Sunday, 26 April 2015

Love is an act- 1 John 3

We live in a world where we are surrounded by words. There are words on billboards, on our computer screens, in magazines, on signs. You go into the bathroom and there is advertising and graffiti. As we drive through the city words pour over us through the radio and from billboards. At home they spill out through the TV and computer. Words are used to manipulate us into buying things, to persuade us to vote a certain way, to inform us of news and of what they believe to be truth, to entertain us, and you name it. We seem to swim in a sea of words with very little silence, and if there is silence we are likely reading words.   

A downside to living a life swimming in words that are often used to manipulate and persuade us is that we have become suspicious of words. We don’t really take them very seriously. We say things like “Words are cheap” and “put your money where your mouth is”. We know words are easy to say- Even words we don’t really believe, or don’t believe enough to act on. We have lots of motivations for saying words besides the truth that we believe them.      

This isn’t necessarily a new problem. Jesus saw meaningless words as being a problem in his own culture and so he taught, “I say to you, do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matt 5:34-37). We take oaths because our word isn’t good enough. We don’t trust it on its own. But, the existence of oaths implies that our “yes” isn’t really a “yes”, unless it is said under an oath- “cross my finger, hope to die, poke a needle in my eye”. The existence of oaths implies that we can’t trust each other, so we need contracts and signatures because our “yes” or “no” just aren’t good enough. The words are taken too lightly and can be meaningless.   

Jesus told a parable about words. He said, “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” (Matthew 21:28- 31). Jesus is saying that words count for very little if our actions don’t match. And, if our words don’t match our actions, it is our actions that count.  

In John 14 Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word …” (John 14:23). We can say we love him all we want, but if our actions don’t match then we have reason to question the truth of our words. If we love him, we will act on his teachings. Words are cheap. Actions are more costly. Jesus desired that we would be genuine. That we would avoid hypocrisy by aligning our words and actions.      

We hear a similar message in John’s letter today, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18).  John is particularly concerned that our love have a real action connected to it and that it not be merely a word that doesn’t mean anything. Our actions expose the truth or the falsity of our words. If we claim to love someone in need, and have the ability to help, but we don’t, then John would suggest there is a reason to question if that love is true.   

We hear a similar teaching from the letter of James.  “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:14-17).

The concern for the poor is strong in both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus and his followers were really fulfilling and highlighting these Old Testament teachings.  In the Old Testament we are taught that having money is not inherently wrong. Private property is assumed.  The Ten Commandments condemn stealing and coveting, and Israel is encouraged to be generous. So it is not wrong to have things. It is assumed that we will have property and goods.  The Promised Land itself was promised to be a place of prosperity. The Old Testament never says that poverty is a good thing. Poverty causes suffering and so it is not what God wants for His people.

            While we do have some rights to our property we are also taught that in essence all that we own really belongs to God. We are managers of the resources that have been given to us. One of the heresies of our time is that we don't really believe that our bank account, or house, or car, belongs to God. We tend to think that God would be stealing if God drove off in our car.  Deuteronomy 10:14 says, "To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it." 

            We are managers of what God has given us, and we have certain rights as managers when it comes to property. However, the Old Testament teaches that care for the poor overcomes our rights to private property. Our property rights give way under the obligation to care for the poorer and weaker members of society.

            We are also taught that giving to the poor and giving to God were essentially the same as shown by the Triennial Tithe (Deut 26), which was saved and used to help the aliens, the fatherless, the widows, and the Levites (who were the ministers) (Ex 26:1-15).  Also, the Bible teaches that when the people harvested they should not try to harvest too efficiently so that the poor could come and harvest some as well.

            Some of these laws are a bit alien from our world. Most of us don't harvest, and most of our poor are in the inner city. But, the essence of the message still speaks to us. Our own rights to private property do not override our obligation to help the poor.

            The Old Testament teaches that to be religious without any concern for justice or the poor is a lie. If we can reject of ignore the poor, then we cannot embrace God. It is a lie and God sees right through it. This is because God often chooses to align himself with the poor and oppressed. God picks sides. That is important for us, rich North Americans, to remember.  

            This is made a bit trickier when we start to look at the cultures we are dealing with. The Old Testament and Jesus were largely living in a world were towns were small and people tended to stay in the same place with their families. The massive cities we are dealing with are relatively new. Take London, England, for example, from the years 300-1200 AD the population was 10,000-25,000. And London was a big city. To give a reference, the town of Sylvan Lake is 13,000. I think our experience of the city where just about everyone we pass on the way to work is a stranger is a relatively new experience in terms of human history. So when Jesus and the prophets mention the poor, the people listening to them would have faces and names come to mind. They would know their stories and why they living such difficult lives. These were people they knew.

In our world we are overwhelmed by the images of poverty we see all around the world. They don’t have faces or names. They are a faceless, nameless crowd with outstretched hands from the other side of the world. We pass by people sleeping in doorways and rummaging through garbage cans, but we don’t know their names, or their families, or their stories. Helping those in need in the ancient world was, in some ways, less complicated. We have created a vast social net to help those in need, but there are holes in that net and people do fall through.

As 21st century North American Christians we have a daunting task in front of us. Future generations will look back on us and they will know we were aware of the plight of the world. The innumerable orphans left in the wake of AIDS in Africa, for example. We know about this. We hear the statistics that over 20,000 people die every day because of a lack of food, most of those are children. We feel overwhelmed when we start looking at poverty in the world and so we want to throw up our hands and just stop looking. Those with tender hearts can’t handle the pain of focusing on that for too long. It’s too much.

So what do we do? As followers of Jesus, we say we love and that love has to take action. We cannot deal with all the evil and injustice in the world. It’s just not possible. But … we can deal with some of it. We can look for a pocket of injustice where our talents and resources can make a difference. Mother Teresa once said, “If you can’t feed 100 people, feed just one”.   

As followers of Christ we are called to lives of deep love, and I see that in many people in this congregation. I am deeply moved and inspired by the love and generosity I see in this congregation. We are called to love, and it is a love that looks like the love of Jesus. This love active in a person causes them to even lay down their own life in sacrifice. This doesn’t mean dying, but it does mean a kind of self-forgetfulness, or getting lost in the other person. It means love is not just a word or a feeling, but a real tangible action. “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17).               

Monday, 20 April 2015

Being Children of God- 1 John 3

I would like you to close your eyes for a minute or so. … I want you to imagine Jesus in front of you. … Just take a moment to solidify him before you in your mind. Imagine different moments in his life- teaching the crowds, healing diseases, dying on the cross, resurrected and standing among his disciples. … Now I would like you to describe his character.  What is he like? What words come to mind? …   

In John’s first letter he says, 
“Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him… .”
 The words you just used to describe Jesus is what God is wanting to transform us into- “we will be like him”. In Christian theology this is called sanctification, or theosis. It is becoming holy by reflecting something of God’s character. It is the broken image of God in us becoming whole and powerful. God wants us to learn to be like Jesus    

The church has often done a good job of naming what being like Jesus looks like. We say Jesus tells us to “Love our enemies” and “do good to those who hate you”. So we all have these teachings and expectations bouncing around in our heads. But, what happens when we actually meet an enemy, or someone who hates us? … We tend not to be very loving, or be very good to them. We often act in vengeance- you hit me so I’ll hit you. … And if we do end up doing good to those who hate us it is often through grinding teeth. … So then we come to church with our tails between our legs seeking forgiveness.

The church has often done a good job of stating Jesus’ teachings- like, love your enemies. What the church hasn’t done a good job of is showing us how we can become the kind of people that can love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, naturally, as a consequence of who we are at the core of our being. For Jesus, loving an enemy wasn’t hard because that’s who he was. He had become the kind of person that naturally loved people regardless of what they did to him. He didn’t have to love through grinding teeth and force himself to do good to those who hated him when he really didn’t want to. The hard thing for Jesus would have been to hate his enemies and spit curses at them because that would have been contrary to who he was (this was pointed out by Dallas Willard).  We tend to try to love our enemy by just trying hard. We don’t often think about the fact that first we have to become the kind of person that can do that. So we don’t prepare for the day when we will have to love our enemy. We just hope that when the day comes we will be able to. And that is a bit like entering the Olympics and never training, but hoping that on the day of the even we will be able to perform well. Or, it is like planning a trip to France and hoping that when you get there you will be able to walk off the plane and speak French without having taken any classes.   
The Church has given us disciplines or practices for just this task- to learn to grow to be more like Jesus. I’m just going to name off just a few of these practices: 
Celebration- to learn to enjoy the life God has given us. 
Confession- to bring our darkness into the light before another human being and know that we are still loved. 
Fasting- to learn to be kind even when we don’t get what we want. 
Deep and intimate fellowship- so that we know what it is like to live closely with people who we know will have our back if our lives fall apart, and they know we will have theirs, and to learn to get along even when we don’t always agree. 
Prayer- to grow in a deeper relationship with God. 
Sacrifice- to learn to trust God with our security rather than trusting things. 
Service- to learn to show love in practical and tangible ways. 
Silence and solitude- so we can learn to still ourselves to hear our own souls and God, and shut out the chatter of the world. 
Simplicity- to learn focus and to realize that our worth come from God and not from things. 
Study- so we can grow in wisdom, and in particular learn to internalize the words of the Bible. 
Worship- to learn to adore God and give Him thanks. 
These all help us receive God’s grace so that we can be transformed more and more into the image of Christ. It's like entering a room where God's Spirit works on us and transforms us. 

But, if we never study our Bibles, and never pray, and never spend time in silence and solitude, and never fast, and never celebrate, then how do we expect to follow the example of Jesus when the time comes to love our enemy? It will be like walking off the plane in France and expecting to speak French when we have never studied it. Those practices put us in the place to be transformed by the Spirit of God.

One of the amazing things about being a parent is watching your children learn to walk. First, they crawl and then they hold your hands and they start to take steps. Then they hold onto just one hand, and then they start walking along furniture, then they take off running all on their own. Then you go through a similar process when they learn to ride a bike. First, it is a tricycle, then a bike with training wheels. Then you take off the training wheels and you hold the seat as they learn to peddle and balance. And eventually (after a few falls) they start to ride their bike on their own. And then you start helping them to read. They begin learning to identify letters and sing the alphabet song, then they start associating letters and sounds and then start sounding out simple words.

Why do I care about them learning to read? Or riding their bike? Or learning how to walk? Would they be any less my children if they didn’t? Would I love them any less? No, of course not. Anyone who suggested I didn’t care about my children because they refused to learn to ride a bike would become a target of my wrath. I care about my children learning to read and walk and ride a bike because I care about their freedom. I would be sad if my child couldn’t walk because I want them to enjoy climbing trees and playing soccer. I want them to know what it’s like to ride their bike along the trails in the summer and smell the trees and feel the wind in their hair. I want them to be able to sit under the shade of a tree and get lost in a story. I want them to experience their lives to the fullest. I want them to be free.  

I think God sees us in the same way. Just as we step-by-step learn to walk, we step-by-step learn to walk in the way of Jesus. Our learning to walk doesn’t make us any more or less his children. We are His children because of His love for us, not because we earn it by getting good at walking in his ways. John says, 
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (3:1). 
We are Children because of His love, not our abilities.  

We are learning to walk in the ways of His Kingdom. We are preparing for life in in the Kingdom of God. In that kingdom, sin is a handicap. It is the equivalent of having a crippled leg, and having to sit in a wheelchair rather than play soccer. Learning to walk in the ways of God’s Kingdom means to live in freedom. It means we are free to live in love and not be enslaved by anger. We are free to trust God rather than be controled by anxiety and fear. God’s ways are ultimately about freedom. We are learning to become more like Jesus, who (in his love of God and neighbour) was the most free human being that has ever lived.

            This idea of sanctification is found all over the Bible.  In John’s letter we are looking at today we read, “And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure(1 John 3:3). In the great commission Jesus tells his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20).  In Paul’s first letter to Timothy he is told, “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim 4:7). In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he instructs his readers “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). Paul writes to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” (Rom 12:2), and “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29).  And in The second letter to the Corinthians we read, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).  And in the letter to Ephesians we read “…put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24).  

                We are the children of God because of the love of our Father. He wants us to live into the fullness of life. He wants us to be free. Freedom looks like the life Jesus describes in the Kingdom of God. To receive this transformation we can position ourselves to receive God’s grace through the practices that have always been a part of the tradition of the church. God wants us to live lives of freedom, but this isn’t something that will be forced on us any more than you can force someone to learn to reading against their will.      

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Easter- What happened on the cross? Did it really happen?

Today I want to look at two questions. What does the death and resurrection of Jesus mean? And did the death and resurrection of Jesus actually happen?

For the last few days we have been exploring the Atonement. ‘Atonement’ has been the word used to describe what happened on the cross. The word “atonement” means to bring two things into unity. We are told that what happened on the cross brought what was divided (God and humanity), into unity.

There are a variety of ways to understand the Atonement. I also want to remind you of what C. S. Lewis has said about the atonement- That understanding how it works is less important than understanding that it works. He says it is like nutrition. People were eating food and drinking long before there were any theories of how the body broke down food to nourish cells.  When you are hungry it is enough to eat, and it works.  Jesus’ work on the cross is like this. We don’t have to dedicate ourselves to one particular theory about how this works. What we are assured of in Scripture and the experience of the Church is that it does work.

That being said, the many ways of understanding the Atonement fall into three basic categories. They answer the question “where was the work of Christ on the cross directed?” Was it directed to human beings? Was it directed to God? Or was it directed to Evil?
On Thursday we considered the view that Jesus’ actions on the cross were directed towards humanity.  Throughout the Bible Sin is described as a kind of sickness.  In the Old Testament we read that over and over again the people wander off the path set for them. As they walk away from the safety of God’s path they encounter all kinds of suffering and corruption. The work of Jesus on the cross resulted in healing humanity, providing an example for them to follow, and expressing God’s amazing and unending love that draws alienated humanity back to Himself. The actions of Christ heals the relationship between human beings and God, by healing the sin that separates us. The lifeblood of the God-Man has been offered to heal our sin sick souls. And the cross is a beacon of love- showing us the profound lengths God is willing to go in order to show His love for us, and by the power of his resurrection, He empowers us to imitate his never ending and inexhaustible love. By drawing us to himself, the great Physician, we are drawn into a relationship of ongoing healing.

On Good Friday we considered another view of the atonement- The cross as directed towards God. Viewed this way the actions of Jesus can be seen as the actions of a representative or a substitute for humanity that stands before a profoundly mysterious and holy God that is unable to have the corruption of sin in His presence. Jesus pays a debt we owe God, or receives a punishment we deserve as a part of offending a very holy justice. This is the basic idea: Humanity’s sin is basically the failure to give God what He deserves. It is the responsibility of humanity to give God what is owed Him, as well as the necessary back payment for what we have robbed him of. As a good judge, God’s justice demands this restoration. For God to overlook this would make God a bad judge without a sense of justice.  The problem is that humanity us unable to repay this debt. Even if we stopped sinning entirely we would only be giving God what we owe Him already. The debt could not be paid down. And we continue to sin continuing to build a greater debt to God each time we deny God what we owe Him, which is our complete and utter love and service. God is left with two options- punish humanity as they deserve, or accept payment on their behalf. The tricky bit is that only a human being can make the payment because it is humanity that owes the debt. No human is able to make this kind of payment on behalf of humanity.  The solution is found in Jesus Christ, who is both God and human. As a human being he belongs to humanity who needs to make payment. As God, he has resources to make the payment. 

This one can be a bit hard for us to stomach because the idea of the bloody sacrifice of a life is very strange to us, but I want to also remind us that it is most likely because of the influence of Christianity that we feel this way. Throughout most of human history sacrifice has been a regular part of human life in cultures all over the world. The teaching of Christianity was that Christ was the last sacrifice needed and so in Christianity sacrifice stopped. That gives us the privilege to feel strange about sacrifice.  

            Last night at the Easter Vigil we considered the third way to view the atonement, which is directed towards the Evil powers.  In this view the work of Christ on the cross is about going to battle on our behalf to destroy the powers of Evil and rescue humanity that has been captured and oppressed. This is the view of the atonement that dominated the church for the first 1000 years. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus God defeated the devil and the power that enslave humanity. Jesus goes to battle on our behalf. He confronts the supernatural invisible evils- the Devil, demons, and evil spirits. He confronts the evil powers of this world that manifest in the form of corrupt social structures and economic systems that take advantage of people and create injustice and cruelty, and marginalize people to outskirts of society saying there is no place for them. And Jesus also confronts the Power of Sin that enslaves us and makes us something like addicts, slowly taking away our free will to choose the good, or to even want to choose good.  The ministry of Jesus is about releasing us from these powers. From the unseen demonic powers, from the systemic evil of cultures that oppresses people, and from the power of Sin that lives within us.
In this view of the atonement, what we see in the gospels is Jesus rescuing people from the kingdom of darkness and bringing them into the kingdom of God.  Jesus saves us from the power of Evil, and the inevitable destruction that is coming to the kingdom of darkness and sin. Being freed from that evil empire we are freed from the inability to live in right relationship with God, and we become free to participate in all the joy and abundance that comes with life in the eternal kingdom of God.        

We, by our sin, have placed ourselves under the power of Evil, which means a life subject to sin, fear, and death. But, God will not leave us enslaved to Evil and comes to us as Jesus. Jesus offers himself to these powers in exchange for humanity. They think they can destroy him. But the power of the sinless and divine Christ bursts from the clutches of evil and death. His humanity was the tempting bait that drew the evil power to destroy him, but his holy divinity and his self-sacrificial love was the hook that snagged the devil and defeated him. The devil’s plan backfired. When Christ snuck behind enemy lines he rescued humanity from the clutches of death.  Having entered the kingdom of God we have a new power working in us calling us to act out of the kind of self-sacrificial love we see in Christ. In this way God’s army expands and transforms the world with the power of His love.

But of course all of this is just fairy tales if Jesus wasn’t who he said he was and wasn’t actually bodily resurrected. And that brings me to the second question I wanted to deal with. We have been looking at the question, “What does the death and resurrection of Jesus mean”, but now I want us to look at the question “Did the death and resurrection happen?”.

Believing is hard- especially when we are talking about a miracle like the resurrection of Jesus. We want to see it in order to believe it. We are able to doubt anything. Our powers of doubt know no bounds. ... Maybe this is all just a dream- like in The Matrix. If we take it to the extreme everyday reality itself is doubtable. A life filled with this kind of doubt is a hard life to live. The bridge could collapse. The elevator might get stuck. Your spouse might be cheating on you.

             It is hard for us to believe the resurrection because we have a materialist worldview that refuses to believe in anything unless it can be repeatedly tested, videotaped, and dissected. We want to be able to put it in a test tube. If we can probe an issue in these ways, then we might believe it. I know people who don’t believe in the resurrection simply because they have decided that miracles just don’t happen.

            History is about trusting the words of those we never knew. There are some principles to follow to figure out if something is believable or not. There are ways history decides it can trust a text. We are being asked to believe the witness of the original disciples. We live in a world where we don’t really even trust each other. People hallucinate. People lie. People make mistakes.  But this is a question for history in general. How can we trust what someone has said or written about past events and people? How do we know about Napoleon, or Nero, or Henry the 8th? It can be tricky to think our way through all this.

            As Christians we don’t want to be na├»ve. God has told us to love him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. We are not to believe everything that comes our way. However, we are not to outright reject everything either- that is just cynicism. We are to be discerning. We are to be like sharp swords carefully and skillfully separating truth from falsehood.      

We can know London is a city in England by actually going there, but we can also choose to believe those who have gone to London and have come back to tell us about it. ... We are asked to trust the words of those who experienced the risen Jesus Christ. Do we trust their story?

            Is their story worth believing? I don’t have a lot of time, but I want to suggest that there are good reasons to believe their story. There are 4 facts that historians agree on.[1] First, Jesus was truly dead- he was killed by the hands of the Romans, who were very good at killing. Second, His tomb was found to be empty- some disagree about how it got that way, but it is a fact that the body of Jesus was gone. Third, numerous people reported seeing the resurrected Jesus. Followers and even enemies- individuals and groups, reported seeing him. About 20 years after Jesus' death, Paul writes to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15) "[Jesus] appeared to Peter, 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.” The early disciples believed that they had experienced the risen Jesus in a very physical way and they became willing to die for their belief that Jesus was bodily resurrected from the dead. ... Many of them did die for their belief.  Fourth, The early Jesus followers were strengthened. They went from a group of scared disciples huddled behind locked doors to proclaiming Jesus in the temple and across the known world. This just didn't happen with these kinds of groups when their leader was killed. Usually they scattered and the movement died. ... I believe, the best explanation for all these facts coexisting is the actual bodily resurrection of Jesus (unless of course you are just going to decide miracles don’t happen).  

            Most of you don't need these kinds of facts to know he has been raised. You probably don’t believe because of the historical case for the resurrection. Most of you haven’t become Christians because it makes sense to your intellect.  You believe the stories because you feel you have encountered Christ. You have encountered Jesus through the stories. You have felt his presence. You have felt his peace and his love. You have felt his forgiveness. You have experienced his transformation.

            We don’t always have all the proof we want. We cannot reach out and touch God with our microscopes and telescopes. We can't measure God with a thermometer.  Doubt, for most of us will just be a part of what it means to be human. ... This does not leave us hopeless. We are invited to trust the stories of those who did encounter him. Amen.

[1] For a fuller explanation there are many scholars to look at. William Lane Craig is one such scholar- 
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