Tuesday, 26 November 2013

My Journey Through Chistology

My Journey Through Chistology

When I became a Christian I was obviously really drawn to Jesus, but I also remember being really confused by him as well. He would say things like in John chapter 10, "The Father and I are one", and in chapter 14 "anyone who has seen me has seen the Father". And what made me confused was that Jesus was human and he would sneak off to deserted places to pray to God. If he and the Father were one, who was he praying to? Why did he need to? I continued to be drawn to Jesus, but it seemed like the more I tried to understand him the more mysterious he begame.
          I went to university and took classes in Christian history and then later in seminary I took classes on Christology, which tries to understand Jesus. I started to realize that when I became a Christian I drifted through numerous heresies. I remember being fascinated in my classes because I had lived these debates. These debates and counsels had taken place in my soul.  Reading about others that had struggled with who Jesus was and is was reassuring and exciting because it showed me I was not alone.
          Humanity had a very powerful experience when it came into contact with the teachings and person of Jesus. It was such a powerful experience that it took the church generations to begin to realize the depth of that experience. And I think if we are honest, we as the church are still unpacking our experience of Jesus (Hobberman Sphere). … Perhaps you have had an experience like this. Have you ever had an experience with God that took you weeks or even years before you felt like you understood it? … And if you think back on that experience I bet the meaning of that experience is clearer to you now. The details of that experience might not be crystal clear, but as you have reflected and unpacked that experience you have understood its meaning more clearly.
          As the church attempted to more fully understand their experience with Jesus they inevitably bounced from one extreme to another. Those extremes began to be called heresies. We all struggle with heresy as we attempt to grow in our understanding of Jesus. We have a natural desire to follow an idea to its extreme.  So, for example, some couldn't understand how Jesus could be a divine being and be human being. Some wanted him to be 100% human, and not God at all. They could accept him as a teacher, or a prophet. Others wanted him to be 100% God, and not human at all. To them there was something very unholy about human flesh. It's messy. Humans have to go to the bathroom, which isn’t very dignified for God. So, they started to say that Jesus only looked human. It was as if Jesus was a holographic projection sent from heaven with a message for us.  
          There were those that believed Jesus was a divine being, but not God. Jesus was an incarnated being. A powerful being, but a created being. There was a point in time when The Son did not exist. He was a creature created by God, and therefore is not God. 
          Most Christians agreed that Jesus was God, but the difficulty was in understanding exactly how that worked - how exactly is Jesus God? Was Jesus 50% human and 50% God? Was he some kind of hybrid? Maybe instead of a human mind, Jesus had God fill that space that was usually filled with a human mind. But others wondered if Jesus was still human if he didn't have a human mind. Wouldn't that make him a third kind of being, neither God nor human, but some hybrid? And would Jesus still be able to save us if he was only ‘sort of’ human?
          Others started to wonder in what way Jesus was God and they imagined that God the Father left heaven and became incarnate in the baby Jesus. But some started to ask who kept everything in existence while the baby Jesus was sleeping. And when Jesus died on the cross, who kept the universe going? Did God really die and suffer of the cross? And who was Jesus praying to? What was Jesus speaking about when he spoke about the Father?
          It seemed like each time they came to a conclusion, they had more questions to deal with. They started to wonder if Jesus was 100% human and 100% divine, then was how exactly did that work? Was there a divine Jesus and a human Jesus? Could the divinity overpower the humanity?
          Now we just blew through a few hundred years of thought on Christ. If you've never dealt with any of this your head might be spinning a little. It is a difficult subject. Some of you might have never thought about any of this, and some of you might be wondering what you believe about Jesus at this point. Some of you might be thinking that this is a lot of silly theology about things we really have little clue about. We might as well discuss how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. However, these beliefs mattered and still matter. What is at stake is how salvation works, if we pray to and worship Jesus, and whether we can trust Jesus or not. That's why they struggled so hard with these issues. And these opinions are not just deep in history covered by ten feet of soil. They all exist here and now. Walk down the street and ask people who Jesus is and all these opinions are still present in our world.
          There are those who still believe Jesus was just a human teacher, nothing more. There are those who believe that he came from some distant planet to teach us. There are those who believe that Jesus was just a vision received while someone was on hallucinogenic drugs. The Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Jesus is the incarnate Archangel Michael, a creature of God, but not God. The Mormons believe that Jesus is a god on his own, separate from God the Father.         
          These positions weren't and aren't acceptable because they aren't supported by the Bible, you have to ignore chunks and twist scripture to make it work. And these positions don’t make sense in terms of the Church's historical experience of Jesus. They change who Jesus is, and so in a sense set up a different Jesus. That's why the church cared so much about attempting to get it right.  Each time the Church heard an idea they kept coming back to the scriptures that were handed on to them. They kept going back to what they were taught by those who were with Jesus. This didn't mean that all Jesus' mysteries were explained. What the Church was trying to do was set boundaries on how we talk about Jesus. At what point do we stop talking about Jesus of Nazareth? Well, when we deny that Jesus was a human being we have stopped talking about Jesus and are really talking about something else. When we deny that Jesus was God we have stopped talking about Jesus of Nazareth and are really talking about something else.
          One of the places in Scripture that was returned to again and again during these controversies was the Colossians reading we heard today. Most scholars believe that chapter 1 versus 15-20 was an early Christian hymn that Paul incorporated into his letter to the people of Colossae. The letter is believed to have been written in the 50's or early 60's. We're talking 20 or 30 years after Jesus had died. That means this hymn is dated even earlier than that. Listen to this hymn again and think about what kind of a person we are talking about- who is Jesus?
15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.     
          He is "the image of the invisible God". Imagine that being said of a human being. "by him all things were created". Close your eyes, now think of something... Jesus created that. Okay now close your eyes again, think of something else, ...  Jesus made that too.  (We could do this all day.) All the atoms and energies of this universe- Jesus created it all.
But not only did he create everything, everything was created FOR him. It's hard to even imagine what that means.  Okay close your eyes and imagine something ... that was made for Jesus.
And then we read that "in him all things hold together". Okay so close your eyes and imagine something... you know why that thing doesn't stop existing? Jesus. All things were created by him. Go back to the beginning and Jesus is there. Go to the end where all creation is heading and Jesus is there. And right now everything is being held together by him. … "God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Jesus]". All God's fullness is in Jesus. This is not something that can be said of someone who was only a human being. That can't even be said of an angel. No angel has all God's fullness dwell in him.
          This is a difficult place to use words. If Quantum Mechanics is difficult to grasp then how much more the deepest nature of God. And just because it is difficult to understand doesn't mean it's not true.
          Jesus is 100% God. He shares God's nature with the Father and the Spirit. He is fully God- along with the Father and the Spirit.  Jesus is also 100% human. God the son took onto Himself human nature. A human being has been incorporated into who God is. And because he is both fully God and human, he has brought broken humanity back into relationship with God through his life, death on the cross, resurrection, and ascension.
He is fully human, so he understands your struggles. He understands how difficult life can be. And being God he brings that understanding into God as a human being speaking for us, as one of us. As one of us he resisted Sin and defeated evil. That is a human victory as well as a victory of God. This means we can benefit from the spoils of that battle. 
          If Jesus is God then we can pray to Jesus and worship him without being polytheists. If Jesus is God then God sacrificed himself on the cross for us, taking on the full power of evil to show His love for us. He didn't send one of his poor creatures to endure the cross for our sake. He endured it for us. If Jesus was just a creature, then we are still reaching up towards God while stuck in the mud. But, if Jesus was God then God has reached down to us to pull us up. If Jesus is God, then we can trust what he says about God, because he is God. He isn't a creature giving us good guesses. He is God himself revealing himself to us. In Christ, God did for us what we could never do for ourselves.
          It's a hard thing to talk about. Partly because it's technical, but also it is difficult to talk about because it is true. Evil and darkness and suffering is easy to talk about. But the reality of Jesus as the union between humanity and God isn't easy because I can never get the words beautiful enough. I can never convey the grandeur of the God of the universe being present in a human baby in his mother's arms. I'll never have the language to truly communicate the love felt for you as he drew his last breath on the cross. And I'll never really be able to fully describe the human being now present as God in the realm of heaven looking at us all here as we worship him. I'll never have words beautiful enough.     
          As a new and growing Christian I sat and had conversations with a variety of people about who Jesus was and is. As I got to know Jesus in my prayer and through my Bible I started to recognize Jesus, but I continued to struggle. And there are some things I continue to struggle with, but I was continually drawn to him and the closer I got the harder it got to squeeze him into a box so I could understand him. I still want to speak about him in ways that honour Jesus because I desire to love him with all my mind, as well as my heart. But, as hard as it can be to understand Jesus we can rest assured that we are not saved by understanding every intricate detail of who Christ is. He sees us longing after him. and we long after him because he is the "image of the invisible God". In seeing him we have seen God. Ultimately our salvation rests in the fact that Christ knows who we are. And because it depends on him we can grasp onto him with a childlike faith-
Jesus loves me this I know,
for the bible tells me so,
little ones to him belong,
they are weak but he is strong,
 yes Jesus loves me, yes Jesus loves me, yes Jesus loves me,

 the bible tells me so. 

Monday, 18 November 2013

expectations and standards

Crystal and I aren’t really into reality shows, but one that we did enjoy was America’s Best Dance Crew.  Our favorite group was called “Quest Crew”.  Through their dance they would often tell a story. They would show an amazing physical ability as they flipped through the air. They worked together amazingly. … But, if any one of the members didn’t do their part it wouldn’t work. The story wouldn’t be told, and watching it would become awkward. All the attention would be on the person who let the group down. 

In our reading from 2 Thessalonians Paul is describing members who are letting the group down. The church is like a dance. There are many parts to play and it works best when all the parts are played well. 
Paul is warning the Thessalonian church about those who are “living in idleness”. The word in the original Greek has a couple meanings. It could refer to a person who is slacking off, but it can also refer to someone who is disorderly. Those meanings bleed into each other. If someone is refusing to play their part they are slacking off on their duties and causing disorder because the group isn’t able to function well if everyone isn’t doing their part. The whole dance is disturbed if one of the dancers isn’t dancing well.
The early church functioned very much like a Mediterranean family. It was a large household and everyone was expected to contribute to the life of the family.  It seems like in the Thessalonian church had a few members that were taking advantage of the generosity of the community. These are not people who are unable to contribute because of age or illness. Paul is speaking about people who are able, but unwilling.  They were happy to take, but not to contribute. On top of that they seem to have been busybodies- spreading gossip and poking their nose into other people’s business. Paul states that he and his companions set an example for them by working hard and not expecting anyone to support them, even though it was their right to expect to be supported. Paul and his companions went beyond the expectations in order to set an example for them.
The effect of these idle people is that they breed disorder in the church. The bar becomes lowered. If someone is slacking and causing disorder then what they are doing it might spread through the community. Others might see that as the example to follow and the community is weakened. Others learn not to take their duties seriously. The community is then weakened.                 

No doubt many of us have been confronted by people who are happy to take advantage of us. We are especially vulnerable as Christians because we are supposed to be nice, and generous, and that can make us easy marks for those who are looking to take advantage of us. I have been conned numerous times. Some of them have fantastic stories. Paul’s words mean that we are allowed to be wise when dealing with people. We are allowed to have boundaries and defend against manipulation.
Paul is not trying to be cruel in telling the Thessalonians to keep away from those who are idle and causing disorder. Paul is trying to protect the Thessalonians by protecting the community. In the end, keeping away from the troublemakers might actually help the troublemakers to realize what they are doing. Paul says that anyone who is unwilling to work should not eat. In the early church it was very common to have a common purse to care for the needy. No doubt some just saw an easy meal. Paul says that those who can work, but don’t shouldn’t be allowed to draw from the common purse. In reality they are stealing from those who truly need it. They are causing a disturbance in the community by setting a bad example. Really they are putting the health of their own souls at stake.
What Paul is talking about is church discipline. It means that there is a certain standard that we agree upon. It means that there are expectations to being a part of a community. There are expectations about how we treat each other and expectations about how we will function in the world.
Church discipline has become a very nasty concept in our minds. We think of heresy trials and shunning and other kinds of mistreatment and cruelty. The opposite extreme is also unacceptable though. The opposite means there are no expectations for the Christian community.  No expectations about how we treat each other, or how we act in the world. That may lead to a church full of disorder. It leads to a church full of hypocrisy where we claim to follow Christ, but our actions and lives don’t show it.                   

While Paul’s words might seem harsh, he is trying to protect the community from those who would harm it. Here we have to be careful to not always be pointing our fingers at people in the church. We also need to be self-aware and in humility we should on occasion question our own effort in the community. How much to we receive and how much to we contribute. In what ways are we contributing to Christ’s work in the world?
If I remember my moral philosophy class accurately the philosopher Immanuel Kant said that one way to decide if an action is ethical is to contemplate what the world would be like if everyone behaved the way you do in a particular situation.  I think we can apply this thinking to the situation in Thessalonica. What if these slackers were the norm in the church? What would happen to the church? What if everyone was drawing on the church’s resources but not contributing to the church. What would happen to the church? What would happen to the slackers? The result is that if the church was feeding them that they would go hungry. Paul is helping them to feel the consequences of their actions. Paul is trying to help them to see that they are taking unfair advantage.  

Obviously Paul thinks it is very important to protect this community. So what is this community that he is protecting? This community is not a club or a hobby for those involved. This community is the body of Christ. It is the hope that there can be a new way of being human.

Once in a while I meet people who say something like “I don’t need to go to church because I meet God in nature when I go for a walk”. I think that is true. I often feel God’s presence in nature as well, but church isn’t just about where I “feel God”. Church is also the place where I learn to be a new kind of human being. It is where we gather as a variety of different kinds of people who would otherwise not really be with each other and we learn to be a family. I need church because I need to learn to be patient and there are all kinds of opportunities to learn that in the church. I need church because I need to know what it is like to be deeply loved and it is amazing to experience people loving you like you are family. I need the church because I need to be made aware of ways that I need to grow. In church I learn to not always have things my way because the point of church is not me. The point of the church is God, and the family God has created to be a part of his mission in the world.
It is by being a part of the church that I learn to be the kind of person God is hoping I will become. … What Paul is concerned about is that the community could get watered down by people who just want to greedily consume the church’s resources but not offer anything back. This sows all kinds of destructive seeds into the community. This community is too important to allow it to be destroyed by a few selfish members.
So what can we do? First, we need to honestly examine our contribution to God’s kingdom. The church is part of that, but it extends beyond the church. Some are called to worship and are called to offer themselves in service to God outside these walls, and that is the way it should be. But, it is important that we look realistically at how we offer ourselves according to our ability and the call God has placed on our hearts. Second, we may be called to encourage people we are close to who may be stuck in a consumerist mode of being a part of the church. We all need reminding that we are here to love and serve God not to have our wants fulfilled.    
The church has always struggled to be self disciplined. It has always struggled to call itself to a higher standard, but we can be certain that God is using it- using us- to help create that new humanity that looks like Jesus. That means the struggle is worth it.


Tuesday, 12 November 2013

what do we remember on Remembrance Day?

Remembrance Day 2013

We gathered to remember on remembrance day. We remember those who have suffered and died because of war. They are many of our family members. No doubt some of those who read this have suffered as a result of war. Why do we do this? Why do we want to remember these horrible times? Wouldn’t it be better to stuff those memories into humanity’s closet? … There is a former soldier I know who will only remember late at night, and will only speak about the war in a whisper, and even then only to one or two people- if he speaks about it at all. Wouldn’t it be better to put these memories away? Why are we doing this? Why is it important that we remember?

 We are not gathering to remember the glory of battle. Thankfully, that romantic notion has died. … We remember because we dare not forget. We remember because those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it. We gather to remember those who suffered because of our failure to make peace.

Peace has to be actively pursued. We have to put the same effort into peace as a soldier puts into running across a field and crawling under barbed wire. We have to cultivate the same courage a soldier has in facing someone shooting at them. Like those who lost their lives, we must be willing to sacrifice for peace. To not actively work towards this peace is to make war inevitable for our children. War comes because we have failed at peace.

The effort I’m speaking about isn’t just for politicians. The effort I’m speaking about is required by each of us. In each of our lives we must pursue peace. I’m talking about the grudges we hold onto. I’m talking about our unwillingness to forgive. I’m talking about the anger and contempt we feel towards others. I’m talking about the hurtful words we say. I’m talking about the frustration we feel when we don’t get our own way, and the offense we are unwilling to forget. … These are the seeds of war. … Peace requires all the effort of war. And that effort primarily takes place inside each of us.  

We can honour those who have fallen and suffered because of war best by actively removing the seeds of war from our own hearts. By learning to forgive. By replacing our anger and contempt with love. It is not easy. It will require effort, but peace is effort. If we want to honour those who have suffered because of war, then we will need to exert effort and cultivate courage. It is hard, but the consequence of not doing it is war. May we remember the effort of those who have fallen by making a courageous effort towards peace in our own lives so that our children and our grandchildren and our great grandchildren may know effort, and love, and courage, but not war.    Amen.

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Saints

Hear the sermon here

Today we celebrate the feast of “All Saints”. It is a day we set aside to remember all the saints, known and unknown to the church. The word “Saint” is related to the word “Sanctus” and it basically means “holy one”. Something that is “holy” has dedicated for God’s purposes and is used by God in this world.
The saints are those who have been “hallowed”, which means “made holy”. “Halloween” comes from the phrase “All Hallows Eve” which is the night before “All Hallows Day”- the day we call “All Saints”.
There are a couple ways to think about the saints. In one way the saints are those who have shown amazing holiness. They have done good and amazing things. They have shown an incredible character and courage in the face of impossible odds. Their lives have also shown the presence of God’s Spirit in a variety of ways.

            We find some of these saints in the Bible. The Apostles and Jesus’ mother, Mary, are remembered as saints. Mary said “yes” to God even when it looked like it would make her life very difficult. As a young unwed girl, a pregnancy could put her in a very dangerous position with her community. If she didn’t say “yes” to God who wanted to place Jesus in her womb, she could have lived a much more comfortable life. She could have gotten married, then become pregnant, then she could have had a family and lived a nice quiet life as the wife of a carpenter. It would be a modest life, but a quiet life. Instead she said “yes” which meant her fiancĂ© and her community might reject her. She would see her son, Jesus, be rejected by her community as a heretic and crucified as a traitor and rebel. In courage, Mary said “yes” to God even though it meant a difficult life. In the end it meant a life filled with God, but it wasn’t the safe comfortable life most of us desire.  

  After the time of the Bible Christians went through persecution. Many were executed for being Christians. The tombs where these Christians were buried became special places for Christians. There people were remembered for their courage and faith even when confronted with death. They were remembered as people who gave everything for their love of Christ. Eventually churches were built over certain tombs and the church would be named after that Christian- So the original St. Timothy’s may have been built over his tomb in Ephesus.

            When the times of persecution ended in the Roman Empire certain people continued to stand out as examples to the faithful. They gave everything for their love of Jesus in a different way- not by dying, but by going to the dessert to live lives filled with undistracted and intense prayer. These desert fathers and mothers were remembered as examples of people with powerful devotion to God. The saints are also remembered as people who God used in astonishing ways. Sometimes God used them to bring healing and to show miracles. Sometimes they showed superhuman character in the way they loved.               

Many of the friends of Jesus were filled with courage and grace to do amazing things. St. Patrick had been a slave in Ireland in the late 300’s. Living a difficult life as a slave and a shepherd, he learned to pray. When he escaped his slavery he eventually returned to the island to show them the love of Christ. There are plenty of fantastic stories that seem to arise with the saints. One of my favorite stories about St. Patrick has to do with some soldiers who were hunting Patrick and his companions. Patrick called his companions to grab ahold of his staff and suddenly the group were transformed into deer. When the soldiers tried to ambush them they only found the deer.       

            My favorite saint is St. Francis of Assisi who was born in the late 1100’s. He was a rich merchant’s son who gave up a very promising career in the family business to live in poverty and prayer. His life was marked by joy and a love for God and all that God made. One of my favorite stories about Francis has to do with a time he visited a town called Gubbio.  There was a large wolf that terrorized the town. The people were so afraid that if they had to go outside the walls of their town they brought pitchforks and weapons with them. When Francis came to town to preach he heard about the wolf and decided he would go out and talk to it. When he left the people were sure they would never see him again. Francis went to the wolf and when the wolf was about to attack him he made the sign of the cross and began to tell the wolf that he had been acting terribly by destroying and terrorizing the creatures of God. He said that he knew the wolf was doing this because of his hunger so he proposed a deal. If the wolf would stop terrorizing the town and attacking the people and their animals he would make sure that he was fed. The surprised townspeople saw Francis walk back into the town followed by the wolf. He told the townspeople about the deal he and the wolf had made. The wolf raised his paw and put it in Francis’ hand to show he agreed, and the townspeople agreed to feed the wolf who would go from door to door to get table scraps. Supposedly he became something like the town pet. Some of these stories seem kind of silly, and you are no less a Christian if you choose not to believe it. However, I did read that they were repairing a chapel in Gubbio in the 1800’s and discovered a wolf skeleton under the floor.  So, believe what you want. I tend to be a bit of a romantic about these things

            Some saints are remembered for the great and beautiful things they did that were inspired by their love for God. Not all of them were hid away in caves and desserts living in poverty. William Wilberforce is remembered in the Anglican saint calendar for his part in abolishing the slave trade in the early 1800’s. In Wilberforce we are inspired to change the world for the better and to act to fight against unjust systems even when the odds seem against us.

            Other saints live among us or have only recently passed away. Mother Theresa worked among the poor in Calcutta. She was one woman and started teaching a few children in the slums. The challenge seemed incredible. The poverty was and is unimaginable for most of us. Many would give up and walk away overwhelmed with the task. Mother Theresa saw Jesus looking at her through the eyes of those she was helping.       
            The saints are those who show us what is possible in a life lived with God. They have a certain effort and dedication in their lives, and God inspires that effort and uses it so that their lives are marked by God working through them. There is no conflict between the effort of the saint and God’s spirit active in their lives. They are one and the same. The writer and pastor Frederick Beuchner says, “Their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them”. God works through these people to give us a glimpse of heaven on earth. In them we see a love and peace and a courage that is beyond our understanding.  The saints show us the mystical experiences we can have when we dedicate ourselves to prayer and God breaks into our lives in a new way. They show the courage God can give us to stand up against impossible odds, even when we are faced with death. The saints show us self-sacrifice as they pick up their cross and follow Jesus. They show us examples of ways God can use us to transform the world. One writer has called them spiritual scientists because they apply the methods of spirituality that the church has historically taught and as a result they experience God’s powerful presence in their lives. It is a repeatable experience if we will dedicate ourselves to the methods. The author G.K. Chesterton once wrote "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." The saints are examples to us of what happens when we do try.  In the saints we see God’s grace manifested in human lives, which then blesses world.         

I said there were two ways we use the word “saint”. One way is what I have been describing. The second way we use the word “saint” is the way the Bible uses it. In the Bible the word “saint” is equivalent to the word “Christian”.  “The saints” are who we are because that is what God has made us to be. God has made us the saints through what Jesus has done on the cross and through his resurrection, and it is what we are becoming because of God’s Spirit working inside us transforming us.  So “saint” is both what we are and what we are becoming by God’s mercy and grace. 
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