Saturday, June 11, 2011

Kicking and Screaming into the Kingdom of God

Imagine gathering together with people from every nation under the sun and they’re all talking at once. That’s the way the Christian church began, in a demonstration of diversity, like the Tower of Babel after people became divided over language and culture. But the day of Pentecost reversed the division of diversity. The cacophony of voices talking past one another was transcended and suddenly God’s people were communicating and connecting with one another. A bunch of uneducated guys from Galilee spoke so each person could understand what they were saying, each in their own native tongue. No one had gone to language classes and there were no interpreters on hand. How was this possible? It was a God moment for sure. The Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised them had arrived and it spread through their ranks like a wildfire.

We learned something about God that day. The story reveals to us the very nature of how God is active and alive in the world. God isn’t trapped in the musty old pages of a holy book. God is on the move. And from the very beginning we can see the direction God is headed. God is pulling us toward a place that includes all people. That place knows no boundaries just as the love of God knows no boundaries. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God.

It’s such a profound truth that you’d think Jesus’ followers would have welcomed it with open arms and embraced it as the only way to be in the world. But, from the get-go, the opposite has been the case. God’s people have always been pulled, kicking and screaming, into the Kingdom of God.

Just a chapter before the Pentecost story in the book of Acts, Jesus is with his disciples for the very last time. They’ve spent years with this man. They’ve heard him teaching about the Kingdom of God. They’ve witnessed what it looks like for a person to live within that reality through his actions. And yet, when the risen Christ tries one last time to explain it to them, they have just one more question for him. “Master, are you going to restore the kingdom of Israel now? Is this the time?” Can you imagine? I would have wanted to pop them one and say, “How is it that you still don’t get it?” But I guess Jesus realized at that point that they were never going to get it. Not without a serious intervention.

So, he tells them, “You don’t get to know the time. Timing is the Father’s business. What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes over you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world” (The Message). Jesus makes it clear that the direction of the Spirit was not inward, but outward. And right out of the starting block, on the Day of Pentecost, his words are fulfilled as people of all nations hear about what God is doing in the world.

The disciples are transformed. Even Peter, the one who always had such a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, suddenly becomes eloquent. When folks who are watching all this want to know what’s going on, he quotes from the prophet Joel. I don’t know if he realized what he was saying, but the Spirit got it right in the selection of a sermon text that day. Through this passage Peter explains the significance of what’s happening by laying out God’s intention of diversity and inclusion for his people.

“In the Last Days,” God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people.” Every kind of people. That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? No exceptions. No exclusions. And he gives some examples of that, lest anyone miss the point. Sons and daughters will prophesy. Apparently gender differences aren’t an issue for the Spirit. Young men will see visions, old men will see dreams. So age doesn’t seem to be an issue either. The Spirit is poured out on all. It’s not like an eye dropper that very carefully and selectively chooses a few lucky recipients; it’s a cloudburst that soaks every last one of us to the bone.

The dynamic movement of the Spirit toward inclusion didn’t end on the Day of Pentecost. You’ll notice that even though the people who were gathered in Jerusalem that day were from a multitude of nations, they were all Jews. This became the first big challenge for the church as the Spirit pulled them along into the Kingdom, kicking and screaming. It was a huge controversy. There were angry meetings, and heated letters flying back and forth. But, if those early church leaders knew anything about how the Spirit of God works in the world, they had to know the direction it was all headed. Sooner or later, God’s love was going to break open their hardened hearts and minds and they were going to welcome Gentiles into their family. That’s the way God’s Spirit works. She’s always about the business of challenging our fear-driven need to exclude people and leading us into a community that reflects the grace of God.

You know, we’re all are a part of God’s realm, whether we recognize that or not. But the Spirit pushes, pulls, and prods us to expand our understanding of God’s Kingdom so that we get closer and closer to realizing it as it really is, that is, the way it is from God’s perspective, so we can enjoy being a part of it.

You may have heard me say in the past that I like the definition of God that says, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” It’s hard for us to get our heads around that. It seems that we’re more comfortable saying that there is a definite center, and that would be where our own personal truth is located, and there is a definite circumference, which would bump right up against the limits of our imagination. Based upon the circles we create for our understanding of God, we like to believe we can determine who’s in and who’s out. But the Spirit won’t let us do that. She constantly challenges us to expand our circle as it moves closer and closer toward that circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.

This is the story of God’s Spirit alive and working in the world through the church. Historically, we’ve struggled to figure out how to include men and women, rich and poor, slaves and free, gay and straight. Personally we may struggle to include folks who didn’t vote the way we did in the last presidential election, people who have a foul odor because they don’t have a place to shower, or people who are just plain annoying. I think we all struggle with how to include people who don’t believe what we do about God. Are Muslims, Scientologists, atheists a part of the Kingdom of God? I can assure you that just when we think we have it all settled about who’s in and who’s out, the Spirit is going to come along and mess everything up for us. You may have noticed that we seem to make believing the litmus test for who’s in and who’s out. After all, the Bible says you have to believe in Jesus, right? Well, if we know anything about the way the Spirit works, I wouldn’t be so sure about that.

On the day of Pentecost we’re reminded of how it all started for us as a Christian church. Within that story of our beginning, our mission was set in motion. Like a pebble dropped into a quiet lake, the Spirit created a ring in the water. If you've ever tossed a pebble into the water, you know what happens after that first tiny ring appears. It grows into a larger ring, and then a larger one after that, again and again. That’s the direction it takes. So, it begins, and so it continues. And that’s the way God is working through his people in the world. We’re being pulled toward living into God’s Kingdom. It’s what Jesus kept talking about when he taught us about the Kingdom of God as a reality, right here, right now. The Holy Spirit is moving us toward realizing it in our midst by the ways we include all in God’s circle of love. We can cooperate with that movement of the Spirit, or we can be pulled into God's Kingdom kicking and screaming. But make no mistake about how the story of God's relationship with his people unfolds. God's Kingdom comes. It's happening.


Peg said...

Oh, my! Love the image that we're all getting soaked to the bone.

Tim Dienes said...

All agreed until "We seem to make believing the litmus test for who’s in and who’s out"? Last I saw, it was scripture. But the Spirit of course, as we should, has the attitude of not giving up on anyone until the Last Day. There's a difference between the infinite God and Her(or His) absolute truths which DO have bounds.