by Mike Clymer
July 23, 2006
For those of you who don’t know, I teach math at Meridian High School. Normally I try not to let that interfere with the sermons I give here at church, when I’m among friends. But today, for a change, we’re going to do just a little bit of math in the course of this message. So take that as a word of enticement or a warning, whichever applies!
This is a Pentecost Sunday sermon, coming about a month and a half late; this message was pushed back due to the interstate accident that involved several of us last month. Pentecost Sunday is the date when the worldwide church remembers the coming of the Holy Spirit to the believers of Jesus. The Spirit arrived as a “violent wind” just days or weeks after the risen Christ had ascended to heaven, appearing as “tongues of fire” resting on each believer gathered together in that place, causing each to speak in other languages, and creating – as you can imagine – quite a stir. An international crowd gathered at the commotion, and incredibly each person heard the believers speaking in that person’s native language! All were amazed, many were perplexed, and some dismissed the whole bewildering event as due to “too much wine.”
It was left to Peter to explain to the onlookers–and perhaps even to the affected believers themselves–what was happening: that God was “pouring out his Spirit,” as the prophet Joel had spoken, and that this Spirit being poured out was not Wine, but God Himself. More importantly, this Holy Spirit was the one promised by Jesus Christ–that is the vital connection Peter makes in the verses that follow. His sermon is actually not about the Holy Spirit so much as it is about Jesus – once again. The Spiritual Awakening that they were witnessing that day was the arrival of the Spirit of Jesus–the “same Jesus,” Peter says, that had just lived, taught, and healed among them; the “same Jesus” that been crucified by them and raised to life by God. The Spirit they were witnessing was another affirmation that “this same Jesus” was “both Christ and Lord.”
And perhaps just as amazing as the first few verses of Acts Chapter 2 are the last few verses of Acts Chapter 2, subtitled “The Fellowship of the Believers.” These verses describe the behavior of the earliest Christians in the days and months and years after the Holy Spirit arrived: their devotion to prayer, fellowship, and community; the wonders and miraculous signs they performed; their selling of their possessions and generosity to the poor; their close communion with each other and with God; their growth in faith and in numbers. As faithful Christians in the two thousand years since then have repeatedly discovered, that kind of spirit-filled behavior is often viewed with as much amazement, puzzlement, and ridicule as speaking in tongues or other charisma. It might not lead to accusations of being drunk today, but perhaps to accusations of being socialist, or liberal – or radical.
Mennonites, as most of you know or are discovering, have not generally been known for their charismatic worship style. Although there are exceptions of course, “Mennonites” and “Pentecostals” are usually not found in the same section of the library. But we Mennonites do have a long and strong historical connection to the 2nd Chapter of Acts, I’d like to suggest. The earliest Mennonites – some 500 years ago in Europe – were known as “Radicals” (in fact there was a movie about the early Anabaptists by that title a few years ago). Now that word “radical” has various meanings. Most often these days when a person or group are described as “radical” we think of them as “far out”, extreme in their beliefs or behavior, perhaps socially or politically revolutionary. But there is another important meaning of the word “radical,” which is “going to the root” of something. We actually use that meaning in Algebra, which I teach at the high school. So here is a little math insertion: (A) Some of you may recognize this symbol. It is called a “radical.” The radical symbol tells you to find the “root” of a number. For example, the square root of 9 is the number you would multiply times itself to get 9. So the square root of 9 is 3. But you can also find cube roots, fourth roots, and so on, so I have used the symbol “n” in this figure to represent “any root.”
Back to the Anabaptists: The early Mennonites were known as “radicals” not so much in the sense that they were considered extreme or revolutionary, but in the sense that they wanted to go back to the “root” of Christian faith, back to the teachings of the Bible instead of the rulers of the Church State (Church and State were the same thing in those days), back to the Lordship of Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit – as practiced in the 2nd Chapter of Acts. That might have seemed a little “far out” or “extreme” in those days – as it might today as well. But they were called “radical” because they wanted to restore the church to the purity of its early days when communities of believers practiced peace, compassion and sacrificial love – they wanted to return to the true Source of their faith.
I have entitled my message today “Radical Faith” in the same sense of the word. (B) “Radical faith,” as I have represented with this math symbol, is faith that stays true to its source, to its root. And for Christians, the root of our faith, of course, is Jesus. Which leads us to an equation you won’t find in any math textbook (C). If you are like me, though, you can’t just let that equation stand there without asking what it means. What does that mean, that the “root of faith is Jesus”? What does radical faith look like? Well, I’ve only got 15 minutes today, so let me give a couple of short answers. One answer is that learning to embrace and live a radical faith is the topic of a lifetime of sermons. It will mean different things and look different ways to each of us, but what will be the same is that those of us seeking to live a radical faith will keep looking back to the same source, the same root. The other answer is that radical faith will look a lot like that of the very first Christians, in verses 42-47 of the 2nd Chapter of Acts, when the life and teachings of Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit were so new. Notice I said “new” and not “fresh,” because Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit retain an eternal freshness that is always waiting to be discovered again for the first time.
But I’ll warn you that Radical (“Back to the Source”) Faith is still going to be perceived as radical (“Far-out, Extreme, Revolutionary”) faith by many in today’s world, as it always has been. Maybe that’s why Jesus’s very first words in his very first sermon (talk about getting back to the source!) were words of blessing for those who would live the faith he was about to inspire in those who listened and followed. I’m taking you back to what was the longest sermon of Jesus recorded in the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. It opens with what are known as the Beatitudes, words of blessing. I would invite you to turn to Matthew Chapter 5 and read along.
The idea of God’s Blessing gets talked about a lot in our country today. In fact, “God Bless America” is one of our most popular slogans; we sing it in patriotic songs and display it on bumper stickers. I’m not always sure if “God Bless America” is a demand or a humble request we are making, but either way, those of us who seek God’s blessing would do well to frequently read and re-read the Beatitudes, because they provide us with an interesting list of those whom God considers Blessed. In Matthew 5 Jesus tells us, at the very beginning of his ministry, where God’s Blessings can be found: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, Blessed are those who mourn, Blessed are the meek, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, Blessed are you when people insult, persecute, and lie about you.”
I pray that America – as we call ourselves a Christian nation and reign as the world’s greatest superpower – I pray that America can find a blessing for itself among these verses. I pray that Jubilee Mennonite Church – as we seek to carry on that radical Anabaptist tradition in 2006, located here in the Red Line district of Meridian, Mississippi – I pray that Jubilee can find a blessing for ourselves among these verses. And I pray that I, Mike Clymer – as my grand intentions to be a radical Christian husband, father, church member, and citizen are so often undermined instead by my smallness, my pettiness, and my selfishness – I pray that I, too, can find a blessing for myself somewhere in these verses.
Because that Holy Spirit from the Pentecost event some 2000 years ago is still alive today! It still arrives to dwell within and provide strength and guidance for the radical believers of this age – sometimes as a violent wind, perhaps, sometimes as tongues of fire, sometimes in another language. Sometimes it may come as a voice from heaven, sometimes as a still small voice, sometimes as the voice of a brother or sister or friend. Sometimes it may come in a dream, sometimes in a song, or a prayer. But that Holy Spirit, however it comes to us, always directs us to the same Source, always connects us to the same Root: which is that “same Jesus” to whom Peter referred at Pentecost. That same Jesus who gave us the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. That same Jesus who lived and taught and healed in the Bible, and who still lives and teaches and heals today. That same Jesus who was crucified and raised again as both Christ and Lord. That same Jesus still calls us, today, to a life of Radical Faith. And that same Spirit still empowers us to follow.