Bringing the Text to Life
Sunday, June 9, 2019
Religious conversations have the power to change lives. But Christians today are losing their voice.
AT A GLANCE:
Talking about God is difficult for most people, unless you’re a preacher. Hasn’t it always been this way? Yet, a recent Barna survey indicates that it’s getting harder than ever to talk about God. Why is this, and what can we do about it? To answer these questions, we turn to the Romans text for Pentecost Sunday.
For material based on today’s gospel text, see “Concierge God,” June 3, 2001.
God talk can be difficult to get right, even among professionals.
A priest and a pastor from two local churches were standing by the side of the road holding up a sign that read, “The End Is Near! Turn yourself around before it’s too late!” They planned to hold up the sign to each passing car.
The first driver sped by and yelled, “Leave us alone you religious nuts!” From around the curve they heard screeching tires and a big splash.
“Do you think,” said one clergyman to the other, “we should change the sign to just say, ‘Bridge Out’?”
On the day of Pentecost, the church began to talk. And in a sense, they talked about the old bridge being out, but pointed the way to a new bridge, Jesus Christ.
In today’s Acts reading, we discover that the apostles “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” The international Jewish community in Jerusalem was bewildered by this, “because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.”
Using a variety of tongues, the apostles started to talk publicly about “God’s deeds of power.” And Peter, who had denied Jesus just a few weeks earlier, raised his voice and boldly proclaimed that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
On Pentecost, the silence of the church was broken. With the help of the Holy Spirit, church members talked openly about God’s deeds of power and about the salvation offered by Jesus.
Many who heard this message “were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added” to the Christian community (Acts 2:41). The words spoken by Peter and the other apostles were inspirational, and they sparked the explosive growth of the Jerusalem church.
Then, as now, God-talk has the power to change lives. But it appears that we are losing our voice.
Is the church losing its voice?
In The New York Times (October 13, 2018), religion writer Jonathan Merritt reports that it’s getting harder and harder to talk about God. Although more than 70 percent of us in the United States identify as Christian, most of us don’t feel comfortable speaking about our faith.
According to a recent Barna survey, more than three-quarters of Americans do not often have spiritual or religious conversations. Six in 10 say that they have spiritual conversations only on rare occasions. A meager 7 percent of Americans say that they talk about spiritual matters regularly.
Seven percent! What if only 7 percent of the apostles had spoken up? The day of Pentecost might have been a dud.
Some observers are not surprised at these findings, noting that the survey included a cross-section of Americans, both churchgoers and others. But here’s the real shocker: Practicing Christians who attend church regularly don’t do much better than the general population. Only 13 percent of these people have a spiritual conversation about once a week.
So why do we struggle so badly with God talk? Jonathan Merritt says that today, “work often takes precedence over worship, social lives are prioritized over spiritual disciplines and most people save their Sunday-best clothing for Monday through Friday.”
Americans also feel conflicted about talking openly about their faith. The Barna survey reveals that many people believe that spiritual conversations create tension or arguments, and some are concerned by the trend to politicize religion. A smaller number don’t do God talk because they don’t want to appear religious, sound weird or seem extremist.
How to talk God
God talk can be tricky — no doubt about it. But if our faith is important to us, we should find a way to do it.
The apostle Paul gives us some guidance in his letter to the Romans, which he wrote to his fellow followers of Jesus in the capital of the Roman Empire. He knew that spiritual conversations could create tensions and arguments, and he was aware that Christians in Rome could come across as weird and extremist. So the language he uses is very carefully chosen.
Like Paul, we need to be careful with the language we use in conversations about faith. J.R. Briggs says that if you ask someone with no church experience what it means to “feel called,” they might think you’re “referring to the phone vibrating in their pocket.” Although Briggs has been a pastor for more than 15 years, he still doesn’t know exactly what people mean when they say goodbye with the words, “Be blessed.” He is also aware that phrases from Scripture can be confusing — being healed “by the blood of the Lamb” and giving your “tithes and offerings” are religious jargon that can be mystifying to people outside the church.
This might simply be a matter of knowing our audience. It’s fine to talk about being washed “in the blood of the Lamb” with someone who knows the Bible from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 and all parts in between — especially Leviticus. But try explaining that our sins have been washed away by the blood of Jesus to a neighbor who’s just moved in next door? Maybe not a good idea. Two people with MBAs might discuss Sarbanes-Oxley, but when they’re explaining to a friend what they do, they’re likely just to say that they are accountants or financial planners.
Fortunately, Paul doesn’t make such mistakes in his God talk to the Romans. Not only is he careful with the language he uses, but he also talks about values, not dogma.
Oh, yes, Paul is well-known for his theological arguments, and his letter to the Romans is hardly considered bedtime reading. Yet, here he speaks clearly about life in God’s family, something that most people desire for themselves and for the people they love. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God,” writes Paul, meaning that we are children of God when we allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit of God (v. 14). The Spirit leads us away from self-centered living and toward God-centered living. We want God to shape our actions, attitudes and values.
So what does this mean? Paul says elsewhere in Romans that we should “let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (12:9-13).
Love, mutual affection, honor, zeal, hope, perseverance and hospitality. These words are not confusing, and all are the kind of God talk that can be spoken and understood by anyone, inside or outside the church. All are marks of a true Christian, seen in the life of a person who is led by the Spirit of God into the family of God. Most people will discuss what they value and what they deem important in life. Dogma can come later.
And what can we say about God directly? Paul talks about God by once again referring to family. God is like a father who’s adopted us — chosen us — to be his children. This means at least three things:
Let’s look at each of these quickly: We are chosen. According to the Roman legal concept of adoption, an adopted child has a whole new identity, status and set of relationships. Such a child is chosen to become part of a new family. “Because the Spirit makes us God’s adopted children,” writes professor of biblical studies Richard Carlson, “we are empowered to address God in intimate and direct parental terms: Abba, Father.”
If someone asks you about your conception of God, you can reply: “God is like a parent, a mom or dad, who’s adopted me — who quite specifically chose me” — and go from there.
Once again, no mystifying religious jargon: God is in an intimate and direct parent-child relationship.
We can talk to God. And it is because of this close kinship that we can approach God with any concern and do so at any time, just as a child can do with a loving parent. When we come to God in this manner, “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,” Paul says (vv. 15-16). The Spirit of God makes it possible for us to experience a new identity, a new status and a new set of relationships as members of God’s family.
In a world of so many dysfunctional families, the family of God is always going to be an attractive topic of discussion. In this family, God shows us unconditional love and unlimited grace. Our value comes from who we are, not from what we do. There is truly nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make God love us any less. In this family, the Spirit bears witness “with our spirit that we are children of God” (v. 16).
In addition, we become heirs — “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (v. 17). This means that we will be “fully conformed to the glorious image of God that now exists in God’s Son, Jesus Christ,” says Carlson. We will find ourselves side-by-side with our joint heir Jesus, the one who is “the firstborn within a large family” (v. 29).
Being an heir feels good, doesn’t it? Inheritance! But being a joint heir with Jesus does not mean instant luxury and ease. We may need to suffer with Jesus “so that we may also be glorified with him,” says Paul (v. 17). The life of a true Christian — including love, mutual affection, honor, zeal, hope, perseverance and hospitality — is inevitably going to include real sacrifice and suffering. Yes, it is a Spirit-led life, but such a life requires us to pick up our cross and follow Jesus.
Such God talk is challenging, but it can be spoken by any of us. Let’s review:
—We are chosen;
—We can talk to God;
—We are heirs.
We all know the value of love, honor, hope and hospitality, and if we fail to use these words, then they will fall out of use. Jonathan Merritt has discovered that language about Christian virtues is, unfortunately, declining right along with God talk. Since the early 20th century, humility words like “modesty” have fallen by 52 percent. Compassion words like “kindness” have dropped by 56 percent. Gratitude words like “thankfulness” have declined by 49 percent. When such words fall out of circulation, our entire culture suffers.
On this day of Pentecost, the church should begin to talk again. Not with religious jargon, but with clear words about what it means to be children of God who are led by the Spirit of God. Each of us has been adopted by our loving Abba, and we have an opportunity to serve God right alongside our brother Jesus.
When we speak of love, honor, hope and hospitality — and, better yet, when we back up our words with our actions — the world will get the message.
Susan Arnold, Henry G. Brinton, Ann Hitt, Melanie Silva and Carl Wilton contributed to this material.
Possible Preaching Themes:
Briggs, J.R. “Eliminate Christian jargon from your church.” Christianity Today, September 2017, christianitytoday.com.
Carlson, Richard P. “Romans 8:12-17.” Interpretation, July 2004, 280-82.
Merritt, Jonathan. “It’s getting harder to talk about God.” The New York Times, October 13, 2018, nytimes.com.
THE OTHER TEXTS
JUNE 9, 2019, Cycle C
What Does the Text Say?
The church loves to hear again and again the story of what she calls her “birthday” — Pentecost. Only Luke separates the events of Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost into three distinct moments. The moment chosen for the Holy Spirit’s arrival is Pentecost — the Jewish festival celebrated 50 days after Passover. Pentecost, or the “Feast of Weeks,” was a festival of the “first fruits” where the first of the grain harvest was brought to the temple and offered to the Lord. The very name of this celebration — “Pentecost” or the “50th day” — tied it back to the wondrous events of Passover/Easter and the crucifixion/resurrection of Jesus. The Spirit-powered mission and message of the church are clearly evident in the outpouring of these other languages. God’s saving action through Christ on behalf of the world is a proclamation that must be spread to all people, in all languages, even to “the ends of the earth.” The words Peter chooses are from Joel — thereby linking once again the Jewish tradition closely with the life of faith now enjoyed by those who have experienced the Spirit. In no uncertain terms, Peter explains that the responsibility for Jesus’ rejection, condemnation and crucifixion rests upon their shoulders. If any group needed to be “saved,” it was surely this community. Peter both proclaims Jesus as the Messiah and calls those who condemn him to repentance — while offering them the outstretched hand of God’s forgiveness and salvation.
What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?
Holy Who? Because Acts 2:1-21 is the “go-to” text for Pentecost Sunday, Homiletics has treated this text many, many times over the years. You can access these options by searching the Scripture Index, scrolling to Acts and clicking GO. If you don’t find anything there that suits your homiletical purposes for June 9, 2019, then try one of the following, or combine them. First, since this text details the coming of the Holy Spirit as prophesied by Joel, let the sermon be a teaching moment about the Holy Spirit. You could do this as part 1 of a three part series in which Trinity Sunday — next week — plays a central role. Or, since Pentecost is also called the “birthday of the church,” explain why this is so (since the word “church” is not mentioned in the pericope), and what God expect of the church. Just as parents have hopes, dreams and expectations for the child born or adopted into their home, God has certain expectations of the church. What are they?
*Homiletics has treated this text many times. Go to HomileticsOnline.com. Select Acts in the Scripture Search drop down menu and click GO.
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
What Does the Text Say?
At 35 verses, Psalm 104 is one of the longer psalms, and it is a wisdom composition that celebrates the Lord as the Creator of all living creatures. Biblical Israel’s inability to secure successfully the coastal region of the Promised Land which remained under Philistine control for much of the Old Testament period may have been a primary reason Israel never developed a seafaring culture. The reference to “the ships” (v. 26) almost certainly refers to ships belonging to someone other than Israel. All living creatures depend on the regular and predictable cycle of nature for their sustenance, described in verses 27-28 as the opening of the divine hand. The converse is also true: When God turns away from the earth (v. 29), living creatures are “dismayed.” The divinely given breath (v. 29) was the source and evidence of life for all living creatures. Respiration was the paramount sign of life, and its absence signaled death. The psalm concludes with a doxological paean to the Lord, and a vow of perpetual praise followed by a petition for the acceptance of the psalmist's meditation (v. 34).
What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?
The Holy Spirit, Idea Practitioner. According to an article published on the website of the Harvard Business School, idea practitioners (IPs) are people who “make it their job to identify business ideas that can make a difference for their companies and make them happen.” If you’re using this text to preach on Pentecost Sunday, then you’re going to want to mention the Holy Spirit, perhaps by a reference to the “wisdom” that appears in verse 24, but especially to verse 30: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created.” The psalmist has noted that the works of God are many in both number and variety. And when they are in need, they turn to God for God’s providential care. The text is verse 30. When God’s spirit is sent out, something is created. This is the nature of the spirit of God: generation, creativity — ideas, if you will. Things happen. Things change. There’s movement. Providence is engaged.
*Homiletics has treated this text once. Go to HomileticsOnline.com. Select Psalm in the Scripture Search drop down menu and click GO.
John 14:8-17 (25-27)
What Does the Text Say?
As part of his extended discourse after his last meal with the disciples, Jesus reiterates his unity with his Father and the benefits of that unity for his followers. Jesus assures them that because they have known him, they know and have seen the Father (v. 7). Philip protests this assurance and begs to see the Father. This request shows Jesus that Philip, even after being with Jesus for quite some time, does not really know him. Jesus claims that to see him is to see the Father. They abide in one another. The words Jesus speaks are not his own, but are the Father’s. So also the works he does are done by the Father who remains in him. Jesus urges his disciples to believe that he and the Father abide in one another. If they cannot believe this statement, the works that God does through Jesus will help them to do so. If they do believe in him, they will be able to do the works he does and even greater ones. He is going to the Father, but they can still ask him to do anything. If they ask in his name, he will do it so that the Father will be glorified. Their responsibility is to keep his commandments out of their love for him. To aid them in this, Jesus, once he joins the Father, will ask that God send the Spirit of truth to them as an advocate. They know who this Spirit is because they abide in Jesus and Jesus abides in them. Once Jesus departs, this Spirit will teach them and remind them of all that Jesus has said.
What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?
Spirit of Truth. Perhaps the most elusive thing in the world right now is truth. Most people claim to have it, or know it or understand it. But the truth they embrace is sometimes different than the truth others embrace and, not only different, but absolutely contrary to someone else’s truth. And truth seems to change over the years. What was believed yesterday is not believed today, and what is believed today may not be embraced tomorrow. So is truth even relevant? The Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of truth. But it is a limited claim. The Holy Spirit will guide us into truth about God. In other words, if we need to understand our relationship with God, the Holy Spirit is present to help us with this. If we are having problems in our spiritual life, the Holy Spirit is here to help us with this as well. In fact, Jesus says the Holy Spirit will act as our attorney, pleading our case with God the Father. As to immigration policy, tax cuts and Social Security benefits, etc., it is best not to claim that the Holy Spirit has given you an inside track.
*Homiletics has treated this text four times. Go to HomileticsOnline.com. Select John in the Scripture Search drop down menu and click GO.
Click here to download a ZIP file of the May-Jun 2019 issue as Word Docs.
Breathe on Me, Breath of God
O Thou Who Camest from Above
Spirit Divine, Attend Our Prayers
Spirit of the Living God
Shine Jesus Shine
O Let the Son of God Enfold You
WFor licensing and permission to reprint or display these songs on screen, go to ccli.com. The Praise songs suggested by Homiletics can be found in most cases on Google by using the title as the search term.
on Romans 8:14-17
from Jun 09, 2019
Paul never ceased celebrating the exciting, unprecedented good news of salvation, and was ingenious in finding ways for others to join him. His letter to the fledgling Roman church is a case in point. Paul knows his audience is made up mostly of Jewish-Christians, or at least “God-fearers” (Gentiles who worshiped the One God and kept the commandments). Accordingly, Paul used terms and... Read more (you must be logged in to read the commentary)
Five years ago, I moved from the Bible Belt to New York City and ran headfirst into an unexpected language barrier. Sure, I could still speak English as well as I always had. But I could no longer “speak God.” …
Whenever I used religious terms I considered common — like “gospel” and “saved” — my conversation partner often stopped me mid-thought to ask for a definition, please. I’d try to rephrase those words in ordinary vernacular, but I couldn’t seem to articulate their meanings. Some words, like “sin,” now felt so negative that they lodged in my throat. Others, like “grace,” I’d spoken so often that I no longer knew what they meant.
—Jonathan Merritt, “It’s getting harder to talk about God,” The New York Times, October 13, 2018, nytimes.com.
I realize that when I use the word God, there’s a good chance I’m stepping on all kinds of land mines. Is there a more volatile word loaded down with more history, assumptions and expectations than that tired, old, relevant, electrically charged, provocative, fresh, antiquated yet ubiquitous as ever, familiar/unfamiliar word God?
And that’s why I use it.
From people risking their lives to serve the poor because they believe God called them to do it, to pastors claiming that the latest tornado or hurricane or earthquake is God’s judgment, to professors proclaiming that God has only ever been a figment of our imagination, to people in a recovery meeting sitting in a circle drinking bad coffee and talking about surrendering to a higher power, to musicians in their acceptance speech at an awards show thanking God for their hit song about a late-night booty call, when it comes to God, we are all over the place.
Like a mirror, God appears to be more and more a reflection of whoever it is that happens to be talking about God at the moment.
—Rob Bell, “What we talk about when we talk about God,” HuffPost, March 12, 2013, huffingtonpost.com.
Elizabeth Johnson suggests that taking the full measure of these implications cannot be done apart from three ground rules that govern all speech about God.
The first and most basic is that the reality of God is a mystery beyond all imagining, literally incomprehensible. We can never wrap our minds completely around God and capture divinity in the net of our concepts. The history of theology is replete with this truth if we recall Saint Augustine’s insight that if we have understood, then what we have understood is not God. Or theologian and scholar Sallie McFague’s insistence that since all language about God is technically improper, we speak basically in models and parables. ... Or Karl Rahner’s image that we are a little island surrounded by a deep ocean.
The second ground rule: no expression for God can be taken literally. Whether explained by a theory or analogy, metaphor or symbol, all human words about the divine proceed by way of indirection. We are always naming toward God, not defining God. To cite Sallie McFague again: our words and images are like a finger pointing at the moon, not the moon itself. ...
The third ground rule is that there surely must be many names for God. If human beings were capable of expressing the fullness of God in one name, the proliferation of names, images and concepts observable throughout religious history would make no sense. Since no one alone is absolute or adequate, a positive revelry, a symphony, of symbols for the divine is needed to nourish the mind and the spirit.
—Joanne Sanders, “The limits of language,” Stanford Memorial Church, November 19, 2006. stanford.edu. Retrieved November 27, 2018.
Since the Reality that religion claims to deal with is beyond space and time, we cannot use normal space-and-time language (i.e., nouns and verbs) to describe it directly. We must fall back on the language of metaphor and resign ourselves to describing it at best indirectly.
—Frederick Buechner, “Religion,” in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (HarperOne, 1993).
Responding to the question “Why is it so hard to talk to a non-believer about God,” a person describing himself as an agnostic atheist wrote this: “Generally speaking, trying to convince a nonbeliever that there’s a magic man, living in heaven (wherever that is), who created everything, and who will punish you forever and ever if you don’t believe in his Son, who was also himself, whom he killed as a sacrifice to himself to stop himself from punishing everyone forever and ever for a crime he himself defined to begin with (eating the fruit of a magic tree in a magic garden, after being convinced to do so by a talking snake), is probably going to be more than a little difficult unless you can find something substantial to back it up with. And no, ‘My 2,000-year-old novel says so,’ isn’t substantial.”
—answers.yahoo.com. Retrieved December 9, 2018.
Hold up a picture of a baby, and ask the children if there are any babies in their houses. What is the first word that a baby will say? Possibilities include no, bye-bye, mama or dada. “Mama” and “dada” are important words because babies love and trust their parents, and parents are usually very good to their babies. This has always been true. Even in Bible times, the first word out of a baby’s mouth were likely to be something like mama or dada. The Aramaic word for dada in those days was Abba. This is a reminder that God is like a parent to us whether we are actually children or adults. God takes care of us by giving us food, shelter, friends and the protection of loving families. Encourage the children to show God their love and trust by praying to God in the same way that they might if talking to their own mom or dad.