God starts with us where we are, for not even God can start anywhere else.
I have written that thought before. It may not be true, given that God is outside of time and space and can therefore start, or finish, or dwell, at the beginning, or the end, or everywhere in between at once.
Still, God starts with us where we are. To put it another way, wherever we are, God is already there.
The two verses from Matthew are oddly worded. What does it mean to welcome a prophet in the name of a prophet, or a righteous person in the name of a righteous person?
Perhaps we are dealing with the ancient belief that names were the essence of a thing—knowing the name of something gives you a powerful connection. To act in the name of something or someone is likewise to connect, to identify, with that thing or person. To welcome a prophet in the name of a prophet is, in a manner of speaking, to be a prophet. To welcome a righteous person in the name of a righteous person is likewise to be a righteous person.
To give anything good and helpful in the name of a disciple is to be a disciple, even if the gift is only a cup of cold water. Small service is still service. A little faith is still faith.
I have to admit that when I hear the phrase “cold water”, I immediately think of the Sons of the Pioneers and the Bob Nolan song “Cool Water.” There have been many recordings by artists ranging from the Pioneers to Hank Williams to Joni Mitchell. The song tells of a man crossing a desert, longing for water. Hearing it, one has to appreciate the power in such a simple thing as water.
Small gifts, small faith, and still one remains a disciple. That changes the perspective on Jesus rebuking the disciples in Matthew 8:26—O you of little faith! Even with their small faith and small understanding, they remained the chosen disciples of Christ. Likewise, a cup of cold water is no small thing, not to someone in the desert.
Not all deserts are made of sand. Some are made of loneliness, or depression. Failure. Rejection. Mourning. Loss. We usually don’t know what people need when we see them.
It may be something as simple as a cup of cold water.
There is more than one Jesus in the Bible. I do not mean that there are other people with the same name, though there are. No, I mean that there is more than one actual Jesus—there is the one we know, of course, and there is the one we do not know.
We know the Jesus who walked on water. We know the Jesus who fed five thousand people on a mountainside with some bread and fish that a child gave him. We know the Jesus who let the little children come and sit on his lap and mess up his beard. We know that Jesus, or we know about him. This is the Jesus who matches our expectations. This is the Jesus we created out of bits and pieces of the one in the gospels, a Jesus we created largely in our own image.
Oh, come on. We do that sort of thing to people, even friends and relatives around us, refusing to see parts of their personalities, re-imagining them, sometimes out of kindness, sometimes for other less positive reasons. We do the same thing to God: we read that we are made in the image of God, but more often we re-imagine God in our image.
Then we read the 10th chapter of Matthew, and we don’t quite know what to make of it. This isn’t the Jesus we know. This is the other Jesus, the Jesus whom we do not know.
Now we find ourselves dealing with the Jesus who turned the tables on the moneychangers, the angry Jesus who made a whip out of some rope and drove animals and some people out of the temple. This is the Jesus who turned around and called Peter, that great disciple, by the name of satan, the great accuser and questioner. This is the Jesus who told a foreign woman who came begging him to help her daughter that it would be like throwing children’s food to a dog, though to be fair he was making a point to the people watching, and he did help the girl—rough words, fair deeds.
This is the Jesus who made the people in his town so angry, just by commenting on a few verses from Isaiah, that they tried to throw him off a cliff.
Do we know this Jesus?
This Jesus offers us harsh words, not the sort of sayings that we want to hold close to our hearts. These are hard words.
And yet, we need to hear them. We need to hear them because they are true. Life is not always peaceful. Our neighbors do not always love us back, even if we manage to love them. Our leaders don’t always do the right thing. And anyone who tells us that if we have faith in God, then God is going to make our lives smooth, and peaceful, and easy, is selling something or maybe has never actually read the scripture.
We do our children a disservice if all we teach them is that God is love and that we should love one another. They need to know those two things, certainly—it is the heart of the gospel—but they need some of the harder lessons too. When they are old enough, they need to hear about Cain, and the truth about Joseph’s brothers, and about that crowd of people who tried to throw Jesus off a cliff. Otherwise, when they get out there in the world and find the rest of the truth for themselves, they will blame us and they will blame the Church for not telling them, not preparing them.
If there is a bear in the woods, I want to know before I walk in. That way if I do run into a bear, I might know what I’m dealing with and how to think of a way out. I might at least know enough to run away or to roll up in a ball. I don’t want to walk into the woods thinking that the world is always safe and good, and then find out about the bear.
And I will be thankful for the people who prepared me.
Jesus is telling us that there is a time to be meek and quiet and there is a time to be bold and loud. The life of faith is not always a life of peace and tranquility. It wasn’t for Jesus. It wasn’t for the disciples. Not many of the early church leaders reached old age.
The life of faith is not a life without trouble. It wasn’t for Jesus.
The life of faith is not a life without needs or without struggle. It wasn’t for Jesus, or Peter, or Paul.
We need to remember that sometimes it is right to get angry. We talk about turning the other cheek, but sometimes it is good to turn the tables. We forget that we are the ones who speak for the weak, even if we ourselves are weak. We are the ones who give shelter to the poor, even if we ourselves are poor.
If we do not, then they will be left alone, like children in the woods. Who will help them if we do not? And who will help us if they are lost?
And having seen they worshiped him; but some doubted.
Eleven people went up a mountain in Galilee to meet Jesus. This was after he had died, of course, and after the resurrection. It does not say that some worshiped Jesus and some doubted. It says that they worshiped, and some doubted.
To make it plainer, some of the ones worshiping were also the ones doubting. That may be one of the most reassuring ideas in all of scripture.
The word that we are hearing is ἐδίστασαν, from διστάζω, not a particularly helpful fact if we do not know the Greek of the first century. It is a word that means something like “to stand in two places.” That is a more elegant expression of doubt, and one way that we can try to understand what happened—they worshiped while they doubted, trying to stand in two places at once.
It is understandable, their being of two minds about Jesus. After all, they watched the man die, and now here he was standing in front of them. It is hard to deal with that sort of dissonance when the universe dishes it up.
Most Christians today took an easier path. We began with the idea of an already resurrected Jesus. That way the death of Jesus becomes just part of the story, the background to this already living person. Doubt or wonder, or both, creep in when we try to put together the details of the resurrection story. Then we find that we, like those followers on the mountain, have one foot in faith and one in mystery.
The resurrection is simple compared to the Trinity. This man Jesus died, and then he was alive again. Fine, we might say. At least it is a story that moves in a straight line, life to death to life again, and who doesn’t want to hope for life on the other side of death? This was the God-man, you say? At once God and human? Fine, we can accept that too.
God is one God and three persons at the same time, you say? There is God who is entirely Other, and there is an aspect of God who becomes this Jesus person, and there is the aspect of God who is in all places and times at once? This is where most of us have to get off the train. We cannot imagine it.
On the other hand, I am a father, and I am a son, and I am myself. It is true that at some moments I appear to be more one than the others, but I am always all three. A star is comprised of the material within it, an impressive fusion reaction, and the energy that flows out from it as light. My dog has many aspects. He is guardian and watcher, hater of crows, lover of ice cream, bane of cats, fearless behind me, white fur blurring in chase or restful in sleep, his own person, my companion. He is all of those things, yet he remains dog, and I love him for all of his aspects.
The idea of the Triune God comes from scripture, but we have added a great deal over the centuries by way of explanation and illustration. For that matter, we’ve added a great deal of explanation and illustration to everything having to do with God. From the three rings of a pretzel to a bookshelf straining under the theology of Karl Barth, we keep trying to explain it. Here is how God created the universe, we say, never mind that the scriptural point was simply that God did rather than how God did. It is a God-thing. This is how the whole crucifixion thing works, we say—here’s what was paid, or ransomed, or fulfilled. Never mind that Jesus simply said to love one another as he loved us and left off the explanations.
Forget about explanations for a moment. If they mean so much, God would likely have provided a clearer manual for us to read, something with summaries and a nice index. Forget about the rules, who is right and who is wrong, especially who is wrong. Instead of explanations, we have stories, from creation to Jesus on a mountain. That might be a clue as to what is important, what matters.
The stories say that God is not like us, but that we are a little like God. The stories say that God has walked among humans. The stories say that God is love and light and that God loves each of us, though we don’t find any compelling reason for God to do so—quite the opposite. And the stories say that God is everywhere.
All of that leaves us with faith pushing against doubt, reason pulling against acceptance. It is like walking: we only manage to stand because of the tension in our muscles and bones. If you think too much about walking, you won’t be able to do it.
If God is everywhere, let’s expect God everywhere: in the rain, in strangers, in dogs and in starlight. Everything we find reveals part of God, and every revelation of God is all of God. We can worship while we doubt, and it is fine to doubt while we worship. It is part of our story of God, and God loves us for it.
Pentecost | John 20:19-23, John 7:37-39, Acts 2:1-21
Were they waiting or were they hiding?
There were about one hundred and twenty of them in all, gathered somewhere according to Acts (which is really Luke II, the Sequel.) The group included the inner circle of followers and Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. Luke is careful to record that Jesus told his followers to wait until they had received the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost, we are told, the Spirit descended upon these followers like sparks falling from the sky.
John told the story differently, or perhaps told a different part of it. In the words of this gospel, Jesus himself appears and breathes upon his followers, conferring in some mystical way the Spirit of God upon these men and women. In this version, they were all definitely hiding behind locked doors out of fear, fear that the Romans and the temple leadership would do to them what had been done to Jesus.
Perhaps they were both hiding and waiting. At any rate, by the time about seven weeks had passed and the religious festival of Pentecost or Shavuot began (commemorating Moses receiving the law directly from the Lord,) something radical happened. Either the Spirit fell upon them, or they realized that they already were touched by God.
They found their spark.
Whether you read John or Luke or Acts, this story is not anything that you can really accept strictly on an intellectual basis. There appear to be contradictions. There is the troublesome detail of the appearance of tongues of flame. Either people speak in languages that they did not previously know or other people begin to understand foreign languages as their own. It would be interesting to hear an explanation of this narrative from the perspective of group psychology. It would be interesting, and it would not be a matter of faith.
We want to understand things. We want to know the reasons, explain the magic trick, be able to tell why an apple turns brown after you bite it. There are limits to reason, though. We can explain a great many things, but our explanation has little to do with whether we have faith in them. When you are jumping out of an airplane, understanding how a parachute works is extremely helpful. Having faith in the person who packed your chute is even better.
Understanding informs our faith, but it is not our faith.
John also records that Jesus stood and cried out, “The one believing in me, as the scripture has said, out of him will flow living water.” Living water, he says—the spring of life, the Holy Spirit. No fire falling, no blowing wind, but the Spirit of God flowing quietly from within until suddenly we notice.
Life can be surprisingly simple and surprisingly complex. Often we find ourselves hiding, either hiding from something or hiding something that is within us. We find ourselves waiting, sometimes for years, and sometimes for something that we finally realize we had all along.
Perhaps this is a good moment to remember the words of the late Maya Angelou from Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now. “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”
We may not ever be able to explain what happened to those early Christians at Pentecost. Maybe they hid and they waited until they simply changed the way they thought about what they were waiting for. Either way, there is no need to understand everything, and there is no need to wait for God to change the things around us—that may be for us to do ourselves. Pentecost means that God is already changing the things within us, the things that matter, the things that last. Eternal life has less to do with the time that passes by us than with the Spirit that flows within us.