Monday, 19 June 2017

The 'E' word

There is a quote by Teresa of Avila, who was a 16th century Spanish mystic. She said, 
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
 In the Ascension, Christ brought his body into the dimension of heaven. The Church- Christians- followers of the way of Jesus- are now the Body of Christ in the world. You and I, if we consider ourselves followers of Jesus, are now the body of Christ in the world.

What does that actually mean? It means that we go out to do as Christ would do. When Jesus saw how much work had to be done- how big the harvest was- he gave his disciples 
“authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness”.
 They were instructed, 
“Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons”.
 They were given authority to do what Jesus was doing. They were to cast out evil, and be agents of healing. This was a sign of the arrival of the kingdom of God. The arrival of the kingdom of God isn’t something that comes only by words, it comes by action as well. God’s kingdom isn’t about escaping this world. It is about healing this world.

At this point in their mission they were only to go to their own Jewish people- the lost sheep of Israel. There will be a time when the mission fans out to include everyone, but it starts with them. That is the nation God had been working with so intimately since God called Abraham. The blessing of Abraham was that he would be blessed to be a blessing to every family in the world (Gen 12:3). The Jewish people were the family of Abraham and so they were invited to be a part of the blessing of the nations through the messiah. Isaiah declares the ultimate mission of this family- 
“I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Is 49:6).
 The calling of the family of Abraham was to be a people bringing blessing to the world.

The disciples go to their own people to bring them news about the arrival of the Kingdom of God and the messiah. As they go, Jesus instructs them, they are not to receive payment for the healings. They are to travel light. Though, they are to rely on the kindness of strangers for a place to stay and for food to eat. They become vulnerable to the hospitality or inhospitality of the villages. They enter a house that will have them and they will stay until they leave. They won’t bounce from house to house on the basis of how good the food is, or how comfortable their bed is. They stay where they have been welcomed.

They look for people of peace, which means open and hospitable people. They don’t worry so much about those who are not people of peace. Jesus mentions Sodom, which we read about in Genesis 19 as an incredibly inhospitable place. They are looking for people of peace as they go about their mission of healing, banishing evil, and therefore proclaiming the arrival of the Kingdom of God and the Messiah.

What might this mean for us? In general, I think Anglicans have almost given up on evangelism. Either we don’t believe in evangelism, which means we don’t believe Jesus has anything to offer the people we encounter. Or we feel frozen because we don’t know what to do.

Evangelism has become a dirty word. There may be good reason. We hear people speak about not wanting someone’s religion "shoved down their throat". Or we hear about someone being a "Bible thumper". Thinking about evangelism can bring to mind someone wearing a sandwich board that says “repent, the end is near”.

One of my professors at seminary, John Bowen, wrote a wonderful book called "Evangelism for 'Normal' People". One of the most interesting parts of the book is where he looks at peoples' experiences of evangelism. He has a very interesting quote by Margret Atwood from her book 'Bluebird's Egg'. In the book a woman gets into a conversation with a woman who tells her that she used to be a missionary. Atwood writes,
"Christine had been raised Anglican, but the only vestige of this was the kind of Christmas cards she favoured: prints of medieval or renaissance old masters. Religious people of any serious kind made her nervous: You would be going along with them in the normal way, and there could be a swift movement and you would look down and find the coat wide open and nothing on under it but some pant legs held up by rubber bands. This had happened to Christine in a train station once"

Atwood is saying that to be on the receiving end of a certain kind of evangelism is repulsive and disgusting. It is like experiencing a flasher. Atwood is giving words to a fairly common attitude in our society. How might some kinds of evangelism feel like experiencing a flasher? It is inappropriate to the depth of the relationship. Something that should be an expression of intimacy is used as a form of power and violence. It leaves one feeling victimized and like we have not been treated as a person- an individual. If Atwood is accurately describing how the average person experiences evangelism, then no wonder ‘evangelism’ has become a dirty word.

What might our Gospel reading have to teach us here? First, the disciples look for people of peace- People who are open to hearing what they have to say. It doesn’t mean these people are automatically convinced that what they are saying is true. It means they are genuinely open to hearing what they have to say. If people are not open, or are hostile to what we have to say, then we let our peace return to us. We don’t let them steal it. Some will always be hostile to the Gospel. It was true in Jesus’ day and it is true in our own day.

We also make ourselves vulnerable to the hospitality of the other person. We don’t come in with all the answers as if no one can offer us anything- food or wisdom or anything. To be autonomous in that way is to be closed off from genuine relationship. It is to come to them from a superior position of independence and power. To hand someone a tract is a one way conversation that assumes you have nothing to hear from the other person. We are vulnerable to what they have to offer. This can be scary. When we make ourselves vulnerable we might be changed or hurt. We might not know what to say, or what to do. When we are vulnerably welcomed into someone’s life we will encounter things that will challenge us.

One way of being vulnerable with someone is by listening to them. Ask someone what they believe about spirituality. Ask them if they believe in God, and then just listen. They may eventually ask you what you believe, but these kinds of conversations should not be one-sided. Some people are desperate to have these conversations, but don’t have someone safe to listen to them.

We also don’t come with only words. There is a sense in which our evangelism should always be accompanied by some good works that are banishing evil and offering healing. The sign of the kingdom having come is some kind of healing. It might be emotional healing, or the healing of a relationship, or a physical healing, or some other kind. Some, like the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, argue that the primary way the world should encounter Christians isn’t through church services or televangelism, but though the good works Christians are doing in the world. We hear a lot about the bad things Christians are responsible for (and we should not be na├»ve about those things), but the world has been profoundly effected in a good way by Christians.

In the book Atheist Delusions Theologian and historian David Bentley Hart argues that in the ancient world Christianity gave freedom from fatalism (the sense that human beings are powerless to effect change). Christianity freed people from fear of the occult. It gave dignity to human beings who might not have otherwise had any (like slaves, women, and children). The influence of Christianity elevated charity above the ancient virtues (xi). Christians throughout history cared for widows and orphans, set up almshouses, hospitals, orphanages, schools, homeless shelters, relief organizations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies, the abolitionist movement that worked to end slavery, The civil rights movement (under people like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). Hart states, 
“the quality of charitable aid in the world today supplied and sustained by Christian churches continues to be almost unimaginably vast. A world from which the gospel had been banished would surely be one in which millions more of our fellows would go unfed, unnursed, unsheltered, and uneducated” (15).
 He argues that our modern notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providing for the poor, legal equality, and basic human dignity would have been largely unintelligible in a pre-Christian Europe.

We dare not lose this side of our faith. We cannot be resigned to words and ceremonies only, as important as those are. When we give up on good works, we give up on evangelism. Good works are a sign that we are living as people of the kingdom right here and right now. The healing around us is evidence of the kingdom’s presence. As Jesus said, 
“let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16).
 This doesn’t mean we brag or show off. The works should be more visible than us, but we can’t help but bump into people as we go about passing along God’s blessing.

The kingdom of God has come. Where the will of God is done the kingdom of God has come. It may not be fully developed, but it is continuing to develop and some day it will fully envelop this world. That is the promise. And we get to be a part of this as we seek people of peace to share in the healing work of the Gospel.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Trinity Sunday- God uses impossible situations

I'm not going to preach the sermon the Lectionary wants me to preach today. It is Trinity Sunday, so I could talk about God at creation and the Spirit of God hovering over the water. I could talk about God speaking in a plural voice- "us", "our". We could go to Collossians 1 or John 1 and read about Jesus being one with the creator in a way that he is the creator- 
"[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together." (Col 1:15-17)

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made." (John 1:1-3)
I could talk about the 3 fold pattern that arrives in the New Testament- Father, Son, Spirit. Paul's blessing has a threeness to it- 
"the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all". 
Jesus says to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It's hard to imagine Moses or one of the prophets including their name in such an intimate way alongside God's. Moses doesn't say circumcise in the name of God, Moses, and the Torah. There is something profound and challenging happening in those passages. We might also look at how the disciples, as monotheistic Jews, worshiped Jesus. 
    That would be an interesting sermon (i think), but something else was striking me when I was reading our Matthew reading.   

When we join the disciples on the mountain in Galilee at the end of the Gospel of Matthew we read that “some doubted”. It seems like a strange thing to be standing in front of the resurrected Jesus and have doubt. What is that about? Well we read that the 
“eleven disciples” went to Galilee. When we hear the number 11 we are reminded that the 12th has died by his own hand after betraying Jesus. They know how fragile they are. Maybe they aren’t sure they can fully trust one another if one of the inner circle of disciples has betrayed Jesus. Perhaps there is danger within their own number. 

They know there is definitely danger from outside their circle. The authorities that had brought Jesus forward to be crucified were no friends of the disciples. No doubt they had been hiding from the authorities. Maybe staying indoors. Maybe avoiding places where they might be spotted.

They are a group of beaten up disciples. Some of the disciples doubt in Matthew’s gospel. Some of the oldest manuscripts we have of Mark’s Gospel end with, 
“trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid”. (Mk 16:8)

They stand in front of the resurrected Jesus, but they are still beaten up, emotionally fragile, wary of capture and betrayal, and confused. And what does Jesus say to them? 
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
 To this broken and beaten up group of disciples who had been hiding, Jesus tells them to go and change the world. Jesus has much for faith in them than they have in themselves. Sure, Jesus is resurrected, but they aren’t Jesus. They are happy he is alive again, but what does that mean for them?

I don’t think it is unusual for us to feel like this. Sometimes we feel like we can just barely hold our lives together. Sometimes it feels like we are just holding onto our faith by our fingernails. And we come to church or we read our bibles and what Jesus is asking of us seems too much. Jesus’ words here are just as much for us as for those original disciples. 
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
 When was the last time you went to the nations, or even supported someone going to the nations, or even known someone going to the nations to teach the ways of Jesus? We usually don’t even have the energy or courage to speak to the person across the street about the way of Jesus. I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty. I think I’m just pointing out our situation. Rather than looking at ourselves as individuals, we could look at ourselves as a church. Given our numbers, our average age, and our income and expenses, how do we feel able to live out Jesus’ commission?

This is not a new situation for God’s people. We can look through the Bible and Church history and it seems like that is the kind of people that God seems to use. When God came to Moses in the burning bush Moses thought God should find someone more worthy of the task. He was a murderer on the run from Egypt and now living as a shepherd in the wilderness and had a speech impediment. The Hebrews themselves were apparently chosen by God but were a group of slaves in Egypt. In submission to one of the most powerful nations in the world at the time. In the book of Judges, Gideon said something similar to Moses when God called him. Gideon responded to God’s call saying, 
“Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father's house” (Judges 6:15).
 The prophet Jeremiah responded to God’s call saying, 
“Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth” (Jeremiah 1:6).
 We can look at Elijah on the run from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel who had been slaughtering the prophets of God and supporting the worship of foreign gods in Israel. Elijah want to die. He felt like he was the only one left who worshiped God. He felt that the deck was stacked against him. We could look at the Exile to Babylon and Haman’s plot to kill the Jews and how impossible it seemed for Ester to do anything about it. We could look into the Early Christian communities facing the persecution of the Roman Empire. Their members being told to sacrifice to the emperor so they could buy food, and avoid being thrown to the lions in the coliseum.

And perhaps we can be bold enough to include ourselves here. We as a little church. Facing our own struggles. How can we possibly do what God is calling us to do?

And yet we look back from our standpoint and we see that indeed God did use Moses to release the Hebrew slaves from the hand of Egypt. The Hebrews did establish a nation and were shaped by God. God did use Gideon to rescue his people. Jeremiah did become a prophet of God, speaking His truth to the people and his words are still read all over the world by God’s people. Elijah was not the last God-worshipper. We stand as a testimony to that 3000 years later. The Babylonian Exile was not the end of God’s people. The persecutions of the Roman Empire was not the end of the Early Christian community. In fact by the late 4th century the Roman Empire had become officially Christian.

And so perhaps we could be bold enough to say that whatever preserved those individuals and communities against the odds, might just be able to preserve us as well. Perhaps that same power is available to us.

I was once told that when you are doing Bible study and you see a “therefore” you should ask what the “therefore” is there for. Jesus says, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

We are often looking at our situation through limited human perception, rather than through God’s eyes of possibility. Jesus was not saying we have the power to do what he is saying. He is saying we can do what he is asking because of the authority he has. Jesus has all authority therefore we ca do what he asks as long as we are relying on him. It’s his authority and power that allow it to happen, not us.

Psalm 127 says, 
“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.”
 We can try to do it all on our own, but if what we are doing isn’t rooted in lives of prayer and faith relying on God, whatever we create will be in vain.

On Trinity Sunday we are reminded of the powerful creativity of God in making the universe. We are also reminded of the mystery of God as being three persons and one God. God is beyond our comprehension both in power and in the very core of God’s nature. When we delve into God’s being there is a certain point where words become useless.

This is the God who is with us. When we join with God there is no power that can stop it. But that is the key. Are we joining what God is doing, or are we merely asking God to support what we are already doing? Are we doing what matches our tastes, and our habits? Are we asking God to join us, or are we willing to do what it takes to submit our wills to join God in what God is doing? If we are joining God in what God is doing, nothing will be able to stop us. And we can see that looking back on our spiritual history. Jesus is the greatest representative of that. He submitted himself to God’s will and in the end it led to a resurrected life and the start of a movement that would overtake the world with the love of Christ over the next 2000 years.

Monday, 5 June 2017


Pentecost was a Jewish festival that had two facets to it. First, it was the second of three harvest festivals. It was the completion of the grain harvest. It is also sometimes called the Feast of Weeks because it took place seven weeks or 50 days after the Passover (Pentekostos means ‘fiftieth’). It eventual began to have a second facet and was observed as the anniversary of the giving of the Law and the establishment of the covenant at Mount Sinai, which was believed to have happened 50 days after the Exodus from Egypt.

People would gather at the temple to celebrate and make offerings. Jerusalem would have been filled with people from all over since the temple was the only place you were allowed to make sacrifices. It would have also been a time to renew the covenant (maybe in a similar way to how we renew our baptismal vows). So no doubt the story was told about how the first covenant was made between God and the Hebrew people on Mt Sinai. No doubt they read the stories from the Bible, but stories also arose as people attempted to visualize and explain what exactly happened at Mt. Sinai. An ancient Jewish historian to the Romans retold the story saying, “and while all the rest of the air was clear, there came strong winds, that raised up large showers of rain, which became a mighty tempest. There was also such lightning, as was terrible to those that saw it; and thunder, with its thunderbolts, were sent down, and declared God to be there present…” (Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 3.80).

The Jewish philosopher Philo described the word of God coming forth, [God] “at that time wrought a most conspicuous and evidently holy miracle, commanding an invisible sound to be created in the air, more marvelous than all the instruments that ever existed, attuned to perfect harmonies; … it was a rational soul filled with clearness and distinctness, which fashioned the air and stretched it out and changed it into a kind of flaming fire, and so sounded forth so loud and articulate a voice like a breath passing through a trumpet, so that those who were at a great distance appeared to hear equally with those who were nearest to it.”… “And a voice sounded forth from out of the midst of the fire which had flowed from heaven, a most marvelous and awful voice, the flame being endowed with articulate speech” (Philo, on the Decalogue, 33, 46).

An ancient Rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Weissman described the event. He says the people not only heard the Lord’s voice but saw the sound waves that came from God’s mouth. He said they visualized the word of God as a fiery substance. Each commandment left the Lord’s mouth and travelled around the entire camp and asked each individual, “Do you accept upon yourself this commandment and all pertaining to it?” And each answered “yes”. Finally the fiery substance engraved itself on the tablets of the law.

These are the stories that are being told at this time. Many stories from the Bible are being read and many are telling stories from tradition and sometimes trying to visualize what it would have been like to be there at the giving of the commandments. These are the stories rolling around the minds and hearts of the disciples and the people of Jerusalem.

Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem after he ascended into heaven because they would be clothed with power. We read in Acts that, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” This is as dramatic an event as that first giving of the covenant. The visible words of God spoken from heaven- wind and fire- and something like a flame rested on each person. And Moses’ desire comes closer to being fulfilled that “all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!" (Numbers 11:29). The prophet Joel records God’s promise that that day would come saying, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions” (Joel 2:28).

A new covenant was being made, and the disciples were being commissioned to declare it to the people. People had gathered from all over the known world and so, in a kind of reversal of the Tower of Babel event we read, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” Language was not a barrier to declaring what God was doing- he had created a new covenant. Jesus Christ had been crucified and has been raised again from the dead. He was now the means by which the people could obtain forgiveness of sin and the new life promised by God.

In the Old Covenant, the word came written in stone telling the people to not worship an idol. Moses came down the mountain with the stone tablets and found the people worshipping a golden calf. As a consequence of that sin about 3000 people died. The prophet Jeremiah said, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:31-33). In the New Covenant, God writes this law of the Spirit on the hearts of the people. About 3000 people were baptized and added to their number that day. (Acts 2:41). In the Old Covenant, they were made aware or the law, but weren’t given the power to follow it. With the gift of the Holy Spirit they are now able to follow the heart of the law.

The experience of the disciples on Pentecost is in line with what God has been doing through the ages. While it is new- It is a New Covenant- It is a new era for God’s people. It is not completely alien to God and God’s people. The Gospel of Luke is geographically focused on movement towards Jerusalem. The work of Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection was to save people from the power of Sin. After the resurrection Jesus taught the disciples and then Ascended into heaven to be our High Priest there, continuing to work and intercede for us. The Holy Spirit was sent to grant us a unity with God and the power to live out the way of God in the world.

The preacher John Stott said, “As a body without breath is a corpse, so the church without the Spirit is dead”. We can go through all the right actions, we can say all the right words, but without the Spirit we have missed it. The Spirit was sent to help us grow into Christ-likeness. The Spirit helps us grow as we love and serve God and in that we find our ultimate freedom and joy.

The Holy Spirit draws you to God. He deals with any barriers that stand between you and God. If the Holy Spirit has filled you you will at times be deeply moved by the presence of God. You will be able to read God’s word more clearly and with deep understanding- the words will impress themselves on your heart deeply.

The presence of the Holy Spirit will also break down barriers between people. You might feel a pressure inside yourself to forgive someone who has wronged you, or to say “sorry” when you have wronged someone else. The Holy Spirit wants to destroy divisions and draw us into unity. When we look at the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 we see that most of them are about our relationship with another person- “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”.

We often think of the Holy Spirit in terms of miraculous powers. We might think of healing miracles, or we might think of some of the other amazing stories our Charismatic friends tell us. The Holy Spirit will use these miraculous means if it means drawing people closer to God and closer to each other. Usually what is needed is not a miracle. Rather, what is often needed is the grace to be patient, and kind, when we would really rather not be. If that is what will help us grow in love then that is what the Holy Spirit will empower us to do.

This also means the Holy Spirit is active outside these church walls. The Holy Spirit is active in our neighborhoods and where we work. The Holy Spirit wants to draw everyone into deeper relationship with God and with other people. So wherever barriers are being broken between people, and people are being brought closer together in love, you will find the Holy Spirit there. When you find division and bitterness you will likely see the absence of the Holy Spirit, or a resistance to the work of the Holy Spirit.

And just as the Spirit was not given to the disciples merely for their own personal sense of satisfaction. So the Spirit’s presence with us is not just for our own comfort, thought that is a part of it. The Spirit is with us to make us into the Body of Christ- active in the world. The Spirit loves to bring people together. You can fight it. The Spirit won't override your free will, but the Spirit's desire is to create a community full of peace, love, healing, and understanding. The Spirit wants to create a community where people learn to be like Jesus.

And so the disciples are brought into greater unity by sharing this one Spirit. Those who are listening to them miraculously speaking different languages are unified in understanding what is being said. The act of the Spirit working through the disciples transcends nationalities and languages. It didn't matter what people they belonged to, or what language they spoke. .... They heard and were drawn into the community.

This is work the Spirit is still interested in. In your life the Spirit wants to destroy any barrier that stands between you and God. The Spirit wants to destroy the barrier that stands between you and your fellow Christian- whether that be a Christian in your church, or other denominations. We are brothers and sisters because we share in the one Spirit. The Spirit also wants to remove the barrier that stands between us and those who do not know Christ. The Spirit wants to draw them and make them fellow brothers and sisters to us, and the Spirit wants to use us to do that. The Spirit wants to use us to help remove the barrier that stands between people and God. That same Spirit that was in Peter and the disciples on Pentecost is in you. We are called to be a community that tears down barriers that divide people.

At Pentecost the world became less divided, it went from being a world divided by nationalities, languages, wealth, age, and gender, to a world divided only by a person's will to be included or excluded in the family of God. And God’s will is for us to be one, healed, and at peace. That is the desire and work of the Spirit- To work in the world, even through us, to bring wholeness where there is division. AMEN

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