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Sunday, May 6, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Who Sets the Course?
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Acts 1:15–17, 21–26
Ministry is the day-to-day human work of bringing more and more of our life under the joy and purpose and power of God. . . . It is a way of living that lets the transformative power of God operate for the sake of human dignity, social justice, healed creation, for the world beloved of God.
Walter Brueggemann, A Gospel of Hope
What do you do when you get anxious? In particular, what do you do when the reason you are anxious is because you are standing in a kind of liminal space, a space between a past that you have known and a future that seems less clear? You know what has been; you know the way things are right now; but you do not know exactly what is next.
Now, I ask that question realizing that not everyone feels anxiety in moments like that. Some of you might be energized by a healthy sense of chaos and risk. Some of you might enjoy living life more with the attitude of improvisation rather than with an attitude of a long-range plan. You might like spontaneity and the thrill of stepping out into an unknown future.
But for others of us, the truth of not knowing what is next feels unsettling and overwhelming. We (this is indeed where I put myself) wake up in the middle of the night with “what ifs” flooding the brain. We find comfort in a carefully thought-out plan, a to-do list, a clear roadmap of where we are headed. Spontaneity is fine, as long as we can plan for it. So standing in a kind of liminal space—a space between a past that we have known and a future that seems much less clear—is definitely anxiety-producing, and that raised anxiety makes us want to do whatever it takes to spend the least amount of time in that liminal space of “what’s next” as possible.
We even see within our Presbyterian tradition these two patterns of response to anxiety over not knowing what is next. One of my seminary professors, Dr. Erskine Clarke, always said that you can trace the pendulum swings throughout the PCUSA’s history between an emphasis on form and an emphasis on freedom. At one point in time we feel like things are too rigid, too ordered, too restrictive, so we push open those boundaries and make more space. We loosen up the rules and make the policies and procedures a little more flexible so that we, as a church institution, can be more adaptive in our response to a rapidly changing world.
But then we start to feel like the pendulum has swung too far into freedom, bordering on chaos. People just do whatever they want to do! Where are the standards that we used to have? Who is guarding the gate? Doesn’t this go against the tradition we’ve held for all these years? So we add more paragraphs to the Book of Order. We tighten up some processes that were getting out of control. We pass new rules on how to make decisions and who gets to make them, and soon the pendulum swings too much on the side of form, bordering on rigidity. You can predict what happens next.
All throughout our PCUSA history, especially in those times when the world around the church is changing dramatically and quickly, we find ourselves reacting with anxiety because we are not so sure what is next for the church. Our reactions cause us to swing from one side to the other and back again, never quite finding our equilibrium. Uncertainty is hard for structure. Not having a well thought-out, carefully defined long-range plan is difficult for an institution. Anxiety levels start to rise, especially amongst the leaders of the institution.
I wonder if that is how those early disciples also felt on that day. The risen Jesus had stayed with them for a rather lengthy period of time. He taught them and reminded them of everything he had told them previously. He demonstrated to them that the kingdom of God, the reign of God, had indeed already begun in his own body, and now it was their turn to proclaim its coming. It was their turn to lead all those who desired to follow Jesus into the future that God held for them. It was their turn to be his witnesses, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to announce it was the jubilee year and to set the oppressed free. Jesus had done what he had come to do, and now they were to live as his body in the world.
Thus Jesus gave those disciples a rather short but to-the-point “what’s next” agenda. He told them to not leave Jerusalem but instead to wait for the promise of the coming of the Spirit. The Spirit would show them what was next: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” It was not exactly a long-range plan with five initiatives and detailed work objectives, but at least Jesus gave them a clue as to next steps.
At first they did indeed follow instructions. As we heard, those eleven disciples went back to Jerusalem where they joined the female disciples, including Jesus’ mother, Mary, along with a crowd of about 120 other followers. Luke writes that the group immediately devoted themselves to prayer, hoping to gain more clarity about when the Spirit would show them the next steps along the Way.
The Way is actually what those who followed Jesus were called. Before we were known as Christians, we were known as the people of the Way, as in “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Personally, I like that name: the Way. It has a forward-moving connotation, a sense of movement, of fluidity. Thinking of ourselves as people of the Way could help us remember that following Jesus, being one of his disciples, is, at its root, about a life-altering journey. Following Jesus along the Way goes beyond an intellectual assent to doctrine to a whole way of living life, a way of serving, loving, showing compassion, working for justice, giving with generosity.
Perhaps every once in a while, especially for folks like us who are part of an esteemed and historic tradition and congregation, with lots of structure and procedures and policies in place and for good reason, it is also helpful for us to remember that, in our beginning, we were simply known as people of the Way. Christianity was more of a movement, honestly more of a revolution, than it was a religion, an institution.
Yet I am not sure even all of those original followers of the Way were totally on board with all that meant. At the very least, thinking of themselves more as a movement instead of as an institution with set policies and procedures seemed to make a few of them anxious, especially Peter, for it appears that as they all kept praying and waiting, just like Jesus told them to do, Peter’s anxiety grew with each passing moment. He was, after all, a leader now. Jesus had entrusted to him the keys to the kingdom. Jesus had called him the Rock on which Jesus would build the church. Therefore, Peter found himself getting a bit antsy as they sat in that liminal space, waiting for the Spirit to show them what was next.
So Peter decided to stand up in the middle of that prayer meeting in order to give some shape to the future of the ministry that these followers of the Way had been charged with carrying out. In Peter’s mind, the first task was to replace the Apostle Judas who, after his betrayal of Jesus, had met a messy demise. Since there had been twelve disciples before Judas had betrayed Jesus, Peter began, there needed to be twelve again, quoting some psalms to bolster his argument. Furthermore, since the eleven who were left had been through so much together, almost from the moment of Jesus’ baptism on, the new disciple would also need to be just as immersed in the Way as the rest of them were. The new disciple needed to be just as strong a witness of the Jesus story, the Christ event, as the rest of them.
Frankly, Peter would have made an excellent Presbyterian. All he was seeking was proper structure. They had twelve disciples; one did an awful thing; now they were left with an unexpired term on the Session they needed to fill. So call up the Nominating Committee. Receive suggestions from the 120 people gathered. Learn about their skills and gifts, their capacity for leadership and spiritual discernment, and then vote. It is the process we just went through to discern our new ruling elders, deacons, and trustees. Perhaps Peter was not just the rock but also the first Presbyterian.
Yet was the election of another disciple actually necessary for God’s work to be done? More than that, was it what Jesus had asked them to do? Was the decision to achieve the nice round number of twelve, a number to match the twelve tribes of Israel, driven by God’s desire or Peter’s? How much of his anxiety over being a leader of a community waiting in liminal space compelled Peter to hurry up and get something done? But even if the quick action was indeed primarily driven by Peter, the others responded. In no time the lots had been cast and Matthias was chosen. Now, raise your hand if you know anything about the Apostle Matthias? No one? I am not surprised, because after this one passage of scripture, we never hear about Matthias again. Never.
This fact that scripture never again mentions Matthias illustrates to me that the rush to structure, the rush to an action step, was indeed more Peter’s desire than God’s. The failure to ever mention Matthias again illustrates for me who really is in control of forming the church, deciding its future, compelling it out into the world, and Her name is not Peter (phrasing from Pen Peery). Rather, it is the Spirit—the Spirit whose power Jesus promised was coming. They just needed to faithfully wait, even if they were feeling anxious because they did not yet have a plan. God did, and God would open their eyes to it if they could break open their hearts to see, their ears to listen, their minds to discern God’s hope for who they were to become.
Justo González, a church historian, writes that
The issues posed by this passage [in Acts] should be familiar to Christians who seek to be faithful to what God is doing in their world today. As the mission [of the church] is transformed, so is it necessary to seek new structures and new leadership that are adequate to the new dimensions in mission. Too often in Christian circles a question about the structure of the Church and how it is to be governed is answered by seeking in the New Testament—or in some other [historical] period of the church—a fixed pattern, a model to be copied. However, what the entire book of Acts abundantly shows is that the heart of the matter is not the structure of the church, but its mission. The eleven seek to keep the structure by naming one who will take the place of Judas. That may be alright. But soon the Spirit will call the church to a new dimension in mission that will require a sort of leadership different from even the apostles themselves. (Justo González, Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit)
We are going to spend this summer learning more about how the Spirit moved in the very beginning of the church’s life and how it might be moving amongst us now. That sermon series will begin in June.
But today we are going to ordain and install our newest class of ruling elders and deacons, along with appointing our newest class of trustees. All of them have been through extensive officer training over these last few months. All of them have had to write a brief statement of faith and undergo an examination by currently serving elders. All of that instruction and training have been important. It is important to know what you have agreed to do as well as the way the structures of the church work. It is important to know how decisions are made and by whom; how conflict is dealt with whenever it arises; when our standing committees meet and what they are about. All of that is important for those we have elected to lead alongside us.
Yet at this point in time when the world is rapidly changing; when there is concern that the only thing that binds people together is either shared fear or shared disdain for any who differ from them; when the structures of our denomination are in flux; when we, ourselves, are beginning our fifth year of ministry together and looking forward to 2021 when we will celebrate our 150th year of being Fourth Church—when all of those factors create a real sense of liminal space, because we know who we have been, we kind of know who we are now, but we really do not know what is next for us and some of us feel energized by that truth while others of us feel anxious—with all of that swirling around, the most important qualification for all of us as church, especially for those serving in leadership for this congregation, will be an ability to be purposefully open to the movement and the calling of God’s Spirit as well as the ability to be purposefully open to the voices and experience of each other too.
One of the most powerful parts of being Presbyterian is that we believe God speaks most strongly and most clearly through the voices of each other. That call for openness insists we, then, do our best to trust each other’s intentions, to be vulnerable about our own struggles and strength, and to pray fervently for God’s wisdom and God’s courage to lodge deep within us, because whatever is next for us, we always need to remember what learn from the book of Acts:
The deepest reality of life in the Spirit . . . is that the disciples of Jesus rarely, if ever, go where they want to go or to whom they would want to go. Indeed, the Spirit seems to always be pressing the disciples to go to those to whom they would in fact strongly prefer never to share space, or a meal, and definitely not life together. Yet it is precisely this prodding to be boundary-crossing and border-transgressing that marks the presence of the Spirit of God. (Willie James Jennings, Acts: Belief Commentary Series, p. 11)
Peter and the other early leaders of the church eventually understood that truth about the way God works and lived into it fully. May we do so as well, even when our anxiety gets all stirred up and the pendulum keeps swinging, for we are the people of Fourth Presbyterian Church, for sure. But even more importantly, we are a people on the Way.