2015-05-24 by George Kaplan
Preacher: Alan Kreider
24th May 2015
Readings: Romans 8.18-28; Matthew 8.5-13; Isaiah 11.1-9
(referenced/quoted later in sermon)
Today is Pentecost. It is the day when we celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the new church in Jerusalem, in which the believers spoke in new tongues and shared their possessions. And it is the day when we deepen our understanding of what it means to live in light of Pentecost. We have just read three bible passages: Paul in Romans 8, Jesus in Matthew 8, and passage chapter 11 from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah.
Romans 8.18-28 (NIV)
18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.
20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope
21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?
25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.
27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.
28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Paul is writing to a small church in Rome, a community of Jews and Gentiles. Most of them are poor people. And they are a people who have experienced Pentecost: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
In v 23 Paul writes: you have experienced the “first fruits of the Spirit.” You recall the fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, and the rest (Gal 5.22). Probably also the gifts of the spirit: prophecy, service, teaching, encouragement (Romans 12.6f). According to Paul, his addressees are people who know that they are God’s adopted Sons and Daughters. They really matter to God. They are beloved!
But Paul knows that it’s not easy: he refers to their sufferings. We don’t know in what specific ways they were suffering. Probably they were in conflict with each other; likely some of them suffered from poverty; in any Roman community many people had to cope with food insecurity; the early believers often knew the hostility of their neighbours. These “sufferings” are painful. Paul uses the term that connotes labour pains. Paul was convinced a “new creation” was being born. The Roman believers are a part of this, but the new creation is only partly achieved. Something new is coming into being, but it is only in process. The result is pain. It hurts, and the people “groan”. They sigh. But they also look forward. They anticipate completeness. Things are incomplete, but the Holy Spirit that fills them and gives them hope. Spirit-filled people live in hope. Even when things are incomplete. Paul uses a strong word that for the early Christians connoted a non-manipulative, trusting, faithful way to live – “patience.” It’s going to be out of their control. It’s going to be painful a little longer. So the Christians must be trustingly patient (8.25).
Paul again refers to the Spirit in verse 26. In the in-between time the Spirit helps the Christians. They need to pray. But how should they pray? Probably Paul assumed that they prayed the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” Certainly Paul also assumed that the Roman Christians would pray using other forms of verbal prayer. He knew that this is right. But by themselves verbal praying is incomplete. Groaning is necessary. It expresses gut feelings; our bodies and souls cry out, wordlessly. The Holy Spirit takes these wordless prayers and combines them with the Spirit’s own prayers. The Holy Spirit is praying for us, deeply, passionately, “with sighs too deep for words.” God listens to the Spirit, who knows our groans as well as our words – and who knows God’s heart.
What then happens? Paul does not provide details, but clearly God is affected and responds by working in new ways. Verse 28 is a much loved text: “All things work together for good for those who love God.” This reflects one Greek manuscript tradition of Romans. But there is another manuscript tradition for verse 28 that gives a different reading that indicates how God works:
“In all things God works for good together with those who love God.”
How does God work? The God who has heard “Your kingdom come,” who has heard our groans, who has heard the Spirit’s sighs, works with the people! He works with the people who pray to bring God’s kingdom. He is constantly working, together with humans who pray to him and are willing to be his collaborators, his synergists. Let us repeat verse 28: “In all things God works for good together with those who love God.”
Matthew 8.5-13 (NIV)
5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help.
6 “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralysed and in terrible suffering.”
7 Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.”
8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.
9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
10 When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.
11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.
12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that very hour.
This is a story about Jesus. Jesus was a Pentecostal man. He was the man of Pentecost. He was the Spirit-filled person. He in his baptism had seen the Holy Spirit descending like a dove. Had heard the voice of God, “You are my beloved Son, whom I love” (Matt 3.17).
You remember the story. Jesus is walking along when a centurion comes up to him and pleads with him for help: “please heal my servant who is paralysed.” Where is the Holy Spirit in this story? Throughout the entire story! The Spirit is already at work before the story begins – moving in the Roman barracks, the headquarters of the occupation army. What an improbable place for the Spirit to be at work – among our enemies, among people who threaten us.
Jesus is drawn by the centurion and is impelled to help him. Moved by the Spirit, Jesus says, “I will go and cure him.” This is amazing. Jesus the Jew is willing to go into the Roman barracks, into a world that is poison to a Jew – un-kosher, unclean, and threatening. The centurion responds: “You don’t need to come to my house. You don’t need to touch my servant, or even see him. Just say the word, and my servant will be well.” Jesus is not only impressed by this faith: he is dumbfounded! This foreigner, this gentile, this occupation soldier, has greater faith than anyone Jesus had seen in Israel.
In what follows, it’s clear that the Holy Spirit is moving Jesus. And Jesus sees the significance of the centurion. A passage of Old Testament prophecy, from Isaiah chapter 25, springs to Jesus’ mind. He quotes the text:
Many will come from east and west and will sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of God. (Is 25.6-8)
This centurion is only one man. But he embodies the promise of the banquet, the banquet to which “many” will come. Gentiles will be there as well as Jews; together they will eat in the Kingdom of God. Of course the centurion is only one man; he is statistically insignificant, small, and isolated. Nobody needed to respond to his request. But Jesus does. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Jesus sees that you don’t need to be complete to be significant – and Jesus was full of joy. Jesus knows that this centurion is not insignificant; he is an anticipation of the future. The centurion coming to Jesus shows where history is going – a banquet in which outsiders and insiders eat together in reconciliation.
Isaiah 11.1-9 (NIV)
1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him– the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD–
3 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears;
4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
8 The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.
9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
This is an Old Testament passage to which Jesus did not refer, but a later prophet did. And who is this prophet? The prophet is the nineteenth-century American artist Edward Hicks who interpreted Isaiah in a way that enabled his contemporaries to take on board the true meaning of Isaiah’s prophecy. And what was that true meaning? It was that something that is apparently insignificant can in fact be very important. Hicks was a Quaker, and a rather eccentric one: he was an itinerating preacher, who also was a sign painter. And he was fascinated by Isaiah’s prophecy of the peaceable kingdom. Not only fascinated; he was obsessed. Read verses 6-9.
Why was Hicks so obsessed by this passage?
Hicks was a Quaker painter at a time when the Quakers in the US were facing a major split, to use our language between progressives and conservatives. Hicks opposes the split. Why? Because it goes against the reconciled future that God has promised. If wolves and lambs can live together, can’t progressives and conservatives? Hicks wants everyone to share this vision; he wants to burn the vision of comprehensive reconciliation into the inner lives of all people. So, inspired (I believe) by the Holy Spirit, he painted the vision of the Peaceable Kingdom no fewer than 100 times, and of these 62 have survived. These depictions vary somewhat, but let’s consider a sample of his mature style.
[Look carefully at the painting at this point.]
As you looked at the painting, I wonder what details you notice? And did you notice that the whole scene depicts a reconciliation that is impossible?
Wolves with lambs: it can’t happen! Wolves eat lambs!
Children playing near the snake’s nest: it’s impossible! Snakes bite children!
Jesus seeing faith in the centurion: it’s impossible! Centurions can’t have faith. His disciples know that they are unclean outsiders and won’t be admitted to the banquet.
Conservative and progressive Quakers in the same community: according to many of Hick’s contemporaries, it’s impossible!
But Hicks said, No, you’re wrong. Reconciliation is possible. And here’s why!
The corner insert: Did you notice the little scene on the left side of the painting? The depiction of people in smaller scale than the painting’s main scene, in much larger scale, that depicts reconciled animals and people? In a lot of his paintings Hicks does this. He inserts into the left corner a little picture, a little story that anticipates the big story. Most frequently he chooses an impossible story from Quaker history to show that reconciliation is possible. In this case he depicts his favorite – William Penn and other English Quakers in 1680s making just peace agreements with Algonquin Indians of Pennsylvania. The Algonquins were native Americans whom many English settlers viewed as enemies, Penn had a different perspective. He viewed the Algonquins and the English as people who can live side by side. They are signing agreements – agreements that Penn wants to keep.
These Quakers and Indians are small; statistically insignificant; the world goes on apparently unchanged by their covenant-making activities. But Hicks in his paintings says, These people are not insignificant. As they make and keep agreements they are a sign of the future. They anticipate the final reconciliation in history. They are forerunners of the peaceable kingdom. And they give us faith that God is at work – and can work with us to make us signs of the Kingdom. Like the 18th-century Quakers and Algonquins we’re weak; we’re statistically insignificant; no one is writing books about us! We’ve got differences with each other. We’re tempted to be discouraged. We’re tempted to groan.
I think that Paul – and Edward Hicks – would urge us to take our groans seriously and to see what they mean. Our groans don’t mean that we’re despairing. In the light of God’s revelation, our groans are signs of labor pains. They are birth pains of the new creation that is being born. At their best this new creation is beautiful. Do you recall the farewell party four years ago just before Lesley Misrahi died? Remember the sharing, the loving speech, the praying? They way God was making sense of her life and encouraging us all lie her to live in hope? I’ve never been in a service in which it was clearer that the Holy Spirit was at work; and I sensed that this was a way that God was showing you in the WGMC that you are a sign of God’s loving future.
Of course, I continue to lament Lesley’s death. You and I together groan as we grieve. But the Holy Spirit takes our groans and groans with us, communicating our groans to God as our prayers, as our intercessions.
So we pray: Your kingdom come.
We pray: may your new creation be born.
We pray: may our church be a sign to the world that your determination is to bring reconciliation to the world.
When we pray like this, something happens. The Holy Spirit gives us a proper view of ourselves. A view of our own dignity, of our own importance. The Holy Spirit can help us see ourselves, not as the whole picture, but as a corner insert in the painting that gives a clue about what the rest of the picture means.
And the Holy Spirit can also help us get a proper view of other people as well as of ourselves, and to see clearly what’s going on in the world. For example, this past week, in the Tuesday (May 19) evening news at 10, there was a video of Prince Charles in Ireland meeting Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. And they shook hands. It was amazing. And it occurred to me, I think this is a corner insert. This is something that for decades seemed impossible but is happening now. And this little reconciliation points to a much greater reconciliation in the future.
So on this Pentecost Day, let us celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit. Let’s be alert to the work of the Holy Spirit in the world but especially in our own life as a congregation. In the church that I belong to in Indiana [Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, IN], we need to be grow in confidence that we are significant, that the hard work of our life and witness is worth it. You may struggle with this too.
I believe that the Holy Spirit is at work both in my church in Indiana and in yours in London. And God is working through us even though we are weak.
Remember Romans 8.28: “In all things God works for good together with those who love God.”
In all things, God is working for good together with you. You are God’s coworkers; you are God’s beloved coworkers. Your are beloved. God loves you. And you have responded by loving God. You are weak. But God is working together with you for good. God is using you. God is using your birth pangs to bring new creation; to help you to show the world, in advance, what the future will be like. God wants to show this to your friends, the people who you know, who watch you.
In the Bible – Isaiah says this, Jesus says this, Paul says this – God has promised that the future will marked not by destruction but by reconciliation. I say this again: the future will be characterized not by destruction but by reconciliation. And God is faithful to his promise. It’s hard to believe this, but it’s true: already God is using you to be a sign of what God is determined to do – to reconcile all things in Christ. And what God has begun, God will not stop doing. I believe this. Amen.