“Spirit of Witness”

We all have clutter, boxes full of stuff. Going through one of our boxes Orv came across a button that said, “God doesn’t side with one group, religions do that.” This week I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Dear Lord, save me from your followers.” Because of the truism in the button as well as some other reasons, I can understand why someone would use the bumper sticker. I wonder how those followers of Jesus, those filled with the spirit, who gathered together, would think of the religion that came into existence through their efforts. I wonder what Jesus would think of the religion that came into existence because of him. I wonder what God thinks of this religion.

My guess is that there are some things they take great delight in and some things not so much. I can’t imagine God, or Jesus or his followers who were filled with the spirit, valuing politicians who lie, and do it in the name of God—that is since God is on their side whatever they do to bring about their understanding of how God wants the world to be is appropriate. After all they are doing God’s work. I can’t imagine God, or Jesus or the followers who were filled with the spirit would be okay with power over others, whether it is abuse in our homes; the workplace; wars fought for flimsy reasons; medical care being pulled from the most vulnerable; balancing budgets on the backs of the poor and the middle class. I can’t imagine God, or Jesus or the followers who were filled with the spirit valuing anything other than fullness of life, justice and mercy, sharing God’s love as Jesus did with those around him, particularly the most vulnerable. And please note that Jesus’ mother and brothers were some of the followers filled with the spirit.

Whether Jesus rose into the heavens with angels surrounding him is irrelevant to me. I don’t care if he did or not. I don’t care if it means we have eternal life; that’s sweet to imagine, but who really knows? I do believe, because we worship a God who loves us, that whatever is next will be good. We need to remember that these stories were written after 70 CE—30-plus years after Jesus died. There were power struggles taking place and everyone wanted God on their side. So many of these stories, pulled from stories of Greek and Roman gods, were an attempt to be the one true religion. I’m not the only one who says this. Ralph Milton, a religious author and commentator wrote, “Some years ago, Charles Templeton (a one-time evangelist turned atheist) wrote a book that had someone finding a skeleton in Jerusalem that turned out to be Jesus. In the book, the church was desperately concerned that such a discovery would destroy Christianity, because it would prove that Christ’s bodily resurrection was fiction. I remember thinking at the time—what’s the big deal? Such a discovery wouldn’t damage my faith at all. And as I now read this passage from the Book of Acts and remember that book, I find my thoughts haven’t changed.” He goes on to say, “Like so much biblical truth, the message is contained in the story. Jesus’ earthly ministry is done. Now it is the Christ that works in us through the Spirit. No, I’m not calling Luke a liar. The ‘men of Galilee’ were Jewish and expressed their convictions in stories rather than propositions. If anything, this truth is more powerful and persuasive because it comes to us as a story rather than as a set of objectively provable (or disprovable) facts.”

Fiction writers have the freedom to explore these possibilities. The Templar Legacy by Steve Berry is a mystery/intrigue book. In it, among the Templar treasures that are found, there’s a letter from Peter along with some bones. It raises the same concerns as the previous author: if Jesus didn’t ascend then what does that mean to Christianity? The Berry book has Peter describe Jesus in this way:

“The man Jesus spent many years spreading his message throughout the lands of Judea and Galilee. I was the first of his followers, but our number grew since many believed his words possessed great meaning. We traveled with him watching as he eased suffering, brought hope, and stirred salvation. He was always himself, no matter the day or event. If the masses lauded him he faced them. When hostility surrounded him, he showed no rage or fear. What others thought of him, said or did never affected him. He said once, ‘All of us bear God’s image, all are worthy to be loved, all can grow in the spirit of God.’ I watched as he embraced lepers and the immoral. Women and children were precious to him. He showed me that all were worthy of love. He would say, ‘God is our father. He cares, loves and forgives. No sheep will ever be lost from the shepherd. Feel free to tell God all, for only in such openness can the heart gain peace.”

Amazing where we can hear the word of God.

If you’re concerned about this theology coming from a fiction writer, here’s what Berry says in his Writer’s Notes at the end. “The Gospel of Simon is my creation. But the alternate concept of how Christ may have been ‘resurrected’ came from an excellent book, Resurrection, Myth or Reality by John Shelby Spong.

So, again my question: would God, Jesus and the followers who were filled with the spirit be pleased with what the world has done to their understanding of God and the life of Jesus and the ministry they began—a ministry following in the footsteps of Jesus. The reality is that some would be very pleased; some not, just as today there are mixed reviews on religion in general.

So how do we live as faithful people? First, we don’t get stuck in absolutes. God is still speaking. Since God is more than we can ever imagine, we need to give God room to be that “more”—more love, more compassion, more justice seeking, more peacemaking—more of everything we believe God is about. Second, we are to be open to that God so that true peace does live within us and so that we can be guided by God, and can take risks and live faithfully. Third, we trust in God so that the “more” of God can live through us. Because of that trust we are called to and need to “care for the needy, comfort the distressed, befriend the rejected.” Fourth, we never underestimate the love God has for the whole of creation; we are called to love all of this creation as well. We are called to be inclusive, to provide radical hospitality for all people, to not divide people into groups or accept some and reject others. We could all name groups we believe are guilty of this. However, I am guilty of this. A few days ago I mentioned to someone that whenever I hear Texas… She said “I know—you think of bigots and oppression, racism, etc.” I don’t have to agree with all people, I do have to accept that God loves them equally. We are never to underestimate the power of that love and what can happen if we are open to it. Take these two men who were at the Manchester bombing. Maybe you read about them.

LONDON – Chris Parker was there, reportedly, because it was a good place to beg. Stephen Jones, 35, was sleeping nearby. Parker, 33, was panhandling in the concourse area outside the arena when the bomb exploded, according to local news reports. The force of the blast knocked him to the floor, but he was unfazed. Rather than running for safety, he went to the aid of victims, comforting a girl who had lost her legs, wrapping her in a T-shirt, and cradling a dying woman in his arms. Jones says he pulled nails out of children’s arms and faces.

“Just because I am homeless doesn’t mean I haven’t got a heart, or I’m not human still,” Jones told ITV News. “I’d like to think someone would come and help me if I needed the help,” he said, adding that he had been overcome by an “instinct” to pitch in.

“It was children,” he continued. “It was a lot of children with blood all over them and crying and screaming.” Parker told the news agency Press Association that amid the smoke and shrieks after the explosion he saw a little girl. “I wrapped her in one of the merchandise T-shirts, and I said, ‘Where is your mum and daddy?’ She said, ‘My dad is at work, my mum is up there,’” he was quoted as saying.

He also said he had tried to help an older woman who had head and leg injuries, but that she died in his arms. “She was in her 60s, and she had been with her family. I haven’t stopped crying,” he told the Press Association. “The most shocking part of it is that it was a kids’ concert.” After his actions became known, an online fundraising page was set up for Parker. By early afternoon Wednesday, it had raised 30,000 pounds, or almost $40,000.

Another fund, for Jones, was listed on the JustGiving site. The tragedy may also have helped to heal a family rift. After hearing about what Parker had done, his mother reached out.

“This is my son and I am desperate to get in touch with him,” she wrote on the fundraising page. “We have been estranged for a very long time, and I had no idea he was homeless. I am very proud of him, and I think he might need me right now.’” [1]

These men, some might say, were so filled with the spirit that they, even if they didn’t think about it, were letting the love of God reach out to hurting people through them. That they will get some money, that one might be reconciled with family, wasn’t their motivation. It was caring for hurting people.

There are so many possibilities for sharing God’s love, God’s words of hope, God’s radical inclusiveness, God’s way, which can transform the world. Today, people are asking to be saved from God’s followers. Religion is seen as siding with groups. Religion is being used to bring about divisiveness, rigidity, callousness towards others, and abuse of the most vulnerable among us.

The front of your bulletin says, “Gather. Listen. Speak. Act. We are a progressive Christian Community that gathers to listen, speak and act, with a spirit of compassion, justice and stewardship.” You have a message of hope, of inclusiveness, of welcome, of God’s incredible love for all creation—and it is an exciting message to share. It involves a loving, healthy relationship with God, a relationship built on trust and love, rather than abuse or suffering for the sake of suffering. It is a relationship that leads to good, wholesome, life-giving, meaning-filled transformation, which I believe is what God wants for all people and what the world so desperately needs. You were one of the first churches to be Open and Affirming. You have had a strong social justice presence for a very long time. I was told after last Sunday’s service that this community of faith was involved in the abolitionist movement and with the Eliza Winston case. You have a strong Racial Justice Team. You’ve voted to be a Sanctuary Supporting congregation. You’ve invited the neighborhood families to play time at the church. You welcome U of M students as they live through the stress of finals. You are a God-loving presence in a world desperately in need of this love. No congregation is perfect, but you are amazing. A community of faith that not only thinks, but also acts; that not only speaks, but also does.

I’d really like to know who was in the car with the bumper sticker that read, “Dear Lord, please save me from your followers.” I’d like to invite them to this community of faith and then see what their prayer might be.


Copyright Rev. Mary Kay Sauter ©


[1] Minneapolis Star Tribune week of May 21-27, 2017