Category: Minister

Minister’s blog

Walking In the Garden at the Time of the Evening Breeze

Posted by on Sunday, June 6th, 2021 in Minister

https://youtu.be/4GDxUN3w2M8

Hespeler, 6 June 2021 © Scott McAndless – Communion
Genesis 3:8-15, Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, Mark 3:20-35

When I was growing up in what is now the City of Toronto, we didn’t live all that far from a place called Edwards Gardens. Edwards Gardens was, at that time, a showcase for the parks department of the City of North York. Nestled along the banks of the lazy Wilket Creek. It was, and still is, a beautiful Botanical Garden. It is a peaceful place of colourful flower beds, majestic weeping willows and little waterfalls and fountains, a beautiful and refreshing place.

And, from time to time, especially during the hot summer months, our family would pile into the car after dinner and make the short drive down to Edwards Gardens where we would stroll around for a while. After a hot summer’s day, it was a perfect place to go to be refreshed and renewed while you felt the cool breezes and smelled the sweet scent of blossoms. In my heart, the place represents memories of belonging and being a family together and at peace with one another. So I can tell you that there is nothing quite like walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.

God Enjoys the Garden

Apparently, God understands the feeling because that is what we discover God doing at the beginning of our reading this morning from the Book of Genesis: “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.” It is a wonderful and very human picture of God, isn’t it? I mean you can just imagine God after a long, hard day’s work running the whole universe feeling the need to relax and unwind in such a refreshing place.

Walking in the Garden at the time of the Evening Breeze -- Edward's Gardens, Toronoto
Edwards Gardens

In fact, doesn’t it suggest that maybe that is why the garden is there – to provide God with that comforting place of retreat? You can certainly read this passage in Genesis like that. It doesn’t say why God planted the garden, but it does strongly imply that it was for God’s own rest and enjoyment. And God even created and appointed a gardener to tend it and make it beautiful, just like the City of Toronto hires gardeners for Edwards Gardens.

A Demanding Gardener

But, you know how it is. When you hire workers to make a place like that beautiful, you also have to make sure they have everything they need. And the gardener certainly had his needs. First of all, he was lonely. And so God went to work trying to create some kind of companion for the gardener. God created all sorts of animals and brought them to the man and the man was happy to name them, but, alas, not one of them was found to be the kind of companion that could be his equal.

And I know you’ve all heard the story about how the best kind of companion was found and, yes, she was not created as a lesser being but rather taken from his side to be his equal and so that they could work together to be the best that they could be.

Everything is Worked Out

And so, God had it all worked out. God had a gardening team who could be glad in their work because they were together and, when God was tired after a long day of running the universe, God could drop by and shoot the evening breeze with the gardener as they walked and talked of begonias and hostas. And all was well and everyone could be at rest and at peace with one another.

And there’s a description of just how great things were between them all that comes at the end of that whole story. “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”

An Anthropomorphic Depiction of God

Now, I realize that some of us may have some problems with how I have told that story, indeed, with how the Book of Genesis tells that story because of the way that it portrays God. The story imagines God strolling around the garden in the evening breezes. It is too anthropomorphic for the taste of some people – God is described in a form that just is too human.

But, of course, that whole description of God doesn’t have to mean God literally went strolling in the garden feeling the breezes on his cheeks. It is just that from ancient times, people, not having any other way of imagining a God that they could relate to, resorted to imagining and describing God in very human terms. It was the only way we could manage to talk about God, but that doesn’t mean that that is what God is.

What we have in this story is a narrative that people created to help them relate to what they had experienced of God. It may not be literally true that God strolls in the garden, but it is actually a very true description of the kind of relationship God wants with humans like us.

What is Shame?

Which brings us back to that description of how things were supposed to be between the man, the woman and the Lord God. “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” That tells me something very important. That tells me that it was never God’s intention that shame would be something that would disrupt our relationships with one another or with our God.

Now, let’s pause here for a moment and just make sure that we all know what we’re talking about when we talk about shame. It is something that we have all felt, I know, but is it something that we all truly understand? Let’s start with defining the difference between guilt and shame, because that’s something we often muddle up.

When you do something wrong, either intentionally or unintentionally, you may feel guilt, especially if you’ve hurt somebody else in what you have done. This can be a helpful impulse sent from God that is there to push us, when we can, to make things right with somebody that we have hurt. Guilt, as long as it is properly dealt with and not carried around and allowed to fester, has its useful place and, even better, it is ultimately something that God can lift from us so that we do not live in it.

But shame, shame is something different. If guilt is feeling bad for something you’ve done, shame is feeling bad for who you are or for things about you that are beyond your control. Shame is also something that people will often use to try and manipulate others for their own goals or to make themselves feel better.

Shame is Not a Good Thing

My friends, shame (defined in those terms) is not a good or helpful thing. Oh, I know that sometimes people try and make it a good thing. They will even decry the lack of shame in some people as if this was a terrible thing: “Oh, the young people have no shame these days!” They like to pretend that shame is something that impels people to be better, but it actually rarely does. I have also noticed how, though people are often happy to wish shame on other people, very few seem to wish it upon themselves!

But this story in Genesis makes it quite clear that shame was never intended to be part of how we relate to each other or to God. And, far from a lack of shame being a cause of disobedience or wrong action, we discover in this story that it is the other way around and that shame comes from disobedience.

The Invention of Shame

But that takes us back to our opening scene when God is strolling in the garden in the evening breezes and God is looking for some companionship, God wants to talk to the gardener and shoot the breezes about the hostas and the begonias. But the gardener and his lovely wife are no place to be found. They are hiding and they are hiding because they have discovered something: they have discovered shame.

In fact, shame is such a new invention that they don’t even know what to call it. Did you notice that? When God calls them out, all they can say is, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” What they are afraid of is that, because they are exposed and cannot hide themselves, they will be judged for who they are. That particular fear is what we call shame, they just don’t have a word for it yet.

And the Lord God responds to that and says, “Who told you that you were naked?” Listen to that question because there is so much meaning wrapped up in it. “Who told you that you were naked?” means, “who told you that you were exposed?” It means, more importantly, “Who told you that you had anything to be ashamed of?”

But that is the power of shame. Before, they had been quite naked – utterly exposed both in body but also in terms of being completely unafraid to show the whole world exactly who they were in every way. When Lord comes to the garden looking for the gardeners, nothing has changed about them. They are still the very same people that they were before. All that has changed is that shame has come into the picture.

Shame and the Knowledge of Good and Evil

We could certainly ask where that sense of shame came from. Is it there because they have been disobedient to what was commanded of them? Possibly, but the story doesn’t actually say that. I find it’s a little bit more likely that shame has been introduced because new knowledge has come to them – the knowledge of good and evil, which is what the tree represents.

Now, knowledge, and especially the knowledge that allows us to discern between good and evil is a good thing. In Jewish tradition, it is the kind of knowledge that makes a person an adult, somebody who is responsible for the consequences of their own decisions. But it is also a kind of knowledge that unlocks a certain dark potential – the temptation to make other people look bad so that we appear to be good in comparison. And it is out of that tendency that I believe shame is born.

Using Blame and Shame to Deflect

We see it in this story that we read this morning. When Adam and Eve are confronted with their failure to live up to the commandment that they were given, their immediate instinct is to try and blame and shame others. The man says, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” And then the woman says, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

The whole point of having the knowledge that allows you to discern between good and evil is that you should take responsibility for the discernment that you make, but they fail to do that. By failing to take their own responsibility – by seeking to transfer it to others – they begin that process of tearing down others to build themselves up and it is from that process that shame gets its power.

This Story isn’t about Sin

You know, I was always told that this story of the garden in the Book of Genesis was a story about how sin entered into the world. In fact, the Bible that we read from this morning still tells me that. The translators of this story in the New Revised Standard Version have given it the title, “The First Sin and Its Punishment.” There is just one problem with that. The word sin is not mentioned even once in this whole story. The concept of sin is only introduced later in the story of Cain and Abel. The whole idea that this story is about sin is actually something that later theologians came up with.

So let me ask this question, what if this story is not really about sin but rather about a much more insidious problem – the problem of shame. For this story makes it very clear that it was never God’s intention that we be controlled by shame. It also strongly suggests that it was the alienation caused by their shame that made it impossible for the man and the woman to enjoy the peace and fellowship of the time of the evening breezes with their creator. Sin will come, but in this story, shame is the enemy.

Shame is the Enemy

And shame is still the enemy. For many of us, shame is that thing that prevents us from expressing who we were truly made to be and makes us feel bad about things that ultimately do not matter. And shame is still a tool that is used to keep people down and prevents them from standing up for what matters to them. But shame is not needed. We are beings, the Bible tells us, who were created to be unashamed when naked – not just physically but in every way.

So I leave you with a question. “Who told you that you were naked?” Who told you that you needed to be ashamed because maybe they were wrong? Maybe they didn’t really have your best interest at heart. And maybe you ought to think before telling others they should be ashamed too.

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Isaiah was bored!

Posted by on Sunday, May 30th, 2021 in Minister

Watch the sermon video here:

https://youtu.be/SeFYKKLmeFE

Hespeler, 30 May 2021 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17 (click to read)

Isaiah yawns. He feels bad for doing it. He can see his parents shooting dark looks at him from the opposite side of the room, but he really can’t help it. This ceremony just seems to keep going on and on and he is bored. He just wants it to be over and for the people to move onto the feast.

I guess you can’t really blame Isaiah for being bored. He is hardly the first person in the history of the world to be bored during a religious service that has gone on too long, and he certainly won’t be the last. And it doesn’t help that Isaiah is still a young man with the common affliction of impatience that many young people have.

But it is also more than that, it is also that this whole ceremony seems to be a meaningless farce. All of the leading citizens of the City of Jerusalem have come together at the temple to witness the enthronement of the new king, Jotham son of Uzziah. It is supposed to be an exciting and magnificent event, full of pomp and circumstance and even a little bit of suspense – with everyone wondering whether or not Jotham will be accepted as king by Yahweh and his priests – but everybody knows how meaningless all of that is.

Jotham has already been running the entire government of the nation for over a decade during his father’s illness. All of the ministers and the priests are already beholden to him. This ceremony is going to change nothing in the day-to-day reality of everything about the kingdom. And yet the people are expected to ooh and ah at the spectacle and pretend like this is the most important thing that has ever happened in Jerusalem. Isaiah just can’t help but find the whole thing so ridiculous.

High and Lifted Up

But there King Jotham is, high and lifted up on a raised platform that has been built just for this occasion. He is wearing the most sumptuous robes imaginable with a train so long that it wraps around and around the temple several times.

Four high ranking attendants hover over him as he sits, like flies circle over a cut of meat in the marketplace. They also wear gorgeous robes with long sleeves and hems, but, of course, each one has carefully dressed so as not to outshine the king. They flatter him, telling him how great he is, and they repeat every flattery three times: “Mighty, mighty, mighty is the Lord our King Jotham. The whole earth is full of his glory.” Isaiah rolls his eyes every time he hears such effusive praise.

The Oppressive Incense

It is not just the plodding pace of the ceremony that is making Isaiah feel so weary, however. It is also the infernal incense. The priests have filled every pot they can with the stuff, and it is sending up great clouds of smoke – so much so that it has become difficult to even see to the other side of the hall. The smoke, together with the soft and repetitive music, is sending Isaiah into a kind of dreamlike state.

Presumably the clouds of incense are supposed to make the people feel that they are closer to the presence of Yahweh in his heaven, but Isaiah suspects that the priests might have another motive in burning so much of it. Isaiah has heard the story, everyone has, and he cannot help but think that the priests are taking advantage of this ceremony to remind the new king of it. In the drowsiness induced by the incense smoke, Isaiah finds himself imagining how the events must have played out.

The Incense Incident

It all happened over a decade ago, but nobody has really stopped talking about it ever since. King Uzziah got into a dispute with the priests. He pointed out to them, and rightly so, that the kings of the House of David had long had a special relationship with Yahweh. And so he argued that it would be a good thing if, from time to time, the king could make a sacrifice of incense before Yahweh in the temple in recognition of his near divine status. The priests, and especially the chief priest Azariah, strenuously disagreed.

But the king was not interested in hearing their arguments and warnings. He just went ahead and did what he felt he had a right to do. He walked right into the sanctuary carrying a brazier from which sweet smoke was rising. The priest confronted him, warning the king that, if he dared to go forward with this mad plan of his, he would be cursed by God.

The king just shrugged it off, of course, but no one ever forgot what the priest had said. King Uzziah woke up one morning weeks later to discover white blotches on his forehead. He covered them up and attempted to go on with his day, but the next day they had spread and soon they could be hidden no longer. People began to react to him in horror; the king was a leper. He was unclean.

So it was that the king had to withdraw from all public life and the day-to-day affairs of the kingdom fell to his son. And you can be sure that the priests did not let anyone forget that the leprosy had come after the chief priest had uttered his curse. And now, clearly, all of the priests were going to make sure that the new king, Jotham, didn’t forget it. It was they who had filled the enthronement chamber with oppressive amounts of incense smoke as they exulted in their victory over royal prerogatives.

The Holy King

Achoo! The smoke induced sneeze suddenly pulled Isaiah out of his reverie and he forced his attention back to the spectacle that was being played out upon the dais. It seemed that the hovering attendants had progressed in their praise of the new king. They had now moved on to proclaiming that he was holy – that he was set apart from all other normal human beings. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord our King Jotham,” they cried out even louder than they had yet cried. “The whole earth is full of his glory.”

Isaiah could tell from the angry looks on the faces of the priests that they were not happy to hear such rhetoric from the royal court. They had begun to argue that holiness was a description that should be reserved only for priests who had been consecrated. It had been a sore point in their relationship with Jotham’s father and it looked like it would continue to be with his son.

Isaiah is Triggered

Suddenly, Isaiah was completely distracted from the ongoing struggle for authority between the monarchy and the priesthood however. The shouting from the attendants and the ever-increasing volume of smoke had triggered something in him. He found himself staring at the thresholds of the temple and he suddenly had the strange, and yet distressingly familiar sensation that they were shaking violently, that the whole earth was shaking.

The Earthquake

This was not the first time that Isaiah had suffered this kind of episode. It had happened to him before in times of great stress and in reaction to loud noises. These kinds of situations made him return to the most traumatic moment he had ever experienced.

Isaiah’s first memory was of when the great earthquake struck his city. A young boy at the time, he had been alone in the house and had been terrified as the ground shook, pieces of ceiling fell and the furniture tumbled. He had felt sure that it was the end of the world. When his parents found him later, they were frankly amazed that he had survived, as a piece of the wall had come very close to smashing in his head.

Isaiah had escaped it all unscathed in his body, which many people told him marked him as one who was specially favoured and chosen by Yahweh. But Isaiah did not feel particularly favoured for he was deeply wounded in his spirit. He had cried out in terror at every aftershock and tremor he had felt in the weeks that followed the great quake and, in the years since, he had been plagued by these repeated sensations that it was all happening again.

The Vision

As it had sometimes done before, this sensation that he was in another earthquake took Isaiah out of himself. He entered into a strange state where he began to see everything very differently. As he looked now towards the platform where the king was enthroned, which suddenly seemed much higher than it had before, instead of the king’s attendants, he saw cherubim – strange unearthly creatures – and the flapping sleeves and hems of the attendants were transformed into wings that covered their faces and feet and allowed them to hover in the air.

And, as Isaiah turned his gaze to the man who sat on the throne amongst them, he realized that it was no longer Jotham who sat there. It was not a man, but a God. And the train of his robe was now so long that it filled the entire temple.

Isaiah is Afraid

Isaiah was suddenly filled with dread. He had seen Yahweh and no one could see Yahweh and live! He jumped and cried out, greatly disturbing the people standing near him, and even waking up one young man behind him. But, as people often do in this kind of situation, most of them just decided to pretend as if nothing had happened.

Isaiah did not have that luxury. He was terrified. His heart was filled with only one thought: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh Sabaoth!”

Isaiah is cleansed

Isaiah was completely beside himself, but his strange vision was not yet finished. As he watched, one of the cherubim flew over to one of the braziers where the incense burned. It took some tongs and picked up a hot burning coal. It then flew over to where Isaiah stood, and he felt a burning sensation as the hot coal was pushed against his own lips. Then the creature spoke to him in a strange hissing voice that Isaiah heard only inside his own head: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” And it was as if a great burden was lifted from Isaiah’s shoulders.

Because of that, when Isaiah heard the voice of Yahweh booming from the platform and saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” he was not afraid as he would have been but moments before. Instead, he spoke up boldly and much to the shock of everyone else around him. “Here am I;” he cried, “send me!” And it was from that day forward that Isaiah was recognized by all who knew him in Jerusalem as one who saw the truth like few others, as one of the prophets.

The importance of Isaiah’s Vision

What happened to Isaiah that day was, as far as I’m concerned, one of the greatest moments in the history of the people of God. It was a vision, that is to say that it was something that happened entirely within Isaiah’s own mind. But I have a conviction about visions. I would argue that just because something happens entirely inside somebody’s mind, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is not real, and it certainly doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. Isaiah gained deep insight into the nature of God that day and what he saw has greatly influenced how we conceive of God to this very day.

What Prompted it?

Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that it happened much like I have described it. Isaiah says it happened in the year that the old king died and what he describes seems very much like the common enthronement ritual of a new king in the ancient Near East, there is every reason to believe that he saw this vision while he was attending the enthronement of the new king.

We also know from the Book of Chronicles that there had been an incident in the temple some ten years earlier when the new king’s father had tried to sacrifice incense and, shortly afterwards, he had been afflicted with leprosy and forced to hand the reins of government over to his son. There had also been a massive earthquake during the reign of Uzziah. It is mentioned by the Prophets Amos and Zechariah and has been confirmed by archaeologists who estimate that the quake must have been about an eight on the Richter scale.

Can you imagine just how frightening that would have been to those people who did not even understand how such things could happen? And if Isaiah, years later, was having visions that included shaking thresholds at the temple, I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to suggest that it is quite likely that Isaiah was suffering from some post-traumatic symptoms after what he had experienced in that earthquake.

What We Can Learn from Isaiah’s Vision

I find Isaiah’s vision to be enormously fascinating, but you might well ask what does what he saw have to teach us? I think there is a lesson in his experience. I think there is every reason to assume that, when Isaiah saw what he saw, he was a man who was deeply disturbed by some of the things that he had lived through. He struggled with post-traumatic stress and perhaps some sort of dissociative disorder – at least that’s what the initial part of his vision sounds like to me.

Isaiah had been damaged by the events of his life, just like all of us, to various degrees, have been affected by the things that have happened to us. But we see here that Isaiah’s unique traumas and experiences put him into a frame of mind and position that allowed him to see God in a truly unique way that continues to affect how people think of God to this very day. Even more important, it gave to Isaiah a unique voice and insight that allowed him to speak to the many trials that were coming for the people of Judah.

I cannot help but think that if we were to bring all that we are, both the things in which we’ve been strengthened and the things in which we have been damaged, and open ourselves up to the vision that might come, we too could be given such an extraordinary opportunity. You may have suffered damage or loss in your life, but you too can cry out, “Here am I, send me.” You may have limits or disabilities or problems that weigh you down, but these things may uniquely gift you to bring hope to others. Will you cry, “Here am I, send me”? Or maybe you’re just bored with conventional religion and cynical about the ceremonies that the world makes too much of? Maybe there is a calling in that too. Will you say it? “Here am I, send me!”

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A Split Second in Philip’s Mind

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

Watch the sermon video here:

https://youtu.be/SS91ja_KJCc

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:

https://youtu.be/TMKKoNkwM6A

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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Ghost?

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

https://youtu.be/uvdNlCExUVc

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:

https://youtu.be/4lbC44B_MJI

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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