Monday, 21 August 2017

Charlottesville, Jesus, and the Canaanite woman

In Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12th we were reminded that racism is far from dead. Some of us are privileged enough to tell ourselves that it is a thing of the past, but when we are confronted with young white men waving swastikas that becomes an impossible story to believe. They shouted slogans like “blood and soil” which is a translation of a German phrase having to do with racial national identity that became particularly popular just before the Nazis rose to power in Germany. There were a number of white supremacist groups represented in Charlottesville protesting the removal of a confederate statue. People were seen doing the Nazi salute. These people were not hooded. They showed their faces and came with protective armor, and shields.

In case we think this is something that is only in the United States. Alberta has been called the center of the white supremacist movement in Canada. I remember being 20 years old in Red Deer and making a new friend who showed me his Nazi flag and box of Nazi propaganda. As a teenager I knew people who were skinheads. This stuff is around us.

Ask anyone who is aboriginal and they will tell you that racism is a reality they live with. That community is often stereotyped with the same kinds of things the African American community is labelled with.

This stuff is sneaky. I don’t think any of us want to think of ourselves as racists, but it sneaks in if we aren’t careful to keep it out. If we have to introduce a statement by saying, “I’m not racist but…” then it has probably snuck into our minds. The phrase “I’m not racist but…” has become a phrase we use to introduce a racist statement without feeling racist about it.

I would like to look at the Gospel today and see what it might have to say about all this. It is worth pointing out that Jesus and all his disciples were Jewish and that should confront any anti-Semitic notions right there. We can never ignore Jesus’ human nature without becoming heretics. So we should beware of any interpretation that tries to undo the incarnation and take away Jesus’ humanity in favor of some kind of more “spiritual” Christ. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, 
"has God rejected [the Jewish people]? By no means!" (Rom 11:1).

In our Gospel today Jesus is confronted by a Canaanite woman. She asks for help for her daughter and in response Jesus says, 
"It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." 
Gentiles would sometimes be called dogs. There was no such thing as racial sensitivity at this time and this kind of attitude was rampant in the attitudes of the region on all sides. But it is a surprising thing to hear Jesus say. Sure Jesus was called to the children of Israel first, and then to the Gentiles next, but did Jesus really just call this woman a dog because she’s not Jewish?

This is why it is important to look at biblical readings in context. We have to see what is said before and after an incident if we want to understand it. Right before Jesus encounters this woman Jesus is teaching about defilement. For the Jewish people of Jesus’ time there were ways to become ritually unclean. For example, if you touched a dead body, or if you entered the home of a Gentile (a non-Jewish person), or you ate food that wasn’t kosher, you would be defiled for a certain amount of time. During that time you were forbidden to participate in certain rituals especially in the temple.

What Jesus says would shock his community- 
“it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
 This confronts the whole kosher system. The Pharisees, in particular, were very particular about being careful to eat in a way that didn’t allow them to come close to breaking one of the food laws. They even invented new rules to prevent them from getting even close to breaking the kosher laws  Jesus is basically telling them that they are wasting their time. It is not what goes into the mouth that matters. What you eat doesn’t matter- Not in terms of spiritual defilement anyway. This was something that divided Gentiles and Jews and usually prevented them from eating together, which was a big deal.

Jesus isn’t saying there is no such thing as defilement. He says there is actually such a thing as defilement, but you are defiled by what comes out of your mouth. Jesus says, 
“Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile."
 So at this moment we are told to be on the lookout for the words, actions, and intentions of a person if we want to determine how defiled or clean they are. We are not to look superficially at what a person eats. It is not a stretch here to say that this teaching implies that we are not to look at superficial things like skin colour, since food was often related to an ethnic identity.

It is at this moment the Canaanite woman comes along asking for help for her demon-tormented daughter. Jesus doesn’t answer her shouts and his disciples tell Jesus to send her away. I have a very hard time believing that this isn’t some sort of test for the disciples regarding the teaching he just gave regarding defilement. If that is the case then we should be careful to consider her words and actions in relation to her supposed defilement.

She calls out asking for mercy. She does not believe she is entitled to his help. She approached him with humility even while being persistent. She calls Jesus “Lord” and uses the messianic title “son of David”.

Jesus says he was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel, meaning the Jewish people.

She then kneels before him, but in the Greek the word to “kneel before” and to “worship” are the same, so we could even say she knelt in worship before Jesus.

And this is where we meet the phrase we mentioned at the beginning, 
"It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

She responds with faith, even to this. 
"Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."
 Notice all through this passage, the disciples don’t even call Jesus “Lord”. They don’t kneel in worship before him. They even tell him what to do by telling him to send her away. When we look at her words and actions we can see if she is defiled or not. She calls Jesus the “Lord” multiple times. She uses the title of the messiah for him. She is persistent, humble, and worshipful. These are the qualities Jesus desires in a disciple. She has showed that she is not defiled. Her heart is full of faith.

And so Jesus responds, 
“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
 And her daughter was healed instantly.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, 
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”.
 Where did King learn this? I believe it is something he learned from Jesus.

Right from the beginning the Bible speaks about one human family with common ancestors, Adam and Eve. The Bible assures us that we are one human family created by one God. 

We don't have time to go through all of the bible this way, but there are many instructions in the Bible like we find in Leviticus 19:34 
"You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt". 

Jesus confronts racism when he answers the question, “who is my neighbour?” The hero of his parable was a Samaritan (Lk 10). In Jesus’ day this was a hated group of people that were considered both Heretics and a people with an impure bloodline. To a first century Jew a “good Samaritan” was an oxymoron. You might also remember Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4). Jesus asks the woman for a drink from her bucket, but she is shocked because Samaritan and Jews don’t share dishes because of defilement issues. And yet, Jesus doesn’t have an issue with her being a Samaritan.

And we can also look at the legacy of Jesus’ disciples. The Christian movement quickly became an incredibly diverse group embracing all peoples who wanted to put their faith in Christ. Religions of the past were often tied to race, nationality, and geography, but Christianity broke past all those barriers. Paul taught the Galatians, 
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:27-29).
 For Paul Christ transcends all those identities and unites us across them. There is neither Jew nor Geek in Christ. It is not a barrier that divides them. I think Paul would be horrified to see what we have done in the church by making Scottish Presbyterian churches, and German Lutheran churches, and Dutch Reformed churches, and English Anglican churches. And we see this still happening with Korean Presbyterian Churches, and Egyptian Coptic churches, and Russian Orthodox churches. It would have been easy for the ancient Church to have a Jewish Christian Church and a Gentile Christian Church, but Paul would not have it. We are supposed to be transcending these barriers in Christ’s name. But we seem to be going back to that pre-Christian practice of having a God connected to an ethnic identity and a national geography. As if that matters more than our identity in Christ.    

Jesus taught his disciples that, 
“out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person…”.
 Racism is at best slander and false witness. At its worst it becomes murder, which we saw in Charlottesville, but which we all know is only the most resent in a long line of horrifying crimes that have plague human beings. It is not the superficial that defiles. It is what comes out of our hearts. Let our hearts be full of a faith that transcends all prejudice.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Joseph and the hidden God

Joseph’s story is one of the greatest stories ever told. like all great stories, we can’t predict the end from the beginning. Things often seem to get worse before they get better. What happens to Joseph doesn’t match what we think he deserves, which builds up a cry for justice within us. Joseph doesn’t seem to deserve any of the awful things he gets. He gets thrown into a pit, then he is sold into slavery. He is falsely accused of trying to rape his master’s wife and then is thrown into jail. (I’m skipping ahead in the story a bit, but I think Joseph’s story really can only be told with the end in mind).

The story of Joseph is for all those who struggle to see God’s action in their lives. Joseph’s story is a reminder that just because things are difficult and messy it doesn’t mean that God has forgotten about us. Joseph’s story is also a reminder that God’s will is bigger and more complicated than we can understand. Our ideas of God’s will are often overly simple and stereotypical. We can equate God’s will with our ideas of success. If God is active in our lives we shouldn’t have any money worries. We should be free of family drama. We shouldn’t have to deal with serious illnesses. Not to mention the mess of the world we live in.

The Bible confronts this simplistic understanding of God’s will in many places. The most famous example is probably Job. The story of Job is about a good man who deals with horrendous circumstances that are not deserved in the least. Jesus, is the central figure in our faith. Jesus himself deals with rejection by his people, betrayal by one of his own disciples, and a torturous death as a criminal on a cross. All of this is what happens as he follows God's will.

Actually, the church has often seen the story of Jesus as foreshadowed by story of Joseph. Joseph is the beloved son of his father. He was sold by his own brothers for pieces of silver (Judah/ Judas). What they thought they were doing was getting rid of him, but it is this very action that ultimately results in their salvation. Through being sold into slavery Joseph eventually works his way to being the most powerful man in Egypt (besides Pharaoh). From that vantage point Joseph was able to organize Egypt to store food on a mass scale, which saved them from a terrible famine, which he anticipated by interpreting Pharaoh’s dream. An action that eventually saved his family. Likewise, Jesus is betrayed by one of his own and killed by the leaders of his own people. He is killed on the cross, but it is through that cross and his resurrection that Jesus makes salvation available to humanity. In both Jesus’ story and Joseph’s story, there was a greater outcome that human beings are unable to see from the immediate circumstances. 

But, I digress. I was trying to make the point that the Bible confronts the idea that God's will for us matches our ideas of success.  Jesus’ own disciples deal with rejection and imprisonment as we see over and over in the book of Acts. Paul also had to endure difficulty. There’s a part of his 2nd letter to the Corinthians that I sometimes remind myself of when I start feeling sorry for myself. Paul, talking about living life following God’s will, says-
 “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Cor 11:24-28). 
That is what following God's will looked like for Paul. In this sense Joseph’s story is not that unusual. God’s servants endure hardship. It doesn't stop with the Bible either, when we look into the lives of the saints it seems like their path is filled with difficulty and suffering.    

We should be careful to make a distinction here. I don’t believe God causes bad things to happen to us. We live in a broken world where sin is active. We move through this brokenness as we live our lives. As we follow God’s will, we have no guarantee to be spared pain or difficulty as we bump into that difficulty and get infected with the sin. Joseph’s story shows us that God’s will is much more complicated than we can imagine. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says, 
"And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (8:28).
 We trust that God knows what He’s doing, regardless of what it looks like to us. As Isaiah reminds us, 
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55:8-9).
 We are called to trust God not because of the circumstances we are in, but sometimes in spite of them. 

Living in this world requires faith. We need it when we look at the mess of the world. We need it when we look at the mess of the church. We need it when we look at the mess of our lives, and the messy lives of the people around us. In Hebrews 11 we read, 
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).
 Faith is seeing beyond the circumstances towards the future promised by God and trusting God has the power to bring it into reality.

The Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggeman commenting on Joseph’s story says, 
"in the contingencies of history, the purposes of God are at work in hidden and unnoticed ways"… 
"the God of [Joseph’s] narrative does not appear, speak, act, or intrude. But there is no doubt about his governing intent and capacity."
 It is only at the end of Joseph’s story that we see God’s hand in it. All the way through the story God seems to be absent. This is often how our lives feel. We don’t often see God’s plan. We don’t usually hear God’s voice directing us in an obvious way. The circumstances of our lives might leave us feeling like God is absent, rather than deeply present. Joseph’s story is a reminder of God’s deep and profound presence in our lives.

It is easy to say that from the end of Joseph’s story, but the trick in our lives is to be able to trust God in the middle of the mess. … Before he’s sold into slavery Joseph has dreams. To him they must seem like visions of God’s will for him. Joseph's dreams speak about the authority he would be given. His family would bow down to him. As expected this kind of a vision doesn’t go over well with his older brothers. Joseph’s brothers are quick to take advantage of the opportunity to rid themselves of this favorite son of their fathers, so they sell him into slavery and tell his Father he was killed by an animal. … What is Joseph to think of the vision God gave him as he travels to Egypt as a slave? What would any of us think? We might blame ourselves. Have we sinned in some way to cause God to reject us? Maybe we blame God. We shake our fist at the sky. Maybe we blame the people around us. They are sinners getting in the way of God’s will.

Many of us have felt that kind of disappointment. We might not have been sold into slavery, but most of us have at some point in our lives felt as if our future has been taken from us. You have a time in your life when you see a really bright future ahead of you. It might have been a relationship, or a pregnancy, or it might have been a job. Whatever it was- you had your hope tied to that person or that position and then you feel like that robe was stripped from your shoulders.

We are hit with a sickness, or we lose a friend, our partner dies, and we wonder if God is present at all. We want to believe in a world where honesty and truth triumph, but often instead it seems like victory goes to the highest bidder, or the one with the biggest muscles, or the person with the hottest temper. It seems like the slave trader and the jealous brothers win.

God can sometimes be hard to spot, but the empty wells we get stuck in are very real. The voice of God can go unheard, but the shout of the slave master and the snap of the whip on our backs feels very real.

We haven't seen the ending of our story yet, but we do have the benefit of seeing the end of Joseph's story. We see that he does not end his life as a slave, and in fact the dreams God gives him come true. We also see that if Joseph's brothers had succeeded in killing Joseph, they would be taking away their own future. Joseph's blessing resulted in the blessing and survival of many families including the whole family of Israel.

God can seem hidden in Joseph's life, but by the time we get to the end we realize that God was involved all along. God was working the whole time to preserve the promise that He made to the family of Abraham. However, God's activity went unseen. God used whatever circumstances were present to preserve the dream He had given Joseph. God was able to use and transform the brothers' hatred and jealousy. God was able to even work through and transform Joseph's slavery to the end that Joseph's dreams come true.

This story is a powerful reminder that though God can seem hidden in our lives, that does not mean that God is not active. God is active and faithful to bring about what he has promised. The ways of God are at work regardless of the actions of Egypt, his brothers, or Joseph himself. God works mysteriously and unpredictably, but unstoppably towards the end He has determined.

Don't worry if you can't see God's obvious actions in your life right now. God is always at work. He was active in the life of Joseph in spite of jealous brothers and slavery. God is active even when it seems as though He couldn't possibly be present- such as on a cross or in a tomb. God is at work. Though He may be hidden, He is at work. And for those who dream the dream of Jesus' kingdom they will find themselves part of an overwhelming reality that cannot be stopped. AMEN

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Wrestling with God

I think sometimes we present the Christian life a bit too simplistically. We can sometimes make it sound like becoming a Christian will solve all your problems. We can respond to people’s complex problems with cliché’s like, “Let go and let God”. We can walk away feeling like we have reassured the person, but they are still left with their problems. When we oversimplify life with God we can run the risk of becoming like Job’s friends who tried to give Job simplistic explanations for his suffering. However, at the end of the book God says to Job’s friends that only Job spoke rightly about God, while the friends spoke falsely. Job brought his complex troubles and questions to God. We need to be careful about oversimplifying the Christian life.

Sometimes things do seem to go well and simply. We have moments in our lives when it seems like there is a flow. Our prayers are constant and easy. We read our Bibles and we are grounded and inspired. We meet life with faith, hope, and love. Hopefully we have long stretches of our lives that are like that. But, if we are serious about our life with God we will have times and seasons when we struggle.

At times life is a struggle. At times it feels like we have to fight for every breath, and for every inch of ground. It might even feel like we are wrestling with God. I know that’s not the pious thing to say. We are supposed to say that God is on our side. He is fighting for us, not against us. He loves us. He has our best interests in mind. … I believe all that, but I also know that sometimes I can feel like I am wrestling with God.

In Genesis 32 we read, 

“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’”

We don’t know who the mysterious stranger is, but after the event it is implied that Jacob has wrestled with God and has seen God face to face and survived. After this encounter Jacob is given a new name that will mark God’s people for the rest of history- Israel. The name “Israel” is difficult to translate. It can mean either “triumphant with God”, or it can also mean to “wrestle with God”. Given that the story where Jacob gets his name involves wrestling I’m inclined to lean towards the definition being “wrestles with God”.

If that renaming is accurate then perhaps we are overly simplistic in the way we describe the Christian life. Perhaps we are meant to have moments where we have to understand our relationship with God as a struggle- even as a wrestling match. I’m sure Job felt like he was wrestling with God. He was innocent and had done nothing to deserve his pain. He called out to God for justice and to explain his suffering. Perhaps even Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane felt like his human side was wrestling with God. His human prayer was to have the cup of suffering removed from him so that he would not have to endure the cross. The stress of the struggle caused him to sweat drops of blood. Eventually his human will was drawn in line with his divine self, but the struggle was very real. His prayer to have the cup removed is an unanswered prayer spoken by Jesus’ own lips.

Saints are those who have a deep relationship with God and they will resist easy and simplistic descriptions of life with God. John of the Cross, when writing on the life of prayer, wrote extensively on the Dark Night of the Soul. The Dark Night is a painful experience of the absence of God and of having all joy taken away. No pleasure is found in anything. It is a spiritual and emotions desert. Prayer feels like a waste of time in this moment. St. John tells us that God permits the Dark Night ultimately to purify the soul, but it is a painful experience.

I’m sure we all have moments in our lives that are full of doubts about God, the Church, and our faith. Doubt is a normal part of the life of faith if we are honest. Usually doubt is found at the edge of our faith. Doubt is where our faith is being challenged to transform and grow. Sometimes we struggle because we know what we should do but we really don’t want to. St. Augustine once said, “Lord, grant me chastity… but not yet”. He knew what God wanted him to do, but he resisted doing it. He wrestled with God. We might experience trials, such as sickness, or depression, or abuse, or the death of a loved one, and we are challenged to understand how this works with God’s world and God’s creatures and God’s permissions.

It’s strange that we can so simplify the Christian life when at the very center of our faith is a bloody man on a cross. It is an image of the separation of God and human beings, and the tremendous cost required to repair that division and reunion. It is an image of struggle- an image of suffering love. Not love alone- Suffering love. The life of faith is a life of struggle- even, at times, struggle with God.

I know in my own life I feel like I am sometimes struggling with God. There is part of me that resists God. There are times when prayer is hard and even painful. There are times when prayer feels like wrestling. It drains my energy. There is a darkness I am keenly aware of that fights with God. There is a part of me that doesn’t want to submit to God.

We hear some of Jesus’ words, “whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). “Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14:33). There are plenty of other passages I could read. Isn’t there a little part of you that says “No, I won’t”? Isn’t there a little part of you that begins wrestling with God when his commands threaten our pleasure, or our security, or our bank account, or the comfortable lives we have built for ourselves? Isn’t there part of you that resists and says, “No, you ask too much”? 
 In the Hymn Come Thou Font of Every Blessing the third verse says, 
“Let thy grace Lord like a fetter Bind my wand'ring heart to Thee Prone to wander Lord I feel it Prone to leave the God I love Here's my heart Lord take and seal i Seal it for Thy courts above”.
 That verse always strikes me so powerfully because I feel the truth of it in my bones.

While there is a part of me that fights against God, there is also another part of me that refuses to let go. Job’s wife tells him to give up the struggle and just “curse God and die”- Just walk away from God and stop the struggle. Sometimes that seems like the easier thing to do rather than be constantly dealing with the tension of being drawn into God’s will.

As Jacob is wrestling with the strange God figure we read, “When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’”. Jacob was wounded in the struggle- a wound that would cause a limp for the rest of his life. The stranger told him to let him go, but he still hung on. He refused to let go until the stranger gave him his blessing. I sometimes feel like Jacob. There is a blessing there and even though I might be tempted to walk away I refuse to because I believe there is a blessing. I want to fight for that blessing. I refuse to let go. The fight itself could be seen as a kind of intimacy- a kind of embrace. The Medieval Jewish Commentator, Rashi, said, “for so is the habit of two people who make strong efforts to throw each other down, that one embraces the other and attaches himself to him with his arms.”

Jacob meets the mysterious stranger when he is on the way to meet his brother, Esau, who wanted to kill him 14 years earlier. In some ways it would have been easier to stay where he was, but God had promised a blessing of land and family and that God would use his family to bless the world. So Jacob returns to his father’s land to face his brother. He knows it is God’s will for him, but no doubt it was a meeting that produced anxiety. To soften up his brother he sends gifts ahead of him, hoping that Esau’s vengeance would be extinguished by the gifts before they actually met. Jacob, no doubt is consumed by anxiety. Jacob wrestles with his own anxieties about meeting his brother and to pursue God’s promise. It was an internal struggle. That is when he wrestles with the mysterious stranger and receives both a wound and a blessing that comes with the new name, Israel. As Jacob left his family and travelled to find a bride he encountered God and saw a vision of angels moving between heaven and earth. Now as he returns home to the land of promise and to his family, he again encounters God, but this time it is a struggle. Having faced God, Jacob finds the courage to face his brother.

This passage is strange and mysterious. We don’t usually think about God this way. We want to think about God as the peaceful Good Shepherd. 
C.S. Lewis seemed to get this side of God. In his book The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe the children are nervous about meeting Aslan the lion (the Christ figure)  and they ask if he is “safe”. The beavers reply, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” The God Jacob met was not safe, he was left with a limp, but he was good in that he received a blessing and God was faithful to His promise.

C.S Lewis grabbed onto this idea and used it over and over in his writing. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader the character Eustace is full of character defects- he is greedy, selfish, and a coward among other things. Without getting into too much detail Eustace gets into trouble because of his selfishness and greed. To his horror, he ends up being transformed into a dragon. Aslan eventually guides Eustace to become human once again. This begins by the dragon shedding his skin like a snake, but eventually Aslan has to help remove the dragon flesh. Eustace says, “I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt.” Eustace is a changed person after this encounter. He is healed, but it was painful.

Like Aslan, God is not safe, but he is good. He is not about meeting all my wants and making me feel warm and fuzzy. He will struggle with us, and tear at us. In a way, he is even dangerous. But, ultimately God’s efforts are to transform us. He will tear away our sin and struggle against our self-destructive desires. He will fight against all that is bad in us- all that will destroy us, even if we want it desperately. We might walk away with a limp, but in a more profound way we will also be more whole.

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 naïve 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

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Ascension of Jesus

The Ascension of Jesus was recorded twice by St. Luke, both at the end of the Gospel of Luke and at the beginning of Acts. One could imagine him recording it in one or the other, but why both? The ascension also occurs in our creeds. So obviously it is a big deal. But it is still mysterious. we don't talk about it a lot in our churches and it wasn't actually unpacked much until the time of St. Augustine.  

The best image I've been able to come up to help me understand the Ascension has been a cell phone. The cell phone is an amazing invention. I can speak or whisper into a little microphone in my cell phone and it will transform my speech into a radio wave that can be sent to my brother’s phone in Vancouver, or just about anywhere else on the planet. When my brother lived in London, England, I could speak to him as if he was standing right in front of me. But there is a strange transformation that has to happen to my voice in order for my brother to hear it. My voice, which is audible to those standing near me, has to be transformed into radio waves, which are invisible and inaudible. In fact my voice becomes completely imperceptible when it is transformed into radio waves. If you came from the past and saw me speaking into my cell phone you might think I was crazy. And I would not help them to think I was sane by explaining that my voice was being transformed into invisible radio waves and being sent half-way across the planet to someone else with a little plastic rectangle who would then be able to transform it back into sound waves and hear me. If my brother in Vancouver wants to hear my voice it ironically has to be transformed into a state that can’t be heard.

I think about that when I think about the Ascension of Jesus. Jesus was visible and audible. He was with his disciples for 40 days after he was resurrected from the dead. He met with them, they touched him, they ate with him. Then we read in Acts “… as [the disciples] were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). At that point they didn’t see him, they didn’t touch him, and they didn’t hear him (at least not by way of his vocal chords). Judging by the usual human senses, Jesus was gone. I remember the first time I read about the Ascension and being really quite confused by it. I couldn’t understand why Jesus left. Why wouldn’t he stay with us? The world is such a mess, why wouldn’t he stay and help?

What I didn’t get was that the Ascension isn’t about Jesus leaving, but about him becoming much more present to us. Just as my voice is limited by my volume, so experiencing Jesus was limited by his physical presence. And as my voice is able to extend across the world when it is transformed to radio waves, so Jesus is able to be much more present when he transcends the physical world and enters the dimension of heaven. As Jesus enters into transcendence he becomes more immanent. “Transcendence” means out there, beyond, and other. “Immanence” means close, intimate, and experienced. When Jesus enters into heaven he becomes more “transcendent”- we can’t see him, we can’t hear the vibrations of his vocal chords, and we can’t touch him. … But, because of his “transcendence” he is now “immanent”. Before his Ascension only those physically around Jesus could experience him. If he was with his disciples in Jerusalem he wasn’t in Nazareth, or China. But after his Ascension, after entering into the dimension of heaven, he was no longer limited by time or space and so was able to be present by his Spirit to disciples in Jerusalem, Nazareth, China, or wherever. And so Jesus’ ascension was not about Jesus leaving, but about Jesus being with us in a more intimate way, and being with us no matter where we are. So if you were a disciple watching Jesus be enveloped by the cloud of God’s glory as he entered heaven you would have seen less and less of him. But, from Jesus’ point of view, as he was enveloped by heaven, he would have seen more and more of humanity.

As Jesus entered heaven, he brought something with him that he didn’t have before he was born to Mary. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said, “The ascension of Jesus in this context becomes a celebration of the extraordinary fact that our humanity in all its variety, in all its vulnerability, has been taken by Jesus into the heart of the divine life”.[1] On the heavenly throne of the universe sits a human being. When Jesus entered heaven he did not cease to be human- Jesus took his human body with him. It has been said that there are five man-made things in heaven- the wounds on the body of Jesus- his hands, feet, and side. Jesus brought his physical body, scars and all, into the very heart of God. The human at the heart of God is one who understands what it is like to live as a human being- to know hunger, and sadness, grief, and loss, betrayal, and temptation. The one sitting on the throne of the universe knows our problems.

The ascension is, in a way, the flip side of the incarnation. In the incarnation God became human- He became a little baby. In the Ascension, human flesh was made divine- human flesh exists in the very heart of God. And the more you think about that the more amazing it seems. It is not just the glorification of Jesus, but the glorification of human nature. The end point of human development has been reached in Jesus. And, in a sense, God wants us to be like him. We are to become like the ascended Jesus. The 3rd century church father, Athanasius, once said, “God became man that man might become God”.[2] Certainly the statement has to be understood rightly and read in context, but he does mean that in the adoption of human flesh into God’s self, that the way is opened for human beings to follow him. And so there is a long tradition of human beings desiring and learning to be more and more like him- a process that is often called “theosis”. “Theosis” means becoming like God, or coming into union with God. When we are baptized the goal that is spoken over us is to mature into the “fullness of Christ” this is what is meant, and so this is God’s goal for all baptized Christians.

This process of becoming like God is possible because Jesus ascended and then sent the Spirit to guide us and empower us. Through the Spirit he can guide and teach us.

When you compare the Apostle Peter in the gospels to Peter in the book of Acts when he is empowered by the Spirit the transformation is obvious- they hardly seem like the same person. Peter is healing people and whereas he once denied Jesus because of fear of the authorities, now he is boldly proclaiming the message of Jesus even to those authorities. The Spirit empowered them to spread his message across the known world. Paul speaks about going to Spain, though we don’t know if he got there. We do know he made it to Rome and proclaimed the message of Jesus right in the heart of the Roman Empire. Thomas is said to have gone to India to share the gospel. Despite the danger, the disciples of Jesus were boldly going to the ends of the earth to proclaim the message of Jesus. The Spirit transformed the disciples from a frightened group hiding behind closed doors, to openly proclaiming Jesus as the true king of the world and performing miracles in his name. They proclaim this message despite the danger of competing with the claims of Caesar, who was also considered “Lord” and even in some way “divine”. The Ascension was the enthronement of Jesus. The disciples boldly proclaimed that Jesus was sitting on the throne of the universe, not Caesar.

That same Spirit is available and active within us. Jesus is still reigning over the universe. The Kingdom of God is still present and growing. And we are still called to be agents of Jesus, showing his love and proclaiming his reign. He engages the world often through us. His reign is often expressed through us. When we see injustice we stand against it as representatives of a kingdom that is reclaiming territory against the chaos that has temporarily and destructively taken control. In taking a stand for our King and his kingdom we may endure hardship and suffering, but our king can sympathize with us and has also endured human suffering. The suffering will have an end, and the ultimate end will be a world where Christ reigns in love. In every area of our lives, we are invited to live like Jesus is on the throne of the universe, and we are empowered to mature to be more and more like our king as his kingdom is proclaimed and grows.

[2] “On the Incarnation”

Saturday, 20 May 2017

John 14- the offensive claims of Jesus

We live in a world full of so much diversity- many cultures and many religions- isn’t it arrogant for Christians to claim the only way to God? It’s offensive to say you know spiritual truth and imply that others don’t. 
We live in a world with an incredible amount of diversity among human beings. There are many different cultures and religions.  As globalization has its effect on us we bump into more of the varieties of cultures and religions in a way we wouldn’t have even 50 years ago.  
In the midst of this incredible diversity of cultures Christians claim to know the exclusive route to God.  Paul in Romans 5:19 says, “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” It is Jesus who fixed what was broken about the world. It is his medicine that was injected into the sick world that is bringing about a cure. In John 14:6 Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The Prophet Isaiah is speaking for God and in Isaiah 45:5 he says, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.” In Acts 4:12 Paul says about Jesus, “there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”  To the modern North American this all seems pretty intolerant and offensive. Christianity should change its tune if it doesn’t want to be considered bigoted and close-minded.
There is a detail that is worth teasing out in the Christian claim. Christians are saying that Jesus said of himself that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through [him]”. We aren’t making the claim about Christianity. We are saying Jesus made this claim about himself. We aren’t saying only Christians are saved. We aren’t claiming to know who populates heaven or hell. We are just saying that Jesus said he is the one who saves. If someone is saved it is because of Jesus. If an atheist, or a Hindu is saved it is not because of their atheism or Hinduism- it is because of Jesus.  That might still seem offensive to some, but that is where traditional Christianity takes its stand because of the words of Jesus.
We shouldn’t see this as unusual for religion though. I spent 4 years of university getting a bachelor’s degree in the study of world religions at a secular university. As I grew up at different times I considered myself a Wiccan, and experimented a lot as a Buddhist. I have spent a lot of time and energy looking at this thing we call religion. … All religions make claims about spiritual truth. For example, Buddhism teaches that you will not reach Nirvana without practicing Buddha’s 8-fold path, and the Buddhist worldview even includes a hell (just in case you thought Christians had the monopoly on that). So it’s not as if this problem goes away by getting rid of Christianity. All religions make claims about spiritual truth, not just Christianity. 
Some religions try to have a broader inclusion. So for example, some broad-minded Buddhists will try to see Jesus as a Boddhisatva (which is sort of a Buddhist saint). So the Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh reinterpreted the Eucharist saying, “[Jesus] knew that if his disciples would eat one piece of bread in mindfulness, they would have real life”.[1]  It seems open-minded, but really they are changing Jesus and making him into a Buddhist. He stops being the Jesus of the Bible and starts being a Buddhist. In a similar way Islam seems to embrace Jesus, but he is not the Son of God and he did not die on a cross and have a bodily resurrection. They reinterpret Jesus and make him into a Muslim prophet- he is not the Jesus of the Bible. Other religions might seem to embrace Jesus, but they won’t accept him on his own terms. All religions claim spiritual truth, which then implies that other claims are less true or false.     
There is a kind of parable that is sometimes told about the various religions of the world. They symbolically imagine spiritual truth as an elephant. Then they imagine these blind men approach the elephant and each attempt to understand and describe the elephant. One blind man approached the elephant’s leg and he says, “An elephant is like a tree”. Another blind man approaches the elephant’s trunk and says, “An elephant is like a snake”. Another blind man approaches the elephant’s side and says, “An elephant is like a wall”. Another blind man approaches the elephant’s tail and says, “An elephant is like a rope”. This parable is often told to talk about how each of the religions mistakenly knows a part of the spiritual truth, but they don’t know the whole truth. Each of them only has a part of the truth and it is a mistake to think any one of them really understands an elephant by only knowing the elephant’s leg.
The story is often told to point out the foolishness of the blind men- and so the foolishness of the world religions. They are arrogant to claim they have knowledge that is superior to the other religions, just as it would be arrogant for each of the blind men to think they have the full understanding of the elephant. …
The problem is that there is another person in the parable. The person who is watching the blind men is the only one who sees the whole elephant. The observer is the only one with superior knowledge- the observer is the only one that is not blind. The one who thinks the other religions are arrogant and foolish for claiming knowledge superior to the other religions are themselves claiming to have superior knowledge over all the other religions- they hypocritically claim they have knowledge which they just made fun of the blind men for claiming to have. The observer is in the position of being right and all the other religions (or blind men) are wrong. They fall prey to the same arrogant stance they accuse the other religions of having.
The statement that all religions are basically the same is a claim to know the truth. It also implies that the Buddhist who says the 8-fold path is the way to nirvana is wrong- and the Muslim who says there is only one God and Muhamad is his prophet is wrong- and the Christian who says Jesus is the only way to the Father is wrong.
You can’t get away from making claims about truth. We all do it. And when we claim something is true, we are automatically implying something else is false. We all have a way we view the world that includes a specific kind of belief system. 
          I heard a pastor named Timothy Keller once describe a conversation he had on a university campus with a student. As they were talking the topic moved to religion, as often happens with pastors. Eventually the student realized what was happening and said, “Hey! You’re trying to evangelize me. You’re trying to convert me to Christianity. You are trying to convince me that your way of looking at the world is better than mine. You are trying to say your belief system is right and mine is wrong. That is offensive!” … Timothy Keller responded, “Wait, so you think my way of thinking is wrong (trying to convert people to Christianity and saying Christianity is true) and that I should convert to your belief system (that of broad inclusivism where somehow no religion is more right than any other)? That’s offensive”.  …. The student was making claims about the right way to think and act. You can’t get away from making claims about what is true. And when you say something is true you automatically exclude other claims. …  When you find someone offended at these kinds of religious truth claims, if you look just beneath the surface, you will find they believe in their own truth claims and are just as guilty of stating others are wrong. It is usually a hypocritical stance, though they usually don’t see it.
Some people say all religions are paths that lead up the mountain to God. They are different paths, but they have the same destination. … Well, what is it that we arrive at when we get to the top? Is it the Triune God of Christianity? Is it the one (non-Trinitarian) God of the Koran? Are there thousands of Gods as Hindus believe? Or is the mountaintop empty because Buddhism doesn’t believe in God? Or is there a new age idea of the Force?
I’m not saying that we don’t have similarities. We do. There are tremendous similarities among religions in some areas. Especially when it comes to morality. Usually the various religions of the world will agree on most moral cases. There is a lot of overlap when it comes to morality.  Jesus used positive examples of Samaritans who were considered heretics in his own time (John 4; Luke 10; Luke 17). Jesus had mercy and healed non-Jews (Gentiles), who were usually Pagan. He didn’t come to them with condemnation.  We read about Paul in Athens and he quotes some of their pagan authors and praises them for how religious they are (Acts 17).  I think we too should follow the examples of Jesus and Paul and recognize what is true and beautiful in other religions. We should be willing to applaud the deep insights of other religions. We should be willing to recognize where we overlap in our moral convictions and be willing to work together in those areas.    
If you think the whole goal of religion is morality, then you might be led to say things like “all religions are pretty much the same”. But that is really a surface issue. Most deeply religious people will see morality as a side effect of what they believe, but not the end point, or even the central point. Saying all religions are basically the same shows you haven’t spent much time with the various religions of the world. We should recognize our similarities, but we should also recognize our differences. We should also recognize that at times we will think each other are wrong.  To use an extreme example, I don’t think any of us want to support the beliefs of someone who would crash a plane into a building killing thousands of people and say it is the work of God; or beliefs that would require child sacrifice (as some ancient cultures practiced). I hope we would all consider those beliefs as mistaken, regardless of the sincerity of the practitioners.  The desire to be kind and gracious to those who believe differently than us is a good instinct. That doesn’t mean we have to give up what we believe to be true.
I think we have a trickier job as religious people in our age. 100 years ago we didn’t bump into such a variety of religious people. God gave us a brain and God expects us to use it. In the mix of beliefs we find ourselves in, we have to work hard to figure out which claims about God, human nature, and spiritual reality are true and which are false. What is life all about? What is the most important thing we should spend our time doing? Is there life after death? What is right and wrong, and why?  We have to base our life on some answer to those questions. We cannot function without some kind of belief structure.
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). We have to decide what we are going to do with that. Are we going to accept what Jesus says about himself? Is he right or is he wrong? Or are we going to choose some other truth to believe in (like ‘all religions are true’) and say Jesus is wrong? Either way we are committing ourselves to some truth, and we are therefore rejecting the alternative.  The motivation behind the statement ‘all religions are equally true’ is good. It is a desire for peace and understanding between the various cultures of the world.  I think Christianity values both peace and a desire to build relationships with those that are different from us. Jesus taught us to love even our enemies. Jesus died praying for the forgiveness of those that were killing him. I believe his teachings are a powerful force for good in our world. And probably much more helpful than a vague inconsistent belief about everyone being right. AMEN

[1]  Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step, (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 22.
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