Sunday, May 29, 2016

Being the Church

Recently I have been thinking about the idea of church—congregations, denominations, visible, invisible, worldwide communion, and so on. I come from a church family called “Brethren in Christ”, which carries within its problematic name the idea that we are family. But does there come a point when the BIC should cease to live? Do churches, both congregations and denominations, have a mortal life span? One could answer simply, “Of course.” We can assume that all things on earth have a life span, and that coming to an end is normal. But what is that life span, and how do we know when a church should die? In the BIC Church that question was the focus of a recent conference held at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. Roger Olson was the plenary speaker on the subject, “Life beyond the Congregation: The Future of Denominations in the 21st-Century.” The conference addressed the question of the future of the BIC, and as I read the papers and responses presented there, I began thinking more about this question: What is the nature of the church? What is the church supposed to look like?

With this question in mind, I turned to a passage in which Paul reflects on the nature of the church, Ephesians 4: 1-16:
4 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. …
11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Some Thoughts from the Text
This is a text that was read and preached on every year in the BICC of a past generation. Every year we held a Love Feast, which included Baptism, Feetwashing, and Communion. Every year this passage was read and preached about at this Love Feast. These verses were understood to be foundational for understanding who we were as the church, so I am asking the text the following question: What should the church look like? I am assuming that if the church I belong to (local, national, or international) looks like this, that’s good. If it does not look like this, that’s a problem. So some thoughts.

1. Community
The church is a place of unity/community. Note the strength of Paul’s words: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

The church—whether local congregation or national conference or global body—is a place we should experience the unity that lies at the heart of community. Not uniformity, of course. We have heard often that unity is deeper than and different from uniformity, but we keep forgetting. Often we think that unity in the church means that we think alike, when it means rather that we are one body, filled with one Holy Spirit, called to one hope by one Lord, “children of the Heavenly Father.”

I like the way that the BIC in Zimbabwe is named. Instead of the gender-challenged name current in North America, they are called (in a literal translation), “The church of those who come from the same womb in Christ.” Our unity is the unity of family, not the uniformity of forced agreement. We have different personalities and gifts and abilities, and we disagree on many different issues, but we are one. We are all “Christ-people”, brothers and sisters in Christ.

2. Mutual Care
This unity is expressed by our lifestyle in these words: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” The church consists of people who love each other and care for each other. We are people who take care of each other humbly, gently, and patiently.

These first two points then suggest the following: If your church is not a place in which you experience God’s love through your brothers and sisters, then it is falling short of being its calling as the church filled with God’s indwelling Spirit.

3. Expressed through Gifts
This mutual care goes deeper. In Paul’s description, the church is a place where God has gifted individuals to care for each other’s needs: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

I see at least two basic aspects of this gifting, both captured in the statement, “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” One, the community we call the church is a place where we can have our emotional, spiritual, physical, and mental needs met. This gift-list is one of several in Paul’s letters, and these gifts generally help to meet the needs of God’s people. (They also help to meet the needs of people outside the church, but we begin with God’s people—compare Galatians 6:10, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”)

Two, not only can we have our needs met by people filled with God’s Spirit, but we also are needed to meet other people’s needs. Few things are worse for our self-esteem than having to always receive. We need to be needed. In the church you and I are needed. God meets our needs through our brothers and sisters, including our need to help others.

4. Growth
Paul writes: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”

The church is a place that promotes spiritual, mental, and emotional growth. We do not meet each other’s needs simply to be nice, but to promote each other’s growth. Further, we do not ask for others to help us just to meet the needs of the moment, but because we want to grow, to become more like Christ.

I was just part of a conference on caring for missionary families, focussing on building resiliency and identifying risks in the lives of third culture people and their families. Our speaker observed that you can have risk without resiliency (problems that overwhelm you), but you cannot have resiliency without risk (personal growth without problems). Being needy, and having our needs met, fertilizes the soil in which we grow.

In Paul’s words from Philippians 3:12-14, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

5. Christ the Source of All
So we have seen that the church is a community where our needs are met, and where we are able to care for each other. The church is a community in which God’s Word is taught and we grow up together into the likeness of Christ. If these things are happening here, you have “church.” One thing more remains, which is foundational to all the others.

Paul puts it this way in verse 15: “We will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” We are the body of Christ, and therefore Christ is himself the head. All that we do comes out of this fundamental truth—that we are made by Christ, saved by Christ, moulded by Christ, and led by Christ. He is the head, and we are the body. He saves and directs and gives us life.

The church, then, is the place where we meet God. If we do not meet God in the church, we can say with some certainty, “This is not the church.” I know the Mennonite world better than I do other parts of the global church, and a common theme among Mennonites is a desire to do something rather than wait in silence before God. We prefer doing to being. But of course being always precedes doing. What we do reveals who we are inside. And for Christians, who we are inside is a people who gain life from Christ. At our best we know this. I remember a new Christian in our congregation at SMC giving his faith story before baptism. He said something like this: “I remember sitting in the pew when I first realized that God is here. The organ was playing and people were singing, and I felt God’s presence all around me. I looked around to see if anyone else could feel it too. I don’t know if they did, but I know that I did.”

Since this encounter with God is “invitation and response”, I can’t give a formula for it. I can’t say, “Do this. Do that.” All I can say is: “Open yourself to God’s invitation.” That is the beginning of the family of God. That is the beginning of the body of Christ.

Conclusion: Bringing these Together
Let me summarize. I have observed five characteristics of the church in this passage: community; mutual care; meeting needs; a place of growth; and the presence of Christ.

One could name other characteristics, but these are a start. I think that they apply both to the congregation and to the larger body, which we sometimes call denominations. If you don’t find them in your church—whether local or national—it may still be truly “church”; this is not an exhaustive list. But I think it is a truly good thing if you do find these things.

I want to add one final piece to a consideration of what it means to be the church. In my introduction I mentioned the conference at which Roger Olson spoke. He noted that denominations come and go, and that a basic reason for a denomination to continue is that it brings some specific flavour or distinctive to the larger global Christian communion. As a Mennonite, our particular flavour is our commitment to peace and justice. I have also worshipped with Free Methodists, who contribute an emphasis on spirit-filled living. The BIC bring these together in what we sometimes call the “quest for piety and obedience” (Wittlinger).

You might say that these flavours are an application of the gifts of the spirit in Ephesians 4, written on a denominational scale. I suggest that we can also think of these flavours as applying to local congregations. So you can ask yourself, “Why are we here? What gifting has God given us as a local part of the global body of Christ?”

I don’t know what your answer is, but I am confident that God has placed you here for a specific purpose, and that you will flourish best as you find God’s purpose for your life as part of the what the hymn, “For All the Saints”, calls “the countless host”. We are part of this global communion throughout space and time, the family of God, the body of Christ. We are here in this community in this place and time, for the ministry and message that God has given us.

29 May 2016
Mitchell Community Fellowship

Monday, May 23, 2016

Being a White Zimbabwean (Part 4)

I have written before (here, here, and here) about discovering what it means to be a Zimbabwean—by becoming an honorary aunt and uncle to some Zimbabwean friends’ daughter and helping her announce her engagement, and then by becoming the uncle to a young Zimbabwean man who was coming to meet his prospective in-laws, also Zimbabwean friends of ours.

I am of course a White Zimbabwean.  I speak a bit of Ndebele. (I have learned to say, “Ngiyazama ukufunda isiNdebele,” quite convincingly—“I am trying to learn Ndebele.”) I speak no Shona beyond a short greeting or saying “thank you”. I am a White Zimbabwean, with the faults and shortcomings of many who grew up in Zimbabwe, but did not discover the full wealth of our heritage in time. Now I’m making up for it.

The young man I brought to meet his prospective in-laws came back this past weekend with a male relative to enter into negotiations for what the Ndebele call lobola—in English, we might say “dowry”, but the word conveys little of the reality to Canadian ears. Another Zimbabwean friend, Joe, and I became the young man’s family, along with his relative, and we approached the young woman’s house for supper and then the ceremony.

The four of us sat huddled together eating an excellent supper. The relative said to the young man, “You’ll be all right. Clearly she can cook well!” After a delay caused by the late arrival of the young woman’s cousin, who was part of her negotiating party, we finally settled into the ceremony. There were 10 to 15 observers present to serve as witnesses of the ceremony, some from Zimbabwe, some from Zambia, a few Nigerians, and a Rwandan couple. (Africans come together at such times!) There was also a Canadian couple who are good friends of the bride-to-be’s family.

Everyone but the young man’s negotiating party sat in the basement, and then we entered—the three negotiators walking in clapping solemnly with a hollow clap of the hands, while the young man stayed outside. I never did master this clap. The hands are cupped so that the thumbs come together with the tips of the fingers also coming together. All I could get was flat clap, while the others got more volume. We performed this clap almost every time we said something, as a way of showing respect to the young woman’s family.

We sat down on the floor, and the proceedings began. There was a fee to begin speaking, and a fee to take a chair. They paid the fee for the chair, but remained on the floor. In view of my age, they encouraged me to sit on the chair. I had a vague sense of cheating, by accepting their invitation. There was a fee for loss of the young woman, who as a child enjoyed playing with her father’s beard. There was a fee for the mother, who had carried and raised the young woman. All these we paid, and then asked for a recess.

We went outside and held a quick caucus—which amounted to saying that we would now negotiate in earnest, since we would soon run out of money (which all came from the young man). The ceremony was emceed by an aunt of the young woman, who also served as a go-between, letting us know what we could do and couldn’t do.

Finally we returned, and had to pay a fine for “delay”. (A curious fine, since we had delayed for over an hour for the last member of the young woman’s family to arrive.) There were several more categories of fees, and then finally a three-part dowry: I forget the name of the first part, the second was the dowry proper, and the third was mombi, or cattle.

We recessed several more times to check resources and plot our strategy, Aided by the go-between in one of our recesses, we learned that they did not expect us to pay the full amount on any particular fee, but to put in a token amount and let the balance go on record as “owing”. I have no idea if this is common to all families in Zimbabwe, or has evolved in a few areas. In any case, we took full advantage of this provision to put all of the money that we had into the pot, and leaving the rest as “owing”.

The final two steps were two final fees. First the young woman, who had sat silent throughout the ceremony was given the choice of anything that had been put into the bowl of money. This money was to be hers alone, and the negotiating party would replace it whatever she took out. She took out a relatively modest amount—her aunt asking, “Are you sure you don’t want more?” When her family saw how much she took, they said laughing, “She has already gone!” (She is already left our family for his family.) The final fee was to close negotiations.

The whole process took about three hours. Rushing would have been inappropriate, even though the hour grew late. Two families were being bound together, and they needed the time to do things right.

Some reflections on the whole evening:
1. I was truly honoured to be included as a somewhat elderly (and clearly incompetent) Uncle. Some things you learn only by doing.

2. David Maranz says (in African Friends and Mopney Matters) that Africans are generous with money and stingy with information, while Westerners are stingy with money and generous with information. One consequence of this is that we learned nothing before we had to know it. That is common in Zimbabwe. Your elders tell you what you need to know when you need to know it, not before.

3. The whole process reveals things about the participants that you can’t learn any other way—what they value, how they respond to pressure, and so on. A major factor, I think, in this case is that the young man has become quite Canadian. His willingness to go through a difficult (and, to him, costly) process was also proof of his commitment to their common heritage as Zimbabweans.

4. The whole process is also clearly a man’s game. The men negotiated; the women listened (except for the aunt). The young woman in this case is trained as a lawyer; their home will be a typical family in which mutual respect will be necessary—not a home in which the man rules. But the culture they come from remains what it is. Their job is to negotiate their way through Canadian culture, honouring their heritage and their parents appropriately. I wish them well!

5. As with all cultural customs, the potential for abuse is there. Some Zimbabwean women have observed that men sometimes use the fact they have paid lobola as a club: “I paid for you. You must have as many children as I want!” Others use it as it was intended—to bind the families together. Again, the couple’s task is to negotiate their way through the process of cultural change, learning from what is best in their own culture as they live in Canada.

This potential for abuse is one reason I gave no amounts above. The amount of money given and received is the families’ business. The process of bringing two families together in this couple has begun. And I have had my worldview expanded a bit, becoming even more of a Zimbabwean, white skin and all.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Damascus Road: (Not) For Everyone

Saul (also named Paul) on the road to Damascus is one of the best known Bible stories, and also a difficult story to say what it means for us today. Many Bible passages are harder to apply than we think. What the author meant to say in the original contexts is one thing; what that passage says to us today is another. In this case, there are several themes we could look at.

We could examine the theme of Jew and Gentile in God’s reign. That would be a worthwhile examination, and fits well with the larger story of Acts. The way that our hero changes his name from Saul (a Jewish name) to Paul (a Roman name) reflects this idea. At different times in his ministry, Saul-Paul acts as a Jew or as a Roman citizen. In 1 Corinthians 9 he says that he uses whichever identity will help to bring people to Christ (verses 19-23). In today’s passage, God sends Ananias to Saul and God tells him that Saul is his chosen instrument to bring salvation to the Gentiles. This is a good theme worth exploring, but we leave it aside this morning.

We could look at the relationship of Law and Gospel. As a Pharisee, Saul had committed himself to the Law of Moses. That commitment fueled his anger when he set off on the road to Damascus to kill anyone following “The Way”, this new sect of people following the Rabbi Jesus. He saw correctly that Jesus challenged the central position of the Law in Judaism and replaced it with himself, so he set out to defend the law and to persecute Jesus’ disciples. Paul called himself a Pharisee to the end of his life, but here in Acts 9 he changes from being a Pharisee for the law (Philippians 3) to becoming a Pharisee for the gospel of God (Romans 1.) This is also a good theme, but we leave aside it as well.

We could consider the continued growth of the church in places like Damascus and Antioch. The persecution in which Saul participated led to the growth of the church outside of Jerusalem, fulfilling Jesus’ words in Acts 1:8—“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” God uses such terrible events as persecution to bring about good results, which encourages us in our own troubles. But this theme also we leave aside.

I want to look at something else: Why did God use miraculous dramatic phenomena to convert Saul? The drama is there for a purpose. Why is it there?

Paul’s Conversion
At one level this incident is too unusual to serve as a model for us. God does not strike most people blind as part of their conversion. When our baptismal candidates tell their faith stories, we don’t have many who heard a voice speaking to them from Heaven or saw a vision, while other people with them heard the voice but saw nothing. Our faith stories would be more exciting if they included the kind of supernatural phenomena that Paul experienced, but in fact such things are rare. So why did God appear so miraculously to Paul, and not to everyone else? Sometimes we may think that God does not appear to us like this because God is done with miracles. We may think that we should not expect to see such things today. I agree that we should not normally look for miracles, but it is wrong to think that such things no longer happen.

Last week I was at a meeting in Ontario. As we ate lunch, a visitor (I’ll call him John) started telling stories of an international church he had pastored in an Arab country. The church was made up of expatriates with no Arab believers, but over the years he said he saw about 20 Arab Muslims come to faith in Jesus—mostly through dreams of Jesus. Here in one such story. (Note: I may have the details right or not. This is as I remember the conversation. John gave me permission to tell the story, keeping it anonymous, but it is still his story.)

A man had a series of dreams in which he saw Mohammed. Finally he called out that he wanted to follow him. Mohammed turned to him and said, “Don’t follow me. Follow him”, and pointed to a shadowy figure. As the man looked, the figure turned to him, and he saw that it was Jesus. (John wondered what Jesus looked like, but this man could not tell him; only that he knew it was Jesus.) One Sunday as he was driving home, the steering wheel of his car locked up going through the intersection where he would normally turn. The steering wheel then turned on its own accord, through several more intersections, almost as if possessed. Finally he pulled off the road to find a telephone and call for help. He saw a church across the road and went to it to use the phone. It happened to be Easter, and John was conducting the Easter Sunday service. He said that they all saw this robed and turbaned Arab enter the service and sit down. When the service was over, John was greeting people at the door, but did not see the man. After everyone else had left, John went in to look for him. He found him prostrated at the cross. When he asked what was happening, he heard the story I have told. That man became the first Muslim-background believer in their church—because Jesus came to him in a dream.

John told another story similarly miraculous, one of about 20 he had observed. I believe that God still acts in miraculous ways in our world. Although such events are rare, they do take place.

A Hard Question
So why does God not intervene like this in everyone’s life? Surely then everyone would be saved! This is a hard question, and we do not know the answer. I can tell you only what I think is probably happening. God’s normal path for all of us is to invite us to come to him: “Come all who are worn out from carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Or, in the words that Jesus uses to the church at Laodicea (Revelation 3:20): “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” In context, these verses are directed to Christians, but they express the essential invitation Jesus gives to all. We have the choice to accept his invitation. This is why Paul describes his own ministry as one of invitation in 2 Corinthians 5: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and has given to us the ministry and message of reconciliation. We are Christ’s ambassadors, therefore I appeal to you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God!” (My own free paraphrase.)

Now for choices to be real choices, they must also be free. If Jesus overwhelms us with his presence, so that we worship God by force, that is not conversion. That is judgment. But God knows everyone’s heart, so when God intervenes so dramatically, we can guess that the person involved was truly seeking God with all their heart. I believe that was true for Paul. He had committed himself fully to God’s Law because he wanted to know God. The Law says, “Love the Lord you God with all your heart.” Paul did that, and God intervened dramatically to turn him from the way of death to the way of life.

This is truly beyond our understanding. This is mystery in its fullest sense. When we push this idea out to its logical end, either Paul freely chose to follow God—and so he initiated his own salvation, or God chose Paul without Paul’s choice—and so God initiated his salvation. Would God save Paul against Paul’s will? I don’t believe so. Dare we suggest that somehow Paul earned God’s grace? Of course not. Both choices, it seems to me are wrong.

Paul himself describes what happens this way (Philippians 2:13): “Therefore, my dear friends, … continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” Work out your salvation—seek God with all your heart. God works in you—we can do nothing without God’s grace.

The question comes back now in a different way. We can see why God does not always save people this way—God leaves us with a choice to respond to the divine invitation. But why did God save Paul this dramatic way? Again, we really don’t know, but again I have a guess. The Pharisees were a major roadblock to the spread of the gospel, because they wanted to keep Gentiles outside God’s reign. By bringing Paul into Christian faith, God opened the door to the whole Gentile world. You can see this in the angel’s words to Ananias, “This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.” Similarly in the story I told of the Arab seeker, there is a major population of our world who are closed to the invitation Jesus gives; their dramatic conversion through dreams breaks through the barriers that people have erected against the gospel.

I think, then, that God uses such dramatic conversions to open doors to the gospel so that more and more people can hear the invitation to come to Jesus and receive life. I don’t know this. Isaiah asks us who can know the mind of God (Isaiah 40:12-14), and I certainly cannot say that I do. I am only guessing, based on the simple truth that we do know: God wants to save sinners. God wants to save everyone. Hear God’s words to Ezekiel (33:11): “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?” Again, as Jesus said about Zaccheus (Luke 19:9-10): Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Jesus came to save, not to condemn. You see that we can refuse the invitation, but Jesus desires no one’s death. Jesus wants all people to come to him and receive life. That is why he came to Saul so dramatically.

Years later, Paul remembered this coming with gratitude (1 Corinthians 15: 3-10): “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins …, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day …, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I … do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”

Bring It Home to Us
So what do we do with Saul’s conversion today? What is God saying to you and to me this morning?

Some simple points.
1. Jesus, Be the Centre
Every one of us has placed something at the centre of our lives. For Paul, it was the Torah, Law of God. For you and me it may be our membership in the Mennonite Church. It may be the good name of SMC—or of one of the families here. It may be a commitment to be properly Evangelical, or Anabaptist. I must tell you and remind myself, anything other than Jesus at the centre becomes an idol and can separate us from God. You don’t have to be a renegade to push God away. All you have to do is put something other than Jesus at the centre of your life. I plead with you this morning, keep Jesus at the centre. Nothing else will do. A Spanish song I have come to love says, “Solo Dios basta”: Only God can fill us; only God can satisfy.
2. Jesus, Do This in Us
Sometimes we think that we can make this change—from one centre to another in our lives—on our own. We can’t. You cannot on your own place God fully at the centre of your life. Something else will always come in, and we cannot save ourselves. It is just not possible. Sometimes we call ourselves “Jesus-followers”. Our own congregation’s mission statement echoes this language: “Steinbach Mennonite Church is faithfully following Christ in worship and service by making disciples, building community and reaching out to the world.” We are Christ-followers. But this image contains a weakness; it can suggest that you and I just need to follow Jesus, and that we have the strength to do this. We don’t.
This past week we had a course on Anabaptist history and Theology at Providence. One of the members of the class recalled several different people in his congregations who said something like this near the end of their lives: “I hope I’ve been good enough to go to Heaven.” Ouch! Our hope of salvation rests in Christ’s work on the cross for you and me, not on anything we can do. I remember C.J. Dyck teaching the same course at AMBS about 35 years ago. One day in class he told us about an old Amish Bishop he had visited. C.J. asked him, “Brother, is your salvation by grace, or must you earn it with your life?” The old Bishop replied, “Oh brother Dyck, it’s all by grace! It’s all by grace!” He was right. This leads to my last thought.
3. Christ IN You
Conversion for Paul—and for us—is a complete change of heart and mind. We are reborn (to use the image from John’s gospel) so that Christ lives within us. Paul describes this mystery in Colossians 1 as “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now revealed to the Lord’s people.… This mystery is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
The mystery revealed in Paul’s conversion and in all of us is that Christ lives in us. Whether you come to Christ in a quiet way through your parents’ upbringing (my mother came to Christ at age five), or whether God breaks into your life with dreams and visions and lightning flashing—in every case it takes a miracle. Whether you come from a life of addiction or a life of good deeds, it takes a miracle. Whether you come from a life of heartbreak and pain or a life of ease, it takes a miracle. Whether you come from a life of fighting for justice or a life of success in all you do, it takes a miracle.
For Christ to live in you and in me takes the miracle of God’s grace. One thing for certain that the story of Saul-Paul tells us is that God will do whatever it takes to bring you to faith and give you new life. In the end, the Damascus Road is for everyone.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
22 May 2016
Acts 9: 1-19

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Clothed with Power from on High

My original title was “The Christians’ New Clothes”, which I changed to “Clothed With Power From On High”. I thought of the first title because of a practice I learned about some years ago. Among the Nisga’a, Gitsan, and Tsimshian nations there is a cleansing ritual when someone has sinned against his/her family and the community. For example, if a man commits adultery and later wants to be fully reintegrated into the community, he undergoes this cleansing ritual. (Described for me at a NAIITS conference at , September 2004, by Joe, a native of the Tsimshian First Nation living among the Gitsan people.) Here is the ritual:
  • Confession to elder in the family and to the chief of the tribe – public ceremony in which his close relatives circle him – conversation with the aunties and uncles who tell him what he did while his old clothes are taken off – a new set of clothes, purchased by the family put on him – accepted back into the community as a new person – the offence may never be referred to again – ceremony paid for by the family – all present throw money into a basket to help out with the ceremony.

I describe this ritual to set the stage for our texts. We are people who have confessed our rebellion and God wants to dress us with new clothes: power from on high.

Ascension Sunday serves as the first church’s introduction to the Holy Spirit. Because Jesus stopped appearing to the disciples after his resurrection—and we call this stopping the ascension—the Holy Spirit came to continue his presence with the church. Now it’s a curious thing that the ascension of Jesus is recorded only in Luke’s writing. I don’t know why Matthew and John do not refer to it. Mark ends his story with the resurrection itself, but Matthew and John could have referred to it, and don’t. The longer ending of Mark refers to it, but this is Luke’s story, so this morning we heard passages from Luke 24 and Acts 1.

In these two chapters I observe three basic ideas:
1. Walk: Jesus walked through the Scriptures with the disciples. We study the Bible together.
2. Wait: Jesus told the disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit. We wait for God’s presence together.
3. Witness: Jesus told the disciples that the Spirit would make them witnesses. We witness to God’s Spirit together.
These three themes together describe who we are when we are “clothed with power from on high.”

Walk Through the Bible
On the road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13 to 35), we read: “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” As Jesus walked with the two disciples, he walked them through their Scriptures—our Old Testament. In Luke 24: 44-45 we read: “He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” In Acts 1 Luke covers the same time period. Observe the action there. Verse 3 reads: “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” We can take it that this instruction was expanding their understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The disciples knew their Scriptures well, but they had not thought through what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. After the resurrection, Jesus took them back through their Scriptures, rereading the Hebrew Bible with this new information—that the whole book was fulfilled in him. Paul went through a similar process when he was converted. In Galatians 1 Paul says,
11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. 17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.
18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.

The highlighted section gives a period of three years during which Paul was doing something. Arabia (verse 17) probably means what we call Saudi Arabia—desert. What was Paul doing for these three years, a part of it in the desert? I think he was re-evaluating his life. He had defended the Hebrew Scriptures and traditions against all comers, but now he had to re-interpret them. He fought against Jesus and the disciples because he thought they blasphemed against God, but once he accepted Jesus as divine, he had to find out how the Hebrew Scriptures foretold him. In short, he was doing what the disciples were doing with Jesus in Luke 24 and Acts 1. Study the Scriptures to find Jesus and know Jesus better. Walk through the Bible with God and with each other.

Wait for the Spirit
In both Luke 24 and Acts 1 Jesus tells the disciples to wait for the promised Holy Spirit.
Luke 24: 49, “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” The promise of course is the Holy Spirit. The city is Jerusalem. The  command is, “Wait in the city.”
Acts 1: 4 and 5, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Again, the gift is the Spirit. The city is Jerusalem. The command is, “Wait for the gift.”

Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem. Jerusalem as the city of God represents the place where we meet God. As we walk through the Bible together, we wait in God’s presence for God’s Spirit. We don’t read in order to go out and do something dramatic. We don’t worship here together on Sundays and meet at other times in order to do something dramatic. We read and sing and pray and worship is how we wait for God’s Spirit.

Sometimes people try to turn this waiting for the Spirit into a system—whether the Keswick view of the higher life or a more extreme view of perfectionism as developed in some Wesleyan circles. Hear me carefully, you cannot put the Holy Spirit into a box and control the moving of the Spirit. Rather we wait for the Spirit to move, and then we follow. An old hymn says it:

Hover o’er me, Holy Spirit, Bathe my trembling heart and brow;
Fill me with Thy hallowed presence, Come, O come and fill me now.
Fill me now, fill me now, Jesus, come and fill me now;
Fill me with Thy hallowed presence, Come, O come, and fill me now.

I am weakness, full of weakness, At Thy sacred feet I bow;
Blest, divine, eternal Spirit, Fill with power and fill me now.

It’s an old campground hymn, and easily becomes emotional and sentimental, but the idea is right. When we focus on action and results, rather than waiting in God’s presence for God’s Spirit, we lose the power of resurrection joy, which God wants to give to us. Instead, waiting and doing go together. We wait for God while we do the work of each day. Waiting is the condition of our lives, the space within which we anticipate God’s renewed coming into our lives repeatedly.

The disciples misunderstood the point of waiting for the Spirit. They immediately jumped back into ideas that Jesus had worked so hard for three years to remove. They thought the gift of the Spirit meant that now the kingdom would come in power and Jesus would reign with them forever. Jesus rebuked them—again—and gave them the real purpose of waiting for the Spirit: Witness!

Think of what a witness is. Imagine that as one of you was walking up to the church today you saw an accident. Two cars driving down Oakwood got too close when passing so that they hit each other. It looks like a pretty bad accident.  Imagine that I was sitting in the office going over my sermon to be ready to preach. You come in to the office and tell me what happened and then call the ambulance and the police. When the police come, who will they want to talk to? They might ask me, “What happened?” I reply, “So-and-so came in and told me that two cars hit each other.” Immediately they want to talk to the person who saw the accident. I am not a witness. I only heard about it.

That’s what’s going on here. The disciples were witnesses to Jesus’ earthly life, as well as to his death and resurrection, but God wanted something more. God wanted to make them witnesses to the continued presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit after Jesus ascended into heaven. They could not witness to this reality until they experienced it. That is why they had to wait in Jerusalem for the Spirit. Only then could they say, “We have something to tell you!” In chapter 2, that is exactly what happened.

Is any of this for us?
A fair question asks if any of this applies to us, or if this just tells what happened to the first disciples. This is where Ephesians 1 comes in. here the text again:
15 For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, 16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

Paul wants the Ephesians to be filled with the Spirit, just like the first church. Paul himself did not see Jesus in his earthly life. He came on the scene just after the resurrection, and met Jesus on the road to Damascus. If walk—wait—witness applied only to the first disciples, then it did not apply to Paul. But clearly Paul sees this response to Jesus’ resurrection to include him, and in Ephesians 1 he applies the same filling of the Spirit to the new Christians in Ephesus. Is this pattern for us? Short answer: You bet it is!

Clothed With Power from On High
When we walk in the Scriptures together, when we wait in God’s presence together, we become God’s witnesses together, “clothed with power from on high.” Different theologians have used a similar set of terms to say what we would look like. John Stott has a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, which he refers to as God’s way for the counter-culture of the church. Larry Miller (of MWC) refers to the church as the microsociety in the macrosociety, showing what God’s reign looks like. Michael Goheen (who used to be theologian at Trinity Western) calls the church a contrast society that lives in contrast with the world around us.

You see, Jesus is the incarnation of God. Jesus shows us what God looks like in human flesh. The church is the incarnation of God’s reign, as in Ephesians 1:22-23, where we are called “the body of Christ.” Our job is to show the world what God’s reign look like in human flesh. When we are clothed with power from on High, when we are filled with the Spirit, we become God’s people, making God’s reign visible in our lives.

I think of the church that I come from, the Brethren in Christ. In Ontario we were called Tunkers (from the practice of baptizing by trine immersion), or sometimes just “plain people.” I read somewhere about the attitude of their neighbours in the Niagara Peninsula. Someone was talking to the customs and immigration official at Niagara Falls about the Tunkers, and the customs officials said something like, “Oh we never worry about the plain people. Every year at their Love Feast, they come to make right anything they brought over the border in the previous year.”

What happened was this. Someone might bring something in from New York State without declaring it properly, but every year at Love Feast the brothers and sisters examined their consciences. Then they went to the customs officials to pay duty on everything they might not have declared. Their behaviour might cause a certain amount of laughter among more sophisticated folk, but they were clothed with God’s Holy Spirit, and they knew what God wanted them to do.

That’s what the first church was like too. Acts 1 to 4 tell us that they cared for all their poor people, because they were “clothed with power from on high.” A famous quote from Julian, a Roman ruler from the fourth century states: “These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agapae, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes.” After warning us not to idealize the first Christians, Stephen Neill describes them like this:
In those days to be a Christian meant something. Doubtless among the pagans there were many who lived upright and even noble lives. Yet all our evidence goes to show that in that decaying world sexual laxity had gone almost to the limits of the possible, and that slavery had brought with it the inevitable accompaniments of cruelty and the cheapening of the value of human life. Christians were taught to regard their bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. The Church did not attempt to forbid or abolish slavery; it drew the sting of it by reminding masters and slaves alike that they had a common Master...and that they were brothers in the faith. (A History of Christian Missions, page 41.)

This was the period in which Christianity conquered the Roman world through love. That conquest led to major problems, most notably the way that true Christian faith became a political matter rather than a relationship with God. But it shows also how thoroughly the church can influence our world—this counter-cultural microsociety living in contrast with the world around us. Like the first disciples, we walk with each other in God’s Written Word, we wait with each other in God’s presence, and we witness the reality of God’s reign in our lives. We are clothed with power from on high.

8 May 2016: Ascension Sunday
Grace Bible Church
Texts: Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53