Friday, December 25, 2015

Trust and Betrayal: Christmas 2015

The priest gave a good homily. “Did it have to be so hard? Couldn’t God have waved a hand and fix everything without the mess of a pregnancy and baby in a stable behind a crowded inn?”

The proclamation of Jesus’ birth transfixed me, as it usually does:
The Twenty-fifth Day of December,
when ages beyond number had run their course from the creation of the world,
when God in the beginning created heaven and earth, and formed man in his own likeness;
when century upon century had passed since the Almighty set his bow in the clouds after the Great Flood, as a sign of covenant and peace;
in the twenty-first century since Abraham, our father in faith, came out of Ur of the Chaldees;
in the thirteenth century since the People of Israel were led by Moses in the Exodus from Egypt;
around the thousandth year since David was anointed King;
in the sixty-fifth week of the prophecy of Daniel;
in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
in the year seven hundred and fifty-two since the foundation of the City of Rome;
in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus, the whole world being at peace,
Jesus, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and when nine months had passed since his conception, was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man:
The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.
The planners at St. Mary’s Church of Loretto had a more modern version—locating the birth within the billions of years since the universe began, as a point within incredibly recent history transforming humanity. Theistic evolution as a continuous action of God, preparing the way for the Messiah of God—possibly a man of just over five feet in height, with short hair, rough hands, and the features and manners of a Palestinian Jew from the First Century. (No wonder Lesslie Newbigin—I think he’s the one—referred to “the scandal of particularity.)

These repeated annual memories of God’s self-insertion into human experience suggested something to me this year, something about trust.

Life runs on trust. Society cannot exist without trust. But we experience betrayal so often that we trust hesitantly.

I think of someone who was once a good friend. I sat in the committee that recommended the end of his job. Later, when all of the proceedings were finally over, he made it clear that I had betrayed his trust and that our relationship was at an end. “It can never be safe for us to be friends.” Although I had fought for his position until I felt myself unsafe, I understood—and, grieving—understand still today. Betrayal, real or perceived, ends trust.

God knew betrayal lay ahead when Jesus began his journey “in the year seven hundred and fifty-two since the foundation of the City of Rome; in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus”. Jesus began the journey anyway. Divinity embraced betrayal by trusting humanity. “He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.”

We cannot and should not trust blindly. When we see danger in a relationship, we act prudently, wisely. A battered wife leaves her spouse. An abused child finds safety away from the abuser. But with each betrayal, society as a whole is left more fragile and comes closer to complete disintegration.

So we trust. Even though we know that our trust will somewhere sometime end in betrayal, even though we trust hesitantly, carefully, still we reach out in trust. I saw a man as I walked today, standing by the road with a sign asking for help, any help. I gave $10 with a word of encouragement and an admission that I don’t understand his path at all. A small helpless act of trust. So we trust, following one who was “rich beyond all splendour, [and] all for love’s sake became poor; Thrones for a manger didst surrender, Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.”

“Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour, All for love’s sake becomes poor.”

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Third Advent: The Path of Trust

Our theme this Advent is a play on the word “bound”. We are bound for freedom—on our way to glory; but in our lives freedom is bound—tied up in chains of worry, care, and fear. Through the paths of justice, kindness and mercy, trust, and love, we come to the place where the chains that bind our freedom are broken. Then truly we are “freedom bound”, on our way to glory! Today I will reflect briefly on the four passages found in the bulletin, and then ask what it means to walk the path of trust on the way to freedom.

Isaiah 12
We find the word “trust” immediately in our first passage: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.” What does this mean?

The passage begins with the phrase, “In that day”, which signals that Isaiah is looking at a goal at the end of a long path for God’s People. That path is filled with turmoil and trouble, so that God’s salvation is not obvious to them. Chapter 11 also promises the salvation of God, using language that points to the coming of the Messiah (reading from a Christian perspective).

Chapters 10 and 13 speak of judgment on Assyria (the Northern Kingdom of Israel’s enemy) and Babylon (the Southern Kingdom of Judah’s enemy). The whole promise of salvation and declaration of trust, then, comes in the context of trouble and fear, with which God judges the earth in order to bring salvation.

Zephaniah 3
Zephaniah prophesied a generation after Isaiah, during the reign of Josiah. He was a contemporary of Jeremiah, and the great-grandson of King Hezekiah. (Isaiah had prophesied in Hezekiah’s reign.) Where the great threat of Isaiah 12 was invasion by Assyria, the threat during Zephaniah’s life was invasion by Babylon. Chapters 1 and 2 speak of this threat and of the judgment that God is bringing upon the earth.

In this context our passage begins with judgment on Jerusalem (verses 1 to 8), which purifies a remnant who repent (verses 9 to 13). Repentance opens the way for God’s promise of salvation and joy. When God’s people truly repent, then God works within them to bring them a new life of freedom and restored worship. The word “trust” is not used, but the idea is clear: Trust in the Lord, who will restore you to life. We note the link between judgment and repentance, which is the necessary step on the way to salvation.

Luke 3
So we turn to Luke’s gospel and the preaching of John the Baptist. One notes immediately that John’s preaching was consistent with what Jesus also preached. John did not preach the grace of Jesus so clearly, but points towards it in this passage (“I baptize with water [repentance]; he will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”) But Jesus’ words in Luke 6: 27-31 sound a lot like John the Baptist.

Here is John’s message:
God’s judgment is coming. Only those who repent will survive. Repentance is acted out in concrete ways. You can’t just say, “I’m sorry”, but carry on as though nothing has changed. Don’t cheat your customers. Don’t abuse your power. Be generous and kind to each other. John rounds off his teaching with the promise of the Messiah, who will come with judgment and with grace to make their repentance real and effective.

Philippians 4
Paul rounds off our passages with a closing word of encouragement to the Christians in Philippi. They are worth reading again in full:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

We think sometimes that Jesus and the gospels speak gentle words of encouragement and that Paul is the strict disciplinarian. In fact (as we see in the passage from Luke), John and Jesus have a lot to say about real repentance, and (as we see here) Paul often speaks about how good and kind and helpful Jesus is.

So Paul encourages us to rejoice in God’s salvation, to be gentle with each other, to leave our anxieties with God, and to allow God’s peace to permeate every part of our lives. In short, Paul tells us what trusting Jesus looks like. It’s a really cool picture!

Bringing the Texts Together
What do we learn from all of this? The ideas are not new or surprising, but restate what we already know, but sometimes forget.
1. God hates sin and evil and acts in this world to destroy it. We call this action: judgment.
2. The appropriate response to the evil in the world around us is repentance and turning to God.
3. God forgives those who turn and leave their participation in hatred and evil behind.
4. Forgiven people live with a radical trust in God, expressed in living with trust towards each other.

This last point needs a bit of explaining. You remember that the greatest command is to love God, and the second goes with it: Love your neighbour as yourself. John the Baptist says something like that by calling people to treat each other fairly and kindly. Paul says something like that at other points in his letters, most notably in Romans 12. Think of verses like 9 to 16:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Here Paul makes it clear that love for God is expressed by the way that we love each other. Similarly, our trust for God is made visible in the way that we trust each other. This does not mean a blind trust that ignores plain realities. If someone is winding up to hit you, get out of the way! Trust, with eyes wide open. But it does mean that we start with a basic stance of trust for others, both inside and outside the church. Let’s explore this idea a bit.

A Case Study from the Past Week
I read a story this past week. The story begins, “Massachusetts College of Art and Design professor Steve Locke shared a story on his personal blog earlier today about what happened when he wore this outfit [see picture] to work yesterday, an outfit that police told him matched the description of a robbery suspect in the area.” Locke tells how the police held him and asked him questions while people walked by. A white woman said to the police, “You’re busy today.” A black woman watched from a distance, praying. Locke is a black man. (See Locke’s blog for his story.)

As I read the story, I observed that Locke gave the police credit for remaining professional and courteous, but they would not accept his self-identification as an art professor, even though he was wearing his ID card. At one point in the conversation he says, “It was at this moment that I knew that I was probably going to die.  I am not being dramatic when I say this.  I was not going to get into a police car.  I was not going to present myself to some victim.  I was not going let someone tell the cops that I was not guilty when I already told them that I had nothing to do with any robbery.  I was not going to let them take me anywhere because if they did, the chance I was going to be accused of something I did not do rose exponentially.  I knew this in my heart.” In the end the police concluded that he was not the man they were looking for and let him go. They apologized for disturbing his lunch break, but he was so shaken that he stumbled through class and went home, cancelling all other appointments.

You see the problem. Told by Locke, the story is of the potential for police to hurt and kill. Told by the police involved, they could have noted their fear that a break and enter might turn into a shoot-out. They were acting out of fear as well, and their fear also has been justified in experience.

Here is our problem—a radical lack of trust in our society. People do not trust the police. Officers do not trust the people they stop. I know that this case study in mistrust comes from New England (Massachusetts), and we may be inclined to say that this is an American problem. After all, we’re Canadians! We elected Trudeau just to prove that we are not driven by fear! But of course the same undercurrent of fear is part of our lives as well. The same struggle to trust each other surfaces in our conversations and actions.

I think of the church that I come from, the Brethren in Christ. A few years ago the leadership proposed to the General Conference that we divide into two General Conferences, one in the USA and one in Canada. The move was a response to political and economic realities in North America. It is just too difficult to run one conference that crosses national boundaries. The proposal passed, but more than one person wonder why the Canadians were separating from the Americans. Somehow those opposed to the proposal felt that the action was a real betrayal. To put it another way, we didn’t trust each other (at least not completely)—and the mistrust was not simply an American phenomenon. This is a minor example; the hurt feelings were cared for without much difficulty, but how often have we acted out of a belief that someone in the church is pursuing an agenda that we don’t want? We fail to act in a trusting manner often enough.

So What Should We Do?
You may think that I have stretched the application too far. Can one really say that how we trust God shows up in the way that we trust each other? But think about it again. If you act out of fear and mistrust, you act on the basis that the other person controls your destiny. You are not trusting God, but trying to control what happens to you.

The passages we read suggest that hardship and trouble function in our world as God’s discipline to draw us back to himself. That clearly is what Isaiah, and Zephaniah, and John the Baptist are saying. And when we put ourselves completely and radically into God’s care, we are no longer afraid. We are set free to interact with others without fear. I play soccer at the EMC church on Main Street on Monday evenings. Some months ago a Muslim friend who also plays there came in. “Do you think I’m a terrorist?” he asked. People had been accusing him of being a terrorist because he is Muslim. They were acting out of fear, failing to trust him and showing their lack of trust in God.

I am asking you this morning to renew your trust in God and to act out that trust by trusting the people around you. You need to count the cost of such a stance. If you live trusting people around you, sooner or later someone will betray your trust and that will hurt. If we act on that hurt, we can become bound by fear, like the person in Paul Simon’s song from 1965:
A winter’s day
In a deep and dark December
I am alone
Gazing from my window
To the streets below
On a freshly fallen, silent shroud of snow
I am a rock
I am an island

I’ve built walls
A fortress, steep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship
Friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock
I am an island

Don’t talk of love
Well, I’ve heard the words before
It’s sleeping in my memory
And I won’t disturb the slumber
Of feelings that have died
If I never loved, I never would have cried
I am a rock
I am an island

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room
Safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries
(Taken from Paul Simon’s website.)

But then you learn to trust God more deeply and to leave the hurt with God to work with and to bring healing. And you keep on trusting people around you. That means living in an open and vulnerable way—not fighting back when people attack you, not looking for your advantage in relationships with others. You see, this open and vulnerable path is the path of trust, and it leads to real freedom, freedom that comes from relying on God for everything. In my own experience this kind of life is beyond my ability to live. I can’t do it. You can’t do it either. We try, and for a few days we succeed and feel good about ourselves. But then we come under pressure and snap at our family or at someone at work. We struggle to relate to people around us, and we stop living in simple trust.

When that happens, I have to turn back to God. I try to take more time in prayer, in silence before God. I seek to live more fully in God’s presence. I work at trusting God alone and always. But you know something? I can’t—and you can’t—work hard enough to create this complete dependency. Only God can create this complete trust in your life. Only God can give us the grace and strength to follow Christ in all of life. So we repent of our failures. We turn to God again. We open ourselves up to God’s healing Spirit, and start to live again openly and vulnerably with the people around us. It’s a long road to freedom, and we are Freedom Bound!

Steinbach Mennonite Church                                             
Sunday, 13 Dec, 2015
Isaiah 12:1-6; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18; Philippians 4:4-7

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Aim for Heaven (Part 2)

All Saints Day (Nov 1) and Eternity Sunday (Nov 22) deal with the same themes. I preached this sermon at Grace Bible on Nov 1, and revised it for SMC on the 22nd -- so here is a brief revision with some added reflections at the end. The attacks in Paris challenge my basic idea, and make it clear that the path I suggest is a hard one.

Today is Eternity Sunday in our church. It feels to me like All Saints Day in the Anglican church calendar, but in fact it comes from the Lutheran Church in Germany, where it is called “The Sunday of the Dead” (Totensonntag). I don’t know why one church remembers the saints who have gone before at the end of October, and another church remembers them at the end of November, but I am assuming that Eternity Sunday is much the same as All Saints Day. …

Our Scriptures this morning direct our thoughts towards Heaven and invite us to live today in light of Heaven’s glory. We walk together through the texts, and then ask what they say today.

Isaiah 25:6-9. In this great passage from Isaiah 25 we see the Messianic Banquet, where all wrongs are made right and all evil is destroyed. Chapter 24 pictures the coming of the end. In the midst of people worshipping God (24:14-16) Isaiah sees the coming doom, judgment in which no one has any hope at all. …

So Isaiah gives us this picture of joy and victory, but only after reminding us of the reality of evil and despair in this world. I think I grasp what Isaiah wants us to hear: The reality of the Great Banquet gives meaning to the present. God gives us the ability to live in the present in the reality of God’s reign, in spite of the evil and terror around us.

Revelation 21:1-6a. As the book of Revelation comes to an end, we see the destruction of evil in chapter 20, bringing about the New Heaven and new Earth in chapter 21. Just as Isaiah 24 pictures judgment and Isaiah 25 shows the joy that follows, Revelation 20 pictures judgment, and Revelation 21 pictures the joy that follows. The New Jerusalem shows us all wrongs made right and all evil destroyed. As with the Messianic Banquet, we can live in the present in the reality of the consummation of good at the end of all things. … The sea is a constant source of danger and of the power of evil. Then we read verse 1: “There was no longer any sea.” This goes further than the previous chapter, in which Satan and Death and Hades are thrown into the Lake of Fire. Now we learn that the very source of evil and danger itself is done away with. Not only are sin and sorrow overcome, but their source is gone, and in its place we see the New Creation where God’s people live forever with God.

The Text in our Present Experience
… This pattern [of fighting back when we are attacked] is not reserved only for great international events, but is played out in almost every relationship we have in our daily lives. When someone attacks us, we find ourselves fighting back with attitudes and actions that do not fit the way that Jesus has taught us to live. …

Aim for Heaven
… Hear a quote from C.S. Lewis:
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next… It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither (p. 134).

Some people accuse Christians of being “so heavenly-minded that we are no earthly good.” … Lewis responded to these charges by pointing out that our ultimate goal in life tells what we will live for now. If we aim at earth, trying to fix things using whatever means come to hand, we lose both Heaven and earth.

[Illustration: You can mow in a straight line only by fixing your eyes firmly on something at the end of the lawn you are mowing. Eyes fixed on the goal = straight line.] I preached on this same theme a few weeks ago in Winnipeg, and I have been thinking over this image of walking a straight line towards a distant goal. The events of the past week have made it clear to me that this is actually much harder than it sounds. Follow the image out a bit further. As I walk towards some tree in the distance pushing my mower, I have to be aware of what is in front of me as well. More than once I concentrated so hard on that tree that I didn’t notice a rock in front of me. I hit the rock, stalled the mower, and bent the blade. I assume the same thing is true with tractors in a field before GPS. If you drive straight towards a tree a mile away, but don’t avoid the tree stump in front of you, your straight line won’t be much good!

The obstacle in our way is the problem. Think again of ISIS, and of the attacks in Paris a week ago on Friday. If I am so focussed on Heaven that I don’t respond to the practical events on the ground, my actions will self-destruct. The challenge is to keep our eyes fixed on Heaven while we concentrate also on what is happening around us—like keeping the tree on the horizon in mind while observing the tree stumps around which we detour. It is a difficult balancing act, but it is absolutely essential.

If we respond to ISIS—or to any other event in our lives—on the basis of what is happening here and now, we become caught in the anger and bitterness and the cycle of revenge that are so common today. Instead we remember that the source of such anger and hatred itself will be destroyed and we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus himself, drawing us to the New Jerusalem. …

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Never Give Up

This morning I will reflect primarily on Hebrews 10. To set the stage, I refer briefly to 1 Samuel and to Mark’s gospel. Then we look at the Letter to the Hebrews and ask what God is saying to us today.

1 Samuel 1:4-20. The story of Hannah’s barrenness and the birth of Samuel is a basic part of God’s mighty saving acts in the history of Israel. You remember how Hannah had no child, although Peninnah had several. So she went to the tabernacle at Shiloh to pray for a child. Eli, the priest there, thought at first that she was drunk, watching her pray silently and desperately to God. When he understood her real desire for a child, he sent her home with the promise of a son. The son was born, and she named him Samuel (sounds like: God hears). Later she gave her son to God to serve him there at Shiloh, and he became the priest in Eli’s place and the judge of all Israel (7:16-17).

One notes Hannah’s persistence in prayer, which can serve as a model for our theme this morning: Never give up. One notes also that God brought salvation to Israel through the marginalized, which is the way that God has often acted in human affairs. Hannah’s song in chapter 2 serves as a model for Mary’s song at the birth of Jesus.

One notes finally that the tabernacle represents the dwelling of God, so that what is done in the Tabernacle is done before God’s face. We will return to this idea.

Mark 13:1-8. In the gospel reading, Jesus has been teaching near or in the Temple—watching people make their offerings in the passage we read last week. As they left the Temple one of his followers commented on the wonder and appearance of the Temple (built by Herod to please the Jewish people). Jesus replied that the Temple is only temporary. It points beyond itself to the End of all things, when it will be destroyed. He continued with warnings about “the beginning of birth pains”, which bring in the End.

Two thoughts: One is that the disciples were headed into dark troubles, which are reflected in the context of the Letter to the Hebrews. Two is that the Tabernacle was a copy of God’s presence in Heaven, and the Temple was a more permanent Tabernacle. Both in the end fade before the coming of Jesus, who is the very presence of God. As the physical Temple is destroyed, the church becomes the place where God lives on earth.

The Letter to the Hebrews
We don’t know who wrote this letter. You can research possible authors for yourself—from the traditional answer of Paul to the contemporary answer of Priscilla. We have a better idea of who the letter was written to: Jewish Christians, perhaps in Jerusalem. (I am unconvinced of the location: Jerusalem makes sense in terms of the content, but the quality of Greek suggests a writer and an audience in some place outside of Jerusalem, such as Rome.)

The letter was written to encourage Jewish Christians who were wavering in their faith not to relapse into Judaism, but to hold on to Christ. To achieve this purpose, the writer makes the case that Jesus is the perfect High Priest—better than Aaron or any of his successors, “after the order of Melchizedek” (that is, called directly by God). Jesus the High Priest is “the exact representation of God’s being”. Jesus the High Priest is also one with the human race. He understands us and brings us fully into God’s presence.

Look at the verses we heard read this morning.
Verses 11-14: The priests in the Levitical priesthood repeated their sacrifices for sins every day, because they did not really work. The fact that they remain standing is a way of emphasizing the fact that they had to repeat the sacrifices endlessly. Jesus, in contrast, sacrificed his own body “once for all”, after which he sat down at the right hand of God. With that sacrifice Jesus also brought us into the perfect relationship with God that the Levitical sacrifices were unable to achieve.
Verses 15-18: This action is sealed by the Holy Spirit, fulfilling the promise of Jeremiah 31 to write the new covenant on human hearts. We no longer need to participate in the sacrificial system in the Temple, because Jesus has made the perfect sacrifice. [This line of argument is part of the evidence for an audience living in Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.—they were people who could have participated in the Levitical system.]
Verses 19-25: Therefore we can live as people who enter God’s presence thanks to the sacrifice Jesus has made for us. As people who walk with God, we can hold on to the promises of God. [This was the temptation that “the Hebrews” faced: To leave their walk as ones saved by Jesus, “walking in the resurrection” and to re-enter the old system that does not actually work.]
Therefore also we “provoke one another to good works”, and we continue to meet together regularly to worship God in Christ. Especially as we anticipate the end of all things. [Unlike Peninnah in 1 Samuel, who provoked Hannah by jeering at her, we “provoke” each other by encouraging each other to do better.]

We see in this argument the truth that human efforts do not save us, but they do enable us to participate in God’s work, which does save us. In 1 Samuel 1, we meet Hannah in the Tabernacle, praying to God in a shadow of the eternal Tabernacle in Heaven (Hebrews 8:5). The Temple (in Mark 13) appeared more permanent than the old Tent of the Tabernacle, but in truth it also would be thrown down. Jesus then enters the true Tabernacle, the presence of the eternal God (Hebrews 9:24). The sacrifice of Jesus’ body on the cross replaces the old shadow and the system attached to it and brings in a new covenant with God, written on the hearts God’s people.

One can find a variety of applications as we think of these passages in our world today—copying Hannah in our readiness to take our situation to God; the way that God so often works through unexpected and humanly marginalized people; the importance of being ready for the End; the fact that problems in our world remind us that the End is coming [so that, for example, the terrible news of this past Friday in Paris is part of the “beginning of birthpains”—that is, signs of the coming End]. I have chosen one theme that relates to these and other themes.

If they had heard the critique in Hebrews, the Levitical priests could have felt that they were wasting their time offering sacrifices that could not take away sin. But of course they were doing what God called them to do. There was a time for the shadow or copy of the Heavenly Tabernacle to do its work. Those sacrifices were not wasted, even if they were ineffective.

If nothing else (and I think there is a great deal more than only this point), they helped prepare the way for the coming of Jesus. The priests—who had to keep standing because their work was never done—were faithful to what God called them to do. In the End of all things, God will reward them for their faithfulness. Perhaps God already has.

We find ourselves in a similar situation. We believe God has called us to do certain things. In worship we gather and pray and read Scripture and encourage each other. These are all good, but sometimes we may wonder how much they really matter. Our text suggests that they matter because they are a copy or a shadow of the real thing in Heaven, and they prepare us to participate in the real thing in Eternity.

Our society has a fixation on efficiency and effectiveness. We want to know what works. If something does not work quickly and effectively, we are inclined to stop it. So we come together in worship, and sometimes you will hear someone say, “What did you get out the service this morning?” But this emphasis on getting something out of the service is a short-sighted emphasis on results, giving in to our society’s obsession with technique and effectiveness.

So the writer to the Hebrews says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (verses 24-25). We gather as a weekly discipline, whether we see results or not. We gather together each Sunday to sing and pray and encourage each other. The reason that it works is that what we do is a copy or a shadow of the gathering of the saints before the throne in Heaven.

Some days the service works wonderfully. We feel God’s presence. God’s Holy Spirit touches us inside, where no one else can see, and we say, “That was such a good service!’ Maybe we give credit to the music, or the singing of hymns, or the special music, or the prayer time, or the presence of friends, or even the sermon. The truth is that, when the service “works”, it does so because God is here, and we are participating in Christ’s perfect act of sacrifice and worship and praise. Some days the service seems more like a formality. We can’t put our finger on the cause or identify what is missing, but we feel as though we are going through the motions. That’s okay. Go through the motions. Keep on with the routine. We are still acting out the copy or shadow of the gathering of the saints before the throne in Heaven. We are still participating in Christ’s perfect act of sacrifice and worship and praise.

Do any of you exercise regularly? You know that some days you will feel as though the running or exercise routine is wonderful, and other times you will have to push yourself to finish. But every time that you work out, you are getting stronger, moving towards the goal of greater physical fitness. Similarly, every time we continue meeting together, copying our Lord in worship and praise, God is growing greater spiritual strength in us.

A Sample Case: Relationship between worship and social action
Ron Sider has written about the importance of Christian faith for maintaining a strong commitment to social action. He writes about his own journey:
In 1979 I spent two wonderful weeks lecturing in South Africa. One of the most fascinating persons I met was a young university student named James. He came to the annual conference of an evangelical university movement where I was speaking about Jesus’ concern for the poor and his resurrection on the third day. Like most other parts of the South African church then, this evangelical movement had split into four groups: white Afrikaans-speaking, white English-speaking, colored, and black. The students at the conference were mostly white English-speaking.
James was not a Christian. He was Jewish and an ardent social activist. His passion in life was the struggle against apartheid. Somehow, however, these devout white Christians had caught his attention. James and I quickly became friends during the conference, talking about South African politics hour after hour.
Abruptly one evening after a three-hour conversation, James said: “Ron, I’m burned out.” I wasn’t surprised. He was trying to be a full-time activist and a full-time student, but his next comment startled me: “God told me that if I would come to this conference, I would learn something about his Son.”
I looked at James and replied, “James, I believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose again for you.”
He paused for a second and then astonished me again: “I believe all of that, Ron, I really do.”
Still he held back. Something obviously was blocking his acceptance of Christ. After a moment he said quietly, “I don’t want to be like these white Christians here. They sing about the love of Jesus and the joy of heaven, but they don’t care about justice in South Africa. If I become a Christian, will I have to give up the struggle?”
“Goodness no, James. Jesus wants to strengthen your passion for justice …”
I waited quietly for a moment and then added, “I’m not in any hurry, but if you’d like to pray together, I’d be glad to do that.” … He prayed a beautiful prayer, confessing his sins and accepting Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior.
After I finished praying, I looked at James, and his face was shining. I’m sure mine was too. …
During that same period [1981], I happened to meet on a plane one day a man who had been a key leader in ecumenical social action circles in the sixties. He had done great work fighting for civil rights. As we talked, however, I realized that he was no longer a Christian. During seminary he had lost all belief in historic Christian orthodoxy. All he had left was the ethics of Jesus, so he threw himself passionately into the civil rights movement and became a leader in social action for mainline Protestants. But by the time I met him around 1981, he was discouraged. He had lost his hope and his faith.
Good News and Good Works, 15-17.

The basic point for our purposes in Sider’s narrative is this link between continuing to do God’s work in a broken and failing world. If we think primarily of effectiveness and what works, we turn into disillusioned pragmatists. The writer to the Hebrews directs our attention back to Christ. How do “provoke one another to good works”? One way is by continuing to meet together and to act out our copy of God’s great work in our world. We may fail. We may find ourselves as helpless as the Levitical priests who could not really deal with sin. But we keep on keep on copying our Lord, following our Lord, resting in the great work of salvation that Jesus has already done. “Jesus, I am resting, resting in the joy of what Thou art. I am finding out the greatness of Thy loving heart.”

Never give up. Not when terror strikes in the heart of the French capital. Not when the bombs explode in Beirut and Baghdad. Not when Syria and Iraq struggle to hold together as States. Not when the University of Missouri experiences hatred and racism. Not when we hear again of problems in the North End, or in our own homes. We live in a world that no human action can redeem, but God can and does. In our worship together this morning we are participating in Jesus’ perfect sacrifice, in anticipation of Eternity with God.

Grace Bible Church, 15 November 2015

Texts: 1 Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Remembrance Day 2015

Remembrance Day. In the USA, Veterans’ Day. “Remember, remember the 5th of November”—no that’s a different memory. One of internal politics and conflicts, remembered in the United Kingdom for Guy Fawkes’ abortive effort to blow up Parliament. Some today, inspired by frustration with dysfunctional legislators, may wonder if he didn’t have the right idea.

He didn’t. And today we remember others. People who went off to a war they did not ask for, on a continent their ancestors came from. A European war, although we call it World War 1/World War 2 for the way that so much of the world was pulled in.

For those of us who embrace the way of peace Jesus brought, it is a hard day to process. Some call us pacifists, although the term doesn’t quite work for me. Some of us have called ourselves non-resistant, to show that we choose not to fight, but that name has its problems: We still resist evil, but non-violently. I usually say that I hold “the peace position”, but that takes so much explaining. Call us pacifists I guess, shorthand for those who embrace Jesus’ teaching on peace and understand it to mean that we do not fight in war.

We remember. So many did fight, whether they wanted to or not. My Uncle Joel could not justify our church’s stance, so he went off to World War 2 (I think as a medic). Another uncle and my maternal grandfather helped with the rebuilding of Europe after the war by sailing across the ocean with cattle to restock the German national herd. Nobody was unaffected by the war, whether pacifist or not.

Wars continue, sometimes called war, sometimes called “peacemaking operations”, sometimes called “The Troubles”. Many names, but all involving military force leading to the death of soldiers and civilians. We are all still involved—peace-loving soldiers and pacifists alike.

We remember. With gratitude we remember those in Afghanistan today or Normandy 70+ years ago. We pray for those who are scarred by the conflicts, soldiers and civilians. We pray for those who confront evil in all of its forms. We pray for peace.

Someone asked me, “What would have happened if we hadn’t fought in the war?” I assume she meant World War 2, the spectre of Nazi totalitarian government, perhaps the one war of my generation that one could call a just war. Except that I started thinking about it. World War 1 was the “war to end all wars”, and in many ways was a continuation of European political manoeuvring in the 1800s. It ended with the Treaty of Versailles, which was so punitive that it may have sowed the seeds for WW2. One can argue that we have to fight because sometimes our survival as a humane species is at risk; but one can also argue that each war begets the next. We are always sowing the seeds of future conflict, so that Dessert Storm helped to sow the seeds of the military leaders behind ISIS. I don’t know any way out of the cycle of conflicts we call war.

Except to stop fighting.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Benefit of Thinking Small

Today is the Sunday before Remembrance Day. I will not focus on that day, although I add my call to remember to the larger celebration. As a Mennonite, I like the statement, “To remember is to work for peace.” At the same time, I honour those who believe that such work may require military force, and come together in a common commitment to live so as to witness Christ to the world. Today is also International Day of Prayer. To call on God on behalf of our world is perhaps the most concrete and meaningful step we can take, working for peace and remembering those who have given their lives to fight against evil and for good.

The texts we have heard this morning suggest that the best step we can take (alongside regular prayer for our world) is to live so as to honour God in the everyday actions of our lives. Being faithful in small things leads to God’s action in our world in ways that we can hardly imagine. We will work primarily from the story of Ruth this morning, with brief references also to Hebrews and to the gospel reading from Mark.

Ruth 3 and 4
You know the story of Ruth, but allow me to remind you this morning what happened.
Elimelech (My God is king) and Naomi (pleasantness) have two sons, Mahlon and Kilion (sickness and death). (Note please: I am, not an expert in Hebrew names, so if someone who knows Hebrew well gives you different meanings, I won’t argue.) Elimelech and  Naomi’s names suggest a good family, one that honours God as good members of the Children of Israel. Mahlon and Kilion’s names suggest that their family is going to experience problems.

The story begins in Bethlehem (Beth lechem: house of bread). By its name, Bethlehem should be the bread basket of Israel, but there is a famine in the house of bread. So Elimelech and Naomi take their sons east to Moab (travelling from modern Israel to modern Jordan). Moab was not more fertile than Bethlehem, so you know this was a journey of desperation. But they found food, and their sons found wives (Ruth and Orpah).

Then the story turns grim. Elimelech, Mahlon, and Kilion all die, leaving the women as childless widows. Then in her distress Naomi hears that the famine is over, and she decides to return home. Her daughters-in-law decide to go with her. Naomi persuades Orpah to go back to her own family, but Ruth makes clear that her choice is to go with Naomi (1: 16f): “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”

In chapter 2 Ruth goes out gleaning to provide food for them back in Bethlehem. She ends up in the fields of Boaz, who sees her and asks about her. When he hears who she is, he realizes that she is his cousin’s widow. (I know he doesn’t say this, but it is clear from the action that he knows very well who she is and how they are connected.) He tells his workers to make sure there is enough left in the wheat field for her to get enough for herself and Naomi.

When Naomi sees how much food Ruth brings home, she also recognizes that Boaz knows who they are and is implicitly saying he will care for them. In the verses we heard read, as a good mother she makes sure that Ruth acts on that knowledge and tells her to find the place where Boaz is working, wait until he has eaten and drunk well at the end of the day, and then present herself to him. Naomi ends up with the words, “He will tell you what to do.”

In the next verses Ruth presents herself, effectively asking Boaz to sleep with her. Boaz recognizes that this offer is really a request that he do the duty of a “kinsman-redeemer”—the nearest male relative to someone in trouble, who can “redeem” them from their trouble. In this case, he would take her as his wife and provide her with children and with security. Boaz also knows that another male relative stands closer to Ruth’s dead husband than he does, and he takes the steps to make sure that the nearer “redeemer” will either take Ruth as his wife, or set her free so that he (Boaz) can do so. Boaz ends up marrying Ruth and they have a son, Obed.

The verses we read this morning (4:13-17) let you know that this whole story is not just a simple romance between Boaz and Ruth. We may be inclined to assign ages to Ruth (young woman) and to Boaz (middle-aged bachelor) and work out a Hollywood romance for them. The Bible instead connects their small story to God’s big story. When Ruth asked Boaz to take her as his wife, much more than her and her mother-in-law’s future hung in the balance. This small moment, so intimate, so limited, was actually a pivotal moment in history, which God used to redeem his people. By including Ruth and Boaz in the ancestors of the Messiah, Matthew 1 makes it clear that this small moment, so intimate, so limited, was also a pivotal moment in the history of the salvation of the human race.


The Principle
You can see the idea behind the story, an idea that applies also to us today. Sometimes we think that the most important thing in life is how we respond to the great opportunities that come our way. “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, ’twixt the sides of truth and falsehood, for the good or evil side.” It is certainly true that such moments are critical, and when they come, God calls us to respond as followers of Jesus Christ.

But more often we face smaller moments—at work, at home, in church, in the grocery store, at school. A situation arises, and we have to choose how to respond. Perhaps we see someone being bullied, and we have a chance to step in. Perhaps we face a conflict with a neighbour, and we search for a way to restore a good relationship. Small moments, but eternity hinges on these small moments. There is the principle: Eternity hinges on the small moments of our lives. This is the benefit of thinking small.

Hebrews and Mark
We heard earlier the reading of Hebrews 9: 24-28. This passage is part of a longer argument that Christ is the perfect High Priest, who makes the perfect sacrifice for our sins and brings us full salvation. The writer of Hebrews may not be thinking about the principle I have just stated, but we see here the great action of God’s salvation within which our small acts find their meaning. We see what lies behind all of our lives and what gives meaning to our small actions of obedience.

The gospel reading echoes our idea more clearly. Those who present themselves as holy and just will be judged by the actions of their everyday lives, which reveal them as hypocrites who will be judged severely. In contrast, the widow who gave her two copper coins is commended. Her small act of obedience participated in God’s great story.

In short, whatever we have, given to God, is what God needs to do his work in our world.

Contemporary Examples
I have told many stories as I preach here—one of them from Jon Bonk, who wrote an article in 1999 for the journal Missiology making the point that I have just made, on the benefit of thinking small. Jon tells the story of the growth of the church that we have seen in Nepal since about 1980. Jon traces the work of Prem Pradhan, called the apostle to Nepal, who was converted in a service where Bakht Singh was preaching. Bakht Singh was an Indian evangelist who came to Christian faith when he was a student at the University of Manitoba. John and Edith Heyward invited him to their home for Christmas, and through their quiet witness and through reading the Bible in their home, Singh came to faith in Christ. A small action of Christian hospitality led to new life for hundreds of thousands of people in Nepal.

I could tell other stories like that one, but refer instead to an email that I received this week from a friend who works with OM South Africa. Here are his words:
Three years ago Gabriel stumbled out of a university bar onto the street, stoned. I just happened to be walking by. He confronted me (or did I confront him? I cannot remember…)

I asked his name. “Gabriel” came the response. I said, “Hmmm, the messenger of God.” I walked away, totally forgetting the incident. (To this day cannot remember any of this happening).

A few days ago I was back in this same town, back for the first time in years. A guy came running up, so excited, so pleased to see me. I had NO IDEA who he was. He told me the above story, of walking out of a bar and running into me. Today he is on a pastoral leadership team in a church more than a 1000 strong. He said that when he heard what his name meant, he converted to Christ.

That is really quite bizarre. To top it off, while I was there, a girl named Jo came up and told me an almost identical story. Weird. Gabriel is joining our teams to work in Syrian refugee camps. Not sure about Jo.

Small actions. Relating to someone you meet randomly outside a bar, but the interaction changes that person’s life. I repeat the basic principle: Eternity hinges on the small moments of our lives. This is the benefit of thinking small.  When some great crisis is upon us, we often rise to the moment, but ordinary moments creep up on us almost unnoticed. You cannot predict which action, which choice, will be the pivot on which God moves another person’s life. God calls us to daily faithfulness.

Boaz did not know that his choice to act on Ruth and Naomi’s behalf would be a decisive step towards the coming of the monarchy to Israel and the birth of Israel’s greatest king. Still less did he think of the possibility of the coming Messiah. That’s an important part of the principle! You do what is right all the time. You treat people well all the time. You act in ways that bless other people all the time. And God acts through you to change the world.

We see the news stories of bombs falling and think that is the important event. In truth, the small group of people sitting and talking about God—seeking to follow Christ in that moment—is the important event. We can all take part in these daily moments of obedience—like the young men rolling the stone away from the grave of Lazarus, and we leave the great work of resurrection to Jesus. God works in our world as he chooses, and we get to join in. The benefit of thinking small.

Grace Bible Church
8 November 2015
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Aim for Heaven and Earth Will be Thrown In

Today is All Saints Day. Traditionally this is the day on which we remember all those saints who have already entered into Heaven, as each of us also hopes to do at the end of this life. “For all the saints” is the natural hymn to sing at this time of year—one that always affects me deeply since we sang it at my mother’s funeral. “O blest communion, fellowship divine,/ We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;/ Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine./ Alleluia! Alleluia!”

Each of our Scriptures this morning directs our thoughts towards Heaven, and invites us to live today in light of Heaven’s glory. We walk together through the texts, and then look for their implications today.

Isaiah 25:6-9. In this great passage from Isaiah 25 we see the Messianic Banquet, where all wrongs are made right and all evil is destroyed. Chapter 24 pictures the coming of the end. In the midst of people worshipping God (24:14-16) Isaiah sees the coming doom, judgment in which no one has any hope at all.

Hear the first three verses of Isaiah 24: “See, the Lord is going to lay waste the earth and devastate it; he will ruin its face and scatter its inhabitants—it will be the same for priest as for people, for the master as for his servant, for the mistress as for her servant, for seller as for buyer, for borrower as for lender, for debtor as for creditor. The earth will be completely laid waste and totally plundered. The Lord has spoken this word.” This withering scorching judgment brings in God’s reign, pictured in the Great Banquet at which God’s people feast and death and disgrace are destroyed forever.

The Marriage Supper of God pictured here became a basic image in Jewish and Christian thinking. In Luke 14 Jesus eats at the table of a prominent Pharisee. One of the people at the meal said, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” In reply, Jesus tells the parable of those who make excuses and are excluded from this feast, and those who come in to take their place. The story serves to remind its hearers that all history is consummated in joy in God’s presence, but not all people will take part in that joy. In Revelation 19 (read at All Hallows Eve in the church’s year), John pictures the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Again, it is the feast at the end symbolizing the joy and completeness of God’s victory over evil and God’s reign over eternity.

So Isaiah gives us this picture of joy and victory, but only after reminding us of the reality of evil and despair in this world. I think I see what Isaiah wants us to hear: The reality of the Great Banquet gives meaning to the present. God gives us the ability to live in the present in the reality of God’s reign, in spite of the evil and terror around us.

Revelation 21:1-6a. As the book of Revelation comes to an end, we see the destruction of evil in chapter 20, bringing about the New Heaven and new Earth in chapter 21. Just as Isaiah 24 pictures judgment and Isaiah 25 shows the joy that follows, Revelation 19 pictures judgment, and Revelation 20 pictures the joy that follows. The New Jerusalem shows us all wrongs made right and all evil destroyed. As with the Messianic Banquet, we can live in the present in the reality of the consummation of good at the end of all things.

Hear the text again:
1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

A question from verse 1: What is the sea that now disappears? The Sea is the area in front of the throne—so in Revelation 4:6, leading to the line in the hymn: “Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.” Here it is simply a bowl-like area before God’s throne. But the sea has another meaning as well.

In Revelation 13:2 the beast comes out of the sea. This image goes back to the beginning of creation, when everything was formless and void, and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of “the deep”. The deep can also be the sea—that primeval chaos out of which God brought all of creation in order and peace.

In this second sense, the sea is a constant source of danger and of the power of evil. Then we read verse 1: “There was no longer any sea.” The source of evil and danger is itself done away with. Not only are sin and sorrow overcome, but their source is gone, and in its place we see the New Creation where God’s people live forever with God. So we come to the gospel reading.

John 11:32-44. We could observe many details from the story in John 11, such as the way that Mary and Martha responded to their brother’s death. They showed an almost unshakable faith that Jesus could have helped their brother, but they do not seem to see that he still can. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But Jesus is here now, and Lazarus is dead.

Jesus’ response to Lazarus’ death shows both his humanity (“Jesus wept”) and his divinity (“Lazarus, come out!”). In this action showing his intimate union with the Father, Jesus makes the final end of all things a present reality. He raises Lazarus from death.

The miracle raises many questions. What kind of life did Lazarus receive? Presumably it was simply his old physical life continued, so that he had to die all over again. Dying once is hard enough; he had to do it twice! Where was he during those four days? Was he with God, or in some kind of limbo, or what? The text doesn’t answer such questions, and they are not the point of the story.

The point is clear enough. Jesus let his followers see for a brief moment something of the glory that Isaiah describes in chapter 25 and John the Revelator describes in chapter 21. John and Isaiah point to the end and say: See what God has prepared for us? Jesus brings that wonderful vision into the immediate moment and tells us, “It starts now!” To put it another way, we live in the present with the reality of God’s reign, through God incarnate in Jesus, who brings God’s reign into our daily lives.

The Text in our Present Experience
Take one item from the year’s news. ISIS has taken territory in Iraq and Syria, bringing hundreds of thousands of people under its control. The result for women in ISIS-controlled territory is bad, and the fate of men forced to join in the fight is no better.  Last Christmas I got into a discussion with a close friend about how to respond to the threat that ISIS poses. He was clear in his response. We must use military force to stop them as soon as possible. They are beheading innocent people. We must stop them! My heart feels the agony with my friend. Here is great evil abroad in our world, and we have to deal with it. The trouble is that we end up using the methods of those we oppose, determined to defeat them quickly.  As we fight them, we become like them.

This pattern is not reserved only for great international events, but is played out in almost every relationship we have in our daily lives. When someone attacks us, we find ourselves fighting back with attitudes and actions that do not fit the way that Jesus has taught us to live. I have experienced those conflicts from the inside, and I have felt the stab of pain that comes when a brother or sister proclaims that you have attacked them—and now they will defend themselves.

The hurt that Mary and Martha felt when their brother died (and that Jesus shared with them) is the same hurt that we experience so often in this world. Like Mary and Martha, we may know that all such things will be healed in Heaven, but we hurt now, and we need help now.

Into that hurt Jesus comes with this glimpse of and experience of the New Earth and the New Heaven. We receive a glimpse of Heaven, and we receive also the strength to live today in the light and reality of Heaven.

Aim for Heaven
This is the reason that I have used this title: Aim for Heaven, and earth will be thrown in. These words come from the musical, “For Heaven’s Sake”, but let me give you the words as C.S. Lewis wrote them in Mere Christianity.
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next… It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither (p. 134).

Some people accuse Christians of being “so heavenly-minded that we are no earthly good.” We are told that Christianity is the opiate of the people (Marx’s idea: that religion calms people down so that they do not fight against the injustices of this world, allowing capitalist governments to continue to rule unjustly). We are told that talk about Heaven is bad because it teaches people to accept bad things here because we will receive our reward in heaven—the idea of “pie in the sky by and by”.

Lewis responded to these charges by pointing out that our ultimate goal in life actually tells what we will live for now. If we aim at earth, trying to fix things that are wrong using whatever means come to hand, we lose both Heaven and earth. But Jesus gives us new life, with the possibility of living by the light of the resurrection. Paul calls this kind of life, “walking in the resurrection” or “walking in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). We die to self, and we live to Christ.

When I was in college, I spent one summer working for a tree trimming and lawn care company. At first I helped with the trees, pulling away the branches that had been cut out of the tree. Then they sent me up the tree for the first time, and I cut out my first branch. I cut out the wrong one, a major branch instead of the small one growing out of it! They transferred me to mowing lawns, so I spent most of the summer mowing lawns—at the height of the season, starting at 7 am and going until dark. Long days, up to six days a week.

I learned a lot about mowing lawns. One of the first and most important lessons was to make the lawn look neat. I was taught to mow in straight lines, horizontally one week and vertically the next week. Straight lines are harder to do than you might think. You watch the line between the cut and uncut grass, but when you look back, you find that you have wondered off the straight and narrow. Your lines start to look a little bit like the morning after the night before.

So they taught me a trick that ensures straight lines. Any farmer who has plowed a field knows the trick. Although you have to watch the ground just in front of you, your goal is in the distance. You look at some object beyond the end of the lien you are about to mow, and walk steadily towards it. If you remain focussed on that goal in the distance, you will walk in a straight line. If you focus on the obstacles near at hand, you will go astray.

That’s the idea. Keep your eyes fixed on the banquet at the end. Remember the new life God has given us, which already flows inside your veins. Live that new life. Even though the people around you press you to respond with the anger and attacks that fit the turmoil around us, you keep watching Jesus and walking towards him. And as Lewis says, you will make more of a difference than you can guess.

Aim for heaven and earth will be thrown in,
Aim out beyond the now and near;
Aim for forever, and there will come a day
When you find forever is here.
If you would save your life,
Then you must choose
To give away your life,
For what you lose—
Out at the end of time is what you win.
Oh aim for heaven, aim for heaven, aim for heaven,
            And earth will be thrown in.

Grace Bible Church
1 November 2015: All Saints Day

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Multicultural Church

It is good to be here at this gathering of people who seek to be like that great multitude that no one can number, of all nations and kindreds and peoples and tongues, gathered before the throne and before the Lamb (Rev 7). In the next few minutes I want to indicate something of the imperative in Scripture that God’s people are always called from all ethnicities and cultures and classes of people to form the church.

We could use Genesis 11 and 12. In Genesis 11 the people tried to establish themselves as a monocultural group with one language by building a tower to reach Heaven. God rejected their efforts and scattered them across the world with many different languages. In Genesis 12 God began the process of recalling all humankind to himself by calling out one small family, the family of Abraham and Sarah. He gave them a great promise, including the promise that through them “all the families of the earth” (that is, all ethnic groups) will find God’s blessing.

We could use Revelation 7, with this grand vision of all languages and ethnicities gathered before the throne of God at the end of time. It is a stirring and wonderful vision, which completes the promise made to Abraham in glory and delight.

We could explore the way that Jesus restricts his own preaching mission to “the lost sheep of Israel” and tells his disciples to avoid the Gentiles (Matthew 10 and 15). We could observe how Jesus was born of Gentile ancestors in the genealogy of chapter 1, and how Gentile magi from “the East” knelt at his bedside in chapter 2. Then at the close of his ministry (chapter 28), just before he ascended into Heaven, Jesus told his followers to make new disciples of all Gentiles as well as of the Jews. Jesus began a multi-cultural church. You see that the Bible as a whole supports the multi-cultural nature of God’s people. From the passages I have just mentioned to the stories of Ruth (the Moabite woman) and Jonah (sent to the Ninevites), the Bible calls on all people everywhere to worship the one true God.

Acts 11
We could also explore Acts 1 (the sending of witnesses to the ends of the earth) and Acts 2 (all Jewish nations gathered Pentecost heard the gospel in their own language), as well as Acts 10, with Peter’s vision and Acts 15, with the council at Jerusalem, when the first church embraced all cultures.

But I am looking at a brief account found in Acts 11: 19-26
19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

The Basic Scene
Picture the action in this passage.
·         The church is formed at Pentecost (Acts 2). You notice that it is a strictly Jewish church—formed by “Jews from every nation under heaven.”
·         The disciples engaged immediately in witnessing and preaching in Jerusalem (cf 1:8).
·         As a result, many people followed Christ, and the church grew rapidly.
·         This growth led to severe persecution, including the stoning of Stephen (chapter 7).
·         The persecution scattered the disciples and forced them out of Jerusalem (cf 1:8—to Judea and Samaria) (chapter 8).
·         There is a brief interlude on Paul’s conversion (chapter 9) and Peter’s experiences in Caesarea (chapter 10), which marks the beginning of a shift from the mission to the Jews to the mission to the Gentiles.
Then we have the text from Acts 11. Some of the disciples had gone as far north as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. Antioch is the scene for our story. There, disciples told everyone they met about the gospel of Jesus—or almost everyone. Actually, they told the gospel only to Jews. I can almost see them wanting to tell someone, and then realizing, “No, you are not a Jew. I can’t tell you about the Messiah. The Messiah is only for the Jews.”

Then some Greek and African disciples started telling Gentiles also, and the Gentiles believed! Suddenly you have a church made up of Jews and Gentiles, not just Jews.

The Name “Christian”
Consider the names used for the disciples up until this point. They are called”
·         Brothers (brothers and sisters of the Jewish people).
·         Disciples (followers of a Jewish rabbi).
·         Church (the word used is ekklesia—the Greek word for “congregation”; like qahal— the Hebrew word for congregation: it means the gathered peole of God, that is, Jews).
·         Followers of the Way (similar to disciples, members of a Jewish sect).
In short, every name used before Acts 11 applies to Jews only, so that when Gentiles join the church, people needed a new name for them. They were no longer “brothers”; they were now brothers and aliens. So people came up with a new name for this strange group: Christians, or Christ-people, or Christ-followers (11:26).

There is something about being Christian that crosses barriers and destroys boundaries. So Paul, Galatians 3: “26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

A Multi-Cultural Church
A basic part of the vision in beginning this assembly, “All Nations Assembly”, is precisely to include people from all kinds of backgrounds. I know that some people say that words like multi-cultural and mono-cultural don’t really mean anything. I work in an academic setting, and there are those in the university who tell us that ethnicity is a social construct with little real meaning.

I am not interested in that debate here, because we know very well that people in Manitoba come from many different backgrounds. Some of us are immigrants from South America, and some from Africa. Some of us have roots in Russia and come many generations before that from Holland. Some of us are migrant workers from Mexico, and some of us are well-established. Some of us are wealthy, and some of us are poor.

The point of our passage is that the church includes all of us, all people from every possible background you can imagine in Manitoba. We might say with Paul, “In Christ there is neither Filipino nor German, there is neither immigrant nor first nations, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Churches are always on the edge of turning into their own ethnic groups that exclude people who are “not like us”. We may not intend to do this, but it happens. We work hard to bring our children up in Christian faith, and soon we are a church of third-generation people in Canada, all like each other, and we have become an ethnic group instead of a faith community.

I am a Mennonite. We Mennonites struggle with this tension between ethnicity and faith. We want to welcome everyone, but all too often one of our first questions is, “You say your name is Giesbrecht? Well do you know …?” I grew up in the Brethren in Christ Church, part of the larger Mennonite world, and I have often been asked, “Is your father David or Arthur?”  This is a natural, normal process as we remain together in the church, but when it begins to form a wall that keeps other people out, it becomes something also that God wants to change.

When I was in college so many years ago, in 1969, I was in a musical called “For Heaven’s Sake”. One of the songs we sang in this play was a take-off on Luther’s great hymn, which we sang as “A Mighty Fortress is our Church”, written in response to the way that White Americans in the 1960s fled their city churches as people of colour moved in.

A mighty fortress is our church, a bulwark never-failing
Against the changing neighbourhood Where sin is all-prevailing.
For round us are the slums, With drunks and pimps and bums,
The nice folk had to move, But we return to prove
We won’t give up our fortress, We won’t give up our fortress.

If we let those outside in here, They’d make the place a shambles.
You don’t get purses from a sow’s ear, Nor gather grapes from brambles.
Your sheep protect the fold, The fortress we will hold
’Gainst those of darker skin. The goats we’ll not let in.
We won’t give up our fortress, We won’t give up our fortress.

There’s the problem. When the church becomes a fortress instead of a place of welcome, we have a problem. Sometimes we think that the church is under attack, and we want to fight back against those who are attacking us. Let me suggest that instead we should welcome them and pray for them and invite them to follow Jesus also. That invitation will only make sense to them if they see us as a truly welcoming people who truly have met God.

Being a People of Faith
Who truly have met God: There is the key point. Why did these Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene start telling everybody Jesus? They could not keep it in. They could not help it. They had met Jesus, and they had to tell everyone they met what had happened.

One reason that we turn into an ethnic fortress instead being Christ’s church is that our encounter with Jesus fades. Do you want to see evangelistic outreach throughout Canada? Pray for revival in the church. Do you want to see your neighbours come to Christ? Pray that you yourself will be overwhelmed with the Spirit of Christ in your own life. Sometimes in mission studies people debate whether we should emphasize the internal life of the church or the external outreach of the church first? The answer is always “Both”. Revival leads to mission, and mission requires revival. Maybe you can say that revival is logically first—it leads to outreach. But the space in time is so small as not to notice it.

All Nations Assembly desires to be a place where everyone can worship. You will need to be a place where people meet God, otherwise there is nothing to worship. As you move into the future my prayer for you is that you would indeed be a place where people encounter God, and that you would also be a place where people discover that in Christ we really are one. God bless you and guide you in this journey as you also tell everyone you meet about Jesus.

All Nations Fellowship, Winkler
25 October 2015