Miss Amy Womble Speaks Up

Apropos to this Sunday when we recognize and thank our Church School teachers and aides, the title of my sermon is “Miss Amy Womble Speaks Up”. I know that doesn’t give you much information, but trust me that when this retired first grade teacher did speak up in 1960’s North Carolina, the Holy Spirit was likely speaking through her.

Our scripture lesson for Sunday is Acts of the Apostles 15: 1-21, which is the account of the Great Council in Jerusalem where the Apostles wrestled with a major question for the first century church: should Gentiles–non-Jews–be required to submit to certain Jewish rituals before they could join the Christian church? After all, the Apostles had all been raised Jewish, and that’s what they had done, so why shouldn’t these new believers have to do the same thing we did? There was much discussion, and more to the point, much discernment, a word originating in Latin, meaning to “sort by sifting”, and ultimately “to distinguish”; “to perceive or recognize”; or to “make out clearly”. 

In a spiritual sense, Episcopal priest Frederick Schmidt observes, “discernment is fundamentally a practice of asking “God” questions instead of “I” questions. Discernment is less focused on our judgments, conclusions, and opinions, and involves opening up to what God wants in a particular situation.”

My sermon is a follow up to last week’s sermon in which we heard the words of John Calvin: “We are not our own; let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own; let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us….We are God’s; let God’s wisdom and God’s will therefore rule all our actions.”

Those first Christian Apostles were in a discernment process, which involves framing the issue, hearing testimony, and looking to scripture, and making a decision. We’ll understand how they did that—and then understand how a Christian woman named Miss Amy Womble shared her testimony that ultimately carried the day.

We Are Not Our Own

Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion,
“We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal. (Rom. 14:8; cf. 1 Cor. 6:19) 

My sermon is drawn from I Peter 2: 1-12, in which Peter writes to his brothers and sisters in Christ, “Come to him (Christ), a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house……”

Calvin says “We are not our own”; Peter writes, “Let yourselves be built (note that he does not say ‘build yourselves up’!) Looking to BPC’s future, we’re reminded that in all our deliberations and discussions, God is present and active through the power of the Spirit. Yes, in one sense this is “our church”, but ultimately it is God’s, and we need to be attentive to the work of the Spirit. Pastor Anthony Robinson, a respected church consultant, says more bluntly, “The church belongs to and owes it existence to God and not to us. God has created and claimed the church for God’s own purposes. The church, then, is not simply whatever we want it to be or what we choose to make of it. It is not simply a consumer-driven entity.”

Love One Another

The scripture lesson for Sunday is taken from the First Epistle of John, Chapter 4, verses 7 through 21. The focus of John’s message is Love: God’s love for us and our love for God and one another. The lesson contains some wonderful memory verses: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” (v.7); “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them”. (v.16b) ; “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (v.18a); and “We love because he first loved us”. (v.19)
In a commentary on this passage, the Rev. Dr. N.T. Wright observes, “At the heart of this passage we find, repeated, a little word which means a whole world to John, as in his gospel it means so much to Jesus himself. ‘Those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. The word is a simple one, meaning ‘dwell’ or ‘remain’ or ‘make one’s home'; but the reality is profound, going to the heart of what Christian faith is all about…. It is a mutual indwelling: we in God and God in us.”

Jesus Breathed on Them

I apologize for not posting this sooner. Here’s the sermon from Sunday, April 19…

This Sunday’s scripture lesson is from John 20:19-31 in which we find Jesus’ disciples huddled fearfully behind locked doors. They have heard Mary Magdalene’s witness to her encounter with the Risen Christ along with Peter and the Beloved Disciple’s (likely John) report that the tomb was indeed empty, but the primary emotion they are all feeling is fear. Bishop William Willimon, in a sermon delivered at the Duke University Chapel, comments, “Look at them! For long, painstaking chapters in John’s gospel, Jesus has been preparing his disciples for his departure. He has gone over, then over again, his commandments to love one another, to be bold, to trust him, to be the branches to his vine, to feed on the Bread of Life, to be ready to follow him at all costs. Somebody wasn’t paying attention. Look at them, cowering like frightened rabbits behind closed, bolted shut doors! Some disciples, some First Church Jerusalem!”

The good bishop may be overly harsh on those poor souls. Given all that they had experienced over the past few days, I’m inclined to cut them some slack. I suspect that few of us have ever experienced quite that same kind of fear.

In the midst of their turmoil, Jesus appears, shows them his wounds, extends God’s peace to them—and he breathes on them, giving them the Holy Spirit. It’s a very quiet giving of the Spirit, in contrast to what we read about in the account of the first Pentecost, with the rush of a violent wind, divided tongues as of fire, and the disciples speaking in other languages.

In our lesson for Sunday, “Jesus breathed on them and said to them, ‘receive the Holy Spirit.” I think Jesus knew that they weren’t quite ready for fireworks, so a gentler approach was more appropriate.