Author: Honig, Jim
Date published: May 31, 2011
Sunday, June 5
1 Peter 4:12- 14; 5:6-11
THE READING from I Peter seems oddly disconnected from recent leclionary themes. What are we to make of this language of fiery ordeals and roaring lions during Easter season? Il conjures up images of Joan of Arc. John Hus and others who met their ends in the cruel and literal llames of persecution. The language sounds ancient, like something that has nothing to do with me or with any of the people I serve.
I'm not even sure exactly what qualifies as a fiery ordeal. John Elliott writes that the most contextually relevant meaning of pyrosis (fiery ordeal) is the fiery process by which metal ore is separated from dross (7 Peter in the Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries). The author of 1 Peter sees innocent suffering as a divine test of faithfulness.
I think of Bonnie, whose newly married daughter-in-law was just diagnosed with a rare, terminal disease and who is, for the first time in her life, experiencing the kind of pain that causes her to doubt God. I think of Beverly, whose husband of 28 years has told her that he wants a divorce, or of Roger, who just found out that his company president has been indicted, that there's no money for the payroll, that the employees' pension fund was raided and that he no longer needs to show up for work.
Then I think back to a fiery ordeal that occurred in my own ministry. I had been in my first solo pastorate for a little over a year when the trouble started. A group cohered around one of the staff members and began to make accusations. No one was listening to them, they said. Everything was being decided by a small group of insiders who had no idea what the church really needed. As pastor I was concerned about this internal sniping, but I thought I was observing it as an umpire might observe a baseball game - involved, engaged, but not in the game. Within weeks the stormy vortex moved closer and centered on me. "The new pastor isn't pastoral. He listens only to the biggest contributors. He's just passing through our congregation on the career path to the next big thing. When he visits members he doesn't even pray with them."
Was I being tested? I had a hard time accepting that interpretation. I believed mean and controlling people were harassing me. Was I sharing Christ's suffering? Honestly. I wanted no part ofthat. I wasn't even sure what that meant, but I was pretty sure I had no capacity for rejoicing in suffering. I just wanted everyone to get along and the nastiness to end.
The ordeal came to a dramatic conclusion when congregational leaders convened a congregational meeting on Palm Sunday afternoon "to review the accusations made against our pastor."
I had spoken about the accusations with a small group of leaders in the confines of meetings and meeting rooms, but I'd never heard these accusations made publicly. As I listened to them read one by one in the same room where all of us regularly worshiped together. I felt as if I were being physically attacked.
As they were read, however, something else began to happen. The murmuring and the whispering could have been the rumble of growing judgment, but thankfully it was something else: compassion, grace and support. By the time the meeting was over, it was clear that the congregation's ministry would go on and that I was going to be a part of it.
I felt no glory. While I was glad to continue serving with these people. I felt no vindication. Whatever glory there was came in the care and compassion of those who embraced me as a broken pastor and loved me back to life. Is that the spirit of glory about which the author of 1 Peter writes- that in the midst of hardship, trial, challenge, pain, hurt and brokenness. Christ still loves his church and constantly loves us back to life?
On Easter Sunday - believe me. it was the celebration of resurrection!- a wise parishioner lingered after the last service. When the narthex was nearly empty, she came over to me with her characteristic mischievous smile. "Pastor. I bet that was different from any lessons you learned in the seminary." She didn't have to provide a referent for the that.
"Different and harder."
"But I bet you wouldn't trade it for anything."
No. I thought vehemently. I wasn't at that point. The wounds were raw, and I couldn't see any of what I'd learned as a gift. I responded. "It's a good thing I didn't have to register for that class; I would never have signed up."
What does it mean to humble oneself? It's a hard discipline, and I'm not very good at it. More often I find myself humbled by my own missteps. While confidence and optimism can be assets, they can also be obstacles when I persist in trying to think my way out of a challenging situation apart from community. For me. humility is usually not a conscious decision and certainly not a way of life: instead, it's the brick wall I crash into when I've been too sure of my own way.
John the Evangelist has convinced me that Jesus was glorified in his own suffering and death. I'm not ready to say that my own suffering is necessary or efficacious in the same way that Jesus' suffering was. But I am ready to admit that in the crucible of the fiery ordeal, the God of all grace will restore, support, strengthen and establish God's people. I just wish it didn't burn so much.
Sunday, June 12
I GREW UP LONG before the age of YouTube. My Sunday school rooms were in a church basement in western Nebraska. We didn't even have filmstrips! When I think back to the story of the first Pentecost. I remember an illustration on one of those Sunday school leaflets that we kids took home each week. The Pentecost leaflet showed men in robes standing in a room looking out of some windows. I remember thinking it was odd that there was no glass in the windows. All of the men had flames perched on their heads like crowns. I'm not sure I gave a thought to why their hair wasn't burning.
I would have preferred a YouTube video. I would have liked a real-time record of exactly how this inexplicable and indescribable event happened.
But we don't have any of those details. Not only does Luke not provide us with the video, he gives us precious little descriptive detail. Instead he tells us four things: there was the sound of a violent wind, tongues of fire appeared on the disciples, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and they began to speak in other tongues.
We're not even sure exactly why the disciples were gathered in the Pentecost room. Luke tells us that they were "constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers" (1:14). But what kind of prayers were these? Prayers that they not be found and arrested? Prayers for safety if they were found? Prayers that Jesus would keep his promise by returning soon? No doubt mixed in with the prayers was reflection on the events of the past 50 days and lots of questions about what was coming next.
But Luke is far more interested in the consequences of this strange event than in a description of it. Something powerful, something game-changing, something divine had happened. It was a prayer meeting unlike anything they'd ever experienced. Suddenly things started breaking loose. Things were coming apart. The power of God was being unleashed. The Spirit was being poured out in unprecedented fashion. The wind was bringing something to life.
The first miracle of Pentecost took place before any of the foreigners heard a word about the gospel. The first Pentecostal miracle was that these timid, terrified, untrained, ordinary men (and women?) were touched by the Spirit and changed. This was new creation.
The second Pentecostal miracle was that the followers of Jesus were able to go into the streets of Jerusalem and proclaim the gospel to pilgrims from around the world in the pilgrims' various languages. The life-giving proclamation of Jesus, the Messiah, was gushing forth like the water that overflows a dam and insists on finding passage. According to Luke, the first Pentecostal gift of the Spirit is this gift of speech. As the Spirit was poured out on the disciples, they began to tell of Jesus. The Spirit set proclamation in motion.
When this text is read, it will most likely be in an assembly of God's people, people of one local tribe w ho will be gathered on yet another Sunday to hear an ancient story read one more time. Will this gathering also be the setting for a Pentecostal miracle? Will the Spirit once again turn timid, terrified, untrained, ordinary men and women into heralds of the gospel truth? What does it look like to trust the Spirit's ability to foster such proclamation in our prayer meetings? The Spirit's power is the power to bear witness.
I asked an artist in our congregation to reflect on the Acts 2 story of Pentecost and to provide a painting to support the proclamation of the Word on Pentecost Sunday. I gave him no further instructions. He specializes in stylized portraits that are often garish and alarming, with one facial feature distorted or out of scale, so I wasn't sure what to expect. He delivered a 6-by3-foot canvas that is in many ways conventional, even similar to what I remember from my Sunday school leaflet. Scattered around the canvas are 12 human heads with tongues of flame perched on lop of each head, each frozen in the act of speech. What immediately catches the eye. however, is the figure at the center of the painting, who is looking directly out of the canvas at the viewer. His index finger points at the viewer, very much like Uncle Sam in old U.S. Army recruitment posters.
The artist managed to capture the heart of this story. The miracle of Pentecost is re-created in every Sunday assembly. Whatever may have happened to those first disciples has been handed off to us. Although I'm not expecting tongues of fire, I am expecting a miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit - in the assembly hearing this same story again for the first time, and in the accompanying proclamation to the world. Once again. God is bringing something new to life.
The author is Jim Honig, senior pastor of Failli Evangelical Lutheran Church (LLCA) in (Hen Ellyn. Illinois.