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

Sunday, July 10, 2016

God's Wrath

The attributes of God is a recurring theme in sermons, as it should be. Assigned this topic (God’s wrath) many years ago (1997) for a Providence chapel.  SMC is doing a series this summer, for which I am assigned to speak on the Wisdom of God. Recently I preached on the way that we see God through Jesus (“He is the image of the invisible God …), using the idea of Jesus as the fractal (a recurring pattern on various scales from infinite to microscopic).

One may ask why I come back to God’s wrath, when I could reflect on many other more uplifting themes. A basic reason is that our world is filled with so much anger and violence that we struggle to understand how we are to live—or even how we can carry on with any hope in a difficult and troubled world.

With these thoughts in mind, we read Psalm 2.
Psalm 2
Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
‘Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.’
The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’
I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.
Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.’
10 Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling.
12 Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

The flow of the Psalm is fairly clear.

1. Our world is full of rebellion. “The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed”. Examples today:
·         Shootings of the past week in the USA.
·         The turmoil in Zimbabwe (hardly heard here, in the clamour of our lives, but so difficult for those who live there).
·         We could multiply examples of personal conflicts, broken families, and so on.

Clearly the rulers of our world—including each individual—seek to throw off God’s rule (“let us break our bonds asunder”) and run our own lives, with catastrophic results.

2. God’s response to human rebellion is what we call “God’s wrath”.
As these words appear in Handel’s “Messiah”: “He who sitteth in Heaven shall laugh them to scorn. The Lord shall have them in derision.” “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron. Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

You see, God is the Creator, the one who made us. The image of God as the potter and humankind as the vessel is used often in the Bible. If the dish or pot or vessel that the potter is making goes wrong, the potter destroys it and begins over again—like someone knitting who takes out the stitches when a piece goes wrong.

The point? God is the Creator. God is the Ruler. God reigns.

3. Before this destruction takes place, there is an important piece in verses 6 to 8:
‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’
I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.
Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.

You recognize where these verses appear in the gospel records: “You are my Son. Today I have become your father.” Matthew 3:17 records something like this about Jesus at his baptism (compare Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22). In Acts 1333 Paul applies this Psalm directly to Jesus, as does the writer of Hebrews (1:5 and 5:5).

This psalm was written originally about David’s line, but is fulfilled in the person of Jesus, referencing the king directly as “God’s Son”. So God’s wrath results in the giving of God’s Son.

You must understand that this is the way God normally works: Judgment always leads to grace. God’s wrath blazes out in service of God’s love.

4. The closing verses of the Psalm call on the kings of the earth to cease their rebellion and serve the Lord. “Serve the LORD with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment.”

The Psalm states an idea expressed in the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation”:
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace all sufficient shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee, I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
God’s wrath is never intended to destroy us, even if our rebellion leads to our destruction. God always desires our salvation and our good. So deep is God’s love and desire for our salvation that God stepped in between us and the destruction our rebellion merits (compare Genesis 15:17).

How do we live with these ideas?
·         God hates evil (evil=rebellion against God). We also should hate evil. Compare the response of my co-worker at Whistlestop, whose parents had separated. He hated their conflict—and rightly so. Compare Lauren—“I hate poverty!”: her response as a school nurse to seeing the effects of poverty in the lives of children.
·         God works to destroy human rebellion. We also should work against evil.
·         We must be careful in this work. We are not God. We are not the ones who should “dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel”. God is able to show wrath within the context of perfect love. Too often our anger against wrong turns into anger against people. We are also a part of the rebellion, so as we seek justice, we do so with humility.
·         We can work for God and for good in this world, confident that the final outcome is not in doubt. Events around us may lead us to despair and apathy. God’s greatness and goodness can restore our hope and love.

An example:
·         Soup’s On and Community Outreach—both respond to the evil of homelessness, holding out God’s love and grace.

You can give your own examples. I think of Zimbabwe and my concern for her people. Despair is always nearby, but God’s love and God’s grace are greater even than the evil of the Zimbabwean regime.

When I spoke on this topic in the Providence Chapel back in 1997-8, I asked Henry Schellenburg and James Fast to sing the scripture, using the arias in Handel’s Messiah, drawn from Psalm 2. The next chorus after these arias is the Hallelujah Chorus, which answers the question from the first aria, “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” The answer: “Hallelujah! He is King of kings and Lord of lords. The Lord God omnipotent reigneth! Hallelujah!”

The Gathering
10 July 2016

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Fractals of God

Last week I asked the question, “What is the church supposed to look like?” Using Ephesians 4, I noted the importance of community, a place where we can find safety and work out who we are, centred on the presence and work of God in Christ. The church then is centred on God in Christ—we are the temple in which God dwells, as well as being the body of Christ. This truth raises a further question: What does God look like? What are the characteristics or qualities of God, who is the centre of the church?

We could examine this question through a survey of systematic theology and the attributes of God. Although such a survey has real benefit and power, I prefer to approach the question through Colossians 1. (This sermon series should really have three parts—the church, which we looked at last week; Jesus in Colossians 1, which we look at today; and Jesus in the Gospels as part three.) Jesus is, Paul writes, the image of the invisible God. That is, if we wish to see God, we look at Jesus. Jesus shows us God. With this in mind, we begin by reading from Colossians 1.


The Supremacy of the Son of God

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

Paul’s Labor for the Church

24 Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. 25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— 26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Some Thoughts from the Text
Paul’s letter to the Colossians was written precisely to lift up the person of Jesus. The church in Colossae was probably about six years old when Paul wrote this letter. The Colossian church was an outgrowth of Paul’s ministry in the sense that his co-workers probably went there from Ephesus (about 100 miles west of Colossae) and started the church. Commentators suggest that Paul wrote from prison in Rome about 60 ad, to this church which had been established about six years before, and which disappeared a year later following an earthquake that destroyed Colossae.

The churches of that region faced a challenge that was common throughout the valley in which they lay. The basic challenge was this. The rise of mystical ideas, growing out of a form of Jewish mysticism, was enticing people in the region to leave Christian faith and start emphasizing a form of religion in which angels and powers and various other spiritual entities played a big part. Paul wrote this letter to the churches of the region as a whole, not just to the Colossians, to make the point that all they needed was Jesus. Jesus was all they needed to know God and receive God’s salvation.

1. This is the reason that the passage begins with these words: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Paul’s point is simple. If you want to know God, you look at Jesus. You don’t need thrones or dominions or angels or powers; all you need is Jesus.

Here is an image from mathematics to express what Paul is saying. (I tread lightly here, given my lack of mathematical understanding, and ask the real mathematicians out there to treat me kindly!) I learned the term that I am using from my son, who is a real mathematician: That is, “fractal.” Here is the Wikipedia definition of fractal: “A fractal is a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale. It is also known as expanding symmetry or evolving symmetry. If the replication is exactly the same at every scale, it is called a self-similar pattern. An example of this is the Menger Sponge.” The definitionfrom the Fractal Foundation web page says, “A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop.” (I encourage the reader to look up the MengerSponge and see how this process works.)

Using this image, then, I suggest that we think of Jesus as a fractal of God. God is the source of all natural phenomena, and the “self-similar pattern” captures what I am saying. On a micro-scale we have Jesus, accessible to our limited minds. On a macro-scale (beyond all other scales), we have God, so far beyond the finitude of our minds for us to comprehend anything. But when we look at Jesus, we see the pattern of God.

What does God look like? God looks like Jesus. When we see Jesus, we see what God looks like. Jesus expresses this same idea in words like, “I and my Father are one”, and “Those who have seen me have seen the Father.” Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God.

2. Verses 16 and 17 tell us that Christ permeates every area of life.For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

To pursue the fractal image, the repeating pattern of God’s nature appears not only preeminently in Jesus, but also prospectively in all of creation. A hymn in the Mennonite hymnal puts it this way:
O love of God, how strong and true! Eternal, and yet ever new;
Uncomprehended and unbought, Beyond all knowledge and all thought.

O wide-embracing, wondrous love! We read thee in the sky above,
We read thee in the earth below, In seas that swell, and streams that flow.

We read thee best in Him who came To bear for us the cross of shame;
Sent by the Father from on high, Our life to live, our death to die.

We see God all around us, in the beauty of creation, in the way that people relate to each other (at our best), and above all else in the person of Jesus. This aspect of God’s self-revelation comes to us as judgment and hope. So much of human life is clearly in rebellion against God—which assures its destruction. Thus during the apartheid era, Black South African theologians told us that apartheid is against the nature of God, therefore they could be sure it would die.

This judgment also contains great hope—God is creating and re-creating in God’s image all the time, so that we can act in the ways that God calls us to. We may have failed often, but God is at work in us and in all of creation to repeat the divine pattern.

3. Verses 17 to 20 add that this re-creative process integrates life, helping to make sense of life. God does not answer all our questions about life. How often have we asked, “Why did so-and-so have to go through this experience?” Answering such questions could require understanding the mystery of evil. Why did Lucifer first rebel against God? Such questions are beyond human comprehension.

Although God does not answer all of our questions, God does help us to integrate all of our experiences into a coherent whole. Jesus did this by healing people in his earthly ministry and by identifying with “publicans and sinners”. We do not make life whole by avoiding trouble—against the contrast the modern notion: “We must change the system so that this event never happens to anyone again.” Certainly we try to make things better.  Prudence tells us that we should live wisely, not making problems by acting foolishly, but bad things will happen. It is in the nature of God to help us integrate such things into a coherent healthy whole. God is a healing integrating God.

4. Verses 20 to 23 give the reason that Jesus represents God to us: God’s purpose is to reconcile all of creation with himself. God is a reconciling God. God brings reconciliation through the cross of Jesus. Jesus died to bring peace—between God and human beings, and between people, so that we live at peace with those around us and with the whole of creation. What does God look like? God looks like peace and wholeness, brought to us in the person of Jesus.

5. The final verses (24-27) tell us that we join in the sufferings of Christ so as to experience the life of Christ. I think that Paul’s comment here (“I make up in my own body what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ”) is a way of echoing Jesus’ words in Mark 8: “Those who would be my disciples must take up their cross and follow me”, and his own words in Galatians 2: “I am crucified with Christ … so that Christ lives within me.”

This idea reaffirms the comment above about fractals. Not only does Jesus show us the shape of God in his own life, but Jesus lives in us so that we can reproduce that shape in our lives as well.

But What Does Jesus Look Like?
If we want to replicate the shape of Jesus’ life in our own lives, we still may wonder what that looks like. Jesus is “the firstborn from among the dead” (v.18), so that we know we can follow his path. Jesus lives in us, he becomes “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (v.27). But what does he look like?

As I said, this should be another sermon to conclude this series, but here are a few comments briefly for the moment.

·         Jesus looks like God. This is what we have said above. In Jesus we see the very shape and structure of God.
·         Jesus looks like us. The Bible normally tells us when someone looked quite distinctive. So King Saul (for example) was a head taller than anyone else in his kingdom (1 Samuel 9). We read nothing of this sort about Jesus. Evidently he looked like an ordinary first century Palestinian Jewish peasant. This ordinariness is part of the promise that Jesus can live in us, giving us his life.
·         Jesus accepted people that no one else accepts. He accepted marginalized and rejected people—sometimes call “am ha’aretz”, the people of the land.
·         Jesus required repentance and a re-orientation of life to God. Jesus accepted the marginalized, but he also called them to follow him. Sometimes we think of Jesus as loving and gentle. Indeed he was, but he also had little time for those who wanted to hold on to their own way of life. Think of the way he called the Pharisees blind guides, leading the blind into a pit (Matthew 15).
·         Jesus created community. Reading the book of Acts again, one sees how remarkable the first church was. They took care of each other to a degree greater than any similar movement in history, and they provided care for people around them. Stephen Neill wrote a history of the missionary nature of the church in which he observes that the church in the first three centuries church grew faster than at any other time in history. One primary reason was the quality of their lives. Here is how he describes them:
In those days to be a Christian meant something. Doubtless among the pagans there were many who lived upright and even noble lives. Yet all our evidence goes to show that in that decaying world sexual laxity had gone almost to the limits of the possible, and that slavery had brought with it the inevitable accompaniments of cruelty and the cheapening of the value of human life. Christians were taught to regard their bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. The Church did not attempt to forbid or abolish slavery; it drew the sting of it by reminding masters and slaves alike that they had a common Master...and that they were brothers in the faith.

We could have surveyed the attributes of God far more comprehensively than this brief account this morning, but this is what we have Colossians 1:
·         God looks like Jesus.
·         Jesus looks like us. (This is a frightening and humbling reality!)
·         In Christ God is restoring all of creation—including you and me to its original goodness.
·         This recreation takes shape first of all in community and embraces everyone around us—not just people we think are good, but everyone who turns to Christ and receives his inner life.

To put it again in the image of fractals: Jesus is the fractal of God. Remember the definition? “Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop.” God shows us the very nature of God in Jesus, and then seeks to repeat the process in each one of us. What does God look like? I know we fall short, desperately short of this ideal; but God looks like you and me. Or more precisely, God is reshaping us to show God’s self to the world.

5 June 2016
Mitchell Community Fellowship
Text: Colossians 1: 15-27

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Being the Church

Recently I have been thinking about the idea of church—congregations, denominations, visible, invisible, worldwide communion, and so on. I come from a church family called “Brethren in Christ”, which carries within its problematic name the idea that we are family. But does there come a point when the BIC should cease to live? Do churches, both congregations and denominations, have a mortal life span? One could answer simply, “Of course.” We can assume that all things on earth have a life span, and that coming to an end is normal. But what is that life span, and how do we know when a church should die? In the BIC Church that question was the focus of a recent conference held at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. Roger Olson was the plenary speaker on the subject, “Life beyond the Congregation: The Future of Denominations in the 21st-Century.” The conference addressed the question of the future of the BIC, and as I read the papers and responses presented there, I began thinking more about this question: What is the nature of the church? What is the church supposed to look like?

With this question in mind, I turned to a passage in which Paul reflects on the nature of the church, Ephesians 4: 1-16:
4 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. …
11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Some Thoughts from the Text
This is a text that was read and preached on every year in the BICC of a past generation. Every year we held a Love Feast, which included Baptism, Feetwashing, and Communion. Every year this passage was read and preached about at this Love Feast. These verses were understood to be foundational for understanding who we were as the church, so I am asking the text the following question: What should the church look like? I am assuming that if the church I belong to (local, national, or international) looks like this, that’s good. If it does not look like this, that’s a problem. So some thoughts.

1. Community
The church is a place of unity/community. Note the strength of Paul’s words: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

The church—whether local congregation or national conference or global body—is a place we should experience the unity that lies at the heart of community. Not uniformity, of course. We have heard often that unity is deeper than and different from uniformity, but we keep forgetting. Often we think that unity in the church means that we think alike, when it means rather that we are one body, filled with one Holy Spirit, called to one hope by one Lord, “children of the Heavenly Father.”

I like the way that the BIC in Zimbabwe is named. Instead of the gender-challenged name current in North America, they are called (in a literal translation), “The church of those who come from the same womb in Christ.” Our unity is the unity of family, not the uniformity of forced agreement. We have different personalities and gifts and abilities, and we disagree on many different issues, but we are one. We are all “Christ-people”, brothers and sisters in Christ.

2. Mutual Care
This unity is expressed by our lifestyle in these words: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” The church consists of people who love each other and care for each other. We are people who take care of each other humbly, gently, and patiently.

These first two points then suggest the following: If your church is not a place in which you experience God’s love through your brothers and sisters, then it is falling short of being its calling as the church filled with God’s indwelling Spirit.

3. Expressed through Gifts
This mutual care goes deeper. In Paul’s description, the church is a place where God has gifted individuals to care for each other’s needs: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

I see at least two basic aspects of this gifting, both captured in the statement, “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” One, the community we call the church is a place where we can have our emotional, spiritual, physical, and mental needs met. This gift-list is one of several in Paul’s letters, and these gifts generally help to meet the needs of God’s people. (They also help to meet the needs of people outside the church, but we begin with God’s people—compare Galatians 6:10, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”)

Two, not only can we have our needs met by people filled with God’s Spirit, but we also are needed to meet other people’s needs. Few things are worse for our self-esteem than having to always receive. We need to be needed. In the church you and I are needed. God meets our needs through our brothers and sisters, including our need to help others.

4. Growth
Paul writes: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”

The church is a place that promotes spiritual, mental, and emotional growth. We do not meet each other’s needs simply to be nice, but to promote each other’s growth. Further, we do not ask for others to help us just to meet the needs of the moment, but because we want to grow, to become more like Christ.

I was just part of a conference on caring for missionary families, focussing on building resiliency and identifying risks in the lives of third culture people and their families. Our speaker observed that you can have risk without resiliency (problems that overwhelm you), but you cannot have resiliency without risk (personal growth without problems). Being needy, and having our needs met, fertilizes the soil in which we grow.

In Paul’s words from Philippians 3:12-14, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

5. Christ the Source of All
So we have seen that the church is a community where our needs are met, and where we are able to care for each other. The church is a community in which God’s Word is taught and we grow up together into the likeness of Christ. If these things are happening here, you have “church.” One thing more remains, which is foundational to all the others.

Paul puts it this way in verse 15: “We will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” We are the body of Christ, and therefore Christ is himself the head. All that we do comes out of this fundamental truth—that we are made by Christ, saved by Christ, moulded by Christ, and led by Christ. He is the head, and we are the body. He saves and directs and gives us life.

The church, then, is the place where we meet God. If we do not meet God in the church, we can say with some certainty, “This is not the church.” I know the Mennonite world better than I do other parts of the global church, and a common theme among Mennonites is a desire to do something rather than wait in silence before God. We prefer doing to being. But of course being always precedes doing. What we do reveals who we are inside. And for Christians, who we are inside is a people who gain life from Christ. At our best we know this. I remember a new Christian in our congregation at SMC giving his faith story before baptism. He said something like this: “I remember sitting in the pew when I first realized that God is here. The organ was playing and people were singing, and I felt God’s presence all around me. I looked around to see if anyone else could feel it too. I don’t know if they did, but I know that I did.”

Since this encounter with God is “invitation and response”, I can’t give a formula for it. I can’t say, “Do this. Do that.” All I can say is: “Open yourself to God’s invitation.” That is the beginning of the family of God. That is the beginning of the body of Christ.

Conclusion: Bringing these Together
Let me summarize. I have observed five characteristics of the church in this passage: community; mutual care; meeting needs; a place of growth; and the presence of Christ.

One could name other characteristics, but these are a start. I think that they apply both to the congregation and to the larger body, which we sometimes call denominations. If you don’t find them in your church—whether local or national—it may still be truly “church”; this is not an exhaustive list. But I think it is a truly good thing if you do find these things.

I want to add one final piece to a consideration of what it means to be the church. In my introduction I mentioned the conference at which Roger Olson spoke. He noted that denominations come and go, and that a basic reason for a denomination to continue is that it brings some specific flavour or distinctive to the larger global Christian communion. As a Mennonite, our particular flavour is our commitment to peace and justice. I have also worshipped with Free Methodists, who contribute an emphasis on spirit-filled living. The BIC bring these together in what we sometimes call the “quest for piety and obedience” (Wittlinger).

You might say that these flavours are an application of the gifts of the spirit in Ephesians 4, written on a denominational scale. I suggest that we can also think of these flavours as applying to local congregations. So you can ask yourself, “Why are we here? What gifting has God given us as a local part of the global body of Christ?”

I don’t know what your answer is, but I am confident that God has placed you here for a specific purpose, and that you will flourish best as you find God’s purpose for your life as part of the what the hymn, “For All the Saints”, calls “the countless host”. We are part of this global communion throughout space and time, the family of God, the body of Christ. We are here in this community in this place and time, for the ministry and message that God has given us.

29 May 2016
Mitchell Community Fellowship

Monday, May 23, 2016

Being a White Zimbabwean (Part 4)

I have written before (here, here, and here) about discovering what it means to be a Zimbabwean—by becoming an honorary aunt and uncle to some Zimbabwean friends’ daughter and helping her announce her engagement, and then by becoming the uncle to a young Zimbabwean man who was coming to meet his prospective in-laws, also Zimbabwean friends of ours.

I am of course a White Zimbabwean.  I speak a bit of Ndebele. (I have learned to say, “Ngiyazama ukufunda isiNdebele,” quite convincingly—“I am trying to learn Ndebele.”) I speak no Shona beyond a short greeting or saying “thank you”. I am a White Zimbabwean, with the faults and shortcomings of many who grew up in Zimbabwe, but did not discover the full wealth of our heritage in time. Now I’m making up for it.

The young man I brought to meet his prospective in-laws came back this past weekend with a male relative to enter into negotiations for what the Ndebele call lobola—in English, we might say “dowry”, but the word conveys little of the reality to Canadian ears. Another Zimbabwean friend, Joe, and I became the young man’s family, along with his relative, and we approached the young woman’s house for supper and then the ceremony.

The four of us sat huddled together eating an excellent supper. The relative said to the young man, “You’ll be all right. Clearly she can cook well!” After a delay caused by the late arrival of the young woman’s cousin, who was part of her negotiating party, we finally settled into the ceremony. There were 10 to 15 observers present to serve as witnesses of the ceremony, some from Zimbabwe, some from Zambia, a few Nigerians, and a Rwandan couple. (Africans come together at such times!) There was also a Canadian couple who are good friends of the bride-to-be’s family.

Everyone but the young man’s negotiating party sat in the basement, and then we entered—the three negotiators walking in clapping solemnly with a hollow clap of the hands, while the young man stayed outside. I never did master this clap. The hands are cupped so that the thumbs come together with the tips of the fingers also coming together. All I could get was flat clap, while the others got more volume. We performed this clap almost every time we said something, as a way of showing respect to the young woman’s family.

We sat down on the floor, and the proceedings began. There was a fee to begin speaking, and a fee to take a chair. They paid the fee for the chair, but remained on the floor. In view of my age, they encouraged me to sit on the chair. I had a vague sense of cheating, by accepting their invitation. There was a fee for loss of the young woman, who as a child enjoyed playing with her father’s beard. There was a fee for the mother, who had carried and raised the young woman. All these we paid, and then asked for a recess.

We went outside and held a quick caucus—which amounted to saying that we would now negotiate in earnest, since we would soon run out of money (which all came from the young man). The ceremony was emceed by an aunt of the young woman, who also served as a go-between, letting us know what we could do and couldn’t do.

Finally we returned, and had to pay a fine for “delay”. (A curious fine, since we had delayed for over an hour for the last member of the young woman’s family to arrive.) There were several more categories of fees, and then finally a three-part dowry: I forget the name of the first part, the second was the dowry proper, and the third was mombi, or cattle.

We recessed several more times to check resources and plot our strategy, Aided by the go-between in one of our recesses, we learned that they did not expect us to pay the full amount on any particular fee, but to put in a token amount and let the balance go on record as “owing”. I have no idea if this is common to all families in Zimbabwe, or has evolved in a few areas. In any case, we took full advantage of this provision to put all of the money that we had into the pot, and leaving the rest as “owing”.

The final two steps were two final fees. First the young woman, who had sat silent throughout the ceremony was given the choice of anything that had been put into the bowl of money. This money was to be hers alone, and the negotiating party would replace it whatever she took out. She took out a relatively modest amount—her aunt asking, “Are you sure you don’t want more?” When her family saw how much she took, they said laughing, “She has already gone!” (She is already left our family for his family.) The final fee was to close negotiations.

The whole process took about three hours. Rushing would have been inappropriate, even though the hour grew late. Two families were being bound together, and they needed the time to do things right.

Some reflections on the whole evening:
1. I was truly honoured to be included as a somewhat elderly (and clearly incompetent) Uncle. Some things you learn only by doing.

2. David Maranz says (in African Friends and Mopney Matters) that Africans are generous with money and stingy with information, while Westerners are stingy with money and generous with information. One consequence of this is that we learned nothing before we had to know it. That is common in Zimbabwe. Your elders tell you what you need to know when you need to know it, not before.

3. The whole process reveals things about the participants that you can’t learn any other way—what they value, how they respond to pressure, and so on. A major factor, I think, in this case is that the young man has become quite Canadian. His willingness to go through a difficult (and, to him, costly) process was also proof of his commitment to their common heritage as Zimbabweans.

4. The whole process is also clearly a man’s game. The men negotiated; the women listened (except for the aunt). The young woman in this case is trained as a lawyer; their home will be a typical family in which mutual respect will be necessary—not a home in which the man rules. But the culture they come from remains what it is. Their job is to negotiate their way through Canadian culture, honouring their heritage and their parents appropriately. I wish them well!

5. As with all cultural customs, the potential for abuse is there. Some Zimbabwean women have observed that men sometimes use the fact they have paid lobola as a club: “I paid for you. You must have as many children as I want!” Others use it as it was intended—to bind the families together. Again, the couple’s task is to negotiate their way through the process of cultural change, learning from what is best in their own culture as they live in Canada.

This potential for abuse is one reason I gave no amounts above. The amount of money given and received is the families’ business. The process of bringing two families together in this couple has begun. And I have had my worldview expanded a bit, becoming even more of a Zimbabwean, white skin and all.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Damascus Road: (Not) For Everyone

Saul (also named Paul) on the road to Damascus is one of the best known Bible stories, and also a difficult story to say what it means for us today. Many Bible passages are harder to apply than we think. What the author meant to say in the original contexts is one thing; what that passage says to us today is another. In this case, there are several themes we could look at.

We could examine the theme of Jew and Gentile in God’s reign. That would be a worthwhile examination, and fits well with the larger story of Acts. The way that our hero changes his name from Saul (a Jewish name) to Paul (a Roman name) reflects this idea. At different times in his ministry, Saul-Paul acts as a Jew or as a Roman citizen. In 1 Corinthians 9 he says that he uses whichever identity will help to bring people to Christ (verses 19-23). In today’s passage, God sends Ananias to Saul and God tells him that Saul is his chosen instrument to bring salvation to the Gentiles. This is a good theme worth exploring, but we leave it aside this morning.

We could look at the relationship of Law and Gospel. As a Pharisee, Saul had committed himself to the Law of Moses. That commitment fueled his anger when he set off on the road to Damascus to kill anyone following “The Way”, this new sect of people following the Rabbi Jesus. He saw correctly that Jesus challenged the central position of the Law in Judaism and replaced it with himself, so he set out to defend the law and to persecute Jesus’ disciples. Paul called himself a Pharisee to the end of his life, but here in Acts 9 he changes from being a Pharisee for the law (Philippians 3) to becoming a Pharisee for the gospel of God (Romans 1.) This is also a good theme, but we leave aside it as well.

We could consider the continued growth of the church in places like Damascus and Antioch. The persecution in which Saul participated led to the growth of the church outside of Jerusalem, fulfilling Jesus’ words in Acts 1:8—“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” God uses such terrible events as persecution to bring about good results, which encourages us in our own troubles. But this theme also we leave aside.

I want to look at something else: Why did God use miraculous dramatic phenomena to convert Saul? The drama is there for a purpose. Why is it there?

Paul’s Conversion
At one level this incident is too unusual to serve as a model for us. God does not strike most people blind as part of their conversion. When our baptismal candidates tell their faith stories, we don’t have many who heard a voice speaking to them from Heaven or saw a vision, while other people with them heard the voice but saw nothing. Our faith stories would be more exciting if they included the kind of supernatural phenomena that Paul experienced, but in fact such things are rare. So why did God appear so miraculously to Paul, and not to everyone else? Sometimes we may think that God does not appear to us like this because God is done with miracles. We may think that we should not expect to see such things today. I agree that we should not normally look for miracles, but it is wrong to think that such things no longer happen.

Last week I was at a meeting in Ontario. As we ate lunch, a visitor (I’ll call him John) started telling stories of an international church he had pastored in an Arab country. The church was made up of expatriates with no Arab believers, but over the years he said he saw about 20 Arab Muslims come to faith in Jesus—mostly through dreams of Jesus. Here in one such story. (Note: I may have the details right or not. This is as I remember the conversation. John gave me permission to tell the story, keeping it anonymous, but it is still his story.)

A man had a series of dreams in which he saw Mohammed. Finally he called out that he wanted to follow him. Mohammed turned to him and said, “Don’t follow me. Follow him”, and pointed to a shadowy figure. As the man looked, the figure turned to him, and he saw that it was Jesus. (John wondered what Jesus looked like, but this man could not tell him; only that he knew it was Jesus.) One Sunday as he was driving home, the steering wheel of his car locked up going through the intersection where he would normally turn. The steering wheel then turned on its own accord, through several more intersections, almost as if possessed. Finally he pulled off the road to find a telephone and call for help. He saw a church across the road and went to it to use the phone. It happened to be Easter, and John was conducting the Easter Sunday service. He said that they all saw this robed and turbaned Arab enter the service and sit down. When the service was over, John was greeting people at the door, but did not see the man. After everyone else had left, John went in to look for him. He found him prostrated at the cross. When he asked what was happening, he heard the story I have told. That man became the first Muslim-background believer in their church—because Jesus came to him in a dream.

John told another story similarly miraculous, one of about 20 he had observed. I believe that God still acts in miraculous ways in our world. Although such events are rare, they do take place.

A Hard Question
So why does God not intervene like this in everyone’s life? Surely then everyone would be saved! This is a hard question, and we do not know the answer. I can tell you only what I think is probably happening. God’s normal path for all of us is to invite us to come to him: “Come all who are worn out from carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Or, in the words that Jesus uses to the church at Laodicea (Revelation 3:20): “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” In context, these verses are directed to Christians, but they express the essential invitation Jesus gives to all. We have the choice to accept his invitation. This is why Paul describes his own ministry as one of invitation in 2 Corinthians 5: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and has given to us the ministry and message of reconciliation. We are Christ’s ambassadors, therefore I appeal to you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God!” (My own free paraphrase.)

Now for choices to be real choices, they must also be free. If Jesus overwhelms us with his presence, so that we worship God by force, that is not conversion. That is judgment. But God knows everyone’s heart, so when God intervenes so dramatically, we can guess that the person involved was truly seeking God with all their heart. I believe that was true for Paul. He had committed himself fully to God’s Law because he wanted to know God. The Law says, “Love the Lord you God with all your heart.” Paul did that, and God intervened dramatically to turn him from the way of death to the way of life.

This is truly beyond our understanding. This is mystery in its fullest sense. When we push this idea out to its logical end, either Paul freely chose to follow God—and so he initiated his own salvation, or God chose Paul without Paul’s choice—and so God initiated his salvation. Would God save Paul against Paul’s will? I don’t believe so. Dare we suggest that somehow Paul earned God’s grace? Of course not. Both choices, it seems to me are wrong.

Paul himself describes what happens this way (Philippians 2:13): “Therefore, my dear friends, … continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” Work out your salvation—seek God with all your heart. God works in you—we can do nothing without God’s grace.

The question comes back now in a different way. We can see why God does not always save people this way—God leaves us with a choice to respond to the divine invitation. But why did God save Paul this dramatic way? Again, we really don’t know, but again I have a guess. The Pharisees were a major roadblock to the spread of the gospel, because they wanted to keep Gentiles outside God’s reign. By bringing Paul into Christian faith, God opened the door to the whole Gentile world. You can see this in the angel’s words to Ananias, “This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.” Similarly in the story I told of the Arab seeker, there is a major population of our world who are closed to the invitation Jesus gives; their dramatic conversion through dreams breaks through the barriers that people have erected against the gospel.

I think, then, that God uses such dramatic conversions to open doors to the gospel so that more and more people can hear the invitation to come to Jesus and receive life. I don’t know this. Isaiah asks us who can know the mind of God (Isaiah 40:12-14), and I certainly cannot say that I do. I am only guessing, based on the simple truth that we do know: God wants to save sinners. God wants to save everyone. Hear God’s words to Ezekiel (33:11): “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?” Again, as Jesus said about Zaccheus (Luke 19:9-10): Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Jesus came to save, not to condemn. You see that we can refuse the invitation, but Jesus desires no one’s death. Jesus wants all people to come to him and receive life. That is why he came to Saul so dramatically.

Years later, Paul remembered this coming with gratitude (1 Corinthians 15: 3-10): “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins …, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day …, 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 … do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 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.”

Bring It Home to Us
So what do we do with Saul’s conversion today? What is God saying to you and to me this morning?

Some simple points.
1. Jesus, Be the Centre
Every one of us has placed something at the centre of our lives. For Paul, it was the Torah, Law of God. For you and me it may be our membership in the Mennonite Church. It may be the good name of SMC—or of one of the families here. It may be a commitment to be properly Evangelical, or Anabaptist. I must tell you and remind myself, anything other than Jesus at the centre becomes an idol and can separate us from God. You don’t have to be a renegade to push God away. All you have to do is put something other than Jesus at the centre of your life. I plead with you this morning, keep Jesus at the centre. Nothing else will do. A Spanish song I have come to love says, “Solo Dios basta”: Only God can fill us; only God can satisfy.
2. Jesus, Do This in Us
Sometimes we think that we can make this change—from one centre to another in our lives—on our own. We can’t. You cannot on your own place God fully at the centre of your life. Something else will always come in, and we cannot save ourselves. It is just not possible. Sometimes we call ourselves “Jesus-followers”. Our own congregation’s mission statement echoes this language: “Steinbach Mennonite Church is faithfully following Christ in worship and service by making disciples, building community and reaching out to the world.” We are Christ-followers. But this image contains a weakness; it can suggest that you and I just need to follow Jesus, and that we have the strength to do this. We don’t.
This past week we had a course on Anabaptist history and Theology at Providence. One of the members of the class recalled several different people in his congregations who said something like this near the end of their lives: “I hope I’ve been good enough to go to Heaven.” Ouch! Our hope of salvation rests in Christ’s work on the cross for you and me, not on anything we can do. I remember C.J. Dyck teaching the same course at AMBS about 35 years ago. One day in class he told us about an old Amish Bishop he had visited. C.J. asked him, “Brother, is your salvation by grace, or must you earn it with your life?” The old Bishop replied, “Oh brother Dyck, it’s all by grace! It’s all by grace!” He was right. This leads to my last thought.
3. Christ IN You
Conversion for Paul—and for us—is a complete change of heart and mind. We are reborn (to use the image from John’s gospel) so that Christ lives within us. Paul describes this mystery in Colossians 1 as “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now revealed to the Lord’s people.… This mystery is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
The mystery revealed in Paul’s conversion and in all of us is that Christ lives in us. Whether you come to Christ in a quiet way through your parents’ upbringing (my mother came to Christ at age five), or whether God breaks into your life with dreams and visions and lightning flashing—in every case it takes a miracle. Whether you come from a life of addiction or a life of good deeds, it takes a miracle. Whether you come from a life of heartbreak and pain or a life of ease, it takes a miracle. Whether you come from a life of fighting for justice or a life of success in all you do, it takes a miracle.
For Christ to live in you and in me takes the miracle of God’s grace. One thing for certain that the story of Saul-Paul tells us is that God will do whatever it takes to bring you to faith and give you new life. In the end, the Damascus Road is for everyone.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
22 May 2016
Acts 9: 1-19