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A Church Ignited

Acts 1:1-24, 37-47
Rev. Elizabeth Michael
Preached at University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill, NC
June 4, 2017

            A brief history of barbed wire, as chronicled by Dutch journalist Dick Wittenburg[1]:  Barbed wire had its origin in Joseph Glidden’s devotion to his wife Lucinda.  The Gliddens lived in the late nineteenth century in Dekalb, Illinois, a farming community, and Lucinda’s problem was that the cows were not staying out of her garden.  Eager to assist, Joseph took a hammer, a pair of pliers, and a handful of Lucinda’s hairpins into his workshop and emerged with a piece of the first known barbed wire fence.  And as Wittenburg tells it, Glidden’s invention made possible the “settling” of the American West.  The light, cheap, low-maintenance material meant that people could fence off property and thereby claim ownership of it, and so the trickle of westbound white settlers turned into a flood.  There was some small resistance from Plains Indian tribes and small scale ranchers, who had never before had to own land to earn a livelihood, but soon enough, barbed wire prevailed, and fences and property lines made their indelible mark on the American landscape.

In the boundless human capacity for innovation, barbed wire soon found other uses.  It proved an invaluable resource for prisons, effectively keeping a hostile population in, and then made its way to borders, where everywhere from the Berlin Wall to the US-Mexico border, it kept unwanted people out.

If Google Earth were to show all this fencing, writes Wittenburg, we would see a world of labyrinths.  Never has so much of the world been closed off and compartmentalized.  Wherever barbed wire was introduced, it prevailed.  What started out as a few hairpins turned into a powerful engine of enclosure and division.

I was directed to this history by the theologian Willie Jennings, whom I heard lecture last month on the book of Acts. Dr. Jennings pointed us to Wittenburg’s work to show us just how powerful—and yet how often invisible—are the lines in our world.  Lines create an illusion of separation where it does not actually exist.  They fragment our common needs into individual needs.  And commodifying even the land itself, they determine what does and doesn’t belong to me and what is and isn’t my concern.[2]

Some 1800 years before Lucinda Glidden complained about the cows in her garden, humankind was already operating with a robust understanding of lines.  Just in the early verses of Acts, for instance, we read of lines between Jews and Gentiles, between Galileans, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and Cappadocians.  Go back even further, to the passage from Joel that Peter reads, and there are lines between men and women, old and young, slave and free.  Indeed you needn’t be a student of the scriptures, but of simple human history to know the long and deep reach of the line.

But Luke, in his two-volume work Luke-Acts, tells of a God who is no respecter of lines.  Acts, Dr. Jennings says, is all about line-crossing, for it is full of stories of the Spirit-empowered church following in the steps of Jesus, the Great Trespasser.

Luke narrates the expansion of God’s covenant, made first with the chosen people of Israel but now pushing out in waves to encompass more and more people in its reach.  The mark of the Spirit’s outpouring as foretold by Joel—that it will fall upon all flesh—is made further known by the deluge of languages that pour forth from the mouths of the Galileans.  And when those who witness this spectacle want in on the action, Peter assures them, “This promise is for you and your children, for those who are near and those who are far away, everyone whom the Lord God calls.”           And there is, at the end of the chapter, a sign that the Spirit’s disregard for boundaries finds a mirror in the hearts of these early Christians.  I like the way New Testament scholar Thomas Currie puts it:

“The chapter that began with the distribution of fiery tongues ends with an even mightier Pentecostal wind [and a still costlier distribution.]  Christians who might be happy to see in the Spirit’s diverse language skills a metaphor for the universal scope of the Gospel’s message have tended to seek shelter from the wind that occurs at the end of this chapter. […] ‘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.’ […]  So compelling is the Spirit’s gift of unity…that those with resources could now see the needs of others as if they were their own needs, and no one could live as if the needs of others were dismissible.”[3]

What is significant in this account of the early Christians’ life together is not primarily the economic practices, impressive though those are, but the profound understanding of their oneness in Christ that made possible that way of living together.  Gone are the lines that splinter communal needs into individual ones; gone are illusions of separation; gone are the notions of what is and is not mine, of what is and is not my concern.  In the wake of the Spirit, lines are eradicated; God’s people simply know themselves to be bound to one another.

Many are quick to dismiss this part of the church’s history as a mere moment of idealism, when the fervor of brand new Christians flared up and then faded away as quickly as those tongues of fire.  But we might remember that these few verses are a most precious description of the Church’s life in the immediate wake of the Spirit’s descent.  And to dismiss that account as simple naïveté is to trivialize both the power of the Spirit in those early days and the power of the line that is always working in our world.  To dismiss that account is to dismiss any authority or wisdom it might have for the way we are called to live today.

In the wake of this week’s news that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Accord, David Brooks wrote an op-ed[4] that sets in stark contrast two worldviews.  The first understands the world as a place wherein various entities compete against one another for advantage, operating from a place of selfishness and seeking dominance.  The second sees the world as a global community in which people are motivated by cooperation and altruism and can, from those impulses, act for a greater good.  The first is the world of the line; the second knows something of the world of the Spirit.

Now of course we humans are marked by both sin and the Spirit and so know within ourselves pieces of both worlds.  We know impulses of selfishness and of benevolence; we know ourselves as both competitors and allies.  But especially in a world where climate, like the gospel, is no respecter of borders, the necessity of knowing ourselves bound to one another is growing ever more urgent.

And here the Church is well-equipped for the work ahead, for we have that knowledge in our blood, we have experiences of common life in our history, we have in the Holy Spirit the power that makes us one.

And that is not all.  We also have a meal.  A bit of bread and a little juice that connect us to the very first people who practiced being church together.  If you trust the first descriptions of the Church in Acts, the early Christians spent more time eating than doing anything else—good news for anyone who enjoys a good church potluck.  What began as simple table fellowship took on Eucharistic form.  In the breaking of bread, that first body of believers was shaped more and more into the body that had been given for them.  And so it is with us.  In Christ we know how brokenness is contained in wholeness, how many are held together as one.  And in the eating of this bread and the drinking of this cup, we know ourselves more and more a part of Christ’s body.

In Friendship Park, a small park that sits on the US-Mexico border between San Diego and Tijuana, there is a significant line.[5]  Along the border runs a fence which serves as a meeting place for family and friends who find themselves on opposite sides of the border.  But late in 2008, the Department of Homeland Security announced plans to build a secondary fence, which would cut off all contact between people on opposite sides.  Some Christians got together and decided that the love of Jesus compelled them to cross a line, and so they determined, in the weeks leading up to the construction of the second fence, to hold communion services at the fence.  When they arrived one summer’s day, bread and wine in hand and a crowd already gathered on both sides, they learned from border patrol agents that they were forbidden to pass elements through the fence—that to share the body and blood of Christ across a border would be considered a customs violation.  So the leaders got together and discussed what to do.  They decided to serve communion on both sides of the fence—an American minister consecrated the bread and the wine and then passed some of it through the fence to a Mexican colleague.  The people formed two lines, one in each country, and were welcomed to receive communion on whichever side they preferred—but the Americans were warned that receiving the bread through the fence, from Mexico, might be considered an act of civil disobedience.

The American minister writes, “I have never taken so much pleasure in not serving Communion. One by one, my friends on the U.S. side shook their heads at me as they approached the serving station and reached out their hands to receive the body of Christ through the fence.  I sat silently with tortilla in hand, as my colleague from Tijuana, separated from me by 18 inches and an international boundary, served the entire congregation.”

Barbed wire prevailed in every place it has been introduced, Wittenburg wrote.  That is until it was confronted by a simple tortilla.

The table is made ready.  A feast awaits us.  Eat up, friends.

[1] Dick Wittensburg, “Never before was so much of the world fenced off by barbed wire,” De Correspondent, https://thecorrespondent.com/3924/never-before-was-so-much-of-the-world-fenced-off-by-barbed-wire/261487512-67a88489.  Accessed June 3, 2017.

[2] Personal notes from lecture given May 3rd, 2017 at Pittsburgh Seminary.

[3] Thomas W. Currie, “Pentecost’s Costly Gift,” in Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2017.

[4] David Brooks, “Donald Trump Poisons the World,” in The New York Times, June 2, 2017.

[5] “Border crossing,” in Christian Century, Oct. 7, 2008, follow up stories in “Dan Watman’s Quest to Create a Binational Garden Led to Civil Disobedience,” San Diego Free Press, 2.24.16 and “Border Activists at Friendship Park,” San Diego Free Press, 3.16.16.

Elizabeth Michael , Interim Associate Pastor

Email: elizabeth@upcch.org

Phone: (919).929.2102 ext. 112

Bio:

Elizabeth joined the staff in September of 2016 and counts it a tremendous privilege to learn and grow alongside the saints of University Presbyterian. A native North Carolinian, Elizabeth studied music and religion at Presbyterian College and received her M. Div. at Princeton Seminary. Her life and ministry have been shaped by work with Presbyterian churches in South Africa, a season of living in intentional community alongside the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, and the chance to be a part of a team welcoming home citizens returning from incarceration. Her spiritual life has been consistently nourished by immersion in the community of faith, most recently at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham, where she served as Associate Pastor for seven years. Elizabeth has a deep love for Christ's Church, a deep hope in the gospel's reconciling work in the world, and a deep joy in the life of ministry. At UPC, Elizabeth offers support to the church's caregiving and worship ministries, among others. Outside of work, she tries to take full advantage of her library card, the local food scene, national parks, and friends who live in places fun to visit.