April 8, 2018
Sometimes my mind wanders…
Sometimes I find myself thinking about random and odd things.
Just yesterday morning I woke up very early, while it was still dark, wondering if there is ever a time when there is not a police officer somewhere in the world chasing down an escaped cow. Don’t ask me why. I wouldn’t know what to tell you.
One of my favorite things to do is imagining relationships and conversations among people. Have you ever been in the mall or an airport or some other public space where a lot of people are interacting, you see people having conversation and in your head you make up what they’re saying? It can be a lot of fun!
Maybe I’m twisted. Maybe I’m normal.
Anyway, looking at today’s scripture, I couldn’t help but wander some things… like, when Jesus told the disciples that he was going to pair them off and send them out, were there murmurings among them about who was going to be paired up with whom?
Did they try to manipulate the process of selection?
Let’s be honest, you have co-workers that you can handle, but you’d never spend eight hours with them if you weren’t being paid… and you’d never go on a vacation with them.
Have you ever wondered about dynamics like that among Jesus’ disciples?
We know from other accounts in the Gospel of Mark and other Gospel stories that there were some power struggles among the disciples.
Remember when James and John cornered Jesus and asked him if they could sit next to him when he becomes king? They wanted power and access that no one else had. The other disciples didn’t like it one bit, and you’d have to imagine that it caused some friction and attitude among the group.
Of course, none of the disciples knew then that Jesus had no intentions of ruling over an earthly, temporary kingdom.
Another lesson for another time…
But at this point in the story, the sixth chapter of the Book of Mark, Jesus is telling the disciples that they are about to prove their metal.
If they are really dedicated to this cause, one that they didn’t even fully comprehend or understand, they were going to have to leave their suitcases, their lunchboxes and everything else and set out with nothing but a staff (and I’m not talking about assistants who do most of the hard work), we’re talking about a walking stick here…
They had to set out for the villages around Nazareth with only the sandals on their feet and the clothes on their backs, nothing else… not even a change of clothes.
I’ll pause for a moment and say that the other gospel accounts of this moment tell the disciples that they are not even allowed to take the stick with them. In Mark’s version of the story, Jesus is just a little more generous.
But the scripture we read today says they weren’t completely powerless and vulnerable, stick or no stick, Jesus gave them something much more mighty. He gave them power over unclean spirits.
I have to tell you, I have some questions about these “unclean spirits.” I’ve heard a lot of conversation and debate about what they actually are.
Some literalist theologians believe they are actual demonic spirits that take up residence in a human body. There are several instances in scripture where Jesus confronts these spirits and drives them out.
Some others believe these spirits are actually illnesses, psychological and physical, that manifested through erratic and involuntary convulsions and seizures.
Regardless, here, as Jesus sends the disciples out to evangelize, he gives them authority over these spirits, and the power to heal. And according to our scripture today, that’s exactly what they did.
That kind of authority is empowering.
I have to tell you a story about my younger, very-Pentecostal ministry days. This may sound foreign to some of you, but if you’ve ever seen some of the “healing” preachers on television, you’ll sorta recognize what I’m talking about.
Back when I was doing my seminary studies, I was dispatched as a traveling evangelist. Most of my work was done within a couple or three, maybe four hours of home, so when I’d get home from a few days on the road singing, I’d jump in the car and go to churches to hold revivals.
These were mostly smaller, rural churches, and often they were very Pentecostal.
Some of you will remember the old tent revivals. An evangelist would come into town, pitch a big circus-like tent, and hold several nights of church services there.
One day I got a call from a group of pastors over in Western Kentucky. They asked if I’d be able to come and hold a few nights of services under a big tent they were setting up in an empty field just off the Western Kentucky Parkway.
I’d been to tent revivals as a kid, but I’d never been a preacher in one. So, yeah, why not!
The day came, I packed the family in the car and off we went to Beaver Dam, Kentucky for a week of old-fashioned church under the big-top.
Those of you familiar with the culture know that the word “old-fashioned” is synonymous with authentic bible. We loved to use words like old-fashioned altar and old-fashioned preaching and old-fashioned singing. We were stuck in the good-old days of the forties and fifties when God finally got it right, and we didn’t want see any good reason to get any more “modern.”
The first night under the tent was fun but absolutely miserable. It was hot and humid and there was not the slightest breeze to be felt. We were using anything we could get to fan ourselves and still sweating like we’d just broken out of jail.
A couple of nights later it rained so hard you couldn’t hear a thing anyone said. There wasn’t a sound system anywhere that could compete with the torrential flood pounding the top of that canvas.
The next night we were burning whatever was flammable and unnecessary. We almost froze to death.
That’s what you get when you have church in a tent. But we also got some good “old-fashioned” church. The songs were powerful, the worship was moving, and the spirit of togetherness was empowering.
Remember the part of the story we read today where the disciples anointed the people with olive oil and prayed for them?
That’s something that’s still pretty common in many Charismatic and Pentecostal church services, and others of course, today. If someone wants to be healed or blessed by God through a minister or the elders, they come forward and allow them to anoint them with oil, lay hands on them, and pray for them.
The way it goes in most of churches who practice this, is the minister will ask those who need a “touch from God” to come forward. The preacher, and usually some of the “seasoned prayer warriors” in the church will dab a small amount of olive oil on a finger, “anoint” that person with the oil - usually just a touch on the forehead - and offer a prayer for them.
The responses vary. Some people sob or cry while they are being prayed for, some join the prayer, some just stand there. In the more expressive churches, the person may raise their hands or even “shout” a little.
Again, you may have seen this with some of the TV preachers.
Although the first night of this tent revival was mostly uneventful and routine, it was on the second night that I felt the urge to ask if there was anyone in the audience who wanted or needed to be anointed with oil and prayed for.
A lady, probably in her late twenties, my early thirties, came forward… some of the local pastors joined me as I dabbed a little oil on my finger, touched her on the forehead and started to pray.
She raised her hands… then she fell down…
If that happened here today, two dozen of you would be on 911 already. The rest of you would already be in your cars.
But back then and there, under that big revival tent, that was the cue for things to start happening! We called it that time when church broke out.
As the lady fell backwards, someone caught her and gently laid her on the ground. Another person covered her legs with a “vanity cloth,” and everyone else started praising the Lord!
I stood there for a minute… looked at my hands… started feeling my Oral Roberts and Benny Hinn and said, “who else wants a touch from Gahd?”
I was feeling myself pretty good. It was an awesome sense of power. I could see how anyone could get caught up in themselves. I’ve wondered sometimes if that was ever another dynamic the disciples had to deal with among themselves.
Did they come back from their mission trip with stories to try and outdo each other? Did they compare miracles and congregation sizes, even meals provided by their hosts? We all know that that’s a thing among a lot of preachers and pastors today.
In the second part of our scripture reading today, we read of those final days and moments of Jesus on the earth with his disciples… after his resurrection and before he ascended to Heaven.
The scripture says he spent 40 days after his resurrection teaching them and preparing them for what would be exciting but dangerous times ahead.
We read these things now with a sense of history and ease, but imagine the thoughts among the disciples and others who were there. They were eating meals with a guy whose execution they’d just witnessed. They knew for a fact that he’d been buried, but now he’s sitting among them, teaching them like it was all just a dream.
I feel like I’d be sitting there, zoning in and out as I tried to process this whole bizarre series of events.
And now he’s saying the craziest things. “If I’m gonna get out of this thing, now is probably my best chance.” “This guy is out of his head!” “What have I done??”
That’s me though. These disciples hung in there.
So here we are in the book of Acts, Jesus is giving final instructions on what the disciples can expect. He’s talking about baptism. They’re familiar with this. They knew what it meant to be baptized in water, in a river or creek, but then Jesus throws a whole new screwball and starts talking about a baptism with a Spirit. What does that even mean?
Another little sidebar…
I think it’s interesting that the folks, the disciples gathered around Jesus at the time were still expecting to be a part of some big government coup. They were locked into this notion of a kingdom where they could sit next to King Jesus and look down on others, maybe exact revenge on those who had treated them bad.
Here, in the middle of all his teachings about God’s vision of a kingdom, they are asking Jesus if he’s still planning to overthrow the powers-that-be and set him up a kingdom, and if he’d mind doing it now - thank you very much.
Even after Jesus’ kangaroo court of a trial, fast crucifixion and hastily arranged burial, the notions of might and power were still the thing the disciples were angling for.
Can I say? It seems sometimes we’ve not moved very far from that notion. A lot of our modern church leaders, especially here in the U.S., seem to pay only cursory attention to what Jesus is really teaching, and they’re latching on to this idea of political power and influence from an earthly throne.
They, and we, would do well to remember that Jesus told his disciples that their power is not vested by the limited authority of a man or a political system, but by the unlimited power of the Holy Spirit.
If we accomplish anything good in our world, it is because our strength comes from something more holy than selfish desires for power and authority over others.
Things that are holy are honest and moral and virtuous and reverent and sacred and pure and complete and certain and reliable. These are traits of the Holy Spirit, the spirit that Jesus promised his disciples would guide them and fill them and motivate them.
Then there is the other spirit, the opposite one that is selfish and corrupt and dishonest and immoral and vile and depraved and profane and wicked and impure and incomplete and unreliable and… unholy.
We have a choice as to what motivates us. We get to decide what our hearts desire. We will choose the thing we value most. It will either be selfish and self-serving and very temporal, or it will be something of value that benefits others and serves God’s purpose and God’s desires for our world.
When we can’t seem to, and when the disciples just couldn’t grasp it, Jesus essentially said to them that there are two kinds of spirits at work in our world. One of them is Holy… one of them is not.
One of them serves a holy purpose. One of them does not. One of them points us toward God and ministering in God’s name. One of them does not. One of them is about seeing and serving the least of the world. One of them is not. One of them is sent from heaven. One of them is not.
So, which one do you, do we, desire today?
Well, we got about as close to the Day of Pentecost as you can get in today’s scripture and lesson. But not worries, Pastor Marsha will be back for the next few weeks, then I’ll be back in the pulpit for Pentecost Sunday. That might just get good!
But in the meantime, communion…
Mark 6:7-13 (CEB)
He called for the Twelve and sent them out in pairs. He gave them authority over unclean spirits. He instructed them to take nothing for the journey except a walking stick—no bread, no bags, and no money in their belts. He told them to wear sandals but not to put on two shirts. He said, “Whatever house you enter, remain there until you leave that place. If a place doesn’t welcome you or listen to you, as you leave, shake the dust off your feet as a witness against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that people should change their hearts and lives. They cast out many demons, and they anointed many sick people with olive oil and healed them.
Acts 1: 1-14 (CEB)
Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”
Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, 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 end of the earth.”
After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. 1They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”
1Then they returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, which is near Jerusalem—a sabbath day’s journey away. 1When they entered the city, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying. Peter, John, James, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James, Alphaeus’ son; Simon the zealot; and Judas, James’ son - all were united in their devotion to prayer, along with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.