Signs of a radically new world
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Isaiah 61: 1-3 John 15:26-27; 16:5-11 Acts 1:6-8 & Acts 2:1-21
Sanctify us, O Lord, by the Truth. Thy Word is Truth. Amen.
Pentecost is an appropriate Sunday to celebrate the installation of the Rev. David Vargas as president of the Division of Oversea Ministries of our Church and co-executive of our Global Ministries in cooperation with the United Church of Christ. We observe Pentecost as the beginning of apostolic mission and therefore the birth of the church. Sometimes we get that backwards! Jesus said in Acts 1:8, “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 is also an occasion to congratulate David on his doctorate in humane letters – Divinas Letras – from the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico. This is well-deserved, because David is a true man of letters, versed in the Scriptures and other great works, especially the Spanish classics. Many times we have traveled together and sometimes he would say, “Bill, you know what Miguel de Unamuno said about that?” Or he’d say: “That reminds me of a poem by Amado Nervo,” which he then would recite.
Pentecost reminds us of your family’s great love for the church. We think of your father and mother who are with us in the Spirit and who would be very happy on this occasion. In 1988, your father wrote his book on the history of the Disciples of Christ of Puerto Rico, in which he says: “The ability, integrity, dedication, and spiritual witness of the vast majority of men and women who appeared in the brilliant history of this Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Puerto Rico are proven facts…The difficult stages were overcome always because the Spirit of God never failed.”
You represent that community with the excellence your father praised.
Pentecost is the sign of God’s will for a cross-cultural world. The church has always known this and spread into all regions of the ancient world because of it. We see the list of ethnic cultures present on that day to marvel at the gift of hearing of “the great things God has done.” Parthians and Medes and Elamites and so on includes the whole world known to the author at that time: Europe, Asia, and Africa. Luke was writing the missionary history of the world Christian Movement, which exists today because it was cross-cultural from the beginning.
The Common Global Ministries Board is the opportunity of local UCC and Disciples of Christ congregations to reach beyond themselves to share in that whole earth project of God. Global Ministries is needed to raise consciousness and to have wider inter-cultural relationships, so that North American congregations are not ignorant or misinformed about the rest of the world. The concentration of the media in the hands of a few corporation giants makes this necessary. They give us “culture of distraction.” Communication about distant regions is best done through the grassroots networks of the Church, in part through missionary personnel and the exchange of persons and ideas ecumenically. A good resource is the excellent Global Ministries website. It is especially important at a time when the United States is embarking on a deliberate policy of uni-polarity. Gary Dorrien wrote a very important article about this in the March 8 Christian Century called “Axis of One.” Reinhold Niebuhr said that after the cold war, having only one center of authority “would almost certainly violate basic standards of justice.” Church members need to be informed to have moral authority and political vigilance. Where has anybody heard that the “world debt crisis is growing”
and is a matter of life and death? It was in the DisciplesWorld last
April. We do not hear of it in the meeting of the Group of 8 in Evian, except for the demonstrators!
But especially Global Ministries is necessary for congregations to be united with churches all over the Earth to witness to the Good News that sin and death are overcome in Jesus Christ and that a new world is possible. When I first went to Congo in the 1980’s, Dr. Elondo said, “We are glad you have come. Not for what you can do for us, but because we are bound together by the blood of Christ.” How the Good News is proclaimed depends on the context, but God’s grace in raising Jesus from the bonds of imperial injustice and death is what Christians believe and practice in cooperation around the world. To witness that Christ is Lord and Savior brings a new consciousness of life around and within us. The churches must be able to cooperate with other religions and all people of good will in glorifying God by justice, love of neighbor, and peacemaking. You will give leadership that is theological and spiritual in nature, David, because intentional mission is the divine life of the church; it is the grace-bestowing energy of the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost was the Jewish Festival of Shavuot, prescribed in Leviticus 23, signifying culmination or completion. Like other Jews, the disciples still participated in synagogue and Temple worship. It was also considered to be the anniversary of Moses’ receiving the tablets of the law on Mt. Sinai. Fifty days after Passover, it represents the Torah as the fulfillment of liberation from Egypt, the Exodus. Fifty days after Easter, the establishment of the missionary church is the fulfillment of the resurrection.
The world tends to be selective in its cross-culturalism, but the church, representing the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, cannot do that. A friend wrote an e-mail to the CTS faculty: “If we are now being told that approximately 3 million people have been killed in the last four years in conflicts in the Congo, involving ten African nations, what are the moral implications of the fact that none of
this was in our local papers, the national newscasts, whatever? What does all this mean for how we conduct our lives as Christians on this planet?” That is a Pentecost question: “Does Africa not count?”
Being cross-cultural is not the full extent of God’s mission, however, just as demographics is not the whole story of Pentecost. Hebrew Scripture is here in the prophet Joel. “Blood, fire, and smoke!” The apocalyptic nature of the new world at Pentecost is critical in the reading of this text, because it represents fulfillment of the covenant, a new day of justice for the widow, the orphan, the stranger in need. The interpretation given by Peter from the prophecy of Joel is the key to how we should understand the birth of the church and the mission of God. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, they’ll see visions of a world as it should be and as it is revealed by divine providence.
The pouring out of the Spirit promised by Jesus and called the Spirit of Truth in the Gospel of John is the overflowing of God’s grace for the whole world. The symbol for it, according to the prophets, is the end time, not chronological time like the fifty days since Easter, but God’s time. That is why it is not “idealism.” Peter quotes Joel to say this is the beginning of the Day of the Lord, the coming of the Kingdom, the day when Peace will be the overseer, Justice the taskmaster, as we read in Isaiah: “Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation and destruction in your border, you shall call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise.” Apocalyptic means that we should not absolutize the secular and technological or think that is all there is to reality, but to open them to the true absolute which is the reality of God.
The apocalyptic nature of Pentecost is reminiscent of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth reading from Isaiah 61: “proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God with good news to the poor.” Solidarity with the oppressed is at the center, because it is a sign of the new heaven and new earth declared in Isaiah and Revelation and Romans 8, the restoration of the created order. It is not a different world, but a world liberated from affliction. Every miracle of Jesus was a sign of this coming Kingdom: the lame walk, the blind receive their sight, the deaf hear. Apocalyptic is the prophet’s way of saying that the world cannot save itself, but that repentance and forgiveness are possible to live a new life.
In Argentina, where both the UCC and Disciples have partner churches going back many years and have missionaries today, a new president has been elected, Nestor Kirchner. The economy has suffered to the point of needing complete reconstruction. Inez Sarli told us when she was here last year that people could not get their money from the banks for months. Credit card interest rate was 85%. There were five presidents in two weeks. President Kirchner has said to the IMF, “It is not possible to return to paying the $140 billion debt at the cost of the hunger Argentines, generating more poverty and social conflict.” He has forced 50 generals and admirals into retirement and removed 12 of 15 senior police commanders. He is impeaching the entire Supreme Court so that the amnesty could be overturned for military officers who committed human rights violations during the “dirty war,” when 30,000 people disappeared and some of our friends were jailed.
The national Evangelical Christian Council of Argentina sent the following message: ‘As believers in Jesus Christ, founded on the Bible, we believe that the only real base of government is for the government to respond to the creative project of God, working for well-being, justice and peace for its people…We desire that the people’s energy, renewed in the midst of a profound crisis, will express itself by a creative mobilization of a new social base.” This is witness to God’s new creation as prophetic utopia, a spiritual kingdom of justice for all. Mission is creating signs of
Jesus’ love in history, not making the world ideal, but working to make the world better in the light of Scripture.
The mission derived from Pentecost is cross-cultural, it is made up of prophetic signs of love and justice, and therefore it is essentially evangelistic. It makes known somehow the God of Israel and the Gospel of Christ. The Spirit of Pentecost is the Helper Jesus promised. It is the Advocate for the fullness of life, because it is the message of God’s grace and the gift of eternal life, what Alexander Campbell called “the Blessed Hope.” Jesus sends the Comforter, because the world is in pain and sorrow. Jesus’ disciples asked him: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” It was a way of saying, “How long, O Lord? How long do we suffer evil and injustice and hardships that tempt us to give up hope?” How long do the nations rage? But a religious question has only a religious answer: “You will be given power in the spirit to be my witnesses.” And that is what is expected of us as church, and that is what is needed of us by today’s world.
Through the office of Europe and the Middle East, Disciples of Christ and UCC congregations have agonized over the deadlock of Israelis and Palestinians and the indiscriminate human suffering. We have been present through Dale Bishop’s leadership, now Peter Makari and Derek Duncan, with missionaries, volunteers and mission interns as witnesses to God’s love for all who suffer, in solidarity with the Middle East Council of Churches and many others, Muslim, Jews, Christians. Dick Hamm and John Thomas spoke on our behalf often, including about Iraq. In the mid-1950’s, John H. Davis, an elder at National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C., was the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), responsible for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. Disciples have been connected from the beginning. A half-century later, the world cries out, “How long, Oh Lord?”
We have no power to bring the Kingdom of God, but with the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate and Comforter, congregations reach out to the Middle East and elsewhere with, and receives back, signs of a radically new world. The church serves by prayer, exchanging personnel, authorizing political advocacy, or sharing materially through Week of Compassion and One Great Hour of Sharing. Church World Service since the first Gulf War has provided nearly $4 million in humanitarian aid to Iraqis and $4 and a quarter million to North Korea in food aid since 1996. Karl Barth said that there is “an irrevocable sense of mission even though it sweeps men and women into the catastrophe of all humankind.”(419) Our stewardship must respond more to the need. Johnny Wray sent an e-mail this morning saying that contributions for Week of Compassion are down 10% so far this year.
Mission is not just doing what the world does at its moral and spiritual best, whether humanitarian or revolutionary. It is evangelization: signs of grace by the Spirit, specific clues of the Kingdom of God. For Global Ministries, it is not practicing proselytism but putting into practice a good example and the hope we have in Christ, which is not to erect barriers, but to tear them down. We are witnesses of a radically new world of God. Because it is transcendent, it is never fully realized, but because it is transcendent, it is always with us.
I am convinced that Global Ministries represents the cross-cultural future of our churches. Andrew Walls, missionary scholar of the University of Edinburgh, is straightforward in saying that the Christian faith is in recession in Europe and Britain. I leave it to you to judge for North America! He predicts that the future is not in a dramatic reversal of religious practice but in authentic cross-cultural relations with churches of the South and East. He argues that the future of the Western church is to cooperate with the majority of Christians, who live in Africa, Asia or Latin America. The center of gravity has shifted, and the world Christian community is growing. The largest theological faculty in the world is at the University of South Africa. Prof. Walls maintains that Western theology could be renewed by more contact with theologians of the Third World, because, as he says, they know what the right questions are. These are the questions of the church’s mission in today’s cross-cultural world.
In conclusion, David, in honor of the mission tradition in which you and all your colleagues stand, I want to present your office with the eight volumes report of the Jerusalem International Missionary Conference of 1928. This has been missing since the restructure of the United Christian Missionary Society! Jerusalem came soon after the founding of the modern ecumenical movement in Edinburgh in 1910. This is part of our Divinas Letras. You will see that Disciples were represented by Steven Corey, E.K. Higdon, and Samuel Guy Inman, and the present UCC by Fred Ramsey, Helen Calder, and others. [Ashley Day Leavitt, Ernest Riggs, and Kenyon Leech Butterfield.] Even then, 75 years ago, the record spoke of “the new and true conception of the Christian Missionary undertaking as a sharing enterprise. Then all churches will be regarded as sending churches; and all churches will be regarded as receiving churches.” John R. Mott said, “If we cannot achieve avowedly Christian cooperation among those of different nations, what other conclusion can the…world form than that the Christian Church has lost its way and vacated its spiritual leadership…It is essential in order to emphasize the truly catholic nature of the Christian Church.” (VII, 8) Not only is that still true, it calls for all of us today to be dedicated once again to the service of our Lord and the ministry he has given his church in the universal Mission of God. The theme of Jerusalem was “Our message is Jesus Christ.” That is the “wonderful acts of God” heard in every language at Pentecost.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, One God, world without end. Amen.