Monday, November 06, 2023

God Tends the Garden

Summer has lingered longer than usual this year, so that we are nearing the end of October, and only now we expect temperatures below freezing! It is appropriate, then, that our summer series on peace lingers a little longer as well. We spent time on peace with God, peace in the community, and peace with our neighbours throughout the summer Sundays. The conference material has one more section: Peace with creation; and we will take three more Sundays before we leave this building to consider this final aspect of our lives of peace.
Peace with Creation
The physical world around us in crisis: We know that. It is not just the social-political scene that threatens to boil over, but the earth itself is groaning with the fruits of human abuse. Bad fruit indeed. How are we to relate to the created world? What is our responsibility regarding creation?
Genesis 2: 4-23
Genesis one to three give us a comprehensive picture of how we are to relate to God, to each other, and to the physical world around us. We could have done the whole summer series from these chapters! In chapter three, set in the garden, God walks regularly in the garden, communing with the man and the woman. We were made to be at peace with God, in communion with God, regularly receiving strength to live by our interaction with God.
In chapter two, it is made clear that the man and the woman are co-equals in the garden. God identifies the need that the man has for relationship with a “helper as his partner”. The animal world is important in human life, but animals do not constitute a full partner. So, God makes the woman who is the full partner-helper. Chapter one makes the same point by telling us that God made the human creature in God’s own image as male and female: We need each other as fully equal partners who together live as God’s images.
These two points – that God made us for relationship with God and God made us for relationship with each other – undergirded the sermons throughout the summer. Now we come to how we relate to the world God made.
Listen to the text. Verses 7, 9, and 19 suggest an important reality. God forms the man from the dust of the earth; God causes the plants to grow from the ground; God forms the animals out of the ground. That is to say, humankind, animal kind, and plant kind all come from the earth. God made us all from the same substance. The natural world includes all of life: We are one with the physical world.
Note further. The man names the animals: This is a task of bringing order into the world. Just as God orders the world in chapter one, the man orders the garden in chapter two. Although we are one with the natural world, we are also responsible for the natural world. Chapter one uses the language of dominion, by which it indicates that we are stewards of creation, acting on behalf of God. That relationship continues in chapter two.
So, we are one with the natural world, and we have a responsibility to bring order to the world around us. These two points come together in the image of God’s work in the story: In chapter two, God makes a garden. God is a gardener, and we – acting as God’s representatives in this world – can use the same role to describe our relationship with nature. We are gardeners in God’s garden, the creation God has given us.
What Does this Mean?
At this point, wisdom would suggest that I step down and invite Lois to take the pulpit and answer the question: What does a gardener do? I won’t; I am no gardener, but I have watched her garden. Several thoughts occur to me.
God is Creator and gardener. We are created and gardeners. This reality places limits on our actions. We do not create the garden out of nothing; we do not speak a word and the garden springs into being. We work with what is already here, given to us by God.
Some people think that the physical problems of our planet are not our responsibility. Some say that the action of the sun is responsible, or some other factor has caused “global warming”. We think that our actions cannot be that important. Genesis one and two both make the point that we are just that important. We are part of creation, and God has given us the task of managing creation. We cannot escape our responsibility.
Romans 8 connects us with the troubles of this world in a remarkably direct fashion: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8: 19 to 21) Paul’s primary point in that passage is to observe the glory that waits for God’s suffering people, but his language speaks directly to what I have been saying. The whole of creation is bound up in our rebellion against God, and the whole of creation anticipates its own redemption along with ours. We cannot escape our responsibility for creation. We are God’s gardeners in this world.
Sometimes I see Lois staring out of the window. When I ask what she’s doing, I find out she is planning next steps in her garden. Which plant might be better in a new spot; whether to water this evening or wait until tomorrow; which plant needs to be cut back. The planning and the work never end. The work of caring for our planet also never ends. We have been shaping the planet for thousands of years, and in the past two hundred years that shaping process has accelerated. Instead of shaping God’s garden in positive ways, we have engaged in destructive processes that damage creation.
Whether we think of the proliferation of plastics that permeate both land and sea, or the damage of pollution in our waterways, or the rise of what we call greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we live with the destructive results of human activity. Some scientists call the age that we live in “the Anthropocene epoch” – that is, the geologic age shaped primarily by the activity of human beings, you and me.
But we are gardeners in God’s garden. We are to be pulling out weeds, not sowing them. God wants us to shape positively and increase the beauty around us. Of course, there will be times when piles of dirt litter the garden. I see that often enough at our own house. But the mess is generally a step in pursuit of greater beauty.
John 20
The gospel reading from John 20 reinforces what I have been saying – that we are God’s representatives on earth, doing what God would do. At the beginning of the gospel, Jesus is described as the Word who is one with God, sent into the world for humankind. John 3:16 – so well-known – says it clearly, “God loved the world so much that God sent his only begotten Son.” John makes the point repeatedly: Jesus was sent into the world to save the world.
At the end of his gospel account, then, John extends this sending through the words of Jesus: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” That sending of the disciples applies to us as well. We also are sent into the world to do what Jesus did, which includes caring for creation.
Twenty some years ago, I heard George Verwer speak at Providence. Verwer founded an organization called “Operation Mobilization.” He had a passion for telling people about Jesus and how Jesus can meet the needs of the world. When he came to Providence, he spoke from the parable of the Good Samaritan and asked, “Who would we find lying beside the road today, of we walk down the roads of our world?”
He named 1) Children at risk; 2) Abused women; 3) The extreme poor; 4) People with HIV/AIDS; 5) People without clean water; 6) The unborn; and 7) The environment (see Verwer’s blog in an updated version from 2015, “Seven Global Scourges”: I don’t know that these same seven remain at the top of the list of needs today, but hear what he was saying about creation. Caring for the creation is a basic part of the Christian’s mission in the world today.
Sometimes we think that Christian mission meets inviting people to faith. Certainly it does, but it also means acting as God’s representatives in all of the needs of life. And the crisis of creation that we face is a basic point at which Christ’s representatives have the responsibility to act.
We are God’s gardeners in God’s garden. I invite you to listen as George Klassen helps us hear more of what we can do. I invite you to join us in the adult Sunday School class and take some time to consider practical steps we can take as we care for God’s good creation.
Steinbach Mennonite Church
 22 October 2023
 Focus Statement: Peacemakers join God in caring for the earth.
Texts: Genesis 2: 4 to 23; John 20: 19 to 23.

Sunday, October 01, 2023

SMC's Thanksgiving Sunday: Resting in God’s Love

I will be a bit briefer this morning than usual. We have time during our congregational sharing for whoever wishes to say something about giving thanks. This is my moment, during which I give my own perspective on thanksgiving.
Psalm 136 
Were you at all uncomfortable as we read the psalm responsively? If you were paying attention, you might have been. I certainly was.
Give thanks because God created us. That’s good!
Give thanks because God delivered us from slavery. That’s good!
Give thanks because God killed the Egyptians. Wait a minute! Is that good?
Give thanks because God provided for us in the wilderness. That’s good!
Give thanks because God has given us a home. That’s good!
Give thanks because God killed famous kings. Wait a minute! Is that good? Do we want God to kill “Sihon, king of the Amorites and Og, king of Bashan”? I’m uncomfortable.
Our discomfort increases when we remember that yesterday was Truth and Reconciliation Day in Canada. We remember those whom we dispossessed as God gave us a home here in Manitoba. I have nothing to say this morning about that issue, except to remind us that truth-telling precedes reconciliation. We must tell the stories of relationships between the indigenous people of Canada and those who came later, and we must tell and hear the truth.
I am almost certain that some of the early settlers of Canada assumed that God gave them this land to take from First Nations just as God gave Israel the land taken from the Canaanites. We should be uncomfortable with that fact; and we dare not dodge it and assume it means nothing. It requires another round table setting where we dig into it and try to work out what was and is going on.
Give Thanks for What? 
You may notice that I took liberties with the text. The psalm does not say, “Give thanks because God killed Pharaoh.” It lists the historical events, which include the death of Egypt’s firstborn and the deaths of kings who opposed God, but it doesn’t say, thank God for those deaths. Instead, the psalm says, “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.”
It is true that the psalmist intentionally lifts up God’s actions in defeating Israel’s enemies as evidence of God’s steadfast love. That still leaves us with a problem. In light of the teachings and example of Jesus, we are to love our enemies, not wish or act for their demise. But my point still stands. The psalmist thanks God for God’s goodness and steadfast love. He may not yet know the teaching, “Love your enemy”, but he does know to thank God for his love and mercy.
That’s the key: Thank God for God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s faithfulness. In the New Testament reading, Paul said, “Give thanks in everything.” In Ephesians 5, he says “Give thanks for everything.” I think both passages come to the same thing: Thank God for God’s faithful love in every situation of our lives. Life can be good: Thank God for his faithful love. Life can sometimes be hard and painful: Thank God for his faithful love.
This reading makes sense of the repeated refrain: “His steadfast love endures forever.” Just a brief excursion into the word for “steadfast love”. The old KJV said, “He mercy endures forever.” Mercy – love – lovingkindness – steadfast love: The Hebrew word behind them all is Hesed. None of our words gets at the whole, but the basic idea is of an enduring persistent love and mercy flowing from God over all God’s people, indeed, over the whole world.
If that is the case, if indeed God loves us all so much, faithfully and persistently, why do we experience so much trouble and heartache in this life? The psalmist does not ask or answer this question, but he does give us an important insight. He references a series of difficult times between the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt and their occupation of the Promised Land.
This is not a series of triumphs and joys without any problems. The record of their wilderness wanderings in Exodus through Deuteronomy makes it clear that the people often struggled to make sense of what was happening to them. They grumbled and complained because life in the desert was hard. The psalmist does not give them an easy out and tell them it was really lots of fun. Instead, he says, “Thank God for God’s Hesed throughout every turmoil and trial. Thank God for God’s love and mercy, which was there when people attacked you and when God carried you through. Thank God for God’s steadfast love. God’s love never fails.”
Reading the Psalm Today 
We also struggle with life. Sometimes life moves along smoothly, and we are grateful for the blessings of family and home and food and many other good things. But often enough we experience problems. Lois and I carry a concern for our younger son at the moment. He faces a significant challenge this Thanksgiving season: His employer is restructuring their organization such that a month from now he may not have a job. Since he and his wife live in Australia, this danger feels even heavier, due to the distance away they are.
What does it mean to say, “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good”, when you face the possibility of being unemployed. We have people in this church who have lived that question. In the same way, we can ask what it means to give thanks when grieving the death of a parent or spouse or child. We can wonder how to give thanks when we lose our home to a fire, or when our pastor resigns. Even positive changes are hard, so that we find ourselves feeling the stress of moving from one church building to another even as we thank God for providing the building.
I observed earlier that yesterday was Truth and Reconciliation Day. How do we give thanks when we remember the tragedies and abuse of residential schools? How do we give thanks when we remember being forced out of homes in the Soviet Union and migrating across the ocean with only a suitcase and some family members? Life is full of joy and pain, and we need a faith that can embrace the full complexity and ambiguity of life. That’s what the Children of Israel had.
Give Thanks Today 
Think of the Psalm as we might write it today:
Give thanks to the Lord for God is good: His mercy and love endure forever.
God was with us when we came to Canada as refugees: His mercy and love endure forever.
God gave us homes in a new place: His mercy and love endure forever.
Our mother died when we were far from home: His mercy and love endure forever.
Our child died and left us behind: His mercy and love endure forever.
God built us a church to worship in: His mercy and love endure forever.
We struggled to find work and God provided: His mercy and love endure forever.
We are separated from family members: His mercy and love endure forever.
God saved us from the terrors of this world: His mercy and love endure forever.
We can each write our own version, but you get the point: We give thanks for God’s goodness and mercy and care as we navigate the troubled waters of this life. I remember a speaker at Providence describing us about his own journey following the loss of his son. He told us that his only relief from the darkness of grief came when actively engaged in praise to God. Grief and thanksgiving came to a climax one winter’s day as he cleared the snow from his driveway. A voice inside asked, “Can you thank me for your son’s death?” As he shovelled and cried and wrestled inside himself, he thought of the closeness with God that had come with his grief. Finally, he prayed a response to the voice, “Thank you for my son’s death.” He told us that the darkness lifted, never to return. The pain of loss remained: That never goes away; but the paralyzing darkness was gone.
This is not a prescription for everyone, but it illustrates the power of gratitude and the enduring nature of God’s love. A song from South Africa runs like this: “Even though we travel through evil and trouble in this world, we are on our way to Heaven.” God’s goodness and faithfulness is the bedrock of our lives. That is why we give thanks, now and always.
Steinbach Mennonite Church
1 October 2023
Texts: Psalm 136 and 1 Thessalonians 5: 12 to 24
Focus: God’s faithful love is the one constant in a troubled and difficult world.
Looking Ahead Question: It’s “Thanksgiving”, and life is really hard. What can we give thanks for?

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Isaac and his Neighbours

I want to start this morning with a story about a Swedish missionary couple in the Eastern Congo, in a village named N’dolera.
Synopsis: Swedish missionaries move to Congo with young son in 1921. Mother gives birth to daughter in 1923, but dies following childbirth. Father is broken and bitter, gives up the baby girl to American missionary couple and returns to Sweden. Baby girl (Aina, renamed Aggie Berg) grows up in South Dakota. Her parents left no converts, except for a young boy who brought them chickens. That young boy grew up and eventually brought the village of Ndolera to faith in Christ. Forty years later, Aggie learns of this church and visits her now-alcoholic birth father in Sweden. She shares the story of the boy with the broken and bitter old man, and he discovers that God was with them all along.
          The story feels like hagiography, but it is taken from the daughter’s own story: Aggie Hurst, A Girl Without a Country. You can read from the story taken from the website: I have not seen the book, which is out of print, but use the story here for the point made at the end of the sermon.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: the patriarchs or founding fathers of the Jewish people. There are a number of stories in Genesis about Abraham and a number about Jacob; Isaac has basically chapters 24 and 26. We think of Isaac mostly as the child offered as a sacrifice in Genesis 22. Abraham agreed to sacrifice his son, his only son Isaac, whom he loved; and God then showed approval for Abraham’s faithfulness by providing a substitute. A strange and difficult story. One wonders what Isaac thought of the whole thing!
Chapter 24 is the story of Isaac and Rebekah – very romantic, with Rebekah described as “very fair to look upon.” It is also a story of an arranged marriage in which Rebekah and Isaac had little say about the whole matter. Chapter 26 contains four stories about Isaac. We heard three of them in the reading, but we will look at all four.
Genesis 26
 The first story was not in our Readers’ Theatre presentation. It’s a strange scene in which Isaac and Rebekah find themselves near what today is called Gaza. There was a famine, and Isaac moved his family into a region under the authority of Abimelech, a Philistine ruler. Isaac is worried that the men around them will be attracted to Rebekah – remember, she was “very fair to look upon” – so he decided to pass her off as his sister. Abimelech eventually found out that she was really his wife and rebuked Isaac for his lie, and then he told his people to make sure they did not “touch this man or his wife”.
A strange story, all the stranger because it parallels Abraham’s actions on two other occasions. In Genesis 12, Abraham went to Egypt looking for food and pulled the same trick with Sarah (Genesis 12), and in Genesis 20, he went to the same area as Isaac in our passage and again passed Sarah off as his sister. I won’t take any time to sort out the various interpretations of this story, but we’ll come back to it and consider what makes the most sense to me.
In the second story, Isaac prospers in the land of Gerar, so that his neighbours become jealous of his success. Abimelech now appears afraid of Isaac and asks him to leave his territory. Isaac agrees and leaves.
He settles nearby in the third story and starts digging wells, looking for water. The first two wells in which he found water led to more problems. The people who lived there said, “That’s our water! Leave it alone!” So Isaac did. He moved further away and dug a third well. This time there was no quarrel. His neighbours left him alone and he named the well “Room Enough” in honour of the occasion.
This story concludes with Isaac seeing God in a vision at a place called Beer-Sheba. God reaffirmed the covenant he had made with Isaac’s father, Abraham, and he stayed there for a while and dug another well. (All these wells remind us that water is life!)
Finally, Abimelech reappears on the scene. He has his military commander and his chief advisor with him, so Isaac is naturally concerned that Abimelech may be announcing trouble. Instead, the two men make a covenant to live at peace with each other. As our story might say, “They all lived happily ever after.”
Patriarchal Narratives
What do we do with these stories? Well, we don’t say that they show us what we should do in life, that’s for sure. I’m not about to suggest that anyone should pretend that their wives are really their sister. I can’t imagine a scenario in which that would be good advice!
In the same way, I can’t just say, “Look how peaceable Isaac was! He avoided a fight and look how God blessed him!” I don’t know if he was really a peacemaker. He may just have tended to avoid conflict. So, what do we do with these stories? If they’re not in the text to tell us what to do, what are they there for?
One thing they do is remind us how different the world of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was from our day. Consider his statement, “She’s my sister.” In our culture, we know what that would mean. But different cultures reckon kindship in different ways. For example, I grew up in Zimbabwe. In Ndebele culture, my father is David, and Arthur, and Joel – and for that matter, my father’s first cousins on his father’s side could also say they are my father. We call this “the extended family.” It’s a lot more complicated than we’re used to.
Further, in our culture, the acceptable marriage partner never includes our biological sister. Again in Zimbabwe, I once asked my students if a man could marry his mother’s brother’s daughter. They all agreed strongly that they could not. Except for two students in the back who said, “In our clan, your mother’s brother’s daughter is the preferred marriage partner.” Okay. I don’t understand it, but I heard what they said.
So let these stories remind you that the world of the patriarchs was different from ours, then remember that God came to these people – however strange they seem to us, and God made his covenant with them. In the same way, God comes to us today – to everyone, whether we like the way they live or not, and God is ready to make them part of his family also.
But that is a side issue. More significantly, Isaac’s actions make sense if you remember something important about the patriarchs. They were immigrants, and in this chapter, Isaac was moving because of a famine (and probably a drought). That would make him both an immigrant and a refugee in our world. Refugees make choices that we may not approve of. They do whatever it takes to keep out of trouble and feed their family. If they are afraid their women might be taken, they might lie about them. If they are afraid that they might be attacked, they move to the next place. They don’t act like the people who have power in the land, because they know that their status is uncertain. They keep their eyes open, checking for any threats to their existence.
Consider the stories in Genesis 26. Isaac and his family move, looking for food. They live in tents, moving from one place to another, always on the alert for threats. When the people in their new home start asking questions about their family, they conceal their true relationships until the local people figure it out for themselves.
These are the actions of a family leader who does not trust anyone outside of his immediate family. I think he makes a bad choice here, but it’s an understandable choice. It reminds me of the refugee family we know, living in Cape Town. The husband made a bad choice and moved to Germany, hoping to find asylum for his family. Instead, he is stuck in Germany. He made a bad choice, but refugees live with pressures we don’t know. I can understand that he heard of a possible open door and took it.
The stories about Isaac digging wells also fit the pattern. He and his men dig a well and find water. The local people say, “That’s ours!” So Isaac moves away and tries again. Same thing happens. So he moves and tries again. This time no one chases him from the good well he dug. Why didn’t he stand up for himself and for his family? Well, migrants often have little power. If you decide to fight for yourself, you can get in worse trouble quickly. At one level, Isaac just acted prudently.
So, these stories fit a pattern that marks them as migrants without a lot of power. The Children of Israel always remembered their origin as a migrant powerless people. At the feast of the first fruits, recorded in Deuteronomy 26, the priest recited the following words: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.” They became populous, but they started out as wandering nomads, living in tents, moving from place to place like the people we sometimes call gypsies.
What do We do with This?
So, what do we do with these stories? They do have lessons for us, even if we realise that we don’t simply do what Isaac did. I suggest two simple observations that may help us as we move forward in our lives together.
The first is that Isaac faced difficult choices, and he may have felt that he had no choice. But, in fact, he always had a choice of what to do. Sometimes he chose wrongly – I think his choice to present Rebekah as his sister was wrong. Sometimes he chose wisely – I think he did well to avoid fighting over the wells he had dug. But each time he found that he did have a way forward.
We also sometimes feel like we have no choice. We are facing some hard decisions over the next few months – looking for a pastor; looking for a building; figuring out who we are and who God wants us to be. At times in the past month, I have felt as though we were trapped, with no way out of the situations we were facing. But, in fact, we had choices and we have found a way to move forward. We’ll get some of our choices right, and we’ll get some wrong; but remember that we have possibilities ahead. In fact, we have a lot more ability to choose than Isaac the migrant refugee did! We’re not stuck, and God will make a way for us.
The second lesson is that God is the only one who can actually give us success. We make our choices, and we do our best, but only God can bring success. Isaac kept on refusing to fight. He kept on digging new wells, and God honoured his efforts by giving him water for his immediate needs and a covenant with Abimelech for his long-term needs.
As we make our choices, we trust in God for their success. Trusting God in the process means that whether we grow or decrease, we are in God’s hands. We pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us what we need for today, physically and spiritually.” Then we make our choices, knowing that we are in God’s hands.
A Concluding Thought
 I know that we sometimes feel trapped, as though there is no way to move forward. That feeling can lead us to make more bad choices, like Isaac saying that Rebekah was his sister and not his wife. My word to you this morning is that God can make a way where we see no way. That is why I began with the story of David and Svea Flood. David Flood saw no hope, but God used even their pathetic failure to plant a church in Ndolera.
While I was writing this sermon, we received news of Julie’s application for refugee status in Canada. The Canadian High Commission in South Africa has denied her application. We are grieving, and I acknowledge that I feel trapped and don’t see how we can help her. So we turn to God, and we ask God for a way forward.
We will make our choices as we stand with Julie and her family. Our choices may work, and they may not. Far more important, we commit Julie and ourselves into God’s care. Only God can make a way for us in this world and in the next. We do not despair. We do not give up. We continue to live as people of peace, digging new wells, looking for the next step God wants us to take. And we trust God to build our house. We trust God to give us what we need for today and for tomorrow.
Think again of David and Svea Flood. Their experience illustrates our human inability to overcome the situations we face, and it reminds us of God’s great ability to bring life through our efforts, however weak we feel.
People in the world around us turn to violence and force to get their way. We trust God instead. As the Psalmist puts it, “Some trust in men; some trust in horses; but we trust in the Lord.”
13 August 2023
Steinbach Mennonite Church
Genesis 26: 12-33


Sunday, July 02, 2023

Belief: The Heart of Peace

We continue our summer series on peace with the familiar story of Nicodemus and Jesus. Last Sunday, Michelle reminded us of the importance of prayer as a path to peace with God. The Lord’s Prayer provides us with a model for all of us to use as we seek a clear relationship with God.

Today, we have the example of Nicodemus, who sought out Jesus with his questions. Jesus pointed him towards the necessity of a spiritual birth as the start of a spiritual life that will last forever with God. You and I have been born physically, and we live our natural lives here on earth until we die. Jesus tells us – as he told Nicodemus – that we must also be born spiritually if we want to live spiritually with God.

John summarizes all of this with what are perhaps the best loved verses in all of Scripture: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten son, and whoever believes in him [Jesus] will not die (spiritually) but can live forever (spiritually). God did not send his son into the world to condemn us, but that everyone might be saved through him.”
Excursus: A brief rabbit trail about that phrase “only begotten Son”. In chapter 1, John tells us that the creative Word of God came into the world, but the people he had prepared for his coming rejected him. Then he writes, “But to as many as did receive him he gave the right to become children [sons and daughters] of God, even to those who believe in his name.” Many translations leave out “begotten”, because it is an unfamiliar word (in Greek: monogenetes). But John 3:16 paired with John 1:12 shows us both how we are like Jesus and how Jesus is unique. We are like Jesus because we also are adopted into God’s family as God’s children, with Jesus as our elder brother. But Jesus is unique in that he alone is monogenetes. “Begotten” means that the child shares the DNA of the parents. Jesus shares the DNA of God – uncreated, eternal, pure Spirit (as well as fully human), all-knowing and all-powerful, and so on. Whatever we can say about God, we say about Jesus, because Jesus – the eternal uncreated Word – is God made flesh.

Believe in Jesus
I have two simple thoughts on this verse this morning. Here’s the first one. “Believe in Jesus”: What does it mean to believe in Jesus?

Suppose I asked you if you believe in Santa Claus. Most of us would respond by saying no. We mean that we do not believe that Santa Claus exists, although we know the stories about him. We may even use those stories in our own family’s celebration of Christmas. When our sons were young, I wrote several letters from Father Christmas about that year’s work of life at the North Pole. (I borrowed the idea from J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote a letter a year for many years, enlisting the mail carrier to bring it to the house with his own hand made stamps from the North Pole on them!)

When we say we don’t believe in Santa Claus (even while we use the idea of this strange man with a white beard), we mean that we don’t believe he really exists. What do we mean when we say we do believe in Jesus?

First, we mean that we believe that the stories about him in the New Testament are true, but the way John uses the words here goes deeper than simple belief that Jesus exists.

Consider a different example. Charles Blondin was a tightrope walker who lived in the 1800s. In 1859, he crossed the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope, a feat that he repeated many times after that. One thousand one hundred feet across the river and 160 feet above the water. Blondin demonstrated a remarkable belief in his own abilities, pushing a wheelbarrow across the rope, stopping part way to cook an egg and eat it, and even carrying a man (his manager) across on his back.

It's that last one that really gets me. Harry Colcord was the man who agreed to go on Blondin’s back. You could say that Colcord believed in Blondin. He trusted Blondin with his life. What happens if Blondin has to sneeze? I know that I would not have trusted Blondin with my life like that! You hear that phrase: “trust him with his life.” That’s what it means to believe in Jesus. It’s not enough to believe that Jesus lived. It’s not even enough to believe that Jesus is the Word made flesh, the incarnate Son of God. The verse goes deeper: “Whoever believes in him shall have everlasting life”: “Whoever trusts him with their life shall have everlasting life.” “Believe in Jesus” means to trust him with your life, just as deeply as Colcord trusted Blondin with his life crossing the Niagara Gorge.

Our theme for the summer is peace with God, with the people around us, and with the whole of creation. Last Sunday we heard of the path to peace: a life of prayer modelled on the Lord’s Prayer. Believing in Jesus walks on that path to find the heart of peace with God. As we trust Jesus with our lives, we fall in love with Jesus and experience God’s love poured over us. That love brings us peace with God.

An Integrated Life
This brings us to my second point: This peace operates at every level. Believing in Jesus leads to peace with God; and believing in Jesus leads to peace with our brothers and sisters in faith; and believing in Jesus leads to peace with the world around us, including the whole of creation.

When we find ourselves with a ruptured relationship, John brings us back to this verse: God loved the world so much that God gave us Jesus to believe in and receive life and peace. This point is easy to see and remarkably difficult for us to see and do in practise. Let me spell it out a bit and try to move beyond a simplistic answer to life’s problems.

Suppose you are married, and you have a conflict with your spouse. A common occurrence, which many of us have experienced. The integration of peace at every level of our lives means that the conflict ripples through every part of our lives, so that our relationship with God also suffers.

Similarly, if our relationship with God is weak, our relationships with others also suffer. If we participate in the abuse of the environment, that abuse causes conflict with others and with God. Conflict at any one level of our lives affects every other area as well, like plucking a spider web and watching the whole web vibrate. Like someone who kicks the dog at home because their boss (metaphorically) kicked them at work,

We have to be careful with this understanding of an integrated life. Sometimes people think that if I just pray hard enough – nurturing peace with God – then the conflict with my spouse will just go away. It doesn’t work like that. Remembering the various levels of conflict in our lives means that we work on reconciliation with our spouse, and we pray more, deepening our relationship with Jesus. We seek the renewed health of the environment, and we pray more, seeking God’s face. We pursue peace at every level of our relationships together.

This pursuit flows from our commitment to trust Jesus with our very lives. We believe in Jesus means that we commit ourselves to him and his ways every day and every moment of our lives. As we do so, we bring God into the centre of the conflicts and disruptions of our lives, seeking God’s peace at every level of our lives.

Contrast to the World around Us
This pursuit of peace stands in sharp contrast to the world around us. Conventional wisdom tells us that when we find ourselves in a conflict, we should end the conflict as soon as possible and cut ties with the person with whom we are in conflict. People don’t change, we are told, and the only recourse to conflict is to get out.

There is real wisdom in conventional wisdom. If you are in an abusive relationship with your spouse, I do not counsel you to stay there, seeking peace: Sometimes you do indeed need to leave and not return. But our society has taken this truth much further.

The underlying belief for many in our society is that people don’t change; in fact, we would say, people cannot change. We hear voices that sway any conflict makes it clear that the person you are in conflict with is unsafe. Reconciliation is impossible. We hear them say they are bad people, and you must avoid them forever. This is the spirit behind what we sometimes call “cancel culture”, and it works to perpetuate conflicts rather than to bring peace.

In contrast to this stance, John reminds us that God gave Jesus for us. Jesus lived for us, and Jesus died for us. He took our rebellion against God into himself and rose from death to reconcile us with God. His victory over death is also victory over the power of evil in our world. Therefore, we can change. Therefore, we can reconcile – both with God and with other people. Therefore, we can live at peace with God and experience peace with others and with the whole of creation.

I remember a dramatic example of this pursuit of peace, with God’s love for us and our love for God at its heart. Fifteen or 20 years ago, Reaksa Himm spoke at Providence. He graduated from the seminary the year before I came, and he visited us again ten years later in 2006. He told us his story, which you can read in his book, The Tears of My Soul.

Reaksa was a survivor of the killing fields in Cambodia. He was shot by the Khmer, along with the rest of the people in his village. Somehow, he survived in the open grave where they were dumped and escaped into the jungle. In 1989, he left Cambodia as a refugee and came to Canada. He expected never to return, but God had other plans for him.

In his journey as a refugee, he left Buddhism and became a Christian. His conversion brought him peace with God, but his heart was tormented by the memories of his bitter experiences at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, including the death of his family. In 1998, he was invited to return to Cambodia as a Bible teacher to help train leaders in the young church growing there. He resisted, with the hurt and pain of the past strong in his life, but God would not let him rest. Finally, in 1999, he agreed and returned to Cambodia. In the years that followed, he started a school in his home village among the people who had helped to kill his family. Here is his description of returning to his home village:
Then on 6th June 2003, I went back to the village where my family was killed. I discovered that four of the six men involved had been killed and one had moved to a different village. I met the remaining one. He was fearful of meeting me but I spoke to him of God’s love and forgiveness. By God’s grace I was able to forgive him and set him free in my heart.
        I thank God for sparing my life so that I can bring the message of salvation and forgiveness to my broken people. I also thank God for the healing of my hurt and pain that I had endured for more than 25 years. Now, I can see the glory and experience the joy of serving him in my hometown. (Sokreaksa Himm, 156)

Reaksa’s story illustrates the way that God’s love brings peace to every area of our lives – even if it takes our whole life to do so. Peace with God leads to peace with others and peace with the whole of creation. For God loved us so much that he gave his only begotten son, and when we believe in Jesus we receive everlasting life, the life of God’s Spirit that lasts forever.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
2 July 2023
Text -- John 3: 1 to 21

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Fixing What’s Broken (The New Creation)

Last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday. Today is Trinity Sunday. It makes sense to move from the day when we remember the giving of the Holy Spirit to a day when we remember the nature of God – three persons; one essence. God is one in essence, a perfect unity, but experience God as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I don’t plan to explain the trinity today – that kind of exploration is useful, but it is best done in another setting, with people who can see more deeply into such mysteries than I can. Instead, I want to reflect on the Scriptures that the lectionary gives us to think of Trinity.

Genesis 1 tells of creation, the action of God at the beginning of everything. “The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the deep.” “And God said, ‘Let there be …, and there was ….’” God: Creator, Spirit, and Word. John 1 picks up on this creation account and makes clear what this creative word is: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

Genesis 1: God – Creative Power, Word, and Spirit – present in the beginning, an eternal three persons, one essence. Matthew 28 refers then to the same trinity as part of what we call the Great Commission: “Baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Last Sunday, we performed a baptism as part of our service. You may remember that Pastor Lee used these words as they poured the water over Katie’s head: “We baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

A natural question follows. Why does the lectionary tie the Great Commission to the creation narrative like this? What’s going on? There are various possible answers, I suppose, and I want to consider first Genesis 1 and then Matthew 28 to get at least one of them.

Genesis 1 one has several important themes. One of them is the way that God brings order into chaos. The first statement about creation is that the earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the deep. Formless – Empty – Deep: in the Hebrew, tohu va vohu … tehom. These are words that mean chaos and trouble. The deep is where bad things come from. Formless emptiness is dangerous. The first readers of Genesis would have expected trouble.

Then the narrative shifts: “The Spirit of God hovered over the waters, and God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.” So begins an ordering of chaos, so that by the end of the chapter all is well ordered and made ready for the human pair.

A second theme is how good this ordering is. The next sentence after “there was light” is “God saw that the light was good.” Throughout the six creative days, this theme repeats: in verse 10, God calls the sea and dry land good; in verse 13, God calls vegetation in all its forms good; in verse 18, God calls the sun, moon, and stars good; in verse 21, God calls all living creatures good; and finally in verse 31, God calls the whole of creation, ruled over by the man and the woman made in his image, very good. God’s creation is good – when God orders it and blesses it and rules over it.

A third theme is the place that the man and the woman occupy in creation. As we saw, God calls creation ruled over by the human couple “very good”. They are made “in the image and likeness of God.” So, the human pair were made “like God”. Why does the text add “in the image”. We can see what the word “image” means here by listening to the Ten Commandments, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” Why not? Because the man and the woman were the image. The Israelites were not to bow down to any other creature as God’s image, because they were God’s image.

In short, the human couple in creation represent God, ruling over the earth in God’s place. What does that mean? Remember what God did in creating the world. God took a place of chaos and disorder and made it ordered and good. God brought shalom – wholeness and peace and good – into creation and then gave the human couple the task of continuing to bring order and peace.

Fast forward to the present. How have we done? How well have we brought order and peace into chaos and disorder? Not very well! Which sets the stage for Matthew 28.

The Great Commission
As with the Creation account, there are many themes we could consider. The little statement, “but some doubted”, is worth exploring. In the presence of the risen Lord, some were not sure what this meant or how they should respond. We can take courage from their confusion. When we feel doubts and uncertainty, we know we’re in good company, and we know that Jesus does not abandon us, any more than he abandoned his first followers.

We could also explore the precise nature of the commission – going; baptizing; teaching. These three words take us deep into the life of the first church, but they belong in another sermon, not today.

I want instead to note the way that Jesus begins the commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me.” Jesus is the Word, the creative word of God present at the creation of the heavens and the earth. He holds the authority of the ruler of the universe because he made all that is. His commission for the disciples, then, is the action of the ruler telling his representatives what they are to do. Just as God left the human pair at the beginning of the world as his images to rule over the earth, Jesus leaves the church as his representatives to bring the good news of the gospel to all people. That is, we are restoring creation – fixing what’s broken.

Why would Jesus give the church this task? Why do we need a new creation? Simply because the old creation has failed. The human race had the task of ordering creation and bringing about peace and justice throughout the world. We failed. We continue to fail. Therefore, the church has the task of bringing all people into the new creation where God reigns in perfect justice and peace.

This task is not a political task. We are not trying to create a Christian nation, which would mirror the Old Testament people of God. When Jesus went to his death, his disciples were ready to fight to protect him. Jesus stopped them with these words: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, then my servants could fight for me.” (John 18:36) As it is, God’s reign is not a political realm. Again, in Luke 17, Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is within you.” This is not a personal abstract spirituality, but rather it affirms that God’s reign is made visible in the church.

God’s reign is much bigger than the church; it includes the whole of creation. But we are given the task of making God’s reign visible. We show what a community of people who have been baptized into the death of Christ look like. We show what a community of people who “obey everything that Jesus commands” looks like. We make visible the new creation in which God’s Spirit is present and active. In short, we are the ones who complete the mandate given to the first man and woman in Genesis 1 to work at the task of bringing order and peace and wholeness and goodness into the world. That’s our job. That’s who we are.

An Objection
Some people think that the world is actually okay and that we don’t really need this gospel of the kingdom. I have news for you. It’s not okay. It’s bad. There are places here and there where God’s Spirit is active, bringing goodness and life, but the truth is we live in a world that is on the brink of destruction. Chaos and disorder threaten us all around. I don’t need to go into details; just listen to the news for a week and you will be sufficiently depressed.

Someone might reply, “The world’s bad, but I’m okay. I don’t need any help. I can handle what faces me and my family.” Maybe you can. I admit that I’m doubtful. Life has a way of throwing a curve ball at us. Just when we think we know what’s happening, it drops out of the strike zone and we miss the ball completely. Life’s like that.

But even if you can handle what happens to you personally, can you take care of the climate crisis? Can you end the war in Ukraine? My daughter-in-law used to work in a school in a deprived neighbourhood; she saw poverty and its effects up close. Can you fix the poverty that destroys families and fuels addictive behaviour?

The only way you can really think you’re okay is by drawing a circle around yourself and keeping all the problems outside. But it doesn’t work. Sooner or later someone you know, someone you care about, gets caught up in chaos and pain. Then you remember that it’s our job in the church to bring order into chaos, to bring peace into conflict, to bring light into darkness.

How Do We Do This?
How do we do this? That’s the question. Some people reduce the answer to handing out tracts or going door to door with a gospel presentation. The first church did it another way. They told about the resurrection over and over again, and they lived out the Great Commission: Teaching them to obey everything that Jesus commands.

That action – living it out – was critical. Stephen Neill was a missionary scholar. Here is his description of Christians in the first three hundred years of the church’s life:
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. (Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions, 1964: 41)

I like that line: “In those days to be a Christian meant something.” Christians were different – in a good way! I’ve used this example before, and it’s worth repeating again. A hundred years ago, my ancestors in Ontario were part of the Brethren in Christ (Tunkers). Morris Sider (I think) tells how they used to have Love Feasts each year, and before they could take part in feetwashing and communion, they had to make sure there was no sin in their lives. Some of them were farmers who had crossed the border and bought farm equipment in the state of New York. Occasionally, a farmer would realize he had not paid duty on what he bought, so he went down to the border to declare the item and pay duty on it. The border guards declared that they never worried about the plain people (as they called us), because they knew that we would always come back and pay.

I think that’s really cool! Integrity was baked into their lives so that the border guards knew they were telling the truth. What would it look like if the way that God wants the world to be were baked into our lives? It would take another sermon to explore what that would look like, but I  can summarize it by using the terms we heard in the Creation account: We would be people who bring order into chaos, peace into conflict, God’s presence into every arena of life.

Drew Strait (NT prof at AMBS) tells a story of defusing conflict and seeking peace, even in the vitriol that passes for virtual conversations online. He had written an article on 9/11 and Christian nationalism, which appeared online. One of the commenters attacked him quite viciously, and Strait describes his peaceable response – leading to the commenter deleting his attack from the conversation. Even in the polarization of contemporary politics, it is possible to build for peace.

Part of the trouble is that we want quick results. We want to know what we can do so that things are better right away. Remember Neill’s description of the first church? They made their mark and conquered the Roman Empire with God’s love, but it took them three hundred years. They were small groups of people scattered throughout the cities of the Roman Empire. They really did not look like representatives of the king of the universe, but they were!

We also may not feel like a place filled with God’s power. Eighty to a hundred or so people, so many of us over 70 years old – and you think that this is where God reveals God’s reign to the people of the earth? You bet it is! It’s a long slow process, working night and day. That’s why Jesus says in the Great Commission, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age!”

We play our part: maybe actively; maybe quietly; living out the resurrection of Jesus every day. We pray and we live Saint Francis’ prayer, bringing about the new creation, the world as God meant it to be:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
4 June 2023

Sermon Texts:
Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a
Matthew 28:16 to 20

Focus Statement:
God gives us the commission to "make disciples" -- that is, to represent God recreating the world the way that God wants it to be. We are God's people inviting everyone around us to join in the new creation.

Thinking Ahead Question: What is broken in our world, and how can we fix it?

Digging Deeper:
1. What is wrong with our world?
2. What can we do about it?
3. How do you feel about the idea that fixing the world may take 300 years?
4. What examples do you know about of God’s kingdom breaking into our lives? How can we participate in bringing in the new creation?

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Encountering (Others’) Faith

We know that Canada is filled with many cultures. Manitoba was already a multicultural province long before the present surge of migrants entered. Consider the presence of reserves – not just First Nations and Metis reserves, but an East Reserve for Mennonites (where I live in Steinbach), and a French Reserve for towns like St. Pierre and Ste. Anne, and a Ukrainian Reserve for towns like Tolstoi and Sarto.

It is no accident that one of Winnipeg’s most beloved festivals is Folkorama, celebrating the multiplicity of cultures in our city and province. From Filipinos to Scottish immigrants, from the Indians playing cricket in Assiniboine Park to what one authority called “the most secular Jewish community in Canada”, diversity is in our lifeblood.

Ironically, the first time I ever visited Winnipeg was in 1990 for Mennonite World Conference. Southern Manitoba has a well-deserved reputation as a Mennonite enclave; but Steinbach and Winkler have their own mosques now, and Winnipeg has more gurdwaras than it does Hindu Temples – many Sikhs as part of the Indian diaspora in this part of the world. We may still be the bible belt in Canada, but we also have a remarkable array of cultures and faiths.

In this context, how do we relate to our neighbours, often people of no specific religion or of a religion quite different from our own Christian faith? That is the question I want to consider for the next few minutes.

The natural response to people of other cultures and religions is one of suspicion. We are naturally ethnocentric, just as babies begin life as naturally egocentric. We know our group, and we assume that the way we do things is natural and right. Others, therefore, are unnatural and wrong.

You see this ethnocentrism all over the place. For example, China calls itself “the middle kingdom”, meaning that China is the centre of the earth. And Toronto thinks that it is the centre of the earth! Or look at a world map. If you look at a map made in Australia or Japan, you will not find North and South America at the centre; Australia and Asia are in the middle.

North Americans are of course as ethnocentric as anyone else. Consider our neighbours to the south. I heard a lecture broadcast on NPR some 15 years ago in which the speaker considered the meaning of the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …”

He observed that the first question Americans faced when they became a country was, “Does all men include Black men?” They ended up fighting a civil war before they agreed that it does. Then they asked, “Does all men include women?” After much debating and protesting, they finally agreed that women are people too in 1919. (We beat them in Canada, but only by a year!) The speaker then went on to the current question, “Does all men mean all men everywhere, or does it mean only all Americans are created equal?” That question our American neighbours have not yet settled. Events at their border with Mexico this past week reinforce the sense that some Americans see themselves as better than the rest of humankind.

If you think that ethnocentrism is an American problem, try calling a Canadian an American. His/her response will leave you in no doubt that we also are focused on our identity as Canadians. Ethnocentrism is the natural human response to people of other faiths and other religions!

In this context, then, we turn to the Scriptures that we read this morning.

John 14
We referred last Sunday to Jesus’ teaching his disciples after the last supper. He assured them that they – and all who place their trust in him – will enter God’s presence both here and in eternity. Jesus said that he is the way, truth, and life, not just for his disciples but for all people.

In the verses we read this morning, Jesus promised his disciples the presence and help of his Holy Spirit. He knew that they would embark on a long and difficult journey from their ethnocentric identity as God’s Chosen People, the Jews, to God’s People drawn from every nation under heaven. They would need his presence and power to transition from an exclusive group who kept outsiders at bay to an inclusive church who welcomed everyone.

Acts 17
The account of Paul speaking to the philosophers in Athens is just one example of this shift. Consider Paul’s own experience. He began his life as a Pharisee, one set apart to defend the Mosaic Law, Torah, from all attacks and especially from outsiders. When the new sect of Christ-followers came on the scene, he was vigorous in his attacks on them. Then he met Jesus, the crucified and risen Jesus, on the road to Damascus. As he pursued Jesus’ disciples to kill or imprison them, Jesus met him in a blinding encounter and transformed his life.

Paul still called himself a Pharisee. The name means one who is set apart by God for a purpose, but the purpose had changed. He retained deep appreciation for Torah and God’s grace in giving Torah to the Jews, but his core commitment had shifted to the gospel of Jesus Christ. He summarizes the gospel in a remarkable passage in 1 Corinthians 15:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 
If you want a summary of the gospel, there it is! Jesus Christ crucified and risen. That is what Paul now lived for.

A critical element of this gospel is that Jesus lived and died and rose for all people. There are no outsiders. God’s grace is freely available to all people of every class, ethnicity, and gender. In place of the ethnocentrism that flows so easily from the human heart, Jesus calls everyone to eternal life, life with God. As Paul puts it elsewhere, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Sometimes we think of Paul as one who introduced all kinds of rules and guilt into Jesus’ wonderful gospel of freedom. In fact, Jesus is the one who said, “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7: 14). Paul was (in the words of scholar F.F. Bruce) “the apostle of the heart set free.”

Accordingly, wherever he went, Paul preached the gospel to Jews and to Gentiles. Normally, he entered the synagogue and preached the gospel and then went out into the streets and kept on preaching the gospel. When he got to Athens, he was waiting for the rest of his team to join him. He became aware of the cultural and religious life of Athens, which was a centre of philosophy. If you wanted to know what was on the cutting edge of religious and philosophical thinking, you went to Athens and listened to the latest and best minds of that day debating what was true.

This impression of Athens is behind the way that Paul preached there – reasoning with both Jews and Gentiles and anyone else who happened to be there. They were only too happy to have a leader from this new sect of Judaism tell them what this new way was all about. Paul went about his task with relish, quoting from their own best poets and philosophers to talk about the religious practices in which they were engaged. One has the impression that people listened with interest as long as he moved in familiar territory, but then he used their ideas as a foundation to talk about Jesus. He pivoted to the story of Jesus and told how he had been killed and raised from the dead. Talk about the resurrection divided his hearers. Some scoffed, and some wanted to hear more.

What Does This Tell Us?
I assume that we agree we should share our faith with people around us. Paul’s example can help us in our own context. Athens was also highly multi-cultural and multi-religious. The philosophers of Athens would have said that they were well qualified to tell people which of these competing faiths was worth taking seriously. Paul and his companions could well have felt intimidated, but they went into the marketplace and shared what they believed. What can we learn from them?

1) Note that Paul began by making connections. He quoted authorities within the philosophers’ schools of study. He paid attention to the public monuments and rituals that he saw all around him. He did not start by saying condemning them. He started by looking for points of connections and building relationships. Donald Smith (in Creating Understanding) notes that communication always begins with building relationships.

We have a skewed idea in our culture that we are faced with only two ways to relate to people of other faiths. Either we think we must set out to convert them, or we think that we should be careful to say nothing about Jesus. I know what both options feel like. I remember the first world religions class I took to a mosque. It was in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the Muslim preacher of the morning made it his goal to convert my class. He preached at us as hard as he could, inviting us us to leave the confusion of Christianity behind and become Muslims. My class was insulted! They wondered what he thought he was doing! I said to them, “Some of you want to become missionaries. It’s good for you to know what it feels like!”

Or another example: Last week a woman and her daughter were going door to door in our neighbourhood, witnessing to whoever would answer the door. I am sympathetic to their message, but I didn’t know them! I kept the conversation as short as I reasonably could.

Paul shows us how to build relationships. He preaches the gospel clearly, but first he gets to know his audience. Given how many people like to hide their beliefs in our context, it makes sense that we begin by building relationships. We get to know people around us. We don’t act like we think we know what is best for them or try to explain their experience. Rather, we listen and discover. As we get to know each other, we find opportunities to share our lives, including our faith.

2) An important part of Paul’s practice of making connections was the way that he could quote poets and philosophers that his audience knew. He had studied them. He had learned from them. We can do the same.

Consider the indigenous population of Canada. We regularly hear land acknowledgements, and we admit that we live together on treaty land. Such statements are important. They help us to frame our relationships, recognizing the importance of the other. But we must go further. Listen to First Nations people you know. Learn their stories and their view of reality. Learn to think and speak within their categories. As we do so, we discover ways that God’s revelation is already present within indigenous cultures.

As we get to know our neighbours, we discover what their lives are about and what they believe about reality. Like Paul, we keep listening for ways that God was in India or the Philippines or China or Nigeria before the Christian Church showed up. One missions thinker calls this acting like a treasure-seeker. We search for the truth of the gospel already present in every culture and every faith, before Christians arrive.

3) We could say much more, but we come to a close. Finally, Paul was unapologetic when it came to speaking the gospel. We want to be sensitive and relevant. We want to be understanding and avoid insulting people. As a result, sometimes we are so careful that we say nothing about the reality of Jesus in our lives. Paul was not so quiet!

He knew that talking about the resurrection was going to split the crowd, but the resurrection of Jesus was his reason for living! We also can speak naturally about Jesus’ place in our lives. Not like the Muslim imam from Fort Wayne whom I described; not like some Christians I have known who just can’t wait to ask if you know for sure that you’re going to heaven; not in a pushy or violent way – we can share who Jesus is in our lives. Can you tell your story? Do so! Wait until you’ve earned the right to speak. Show a real and genuine interest in the other person. And when the time is right, you can tell how you have met Jesus in your own life.

I started with ethnocentrism. If you act like you and people like you are the centre of the world, don’t be surprised if others don’t listen to you. But if you really do accept everyone around you as another person also made in God’s image, if you are really open to the people around you, I  believe you will find they are also open to you.

In the whole process, remember that it is God’s Spirit who draws us and all people to God. We rest in the work of the Holy Spirit, “for in him we live, and move, and have our being.”

Acts 17: 22-31

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 ‘The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 “For in him we live and move and have our being.” As some of your own poets have said, “We are his offspring.”

29 ‘Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.’

John 14: 15-21
Jesus promises the Holy Spirit
15 ‘If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you for ever – 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me any more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realise that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.’

Grace Bible Church
14 May 2023