Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Easter 5/9

          Yet another vision in today’s first reading.  Last week it was Peter and Cornelius having visions that guided them to do certain things, today it’s Paul, and it’s all very matter of fact, like we know exactly what is going on when someone experiences such a vision when in reality we probably don’t know and are perhaps even a little bit embarrassed by this kind of talk apart from accepting it as a Bible story that happened a long time ago, but that’s it; nothing we would expect to be part of our life.  Today, anyone claiming such a vision is thought to be crazy, anyone who claims that God has spoken to them and told them what to do is thought to be a bit off.

          I’m embarrassed when Pat Robertson says the things he says about gays and Haitians and liberals and feminists, when he calls on certain world leaders to be assassinated and says that God is telling him to say these things.  He’s entitled to his opinion, but claiming he speaks for God is a bit much.  Actually, I’m a little put off when anyone says, “We prayed about it and God told us to…do whatever,” because usually it sounds to me like it’s what they wanted to do anyway and they’re just using God to justify whatever it is.

          I admit that stuff like that brings out the cynic in me, and some of that cynicism may be justified, but then I have to catch myself.  If I believe that God appeared in visions to people and that God spoke to people, “back then” couldn’t it still happen?  I think it could, I think it does, but did you know that the official church ruling on this was no, that they said that such things stopped happening after that early apostolic period?  Let me give you a short chapter in church history here. 

This was the Montanist controversy of the second century, a time when the kinds of visions and miracles reported in the Bible had stopped.  Sometime around the year 150 though, a guy by the name of Montanus began to prophecy claiming that what he said was the word of God just like what prophets of old had said was the word of God. With him were a couple of women who claimed to experience ecstatic visions which they said were revelations from God, and they along with others developed many followers. 

They based the legitimacy of their prophecies and visions on texts like today’s from John that announce the sending of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit who will teach you everything; so their claim was that their words and visions were just further teachings from this Advocate, teachings which they said were possibly of even greater value than earlier revelations. 

Montanus and his followers gained prominent supporters, but church authorities mostly responded with cynical derision and denial, not unlike the kind of cynicism I mentioned earlier.  The Montanists were scorned as “those who rave in an ecstatic trance;” their words were called “bastard utterances” and “the demented, absurd and irresponsible sayings of a presumptuous spirit.”  The claims of the Montanists were said to be “contrary to the custom of the church which had been handed down by tradition from the earliest times.”  The Montanist movement still spread quite widely but they were ultimately labeled as heretics.  The official position of the church was that God speaks clearly, sufficiently and reliably enough through three means—the canon of scripture, the creeds of the councils, and the clergy of the church.  Case closed—sort of. 

The official pronouncements of the church never ended such controversies; those who held contrary beliefs just continued to operate outside of the established church and actually, in the case of Montanism, belief in the potential of God to speak and be revealed in new ways became pretty well accepted as an element of Christianity.  The label of heresy ultimately had more to do with the effort to place these new revelations on a par with scripture. 

When you think about it though, any denial of the potential for further work by the spirit was kind of an odd decision by the church because apart from being contrary to scripture, what it brings you close to is the idea of deism, which is belief in god, but a god who doesn’t do much of anything, at least since creation.  Deists believe in a supreme being who created the world and ordered it with laws of nature and morality and who then essentially retired to the background to let humans do their thing. 

Many of our founding fathers were deists, Thomas Jefferson most notably and in some ways deism is attractive.  The deist god is distant, safe and silent; you don’t have to worry too much about this god.  He won’t bother you, he won’t intervene in history, don’t bother praying because he won’t answer your prayers and he certainly won’t speak to you or appear to you.  I’m sure we’d all deny being deists, but I’d also bet that we all are “functional deists” at least part of the time, living and acting as if God were no longer a player.

By the standard of many out there, we are something of an odd group that gathers on Sunday mornings because we do believe that God is more than just a clockmaker who makes a clock, winds it up and then just lets it tick.  We believe that the visions and experiences of people “back then” were of God, that God was revealed in unique ways during the times of the Old and New Testaments and of course that God was most fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.  We agree with the council that said that God speaks reliably through scripture, the creeds and the clergy, but we don’t agree that that’s it, because we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Advocate who Jesus said would come and teach us and remind us of the things he himself said. 

We believe that through that Spirit, we have been invited into a relationship with God, a God who is not distant and silent but who is present to us and with us through all that we face, a God who helps us to make sense of a world that doesn’t always seem to make sense.  It may not happen through ecstatic words and visions, it might be more subtle nudges and urgings, but we believe that God is at work, in relationship with us, responding to us, making his will known.  It’s not always an easy relationship, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be. 

One of the stories I go back to is the story in Genesis where Jacob camps by the river Jabbok and wrestles through the night with a man, a man who is never identified exactly but who has always been understood to be God in human form.  At the end of this wrestling match, which by the way, no one really wins, Jacob is given a new name, Israel, which means “he who strives with God.”  So the people of Israel, from whom we as Christians are descended, are a people whose very identity includes striving with God, struggling with God, wrestling with God.  That means it’s not always easy because this is a god who doesn’t always operate in easy predictable ways.  There’s tension in the relationship, but I think that’s what keeps it alive.  The promise of the relationship though, is the peace that Jesus announces in today’s gospel.

Today is Mother’s Day, it is a Hallmark holiday, but still one that is meaningful for many, one that can be emotional for a variety of reasons.  One of the things I’m reminded of on this day is the role that mothers play in passing on the faith, or as I talk about it, the role they play in inviting children into relationship with God.  One of my teachers at seminary called mothers the most important evangelists in church history as in so many cases they have played this role.  I would add though that it’s not just mothers but fathers and grandparents too along with all who play parenting roles or serve as adult role models.

I also think of mothers relative to the peace Jesus promises; “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”  I think of a line from Psalm 131, “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother.”  Like a weaned child with its mother; I picture a mother holding a baby or small child and for the child in mother’s arms everything’s OK.  There’s no fear, no anxiety, nothing to worry about; in mother’s arms there is peace.  That is the kind of peace offered in our relationship with God; that’s what we seek, even as we struggle sometimes.  Like a weaned child with its mother; hold on to that image.  That is the kind of peace offered by the Risen Christ, who is alive and active, being revealed in surprising new ways.

Rev. Warren Geier
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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