Hespeler, 29 January 2023 © Scott McAndless
Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12
In 1966, the American Bible Society published a book that would transform many people’s understanding of the Bible. That book was called “Good News for Modern Man,” and it was a translation of the entire New Testament into modern, everyday English. Despite what would be a rather problematic title today (What, is there no good news for modern women?), the translation was a tremendous success. Actually I would hold out that success as an important lesson on how much the English language has actually changed since it was first published.
Ten years later, the entire Bible was published under a better title, The Good News Bible. And the American Bible Society never looked back. Ever since their translation has remained one of the best loved and most widely used, though today it is often referred to as “Today’s English Version.” It is the translation that is used in our Sunday School and for the readings that are pre-recorded for our worship services. Joanne read from it today.
Copies in the Church
I know all of that publication history because the church that I grew up in had purchased several copies of Good News for Modern Man and, when the Good News Bible came out, they bought enough copies to place them in all of the pews.
And I remember that – oh boy, do I remember that! I remember that because, though I was just a kid, I happened to be in the room when a bunch of adults were discussing the new Bibles. They were not impressed!
An Overhead Discussion
And I remember exactly what they were talking about. They were talking about the very passage that we read this morning – the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. You know what they were upset about? They were upset about the very first word.
The translations that everyone had grown up with up until that point (both the King James and the Revised Standard Versions) had translated it like this: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But, the man who was talking complained, the Good News Bible had had the unmitigated gall to translate it like this: “Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor; the kingdom of heaven belongs to them!”
“Happy? Happy??” he cried, “that just has to be wrong. It doesn’t make any sense. It says, “the poor in spirit” (yes, he was still stuck in the old translation), and what does “poor in spirit” mean except that people are unhappy! So, it is just plain wrong because that would mean, “Happy are the unhappy!”
The Impression it Made
That diatribe made an impression on me and stayed with me. It is actually probably one of those formative events that birthed in me a deep desire to understand the Bible and what it is really saying. That is, of course one of the things that led me to seminary and to the kind of work that I do now.
In the course of my studies, I had the wonderful opportunity to learn some New Testament Greek. And, while I wouldn’t say that I am an expert, I did learn to read the original Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew for myself.
And so, if I were able to time travel back to that room where that discussion was taking place in the late 1970s, I could actually say something intelligent about that criticism of the Good News Bible. And do you know what I would have to say? I would have to say that, actually, “happy” is a perfectly good translation of the original Greek word into contemporary English.
Why Blessed may not be Best
The word in the gospel refers to people who are in a contented and fortunate state. Even more importantly, it was an ordinary everyday word. It was the word you would have used to describe anyone who was enjoying some good fortune. It would have been how you wished them a happy birthday or congratulated them on the birth of their child.
And here’s the problem, blessed is not an everyday English word. It is a special word that is normally reserved for religious situations or experiences. So, yes, happy is a good translation and probably better than blessed.
A Better Translation
But do you know what? There is actually a translation that might have been even better. But I suspect that the translators of the Good News Bible were a little afraid to use it. It would have been a little bit too much for those old men in the church where I grew up, but I’ll bet they considered it. A better translation might have been “congratulations.”
Oh, can you imagine how that would have gone over among those righteous religious folks of the late seventies? I can hear them now! “Congratulations? Congratulations! Now that’s just not right. How could Jesus possibly have said something like, ‘Congratulations you who are poor in spirit. Congratulations you who mourn, and you who are meek and you who suffer for doing the right thing’? Those are simply not things that anyone would congratulate anyone for. That’s just a bad translation.”
It Doesn’t Make Sense
And you know what? They would be right about one thing. Not that it is a bad translation, but that it doesn’t actually make any sense. No one would say something like that. But here is the thing: Jesus did. Jesus looked out across that crowd that had gathered at the top of the mountain and he literally congratulated all of those people that he saw who were weeping and mourning, who were poor, who had been abused and mistreated for no good reason. They were all present and he congratulated them all. That is what he was saying.
And the people who were standing in the crowd listening to him actually reacted much like those men in my church did. They were all looking at each other and asking, “Did that guy really just say what I thought he said? Is he really standing up there congratulating people for being poor, hungry, meek and persecuted? That just doesn’t make any sense!” You see, that is exactly the reaction that Jesus was trying to provoke when he said it.
Using Special Churchy Language
This is one of the problems that we have with many of our Bible translations. It is not that they aren’t accurate translations. Most modern translations are really good. It’s just that they often resort to special churchy language that seems to be so far removed from the lives that people are living day by day. But Jesus and the disciples never spoke like that. They always used real everyday language.
When Jesus spoke to the crowds, he was not trying to make them feel special spiritual feelings. He was not trying to elevate them so far into a heavenly plane that they were no earthly use. He was intentionally provoking them, pushing their buttons, as a way of getting them to look at everything in their lives from a completely different point of view.
Struggling with that First Word`
So, if you really want to understand what it would have been like to stand there on that mountain and listen firsthand to that most famous sermon ever given, you probably shouldn’t start by trying to figure out what by “the poor in spirit.” You shouldn’t start by asking when he said “blessed are the cheesemakers,” whether he intended for people to take that literally or “it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.” (I’m sorry, I simply cannot do a sermon on the Sermon on the Mount without can at least one Monty Python reference.)
No, understanding the Sermon on the Mount starts with understanding the very first word – the word that is traditionally translated as “blessed” but that I’m suggesting we ought to translate as “congratulations.” You need to understand what Jesus is doing when he says that to you, because Jesus is saying it to you. That is the point.
Jesus is looking at the very thing that you are struggling with right now. Are you tired this morning because you have just been working too hard? Jesus is looking at you and saying, “Congratulations!” Are you worried, maybe crippled with anxiety because you’re not quite sure how you’re going to pay the bills this month? Congratulations! Are you worried about your health? Congratulations! Grieving someone you’ve lost? Congratulations! Are you just so upset because there’s somebody who hasn’t treated you right? Congratulations!
Are you feeling any of those things or can you imagine going through such trials and somebody comes up to you and says, “congratulations”? Can you imagine how confused or maybe how mad you would feel towards someone who said such a thing as that to you? Well, that was exactly the kind of reaction that Jesus was trying to provoke with his beatitudes. And unfortunately, the saintly and religious language we use in our translations have hidden that provocation from us for many years.
The Reaction Jesus is Looking for
Jesus wants you to be confused and maybe even mad when you hear these things, but that is only the beginning of the reaction he is looking for. What he’s really aiming to do is to shock you into looking at all of those kinds of circumstances in your life in a very new way.
After you get over the initial confusion, Jesus is actually challenging you to look at the circumstances in your life that you are inclined to regret or even complain about. He wants to force you to ask yourself the question, “What, in this, could I possibly be congratulated for?”
Not Mere Optimism
Please understand that I don’t mean by that that you should just try to look on the bright side of the bad things in your life. Even more important, I’m not saying that you ought to just put up with the bad or evil things in your life. There are far too many stories of people who put up with terrible things like abuse in the pursuit of spiritual goals. Jesus never called for that. He never said to be happy about being poor or hungry or persecuted. But he did congratulate the people who didn’t need to face those things alone because the kingdom of heaven had come for them.
What he is really doing here is challenging you to look at where God is at work in the things that are afflicting you. When for example, he congratulates you who are mourning, he is definitely not saying that grief itself is wonderful; of course it isn’t. He is saying that, if you are open to it, you will receive divine comfort in your grief. And that is something truly valuable.
An Opportunity to See God Work
And even when Jesus speaks of those who are being abused and mistreated for doing the right thing and not doing anything wrong, of course he is not saying that there is anything good about being in that situation. But I suspect that he is congratulating people for the opportunity they will see to trust in God as they speak out against the abuse, for example, or as they call out for change in systems that allow abuse to happen. The congratulations are for the fact that we can see God at work when we step out in faith and work for the kingdom of God in this world.
So, take a good look at the things that you do struggle with. Listen for Jesus’ congratulations and let that set you off on a quest to find how you can see God at work in and through the difficult things you face in your life.
I do recognize that this can often be difficult to see when you are in the midst of such very personal trials. So let me suggest another application of this teaching of Jesus that is a little less personal but perhaps more powerful. We are in the middle of a process that involves, among other things, taking a good look at some of the challenges that the church and that this congregation face at this particular moment of difficult change.
And I know that, as we look at this, there’s a lot that feels very hard. We feel fearful about the future, and we feel immense grief and sadness for some of the things that we feel that we have lost in the church. Of course, these are not easy things to deal with.
But I would just challenge you with one thought today. What if Jesus is looking at all of us and all of these difficult thoughts and feelings we are struggling with and saying congratulations? Jesus is saying congratulations, but not because Jesus doesn’t understand how difficult this might all feel for us, but because he understands how exciting it is to be a part of the beginning of God doing something entirely new. And when you begin to capture the excitement of that, you will start to discover the true nature of the kingdom of heaven.
Hespeler, 22 January 2023 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23
According the Book of Acts, the church in Corinth was founded by the Apostle Paul. It says that he stayed there for some considerable period of time and, during that time, a group clearly came together – a group that was united in their love of and faith in Jesus. I am sure it was a wonderful time when they felt very much in agreement with one another and there were no divisions among them. It felt as if they were “knit together in the same mind and the same purpose.”
But then Paul moved on. God called him to continue the work elsewhere. And I’m sure that, as he continued that work, he often paused and remembered those people in Corinth fondly and he smiled as he imagined them continuing to move forward with one mind and purpose.
But time went on and other people began to have influence in the church in Corinth. Apparently, the Apostle Peter, who often went by the name Cephas, stopped by for a while and that was a great blessing to the church. And then there was another man named Apollos, who was young and very charismatic, even if he didn’t really know as much as he thought he did. He spent time there too and a lot of people really loved him.
And eventually there was a woman named Chloe in the church at Corinth. She was clearly an important leader. And she looked around at the church one day and she noticed that people weren’t quite so “knit together in the same mind and the same purpose” anymore. She was a little worried that maybe the church had kind of lost its way and was spending way too much time disagreeing and arguing over things that maybe didn’t even matter.
Chloe Reaches Out
And so, she reached out to the founder of the church; she reached out to Paul. And it is that initiative that lies behind the letter of Paul to the church in Corinth. Either Chloe wrote a letter together with a few other people raising her concerns with Paul, or maybe she sent some people to find him and speak on her behalf. But however it happened, when Paul received the message from Chloe’s people that illusion that he had of a united church in Corinth working with one mind towards a unified purpose was shattered.
Our Ideas of Church
And it makes me wonder. All of us, in our dealings with the church, have ideas about the church. We carry around notions of the church’s purpose and meaning and how it operates. We carry around wonderful memories of when the church has been there to support and encourage us through trying times and we carry around painful memories of the times when the church has failed us or disappointed us too.
We construct stories about the church just like we construct stories about our families, our jobs and other important things in our lives. That is just typical human behaviour. But, every so often, we do need to take a step back and look a little bit more carefully at what we are doing, and it seems that Chloe’s letter provided Paul with the opportunity to do that.
What if Chloe Were to Write about us?
So, I was thinking, what if Chloe were to write a letter about our church to Paul. What kinds of things might she highlight? How might she help us to better understand what it is we are here to do?
“Dear Paul, I know that it was your intention when you, together, I suppose, with St. Andrew, founded St. Andrew’s Hespeler Presbyterian Church that we should all of us be in agreement and that there be no divisions among us but that we be knit together in the same mind and the same purpose. But I’ve got to tell you, Paul, that it doesn’t always work out that way. That’s right, there are divisions among us.”
Different Eras in our Life
“In fact, different people have come to be part of the church at different times. Some were baptized, some were born and some just came along and joined. But the thing is that the time when this congregation was most meaningful to them came at very particular points in the life of the congregation. What I mean is that each of us says, ‘I belong to the era of Wally,’ or ‘I belong to time of Kevin,’ or ‘I belong to Jeff,’ or ‘I belong to Scott.’”
If Chloe were to write a letter about our congregation, I wonder, would that be what she noticed? I mean, I am certain that she would highlight some really good things too. She would talk about the amazing outreach we do in the community. I’m pretty sure she would talk about some wonderful spiritual experiences too. But what if that is something that stands out for people who have spent a little bit of time with us?
Why the Church Exists
The church exists so that we can come together – so that we can be “knit together in the same mind and the same purpose.” And that unified purpose has to do with sharing good news with the world around us – sharing it in word and in deed. To put that another way, the church exists for the sake of those who are not in the church – or at least for the sake of those who are not yet in it. And so long as we are focussed on that purpose, it is probably not too hard to be in the same mind.
But, even if that is what the church is for, that is not always what we experience in the church. We also experience valuable things like friendships and encouragement. We get opportunities to exercise leadership. And we experience things that make us feel good or that help us through difficult times. And these are all very positive things and wonderful things that we get from the church.
They are not the main purpose, but they are benefits that come from being together with other people who are of the same mind. And these are definitely things that help us to be built up in Christ.
The Reality of Change
But the church doesn’t stay the same all the time. We might think that it should, but it doesn’t. And perhaps in the case of our congregation, that change is best symbolized by those periods of time that I just mentioned. And there were things about those times that were wonderful and that ministered to people in various ways.
And so what I think happens is that we tend to become fixed on those periods of time when the church responded to us exactly how we needed it most and we got that encouragement, companionship, influence and more.
But when that is where we get stuck, what happens? We become more focused on what we are getting from the church when it is responding to our particular needs in a direct way. We see that more than we see our participation in the ministry and that single purpose that we are supposed to have becomes more elusive.
I’m not saying that we’re not supposed to get things from the life of the church, of course we are. But when we spend our energy measuring that and finding it lacking, we will definitely begin to break down in that sense of unified mind and purpose.
Becoming Chloe’s People
So what do we do with all of that? It should turn us into Chloe’s people. We need to be willing to take a look at who we are and what draws us together and what may pull us apart. That is what we are trying to do even today. We are going to ask all of you in sessions today or at other times to tell us what you see about the unique strengths and calling that you find God has placed upon this congregation.
We are asking each one of you to participate in sessions where we ask questions like, “In what ways is St Andrew’s Hespeler a source of delight to God? What are our strengths, assets, opportunities? What do we do really well? What are our challenges? Our fears?” And, yes, we’re even going to dare to ask questions like, “What are some of the things in our past that have really had an impact on us?” As well as talk about some of the struggles in our present.
I hope you are not afraid to speak openly and honestly to such questions. Chloe’s people did and do you know what the result of that was? Paul wrote back one of the most important letters ever written – the First Letter to the Corinthians.
A Fresh Look
It is our hope and our prayer that, through this process, we will be able to get a fresh look at our congregation and fresh inspiration about what it is that God is calling us to be at this particular moment in time. That is exciting and I’m really thankful to everyone who has been willing to be a part of it.
But I suspect that, just as Paul was giving some warnings to the church in Corinth, he might caution us about this process as well. In some ways, this kind of process might seem very similar to what goes on in the world all the time.
Just Another Visioning Process?
For example, if you have companies that are finding that their business strategies aren’t working very well, they will hold some kind of retreat or visioning session to refine their mission statement. Political parties and other associations do the same thing. But there is something about when the church engages in such a practice.
In the world, the main concern that is usually there when you look at such matters is simple. All of the stakeholders are only interested in one thing: what they get out of it. A corporation or a company is only interested in what kind of value they can create for the shareholders. Political parties are only interested in how many votes they can get in the next election. And club members are concerned with the benefits that they receive from their participation.
It's Not About What’s in it for Us
That is how the world works. Everyone wants to know what is in it for them – what they can get out of it. That is the philosophy of the entire world in which we live. But Paul is quite clear in his communication to the Corinthians that the church does not work on such terms.
Do people get things out of the life of the church? Of course they do! They get growth and knowledge and friendship and more. But that is not why the church exists. It is not there only to meet the needs of those who participate.
That is why Paul says to them that he is kind of glad that he did not baptise many of them. It is not about what he was able to do for them or even about the relationship that he built with each of them. That would be to build a church that merely conforms to the thinking of this world.
A Foolish Message
But Paul says this, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The church doesn’t exist for its own sake or for the sake of its members. That would simply be to conform to the thinking of this present world. The church exists for the sake of those who are not part of it, or at least for the sake of those who are not yet part of it. That is the logic of the church and, yes, it is foolishness as far as this world is concerned.
The church is called to be more than any other institution in this world. That is a high calling, and we ought not to be afraid to look closely and carefully at how we are living out that calling. So, be bold to share what God puts on your heart, be bold to ask for more and especially to ask what God is calling you to give. In this, I believe, we can be truly “knit together in the same mind and the same purpose.”