Sunday, June 12, 2011

Space to Fill

As I've been getting ready to preach, I've been thinking about what the first Christians lost.  Today is Pentecost, the day when the followers of Jesus were given the Holy Spirit.  But it seems to me that it was necessary for them to lose a lot in order, perhaps, to make "space" for the dynamic presence of God in their lives.
I started writing this early Saturday evening from China Place, located across Cleveland Avenue from the St. Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota.  As I write I think about what many people throughout our world lose in order to gain a personal transforming relationship with Jesus.  I've heard many accounts of miraculous Christian living coming out of countries such as China.  I don't think it's any coincidence that those who lose the most to gain Christ end up with the most powerful experiences of God's love--today as it was 2,000 years ago at Pentecost.
This written in preparation for preaching on Sunday, June 12, 2011.

What did the first Christians lose?  They lost their respectability, that's for sure!  Not only did they get so happy that people thought they were drunk at 9 in the morning (Acts 2), they also lost what we Christians today would think of as their "church" community.  They recognized a devastating truth--their religious leaders, the spiritual shepherds they had relied on for their whole lives--their trusted "pastors" had been involved in having God's Messiah--the One that God had sent to earth as his very own PERSONAL representative--they came to the realization that those shepherds of their souls AND MANY OF THEM PERSONALLY were guilty of MURDERING God's very own Son.  God had come to this earth personally, in the man Jesus, and they had killed him.  What a terrible thing it must have been to recognize that truth.  What a loss.

But that loss of respectability, that loss of dignity, that loss of self-righteousness and any ability to pretend that they were right or innocent--that loss was IMMEDIATELY filled with the love and joy and peace of God.  A gift we know to be the Holy Spirit.  And that Holy Spirit still comes today!  When we see, in the mirror of God's Word, that we are guilty sinners, when we recognize that we are doomed to hell because of our sin--and when we admit that to God and ask, as the thousands did on Pentecost, "WHAT CAN WE DO NOW?", the wonderful forgiveness of God, bought at the cross for you and for me, it rushes in to fill the void where our pretend self-righteousness was before.

What should we do? said the crowds in Acts 2:37 -- and God's messenger replied "REPENT AND BE BAPTIZED, EVERY ONE OF YOU, IN THE NAME OF JESUS CHRIST FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF YOUR SINS; AND YOU WILL RECEIVE THE GIFT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT" (the indwelling presence of God--God coming to live inside of you) and Peter went on to say: This promise is for you and your children and for ALL who are far off--for ALL whom the Lord our God will call!  With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation."  Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day."

It was the EMPTINESS... it's the failure of those people's ability to think they could make it on their own that gave space for the Holy Spirit to enter in.  That had happened before with those who had followed Jesus from the beginning.  They had lost their human leader, the one they had depended on in the flesh.  They had lost Jesus.  He had gone to the cross for them, he had died for them and he had risen again from the dead, but then he ascended into heaven; he went back to eternity to reunite with God the Father.  He left them.  But before he left them he made a promise to send another helper, someone who would not only be alongside them as a friend and leader, but someone who would be in them.  Jesus told them it would be good for them if he went away!  Jesus told his disciples he would not leave them as orphans but that he would send the Holy Spirit... and it is that Holy Spirit that came on the disciples at Pentecost, giving them joy and love and so many other gifts.  But the Holy Spirit could only come when they needed him, when there was an empty space in them for him to live.

If you do not have a sense of God's love and joy and peace in your life today, maybe it's because there is a barrier up inside of you that is trying to hold back the truth.  Maybe you're trying to hold it together on your own.  Maybe you don't want the truth to fully invade your life--the truth of your guilt--the truth of your sin.  Here, today, however, at worship, it's time to let that barrier fall down.  In a while we will have a time of prayer.  Come to Jesus in your prayer today.  And then we'll share communion--we'll come with totally empty hands to the Lord.

There's a song that we'll sing leading up to prayer that talks about letting Jesus "have the things that hold you."  Maybe one thing that is holding you is your sense that you've got to be respectable, honorable, good-in-your-self.  It's time to let that go.  "Let him have the things that hold you," says the song, "and His Spirit--that's the Holy Spirit--His Spirit like a dove will descend upon your life and make you whole."
"Jesus, O Jesus, Come and fill your lambs.
 Jesus, O Jesus, Come and fill your lambs."
That's my prayer for you today.  That you will be FILLED with the Holy Spirit.

But when he does come and fill you, when you experience the JOY of forgiveness, it just might make other people think you aren't yourself anymore.  That's when that other space opens up, space I mentioned earlier, space between people that had been close before, painful space where misunderstandings and discomfort come in.  What we today would think of as those early Christians' "church" community fell apart... their religious community... the Jewish religious community had a hard time.  Some believed in Jesus and others did not.  It must have been hard. 

That community began to break apart.  Jesus came preaching and healing and loving the worst of sinners.  Differences came in between Jesus--the one who God sent to SAVE people--differences came in between him and those who wanted to be right and good on their own.  You've heard about the religious leaders called "Pharisees" who thought they were just about perfect in God's sight.  Jesus offended them for lots of reasons, and they became Jesus' enemies--but not only Jesus' enemies--they became enemies of Jesus' friends.  Jesus' love was offensive because it REQUIRED people to admit the TRUTH about their sin and failings!  People who couldn't do that just could not receive forgiveness.  Their hearts became hard and they turned away from the one sent to save them AND from those who were desperate enough to follow Jesus as their Lord.

A gap opened up... and it was painful!  Jesus warned his followers about this: If they hated me they will hate you.  There will be divisions he said--father against son, mother against daughter.  One's enemies will be the members of one's own household.  And those differences continued after the Holy Spirit came.  Not too long after Pentecost, when the disciples preached right on the steps of the Jerusalem temple, not too long after this that sort of thing would no longer be possible.  As you will read in the book of Acts you'll see there was a great division--those who lived in the truth and love of Jesus were expelled from the religious community that had sustained and nurtured them for centuries.  They could no longer worship alongside their other Jewish brothers and sisters.

Two things happened because of that.  The followers of Jesus made their own family--you can see that in the last few verses of Acts 2, and the Holy Spirit rushed into action in all their relationships--including in their relationships with those who did not yet believe in Jesus!  Outsiders began to see God's power in their lives... miracles of prayer happened among them just as they had when Jesus walked among them.  Not everyone was healed, but some were!  Not everyone had their demons expelled, but many did.  Outsiders who could not accept the truth persecuted the Christian believers and many were killed, but they were filled with a divine and holy presence that led many to continue to sing and praise even to the end., evident even in the eyes of those who did not yet believe.  And that still happens today.  When we get filled up with Jesus the love and joy and peace of Jesus oozes into those spaces between us and between us and others.  That's where miracles happen.

In this little Christian community here, in this little Crossroads community:  many of us are here because we believe the TRUTH of God is more important than anything else.  Many of us, and many others beyond this church have suffered tremendous losses.  In the packet of information we've been studying about the Alliance of Renewal Churches, there's a paragraph there that speaks of things that at one time blessed us but aren't such a blessing anymore.  Many of us have experience that with denominations and congregations that we had been part of in the past.  I think we can feel, at least a little bit, what the early Christians must have felt as they were no longer a part of the religious communities that they had been before.  That loss hurts, and so does the sense that none of us are innocent when it comes to our relationships with others, particularly with people who are still deeply committed to the institutions we have left.  Many of us feel desperate for God's peace, for God's love, for God's joy... desperate as never before.  The ARC material speaks of replacing those religious commitments with "Real Encounter," a personal dependence on the Holy Spirit of God.

As long as we don't try to justify ourselves, and say we are all righteous or good, and as long as we continue to come to God honestly, repenting of our sins and receiving the gift of forgiveness we do not deserve, and as long as we continue to seek the Truth of God in his Word, we can be sure that God's Holy Spirit will come to fill the gaps and the painful places in our lives, and we can expect God to do wonderful things in our midst, bringing healing and transformation and tremendous love.

We'll now hear a song that is very special, and then enter into a time of prayer.  The song is based on the verses around Ephesians 3:17.
O Let the Son of God enfold you
with His Spirit and His love.
Let him fill your life and satisfy your soul.
O let Him have the things that hold you,
and His Spirit, like a dove,
will descend upon your life and make you whole.
Jesus, O Jesus, come and fill your lambs.
Jesus, O Jesus, come and fill your lambs.
O come and sing this song with gladness
as your hearts are filled with joy.
Lift your hands in sweet surrender to His name.
O give him all your tears and sadness,
give Him all your years of pain,
and you'll enter into life in Jesus' name.

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