First Presbyterian Church – Lafayette, Louisiana
June 5, 2011 – Easter (7A)Acts 1:6-14
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
A few days ago my 7-year-old daughter asked me what it means to say, "That's for me to know, and for you to find out!" She had seen this in a book and wasn't sure what to make of it. She understood the words, but the way they were being used didn't quite make sense. We talked about the idea that sometimes this phrase is used to tease someone and make a person feel like she or he is not important enough to know all that there is to know about something. We also talked about its use as a way of letting someone know that there is a prize in store for her or him. Sometimes this phrase can also be a way to let someone know that whatever it may be, it is none of that person's business.
Secret knowledge, insider trading – that's what the gospel message is all about, right? It sure seems that way by looking at today's texts. In Acts we have the metaphysical transportation of the resurrected Jesus into heaven. 1Peter seems to ordain suffering as some aspect of God's intention, and John's Gospel reads like some Dr. Seuss-like game of Go-Fish for the souls of humanity between Jesus and God.
As far as the larger narrative goes, the story presented in John's Gospel would have happened before Jesus died, so we'll start there. What's happening in this story is that Jesus has just finished telling the disciples that he would be leaving them and that the Lord would send another Advocate. Not another person, but the very Spirit of God would be coming to dwell amongst them. He wraps up the whole experience by breaking out into prayer.
What I find interesting about Jesus' prayers in the Gospel of John is that most of them are not requests or petitions for God to guide him. Generally, the author of this gospel has Jesus praying in order to make a statement. In John's Gospel, Christology – Jesus as God's self revelation – is a central theme. God has given people to Jesus so that those people may know that Jesus and God are of one substance – not just working together but literally aspects of one another.
God's name has been entrusted to these individuals; literally the intimate knowing of the character and will of God has been entrusted to them. Why? Because Jesus, the man, could not remain – if he did, then he, as a man, would be worshiped and elevated rather than God.
So Jesus prayed for their unity, so that those who gather in Jesus' name may enjoy the same unity that Jesus does with God – since Jesus was and is God's self revelation for all time and space. Sadly it does not often feel that God has answered that prayer with a yes. I don't think that is because we are splintered beyond all hope for unity. I think it is because we have mistaken uniformity for unity. Most of us talk about unity, but what we want is uniformity.
It's kind of like a visit I once received from a very nice, young man representing the Church of Later Day Saints. "Oh, a Pastor?" he said. "We love talking to Pastors because they always know their Bible," he said with an open Bible in his hand. That was followed by a stiff but well memorized shpeel about the sad state of division in the church. Then came the hook, "Don't you, as a Pastor feel that the number of denominations and different churches is opposed to the purposes of Christ?"
I could see where he was going a mile away, so I said, "Actually I think the problem is more located around our lack of ability to see different denominations and congregations as part of the same church." Blink-blink went his eyes. I continued, "I believe that God created differing expressions of faithfulness because there is not a one of us that has it completely right. Of course, that's not because God needs one particular church more or less than any other. It is because we do. We can't all be in the same religious organization without making things move toward our desires instead of being bent toward God's."
Well, there just wasn't much left to say after that. I'll admit that if he had taken me up on the deal it would have been even more difficult, though. You see the open end of that question is to find out a way to move forward together. Probably the first thing we could have done is pray. I don't think it is even possible to accept someone else's position without turning to God and asking for the strength, wisdom and will power to find out what is common, good, and of God between their perspective and mine.
Maybe that is how the disciple's felt when those men in white came out of nowhere to ask them why they were looking at the sky. Really? What kind of question is that? It almost seems a little petty and sarcastic, as if to say, "Wow. Didn't see that coming. He's only been telling you for month's now."
Either way, the proclamation of Jesus' departure and return was like a bucket of cold water on their heads. I would imagine the trip back to Jerusalem included quite a few, "Did you see…?" and "Was that really…?"
We have no way to know if they were terrified or filled with joy on the way back, but we do know what they were told. They saw the resurrected Jesus – the man who had conquered death – and they asked him the obvious question. "OK, great! You can't die. Now we'll resurrect the Kingdom of Israel, right? Now we'll show those Romans what power is all about… right?" Then Jesus simply, and unequivocally, answers them by saying, "That is for me to know and for you to find out."
Then he tells them what they need to know. He tells them that they will receive power, but not the kind they want. He tells them that they will go to the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, but not to unite them politically. Then he tells them that they will go first and foremost to the Samaritans – the very people they feel most at odds with. But Samaria is only the beginning, for they will go to the very ends of the earth.
But first they will wait. Why? Couldn't God have given them the gift of the Holy Spirit right then and there? Of course God could have. But God did not give God's Spirit to them for their own use – not even for their own salvation. In fact, you might even say that receiving the Holy Spirit all by yourself doesn't really do much for anyone.
So, the disciples returned. They gathered others together, and they waited. And while they waited they did stuff that put them in a position to receive God's active presence. It may seem hard to identify with their story, since we live in a time that is after Pentecost, after the Reformation, and after the various Great Awakenings. Philosophically we are children of the Enlightenment living in a post Modern world, and some even say we are religiously in a post Christian society.
Come to think of it, we may have more in common with these disciples than anyone ever has! Except for this – we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. We know, as those Christians that the author of 1 Peter addressed, that life is a smelting furnace designed to consume the impurities of our souls. We know that no matter how bad things get, the presence of God dwells richly within us.
I'm sure this room is filled with hundreds of stories to describe what I am talking about. In my office you'll see one of mine. It is a picture of a bird that Treva gave me for my birthday a few years back. You see this bird brought me a message from God.
It came to us during a time of trial in our family life. We were discerning God's calling and in between pastorates. My father had died only weeks before the bird came to call. We had just put our house on the market and then the housing market hit the lowest point it had hit in years. We had two kids, a mortgage, no income beyond our savings, and a house that would not sell for its full value. We were not in a happy place. I'd like to say that it qualifies for sharing in the suffering of Christ, but I cannot. Many other believers have suffered worse losses than we did, and in the end we found the providential hand of God to be holding us throughout. In the midst of all of that this bird came and lighted on the corner of our deck. It looked kind of like a fat woodpecker (later we found out that it was a Northern Flicker), and it kept looking over its shoulder to reveal a red marking on the back of its head. Normally these marks are V shaped. This one had a perfect heart shaped marking. It was like a little love note from God, and it sat on our porch for at least 20 minutes or more flashing its valentine to us.
Now, I am not one for superstition, but it seemed a good enough reminder to me that God's love is pervasive, ever present, and final. Not only that, it reminded me that I am here for the same reason as that bird – to glorify God!
The question is not what to do. The question is not where is Jesus or when will he come back. The question is, how do we become aware of the gift of the Holy Spirit – and how do we respond to it? I would suggest that looking at birds and clouds may help us to remember what God has done for us, but in order to move forward we must be persistent in prayer, diligent in gathering with those who seek God's will, and always seeking God's kingdom instead of the glory days of our past.
I don't know exactly what that means for the church, or for our congregation. I don't know what that means for our buildings or our relationships in the community. I do know that God will guide us, if we will follow. I do know that Jesus did not leave to wait on an alarm clock to bring him back. Jesus died so that he might be joined with God and share in dominion over all of heaven and earth. Jesus rose so that he might be known as the Christ – God's self revelation for all of time and space – and Jesus rose so that we might be known as the Body of Christ here and now.
If we can be devoted in prayer and disciplined in action – including confessing and forgiving where we fail – I believe the scriptures that seem to tease with, "That's for me to know and you to find out," can instead become an invitation into a life that is not without pain and suffering but is truly worth living. May we that have heard God's word today set our sights not only on the kingdoms of days gone by but also on the relationships with those we most dislike. May we be reminded of the indwelling Spirit of God, and be moved by the will of God – So that God may be glorified in all things. Amen. Amen. And again I say, Amen.