Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Triumph of God’s Spirit

Last week we talked about the failure of being human. Chapter 7 lays out the dilemma we face: We know what is good and we want to do what is good, but we are slaves to Sin. Even our best efforts lead to failure, so that we long for the victory that God gives through Jesus Christ.

Today we talk about that victory. Paul turns a corner here in Romans 8. Chapters 1 to 7 have laid out the problem with being human. As Ben Witherington puts it, Paul works from the general (all people have sinned) to the particular (even the Jews have fallen short of God’s glory) in chapters 1 to 3, then back from the particular (Abraham) to the general (sinful humanity) in chapters 4 to 7. He has set up the problem carefully and comprehensively; now he gives the cure: Life in Christ through the Spirit of Christ.

The Text
We walk through the text together to see what Paul is saying. Although we read Romans 8: 1 to 11, I will go through verse 17 this morning.

Verses 1 to 4: Those who are “in Christ Jesus” are free from “condemnation”. The Spirit of God sets them free from the power of “sin and death” (that is, the power of Satan). God [the Father] sent the God the Son in human form (fully human), but as the perfect one [the New Adam: see Romans 5] whose righteousness in dying on the cross sets us free from the penalty of sin and sets us free to fulfill the law of love [“Love God; and love your neighbour].

There is a huge amount of material packed into this basic thought, most of which we cannot explore. Just two comments this morning. 1) The Son sets us free from the penalty of sin. We call this atonement. We have various images drawn from the New Testament to describe how God sets us free on the cross.  Given that we are finite creatures, we cannot comprehend the mind of the Creator, so we draw on God’s self-revelation in Scripture to understand what is going on in the atonement.

One [substitutionary atonement] is that Jesus takes our place: We deserve to die, and Jesus took our death into his own so that we can live. Another is that Jesus conquers sin and death [Christus Victor]. Satan thought that he had won when Jesus died on the cross, but in the resurrection of Jesus we find that death itself has died. We are therefore free from the power of sin and death. A third is that Jesus invites us to follow him [Imitation of Christ], to take up our cross and die with him so that we can rise with him. A fourth is the simple image of sacrifice. The sacrifice [or offering] for sin, as the Jews understood it, cleansed the sinner and made him/her able to stand in God’s presence, righteous and unafraid of the Holy God. We do not think often of this category of cleansing today, but you recognize its psychological truth in life. I think of Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play, after she and her husband have murdered their king, Duncan. She comes on stage miming the action of washing her hands and talking about the spot of blood that she can’t get off her hands. She knows that she and Macbeth had the power to kill Duncan, but cries out, “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.” Our sin leaves us feeling dirty and ashamed, and we need cleansing from our slavery to sin.

All four of these are present in verses 1 to 17, and we do not need to choose between them. I recommend that you use the image that speaks most clearly to you. There are other “theories of atonement” besides these, but we don’t need to comprehend the process fully. Indeed, we cannot. In my mission studies I had a professor from Kenya (Timothy Kiogora) who once said to us, “You Americans try too hard. You think you have to understand mystery. Sometimes you need to stand under mystery.” This passage is, I believe, one of those times.

Verses 5 to 8:  There are two realms. The realm of the flesh is the place where people do what they want according to the desires of this world. [Note that “flesh” here means self-willed; it is not a statement about physical matter.] The realm of the Spirit is the place where people live according to God’s Law and desires. Those who live in the realm of the flesh do what they want, and therefore they cannot please God. They will die, because they have decided to live for themselves and not to live for God.

“They will die.” Everyone will die physically, but death in these verses refers to eternity without God. If you want to live with God here on earth and in the eternity that follows, you need “the mind governed by the Spirit.”

Verses 9-11: When you give yourselves to God, the Spirit of God [that is, the Spirit of Christ] lives in you. Christ in you then gives you the life and ways of Christ. You begin to walk the way that God wants everyone to walk.

We do not need to think of what some call “sinless perfection”. At the end of the next section in verse 30 Paul lays out a progression from being predestined to being called to being justified to being glorified. The point these is that “sinless perfection” [being glorified] comes when we die and are made perfect in God’s presence.

I remember a long time BIC minister who preached sinless perfection on the basis of such passages as Romans 8. He was a pastor in Pennsylvania and a noted camp meeting preacher. Then he went to Zimbabwe and taught in a Bible School there for 10 years, when he was in his mid-50s. When he returned to Pennsylvania he said, “The people in the Bible School in Zimbabwe taught me that sinless perfection is not true.” And he went around to the churches he had taught before, reminding people that we live with the reality of the realm of the flesh until we die.

But we do not need to feel afraid or trapped by “the flesh”. The triumph of the Spirit is real. Although we may fall into sin from time to time, we have God’s Spirit with us to help us stand up and seek and receive forgiveness. I have been learning this lesson through an inner voice that spoke to me last year when I was about to indulge in a habit God wanted me to break. The voice said, “I don’t want that.” I discovered that, therefore, neither did I. God’s Spirit gives us freedom in areas of our lives we may have never expected.

If you ask me how I reached that point, I can’t tell you. But I have prayed each day for many years something like this: “Lord, teach me to know you better, to love you more deeply, and to serve you more fully.” We enter a relationship with Jesus in which the Spirit of Christ takes control.

Verses 12 to 17: So we live by the Spirit, who leads us into an intimate relationship with God, so close that we can cry out to God, “Abba Father!” Walking closely with Jesus, we find that we are God’s children, we are God’s heirs, and we share in the sufferings and glory of Christ.

What Does This All Mean?
I have a friend who no longer believes in God. When we have talked about what he believes and what I believe, he has said to me, “The trouble is, I don’t know what you mean by ‘God.’ The word doesn’t mean anything to me.” This is a common problem as we try to express what we believe as Christians. People listening to us wonder what we mean. This problem is especially acute in a letter such as Romans, in which Paul speaks as a Christian teacher to Christians about their common faith. He is not trying to speak to those outside the faith.

What then do we mean when we say that God gives us victory as we live in the Spirit? I must admit that the answer is not obvious to me. To some extent I can only say, “Come and see!” Give it a try and see what is there. Jesus told us that God is Spirit, and those who worship God worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4). I can add also, God is a person – not a person with a body, but a person who relates to us. If I tell you about Lois, you may wonder who she is. But when you meet her you find out. That’s the idea with God. You can’t explain God so much as you have to meet God.

I think that is what is going on in Romans 7 and 8. The Jews were trying to become part of the realm of the Spirit by keeping the Law of Moses. They failed. Paul suggests a different way that does not contradict the Law, but goes around it in order to fulfill it. The point of the Law is to become people who love God and love each other, but the Law cannot produce such love. Instead, Paul tells us that the Spirit of Christ living in us makes us people who fulfill the Law, that is, people who love God and love each other completely.

The beginning essential step is that we become people in whom the Spirit of Christ lives. How does that happen? This is like the question, how does the atonement happen? All I can do is give you images that together try to show the picture of Christ living in us. If you want to know what that means, I can only invite you to come to God and ask for God’s Spirit within you.

Thinking It Through
This is a process that begins with conversion and continues throughout our lives. I have spoken before about my encounter with darkness when I was 58 years old. The healing of my darkness came through a dream in the night and a voice in the morning. God came to me in my darkness and told me what to do. If you want me to tell you how this happened, I can’t. I can only tell you that it did. In my last dream I remember floating in the sea, and thinking, “It’s all right. This is the sea of God’s love. Even if it gets stormy, I’m floating in the sea of God’s love.”

I have not achieved perfection in loving God or loving others as God’s Spirit lives in me, but I’m on the way, and I know that God is with me and in me. Who is God? I can tell you about God, but I can’t really answer your question. I can only invite you to join me in the way.

I think of another person’s experience. Don Jacobs was a Mennonite missionary in Tanzania. He came to faith in Pennsylvania, joined the Mennonite church there, and married a Swiss Mennonite from Lancaster County. They went to Tanzania in 1954, where they came in contact with something called “The East African Revival.” Missionaries and African Christians experienced the inbreaking of God’s Spirit in wonderful ways. They became known as the Balakole, “the saved ones”. At first Don resisted their influence, figuring that he was already a Christian, and that was good enough. Then he met Mugimba.

Here’s how he describes what happened through this dear Ugandan brother:
My relationship with Eliezer Mugimba opened a new chapter in my spiritual journey. He was tall, tender, and kind, like a caring family member. He opened his heart to me, encouraging me to come out of my spiritual shell and be willing to walk in light with another person. His love overwhelmed me, and at last, my reserve broken, I poured out all my frustrations and fear, my cynicism and critical spirit and a host of other sins that I was pampering in my life. The dam broke. In an instant my resistance to the revival collapsed, and I knew that I had found a truly human context in which to learn of Jesus.
Many years later, I visited Mugimba, then an old man, almost blind, in his village in Uganda. As we reviewed those early days, he said, “When you came to Katoke, the Holy Spirit said, ‘That young American is your mission field!’” That explained it all. I was sent to the mission field, not knowing that I was that “field.” I surely was. God turns things upside down often.

Jacobs describes life with others who had experienced revival as a relationship within which people regularly reviewed their lives and sought forgiveness for the normal clashes among those who live and work together. When he visited another group of missionaries who were in conflict, he described the distress he felt that they could not bring their conflict into the open and seek the presence of God’s Spirit to heal their conflict.

But how does this happen? How do we “receive God’s Spirit”? The images of atonement I mentioned earlier are one clue.
·         The image of substitution lets us know that this is something God does for us by taking the penalty for our sin on the cross. This substitution sets us free to live “in Christ” as slaves of righteousness.
·         The image of victory lets us know that God breaks the power of sin on the cross, absorbing sin’s work into himself and defeating it in the resurrection. This victory sets us free to live in Christ as servants of righteousness.
·         The image of imitation lets us know that we have a part to play. We imitate Christ—loving God fully and loving each other without reserve, acting as servants of righteousness. As we put our hands to the tool and start to do our work, God takes our hands and guides them to do what we cannot do. God fills us with the Spirit of Christ to live God’s way.
·         The image of sacrifice, cleansing our sinfulness, lets us know that we are remade in God’s likeness and as God’s representatives [“images of God”—“in God’s image”]. As God makes us the way we were meant to be, we are free to live in Christ and to serve righteousness.
You see that this process combines our choice to follow God [“whoever would be my disciple must take up their cross and follow me”] and God’s work in us. In ourselves we cannot love with God’s love, and we cannot live as God’s people. God must do the work. But equally God respects our choice to serve Christ or to serve ourselves.

Another clue: in Don Jacobs personal story, you note the place of community. We receive God’s Spirit most easily and most fully when we are searching with our brothers and sisters. When I was at Asbury Seminary, I heard stories about the Asbury Revival that had come to first to the college campus and then to the seminary in 1970. Both of the elements I have noted above were present: God entered people’s lives doing what they could not themselves do; and people were seeking for God’s presence. Paul says it like this in Philippians: “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to do his good will.”

You see that I cannot really answer the question: How does this happen. I can only echo my Kenyan friend: “We are too eager to understand mystery. Sometimes you have to stand under God’s mystery.” What I can tell you is this: If you desire God’s Spirit in your life and continue to search for the Spirit of Christ, God will give you the Spirit of Christ. Christ will live in you, “the hope of glory.”

How? All I can say is, “Come and see that the Lord is good.” If you ask me, “How can I meet your friend?” all I can do is introduce you to my friend. Meeting my friend is up to you and my friend. The same is true of meeting God and receiving the Spirit of Christ. Paul is clear: The Spirit of Christ living within each of us is the path for every Christian, not a special gift for a few holy rollers. We meet Christ, and we live with Christ, and Christ lives in us, setting us free from the power of sin to fulfill the goal of law, which is to love God fully and to love each other with God’s love. Sin is power that seeks to destroy us; Christ is the Person who sets us free.

Grace Bible Church
16 July 2017
Text: Romans 8:1-17

Life through the Spirit

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.
You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.
12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation – but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Problem with Us

I feel some unease preaching from Romans. One of the regular preaching pastors is David Johnson, who teaches the Letter to the Romans at Providence: He has studied this book in depth and with more understanding than I have. But it is the set text for the morning, and I have done my best to hear God speak in the reading of Scripture today.

Some beginning comments on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul wrote this letter about 55 to 57 A.D. He was staying for an extended period in Corinth, before taking the financial gift he had been collecting from the church of Asia to the mother church in Jerusalem (see Acts 18). Letters are, by definition, what we call “occasional documents”. That is, they are written for a specific occasion or in response to some particular issue. For example, the letters to the Corinthians address the issues of spiritual enthusiasm and church conflicts the church there was experiencing. So also the letter to the Galatians deals with the issue of adding law-keeping to faith in Christ as necessary for salvation. Each letter has its own particular purpose.

What then is the purpose for Paul’s Letter to the Romans? The church at Rome was one of the oldest in the world, possibly formed by people who heard Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2) and were among those who repented and joined the church there. When they returned home to Rome, they may have immediately formed the church in Rome. In any case Paul says that he had nothing to do with their formation, and he does not write in response to problems or questions that they have sent to him.

We can see this letter as a kind of introduction, anticipating a visit at some point in the near future. Paul knows that some people think he is controversial, and he knows that he wants to visit Rome, so he sends a letter that states clearly what he preaches, and what his life is about. As a result, Romans is one of the clearest statements in his letters about the centre of his understanding of the gospel.

James Dunn notes that one can see a missionary purpose (“I am not ashamed of the gospel …”), an apologetic purpose (explaining and defending the gospel), and a pastoral purpose (holding Jew and Gentile together in one church, and speaking on behalf of those in the Roman Church whom he knew). These three weave together in a coherent whole, and they make a document that works well to introduce Paul to the church at Rome.

Many of the Roman Christians came from a Gentile background, partly because a few years before Nero had expelled Jews (including Jewish Christians) from Rome. They soon returned, but the Jewish Christians in the church may have also needed some measure of reinstatement within the Roman Church. This need helps explain the central chapters (9 to 11), which deal with the place of the Jews within the new reality of God’s People, the church.

The basic message of Romans, then, is clear: Paul is a servant of the gospel of God. In various ways throughout the letter he repeats the message that human efforts to reach God fail, and he emphasizes the truth that only God’s grace, working through God’s Spirit, can reconcile us with God for all eternity. Our passages this week and next week serve as a microcosm of this message. So today we begin with the failure of human efforts to reach God, and next week we consider the reality of God’s power available through God’s Spirit.

Text: Romans 7
In the verses we read this morning, Paul indicates the absolute failure of human efforts to live well in this world. He has made the case that all people fall short of God’s glory and that only God’s grace can save anyone. “Save” in this case means to make us good enough to live forever with God. The Law of Moses might seem to do this. As Paul says in the verses just before our passage, the Law is “holy, just, and good” (verse 12). But we are not; we are, as he says in verse 14, “sold as slaves to sin”.

Our first point, then, is that “we are slaves to sin.” In chapter 6 Paul observes that everyone is a slave to something—either to sin or to righteousness. Some people claim to be non-religious. They are, they say, in charge of their own lives. But the truth is that we all follow some compelling idea or power that rules our lives.

Some live for self and their own pleasure; and this search for pleasure and self-fulfillment rules their lives. My mentor, Darrell Whiteman, taught anthropology at Asbury Seminary. I remember his description of one of his early classes as a teacher of anthropology at Southern Illinois University. He described “cultural compulsives”, those aspects of our culture that we absorb so deeply that we do them without thinking. He described the way that the demands of being an individual work in our society so that everyone insists on being unique. Finally one young man in the back of the class stood up and said, “I can’t accept this. Nobody tells me what to do, and certainly not my culture!” Whiteman thanked him for illustrating his point.

Some live for country and for honour, and their desire to serve their country rules their lives. I think of George Bush, Sr. Whether or not one agreed with his policies and actions as president, most people recognized him as one who had a strong commitment to his country and placed a high value on honour. Paul’s point, however, is that even something as good as love of country becomes part of being a slave to sin when it is our master.

Paul himself lived in his early life for the Law of Moses. He gave himself without holding anything back to serve God through lifting up the Law. Now, in his Letter to the Romans, Paul holds up a different path—to serve God through the Spirit of God.

Verses 15 to 20 then lay out the problem that we find ourselves in. Paul says, “I want to do what is good, but my actions are bad. I will the good, and I do the bad. I am a slave to sin.” Commentators raise various difficulties here.
1) Is Paul describing his own experience or a generic experience?
2) Is he talking about his own life before he became a follower of Jesus?
3) Is he talking about his experience after following Jesus, but before being filled with God’s Spirit?
4) Or is he describing the experience of anyone who tries to live outside of God’s control?

I think that the answer is the last option. Paul is impersonating the one who lives according to the flesh [that is, doing one’s best humanly speaking], and he describes the result. He uses his own experience as part of the picture, and he emphasizes the total inability of human efforts to break the power of sin.

Some interpreters go further and think that Paul is struggling with an overwhelming sense of guilt. They see him struggling with a terrible angst, just as we imagine we would have been. Krister Stendahl critiqued this reading 44 years ago with an article titled, “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” He observed that Paul actually had a robust conscience and did not agonize over his sinful past. Consider the way he describes himself in Philippians 3:
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

So much for feeling guilty! Paul looks at the demands of the Law, rigorous and difficult, and says, “I kept the Law! As regarding the Law, I am faultless!” No, Paul was not struggling with a bad conscience about what kind of a person he had been. He had sought to serve God faithfully, but he knew that all of his efforts were worthless. A few verses later in Philippians 3 he refers to his efforts to be good as “garbage”. What then is going on Romans 7?

Verses 21 to 24 restate the experience Paul describes as a natural law: The person who lives outside of the Spirit of Christ seeks to break free from the power of Sin, but finds their efforts constantly frustrated. Our human efforts to do what is right end in frustration and despair. Then into our helpless struggles God breaks in with the power of the resurrection and gives us victory over sin, breaking the power of Sin in our lives.

A Treatise on Sin
One way we can read this passage is as a treatise on the power of Sin in human life. First, Sin is an addictive power that we are helpless to break. Second, Sin reveals our human limitations. Third and most importantly, Sin is a power that works against anything good in our lives, taking even our best efforts and twisting them to failure and distress.

1) The Addictive Power of Sin:
Although Paul did not experience sin as an addiction (consider his robust conscience concerning keeping the Law), his description rings true with human experience. Think of some personal habit that you wish you could get rid of. Perhaps you know that you would be so much better in your work place if you arrived at work and at meetings five minutes earlier. Maybe you have been warned that you are in danger of losing your job for constant tardiness.

So you decide to implement a new routine. You set your watch 10 minutes fast. You determine that procrastination is a thing of the past in your life. You start living a new life, but after a few weeks of being really good old habits reassert themselves, and you find yourself swearing at the traffic that threatens to make you late and undo all your good resolutions.

Think of a more serious problem. You have a temper, so that your family is afraid to say anything around you that might set you off. You’re also afraid of what might happen, because CFS has started to ask questions about how you treat your children. You determine to remain level-headed and to avoid outbreaks of temper. For several months all goes well, and then the pressures of a bad day overwhelm you and you lash out at your young son. In a moment, all of your good intention is undone by one destructive explosion.

I could multiply examples (such as drug or alcohol addiction), but we know too well what Paul is describing. We want to do what’s right, but sin is an addiction too strong for us to break. We long to experience Paul’s shout of victory at the end of the passage: “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”

2) Sin as Human Limitations: Sin as addiction reminds us that we are limited human beings. With enough effort, and with strong support from family and friends, we can make great strides in improving ourselves—that is one of the truths that various 12-step programs teach us. When we turn to friends who hold us accountable and who encourage us, we are able to improve ourselves remarkably. Even so, we realize our limitations. We rejoice in our triumphs, and we grieve together in our failures. The harder we try, the more we realise that we are limited human beings, and again we long to experience Paul’s shout of victory. This reading hears him more clearly than thinking only of the addictive power of sin. We can be good, but we can never be good enough. This takes us into the third and most important point.

3) Sin as a Power: We often think of sin as simple actions that break God’s rules. Sin is much deeper than that. Sin is a Power that works against God and seeks to destroy us. That’s why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Deliver us from Evil.” Sin is that force or power in our world that seeks to undo what God wants and to bring about chaos and destruction all around us.

Consider the current political climate in which people routinely describe those who disagree with them as bigoted, or primitive, or evil in some way or other. People who are otherwise good people, and who are making choices that are generally good, speak and write in ways about their political opponents so as to destroy community and civil society. (Maybe this sounds like an American disease, but I see it in Canada too. Think, for example, of letters to the editor of the Winnipeg Free press about the current debate concerning the right to choose the manner and time of one’s own death.) What is going on in such destructive patterns of conversation? How is it that otherwise good people act in ways that are so destructive? I believe it is the power of evil (Satan, if you will) at work through sin.

Paul was fully aware of this dynamic. I think it is at the heart of what he is saying. He had started his life eager to do what was right and good. He became a Pharisee—one set apart to keep and protect the Law of Moses. At the beginning of his career he heard about these followers of Jesus who said that the Messiah had come. He heard that they identified this Messiah, Jesus, as the Son of God, and that Jesus had said that he was one with God. Saul the Pharisee was outraged. In his desire to protect God’s Law from those who would defile it, he received permission to travel north to Damascus to root out and destroy these Jesus-followers.

You know the story (Acts 8). Just before he entered Damascus, Saul was struck down by the Shekinah Glory of God. He recognized it immediately. As he lay on the ground, now blind with his physical sight, he looked with the eyes of his soul into the presence of God, Adonai Elohenu, the God of Israel, and he asked, “Lord (Adonai), who are you?” God replied, “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting.” Do you wonder that Paul considered his own righteousness as garbage? Doing what the law required led him to attack the God whom he loved. This is the way of Sin. The power of Sin works through us so that even our good efforts turn to evil.

This level of sin leads us to consider our words and actions carefully. A simple example: Churches often spend time restructuring their lives to remain more in tune with the world as it is now. My own congregation is in this process. We analyse our situation carefully. We look at our theological distinctives and the way that God has worked in our congregational life in the past. We pray. We plan. Finally we decide what to do. But if God’s Spirit is not at work in our planning, we rediscover the power of sin at work. We will to do something good, but we actually accomplish what we don’t want. Paul tells us that this happens all the time.

No wonder that Paul cries out, “Who can deliver me from this body, subject to the power of sin?” His question is also our question, and his cry of triumph is also our cry: “Thanks be to God who delivers me from Sin.” God makes it possible to defeat the power of sin through the Spirit of Christ working in us. God makes it possible for us to live victorious lives as individuals and as the church.

But that is to anticipate next Sunday’s sermon. Jesus sets us free. The Spirit of Jesus lives in us and we become slaves to the good and the true. Next week we’ll talk about that wonderful victory. For today, it is enough to say that Jesus saves—that is, the Spirit of Jesus living in us makes us good. God makes us all that God wants us to be, and that is good news indeed.

Grace Bible Church
9 July 2017

Romans 7:14-25a
14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

"Isn’t It Amazing?" Funeral Sermon for David Climenhaga

Let me begin with some memories.
·         I remember playing chess with Dad. A steward on board ship taught me when I was nine years old. Dad read the rules and started playing with me. It became a bonding activity, which I treasure. He had hoped I would help him work on the car, the way he used to with his father. We played chess instead.
·         I remember watching him ride his bicycle past the main house at Matopo Mission, no hands, steering by leaning one way or the other. He was probably 38 or so. I was about seven.
·         I remember the last time he accepted a challenge to a race. I was 14, and he was 45. He never tried running against me again.
·         I remember conversations about pastoral work and missions and church affairs. He was a basic resource as I try to put together an understanding of BICWM.
·         I remember the phone ringing when I couldn’t get to it. He would always call back twice more to make sure we really weren’t home.
·         I remember his stories and jokes, and the way we used to try to derail him in the middle of a long story. We failed. He let us run out of steam and then picked up where he had been and finished his story.
·         I remember his quoting poetry. “Come down to Kew at lilac time; it isn’t far from London.”
·         I remember the way that he and mother loved each other and provided for us a home filled with love. Dad remembered well the dress she was wearing the first time he saw her leading the singing at the front of the church.
·         I remember the way that he and Verna Mae created a new home with their marriage of 24 years. Dad’s comment was that she taught him to accept people unconditionally.

There are many more memories. Like Mary, we lay up memories in our minds and ponder them in our hearts.

The Funeral
This morning I want to speak about death and life. David Climenhaga is now healed of age and disease. As one pastor puts it, “David Climenhaga has completed his baptism.” [Eugene Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir.] Dad was baptised into the death of Christ on December 22, 1928 at Matopo Mission in Zimbabwe. Last Sunday he completed his baptism and entered into the resurrection of Christ. So Paul in Romans 6, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” We live that new life imperfectly here; Dad lives that new life perfectly in the presence of God.

Vachel Lindsay describes the scene in his poem, “General William Booth Enters into Heaven.” He describes the way that Booth walked into the courts of Heaven with his brass band playing, as Alan Paton puts it, “apparently without so much as a ‘by your leave.’” I think Dad entered Heaven more quietly, the introverted middle child. But the last verse of Lindsay’s poem captures what I think he experienced as well:
And when Booth halted by the curb for prayer
He saw his Master through the flag-filled air.
Christ came gently with a robe and crown
For Booth the soldier while the throng knelt down.
He saw King Jesus—they were face to face,
And he knelt a-weeping in that holy place.
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

I can see Dad kneeling and weeping for joy, overcome with gratitude for God’s grace extended throughout his life.

Learning to Live; Learning to Die
One might say that Dad spent 98 years preparing to die. An evening hymn has the verse:
Teach me to live that I may dread the grave as little as my bed.
Teach me to die so that I may rise glorious at the judgment day.
Dad had learned to live, and he learned also the final lesson—how to die.

We read three Scriptures. The passage in Romans 8 reminds us that God uses the events of our lives to prepare those who love him to be glorified with him. We know that nothing can separate us from God’s love. If we rest in God, we are safe from all harm, even the harm of death.

The passage in 1 Corinthians 15 focusses on the way that death brings life. Earlier in the chapter Paul observes that our hope rests on the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Sometimes we may think of Christ’s resurrection as having mostly symbolic importance, but Paul grounds faith in the fact that Jesus rose. An anecdote from the life of C.S. Lewis shows how important this fact-ness is. Lewis was an atheist when he went to Oxford as a philosophy and English tutor. Then, through conversations with friends such as J.R.R. Tolkien, he began to re-evaluate his atheism. He reached a point where he could say God exists, but he could not accept faith in Christ, because “resurrection is impossible.” In his autobiography Lewis tells how he was having an after dinner drink in his rooms with the history tutor—a hard-bitten, absolutely safe, atheist. Then the history tutor remarked him, “Rum thing about the resurrection, Lewis, it looks like it really happened.” What he meant was this: Looking at the historical evidence of the New Testament, as a scholar in the field of ancient history, he saw the documents as historically reliable. He still did not believe in God, but he admitted the resurrection as fact. (From C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy.]

Lewis saw what this meant, and soon after he also placed his faith and life in Christ, the resurrected one. Dad did the same, and with his faith placed firmly in Christ, he could learn to live and to die in Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul continues with the great reality that the resurrection of Jesus defeats the last enemy, which is death. It is good to remember that death is our enemy. Death seeks to destroy people. Death divides us from those whom we love. Death brings pain and tears to many. But, Paul, continues, for those in Christ death also proves to be the seed of the resurrected body. A hymn in the Mennonite Hymnal puts 1 Corinthians 15 into a hymn with the following words:
In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;
In cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity;
In our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity,
In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

Paul would agree.

Then Paul comes to the verses we heard read. The body you and I have here today cannot see God in God’s full glory. We are too weak, too shadowy, too insubstantial. We must be transformed, given the resurrection body Paul has described, in order to live forever with God. Dad received that gift of an imperishable, immortal body on Sunday morning.

Last Days
My sister Donna walked with Dad through the past 26 years following our mother’s death. Denise and I cannot say enough to express our gratitude to her for her love and wisdom given to Dad. Thank you, Donna. One of the gifts Donna has given us is to describe something of Dad’s last days. I was with him three weeks ago, planning to celebrate his 98th birthday in the dining room. Two days before his birthday he went into the hospital with the aspiration that led to his death. On his birthday I took a piece of cake with an unlit candle into his room in the hospital, and I sang Happy Birthday to him. Then I ate the cake because he couldn’t; besides he told me he didn’t like chocolate cake, although he appreciated the birthday wishes.

I flew back to Manitoba the next morning, and Denise and I walked with Dad in his last days through regular updates from Donna. On Friday, two days before he died, Donna reported that he was in good spirits and had even told her a joke. It’s an old joke, but he was an old man.
An RAF pilot was shot down over the South Pacific during World War Two. He was fished out of the water unconscious and taken to the nearest hospital, which was in Australia. When he woke up, he was worried about his condition and asked the nurse attending him, “Did I come here to die?” “No,” she replied in her Australian accent, “you came here yesterdie.”

I can imagine our groans around the dinner table at his pun, but the truth is he could have found no more effective way to show us that he was truly at peace. Death held no terror, because death is the door to eternal life. As Paul says, “We grieve, but not as those who have no hope.” He also grieved, but his hope was greater than his grief. Our hope also is greater than our grief, because we hope in God’s love, which is endless and eternal.

The Mystery of the Incarnation
The day before he died, Donna offered to read to him from the Bible. Dad said, “Yes.” “What shall I read?” “John.” “What chapter?” “Chapter One.”
She began reading with verse 1. When she got to verse 14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth,” Dad exclaimed, “Isn’t that amazing! Isn’t that wonderful!” The mystery of the incarnation had seized and consumed his soul.

John 1: 1-14 is the final passage read in the Christmas Eve service every year in the Anglican Church. They title it something like, “The Great Mystery of the Incarnation.” It is a joyful mystery. God became human and took a human body so that we can become like God and live with God. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Now Dad has put on his resurrection body and made his dwelling with God in Eternity.

This is mystery beyond our minds’ abilities to grasp. This is also joy and hope beyond description. Dad and Mother and Dorothy and other members of their families celebrating in the presence of the God who made us all. “Isn’t that amazing! Isn’t that wonderful!”

Messiah Village Chapel
30 June 2017

Monday, June 05, 2017

Pentecost—Do we need to speak in tongues?

One Hundred and Eleven years ago this past April, a revival began in a church on Azusa Street, Los Angeles, California. Reports at the time said that Pentecost had come again, and the movement that grew out of the revival has spread around the world. David Barrett’s research into global Christianity shows that Pentecostals have grown from less than one percent of Christians around the world at that time to about 25% of the worldwide church today.

Some people evaluate Pentecostalism positively. In many parts of the world Pentecostalism has reached into conditions of poverty and helped people to transform their lives spiritually and economically. We call this phenomenon “redemption and lift”. In Chile the Pentecostal Church transformed the lives of the poorest people, who had been abandoned by the church as a whole. [I did not find the reference for this observation, which comes from missiological writings on Chile, but did find another helpful article on the Chilean Pentecostal Church here.]

I have seen and studied Pentecostalism primarily in Zimbabwe. There, what we sometimes call “the prosperity gospel” has functioned to give people hope. As one Pentecostal preacher said to me, “prosperity means you will always have an idea of what to do.” Such hope helps people to survive in Zimbabwe’s failed economy.

Some people evaluate Pentecostalism negatively. Sometimes it has encouraged enthusiasm to the border of hysteria. I have also seen an almost artificial enthusiasm in Zimbabwe. Our family went one Sunday to a church called Victory Fellowship. At one point in the service the organ played a chord, the percussionist signalled on the cymbals, and everyone started praying in tongues. Another chord signalled the end of the Spirit’s intervention, and everyone stopped. I was just glad that the Holy Spirit had read the bulletin.

A friend of mine told me about a Pentecostal preacher he went to hear in Bulawayo. When the preacher started to pray, his friends fell on the ground as the preacher pushed “power” at them. Finally my friend also fell, not because he felt the power, but because he didn’t want to stand out in the crowd.

So how do we evaluate Pentecostalism today? Should we all seek the gift of speaking in tongues? Or is there something else going on that is more basic, more important for us to grasp and to hold on to this morning. Listen to the Scriptures we read this morning.

The Texts
Acts 2:1-21: At that first Pentecost, the giving of the Spirit led to speaking in tongues, the proclamation of the gospel, clear evidence that the end of time is here, and an invitation to salvation.

Jesus had told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the promised Holy Spirit. They did so, spending time gathered together in prayer (Acts 1:12-14). The Day of Pentecost (Feast of Weeks) came 50 days after the Passover. Jews from around the world had gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover and for the Feast of Weeks. The Holy Spirit fell on the disciples and they began speaking praises to God loudly, using the languages of the people gathered for the feast. Since these Jews heard them speaking in tongues, we can guess that they had been gathered near the temple, where the assembled Jews were meeting. They responded to what they heard with amazement, some scoffing and some praising.

Their response gave Peter the opportunity to preach to the people, and he took it. Peter gave a straightforward sermon with these main points:
Verses 1-21:
·         What you see is God’s Spirit moving in God’s people. God has intervened in the world, as the prophet Joel told us we should expect.
·         This intervention means that God’s Spirit is ready to fall on all who open themselves to the Spirit, leading to even greater wonders than you have seen this morning and leading to the salvation of all who so open themselves.
Verses 22-41
·         Peter then told the people that Jesus, whom they had killed, is indeed the Messiah, and that Jesus had been raised by the dead.
·         He called the people to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus.
·         As a result of Peter’s sermon, many people repented and accepted Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

So, must we speak in tongues? Luke describes what happened here as a great turning to God—what we sometimes call a revival. I see no evidence that he lays out a prescription for how revivals are supposed to take place. When Peter preaches to the people, he calls them to repent. He does not call them to manifest any particular behaviour, such as speaking in tongues, but to repent and be baptized. So Acts 2 is an invitation to turn to God in Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:1-13: Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 11 to 14 has to do with the way that the Corinthian church worshipped God. Corinth was a city with a background in various religions, and the people in the church were used to seeing spiritual phenomena. They were, if you will, an early example of the kind of enthusiasm found at the Azusa Street Mission in 1906.

In this chapter Paul makes a series of statements, thus:
·         You (Corinthians) are used to spiritual phenomena, but you need to understand what is truly of God’s Spirit. His comment reminds me of a Zimbabwean friend’s critique of the Toronto Airport Church: “You Americans are funny. You’re not used to spiritual things, so when you see people barking like a dog or roaring like a lion, you get all excited. We have seen these things in Africa, and we know they are not all from God!”
·         The first characteristic of spiritual phenomena that come from God is that they lead people to say, “Jesus is Lord.” Charismatic gifts lift up Jesus.
·         Charismatic gifts also build up the body of Christ: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”
·         In fact, we can say that the presence of the Spirit (through the gifts of the Spirit) is the presence of Christ, more basic to our identity than anything else, even more basic than being a Jew or a Gentile.

Just as the presence of tongues in Acts 2 was intended to bring people to faith in Jesus, so also the gifts of the Spirit in the Corinthian church were intended to strengthen people’s faith in Christ.

John 7:37-39: In this brief excerpt from a larger sermon, Jesus says that the Spirit refreshes us and strengthens us, a river of life flowing from within [to water all those around us]. You see the same basic point in all three passages: God gives the Holy Spirit to draw us to a closer walk with Jesus and to build up the body of Christ. There is no room in spiritual gifting for anyone to boast of their own spiritual progress. The point is always to come closer to Jesus.

The answer to the question in our sermon title, “Do we need to speak in tongues?” is simple: No. Then why do Luke and Paul say so much about spiritual gifts?

God gives spiritual gifts to draw us to God. The point in all of this is not that God wants us to speak in tongues—whether unknown languages or ecstatic speech; the point is that God wants us to find life in Christ.

This same purpose is behind revivals such as the Pentecostal movement that began at the Azusa Street Mission. Consider with me a few such revivals that took place in the early 20th Century.

1) The Welsh Revival: There was a remarkable revival in Wales in 1904-5. It was marked by extensive Bible reading and constant prayer, leading to repentance and new life. The services in which people met were emotional, and they were similar to the Pentecost of Los Angeles in 1906. Reports of the revival note that individuals and whole communities were radically changed, so that the police and courts found themselves underemployed.

2) The Indian Revival: The Welsh Revival spread to India in 1906, taking in much of the country in a revival remarkable for its depth and influence. I found an article online from the MB Journal Direction (Fall 1991, 135-142) by Peter Penner, describing the shape that the revival took within the Mennonite Brethren Mission. It spread from national Indian Christians to the MB missionaries, who at first resisted it because it was too emotional. In the end, all joined in a time of deep joy and new life.

The revival was characterized by prayer and repentance. Missionaries confessed their faults, as did Indian Christians. The result was an awareness of God’s presence in every part of their lives. Missionary Abram Friesen characterized the sins revealed and confessed like this: “judgmental and unforgiving attitudes, carelessness in word and deed, lack of family and personal worship, unedifying reading, avarice and failure to tithe, lukewarmness toward God’s cause and people, conceit and spiritual pride, and resistance to complete submission to God.”

3) The Korean Revival: In 1907 revival spread to Korea. A prayer meeting in Pyongyang was the flashpoint. I remember one of my Korean students telling me the story 10 years ago, during the 100th anniversary of the revival—how a Canadian missionary confessed to his Korean colleagues the racism with which he treated them. As the Korean Christians saw their missionary brother broken before God’s Spirit, they in turn began to confess their sins and revival spread across the country. Today Pyongyang is the capital of North Korea; in 1907 it was known as “the Jerusalem of the East”. Again the revival was characterised by repentance and confession, and by intense prayer. Prayer has remained central to life in Korea, as people hold mass prayer meetings in which they seek God’s presence and direction.

Do we need revival today? Of course we do, but revival by its nature is an in-breaking of God’s Spirit. We cannot manufacture it. We cannot make it come. We can have a “Revival Service” or even a series of “Revival Services”, but we cannot make God’s Spirit fall on people any more than the organist at Victory Fellowship could actually control the Holy Spirit by playing the right chord on the organ.

What Should We Do?
What then should we do as we read these texts? We don’t need to speak in tongues (although if God gives the gift for God’s own purposes, we may), but what should we actually do? I believe that we need revival, but, as I said, we cannot manufacture it. So we prepare the soil, waiting for God to sow the seed. We read and study the Bible. We spend time in prayer—extended time in extended prayer. We search our own hearts and lives for anything that would hinder God’s Spirit. Then, like the disciples in Acts 1 and 2, we “wait for the promised Holy Spirit.”

We continue do God’s work as we are already. We keep living our lives, going to work, going to school, spending time with our families and friends. And we wait for God to show up. “Wait” in this context means “expect”. This is not a fruitless “waiting for Godot”. This is an expectant waiting, which God rewards in God’s time.

I think of a friend of mine who this past week described his own experiences of God’s Spirit this year. I think of the way that God revealed the Spirit to me in a time of darkness nine years ago. We don’t control this process; we prepare for it, and when God is ready, Pentecost comes.

Closing Thoughts
I have wondered why the Pentecostal revivals of the early 1900s occurred at that time. There have been other “awakenings”, in which people turn to God, and we can look back and ask: Why at that time? Consider what followed the revivals on the larger human stage: World War One. Within 10 years Europe found itself engulfed by “the war to end all wars”, and the rest of the world found itself deeply affected by the conflict. I wonder if God was preparing people to go through deep waters. I don’t know that, but it matches what we have seen God do at other times in other places.

I have told you my own story of being filled the Holy Spirit—in a series of messages on the infilling of the Holy Spirit brought to the General Conference of the BIC in Zimbabwe in August 1974. I remember well how people pressed forward on the closing night singing “Woza Moya oyiNgcwele” (“Come, Holy Spirit”). I remember well how people sought and received the Spirit even after the meetings were over.

Within a year the country of Zimbabwe was deeply involved in a bush war between nationalist forces (ZIPRA and ZANLA) and the Rhodesian government of the day. The people gathered at that conference were entering a dark time lasting for the next five years. And God gave them the strength that they needed to survive as God’s people. Stephen Ndlovu (later Bishop of the BIC in Zimbabwe and Vice President of MWC) has told many stories of God’s preserving presence in his own life living in the centre of the bush war.

We need revival—but be aware, if God sends the Holy Spirit on us here today, or throughout the churches of Canada and the United States, you can expect that there is a reason. We don’t know what it is; we know only that God cares for us and for the whole of God’s world and does for us what is best. In the meantime we prepare the soil of our lives and wait for God to sow the seed.

Grace Bible Church, 4 June 2017 

Acts 2:1-21
The Holy Spirit Comes at Pentecost
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Peter Addresses the Crowd
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 17 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
19 I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 20 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. 21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

1 Corinthians 12:1-13:
Concerning Spiritual Gifts
12 Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

Unity and Diversity in the Body

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

John 7:37-39:

37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.