Category: Minister

Minister’s blog

A Split Second in Philip’s Mind

Posted by on Sunday, May 2nd, 2021 in Minister

Watch the sermon video here:

Hespeler, 2 May 2021 © Scott McAndless
Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8 (Click to Read)

Philip and the Ethiopian had been having a wonderful time as they traveled along in the chariot. They had been discussing the ancient scriptures of the people of Israel. They were foreign writings to the North African man, to be sure, but they were scriptures that he had come to love and to treasure over the years as he discovered that they clearly pointed to deep truths about God and the world. So he found them fascinating and loved nothing more than to be able to discuss what they might mean.

Philip, a Jew, obviously had a somewhat different relationship with these same scriptures. He had known how important they were to his identity his whole life. But just recently, these words had begun to explode with meaning for him. From his new friends, a collection of followers of a man named Jesus, he had learned to find new depths of meaning in the scriptures. For these followers of Jesus believed that he was God’s anointed one, the messiah, and they believed that the scriptures had foretold just about everything that was to happen when the Messiah came.

And so Philip was learning to plumb the depths of these ancient writings in order to discover who Jesus really had been, what he had done and why he had done it. He loved doing this kind of thing and, over the past few hours which had flown by so fast, it had been wonderful to discuss this new passion that he had with a new friend.

But, of course, it had all been a very theoretical discussion. Concepts like the love of God, of redemption, renewal and even baptism had been discussed as ideas – wonderful and moving ideas. But you know what it’s like when you get into an intellectual discussion. Practical applications often don’t enter into it.

The Question that Changes Everything

But then, all of a sudden, that all changed. As the chariot plodded down the road, the Ethiopian looked up and saw that a nearby wadi was filled with water. This kind of thing happened sometimes in the spring when sudden cloudbursts could flood the waters at a frightening pace. But however that water got there, it had the effect of suddenly transforming what had been, up until that point, a purely theoretical discussion into something else. “Look, here is water!” said the Ethiopian, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

To Philip’s credit, according to the Book of Acts there was no pause between that question and what came next. This might give us the impression that the leap between the theoretical discussion that they’d been having and the practical act of dipping that Ethiopian into the water happened in a split second within Philip’s mind. And maybe it did, but I’m going to tell you something, in that split second, Philip’s mind had a great many of things to work through because the answer to that question really was anything but obvious. So let us take a little trip through the mind of poor Philip during that split second. Here are some very serious issues that he had to work through.

#1 Your Race

“‘What is to prevent you from being baptized?’ Well, let’s start right here: you happen to be an Ethiopian, a black man from the north of Africa. And, no, I have absolutely no issues with the colour of your skin and know well of the nobility of your people, it is just that your people do not belong to the people that I’ve always been told have this special relationship with God.

“And, yes, you can come and you can worship at our temple (not as one of the people, of course, but as an outsider in the court of the Gentiles) and you can enjoy discussing our scriptures with me, but I have always understood that there is no way you can truly belong to the community of God. That is for Jews like me. So, first of all, there’s every reason to think that your Ethiopianness is preventing you from being baptized! It is definitely one of the things that makes me think that these ideas and concepts we’ve been talking about don’t really apply to you!

“But, if I’m going to be truly honest here, that may not be the biggest thing that is preventing you right now. I mean, that racial thing has always been a little bit of a gray zone. There are many stories in our tradition of people from other races and nations who became a part of the people of God. What Rahab of Jericho and Ruth of Moab? What of the whole tribe of the Gibeonites who joined in with the people in the days of Joshua?

“So there is some reason to believe that such a thing is possible, that foreigners can be integrated into the people of God without threatening our essential nature. And perhaps it is even more possible after what Jesus has done, but honestly that is a question that we have barely even begun to explore. So maybe I could let that one slide. But surely there’s another impediment that matters much more.

#2 Your Lack of Gender

“‘What is to prevent you from being baptized?’ All right, you have kind of forced me, but I’m going to allow my thoughts to go there. You are a eunuch, that’s what is to prevent you! And, again, I personally have absolutely nothing against the particular arrangement of your body, but this is not about what I feel. I mean, we’ve been talking all afternoon about the scriptures of my people and they couldn’t be clearer on this particular point. It is right there in Deuteronomy 23:1 “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” And I’m sorry that my private thoughts are so explicit, but that is actually what it says in the scriptures.

“But it is not just about a specific chapter and verse,” Philip thought to himself. “In fact, come to think of it, that whole chapter and verse system hasn’t even actually been invented yet. So it’s not about one particular law but about what that law means and why it was put there. It has to do with why you, my new friend, were even made a eunuch in the first place.

The People of God

“You see, being a part of the people of God has never just been about individuals. It has always required that we be a part of a larger group. It is about what tribe we belonged to, about our clan and, above all about our family. That is because being a part of a family brings with it certain obligations: the obligation to obey the male head of the family, the obligation to advance the interests of the family and, of course, to produce heirs to keep that family alive over the centuries. Belonging to that system is what gives us meaning and purpose within the larger people of God. So it hasn’t always been!

Why Queens Need Eunuchs

“But you, you have none of that. In fact, the only reason why your queen, Candace, can actually trust you with all of her money is because you have been cut off from all of those obligations. And, I’m sorry old chum, but I mean that very literally. If you were not a eunuch, everyone would understand that you would be required to use whatever resources that passed through your hands to enrich your own family. You would basically be required to embezzle and everyone would think less of you if you didn’t. But because you have no part in any family, Candace knows that she can trust you to look out only for her interests.

“But that very thing that makes you so useful to the queen means that you can have no place to belong in the people of God. For if we let in people who, for any reason, do not conform to these norms that order our society, it kind of breaks the whole system. I don’t know if you realize how very fragile this whole thing is. Every person has to fit into the system somewhere as a wife or husband, a daughter or a son, a father or mother. All of these relationships are foundational. And the categories of gender, sexuality and dominance have to be completely inflexible. We just can’t allow any person in who doesn’t fit into that system. And, as much as I like you, my friend, you simply don’t fit.”

One More Split Second

These were all of the thoughts that passed through the mind of Philip in that split second. They had to have done so because they reflected attitudes and ways of thinking that had been drilled into him his entire life. They were ideas that were foundational to how he saw his world. And as that split second passed, Philip began to open his mouth to say that he was sorry, but there was far too much that was there to prevent an Ethiopian eunuch from being baptized.

But in the time between Philip opening his mouth and that negative reply coming out, there still remained yet another split second. And, as we’ve seen, there is a whole lot that can pass through one’s mind in a split second.

Jesus Makes us Question Assumptions

“Okay, but wait a minute,” Philip said to his thoughts, “sure, that is how I have been taught to look at the world, but ever since I’ve heard the story about Jesus and what he did and said, I’ve been finding that a lot of my assumptions about how things work have been falling by the wayside. And, come to think of it, whenever Jesus had the opportunity to speak up for those lines of authority and keeping everybody in their proper place, he had this annoying way of saying almost the very opposite of what you expected.

“Didn’t he teach his followers and say, ‘Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.’ (Matthew 23:9) Well, that didn’t really sound like what someone who was committed to maintaining family structures would say, did it? And, what’s more the rumour goes that one time, when his family was trying to pull him away from his followers and when he really should have submitted himself to the authority of his family, he said no. He actually looked at his disciples instead and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’ Mark 3:34

How Jesus Welcomed All

“But, more than that, didn’t Jesus have a way of welcoming anyone who came his way? Indeed, he often seemed to prefer to spend time with the sinners, the outcasts, the prostitutes and even the tax collectors rather than the so-called respectable people, even though he got into a lot of trouble for it. It just seemed that that whole system that said that people needed to fit into the system like pieces in a puzzle in order to belong was silly and irrelevant in his eyes. He wasn’t about maintaining that order so much as he was about overturning that whole order and replacing it with something else, this thing that he called the kingdom of God.

“So you know what, my dear friend, I don’t need a scripture that says that you can belong despite your missing parts. And I don’t even need to go back and consult with the apostles about this because I can be sure that, if they haven’t figured this out yet, they will soon enough. Everything that I have learned about Jesus teaches me that he believes that you are much more important than any law, rule or structure. What is to prevent you from being baptised? Absolutely nothing, my dear sibling in Christ!”

And, one mere second of thought after the original question, Philip said exactly that and he and that Ethiopian went down into the water of that wadi immediately.

How Jesus Changes Everything

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is somewhat surprising. In some ways, it seems to come too early in the story of the Acts. The church, at this point, has not yet even addressed the question of whether or how the Gentiles – people who are not Jewish – can have a place in the Christian community. That will prove to be difficult enough to work through. The question of whether somebody who doesn’t fit in the ordinary categories of gender, family and sexuality, you would think, should be unthinkable at this point in the story. But here we have Philip just going ahead and baptising a eunuch, and it seems clear enough from the way that the story is told that he hardly even needs to think about it for a second.

What does this tell us about how much what the early church had experienced of the risen Jesus really made them all question what they had always taken for granted about the world? And that makes me wonder, how much do we allow what we have experienced of the risen Jesus do that for us. The work of understanding the impact of the event of the resurrection is still ongoing and we, like Philip, should give a split second or two of thought to how that ought to make us react to the people we meet who might not fit into the neat categories by which we have organized the world in our minds.

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Laying down your life

Posted by on Sunday, April 25th, 2021 in Minister

Watch the sermon video:

Hespeler, 25 April 2021 © Scott McAndless
Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18 (Click to read)

For the world around us, Easter is just a day or maybe a long weekend. And I certainly love the way that our society celebrates Easter. I like a good chocolate egg as much as the next guy. I think the flowers are beautiful and I certainly appreciate the time off and, in an ordinary year, the opportunity to gather with family. But Easter is not a day for the Christian church, it is an entire season. For Christians this entire period of time from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday is supposed to be all Easter all the time.

And, I know you’ll be disappointed by this, but that doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to eat chocolate for fifty days. So, if that’s not it, what is the reason that it lasts so long? It is an acknowledgment of the importance and impact of a singular event. The resurrection of Jesus is not something that we can come to terms with in just a day’s reflection. It is something that changes everything – everything about what our priorities are, how the world works for us and how we think about it.

As a result, one of the things that the church has traditionally done during this season is that, for this period of time, we stop reading from the Old Testament (apart from the Book of Psalms). Instead, we read from the Book of Acts which helps us to understand what difference the events of Easter actually made for the early church.

The Difference that Easter Makes

So, one of my jobs during this season as a leader of the church is to help us all reflect on what difference it actually makes for us that Jesus died on the cross and that he rose three days later. And I’ve been trying to do that this year.

A couple of weeks ago, for example, I tried to show us how the resurrection of Jesus makes us think very differently about our wealth and possessions, that instead of seeking security and comfort from these things, it should make us think creatively about how we use these things for the sake of the kingdom of God. And then last week, I spoke about how the story of Jesus’ bodily resurrection sets us free from being controlled and manipulated by our guilt, shame and fear.

What 1 John Teaches us

Today I want to focus in on something very extraordinary that the First Letter of John wants to teach us about what the death and resurrection of Jesus means for us. John writes this, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us.” This is such a simple statement, but it contains so much meaning in it that it almost blows me away. John is simply saying here that one of the key reasons why Jesus went to the cross was in order to teach us what love is.

And I can already hear the objections to this idea. For do we not already know what love is? For each one of us has relationships in our lives that we would understand in terms of love. We have significant others and close friends, we have parents and children and grandchildren and we know exactly how strongly we feel about these people in our lives.

Jesus Teaches us New Depths of Love

And, yes, I know that sometimes we fall short in our best intentions for the people that we love. Sometimes we can get irritable or snippy or resentful and even hurt the people that we love. But, however imperfectly, we know that we love them. We know what love looks like. So what is John saying? He’s saying that Jesus on the cross is there to teach us new depths of love.

To understand what he means by that, we may need to go over and look at our Gospel reading for this morning. In it, Jesus is reflecting on the very same topic: what it means to lay one’s life down. It is part of a longer reflection about how Jesus is like a good shepherd, which honestly makes all of this talk of laying down his life a little bit weird to me.

Hiring a Shepherd

Put yourself in the position of somebody hiring a shepherd for a moment. I mean, you put an ad in the newspaper and are looking for someone really good who you can trust to take care of your sheep and the first guy who comes into interview goes on and on about how, at the first sign of any trouble, he’s going to go out and throw down his life in front of the wolf or lion or bear. I mean is that really what you’re looking for in a shepherd? Is laying down your life really part of the job description?

Jesus says, “The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.” And that makes good sense to me, you definitely want a shepherd who’s not afraid to engage, who’s willing to take some risks, but are you really looking for someone who’s just going to lay down and die at the first opportunity?

What Jesus Means

Of course, when Jesus speaks of laying down his life, we all know what he’s talking about. He’s not really speaking of what shepherds normally do, he’s talking about loving his people and about loving us so much that, when it came to it, he was willing to go all the way, even to the cross, to demonstrate that love.

But he kind of surprisingly phrases that sacrifice in the terms of everyday life – the terms of how a shepherd might love and take care of the sheep. In a way he’s saying the same thing that it is saying in our reading from the First Letter of John, that by laying down his life, Jesus taught us what love is and just how transformative it can be in the ordinary situations of life, like when a shepherd is taking care of sheep.

So no, of course we don’t expect a shepherd to throw away his life at the first sign of any attack on the sheep, but if he does love them, he is going to take some risks for their sakes, stand up against the wolves and not back down just because the situation is dangerous. And Jesus is saying that that is what love is really about.

Not in Speech, but in Truth and Action

And, for me, all of that adds so much colour to what it is that First John goes on to say in that passage we read this morning. “Little children,” he says, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Because I think that is what Jesus teaches us about love more than anything. Yes, Jesus did talk about how much he loved his disciples and about how much he loves us, but his actions are what teach us what love is, not his words. And I think it is often far too easy for us to talk about love without really allowing it to influence our actions or the truths of our lives.

On a Personal Level

I think that can be true in our personal life. The fact of the matter is that there are times when we fail to love the people closest to us in action. We may say we love them, but how many times do we let the stress or anger that we have kept pent up inside us all day long because we don’t dare talk about it to strangers, how many times do we let that out against the people we love most because we know that they’ll let us get away with it? How many times do we act selfishly because we know we can rely on them to love us anyways? Loving in word and speech is easy; loving in action and truth is harder.

On the Larger Scale

But, in many ways, when we move from the personal to the larger scale, when we move from the individual sheep to the whole flock, this becomes much harder to figure out. It is easy to talk about our love for our fellow human beings. It is easy to talk about how we don’t see things like race or colour or creed when we look at other people. It is easy to say that all lives matter. Saying the right thing is something that we have all apparently learned to do.

The problem comes with truth and with action. As we’ve seen again and again in the past year, the problem comes with treating actual black lives or indigenous lives or other minority lives as if they matter. The problem comes with actually acknowledging that there are minority groups in this country who live in daily fear of violence just because of who they are and actually doing something about that.

I recently saw a list. In one column was a list of all of the things that young men do everyday to make sure that they are not attacked or raped. In the other column, a list of what young women do for that same reason. There was, of course, nothing on the men’s side and the list for the women went on and on.

What does it mean that an entire group in our society, approximately half of the population, has to live in constant vigilance because they know they are not safe? In that instance, loving the women of our society has got to be more than saying they’re beautiful or that we’re fond of them. It has to mean truth and it has to mean action that makes a difference in that unacceptable situation.

What does it Look Like Today?

We say that we are the people of the resurrected Christ. And according to what it says in First John, that should mean that we are people who have learned from the example of Christ and know what love means in truth and in action, that it means being willing to lay our lives down for the sake of the sheep. The question is what does that look like in our modern world?

I think there are many ways in which we do that. One simple way, for example in our present crisis, is to go out and get vaccinated as soon as you are able to do so, and do it with the first available vaccine.

I’ve got to say that the phenomenon we’ve seen of people shopping for the vaccine they think is best for them personally, rejecting some for apparent lower efficiency or minuscule higher levels of risks, has been extremely disheartening. Choosing to do what is best for the whole community in this circumstance is hardly difficult. Under normal circumstances I would hardly describe it as laying down your life, but apparently enough people find it hard enough to do that we need to remind people that that’s what love looks like in this present situation.

Who is Being Valued?

But there are also far more difficult opportunities to lay your life down and follow the example of Christ in loving today. In our present context, it would include speaking up, as uncomfortable as it might be, and calling out all of the ways in which people are not being valued.

For example, in this pandemic we have seen all of the ways in which certain groups have generally been able to do all right while others have not. We’ve seen how those who are relatively wealthy and have the ability to work from home or to take time off while they’re sick have come through this thing relatively unscathed. Many of them have also found it easier to get vaccinated, so much so that they are being choosy about their vaccines.

Meanwhile there’s this other group of people who are younger, who often belong to racial minorities and who work with the public or work in closely packed factories or warehouses. They generally have little power and no ability to stay home and the evidence seems to indicate that this pandemic has been spreading like wildfire among them. But yet, they’ve not even been prioritized for vaccination in most places.

What does Love Look Like?

This is a situation that endangers the public health of all of us and is being fueled by the inequities that have been in our society for a very long time. What does love look like when that is the situation? What does it look like to lay your life down for the sake of the sheep in that situation? It’s got it be more than word or speech, it’s got to be about action and truth.

Many of us would like to live our lives of Christian faith quietly, not causing any fuss or friction. We would like our love to be in word and in speech, but not to really have it mess with our comfortable routine. But clearly, the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus is there to push us towards a love that speaks the truth and makes us act, that means a willingness to lay down our lives. That is the difference that the Easter story makes.

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Posted by on Saturday, April 17th, 2021 in Minister

Hespeler, 18 April, 2021 © Scott McAndless
Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36-48 (click to read)

I was rather struck by the disciples’ reaction to the appearance of the risen Jesus in our reading from the Gospel of Luke this morning. It says that, “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” There is something about that that seems a bit extreme. I mean, I can understand to a certain extent why they might think that they are dealing with a ghost when they see this man who they thought was dead – especially when he appears suddenly among them, maybe even by walking through walls as he does in some of the other passages. That is startling and disconcerting, but I’m not sure if that sense of being terrified might not refer to something else.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard a lot of ghost stories over the years and seen lots of movies built around ghosts. And I know that stories and beliefs about ghosts are about as old as civilization itself, probably older. And in all of those stories about ghosts, there is a terror that goes deeper than just being startled by seeing someone who you thought was dead.

What ghosts represent

Now, to be clear here, I don’t really believe in ghosts, at least not in the sense that there are actual ectoplasmic beings hanging around in this world who are looking to haunt people or places. But I do think that the idea of ghosts in a psychological and social sense is a very real and powerful one. Ghost stories reflect our deep-seated fear of death, of our feelings of guilt or regret around those who have passed on and our anxieties about our own legacies. I mean, think of all the ghost stories you’ve ever heard, those are the kinds of themes that they always explore. And they are all topics that inspire abject terror in many of us.

So I would suggest that we have developed this whole idea of ghosts in order that we might tell stories about them to help us process these things that disturb us so deeply. So, it is actually very fitting that, when the disciples see the risen Jesus, they immediately jump to the conclusion that they are dealing with a ghost. For they are struggling with all of these terrifying thoughts.

What they were struggling with

First of all, they have just been dealt a very sharp reminder of their own mortality. This man Jesus, their friend, their teacher and the one who seemed more alive than anyone had ever been, has being struck down so quickly while in the prime of life. If that’s not a reminder that anyone of them could be cut down so quickly, I don’t know what is.

And there is also no question that they were struggling with a lot of guilt and regret around his death. There are so many references to them deserting him and running away when he was arrested. There is Simon Peter who denied that he even knew Jesus, not just once but three times. They must have felt keenly their own failure to speak up in his defense or to put their lives on the line for him as he was doing for them. They had probably been berating themselves for all of these things. And these are exactly the kinds of feelings that, when we are struggling with them, we will do almost anything to avoid thinking about them and expressing how we really feel. And, like I said, when we are suppressing feelings like that is exactly when we give in to the terrors that, from ancient times, have been associated with ghost stories.

And finally, they were feeling very anxious about their legacy. These were people who had given up everything in order to follow Jesus because they believed in what he said. But now, all of a sudden, the possibilities that he had made them believe in had all been taken away. They had to be asking themselves if they had just wasted the last three years of their lives. They certainly had no idea where they were going to go or what they were going to do from here. Those are also the kinds of difficult struggles that people have always worked through by scaring each other with ghost stories.

Jesus demonstrates he’s not a ghost

And so, in many ways, it is not very surprising that their response to seeing Jesus again was not just a startled reaction, but it was a reaction that stirred the deep terror that, from ancient times, people have associated with ghosts. But Jesus wasn’t a ghost, that is the whole point of this story we read this morning. Jesus goes on to demonstrate to them in various ways that he is not a ghost. He invites them to touch and feel the substance of him, the reality of his human body. He even asks them to give him some food and I assume it’s not because he is particularly hungry but because eating is a perfect demonstration that he is not a ghost, for ghosts need no sustenance. Jesus was not a ghost; Luke does not want us to leave this story without being assured of that simple fact.

Why is that? Is it because Luke does not want us to miss that central piece of Christian doctrine – the insistence that the resurrection of Jesus was a bodily resurrection? Well, yes, that is certainly part of it. He wants us to understand that bodies matter and that we need to extend our efforts to save not merely souls but bodies as well in all of our work as Christians. So, there is no question that Luke is underlining an important theological and doctrinal point.

Another reason why it matters

But I think there’s another reason why Luke wants to make sure that we understand that Jesus wasn’t a ghost. I think that he might have foreseen how some people would come to think of and use the precious story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. You see, there is a long tradition of people using the story of the death of Jesus as a way of piling things like guilt and shame onto people.

At least, I know that I have heard sermons and read books in which people try to make me feel bad because of what Jesus had to suffer. Have you ever heard a message like this? “Do you see Jesus up there on the cross? Have you noticed how he suffers all of the pain that racks his body, the shame that seizes his soul? Well, you did that to him. You, with your selfish act, your lust and desire, your failure to do everything that I tell you is so important. Every single thing that you have done wrong is like another nail in the hands and the feet of Jesus upon that cross. You should feel awful!”

Making people feel responsible

Have you ever gotten the impression that that was how you were supposed to feel about the death of Jesus? I know I have. It kind of reminds me of that amazing sermon that we read this morning from the Book of Acts in which Peter at first seems to be intent on making everyone in the crowd feel personally responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. “The God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus,” Peter says, “whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life!”

I mean, I have always wondered about that sermon. How are you supposed to persuade people to make a change in their life by only telling them that they have done everything wrong? And I sometimes get the impression that that is the only gospel message some people have. All they can do is try and convince people how very bad and evil they are and then shame them by telling them that Jesus had to suffer for all of that. But that, I am sorry, is really not good news and the word gospel is supposed to mean good news.

Peter clarifies

But, of course, that is only one part of the sermon in the Book of Acts. Peter goes on to say, “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer.” He goes on to clarify that the story of Jesus’ death is not about blaming and shaming people into changing their lives; it is about what God has chosen to do for us and certainly not about what we have done to supposedly make God suffer.

But despite that, people have seemed to want to transform the story of Jesus into one that makes people think only of their own failures and their regrets. They have made it into a story that feeds people’s fear of death by making the gospel only about escaping from death and getting into heaven. They have made it into a story that is about manipulating some people’s deepest and most elemental fears that people have and that is what makes me say that I feel like people have turned the story of Jesus into a ghost story because, from ancient times, people have used ghost stories to process some of those deepest fears.

The harm we do with the ghost story

And make no mistake that this use of the story of Jesus’ death has done a lot of harm. I have known and spoken to many Christians who live with a deep fear of hell and death, a deep fear of disappointing their Lord or their church community. And that has led to church leaders of every sort using and abusing the people under their care because once you start motivating people with guilt, shame and fear, it gives you an extraordinary amount of power over them and it is a rare church leader who can resist the lure of misusing that kind of power. Those are the kinds of dangerous things that are unleashed when we turn the story of Jesus’ resurrection appearances into a ghost story.

Not a ghost story!

But it is not a ghost story. As I said, Jesus goes out of his way in this passage to demonstrate just how embodied he is after his death, just as Luke goes out of his way to document it. And I know that a lot of people think that that is about proving that the resurrection of Jesus is real – that somehow the production of the body is what makes it real. But I actually don’t think that is the point of it. What makes the resurrection of Jesus real is the difference that it makes in the life of the person who experiences it. And if all the story of Jesus' resurrection does for people is inspire guilt and fear and shame, then, I am sorry, it doesn't matter what bodily proof you have been shown for the resurrection, it seems clear that all you believe in is a terrifying ghost story.

If, on the other hand, what you have experienced of the risen Jesus gives you freedom and grace, if it lifts from you the burdens that you carry on your shoulders – the burdens of regret and guilt and shame, and it sets you free from the need to please others in order to feel acceptable, then you have authentically experienced the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He came back from the dead with a body in order to set your body free from any chains and any bonds. He came back in the body so that you might experience the fullness of resurrected life here and now and have no anxiety about what might happen to you on the other side. He did not return to enslave you under the weight of a terrifying ghost story. When he came back, he was anything but a ghost.

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Judas bought a field; Joseph sold one

Posted by on Sunday, April 11th, 2021 in Minister

Watch sermon video here:

Hespeler, 11 March 2021 © Scott McAndless – Second Sunday after Easter
Acts 1:15-20, 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31 (click to read)

At the end of a long day’s labour, many of the people passed through the narrow streets of Jerusalem were making their way towards one particular house. Some of them were slaves who worked in the homes of wealthy citizens, a few of them had shops and stalls that they tended, but most really went out every morning with little idea what sort of work they might be doing that day.

They went to the marketplaces with the intention of hiring themselves out to work on some building site or work in someone’s field just outside the walls. They took whatever jobs they could get, and for a full day’s work, they could be paid as much as a denarius.

Of course, many days there was no work to be had. Sometimes some of them also found that people didn’t want to hire them because they came from Galilee and spoke with a strange accent. So there were a fair number who were coming home that evening with nothing in their purse.

Nevertheless, all of them, whether they had worked hard and sweated in the fields or workhouses or whether they had languished in the marketplaces, had faced everything with a light heart and often enough with a song on their lips because of where they were going now and what it meant to them.

As they entered the door, they all took out whatever they had earned or bartered for during the day and joyfully gave it over to the man who stood just inside the door. He offered to each one a blessing that was immediately returned.

As they moved into the open-air courtyard beyond, their noses twitched and their stomachs growled when they saw the piles of bread and the dried fish. There were some olives and dried figs as well as several skins of cheap wine. There was even a hearty stew that had been made with barley, beef and vegetables. They smiled and glanced at each other as some remarked in wonder, “The Lord has provided yet again, just as he promised.” “Praise the Lord,” others responded.

When everyone had finally arrived, one of the leaders stepped forward and he took one of the loaves. “When we were with him in Galilee,” the man began, “we traveled all over the countryside with almost nothing – no staff, no bag, no bread, nor money – not even an extra tunic. And I sometimes worried – we all did – that we would go so hungry that we wouldn’t make it. But Jesus promised us that, if we would only trust our Father in heaven, we would always have enough. And I’m not saying that we always had meals as good as the one you’re going to enjoy tonight, but it is true. There was always enough.

“And every time we stopped at the end of the day, no matter how much food there was, everyone was welcome at the table whether they had brought anything or not. And he always took a loaf of bread and he thanked God for the gift before he broke it and gave it out to everyone. And it was that simple meal that formed us into something special.” And with that, the man broke the bread, some people came forward to distribute it and the feast began.

A Promised Answer to a Persistent Question

When all had eaten their fill, they settled in contentedly to hear a message from one of the leaders. Usually one of those who had been with Jesus from the very beginning would come forward and tell a story of a miraculous healing or repeat one of the stories that Jesus had told while explaining how it applied to what was happening in the world. But they had been promised that, on this night, a special request would finally be answered. The sisters and brothers had heard the story of how Jesus had died many times. It was a horrible and yet beautiful story all at once.

But they always wanted to know how it had come to pass that Jesus had been arrested. They had heard that he had been betrayed and they even knew the name of the betrayer: Judas. But no one seemed to know what had happened to the man after he had acted so treacherously. The story seemed incomplete.

As much as the apostles had been with Jesus almost constantly during his ministry, they had not been able to witness everything about his life and especially about his death. They had neither been able to listen in on whatever trials had been conducted nor on the plots that had been hatched by his enemies. In the same way they had not been able to observe what happened to Judas. But that did not mean that they could not answer the question.

There were two things that allowed them to fill in the gaps in the story of Jesus. First of all, they knew that the scriptures had laid out just about everything that was supposed to happen to the Messiah. So, when they found anything in what would some day come to be called the Old Testament that seem to fit the details of Jesus’ life, they knew they could be certain that that was how it had happened.

This was how they were sure, for one thing, that it had been Judas who had betrayed Jesus. For was there not a story in the Book of Genesis of how Judas (or Judah in Hebrew), one of the sons of Jacob, had come up with a plot to sell his brother Joseph to some foreigners for a sum of money? Surely that was a prophecy about Jesus and it had been fulfilled when Jesus was betrayed.

The other source that the apostles could rely on was the Holy Spirit who would guide and inspire them. When they opened their hearts, they could be sure that the Spirit would lead them towards the truth of all things.

So, the apostles had studied the scriptures and they had opened their hearts to the Holy Spirit, and tonight they would tell the people what had been revealed to them concerning this Judas.

Joseph from Cyprus

But first, the apostle announced, there was going to be a very special presentation. He went and took a seat as another man in the gathered group rose and came forward. It was Joseph. A member of the tribe of Levi and a native of Cyprus, he had been a part of the growing community that gathered in this house for a few months. In that time the gregarious and generous man had come to be well known and loved by all, so they all greeted him warmly and then quietly waited to hear what he might have to say.

“My dear sisters and brothers,” he began, “I know that you are amazed, as am I, by how the God who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead also provides for us our daily bread when we gather. These are the miracles by which God creates our community and it is marvelous in our sight. You know very well that the money you share from your daily labours is not sufficient to cover all that is provided, as well as the other things that are necessary to our common life.

The other day, as I was thanking God for this miraculous provision and marveling at how it was possible, the Lord spoke to me. He gave me the conviction that I was to be a part of that miracle. He set me to thinking about a piece of property, a field that I had inherited from my father. The Holy Spirit has revealed to me that that field no longer belongs to me, but it belongs to Jesus who has claimed all of me. It is part of God’s provision for this community. And so I have sold that field and I brought the money that I gained and have laid it here, at the feet of the Apostles. It is what has provided your feast this evening and it will for many evenings yet to come.

The whole group cheered this surprising and heartwarming announcement as Joseph returned to his seat and an apostle stepped forward. “We rejoice in our brother Joseph today. You all know what an incredible blessing he has been to our community and this is made all the more certain today. In fact, we have decided he deserves a new name. We think that he should be called the son of encouragement.

The whole group clearly agreed with this idea and they took up the new name as a chant in their native Aramaic tongue: “Bar Nabas, Bar Nabas!” and indeed, the name of Barnabas did stick to Joseph from that day forward.

The Betrayer

Finally, the time had come. The apostle sat in front of the gathered company and hugged his knees as he began to tell the story. “Who can say why someone would choose to betray our Lord, to hand him over to those who sought his death? We only know that, in this city both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against God’s holy servant Jesus to do whatever God’s hand and plan had predestined to take place.[1] And was Judas’ role also so predestined? Perhaps, but surely Satan must have entered into him to make such a thing possible.

“But this is what happened to him after he carried out his unspeakable betrayal. He was paid and paid handsomely. And he looked about to try and decide what he should do with his ill-gotten gains. He went out and he found a field. You know that field just outside the city to the south, the one where the soil is red? Well Judas went and he bought that field. And then he thought he was content and secure – that his field would provide him with all that he needed for the rest of his life.

“But know this: God is not mocked. The very day when he took possession of his field, he walked into it. And as he walked, he tripped on a root and he fell headlong. And such was the wickedness and greed inside of him, that his middle began to swell up until finally it burst and blew up and his entrails flew all over the field that he had bought – a field of blood. And that is how that piece of land shall be known from now on.

The company stirred as they heard this harrowing tale. It was very disturbing, but it also seemed so fitting for one who had carried out such a crime in order to enrich himself.

The Difference the Resurrection Makes

The apostle continued, “Tonight you have heard the story of two men, one who bought a field, and one who sold one. And in the difference between these two men, between Judas and Joseph, you will find the answer to the question that many of you have been asking me: what difference does it make if Jesus really rose from the dead?

Judas died without knowledge or belief in the resurrection of our Lord. And without that knowledge, he could have no hope or security beyond this present world system. For this reason, he knew he had to have property and that he had to have it at any cost, even at the cost of the life of his friend and Lord. He thought that that could make him safe, but God thought differently and we all see the folly of the choice that he made.

But Joseph lives with the knowledge and reality of the resurrection of Jesus. For this reason, he knows that nothing has more value than the community of the resurrected one, nor can anything else give him any security in this world or any world. And so, for Joseph, the field that he had was of little worth in comparison and he has chosen to act accordingly. This is the difference that the resurrection makes for us all.

Respecting the Biblical Authors

The fact that there are two accounts of the death of Judas in the Bible, one in the Gospel of Matthew and one in the Book of Acts, has created a bit of a problem down to the centuries because the two accounts contradict each other. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Judas committed suicide. According to Acts, he kind of spontaneously exploded.

The death of Judas (as told in Matthew)

Both accounts associate his death with the purchase of a field called the field of blood, but according to Matthew, the priests in the temple bought the field and according to Acts, Judas bought it for himself.

Now, some people will say that the two stories are not really in contradiction with each other and that if you push and shove at these two passages you can force them to agree. And perhaps you can, but if you do, you end up twisting what the original authors actually wrote, and missing much of what they were trying to say. And I have too much respect for the Bible to twist it to suit my needs.

As a result of these attempts to reconcile two different accounts, what has often happened is that people have tried to downplay the fact that, according to Acts, Judas bought the field because that contradicts what it says in Matthew. And that has made us miss a key part of the story of the Book of Acts – because I don’t think that it is just by chance that, in the first chapter of Acts, somebody buys a field and then, three chapters later, somebody sells one. That simple contrast, is meant to illustrate so much to us of what it meant to the church of that age to know and believe that Jesus had really risen from the dead. And I wonder, how much difference does that knowledge make for us today?

[1] Act 4:27-28

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They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Posted by on Sunday, April 4th, 2021 in Minister

Hespeler, 4 April, 2021 © Scott McAndless – Easter, Communion
Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Mark 16:1-8 (click to read)

I can’t be the only one to feel a little bit dissatisfied with our reading from the Gospel of Mark this morning. I mean, it starts out really well. The women come to the tomb on Easter morning. They are worried that they will not be able to get in and anoint the body of Jesus because they know that the tomb has been sealed with a massive stone.

But then they get there and, wonder of wonders, the stone has already been rolled away and the tomb is empty. There’s a young man dressed in white (he’s got to be an angel, right?) who tells them that Jesus isn’t there and that he has indeed been risen. He even tells them that they should go and tell the others this incredible news.

That is all fine and what I expect to hear on Easter Sunday morning. It is the next bit that comes as a surprise. For this is how the Gospel of Mark ends: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Surely you thought what I thought when we read that – that that can’t be the end of it.

Something seems to be missing

I mean, where is the part where they took a deep breath and thought about it a bit and changed their minds and decided to go ahead and tell everybody? Where, for that matter, is the part where they actually see the risen Jesus because, at this point, we’re actually talking only about second-hand knowledge, what you might call hearsay in a court of law? The young man may have seen some evidence of the resurrection, but all the women have seen is an empty tomb. And the resurrection of Jesus is a pretty important event so wouldn’t we all like to have just a little bit more evidence? Something seems to be missing at the end of the Gospel of Mark.

If you thought that, I just wanted to tell you this Easter morning that you are not alone. In fact, people seem to have been thinking that ever since the Gospel of Mark was written. But that is, as far as we can tell, the actual ending of the Gospel of Mark. The final thing that we are told is that the women said nothing to anybody.

Manuscripts of Mark

At least, that is how the very best, that is to say the very oldest, manuscript copies of the Gospel of Mark end. And the way that we know that people were not happy with that ending is that there are other manuscripts of this gospel, that are not quite as old, that have added other endings. You can find these other endings in the footnotes of your Bibles, but they were pretty clearly not written by the original author.

The so-called longer ending, for example, seems to be completely based on the final chapter of the Gospel of Luke. So, pretty obviously, some of the people who made early copies of the Gospel of Mark were very dissatisfied with how it ended and actually went so far as to try and fix the problem by constructing their own endings.

Was the last page lost?

People were very uncomfortable with the ending of the gospel right from the very beginning. So you are not alone if you have some trouble with it. So, the question is what happened here? Some have suggested, down through the years, that perhaps Mark did write a longer ending and that it was somehow lost.

These gospels were originally written on scrolls of papyrus and when you publish a book like that, if any part of the book is going to become ripped off, it’s either going to be from the beginning or the end of the roll. So, it is possible that the last page of the gospel just got ripped off. It would have had to have happened pretty early on, like before any copies had been made and spread around too far, but it is the kind of thing that sometimes happened in the ancient world. So that is one theory that people have put out there to explain the strange abrupt ending of the Gospel of Mark.

But I would like to ask you to consider today that there might be another explanation. What if Mark intended to end the gospel exactly as we have it today, which is to say that he intended to make us feel uncomfortable with that ending.

The oldest resurrection story

Let me ask you, what do you think is the oldest written account of the resurrection of Jesus? Of all the stories of Jesus being seen after his death that still exist, which was written down first? Usually, when you ask that question, people will respond by saying that it must be one of the gospel accounts – you know, maybe in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. But, actually, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Most scholars agree that the earliest gospel was not written until at least 70 ad, about 40 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. And there are writings in the New Testament that are older than that. The Apostle Paul almost certainly died several years before 70 ad, so anything written by Paul has to be older than any of the Gospels.

Paul’s resurrection account

And do you know what that means? That means that the passage we read from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians this morning is actually the oldest written account of the resurrection. And what a fascinating and important account it is!

Paul introduces it by saying this: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.” This indicates that what Paul is about to say is not merely his own story. It is, in fact, a fixed tradition that he has received from others and has transmitted in his turn. Now the first letter to the Corinthians is usually dated to sometime around the year 54 ad. And what the Apostle appears to be telling us is that, sometime before this letter was written, there was already an official account of the resurrection of Jesus that had been circulating in the churches.

Then, even though he has told it to them before, Paul goes on to repeat that account. It starts with the basic sequence of the events: “That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”

The witnesses

But the next part is of particular interest because Paul goes on from there to list the people who witnessed the reality of the resurrection of Jesus. He lists first an appearance to Cephas (which is probably the original Aramaic form of the name of the man we know as Peter), – so Peter, and then the twelve (presumably the disciples listed in the gospels), then a group of five hundred, some of whom, Paul stresses, are still alive as he is writing, then James (presumably the brother of Jesus), then all the apostles and finally Paul himself.

This, my friends, is huge. Just think of it, only a couple of decades after the time of Jesus’ death, there was an official account of his resurrection, that included a list of the witnesses, that was circulating through the churches. And it was circulating even while some of those witnesses were still alive and people could go to them and ask for themselves whether it was true. This, for me, points to something fundamental about the early Christian Church: they knew the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, and they knew it firsthand.

Barring the invention of a time machine, there is really no way that we could scientifically prove that Jesus actually rose from the dead. That remains a matter of faith. But I really think that there is no denying the simple truth that the early Christians did experience the reality and power of the resurrection of Jesus for themselves. That experience was transformative for them and, I believe it remains absolutely transformative for the world to this day.

The second account

So that is the first written account of the resurrection of Jesus. Let us never forget it’s importance. The second account, however, is probably the one that we read this morning from the Gospel of Mark. Most scholars today believe that Mark was the first gospel written and that it was written sometime around 70 ad.

We know it was around that time because that was a very difficult year in Judea, a year in which the entire countryside was laid waste by the Roman army, in which the city of Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and thousands upon thousands of people were turned into refugees. There are numerous hints in the gospel itself that these were the things that were going on as it was being written.

 So that was the context in which the second resurrection account was composed. And it is quite a different account, isn’t it? As we have already noted, it seems to end very strangely without any direct appearances and with the only witnesses saying nothing at all. But what we need to understand is this. Mark wrote this account about fifteen years after Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians.

Mark would have known the well-established tradition

And we know from the letter to the Corinthians that there was a well-established tradition about the people who had seen the risen Jesus. We have to assume that Mark knew that tradition. And if Mark knew about that tradition, then maybe he could take it for granted that his readers would know about it as well. And so, when Mark came to write his story of the resurrection, his concern was not to offer that evidence through the witnesses. His readers already knew about witnesses! Mark was trying to do something else.

Mark highlights the women

He chooses to tell the resurrection story from the point of view of a group of women. This is kind of the opposite of giving us eyewitness testimony because women were not generally accepted as being trustworthy witnesses in that world at that time. So, no, we are not to think of these women as witnesses, they are something else.

I believe that Mark wanted his readers to actually identify with the women in the story. They were kind of in the same situation. These people in Mark’s church identified as followers of Jesus. They were also struggling with grief and loss like these women because they were living through some very traumatic times as armies attacked, people fled for their lives and cities were destroyed. They had also received the testimony that the women receive from the young man dressed in white, that Jesus was not dead and that he had risen – the same testimony that Paul refers to in the letter to the Corinthians.

Mark writes to a struggling church

And Mark writes this account for them because you know what these Christians were struggling with at that very moment? They were struggling, not because they hadn’t heard the testimony, but because they were afraid. I mean, can you blame them? They were probably running for their lives. Of course they were afraid! And so, if Mark chose to end his Gospel with the words, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” he probably intended his readers to take that very personally.

Now, just before Mark tells us that the women were afraid and didn’t say anything, he also tells us that they were given a very specific piece of instruction: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” But then he tells us that this message was not passed on. How could it have been if they said nothing to anybody?

What Mark is saying to his church

So, what Mark is actually doing here is passing on to the church of his own day a message that he is telling us has been lost or forgotten. He is saying, look Jesus really has risen from the dead and yes, you have heard the testimony of the witnesses, but I understand that you are dealing with some really rough times so I’m going to offer you something more than just a testimony. I’m going to offer you an invitation. I know you’re on the run but, because Jesus has gone on ahead of you and he’s gone to Galilee, if you go to Galilee, you can experience the power of that resurrection for yourselves.

The power of Easter

You see, that is the real power of Easter. The Easter story isn’t just something that happened a long time ago and that certain other people witnessed. I mean, it is that, but it is also so much more. Easter is something that keeps on happening. It is something that became very real to Mark’s audience when they first received this gospel and its author invited them to go to Galilee and experience the risen Jesus for themselves. I don’t know if he was talking about the literal geographical Galilee or some other metaphorical Galilee, but that was the promise that he was giving them and I believe that that promise was fulfilled.

But the promise wasn’t just for them, it is also for us. We are living in a time of great confusion and of fear. We are living in a time when we don’t quite know what to do and how to manage this particular crisis. Yes, we have heard the testimony that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead and that is the good news of this day. But Mark is telling us that we can and should expect more. The power of the resurrection is for all of you today. Go to Galilee and he will meet you there. And no, I’m not talking about the geographical Galilee. I’m asking you to go to that place of quiet meditation in your life and think on this truth. I believe that Jesus will meet you with the power of resurrection there. That is the promise of Easter.

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Cast Them Down

Posted by on Sunday, March 28th, 2021 in Minister, News

Watch the Sermon video here:

Hespeler, 28 March 2021 © Scott McAndless – Palm Sunday
Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, John 12:12-16, Philippians 2:5-11 (click to read)

Today is Palm Sunday and, if people know anything about Palm Sunday it is this: it is all about the palm branches. No matter what else we do on this Sunday, we’ve got to wave those palm branches, right? I mean, even on this pandemic Palm Sunday, the second pandemic Palm Sunday we’ve held in a row, we know that we’ve got to wave those palm branches. Maybe we can’t do a parade in procession as we’d like to do. Maybe we can’t stand up and sing “Ride on, ride on in majesty,” in chorus like we would like to, but we just had better be able to wave those palm branches.

No Palms in the Gospels?

But what if I were to tell you that the palms barely made it into the story of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem? I went through the gospels as I prepared for this Sunday and I was frankly surprised by the lack of palms in the stories of Palm Sunday. Start with the Gospel of Mark, likely the first Gospel written, and there you will see that when Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem, the people covered the road in front of him with their robes and with leafy branches that they cut from trees.

Yes, I admit that those leafy branches could have been palm branches, but they also could have been all kinds of other sorts of plants. In any case, Mark mentions nothing about people waving the branches around. If you then turn to the Gospel of Matthew, you get essentially the same report with various kinds of leafy branches thrown on the road.  But here’s the really big surprise. If you read the account of that day in the Gospel of Luke, there are absolutely no branches mentioned at all. Luke only says that people spread their robes on the road.

Now, what am I saying here? Am I saying that we’ve got it all wrong and there were no palms on Palm Sunday? Well, of course not. Just because Matthew Mark and Luke don’t mention them doesn’t mean that they weren’t there. But at the very least it seems to indicate that this one thing that we seem to think is so essential to this day was something that the authors of Matthew, Mark and Luke didn’t even bother mentioning and they presumably did that for a reason.

Only in the Gospel of John

So where do the palms in Palm Sunday come from? They come from the Gospel of John. Only John tells us specifically what kinds of branches the people cut and John doesn’t mention them putting the greenery on the road, leaving us with the idea that maybe they were waving them.

So, what should we make of that? Many scholars think that the Gospel of John was the last one written and may well have been written with a knowledge of at least some of the others. And sometimes John seems to be trying to set the record straight – trying to correct what it sees as wrong impressions left by the other gospels.

I think that everybody knew that palms were an important feature of what happened on the day when Jesus came to Jerusalem. We do know that the traditional association between palms and the triumphal entry is a very ancient tradition in the church. So, what might be happening is that we are seeing the reluctance of some of the gospel writers to draw attention to a problematic feature in the story.

Symbolic Meaning

Because here is the problem, palms were not just a nice thing for people to wave around because they were in a celebratory mood. No, palms had some very specific symbolic meaning that people would have picked up on right away and it could be that the writers of Matthew, Mark and Luke were a little bit wary of drawing people’s attention to that symbolic meaning.

A Maccabean Symbol

So, what did the palm branch mean to people living in the Near East in the early first century? We know that palms had been taken as the symbol of a family of kings that had ruled over Judea within the last few centuries. The Maccabean kings of Judea and Galilee used palm branches as a symbol on coins, seals and insignia. And I do not think that anyone living in Palestine at that time would have forgotten about that.

Who were the Maccabeans? They were the last Jewish kings to rule over the Holy Land. In the middle of the second century BC, they had led a successful rebellion against the Greek kings who had ruled over Judea since the time of Alexander the Great. And the Maccabeans continued to rule until the Romans came along and basically handed their kingdom over to Herod the Great.

And what do you think that the Romans would have thought about the idea of a bunch of Jewish people gathering in the city of Jerusalem and waving around the symbols of the kings that they had put out of power while they hailed some Jew riding on a donkey as a new king? Yes, you are right, I do not think that the Romans would have been happy about it one bit. It is quite possible, therefore, that when Matthew, Mark and Luke went to write their accounts, they could have just decided it was a little bit wiser to not actually mention the palms.

So, the palm branch was a symbol that the Romans could have seen as politically charged and thus it might have been dangerous for the early church to underline their presence on that day. But that is not the whole story. Because, of course, there is a reason why the Maccabeans chose the palm as their symbol.

A Symbol of Victory

The palm branch was recognized, throughout the whole region, as a symbol of victory. We know that at athletic competitions like Panhellenic Games, the winners of the various events did not receive medals and certainly did not receive any cash rewards. All that they received was a crown woven out of laurel leaves and a palm branch. A victorious general would be similarly rewarded. The meaning of such symbols seemed to be important to them. They represented the fact that, just like the palm and laurel leaves would wither and fade, so was the fame of victory likely to fade. But perhaps that was what made it so sweet and meaningful.

The reason why the Maccabeans had adopted the palm branch as their symbol was because of the great, almost miraculous, victory that they had won against the Greeks. And if the people of Jerusalem turned out when Jesus came to town waving palm branches, then they must have been holding out their hope for a similar victory. And what do you suppose the Romans thought about that? What sort of victory would the Romans have assumed they were looking for?

So everyone – both the Romans and anyone in the crowd would have read a lot of meaning – dangerous meaning – into the mere presence of palm branches on that day. Can you understand now why so many gospel writers didn’t want to draw attention to them?

But if we can understand the reluctance of the evangelists, can we understand why it is that the people of Jerusalem went and cut down palm branches when they learned that Jesus was coming. Because Jesus didn’t tell them to do that, did he? Jesus does seem to have gone out of his way to make sure that he was riding a donkey, but that is the only thing that Jesus arranged for his entry. If the people of Jerusalem spontaneously went out and gathered palm branches, it can only be because they were deeply craving something. They were craving a victory.

We’re Craving a Victory

And I can certainly understand that, can’t you? After more then a year struggling with limitations and masks, anxiety and fear, I think we all know something about that craving for any kind of victory. That is why we cheer every new milestone in vaccination progress. It is why we applaud every new sign that things might be opening up again.

Yes, I know that we’ve been disappointed too often during this pandemic by cheering for the positive signs. More than a few times, signs of progress have been quickly followed by new depths of disappointment. But that only means that, when we see a victory against this virus that actually holds, our joy will be all the sweeter.

Well, that is what the people of Jerusalem were feeling like when they saw the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem. They’d had enough of the oppression, the enslavement and the fear of a Roman occupation. They were desperate for any sign of victory and so, yes, when Jesus showed up, they grabbed their palm branches.

And I am sure that Jesus understood and appreciated their need for some sense of victory. He had come to offer it to them, but I’m not quite sure if the victory he was offering was exactly what they were expecting. If they were looking for a victorious general riding upon a horse or a chariot, which would have been how it was done, well, Jesus came riding in on the back of a donkey. If they were looking for the establishment of a new kingdom that would stand against the kingdom of the Romans, well, Jesus had come to announce the arrival of a new kingdom. He called it the kingdom of God.

A Different Kind of Victory

So, yes, Jesus was coming to bring a victory but if they thought that it was going to work like victory usually worked in this world, they had it a bit wrong. Usually, when people seize their victory, they take it as an opportunity to exult over their enemies and even to oppress them or abuse them. But the victory that Jesus was bringing was going to be the victory of a servant, the victory of one who would submit even unto death.

And that is maybe where the procession of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem takes a bit of a turn. Because, as we noted, in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the leafy branches are not waived in the air or held up in a sign of defiance, they are cast to the ground as a sign of submission to the kingdom of God.

Life as a Struggle for Victory

Many of us seem to see life in this world as a continual struggle for victory. We are always trying to win. Winning is measured in different ways at different times. It might be having more money than other people, more power or influence. It might be a matter of being more popular or of having other signs of success as the world measures it. For many people, that is all that life is, a continual scramble for victory. So today I want to offer to you a challenge and I believe that it is the same challenge that Jesus offered to the people of Jerusalem on that day.

Casting Down our Palms

Some of you have brought homemade palm branches or other leaves that you have picked today. Some have also brought woven crowns, another perishable symbol of victory in the ancient world. I invite you to hold up these symbols now. If you don’t have the symbols, you may of course imagine yourself holding them.

These are the symbols of the victories that you have had in your life. Your success in work, your dominance in your social networks, the friendship groups and families you have established. These are good things that you have done. You may indeed be proud of your accomplishments. These symbols also represent the goals that you still hold onto and that you would like to accomplish. Wave your palms in celebration of the victories that God has given you in your lives. Be thankful for them.

But now, here is the hard part. We often think of the victories we achieve in life as ends in themselves. But that is not quite right. The people of Jerusalem did celebrate their hope for victory when Jesus arrived, but then they cast their palm branches down before Jesus. The offered up their victories and their hopes of victory to him.

I believe that Jesus calls upon us to do the same thing. Your victories, your accomplishments and indeed all of the things you hope to achieve, become, in Christ, part of something much bigger. If we are going to find a better society for all of us, maybe especially in the difficult months of recovery that are to come, we’re all going to need to look beyond individual achievement and victories to something that is for all people. That is the kingdom of God that Jesus came to announce. And his total submission that carried him all the way even to the cross, is a demonstration of the power of any action that gives up the self for the sake of the many.

So here it is our spiritual action for today. Take your palm, take your crown and if you dare cast it down before Jesus, who has come to call us to embrace a better world for all.

A Final Prayer

Lord Jesus, you have granted to many of your people here wonderful victory and success in life. Here we would lay down our palms and our laurel wreaths because we understand that, in you, we find a place to embrace a much larger vision. Amen.

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I will write it on their hearts

Posted by on Sunday, March 21st, 2021 in Minister

Watch sermon video here:

Hespeler, 21 March 2021 © Scott McAndless – Lent 5
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 119:9-16, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33 (Click to read)

I don’t know exactly how old I was, but I know that I was pretty young. And I remember sitting in church one day and having a thought. My thought went like this. I looked up at the minister where he stood in a pulpit that, from where I was sitting anyways, seemed to tower over me.

He was wearing a long black robe that made him look very severe and very serious. And he was going on preaching in his sonorous voice. I have no idea what he was saying. In fact, I don’t think I generally had any idea what he ever said which is maybe one of the problems that led to my thought. But I remember distinctly the thought that I had. I thought, it must be so nice for him to be able to know that he is going to heaven.

Now, why did I think that? As I said, it had nothing to do with what he was saying. As far as I know, he always preached a gospel of grace and certainly never proclaimed that only people like him would get into heaven.

Living with Expectations

No, it had more to do with what I inferred from the actions and words of others. It was just that I knew that I was living in a world where a lot of people had expectations of me. There were expectations of how I would behave, that I would “be good.” There were expectations about how I would perform in school and in other areas of my life. And I was keenly aware of how I fell short of those expectations.

And, when I did fall short, I lived in fear of punishment, not necessarily physical punishment mind you, but people certainly did have ways of letting me know when they were displeased with me. And, when that was the life that I was living, it really wasn’t a big step to take all of those assumptions I had about how the world worked and map them directly onto God. I just assumed that God would be inclined to punish me more than anything else.

Now, I don’t say any of this in order to imply that my parents or others around me somehow did me wrong. They were, of course, greatly concerned for me. They wanted me to do well in life, to not be afraid of some hard work, to do the right thing and, well, to be a good person. The expectations that they put upon me as well as the rules and boundaries they set, were really about trying to make sure that I was safe, happy and well-rounded.

Whose Fault?

It is not necessarily their fault that I experienced some of that as judgment of me that made me feel bad about myself. It was not their intention, though, to a certain extent, it may have been inevitable. There seems to be some tendency in humanity, when we are presented with reasonable boundaries and helpful rules and regulations that are meant to guide us to live well, to quickly jump to the conclusion that we are being judged, found wanting and threatened with punishment.

Sometimes this conclusion is driven by the people who are trying to guide us and who are afraid and that they may not succeed and so they go overboard with threats and criticism, and we end up jumping to our conclusion. Sometimes, it comes from ourselves and our own lack of self-confidence and our fear that we’re not going to measure up. In both cases the root problem is actually fear.

Torah and God’s People

The history of God’s relationship with the people of Israel kind of worked like that. When God chose the people of Israel to be God’s chosen people and a vessel for good in the world, God wanted those people to do well, to build each other up and remain faithful. And so, we are told, God gave them something called the Torah to live by.

The word Torah is commonly translated into English as law. But the Hebrew word actually means something closer to guidance or teaching. You see, the point of it was not that people just follow certain regulations and abide by certain limitations. The point of it was that they would live well and in communion with one another. The point of the Torah had never been mere obedience, it was supposed to be about helping people live their best lives.

But, like I say, what is given as guidance and teaching with the best of intentions can often be received by us as obligation, restriction and judgment. If it happens with children growing up and with Christians who hear the gospel of grace, you can be sure that it sometimes happened with the ancient people of Israel. I’m not saying that this was a flaw in the Jewish faith.  In ancient times and still today, Jews who take the Torah seriously can experience it as a joyful thing, as something that helps them hold onto their identity and makes them be who they were created to be. Experiencing such guidance as a burden is not a Jewish problem, it is a human problem.

Jeremiah’s Prophecy

And it is in that sense that we need to understand the passage that we read this morning from the Prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is speaking for God when he says, This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my Torah within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

The traditional Christian interpretation of this passage is that Jeremiah is looking forward to the coming of Jesus in it – saying that Jesus will set us free from living under the obligation of the law. And it is not as if that interpretation is entirely wrong, there is a very real sense in which Jesus brought a fulfillment of this passage, but it is also true that Jeremiah understood that people didn’t need to wait for the messiah to come in order to live out this promise.

It had always been the desire of God that people live the Torah from their hearts and not simply by following written down rules. And if anyone opened their heart to God, God would be willing to give them the kind of Torah that could be written on their hearts instead of just being chiseled onto tablets of stone. Yes, Jesus did come to set us free from living under the tyranny of rules and regulations. But that had always been the intention of Torah.

What Jesus has done

What then can we say that Jesus added to make that all much more possible? In our reading this morning from the Gospel of John, Jesus says this: “Now is the judgement of this world.” I think this says something important about why Jesus came. He says that his coming is connected to judgment, but it’s not actually about the judgment that we usually assume it is. It is not the judgement of individuals.

Yes, of course, people are responsible for their own actions, but the bigger problem is and always has been the system by which this world operates. That is the system that I struggled with when I was younger because it told me that I was not good enough. That is the system that often arbitrarily condemns people to live lives dominated by guilt and shame. It is the system that continually fails to help us be the best people we can be. And so Jesus declares, “Now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” That world system, with all of its flaws, will be dismantled.

And then Jesus goes on to explain exactly how his coming has made that possible. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” For what is the crucifixion of Jesus but the most potent demonstration of God’s love that there has ever been in the history of the world.

God’s Steadfast Lovingkindness

That love has always been there. If you read the Old Testament with understanding, you realize that such deep abiding love has been behind God’s every action from the beginning. It was out of love that God created us in the first place. Had God wanted obedient drones, we could have been programmed to follow every command but, no, God valued love for us more than compliance from us and so we were created as free beings.

The Old Testament covenant, the basis of the relationship of the people of Israel with their God, was founded on what they called hesed, often translated as the steadfast lovingkindness of God and it was out of that love that God gave them the Torah, again not to control them but to guide them into the best way of living. Love is the underlying premise to every action of God throughout the Bible. It is we who mess all of that up and turn it into a story that is concerned only with judgment and obedience – a story that is the very opposite of love.

So, the love and the grace have always been the key to the story, the problem is just that we have a hard time receiving that story and, just like I did when I was a kid, we turn it into a story about buying your way into God’s good graces by your good works.

Jesus upon the Cross

So what does Jesus do to change all of that? Jesus is just purest and most unrefined image of the love of God that we have ever seen. That image is made most perfect in Jesus loving his people enough that he was willing to be crucified for them. That is what Jesus means when he says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

The image of Jesus upon the cross is an image that is so clear, so compelling, that it becomes this powerful magnet drawing people towards God. They come, not because of a sense of obligation or fear or judgment, rather they come as a response to such pure love. And that is how Jesus, lifted up on the cross, becomes a fulfillment of everything that Jeremiah was looking forward to, even as Jesus continues to be part of the very same story of God’s steadfast lovingkindness.

People still live under the tyranny of the law

Jesus on the cross is a story that is, of course, almost two thousand years old. But, two thousand years later, there are still people who are living under the tyranny of the law, under the tyranny of the fear of not measuring up and thus not being worthy of love or acceptance. As was true of me as a young boy growing up in the church, many of those people are Christians. The cause of that problem is our failure to truly understand the meaning of Jesus upon the cross. The problem is not that the image wasn’t clear, nothing could have been clearer, the problem is in our own hearts.

As long as we carry around in our own hearts the idea that we are not good enough and that we do not measure up, that true message of love will not penetrate. Jeremiah was absolutely right we need a new heart, and we need a Torah inscribed upon our hearts.

A Spiritual Exercise

So here is our spiritual exercise for today. You have brought a heart with you today, or at least I hope you have made one. This is got to be one of the easiest crafts we’ve done during this season of Lent after all. So, even if you haven’t brought a heart, I encourage you to make one and do as I instruct you after we are done. Here’s what I want you to do. Take your heart and take a pen or pencil, and I want you to write the Torah on your heart.

How do we do that? Do we write down some particular command or rule, maybe even the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you? Is that it, do we need the perfect rule? No, here is what I want you to write on your heart – are you ready? Write this: “I am loved, accepted and approved by God just as I am.”

That is it. “I am loved, accepted and approved by God just as I am.” That is the message that Jesus has sought to put through to your heart from the cross. And if you can accept the truth of that statement, that will be the first step towards you having a Torah in your life that you follow with all your heart spurred by joy and not by obligation.

Heavenly Father, write your Torah on our hearts with your steadfast lovingkindness. Amen.

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Snakes in the Camp!

Posted by on Sunday, March 14th, 2021 in Minister

Watch the sermon video here:

Hespeler, 14 March 2021 © Scott McAndless – Lent 4
Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

This morning, we read perhaps one of the most beloved Bible verses of all times: John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” And I certainly understand why people love this verse so much. It is an almost perfect expression of the gospel and of the grace and love of God. But I’m going to be honest here, there is another verse in that reading that I would say I love even more than verse 16, and that is the verse that comes right after it. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Being saved

The thing I love about that verse is that it describes just how limitless God’s love really is, that it is able to extend even to the whole world. It also brings us to the term that I want to focus on this morning and that is the word “saved.” This verse makes it quite clear that Christ’s purpose in coming had to do with saving people, indeed with saving the whole world. But I find that that past participle, saved, and the connected noun which is salvation have become a bit problematic for the church today. You see, they are words that have taken on special meaning in the life of the church where they mean something very different than they would to people outside the church.

When we talk about salvation in the church, we are usually talking about saving people from their sins or their guilt and we often mean getting people to heaven after they die. Do you realize that, outside the church, when somebody uses the words, “You saved me,” they are almost never talking about sin or heaven? But when we use those same words speaking to God in church, that is almost all we ever mean. It’s a little bit funny.

What did John mean by “saved”?

But what does being saved mean in the passage we read from the Gospel of John. Is it the churchy definition, or the one that people actually use in the world? Well, to answer that, I think we should look closer at the verse before the more famous one. Just before the verse about how God so loved the world, we have a verse that goes like this: And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” So, whatever sort of salvation is being spoken of in this passage, it must be something like what was there when Moses lifted up a serpent in the wilderness.

Snakes in the Camp

And that brings us to the odd passage that we read from the Book of Numbers this morning. It is, in many ways, one of the typical stories of the wandering of the people of Israel in the wilderness. The people get upset and mad at Moses and they start to complain. And then, following the pattern of many other stories, God sends some sort of punishment.

But this punishment is really kind of special. “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”That is how the story is usually translated and, it is a pretty horrific story, kind of like the stuff of nightmares. Can you imagine being stuck in a situation where your whole camp is overrun with poisonous snakes? It makes my skin crawl just to think about it!

It is actually “Seraphim Serpents”

But that translation is not quite as simple as that. Because the word for poisonous is not in the original Hebrew text. What it actually says in Hebrew is that God sent seraphim serpents among the people. Hmm, seraphim, where have I heard that word before? Oh yes, I remember. It is a word that is used a number of times in the Bible to describe various supernatural beings. There seem to be two kinds of angels in the Bible, cherubim and seraphim. We even often still use the singular form of those words in English when we speak of cherubs and seraphs. So what it literally says in the original Hebrew is that heavenly beings in the form of serpents invaded the camp. Now what are we supposed to do with that?

If our experience with the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that anytime you have a large group of people living in a communal setting, like nomads camping together, there is a very real danger of various kinds of sickness spreading quickly with devastating effect. I suspect that is the kind of thing that is being described in this passage. Again, as we all know, such a situation can be extremely bewildering and frightening and that is the kind of terror that we see in this passage as the people despair.

Some Kind of Spiritual Attack

Because they couldn’t really understand what was terrifying them, they naturally described it in supernatural terms. The use of the word seraph, a word for a supernatural being, is basically their way of saying that they are under attack in many ways. It’s not just a physical sickness, it’s also a terror of the heart. A camp infested with seraphim is a camp that is in the midst of a spiritual battle where they feel under attack in their minds, their bodies and their spirits.

That is the horror that is being described in this passage. And that is what prompts them to seek for salvation. “The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’” And, in response, God tells Moses to make a representative of these seraphim creatures out of bronze and put it on a pole.

The Problem with Moses’ Response

Now, I have so many questions about this. Is this not the same Moses who gave the commandment about how you shall not have any “graven images” of heavenly creatures who is making this graven image of a seraphim, which is a heavenly creature? It is indeed a bit of a problem and becomes a very real problem later on in Israel’s history. But, on a certain level, what Moses does makes a lot of sense. The people are scared of what seems like a supernatural enemy that is beyond their understanding, and Moses takes their abstract fears and makes them something concrete, something that they can look at. And it is that that saves them.

mRNA Vaccines

In a way, it is kind of what researchers like Moderna and Pfizer have done by creating messenger RNA vaccines to save our population from Covid-19. This is an amazing new approach to making vaccines where the vaccine doesn’t actually contain any of the virus. What it does rather is teach your cells how to make a protein that is part of the virus. It is like you are actually creating an image of the thing that is attacking you. That image teaches your body that there is a way to defeat it. That is how an mRNA vaccine works. And that is basically what Moses did when be made a bronze image of the thing that was attacking them and that image taught them that it could be defeated.

You see, salvation in the Bible actually means what we generally mean by salvation in the real world. It is not limited to spiritual things like forgiving sins or getting people into the afterlife, salvation is actually about God meeting us wherever we are. If you are sick, salvation comes in the form of healing. If you’re drowning in the water, salvation is someone reaching out a hand or a life preserver. If you’re terrified of something, salvation may come in the form of giving you a way to manage that fear. And that’s kind of what Moses did for the children of Israel.

How is Jesus on the Cross like that?

And the Gospel of John tells us that when Jesus was nailed up on the cross, it was just like what Moses did with that bronze seraphim serpent. That means many things. It means, first and most important of all, that you don’t just need to look for one kind of salvation from Jesus. No matter what anyone might have told you, Jesus didn’t just come here on earth to offer you a way to heaven. Jesus didn’t just come to save you from your sins. I mean, yes, if those are the very things that you need at this particular moment, then Jesus did come to offer you that kind of salvation, but please do not limit yourself to seeking that from Jesus.

We All Need Saving

We all need saving at various points in our life. In fact, I might even go so far as to suggest that there is always something that we need saving from. The fact of the matter is that if you are struggling at this moment in your life from anything, then you can know that Jesus actually came to meet you in that struggle. Are you struggling with loneliness and isolation? Lord knows that many are in these days! Jesus came to save you in that.

I know that there are a number of people everywhere who have struggled in these difficult times and have developed certain ways of coping – maybe through drinking a bit more or self-medicating in some other ways, others have developed compulsive behaviors or patterns of relating with people that are not all that healthy.

These coping methods have helped you to get through this time and that is okay, but maybe you are starting to realize that some of the habits you developed are not going to serve you well going forward and you’re beginning to see the need for a change and realize that that change may not be easy. Well, that is also a way in which you need to be saved. And I’m here to tell you that Jesus came to save you from that.

Getting that Salvation Going

Indeed, any sickness you may be struggling with whether in mind or body or spirit is something that Jesus has come to save you from. But, of course, the question is how do we get that saving process going? The Gospel of John tells us that it works like it worked for the people in the wilderness when Moses made the bronze serpent. They needed to look at this thing that represented their deep-seated fears, and that triggered the healing that they needed. John is saying that looking at Jesus when he is lifted up on the cross (that must be what it refers to) triggers the same mechanism of salvation.

What I think he means by that is this: that picture of Jesus upon the cross is a perfect depiction of everything that we struggle with, whether it be pain, rejection, addiction, depression or frailty. If you see Jesus upon that cross, there is no denying that he entered into the very worst of what it means to be human. And the very idea that Jesus could do that while being, at the same time, both entirely human and entirely divine, means that he experienced all of the physical and spiritual and mental challenges we face.

Like the bronze serpent, the sight of Jesus upon the cross puts all of that into a concrete image that we can relate to and that helps to calm our fears and understand that we can handle this because we are not facing it alone. That is the salvation that Jesus offers to you and he offers it to you today.

A Salvation Exercise

So let us engage in a salvation exercise. Many of you have made a serpent to bring today. We are going to use that in our focus exercise. I want you to look at your serpent. Or, of course, you can imagine a serpent on a stick in your mind. If it makes you feel more comfortable, you can imagine Jesus on the cross. As we shall see, it is all the same thing. But whatever it is you are looking at, focus your mind on that image. Leave aside all other thoughts as best as you can.

Now I am going to ask you to think of something that is keeping you, right now, from being all that you believe you are supposed to be. It might be something in the world around you, it might be something in your body, in your mind or brain, or it might be in your spirit. Can you find one thing? Think on that one thing for a moment.

Now, would you join me in a silent prayer? Pray this: Lord Jesus, save me from… and insert that thing. Pray it again and a third time. Jesus does save. Now look at your image. Let that be your reminder right now and in the week to come that Jesus does save you. When you doubt that he does, look at that image. Let it remind you that the things you struggle with – the things that seem so big to you – are but little things to Jesus.

Lord Jesus, thank you that you save your people. Amen.

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