movement we see that Acts 2 is not describing a Pentecostal community; it is describing an Easter community empowered through Pentecost.

It is because Jesus is raised, and the end of time marked by the outpouring of the Spirit, that those who believe on Jesus are compelled to live a life in which they sell their things, hold all things in common, break bread together, worship, and commit themselves to the apostles teaching.

Easter has empowered this early group of believers to not hold so tightly to life and empowered them to grasp more tightly to one another.

In a world without Easter, we cling to our life.  In a world with Easter, we grasp our death, and through death find life.

The early church knew how to grasp their death.  They understood it to such a degree that they lived their life toward death, leaning into it.  They leaned into to such a degree that they held loosely to all that was theirs and committed themselves to one another, anticipating that the end that had started in the Resurrection of Jesus, and been confirmed in the giving of the Holy Spirit, would overtake them all soon.

The early church took Joel 2.28 seriously,

“After this I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity; then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will have dreams, and your young men will see visions.”

Here is the kicker: only people who are convinced that in Jesus’ Resurrection the end has begun can live according to Acts 2.42-47.  Only people who have received tongues of fire to proclaim the ridiculous message that Jesus is raised and that we can share in his resurrection can live as Acts suggests.

Moving one step further, people who believe this, and have experienced the outpouring of the Spirit, can do no other than live as Acts 2 suggests because they understand they are living toward death, living toward the end that is God.  People who know the end is near have no time to be consumed with grasping to a life they will lose so they lose the life they have.  The Apostle Paul insinuated something similar when he proclaims, “I am crucified with Christ.”

In the debate between paradox or dialectic, in this instance, we side with paradox.

One may believe this end will come in the clouds with Christ, or believe it comes at the time of our own death, either way, we must lean in toward the end.  This is what the early church does and why Acts 2.42-47 is odd; it’s a way of life that doesn’t grasp life.

I call this a hermeneutic of loss, a hermeneutic grounded in the death of Jesus and the loss of the world.

As such, Acts 2.42-47 really functions as more of a reminder of what matters than a dictum to be followed.  The texts job isn’t to exacerbate our failings, but to remind us that this is how people live who live toward the end: People who believe the end is now in the Resurrection, Ascension and Coming Holy Spirit of Christ.  When we forget life is found in death, we live life for life-sake and when death comes we wish we’d lived toward death, because we will regret living as if the end wouldn’t happen.

But this reading shouldn’t come a surprise.

I have never known a hermeneutic of loss, or read scripture as texts toward death, until I lost my own father nearly 12 weeks ago.  After suddenly losing him, scripture has just as suddenly become a new land.  I see in it things hidden before; I feel in it things I never knew to feel.  Eerily, parts scripture make more sense now because it too was born out of a series of traumas that led to life in/through loss.

After my father’s death, all I wanted to do was do these things in Acts 2 with him.  I wanted to sit in his Sunday School class one more time, hearing the apostles teaching.  I wanted to eat with him again, break bread.  I wanted to fellowship more, visit his house after work.  I wanted to pray for him, with him, share in the simple pleasure of hearing him pray one more time before dinner.  I wanted to be thankful more, enjoy life more, not let the trivial things of life irritate me when I was around him.

When he died, he left behind all the things he loved and enjoyed.  His family, his hobbies, his business: it is all still here.  Yet, my father lived as one who never held too tightly to these things.  He left them behind, he knew he would, so he spent his days doing as much of Acts 2 as he could.  If you knew him, you lived Acts 2 with him as well.

Acts 2 reminds us that at the end of our days, either at the appearance of Christ in the Clouds, or in the face of death when it comes for us, we will not regret anything except that we had lived more like the picture given to us in Acts 2.42-47.

My suggestion?

Discover the resurrection of Jesus.  Discover death.  Lean into it.  Find life.  Find Freedom.

Exchanging the Resurrection for the Soul

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“I am concerned with Christ as He appears in the Gospels, taking the Gospel narrative as it stands, and there one does find some things that do not seem to be very wise. For one thing, he certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that. He says, for instance, “Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel till the Son of Man be come.” Then he says, “There are some standing here which shall not taste death till the Son of Man comes into His kingdom”; and there are a lot of places where it is quite clear that He believed that His second coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living. That was the belief of His earlier followers, and it was the basis of a good deal of His moral teaching. When He said, “Take no thought for the morrow,” and things of that sort, it was very largely because He thought that the second coming was going to be very soon, and that all ordinary mundane affairs did not count. I have, as a matter of fact, known some Christians who did believe that the second coming was imminent. I knew a parson who frightened his congregation terribly by telling them that the second coming was very imminent indeed, but they were much consoled when they found that he was planting trees in his garden. The early Christians did really believe it, and they did abstain from such things as planting trees in their gardens, because they did accept from Christ the belief that the second coming was imminent. In that respect, clearly He was not so wise as some other people have been, and He was certainly not superlatively wise.” Bertrand Russel, from essay Why I Am Not A Christian

 

We don’t need Betrand Russel to tell us Jesus was wrong about Eschatology.  Most Christians think the same.  Rather than become atheist like Russel, Christians just embrace the idea of everlasting soul and we never mention that early Christian kerygma contained the grizzly image of resurrection.

The Delay of the Parousia of Jesus has created an unspoken level of cognitive dissonance within the community of disciples that follow the wonder worker from Nazareth.   Jesus was never bashful about proclaiming the imminence of the coming Kingdom of God.  The Synoptics are full of Jesus’ more immediate eschatological leanings.

Examples abound but here are a few from the Synoptics.  I do not include the Gospel of John because Johannine theology is far more reflective and a different theological animal than we find in the more rudimentary synoptic tradition.

Luke 12.35 & 40 “Be dressed in readiness and keep your lamps lit…you, too, be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect.”

The verb “to be” here in v35 is a present, active imperative.  In v40, the verb “coming” is also a present imperative; it may be translated middle or passive.  It is clear that Jesus is speaking of a present expectation, one he strongly believes (or at least was strongly believed in by the author of Luke) by the usage of an imperative.

Matthew 24.32-34 “Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that the summer is near; so, you too, when you see all these things recognize that He is near, right at the door.  Truly I say to you this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.

Notice the imminent tone of Jesus’ speech.  Jesus is speaking future here, but doing so in an exact temporal sense that locates this future within the present of THIS generation.  The word for “pass away” is in the subjunctive mood, giving it a sense of future openness, but that is negated by the “not” that precedes it.  It is not a sense of indefinite passing away being referred to here.  It’s a very specific location of place into which this passing will NOT go: the future.  It’s presently pending.  Also note the nominative “this” referring to generation.   Keep in mind this verse starts where Jesus isolates his listeners as “you” in v4.  This “you see” refers to a present active stance Jesus is asking of his readers/hearers.

Jesus is not lost when he thinks these events are going to transpire.  He believes they will happen to the very ones with whom he is speaking.

Mark 14.61-62 “The high priest was questioning him and saying to him, “are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed one?” And Jesus said, “I Am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the power and coming with the clouds in heaven.”

In this passage, Jesus makes a narratival confession of his status as Christ and links that status with the imminent coming of the end.  Jesus tells the High Priest that “you” will see this.  The “you” is part of the second person plural future of “see” and positions Jesus’ response to the plural scene in which he finds himself.  His “you” is a reference to the characters with the narrative, not outside of it. Jesus, here, seems convinced that this gross injustice that is about to be carried out upon him will be vindicated in a very physical manifestation very shortly.

These few verses, along with the scope and content of Jesus eschatological ministry, seems to also fall in line with the major consensus’ amongst the latest NT scholarship.  At bottom, Jesus was an eschatological prophet who saw his ministry as the pending coming of the Kingdom of God.  He fully expected, and anticipated, its fulfillment in and through his ministry.  This sense of urgency did not wane with the death of Jesus.  It was alive and well within the early Christian tradition.

The Apostle Paul was also convinced of the imminence of the return of The Christ, the fulfillment of what the angels told the disciples as they saw Jesus ascend into heaven in Acts 1, “why do you stand here staring up into the sky?  Don’t you know that the same Jesus that you have seen depart will return in a similar fashion?”

The Church of Acts is acting in the shadow of an imminent return and we are reminded of this at the very front of the Acts narrative.  The early church took these teachings and narratives seriously.

Paul’s imminent eschatological predilections are on full display in 1 Thessalonians where he calms the fear of fellow believers who are now facing the death of those very ones to whom Jesus might have said, “this generation will not pass away.”  Problem was…this generation was starting to pass away.  Paul writes to assuage their fears and in the process reinforces the imminent eschatological teachings that began in Jesus’ sayings.  Thessalonians is a great letter to isolate early Christian sentiment regarding the imminent return of God/the Christ because it is our earliest Christian letter (possibly as early as 38-39CE) and the church has not had the reflection of decades to fine tune its thinking.

In Paul, we do begin to see some eschatological development.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul merges the concept of resurrection to the final idea of Kingdom of God.  Here he conflates the notion of resurrection into final parousia, a commencement that will involve the physical resurrection of the dead, and living, into an imperishable existence that can live in this coming Kingdom of God.  In Paul we see the merging of the gospel traditions of Jesus teaching, with more Pharisaical leanings that taught resurrection.  If one subscribes to the theory that Paul also wrote 2 Thessalonians this clearly shows a move in Paul away from imminence and toward delay…as there are some “conditions” that must be met that are wholly other than the conditions Jesus mentions in the Gospels.

The further we move from the very historical event of the Christ the more developed we get in regard to eschatology, or the coming of the God in Christ.  The latter pastoral epistles then become concerned with how to “do” church and “be” church and very little attention is given to the coming of Jesus.  The quicker the church can move past this unseemly historical absence, the better.

So the church stands in the wake of a grave that has been opened and a return that has not taken place.  The imminence of Jesus and Paul has not been fructified, and in the process, one major element of their eschatology has been left out of the equation in regard to “last things”: resurrection.  Jesus and Paul both taught that a resurrection would occur, a physical resurrection, restoration of creation as a part of God’s final victory over evil.  It appears Jesus had taught Mary this on at least one occasion (John 11).

We, as the present day church, have forgotten this…and we give strange looks to people like me who want to once again move this hope front and center.  You don’t believe resurrection produces weird looks and confusion?  Next time you’re at church, tell someone you believe your dead corpse will once again see life and see what they say.  Tell them that bodies matter to God and that the New Testament hope is fleshly resurrection, not a soulish flight to Jesus, and I promise they will look at you like you’re a Communist.

And because we forgotten resurrection we have fallen in love with an idea of Last Things that are absent the New Testaments core eschatological tenet: resurrection.

Why?  How do I make this connection?

Because the church had to figure out a way of getting everyone to heaven without the event that Paul and Jesus firmly believed was necessary for any idea of God’s coming Kingdom: resurrection.

They both taught it would be imminent and was pending.  Such imminence, as history continues to illustrate, was misplaced.  Yet, hope in Jesus the Christ could not be misplaced due to his resurrection and despite our own.  Thus, the church internalized the hope of Christians to be one of internal release, soulish ascent to heaven, that really doesn’t need a resurrection to be manifest.

Take a poll: Many Christians are content with knowing that when they die they will go to heaven.  Ask if they care about being resurrected, they might not even know why you ask the question.  Little wonder.  Many preachers today are peddlers of soul language and confessions.  Their entire object of ministry is the proverbial “never dying soul.”  They are not interested in the restoration of creation as the vehicle whereby the world is restored into right relationship with God via the resurrection of Ezekiel’s dry bones.

The result has become an infatuation with spirits and souls.  But how could we do otherwise?  Jesus hasn’t returned and the resurrection has not happened.  We have to believe in something.

No one, at least people of faith, like to think that their relatives have died and have remained rotting in their graves.  We do not want to believe that our hope is somehow connected to the material body that the creator gave us before we entered the world.  We want to be released from the pain and tribulation we face within our bodies.  We want to believe we can escape them…not wait to be resurrected with them.

This need to escape and find a fulfillment to the “sinner’s prayer” has produced an entire generation of people that are no longer interested in being resurrected because their soul “will fly away oh glory.” If Jesus is not going to return to take our bodies, as he promised in John 14, then we need another device whereby God can fulfill his promises of salvation and get to our “mansions”.  Thus, we negate all of Paul’s talk about resurrection and embrace his only verse that says “to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord.”

The cognitive dissonance of an absent Jesus, and the absent event of resurrection, has created a vacuum of meaning that has been filled with the concepts of spirits and souls.  The Greeks would be mightily proud.  We no longer need resurrection to get to “heaven.”  It’s not a viable element of our eschatological categories.  We just need to believe on Jesus to ensure our soul flies to the right place.

Countless Maccabees died in vain.  They should have known better than to think God would resurrect their corpses atop Masada.

Since Christians have traded in the currency of resurrection for the currency of the soul we are more prone to embrace ideas that are anti-Christian eschatology and pro-secular spirituality.  Souls, spirits and apparitions have such a strong appeal because we have come to conclude that this vision of human eschatology (what happens after we die) is credible and it is credible because the imminent vision of Jesus and Paul has tarried too long.

One could even argue that the evacuation of resurrection space, of holy mystical space, has been left behind for that form of metaphysics we can grasp and make happen, apply.

Indeed, the absence of the coming of Jesus and the misguided imminence of Paul has created quite a problem for the church.  We have turned to many idols to forget this unseemly absence.  We have embraced ideas that allow us to get around resurrection and still have our Christian cake.

Not only have we embraced reason as the means by which we may know all things, but we have also opted for choices that require ourselves (our volition) to make it to heaven…rather than depend on a divine act whereby whatever is the “coming Kingdom of God” can only be given to us as a gift, a gift of resurrection that is absent our ability to believe ourselves to it.

And this is where we must make our eschatological stand.  Our end, the future of the world that is God, is never something we inherently carry in our bodies or that we secure via our belief.  God, the world’s future, is only given to us as a gift we could never give ourselves.

Resurrection is the ultimate gift because it is the ultimate end we can never give ourselves.

Sermon Pentecost 2013: Fire From the Tomb

Pentecost

This is a sermon I preached this past Sunday in my local Church of the Nazarene setting.  My tradition has a precarious and intimate relationship to this text, especially as it concerns ideas of the holy spirit, holiness and Christian experience.  As I began to look more carefully exegetically at this passage, particularly within its Luke-Acts literary corpus, I began to see and pick up on some motifs that I believe my tradition and many evangelical traditions are sadly overlooking…and that is: the Pentecostal descending of the Holy Spirit on the early Church is not a prescriptive event that serves to edify the walk of an individual believer.  Pentecost occurs, rather, in order that those witnesses that heretofore were unable to witness to the Resurrection of Jesus might now be able to do so.  Pentecost is not a “movement” or a “stage” that Christians traverse as they become more “holy,”…Instead it seems that Luke-Acts insists this happens so that those already sanctified in their following of Christ might now be able to proclaim the nonsense of a dead carpenter…who is now not so dead…is the Messiah of God.  Further, not only does Luke-Acts make this argument, it further goes on to nuance how this events is interpreted as a “last days” event within the prophetic text of Joel and therein reinterprets how we today MUST also rethink our idea of “last days,’…but you’re gonna have to read the sermon if you want to see how this works out.

As an aside, the first several paragraphs are a rehearsal of the Christian calendar as we have only recently started being very intentional about the Christian seasons in my ministry context.  I felt that since Pentecost is the climax of Easter celebration and beginning of ordinary time, or what I like to call life as usual, that this rehearsal was in order to help the congregation re-member where we have been.  Should you not need the reminder of the seasons please move to the paragraph that begins discussing Pentecost.

So…with this said, I hope this sermon on Pentecost is helpful as you continue in your pursuits to narrate your life around this resurrected one we call Jesus the Christ.

Title: “Fire from the Tomb”

Text: Acts 2.1-21

Theme: Pentecost as Fulfillment of Easter

Topic: Easter Resurrects the Christ, Pentecost ushers the Church into the Power of Resurrection Proclamation

                We have been busy following the journey of Christ this year, following the calendar that marks events in the life of Jesus and dares us to participate in those events.  It has been a journey that is now about to both end, and begin.  This day is marked by colors of red, faint sounds of whirlwinds and descriptions of fiery tongues that descend upon those who are witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus.   The journey of Jesus the Christ has brought us to this peculiarly strange place this Sunday known as Pentecost.  It has taken us a while to get here.

We started in that season of Great expectation, a season of awaiting the coming Messiah and his birth.  It was a season in which we anticipated not only the birth of Christ, but also the return of the living Christ again with great heavenly choruses’ to announce his entrance on the white horse, just as they announced his birth in Bethlehem.  It was the season of Advent.

From advent, we moved to Christmas…a 12 day period that began with Christmas day.  This is a 2 week long season in which we concentrate on the arrival of the Christ.  This season is then closely followed by what we call Epiphany.  The Season of Epiphany is that time when we cease simply knowing that Christ has been born amongst us, and we actually realize who he is and we trek to see him, offering gifts of adoration and praise just as the Wise-men demonstrate to us what it looks like to be those who have had the ultimate “aha” moment.

After these seasons of expectation, rejoicing and realization…we enter into a place that begins on Ash Wednesday…we journeyed with Christ into the desert during a time we call Lent.  During lent we wandered the desert with Christ, we faced our own mortality, we became aware of the ministry of Jesus that at times perhaps made him long for those lonely desert moments in Luke 4 over the trials and obstinacy of people who did not believe his message.  When Jesus left the desert he went and preached his first sermon in his hometown…and if you will remember, it was not warmly received.  We have followed Christ through those Lenten places that led him to that most precarious of all weeks in his life…the Week we now call Holy week.

We followed Jesus down the Hill of Mt Olives from the Garden of Gethsemane and ushered him into the city of Jerusalem in order to celebrate the Passover feast.  We went with him to the temple, we heard him exchange with beggars, we were there when he broke bread and gave us wine…and our hearts were broken and confused when Jesus was arrested, tried and crucified during this week.  The events that we now call Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were events we wished hadn’t occurred, yet we find ourselves on this journey with Christ so we walk where he walks, even if we learn things about ourselves along the journey that we don’t particularly like.

But then, the journey takes us unexpectedly to a place known as Easter…Easter morning we arise still grieving the death of Jesus only to be awakened by women screaming at the top of their lungs that Jesus’ tomb is empty, that Christ is not there, that something strange has happened.  We stand shocked, worried, strangely happy…as we then entered Eastertide.  Eastertide was a 49 day period in which we focused on the reality of the Risen Christ, what that risenness is, what it looks likes, what it means…and we were there with Jesus when he appeared to us in the Gospel of John, when he made us breakfast on the seashore, when he appeared to the 500 and when he came and walked amongst us as we were leaving Jerusalem talking amongst ourselves about the strange things that have overtaken the city…the event of Easter has changed everything…but the journey is not over just yet.

We then remembered Jesus as he had a final farewell moment with his disciples.  We were there when we walked with us after his resurrection, longing for the continual presence of the resurrected Jesus…yet he was giving us his final last words.  He spoke to us, then he Ascended from our midst…he left us…standing there as we gazed intently into the sky.  But what might Christ have meant in Acts chapter 1 when he said, “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem…and to the remotest part of the earth.”  This journey is not over…

The story of Jesus has not yet finished and we have not yet fully received what Jesus told us we will receive.  As we were walking along the road with him conversing on way to a place called Emmaus, Jesus who we now call the Christ because of his resurrection, gave us a hint of this day we would soon experience.  He was leading us to the place known as Pentecost with these words,

“Thus it is written  that he Messiah should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses to these things.  And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24.45-49)

But this is something we should have been expecting along this journey, for much earlier than these words of the resurrected Jesus, Luke tells us of the words of John the Baptist in Luke chapter 3, “As for me, I baptize you with water, but One is coming who is mightier than I and I am not even fit to untie his sandals; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  Back in Luke chapter 3 the prophetic words of John the Baptist didnt’t make much sense…but now, as we are further along on this journey with Christ Luke is bringing his Gospel message full circle.  What Luke began in his Gospel he is bringing to completion in his telling of this story in Acts chapter 2…this story we call Pentecost…the place that the journey of Jesus has now brought us to.

But what is Pentecost?  Why has the journey brought us here and where do we go from here?  If we follow the life of Jesus this event marks its end.  After today, we enter to a place that we call Ordinary time.  It is a time where nothing special happens in the life of Christ: no hark the herald angels sings, no wisemen, no miracles, no resurrection, and no more Pentecost’s…what does this mean for us that our journey has ended here, today, in this way, with this story…yet this ending is also a new beginning of sorts.

If we follow the text closely and if we pay attention to what Luke is doing in his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, 2 works that are separated in our bibles but were composed wholes by Luke originally, we find that despite the fact that we celebrate the big three events in the life of Jesus separately.  Despite the fact that we celebrate Easter, then Ascension, then Pentecost…and we do so with a 50 day period in between them…despite all this Pentecost and the falling of the Holy Spirit on the disciples is not a singular event.  These are not a series of events that are to be understood separately…rather they are all three events that function together in order proclaim one singular message and that is the Resurrection of Jesus.  The Resurrection is the catalyst that gives birth to the Ascension and Events of Pentecost.  It is a singular event marked by three distinct moments in the life of Jesus.  What this means is that to try to understand Pentecost apart from Easter is misleading and to understand Easter without an empowering Spirit would be an empty proclamation.  But this needs to be understood because often we separate these events to such a degree that days like Pentecost become removed from their Easter context and Pentecost becomes a time about my experience with God rather than my experience for God.  In other words, Pentecost is not an event that happens so that the disciples can have a great personal spiritual experience.  Are you listening?  If we pay attention to Luke and his Gospel and his Book of Acts, the event of the Pentecostal empowering of the disciples is not about their own personal spirituality, conscience or assurance that they are right with God.   It is, however,  part of the journey that makes Easter proclamation possible.

I know this is how this event is taught and preached…we are encouraged to have a Pentecostal experience, to speak in tongues, to be ecstatic and that this is what defines the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.  Some of us may even remember with fondness that Nazarenes were often referred to as “noise-a-renes” since our tradition has been so influenced by Pentecostal fervor and forms of worship.  This chapter is used by all manner of folks to describe the type of experience we ought to have with God…all the while this event only happens here and nowhere else…it doesn’t even happen exactly like this again in the Book of Acts or in Paul…or any other book that might be in the Bible.

Our tradition has unfortunately linked this event to something we like to call sanctification.  We have taken Acts 2 as a paradigm or a model for what it means to be sanctified by God, set apart for his purpose and granted the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit…only us evangelical Baptist and Nazarene types like to leave out the speaking in tongues part that is strangely described as tongues of fire floating upon the disciples and filling up their very beings.  All the while, this passage says nothing of sanctification…the language that we find in other places of the NT to talk about sanctification is not in this passage even though we like to imagine that it is.   Not only does this passage not say anything about sanctification but it also says nothing about our personal spirituality as the goal of this event…the event that is described for many of us through the great hymn, “How the Fire Fell.”

Traditionally, all of these events: Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost, were are all closely celebrated together because they are all movements of one unified narrative, one unified story that is not complete one without the other.  By separating them on the calendar, which is understandable since we can’t celebrate everything the same day or the same week, we have unfortunately lost what Luke is doing with the this text and what Acts is doing by positioning this story in Chapter 2.  Pentecost is not about giving us a new sort of experience with God and it’s not even about just empowering us in our own personal spiritual lives.  Pentecost is about Easter because Pentecostal power happens in order for Easter proclamation to take place.  Pentecost does not offer us a model of Christian experience that should be prayed for and replicated by others…if offers us the story of why the Spirit came, how it came and what it came for!  Pentecost came to fulfill the words of Jesus, “It is written that Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations…YOU ARE MY WITNESSES.”  We are witnesses of what??  We are resurrection witnesses!  Pentecost happens and the spirit falls upon those that are still left under the shadow of the clouds of the Ascension so that those that saw these things, those that have been witnesses will be able to proclaim the resurrection!

Pentecost is exists so that Resurrection proclamation can occur!  In the Gospels, we do not see mass spreading of the stories of Jesus after his resurrection.  The community of faith keeps this reality to itself.  It sounds crazy, it can’t be, its impossible, the Jewish and Roman authorities are already suspect of those that used to follow this dead carpenter from Nazareth.  The resurrection gospel of Jesus Christ that now he has been raised and so too will your dead body be raised from its dead state and the wages of sin that Kill us all have now been broken is not being shared after the resurrection of Jesus in the Gospels!  Why?  Because they do not have the power, the unction, or the witnessing ability to do so.  They are stuck in fear, amazement, thankfulness, but lost about what to do now that the proof that Jesus is not dead has just ascended into the clouds.  Now who’s going to believe them?

Pentecost is the event that sets this faith in motion and empowers the disciples to take the Gospel to places it would have otherwise not reached.  Pentecost is an extension of Easter in that it is the event that enables the Easter proclamation to go forth into creation.  Its not about a new experience for me or you or the disciples, its about empowering our ability to proclaim what we have already experiencing by rushing into the tomb and finding it hollow and empty…the body of Jesus the Christ no longer there.  That’s why tongues of fire fall on us…so that we can proclaim nonsense with boldness!

If Pentecost is the power of God to proclaim the events of Easter to creation, then Pentecost is also marks the end of the world, the end times, the last days.  I know this is not a popular conception of what the last days is all about but if Pentecost is about proclaiming the resurrection of Christ…then it is about proclaiming this resurrection because the ends times is upon us..and there is nothing more ends times and eerie than the resurrection of Jesus.   That’s not normal and we need to quit making it normal.

Jesus came proclaiming that the KOG was about to break upon creation.  He came, along with John the Baptist, forgiving sins and telling people that his work was an extension of Gods signs that the end of the time and the renewal of creation were imminent.  Then, in a shocking turn of events Jesus is crucified and killed…yet something apocalyptic happens…Jesus is raised!  This was a common Jewish conception of the time that the last days would be marked by the resurrection of the dead and the church dared to proclaim that the last days had finally begun to occur in the very resurrection of Jesus, or what the Apostle Paul liked to proclaim as the “first fruits of the dead…” Jesus’ body being the first harvest of the pending collection of bodies that will be renewed…along with creation by God.  SO by virtue of Pentecostal tongues of fire falling on the disciples so that they might be witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost must then be interpreted by us as something that occurred in the last days…and so long as we continue to have faith in Jesus Christ we must believe and proclaim that we are living as an extension of those last days that began with the events of Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost.

But our text goes further to argue that the message of Jesus is a message for the last days…the last days being those that exist from the Ascension of Jesus until his pending return…After the tongues of fire fall on the disciples and a scene that is reminiscent of a theophany in the Old Testament: A scene characterized by wind, noise and fire…the kinds of elements that God likes to use when his Spirit shows up on the scence…we see that Peter even changes the text of the Prophet Joel to interpret this event as an end times event.   That’s right, Peter in his sermon doesn’t just quote Joel, he changes the text to interpret this event as the event that Joel was talking about…so let’s see interesting twist.

The crowd hears the commotion of the men who have been baptized by fire as John the Baptist warned and as Jesus instructed them to wait for.  The disciples have obviously come out of the room or the place in which they were waiting and they are proclaiming this resurrection reality of Jesus to Jews from all the known nations.  Typical of folks who don’t understand those filled with the Holy Spirit, and also typical of the way many Christians act, the crowd thinks that these men are drunk…even though it is only 9am.  In a shocking turn of events, Peter gets up and proclaims the Prophet Joel to explain to the crowd what is occurring.  Peter declares in Pentecostal power,

“This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: And it shall be in the last days, that I will pour out my spirit upon all mankind.  And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy and your young men shall see visions and you old men shall dream dreams.  Even upon my slaves, both men and women I will in those days pour out my spirit and they shall prophesy.  And I will grant wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth beneath, blood and fire and vapor of smoke.  The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon into blood before the great and glorious day of the Lord and everyone that calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Interestingly, Luke tells us that Peter has changed Joel in order to interpret these events as applicable to Jesus…this outpouring of God’s Spirit for Easter Proclamation is a mark of these last days…which means that the new creation has in some way begun in the fact that Jesus Body was made new and resurrected…the order of nature has been reversed and creation has begun to see newness and revival from the clutches of death!  In Joel, the passage does not start out “In the last days, it starts out… “And it will come about after this…”

What is the “after this” in Joel?  Well, if you go and read Joel 2 it’s a lot of destruction and judgment…only after all that will the last days enter…yet in Acts we see Luke interpreting Joel differently and the events of the Resurrection and Pentecostal proclamation are not something that are preceded or followed by destruction.  In fact, if you read Luke-Acts the opposite is the case…what lies ahead is not dreadful news of destruction but the good-news of forgiveness and repentance because Jesus has brought the end of time into our present through his resurrection and thereby extended forgiveness in which we too may also participate in this new creation!  (repeat) Now this is good news!  This is Gospel!  As one writer aptly stated it,

“In the context of Joel, this passage meant the salvation of Israel and the destruction of those nations that had oppressed it.  The surprise of Pentecost is that the eschatological last days do not bring destruction , but rather bring mission and redemption for the world!”

In Pentecost Jesus is coming good on his promise to empower them with speech that will allow them to be his witnesses and that when this event occurs it will simply be an extension of the last days that was already begun when God decided to resurrect Jesus from the place from which no one has ever returned before or since.  It is only the paranormal strange event of resurrection and the powerful falling of the Holy Spirit on silent disciples that can galvanize such bold and ridiculous proclamation to the world.  It is only by this power that Peter could get up and proclaim as he does to the crowd in Acts 2 this powerful prophetic utterance of Joel…because the last time we heard Peter speak in Luke-Acts he was busy denying Jesus to a servant girl!  Yes, I know Peter is the one that took the initiative to choose another disciple in Acts 1, but let’s not think for a minute that his urging of this is not to distract from his own failings of denying Jesus.  Only in comparison to Judas does Peter look good, and it is only the power of the Pentecostal spirit that can empower such a man to even think of proclaiming something he so easily dismissed just a few chapters back.

If Peter can experience Pentecost and tongues of fire that force him to speak that which he otherwise couldn’t  then I have goodnews for all of us!  Easter is not over…Easter is living!  Christ is risen and on this day we celebrate when the Spirit came to give us the ability to witness to the Christ event that has initiated those things we call the last days…that the last days actually take place in what most of us call ordinary time, ordinary life, life as usual!

So go and be witnesses!…leave this place with the same power of those tongues of fire…If Peter’s prophetic imagination can be reawakened…so can all of our denying of Jesus on this day be turned into a powerful witness of resurrection.  At Easter Jesus was resurrected from his tomb.  On Pentecost, we are , the Church is, resurrected from our/its tomb(s) with the power of Christ!

Go and witness to this power!   May the Spirit of Pentecostal Resurrection be with you all.  And all God’s people said, “Amen.”

 

 

 

 

Easter Hope is Paranormal Hope that our Bodies Matter

drybones

ParanormalChrist’s genesis is the very ambiguous event that we call the Resurrection of Jesus.  It is this singular event that has shaped the contours of faith, belief, hope and dared to challenge the norms of creation by declaring that the impossible has happened and it has happened definitively in Jesus.  And this impossible event, this aporia, this enigma, this non-analogous happening is the very event that generates hope in people of faith.  Yet, this event has been too domesticated and beaten down to mean much of anything anymore. It is a routine point of dogma, something people believe in without any substance to that belief.  It has become nothing more than the evidence to support our faith that Jesus is God’s Christ, while the concept itself has shifted to the wayside and been relieved of its heavy theological weight.  Yet, we should not let Resurrection off the hook so Gnostically…I mean easily.

During this Eastertide, however, we should note that resurrection in the New Testament and in early Christian faith is not simply a “proof” of Jesus’ identity.  It’s not simply the means whereby death is defeated, and therefore, our souls may one day take flight to Christ.  The Resurrection of Jesus is not something that confirms our Trinitarian belief, somehow affirming the metaphysical connections between Father and Son as eternally related beings.  In other words, there is so much more to the paranormal theology of Christianity and resurrection than is common amongst popular preaching and it all begins in this part of the Christian year in which we now find ourselves: Eastertide.

The notation of this season as Eastertide is fitting.  Eastertide, or the period that exists between the Resurrection of Jesus and Pentecost, is appropriately called such because it carries with it the connotation that what has happened ambiguously in the tomb (and it must be ambiguous since no one was inside the tomb to witness the mechanizations of resurrection or how it happens) has created a tide of new creation that sweeps across the hills of the world with the tomb of Christ as its epicenter.  As the Christ event emerges from the tomb, creation is peeled back.  Its earth is moved.  In a moment similar to the movie Inception, when the city is folded in over itself and a new reality is created amongst images that intercept our conceptions of what can be, and what is normal, the resurrection of Jesus inverts the walls of the tomb and creates a space that has never been seen by anyone but those who dare to rush into the tomb and participate in the Inception of the Christ.  The Christ delves into the consciousness of creation, into its deepest darkest spaces.  He takes up habitation in the recesses of the being of creation, the mind of the earth, and emerges to start a new tidal wave of paranormality that sweeps across the landscape leaving nothing untouched as it moves across the lie that is our perception of reality.

This Eastertide cannot be stopped.

It cannot be repelled or stuffed back into the recesses of the tomb; it is a theological tsunami that covers creation…the after affects of which forces everyone to participate in this new creation.  Even those that deny the Eastertide has arrived are still helpless amongst the waves of resurrection that surround their being and often extend newness to them in ways they could never acknowledge.  Eastertides efficaciousness is not predicated on our reception of it.  The Christ has emerged, the new creation has been pushed up from out of the ground in tectonic fashion, and all of creation benefits from this sovereign Eastertide that wraps us into its swells.  Eastertide is not a choice we make; it is the new creation begun in the paranormal event of Resurrection that is the new condition of the world.  Eastertide is grace, not a choice…the grace of a new impossible existence that is now a permanent part of creation…compliments the Inception of Christ.

Thus, Eastertide is the remainder of the Resurrection of Christ, the indelible imprint on creation of an ambiguous event that begun and continues via the imprint of the body of Christ that was rustled from its lifeless state against the cold stones of the familiarity of our lives and our boring dogmatized world.

But we fail to see this over-arching quality of resurrection because we have drained it of its significance and its theological depth.  We have turned it into a “historical” event but have given up on its “historic” meaning.  Preachers climb into their pulpits across this nation and testify that the Resurrection is the most “historical” event in history…having more “proof” than any other event in history, etc., etc.

These proclamations miss the point.

When resurrection is reduced to such, rather than seen in its grand theological and cosmological perspective…it is worthless.  It is just a thing in the past that verifies our present faith…not something that conditions are present faith and uniquely qualifies Christian hope as it did for so many Christians who first believed in its reality.  When resurrection is just FAMILIAR dogma it becomes empty because it is just an event that makes my present faith possible, it affirms what I think, feel and believe…it is not something that ambiguously sets the parameters of faith as such.  Even worse, we lose the very thing that makes the flavor of our faith Christian.  And there is nothing more uniquely Christian than Resurrection.

Resurrection is the intrusion of the paranormal into creation creating a New Jerusalem whereby hope is redefined and Christian eschatology more uniquely defined.

Resurrection is a game changer.  It is THE event that shapes Christian thought and praxis, and not because it confirms the identity of Jesus or confirms the ability of your soul to go live with Christ.  It is a game changer because it is God’s statement that our bodies matter because the Body of Jesus mattered!  That God was so passionate about creation and our bodies that God raised up the Christ in bodily form (not to mention the idea of incarnation is also a very body heavy concept) is the declaration that God is just as much interested in our material world and our material redemption as God is our spiritual redemption.  Eastertide is the renewal of material creation…not a flow of water beneath the surface that makes unseen spiritual changes!   And if we take the idea of resurrection seriously, it may even be the case that God is more interested in the material than the spiritual…as even the Christ makes subsequent appearances post-Resurrection in material form.  That God raises Christ means that whatever it means to have life in Christ and hope in the God…is to mean that in some way our physicality is redeemed and not hostage to the typical cycles of death.  God could have given Christ a soulish resurrection, but such would not have created the alterity necessary to change the structure of creation to such a degree that redemption could be redefined and the ultimate telos of creation redirected!

You will hear some commentators call the risen Christ’s body a “spiritual” body or a body that was “special” but this is NOWHERE IN THE TEXT!  Even one of my favorite theologians Paul Tillich makes this mistake on philosophical grounds.  We may not like the idea of a physical resurrection or think it is a rudimentary belief of ancient peoples, but that does not change the hard core positioning of this belief in the early Christian community and the power it wielded in shaping eschatology.

The very clear connotation of the Gospels is not that Jesus was a new spiritual substance, but that Jesus’ physical body was resurrected and seen and touched by people who knew what his physical body looked like!  To interpret these post-Resurrection scenes as mystical Christs’…or Casper Jesus such as we see in John 20…is absurd and not part of the plain meaning of the text.  It is our way to reduce the reality of the resurrection…to not face the fact that the Resurrection is paranormal.  It cannot be assimilated into our ideas of what is acceptable.  If God was interested in being normal and doing things the normal way…he would not have chosen to raise dead people nor produced a bunch of idiot believers that would believe in this absurdity.  This is not normal; this is paranormal.

The story of Easter is paranormal.  It cannot be domesticated.  It cannot be reduced to spiritual meanings because it is a very physical intrusion.  It is paranormal hope in the Rising Dead!

But what is this paranormal hope?  What hope does Eastertide bring that begins in the tomb and puts an exclamation point on the importance of our physical bodies to God in Christ? (this should not be new either folks, in Genesis Jacob’s body matters as the people of God take what’s left of his body to Canaan from out of Egypt where he died.  See Genesis 50…and also Ezekiel seems to think our bodies matter.  See chapter 37)  God has been interested in resurrecting and preserving bodies as a part of new creation throughout the entire story of scripture…and the hope of Resurrection that is found in the Resurrection of Jesus is our Resurrection.  That’s it.  That’s the revolutionary hope.  Don’t seem so disappointed…let me explain.

Our hope is NOT eternal life.  Our hope is NOT an afterlife.  Our hope is NOT that our SOUL goes to heaven when we die.  This is NOT our hope…and I would argue that this is not even scriptural.  This is pagan; this is Gnostic; this is Greek; this is NOT a Christian perspective and it is not grounded on solid NT Theology or biblical studies.  Our HOPE IS, however, Resurrection.

The early followers of Jesus did not follow Jesus because he was the first guy to come along preaching an afterlife in God.  Afterlife was not a new concept and Christians did not own the block on this idea.  It is at least as old as Egyptian civilization and we have evidence it is probably older than that.  Jesus did not just come along and give his version of how to live life because his version of after life was better.

The thing that is unique about Christ is that at the END OF HIS LIFE, his life was taken back up by God in the form of Resurrection.  Resurrection is the NEW IDEA.  It is the hope that has captivated the people of God from the time of the Maccabees to the time of Christ.  Part of God renewing creation is the literal renewing of creation!  Go figure!  And part of that renewal is as the Apostle Paul stated…Christ is the FIRST FRUITS of the new creation, the new harvest…of the resurrection of the dead.  And because Christ is the first-fruits, we can anticipate their being a second fruits harvest.  That harvest IS the HOPE of all Christians.

Early followers of Jesus did not follow him because they thought they would live forever with God.  Plenty of philosophies and religions already taught that stuff.  What gave the Christ event its unique quality and impetus was that the follower of Jesus had hope that they too would be part of the new creation that was started in God raising Christ and would continue in their own resurrection…their own BODILY resurrection.   Why else would Paul be so adamant about the supreme importance of Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15?!?  He writes (NASB version)

“Now if Christ is preached that he has been raised from the dead, how do some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?  But if there is no resurrection of the dead, NOT EVEN CHRIST HAS BEEN RAISED!, and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is also in VAIN.  Moreover, we are even found to be false witnesses of God because we testified against God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised.  For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ is raised and if Christ is not raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.  THEN THOSE WHO HAVE FALLEN ASLEEP IN CHRIST HAVE PERISHED!…but now Christ has been raised from the dead, the FIRST FRUITS of those are asleep

Paul is directly relating the resurrection of Jesus to a resurrection of the dead and arguing that they are co-dependent!  One implies the other.  The Christian hope is not that we live with God after we die in the form of some weird thing we call a soul that is non-identifiable or non-localizable.  If we are counting on our souls to be with Christ we are of most folks to be pitied because our hope is not in the perpetual life of our soul.  Nice try Plotinus, but I don’t think so.  This is Greek pagan Gnostic religions and this is NOT Christian and I loathe that is has become a part of Christian belief in the present…and not only that but to the detriment of a robust Easter resurrection faith.

Our hope is, rather, that if we have life after death after death (and I mean the double negation there)…it is because God CHOOSES to raise us up as God also raised up the Christ!  Our lives and our existence in God after this life is not the result of a paranormal nature we all possess that ensure we exist either here or there after we take our last breath.  Rather, as Christians, our only HOPE and the very unique hope that made Christianity a different kind of faith was that people had the audacity to believe that God raised up the physical Body of Jesus as a sign of his victory over creation and set the parameters of Gods restorative goals…and so too God will raise up those who trust in Christ even though we perish within the confines of History.

This is the scandal of Christianity folks…that people actually believe they will be bodily raised as a part of God’s redemptive plan for the world.   If we are to live after we breathe our last…Easter faith teaches us, the Gospels teach us…that it will be because God resurrects our physical bodies and NOT because our soul goes to live with God.  Easter does not simply confirm the identity of Jesus as God’s great Houdini moment; it is the content of what matters to God and a foreshadowing of the direction of the world.

This sort of faith is not normal…it is paranormal…it is the belief that our dead corpses will be restored by God (a very grisly scene of faith if there ever was one) and it is only in the audacious confines of Easter faith that we can believe such nonsense.