A Decathlon of Faith

When watching sports,

When watching sports, I’m always most impressed by the decathletes. Those who are able to compete skillfully in such a range of athletic events are awe-inspiring. Not only can they perform a variety of skills well, but they also are able to switch easily from one to another. The readings this month challenge us to be spiritual decathletes.

Throughout the first three weeks we are called to reflect on our journey of faith, to enter imaginatively into the accounts of Christ ascending into the heavenly realms as well as the Holy Spirit descending like flames of fire. The final week we are called to reflect on one of the hardest doctrinal problems of Christian theology - the Trinity - before grappling with the essence of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.

Throughout these weeks we are called to use our souls, emotions, and minds with equal skill, switching from one to another in successive weeks as we encounter the challenge of the texts before us. Unlike real decathletes, however, we have help. This month we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the one who journeys alongside each of us who follow Christ to inspire, comfort, and - when words fail us - to pray for us "with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26). The challenge may be great, but so is the help.

Paula Gooder is a lecturer at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, England, and a freelance biblical lecturer and writer.

May 1
An Ever-Present Companion
Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

Our readings this week represent various moments in the journey of faith, from the Athenians who worship an unknown God, to the recipients of 1 Peter who are encouraged to steel themselves to do good whatever the consequences, to the psalmist whose faith has been tested. Of course, the different moments represented don’t follow a straight line from unbelief to suffering, but they do mark different points on the way. There will be times in our faith journeys where we must decide to do the good demanded by the kingdom of God whatever the consequences. There will be other times when we have suffered and emerged able to praise God.

There is something that joins these moments, however, and this is identified in our gospel reading: the presence of the Comforter (whose Greek name literally means "one who is called alongside"). The psalmist traces God’s action in his life. How much more should we, recipients of the Pentecost gift, be conscious of the Holy Spirit, that ever-present companion on the road, accompanying us and pointing us to God?

May 8
Who Are We Waiting For?
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 93; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

The feast of the ascension is an important Christian festival that can sometimes be overlooked because it falls on a Thursday. It may also be ignored because it requires such a leap of imagination for many 21st-century Christians that they choose not to think about it. The problem lies in the view of the world portrayed by the account. Jesus ascends upward from earth, which, according to the Judeo-Christian mindset of the time, would have meant immediate entry into heaven. For us, however, it means space travel. We have lost the framework that makes sense of this story, and yet what it communicates is as important as ever.

The ascension bears witness to our belief in a Jesus who has risen from the dead, never to die again. The resurrection issues in a new world order; it symbolizes that the end times have begun and that our world will never be the same. The ascension reminds us that we are the ones responsible on earth for this new world order. Just as Elisha received the mantle of Elijah when he was snatched up to heaven, so we must catch the mantle of Christ. Christ, risen and ascended, will return when the end times reach their climax. But, for now, the responsibility lies with the body of Christ on earth.

May 15
Proclaim With Abandon
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-34, 35; 1 Corinthians 12:3-13; John 7:37-39

We have seen in numerous passages since Easter the expectations God has for the people of God. The resurrection was not so much about Jesus, but about us. Jesus was raised from the dead; as a result the lives of all who encounter him will never be the same. This becomes explicit at Pentecost. The well-known account in Acts 2 describes the disciples together in one place receiving the Holy Spirit and being transformed by the experience. The disciples were no longer the confused, uncertain group that we know from the gospels. Instead they became bold, dynamic proclaimers of the good news of Christ.

Of course, as we have seen before, transformations like these are never popular. Here, some in the crowd tried to attribute what happened to alcohol. A more extreme reaction can be found in our alternate reading from Numbers, where the spirit of the Lord fell on 70 of the elders. Two of these men prophesied - not around the tabernacle like the rest - but in the camp. Others became anxious and tried to get Moses to stop them. Moses, of course, refused (Numbers 11:24-30).

Being filled with the Holy Spirit requires us to proclaim the good news of God’s reign wherever we go. It is highly likely that when we do, people will ridicule and try to stop us. The earliest Christians made bold by the Holy Spirit were unperturbed - and we should be too.

May 22
Three in One
Genesis 1:1-2:4; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

If you put an expert in Christian doctrine and a biblical scholar in the same room, what do you get? A huge argument, most likely. The problem is that people interested in doctrine try to find biblical passages that support their dearly held beliefs, whereas biblical scholars insist that we should read the Bible first and, out of the reading, discover what those beliefs should be. One starts at the end and works backward, the other starts at the beginning and works forward. Who is right? Both of them are. A day such as this, Trinity Sunday, challenges everyone to join this discussion.

On Trinity Sunday we celebrate our unique belief in a God who is three in one. Throughout Christian history theological debate has raged about how this is possible, but the Bible’s writers were blissfully unaware of this debate. What we find, therefore, are snippets of verses that refer to the three persons of the Trinity (Matthew 28:19 and 2 Corinthians 13:13) or oblique references to there being someone else present when God speaks ("let us…" in Genesis 1:26), but nothing more than that. In other words, we have the ingredients for the trinitarian cake but not the cake itself.

Indeed, we might find it reassuring to know that the profound beliefs of the earliest Christians were not dependent upon having a carefully articulated doctrine of the Trinity. All that mattered was an encounter with the grace of Christ and the love of God and communion with the Holy Spirit.

May 29
God Is in the Details
Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28; Psalm 31:1-5, 19-24; Romans 1:16-17; 3:22-28, (29-31); Matthew 7:21-29

The strange thing about Easter coming early this year is that we haven’t had much time to settle into Matthew, the gospel for the year. Too many festivals have intervened. But from now until Advent, we’ll explore a passage from Matthew every week (with the exception of a few saint’s days along the way). This allows us to settle into the rhythm of this important gospel and meet afresh the Jesus we find in its pages. What better place to begin this than the closing words of that uniquely Matthean section, the Sermon on the Mount.

This passage establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt who will and who will not enter the kingdom of heaven: "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them…" (Matthew 7:24). Jesus is clear that doing things we might find impressive - prophesying, casting out demons, accomplishing deeds of power - will not be enough. Instead, entry to the kingdom is gained by doing the will of God in the form of small, unspectacular things Jesus described in detail throughout the Sermon - not being angry with those around you (5:22), mending broken relationships (5:23-24), being true to your word (5:33-35), and so on. These actions, Jesus tells us, build a firm foundation that will remain steadfast throughout the storms of life. Entry to the kingdom, Jesus says, depends not on spectacular deeds but in faithfully living out our everyday lives.

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