Sunday, January 31, 2016

Spiritual Maturity: Love

Spiritual Maturity: Love
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 31, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 Corinthians 13: 1-13

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly,but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

This passage is probably the most often used text in the Bible. It may be the most recognizable, certainly of the letters of Paul. You hear it at weddings, often, even funerals. I have a ton of poetry books, and ones that include Biblical poetry seem to always include this one as well, as a poem. And deservedly so, It is one of the most beautiful phrases, seeking to define and describe what love is and just how important love is, saying that it is the ingredient that makes all of the rest worthwhile. This passage stands on its own most of the time, with its four memorable movements. The first being: If you have this, this and this, and don’t have love, then you have nothing. . . nothing, then the second movement is the love is patient, love is kind, and the rest, and then you have the famous line when I was a child I spoke as a child, but then since I’ve given up childish things, and the last Faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love. I can’t hear that phrase anymore without thinking about Alan Jackson and the song he wrote in response to 911, where he sings:
I know Jesus and I talk to God,
And I remember this from when I was young,
Faith, Hope, and Love are some good things he gave us,
But the greatest is love. . .

Beautiful right, and perfect for what was needed in the wake of that awful day. When you had other singers singing revenge carols, like courtesy of the Red, White and Blue, it was so perfect to hear about faith, and hope, and love. It is indelibly written in my mind every time I hear that song sung, or hear this text read. This morning  I want to walk through these four movements, and think about them in the context of the rest of Paul’s letter because as familiar as they are on their own, we rarely think about them in their original time and place.
We talked two weeks ago about 1 Corinthians 11, two chapters ago, and if it weren’t for the snowmaggedon of last week, we would have looked at chapter 12 then. Remember in 11, Paul is talking about the gifts of the spirit, how there are many gifts, but they all come from the same source. The Holy Spirit is the activator of all good things with respect to the church. He’s saying these things because divisions have grown in the Corinthian church. It is falling apart at the seams. You have factions, you have resentment, you have envy, you have people who believe different things, you have people baptized and introduced into the faith by different people, you have former Jews, you have former gentiles, many of which are Greek and Roman Pagans, some are Roman citizens, some are not. They are all coming from different cultures where there are different rules, traditions, customs, etc., and now they have to come together as one body of Christ, and they are having trouble doing so.
He reminds them of the primacy of the Holy Spirit as the glue binding the church together, reminding them all that they all are taking the same risks in being marked as Christians in the world they live in. The risks are significant, persecution and death are more than just a possibility, and they all take these risks together. He reminds them that they could not do so without the Holy Spirit, that none of them could, and that should give them something to at least respect about each other, if not inspire to more. So he says that the Holy Spirit works in many different ways, and so you can’t assume that the way it is working in you is the same as in someone else, respecting that the spirit is working in them, in the other,  is the key.
He goes on then to say that each gift is important, like a body with all of its organs. He goes through the parts of the body, looking at how they could not exist without the others, and each has a unique job to do, a unique role to play. And We’ve all heard that before. . . we are the body of Christ, each of us with a different part to play, but what I wanted to make sure I pointed out before going on was the transition from that argument that makes up most of chapter 12, to this one in chapter 13. . . the last line of chapter 12 is an introduction of sorts to this final argument. . .  you see because they are all connected. Paul writes. . . “and I will show you a still more excellent way. . . “ In other words, here I am, I’m arguing the same point again, but I want you to see it this time in yet another way, this other way, and this is the best way yet.
Then he goes into this bit about love, as a new way to see this body and parts metaphor. So the first argument is about the Primacy of the Holy Spirit in giving gifts, then how all the gifts are important, and now you can have all the gifts you want, but without love, you have nothing. My favorite is of course the first one. . . he uses such a great image. He’s talking about speaking in tongues, either of angels or men, he says, and if you do that and have no love, then all you are is a noising gong and a clashing cymbal. . . in other words its like, no one wants to listen to you. . . . reminds me of my mentor, Dr. Bob’s favorite witticism about people not caring how much you know, until they know how much you care. . . but Paul goes farther, not only is talking the voice of angels, but also all the wisdom in the world. . . and lastly he brings up two of the most important parts of Jesus’ life as a definition of love, two of Jesus’ own words that are also reflected in Jesus’ actions. . . giving away all of your possessions, of course we remember Jesus saying, give all you have and follow me. .  . and the last is giving up your very body as a sacrifice, giving up your body to be burned. . . one of the ideas I’ve said so often, standing right here, that giving up of yourself  is a necessary ingredient in love. . . but here he is saying that the action alone is not enough, but that it must be paired with love. How many times have you heard me say, things like Love has no better soul than this, to lay your life down for your friend, or that Jesus does this very thing, because of God’s love. . . would it even be possible to perform such sacrifice of self without love. . . Paul’s use of it here would suggest so. Interesting. . . that there is a depth, that there is a heart, that there is perhaps more to the definition of what love is than even the most noble of all actions, like self sacrifice, but that there is motive, and something internal, something beyond internal, like perhaps spiritual. . . and like Paul can hear my mind, hear my questions, perhaps it is the very questions the Corinthians are asking. . . if love is not that, if love is not the act of giving up of your complete self, then what is love?
So Paul gives his famous description of love. Patient, kind, not jealous, not boastful, not rude, does not insist on its own way, not irritable, or resentful, not rejoicing ever in wrong, but instead always in the right, bears all things, believes, all things, hopes and endures, all things, and in such it never ends, but instead is eternal. .  . That is love. And what a tall order. It is quite a list of virtue. . . I’ve been teaching the Middle Ages in class, and we looked at some of the famous lists. . . most famously, “The Seven Deadly Sins”. . . that is the most well known, but they also had virtues paired with them.  . . that they called the “The Seven Contrary Virtues” Stuff like Pride is the sin, and its contrary virtue is humilty, sloth’s is diligence, gluttony is temperance. . . you see all of those make sense, but then we got to envy, and this was eye opening the contrary virtue to envy is kindness. . . do you see why? Envy is focused on the self, whereas kindness is focused on the other. Is this the ingredient that love must have? is self sacrifice, and giving away all of your possessions possible for yourself and not for the other? Only in a Christian Salvation context. . . the idea of earning eternal life, for yourself, and not being concerned with the other at all. . . how slippery is that slope? The slide Paul says is worth nothing. That’s kind, but aren’t the rest of Paul’s list equally focused on the other. . . patience. .  certainly, not boasting, why do we boast. . . to make ourselves seem better, more important, feel better, again ourselves, insisting on own way. . . yeah, giving up control to the other, even if that other is God, seeing salvation not as a system you can manipulate but a love relationship to live in, under, and to embody fully. It is huge, huge, unending deal, one where the end doesn’t exist, so enduring, bearing, is a necessary part of love. It is never over, never enough.
Which gets me to the “childish things” movement here. . . this isn’t the first time in this letter that Paul has mentioned childhood, infancy, and maturity with respect to spiritual development. He does that earlier too, saying how the Corinthians are in the infancy of their faith. So again there is the context, and this idea of love then would suggest that love is the goal of spiritual maturity, what it means to be spiritually mature. . . that this then would be the real goal of the Christian life, to become better at loving, through the activation of the Holy Spirit. I get this. . . you just have spend an evening in my house after dinner, seeing the relationship of Coralee and Clara to get a glimpse of the fact that development of how to love takes time. The will is there, the idea is there, but it is in its infancy stage. The girls now must clean up their toys nightly. I used to do, so I’m kinda happy about this new development, you see it even affects adults too, so I shouldn’t give them too much of a hard time. And there are two major locations of toy mess: the living room behind the couch, where they have a play area, and in their bedrooms. One of these two areas is always significantly less messed up than the other, and they settled on a pattern where one does one and the other does the other, and they seek to stick the other with the larger load. . . tears are shed, races are run, it is a huge deal, and the idea of helping when you are finished is far from even plausible. . . basically go through the list of what Paul describes love as, and cross them all off. . . they struggle with this. . . . its a game, it is a competition, it is a fight, it is not in any way love. . . but they are learning and we hope they will mature. Paul says there is always hope. Basically what it all boils down to, is that both of them want to be done, to have done enough, to go on to the next thing, which is typically bath, to be validated in what they have done, praised, rewarded, etc. . . . the work is checked off, and they can move on. . . but this concept of done is the one thing that love does not have. There is no such thing as done, no such thing as enough. . . and Paul is clear on it. Living the life of love is not one of validation, but of grace.
The notion of being done, of validation is what I think after this week of studying is the childish thing we are to give up. We are never done, ever. . . there is always more. . . the self is self contained, but the other is infinite. You can please yourself and be satisfied, but when it comes to the other there is no limit, there is no end, there is no done. Love is infinite in that way. I was talking to someone earlier on in the week and they were celebrating a message that was preached that spoke to them that validated them. . . and they knew it was the word. . . now I knew that message took many many liberties with the Bible story, and pointed that out, but they didn’t want to hear it, they had heard the message, agreed with it, and so the questions were over, the search was done, they had found enough. .. . see how it can work with the mental side of things too. We all want to rest and be done, but it just doesn’t work that way. . . though Christianity has been built on such patterns since the beginning. With all of these ideas in mind I wrote this poem on Friday: I put in in the bulletin too.
I gave it the title Christendom
Whose Bible bids us cease our search? Not one
That I’ve e’er read. Instead it calls us each
To ask, to seek, to knock, in tense ne’er done.
The child succumbs when forceful parents teach
A safe secure path, free from conflicting views,
And walks along that road awhile, and sings
Sweet songs of ign’rant bliss. The chance to choose
May just be the giving up of childish things,
But can the heirs of Constantine e'er let go
The chains that bound success so long? Can Spirit
Be trusted? Can one’s own discernment be free to grow?
These are the questions, institutions fear.
Don’t blame the book when th' same ol' fears of men,
Send us to seek our safe ol' chains again.

Our search is never done, our mission is never done, love is never done. . . which brings me to the close of Paul’s passage here, his final words. . . faith, hope, and love, abide, and the greatest of these is love. . . what do you think that means? I’d love to hear your thoughts at some point. . . until then I’ll just say. . . Amen.

Thursday, January 28, 2016



Whose Bible bids us cease our search? Not one
That I’ve e’er read. Instead it calls us each
To ask, to seek, to knock, in tense ne’er done.
The child succumbs when forceful parents teach
A safe secure path, free from conflicting views,
And walks along that road awhile, and sings
Sweet songs of ign’rant bliss. The chance to choose
May just be the giving up of childish things,
But can the heirs of Constantine e'er let go
The chains that bound success so long? Can Spirit
Be trusted? Can one’s own discernment be free to grow?
These are the questions, institutions fear.
Don’t blame the book when th' same ol' fears of men,
Send us to seek our safe ol' chains again.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Go to Sleep, Little Baby (A Snow Lullaby)

Go to Sleep, Little Baby (A Snow Lullaby)

Snow falls silently, and its peaceful,
Toneless lullaby is sung to the ears
Of imagination, and for a moment
I can think of no better way to go,
To simply fade away into a soft
Oblivion. It would need to be gradual
Of course: I've taken a cold shower,
And I've jumped into a frozen lake;
Such change is too violent, too abrupt,
Too hard. No, that's ice. It may suffice.
Of course, Frost would know, but he
Saw this side too, stopping in woods
Long enough to feel that beckoning,
Soft, falling end. If it were fast,
We'd be forced to fight it, or flee
Inside. No, just bundle up and go out,
Only prepare yourself for a short while,
A brief visit, and then it's simple,
Outstay your welcome. Lie down
And make a real snow angel. You are
Covered, head to toe, but the cold
Seeps through, little by little. Would it
Hurt to pass that threshold, or would
You go out, seeing strange memories
Of Christmas lights and a grandmother's
Love? If you didn't fight it, didn't seek
To build the fire, would your spark
Go out slowly, snuffed, buried beneath
A million individualized flakes, collected
Together to shroud your restful body?
Would your soul hang on, enjoying
The peaceful victory over fear and pride,
Or would the ghost be given up first,
Stepping out for a better warmer seat
To watch the closing seconds, or with
The game decided, head out to beat
The traffic home? The mind can paint
A picture of anything, create illusions,
Imagine peace, just from seeing a scene
Of soft fluffy inviting white and gray.
We can see a pillow, a cloud, a heavenly
Dream, in our comfortable warm minds,
And never have to ask about reality,
The actual experience of one who knows,
Whose only coat's defenses have already
Been besieged, who has no fireside
Chair retreat, no sheltering keep to stave
Off the frozen barbarians threatening
At the gate, a man whose toes battered
Numb by repeated ramming, purpled,
Gray, already bitten, and beginning
A vampire like turn to eternal freeze.
Such thoughts make you wonder if
The softness of snow is a friendly facade,
Disguising a harsh reality, we'd rather
Not see, that there is no difference
Between snow and ice, they both,
Whether hard or soft, they still
Have knives that cut, just like tyranny.

Sunday, January 17, 2016


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 17, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 Corinthians 12: 1-11

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were heathen, you were led astray to dumb idols, however you may have been moved. 3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.
4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.11 All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

The lectionary passage for this morning is one of the more well known and often preached ones, mostly because it has such great and important parallels for our times, but like all of the letters of Paul, this one has a real context. It was a real letter from a real person to a real group of people, dealing with a real situation, in a real and actual place and time,  but two things about it make it so important for us as a reading today, well three, because one could claim that it has importance for simply being a part of the canon, a part of scripture, found in the Bible, but beyond the importance it has as being a part of the Bible, there are these two undeniable facts, and they never change. One of them is God, his presence, his promises, his power, all of it, it doesn’t change, God is as real and present now as He was then, and the other is us. People are people, and the issues of the early church are very much present all throughout history because people do not change, at least not all that much. Many if not all of the problems of today’s church were present from the very beginning, and so Paul’s letters often read as if they were written directly to us in our own time, and many read them that way, and I want to as well, but I want to start with their historical context first because I think it gives us some needed perspective about our own situations.
If you read all of this letter, Paul goes into great detail in the beginning about the issues that the fledgling church in Corinth is going through. The biggest issue is division within the body. They’ve got all kinds of subsets in the body. They’ve got former pagans and former Jews, and each has their own unique perspective, because all of their life they have seen God in a certain way, and change is difficult for everyone, especially full change. They have accepted Christ as their Lord, but Paul says they are still developing in their faith. He says that they are mere “infants in the faith” in chapter 3, and the big difference is about them being worldly rather than spiritual, and this gives the sense that they are still holding onto what they use to know: the old ways, the old thoughts, whether Pagan or Jew, polytheist and monotheist. There are differences in the body of Christ, and Paul uses the language of Spiritual versus worldly to make those claims. Another division they have among them is they are connected to who it was that first taught them the gospel, who baptized and introduced them into the faith, some of them claim Paul, and some Apollos, and some Cephas, or Peter, and even some say Christ himself, Paul deals with this issue in chapter 1, straight off the bat, saying: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you Baptized into the name of Paul?”But still the divisions remain. Another set of anger deals with the way that communion is eaten, whether all at once or whether they should wait for everyone to be present, who should be served first, last, included, not included. Some others about what rituals need to be observed, the questions surrounding the necessity of circumcision, the question about food and dietary laws, how food is prepared, who food has been offered to, has it been part of a pagan ceremony. People claiming wisdom on one side, others on another, people proclaiming that their way is the way to be authentic, their path of conversion, their journey, their symbols, their rituals. Divisions have arisen, and the main focus of this letter is addressing those divisions. Paul is offering his wisdom and advice to them, since he took part in the beginning of this church he is concerned about them and how they should function.
This is the background of our passage from this morning. These are the divisions, this is the context. So let’s look at it before we connect it home to ourselves. The first piece you get is about what connects them together and thus a reminder about exactly what is important. It says remember that no one could say “Jesus is Lord” without the Holy Spirit, and no one who has been filled with the Holy Spirit could ever say “Jesus is Cursed.” Now this seems strange to us because obviously people can say anything. It isn’t hard. People talk all the time, and I don’t want to think about what percentage of the stuff coming out of someone’s mouth is heartfelt and authentic these days, but we have to remember the context. And it is important to know why Paul addresses in the way he does, saying both, Lord and cursed, because that is the way the persecution questions would be. We talked briefly about Roman persecution in the fall, and in Sunday School we talked about it in some depth during Advent, looking at the situation surrounding the writing of Revelation. Basically for the most part, when persecution wasn’t super hot, basically they had a don’t ask don’t tell policy when it came to Christians. You were fine as long as they didn’t find out about it, and if you were ever caught you would be brought before a tribunal of sorts and asked if you were a Christian. And if you said no, you would then have to curse Christ, and we should remember that in those days the original statement of the faith, was not the apostle’s creed, as the name would suggest, but simply what Paul writes here, Jesus is Lord. So when he writes this in his letter he is saying, hey don’t forget, you all are all in this together. You’ve all taken the same risks, you are all in it together, If you are to stand up to persecution it isn’t because of you, but because of the holy spirit, and that is truly what matters, and all of you are bound together, grouped together, and each time you are assembled together you are all taking that same risk, together. Don’t take that lightly. The person to your left, who you are now divided from for some trifle, is taking on the same risk as you. Let that, and the Spirit that makes it possible be the central truth that binds you together.
And then he goes to the second part, about the need for mutual forbearance, and respect for what others are called to do, remembering that everyone is different, everyone’s function is different, and everyone’s function is valuable because it is connected to that same spirit that makes all of it possible. If you are bound together don’t forget that all of you are equally important in that venture. Everything you do, comes from the Holy Spirit. The word that Paul uses is translated in the RSV, which I used this morning as inspires, but that is a little weak because inspires has that spirit root to it, literally its what inspire means, to spirit, but the NRSV uses the word “activates” which is cool because it is more than just the idea, but the thing that puts it in motion too. It reflects that Pauline notion that none can glory in the doing, but giving all honor to God. It is not us, but the spirit, who is the activator of all, the ability to stand up to persecution, should it arise, the ability to be joined together, and the ability to perform the unique purposes, it all comes from the Holy Spirit. It isn’t just giving us the idea, and then it is up to us, but the activation of it all. He is the activator, the catalyst the beginning, the process, and the end of it all, with that in mind, what divisions can continue to exist. The divisions as Paul said are of the world, but not of the spirit, for it is one spirit, one body, one God at the center of everything this church does.
Then he goes on with the metaphor of the body. . . one body but multiple parts with each having their unique roles. I was looking for a poem to use for the Preparation in the Bulletin, and remembered this section from one of my favorites, Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man.” Pope takes straight from this passage, writing:

What if the foot ordained the dust to tread,
Or hand to toil, aspired to be the head?
What if the head, the eye, or ear repined
To serve mere engines to the ruling mind?
Just as absurd for any part to claim
To be another, in this general frame;
Just as absurd, to mourn the tasks or pains
The great directing mind of all ordains.
  All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body nature is, and God the soul:
That, changed through all, and yet in all the same;
Great in the earth as in th’ ethereal frame;
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,
Lives through all life, extends through all extent,
Spreads undivided, operates unspent:
Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part,
As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart;
As full, as perfect, in vile man that mourns,
As the rapt seraph that adores and burns:
To him no high, no low, no great, no small;
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all.

Do you see it?  It is powerful. . . I’ve always liked Pope, but there are many things different about his time and ours. He lived in a very structured society, and he liked it that way. The world told you who you were, what your role was, how you were born determined such things, and there was no movement, and passages like this one from 1 Corinthians were used often to add permanence to the structure of society. It wasn’t as much about respecting the gifts and talents that others were given, but to accept your role in life, no matter what it was. We live in a different and challenging time where freedom has become a reality, and that puts the onus on us to discern, rather than be told by the powers of the world what our gifts are.
And this leads me to us as a church. We have many things that join us together, but we have things that divide us as well. If you think about it, most people from the outside, from the world would look at this congregation and think there is not much diversity, but that would show the race blinded ignorance of the world we live in today. The world might see us all as white, predominantly a part of the ever shrinking middle class, working folks, of a mostly older generation, but they would miss the glorious individual differences and groups that could form here. but really don't. There are geographical differences, some live in Gordonsville, some Louisa, some Charlottesville, some Orange County, some Greene, people come to this church up 15, down 33, from 132.  These things could divide us, but they don’t seem to. There are differences in faith history and journeys, people who have found their way to Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, by way of Baptist Churches, and Methodist Churches, and United Church of Christ Congregational churches, Episcopalians, other Presbyterian denominations, some have attended Catholic Churches, but somehow we all found our way here, and many different reasons, for some maybe a former pastor, maybe because it was the most convenient to your house, maybe because you were turned off from somewhere else, maybe your old church closed, maybe you moved here, or maybe this is the only church you’ve ever known. These things could divide us, but for the most part they don’t seem to. Another somewhat unique situation we have here is that we have a number of folks who are regular attendees, have come for years, are in every way a part of the family of this church, but are not technically members, it could be something to divide us, but it doesn’t seem to. We have a great number of elders, people who have served in leadership roles in the church, and then those who haven’t yet been called to such posts, but we don’t seem to be divided on that issue either. Other than the little squabbles that go on in all churches, and then just seem to go away, there is only one aspect of the church that seems to be a repetitive source of division, and frankly it is one that in many  churches it is taken care of and unseen because of the great numbers, but here with fewer of us, these issues become very difficult, and can be quite frustrating for people. We are divided about what we each feel most called to do here, in service to each other, the community, and the church. And I could stand up here and say it is a good thing, that we are each doing what we are called to do , that we are trying our best, and that it is good, and that we are each functioning in the roles we are called to, that those who feel called teach, teach, and those who feel called to sing, sing, those who feel called to serve soup, serve soup, those who feel called to be lay readers are lay readers, those who feel called to clean clean, and the list could go on and on, and that is my first reaction. People are doing what they feel called to do, and we should each happily carry our own cross, do our own duty, what we are called to do, walking parallel, without envy, anger, resentment, of others who are not called to the same work we are.
That is my initial reaction and reading, but I’m not sure it’s good enough. It doesn’t push enough. It’s too easy to say, though it may be true, and an important thing for us all to remember,  there is and must be more that is connected to it. There are two sides to this coin, and much of it is brought on by the advent of freedom. In Pope's time, structures were solid and unquestioned, you just did what people said you should do, ministers, leaders, those in authority, tradition was strong, but these days those structures have long ago been questioned, and many of them have fallen away. You could say that it is a shame, that much has been lost, but the potential is there for much gain, because it allows us to actually will, and be connected directly to God and how the Holy Spirit is working, but we can't take that connection lightly. On one hand, no one can say to you, you need to do this because this is a church, and this is what churches do, no one can say to you we've always done it this way, this program is part of the church and needs to be preserved, no one can say to you, you are a bad Christian because you don't X, Y, or Z. No one can do that, no one should do that, no one, including me is in the position to do that, and because this is true, some programs, some traditions, some parts of the church will and must change, and that's hard for folks to deal with, I know. . . but on the other hand, if you are going to live in that place of freedom and ownership of yourself, you really need to discern what you are, what you are being called to do, and how the spirit is working in your life. The spirit needs to be the Activator that Paul describes. We don't live in a time where there is persecution, other than people crying about Starbucks' cups and people saying Happy Holidays, so saying Christ is Lord isn't quite as hard for us. . . we might just be able to say such things without the activation of the spirit, but for many of us it is possible that, that is all we're doing, and it would seem that there is more to it than that. Like I said it is a two sided coin. We cannot control what others do, but each of us has a relationship with the spirit that can and should push us beyond ourselves. . . beyond infancy in Christ, to more, and if we are all striving for such things, activated by the same spirit, this church, and all churches will be united, and sustained, for Christ is Lord, and if not, the wind will blow the candle out, for there would be no activation possible or necessary. Amen.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Mended Counterpart

Mended Counterpart

Where did the cheapening of love begin?
I asked, as love’s imposters sought to fill
My life with darkness, emptiness, and sin,
For ‘n youth, I never counted love until
It was too late for me. I can’t go back
And change what came to be, nor should I choose
It different now, for if some other track
I took back then, the love I have I’d lose.
But somewhere in my heart of hearts I know
My soul was broken long before she mended
The parts into the man she loves. I go
And wonder still, beyond what I intended,
If love exists in more than I can give
To her, whose soul, with mine, bids me to live.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

In the Name Only

In the Name. . . Only
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 10, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Acts 8: 14-17

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

I’ve decided after a year of looking at one Gospel that I wanted to try to follow the lectionary for a while. The only trouble is that I had this same thought three years ago, so wouldn’t you know it, since the lectionary is on a three year cycle it is the same passages again. I think the way that my career has gone up to this point that I have actually done this before too, and that I am really versed in Year C. But there are four passages each week, and I thought maybe I would focus on the non-Gospel New Testament reading, which would put us studying Acts and the Epistles a little bit more, which could be fun. It is today, and also a good reminder about the importance of context because this is one where it is quite eye opening to not just read this in the vacuum of space, but to see exactly the situation for it in the book of Acts. Here is Acts 8: 14-17, a baptism story on the day where we celebrate Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan:

14Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16(for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Obviously this is a short text. One that captures a baptism of new converts in Samaria, so we hear Samaria and we think about Samaritans, like the Good Samaritan, we think about the Woman at the Well, we think about outsiders, and race, and the history of the struggle between the two nations, and how this new fledgling Christian movement is breaking down the barriers that use to exist. We see Peter and John Baptizing, laying on hands and giving the gift of the Holy Spirit. What jumped out at me, in my first reading of this, before doing further study into the context was the parenthetical statement here that says, “for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of Lord Jesus.” Strange is it not?  And I started to think about what does this idea of being Baptized in the Name of Jesus, but not just in the Name of Jesus, but in “only the name of Jesus.” What does this mean? Why would that be insufficient? Is it only a technicality? Is it connected to having not said the right magic words? Or is it because the wrong person does the baptism it? Is it a mental piece, that something was missing from the equation on the convert's end? And if so, what would that be?
We hear a lot about this whole, In Name Only, idea in today’s culture. I know I’ve heard it in politics, usually with conservatives taking about Moderate Republicans being RINO’s or Republican’s in name only, but what does it mean with Christians? And is our understanding of in name only, what is going on here? Because you’ve probably heard or thought that before of Chrsitians whose world view or perspective on certain issues is different from yours, that you may say that, well they say they are a Christian, but it is an empty distinction, and usually it is meant to call into question some aspect of them that is fraught with hypocrisy. Is that what is going on here? From the very beginning we have a sense that not all people claiming conversion are actually converted, not all Christians are Christians, some may be wolves in sheeps clothing at worst, or mere hypocrites at best. To say the least I was puzzled and I wanted to study more before I jumped to conclusions because there are alot of conclusions you can jump to.
So I looked at the text before and after. If you look at chapter 8 as a whole you get a lot of information. For starters you get that the disciples Phillip first and then Peter and John are in Samaria to begin with because they are fleeing from the persecution of Saul back in Jerusalem. You see Saul hasn't headed out on the road to Damascus yet, and there has been no blinding light, no conversion and therefore no Apostle Paul, out to spread the gospel to the gentiles, but Saul the Pharisee persecuting. . . and the stoning of Stephen has just taken place. So that's where we are. And Phillip is here in Samaria first, talking about Jesus and people get excited about what he is telling them, and he heals many and drives out unclean spirits out of people, and so there is great joy there, and there are many who are wishing to be baptized. So good things are going on, and it is here where we are introduced to a new character: a man named Simon. Now Simon is famous in Samaria, and he is a magician of sorts, or as verse 9 says, "he practiced magic" and was known to the people as a great man for it, and then it says in verse 10 about him, "All of them from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, "This man is the power of God that is called Great." And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic." So you actually have competing folks who are being listened to eagerly, Simon, the old news, and Phillip the new news. They are both doing wondrous deeds, amazing the crowds, they both have the crowds convinced that they somehow represent God. Then it is in verse 12 that we have the baptizing that our scripture passage referenced as being "in the name of Jesus only." The story continues, verse 12, "But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women." And then it goes on to say, "Even Simon himself believed." And he was baptized too, because it says, "After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip, and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place." It is here, where our passage begins:
14Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16(for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

So it seems that the big difference between In name only from verse 16 is "they received the Holy Spirit" in verse 17. The Holy Spirit is the difference. And if only the story would ended here, we could be confused by the simpleness of the difference, but it goes on.
8 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! 21 You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.” 24 Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.” [1]

So you get the idea from this story that it is the Holy Spirit that was the missing piece throughout, but how interesting here that Philip could not bestow the Holy Spirit but Peter and John could. Is it because they are more worthy as disciples? Or is it just a difference in the time? Is it that there are two of them working together whereas Philip was working on his own? Was it obvious to them at the time the difference, or much later, when all of this was compiled? Or is this something like the Gospel of John seemed to have again and again, where the heart of the people is somehow visible and known, and it was shown that though they had gone through the baptism ritual there was a piece missing?
It would seem that the ritual is not enough, and it would seem that the power of the Holy Spirit is something that you cannot control at least not with money. . . As Simon finds out pretty harshly. And Simon gets a raw deal because named after him is the idea of Simony, the buying and selling of church offices that has been such a problem at different times throughout the history of the church, possibily most notably in the middle ages. It was one of the major reforms of the Reformation, addressing the corruption. Just like many times my classroom teaching seems to parallel nicely with the text for the week because this week we begun our Middle Ages Literature, and we were talking about the Germanic Tribes and the Church, and how these Chieftains would use religion to consolidate their power. There was this Frankish Chief Clovis, who started the ball rolling, he was the first of the Germanic Chiefs to be baptized by the Pope and made King. He was to renounce his pagan faith, and become a Christian. But the question is always there, and it actually isn't much of a question because the evidence is overpowering, but does Clovis really convert or is it completely a political move? Because his behavior doesn't really change, he's ruthless, one of the things he does is kill off all of his family that could challenge his sons' succession to his throne. Hardly, loving his neighbor. And he is far from the only story like that in all of Christendom, and we are to some extent the heirs of such legacy.
How much of our faith is wrapped around the idea of control, or seeking the upper hand? Trying to control our present, trying to control the future, trying to Control God? How much are we like the people of Samaria in this story, seemingly swayed by Philip and his gospel just like they were swayed previously by other magicians like Simon? What is lasting? Will another magician come by next week and we change again? How much of it is what God offers us/ What we think we can get out of the deal? How much are we like Simon, willing to pay not for the grace, but for the power, the ability to wield the Holy Spirit, even if for good? Even if our intentions are good? Even if we are convinced that the ends we have in mind allow us to use any means? Is it possible that the real message of this little story is just that the Holy Spirit cannot be wielded, cannot be faked, cannot be captured by a name, even if that name is Christ Jesus. The Hebrews knew the power of names so they would never say the name of God, his name is actually a word impossible to say, to pronounce, you can’t do it. They knew that the name had great potential to see like you have become able to encapsulate the whole, and if you can do such things, it will give you power to use God, and such limited ideas of God cease to be God. This idea is one that is certainly very human, and we understand, but history would show that such human endeavors lead to failure and are fraught with peril, the peril, of much worse. May God keep us from such things, instead embracing the mystery in awe of the power of the Holy Spirit.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ac 8:18-24). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Friday, January 8, 2016

I Like That

I Like That 
(Lines written January 8, 2015 before the Redskins first playoff game)

A long time we had coming to it, ups and downs,
Many more downs than ups, valleys and peaks,
Many more valleys than peaks, the despondent
Malaise that comes from accepting the bottom
Because the climb seems impossible. Each first
Upward step was followed by stumbles, so often,
That cynicism grew, faithlessness spread, as hope
After hope was dashed, broken, crushed, as if
Echoing the sound of bones breaking and joints’,
Stressed and pressed in mounting tension, tendons
Tightening only to snap, heard in the crowded
Silence, somewhere between the initial “Uhh”
And the inevitable gasp, followed by another
Long suffering sigh, knowing that another glimmer
Of light has been systematically snuffed out again.
In the valley, since building seems only pointless,
You try to buy your way up, make it seem like
Investments are being made, progress occurring,
The fa├žade of growth, victories in meaningless
Arenas, far from the field, but deep down all know,
Because all have been conditioned to know,
It is only a show, and no real plan exists. The show
Goes on, and the distraction of drama becomes
The only show in town. Like buzzards, we circle,
In our hopeless desire to be filled, devouring
The rotten decay because we have been starved.
Such has it been in Washington, and not just
On Capitol Hill or in the White House, and not
Just for eight or sixteen years, but for longer.
For twenty-five years we’ve suffered this road,
And the confidence we knew then is a fleeting
Mere memory of the mind, when victory knew
The faces of hero after hero, no one savior,
But a groundswell of confidence in competence,
A way, a non-swaggering march of men, facing,
And overcoming adversity together, climbing
Together, arm in arm, each knowing his role
And importance in achieving a single minded goal.
Is twenty-five years in the dark enough to teach
The lesson, that you can’t buy it, you can’t
Steal it, you can’t artificially manufacture it,
One man can’t carry it alone, it doesn’t happen
With just one step, and you can’t skip steps,
But you have to believe in each step? Has it
Been enough time for the childish dreamers
To be put to bed, so that the men can rise
And go to work, with patience and an unbroken
Quiet faith in the step ahead and the man
Standing beside you, taking it there with you?
Have leaders emerged, built by the fire, but not
Burned by it, not broken by it, standing unmired by
The lost faith that leads others to fear and avoidance?
Maybe this time, we have seen a glimpse, and are
Being filled again by the real meat of victory
And not distraction. Hope has returned, different,
Reminiscent because it does seem more real.
It does seem like the right questions are being
Asked and answered, honestly, without dissembling
Double talk about moral victories and April wins.
It does seem like a foundation, a firm foundation
Is being built. It does seem like a chain is being built,
Rather than one shining link. It does seem like
As good as today may just be, tomorrow has not
Been forgotten and sold, but that it is all connected,
Then and now, as it always should be, and must be
Because it actually is, and the realization of such,
Is the true lesson of the fire, if you can emerge
On the other side, having stood under the heat.
I was a child when the confidence was strong, and I
Remember the heroes of my youth. I see the men
Who’ve been before behind those numbers, the gifts
They gave me: entertainment, hope, faith, excitement,
Memories, and long for those days to return.
I hope they have because we’ve known enough
Of the other side to be filled with the joy again.
Today I feel that joy. It doesn’t seem to be fleeting
Nor fragile. Of course, only time will tell, but for now

I must say, “I like that.” I like that very much.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Out of the East

Out of the East
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 3, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 2: 1-12