A professor walks into the classroom and holds up a book. “This book is red,” he announces. There is a moment of confusion and then someone corrects him, “Prof, the book is blue.” A moment of hesitation as the professor looks directly at him. “No, it’s red,” and the classroom erupts. The discussion becomes more strident as people begin to suggest that the professor is messing with them, doesn’t respect them, is crazy, is blind, but each time someone ends with the statement that everyone can see the book is blue, the professor repeats his claim. Before the class is entirely out of order he turns the book around. The side facing him was, in fact, red.
It’s interesting how ardent we can become defending our understanding of the world against claims that do not support our understanding. When others see the world differently than we do it throws our worldview into doubt, it’s confusing, it’s disturbing. A high school psychology class is divided in half, right down this row, half are told to put their heads down while the other half view a picture of a pretty young woman with a fancy hat, they then put their heads down and the other half of the class is shown a picture of a large nosed old woman. The entire class is then shown a composite of the two and again, the class erupts and tempers begin to flare as each side defends their own view of this composite, until the teacher shows them how he prejudiced their view, limited their view, to one interpretation.
We do this all the time. It’s a trick of the human brain, it’s a part of our nature that we attempt to create meaning and once we have identified it, we defend it. The meaning we have created becomes the foundation of our way of life. We assign meanings to clothing, hair,make up or lack thereof. We assign meaning to income, poverty, education, career, or lack thereof. We assign meaning to language, ethnicity, country of orgin, race, and political affiliation. And once we have determined that we have found the right one, we defend it, and we shake our heads in confusion when someone implies we have it all wrong.
The disciples and followers of Jesus gathered in that upstairs room, closeted, cloistered, locked in. Suffering the heat of the day in tight quarters and closed windows. They had experienced something different, something unexpected in the person of Jesus Christ and they knew that this different view didn’t quite fit in with the dominant world view. They knew that to be identified as the ones suggesting we, the religious people, have it all wrong, is dangerous.
We, as a church, gathered once as the session and came out of that room wanting to say that the dominant world view that we are too small to make a difference, that people ‘naturally’ segregate, that the races cannot get along, that all of this is wrong. We as a church came out of that room saying we have been called to announce a different paradigm, that race is a social construct which can and will be transcended, that minority communities are more like us than they are different, that we can transcend our differences and love one another, that we can speak the same language of love, connection, and community.
The disciples had seen Jesus come to them, through all their defenses and their attempts to shut the world out; through their fear and locked up hearts, Jesus came; through their doubts and misunderstandings, Jesus came. And still, we find them again, locked up, shut up inside this closed dark room, fear dripping off the walls like sweat.
You can almost imagine them saying, “What about the religious right? What about all those pharisees who will stone us to death, call us apostate?” You can almost imagine them saying, “We will be charged with treason, with abandoning the way of our forefathers!”
Are we any different? I wasn’t at that session meeting but I can imagine some of you might have said, “But what about the hate groups, what about those conservative elements in town who like the status quo?”
I can imagine the disciples saying, “But we don’t know how to do this, we don’t know what it’s supposed to look like, we don’t know exactly where we are going or how we will get there.” But then, the original disciples didn’t know either.
When we look back with perfect hindsight we can imagine the disciples understanding the Matthews 28 verse, go and make disciples of all the world, to be about the formation of the church. Go and make Christians, is generally how we hear this verse. Except, except there was no christianity, there was no christian faith at all. There was no church to which to bring people. There was only a small group of Jesus followers locked away in an upper room, sweltering away in the heat and unsure what to do or how to do it. I’ve heard it said that a better translation of Matthew 28 is not go and make disciples, but go and love all the people in the world as I have loved you. Go to all the corners of the earth, to all the strange and different people with their strange and different ways of being, and love them, just love them.
Except that this act of loving all the people as Jesus has loved us, changes everything. It implies that our traditions are not really all that important, that love is more important. It implies that our hierarchies are unhealthy, that anything that impedes or blocks the flow of love and healthy connection is unhealthy. It breaks through all the boundaries that help us to feel safe and to know our place in the world. Suddenly we are called into deep relationship with lots of different people, unexpected people.
Poor Lydia, who had a good station in life, who was respected and wealthy, who was quite, quite comfortable and enjoyed a certain station in life, found that Christ’s love for her brought her into the company of the most disreputable people. Her social standing and comfort crushed and irretrievably lost. Poor Phillip, who had been taught all his life that a man who had been castrated could never come before God, was not fit to do so, found himself running alongside an ethiopian eunuch’s chariot talking to him about God. It was so inappropriate! And God isn’t done yet disturbing our understanding of what is and isn’t right.
Peter meditates and prays on the roof and God says, “take and eat, all of these defiling creatures.” What? Take and eat snakes and pigs, and nasty seafood? Be defiled? Oh, and by the way, go and talk to that Roman guy, Cornelius. It was so, so inappropriate! What more treasonous or unpatriotic act could a Jew commit? Peter himself says, ““You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile;” But he did it anyway!
Are we any different? Wiser heads say to us, “You’re going to what? Work on race relations in Jasper?” but we’re going to do it anyway. More cautious people suggest we lay low and just quietly go about our lives. It’s not our problem. We don’t need to fix it. But God says go anyway.
The disciples saw Jesus break through barriers they themselves had set up; they saw him come to them and throw all that they thought they knew into disarray. This is not something most of us want. We love to read about challenging times, we love to watch movies about people taking risks, we love to admire activists from afar, but we don’t like to be them. We don’t like being called to take a stand. We don’t like feeling as if our backs are against the wall and we can’t do otherwise.
So it might make sense to us that they were hiding. I mean who wanted to go out and challenge the status quo? Who wanted to speak love to violence, poverty and hate? Who wanted to let go of centuries of tradition and boundaries that helped one know exactly where they fit in and who they were? Who wanted to cross those boundaries and wonder if you’ve just been defiled? So they hid. And so do we.
We hide from the necessity of action. We hide from the need to speak love to violence. We hide because we don’t feel safe and we want more time to prepare, to get things right, to be certain. If the disciples who walked the earth with Jesus for three years, personally witnessing miracles and life pulled out of death were afraid, maybe it’s OK that we are too. Maybe it’s OK to admit that sometimes this call, this mission feels too big, too uncertain, too risky. And maybe it’s OK to admit that we want some certainty, we want some assurances, that we are on the right track, that we will make it, that we won’t look back later and feel like we got it all wrong.
But God’s not done with us yet. Here they all were, hiding in that upper room, locked into with the stifling heat and the fear. But God didn’t leave them there. That holy, crazy, wild Spirit of God moved among them, lit them on fire with passion, with creativity, with daring do, and sent them forth into the street. Oh man! We’d better be careful what we pray for! The barriers that had divided them were shattered. The fear that had kept them safe dissolved like it had never been there. Filled with the Holy Spirit they were loosed on the world! And nothing has been the same since.
God did not promise to keep them safe. He did not promise them pretty church buildings with stain glass. He did not tell them they would have no doubts. God did not even tell them how to do what they were called to do. Most of our new testament texts are letters written in response to conflicts and disputes. God never said it would be easy but God called them anyway. God filled them with the Holy Spirit which broke down all the barriers and resistance within them that they might be able to speak love, and be love and teach love, again and again, and again.
And we might pray today to be emboldened by the Holy Spirit, to be filled with love and compassion for our neighbors, to be sent out from this building to the people who are God’s beloved children, sent to them that we might love them and stand with them in times of trouble. But this is not about safety, and it is not about having the answers or knowing exactly how to do this, it is only about the necessity of going forth, it is only about the love that God has given us and the need to share that love.
If we go where God is sending us and we love and commit as God has put upon our hearts we will be known in this community and in the broader world as that crazy, mixed up, way out there church, the one which threatens power structures and the status quo, the one which loves unconditionally and breaks down barriers and crosses boundaries, and we won’t be safe. But we will be about God’s business.
Do not be afraid, God has said to us, do no, do not, do not be afraid, for I am with you always, unto the ends of the earth.
I imagine it happened this way, the people were gathered in the upstairs room, filled with fear and trepidation, uncertain and wary. One of them started to pray, just give us our bread for today Lord, just fill us with your spirit that we might be, in all ways, your people” and as this one person prayed others began to join in and God heard their cry and God responded. We do not have a god who would force his will upon us, but when we are ready to move outside of our cloistered spaces, when we are ready to take a risk, to admit we need God’s help, when we can let go of our fear, God is waiting, just waiting, to rush in and hold us, uplift us and fill our hearts. God is waiting for us, as a loving parent waits on a child’s first steps, knowing that when we can let go of our fear, we won’t only be walking freely, we will be running, skipping, jumping, and dancing with joy. It is our birthright as children of God and God is waiting with bated breath, eager to celebrate with us, our first few timid steps into a new life, a new beginning, a bigger and broader world than we ever could have expected.