Saturday, October 15, 2016

Bike Memories

I have a black leather jacket. Got it second hand from my brother-in-law. I like my jacket. The only problem is that sometimes I have trouble finding it on the coat rack at church among all the other black leather jackets. Recently Lois took a picture of me as we drove south to Bemidji, Minnesota. My friends thought that the jacket needed a bike—a Harley or Yamaha or something. I started remembering my very limited experience riding a motorcycle.

I went out to Zimbabwe in January 1972, after finishing an English degree at Messiah College. I went to Matopo Secondary School with my English degree and was assigned to teach Chemistry and Biology. Not a good idea. Two weeks later the school authorities transferred me to Mathematics and English, a much better fit. (In spite of my mathematical inadequacies, I grasped the algebra and geometry well enough to enjoy teaching it.)

[The pictures are of me in front of the house in which I lived, called "Phumula". The black and white shows me at the time of this story. The colour comes from our family trip to Africa in 2003.]
I had no transport of my own at Matopo, so one of the 1-Ws in Zimbabwe stopped by to visit me. He was headed back to the States and had a motorcycle he wanted to sell. Something like 100 cc (whatever that means). I knew nothing about motorcycles; I still know nothing. I googled “100 cc motorcycles” and found this entry: “We all know for a fact that 100cc commuter motorcycles dominate the Indian two-wheeler market, but did you know that they make up for over 60% of the total sales volume? We check out the top ten best-selling 100cc motorcycles in India, to see what makes them so popular!” So I guess that it’s a basic motorcycle, ideal for a 22-year old young man posted to a school 25 miles from the nearest city.

First my friend told me how wonderful motorcycles were through stories about trips around the country. He told how he and two friends and had managed to ride between three donkeys walking across the road. Donkeys are wonderfully predictable—they don’t change what they’re doing for anyone, least of all for cyclists. He told of all the wonderful accidents he and his friends had been in, or almost been in. Finally he handed me the keys (at least I think there were keys) and let me take it for a quick ride down the road.

I started off the dirt road from Matopo, headed down towards Mtshabezi at a sedate 30 miles an hour. As I reached the end of the Matopo Mission property, the road plunged down a steep hill made entirely of granite. I have driven that road more than once, but never on a cycle. My comfortable 30 mph began to feel far too fast, and I barely managed to come to stop before heading down the steep hill and adding to my friend’s store of accident stories.

That is as close as I came to ever owning a motorcycle. A few minutes later I was back at the house and handed him the keys. I bought a bicycle instead.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Communion and Community

Introduction to Corinthians
This morning we are preparing to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Usually we do so as part of our Thanksgiving service, which we held last Sunday. This year we are taking communion during next Sunday’s installation service for Victor. 1 Corinthians 11 is a text we often use to get ready for communion, and I will use it again today.

We read about the beginning of the Corinthian churches in Acts 18. In the previous chapters Paul had preached in Philippi and Thessalonica, where he came under vigorous persecution, including imprisonment. Then he had gone on to Athens, where he gained a hearing on Mars Hill, but was laughed at by most of those listening. Given the events leading up to his entry into Corinth, the way he describes his coming in 1 Corinthians 2 makes sense: “I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. …” Paul seems so convinced in his preaching and writing that we might wonder how he could say, “I came to you with great fear and trembling,” but his fear makes sense at this stage of his preaching mission. In the event, he stayed for a year and a half (Acts 1811) and his preaching led to the beginning of a significant church in Corinth.

Corinth was a city near the southern tip of Greece, a port city that rivalled Athens, which was about 50 miles further east. It was known for its sexual immorality, although some of that reputation may have come from Athenians who were jealous of Corinth. As a major port of the ancient world, you can be sure that its reputation was at least partly earned, and that it was a cosmopolitan city full of many religions and temples.

The Corinthian Church
One of my questions as I prepared was: How important was this church that Paul planted? In the first chapter of this letter Paul says, “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.” Sometimes we read this to mean that the church consisted entirely of poor people. That’s not quite what Paul said: “Not many of you were wise … influential … noble.” So some were. In the Corinthian church there was a layering of social and economic classes, which becomes an important point in the passage that we read.

How many were in this church? The commentators I read agree that the church met in people’s homes, which limited the size of any one group to about 30 or 40 people. They normally met around a meal in their host’s home, with the wealthier people sitting at the table and lower-class people crowding in around the outside of the room. If there were a total of 10 homes that people could meet in, we have a church of 300 to 400. Paul does not tell us, so we can only speculate.

Paul is concerned with the life of this church, gathered in people’s homes. Chloe may have been one of the homeowners and church leaders (1:11). Crispus and Gaius (1:14) may also be such household leaders. Perhaps Stephanas is another (16:15). You note the mention of Aquila and Priscilla in 16:19, which shows the pattern of such household meeting in a neighbouring city, probably the city in which Paul is writing the letter. We know from Acts 18 that Priscilla and Aquila also lived in Corinth when Paul came there and hosted a house church there as well.

Our Passage
So we come to 1 Corinthians 11. This is a letter. We have a particular problem reading someone else’s mail. It would help greatly if we had the letter that the Corinthians sent, to which Paul is replying. We don’t, so we have to guess at the situations in Corinth, based on the answers that Paul gives to their questions.

You can read the letter as a whole, with a good commentary at your elbow, in order to see the issues in it more fully. One of these issues was the way that they celebrated communion, which is the passage we read earlier. Here is a brief description of what Paul says.

The Corinthian church was divided—not just by meeting in different homes, which was not a problem, but far more by leadership struggles (chapter 1) and by social class (our passage). So Paul says, “I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it.” The qualifier “to some extent” is a bit sarcastic. Paul means, “I know you are!”

Paul wrote strongly against such division in chapter 1:
10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: one of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptise any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptised in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptised the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptised anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel – not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Now again in chapter 11 Paul returns to this theme of division, except that this time it shows up as a class division. Some of the Corinthians had money, and they brought good food and drink to their Sunday meal in the house church. Some of them were poor, and they brought a poor family’s food and drink—not much! This meal was the context within which the church celebrated the Lord’s Supper. They ate their meal together, and then broke bread and drank wine in memory of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
By the way, such discrimination was normal in Greco-Roman society. The people of Corinth saw such actions all the time. Paul’s point is that they should be different: a new people, the Body of Christ.

Paul contrasts their practice (in which one person goes hungry while another wealthier brother gets drunk) with what should happen. He quotes the words that we often use when we take communion, beginning with the words, “I received from the Lord what I passed on to you.” This is a technical phrase that shows us the importance of the formula that follows: “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me. … This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

This celebration does two things: One, it remembers Christ’s death until he returns, so it reminds us both of the salvation that comes to us on the cross and of the goal of history in the return of Christ. All of our lives are re-oriented to these fundamental realities: Jesus is our Saviour—he has saved us from “sin, death, and hell”, and Jesus is our lord—we live our lives for him until we die or he returns.

Two, this celebration affirms our essential unity. By reminding us that we are united in Christ, not divided in Christ, Paul ties together communion and community. Division, in Paul’s thinking, is sin. By “division” I do not mean the existence of several different house churches. As a practical matter we meet in different groups, but all Christians form one church. There is only one church of Jesus Christ. There is only one body of Christ in this world. Each congregation may meet alone, but we all belong together. Social or theological division in this context (the practice of the Lord’s Supper) is simply wrong.

Division is something deeper than simply the fact of having several groups. In Chapter 1, division was seen in the way that each group elevated itself and put others down.
  •          “We come from Paul! You don’t have a spiritual father; we do!”
  •          “Ah, but we learned from Peter and he represents the first church in Jerusalem. We are better than you!”
  •          “You poor Paulians and Peterites! Have you heard Apollos preach? There is a man of God, truly educated and sophisticated—someone who can reach this cosmopolitan city if anyone can!”
  •          Finally, the Christ-party speaks; “None of you know anything. We know Christ! We have the way! We are the true church, not you.”

In chapter 11 division showed itself through class divisions, based on social and economic status. This was a problem in various places, as James’ shows us (James 23:1-4):
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
It is this idea of “judges with evil thoughts” that lies at the heart of division. Division is not simply separating into more than one group. Division is judging the person from whom one separates. Paul suggests that this spirit of division is at the root of other problems that the Corinthians have experienced. We do not need to draw a straight line from sin to misfortune to see the truth of his statement.

I have heard this passage preached as a call to examine oneself for all kinds of secret sins. That goes beyond what Paul is saying. The act of taking communion in an unworthy manner (verses 27-29) refers specifically to the way that the Corinthians were abusing each other at the table. In a sense, all of us always take communion “unworthily”. No one here can ever say, “I deserve this grace from God.” Grace is always undeserved. Rather, it is taking communion together, being reminded that we are a redeemed people, and that we are one body of Christ—it is this celebration of communion that reminds us of the One who makes us righteous. God comes to us because we are sinners, to redeem and transform us.

We are going through deep waters in our congregation, and we must take seriously what has been happening among us. Let me oversimplify in order to make my point. We have divided over a number of issues. To disagree is not sin, nor does separation necessarily mean division, but division may result. I assume that all of us have been seeking God’s will and are trying to be faithful in the issues that face us. Some see the danger of agreeing to what they believe is sin. To do so would make them also guilty. They cannot do it. Others see the danger of rejecting marginalized people, which would also be sin. They cannot take that step. But here is the problem. In our efforts to do what we believe God wants us to do, we have fallen into division. This spirit of judgment has not been on one side or the other, but on both sides. I am not interested in deciding who has been more guilty. In my own thinking we have done all of this together.

You see our problem: In the effort to avoid one sin we have fallen into another. In my reading of the New Testament, the call to unity is one of the strongest themes of all. In John 13, Jesus makes mutual love the mark of the Christian. In John 17 Jesus prays and asks for Christian unity as the decisive argument that God is real and that Jesus is the Son of God. In Ephesians 4, Paul states forcefully that there is only one body. In 1 Corinthians 1 he asks, “Is Christ divided?” The answer is, “No! Christ can never be divided, nor can the body of Christ, which is the church.”

I want to ask you each to do something over the next several weeks. Ask of yourself, “Did I say something to hurt a brother or sister?” Then find that sister or brother and make things right between you. Don’t try to undo the past. We can’t. Don’t think that we can put everything back together. We can’t. But we can make sure that true organic Christian unity is restored, even as we move in different directions. You may ask yourself in this process of self-examination: “Did someone hurt me? Do I feel judged?” Then go and talk with that brother or sister and make things right. I am referring now to things that really were said, not to thoughts we may have had or emotions that flow. You may wonder if you need to tell someone, “I thought bad things about you.” If you only thought them, don’t start saying them now!

Next Sunday we take communion. Some of you may say, “I can’t. I have been hurt too badly.” If your conscience forbids you, listen to your conscience. Even if our conscience is mistaken, it is the medium by which God speaks to us. But I would add something: If you think you need to be truly worthy to take communion, you may as well give up now. We are all unworthy. Our sin at that point becomes one of hypocrisy if we think that we are righteous. Communion invitations get at this truth in different ways. Here is one such invitation:
Come to this table, not because you must but because you may, not because you are strong but because you are weak. Come not because any goodness of your own gives you the right to come, but because you need mercy and help. Come because you love the Lord a little and would like to love him more. Come, because he loved you and gave himself for you. Come and meet the risen Christ for we are his body.

We need mercy and help in our life together, so I invite you to prepare yourself for communion next Sunday. If you can, make things right with people around you this week. If you can’t get it done this week—perhaps some conversations are too difficult to have now—then take communion as part of your preparation to talk to those you must speak with. Don’t delay those conversations too long, or they will submerge and infect your life from beneath, but don’t hurry them either. Take the time you need to become fully the body of Christ again.

I have started this process for myself. I invite you to join me. Don’t try to do it for anyone else. We don’t examine each other; we examine ourselves and move towards fuller communion with all of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

9 October 2016
Text: 1 Corinthians 11: 17-34

Correcting an abuse of the Lord’s Supper

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!
23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.30 That is why many among you are weak and ill, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.
33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

And when I come I will give further instructions.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Reading the Church's Bible, 2

Why Should We Even Read the Bible?

Introduction: The Question
Last week we talked about why we read the Bible—“why” in the sense of “for what purpose”? I suggested (based on Jesus’ words in John 5) that the Scriptures are intended to bring us to God through the person of Jesus Christ. I added (based on Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3) that they are also intended to teach us how to live as God’s people. We can see these two purposes for reading Scripture in the Great Commission (Matthew 28): Jesus told his followers to “make disciples of all nations”, baptizing those who come to faith in Christ and teaching them to obey all that Jesus has told us to do. The Scripture bring us to Jesus in conversion and then helps us to grow spiritually as followers of Jesus.

Many people around us, however, have a more basic objection. They wonder why we should read the Bible at all. The Bible was written over a period of about a thousand years, finishing about 1,900 years ago. What can such an old book have to say to us today? It was written by people in very different cultures from ours, in very different times from ours. Many people around us think the Bible is simply irrelevant. Why should we even read it at all, let alone make it our guide for faith and life?

Towards an Answer
To read the Bible with the eyes of faith requires an encounter with Christ. God saves us by grace through faith, and in faith we begin to read the Bible and find God there. This is not something that one can prove with human reason. We cannot say to people, “Here are the reasons,” and prove to them with human logic that this book is God’s Word for us today.

At the same time, our faith in God is a reasonable faith, and trusting the Bible is consistent with human reason. We would expect this to be true, since God made human reason. Here is a beginning step, then, towards believing in Christian faith by reading the Bible. In the passage that we read, Paul makes it clear that the centre of Christian faith is the person of Jesus Christ—Jesus lived in Palestine, Jesus died on the cross, Jesus rose from the dead. This is where our faith begins. Paul argues in the rest of the chapter that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the founding truth of Christian faith. If the resurrection did not happen, he says, our faith is misplaced and “we are of all people most miserable” (vv 14, 17). But, Paul says, Jesus did rise from the dead, so that our faith is true (v 20).

This is the key point. Dead people do not rise to new life. We know that, and the early church knew that too. Sometimes people think that the first Christians were just na├»ve and did not really understand that resurrections don’t happen. But of course they knew well that this event was not normal. That is one reason that they found the appearance of a healthy, glowing Jesus, full of life before their eyes over a period of 40 days, to be so amazing.

So if it is true that Jesus rose from the dead, we have something quite unique in history, something that changes everything that we think we know from nature and human reason.

I often quote C.S. Lewis in my sermons. Lewis was one of the greatest Christian writers of the 20th century. As you may know, however, he was an atheist before he was a Christian. Born in 1898 in Belfast in an Anglican family, he lost his mother to cancer when he was 10 years old. His father sent him off to boarding schools in England, where for a variety of reasons he became an atheist. He fought in World War One (which reinforced his atheism), and after the war attended Oxford University. After he graduated he found work at Oxford as a tutor in Philosophy, and then as a professor in Medieval English Literature in 1925.

His life at Oxford included friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a convinced Christian and Roman Catholic. Along with various other influences, their conversations and arguments opened Lewis up to the possibility that Christian faith is true. As began to read the Bible again, he realized that, if the resurrection of Jesus were true, then the Bible as a whole is true and God himself is real. He resisted accepting the resurrection because he saw where the logic of the resurrection would take him.

One day he was talking with a friend, an atheist (I think he was himself a professor of history at Oxford) who unintentionally helped Lewis move closer to Christian faith. Here is how Lewis describes it in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy:
Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. “Rum thing,” he went on. “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.” To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not—as I would still have put it—“safe,” where could I turn? Was there then no escape?

There were other factors in Lewis’ conversion—especially his friendship with Christians and the discovery that the authors he liked best were all Christians. But this realization that historical evidence was on the side of the resurrection was an important piece. This is not of course hard proof that God exists, but once one accepts the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, then the door is open to faith in Jesus as God’s incarnate Son.

So How Do We Read?
Once we decide that we can and should read the Bible, we have the further question of how to read the Bible. This question requires a further series of sessions on its own, so I make only a few brief comments. I note two basic ways: critical reading and devotional reading. By critical reading I mean trying to understand what the original authors meant. By devotional reading I mean listening to Scripture seeking to hear God’s Spirit speak to us directly.

Critical Reading
Critical reading is necessary whenever we preach or teach from the Bible. If we want to apply what the biblical authors say to our own lives, we must know what they intended to say to their audience. We must know what the passage meant in its own literary and historical context before we can hear it speak clearly to our own time. Sometimes we want to derive rules for living directly from the Bible without paying attention to these critical questions, but of course we must study the original setting to know what was being said.

A good resource if you want to go into more depth for critical reading is a book by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart titled How to Read the Bible for all Its Worth. Fee and Stuart give good insight into the various kinds of literature in the Bible. We have letters and poetry, stories and history, legal material and parables, gospels and apocalypses. We read each of these differently. For example, poetry and law are quite different, and we do not read poetry like law, or law like poetry. We learn to read the gospels in paragraphs, not verses, looking for each complete episode as the writer puts it together. We learn to read letters as what we call “occasional documents”—something written for a specific occasion. We don’t have time to explore these different kinds of literature this morning. It is enough to note that we should know what we are reading before we are sure we know what it says.

Sometimes we refer to the unchanging nature of God’s Word. As we read the Bible, we see many things that are different from our time, so we may wonder how we can talk about God’s word forever true. We recognize, then, that what does not change is the principles that are being expressed in different situations. For example, 1 Corinthians 11 tells us that women should cover their heads in church. If we read this as a simple instruction, we miss the principle that Paul is applying. In Corinth there was a lot of disorder when Christians met together. In chapters 11 to 14 Paul deals with communion meals, with head coverings, with tongues and interpretation in worship, with prophecies, and with spiritual gifts. He concludes these chapters by reminding his readers that God is a God of order (which we know from many other places in Scripture). His concern with the various instructions about speaking in tongues and covering one’s head and so on all have to do with this principle: That order in church life reflects and demonstrates the presence of God’s Shalom.

There is more in these chapters than just this principle, but you see the idea. The principles undergirding all of Scripture are principles that are true always. So critical reading helps us find these principles by helping us understand the passages in their original context.

Devotional Reading
Critical reading can also be devotional. That is, as we seek to hear God’s Word clearly in its own context, the experience draws us closer to God. But we can also read the Bible devotionally without always asking what the original language said or what the historical context was. For example, I have heard many people appeal to the verse from 2 Chronicles 7: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Now reading this verse critically we observe the context in Solomon’s dedication of the Temple, and the fact that the prayer refers to an extended drought within the Promised Land. It fits into a cycle of grace and disobedience as part of the Deuteronomic promises.

Reading devotionally, however, we hear it speak to our own fears for our own country at critical moments in our history. It is dangerous to build doctrine on devotional reading, because we may misread the verse in its original context. At the same time, God does speak directly to us through devotional reading, and God wants us to listen for his voice as we read our Bibles regularly. This kind of reading is an act of and aid to faith. In devotional reading we do not come to the Bible with questions of historicity or accuracy or anything else. We come rather as part of our relationship with God, desiring deeply to hear God’s voice.

I suspect that the kind of conflict we have been experiencing may either separate us from reading the Bible simply to hear God’s voice, or it may drive us back to the Bible because we realize that we are in crisis. I pray that it drives us back to the Bible and back to God.

Richard Foster tells a story that describes what I mean. It appears in his book, Finding the Heart’s True Home, in a chapter on what he calls “meditative prayer”. I have given this example before, but it shows what I am talking about more clearly than anything else I can think of.
Allow me to tell you the story of Jim Smith, a former student of mine. … Jim went on to do graduate work …. By the second year, however, he was struggling to maintain his spiritual life, and so he decided to take a private retreat. He arrived at the retreat house and was introduced to the brother who was to be his spiritual director ….
The brother gave Jim only one assignment: to meditate on the story of the Annunciation in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. That was it. …. For the first couple of hours he sliced and diced the passage as any good exegete would do, coming up with several useful insights that could fit into future sermons. The rest of the day was spent in thumb-twiddling silence.
The next day Jim met with the brother to discuss his spiritual life. … Jim shared his insights, hoping they would impress the monk. They didn’t. … “Well, there is more than just finding out what it says and what it means. There are also questions, like what did it say to you? Were you struck by anything? And most important, did you experience God in your reading?” The brother assigned Jim the same text for that entire day. All day Jim tried doing what his spiritual director had instructed, but he failed repeatedly … and still it was lifeless. Jim felt he would go deaf from the silence.
The next day they met again. In despair Jim told the brother that he simply could not do what was being asked of him. [The brother replied,] “You’re trying too hard, Jim. You’re trying to control God. Go back to this passage and this time be open to receive whatever God has for you. Don’t manipulate God; just receive. Communion with him isn’t something you institute. … All I want you to do is create the conditions: open your Bible, read it slowly, listen to it, and reflect on it.”
Jim went back to his room and began reading. …. By noon he shouted to the ceiling, “I give up! You win!” …. He slumped over the desk and began weeping. A short time later he picked up his Bible and glanced over the text once again. The words were familiar but somehow different. His mind and heart were supple. The opening words of Mary’s response became his words: “Let it be to me…let it be to me.” The words rang round and round in his head. Then God spoke. It was as if a window suddenly had been thrown open and God wanted to talk friend to friend. What followed was a dialogue about the story in Luke, about God, about Mary, about Jim. The Spirit took Jim down deep into Mary’s feelings, Mary’s doubts, Mary’s fears, Mary’s incredible faith-filled response. It was, of course, also a journey into Jim’s feelings and fears and doubts, as the Spirit in healing love and gentle compassion touched the broken memories of his past. Though Jim could barely believe it, the angel’s word to Mary seemed to be a word for him as well: “You have found favor with God.” Mary’s perplexed query was also Jim’s question: “How can this be?” And yet it was so, and Jim wept in the arms of a God of grace and mercy. …. They talked about this—God and Jim—what might be, what could be. Jim took a prayer walk with God, watching the sun play hide and seek behind the large oak trees to the west. By the time the sun had slipped below the horizon, he was able to utter the prayer of Mary as his own: “Let it be to me according to your word.” Jim had just lost control of his life, and in the same moment had found it!

We must read critically: The original meaning is essential to understanding how Jesus calls us to live today, and the principles that God’s people applied in their lives still live for us today. We build church doctrine on critical reading of the Scripture. This is a task that we engage in together as the community of faith. There is space at the table for experts and non-experts, people who have studied Greek and Hebrew and those who know only English (not even French or German!), people who have read the Bible many times and those who are just beginning. We all work together at the task of hearing God speak to use.

We must also read devotionally: God wants to speak to us deep within where no one else sees. This is a task we can do together and on our own. When you have many people in the church who grew up in Christian faith, the danger is that we may live on the memory of past encounters with God and lose sight of the Risen Christ within our own lives. Then the passage we read at the beginning speaks to us anew: Jesus lived; Jesus died; Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to the apostles and the disciples … and last of all has appeared also to us, even though we were born too late to see him on this earth. We see Jesus again, on our knees and in our homes, praying and reading and asking God to touch our hearts.

Different people have different passages that speak most clearly to them. For me it is verses about the cross, and especially about how Jesus bore the cross for us and how he calls us to bear the cross for him. For each of you there are other passages we can share with each other as we encourage each other to walk faithfully with Jesus. In our darkness and fear we turn again to God’s Word and ask God to bring us back to Jesus.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
25 September 2016
Text: 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11
The Resurrection of Christ
15 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Reading the Church’s Bible, 1

One of the issues our congregation is dealing with is the basic question: How does the Bible function in our lives? The “Confession of Faith in Mennonite Perspective” gives this summary statement about the Bible:
We believe that all Scripture is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit for instruction in salvation and training in righteousness. We accept the Scriptures as the Word of God and as the fully reliable and trustworthy standard for Christian faith and life. Led by the Holy Spirit in the church, we interpret Scripture in harmony with Jesus Christ.
A clear statement, but we may still wonder what it means. This morning I want to reflect on Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3 and Jesus’ words in John 5. We could call this a consideration of Scriptural authority, or a reflection on the nature of the Bible. I have chosen to call it, “Reading the Church’s Bible” (after a course title at Providence Seminary).

I start with John chapter 5. Jesus had healed an invalid lying beside the pool of Bethesda. This person had been an invalid for 38 years and was lying beside the pool hoping to get in “when the water was stirred” (verse 7). The episode closes with Jesus’ words, “Pick up your mat and walk” (verse 9). Because this healing took place on the Sabbath, some Jewish leaders asked him what he thought he was doing carrying his mat around—an action against the rules for keeping the Sabbath holy (verse 10). The resulting interaction led them to Jesus, and they started to attack him (verse 16).

Jesus said that his authority to heal and to forgive sins came from his Father, that is, from God (verses 17). The Jewish leaders realized that Jesus was claiming equality with God (verse 18), so that they “tried all the more to kill him.” Verses 19 to 47 give Jesus’ responses to their attacks on him. He observed that there were several testimonies to his identity as the Son of God: John the Baptist was one; his miracles of healing and forgiveness were another; the Scriptures themselves were another. In this context then we hear Jesus say, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Some people read this statement to mean that the Scriptures do not give life. I don’t think that is what Jesus is saying. I think he is saying rather: “You’re right—the Scriptures bring you to life; but if you were really studying the Scriptures you would realize that I am Life.” Later in John’s Gospel Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). So the Bible is not our Life, but it brings us to Jesus, who is our Life. Without the Bible we have only our subjective experience of God’s presence, and Scripture shows us a more objective picture of who God is, as revealed in Jesus.

This is an important point, because the conversations we have been having in our church have an impact on our spiritual life with Christ. We pray earnestly, and we want to do God’s will, but we may find ourselves feeling the hurt of all that has been said and done. Our relationship with Jesus may suffer. When we feel the darkness of this world, we turn again to Scripture, not so that we can prove that we are right or that someone else is wrong, but so that Scripture can take us back to God, who comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ. We read the Bible in order to meet Jesus.

The letters to Timothy were written late in Paul’s life. The verses we read give us almost his last will and testament. (Consider the 4: 6-8, which follows: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”)

Now Paul would not have said that reading the Bible was the centre of the Christian life. He expresses the centre of his own life elsewhere, for example in Romans 1:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
From a more extensive passage (2 Corinthians 5: 11-21), in which Paul describes his passion for the gospel, I note especially the following:
… Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. … All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the [ministry and message] of reconciliation…. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.
The gospel of God, the ministry and message of reconciliation: This is the centre of Paul’s message and of Paul’s life. So then why does he refer to the Scriptures in 2 Timothy 3? For the same reason that Jesus did in John 5. The Scriptures reveal God and God’s will for our lives. The Scriptures describe the gospel of God and give content to the ministry and message of reconciliation.

I want to focus now on the words he writes to Timothy in verses 14-17:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

Timothy had studied the Scriptures from his childhood. He knew the Bible stories. He knew what we call the Old Testament thoroughly. Paul encourages him to continue such careful study, because the Scriptures make one “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (Do you hear the echo of Jesus’ words in John 5?) Then Paul describes the Scriptures more thoroughly.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

You see, then, what the Bible is for. (Note that we extrapolate from Paul’s description of the Hebrew Scriptures to the Bible as a whole). It is for “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness”, that is, it is useful for what we might call disciple-making. You remember that the Great Commission does not deal only with conversion (“baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”), but also with nurture (“teaching them to obey everything I [Jesus] have commanded you.” So the Bible is intended to bring us to Jesus, and to teach us how to live as God’s children (as followers of Jesus).

Sometimes we look at the Bible as a manual of instructions for the situations we face in life. I have a manual in the glove compartment of my car. It is useful for a Toyota Corolla, but if you have a Ford Fusion, it won’t help you as much. The problem with manuals is that they work for one specific situation. The Bible is much more than a manual. The Bible describes itself as the Scriptures that introduce us to Jesus and to the good news that in Jesus God has reconciled the world to himself. As we walk with Jesus and read the Bible, we learn more and more about how Jesus wants us to live in this world.

A Simple Point and a Problem
All of this is fairly obvious, I think. Next week I will talk about the different kinds of writing that we find in the Bible—from songs to laws, from love letters to practical letters, from gospels to apocalypses. Today I want to note just one thing about all of this: The Bible is true. That is what Paul means when he says that the Scriptures are “God-breathed”. The Bible says what God wants it to say. This is a simple point, but sometimes it trips us up.

The problem is that we read the Bible as though it speaks with one voice throughout. The Bible brings us the Word of God from a wide variety of human authors. Peter says this about Paul (2 Peter 2: 16): “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” Peter and Paul write quite differently, because they are different people. Similarly in the Gospels Luke writes a more educated Greek and John writes a simple Greek. The Scriptures are “God-breathed”, but they speak with human voices. Jesus is God’s Word—fully human and fully divine. So also the Bible is God’s Word—a blend of divine inspiration speaking with human voices.

The Bible uses the language and cultural forms of the human authors and their audience. If you have ever moved from one country to another, you have probably been surprised by something that does not mean what you expect it to mean. That also happens in the Bible. Here is a simple example, told to me by a friend from the Middle East. You remember the story of Lot in Sodom in Genesis 19. Because of Sodom’s wickedness, God sent two angels to Sodom to warn Lot to get out of town before judgment. Lot took them in as his guests and gave them supper. After they ate, the men of Sodom came to the house and tried to abduct these men (not recognizing them as angels). Then we read these words:
Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”
We read this story and wonder how Lot could consider giving his daughters to these terrible men. But my friend said something like this: “You think it means that he was willing to give them his daughters. But this is just how we talk in the Middle East. What it really means is that the law of hospitality is so strong that he could no more give his guests to these men than he could give his daughters to them.” In fact, we have a similar form of speech in our own culture; it is called sarcasm.

This change does not affect how we understand the whole story, but such misunderstandings can occur anywhere in the Scriptures if we read too quickly and don’t listen carefully. How do we avoid this problem? By reading carefully and repeatedly. I have a friend who did his Master’s thesis at Providence on the Gospel of Mark. The first step he took before trying to write the thesis was to read the gospel through in one sitting. Three times in a week. For ten weeks.

When we read over and over, we focus less on individual verses that we might take out of context, and we begin to hear the whole Gospel. We will still get some individual passages wrong, but we will get the whole message right. You see, alongside the many voices of Scripture, we hear always God’s Spirit speaking through the authors. It is one of miracles of inspiration that the whole Bible does tell one coherent story, speaking through so many different people. If you want to know that story and learn to live by that story, you have to read the whole Bible and listen to the whole Bible.

I think of my grandparents’ generation in the Brethren in Christ. Many people had only book: the Bible. For some their formal education stopped with Grade Eight, but they read the Bible. I have studied more than they—going on to seminary, but they read the Bible constantly and thoroughly. I suspect that they often read more clearly than I do.

A Concluding Thought
As we read the Bible together, we will sometimes disagree about what it says. We also disagree about how we can read the Bible. Some say that the Bible is plain and needs no interpretation. Others say that the Bible is complicated and we cannot understand it. Both are right. In its overall message the Bible is clear—even if we have some disagreements. In many places the Bible is complicated—but in fact those places are fewer than we might think.

We do sometimes disagree about what the Bible says. I have worked most of my professional life as a seminary teacher among people with whom I disagree. I am convinced that Jesus’ call to peace is integral to the message of the gospel. Reconciliation with God includes reconciliation with people. Most of my colleagues, however, see peace as a goal to work towards rather than a life to live now. They are not pacifists; I am. Yet we continue to work together. We live and work together as brothers and sisters of Jesus, children of God, saved by the blood of Jesus on the cross, gather around the communion table, reading the same Bible, willing to follow all that Jesus commands us to do.

The first thing that the Bible is meant to do, then, is bring us to Jesus. Then it teaches us how to live—using stories and examples from history. Precise lessons may be complex and we may disagree, but they always fit into the whole story of God’s reconciling ways. In our own struggles here and now, let the Bible call you back to Jesus, to walk with him until he returns.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
18 September 2016
2 Timothy 3: 10-17
A Final Charge to Timothy
10 You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, 11 persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. 12 In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

John 5: 31-47
Testimonies About Jesus
31 “If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. 32 There is another who testifies in my favor, and I know that his testimony about me is true. 33 “You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth. 34 Not that I accept human testimony; but I mention it that you may be saved. 35 John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light.
36 “I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, 38 nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. 39 You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
41 “I do not accept glory from human beings, 42 but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts. 43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. 44 How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?
45 “But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. 47 But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”

Sunday, August 28, 2016


I understand that you [Grace Mennonite Church] are taking four Sundays to consider the Lord’s Prayer as it appears in Luke’s Gospel. That means that my focus this morning is on Jesus’ words here, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” I will begin by setting the context of the prayer in Luke, comment briefly on the prayer and the saying on prayer that follows, and then consider the idea of forgiveness as we have it here.

Luke’s Gospel
Luke’s Gospel divides naturally into the following sections: the first four chapters, culminating in Jesus’ beginning sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4); Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (chapters 4-9), which has miracles interspersed with some teaching; Jesus on the road to Jerusalem (chapters 9-19), which consists mostly of teaching, with some dramatic action; and finally the climax in Jerusalem (chapters 19-24), with the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.

This passage, then, comes near the beginning of “the road to Jerusalem”. Luke structures the Gospel so as to present much of Jesus’ teaching as a walk to Jerusalem. I am reminded of an Anglican catechism class described by Tom Sine in Mustardseed vs. McWorld. The class chose to do their instruction, leading up to confirmation, as they walked from London to Canterbury—a distance of about 70 miles. As they walked, they learned the catechism and concluded their instruction with the confirmation ceremony in the Canterbury Cathedral. A Japanese theologian (Kosuke Koyama) uses the phrase, “the three-mile an hour God”, God who walks with us at the ordinary pace of daily life. This is the God to whom we pray in this prayer.

The Context of the Prayer
Luke reminds us that Jesus prayed regularly and gave his disciples a pattern for prayer. Since this prayer (which we call the Lord’s Prayer) is that pattern, we can expect that he told them more than once. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives the prayer as part of the Sermon on the Mount talking about how to pray. Here, Jesus gives the prayer as a response to one of the larger group of disciples who were walking with him from Galilee to Jerusalem.
In Matthew Jesus introduces the prayer thus: “This, then, is how you should pray.” Here he says, “When you pray, say.” The difference in wording is unimportant, reflecting Luke and Matthew’s memories as well as the different occasions on which Jesus taught them to pray. The disciple’s question reminds me of how often we have to say the same things before everyone hears them—which is not the point of this prayer, but a daily reality in community life.

The saying after the prayer has to do with praying for results, so that you might say the prayer focusses on spiritual power, where Matthew’s context focusses more on the relationship that the disciples have with God. In this context, then, Jesus tells his disciples—and us—to pray persistently and thus also to receive God’s blessing.

The Prayer
Luke’s version of the prayer is quite brief, compared to Matthew’s account: “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.” The prayer begins with acknowledgment that God is God, and that our lives depend on God. Then follow three simple requests: 1) Meet our physical needs; 2) Meet our spiritual needs; 3) Protect us in a dangerous world.” We focus on the spiritual need for forgiveness.

Forgive, for we also forgive
We are more familiar with the prayer in Matthew, where Jesus says, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” There God’s forgiveness appears to depend on our response of forgiving others. Here our attitude of forgiveness appears to be the grounds that somehow require God also to forgive us: “Forgive us, because we are people who forgive.” The difference is again unimportant. We are sometimes inclined to read a real difference where we have simply a way of expressing oneself. This morning I use both forms of the prayer interchangeably, as the prayer speaks about forgiveness.
A couple of rabbit trails:
1) You notice that Luke records the prayers as “forgive us our sins; we forgive others what they owe us.” The idea of debt (here and in Matthew) is of a moral obligation, but it is interesting that Jesus calls what we do against God “sin”, and what others do against us a failure to meet an obligation. Another sermon might explore the concept of sin more fully. Here I note only that the basic idea of “sin” is that it is rebellion against God. To pray “Your kingdom come” while insisting on being in charge of our own lives is the essence of rebellion.
2) Matthew records the prayer as, “Forgive us … as we forgive others.” Luke records the prayer as, “Forgive us … for we forgive others.” The difference is not to suggest that we earn forgiveness, but rather to remind us that the refusal to forgive others can become the obstacle to receiving God’s forgiveness. Alan Kreider has observed that the early church insisted that people wanting to become Christians had to show the “fruit of repentance” before they were allowed to hear the gospel. A curious fact! (See The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom.

“Forgive us,” we pray: God extends mercy. “For we also forgive”: We in turn are to extend mercy. One might express more fully thus: God treats us with kindness and mercy, which leads to a new life flowing in us and through us—expressed by treating those around us also with kindness and mercy. To put it more bluntly: God will treat us the way that we treat each other. I find this thought to be somewhat disturbing, because we often do not treat each other well.

Some Illustrations
Consider the following examples. I wonder what our world would be like, following the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, if George Bush would have prayed this prayer before each strategy meeting determining the American response: “Forgive us our sins, because we forgive others their sins.” Could we have found a response to Al Qaeda that pursued justice (for example, through the World Court in Hague), but did not embrace vengeance? Treating even our enemies with kindness and mercy would lead to a very different world.

I think of another situation. During his undergraduate work at a school I won’t name, one of my students at Providence rented rooms in the basement of a house owned by a professor of “peace and conflict studies”. There were three rooms in the basement, which shared a common eating and sitting area. He told me how he and the other two students renting the basement would sit there listening to the professor and his wife fighting upstairs. The irony: that someone who could teach others how to move towards peace could not live at peace himself in his own house.
Please note: the fact of strong disagreements is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we must speak up, wherever or whatever the situation. But one can fight well, in ways that move towards peace and in ways that reflect the prayer Jesus taught us to pray.

I think of other situations that most people here are fully familiar with. Following the gathering of MC Canada in Saskatoon, we know of strong disagreements across the conference to which we belong. Again, as with the peace and conflict professor and his wife, it is not bad that we disagree—even disagree strongly. But the principle stated in the Lord’s Prayer holds true: God will treat us the way that we treat each other.

Our forebears knew this truth well. Some years ago I sang in a choir with Rudy Schellenburg directing. Our concert consisted of Low German folk songs, including one, “Mein Noba Klassen.” The basic idea of the song was a complaint about my neighbour, Klassen, who kept borrowing things from me and breaking them. We sang fervently that we could never forgive this thoughtless, careless neighbour.
“Our neighbor is angry at me because I did not lend him my new ax.
He borrows all kinds of things from me, there doesn't seem to be any purpose in it.
The other day he borrowed my wagon,
Then immediately broke the axle in two.”

The sting in the song came in the tune, a well-known hymn tune. The hymn appears in our own Mennonite Hymnal as #524, “What mercy and divine compassion has God in Christ revealed to me.” We sang our bitterness and unforgiveness to a tune that reminded us of God’s undeserved mercy. And the principle holds true: God will treat us the way that we treat each other.

Judgment and Grace
I find this truth to be more than a little disconcerting. If God treats me the way that I treat my brothers and sisters, I may be in trouble. I pray the Lord’s Prayer every morning as a part of preparing to live each day. I have focussed on different aspects of the prayer at different times—sometimes the beginning formula, “Your name, Your reign, Your will.” Sometimes I focus on this morning’s verse: “Forgive us (me) as we (I) forgive.” I have tried to live faithfully by this principle, not holding others’ faults against them and lifting them up to God for God’s blessing. But of course I fail sometimes, as I suspect all of us do. A critical spirit creeps in. I begin to judge others and I get angry with them for their blindness. Perhaps the most obvious place I experience this spirit is when I argue with my American friends who inexplicably (to me) support Donald Trump. I can understand supporting some, even many, of his policies; but to support the man himself? And as I argue, I hear the Spirit quietly reminding me, “The way you treat these friends is the way God will treat you.”

Such a difficult standard then stands in judgment on us. We all fail to extend forgiveness freely, to extend mercy and kindness to each other. If God judges us as we judge others (Matthew 7:1), we are in trouble! At that point the prayer becomes a plea for God to remake us and show greater grace than we have any right to ask for—grace that not only pardons and cleanses, but grace that transforms and remakes us as God’s children.

Some Closing Thoughts
As we continue to learn the path of forgiveness, a path we can walk only by God’s great grace, I offer a few closing thoughts about how we might act in times of conflict:
1. There are times we do disagree. This is not bad. We should practice a basic honesty that honours our own integrity as well as respects those around us. Nothing in the practice of forgiveness says that we should avoid conflict.
2. How we disagree is critical. We should not fight dirty. We should not tear the other person down. We seek the other person’s good, even as we disagree. The disagreement may be so strong as to say that we must separate, but even in the hardest times, we fight fair and act in love and respect.
3. To disagree well and treat the other person kindly, we assume the best about the person. I have heard people speak clearly in arguments—and then move on to judge the other person’s motives. Assume the best of the other person. Assume they also are seeking to follow Christ faithfully. If we assume the worst about others, we invite God to find the worst in us.
4. Act in good faith and in love for the other at all times—even when separating. I think of a congregation I know who divided down the middle over whether they wanted a pastor-led congregation, or a lay-led congregation. It was hard. Such separations are bitter, and there were many broken relationships. Those people who acted in love and good faith throughout found it easiest to forgive at the end. Those who were convinced that the others were trying to destroy the church and spoke most strongly found it hardest to forgive.

Remember, God will treat us the way that we treat each other. In this prayer, we not only recognize this truth, we go further and ask God to make this truth alive in our hearts and minds.

What Mercy and divine compassion has God in Christ revealed to me!
My haughty spirit would not ask it, yet he bestowed it full and free.
In God my heart does now rejoice. I praise his grace with grateful voice,
I praise his grace with grateful voice.

Your bounteous grace is my assurance, the blood of Christ my only plea,
Your heart of love my consolation until your glorious face I see.
My theme, through never-ending days, shall be your great redeeming grace,
Shall be your great redeeming grace.

Text, Luke 11: 1-11 (Jesus’ teaching on prayer)
11 One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:
‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’
Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need. “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

28 August 2016

Grace Mennonite Church

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Divine Wisdom—Human Wisdom

Our summer series focusses on some of the attributes of God and then asks how we show that quality in our own lives. According to Genesis 1, we image God. That is, we look like God, and we represent God in daily life in our world. This morning we look at God’s wisdom, and then seek God’s wisdom in our own lives. God’s Wisdom is a tricky subject to consider. We can imitate God’s love, and God’s commitment to justice and mercy. We can act like God as God’s representatives in this world in many ways. But God is the source of wisdom, and we cannot pretend to be like God in our wisdom. So how do we image the Wisdom of God?

We consider four separate passages of Scripture in an effort to move through the topic. The two OT passages state that God’s wisdom is beyond our understanding, but adds that we are to pursue wisdom anyway. The two NT passages show us what “wisdom” looked like in Paul’s ministry, which is the image of the cross. Given the constraints of time, I note only a small part of what each passage has to say, and then bring them together to ask what they say to us today.

Isaiah 40: 12-31
Isaiah 40 begins with the promise of restoration from exile. One can imagine people starting to ask questions. “Why did we have to go into exile?” “What was God doing all this time?” We also live in a world wracked by terrible tragedies that we cannot hope to understand. Perhaps like Job we wish we could call God to account for all the tragedies we see round us—from the truck driven into bystanders in Nice, France to personal losses and hurts that we have experienced.

Isaiah speaks to us: “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance? Who can fathom the Spirit of the LORD, or instruct the LORD as his counsellor? Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding?” Verse 28 puts it: “There is no searching of his understanding.”

Isaiah ridicules the worship of idols (verses 18-20). The way he begins this section is striking: “With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?” Our summer series reminds us that we are the images of God. The image of God tells us two things: We are made in God’s likeness; and we represent God. This fact—that we are God’s images—clashes with the clear statement that we cannot understand God or God’s purposes in this world. It raises a basic question: How can we show the wisdom of God in our lives when we cannot grasp God’s wisdom? To get at the answer, consider this gap between us and God.

God is the Creator. Like the writer of a book, God is the author of our story. For us to comprehend God is as impossible as for the character in a book to understand the author of the book. The only way that a character could know the author is if the author puts such knowledge into the heart and mind of that character. Similarly, we cannot know God in and of ourselves. We can only know God through God’s self-revelation (which happens in the person of Jesus Christ).

Isaiah reminds us that we cannot understand the mind and purpose of our Creator. The book of Job makes a similar point. Job calls God to account, and God’s reply (Job 38) is essentially: “Where were you when I created the moon and the stars and the earth and all that is in it?” Job recognizes his folly in trying to comprehend God and repents in dust and ashes (Job 42).

So we cannot comprehend God, or God’s purposes, or God’s wisdom. Nevertheless we are God’s images; we are those who are supposed to show God’s wisdom to people in a confused and chaotic world.

Proverbs 4: 1-9
The book of Proverbs is part of what we call “wisdom literature” in the Old Testament. The book as a whole collects Proverbs from various areas of life and gives a picture of what it means to live wisely. Many of the proverbs are closely tied to the cultural setting of the people and may not apply in our setting, but the whole building of wisdom is based on the first nine chapters, which celebrate God’s Wisdom.

I want to note two points. The first is statement repeated often in Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.” Here is the first step in dealing with the problem of how to be images of God’s wisdom: Fear the Lord. We do not need to be afraid of God, but we hold God in awe and reverence. We live with the awareness that all of life is in God’s hands. This idea is behind two verses people often give as their life verses (Proverbs 3: 5-6): “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your paths.” The second point is given in the verses we read from chapter 4: “The beginning of wisdom is this: get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.” It may be true that we cannot comprehend God and that the wisdom of God is beyond our understanding, yet we are to pursue it. We are to give our lives to God’s Wisdom.
A side note: One commentator observes that this means we follow wisdom, the pattern or order of God’s creation. That idea makes sense to me, and leads (via 1 Corinthians 1) to the same conclusion as I come to below. My one hesitation about using this language is that it can lead to the way some have put it; “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” God does indeed have plans for our lives, but I resist the idea of a blue print so that each choice has one and only one right answer and wisdom consists of finding it.

In Proverbs 1 to 9 Wisdom is personified as a woman who is in contrast with Folly. Wisdom in Jewish thinking came to be seen as a description of God. Some commentators suggest that this view of Wisdom is behind the way that John 1 speaks of the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” If this is correct—and I think it is—then “Get Wisdom” becomes “Follow Jesus!” John’s Gospel makes it clear that Jesus’ death and resurrection prepare the way for the Holy Spirit. I do not think we stretch the connection too far to render “Get Wisdom” as “Be filled with the Spirit.”
Another side note: This personification of Wisdom (Sophia) as a woman, who then becomes the lens through which we read about God the Word (Logos) is a useful corrective to our masculine imagery for God. God is fully personal (not of course, corporeal), but unbound by our gender limitations.

1 Corinthians 1: 18-2: 5
To build on these ideas we turn to 1 Corinthians. This is the first passage I thought of when I was assigned “the Wisdom of God.” God’s Wisdom is seen most clearly in the crucified Christ.
Note that Paul does not refer to the crucified and risen Christ, but simply to the cross. In 1 Corinthians 15 he expands on the resurrection, but here he begins with the cross alone.
The cross looks like weakness to the Jews and appears foolish to the Greeks, but, God’s weakness is stronger than human power, and God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. So, Paul says, his whole life and message can be summarized as “Jesus Christ and him crucified”. This summary echoes the words of Jesus, “Those who would be my disciples must take up their cross and follow me.” In Galatians 1 Paul says much the same thing, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, for Christ lives within me.” So then, to pursue wisdom means to lift up the cross and follow Jesus.

What does it mean to know the crucified Christ? What does it mean to take up our crosses and follow Jesus? Jesus went to his death on the cross for the salvation of the world. We are not able to save anyone; God’s saving work on the cross is Christ’s alone. Yet we still carry our cross and follow Christ. What can that mean? Jesus not only died to save the world, but he also received the violence of the world around him into himself, returning only love. I think that is what is going on in Paul’s words here:
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

Christ is God’s love in action, and we are to be “God’s love in action.” What does this look like? The Sermon on the Mount shows us what this active love looks like in our lives.  E. Stanley Jones wrote a book called The Christ on the Mount. In it, he writes this:
Jesus is not teaching passive resistance, but an active resistance on a higher level. The account does not say, “If a man smite you on one cheek, let him smite the other also,” but it does say, “Turn to him the other also.” It is this audacious offensive of love that forces the man to go further and thus to break down. He tries to break your head, and you, as a Christian, try to break his heart. In turning the other cheek you wrest the offensive from him and assume moral charge of the situation. You choose your own battleground, and your own weapons, you refuse his and compel him to stand on ground with which he is not familiar and to face weapons he does not know how to face. If a man compel you to go with him one mile, you are his slave; but if you voluntarily go with him two, then you rise from your slavery, confer a bounty on him and thus become his master. If he sues you at law and takes away your coat, you are his servant, but if you confer on him your cloak also, you assume the mastery by your own moral daring.

Allowing a man to smite you on one cheek, and letting him have the coat, and submitting to him when he compels you to go one mile does little or no good. The fact is that it does harm to the man who does it and to the man who submits to it. It is the other cheek, the cloak also and the second mile that do the trick. It is this plus that turns the scale. The one cheek, the coat and the one mile this is passive resistance; but turning the other cheek, giving the cloak also and going the second mile this is an active resistance on the plane of unquenchable good will. Passive resistance may reveal nothing but weakness; this active resistance of love reveals nothing but strength. (Abingdon Press, 1931: pp. 172-173)

You see the point. To embrace Christ’s crucifixion in our own lives means to live with Christ’s love flowing through us. If we take this love to mean that we do not resist evil, but passively accept whatever happens, we end up bitter and frustrated. Such negative silence in the presence of oppression leads to the kind of passive-aggressive actions we know all too well. Instead of such passivity, God calls us to respond to the evil around us with active non-violent love. This is hard to do consistently, and it appears foolish to the world around, which worships violence and human strength. But this is the wisdom and power of God.

In the Canadian Mennonite (May 9, 2016, p. 23) there is a story about Tulio Pedraza, who lived in Colombia. When Mennonite missionaries went to Colombia in 1949, Tulio and his wife, Sofia, were among their first converts. Tulio was a coffin-maker in the small town of Anolaima. Because of political and religious unrest in the country, the local Catholic priest mounted a campaign to drive Tulio out of business. He brought in a coffin-maker from another town to replace him. After some time, Tulio lost his business and had to survive with whatever small work he could get. Tulio’s response was to share his knowledge with the new coffin-maker and to sell him his own tools so that his business could succeed. Tulio refused to respond in bitterness to the continuing persecution, which targeted his children and threatened his life, but responded only in love. The article ends with these words:
He died peacefully in 1964. The rival carpenter who had been brought in to destroy the Pedraza business donated a coffin for his burial. Even though the funeral was a Mennonite service, the coffin maker attended, risking his own reputation in the community to honour a man who had shown him such unusual love, born from a deep faith.

This is the wisdom and power of God, to respond in humility and active love when others attack us. Human wisdom seeks to defend itself. Divine wisdom (which looks foolish) acts in love.

Philippians 2: 1-11
Earlier I suggested that “Get Wisdom” may mean “Be filled with the Spirit”. Philippians 2 makes explicit the link between the cross and the Spirit, which supports the connection between God’s Wisdom and being filled with the Holy Spirit. Paul begins the chapter with an appeal to the Philippians’ previous experience of the Holy Spirit, which produced encouragement, love, tenderness, and compassion. On the basis of this experience Paul urges them to greater unity, shown especially in the way that they care for each other: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Here is the key to imaging the wisdom of God. Human wisdom says, “Look out for number one.” Human wisdom says, “Take care of yourself first.” When the airlines give us their instructions as we get ready to fly, they say,
In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. … If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your own mask first, and then assist the other person.
This is good advice in an airplane: Take care of yourself first. But God’s wisdom points in another direction: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Again we have the question: What does this actually look like? In the August edition of a magazine called First Things Matthew Schmitz wrote about “Donald Trump: Man of Faith”. (Note that I am talking now only about Trump’s theology. Who one should vote for if one is an American is another question.) Trump is a Presbyterian who grew up under the preaching of Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking. Here is what Schmitz says:
Peale promised his readers ‘constant energy’ if they thought positively. Optimistic thoughts opened one up to a vital force coming directly from God. Negative thoughts, especially a tendency to dwell on one’s faults, could interfere with the divine charge. He warned those with active consciences that ‘the quantity of vital force required to give the personality relief from either guilt or fear’ was so great that it left ‘only a fraction of energy’ for going about one’s tasks. … For Peale, ‘attitudes are more important than facts.’ The man who displays ‘a confident and optimistic thought pattern can modify or overcome the fact altogether.’

You can see many of these ideas in the way that Trump has campaigned, but Schmitz makes a more important point:
At a campaign event in Iowa, Trump shocked the audience by saying that he had never asked God for forgiveness. All his other disturbing statements—his attacks on every vulnerable group—are made intelligible by this one. The self-sufficient faith Trump absorbed from Peale has no place for human weakness. Human frailty, dependency, and sinfulness cannot be acknowledged; they must be overcome. This opens up the possibility of great cruelty toward those who cannot wish themselves into being winners. A man who need not ask forgiveness need never forgive others. He does not realize his own weakness, and so he mocks and reviles every sign of weakness in his fellow men.
(I must add that Trump is only exceptional in the clarity with which he lives this theology. It is in fact the way that many politicians on both sides of the political spectrum think and act.)

Paul tells us that reliance on human strength makes us unable to receive God’s strength, and reliance on human wisdom makes us unable to receive God’s wisdom. The centre of human wisdom is to place yourself at the centre of your life. The centre of God’s wisdom is to place God at the centre of your life, which means in practical terms taking care of each other’s interests before our own.

I like ending sermons with an illustration or application that makes the whole sermon clear. I can’t do that this morning—I do not have enough wisdom. Instead, I ask each one of us here this morning to work out how we can show God’s wisdom—loving God, following Christ, caring for each other. We are experiencing challenging times as a country, as a community, as a congregation. We need God’s wisdom to respond to all around us with the kind of love that draws each one closer to God. The conclusion of this sermon is for all of us to write as we talk around our tables and move into the future that God has for us together.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
24 July 2016

Isaiah 40: 12-31
Proverbs 4: 1-9
1 Corinthians 1: 18-2: 5
Philippians 2: 1-11