I often like to read our scripture lesson from The Message Translation. I like this translation simply because it doesn’t hold any punches. It’s not an attempt to get at a truly academic word-for-word understanding of the bible, but it is an attempt to get to the emotional, psychological, and existential understanding of the bible – because faith is more than a mental exercise. And, different translations can give us different understandings of the relationship between God and humanity known as faith. Just look at the different ways verse 28 can be interpreted based upon the translation:
The more academic, NRSV, and similarly the KJV, says: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” While the NRSV translation may be more academic, if one does not understand the underlying sentence structure of the Greek, then you may interpret the text as describing the relationship between God and humanity as a divine process of impersonal providence – that God is making things “good” for us, but not out of any sense of a personal relationship or personal involvement with us. God is just doing what God does, as already pre-determined, with no interaction within the history of the world. That what we are doing as humans, is already decided, and that things work out for us because of God’s efforts towards our predetermined actions. And while Presbyterians believe in predestination, we do not believe in pre-determinism. We are not chess pieces that God moves around. We just know that we are going to win the game.
Meanwhile, translations such as the NIV& NJB, say something along the lines of: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love God, those who have been called in accordance with God’s purpose, and turns everything to their good.” In this translation, God is understood as being more directly involved in the history of the world, but only works things out for those whose love for God as demonstrated through their response to being called to serve God’s purpose. It’s as though God is rewarding them for being good little children who follow the rules.
But The Message Translation – along with other translations, such as the REB – finds a middle ground between this impersonal providence and rewarding parent. The REB says: “In everything, as we know, God co-operates for good with those who love God.” And The Message Translation says: “That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” In these translations, humanity and God are working together. Cooperating together. That humanity is not a passive recipient of the coming of God’s Kingdom. That the Kingdom of God is not some reward for obeying the rules. Instead, we are active participants – co-builders – of God’s Kingdom. The arrival of the Kingdom of God happens of the joint efforts of God and humanity. But this leads us to a couple of deeper theological questions:
1) If you do NOT participate or cooperate with God, does that mean that God’s Kingdom will never come? NO! And why? Because you are not necessary. Yes, you heard me right. You are not necessary. Do you really think that God is so puny that God needs you to make sure the Kingdom arrives? That’s a very small understanding of God, and a very narcissistic understanding of yourself. The same thing can be said in the church. Do you really believe that if you are not here that the church will cease to exist? Maybe this particular gathering, in this particular building. But God will take whoever’s left, whoever wishes to be a co-builder of Kingdom, whoever wants to pursue the mission of God, and put them to work in building a new church. Otherwise, we have a very small understanding of God’s Mission in the world and the purpose of the Church. And, the truth is, you should be thankful that you are not necessary. My seminary professor once told us, “Every day you are in ministry, you should get on your knees and thank God that you are not necessary. Because necessity is NOT the language of faith. Necessity is the language of addiction.” Instead of being necessary for God’s mission, you are invited to participate. You are blessed to participate. You are called to participate in being a co-builder of God’s Kingdom. Because God in Jesus Christ wants, not only to build the Kingdom alongside you, but also to offer you life in abundance – not just the continuation of this life into the next, but the opportunity for an abundance of life in the here and now. Through the life of Jesus Christ, God showed us that the way to have abundant life is through loving sacrificial service. Not being necessary means that you get to serve God and others out of love instead of obligation. Love will give you abundant life. But obligation will slowly drain the life out of you.
We get to experience that fullness by loving God and loving others. And loving God and others means following the call that God places upon you. And that is where the Holy Spirit comes in. The call of the Holy Spirit is your unique opportunity to promote God’s purpose in the world. For some, such as myself, it is a life of vocational ministry. But pastors are not the only ones called to ministry. All people are called to ministry. All people are ordained to the priesthood of all believers in the moment of their baptism. Yet many of us reject our calling. Reject our ordination to the priesthood. We make excuses: “I don’t have enough time.” “I’m just too busy.” “I’ve already got other plans.” Etc. etc. But the truth is, we always make time for the things we prioritize. So, the question for you, Is the Holy Spirit’s call on your life a priority or not? Because even though you may not make your calling a priority, the Holy Spirit will keep finding ways to bring you back to it. But, you still have Free Will NOT to receive the ministry to which the Spirit is calling you. So, maybe that’s why things don’t always work out for the good? NO. That’s not it.
2) So, does that mean if we DO cooperate with God, if we DO answer the Spirit’s calling, that our lives will be ALL good? NO! There is no guarantee of constant, continual good things – of a never-ending stream of blessings – if you answer the Spirit’s call. But, for those who do respond to the Spirit’s call, the “bad things” in life are reframed within the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. And in reframing the “bad things”, all things work out for the good: NOT because you gain more – because in reality, the call requires sacrifice. NOT because you are relieved of all suffering – because in reality, you usually suffer more. But because those who accept the Spirit’s call are conformed to the image of Christ. And Christ was constantly assured of God’s presence – both in his gains and his sacrifices, in the good and the bad, in his joy and in his suffering. And so even we, become aware of the perpetual presence of God in our stressed out sighs and our groans of grief. This assurance comes not only from following the call, but from giving in to the work of the Spirit within our prayer life, for as Paul says, “If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. [The Holy Spirit] does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. At the same time, by conforming our lives to the image of Jesus Christ – we become co-builders of the Kingdom – and gain a glimpse of the future hope that comes when the Kingdom is fully established here on earth and all things are completely worked out for the good.
So why – with these amazing promises of the past, present, and future – do so many regular, Church-going Christians either refuse or ignore Spirit’s call on their lives? Is it because they haven’t really heard the Good News? Is it because, despite the appearance created by their regular church attendance and participation, they don’t actually believe the Good News? NO. The reason why people, when they are wrestling or discerning the Spirit’s call to serve God’s mission – whether it’s working in a soup kitchen, running a non-profit charity, or even pursuing ordained ministry – the reason why they often turn away from the Spirit’s call is NOT because of the lack of Good News, but because of the abundance of Good Advice.
In our culture, Good Advice is valued more than Good News. That’s often what people want from their pastor when they have problems – Good Advice, not Good News. And it can often be difficult to distinguish between Good Advice and Good News because in America we tend to conflate the values of God’s Kingdom with the values of American Culture. Yet the two are not the same. In fact, they’re practically opposites. Because Good Advice is rational, practical, and realistic. Good Advice is supposed to solve the problem or stop it from continuing. Good Advice is even biblical. We see many people throughout the bible giving out Good Advice.
In the Book of Job, Job’s three friends give him Good Advice on why everything is going wrong in his life. Clearly Job did something to sin against God, therefore Job is being punished by the loss of all his children and his entire livelihood. So, if Job wants everything to get back to normal, their Good Advice is that Job should repent of his sins against God – even though Job knows that he has done nothing wrong. By the end of the story, God shows up and tells Job’s friends that their “Good Advice” is all wrong. In fact, it gave them really bad theology. They need to go back to seminary and take more pastoral care classes. We do this too when we see things going horribly wrong – especially for “good Christians” like us. We speak of God punishing others or even punishing ourselves. But Jesus Christ didn’t come to earth so that God could punish us. Christ came to save us from our self-inflicted punishment.
In the Gospels, Peter gives Jesus some Good Advice after Jesus makes predictions about his eventual execution. Tired of Jesus’ negativity and knowing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and can therefore do something to stop this, Peter rebukes Jesus, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” I imagine he also said to Jesus – “Look Jesus. This isn’t good for the growth of the ministry. These sermons and bible studies about getting crucified are really starting to bum people out. They need more uplifting sermons to make them feel good.” And how does Jesus respond to Peter’s Good Advice? By calling Peter Satan and telling Peter to “get behind me!”
And I can only imagine what Abraham’s friends and family said when he told them that this new God spoke to him and called Abraham to go to an unknown land that this God will show him. I’m sure they were like, “Abraham, have you prayed about this? Have you spoken to the priest about this? Aren’t you a little old to be starting over? Are you sure it’s not one of the other Sumerian gods just trying to trick you? I hear that Enlil god is a real trickster.” And yet we do the same thing. As parents, we are often guilty of trying to get our children to pursue more practical and lucrative callings like law, medicine, engineering, or even a high-paying trade like being a plumber or electrician. Very rarely do we say to our children, “I’m so excited that you want to take a year off between high school and college and serve as a missionary in a dangerous foreign country.” Or “I’m so excited that you want to pursue dance/music/theatre as your career even though the unemployment rate for performers is 98%.” And we do this because we are more concerned about the practicalities of life than having an abundance of life. What good is having a big bank account if you’re the walking dead?
In each of these stories, the main characters are called by the Spirit of God to do something completely irrational, impractical, and unrealistic. And in each story, other well-meaning, people offer Good Advice to keep them from fulfilling their call. And while Good Advice makes good sense, all it does is point out the obstacles and struggles, involved in answering Spirit’s call. All it does is point out all the things that can go wrong by following Spirit’s call. And often after we begin the call, we find ourselves in the midst of those obstacles, struggles, and things going wrong – and all we can ask ourselves is: “Is there nowhere better to be? Is there nothing better to do?” And the answer for those who love God is simply: NO! There’s not.
If you are following the call of the Spirit, you have nowhere better to be in life. If you love God, you have nothing better to do. And if you have nowhere better to be or nothing better to do, it’s because you’re not necessary! And so you get to serve out of the life-giving impractical, irrational, unrealistic, love of Christ instead of life-draining, practical, rational, realistic obligations of our culture. There is nowhere better for you to be than within your unique calling to serve God’s mission. There’s nothing better for you to do than to love God by loving your neighbor as yourself. And the best part of all, is because you are not necessary, you are free to receive the Holy Spirit’s call to be a part of this mission. You are free to be a part of building the Kingdom of God right here in your little corner of the world.
And when you accept that invitation – that call – to be a part of something so incredible, something so much bigger than you – then you gain an abundance of life that you never would have experienced if you rejected the call. And that abundance of life includes sacrifice – but only of the things that our culture tells you that you need. And that abundance of life includes suffering – but with the assurance that through the power of the Holy Spirit, God is present with you. And that life includes the freedom from necessity – because Christ came to save us from all that enslaves us, including our addiction to being necessary.
And this is all possible because of the Holy Spirit who came to the Disciples on Pentecost – empowering them to do things they never dreamed imaginable. Empowering them to sacrifice, to suffer, and to give up necessity for the sake of the Good News. Enabling them to discern between the failings of Good Advice and the strength of the Good News.
And just like it did for the Disciples then, the Holy Spirit empowers you, sustains you, and “is right alongside, helping you along.” Even in your moments of greatest weakness, when you are so far-gone that you don’t even have the strength to cry out to God, it is the Holy Spirit who, “If we don’t know what to pray…does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. [The Holy Spirit] knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God.”
And the Pentecost event is not over. It is still continuing. The Spirit is still moving. The Spirit is still inviting. The Spirit is still calling people to serve the Mission of God. The Spirit is still inviting people to conform their lives to the image of Christ. And the only way you can resist the Spirit’s wild, irrational, unrealistic, and senseless Good News is to choose our culture’s ordered, rational, realistic, and practical Good Advice. Good Advice that may lead to a superficially happy, socially successful, and fiscally stable future – but it’s also a future that is guaranteed to be spiritually, emotionally, and existentially unfulfilling. Leaving you with a void that you will try to fill in ways that are often unhealthy, even idolatrous. And our culture maintains this unfulfilled void by teaching you that – even though you’ve done everything you’ve been told, even though you’ve achieved all that you were taught to achieve – there is always somewhere better you could be. There is always something better that you could be doing. That you are necessary, but that you are never going to be enough.
My last semester of seminary, the President of the seminary said something to my class that shook me to my core. I’ve said it here before, but I believe it’s worth repeating:
“You can either achieve your life or receive it. If you achieve your life, your constant companion will be complaint because you will never achieve enough. But if you receive your life, your constant companion will be gratitude for all that GOD is achieving in your life.
Friends, when you follow the Spirit’s unique call to serve God’s mission in your little corner of the world, there’s nowhere better for you to be. There’s nothing better for you to be doing. And you do it, not because you are necessary, but because you are enough for God to work out all things for the good. Receive that calling and receive life in abundance, all thanks to God in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.