We’re doing advanced theology today! that will include christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology and eschatology. But we’re starting with me having long thought a powerful and important dimension of the definition of a good teacher (or a good parent for that matter) should include the affirmation that this is someone who makes her or himself progressively more unnecessary while simultaneously becoming ever more important.
It gets at the idea that while a teacher does have a certain body of knowledge to convey a student, or perhaps more importantly an approach to learning or perhaps most importantly a love of learning—while parents do (ideally) have experience, wisdom and resources to help a baby a child a youth negotiate a time of greater dependence—a time of maturing (hopefully)—while this dimension of defining a good teacher or a good parent acknowledges the functional aspect of these relationships, it also acknowledges the value, perhaps the greatest value—the surpassing value, inherent just to the relationships themselves—the relationships that continue after the teaching is done.
Our oldest was actually quite disappointed at the beginning of this school year, because her kindergarten teacher from two years ago had retired and her first grade teacher from last year had transferred to another school and so there was no one for her to go back to for a hug—no one for her to go back to to be remembered. This year, we’re glad that both girls’ teachers will apparently be back next year. As the girls graduate from kindergarten and from second grade, their teachers have become functionally unnecessary to them, but relationally perhaps even more significant.
This making sense?
It’s interesting then to think of Jesus in such light. Because we tend not to think of Jesus that way (becoming progressively more unnecessary). We maintain the functional dimension of Jesus’ relationship with us even as we celebrate our personal relationship with him.
Now this does land us smack dab in the middle of the complexity of trying to say more than can be said—an occupational hazard in faith and theology too often unconfessed. And Scripture points us toward the truth of complexity rather than the comfort of any apparent clarity.
Because fundamental to our faith is the idea of Jesus as personal savior—Jesus as functional, right? When you were saved is part of the vocabulary of our faith tradition. Jesus serves as our introduction to God—as restorer of that relationship—as redeemer. And that’s pretty much Jesus’ function. Thank you very much. And once we’ve been saved, we are saved, right? We don’t need to be saved again. So once saved, we don’t need Jesus any more, right? And so, in the story, Jesus leaves, and the Spirit comes.
But just try and make sense of this! Luke proclaims, as Jesus leaves, that we will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon us (Acts 1:8), but two men in white robes say Jesus will return (Acts 1:11). Matthew’s Jesus’ last words are “Remember, I am with you [Jesus—not the Spirit—Jesus]—I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20) while John’s Jesus says, “It’s good that I’m going because it’s time for the helper” (John 16:7). I’m not sure we’re supposed to have the image of Jesus as last year’s teacher giving us a hug as we move onto the Spirit’s classroom, but there you have it. And we read that the Spirit will guide us into all truth (John 16:13) as we find ourselves within a progression moving toward a time when Jesus says, “I won’t ask the Father for you because you’ll be able to ask God yourselves” (John 16:26-27). We move, in other words, toward a time when there will be no mediator. So while we might not say—might not want to say—Jesus becomes progressively more unnecessary, there seems to be some sense in which Jesus himself does.
And what is consistent (along with the inability to be clear about it) is that God-with-us—Emmanuel—is always with us. As we live and move and breathe and work and play and have our being in this world, God is with us. Don’t know how. God as revealed to us in Jesus—God through the gift and work of the Holy Spirit. That’s part of what makes the Trinity somewhat exasperating. Because it’s so not about accurately locating the truth of God-with-us in the right divine category. Okay, that was Jesus. That was the Spirit. That was—that was—I don’t know what that was! What’s important is that we know to name God—God-with-us within our living.
But if God stays with us, how does God stay with us? In some kind of divine progression? In Jesus do we believe we are brought into relationship with God and that that relationship continues in and through the Spirit? Or do we believe that being saved has less to do with some event—some point in time—some change in our being—some progression, and has more to do with being in relationship. Do we believe that it’s our relationship—our ongoing relationship with God that saves? Are we constantly being saved?
It’s actually why I hold on to the idea of Jesus being unique. Jesus is not just a great teacher, the Überparent or the Übermensch. Nor is Jesus just our friend. Our relationship with Jesus changes everything and then the ongoingness of God-with-us—the ongoing truth of our relationship with God keeps everything changed in light of persistent effort to undo that change—the effort of the ways of the world—and the effort of our own investment in the ways of the world. God-ever-with-us is a relating that continues saving—continues redeeming—continues creating.
And so even though it’s what our text says, you see, it really doesn’t have so much to do with the lands of the Parthians, the Medes and the Elamites. Doesn’t have that much to do with the languages of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappodocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Crete, and Arabia. It really doesn’t.
Okay, so it’s like being addressed in your native tongue. It’s also like hearing something you recognize at the deepest of all possible levels. Something that makes your throat catch, your eyes tear up. It makes your stomach muscles twitch. Makes your heart jump. Maybe it gives you goosebumps. Something that feels like—sounds like home. The sound of belonging—and not in a place but with people.
It’s when you ask someone to marry you and they say yes. It took me about an hour to stop shaking after Susie said yes! It’s when the doctor looks up and says, “It’s a girl.” And I don’t think I’ll ever stop shaking!
We know home’s not a matter of geography, don’t we? Oh, there’s no doubt that particular places enrich particular souls, but soul finds its home in relationships—in love. Home’s not where you are, but with whom you are. And if in God you locate home, you can never be lost, can you now? You are always saved. Lots of good emotional energy here.
But look at the words used to describe the reaction of the people. Those who heard—those who were touched—those whose throats caught—who teared up and whose stomach muscles twitched—those whose hearts jumped and who had goosebumps that long ago day in Jerusalem. They were bewildered, amazed, astonished, perplexed. Those are the words used to describe their reaction. Those are the wrong words! We’re not bewildered, amazed, astonished, perplexed when we encounter this strong emotional energy. Somewhere deep deep down, we recognize it as home.
So maybe it’s not so much what they were hearing, but who they were hearing it from. It was unexpected. It was hard to believe. How unexpected to find my deep down dream true hope voiced by them! I was expecting this at the temple—in festival ritual—in sacrifice. I was expecting this to be mediated through the prescribed work of the priests.
It’s like when you’re watching a commercial and all of a sudden you realize you’ve teared up and it’s a commercial for Hallmark cards, of all things—Hallmark, really? Or life insurance. Years ago, it was the Kodak commercials. Some of you remember? “Celebrate the moments of your lives.”
It’s what reaches out and gets you. When you’re reading a violent—a much too violent military action thriller, and are stunned to find a catch in your throat but it’s the level of camaraderie—the power of a common shared mission of vital importance that got to you. Or you’re watching TV, and you gasp at the truth of what it means to be interdependent doing life together on the USS Enterprise or Deep Space Nine or Battlestar Gallactica. When you realize you’re reading or watching something that you yearn for—something you treasure. Something you recognize as part of the deepest of truths, and you didn’t expect to find it there.
And listen to the question they then asked on that long ago day: what does this mean? Not how is this possible? Not how are they doing this? What does this mean? Does it mean that there is another way of being in the world? A way that feels more like home? And what implications does this have?
I mean it’s kind of important that they were in Jerusalem and that Jerusalem didn’t speak to them as home. Kind of important that they were there for one of the biggest festivals of the year, at which the covenant and the law were both celebrated and reaffirmed, and it wasn’t that that reached out to them. That in the midst of all that, they heard the sound of home from these rag tags talking about God in ways they had never heard of before. This changes everything!
We would do well to listen more carefully to our religious rites and rules and traditions and ask ourselves, does this make me feel at home? Does this call me at the deepest levels of my being? And if it doesn’t, what does?
Of course some hear and sneer. Some hear a place they’ve rejected. A place they no longer feel is an option for them. Maybe they’re too sophisticated. Maybe they’re too jaded. Maybe they’re too tired. Maybe they’ve given up and are angry about it. Maybe they’ve had their deepest dream trampled. Maybe they won’t risk believing anymore. Maybe they’ve lost hope.
“Aww, you’ve been drinking!” they say. You’re impaired. Your logic is faulty. Your wiring’s crossed. Your screws are loose. You’ve got bats in the belfry. You’re nuts. Crazy. Unrealistic. Idealistic. Silly. Did I say crazy?
It’s interesting, don’t you think? Peter goes back to prophesy—as was spoken through the prophet Joel. No words of Jesus. All his time with Jesus and nothing! This is the consistency of God-with-us through time. And it’s Joel talking about the last days. It’s back to eschatology. Peter looks back to Joel to look ahead to that day when “God will pour out God’s 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 God’s slaves, both men and women, in those days God will pour out God’s Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”
And Peter claims that day. It’s what we call realized eschatology. We live the last days. They’re here, and they’re not last. We live our days as if they’re last days. The truth of the end is our truth now. We live as those on whom God’s Spirit pours who are being saved. And we keep living that way.
You see, it’s not that something’s happening today—happened one day—will happen one day—something that marked time and changed everything. Or maybe it did—is—will. But it’s about more than that. Even if there is such a transformative moment—a tranformative experience, it’s what’s sustained after that moment. It’s what’s maintained when the fires don’t burn as bright. Less important than asking someone to marry you is being married to them. Less important than sex is relationship. Less important than being accepted is being respected. It’s about the long-haul. It’s about keeping love going not getting it started.
Memorial Day weekend we went camping with the Van Laiches. We were in western Pennsylvania and while it got uncomfortably warm during the heat of the day, it was down in the 60’s at night and we built fires each night. I did it the first night, and let me tell you, that was a commitment! Constant attention.
You light the kindling it flares up. You add more but not too much. You don’t want to smother it. You have the bigger pieces of wood stacked around—bigger pieces you tore off the biggest pieces. Some of them catch. Then you have the logs. But some of them are wet. Some are green and they sizzle. And the flames die down. And are there enough embers down there to keep things going? And you blow. I almost hyperventilated trying to blow those embers into flame!
It’s supposed to get to a point where you don’t have to work so hard. Where the embers keep themselves burning hot and the logs catch as they’re placed on the fire. But boy do you have to work to get to that point. And it’s not like you can ignore the fire after that. You have to work to make sure it stays that way. But it’s not as much work.
How do we manage to maintain—to sustain love? That’s the question. Because that’s salvation. That’s our world being constantly turned upside down. That’s our priorities upended. That’s living in such a way as to keep embers together, not spread out. That’s a faith community: a wet car wash, a hot choir rehearsal, a 20 year anniversary celebration, a 50th birthday party. And that was just yesterday! Sunday School, worshp and a love that cannot be contained—that ripples out living in such a way as to always fuel the fire—adding more of the stories of God—adding more and more testimony—adding more and more opportunity to love. Living in such a way that we consistently name God’s breath continuing to blow—reminding each other of God-ever-with-us. And that’s prophesy. That’s our dream. That’s our vison. And we fan the flames of the deepest truth.
When we dedicate a baby and a family of faith, we take the baby into the congregation and we make promises. The promises we make are implied in our relating to every child, every youth, every member. Part of that are the the important functions of a church fellowship—Sunday School teachers, extended session volunteers, deacons and trustees, Wednesday night preparers and cleaner uppers, those who seize worship, formation and service opportunities (all vital—and we need people stepping up into all these areas), but more than that—most importantly—in and through all we do, we promise to make love real. In the midst of this our world to make love real. And to name that God-with-us.
And the fires will burn.