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Rooted in Creation: Quenching Our Thirst (Psalm 42)

2019-06-24

 

This week, our Rooted in Creation series offers an image of our need–our thirst–for God.

Psalm 42 

1As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.

2My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?

3My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”

4These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.

5Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help

6and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.

7Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.

8By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

9I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?”

10As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”

11Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

It is hard to preach on the psalms. Or, for that matter, to blog about them. Psalms are poetic prayers. They are not so much to be explicated as to be experienced. The best thing you can do with Psalm 42 is pray it -alone, or with others–until it really starts to work on you.

But this is a blog so I suppose I should say something. The writer of the psalm seems to be someone who wants to worship at God’s Temple in Jerusalem but is not able to do do. (The psalm may come out of the exilic period, when some of Jerusalem’s inhabitants were carried off to into captivity in Babylon). So the psalmist tries to self-soothe, stirring up hope in the promise that separation from God is not forever.

The central image here is that of thirst -a poignant symbol of the soul’s longing for God. (I can go awhile without food. Deny me water and I will not last for long).

I wonder how many of us can really relate to the notion of thirsting for  God. Isn’t that…a bit much?

Perhaps this is one way the psalm can speak to us: We thirst…whether we know it or not. To be created, to be creatures, to is to have certain needs and longings -for food, for shelter, for security, for friendship, for sex, for love. It is normal and natural for us to long for all of these things. But the Christian church  has bee in the habit of denying or even repressing bodily desire. It might be good for us to stop and acknowledge our own desires. It might be even better for us to admit that other people also have legitimate desires to the same things that we do. Human yearnings for food and safety and shelter and warmth and dignity are not trivial; they make it into the psalms!

But, also, the psalmist thirsts for God. Sometimes I think that good UCC Christians would sooner confess their yearnings for sex than their yearnings for God. Do we even know our yearnings for God? Are we in touch with our own deep desires?

There is this wonderful line from St. Augustine. It’s in the very first paragraph of his Confessions, his autobiography. Looking back over his life, addressing himself to God in prayer, he says this: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

 Isn’t that lovely? Preachers adore this quotation. We haul it out all the time. And we usually say something like this: “See you’ve got this longing for God, deep inside of you –a God shaped hole. And you can squander your whole life trying to fill that hole with things that don’t fit –a career, a family, bad habits and elaborate hobbies. But only God can fill that hole in you. Only God can satisfy your deepest longing.”

Pretty good, right? I mean, that will preach! But there may a big drawback to that kind of language: it reeks of consumerism. It risks consumerism speaking of God as if God were an Apple Watch –the new and improved product that I’ve been waiting for, the perfect piece of merchandise to scratch all my itches and meet all my needs. If I can just grab hold of God—if I can just put God in my pocket—all my problems will end.

But that’s not how it works. If we know anything about God—anything at all—we know this: God does not fit in my pocket. There is always something more to God –something bigger, something elusive, something I can’t quite get my arms around. God is always beyond all of my words and all of my concepts. God is elusive.

We long for God, but can’t quite get there.  We yearn for God, but God is always just out of our reach. So what will we do with this yearning?

I can tell you what I do, most days: I ignore it. I drown it out. I distract myself with work and family and a thousand other things until I have lost touch with my own deepest desires; until I forget that I long for God. I learn to be content with lesser things.

But the psalmist doesn’t do that. The psalmist does not settle. The psalmists pays attention to their deep yearning; they are aware of their own sick and restless longing.  The know it. They name it. They live with it.

And that is a form of faithfulness.

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Plymouth Seeks a New Director of Operations and Finance

2019-06-19

Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Des Moines, Iowa—a vibrant and progressive congregation of approximately 3,200 members—seeks a full-time Director of Operations and Finance. We are looking for someone with the vision and creativity to help us become the church we are supposed to be. Working closely with the Senior Minister, the Director of Operations and Finance will think strategically about the future of the congregation and facilitate its work in the areas of finance, facilities, human resources, communications and risk management. Qualifications include a bachelor’s degree in accounting or finance.  7+ years of finance and operations management with supervisory experience is desired.  Religious faith is not required; however, the successful applicant will respect and support the values of Plymouth Church. Position includes competitive salary and full benefits. A criminal background check is required. Applicants should submit a cover letter and resume to pwilkerson@plymouthchurch.com Visit plymouthchurch.com for more information.

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Creation: The Story So Nice They Told It Twice! (Genesis 2)

2019-06-17

 

Our “Rooted in Creation” summer series continues with the second chapter of Genesis and an entirely different creation story.

Genesis 2:4-25

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

10 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. 11The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; 12and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. 14The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

18 Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ 19So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. 21So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.’
24Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

This is one of those times when I simply love the Bible. Because what we have here, in Genesis 1-2, are two very different accounts of the creation. And there I no attempt to harmonize them or clear up the contradictions; the two stories simply sit there in the Bible, both of them true.

Scholars generally see Genesis 1 as a later development –something written by or in support of the priests who were based at the temple in Jerusalem. It reflects their interest in order, in symmetry, in structure. And it reflect their habit of referring to God as “God”

But in Genesis 2 we get the much older story –now it is “the Lord God,” and a priestly emphasis on order and structure gives way to something much closer to the dirt. Some Hebrew Bible scholars call this the “Old Epic” material –stories that stared around campfires, stories passed down the generations, from parent to child.

I will not walk through all of the differences between the two creation stories but rather offer a couple of observations about the things in the text that jump out at me:

RAW MATERIAL. Instead of waters/chaos, this story begins with desert –something far more familiar to the nomads who would have first told these stories. But neither creation account includes any reference to a creation ex nihilo. That was invented later, by Christian theologians.

MAN? The Hebrew in this story is fascinating. Adamah is the word for ground. Adam gets rendered as a proper name and you have the “first man,” from whom the “first woman” derives. But Adamah is a genderless term meant to underscore humanity’s close connection to the earth. (So I had a professor in seminary who insisted adam be translated as “earth creature”). It is only when God creates the second person that adam is gendered as “male and female” (ish and ishshah).

HELPER is the designation for the second human being. This has traditionally been rendered as “help meet” and used to assert the alleged inferiority of men to women. But the term “helper” implies no such subordination; indeed as Dennis Olson points out in The Access Bible, term “helper” is often applied to God (Psalm 10:14, 54:4).

When we look at this text specifically through the lens of creation care, two things seem clear:

  • We are closely connected to the earth. “From dust we have come and to dust we shall return.” Rediscovering our kinship with the dirt could be a significant step, not only for our salvation, but the salvation of the planet.
  • Paradise is NOT an all-inclusive resort. The first human beings are given god and meaningful work: to tend to the land. This is our first calling. The more alienated we are from it, the worse off we will be.

 

 

 

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BONUS BLOG POST: Climate Change, Science and Progressive Christian Snobbery

2019-06-13

 

Do you know the hardest thing about preaching –or, to be more precise, the hardest thing about writing a sermon?

Discipline. The discipline to recognize that something you REALLY want to say does not, in fact, belong in the sermon.

But do you know the best thing about having a blog? It gives me a place to share some sermon fragments from the cutting room floor.

This weekend I will preach at all three of Plymouth’s worship services (Saturday Night at 5:30, Sunday at 9 and 11) to kick off our new series: Rooted in Creation. I will be preaching on Genesis 1 and the idea of humans having “dominion” over the earth.

The sermon is written and I feel pretty good about it. But I have been pondering something that did not quite make it into the sermon.

Indulge me in a little autobiography for a moment: I came to Plymouth Church at the end of August 2005 to serve as an Associate Minister. And for the first five months, I did not really feel like I was connecting with my new congregation. A lot of people did not my name; many of the ones who did know my name thought I was too loud. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, take a minute or two to listen to one of my favorite stories).

In early 2006, I got involved in something called The Clergy Letter Project. Initially, it was an effort to recruit clergy of many different faiths to sign a letter asserting the compatibility of science and religion. I was happy to sign it. But then they started promoting something called Evolution Sunday. As it so happened, Sunday February 12 2006 was Charles Darwin’s 197th birthday. Why not take the opportunity to preach on the compatibility of science and religion?

So I did. And it felt like, for the first time, I really broke through to the congregation.

In hindsight, I can see why it worked. I am passionate about the topic. The compatibility of faith and science—more specifically, of Darwin’s theory of evolution and Christian faith—is the issue that first set me in conflict with the fundamentalist church that raised me. And in college I had the privilege of serving as a teaching assistant for a Templeton course on Science and Theology. (We read books like this).

So, I preached about it. And I dealt a lot with so-called “Intelligent Design,” which was much in the news in those days. (You may remember the Dover School Board case). I also led some adult education forums after both of the Sunday services.

And it was a big hit! People at Plymouth really cherish the idea that progressive Christian faith means making an effort to integrate our religious beliefs with other forms of truth. On our website, in a section intended for first-time visitors, I explain some of what we mean by “progressive theology.” And my explanation includes this bullet point:

“We don’t check our brains at the door. God speaks to us in many ways–not only in Scripture and Christian tradition, but also through science, history and human reason. All truth is God’s truth, and so we embrace the truth wherever we can find it.”

 

WE are the people who pay attention to history and to science. And we are very proud of that fact. (Just ask us!)

 

But.

 

But.

 

At least for some of us, our reverence for science seems to stop at the issue of global climate change.

 

Remember: the overwhelming scientific consensus is that the earth is warming and we are responsible. (Don’t take my word for it; ask NASA). But for some reason, this is the point at which a lot of mainline Protestants suddenly stop listening to science.

Consider the Pew Research Center’s findings on Religion and Views on Climate Change. 

 

 

Now, of course, I do not have comparable research for Plymouth. But for people like Plymouth (that’s “white mainline Protestants” in the Pew survey), the results seem pretty clear. African-American Protestants, and all kinds of Protestants and non-religious people are more persuaded by the science than, well, we are. (Also: weekly worship attendance correlates with lower support for the scientific consensus).

This does seem congruent with my (admittedly anecdotal) experience that a non-trivial number of Plymouth people are climate change skeptics.

So I wonder: are we the people who take science seriously or aren’t we?

Actually, I don’t so much wonder as I worry. I worry that Plymouth’s warm response to my pro-science preaching was less about science and more about snobbery.

Because, of course, my story of growing up in fundamentalism and eventually leaving it for a tradition that values science and history allows—maybe even invites?—my congregation  to feel superior to the fundamentalists who raised me. WE are the sophisticated ones; THEY are rednecks and rubes. God knows I have been guilty of telling my story in a tone of ridicule and God knows I have won a lot of accolades for doing so.

So, to my fellow progressive Christians, let me say this: global climate change calls our very identity into question. Are we really pro-science? Or are we only pro-science when it offers us opportunities to flatter ourselves at the expense of our fundamentalist neighbors?

Is progressive Christianity an intellectually coherent identity or just an exercise in bigotry?

We can protest all we want, but our actions will surely speak louder than our words. I think our response to the science on global warming will be our most honest answer to that question.

 

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Introducing the Summer Sermon Series: Rooted in Creation

2019-06-10

 

Creation Care? Why are we talking about Creation Care?

Well, it wasn’t our idea. We are just trying to tune in to the Bible.

Genesis 1:1-2:1

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

6And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

9And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. 12The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.13And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

14And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 15and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 18to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

20And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” 21So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 22God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. 25God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

26Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”27So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

29God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

31God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

2Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.

Welcome to summer! In 2019 we will take the summer to work through two sermon series. The first one starts this weekend and will carry us through July 14. We are calling it Rooted in Creation.

Why are we doing this? Well, the current (political) climate creates an interesting dilemma for people trying to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Consider the following facts:

FACT 1: Global climate change is a real and growing threat to us and to life on our planet (Note: I am not, on this blog or in this sermon series, going to debate the reality of climate change. If you need to be persuaded, I invite you to explore the work of our friend Jim Antal.

FACT 2: Global climate change, and the need to respond to it, has become a hotly contested political topic. Any attempt to have a conversation about the climate risks getting us caught in the partisan polarization that seems to dominate so much of our culture right now.

fact 3: The Bible portrays God as Creator and humans having a responsibility before God to care for the earth.

Karl Barth famously admonished the preacher to have “the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” But doing so today, with this topic, is risky.

So I want to make a deal with you, Plymouth Church: For the first part of this summer, my colleagues and I want to take some time to explore with you what the Bible says about our relationship to creation. My hope is that all of us will set aside our partisan political biases and try to focus on what the Spirit is saying to the church.

Can we agree to do that?

OK.

It is hard to blog about Genesis 1 because it really speaks for itself. It should have always been obvious that this is NOT a scientific treatise. It does not present itself as a scientific treatise. This is a poem –more specifically, a liturgical poem, a worshipful celebration of  the order and beauty of the creation.

For our purpose, I think two assertions are key: God is Creator and We Are Created.

To say God is Creator is not to make a scientific claim. Rather, to say God is creator is to say that the world, and everything in it is good. God intends its flourishing. God delights in the well-being of the world.

To say We Are Created is to recognize our unique responsibility. As people who bear the divine image, we are charged with the mandate of making sure that the world flourishes as God intends.

Consider verse 28: God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

That word—“dominion”—has done a great deal of harm. People have taken it to mean that humanity has license to exploit the earth.

But this is Bad Theology 101. Perhaps the first principle of good theology is this: When God uses a word, we have to let God tell us what that word means. I call it The Humpty Dumpty Rule:

‘And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

-Lewis Carrol Through the Looking Glass

If God wants us to exercise dominion, we have to let God spell out the nature of that dominion. That is why I think the companion passage to Genesis 1 ought to be Philippians 2:1-11:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus Christ had ultimate dominion over everything –but gave it up. To be assigned dominion by this God is to be called into a life of humility and service. How do we live out our call to “dominate” the earth? By setting aside our own selfish interests and serving the greater good.

One chapter in, it seems the Bible has a whole lot to say about caring for the creation.

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Summer Program Guide 2019 is here!

2019-06-06

Don’t miss a single piece of programming at Plymouth Church this summer! Our Summer Program Guide 2019 includes everything happening for every age. Pick up a copy in the church’s literature racks, or download a PDF copy by clicking here.

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God With Us (Romans 8:14-39)

2019-06-03

 

The end of the program year; the Feast of Pentecost. It all comes down to three little words:

God with us.

Romans 8:14-39

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,

17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. 18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

31What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We started this program year reflecting on the notion that we are “People of the Promise.” The promise of God calls us together and constitutes us as the church. In this week’s text, we see how God’s promise comes closer than our very breath.

First, a word about the calendar. On the weekend of June 8 and 9, we celebrate the festival of Pentecost –sometimes remembered as “the birthday of the church.” We find the story in Acts 2:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

These are the followers of Jesus, gathered after Easter, waiting and watching and praying together. When the Spirit shows up, the church is born. In a flash of fire and a violent wind, they are driven out of their comfy upper room to found a polyglot community called the church.

What happened at Pentecost? God came near –as close as our breath.

In Romans, Paul unfolds the nearness of God. Now, if you have not been following along up to this point, you may want to go back and read the first three installments of this blog series on Romans.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Paul’s argument in an (extremely inadequate) nutshell: In Jesus Christ, Gentiles and Jews are not separate peoples anymore. All are sinners; all are reconciled to God through Jesus; all share life in Christ and in the church.

In Romans 8, I think Paul is getting into some of the benefits of this relationship. Simply put, to know God through Jesus Christ is to know that God is near –intimately near, closer than breath. This passage is too long, to dense, too rich for a substantive treatment of the whole. What I will do here is a highlight some of my favorite portions.

but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…(v.15)

In the course of arguing for Jew/Gentile reconciliation, Paul makes a fascinating theological move. If Jewish people are God’s “natural” children, then in Christ Gentiles become God’s adopted  children. I find it a powerful image. And the invocation of Abba may well be a reference to the preaching and teaching of Jesus. We believe that Jesus was in the habit of using Abba –an Aramaic diminutive that could be translated “Daddy”—to refer to God in prayer. It is a very familiar, very intimate way to relate to God. And, in Christ, Gentiles get to claim Abba as their own.

Suffering and sighs (v.17-26).

Ascendant forms of Christianity in the United States tend to teach that suffering is optional, and may even be avoided if we only believe hard enough. But Paul takes a different tack. He seems to believe that, if we belong to Jesus, we will suffer. But then he reframes that suffering as…labor pains! Yes, we have travails and troubles. But it isn’t the pain of death. It is the pain of something being born.

And I adore the image of the Spirit groaning in us and among us. When I am too tired to pray—when I no longer have the words or the wherewithal—I can simply surrender and allow the Spirit of God to pray in me.

 “all things work together for good…”(v.28)

For my money, v.28 may be the most misunderstood, the most widely abused verse in the entire Bible. People often take it to mean that only good things will happen to those who love God. And this leads to a whole host of bad corollaries, like:

People are to be blamed for their suffering, and

People who are not suffering are good people (racial and socio-economic privilege = divine favor).

But Paul is not saying that bad things do not happen to believers. After all, in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, Paul actually brags about his sufferings.  (He was beaten! He was shipwrecked! Etc.). I think what Paul is saying is that God always works for good, that God always tries to bring the best out of every situation and circumstance. And if that is true, than we always have a choice about whether or not to cooperate with God in seeking the good.

What then are we to say about these things? (v.31-39).

And the passage ends with a lyrical celebration of what I take to be the very heart of the Gospel: NOTHING can separate us from God’s love. Bad things can and will happen, but none of it can serve to separate us from that love.

As one of my teachers liked to say, when summarizing the theology of Uncle Karl: “God is with us and for us and refuses to be God without us.”

That’s it –the Gospel in three words:

God with us.