God in Art: The Spirit Descends

Pentecost is this coming Sunday, June 5. The story of Pentecost is found in Acts 2. We at Methodist Life encourage everyone to begin meditating this week on the role of the Holy Spirit in our personal lives and in the lives of our churches. In terms of importance, this Sunday ranks right up there with Easter. After all, it is through the Holy Spirit that we experience God directly in the time we now live. How will you honor that great truth this Sunday?

Mosaic depiction of Pentecost, photographed in a basilica in Trier, Germany. Image by Holger Schué via Pixabay.

Church Math

Malachi 3:8-12

Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, “How have we robbed you?” In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts. Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.

By Chuck Griffin

I should begin with a big word of thanks to all of you who have supported a church financially in any way. Those of us who lead churches don’t say thanks enough to those of you who support Christ’s mission with your dollars.

So, thanks be to God for you; thanks, whether you gave a dollar or a thousand dollars or twenty thousand dollars. When you give, you are part of the solution the church offers to the world.

I wanted to start out with words of thanks because today’s verses, read without much context, sound like a mixture of threats and promises tied to whether you tithe and give other offerings. Don’t tithe, and you are robbing God and faced with a curse. Do tithe, and you will receive an overflowing blessing. And I know that preachers often imitate this text, making threats and promises where church giving is concerned.

I will note that Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament in our Christian Bible, so we should expect more legalistic formulas for relating to God. Jesus Christ, the ultimate expression of God’s forgiving grace, is not yet visibly in the picture.

I don’t, however, want to simply write off Malachi’s words about tithes and offerings as somehow irrelevant. In fact, this minor prophet makes a major connection between what he says about tithes and offerings and the reasons for Christ’s entry into the world.

Malachi’s straightforward question, “Will anyone rob God?” comes in the midst of other, more mysterious and far-reaching words. Just before he speaks of tithes and offerings, the prophet has been speaking of a coming messenger, to be followed by the arrival of the Lord. These words long have been associated with the ministry of John the Baptist—the Messiah’s herald—and the coming of Jesus Christ.

After Malachi speaks of tithes and offerings, he raises a new subject, how God will respond to the faithful. That leads ultimately to prophecies about “the great and terrible day of the Lord,” a time when the wicked and righteous are finally sorted, with the righteous entering a glorious new life. These images remind me of Jesus’ more detailed words in Matthew 25:31-46, where he makes clear that he will be the one to do the sorting.

All of that Messiah and End Days imagery, with talk of tithes and offerings sandwiched in between, causes me to reconsider my understanding of tithing. In fact, that big-picture perspective is what should convince us to tithe.

Certainly, tithing was part of the Mosaic law, the code the Jews tried to live by to remain in relationship with God. It’s important to note, however, that tithing predated the law.

Tithing also didn’t just go away after God’s grace more clearly entered the picture through Christ. Consider this: How did the early church, made up largely of Jews used to tithing, respond to the resurrected Jesus? Rather than shrinking their giving, they gave everything they had. (See Acts 2:43-47.)

If we could interview them, I think we would be hard pressed to find an early Christian who would describe tithing as anything more than a starting point in support of God’s redemptive work.

Scripturally, tithing for thousands of years has served as the baseline for how we participate in God’s effort to move us toward a time when evil is vanquished for good. In the world we live in now, a world where money is the primary driver behind how everything works, we still have to talk frankly about how money gets into church coffers. It gets there because people like you make commitments that the money will be there, and I think the tithe remains the appropriate beginning point for Christian giving.

Here’s a little church math to consider. As best I can tell, United Methodist households in churches I have served give about 4 percent of their income toward the work of their churches. That’s an average covering every active household, whether a household gave nothing or thousands of dollars.

If we could raise that average by one percentage point, incredible things would happen. A percentage point doesn’t sound like much, but if churches would move from an average of 4 percent per household to an average of 5 percent, our funds for ministry would jump by 25 percent.

I dive into this church math for one reason. I want you to see there is increasing power as we move toward tithing in a community, the kind of power that helps change the world.

With more finances available, we could tell more people about Jesus. We could feed more people and clothe more people in Jesus’ name.  We could do more for our children and youth and our homebound elderly. We could start ministries we have yet to imagine.

Maybe we would minister with more programs and facilities to serve the people we’re trying to reach. Maybe we would reach out to the community with more paid ministry staff to lead the way. However our churches might minister, lives would be changed, even more so than they are being changed now.

Here’s what I want you to walk away with today: You are not required under some sort of law to tithe, or to give at any level. As grateful recipients of God’s eternal grace, however, you are invited to participate in God’s restorative work, using the financial resources God has given you.

Lord, speak to our hearts directly about how we use our resources to benefit your kingdom. Amen.

The Gift of Giving

2 Corinthians 8:1-7 (NRSV)

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints—and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you. Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.


By Chuck Griffin

In 2 Corinthians, Paul was writing to a church in an affluent part of the world, with well-off people mixed into the membership. (Sound familiar?) But when he wrote about an offering being taken up for the destitute Christians in Jerusalem, he cited what had already been raised among other churches nearly as poor.

In effect, he was asking, blessed Church of Corinth, will you do your share?

For Paul, giving was a matter of the heart, and it only made sense that people blessed with abundant resources would give abundantly. Yes, the idea of the Old Testament tithe, the giving of 10 percent, became obsolete in the light of New Testament grace, but it appears most early Christians interpreted that life-giving grace as a reason to go much further in their giving than a simple tithe.

Acts 2:43-45: “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

This pooling of resources sounds strange and even shocking to us today. As members of a capitalist society coming out of the Cold War and headed toward similar tensions with China, a lot of us don’t like anything that smacks of communism.

Don’t get lost in modern politics as you consider all this. The early Christians were filled with the Holy Spirit and madly in love with Jesus. Their resources became a way to show that love even from city to city, and Paul was praying the Christians in Corinth would join that movement, imitating what the earliest Christians and the Macedonian churches already had done.

The current-day lesson in all of this is pretty obvious: Our giving reflects our love for Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. Do we have a need to grow in love?

Dear Lord, inspire us with a deeper sense of your grace and a new understanding of how we are to use our resources to care for one another in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sent with the Spirit

John 20:19-23 (NLT)

That Sunday evening the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Suddenly, Jesus was standing there among them! “Peace be with you,” he said. As he spoke, he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side. They were filled with joy when they saw the Lord! Again he said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”


By Chuck Griffin

To pick up where I left off Friday, there is a particular moment in this resurrection appearance story I want to explore.

When Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you,” he indicated the true role of the church, the global church of believers. We are to act as the body of Christ, as a group continuing the work Jesus began through his teaching, crucifixion and resurrection.

Here’s my immediate impression: What an honor! God allows us to participate in work he could easily do himself. We are reminded of how we were initially created, as images of the one who made us.

As mere reflections of God, we of course cannot continue Christ’s work while relying on our own power. We instead must depend on God’s power being present among us and within us. Which brings us to the next moment in the story.

Jesus breathed on these men who would be the early church leaders and planters, telling them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” I think of this as a mini-Pentecost, an event we will celebrate Sunday, May 23. These men received early the gift that would fall upon the church in full after Jesus’ ascension.

Tired and afraid, hiding out, I’m sure they needed his power to begin their new roles.

The gift of the Spirit has been transmitted from generation to generation for thousands of years, and it will remain present somewhere in the world until Christ returns in full. We have to actively share the story of Jesus and bring people to belief, however, if they are to receive the gift.

Otherwise, we are in danger of living in one of those places on the planet where the Spirit once worked powerfully but now is not visible because of a lack of heart-felt evangelism and adherence to God’s teachings.

In this story, we also see a powerful concept we as the church are to offer to the world, the idea that forgiveness is possible even for what we consider terrible sins. True repentance—a desire to put sin behind us and turn toward God—is required, of course, but once we repent, God makes restoration easy, trusting the church to recognize it and declare it to have happened.

This message of forgiveness is something the world desperately needs to hear, particularly in our increasingly secular culture, where an escalating game of “Gotcha!” seems to be underway.

You’ve seen what I am talking about: Opponents dredge up sins from decades ago to use against each other, trying to tell the world, “That’s who that person really is!” Where there is no room for forgiveness, there is no room for restoration and growth, and we all are left to bite and devour each other until nothing remains.

As part of our efforts to evangelize the world, the most attractive part of our message may be the concept of forgiveness, of lives changed. As members of Christ’s global church, let’s remember to inject lessons of forgiveness into a gotcha kind of world.

Yes, Lord, sin remains in the world, even in our lives. Thanks to you for giving us and others a way out, a way to grow, a way to be more like what you created us to be. Amen.

What They Saw

Acts 2:14-24 (NRSV)

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

"In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

The above passage is the beginning of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, delivered shortly after the Holy Spirit had fallen upon the disciples.

Peter referenced a prophecy from Joel, found in Joel 2:28-32, to explain what was happening in the moment, the enthusiastic declaration of the gospel by disciples in languages they should not have known. Peter also continued to quote from Joel about the sun being darkened and the moon turning to blood.

I am fascinated by that second part. There is no record of anyone in the crowd asking, “And exactly when did these signs in the sky occur?” It appears there was no need for such a question because these events had been witnessed and discussed widely for more than a month.

In regard to the sun darkening, all we have to do is look at Luke’s account of the crucifixion, focusing on the actual moment of Jesus’ death. According to the NRSV translation, Luke tells us “the sun’s light failed.” 

We can be certain this was not the result of a natural solar eclipse, for reasons rooted in moon phases and how they relate to the Passover, the religious festival that was the backdrop for Jesus’ death. I consider the unknown cause either directly miraculous or a miracle of timing, incorporating a sandstorm or some other strange environmental phenomena.

The moon turning to blood is easier to explain. Again, because of the moon phase during Passover, it is quite possible the moon rose with a deep red tint on the Saturday while Jesus was in the grave, a disturbing reminder of the blood spilled the day before.

Regardless of how these events in the sky happened, they were very much on people’s minds, and Peter was able to reference them without explanation.

The crowd was troubled by all they had seen, just as we sometimes are troubled, and they became even more troubled as Peter offered them their share of blame for Jesus’ crucifixion. Blessedly, his sermon went on to deliver good news.

“Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

Lord, thank you for the signs of love and reconciliation we receive from you now, preparing us for the glorious day of your return. Amen.