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A Liturgy of Creation

Posted by on Sunday, June 4th, 2023 in Minister, News
Watch Sermon Video here

Hespeler, June 4, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Trinity Sunday
Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

Many people, even faithful believing Christians, will argue over the passage that we read this morning from the Book of Genesis. Many will ask the question, is it true? By which they usually mean, is it true that God really created everything that exists over a period of six 24-hour days. Many of us, perhaps rightly so, are a little bit skeptical about that idea.

But I actually think we are too quick to ask that question of this story. I would argue that you cannot say whether a piece of literature is true or not until you decide something else first. You have to decide what kind of literature it is.

Different Kinds of Literature

This is actually something that we all know, it’s just that we don’t usually talk about it. Every different kind of literature operates according to its own rules that we use to judge whether or not it is true.

For example, when you read a newspaper article and you ask whether it is true, you are actually asking whether all of the things that the article says happened actually happened as it says that they did. A true journalistic article is one that is properly sourced, that quotes people accurately and tells you what happened.

Fiction and Poetry

When you read a book of fiction, on the other hand, you know very well that the events that it narrates never happened and the characters it describes never existed. But why, then, do you read fiction? Is it because there is no truth in it? Of course not! I think that I can honestly say that some of the deepest and greatest truths I have ever learned about humanity and life in this world, I learned from some of the fictional novels that I have read. They are a great source of truth, just not literal truth.

And then you pull out a poem, let’s say, a much-loved poem by Robert Frost. And you read the part where he says, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” How would you judge whether that poem was true? Would you insist that, unless somebody could show you the actual roads that diverged in a wood somewhere where Robert Frost once stood that that was a false poem? Of course not. The truth of the poem does not depend on the existence of any roads because the road is a metaphor for the course of the poet’s life.

What Kind of Literature is it?

So, I hope you will agree with me that every different kind of literature has different rules for their truthfulness. And the Bible is not just one kind of literature. It is a collection of various types of literature. And so, if you want to know whether and how certain passages are true, you need to know what kind of literature you were dealing with.

So, what kind of literature is the creation story? I suspect that most of us would agree that it was not intended to be a journalistic account of what actually happened at the beginning of all things. It predates the invention of journalism by many centuries. Therefore, the truth of it does not depend on everything having happened exactly as it describes. Nor would we call it a scientific textbook, which would mean that it’s truth would have to be demonstrated through repeatable experimentation and observation. But what sort of literature are we dealing with?

A Liturgy

An image of the primordial universe

I am going to make a suggestion that might not necessarily occur to many people. I am going to suggest that the story of creation in Genesis chapter 1 is actually a liturgy. A liturgy is a very specific kind of literature. It is a document written to guide a community through an act of worship. Our Sunday morning bulletin, for example, is a very simple kind of liturgy.

And there are some pretty good reasons for thinking that Genesis 1 could be a liturgy. It is very repetitive, and you can easily imagine how it might have worked as a sort of call and response. You can imagine, for example, the worship leaders calling out, And there was evening and there was morning.” And then all the people responding, “the first day, the second day, the third day, and so on.”

The Enuma Elish

But, even more important than that, we know that there were worship services in the ancient world that were very similar to what we see in Genesis 1. I mean, extremely similar. In Babylon, during the Neo Babylonian kingdom, there was an annual New Year’s festival. And as a key part of this worship festival for the Babylonian gods, the great epic story, called the Enuma Elish, was recited.

And guess what the Enuma Elish was. It was the story, told in seven tablets, of how Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonians, created the world and everything in it. And there is a lot in common between the two stories.

How Marduk Created

Marduk creates, in fact, following almost exactly the same steps as the Lord God does in Genesis. He separates the waters above from the waters below. He creates lights in the dome of the sky to organize the passage of time and seasons. Step by step, the creation takes place in pretty much the same order.

So, there is a lot in common. But there is also a lot that is different. In Genesis, how does God create? By a word. God speaks and everything in all creation is put into its proper place.

Marduk, on the other hand, has a very different approach to creation in the Enuma Elish. Marduk creates almost everything through violence. When he separates the waters above from the waters below by creating a solid barrier, he doesn’t do it by speaking like God does. He does it by defeating a great monster named Tiamat and then literally ripping her in two from top to bottom.

When he creates humanity, he does so by killing another god and creating the human beings, as slaves to the gods, out of the blood of that dead god. So, while it is remarkable how the two stories are alike, it is in many ways even more remarkable how different they are.

Story Originated in Babylon

The connections between the two stories are so significant, that most scholars today believe that the Genesis account was influenced by the Babylonian creation story. And, by far, the most likely time when that would have happened was while the people of Israel were living as exiles in the land of Babylon.

While they were there, many of them living as servants in the homes of the Babylonian elite, they would have been exposed to the Enuma Elish. And, in the midst of that harrowing experience, some of them may have been inspired by God to create this liturgy of creation.

Why they Needed this Story

Put yourself for a moment into the position of those poor Judean exiles in Babylon. They have been subjugated and defeated by this terrible violent people. They have been robbed of their homeland by them and reduced to being their servants and slaves.

And every year, at the Babylonian New Year, they are forced to listen to a story that affirms that the Babylonians are the greatest and that they deserve to rule over the whole world. And why are the Babylonians so great? Well, obviously because the Babylonian gods are the best. And we know that the Babylonian gods are the best because look at all of the other gods and monsters they killed and slaughtered and tore into pieces in order to create the world. That was the message.

A Better Story

And can you not imagine some poor Judean exiles getting together one day and saying, “No, that’s just not right. The world was not created to be a place of violence and slaughter and death. It was not created merely so that the strong could exploit the weak. It was created to be a place of hope and life. And so, it couldn’t have been those violent Babylonian gods who made everything.

“It must have been our God who is the creator of all. And our God did not create everything by violence and slaughter and tearing other beings in two, our God brought order and meaning to the universe with… with just a few words. And God made it good. That’s how powerful our God is!”

A Festival

But, of course, it wasn’t enough to just say that. Who would care what a bunch of powerless slaves and exiles said. They needed a powerful way to express it so that people would remember it and have hope. And what better way to do that than to start to gather as a Jewish exile community. Over a week they would gather and celebrate their God as the true creator of the universe.

And let’s just guess what exactly they may have worshipped over those seven days. Day one: God the creator of light. Day two: the creator who separated the waters above from the waters below and created the barrier of the sky. Day three: The creator of dry land and growing plants. Day four: The creator of the sun, moon and stars and, well you get the idea.

Just a Basic Outline

So what we seem to have in the first chapter of Genesis is the basic outlines of the worship that was carried out over this weeklong festival. Of course, there would have been more to it than that. There would have been hymns to sing and we might even have some of the lyrics: “So God created humans in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” I can imagine a choir singing that, can’t you?

I’m sure there must have been dancing and feasting too. What better way to celebrate the creator of growing things than with a feast of fruits, for example. But the basic outline is right there in the seven days of creation story.

The Seven Days

Of course, you realize what this means? All of those people who tie themselves up in knots about how the Bible says that God created the world in seven days and that therefore all of the scientists who say the earth is millions of years old are wrong despite having all of the evidence on their side, may have completely misunderstood what this passage is actually saying. The seven days is not intended to be an indication of how long it took God to do it. It is only an indication of how long it took for the people to celebrate it.

An Act of Resistance

But, more important, this means that this story is about a whole lot more than how the world came to be. It is all about how a subjugated and exploited people can stand up for themselves and resist their abusers. And that is an aspect of this passage that we definitely need to recover given what is going on in our world today.

So, what can we draw from this story to help build a better world? Well, think of it this way. The exiles in Babylon lived in a world where everyone believed that violence and power were the solutions to every problem and that only the most powerful could rule. The Babylonian Enuma Elish reinforced that view of things.

We still live in a society that believes that today. Think of all of the stories we tell – the stories that come out of Marvel Studios for example. But the Jewish exiles told a very different story of a God who created with words, not violence. It was a powerful witness that the world could be different!

Valuing Human Life

The exiles in Babylon lived in a world where human beings like them were considered to exist only to serve the interests of the powerful and wealthy. This was reinforced by the Babylonian creation story that declared that all humans had only been created as servants to the gods.

And make no mistake that we also live in a world that values human life in much the same way. All of us everyday are constantly being judged in terms of what we can produce, what we contribute to the economy. And those who do not produce, or who do not earn enough from the fruit of their labour, are increasingly abandoned and treated as worthless. The Babylonian Creation story’s message is still powerful!

But the Jewish exiles were bold to proclaim in their story that the purpose of humanity was very different – that “In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” They dared to tell a story of God giving dominion over the land to all people and that the goods of the earth were gifted to all humanity by God for their sustenance.

A Subversive Sabbath

And, if the people who celebrated this story were essentially slaves, what do a slaves need more than anything else? They need time off! And this story of creation is all about taking time off, isn’t it? That is why the whole thing is built around a seven-day cycle! It is all about getting us to the seventh day, the day of rest!

And in this liturgy, what were the Hebrew exiles saying? They were saying that their time off was not a gift of their Babylonian masters. They were saying that it was a gift of their God – indeed that God had built the entire universe around their need for a break! That was a dangerous thing to say in Babylon, but the Jews told this enduring story, and a good story has a way of getting through to people. The story stuck.

The Genesis creation story is a worship liturgy. But, more important, it offered a way to tell a story that went against the narrative of the world. As such, it had a powerful and enduring impact. Let’s think about the stories that we tell about this world. They can also have the same kind of impact. And let’s also consider how our acts of worship can also transform our understanding of this world. That is where the deepest truth and greatest power of the story of creation can be found.

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Now you’re talking my language!

Posted by on Sunday, May 28th, 2023 in Minister, News
Watch Sermon Video Here

Hespeler, May 28, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Pentecost
Numbers 11:24-30, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Acts 2:1-21, John 20:19-23

You might not know this about me, but I have a degree in Linguistics – the study of language. And that has always meant that I look at the famous story of the Day of Pentecost in the Book of Acts a little differently from most preachers.

I cannot just turn off the Linguist part of my brain when I read it. I cannot help but notice, for example, that, on one level, the miracle of people speaking in different languages was not really necessary for comprehension.

Everyone Spoke Greek

It is true, of course, that various people who lived in various places spread all over the known world at that time had their own local languages. But it is also true that, because of the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire, many people had also learned at least one other language.

If you traveled or traded or dealt with government officials, you learned to speak Greek. You had to just to get by. And so, even if expatriate Jews and some Gentiles had travelled to Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost, and even if they spoke the local language back home, they all had a very easy and convenient way to communicate with each other: just speak Greek.

What is the Point?

So, what is the point of these members of the church suddenly speaking in all these local languages from back home? What is it supposed to accomplish? It can’t be about comprehension, so what is it about?

Ah, but any Linguist understands that language isn’t just about comprehension. It also serves several social functions. So, I suspect that something else is going on in this story. But, to understand what it is, you may need to put yourself in the sandals of one of those outsiders who had come in for the festival that year.

A Visitor from Parthia

Shimeon was a Jew, but he was a Jew who had lived all his life in Parthia. And, for almost all of that life, the King of Parthia had been at war with the Emperor of Rome. Even though it was practically required of all Jews that they should travel to Jerusalem every year for the three main festivals, everyone understood that those who lived elsewhere could only make the trip rarely.

But when you live in a place at war with Rome, when you literally have to cross a demilitarized zone to get from your home to the temple in Jerusalem, you can imagine that even doing so rarely could become impossible.

A Wonderful Opportunity

The fact of the matter was that Shimeon had never been able to make the pilgrimage, not even once in his entire life. So, he had been so very excited when things had worked out and he was able to come down for the Festival of Passover this year. It was a wonderful opportunity to connect with the heritage and traditions of his people that had always been so hard to hold onto in far off Parthia.

As a Jew, a member of a minority community, he had always felt like an outsider in Parthia. He was excluded from all religious festivals and most other social gatherings in the mainstream society. So, of course he had been looking forward to being in a place where he was surrounded by Jewish people and by Jewish practices and worship. He had thought that he might find himself here. But, things had not quite gone as he had expected. A lot of it had to do with language.

Jews in Parthia

When the small Jewish community in Parthia gathered in synagogue, they sometimes did some prayers and rituals in the old Hebrew language. But the old language didn’t mean much to them. When the elders read the scriptures, they occasionally read from the few Hebrew scrolls that they had, but then they had to explain what they meant to the younger people in Greek. So, it was usually much easier to read from the popular Greek translation known as the Septuagint. These scrolls, that had first been published some two centuries earlier, were also easier to obtain in far-off Parthia than any Hebrew scrolls.

So, while Shimeon had heard some archaic Hebrew, he really wasn’t comfortable using it. But he hadn’t expected that to be a problem on this pilgrimage. Wherever he had traveled before, he had always managed to get by in Greek, surely things would be the same in Jerusalem.

Treated like an Outsider

But it had not worked out that way. As he dealt with the native Judeans – bartering for a place to stay or for food in the marketplace or even just asking for some directions – when he spoke to them in Greek, he could tell that they could understand him. When he asked for the price of the figs, for example, they looked right at the basket of figs in the booth, but then they stubbornly answered him in the local dialect of Aramaic.

Aramaic was somewhat related to old Hebrew, so he was sometimes able to work out what they were saying, but then, when he tried to answer them in the language that he had heard in the synagogue back home, they laughed at him, calling his accent strange and ill-tutored. They then used this as a ready excuse to overcharge him or deny him the goods he had been looking for.

Understanding the Judeans

You see, the Judeans, who had so long felt like outsiders in the big world of the Roman Empire, tended to make up for that by treating those who came from other places like minorities and outsiders. They refused to speak common Greek to them. They doubled down on the local Aramaic dialect and were only too happy to make fun of the way that the outsiders spoke.

They did this to all of the outsiders who came down to the festival, even those who only came from as close as Galilee. Galileans, in many ways, were the most like the Judeans, especially in their dialect. But the Judeans went out of their way to make fun of their strange northern accent.

So, even though participating in the events of the festival had meant a great deal to him, ever since he had arrived, Shimeon still felt as if he didn’t belong here either. It made him wonder if he really belonged anywhere.

A Sudden Disruption

The greatest day, the climax of the festival, was the day when the people brought their first fruits to present in the temple. It was a chance to give back to God from the very best that God had given to them over the year. And Shimeon was excited as he joined the throng moving through the streets. If he didn’t speak, no one looked twice at him and, for a few moments he could feel as if he was part of something much bigger than himself.

But suddenly, as he passed by a side street, he heard some shouting. It sounded… different. It didn’t have the same cadence and rhythm of the local Aramaic language. It seemed strange and out of place here, and yet the thing that really struck Shimeon about it was a strange familiarity. There was something in it that felt like home to him, as if he were suddenly back on the streets of the city in Parthia where he had grown up and played with the other local boys.

Galileans Behaving Strangely

And so, he turned aside, as did a number of other worshippers in the crowd. They soon came upon a small group of men and women who had gathered outside of a house. It was quite plain that all of them, by their clothing and their mannerisms, were Galileans. But, amazingly, they weren’t speaking like Galileans. To his wonder and amazement, Shimeon noticed that one of them, a young man, was shouting out praises to God in the local language of Parthia – the very language he had grown up speaking on the streets.

As he looked around at him, he saw many other pilgrims has been drawn to the spot. They, like him, had traveled from many places to be here for the festival – Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia. Oh, there were too many to name! And he could see by the looks on their faces and by the tears that they were wiping from their eyes that they were reacting much as he had. They also had felt completely excluded up until this moment, but they all suddenly felt that they belonged.

Judean Backlash

But they were not the only ones who had been attracted by the disturbance. There were also some local people too, some Judeans. And they were moved by what they heard as well, but not in the same way. Many of them were furious. For, in and amongst all of the various languages and accents that had been emanating from the group of Galileans, there were also words spoken in the local Judean dialect.

The Judeans in the crowd felt as if they were being mocked by these crude Galileans. Why, the very idea that their language, the language obviously favoured by God, could be counted merely as one among so many others was unacceptable. And so, they, for their part, began to shout out against these Galileans. “Don’t listen to these country Bumpkins,” they cried. “Here it is. Only nine o’clock in the morning and they are already drunk and raving like lunatics!”

A Galilean Speaks

But then the crowd fell silent as one of the Galileans stepped forward. Everyone wanted to hear what he might have to say about such wonders. “Fellow Judeans, and all who live in Jerusalem,” he said, speaking specifically to those who had been criticizing them. He spoke in very poor Greek, mixed with many Aramaicisms and a heavy Galilean accent. “Let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these people are not drunk as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.” And so began the very first Christian sermon ever preached.

Something about the Early Church

When the writer of the Book of Acts started writing his account of the beginnings of the Christian movement, he knew a number of things about the earliest church. He knew, for example, that one of the practices of the church from near the beginning (and perhaps it continued into his own day) included believers speaking in strange languages.

It worked like this. Some believers, while they were gathered with the community in worship, would enter into an ecstatic state. This is something that human beings have been doing for a very long time. They get all worked up in a frenzy until they lose all ordinary control of themselves. It is something that still happens to this day in various settings including worship services and raves and even some practices that use psychotropic drugs.

Speaking in Tongues

In this state, the believers would sometimes speak in unintelligible languages. These were not actual languages, but more like ecstatic utterances. In his Letter to the Corinthians, Paul insisted that they could only be understood through a similar act of ecstatic interpretation by another believer.

But the act of speaking in tongues, as it was called, could be very moving and had the effect of deepening the worshipper’s connection to God and the community through the Holy Spirit. As a result, those who engaged in it seem to have sometimes thought that they were somehow better Christians than those who didn’t. The Apostle Paul saw that as a problem.

The Author of Acts Makes it Mean Something Else

The author of the Book of Acts obviously knew about this practice. But when he came to write the story of the origins of the Christian Church, he decided to present it in a different way. He decided, for just this one occasion it seems, to transform this speaking in tongues into something that wasn’t just ecstatic and unintelligible. He had the first Christians on that first day speak in the local languages of people from every corner of the known world.

Why did he do this. I think he was trying to say something – something that was probably more symbolic than it was literal.

A Writer who Knew About Being an Outsider

We don’t actually know who wrote the Book of Acts. Christian tradition says that it was a man named Luke, but we can hardly be sure of that. Whoever he was, though, he was almost certainly a man who spoke Greek as his first language. His Greek is excellent.

So perhaps he had had the experience, as a Greek interested in the God of Israel, of going to a festival in Jerusalem and being treated like an outsider. He knew what it was like to be the outsider who the locals thought talked funny. I wonder if that is why he reimagined the practice of the early church of speaking in tongues as something that could overcome that kind of prejudice and mistreatment.

If that’s what he was doing, he was putting forward something very hopeful. He was drawing a compelling picture of what the church could be – a community where there really was a place for anybody and nobody ever got treated as a second class citizen. That is an idea of the church that I still cling to and aspire to. If we could all aspire to that, I think that God would do some amazing things among us.

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Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?

Posted by on Sunday, May 21st, 2023 in Minister, News
Watch sermon video here

Hespeler, May 21, 2023 – Ascension Sunday
Acts 1:1-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35, 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17:1-11

On October 14, 2012, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner got into a helium balloon and flew straight up into and beyond the atmosphere. He climbed 39 kilometres (or 24 miles) into the stratosphere. The blue sky turned black and the stars came out. He was wearing a specially designed pressure suit, of course, or he would have been dead before long.

He stood there at the door of his capsule and looked down. The curve of the earth’s globe was plainly visible beneath him. He leaned forward and then he just fell. Well, he didn’t just fall; he hurdled to earth in free fall. He fell for 4 minutes and 19 seconds before eventually deploying his parachute. During that time the black sky turned blue, the whole earth spun, and he moved so fast that he is the first and only human being to ever break the sound barrier without an engine.
Watch the video of Baumgartner's jump here

A Stunning Event

The whole event was absolutely stunning and awe inspiring. All over the world, people watched the video of the feat in shocked amazement. And if you had been present in New Mexico, where the whole event played out, you would have stood there staring into the sky. Your eyes would have widened in shock when you heard the sonic boom and realized that a man had just made that. You would have been filled with wonder and relief to see the man land safely.

I could not help but think about that incredible stunt that took place over a decade ago when I read our passage this morning from the Book of Acts. When [Jesus] had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” The connection between the two events seems inescapable. Jesus takes exactly the same route as Felix Baumgartner, just in the opposite direction.

An Amazed Reaction

Even more important than that, the reaction is much the same. While he was going, the disciples were gazing up toward heaven. And they are clearly so amazed and shocked by what they are seeing that they barely even noticed the sudden appearance of two men in white robes. These men, who appear to be angels, then criticise them for staring up so fixedly saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

There is so much that connects these two stories. They both follow the same route. They are both extremely awe inspiring. But, in many ways, when you look at the question of what these two events mean, they really couldn’t be more different.

What it means?

Baumgartner’s jump was many things. It was a publicity stunt engineered to promote the Red Bull brand. It was a successful attempt to set a world record. But it was, above all, a scientific experiment. And, as such, it confirmed many of the things that we know about our planet. It dramatically demonstrated the shape of our planet and the form and substance of the atmosphere and stratosphere.

But if the story of the ascension of Jesus into heaven means anything – and it obviously means a great deal – that meaning seems to depend on a denial of just about everything that has been demonstrated by Baumgartner’s jump. Because, if all that Jesus did was to rise up from the earth in order to enter into the stratosphere – if all he did was travel upwards until the blue sky turned black, the stars came out and the oxygen ran out – that would have been amazing. But it would have had none of the meaning that it is meant to have in this passage in the Book of Acts.

How they saw the Universe

The meaning of this story is entirely dependant on a first century understanding of the universe. The disciples of Jesus lived in a world that they conceived of as a layer cake. There were three basic levels of their universe, and the meaning of those levels was more spiritual than it was physical. The earth was sandwiched between an underworld below – a place of death and possible damnation – and heaven above. Heaven was where God lived, and it was just beyond the clouds and on the other side of what looked like the blue dome of the sky.

And the meaning of Jesus’ ascension is all found in the spiritual shape of the universe. This story is about Jesus departing from a physical presence with his disciples to take his place at the right hand of the Father so that he can watch over and intercede for his beloved followers on the earth.

A Theological Idea

Now, as a theological idea, I have no problem with that. The amazing story of the gospel is that God so loved this world that he gave his only begotten son to live among us. What that means is that, in Christ, the very nature of God broke through into this world. Somehow Jesus was able to show us the true nature of God (that God is love).

In addition, Jesus brings humanity together with God so that God may understand all of our failings, temptations and weakness. And yes, it is only fitting that the risen Jesus must stand before God to plead for us and support our needs to the great ruler of the universe.

So as an idea, it is absolutely beautiful and wonderful. It means the world to me. But when you tell me that this had to be accomplished by Jesus doing a reverse Baumgartner, you kind of lose me there. Because I know that the universe doesn’t work like that.

I know that if you go straight up, you do not somehow pass through a solid blue dome and find yourself standing in the physical presence of God in heaven. Astronauts have been up there. Felix Baumgartner has been up there we know that that is not how the universe works.

Where is God?

That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist. It doesn’t mean that heaven doesn’t exist. Oh yes, they probably exist in a way that doesn’t quite fit into the three-dimensional space that we’re familiar with, but they still exist. But if I have to embrace the concept of the universe that was held by the first century disciples in order to accept the meaning of the story of the ascension, I have a problem. I know that, in order to take a place at the right hand of God, Jesus did not have to literally fly up into the stratosphere.

Stories about what they had Experienced

Here, then, is how I have come to see all of this. As far as I’m concerned, there is no denying that the disciples and followers of Jesus experienced something extraordinary in this person. They experienced God in him in some truly irresistible ways. They tried to pass on the truth of what they had experienced to us by telling stories of his incarnation, his transfiguration and other extraordinary events.

After he had been crucified and died, they experienced him alive and with them again. They passed on the incredible news of what they had experienced with the stories that they told of his resurrection. And sometime after he had been raised, they experienced something that convinced them that he had moved on to another plane of existence from which he would intercede for them before the Father. They passed on the truth of this with their accounts of the ascension.

The Challenge of the Ascension

But they had a challenge in telling the stories of the ascension. Stories of the incarnation were extraordinary of course, but at least they could relate them to things that they had already seen. They had all experienced things like conception and birth, and they knew that Jesus’ birth had to be something like that, just more divine.

In the same way, they could talk about the miracle of the resurrection using terms that everyone could understand because everyone could at least imagine what it was like to see someone again after they had died. Yes, in the case of Jesus it was far more amazing than that, but it did relate to everyday life.

But they didn’t have the words to describe an experience of Jesus taking this new place at the side of God. And so, they had to resort to doing the best that they could, describing it in terms of the three-layer universe as they understood it. And so, I don’t think that we can know exactly what they saw and felt and knew on that day. The best that they could say was that it was like watching Jesus go up and into the stratosphere.

What it Means Today

That all leaves us with the question of what we do with all of that, and what it means for the faith that we profess today. The thing that particularly strikes me about it today is the way that, in that moment – as they stand there staring into the sky – the disciples are given an incredible new insight into the relationship between themselves and God – an insight that they can only describe in terms of Jesus going up into the sky.

And we are all given such insights from time to time – moments when heaven and earth come together and it all makes sense. These are powerful moments. But they come with a temptation. Such visions can be so overwhelming that we stand there in awe of what we have seen. We are just so impressed with our own insight.

Our Response to Insight

That is exactly what the disciples are doing in this passage, and it is exactly why the two men in white call them out. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Yes, we have been shown the secrets of another existence. Yes, we can take comfort in knowing that Christ will intercede for us from the right hand of God. Yes, we know the hope that he will return some day and finally bring justice and equity to the whole world. But none of that is a reason to stand frozen in inaction.

The day of ascension is all about what Jesus has done and will do for us. But the point of it is not to stand there amazed by what we have seen. Jesus has already been clear about that when the disciples asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”

In other words, he is saying that, even though God is going to do it, you can’t know when. Therefore, there is no point in standing around looking up to the place where God was thought to abide.

What to do Instead

So what, then, were they to do instead of standing around and staring? Jesus had told them that too. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

And I think it is very significant what they are asked to do instead of waiting around. They are told to be witnesses. It is not up to them to make it happen – that is up to God. But they can be witnesses – they can tell other people about what they have seen and experienced of God in Jesus Christ.

So, what you have experienced, the deep insights that God has given to you over the years, the sudden realization of God’s love and grace that have come to you, you can and should share them. They will be blessings to many others. But they are not an end in themselves, don’t become stuck staring at them and contemplating them. Expect more from God, and in your expectation be bold to share what you have experienced. That is how hope spreads. And that has to be what Ascension Sunday is about.

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To an Unknown God

Posted by on Sunday, May 14th, 2023 in Minister, News
Watch the Sermon video here

Hespeler, May 14, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Christian Family Sunday, Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21

It has become common these days to blame religion for so much of the evil we find in this world. This is not without some good reason. If you want to create a list of all of the ways in which religion, all religion including Christianity, is evil, it is not really very hard. Just think of all of the Jihads, Crusades and genocides that have been carried out in the name of faith. Consider the atrocities committed because of religious differences – in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories just to name a few.

Evils in the Name of Faith

Remember, in our own country, the story of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery, endorsed by all major Christian faiths, that justified stripping all lands from the indigenous people because they were “savages.” Think of the residential school system that was a matter of national government policy, but that various Christian churches bought into wholeheartedly because they saw it as a chance to build up their own institutions.

Yes, religion is not the only cause of such devastation. We could also say many of the same things about nationalism, tribalism and racism, for example. But still, no one should underestimate all of the evil that has been carried out in this world in the name of faith.

But more than that, many people’s individual lives have been devastated by their encounters with religion. Abused people have often seen their abusers empowered and protected by religious institutions.

On this Christian Family Sunday, we need to admit that sometimes religion has had a devastating effect on families. Parents have been persuaded by religious teachers that, if their children don’t fit in with certain expectations, that they should reject them, maybe even turn them out. Such teachings have led to horrible outcomes like suicide and addiction.

Why Remain?

Many people today struggle with the long-terms effects of the trauma they experienced because of a strict religious upbringing. This is a pain that they carry with them every day and that most cannot overcome without extended therapy. Religion of all sorts has negatively affected people’s lives.

The downside of religion seems undeniable in many ways these days. And so, you might well ask me why I stay committed to the kind of work I do. Why not just give up on religion altogether? I’ll tell you why. It is because of the altar to the unknown god.

Paul in Athens

When the Apostle Paul went to Athens, he discovered a city that was full of religion and of gods. There were found some of the most famous and celebrated temples and altars in the whole world – the incredible Parthenon, the celebrated temple of Olympian Zeus, the massive Temple of Hephaestus, to name only a few. These temples represented some of the most powerful religious institutions that had ever existed.

In the names of these gods and others like them, the Roman legions had marched and conquered the world. In their names much evil was done, and perhaps some good. But, whether for good or ill, people believed in these gods and their stories because that was what they had always been taught. And so, Paul looked at all of these altars and concluded that the Athenians were indeed very religious people.

And maybe he wondered, given all of the violence that had been committed in the name of those well-established gods, whether it might not have been better if such religions had never existed. As a member of a religious minority who had suffered at the hands of the worshipers of these gods, you could hardly blame him for thinking such things.

Before the Areopagus

So why, then, when he spoke before the Areopagus, an assembly of leading Athenian citizens who were judging him, did he speak positively of the spiritual and religious lives of the Athenians. Athenians,” he said, “I see how extremely spiritual you are in every way.” Why didn’t he simply reject their spiritual impulses as dangerous and deadly? I believe it was because of the altar to the unknown god.

Altar to an unknown god discovered in Rome. (Wikimedia)

As he wandered around the city, he had seen an altar dedicated to an unnamed god. Now, no one has ever found the actual altar to the unknown god among the many archeological digs in the city of Athens, but there is no reason to doubt that there was at least one there. They were not uncommon at all in the ancient Mediterranean world. There has been one found in excellent condition in the city of Rome.

Why were there such Altars?

But I’ve got to wonder why such things existed in a place like Athens. They had plenty of gods, after all – twelve major deities and tons of minor gods and demi-gods. You would think that they had all of the bases covered. And yet these strange altars kept being built, no doubt at great cost and personal sacrifice. Why?

The answer is simple. These altars were erected because, from time to time, people had experiences of the divine that they could not fit within the boundaries of all the huge varieties of religions that they saw around them.

Perhaps they were just going along with their everyday lives and they suddenly found themselves experiencing a transcendence that they could not explain. It might have been a moment of pure joy, or perhaps of terror. Maybe they felt as if they had been helped in some way that they couldn’t explain. Maybe they couldn’t quite put their finger on it, but they just knew that they were in the presence of the divine.

But clearly, what they had experienced did not fit with anything that they had been taught about the traditional gods all their lives. And so, they had to create some way to acknowledge what they had experienced that was outside of the religion of their society. That has to have been what happened.

What Comes First?

But do you realize what that means? We often work under the assumption that spiritual experiences are created by religious practice and belief. We assume that if you pray in certain ways or go through certain rituals, that you will experience God. We think that if you learn all the proper doctrines about God according to a religion, that you will come to know God. But the very existence of the altar to the unknown god proves that is not true.

Pretty clearly, if you had just taken away all of the altars to all the Olympian gods in Athens and all of Greece, if you would take it away all of the priests and the philosophers who taught their religious and spiritual ideas, this would not have eradicated the belief in the divine. People still would have been experiencing such things and, in response, feeling compelled to set up altars to the unknown that they had experienced.

Our Disposition to Spiritual Experience

The truth of the matter is that there is something in humanity itself, something that is built into the very structure of our minds, that disposes us to have spiritual experiences. I don’t know why that is. My suspicion is that it is something that God has built into us, but I obviously cannot prove that. But wherever it comes from, it is an undeniable part of who we are.

That doesn’t mean that everyone will have spiritual experiences – at least not to the same degree. But they will always remain an important part of human life and experience.

So, even if religion itself is flawed – even if it has often led to evil in this world, we cannot respond to that by giving up on religion entirely. If all of the principled and thoughtful and moral people just gave up on religion, would it just cease to exist? No, it would not.

You could tear down all of the churches, the temples, and mosques. You could destroy all of the institutions that support them. What would that mean? Would it bring the end of religion and the evil it might do? No. People would continue to experience the divine and they would continue to build their altars to an unknown god.

If we Abandon Religion

But that is not the only result. I can almost guarantee you that things would be quickly turn so much worse. If all of the principled and ethical believers abandoned religion, what would that leave? That would just leave all of the unscrupulous ones. And do not think for a moment that they wouldn’t be only too happy to co-opt all of the good intentions of those builders of altars to an unknown god and direct them towards new campaigns of terror, hatred and intolerance.

So, if you were to ask me to defend my choice to continue to participate in the Christian religion despite knowing the damage it has done and that it is capable of, that is what my answer would be. I stick around not because I have deluded myself into thinking that there is never anything wrong with religion. I stick around because I am not going to abandon this tradition to those who would use it in such ways.

I’m going to stick around so that I may do my best to promote a Christian faith that is open, tolerant and welcoming. I want to demonstrate to the world that it is possible to be a Christian and not be hateful. I am very sorry that I seem to be living in a time when so many have found it easy to conclude otherwise. But I will do my part to counter that narrative.

What Paul was Thinking

And so, while I obviously have no way of knowing all that was happening within the mind of the Apostle Paul at that meeting of the Areopagus, I’d like to think that he was thinking something along those lines and that is why he chose not to condemn the Athenians for the errors that he saw in their religious practice. He had respect for the divine experiences that they had had and how they had found ways to honour them.

And yes, Paul did not hesitate to proclaim his own understanding of the best way to approach the divine, especially because of what he had learned through his own experience of the risen Jesus Christ who revealed God in extraordinary ways. There is nothing wrong with doing that.

Paul’s Respect for them

But it is amazing to see how Paul speaks of these things while maintaining enormous respect for the spiritual experiences of the Athenians. He quotes their own poets and philosophers to them. He recognizes that their impulses towards the divine and even their desire to set up modes of worship are legitimate. That kind of respect for people who believe differently can take us a long way. It is an attitude that I would like to bring to every aspect of my religious life.

But more than that, even as he doesn’t refrain from sharing his own understanding and faith, he is definitely interested in finding the points of contact with others rather than the points of difference. He focusses, for example, on the common kinship of all humanity: “From one ancestor he made all peoples to inhabit the whole earth.”

And he also doesn’t insist that God’s concern is limited only to his own people. The God he worships acknowledges all nations: “And he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live.”

Most of all, he humbly acknowledges that all our knowledge of God is, at best, little more that us fumbling about and perhaps finding him. Such humility will always serve us well in all our dealings with those who believe differently.


Religion is not the greatest evil on the face of the earth. Neither is it the salvation of humanity. It really is a whole lot of us fumbling about and trying to do our best to honour what we have experienced of God. It is just a response and an imperfect response at best. But it is not going to go away if we give up on it. It will likely only become more problematic.

The hope, above all, is not found in religion. It is found in the God for whom we fumble about. The grace and hope is found in the fact that that God “is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”

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In my Father’s house

Posted by on Sunday, May 7th, 2023 in Minister, News
Watch Sermon Video Here

Hespeler, May 7, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14

In 1946, a brand-new translation of the New Testament was published. It was called the Revised Standard Version. And this was a very significant event in the history of the English Bible because, the previously unrevised Authorized Version had been around for a long time – I mean a very long time. That Bible, better known as the King James Version, was first published in 1611.

So, for 335 years, people had only heard one translation of the Bible. It was quite a shock for some people to hear familiar verses translated in new ways. And one particular verse was especially shocking. We read it this morning and in the Revised Standard Version it was translated like this: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

“I want my mansion!”

In this passage, Jesus is speaking to his disciples just before his death. He is apparently describing to them what it is that will await them after they die. So, the promise seems to be that, in heaven, they will get to have rooms in God’s house. That sounds nice enough. Why would anyone have any trouble with that translation? Well, the problem was that they were used to a somewhat different translation in the King James Version. In the King James version, Jesus says, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.”

And now you see why people got upset. It seemed as if this new translation of the Bible was ripping them off. The King James Version promised them a mansion and now this newfangled Bible was downgrading them to a mere room? I don’t think so. And so, one of the big complaints against the new translation was, “I want my mansion!”

A Word with Changed Meaning

It was all a misunderstanding. What the original Greek text of the Gospel of John says is basically what it says in the Revised Standard Version: In my Father’s house are many rooms or dwelling places.

But actually, the old King James Version hadn’t been wrong, at least not when it was first published over 400 years ago. Over 400 years ago, the English word mansion didn’t mean the same thing that it means today. Back then, when somebody said that they lived in a mansion, people didn’t imagine the homes of rich people like, in the year when the Revised Standard Version was published, Henry Ford or Andrew Carnegie. They didn’t imagine The Beverly Hillbillies.

Back when the KJV was published, a mansion just meant a place where you stayed. It often referred to a room in an inn or a place where you were staying in somebody else’s house. 400 years ago, that was an excellent translation of the original Greek phrase. It wasn’t the Bible that had changed. It wasn’t the promises of Jesus that had somehow been reduced, it was just that the English language had changed.

It’s about what you get

So, that is one misunderstanding that people have had of this verse. But there is another, deeper, misunderstanding that is also there that I think we need to address. Whether they’re thinking of a room or a mansion, there is a bigger fundamental assumption that people bring to this passage. They assume that is all about what they get in heaven. It is taken as a description of the accommodations, even of the possessions that they will have in the afterlife. And I just want to underline that that is absolutely not what is being described for us in this passage.

I do not believe that Jesus or anyone else in the New Testament for that matter, ever gave us a description or list of what we would get in heaven. I don’t think they ever described it at all. And they didn’t for one fundamental reason: whatever is waiting for us from the other side of death, absolutely defies all human description. We’ve never been there, and we don’t have the language to describe it.

The best we can do is offer a few metaphors. The best we can do is tell a story about what it is like. And that is exactly what Jesus is doing in this story. He’s not telling you what you get. He’s telling you a story.

A Familiar Story to them

And the story that he is telling would have been familiar to everyone who was listening to him or reading this gospel in the first century, because it was based on something that was essential to their culture. Their imaginations would have filled in the details of the story with no trouble.

But we are not a part of that culture, so it is harder for us to fill in those details and understand the richness of the story he is telling. So, for us to appreciate what is really going on, we have to add those details. So allow me to assist you.

A Young Man Makes his Way

The young man had come to the city to find himself. His father was a wealthy man who owned a fine farm in the countryside. The young man knew that it would all be his one day and he would look forward to doing his best to take care of it. But in the meantime, he wanted to experience the world outside of the farm and discover himself apart from his family.

And so, he did not flaunt any of his wealth. He went and found what work he could to sustain himself. And he just lived in the city and experienced its people.


And it while he was there that he met and became rather enchanted with a young woman named Miriam. She was a simple girl, hard working and kind. She kept a booth in the city marketplace for her father.

Over several weeks he had interactions with her as he bartered for some fruit. He found himself spending more and more time hanging around her booth. He was smitten. She was smart, clever and had a killer sense of humour.

He just had to find out more about this enchanting woman. And so, he started to ask around. He found out that she came from a poor family, but one that was highly respected and honoured. He decided to approach her parents. Respecting all of the customs and expectations of the society, he wanted to ask them if he could have their permission to speak to their daughter.

Meeting the Family

To them he revealed his family and the resources that he could claim, but he asked them not to say anything of that to her. He had this odd idea that she should be free to choose for herself whether or not she wanted to spend time with him. He didn’t want her to be influenced by his name or wealth.

The parents thought his ideas to be odd, to say that least, but they told him that he had their permission. So, he spoke of his love to her and, to his own wonder and amazement, he discovered that she felt much the same. They entered into a period of time together of heady love. They continually found ways to talk together and spend time. Always he was careful not to act in any way that might put her virtue or modesty in question, but it became plain to all that theirs was a relationship that was not to be denied.

Love matches were not common in those days. The normal practice was for marriage to be something worked out between families with the actual couple’s feelings on the matter being seen as a question of little importance. Love marriages could sometimes be frowned upon just because they were unique, but it was not as if it wasn’t something that could happen. As he came to the next step, therefore, the young man was very nervous about how he would speak to her.

A Misunderstood Proposal

In my Father's House -- a marriage proposal

They met in the public square. They gazed lovingly at one another for a while before he finally found the courage to speak of his plans. “My love,” he said abruptly, “I am leaving. I have to go out of the city.”

In his nervousness and fear, he did not pause to think about how she might respond to such words. He did not realize how it might have sounded to her. Immediately her eyes filled with tears. He saw such dismay upon her face. She was clearly thinking that he had chosen to abandon her.

“No, that’s not it at all,” he cried out. “Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying.” But then he felt lost because he could not imagine how he could put into words what it was he was intending to say.

And so he paused for a moment, took a deep breath, and decided that it would be best to explain to her, step by step, what it was that he was planning to do. “In my father’s house there are many rooms. I know I haven’t told this to you before. I haven’t said it. But, yes, I do come from an honoured family and a prosperous house.”

“That’s what I mean when I tell you that I have to go now. I am going there, to my father’s house. And if I go there, it is only so that I can prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

And when she heard that, she finally understood. And she sent him off with all of her love.

Back Home

And so, the young man went off to his father’s house. After a few days’ journey, he arrived and greeted his parents joyfully. He went in and over a welcoming meal he told them everything about the incredible woman that he had met in the city. So lovingly and joyfully did he describe her that his parents simply could not wait to meet this extraordinary woman.

But first, the man had some work to do. His father’s house was built around a central courtyard. On one side was the main entrance and the room where his father carried out his business. On another, there were kitchens. Over here was a place for welcoming guests with lavish couches for reclining while dining. But there were also a number of private chambers.

It was a large and extended family who lived here, not just his parents and siblings. There were his grandmother, his uncles and aunts and cousins as well. And they all had their own spaces for sleeping and other private matters. His task was to prepare a place among those chambers for himself and his bride so that they could join his father’s household.

Preparing a Place

He worked at it hard for many days, expanding the space, making it warm and welcoming. He filled it with mementos that reminded him, and he hoped would remind her, of the many discussions they had had together in the marketplace. He put in windows to fill the room with light and cabinets in which she would store her happiest memories. Finally, it was all ready. And so he went and said to his father, “Now I will go to find my bride and I will bring her here and she will make her home in the heart of our family.”

A few days later, the father looked out of his front door and was pleased to see his son coming down the walk. He was accompanied by his best friends who had come to wish him well and at his side was a beautiful young woman with whom he would share a wonderful life.

Beyond Death

I happen to believe that there is something that awaits us on the other side of death. I don’t tend to imagine it in terms of people sitting around on clouds or playing harps. Nor do I think that we’re all going to join in some never-ending chorus singing the praises of God. I don’t think that the streets will be paved with gold. I mean, who would want to drive on a street paved with gold? And, no, I don’t think that we get a mansion or even a room. At the same time, I do not think of an afterlife in terms of some people burning in eternal conscious torment.

These are all words or images that you can find in the Bible, except for that one about clouds and harps, that just comes from a Philadelphia Cream Cheese commercial, I think. But I do not believe that any of those images are meant to demonstrate to us what that existence is. They are meant to give us some vague sense of what that existence is like.

Telling us a Story

When Jesus told his disciples of the rooms in his father’s house, he wasn’t giving blueprints of heaven. He wasn’t telling you what you’d get. He was telling them a love story using elements that were essential features of a marriage in that world at that time.

For them, marriages did not include things like giving rings or ceremonies before ministers or justices of the peace. The essential ritual of a marriage involved taking your wife to live in a room in your father’s house that you had prepared to share with her. Jesus wasn’t saying what the afterlife was, he was telling a story.

Love Remains

Like I say, I believe in an afterlife, but I believe that it’s going to take place in a plane of existence far beyond our understanding. I suspect it probably has more to do with participating in a great collective consciousness than it has to do with any rooms or streets or clouds. But whatever it is, we simply don’t have the language to express it.

And so, we’re left with stories and images and metaphors. But, man, they are some pretty amazing stories. And with this particular story about the rooms in his father’s house, what I suspect that Jesus was saying more than anything else was that the fundamental nature of this existence that we can scarcely imagine is love – pure, unconditional and unfailing love. I believe that he was saying that, when everything else has been destroyed, love remains, and love is enough.

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To Each According to their Need

Posted by on Sunday, April 30th, 2023 in Minister, News
Watch the sermon video here

Hespeler, April 30, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10

We seem to live in an age when anytime anyone wants to take a measure that will address some of the social and economic inequalities in our world, they will face a torrent of criticism and abuse. Any program that seeks to address the systemic issues in society that tend to keep racial minorities from advancing socially or economically will be attacked as being too woke – as if being awake and aware of systemic problems were a bad thing.

Any measures that seek to create a safe space for young people to discover their own identity is routinely labelled as grooming these days, often by people who have no understanding of how ironic they are being. Any tax or economic measure that, in any way, seeks to lessen the gap between the extremely wealthy and the abjectly poor is attacked as socialism.

This is just the world we find ourselves in these days. And what it often means is that we are now living in times when we cannot even discuss such measures rationally. It all just descends, almost immediately, to name-calling that has no real substance behind it. In various places, this has also led to the banning of books that raise such issues or even just make people think about them.

Radical Community

And so, can you imagine what might happen today in certain jurisdictions if somebody published a book that described a community where nobody had private property. Instead, everybody in this community sold everything they had and used the proceeds to support the people of the community according to only one criterion. People would not receive based on their status or their wealth, but only based on their need.

Can you imagine the outcry? Can you imagine the parents complaining about how they don’t want their children being exposed to a book that is based on such a radical woke ideology? Can you hear the people complaining about elites who want to impose on us their socialistic and perhaps even communist point of view? I don’t need to imagine it. I hear it all the time these days, don’t you? Of course, once you explain to those people that the book they are complaining about is the Bible, you might get a somewhat different reaction.

Political Hot Potato

The passage we read this morning from the Book of Acts is one of those political, economic and theological hot potatoes of the Bible. Down through the years there have been many socialists, Communists and anti-capitalists who have pointed to this passage and said, “Look, here is the proof that our approach is divinely ordained.” Meanwhile, I’ve certainly heard conservatives of various kinds dismiss what is described in this passage as little more than a failed experiment that only demonstrates that their approach is the only one that can possibly work in the real world.

So, I do think it is time for us to really dig into this passage and understand what is actually going on in it. The passage describes a community that actually existed – quite possibly for a long period of time – in the city of Jerusalem. This was genuinely one way in which the early church did seek to live out what they had learned from Jesus.

A Response to Jesus’ Teaching

And it does make a lot of sense, doesn’t it? I mean, how else do you set up your community after listening for so long to a man who said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”? (Luke 6:20) How else do you respond to the teacher who told the rich man, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22)

So, it shouldn’t surprise anybody that the early church did this. And the evidence for it is more than just what is found here in the Book of Acts. In Paul’s letters, he writes often about a collection that he was making among the churches that he had founded. This collection was explicitly for the poor (see Galatians 2:10), but it is also clear that this money was not for the poor people in the communities where these churches were located, although, of course, there must have been many poor people there. No, Paul insisted that all of the money needed to be taken to Jerusalem. (see 1 Corinthians 16:3) It is not hard to figure out that what this money was needed for was to support this ongoing community in Jerusalem and to provide for the people in it according to their need.

A Long-Lived Community

But the community lasted even longer than the time of Paul. Various leaders of the church right up until the fifth century made references to a group of people called the Ebionites. These were Christians who followed a very strict Jewish interpretation of the faith. They started out in and around Jerusalem, though with various wars and the destruction of Jerusalem, they eventually moved onto other places. The most important defining feature of this group, however, was their poverty. They owned nothing. That is what the name Ebionite means, the poor ones. So, it does seem very likely that this community that is described in the Book of Acts continued to exist on pretty much those same terms for something close to five hundred years.

So I would say that those who look at this passage and see in it a mandate to set up society on very different grounds from what we have in our modern capitalistic societies do have a point. This was not merely some experiment that was doomed to failure. There were Christians who lived out this economic vision of the faith and did so for a very long time.

And Yet Rarely Copied

And yet, at the same time, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that, as Christianity spread to other places, and particularly as it spread in Gentile territories, other churches sought to live in the same way. At least, certainly not to the same extreme as it did in Jerusalem. So, while it seems very clear that the way the church lived in Jerusalem was important, it really didn’t seem as if there were any expectations that all Christians everywhere were meant to live in the same way. So, I am not sure that we could use this to say that this is the only and divinely inspired way to run an economy. I would caution socialists or Communists against making that argument.

An Alternate Vision

So, we are still left with the difficult question of how we are supposed to understand the significance of this description of the Church community in Jerusalem. I have come to see it like this. There is no question that Jesus presented a very different way of organizing society. This alternate vision was something that he called the kingdom of God. And the kingdom of God definitely had economic dimensions to it. It was a kingdom where the first would be last and the last first. (Matthew 20:16) It was a kingdom where, to borrow from the Song of Mary, God had “filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:53)

But, even if the church had this alternate vision for ordering society, it certainly had no ability to make it happen. The Roman Empire had all the power and had absolutely no interest in setting up a system where the resources of the Empire went to people according to their need. So, if a society organized according to the principles of the kingdom of God were to be established, the church would have to wait for God to do it. And the church absolutely expected that God would do that, though when exactly that would happen continued to be a problematic question. But they would never stop trusting that God would do it.

While They Waited

But in this, as in all things, the early church was never content with simply waiting for God to bring about the kingdom. They believed that they needed to start living in the reality of that kingdom in anticipation of what God was about to do. And I believe that that is what the establishment of this special economy in the Jerusalem Church is all about. They knew that they would have to wait in order to see it all come to pass, but they were determined that at least some would live in its reality right now.

That is why this community was established and that’s why it endured for so long. It is also why the Apostle Paul and all the churches that he established thought it to be a joy and privilege to give from out of their limited resources to support the poor in Jerusalem. Just knowing that there were some Christians out there who were living according to the economy of the kingdom of God was something that made the kingdom of God more real and closer to them. They believed that it was important that they be part of it in this way.

A Witness

They also believed that the very existence of such a community that was founded on a different economy stood as a witness to and as a condemnation of the system that flourished all around them. It was a way of declaring to the world that there was an alternative to a system that was entirely geared towards the prosperity and power of those who were already powerful and prosperous. They knew, because of the powerful earthly forces arrayed against them, that they could not set up such a witness in every church and every place, but they understood that, if they pooled their resources and gave generously, they could make that community exist somewhere and that it would stand as a rebuke to the ways in which their world was ordered.

So, that is how I have come to understand the existence of this extraordinary community of believers in Jerusalem. It seems to me that they believed that this was how society ought to be ordered and that it was how society ultimately would be ordered. All that stood in the way were the powers that were presently dominating in the world. It was not a matter of practicality that all Christians didn’t live this way; it was a matter of principality.

How we Respond Today

But, of course, all of that still leaves us to struggle with a question of how any of this applies to the challenges of living as the church in the modern world. In many ways, I’m not sure that the situation has changed all that much. It seems to me that many of the same powers are still at work in this world, the powers that seem to conspire so effectively to make sure that the great majority of the wealth of this earth remains in the hands of the relative few.

I am not blind, of course, to the many blessings that have been brought to us by our capitalistic system. I enjoy them daily. But I’m also aware that it is a system that has its flaws. For me, however, the problem is not the system itself. The problem is the powers in this world that conspire to use the system to their own end and thus also conspire to shut many out of its blessings.

But wherever the problem may lie, the reality is that we, in the church today, have no more power to change how things work than did that small group of Christians in Jerusalem at the very beginning. But just because we can’t overhaul the system, doesn’t mean that we should just throw up our hands and say that there’s nothing we can do.

Showing the World Things Can be Different

Wouldn’t it be something if we were able to set up communities, even small examples, that could demonstrate to the whole world how things could be different? That would be interesting. That would be a witness. And I know that various churches have attempted things like that at various times. I think it can be a powerful way to challenge the system of our world.

But just like it was not possible for all Christian communities in the first century to live that way, I do recognize that that is not going to be an option for the vast majority of Christians living in the world today. Most of us – myself included – really do not have the ability to just opt out of living according to the rules of the capitalistic world. There is nothing wrong with that.

Bearing Witness

But just because we have to live in it, doesn’t mean that we don’t see the flaws that are within the system. Just because we have to live within it and sometimes even see the benefits of it, doesn’t mean that we can’t be critical. We are people who are called to live according to the vision of the kingdom of God, which is a kingdom where the blessings that are given are shared according to need.

And anytime we can make that happen, that is a witness. I often see it happening, for example, when we host the food bank or when we are open for Hope Clothing here at St Andrews. I see it when we offer people food to eat, not because they’ve earned it but simply because they could use it.

We need to recognize this for what it is. If it is only charity, if it is only being kind, that is wonderful, but it is not enough. We should recognize this as a subversion of the system under which we live and, as much as possible, it should be something that we do in the full hope and expectation of the kingdom that God will establish. It is not enough to simply wait for God to do it. We must find creative ways, even if it’s for only moments at a time, to live within the reality of God’s kingdom.

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To those walking away

Posted by on Sunday, April 23rd, 2023 in Minister, News

Hespeler, April 23, 2023 © Scott McAndless
Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, 1 Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35

Look. Do you see them there? Two people traveling down the well-worn road that leads from Jerusalem to Emmaus. I think you should meet them. One of them is a man. He is named Cleopas. The other one is left unnamed which may be an indication, according to the customs of that society, that she is a woman and possibly Cleopas’ wife.

Or maybe there’s another reason for why she or he is left unnamed. There is something about having an unnamed and undescribed character in a story that you tell. It invites your reader to describe that character with their own imagination. Which usually means, of course, that you create the character in your own image.

It is an invitation to your readers to put something of themselves into the story. In other words, maybe the gospel writer is inviting you to see yourself as that other disciple walking to Emmaus. And so, let me ask the question. What are you doing on this day walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus?

What Day is it?

The day itself is obviously significant. The story begins by noting that this is taking place on the same day. What day is that? Well, it is Sunday. But not just any Sunday. It is still Easter Sunday. I know that is two weeks ago for us, but you need to imagine yourself on Easter day. Why, on this day of all days, are you walking to Emmaus?

And let’s make it plain. What are you doing walking away from the church? Because the church, such as it is, such as it exists at this point in time, is in Jerusalem. And there, in itself, is a question that is worth dwelling on for a moment because it is a timely question. We live in a time when many seem to be walking away from the church. Why?

Preaching to those Not Here

I realize that there is some problem with me raising that question in this particular context. This is a problematic thing that preachers do all of the time. You see, we preachers have a certain tendency to preach to the people who aren’t here. We see all of the people who, for whatever reason, seem to be wandering away from the church and that is understandably distressing. But of course, it is just plain wrong to take any frustration that we feel about that out on the people who actually show up at church.

I’m sure you all understand how unfair that is. So, I want to be very clear that I’m hardly speaking to you personally when I raise these issues, but I do not think that we can afford to just ignore a strong tendency in our society. Many are wandering away from the church, and, without being accusatory, it is important for us to try and understand why.

Why are you Walking Away?

So put yourself on that road to Emmaus. Ask yourself why, on this day of all days, you find yourself walking away from the church? Let’s admit that the church really hasn’t performed very well up until this point in the story. You just have to look at the top part of this chapter in the Gospel of Luke to see that.

This day started with a great triumph. Jesus was raised from the dead, shattering the power of sin and decay. But in terms of the church’s response to this triumph, things have not been so victorious.

The Church Reacts Poorly

The women went to the tomb, seeking to prepare the body for burial. But then the body was missing, and two men told them that Jesus was not there because he was risen. The women then returned to the male disciples to tell them about what they had seen. It was at this point that things kind of went off the rails. The gospel tells us that, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” And then Peter ran out to examine the tomb, finding nothing but folded linens.

So, what we see is that God has done something amazing in and for the church, but the church is struggling to absorb and understand what has happened. In their confusion, they even seem to be turning against one another. At least some of them, the men, do not trust what they are hearing from others, the women.

And so, this seems to be one of the reasons why these two disciples are walking away from the church. They don’t like that sense of confusion and people turning against one another. And, honestly, if that’s what you’ve been experiencing, why would we blame you if you started to walk away?

Attitude Towards the Women

At one point, when the two disciples are discussing unknowingly with the risen Jesus, they do seem to tip their hand to something else that has upset them. “Moreover, some women of our group astounded us,” they say. “They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.”

Did you notice the subtle shift there from what is said at the beginning of the chapter? When the women were at the tomb early in the morning, there was no talk of visions. They saw and spoke to two men, who I think we can presume were angels. But now, when other people talk about it, it has become a vision.

This seems to be an intentional denigration of the experience of the women at the tomb. At the very least, they seem to be questioning the genuineness of the experiences of these women.

But they have experienced at least something of the power of the resurrection. At this point in the story, they are the only ones who have done so. It doesn’t seem to be a very helpful indication that their experience has been minimized.

Respecting One Another

And here then is something else that seems to be leading people to walk away from the church. If we cannot give respect to what other people experience of God, we are going to keep running into trouble. We need to be listening to each other. We need to be willing to be open to what other people have experienced of God. That doesn’t mean that everybody else is always right about what they say about their experience. We are all capable of making mistakes. But we need to be willing to respect one another’s spiritual journeys.

Expectations about Jesus

But there is something else that these two travelers note that seems to have led to them to be walking away. When they are asked how about why it is that they are looking so dejected, they tell the apparent stranger walking with them about everything that has happened to Jesus over the last few days. Then they let it slip what it is, exactly, that distresses them about what has happened. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they say.

So, they are aware of what Jesus has done. They are perhaps even aware that things could not have happened any differently, and that what did happen was God’s will. But they stumble over something. Things just didn’t turn out as they expected.

Our Reaction when Expectations aren’t Met

And there is the rub, isn’t it? We all carry expectations into the life of the church. Sometimes those expectations are good things, sometimes they are impossible things, and sometimes they are just expectations that don’t quite fit into what God’s plan is. But whatever expectations we bring into the life of the church, we will be disappointed in some way at some point. And when that happens, the impulse is often to just walk away.

I understand the response, though I know it is not always what we should be doing. Sometimes it means that we will miss out on the very best plans that God has for us. But if in some way, you find yourself walking away from the church in these difficult times, it is probably true that unfulfilled expectations have something to do with it.

So let’s put ourselves on that road to Emmaus for a few moments. Can we at least try to understand why some may feel as if they are walking or drifting away? It is a helpful exercise.

Persuading them to Turn Around

But the best part about this story is that it doesn’t just end up with these two disciples wandering right away. At the end of the story, they turn around and they go back. They have gathered together with the church seemingly before the end of the same day. The church is reunited and has found strength that it never knew that it had. And we need to ask what it is that leads to such a happy ending, because it might be something that we are in need of today.

So, what do the two walking disciples experience that leads them to turn around. They experience the risen Jesus. That is the most important point. But it is how they have that experience that we need to focus on this morning.

Experiencing Jesus through the Scriptures

The experience of the presence of the risen Jesus happens for them in two ways as they travel down the road. First, they experience Jesus through the scriptures. The stranger explains to them, using the Bible, important truths about Jesus. Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

Now, this explanation of scripture does not exactly make them totally encounter the presence of Jesus, but it certainly brings them much closer. As they remark to each other later, Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 

And Through the Sacraments

Then, of course, the presence of Jesus is made absolutely unmistakable when Jesus breaks the bread. And I think it should be clear what that represents. It is a reference to the early church’s practice of communion.

So, on one level, the message of the story is obvious. These travellers encounter and are convinced of the reality of the risen Jesus by their participation in two key practices of the church – the preaching of the scriptures and the practices of sacraments like communion. The promise of the story to the church is that, as we continue in these practices, we will experience the risen Jesus too.

Experiencing this Outside the Church

And that is true, but I have to note that, for these two disciples who are walking away from the church, they obviously don’t hear the scriptures preached or receive the sacraments in the church. They somehow experience them outside of the church and it is that experience that prompts their return to the church. And here, I think, is the true challenge that is facing the church today.

There was perhaps a time when you could expect that people would wander away from the church for a while, but they would just eventually find their way back. They would come in and experience the scriptures being preached, the sacraments rightly celebrated, and the community and they would just find their place again.

There was a time, for example, when people just sort of seemed to expect that young folk, once they came to a certain age or perhaps went off to university or to start a career, that they would just leave the church. But that was okay, we were assured, because it would all work out and they would all come back again at some point, probably when they had children. And I’m sure that there was a time when it did work like that. It doesn’t work like that anymore. It hasn’t for some time.

How Can we Do What Jesus did for these Disciples?

So, I suspect that we are in an age when we need to be thinking in terms of what Jesus does for these two disciples who are wandering away from the church. We, like he does, need to find ways to join people on their journeys where they are, even if they are walking away. We need to take the time and make the effort to understand where they are.

And, most of all, we need to find ways to allow the nature of the church at it’s very best to come to them where they are. I do not think that that necessarily means that we need to go out and interpret the scriptures directly to people or take them the sacraments. I think those things are symbolic of taking the whole of what the church is to people where they are.

Wherever people are, it has to be our task to carry the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ out to them. We need to be as Christ to them. We cannot guarantee that, when we do that, they will all turn around and start walking back to the church, but some will. And whether any do or not, spreading that grace and that love in practical ways will absolutely mean that the message of hope that we have heard in Jesus Christ is spreading in the world. And we will be fulfilling what Jesus is calling us to be.

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On your Marks… Get Set…

Posted by on Sunday, April 9th, 2023 in Minister, News
Watch video of the sermon here

Hespeler, April 9, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Easter
Jeremiah 31:1-6, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, John 20:1-18

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a beautiful, crisp and clear Sunday morning. The sun is just a little up over the horizon on this early spring day. The birds are singing. A gentle breeze is blowing. And a lively crowd of hundreds has turned out for the final leg of this first ever Sunday after the Passover footrace.

And, yes, it seems as if the patience of all of these spectators has finally paid off as I think… yes, I can see the two lead runners coming around the bend. My friends, this is so exciting, they seem to be running neck and neck. On the inside track is a figure that I know will be familiar to many running fans. He is big, he is brash, he is built as solid as a rock. With broad shoulders and the calloused hands of a man who has spent many years hauling in fishing nets on the Sea of Galilee, that can only be Simon who is known to his friends and fans alike as The Rock.

But alongside him, matching him pace for pace is… that other guy. You know, he is that disciple that Jesus was really very fond of, but I never seem to remember his name. The commentator in my ear is telling me that his name is John, but I am not sure whether or not that is right.

The Final Leg

Anyways, this race just got pretty exciting as it looks as if the other guy, you know the one who isn’t The Rock, just took the lead on the straightaway. Yes, as we come into the final stretch, he is a good length ahead of his nearest competitor. I can see the sweat on The Rock’s brow from here as he struggles to catch up, but he just doesn’t seem to have it left in him to make up that gap.

And now, as we come up to the finish line it is the other guy and The Rock – the other guy and the Rock. It looks like it’s going to be a photo finish, a photo finish. But now… what is happening? It seems as if the other guy is stopping short. He’s pulling up just before the finish line. I repeat, the other guy is not entering into the tomb. He’s pulling up and just looking in and, yes, Simon the Rock is rushing straight past him and going into the tomb! Ladies and gentlemen, this is so exciting! It appears that we have a winner!

The Rock has entered the tomb and he is examining the linen cloths lying there. And now the other guy has entered as well. He appears to have come in second in this race, but it looks like, yes, it appears that he believes! Of course, it’s not entirely clear at the moment what it is that he believes because neither of them seem to have understood the purpose behind what has happened here today because they do not understand that Jesus had to rise from the dead.

A Strange Intrusion

I’m sure that I am not the only one who is a little bit puzzled by this strange intrusion into the story of Easter morning in the Gospel of John. I certainly understand why the story of Mary Magdalene discovering the empty tomb, her conversation with two angels inside and then ultimately her meeting with the risen Jesus outside the tomb is really important.

But I cannot help but wonder why, in the midst of all of that, we have to take a break to hear the story of a footrace between Simon Peter and this other disciple. Why does that matter? It’s not as if they really discover anything of much importance. They simply confirm what Mary has already reported, that the tomb is empty.

They examine what evidence there is inside, but it certainly doesn’t amount to more than a few folded grave clothes. Sure, that might be interesting to a crime scene investigator, but it’s hardly conclusive proof of anything. So why is this reported? Why does it even matter?

Ignoring Women’s Discoveries

It does sort of feel like an example of the kind of thing that often happens when women make discoveries of significance or importance.

When Elizabeth Magie, a creative genius, invented a game that powerfully illustrated some of the excesses of capitalism and monopolistic practices, she called it The Landlord’s Game. But you’ve probably never heard of that game, have you, even though it became one of the most popular board games of all times? That is because two men, George and Charles, better known as The Parker Brothers, took her idea and renamed it Monopoly.

Or think about the scientists who have taught us about the nature of the universe. Everybody knows who it was that discovered gravity because his name was Sir Isaac Newton. Everyone knows who discovered the special theory of relativity. His name was Albert Einstein. So how is it that nobody seems to know who it was who discovered what stars are made of – that they are mostly made of hydrogen? That was a phenomenally important discovery and yet no one seems to know that scientist’s name. It might have something to do with the fact that her name was Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.

Women have often discovered extraordinary things and made enormous accomplishments and yet, when it comes to writing down the stories of these discoveries, how often do we tend to focus only on the things that men did?

A Bit of Male Chauvinism

And so, yes, in the midst of the Gospel of John’s resurrection story, which should be focused only on Mary Magdalene making the most important discovery of all time, it is somehow not very surprising that we are forced to pause and listen to a story about a couple of men who apparently got into a competition to see who could run to the tomb first. It seems like a bit of a moment when the men of the world are saying, hey, I know these women did amazing things on Easter Sunday but, look at us over here! We found this folded cloth! Hurray for us!

So yes, it seems to me that there is a bit of male chauvinism going on in this account. But I do not think that this is just about a couple of men trying to steal the limelight. This little footrace is actually all about a rather dangerous trend that has been part of Christianity right from the very beginning.

The Power of an Event

The Christian faith sprang into existence as a result of the extraordinary event that we celebrate here today. The resurrection of Jesus is an event of such power that it calls into question every other principality and power in this world. It destroys the power of sin and guilt which keeps so many enslaved by the power of shame and condemnation. It destroys the power of death and the fear of death that looms over everything that we do in this world. Above all, it offers to people freedom – freedom from guilt, from fear and from death.

But whenever you are dealing with something as powerful as that, we human beings have an immediate reaction. We want to control it. We want to make sure that this thing that could disrupt absolutely everything doesn’t do that. We immediately want to make sure that somebody is in charge. It is ironic of course, it is really an attempt to rob the resurrection of its true transformative power, but it is what we do.

A Power Struggle

And so, in the aftermath of their experience of the resurrection, the church was immediately plunged into a power struggle. There were people and factions who wanted to become the controllers and the conduits of this incredible power.

And that is also what this footrace between Simon Peter and the other disciple represents. Because clearly, these two figures represent two factions of the church that were in contention with each other. We know, of course, that Simon Peter was an acknowledged leader for many in the early Christian Church. The other disciple in this race, whose identity is very carefully kept obscured, clearly represents the leadership of the church for which this gospel was written.

Surely this is reflective of real-life conflict between those Christians who followed the leadership of Peter and those who saw themselves as part of the Church of the Beloved Disciple.

Mary Magdalene’s Leadership

In addition, we know that Mary Magdalene was acknowledged, at least by some Christians, as an important leader and as one who could speak for the risen Jesus. In many ways this race is all about the early attempts of various men to replace her in her role as a leader because some could not tolerate the very idea female leadership.

So I suspect that the author of this Gospel, by inserting this strange story of two men racing to the tomb to look at some folded linen, might have been trying to say something about the absurdity of what we have sometimes tried to do with the incredible good news of the resurrection of Jesus. We have tried to get it under human control. It just seems safer if we don’t let it shake things up too much.

“Do Not Touch Me”

There is an episode towards the end of this story that illustrates just how dangerous this impulse is. When Mary Magdalene is finally confronted with the risen Jesus, when she finally manages to recognize him through all of her tears, her first reaction is completely understandable. She reaches out to take hold of him. And let’s recognize this gesture for what it is. She wants to hold onto the power of the resurrection for her church. She wants to be the conduit through which others can experience this incredible power.

But what does Jesus say to her? “Do not touch me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”  The power that raised Jesus from the dead is the power of God. It will never fall under the control of Mary nor of the disciples nor of any church. If ever we try and restrict it and tell God whom God may raise and when and how and why, we will show ourselves to be fools. It is the power of God. We cannot hold on to it.

Transforming Power

So Mary cannot hold onto Jesus. What we need to do is allow the power of Jesus and of his resurrection to take hold of us. To transform us both as individuals and as a church. That is when we will experience the true power that raised Jesus from the dead.

You cannot control it. You have to let it control you. And that can be frightening because it destroys the power in this world that keeps people in line, that makes people feel guilty or shameful for who they are and who God made them to be. The power of the resurrection is meant to set us free from all such domination so that we may set others free – so that we may proclaim to all that they are loved and accepted just as they are because that is what the power of God does.

My friends, let us not get into footraces with people who perhaps approach faith and belief a little bit differently from us because we have to be right and so therefore they have to be wrong. That is a waste of our energy. Let us allow the power of Jesus’ resurrection to overtake us and set us free to love, to serve and to release the people of this earth from the domination that is preventing them from being who they truly are in the eyes of God. I believe that that is the power that Mary Magdalene learned by the end of that day. Some two millennia later, isn’t it about time that we learned it too?

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How to Make an Entrance

Posted by on Sunday, April 2nd, 2023 in Minister, News
Watch sermon video here

Hespeler, April 2, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Palm Sunday
Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 21:1-11

I have a question that is a kind a test about whether or not you were listening to our gospel reading this morning. We read the story of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem from the Good News Translation of the Gospel of Matthew.

Jesus sends his disciples to get some transportation to carry him in his triumphal procession into the city. They bring him what he asks for he sits on what they bring and the parade begins, right? I’m sure you all followed that just fine as we read it. My question is this: what did Jesus get on?

Got on What?

Here is the verse I am curious about. Verse seven reads like this: “They (the disciples) brought the donkey and the colt, threw their cloaks over them, and Jesus got on.” (GNT) So it clearly says that the disciples brought back two animals – a mother donkey and her colt. It says that they then threw their cloaks over both of them. And then it says that Jesus got on. Got on what? On the mother? On the colt? On both animals? No, that can’t be right, can it? I mean, can you imagine somebody riding two donkeys at once? That would be ridiculous!

Ah well, I guess we just don’t know. In fact, the translators of this passage have led us to think that they don’t know either. Presumably the original Greek text of this Gospel did not make it clear which animal Jesus rode. I mean why else would they render it into English using such an imprecise phrase as “Jesus got on.”

What it Actually Says

But wait a minute, we don’t need to speculate. We can just find out for ourselves. I can show you what is actually written in the Greek. Do you want to know what the original text says that Jesus got on? Was it the mother? Was it the colt? Because, I mean, it can’t possibly be both, am I right? Ha, ha, ha, oh.

Well, just in case some of you are a little bit rusty on your Koine Greek, it does say very clearly which animal Jesus got on. It says he got on them – on both animals. The translators clearly understood that very well, they just decided to translate it as something that was unclear because, well, it just seems a bit silly that it would say that. But it does.

Who Wrote the Gospel?

The Gospel of Matthew, according to tradition, was written by none other than Matthew, the disciple of Jesus. And if that is true, then surely the author of this passage would have been there that day, would have been reporting on that triumphal entrance as a first-hand witness.

But wait a second. That can’t be, can it? Because if the person who wrote this passage was present and reporting as an eyewitness, how could he not describe how it was that Jesus managed to ride both of these beasts into the city?

Did he ride with one foot on the back of each donkey like a water-skier? Did he sit on the bigger one and put his feet on the smaller one? Did he put the colt on the back of its mother and then ride on top? If you had seen any of those feats, how could you possibly resist describing what it looked like? Come on, Matthew, you have got to let us know!

The Writer Wasn’t There

But we have no such description, which is probably an indication that the writer was not there that day. In fact, the Gospel itself never claims to have been written by Matthew, never claims to have been written by anyone, in fact. There was no name on the original document.

And most scholars today would argue that there are other reasons for thinking this gospel writer was not an eyewitness. For one thing, we know that he used at least one other Gospel as a source. He copied whole passages out of the Gospel of Mark into his Gospel. Generally, you would not expect a firsthand witness to be copying descriptions of things from another book!

The Changes Matthew Makes

He does often copy things from Mark word-for-word. But sometimes he also makes some changes. For example, in Mark’s story of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the story is told in almost the exact same words, but there is a significant difference. Mark says that Jesus only rode into town on one donkey. Jesus sends the disciples to get one animal, a colt, they bring back one animal, they throw their cloaks on it and Jesus sits on it. Yes, the story does seem a bit more sensible in Mark’s Gospel.

But that immediately makes you ask a question, doesn’t it? Why would the writer of Matthew (let’s just call him Matthew, whoever he was, because that’ll make it easier) make such a change? He seems to have done it intentionally, even though it doesn’t make much practical sense. People have wondered about that question for centuries now. It’s one of those hot topics in New Testament scholarship.

The Usual Explanation

And many scholars will try to explain the reason why Matthew made that change. He actually tips us off in the passage itself. He adds something to the account from the Gospel of Mark by saying, This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:’Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

So, you can see what Matthew is doing here. He knows that what happened when Jesus entered into Jerusalem was the fulfillment of this prophecy from the book of Zechariah. Of course, the other gospel writers knew this as well, as did most early Christians. But Matthew is the only one who says that explicitly in his Gospel, even taking the trouble to quote the passage.

Matthew Notices Something

But, when he quotes the passage, he notices something that maybe Mark didn’t pay much attention to. He notices that the passage in Zechariah speaks of the Messiah arriving on two animals – “mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

And so, having gone to the trouble of quoting it, Matthew says to himself, “Oh look, it says in the Bible that the Messiah has to enter on two animals. So, I guess that’s what must have happened, and Mark just forgot to mention it.” So, when Matthew comes to tell the story, he tells it that way. That is pretty obviously what has happened.

Hebrew Poetry

But there is one thing that is a bit funny about that. The two animals are not really there in the Old Testament passage. The prophecies of Zechariah were written in poetry. And ancient Hebrew poetry had a unique form.

Ancient Hebrew poems didn’t rhyme or use particular metres like English poems often do. Rather than repeating sounds, they repeated meanings. In a typical Hebrew poem, and there are lots of them in the Bible, the poet generally says something in one way in one line and then, in the next line, says the same thing  just using different words.

Take, for example, the closing lines of the twenty-third psalm: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days  of my life, / and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” Those two phrases are essentially saying the same thing, just using different words. And that kind of pattern is all over ancient Hebrew poetry. So actually, when the prophet Zechariah says, “mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey,” that is just two ways of referring to the same donkey. The prophet never thought that the Messiah would arrive riding on two beasts.

Is Something Else Going on?

So the whole question then becomes, did Matthew simply not understand how ancient Hebrew poetry worked? Is his whole insistence that there had to be two animals for Jesus to ride based on a simple misunderstanding? There are a number of scholars who seem to think so. And maybe they are right. But I cannot help but wonder whether there might just be something else going on here.

What if Matthew actually did understand how Hebrew poetry worked? And what if he was hoping that his readers would just pay attention to what he did here? Doesn’t every writer hope that? Maybe he expected us to read this passage and say, hey, wait a minute, wouldn’t it have looked kind of silly for Jesus to ride in on two animals? He wanted to make us stop and think for a moment.

And maybe the two donkeys are not about what actually happened that day; maybe they are not based on a misunderstanding of ancient poetry. No, I think it might have been Matthew’s symbolic way of saying something important to us readers.

Of course, if that is the case, then it is really a shame that the translators of the Good New Bible have obscured what Matthew actually wrote. I’m not sure that the Gospel writer would be happy with what they did here.

A Theme in this Gospel

There is a theme that runs through the Gospel of Matthew. Several times in the course of this gospel, Matthew makes a point of talking about what happens when you mix the old with the new. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus quotes from the old law of Moses and then goes on to give new interpretations of how it should be applied. This pattern is followed several times.

And then there is a parable of Jesus that is found only in this gospel. Jesus says to his disciples, “Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52)

A Message in This

So this idea of carefully putting the old and the new together in some creative way runs throughout this whole gospel. In fact, a number of people have suggested that Matthew sees himself as the scribe in that parable that only he repeats. This is how he saw his job as gospel writer, to carefully put together the old and the new and, in so doing, to create a completely different understanding.

So I somehow do not think that it is an accident or a mistake that Matthew is the only gospel writer to tell us that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the backs of two donkeys. Because, of course, these were not two ordinary donkeys. It was a donkey and a colt – a mother and her child. It was an old donkey and a new one. I think that Matthew was saying something very important to the church – something much more important than would have been accomplished with a simple literal description of what happened when Jesus rode into Jerusalem.


It seems clear that when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, he was met with very high expectations. Many of those expectations were likely based on old ideas – the restoration of the old kingdom of David, the restoration of old traditions and ways of doing things. They may not have used the exact words, but I am sure that many of the people who cheered Jesus on that day were shouting out their own version of, “Make Judea Great Again.”

But Matthew was not content with telling a story of Jesus coming into Jerusalem on an older donkey, on old ideas, traditions and an idealized past. He managed to slip in there that there was a new donkey coming into town as well. If Jesus was going to be Messiah, his messiahship was not going to be only based on old ideas or restorations of old kingdoms. Jesus was coming in the name of the God who was about to do something new.

Old and New Together

And that makes me wonder where we are on this Palm Sunday. This is a Sunday that is full of old traditions. People have been waving palms and marching down aisles for a long time in this and in many other churches. I think it’s a day that brings a lot of nostalgia for an idealized past. And I love that nostalgia. I also feel it. But I’m also very thankful for Matthew who reminds us that Jesus also rode in on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

So, I think Matthew would challenge us to think about the young colt today. He also carried Jesus into town. What are some of the new ways in which Jesus is presenting himself to the world today?

You know, for centuries, the church developed ways of presenting the message of Jesus to the world. One of the ways they did it was by building beautiful buildings like this one. They would build beautiful buildings, ring beautiful bells, and people would just come in. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but that strategy doesn’t quite work as well as it once did.

The New Colts

So, what are the new colts? Does the church today need a social media strategy? I would absolutely say that it does. Do we need to find ways to bust out and learn how to be the church outside the building? No question. We are live streaming. We are engaging people right around the world with some of the media that we create. Yes, Jesus is riding a new Colt into town. But will we welcome these innovations with a waving of our palms today? Or will we just say, that sounds ridiculous? I suspect that Matthew wanted to challenge us with those kinds of thoughts in our reading this morning.

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The Most Beautiful Baby in the World

Posted by on Sunday, March 26th, 2023 in Minister, News
Watch a video of the sermon here

Hespeler, March 26, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Fifth Sunday in Lent, Baptism
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12, 23, Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

This sermon was preached on the occasion of the baptism of Rosalynn, daughter of Ian and Brittany.

I was reading recently in the Letter to the Hebrews in the eleventh chapter, the famous chapter on the nature of faith. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,” it begins, “the conviction of things not seen.” And it goes on from there to lay out many examples from biblical history of people who displayed extraordinary faith in God under trying circumstances.

But I was particularly struck by what it says when it comes to the parents of Moses. Now, Moses’ parents, as you may recall, had their child under some pretty extreme circumstances. Their people, the Hebrews, were enslaved in the land of Egypt. And the pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, had apparently decided that they were just too many of these Hebrews. He wanted to reduce the population by decreeing that all male Hebrew babies were to be thrown into the Nile River at birth.

Moses’ Parents

So, this is what the writer to the Hebrews says about Moses’ parents: “By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.” And right off the bat, obviously, good for them for disobeying what was clearly a horribly unjust law. But what strikes me in that is what the letter writer tells us about their reason why.

They did it, he says, because they saw that the child was beautiful. Think about that for a moment. There are a few things that that statement makes me wonder. And, since we have a couple of experts here today on the subject of infant beauty, maybe they could help us to answer my questions.

It Requires Faith?

Brittany and Ian, now I know that it is manifestly obvious to everyone who is present here today that your baby, Rosalynn, is objectively the most beautiful baby ever born. I mean, look at her! So, I am wondering, why on earth would anyone think that it would take extraordinary faith for parents like you to see that she was beautiful?

I mean, it is an odd thing to say, isn’t it? How many parents have you heard of who don’t think that their baby is beautiful? And, in the context of that story in the book of Exodus, you’ve got to ask about all of those other Hebrew parents who didn’t have the courage to hide their baby from the king’s edict. Is he implying that they didn’t think their babies were beautiful? Or is it saying that Moses was the only beautiful Hebrew baby born that year? Somehow, that doesn’t make much sense to me.

I did go back and check, by the way, in the Book of Exodus. And it turns out that the letter to the Hebrews is quite right. The only reason why Exodus says that Moses’ mother hid her boy was because she saw that he was a fine baby.” Apparently, it was just because he was beautiful.

Parents Loving Children

So, I wonder why the Letter to the Hebrews chooses to underline this as an extraordinary example of faith. Nothing could be more ordinary than a mother thinking her child beautiful! But at the same time, I think it is right. Being a parent and loving your child (which obviously means more than just thinking that they are beautiful, but that is part) – loving your child is an act of extraordinary faith.

You know that, Brittany and Ian. I have no doubt that when Rosalynn was born, you felt an immediate bond with her and saw the beauty that was in her.

But that love was also immediately put to the test as, for about the first week of her life, she struggled. You feared for her. You were no doubt tempted at times to despair for her. But your love for her never failed even in the darkest moments. More than that, your loved prevailed. I know that the doctors and the nurses did so much for her. But I have absolutely no doubt that your steadfast love for her was ultimately what pulled her through.

And the author of the letter is absolutely correct about that one thing at least, that kind of love is indeed a supreme demonstration of faith. It is about believing in someone even when they would seem to have nothing to offer. It is about seeing the value and strength in them even when they are at their weakest. That is what you chose to do for Rosalynn.

A Testimony of Faith

So I want to thank you, Brittany and Ian, for sharing your testimony of faith with us today. By sharing with us your story of a love that took you through a time of trials and that has now led to this child thriving, you are teaching us about the kind of faith we need at a very important time in the life of this congregation.

But this is not just about the amazing story of Rosalynn up until this point in her young life. This is also about why we are here on this day in particular. I know that it’s not just by chance that you have come to us today, on this fifth Sunday of Lent. I have no doubt whatsoever that God has chosen to send you to us on this day because God is saying something really important to us through you.

Our Journey

We are on a journey here at St. Andrews Hespeler. We started the year by taking a good look at where we are as a congregation and what the challenges are as we prepare for a future that we know will be filled with change and many challenges.

During this season of Lent we have been doing our very best to open our hearts and listen to what God is saying to us about the questions that have come out of that process. And, as you see on the very walls of this sanctuary, one exercise that we’ve been doing has included celebrating the long history of this congregation.

A Timeline

You will see on the walls many pictures and mementos of the past life of this church. But do not make the mistake of thinking that this is just a highlight reel – an exercise in celebrating a glorious past. No, what we’ve been celebrating is all of the ways in which this congregation has played a key role in so many people’s lives.

People have been formed here, they have grown and developed their passions and interests. People have celebrated some of the most important milestones of their lives including baptism, marriage, the death of a loved one and many other significant changes in this place and with this community.

Rosalynn’s Place in it

And I find it very meaningful that you, Rosalynn, should join us on this day at the climax of our celebration of that significant history. Because you are a part of that history. I know that there are many who share your family name who have shared in this history. Not only that, don’t think that I didn’t notice that you also bear the name of a Shirley who has been much loved and respected by the people of this congregation.

Your father and many other children from your family were also baptised and grew up with this church as an important part of their life. In fact, I understand that, over an entire century, babies from your family were baptised here wearing the very same dress that you are wearing today. You are an important link to our past today.

But you are also more than that. You are a symbol of the future. You are just beginning your journey with the church today. And, as is true anytime we look into the future, we do not know what your faith journey will look like.

Your parents have promised to teach you about Jesus and what Jesus has done for you. We as a congregation have promised to support them in that task.

Following Through on these Promises

Those are not necessarily easy promises to make. Both this congregation and your parents will face some challenges in terms of knowing how to follow through on those promises in the changing world where we find ourselves today.

But that is okay. For these are promises made in faith. Your parents had faith in you during those early days, perhaps even in those moments when it was hard to believe, and they bring that same kind of faith to the promises that they made here today. So do we as a congregation.

It is true that we don’t necessarily know how we can best support your family as they raise you and set you on a good course in life. Things are changing so fast these days that, not only do the approaches that worked so well in the past not seem to work the same way anymore, but we can’t even be sure that the approaches that work today will still be working the same way tomorrow.

But that should not frighten us in the church. We are called to be people who are like Moses’ parents, who love so much and so unconditionally that they never give up even when things look impossible.

The People of Abraham

We are the people of Abraham. I love the way that the letter to the Hebrews describes the faith of Abraham who, at God's call and invitation, set out to go to an entirely new country that he had never seen, giving up everything that was familiar. “By faith Abraham… set out, not knowing where he was going,” it says, “For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

That is how it works. We have taken Rosalynn into the life of the church even though we do not know all that she will do and be. She will grow up to have her own thoughts and ideas and she may very well come to see Jesus and the church differently from how some of us see those things right now. She will also have to decide for herself at some point whether she wants to be a full member of a church.

But all of that is okay. None of it has prevented us from baptizing her today because we don’t have to control the grace that it given to her in her baptism today. Not even her parents will ultimately control that, though they will help to shape it.

We do this not because we know what will come of it but because we can be confident that God will take everything that she is and everything that she will be and shape her into the person that God wants to unleash on the world for its good.

Looking Forward

We do it, in other words, because we look “forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” And isn’t that so much more fun than just knowing exactly how it is going to all work out?

And if that is true for Rosalynn, how much more is it true for us as the church. Oh, I know that all of us have certain ideas of what this church is supposed to be. Most of those ideas are, of course, based on what we have experienced of the church in the past.

But the church that we are committed to, the one that we love and to whom we have pledged faithfulness in this journey, is not the church of the past. The church that we are committed to is “the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

Love, Faith and Commitment

Someday in the future, it is practically inevitable, Rosalynn will make some choice or direct her life in some way that her parents do not anticipate and maybe never imagined that she would do. It happens to every child in some way at some point, so of course it will happen to her.

But, having seen Ian and Brittany’s love for her and what it has brought her through so far, can you imagine that they would reject her or stop loving her because of such a thing? Of course not! They have faith in her like Moses’ parents had faith and it will keep them through difficult and changing times.

Our love for and commitment to the church works in the same way. We can’t afford to just love the church that has been. Our commitment to the church is a commitment to a “city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” And the architect and builder is not done with building this church yet. We are in for the journey together. And we will act in faith as God leads us to that future.

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