3 Pentecost—Proper 5-C
June 5, 2016
1 Kings 17:8-24, Psalm 146, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17
I spent several hours Friday night at my stepson’s graduation from Masconomet High School in Boxford. The band had to play “Pomp And Circumstance” for 30 minutes in order to get all the seniors into the field house so I figured the trumpet players lips were surely bleeding. Then during the hour it took to give out all the diplomas I was touched by how hopeful and joyful those students looked as they face what for them seems like a bright and exciting future stretching into infinity. And how most of us at that age were just as unaware that decades later we will be watching our own graduating kids who also don’t have a clue what life is going to do to them in spite of how bullet-proof they feel at the moment. Each graduate goes on to a life of some mixture of triumph and tragedy and one fine day each one will join the rest of humanity back in the earth from which we all came. Therefore, it might be a good spiritual practice for the person handing out the diplomas to whisper to each graduate: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Even the man Jesus raises at his own funeral will one day have to bury his mother and then get buried himself all over again, for God means to kill us all in the end. The good news though, is there is so much more, to this story: that from before we were born God chooses us in Jesus Christ so that Christ might work through us so that the Kingdom of God on earth will mirror the kingdom in heaven. This is exactly how Paul experienced the good news for himself. Notice what Paul says: That God “had set me apart before I was born”—which means years before Paul could do anything to be worthy of or earn God’s affection before, even before his Bar-Mitzvah, he is chosen by God in Christ. This is pure grace.
Then as a young man he says, God “was pleased to reveal his Son “in” me—not “to” me as our translation has it, but in me, that is up close and personal, on the inside of his mind, heart, and soul–so that I might proclaim Jesus among the Gentiles.” Paul is not encountered by a new system of belief called Christianity, nor is he encountered by an abstraction like love or peace or justice. He isn’t even being encountered by feelings of guilt and shame that tell him he needs to live a more moral life. RATHER, PAUL IS ENCOUNTERED BY A PERSON NAMED JESUS OF NAZARETH.
Meditate on this and it will blow your mind: Paul is not suffering from a wounded conscience or a sense of failure and guilt. He is proud of who he is and what he is doing in fighting the spread of this group who believe in Jesus. In his mind Paul is saving people from deception and losing their way. Paul is encountered by the Crucified Jesus, the failed Messiah convicted by the religious leaders and executed by the empire. It is this Jesus that shows up in Paul’s life.
But Christ does not show up in Paul to punish him for murdering his followers. This is not a visitation of revenge, but an encounter of unconditional love and now Paul knows God is always on the side of the Crucified One, just like God proved at the exodus that God was always on the side of the slaves instead of on the side of Pharaoh and his empire.
Paul is encountered by a person—not an idea or a system of belief, or a new morality—but by a person who by all accounts should be moldering in the grave. This person meets Paul—not as one more object to be seen on the road, like trees, animals, and sky, but meets him from within his own heart, soul, and mind as his Creator, Savior, and Lover.
Paul’s encounter with Christ is unique, but then so is yours and so is mine. But we share one thing in common: it is always the Person of Jesus Christ who chose us before we were born and meets us inside our lives to set us free, so we might know Christ and make him known. And like Paul we too suffer lose, hardship, and despair, but Jesus isn’t in the feelings, but in the naked fact of his presence WHETHER WE FEEL IT OR NOT.
Think this thought instead of all your routine negative thoughts and see what happens.
Take a woman like Phoebe Palmer who was born in New York in 1807. Phoebe was a devout Methodist, married to her beloved Walter. In 1836 the nursemaid attending her 11 month old daughter Eliza, tried to refill an alcohol lamp while it was still lit, igniting the netting around the crib. Palmer rushed into the nursery but it was too late to save Eliza, who died in her arms.
She had already lost two infant sons and now a year after Eliza’s death she worried that God would also take her Walter. So on July 27, 1837 Palmer enters a crisis of faith. Battling through 8 temptations she makes a covenant with God in which she presents herself to God as “a living sacrifice, given absolutely and unconditionally.” As she works through the 8 temptations she comes to see that she can trust the promises of God in the Bible whether she emotionally feels them or not. She realizes that God, not feelings about God, is to be the focus of her life. Instead of sitting back and waiting for God to give her the feelings she expects and wants, she reaches out in faith to claim the promises of God no matter how she is feeling at that moment. She realizes it is her duty, “to believe [Jesus’] promise [to receive her] and begin to live as if it were true instead of waiting for some outward sign.’ From Elaine Heath, The Mystic Way of Evangelism
She would often say that she had a “naked faith in the naked word” of Christ. She had to have this kind of naked faith to live through all the negativity she received from the many people who did not think a woman should be a preacher.
What the gospel tells us is that even before we were born we were chosen in Jesus Christ to be God’s daughters and sons, and that the unconditional love of Christ has never left us since—not once, not even for a second, whether we were enjoying our best selves or suffering our worst selves, or when life is so desperately hard we cannot bear it. We may be dust but in Christ Jesus we are given an eternal destiny and an earthly vocation for the healing of the world.
Like the widow of Nain Phoebe Palmer had to bury a child. Jesus did not give her back her beloved Eliza but he did give her a new life, not just for her sake, but for the sake of the world as she went on to become one of the founders of the holiness movement in the 19th century.
As Elaine Heath writes, Phoebe Palmer “would come to experience the presence of God in numerous ways, including visions, dreams, and spiritual combat, and she would preach and teach with so much power that more than 25,000 people would enter the “way of holiness” through her ministry.” Ibid, page 63
But hers is not a way of self-help and self-striving, but as she would often teach, “the secret of power is union with Christ” who is the person named Jesus. Since this is also our story let us pray for the gift of faith to believe Jesus Christ is for us, with us, and in us.