Pentecost: 27 May 2007
(Acts 2:1-21/Psalm 104:24-43, 35b/Romans 8:14-17/John 14:8-27)
Living As the Elect in the Last Days
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I have a friend who reads my sermons. Sometimes I find both parts of that statement absolutely amazing – that I have a friend and that someone actually reads my sermons. He reads them mainly, I think, to agitate his own minister. When he finds something in a sermon that might challenge a traditional southern, United Methodist ethos, he forwards it to his minister with a barbed request for comments. Then, of course, in a two-for-one ploy to agitate me also, he forwards his minister’s comments to me.
I’ve learned this through my friend’s shenanigans: frequently the obvious truths of Scripture aren’t – aren’t obvious to others, I mean. What constitutes a faithful, orthodox reading in one context may be viewed as “unscriptural…a challenge to the veracity and authority of God’s Word,” in a different context. We grapple with issues like inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, and authority and often use these as litmus tests for fellowship. We treat the Bible as a rulebook – when convenient. We use it to support political agendas and to promote social programs. We quote the Bible to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. We use it and abuse it in perhaps about equal measures.
Sometimes when I hear people quote – or misquote – Scripture and use it as a bludgeon to beat down their opponents, I desperately want to ask, Have you ever read the Book? It’s no simple thing, reading the Bible. It’s no simple book: an expansive timeframe, multiple authors, foreign and ancient cultures, archaic languages, diverse genre (history, law, poetry, philosophy, prophecy, apocalyptic) – just to name a few of the complicating factors. It’s little wonder that we struggle with it, that we fail oftentimes to get it quite right. Perhaps we should be kinder to our fellow-strugglers, a bit more generous in our assessment of their motives. As Tom Wright said in commenting on the death of Jerry Falwell:
Within the strange, large economy of God’s grace, which filters the truth of scripture through all of us imperfect interpreters, it may be that I make just as many mistakes as I think he did, but we are each called to be true to what we find in scripture and I have no reason to suppose he was not as obedient to that imperative as I struggle to be.
May he rest in peace and, with the rest of us, rise in glory where we shall look back on present disagreements like an adult looks back on childhood squabbles in the playground (http://www.reformedcatholicism.com/?p=1149).
I understand Scripture best as a grand, sweeping saga, as the story of the Creator God and his good creation gone wrong through the refusal of one of his creatures – man – to bear God’s image in obedience and holiness and stewardship before the rest of creation; as the story of the relentless pursuit of God for those rebellious creatures; as the story of God’s sovereign determination to put creation to rights and to have a holy people; as the story of the reckless, raging, fury of the love of God that brought him into creation to live and die as one of those creatures that all creation might be reconciled to God. This is the metanarrative – the over-arching story – that encompasses and explains the smaller stories of Scripture with their covenants and laws and prophecies, and which explains and gives meaning to the smaller stories of my life and yours. Scripture is certainly more than this; but, it is never less than this.
There are themes woven into this story that give it structure and focus, that drive it forward toward its climax. Two of the most important themes for the Jews –the most important people in the story – were, and perhaps still are – election and eschatology. These themes are central to any understanding of Jesus.
Election refers to God’s sovereign choice of the Jews as his holy people, as the people he would bless and make a blessing, as the people he would use to sort out creation and deal with the problems of sin and death. Paul writes of the election of his fellow countrymen:
To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever! Amen (Rom 9:4b-5, NET).
The working out of this election was neither simple nor straightforward. Read the Book, it’s all there. In his providential ordering of creation God dignifies his people – even the elect people on whom so much hinges – with freewill, with real power to make real decisions, even if those decisions do not promote God’s purpose. So Jewish history is one of peaks and valleys, of good decisions and bad, of faithfulness and idolatry, of obedience and rebellion, of blessing and curse – because those elected to put creation to rights were themselves part of the problem, those elected to deal with sin were themselves sinners.
During a particularly low ebb, when the elect had forsaken God for idols, when the chosen had treated the poor and powerless among them as so much property and refuse, when God could no longer allow his name to be profaned among the nations on account of his elect, God called forth the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem and the temple in an act of judgment and cleansing, and to deport his people into exile. The Babylonian exile and the subsequent political and religious exile of Israel under first Syrian and then Rome confronted the elect with a difficult question: How can God allow the elect to suffer under pagan domination? Surely the pagans who worship no god or many gods or themselves as gods are not better than the elect?
In the midst of this perplexity the elect returned to their history, to what they knew of their God. At the heart of their history lay a tale of exile, oppression, and deliverance – a tale of slaves in Egypt, sorely burdened and crying out to their God; a tale of their God coming with mighty hand and outstretched arm to rescue and redeem the elect. And they were convinced that what God had done for them in the past he would do for them again, at the climax of history, at the eschaton – in the last days. This hope is the life-breath of the prophets. God will draw all history to a great climax – a turning point – at which the elect will be vindicated – declared to be in the right and to be God’s holy people – at which the nations will be judged for their wickedness, idolatry, and oppression of the elect, and at which creation will be renewed and God’s image restored. This is the theme of eschatology – the great vindication of God’s elect and the renewal of creation in the last days.
These themes of election and eschatology form the religious and political backdrop for the ministry and gospel of Jesus, and they lie at the heart of the first Christian Pentecost. Pentecost marks a redefinition of the elect and a declaration that the climax of history has come in and through Jesus.
The elect is limited no longer by ethnicity but is thrown open to all who call on the name of the Lord. All these who gather around Jesus and proclaim him as Lord are and will be vindicated – declared in the right by God and part of his holy people.
The climax of history, the eschaton, has occurred on the cross where the sin and wickedness of all the nations – including the elect – was judged and condemned and defeated.
The creation, which awaits its own renewal by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, is witnessing the firstfruits of it in and through the transformed people of God.
These are the themes of Pentecost, themes which have given form and impetus to the great saga of God from the beginning, themes now realized in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. These are the themes of Peter’s magnificent Pentecost sermon – a sermon which should be read and which should agitate us!
This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
‘You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power (Acts 2:16b-25, NRSV).
This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear (Acts 2:32-33, NRSV).
Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified’ (Acts 2:36, NRSV).
What God’s elect, Israel, could not do, Jesus has done: he has perfectly borne the image of God, he has defeated sin – all the powers of this dark world – in his life and supremely through his death, and he has been vindicated – declared in the right and righteous – through his resurrection and his ascension into glory. Jesus became the elect of God – a nation and ultimately all humanity focused at one divinely human point – through which God acted to sort out creation and deal with the problems of sin and death. And Jesus has formed around – actually in – himself God’s new elect comprised of all those who in faithful obedience proclaim Jesus both Lord and Christ. Thanks be to God, we are now among the elect! Once we
were … without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus [we] who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
So then [we] are no longer strangers and aliens, but [we] are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom [we] also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God (Eph 2:12-13, 19-22, NRSV).
Yes, we are now God’s elect: sons and daughters; men, young and old; women; slave and free – the Holy Spirit has been poured out upon all who call upon the name of the Lord binding all the elect into one new body, the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. This elect, this church lives in the last days.
Western culture tells us that history reached it climax in the 17th century: the Enlightenment we call it, the age in which man came of age and cast off the shackles of superstition and religion – relics of the dark ages – for the freedom of reason and self-determination. Progress, the Enlightenment promised us, toward Utopia, an Eden of our own making. You can decide for yourself whether the heirs of the Enlightenment have kept their promise. Pentecost puts to lie the very premise of the Enlightenment. History reached it climax not in the 17th century but in the first, not in Europe but in Israel, not among the affluent and educated but among the poor and dispossessed, not in the halls of power, but on the cross. That climax was announced by resurrection and ascension. That climax was announced by the sound of a mighty, rushing wind, by the vision of tongues of fire, by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
In the last days it will be, God declares,that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.
We live now in those last days. Election and eschatology are the twin themes that give structure and impetus to our story. Which bring us around to the question, How are we, the elect of God in Jesus Christ, to live in these last days? It’s not a new question, though it must be answered anew by each generation. It must have been on the minds of the three thousand people who responded to Peter’s Pentecost sermon, because we find them immediately beginning to live in a new way as God’s elect.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42, NRSV).
In short, the elect became a worshipping community formed around Jesus Christ: nourished by the apostles’ teachings, supported by the fellowship of the community, sustained by the Eucharist, and empowered through prayer. Life as the elect is the distinctive life of Trinitarian worship.
Glory to God in the highest,
and peace to his people on earth.
Lord God, heavenly King,
almighty God and Father,
we worship you, we give you thanks,
we praise you for your glory.
Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father,
Lord God, Lamb of God,
you take away the sin of the world:
have mercy on us;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father:
receive our prayer.
For you alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High,
with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God the Father. Amen (BCP 356).
We have nothing more important to offer the world than the presence and example of a worshipping community that intercedes for them before God and intercedes for God among them. There is nothing more important to offer.
But that’s not all. As the elect we must offer a clear alternative to life under the powers and dominions of this present age. Where nationalism is rampant we celebrate and live as the people of God drawn from every tribe and tongue and nation and people. Where fences are built to keep some out and others safe within, we destroy all barriers that separate people: in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female. Where the poor are ignored and the weak abused we proclaim welcome to the Jubilee community of God, where the poor and weak and broken inherit the kingdom of God.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy (A Prayer attributed to St. Francis, BCP 833).
It will take a lifetime to unpack the meaning of life as the elect in these last days. But we start here with worship and with the very fact of our existence as an alternate community, a community that rejects the powers-that-be for the one Power who was and is and ever shall be.
It is neither the politicians nor their armies that direct the flow of history toward some uncertain end. It is neither the capitalists nor the communists, the terrorists nor those who oppose them. It is neither the monied nor the powerful. It is the elect of God – a Spirit-filled and empowered, worshipping community aware of living in the last days – that, by the foolishness of the gospel, by their faithful obedience, by their worship and prayer and service and example, will move us forward toward the great Last Day when Christ shall be revealed, when his people will be vindicated, when all creation will be put to rights and released from its bondage, when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
This is election. This is eschatology. This is Pentecost.
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