Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Re-Formed People

Today we celebrate Reformation Sunday, remembering the courage and integrity of Christians who, almost five hundred years ago, stood against the corruption and moral decay of the church around them and sought for God’s renewal. Yesterday I was part of a celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, beginning with Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517. The Presbyterian Church in Canada has sponsored this celebration, running from 2013 to 2017, focussing on one of the famous mottos of the Reformation: Sola gratia, Sola fide, Sola Scriptura, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria. Yesterday we talked about the theme “Christ Alone”.

Today we look at two passages of Scripture to give shape to our thoughts: 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4 and 11-12, and Luke 19:1-10. After we look a bit more at these two texts we ask what they tell us about the continued need for reformation in the church today.

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
3 We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.
11 With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. 12 We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The introduction to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is interesting. He begins with thanks to God for their growing faith and increasing love. They are people he likes to hold up to others as examples of how to persevere in the face of trouble and persecution. So he prays for them that they will remain this kind of people.

There is in verses 11 and 12 a hint of concern that they might not follow through on the great promise they have shown so far.
  •          We pray that God may make you worthy of his calling.
  •          We pray that God may use his power to bring you to full maturity and faith.
  •          We pray that Jesus may be glorified in the way that you live by God’s grace.

But did not Paul already thank God for doing these things in them? It sounds as though they are wonderful examples of Christian faith—who need to be careful lest their good example goes bad.

From this caution we can infer that we are always on the edge of reformation. Consider what the word means. To Re-Form: to form or take one’s proper shape again. The word implies a malformation, a disease of shape, a failure of vision. In the 1500s the existing Roman Catholic Church had lost something of its original strength and goodness. Corruption in the form of indulgences and corruption within the ecclesiastical process generally resulted in a misshapen church, different from the true church of Jesus Christ.

The Reformers did not usually seek to found another church, but to bring the Catholic Church back to its original vigour and strength. Official reaction, seeking to preserve official privilege, pushed the reformers out of the Catholic Church. This reaction was not a Catholic response only; the Anabaptists similarly were forced out of the Reformed Church in Zurich, under Ulrich Zwingli. There was in fact a movement along many parallel tracks, some within the Roman Catholic Church and some without, which led to the re-formation of corrupt structures and people. We also become malformed, misshapen, even when we seek to be faithful. We also live on the edge of needed re-formation.

Luke 19:1-10
19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

The story of Zacchaeus tells a similar story, but this time from the perspective of one individual. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, a man of means and official power, but also despised by the people and a social outcast. However much money he had made from collecting taxes corruptly, he clearly felt his “uncleanness” within his social context. So when he hears about the travelling rabbi, Jesus, who has healed so many people and can even cleanse the social outcast, he climbs a tree to see him. Jesus stops under the tree and calls Zacchaeus down to host him at his house. Jesus willingly accepts the status of unclean himself in order to re-form the socially diseased tax collector. The result is Zacchaeus’ complete repentance, so that Jesus pronounces his salvation.

The need for re-formation may exist at the institutional level. It exists also at the personal level. Institutions are made up of individuals who choose right or wrong, personal privilege over integrity, personal comfort over charity, personal benefit over the equity of a truly just society. Sometimes the church goes bad and needs to be re-formed. Sometimes people in the church go bad and need to be re-formed.

Re-Formation Today
The church today, and Christians today, are in need of re-formation. We have become misshapen, malformed, people who need God’s presence and God’s work in our lives. Sometimes the church is pressed into a mould dictated by our surrounding society. North America, for example, values personal fulfillment defined by maximizing personal pleasure. The North American church has followed suit, so that we rarely the call to duty of a past generation. Do you remember the hymn: “A call to keep I have” by Charles Wesley?
A charge to keep I have, A God to glorify,
A never dying soul to save, And fit it for the sky.

The last verse runs thus:
Help me to watch and pray, And on Thyself rely,
Assured if I my trust betray, I shall forever die.

This is not our language today. We sing about loving God, and being loved by God, more than we sing about doing our duty. In many ways we have become more North American than we are Christian. I could expand on this point, but leave it here for now. It is enough to say that we need re-formation. We need God’s Spirit to “melt us, mould us, fill us, use us.”

When I was young there was a preacher in our church named Luke Keefer, Sr. He preached often on being filled with the Holy Spirit—what we called “entire sanctification”. In the first years of his ministry he added to entire sanctification what he called “sinless perfection”. That is, when the Holy Spirit fills you fully, God can remove the root of sin from your person, so that you no longer have a desire to sin.

In the 1960s Keefer left the pastoral ministry in Pennsylvania and went to teach in our church in Zimbabwe. He spent about 10 years at Ekuphileni Bible Institute there, teaching and preaching about the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life. I believe that God used Keefer to prepare the Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe for the difficult times of the liberation struggle, which led to an independent Zimbabwe in 1980. These years of teaching and preaching also changed Keefer.

When he returned to the United States, he announced that his ministry in Africa had convinced him that the doctrine of sinless perfection was not true. I don’t know why he changed his mind. I don’t know if he found sin in the lives of mature believers there, or if Africa revealed continuing failures in his own life. In either case, he went back to the churches of Pennsylvania and preached to them that he had been wrong: Even mature Christians can become misshapen and malformed and need the re-formation of God’s Holy Spirit to make them new and whole.

Or Can Someone Be “Perfect”?
As I was preparing this sermon, my mind went to another group of people—a very different situation than Keefer preaching in Africa or Pennsylvania. I have told you before about the community of Taizé, near the village of Macon in France, close to the Swiss border. Lois and I with our sons visited Taizé in December 2003. I have never been in a place so filled with peace. Peace permeated the very soil of the place to a degree I have not experienced elsewhere.

This peace comes from a daily re-formation of the soul, through regular prayers held three times a day. The rhythm of prayer forms the soul each day. At 8:15 a.m., 12:20 p.m., and 8:30 p.m. the Brother of Taizé are joined by some neighbouring Sisters and by travellers who are visiting for the week. There are perhaps 300 people in the regular weekly community and anywhere from 30 to 3,000 pilgrims who join in for the week. The prayer begins with repetitive chants in a simplified style, which help one to become silent within. Then comes a Scripture reading in French, German, and English, followed by some more singing. These chants lead to the heart of the prayer time, a 10-minute silence before God. The sound—or silence—of several thousand young people is indeed an amazing experience. The service closes with a chant designed to help one re-enter the world outside the prayer time.

Brother Roger founded the community in the early 1940s as a place of refuge for Jews. It became a place of refuge for Germans after the war. It continued as a place of peace and refuge for all travellers. One of those travellers was a mentally-disturbed woman, who, on August 16, 2005, jumped over the simple dividing wall between the worshippers and the brothers and stabbed Brother Roger to death. He was 90 years old.

Jason Brian Santos was a young man who had received permission from the Brothers to write a history of the Taizé community. The night Brother Roger was killed happened to be his first day at Taizé. Here is how he describes the aftermath:
… the day after Brother Roger’s death, during the adult Bible Introduction, a German brother addressed the feelings and struggles that many of us were facing. He graciously answered all the questions we had about Brother Roger’s murder, and though he was somber, he was noticeably void of hatred, malice, resentment and vengeance. … From the quality of his voice to his body language he emitted a sense of peace—extending it to all those who were present that day.
The German brother repeatedly emphasized the freedom we have been given in Christ. He said that we were “free to forgive,” “free to love” and “free to embrace others because Christ freely embraced us.” … I heard many discussions that week about the strange sense of peace that seemed to dwell with the brothers. I know I didn’t feel free or a sense of peace, but they did. They were free to accept us in the midst of their loss and they were free to embrace the Romanian pilgrims visiting that week with open arms. This freedom, however, extends beyond the daily structure and ethos of the community and actually penetrates the most sacred part of the community: the prayers. Many pilgrims linked their experience of peace with the prayers. (A Community Called Taize, 137-138)

I would go further and say that the peace came from the daily re-formation of their lives through prayer. The peace was God’s peace, mediated through close relationship with God, moulding and re-moulding their souls to the shape of God’s love active in the world. Jesus put it this way (John 14:26-27): “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
Excursus: I did not have time to use this example, but one could refer to the West Nickel Mines shootingin Pennsylvania 10 years ago. We have heard how the Amish Community enfolded the family of the shooter, who had killed five of their daughters and left three others injured before taking his own life. The community immediately extended grace and forgiveness to the shooter’s family—his wife and children, and his parents and parents-in-law, a practice rooted deeply in Amish faith and ethos. The practice reminds me of the example above from the Brothers of Taizé. I read one story in the New York Times on the 10th anniversary of the shooting, describing the way that one survivor lives in a paraplegic condition. Her father stated that he finds he must forgive the shooter again each day, as he sees his daughter. At the same time the shooter’s mother has become one of the girl’s regular caregivers. Grace and forgiveness run deeper even than the greatest evil in our world.

An old hymn from the old BIC hymnbook puts it this way (“Hidden Peace”):
I cannot tell thee whence it came, This peace within my breast;
But this I know, there fills my soul A strange and tranquil rest.
There’s a deep, settled peace in my soul, There’s a deep, settled peace in my soul,
Tho’ the billows of sin near me roll, He abides, Christ abides.

Actually, I can tell you where it comes from. It comes from God’s repeated re-formation of our innermost, as we focus our lives on God. We face the pressures of this world, battering and bruising our souls, and God’s heals and remakes us and gives us joy and love and peace beyond any human understanding, so that we become a truly Re-Formed People.

Grace Bible Church
30 October 2016

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Excuses of Moses

You know the story of Moses: Exodus 1 sets the scene—a “Pharaoh who knew not Moses”, combined with the increase of Jacob’s family, “the Children of Israel”, led to a situation in which the Israelites provided slave labour for the Egyptians. Life is hard, and the more the Israelites increase the worse their lives get.

In chapter 2 we read about the birth of Moses. In a setting where the Egyptians are trying to kill all baby Israelite boys, a Levite man and woman get married and have a baby boy—Moses. His mother hid him for three months, but finally tried an unusual adoption process. She put him in a basket in the river, where Pharaoh’s daughter found him and took him in. So the slave baby grew up in the king’s house, to all intents and purposes a brother to the man he will later challenge to “let my people go”.

But then the story takes a dark turn. Moses grew up. We are left to infer that his mother (who was hired to be his caregiver) told him about his real parentage, so that when he saw an Egyptian fighting with a Hebrew slave, he intervened—and killed the Egyptian. As a result he fled to the land of Midian, where he found a wife and started his family, living with his wife’s family in Midian. Notice that her family thinks of him as an Egyptian.

Chapter 3 moves the action to a climax. The angel of the Lord, who turns out to be the Lord, called to him from a burning bush as he watched his father-in-law’s flocks. The Lord told Moses that he had seen the Israelites’ misery and was ready to set them free. He called Moses to do his work: “So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” Moses protested that he was not important enough for such a task, and in response God revealed himself to Moses more fully.

This passage—with the divine name and the connection to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—is worth a separate session, so I pass over it this morning. God also promised clearly that the venture would be a success, because the Lord would do it. “I will make it happen.”

All of this sets the stage for Moses’ response to God’s call in the passage we heard this morning, which we can lay out simply as a series of excuses, combined with God’s assurance of help for each problem—real or imagined. The point is fairly simple: When God calls, the only acceptable response is yes. You remember the way that Isaiah responded in Isaiah 6:8, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’” Moses does not “Send me.” Instead, he makes a series of excuses, ending with “send someone else.”

The Excuses of Moses
Moses says: They won’t believe me.
·         God gives him instructions for a series of miracles: Moses’ staff turns into a snake, then back into a staff; Moses’ hand turns leprous, then clean again.
·         Now Exodus does not give a further protest from Moses, but I have a hunch that the writer was just saving space. Clearly Moses is not convinced, because God gives him instructions for a conclusive miracle when he gets to Egypt: “If they do not believe you or pay attention to the first sign, they may believe the second. But if they do not believe these two signs or listen to you, take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground. The water you take from the river will become blood on the ground.” You would think that Moses should be impressed by now. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of his fathers, the God who controlled all of nature demonstrated his control before Moses—from the bush that burned without being consumed, to sticks that turn into snakes. So what does Moses do?

Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” His basic excuse is: I’m not a good speaker. He sounds like someone trying to get out of a Homiletics class.
·         The Lord’s response is briefer this time. One can sense a divine impatience: “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” Although God’s response is brief, I am impressed with the divine humility expressed. I think that God actually acts this way with us many times. God calls us to say or do something, and we feel inadequate. We can express our inadequacies and our fears to God, because God gives us whatever we need to do what God calls us to do.

But Moses brings out his clincher: “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.” This is the only real excuse Moses has. This is the only excuse God will not accept.
·         Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses and he said, “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him. But take this staff in your hand so you can perform the signs with it.”

God provides for the previous excuse, while brushing aside this final excuse. Ironically, the Egyptian court will be faced with a strange scene—a herdsman from Midian will enter the premises with a despised Hebrew slave as his spokesman. But when the herdsman opens his mouth, they will hear the voice and accent of the Egyptian royal family. If they listen carefully, they might also hear the laughter of God somewhere in the recesses around them.

Our Calling—Our Excuses
As others have spoken about God’s calling, we have observed a variety of ways that God’s call operates in our lives. I am talking about the way that God calls us to various tasks throughout our lives. As students approach the end of your UC or seminary experience, you may wonder what exactly God calls you to do. I doubt that you will find a sign as clear as a bush burning on campus, without being consumed, and a voice speaking from within the bush. Instead you may follow Moses’ example of finding a place where you can get a job and start a family, but in all that you do God is working to prepare you for something. Most often we make our choices and discover afterwards that God was at work throughout.

I have found myself in situations that I wonder why I am the one God called. I have been a “missionary” (although I am not sure what that word necessarily means). I have been a pastor, not that I understand “pastor” much better. Now I am a teacher. I am also a husband and father, and a member of my church in Steinbach. In each of these places I have a job to do, a part to play—God’s person for the moment. Often I find I am out of my depth and helpless, but that’s okay. God calls and we respond.

We may wonder why God calls us to do the tasks we find in front of us. In Moses’ life, God prepared him over many years for the task of leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt. It may also be in our lives that God prepares us for a specific task for the benefit of others, but it may also be that God prepares us for our own sake. God acts in us what God wants for our own good. An important theme in Moses’ life was intimate conversation with God. When we meet him at the beginning of Exodus, Moses is impulsive and hardworking. By the end of his life, Moses wanted to see God and know God more than anything else. The account of the transfiguration in the gospels lets us know that Moses received what he wanted most: not only did he enter the Promised Land and talk there with Elijah, but he engaged in intimate conversation with the Son of God. God made Moses into what God wanted him to be, and wants to do the same with us.

A hundred years ago Brethren in Christ people used a particular image to describe God’s call. They talked about meeting Jesus, who was carrying a bag or a box containing all of the events to come in their life. My Aunt Arlene, married to my Dad’s older brother, Uncle Arthur, told how she had a dream in which Jesus told her not to worry, because all that would come in her life was in the box that he held out in front of her. I remember Arthur telling about his life with Arlene, and the way that she trusted God to …
·         Arthur told how her test to find out if God was calling her to Africa or to India involved him. When he asked her if she would date him, she herd, “God just called me to Africa.”
·         Each step from then on—it’s all in the box: As they moved from California to Zimbabwe, to Pennsylvania, to Illinois, and finally back to California.
·         He told how in their time at Wheaton, she was overcome with loneliness. He offered to move back to California; she replied, “It’s all in the box. We’ll stay and finish your work.”
·         Then they moved back to California, and their joy of being back was cut short by her cancer, Hodgkin’s Disease. She learned what it means to say, “It’s all in the box.”
·         He told of their last drive together into the hills around Upland, California. She said, “Arthur, 52 is so young to die, but as I look back, I wouldn’t change anything. It’s all in the box.”

In my own life the hardest call to follow was God’s call to stop doing something. I remember when our time living and working in Zimbabwe came to an end. I was resisting it, when the preacher in a service started to sing, “Mayenziwe intando yakho.” [From the Lord’s prayer: “Your will be done.”] Whether God leads you into exotic places or to work a lifetime in Steinbach, keep listening for God’s voice—or watching for a burning bush—and when God calls, he accepts only one answer: You can make any excuse you like, but then you say, “Yes!”

Exodus 4: 1-17
Community Chapel
26 October 2016

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Power for the Powerless

Paul’s closing words in 2 Timothy stand like a beacon at the end of his life: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

How did Paul reach the point where he could speak with such confidence? The language of racing and fighting successfully suggests a life full of power and success. Before we look more at Paul’s closing words, we turn to the passage from Joel, which gives something that was understood to be basic to the life of Christians in the first church in the book of Acts.

Joel 2:23-32
You know of course that these words are spoken in Acts 2, as describing the followers of Jesus at the Day of Pentecost. But hear them first in their own time and context. The precise dating of Joel’s prophecies is unclear. We read that the prophecies come from Joel: “The word of the Lord that came to Joel son of Pethuel.” And that’s it. No direct statement of when or who was king. The three chapters refer to Judah and Jerusalem, so prophecies spoken first in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. I am assuming that the prophecies were spoken roughly in the middle of Judah’s history separate from Israel, and that the crises that faced the people were the sort of problems that they faced throughout their history—danger from their neighbours, such as Egypt to the south and Syria to the north; and danger from within through religious and political corruption.

God speaks to them through Joel. They are faced with potential destruction—the locusts of chapters 1 and 2. In some way that is not obvious to us, God works through the destruction and against the destroyers. When destruction comes, it proves to be the catalyst for renewal—“rend your hearts and not your garments (2:13)—which leads to God’s Spirit poured out on all people. The presence of the Spirit is the prelude to judgment on the enemies of “Judah and Jerusalem” and the restoration of “Judah and Jerusalem”.

As he describes the blessing of God’s Spirit and the restoration of Judah, Joel uses terms such as “in that day”, “after this”, and “then”—describing a time of God’s blessings that follows God’s judgment. This time has come to refer generally to the eschaton, the end of days when God restores creation and brings in the New Heavens and the New Earth.

So we come to the verses in our text:
23-27: After the judgment, God will restore the people’s fortunes and make God’s person and name central to life in Israel.
28-29: This restoration leads to the full presence of God’s Spirit in all people—old and young, men and women, on all people who serve the Lord.
30-31: This presence of the Spirit will be accompanied by miracles and signs and wonders, bringing in “the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”
32: Then God will save all those who call on God.

God promises Judah God’s Spirit for the last days. The way that this passage is used in Acts 2 builds on the way that Jesus transformed the Jews’ expectation of the Messiah. The Jews expected a political Messiah who would overthrow Rome and lead them to God’s reign through Israel over the whole world. Jesus gave them a dying and rising Messiah. Jesus taught them that God’s reign was within each person and within the new community of the church. Now at Pentecost Peter uses Joel’s words to say that the last days had come. They had entered the time when God reigns on the earth—but that time looked quite different from what they expected.

We also live in the time between the beginning of God’s reign and its coming in fullness. God’s reign began in the church through God’s Spirit available to all people at Pentecost, and God’s reign comes fully in the return of Jesus. We live in this already-not yet time, and we seek to live with the power of God’s Spirit in a world that is often either unaware of God’s reign or actively opposed to it. We need God’s power to survive. A few good miracles and manifestations of the Spirit would encourage us a great deal.

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Paul also lived in the already-not yet. He could remember when they all thought that Jesus would return really soon—in a few years at most. But the years went by, and by the time he writes in 2 Timothy he is probably about 60 or a little older, near the end of his life. We have two paragraphs from his letter for our text:
6-8: Paul uses the image of a war (I have fought the good fight) and a race (I have finished the course) to say that he has lived faithful to God and to the gospel of God. He has, in Eugene Peterson’s phrase, practised “a long obedience in the same direction.” Now as he waits for his death, he knows that God will receive him into the fullness of God’s reign, which waits for all those who are faithful.
16-18: Then Paul looks towards the immediate threat. I wonder if he was going to be on trial again and thought that this trial would end with his death. If so, he says, he will die victorious through the grace and strength of Christ’s presence.

So back to the question: How could Paul speak with such confidence at the end of his life? Joel promised God’s Spirit for the last days— the already-not yet of God’s Reign. How did Paul live so fully with God’s Spirit? How can we emulate Paul and also live filled with God’s Spirit. For each of us, the last day comes as we approach the end of our own lives. God’s Spirit gives us supernatural power to live in and through situations beyond our control. How can we know this and live fully in the Spirit and power of God?

A Thought from Joel
One might think that Joel describes an unusual threat to Judah’s existence, but in fact this kind of language permeates the prophets and the lives of Israel and Judah. I suggest that the possibility of destruction was Judah’s normal state. Situated on the crossroads of the Middle East, between competing empires from the south and from the north, they lived in many periods of peace, but danger was never far away.

Some countries have been protected from invasion by geographic features—for example, England has been protected by the Sea. Other countries have lived under constant competition from neighbouring empires—such as the way that the Korean peninsula has faced pressure from Japan and China throughout its history. It’s a bit like the way that one plays the game of Risk: Asia and Europe are bad centres to build from in the pursuit of world domination; Australia and South America are much better. The Middle East was like Asia and Europe in Risk—a road for invading armies to march through.
[Disclaimer: This description is my non-specialist impression. If Old Testament scholars tell you I have it all wrong, believe them.]

Life today is also full of danger. We look back to the 19th Century as a time of peace, but it was also a time of empire-building, which was not peaceful to those places brought into the European empires. We may think that the 20th Century was relatively peaceful, but it saw two world wars, and several other wars (such as in Korea and in Vietnam) that belie any sense that it was really a time of peace. In the first 16 years of the 21st Century we have seen war in the Middle East and conflicts in various other parts of the world. Violence and conflict are more normal than we might think.

We can add to the dangers of the world arena the stress of daily life. Although we are technologically far more advanced than 100 years ago, we face an epidemic of family problems and personal struggles. Clearly technological progress does not bring us to a state of complete personal and public peace. The number of people looking for ways to die is evidence of the struggle to live that surrounds us.

If the description of impending disaster in Joel is more or less normal, we can guess that the ordinary dangers of life are our path to God’s full presence. God uses the locusts to purge Judah before God can restore Judah. God promises us also that the Holy Spirit will be poured out on us as we face the dangers of life today.

But How?
Sometimes we turn this question of how we receive God’s blessing around. We start asking: How can I get this blessing? How can I gain God’s power? That’s the wrong question—like Simon in Acts 8, who asked Peter to give him the power of the Holy Spirit. When we start asking for power because we want to be powerful, we find that the locusts are waiting for us.

I said earlier that a few good miracles and manifestations of the Spirit would encourage us a great deal. The fact is that we do see manifestations of God’s Spirit. I have not seen many wonders, but I have seen enough to know they are real and that God is at work in our world. I remember when my wife’s parents called us in Zimbabwe, September 1990, to tell us that Dad was dying of cancer. We went home in December and were able to have three months that we could visit Mom and Dad regularly. One day we were talking with my sister, and she told us how in September she had a sense that something in our lives was very wrong and we needed help. So she started praying. It was just at the time that we got the call from Mom and Dad. God gave comfort and strength to deal with the locust of death.

I remember a friend of mine 20 years ago now who sought release from the oppression of an evil spirit. I saw him set free, and six months later he testified that he had found continued freedom of a sort he had never known: That experience was real! Sometimes I think that God showed me God’s power for my friend’s benefit and for my encouragement.
A side note: As the story of Simon in Acts 8 and of the story of the seven sons of Sceva in Acts 19 make the point that we dare not try to take this power for ourselves. Emmanuel Milingo was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Lusaka in the 1970s. He had an extensive healing ministry. Once he was asked how to get the power to heal and cast out demons. He said that you should never seek such power. “Unless the Holy Spirit compels you to do this so that you cannot resist, you should not try it. If you do, the spirits will eat you alive.” [The quote a paraphrase from memory, from The World In Between.]

I could go on, but the theme would be the same: I have seen God’s power at work in various times and places, but God’s Spirit has never been ours to control. God acts as God chooses, and we receive God’s power for living in a dangerous world.

The question, however, will not go away: How? Consider Paul’s example. He began his life pursuing God through the Law. He was a Pharisee, which means that he was “set apart” for the Torah, the Law of God. When Jesus came to him on the Damascus Road, he found a new source of life, and a new pursuit for his life. In Romans 1 Paul says that he is “set apart” for the gospel. That is, where he used to be a Pharisee for the law, he is now a Pharisee for the gospel of God. That is why in Philippians 3 he can still call himself a Pharisee of the Pharisees. He never stopped pursuing God; only the means changed. He allowed Jesus to transform from the inside out through the gospel of grace. Now he pursued God through the gospel of God’s grace.

So when Paul says he has fought the fight and finished the race, he means that he has been faithful to this lifelong pursuit of God. In Philippians 3: 12-14 he puts it this way: “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 towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.”

How do we receive God’s power? By repentance: “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” And by living for God, pursuing God, keeping God in Christ at the centre of all that we think and say and do. I have been doing research on Brethren in Christ World Missions, reading the reports sent home by missionaries in my church 100 years ago. There are many things about these letters that they sent regularly to our church periodical, The Evangelical Visitor. Some are disturbing, such as the relentless reminder of the extent of a casual racism in the conversation of that time. They refer, for example, to the boys that they work with—but those boys were full grown adult men, worthy of the same respect as any other man. Clearly the missionaries loved the people they worked with, but equally clearly they were part of the colonial structure and shared the assumptions of the colonial powers.

At the same time I observe the difficulties and hardships that they took for granted. They walked many miles through the bush to visit the people. They accepted the risk of dying from tropical diseases that were not well understood. At times they put their own lives on the line to save the people they had come to serve. Like us, they were people bound up with the problems and blindness of their time. Like us, they became conduits of God’s power bringing new life when the locusts pass through.

Twelve years ago, veteran CBC journalist Brian Stewart gave the convocation address at Knox College, Toronto. He talked about how he had assumed that the church, so weak and ineffectual, would soon disappear. He told how, over a 40-year career in reporting, he came to realize that the church was filled with an amazing power. He gave several examples, and then said these words:
I rather regret that the term muscular Christianity has gone out of use, because a lot of the Christianity I’ve seen is very hard muscular work, where there’s lots of sweat and dirty hands. The spirit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is alive. Many of us in news crews noticed something else hard to put into words. So often after a day in the field filming volunteers at work, we’d be sitting back over our nightly drink and one of us would say something like: “Strange people those, know what I mean? There’s just something different about them. They’ve got something that we don’t.” I believe that a form of human happiness emerges when based on a flourishing life in which spirit and intellect are used to the full, for the purpose of the good of all. Yes, they seemed to be “flourishing.” C.S. Lewis wrote of Christianity producing “a good infection.” Christian work on the front lines infects those around them, even those who are not Christian, with a sense of Christ’s deep mystery and power. I've felt it. It changes the world. Still.

A good infection of power for the powerless—not just for those who go overseas or engage in extraordinary work, but for all those who follow Christ and keep their eyes on him to the end of their lives. Then they, and we, can say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who long for his appearing.”

Grace Bible Church
23 October 2016

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Bike Memories

I have a black leather jacket. Got it second hand from my brother-in-law. I like my jacket. The only problem is that sometimes I have trouble finding it on the coat rack at church among all the other black leather jackets. Recently Lois took a picture of me as we drove south to Bemidji, Minnesota. My friends thought that the jacket needed a bike—a Harley or Yamaha or something. I started remembering my very limited experience riding a motorcycle.

I went out to Zimbabwe in January 1972, after finishing an English degree at Messiah College. I went to Matopo Secondary School with my English degree and was assigned to teach Chemistry and Biology. Not a good idea. Two weeks later the school authorities transferred me to Mathematics and English, a much better fit. (In spite of my mathematical inadequacies, I grasped the algebra and geometry well enough to enjoy teaching it.)

[The pictures are of me in front of the house in which I lived, called "Phumula". The black and white shows me at the time of this story. The colour comes from our family trip to Africa in 2003.]
I had no transport of my own at Matopo, so one of the 1-Ws in Zimbabwe stopped by to visit me. He was headed back to the States and had a motorcycle he wanted to sell. Something like 100 cc (whatever that means). I knew nothing about motorcycles; I still know nothing. I googled “100 cc motorcycles” and found this entry: “We all know for a fact that 100cc commuter motorcycles dominate the Indian two-wheeler market, but did you know that they make up for over 60% of the total sales volume? We check out the top ten best-selling 100cc motorcycles in India, to see what makes them so popular!” So I guess that it’s a basic motorcycle, ideal for a 22-year old young man posted to a school 25 miles from the nearest city.

First my friend told me how wonderful motorcycles were through stories about trips around the country. He told how he and two friends and had managed to ride between three donkeys walking across the road. Donkeys are wonderfully predictable—they don’t change what they’re doing for anyone, least of all for cyclists. He told of all the wonderful accidents he and his friends had been in, or almost been in. Finally he handed me the keys (at least I think there were keys) and let me take it for a quick ride down the road.

I started off the dirt road from Matopo, headed down towards Mtshabezi at a sedate 30 miles an hour. As I reached the end of the Matopo Mission property, the road plunged down a steep hill made entirely of granite. I have driven that road more than once, but never on a cycle. My comfortable 30 mph began to feel far too fast, and I barely managed to come to stop before heading down the steep hill and adding to my friend’s store of accident stories.

That is as close as I came to ever owning a motorcycle. A few minutes later I was back at the house and handed him the keys. I bought a bicycle instead.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Communion and Community

Introduction to Corinthians
This morning we are preparing to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Usually we do so as part of our Thanksgiving service, which we held last Sunday. This year we are taking communion during next Sunday’s installation service for Victor. 1 Corinthians 11 is a text we often use to get ready for communion, and I will use it again today.

We read about the beginning of the Corinthian churches in Acts 18. In the previous chapters Paul had preached in Philippi and Thessalonica, where he came under vigorous persecution, including imprisonment. Then he had gone on to Athens, where he gained a hearing on Mars Hill, but was laughed at by most of those listening. Given the events leading up to his entry into Corinth, the way he describes his coming in 1 Corinthians 2 makes sense: “I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. …” Paul seems so convinced in his preaching and writing that we might wonder how he could say, “I came to you with great fear and trembling,” but his fear makes sense at this stage of his preaching mission. In the event, he stayed for a year and a half (Acts 1811) and his preaching led to the beginning of a significant church in Corinth.

Corinth was a city near the southern tip of Greece, a port city that rivalled Athens, which was about 50 miles further east. It was known for its sexual immorality, although some of that reputation may have come from Athenians who were jealous of Corinth. As a major port of the ancient world, you can be sure that its reputation was at least partly earned, and that it was a cosmopolitan city full of many religions and temples.

The Corinthian Church
One of my questions as I prepared was: How important was this church that Paul planted? In the first chapter of this letter Paul says, “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.” Sometimes we read this to mean that the church consisted entirely of poor people. That’s not quite what Paul said: “Not many of you were wise … influential … noble.” So some were. In the Corinthian church there was a layering of social and economic classes, which becomes an important point in the passage that we read.

How many were in this church? The commentators I read agree that the church met in people’s homes, which limited the size of any one group to about 30 or 40 people. They normally met around a meal in their host’s home, with the wealthier people sitting at the table and lower-class people crowding in around the outside of the room. If there were a total of 10 homes that people could meet in, we have a church of 300 to 400. Paul does not tell us, so we can only speculate.

Paul is concerned with the life of this church, gathered in people’s homes. Chloe may have been one of the homeowners and church leaders (1:11). Crispus and Gaius (1:14) may also be such household leaders. Perhaps Stephanas is another (16:15). You note the mention of Aquila and Priscilla in 16:19, which shows the pattern of such household meeting in a neighbouring city, probably the city in which Paul is writing the letter. We know from Acts 18 that Priscilla and Aquila also lived in Corinth when Paul came there and hosted a house church there as well.

Our Passage
So we come to 1 Corinthians 11. This is a letter. We have a particular problem reading someone else’s mail. It would help greatly if we had the letter that the Corinthians sent, to which Paul is replying. We don’t, so we have to guess at the situations in Corinth, based on the answers that Paul gives to their questions.

You can read the letter as a whole, with a good commentary at your elbow, in order to see the issues in it more fully. One of these issues was the way that they celebrated communion, which is the passage we read earlier. Here is a brief description of what Paul says.

The Corinthian church was divided—not just by meeting in different homes, which was not a problem, but far more by leadership struggles (chapter 1) and by social class (our passage). So Paul says, “I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it.” The qualifier “to some extent” is a bit sarcastic. Paul means, “I know you are!”

Paul wrote strongly against such division in chapter 1:
10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: one of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptise any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptised in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptised the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptised anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel – not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Now again in chapter 11 Paul returns to this theme of division, except that this time it shows up as a class division. Some of the Corinthians had money, and they brought good food and drink to their Sunday meal in the house church. Some of them were poor, and they brought a poor family’s food and drink—not much! This meal was the context within which the church celebrated the Lord’s Supper. They ate their meal together, and then broke bread and drank wine in memory of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
By the way, such discrimination was normal in Greco-Roman society. The people of Corinth saw such actions all the time. Paul’s point is that they should be different: a new people, the Body of Christ.

Paul contrasts their practice (in which one person goes hungry while another wealthier brother gets drunk) with what should happen. He quotes the words that we often use when we take communion, beginning with the words, “I received from the Lord what I passed on to you.” This is a technical phrase that shows us the importance of the formula that follows: “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me. … This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

This celebration does two things: One, it remembers Christ’s death until he returns, so it reminds us both of the salvation that comes to us on the cross and of the goal of history in the return of Christ. All of our lives are re-oriented to these fundamental realities: Jesus is our Saviour—he has saved us from “sin, death, and hell”, and Jesus is our lord—we live our lives for him until we die or he returns.

Two, this celebration affirms our essential unity. By reminding us that we are united in Christ, not divided in Christ, Paul ties together communion and community. Division, in Paul’s thinking, is sin. By “division” I do not mean the existence of several different house churches. As a practical matter we meet in different groups, but all Christians form one church. There is only one church of Jesus Christ. There is only one body of Christ in this world. Each congregation may meet alone, but we all belong together. Social or theological division in this context (the practice of the Lord’s Supper) is simply wrong.

Division is something deeper than simply the fact of having several groups. In Chapter 1, division was seen in the way that each group elevated itself and put others down.
  •          “We come from Paul! You don’t have a spiritual father; we do!”
  •          “Ah, but we learned from Peter and he represents the first church in Jerusalem. We are better than you!”
  •          “You poor Paulians and Peterites! Have you heard Apollos preach? There is a man of God, truly educated and sophisticated—someone who can reach this cosmopolitan city if anyone can!”
  •          Finally, the Christ-party speaks; “None of you know anything. We know Christ! We have the way! We are the true church, not you.”

In chapter 11 division showed itself through class divisions, based on social and economic status. This was a problem in various places, as James’ shows us (James 23:1-4):
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
It is this idea of “judges with evil thoughts” that lies at the heart of division. Division is not simply separating into more than one group. Division is judging the person from whom one separates. Paul suggests that this spirit of division is at the root of other problems that the Corinthians have experienced. We do not need to draw a straight line from sin to misfortune to see the truth of his statement.

I have heard this passage preached as a call to examine oneself for all kinds of secret sins. That goes beyond what Paul is saying. The act of taking communion in an unworthy manner (verses 27-29) refers specifically to the way that the Corinthians were abusing each other at the table. In a sense, all of us always take communion “unworthily”. No one here can ever say, “I deserve this grace from God.” Grace is always undeserved. Rather, it is taking communion together, being reminded that we are a redeemed people, and that we are one body of Christ—it is this celebration of communion that reminds us of the One who makes us righteous. God comes to us because we are sinners, to redeem and transform us.

We are going through deep waters in our congregation, and we must take seriously what has been happening among us. Let me oversimplify in order to make my point. We have divided over a number of issues. To disagree is not sin, nor does separation necessarily mean division, but division may result. I assume that all of us have been seeking God’s will and are trying to be faithful in the issues that face us. Some see the danger of agreeing to what they believe is sin. To do so would make them also guilty. They cannot do it. Others see the danger of rejecting marginalized people, which would also be sin. They cannot take that step. But here is the problem. In our efforts to do what we believe God wants us to do, we have fallen into division. This spirit of judgment has not been on one side or the other, but on both sides. I am not interested in deciding who has been more guilty. In my own thinking we have done all of this together.

You see our problem: In the effort to avoid one sin we have fallen into another. In my reading of the New Testament, the call to unity is one of the strongest themes of all. In John 13, Jesus makes mutual love the mark of the Christian. In John 17 Jesus prays and asks for Christian unity as the decisive argument that God is real and that Jesus is the Son of God. In Ephesians 4, Paul states forcefully that there is only one body. In 1 Corinthians 1 he asks, “Is Christ divided?” The answer is, “No! Christ can never be divided, nor can the body of Christ, which is the church.”

I want to ask you each to do something over the next several weeks. Ask of yourself, “Did I say something to hurt a brother or sister?” Then find that sister or brother and make things right between you. Don’t try to undo the past. We can’t. Don’t think that we can put everything back together. We can’t. But we can make sure that true organic Christian unity is restored, even as we move in different directions. You may ask yourself in this process of self-examination: “Did someone hurt me? Do I feel judged?” Then go and talk with that brother or sister and make things right. I am referring now to things that really were said, not to thoughts we may have had or emotions that flow. You may wonder if you need to tell someone, “I thought bad things about you.” If you only thought them, don’t start saying them now!

Next Sunday we take communion. Some of you may say, “I can’t. I have been hurt too badly.” If your conscience forbids you, listen to your conscience. Even if our conscience is mistaken, it is the medium by which God speaks to us. But I would add something: If you think you need to be truly worthy to take communion, you may as well give up now. We are all unworthy. Our sin at that point becomes one of hypocrisy if we think that we are righteous. Communion invitations get at this truth in different ways. Here is one such invitation:
Come to this table, not because you must but because you may, not because you are strong but because you are weak. Come not because any goodness of your own gives you the right to come, but because you need mercy and help. Come because you love the Lord a little and would like to love him more. Come, because he loved you and gave himself for you. Come and meet the risen Christ for we are his body.

We need mercy and help in our life together, so I invite you to prepare yourself for communion next Sunday. If you can, make things right with people around you this week. If you can’t get it done this week—perhaps some conversations are too difficult to have now—then take communion as part of your preparation to talk to those you must speak with. Don’t delay those conversations too long, or they will submerge and infect your life from beneath, but don’t hurry them either. Take the time you need to become fully the body of Christ again.

I have started this process for myself. I invite you to join me. Don’t try to do it for anyone else. We don’t examine each other; we examine ourselves and move towards fuller communion with all of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

9 October 2016
Text: 1 Corinthians 11: 17-34

Correcting an abuse of the Lord’s Supper

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!
23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.30 That is why many among you are weak and ill, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.
33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

And when I come I will give further instructions.