Sunday, April 17, 2016

Behind the Scenes (What's Really Going On?)

As often happens with the lectionary, we have three separate texts this morning, each with its own action and ideas. I began my preparation with a basic idea in mind, but if I am to hear the Scripture speak, I have to set that idea aside and ask what the texts say. Once we hear the texts themselves, then we can ask what God is saying to us this morning. Join me, then, in this journey through the lectionary texts.

John 10: 22-30
We begin with the gospel reading from John 10.
Verses 22-24 set up the action: Jesus was in the Temple courts near Solomon’s Porch. The Jews—who in John represent the people in Judaism who do not follow Jesus—challenged him to answer their question (“Are you the Messiah?) with a simple yes or no.
In verses 25 and 26 Jesus replies that he has already answered their question, but because they refuse to accept him, they cannot hear his answer. “You are not my sheep.”
Verses 27 to 29 give Jesus’ thoughts on those who are his sheep. “Those who follow me know me the way that sheep know the Shepherd. They follow me, and I give them eternal life.
Then in verse 30 he answers the Jews’ question as clearly as possible, “I and my Father are one.” When you remember that the Jews’ own confession of faith begins with the affirmation of unity, you can see how his answer might upset them. They cry out, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Jesus says quietly, “I and my Father are one.”

What do we hear in this brief section? In the passage before these verses, Jesus speaks directly to the Pharisees. They think of themselves as protectors of God’s Chosen People. He calls them in effect “thieves and robbers” who betray the sheep (his image here for the Chosen People). The Jews—those listening to his words—disagree with each other. Some say that his teachings are the kind the Messiah would give; others say that his teachings must come from a demon. This is why they ask the question they do. After the verses in our passage, the Jews try to stone him for blasphemy, but “he escaped their grasp” (verse 39).

A basic theme throughout this section of John’s gospel is that Jesus is calling the people to follow him, so that they can find God. We can mock them for their failure to recognize God in the person of Jesus, but I have some sympathy for them. Jesus was from Galilee. Sometimes in Canada we tell Newfie jokes. Well, in our terms Jesus was a Newfie—or an Indian from up north. Jesus came from the margins and represented the margins of society. It is not surprising that the people did not recognize God when Jesus spoke. Yet the way to life was found only in hearing Jesus and recognizing his voice as the voice of God.

Acts 9: 36-43
The episode is placed just after a major shift in Acts—from an emphasis on Peter’s ministry to an emphasis on Paul. The first 19 verses of the chapter tell the conversion story of Saul, the young man who held people’s coats while they stoned Stephen and who was ready to kill all the other followers of Jesus as well. The next 12 verses describe his early life as a follower of Jesus: “he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.” Eventually he fled Damascus, and then after an unspecified period of time appeared in Jerusalem. There Barnabas spoke up for him and soon he was preaching in Jerusalem, where he met with more opposition. Finally the believers sent him off to Tarsus, and the church enjoyed a time of peace and stability.

Up until this point Luke had told various stories of Peter’s ministry. After Saul’s conversion, Luke returns to the story of Peter. First he healed a man Aeneas, then we have our passage.
Verses 36 and 37 shift the scene to a nearby town named Joppa. A woman there named Tabitha fell sick and died.
In verses 38 and 39 the disciples sent for Peter, and he joined them.
In verses 40 to 43, Peter sent the others out of the room; then he prayed and called on Tabitha to rise. She did so, and he took her out to meet the rest of the people gathered there. The result was that many more people believed in the Lord. The closing verse sets the stage for the events of chapters 11 and 12, by placing Peter in the house of Simon the Tanner.

A basic theme throughout the book of Acts, and highlighted in this passage, is the way that Peter and the apostles continued the ministry and message of Jesus. Note that the raising of Tabitha had the effect of bringing people to faith. That was its primary purpose. As John puts it in John 20: 30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

This basic idea is true for us today as well. The idea is not that we will do miracles—we may, or we may not. The idea rather is that we continue the ministry and message of Jesus. As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and has given to us the ministry and message of reconciliation” (my conflation of verses).

Revelation 7: 9-17
A word about the way that I read Revelation. We sometimes read the book as a history of the future, which is (I believe) a mistake. I think that what happens in this book is that John looks at their contemporary situation through a series of lens. Thus chapter 6 portrays their lives as one of hardship and distress, while chapter 7 looks at the same scene and sees something else going on—a scene of redemption and praise. I know that the passage begins with the words, “After this I looked, and there before me …” We can read this as referring to the chronology of events, when he means simply, “Then I saw.” In divine revelation he saw that what was happening around him on earth had a different appearance in Heaven. There is a chronology behind the events portrayed in Revelation. Satan is at work on this earth. God is also at work. The final outcome of this spiritual war is that Satan is defeated and destroyed, and that we live forever with God. Our job is not to figure out the chronology, but to live in light of the divine reality behind the events of our lives.

With this in mind, look again at our verses.
Verses 9 and 10 picture the reality of the church beyond church praising God forever.
In verses 11 and 12, they are joined by angels and all the powers of good in praise to God.
In verse 13 one of the elders asks John if he knows who “these” (those in white robes) are. Then the elder answers his own question: They are those redeemed by “the blood of the Lamb”, praising God forever. God has removed all their distress and given them joy forever.
The description makes it clear that, although we do not construct a history of the future, John is describing the present in terms of the final reality. This is the first idea that I saw as I read the passages several weeks ago: That what we see on the stage of our lives (distress and pain and humiliation) is different from the view behind the scenes (where we discover that the whole scene leads to joy and delight unending). To change the metaphor, we see what is happening with our limited perspectives, where God sees from the perspective of omniscience.

There are other ideas we could pick up—the multicultural nature of God’s people is probably the most important one. This passage brings to fullness the promise made to Abraham, “In you all families off the earth will find their blessing.” The first part of this chapter, noting the perfection of Abraham’s family in God’s eternity echoes that promise.

But this idea of the divine reality behind the scenes of our human realities is the one that I want to work with in the time remaining.

How do the passages from John 10 and Acts 9 fit with this theme of God’s action behind the scenes? In John’s gospel Jesus, who could say of God, “I and my Father are one,” came from the wrong side of the tracks. What “the Jews” saw in front of them on stage was someone they could not respect, but behind the scenes the reality to which he invited them was eternal life with God. In the book of Acts we met Peter, acting in the name and manner of Jesus. The gospel of freedom and life was passed on by marginal people until it took over the whole world of that day.

When we work with the lectionary, we take a common theme and ask how it applies to us today. This morning that common theme is the reality of our lives: We live with pain and hardship and struggles that conceal the reality of joy and power that we receive by God’s grace.

You might wonder if it is true that we live with pain and hardship and struggle. We are fortunate people, compared to the majority of the world. We have more resources and can control so much more of what happens to us than most people can. Is it fair to say that we live with pain and struggle and hardship?

I think it is. I don’t need to recite the physical struggles that we have dealt with in this congregation. Even if no other hardship comes our way, in the end we die. But as I look around a relatively affluent Canada, I see more than simply the inevitability of death. We could consider the reality of distress and suffering in First Nations communities. Their distress is our distress, if only because we have helped to cause it through our shared history.

But I look at another basic reality around us. At Providence our M Div (and some MA) students do a final integrative essay in their final year. This past week one student presented his essay on the subject of ministry to Korean youth, Korean-Canadians who are neither fully Korean nor fully Canadian. As a youth pastor, he said, he has discovered that these relatively affluent youth struggle with a loss of identity that makes life increasingly difficult.

He noted also the way that young people generally live in a web of constructed identities. Social media gives repeated opportunities to present yourself with any identity you want. As a result, more and more people find it hard to relate to other people face to face. Another member of the integrative class works with Youth for Christ, and he confirmed this struggle with identity.

Their comments remind me of a D Min dissertation by Chris Marchand, which he did for us at Providence some years ago. Chris examined the effect on youth pastors of the situations they encounter in their ministry. Often they respond to so many heart-breaking stories that they suffer from compassion fatigue (what Chris called secondary PTSD).

As a child of the 60s, I remember how some of us used to say, “I need to find myself.” We were describing the same thing. In times of great social change, identity is one of the most difficult things to figure out, and we live in an era of rapid change greater than any previous period in history. An underlying current to life in Canada today, then, is a hidden psychic pain that many people struggle with.

In that context, then, we hear these passages. In his integrative paper, our Korean-Canadian student made a profound observation: The centre of the gospel is found in marginalized people. The centre is at the margins. He continued with a second fundamental and profound truth: Our struggles and hardships find meaning in the sufferings of Jesus. So the way to deal with pain is to embrace it. “I will encounter darkness as a bride, and hug it in mine arms.”

He is absolutely right. When we count on our affluence to help us, we become like the Jews who could not see the Son of God when he stood before them. When we turn to Jesus in our pain, we find that he is there with us, giving our life meaning and hope. When we embrace God in our suffering, we discover the reality behind the scenes, “that great multitude that no one can number, gathered before the throne and before the Lamb.”

It is easy for this kind of statement to become trite and unhelpful. I mentioned the hardships of First Nations history. I could say to First Nations in Canada: “Accept your pain; it is God’s gift to show you himself.” They may reply truthfully, “Who are you kidding!” They might use stronger and less polite language than that. And they would be right.

But it remains true that the way to find the reality behind the scenes is to enter fully into the hardship and pain of our lives. In the situation I just mentioned, I must first learn from our native community what that actually means. I cannot tell them what to do, but I can sit with them and discover what I need to repent of. I can live with them and begin to see the real pain of the Dene people relocated from Duck Lake to Churchill in 1956. In the 1970s they relocated to Tadoule Lake, but cannot simply undo the effects of the relocation. I can say, “Embrace your pain,” but that is simplistic. First I must sit with them and learn what their lives have been. In that learning, we both may find anew the presence of Christ, whose passion and suffering gives meaning to our own distress. (My thanks to another of our students who described this experience in his integrative essay.)


We live in a world of rapid, almost catastrophic change. It is hard to remember who we are when so much shifts and falls around us. These passages remind us to see Jesus, who is God incarnate, and to find our new identity in Jesus the Risen Lord. The vision of the end is also a vision of the present. We also are “they who … have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” We also “are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple.” And God “will lead us to springs of living water and wipe away every tear from our eyes.”

Grace Bible Church
17 April 2016
Texts: John 10: 22-30; Acts 9: 36-43;  Revelation 7: 9-17

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