Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Paul: The First Anabaptist

The title is a bit misleading--trying to connect my Mennonite Church with Paul, when we usually gravitate towards the Gospels. A sermon preached at SMC last Sunday, introducing the Summer Series on "the fruit of the Spirit".

Steinbach Mennonite Church
16 June 2013
Paul: The First Anabaptist
Text: Galatians 5: 13-26
Life by the Spirit
13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

This morning we begin our summer series on “the fruit of the Spirit”. Since the list of the qualities in the fruit of the Spirit appears in Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches, we begin with an overview of Paul’s life to show where the letter fits in, and then look briefly at the churches to which Paul wrote.

This gives us the basis on which to look at the point of the whole letter: Paul’s concern that the new Galatian Christians follow Christ, not the Law of Moses.

Within that purpose for the letter, we find this list of qualities: “22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”

Two years ago I used this outline on PowerPoint to show Paul’s life and where the different letters fit. The outline is adapted from F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 475

The Life of Paul: All dates are approximate
Date                Church                                               Rome
28-30 AD        Public Ministry of Jesus                      14-37: Emperor Tiberius
5?                    Birth of Paul
33                    Conversion of Saul
35                    Paul’s first post-conversion visit to Jerusalem
35-46               Paul in Cilicia and Syria                      37-41: Emperor Gaius
46                    Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem          41-54: Emperor Claudius
47-48               Paul and Barnabas in Cyprus and Galatia
48                    Letter to the Galatians
49                    Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15)           49: Jews expelled from Rome
49-50               Paul and Silas travel from Syrian Antioch through Asia Minor to Macedonia and Achaia
50                    Letters to the Thessalonians
50-52               Paul in Corinth                                    51-52: Gallio proconsul of Achaia
Summer 52      Paul’s third Jerusalem visit                 52-59: Felix procurator of Judaea
52-55               Paul in Ephesus                                   54-68: Emperor Nero
55-56               Letters to the Corinthians
55-57               Paul in Macedonia, Illyrium and Achaia
Early 57          Letter to the Romans
May 57            Paul’s fourth Jerusalem visit
57-59               Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea
September 59              Paul’s voyage to Rome begins            59: Festus succeeds Felix as procurator of Judaea
February 60     Paul’s arrival in Rome
60-62               Paul under house-arrest in Rome        62: Death of Festus; Albinus procurator of Judaea
60-62               Captivity Letters (Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, Philippians)
65                    Paul visits Spain                                  64: Fire of Rome
65? (68?)         Paul’s death

Note that many commentators place the letter up to 10 years later, at the same time as Paul’s letter to the Romans. There are similarities in the theology of the two letters that support this suggestion, but I think that an earlier date is more likely correct. I just finished a set of essays on Galatians that suggests 52 as the date and makes some convincing arguments in support. This date makes the most sense to me, so that I don’t follow completely Bruce’s dating on the chart.

Why does this matter? The controversy of "the Council of Jerusalem” in 49 sets the stage for this letter. Some people came to the mother church in Antioch (representing themselves as from James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem) and effectively tried to negate the implications of the Jerusalem Council. Paul hears about their visit as he works with the church further West in Corinth or in Ephesus. He can’t get back to Galatia, so he writes this letter to make sure that the gospel accepted in the Jerusalem Council is not lost.

Paul’s gospel—the gospel of Jesus Christ—centres on the person of Jesus Christ and sets aside the Law of Moses as the way of salvation. His opponents wanted to retain the Law. Before the Jerusalem Council they tried to keep the Law as the way of salvation, with Jesus as Messiah for those who follow the Law. After Jerusalem they tried to make the Law the fruit of salvation, which real Christians would follow once they came to Christ. Paul sets the Law aside. He calls it “a schoolmaster” (KJV) or custodian (NIV), whose task had been to bring people to Christ. Now that it has done so it falls away, fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. This is why I call Paul “the first Anabaptist”. His great concern in life was to know Christ and follow Christ and to live Christ. He says, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” The first Anabaptists were similarly focussed on Christ. We can learn from Paul as he worked out the meaning of a Christ-centred gospel in his own life.

The Galatians
Paul’s first missionary journey: Paul and Barnabas sailed to Cyprus and then on to the coast of modern Turkey, that part of Turkey known as Anatolia. On the map it includes the cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe—cities in South Galatia. The political centre of the Roman Province of Galatia is north of this journey.

The commentators differ as to which churches are meant by “the churches in Galatia” (1:2). Some say that these were congregations in one of the cities mentioned in Acts and shown on the map. Others note that Paul refers to ending up in these churches because he fell ill and was forced to wait there for a time (4:13), and suggest that they were in North Galatia—probably several congregations in one of the North Galatian cities. In that case, the trip is not mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles.

In either case, the people in this church were Gentiles by background—“Galatian” is a Roman form for “Gauls” or “Celts”. If you like, they were Welsh folk who emigrated ac ross Europe to Anatolia and had settled there some 300 years earlier. They were attracted to the teachings of Judaism, and accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ gladly when Paul was laid up with illness and spent time with them.

The Message of Galatians
Although they accepted the gospel of grace gladly, when the Judaizers showed up, they were attracted to this new teaching. The idea that they could go deeper into the Christian life by keeping the Jewish Law—which in this case meant especially keeping the dietary requirements (2:11-13)—appealed to them. They thought that the difficulties of what it means to follow Christ could be resolved if they could just keep a kosher table like the Jewish Christians told them to.

Paul recognizes that this move would undo all of the good that had taken place in the Jerusalem Council. Before the Jerusalem Council some thought that Jesus the Messiah was the path to life, and others held that the Law of Moses was the path to life. If the Galatians began to smuggle the law back into the gospel, Paul could see that the long-term result would be to extinguish the gospel of God’s grace available in Jesus.

In the chapters preceding our passage he advocates for a Christ-centred gospel in a variety of ways. And then in this passage he addresses a problem that some people had when they heard him speak. If the Law is fulfilled and no longer applies, they said, we can do anything we want! Some people in the Corinthian churches understood Paul exactly this way (1 Cor 6:12): “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything.

So Paul makes it clear. Freedom in Christ means freedom to become like Christ, not freedom to do anything we want. “The works of the flesh” (5:19) are the kinds of things that someone who is completely self-centred does. The fruit of the Spirit (5:22) are the qualities of someone who is becoming like Christ, putting on Christ, set free from the tyranny of self to be filled with the Spirit.

The Fruit of the Spirit
Over the next two months we will spend time on the different qualities found in the fruit of the Spirit. We will discover what the likeness of Christ is, into which we grow. It remains to make one last point this morning. You notice that Paul calls this thing, whatever it is, “the fruit of the Spirit”. He does not say “fruits”—the fruits are; he says “fruit”—the fruit is. Does this matter? I used to be an English teacher. Is this just a grammatical fine point that really is not that important? I suggest that accuracy is important.

I saw a picture of a sign in a store advertising a spray: "Roach and Aunt Killer" “Roach and Aunt Killer!” Just a little “u”. It doesn’t make any difference! At least I’m glad I’m an Uncle, so that no one sprays me with the stuff to get rid of me.

Or again, the saying, "A woman without her man is helpless" changes meaning if you add punctuation--"A woman: Without her, man is helpless." Don't worry about the political correctness of either sentiment; The extra punctuation marks change the meaning completely! Accuracy does indeed matter. Paul said “fruit”, and there’s a good reason for it.

Compare the way that Paul talks about gifts of the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul writes: “Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.” He uses the plural because different gifts are given to different people. No one person is expected to have all of the gifts. We have them all together, as the body of Christ. That’s part of what makes each of us valuable within the body—we’re needed because we have different gifts. Nobody is expected to have all of the gifts. You might have two or three, but you and I depend on each other to have them all.

But in our passage Paul writes: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Paul uses the singular “fruit”, because there is only one fruit. There are various ways of describing it—love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—but there is only one fruit. Therefore a part of Christian maturity is to grow into all of these qualities. You can’t say, “I don’t have the fruit of love, because that’s not my fruit.” They are all “my fruit”.

The importance of this truth is to remind us that we all have more growing to do. Jake Loewen—MB missionary and anthropologist from BC—tells how near the end of his life his Uncle Walter (his mother’s brother) came to visit Jake and his wife, Ann. Uncle Walter asked Jake, “Tell me, what is the most important lesson you have learned in life?” Jake replied, “Obedience.” His Uncle said, “That lesson I have learned.” He turned to Ann and asked, “And what have you learned?” She replied, “Love.” Sheepishly his Uncle said, “That lesson I have not learned. I haven’t even learned to be höflich [polite]. If the good lord wants me to learn to love, he will have to recycle me.” Jake observed that he himself, although over 70 as he wrote these words, was also trying to learn the lesson of love. As we consider the qualities in the fruit of the Spirit, I trust that you and I will see places where we can still grow, and that we will open ourselves to the Spirit of Christ more fully to make us like himself. The alternative is to follow the Law and try to do it all ourselves. That way is despair and death. The way of the Spirit is freedom and life.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Remembering Our Mother: Funeral Meditation

27 April 2013
Psalm 121 (NIV)

It was just over twenty-two years ago that we held the funeral service for Dad Heise. He was taken from us too early it seemed. Today we remember Mother Heise. She lived a full life, a good life, but still it seems too soon to say goodbye. As we went to the airport for Lois to join the family, she said: “I just want to see her one last time!” One of my friends said to me: “Death is never timely.” Sometimes it is welcome because of the difficulty the body experiences, but when we love the one leaving us, we feel the separation keenly. And indeed we love our mother—Mom, Grandma, Great-Grandma, Lois Maxine Engle Heise.

Psalm 121 was one of several favourite scriptures she mentioned to her children as they gathered together over Easter, especially verse 2: “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” This theme—that she trusted in God and found her strength in God’s continual care—bound together all of the Scripture passages she mentioned. It was one of the hallmarks of her life, and it is basic to the legacy she has left for her family. Psalm 121 spells out this trust. God the Creator watches over us and cares for us always. By day and by night God is there. We may sleep, but God does not. As we move throughout the stages of life, through childhood and youth and adulthood, through singleness and marriage and family, through old age to the end of life, God cares for us and gives us all we need. This is the trust in which Mother lived her life.

Although Mother was a woman of deep faith, she had her share of quirks and delightfulness. She was particular about how things were around the house. That’s why I no longer take sugar in my coffee. When Lois and I were dating, Lois brought me home to meet her family. I remember a good meal, with a delicious dessert and with coffee. I took the coffee and added cream, but there was no sugar on the table! None of the family used sugar, so the sugar bowl lived a lonely life in the kitchen cupboard. I finally asked for sugar for my coffee. Mother appeared a bit embarrassed and jumped up and hurried out to the kitchen. Through the doorway I could see her get the sugar bowl down and stir the sugar around to break up the crust that had formed on the top. Rather than embarrass my future mother-in-law again, I stopped asking for sugar! We all have stories we can tell—of acts of thoughtfulness, of games of Scrabble, of gardening and cooking and on and on. I want rather to return to this theme by which she lived: “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

Mother and Dad both sought for God’s presence in their lives. God gave them just what they needed, if not always exactly what they asked for. This “practice of the presence of God” is something the children were reminded of as they went through Mother’s room and found the prayer list that she used daily. There was a paper with the reminder to begin with praise and then to pray for each of her children in the devotional time with which she began each day. After praying for her family, she prayed for different people each day. This desire for God’s presence was basic to Mother’s life, as it had also been to Dad’s.

One of the greatest sources of comfort to our family is Mother’s awareness of Gods’ presence and strength, and her delighted anticipation of Heaven. That awareness and anticipation is something that her generation of Brethren in Christ took in with the hymns that they sang regularly. Singing the hymns expresses Psalm 121: “Where does my help come from? My hope is in the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Singing the hymns points the way to Heaven.

I opened the Brethren in Christ hymnal and quickly found several that I’m sure mother knew well:
  • 419: “Away from the mire, away from the clay, God leads his dear children along; away up in glory, eternity’s day, God leads his dear children along …”;
  • 427: “When he shall come with trumpet sound, O may I then in him be found, dressed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne …”;
  • 428: “I know not when the Lord may come, at night or noonday fair, nor if I’ll walk the vale with him, or meet him in the air, but …”;
  • 439: “All the way my Saviour leads me; O the fullness of his love! Perfect rest to me is promised in my father’s house above. When my spirit, clothed immortal, wings its flight to realms of day, this my song through endless ages: Jesus led me all the way.”
This was truly the hope in which Mother lived. This hope brought peace to her last days and helped her step out of this life into the next with grace and courage. This hope sustains us as well. We also lift up our eyes from the places in which we live. We see mountains in the distance, but our gaze goes far beyond them as we ask, “Where does my help come from?”

Life is often difficult, and sometimes the mountains are not pleasant and scenic, but threatening and overwhelming. Mother knew that too, but she knew God’s presence and found comfort and strength in him. We do the same as we walk in the valley of death’s shadow, death looming over us like a mountain more forbidding than any Everest. And in the valley of death’s shadow we find peace in God’s presence. As another favourite hymn, which Mother loved and lived, says it: “I’ll praise my maker with my breath, and when my soul is lost in death, praise shall my nobler powers employ. My days of praise shall ne’er be past while life and thought and being last, or immortality endures.”

During the service our family sings the hymn “My Hope is in the Lord”, which Mother asked to have at her funeral. This was perhaps Dad’s favourite of all. As I looked again at this hymn, I noticed how it reminds us that life in God’s love and care is not a right; it is God’s gift, which only God can give. Life outside of God’s care is dangerous. We ask him for grace and mercy, and in grace and mercy he makes us able to trust in him. Then we can sing: “My hope is in the Lord who gave himself for me.”

The Psalmist says the same thing. Danger can come by sun and moon alike. We face danger in all of life, and the only safety is found in God’s love and care. This is what comes through in Mother’s commitment to Jesus, in her regular devotions and prayers, in the love that she showed to her family and friends, and in the life that she shared with her church family. In fact, the hymn draws us back to God’s love and care, to our absolute and fundamental trust in God.

We remember Mother in little stories of food and clothes and pictures and games and many other things from her life on this earth; but Mother herself has found something that rises far above all these. We say, “Rest in peace”, but her rest now is the most joyful of all; the tears and grief of separation are left for us. Mother, whose hope was in the Lord, is home with God.