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Transitions: They’re Not Always Easy

Posted by on Sunday, May 19th, 2024 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/XwZGZWh4FCM
Watch Sermon Video Here

Hespeler, May 19, 2024 © Scott McAndless – Day of Pentecost, Baptism
Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

We as a congregation and I as a minister have been given the honour this morning to join with Frances’ family to celebrate her baptism. I am always amazed at how we are given this wonderful privilege to enter into one of the most significant moments in a family’s life with them.

But there is also something that makes it particularly special for us today. This is part of our ongoing journey with her family. We also had the opportunity, just a few years ago, to celebrate the baptism of her older sister and then, a few years before that, her older brother. But, even more interesting, each of those special events not only gave us a reason to celebrate but also helped us to come to terms with something important – the often-frightening pace of change that we have been living with over the last few years.

An Apocalyptic Fire

Frances’ brother came to us just as his family resettled here in Cambridge from Fort McMurray in Alberta. And they had left that place just as a terrifying wildfire destroyed huge parts of that city. Do you remember how we all felt about that fire at that time? It was unprecedented. It was apocalyptic! We had never seen anything quite like it before and we certainly hoped that we’d never see the likes of it again.

I think we probably have come to see that fire in a bit of a different light today, though, haven’t we? It is no less frightening, and we have no less sympathy for those who were caught in its path, but for some reason we don’t quite see it as unusual anymore.

Especially after last summer (and I doubt that the coming summer will be any better) we recognize that the Fort Mac fire was apocalyptic alright, but not so much as a singular event as a harbinger of the kind of disaster that is increasingly become a new normal for life in this country. In fact, this very week Fort McMurray has once again been evacuated in the face of just as large a fire. I am very thankful that we had that opportunity given to us by Frances’ brother to reflect on where we can find God when the world is falling apart all around us.

A Pandemic

By the time Frances’ sister came along, the world had changed yet again. She was born into the confusion and isolation of the pandemic. And, when she first arrived, we didn’t even know how to practice baptism because, despite some creative internet posts, I wasn’t about to do it with a squirt gun. So, she waited.

And when we were finally able to carry out the baptism somewhat later, it was another opportunity to reflect on how much things had changed for the church especially throughout this disrupting experience of the pandemic. And I was grateful that she gave us that wonderful opportunity to talk about how God is with us through such disruption.

A Big Move

And now Frances has come to us today. And somehow, I am not surprised that she comes to us at a moment of great change. It is a personal change for her family, but also symbolic of a change in our society that we need to grapple with. Her family is about to make a big move back to Fort McMurray. It is a change that is a positive and promising one for them in many ways. There is a great new job opportunity that can work well for their family.

But it also shows up some of the challenges that families are facing right now because one of the motivating factors is the realization that they could probably never afford the kind of housing in this area that would be ideal for raising their family, which I think we all recognize is not an uncommon problem for young families these days.

Making Transitions

I’ve been thinking a lot about changes as we navigate so many of them. Change is a part of life. Sometimes we choose it, sometimes it is forced upon us, but no one can really escape it. But while change is something external, something that happens to us, there is also an internal process that goes along with that that we do not always pay enough attention to. Let’s call that process transition. And transitions can often take longer and can be much more difficult than a simple change of circumstances might seem. Sometimes a bad transition can have the power to derail a positive change when it is not handled well.

Think of it this way. Once this family has packed up, traveled to Fort McMurray, moved into a new house, started jobs and registered for schools and all the things that go with that, we can say that things have changed for them.

How We Navigate Transitions

But think of all the transitions – both psychological and social – that they will have to go through to get there. This new thing will start with many endings – winding up things here, saying goodbye to friends and family who will continue to be in their lives, but not quite in the same ways. Transitions always start with endings.

After that comes a long period of great uncertainty. You are in a new place, and you must learn to do all kinds of things differently now. You figure out how to get around. You make new connections and habits. There is a lot of trial and error, some good experiences and bad. It’s a great time of innovation which can be both scary and exciting. It can also be the time when you are most tempted to give up on the new thing.

And it is only after you have navigated all of that that you can fully embrace where you now are. That’s why the transition can take a lot longer than just change. And you cannot make a good change if you don’t manage to make a good transition as well.

Our Transitions

I mention all of this, of course, because we want to pray for Frances’ family and do all that we can to help them to have a good transition. But I also think that this is all very timely for us as a church.

We are changing. We must change because this church, like most churches these days, can’t just keep doing what it has always done. But if we want that change in our situation to lead us to a better place, we will need to do a great job of making a transition.

What Ezekiel Lived Through

The Prophet Ezekiel was living through a time of great change. During his lifetime he saw the collapse of his homeland, the Kingdom of Judah, and was taken away into exile in Babylon. This was not a change that he was happy about at all. But he still had to live through it. He still had to make the transition. And the passage that we read today is all about a vision that God sent to Ezekiel to help him through his transition.

Ezekiel was wandering around one day outside the city when he came upon a valley. As he looked at that valley, he saw that it was full of bones. I imagine that it was a valley where some battle had been fought in previous years. The bones were all that were left of the soldiers who had been slaughtered on that day.

But for Ezekiel, that valley suddenly became the symbol of everything that he had lost. He had lost his homeland. What had once been the strength of the people of Judah had been reduced to nothing but dead, dry bones.

In the Valley

And I think it was there – in that valley – that the depths of what he had lost finally hit him. The question that came to his mind was this, “Mortal, can these bones live?” And he knew it was a divine question.

But as he considered all the devastation and loss he had experienced, the answer to that question seemed obvious. No way! Everything that he had known, everything that was familiar or comfortable had been reduced to dead, dry bones. What hope of life could there be? But he didn’t dare answer a straightforward no, so he only answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

And that is what transitions can feel like. Especially those initial phases of letting go and saying goodbye can feel like nothing but a valley full of dead, dry bones and you can wonder if anything will ever feel alive again. But here is what we need to learn from Ezekiel’s vision. God brought him to that valley for a reason.

A Prophecy

Once Ezekiel had been brought to the lowest of the low and had had to admit to himself that he didn’t even know if there was any hope of life left, something amazing happened. He was challenged to prophesy. “Prophesy to these bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” And that is exactly what we need sometimes. We need a word that can penetrate through to us from somewhere outside and help us to see a way through the difficulties of transition.

And so it is that, only once Ezekiel has been able to find and speak that word of the Lord, that he can begin to see his way towards the new future that God has prepared for him. And he sees that very explicitly in the bones that come back together, the bodies being rebuilt before his visioning eyes, and then finally and crucially the Holy Spirit comes and fills them. And Ezekiel can see that, yes, there is life on the other side of this difficult transition when we learn to place our trust in God.

An Experiment

We, like Frances’ family, are going through a time of transition. We have been recognizing over the last while that, if we want to be a strong congregation, we can’t just keep on doing things as we have always done them. And so, it is time for us to plunge into that transition. Recognizing that we’re living in an age when our churches really can’t afford to just go it alone anymore, we are going ahead with this experiment over the summer. We will worship together with four other churches and do it in various places during those summer months.

This, to be very clear, is an experiment. Everything will go back to how it was when the summer ends. But at the same time, we do hope that we learn some things over these months about how we can work together and support one another. We hope that that will help us to think about change that will create a strong Presbyterian Church ministry in this area for a long time to come.

Exploring the Transition

But, as I said, we are not really changing anything, so what is the point of doing it? Well, I would say that what we are doing is that we are exploring the experience of transition in a safe environment. This is an opportunity for all of us to work through our own sense of how we have to transition for the future that we will be dealing with. What are the things that we might lose and how do we feel about that? And, yes, there might be some negative feelings that we will have to grapple with as we think about transitions into the future. There may be things that feel like valleys full of dry bones.

But the wonderful thing about what we are doing is that this is absolutely not about what we’re losing. It’s about starting to find our way towards a different future. Part of that, certainly, will be practically doing things like meeting our fellow Christians and finding our ways to the places where they worship. That’s a moment of discovery and, even if there is some confusion along the way, there’s always something exciting about that.

Innovation

But the best thing about transitions is that they are a great time for innovation. We’re going to get to be creative over the summer. Having more clergy and other leaders present, will give us a chance to try new things and have a lot of fun doing it. This is not going to be a summer of just managing to survive while school is off and people are away on vacation, we are going to allow God’s Holy Spirit to inspire us and lead us in some very interesting directions. Not all of them are going to work out, sure, but we are going to have a good time trying them.

Ezekiel had to go down into the valley of bones. He had to experience some sense of loss and disappointment that some things were never going to be quite the same again. But please remember that God did not leave Ezekiel down in that valley. God sent him a vision of new life and of an animating Spirit that would lead to exciting new things. That is what I pray for us and for Frances and her family.

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By the Flip of a Coin

Posted by on Sunday, May 12th, 2024 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/102km9Xfzfs
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Hespeler, May 12, 2024 © Scott McAndless – Christian Family Sunday
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1, 1 John 5:9-13, John 17:6-19

The Book of Acts opens with a very dramatic scene as Jesus ascends into heaven forty days after his resurrection. And in the second chapter of Acts the story is told of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church that happens fifty days after the resurrection.

And in between those two awesome events, the apostles were left for about ten days on their own. Jesus had left, the Holy Spirit had not yet come, and they had some time to kill. So, what did they do with it? Well, we are told that they spent their time constantly in prayer, but apart from the prayer, they only actually accomplished one thing.

Seems Important!

It was something that seemed important in the moment. You see, Jesus had chosen twelve disciples. And the number obviously seemed significant. Just as there were twelve sons of Jacob and twelve tribes of the nation of Israel, it seemed fitting that there should continue to be twelve key apostles. But there was a problem. One of the disciples, Judas Iscariot, turned out to be a bit of a washout. And so, the remaining eleven decided that the one thing they could do while they waited for further instructions was replace Judas.

With this setup, you might think that the rest of this book is going to be all about what these twelve men are going to do. I mean, after all, isn’t it called The Acts of the Apostles? But remember that the author didn’t put that title on this book, and it really doesn’t turn out that way.

What is this Really About?

You might expect, based on this passage, that Matthias, the man chosen to replace Judas, was about to go on to do great things. Maybe he did, but if he did, this book isn’t at all interested in them. Nor is it really interested in the acts of the other eleven either. Apart from Peter and a few quick mentions of John and James, the twelve mostly drop out of the story which quickly shifts focus to the acts of Peter, the seven deacons, James the brother of Jesus and, in particular, a man named Paul and his companions.

So, why is this little incident even recorded? Well, I’ve got a theory. I think there’s a message hidden in this episode for us. And it’s hidden in the identity of the person you would think of the least. No, not Matthias. The other guy; the guy who didn’t get chosen. He’s a guy that has more names than just about anyone in the New Testament, “Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus,” but I think he may have also had another name. I think there’s more of his story to be told in this book.

Anticipating the Cast

Joseph stared; he could not look away as Peter took the flat, smooth stone in his hand. It was about the size of a drachma. In fact, if they’d had a drachma, that was what they probably would have used. But amongst them all, all they could scrape together was this flat stone. Peter had taken a knife and roughly scraped letters onto it – a yodh for Joseph on one side and a mem for Matthias on the other. Peter prepared to cast it.

Ever since this meeting of the followers of Jesus had begun, Joseph had had an earworm – a strange melody running through his head. Look at all my trials and tribulations Sinking in a gentle pool of wine…” He felt troubled that the outcome of this one toss seemed to mean so much to him.

Joseph’s Qualifications

He had spent the last few years following Jesus all over the place. He had observed him at work healing and preaching. He had been one of the seventy sent out by Jesus to the towns and villages of Galilee. Most significantly, he had been there at the end and then experienced for himself the reality that Jesus continued to be with his friends even after his death.

All these experiences certainly qualified him to be in a select group – to be counted as on the same level as the twelve apostles. And now that one of the twelve – that traitor Judas – was dead, there was an opening. The thing he had always dreamed of was finally in his grasp. Always hoped that I’d be an apostle. Knew that I would make it if I tried.”

There was just one problem, and the problem was named Matthias. He also had been there for everything – was just as qualified to be one of the twelve as Joseph was. And Peter had been unwilling to choose between the two of them – proposing instead that they should cast lots.

A Well-Known Method

Such a thing had long been an acceptable way of consulting God when faced with a dilemma. As a Levite, Joseph was certainly aware of the ancient Israelite practice of consulting God using the Urim and the Thummim – two stones that were cast and the Levitical priest would then interpret some answer from Yahweh in how they landed on the ground. This was essentially the same kind of process and there was no reason to doubt that God would indeed make his will known through this casting of lots in the same way.

And yet, Joseph could not help himself. He had this nagging feeling in the back of his mind that his entire future was being left to a completely random flip of a coin. As he watched the stone fly up in the air, the earworm continued to play out in his mind. “Then when we retire we can write the gospels So they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died.” (by Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber)

Mem, it landed on Mem for Matthias. And just like that, Joseph was left with only one question. What was he supposed to do with his life now?

Disappointment

Have you ever had a goal or expectation that you’ve built your whole life around? Maybe it was a career, a prize, a championship, a relationship. You plan for it. You study and train. You spend hours imagining what your whole life will be like once you get it. We have all had things like that in our lives. And you are a rare person indeed if you have never had any of those hopes or dreams squashed. Failure and disappointment are unavoidable in life. And the test is always how are you going to respond when that happens.

Response

There is always a temptation, isn’t there, to let yourself wallow in your bitterness and disappointment? And that bitterness can manifest itself in various ways. For some, they might retreat into apathy and passiveness. They have a hard time finding meaning or purpose in anything. And then there are those, of course, for whom the bitterness comes out in more active ways. They might set out to sabotage the success of the people they perceive as having stolen the thing they desired from them.

And I know that none of you would ever deal with your disappointment in such unconstructive ways any more than I would. But who among us can honestly say that we’ve never felt the temptation to react so unhelpfully to the experience of disappointment? That’s how I know that Joseph must have felt at least a moment of temptation to become bitter or take his disappointment out on his apostolic rival, Matthias. Of course he did! But the question is what did he do with that temptation. Did he let that temptation control him, or did he choose to channel it into something not only constructive but powerfully encouraging?

A Better Response

Maybe Joseph would not have the attention and prominence that he had dreamed of. But he decided to make something of his seemingly diminished role. He determined that, from now on, he would live out his faith in Christ Jesus in a way that maybe would not seek out the limelight, but that would seek to constantly build others up, and maybe especially those who needed that support the most.

So that is what he did. When somebody new came into the church and they struggled to fit in because they were different or because people had a hard time getting past things they had done in the past, Joseph Barsabbas was always the one who went out of his way to welcome them and make introductions while he encouraged others to see them as new people in Christ. When somebody failed or washed out in some project that they had taken on, it was Joseph who went and let them know that it was okay and that everyone could have a second chance.

Selling the Field

And when the whole church in Jerusalem was struggling to meet the needs of the poorest among them, it was Joseph who led the way by selling a field that he had inherited in Cyprus and bringing the proceeds to lay them at the feet of the twelve (including Matthias!). Let them be the ones who got the credit, who used it to provide for each according to their need.

He insisted that nobody needed to know that the money came from him but, somehow, the word got out and others were encouraged to follow his example. That ultimately led to a whole new phase in the life of the church as they expanded their ability to care for one another in the name of Jesus.

Nickname

No one was quite sure who first suggested the nickname. In fact, maybe the first time it was just something that happened by accident. Somebody referred to him not as Joseph Barsabbas, that is, the son of Sabbas, but just changed one letter and called him Barnabas instead. And as soon as people heard it, it just seemed right to them because Barnabas means the son of encouragement. It didn’t take long until everyone was calling him that. Joseph and his Latin name, Justus, were all but forgotten and everyone just called him Barnabas – including and perhaps especially the apostles and not one of them smiled more broadly when he did so than Matthias.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Some wise man once wrote, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes Well, you might find You get what you need.” I guess you might say that that is what happened for Barnabas. He wanted to have an impact on the world. He wanted to realize something of the vision of the kingdom of God that Jesus had placed before his disciples. And he thought he had it all worked out how he could do that. He wanted to be an apostle and to act with the authority that came with that to make it happen.

But he didn’t get that; it was denied him on the flip of a coin. And he never did quite work out whether he thought that was just random chance or the voice of God. But did it really matter? What mattered was that he chose to take it as an opportunity to accept what he received as a gift from God and to make the most of it.

Impact

As I said, Matthias may well have gone on to do great things as one of the twelve. But if he did, we’ll never know because the author of this book never bothered to tell us. But I suspect that he did not want us to miss the impact that was had by Joseph the Son of Encouragement.

Think of his legacy. Not only is he credited with kick-starting the extraordinary economic system of mutual care in the church in Jerusalem, but he is also apparently responsible for the careers of at least two other people who had an extraordinary impact.

Saul of Tarsus

When, for example, a man named Saul showed up at the church in Jerusalem, nobody wanted to have anything to do with him. He had persecuted the Jerusalem church, after all, and gone off to persecute it in Damascus too. And sure, he said that he had changed – that he had met the risen Jesus and now saw things differently. But would you have believed that?

So maybe Saul would have never met the apostles if not for the actions of one man. Any guesses who? Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him.” (Acts 9:27) And then later, when leadership was needed for the church in Antioch, it was Barnabas who went and found Saul (who came to be known as Paul) to recruit him for the job. He set him on his way and then became his first companion in Ministry. (Acts 11:22-30)

John Mark

And later, when Paul rejected a potential companion because he had disappointed him before, Barnabas did it again. He went to the washout, a young man named John Mark, and personally took him on as a companion – he gave him the second chance that Paul didn’t want to give him. That was just the kind of person that the Son of Encouragement was. (Acts 15:37-39)

And if you just take those two people – the Apostle Paul and John Mark who, Christian tradition has it, was the author of the Gospel of Mark, you might say that Barnabas had a greater influence on the future shape of Christianity than did most of the twelve – certainly more than Matthias.

Sacrifices

Every one of us has experienced disappointment in our lives. We all know what it is like to have your heart set on one thing and to end up with something else.

Many of us have also made the calculation at some point that, in order to pursue one goal we had to give up on another one. On this Family Sunday, for example, we certainly recognize the huge sacrifices that both mothers and fathers, often make to prioritize the raising of children.

It’s What You Do with it

Such circumstances are a part of life. But the life of Barnabas reminds us that it will always remain up to us what we do with them. I hope he can remind us all of the potential that each one of us has to choose to take our situation as a gift of God and make the most of it. I am sure that all of your lives have been affected by a Barnabas – by someone who resolved to be that encourager and who worked tirelessly in the background. I certainly know a lot of people on this day who would point to their mother as that person.

Thank God for the children of encouragement. And thank God for the great potential that God gives to each of us to respond well to the circumstances of our lives – even those that are created by something as random as the flip of a coin.

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Does anyone object? Anyone? Anyone?

Posted by on Sunday, May 5th, 2024 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/8rYiDktoUKA
Watch Sermon Video Here

Hespeler, May 5, 2024 © Scott McAndless – Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

When I had a class on performing marriages. I remember that the person teaching us gave us a few pieces of practical advice. They said to never marry anybody who was drunk, because you have to be sober to sign a binding contract. They taught us that you had to keep the photographer on a short leash. And they said to never wait too long when you ask that “Does anyone object?” question.

No One Wants an Answer

You have to ask the question, but despite what you see in the movies, you never want somebody to answer it. Nobody wants the whole drama of that scene where somebody comes in and says, “No they need to marry me instead!” That’s going to do nothing but cause trouble on somebody’s wedding day.

And it’s even worse if somebody comes forward claiming to have a valid legal reason for why the marriage shouldn’t take place. Because, if they do, that has to be sorted out before anything else can happen. So, you just ask the question, and you hope against hope that nobody uses it as a last-ditch opportunity to throw the whole wedding off the rails.

How You Ask

But I always feel that millisecond of temptation. What if I actually searched for an answer to that question? “Come on, there’s got to be somebody who objects. How about you sir? You look like somebody who might have a reason for why these two should not be bound in holy matrimony. What is it?” But no, I always play it safe and do my best to make sure that question slips by without incident.

I was thinking about all of that when I looked at our reading from the Book of Acts this morning because the question that Peter asks in it is a lot like that question that I’m supposed to ask at a wedding. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” It basically comes as that one last question that you need to deal with before we can get on with a marriage ceremony – concluding it, not with the sharing of rings but with the covenant of baptism. So, you might expect that it would be asked much like the minister asks the question at a wedding. But I wonder if Peter really asked it like that.

A Romance?

After all, this question does not really come at the end of some romantic tale. It is not as if Peter and this Gentile household have had a whirlwind love affair leading up to this point. There has been no courting or falling in love. On the contrary, Peter has resisted at every step of this relationship.

It all started when Cornelius, the patriarch of this Italian family, had a vision. Cornelius is described as a God-fearer, that is, a Gentile who worships and admires the God of Israel but does not follow all of the requirements of Jewish law concerning circumcision and things like diet. But in this vision, he is told to send for Simon Peter who will instruct him about what he should do.

What it Takes for Peter to Go

Now this, you would think, should be an opportunity that Peter would jump at. The apostles, after all, have been instructed to preach the good news about Jesus to the ends of the earth. That command is in the opening chapter of this book! And here Peter has a golden opportunity to access a whole new people group with this meeting that has been set up by heavenly messengers. But surprisingly, Peter seems to be nothing but reluctant.

While Cornelius’ messengers are on the way to give him the invitation, Peter receives his own vision. He sees a sheet lowered from heaven filled with animals. But the animals are all considered to be unclean according to Jewish law. As a good Jew, Peter has been taught all his life that such animals are disgusting and that no decent person would ever eat them. And so, when, in his vision, he hears the voice of God say, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat,” he basically replies and says “Yuck, I would never eat such things!” And Peter has this same vision three times in a row.

And when, at the conclusion of the third time through this vision, the messengers from Cornelius show up at the door asking for Simon Peter, the interpretation of the vision seems clear. Even though these Gentiles may be dirty and eat disgusting things, it seems that God wants Peter to go visit them anyway.

Peter’s Reluctance

But just think for a moment about what that means. God had to send a vision to Peter not once, not twice but three times just to persuade him to go out the door towards the home of Cornelius. Peter didn’t want to do it and he needed some pretty extraordinary persuasion just to get in the chariot.

But he goes. And when he gets to the house, he does share with them the good news about Jesus. He has gotten into a bit of a groove in his preaching at this point. But he doesn’t seem to speak with any great expectation. They’re just a bunch of filthy Gentiles after all. He doesn’t really think that this good news is for them. It’s only for people like him.

That seems to be his entire attitude because, when these Gentiles begin to respond in an undeniable way – when they start to speak in an ecstatic manner – all the people who have come with him are completely astounded. They were never looking for such a reaction and there is no indication that Peter feels any differently.

How did He Ask it?

And so, I don’t think we can necessarily assume that when Peter asks the question, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” he asks it like we ask the question at a wedding. Doesn’t it make more sense that he’s speaking to his posse and saying something like, “Listen, guys, I realize that it looks like these Gentiles have received the Holy Spirit like we have, but surely somebody can come up with some reason to withhold the water for baptizing them.” The problem with a written story, after all, you never quite know with what expression somebody says something.

And the thing is that there were all kinds of reasons, according to their existing understanding of baptism, to withhold the water for baptism. Gentiles were not circumcised, they ate unclean foods, they did not follow the purity laws that defined the people of Israel. These were all potential red flags at the wedding ceremony, all reasons for raising objections. But the reason why nobody raised those points was that it was actually about something else.

They didn’t like Gentiles. They had these stereotypes and bad feelings about them that they couldn’t get past. But somehow, with the help of the Holy Spirit acting in the lives of this Gentile family, they knew they had to give this relationship a try. But let us not pretend for a moment that any of this was easy for them. It was very hard. And so, I don’t think it unlikely that, even up to the last moment, Peter was still looking for an excuse to stop the whole ceremony.

Part of Our History

And, in many ways, that is a perfect reflection of the history of the church. God is always on the move seeking for the church to grow by drawing more people into it. The good news about Jesus Christ is and always has been good news for everybody. We can find hope. We can find forgiveness where we need it. We can find ways to lay down the burdens that we are carrying and that keep us from being the people that God has always intended for us to be. That is always going to be something that is going to meet a whole lot of people exactly where they need to be met. The problem when it comes to drawing people to Christ is never the message.

The problem is often us, however. We are always on the lookout for reasons to withhold water for baptizing. And it is not because God is putting up those barriers. God is not the one who is saying that this type of person or that type of person has no place in the kingdom of God. We do that.

The most common reflex that we have is the same one that Peter started out with. We assume that if people are not like us, then we shouldn’t have to make a place for them.

Many Kinds of Prejudice

That sense of somebody not being like us can take many different forms. I am quite sure that at least some of the reluctance of people like Peter to include the Gentiles had as much to do with racial and cultural stereotypes as it did with questions about the requirements of the law. And that is a barrier that has continued to stand in the way of the growth of the church throughout its history.

Oh, we will often say that we are only too glad to welcome people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but we also often erect hidden and even overt barriers. Many times, Christian leaders have required people from various backgrounds to give up their cultural heritage, in order to be considered acceptable.

Indigenous Culture

Churches in Canada, for example, including our own, often demanded that indigenous people give up their drums and cut their long hair and braids that were such an essential part of their identity, in order to be considered acceptable Christians. Even churches that made abundant use of incense smoke in their worship, declared that the indigenous use of the smoke of cedar, tobacco, sweet grass and sage were abominations.

We demanded that the First Nations people become culturally like us in order be acceptable. And it is always so easy to fall into that same pattern when we encounter people who come from various ethnicities and cultures.

European settlers who colonized this place came here with the notion that their culture and practices made them superior and that everyone else would need to become like them to be acceptable. We should have learned by now how foolish such ideas were, but we still so easily fall into such ways of seeing the world. And so, we still often assume that someone has to become culturally European to be worthy of the gospel.

Other Reasons

So, demanding cultural assimilation is one of those ways that, historically and still today, we subtly withhold the water. But different cultural backgrounds are not the only reason why we sometimes struggle to give people a place.

In many cases, we have built our churches around certain assumptions about how families are supposed to work. And so, we might make it fairly easy for a family that fits certain traditional patterns, like, for example, a traditionally married couple with kids. But we really struggle when it comes to families that don’t quite fit our traditional expectations. Single-parent families, blended families and families that just don’t fit what we might be used to are given extra barriers when it comes to fitting in.

Oh, once again, it might be subtle and it might only be communicated with a glance or a stray comment, but we do find ways to make it more difficult for those who don’t quite fit our expectations.

God Doesn’t Want to Exclude

The lesson that I would have all of us take away from the story of Peter and Cornelius and his family is this. God doesn’t want to exclude anybody. God doesn’t want to set up any barriers between people and the good news that’s going to bring some hope and light into their lives. The problem with the spread of the gospel has never been on God’s end or any sort of problem or unacceptability with the message.

The problem is us. The problem is that we, like Peter and the others, are constantly looking for some reason to withhold the water. And God is always pushing, sending us messages encouraging us to go out and encounter people where they are. God is not going to let up from sending that message of inclusion two or three times if that’s what we need for it to get through.

But maybe what we need to do is stop looking for reasons to withhold the water, stop finding excuses for why somebody can’t really belong, and just go ahead and take the risk. It is time to love, accept and value people for who they already are.

That’s the power of the gospel. And when we set it free to truly speak to any person’s life wherever they are, here is what we will discover. It doesn’t just have the power to transform that person’s life and bring them hope. It also has the power to transform the church as a whole and bring us all to new life in Christ. Having heard no objections, let the wedding proceed!

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Right Time, Right Place

Posted by on Sunday, April 28th, 2024 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/TaDYEhjAnYo
Watch sermon video here

Hespeler, April 28, 2024 © Scott McAndless – Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

Our reading this morning from the Book of Acts tells the story of an extraordinary encounter between Philip and a man who is described only as a eunuch from Ethiopia. It is one of the most extraordinary stories of a right place at the right time encounter that you may have ever heard. On the one hand, Philip is there, apparently because he has received a divine message directing him to this place, a deserted road in the middle of nowhere.

What About the Ethiopian

That in itself is quite extraordinary. But I’m actually a little bit more curious today about how the other person in the encounter came to be there. It says that he was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.”

That description makes me ask a few questions. What was he doing on that road? What was an African and a eunuch doing worshiping in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem? And what kind of experience would a man like that have had in that temple at that time? Perhaps even more interesting in an age long before the printing press made books affordable to anybody, how did he get his hands on a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah? There must be quite a backstory before he ever met Philip on that road.

An Ethiopian Jew

His name was Bachos – at least that is the name he is given in Ethiopian Christian tradition. He had lived in Ethiopia all his life but had lived there as an outsider – a Jew. Jews had had thriving settlements in Africa for over seven centuries at that time and, though they had intermarried with the natives, they had maintained their traditions and worship. There was a huge Jewish settlement at Elephantine on the upper Nile where Jewish mercenaries served the Egyptian Pharaoh by guarding his southern frontier. They had even built their own temple there and carried out their own sacrifices.

Bachos’ parents had come from there. They had travelled south to Ethiopia to seek opportunities and a better life for their children. And they had placed many of their hopes upon their eldest son. The operation he had had to undergo had been a necessary part of that.

A Rise in Court

Ethiopia was prosperous and ruled by a powerful queen, called the Candace, who was wise and beloved. Her faithful servants were rewarded with wealth beyond all dreams. But, in order to gain such a privileged position, the Candace needed to know that her servants were devoted to her alone.

It was understood that, if a man could have a child, he would be honour bound to provide for his family first. It would be shameful for him to do otherwise. So, there was a requirement to cut off even the possibility of having children.

And so, it had been done. It was a great risk for his parents to take, of course, for there was no guarantee that he would even get a position at court. But that gamble paid off. Bachos was smart and talented. He quickly rose in the ranks of the civil service until he had control of the Candace’s vast treasury. It was everything that his parents had ever dreamed of.

Personal Discontent

But was Bachos content? He was daily aware of the enormous price he had been forced to pay for his success. He wondered what all his wealth meant and if it would all come to nothing when he was dead. He began to seek out a deeper meaning in his life and some sense of something that would last beyond this present life.

Having been raised among the Ethiopians, he had been constantly surrounded by Ethiopian gods and the worship of them. He had mostly gone along with the local customs to get along. But as time went by, he found that the teachings about Wak, the Adbar and Ayana were not satisfying his deep craving for meaning. He decided to explore the Jewish heritage that he had mostly forgotten.

Candace

He went to his queen, fell to his knees and begged for permission to connect with his roots and find the meaning he was craving. He wanted to go all the way to Jerusalem and the great temple of the God Yahweh. The Candace understood that this would be a very long journey and that she would be without one of her most trusted eunuchs for nearly a year. But she was a wise woman. She had seen him struggle with his identity and purpose. She knew that, if he was granted this, it might make him a better servant. And so, she granted him permission to go.

Egypt

Five months, that was how long it took to get to Jerusalem. He had found a ship on the Red Sea that had taken him to Lower Egypt. He had seen the pyramids and ancient Egyptian temples on the way to the great city of Alexandria. There he had connected with the large Jewish community in that city – studying for a while in their synagogue and learning a great deal about their understanding of the tradition. But he still felt as if he had to go to Jerusalem. And so, he took a ship and sailed to Gaza and then hired a chariot to drive to the city.

The Court of the Gentiles

The temple at Jerusalem, even after the incredible wonders he had seen in Egypt, was a marvel. The courtyard of the Gentiles was filled with people, not only with locals and with Jews who had been dispersed all over the known world, but also with many Gentiles who had come to see this famous place and to observe the strange Jewish rituals.

But Bachos was not here just to observe strange customs. He wanted to connect to his own heritage. And so, he headed across the courtyard to the gate that led to the court of the people of Israel. It was also known as the women’s court because there was another court further in that was reserved for Israelite men. The gates to each court would be a test.

The Court of Women

There were temple guards at the gate. And as he approached, they looked him up and down with clear skepticism. He could understand why, though it did feel vaguely insulting to him. His skin was much darker than that of almost anyone he could see beyond the gate. His facial features looked different. And his black hair was thicker and curlier. It was like he could hear what they were thinking. He certainly didn’t seem to belong here.

But when he was asked, he could provide the names of his Jewish ancestors back almost a dozen generations. They let him through with a few sideway glances.

The Court of Men

The next gate was a little bit more complicated though. As he approached, he could tell that the low-level priests standing by the door were examining him carefully. They saw, in the shape of his face and his body, the telltale signs of someone who had been mutilated in childhood.

As he drew near, one of them stepped forward to block his path with a sneer. “Sorry, friend, but this court is restricted only to the men of Israel. I do not believe that your kind is allowed. And that immediately started something.

Discussions

When Jews have the leisure to study and discuss the Torah, they love nothing more than to argue and disagree with one another. And so, the whole area around the gate almost immediately erupted into a great shouting match. On one side were those who agreed with the man who had barred the door. “The law is quite clear,” one cried. “Does is not say in the Fifth Book of Moses that ‘No one whose…’ well, that no one like him…  ‘shall come into the assembly of Adonai’?” (Deuteronomy 23:1)

But others quickly came forward to argue. “Ah, but does not the Prophet Isaiah say, “Do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbath, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 56:3-5)

Bachos’ Reaction

Bachos really just wanted to go into the courtyard – to be in the place where the God of Israel was said to meet with his people. He was looking to experience God. But instead, he had suddenly become a thing for people to fight over! None of them seemed to care about him. They just cared about being right!

Even those who were arguing for him to be given access only seemed be speaking of him as if he were an inanimate object – and a flawed one at that! And we often do that, don’t we? We often value being right more than we value the people who cross our paths. Such an attitude is damaging both to us and to the people we encounter.

Bachos was turned off. Somehow this was not quite what he had been looking forward to. He quietly slipped away while the learned scholars continued to argue over him, not even realizing that he was gone.

The Words of the Prophet

But there was one thing that remained with him from that encounter at the gate. The words that one of the scholars had shouted, the words that he said were spoken by the Prophet Isaiah, they remained with him. In fact, he couldn’t quite get them out of his head.

He hadn’t completely understood what the man had said. He did not speak the local Aramaic very well; the language of the small Jewish community in Ethiopia was quite different. But he had certainly picked up the idea that, according to this prophet, there really was a place for eunuchs, at least in the heart of God if not in the court of the congregation of Israel.

The Bookseller

And so, he decided that he needed to know something more about the words of Isaiah and his book. The court of the Gentiles was surrounded by a covered walkway lined with pillars. Various shops were set up along this walkway for the sale of sacrificial animals, incense and various other things. There was a small booth that contained a few scrolls. The Scroll of Isaiah was prominently displayed among them. It was obviously a popular work.

It would have been painstakingly copied out by hand by some slave. When Bachos’ eye caught sight of it as he walked past, he suddenly realized that this was the reason why he had been drawn to this place. It was not to perform a sacrifice in the court of the Israelites. He had been brought here to be connected with this book.

An Arm and a Leg for a Scroll

When he asked the price of the scroll, he winced at the answer. With that kind of money, he could probably buy a second house for himself back in Ethiopia. But, of course, what need did he have for a second house? He didn’t even have anyone to pass his one residence onto when he was gone. The Candace had been incredibly generous to him over the years, but none of it meant much of anything to him. And so, he arranged for his chariot driver, a very large man that no one would ever dream of robbing, to come by later with enough gold coins to purchase the scroll.

Reading on the Road

And now, as that driver steered the horses down the desert road, Bachos had the scroll spread out on his knees while he strained to read the Hebrew script. Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”

It was not easy reading – trying to make out the characters syllable by syllable while the chariot bounced along beneath him. But he was grateful to be forced to read so slowly. It was making him think and ask so many questions. “By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living.” (Isaiah 53:7-8)

A Personal Message

He was struck by the words. They reminded him of his own journey, of the fear that he had felt when his parents had taken him for the operation. He had tried not to think of the unfairness of it all – the injustice of what he had been put through as little more than a child. And, though he hated to think of it, there was a sense in which he had indeed felt cut off from the land of the living ever since.

Now, Bachos had never felt as if anyone could understand his deepest feelings – never until now. But now his mind was left reeling. “About whom,” he asked himself, “does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” He needed to know who could understand his feelings. But he did not know the answer.

That was when he heard the voice of someone who had seemingly come out of nowhere in this desert place. “Do you understand what you are reading?” the stranger wanted to know.

The Gift of Belonging

We don’t really know what the backstory is for the eunuch being on that road to Gaza. But if he had gone to Jerusalem to worship – either as a Gentile (which certainly happened) or as an expatriate Jew – he would have no doubt been treated as an outsider, both as an African and as a eunuch. Even if he was a Jew, most would have had trouble accepting him as a true Israelite, as a man and maybe even as a human being.

We don’t really know what Philip said to him to make him feel like he did belong somewhere. We just know that he began with that passage in Isaiah and used it to tell him the good news about Jesus. But I suspect that, whatever he told him about the good news, the thing that got his attention was that he told him that he could be loved and valued for who he was – that, even if he fit in nowhere else, he had a place in the heart of Christ. That is where the good news always begins.

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“By What Name?” “What is on Second!”

Posted by on Sunday, April 21st, 2024 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/JoU4pN73q74

Hespeler, April 21, 2024 © Scott McAndless – Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

I would like to start by reminding you all of what is probably the greatest comedy routine ever created. I am speaking, of course, of the one that goes kind of like this.

Costello: Look Abbott, if you’re the coach, you must know all the players.

Abbott: I certainly do.

Costello: Well you know I’ve never met the guys. So you’ll have to tell me their names, and then I’ll know who’s playing on the team.

Abbott: Oh, I’ll tell you their names, but you know it seems to me they give these ball players now-a-days very peculiar names.

Costello: Funny names?

Abbott: Strange names, pet names...Well, let’s see, we have on the St Louis team, Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third…

Costello: That’s what I want to find out.

Abbott: I say Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.

Costello: Are you the manager?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: You gonna be the coach too?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: And you don’t know the fellows’ names?

Abbott: Well I should.

Costello: Well then who’s on first?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: I mean the fellow’s name.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The guy on first.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The first baseman.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The guy playing…

Abbott: Who is on first!

Costello: I’m asking you who’s on first.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FsJe4DScDs
Full routine!

Abbott: That’s the man’s name.

Costello: That’s who’s name?

Abbott: Yes.

Explaining Comedy

Now, I know that comedy shouldn’t need to be explained in order to be funny, but I would just like for us to reflect for a moment on why that particular routine works. Abbott and Costello are both using the very same words, but they mean something entirely different by what they say. That is the premise of the bit. But the reason why the humour works so well is because, through the genius of their writing and delivery, we, the listeners, are made to feel as if we are smarter than both of them.

We understand that every time Abbott uses the word “who,” he’s referring to a player’s nickname. But every time Costello uses the word who, he’s using it as an interrogative pronoun. We are smart enough not only to understand that but also to understand that the people on both sides of this conversation do not understand each other at all.

There is an inherent humour in that kind of situation where two parties are failing to understand each other despite using the same words. And it’s always funnier when we feel superior because we are in on the joke. And I actually think that this is the kind of humour that the Book of Acts has set up for us in our reading this morning.

Peter, John and the Council

In our reading, the Apostles Peter and John have been dragged in front of the council in Jerusalem who want to know something very specific about something they have done to disturb the peace. We didn’t read the whole story, so you need to understand that it all started when these two men were at the temple and were accosted by a lame man begging at the gate. Peter didn’t have any money to give him and so decided instead to heal him in the name of Jesus.

When a man that everyone knew had been lame from birth suddenly started walking and leaping and praising God, well, you can imagine that people noticed. A crowd quickly gathered. And Peter began to speak to them, preaching about Jesus, his death and resurrection. At this point the council had the two men arrested and brought in for questioning.

Now the reason why they arrested them was specifically because they were causing a disturbance by preaching to the people. They were riling up the crowd and the council was particularly upset because Peter had been accusing the Jewish leadership of aiding and abetting in the execution of Jesus. But Peter and John, apparently, thought that they had been arrested for something else.

The Misunderstanding

And that is where the Abbott and Costello routine begins. The council asks the apostles, By what power or by what name did you do this?” And since they brought these people in for disturbing the peace and stirring up the crowd, what they mean by “this” is obvious to them. They are asking who said that they could cause this trouble.

But what we don’t realize is that there are a whole bunch of social assumptions behind that question that are not apparent to us. That question meant something very specific in that kind of situation. But in order to understand that we need to understand something essential about ancient Mediterranean Society.

Patronage

The most important social power in that society did not rest with kings or priests but actually with a group of people who were known as patrons. Patrons were wealthy and influential people. They were also usually men. And the more powerful a patron was, the more clients he had.

The patron-client relationship was very much a two-way relationship. The patron did things for his clients. He would get them jobs and favours and defend them in court. If the need arose, he would send his thugs to beat up someone who insulted his client.

But the clients also owed a great deal to their patrons. They would vote the way their patron told them. They would turn out and cheer anytime their patron did something in public. Whatever their patron asked of them, they would do. And, of course, if they ever disappointed their patron in any way, the punishment would be swift.

Behind Everything

Behind the scenes, almost everything in the entire Roman Empire was run by the patronage system. The most powerful patrons could count whole cities, towns and villages among their clientele. Indeed, the only thing that made the emperor so powerful was the fact that he had more clients than anybody else, including, of course, many powerful patrons in their own right.

Even more important, though, no one could escape this power structure. Everyone had to be a client of somebody. Even slaves, the moment that they were given their freedom, automatically became the clients of their former masters.

So, when the council asks Peter and John by what power or name they were acting when they caused the disturbance, they are asking who their patron is. They are essentially asking what powerful and wealthy person they need to complain to who will discipline these two unruly men for what they have done. They think that they are telling Peter and John that they are in deep trouble.

Peter and John’s Understanding

But Peter and John do not get any of that because they completely misunderstand the question in an Abbott and Costello way. When the council asks, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” they think they are asking about something else entirely. “Rulers of the people and elders,” they reply, “if we are being questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are being asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.”

Did you catch that? As far as the apostles are concerned, they have been arrested, not for causing a disturbance and trash-talking the council, but for doing a “good deed” by healing a lame man. And, instead of being interrogated about who their patron is who can rein in their rowdiness, they assume that the council wants to know what name has the power to bring about such a powerful healing. They may be using the same words, but they are talking about something completely different.

Why the Writer is Doing This

And if this episode were written by a mid-twentieth-century comedy team, that misunderstanding would be stretched out for a while and hilarity would ensue. But the author of the Book of Acts is interested in more than just making us laugh. He does, however, want to make use of one element of the comedic scenario. He wants us, the readers, to be in on the joke. He wants us to realize that, in this situation, we are smarter than both sides of this conversation because we actually understand what each is talking about.

You see, this story is not just about the power of the name of Jesus to bring about healing in somebody’s life. It is about that, of course. But the author is using this story to expand our understanding of the power of that name. In fact, I believe that he has set up this whole comedy routine to get us to think about the power of the name of Jesus in a new way.

Showing Us Deeper Meaning

You see, the members of the council have asked a question according to their understanding of how power and authority work in their world. They’ve asked for the name of Peter and John’s patron. Peter and John have answered according to their experience of the power of the name of Jesus to bring healing.

But the very juxtaposition of those two quite different understandings of the meaning of a name is designed to make us ask a question. And that question is, what does the powerful divine name of Jesus do when it is put up against the powerful secular names of our world? It turns out, you see, that the name of Jesus might just be powerful in ways that even the disciples have not yet suspected.

Power in Jesus’ Name

I am not sure to what extent Peter and John have understood the power of Jesus’ name at this point. They know it is powerful to heal, that it connects with people where they are struggling and in need of help. But they just seem to be coming to understand something more about its power. It is not that Jesus is their patron (at least not in the way that the council would have understood that), it is that the name of Jesus calls into question the very system of patronage and its lines of power and authority. And so, Peter boldly proclaims that there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

Now my purpose in talking about all of this is not to explain an ancient joke. Nor is it to give you a lesson about how power and authority worked in the ancient Roman Empire. That is, quite literally, ancient history that has little effect on life today. What I would like you to learn is not to do what the members of the council and, to a certain extent, Peter and John did. Do not underestimate the power of the name of Jesus.

More Power than You Thought

It is a name that is powerful to bring healing. Because Jesus entered into our suffering and weakness – especially doing so upon the cross – he certainly can meet us in our suffering and our struggles. And when we go out in that name to share love and compassion, we will learn firsthand the power that is in the name. That is what Peter and John had discovered in the temple.

But when they were brought before the council, they discovered the power of Jesus’ name to call into question the lines of power and authority in their society. They discovered that the name was stronger than the most powerful patrons. And I believe that we are greatly in need of discovering that power as well.

Our Power Systems

Though we live in a democratic country where, at least in theory, everything is not supposed to be controlled by a small group of wealthy and elite influences, we often discover that it doesn’t work out that way.

Wealthy companies and corporations certainly seem to have a lot of control over what we have to pay to get the basics of life. Influential developers seem to exercise a lot of power over what kinds of housing can be built and how much it costs in the midst of a housing crisis. Powerful influences seem to be at work to make sure that wages do not keep pace with inflation.

Now, none of these nebulous entities have official power. We did not vote to give them this influence. They tend to work in back rooms and behind the scenes much like the patronage system did in the ancient world. But their impact on our lives – often greater than that of elected officials – is undeniable.

Challenging Names

And I don’t know about you, but I am often dismayed by how this prevents us from building the kind of country and society that we actually desire and need. And I think that kind of dismay has become so common, that it has made us apathetic and prone to give in to despair about the possibility of anything ever changing.

If only there were a name that was powerful enough to call into question the hidden powers and authorities of our present world. Wouldn’t that be something if we could tap into that kind of power? Well, apparently that was what Peter and John realized they had tapped into on that day before the council.

That name still exists, and it is still that powerful. The question is, what wouldn’t we be able to do if we were able to truly believe that?

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“Is it a Sin to…”

Posted by on Sunday, April 14th, 2024 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/TkayThSPB5k
Watch Sermon Video Here:

Hespeler, April 14, 2024 © Scott McAndless – Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48

In my free time, I often like to hang out in various online forums. And, as someone who is frankly fascinated by the Bible, I particularly like to hang out in forums where people discuss the Bible, its interpretation and its application in Christian contexts. And when I hang out in such places, there is a certain sort of question that comes up with annoying frequency.

People constantly seem to write to ask what I think of as the sin question. They want to know if something is a sin, usually asking about some specific action, attitude or way of being. They never ask about the ones that everyone would agree about, of course. Nobody writes to ask if it would be a sin to kill my neighbour because I don’t like the way that she planted her hydrangeas.

Oddly Specific

But they do ask about some other oddly specific things. “Is it a sin to jaywalk?” or “Is it a sin to live with my girlfriend or boyfriend?” They want to know if it is a sin to feel attraction to a man or to a woman, to not feel like they are the gender that they were declared to be at birth, to use someone else’s Netflix password. It is quite obvious, if you read through some of these questions, that these are not just hypothetical questions. They are asking about something that is or perhaps soon will be part of their life.

And the mere fact that these questions come up so regularly in forums where people can be anonymous tells me a great deal. It tells me that a lot of people really want to do the right thing. And, for many people, that amounts to following the right list of what is allowed or not allowed. Morality, in other words, can just be sorted out in a simple series of yes or no answers.

Simple Questions?

But I don’t really think that many of these are simple yes or no questions. Yes, sure, sometimes the sin question has to be answered in a firm and straightforward way. Yes, it would be sinful for you to murder your neighbour, not to mention illegal. But in other cases, a simple yes or no can be deceptive.

A simple yes or no answer to the jaywalking question, for example, could be unhelpful. If you do cross a street in an unsanctioned way because you are selfishly hurrying, not thinking of anyone else and you make a car swerve and cause an accident then, sure, I would call that sinful. But if you dash across the street, possibly risking your own life to push a child out of the path of an oncoming car, I think that most people would see that a bit differently. You might still get a ticket, but I’m not going to say that you are sinful for that act.

Relationship Questions

Of course, this all gets a lot more complicated when you are talking about questions related to sex or attraction, which affect us on a much more personal level. And I get that many people would just prefer to have a list of acceptable and unacceptable actions or relationships. It seems to make things so simple and orderly. But the more I see the way that works out in practice, the more problematic it seems to be.

I have seen more than enough relationships that have fit the traditionally acceptable parameters – the “right” genders involved, the “acceptable” activities engaged in – that turned out to be relationships that were abusive or dehumanizing to one or both of the people involved. And I’ve seen other relationships that didn’t fit the parameters but that were mutually affirming, and the people involved only brought out the best in each other.

If I’m going to call out the reality of sin in our relationships, I feel like I need to do much more that consult a list of dos and don’ts. What people bring to their actions – the respect and integrity that they act with – has to mean more as far as I am concerned.

Social Control

Another reason why people prefer to have simple answers to the sin question is because it is a form of social control. The person who can give that yes or no answer claims an extraordinary amount of authority. And even if they do so by referring to some Bible verse or another – even if they claim that it is the Bible’s answer and not theirs – the mere fact that they are the one selecting and interpreting the verse gives them power over other people. And so, the history of the discussion of the sin question has been a long story of people being forced to conform to certain ideas of what society is supposed to look like.

Now, I do think that we need to take sin very seriously. It is something that gets in the way of us all achieving our full potential. I know we often don’t want to talk about it, probably mostly because of how talk of sin has been used by authoritarians to impose their idea of order on others. So, we need to find ways of talking about it that get beyond all of that.

First John’s Approach

Our reading this morning from the First Letter of John might help us to find a better way of talking about such things. It might not seem that way at first, of course. In fact, this particular passage has caused no end of trouble on the issue of sin in the life of the church down through the centuries. For example, it offers a definition of sin that only seems to affirm the approach of people who obsess over the sin question. Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness;” it says, “sin is lawlessness.” I mean, if “sin is lawlessness,” is that not basically the same thing as saying that there is a list of approved and nonapproved actions that you can point to to tell people that some action or another is a sin?

But that is not the end of what John has to say. He goes on to say, “You know that [Christ] was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.” He is not just saying, mind you that Jesus came to bring forgiveness of sins but to take them away altogether. And he explains that odd statement by saying, “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” So, he is saying, not merely that sin can be forgiven; it can be completely eradicated from our lives!

An Infamous Verse

Now, you may not know this, but that particular verse has an infamous history in the Christian church. Autocratic Christian leaders have sought to create communities where believers can live out this promised sinless life. But, since they are still stuck with the definition of sin as following a list of approved behaviours, the only way they can accomplish that is by taking personal control of the list.

And guess how that usually ends – with the leader defining whatever they want to do and what their cronies want to do as “not sin” because they are abiding in Christ. Meanwhile, they use their power over the list to manipulate and control every aspect of everyone else’s lives.

I would not want to have to tell you how often this kind of situation has led to horrible outcomes like child abuse, exploitation and even things like murder. And I cannot believe that any of that is what was intended when the Apostle wrote this letter. The sin that he is talking about, the sin that Jesus has eradicated, has to be about more than a list of do’s and don’ts.

Acting in Righteousness

“Little children,” he continues, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.” You see, what this is ultimately about is acting in righteousness. Doing the right thing. And the standard of that is not to be found in some list or set of laws. It is to be found in Christ himself.

Therefore, you must not allow anyone, not even the most pious Church leader, to take that power away from Christ. What he is promising is that, so long as we keep our gaze and focus fixed on Christ, we will find the way to righteous action. But it is not about controlling others, especially not about controlling them to our own ends.

Can You Live Without Sin?

Now, I do think it is important to note that this letter isn’t actually promising you that can make your way through this life without sinning. It is not promising you that you will always act in perfect righteousness. The promise is that, so long as we fix on eyes on Jesus and his righteousness, we will act right. But he also says, that What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

Jesus is not fully revealed, he’s saying, so we cannot fully perceive all that Jesus is. And if we do not fully see him or know him, we will obviously fail and fall short of true righteousness. So, even if he promises that we may live a sinless life, he is also saying that the fullness of that potential will only be realized when Jesus is fully revealed at the end of all things.

Acting in Ignorance

In our reading from the Book of Acts this morning, Peter confronts the people in Jerusalem with their sin in rejecting Jesus. But he sums it up like this: “And now, brothers and sisters, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.” Sin is indeed often a result of ignorance – of our failure to see the true nature of what is right. We are deluded because we have been trapped into unhelpful ways of seeing the world.

God is gracious in forgiving us our sins, but, more important, God is willing to wipe out our sins as well. “Repent, therefore,” Peter continues, “and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.”

That is saying much the same thing as the First Letter of John. In Christ, God does not just want to forgive but also to wipe out our sin. That means it no longer has power over us because Jesus, in revealing righteousness, will ultimately obliterate our ignorance. It also means that God is committed to wiping away all of the damage and pain and sorrow caused by our sin both in ourselves and others. Hallelujah, all thanks be to God.

Finding Better Ways

The way we have become accustomed to talk about sin in the church, has not necessarily served us well. By creating coercive lists of acceptable and unacceptable activities, we have often encouraged people to become obsessed with the question of whether this or that thing is sinful. That only encourages a kind of unhealthy scrupulosity. And, if Jesus came to set us free from sin, that is not the kind of state Jesus wants us to be in.

Because of all of those kinds of problems that such an attitude towards sin has created, we’ve often gone to the other extreme and avoided talking about the concept of sin altogether. That’s not a helpful reaction either. Jesus came to set us free from the effects of sin, but also from the obsession with it. Jesus came to set us free from unhelpful feelings of shame or guilt that get in the way of us embracing our true nature in Christ.

First John’s Promise

As you do seek to live as a follower of Jesus in this world, you are definitely going to get things wrong. You’re going to act out of ignorance sometimes. Sometimes some of your baser instincts will get the best of you despite the best of intentions. This is a part of being human. But the promise of First John is that, as we fix our eyes on Jesus and the righteousness of God that he has revealed to us, sin doesn’t have to have power over us. It doesn’t need to dominate our whole lives. Jesus has wiped it away. Hallelujah, let us live in the freedom of Christ.

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That would never work

Posted by on Sunday, April 7th, 2024 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/qkvkjAcEMJg

Hespeler, April 7, 2024 © Scott McAndless – Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31

Is it bad that, when I read our passage this morning from the Book of Acts, my first response is to say, “That will never work”? I read about how “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common,” and all I can think is that someone was bound to abuse a system like that.

And how about the idea that “there was not a needy person among them”? What are the implications of that? If no one is ever afraid of poverty – of not being able to pay off their debts or put food on the table – then who is going to do the jobs that nobody wants to do? Everybody knows that it is only the threat of starvation that makes people apply for those really lousy jobs.

Red Flags

And if there was ever a big red flag, is it not this? “As many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” Do you realize the enormous amount of wealth and power being given to a small group of people there? Can you not see how they would inevitably use that to create their own tyrannical rule?

These, I must confess, are the kinds of questions and objections that come to my mind when I read that passage in the Book of Acts. I’ll bet they probably came to yours as well. And that is really kind of extraordinary when you think about it. I am quite sure that when the author of the Book of Acts wrote that little paragraph, it never occurred to him that any Christian might have a problem with what he was describing. He may have thought he was describing a goal, a utopia and something to work towards, but he didn’t expect anyone to have all these problems with it.

Did it Really Not Work?

Now, I do know that there are some people who would argue that the reason why we react like that is because this whole idea of how to treat property simply did not work out for the early church. We generally assume that all of these problems that I described did manifest themselves in this early church in Jerusalem and the whole system simply collapsed.

But there is actually no evidence for that at all. There is nothing in the scriptures that indicates that the people in that church didn’t work or contribute because they weren’t poor enough. There are no accounts of people mistreating the common property because they did not own it.

And far from all of this power going to the apostles’ heads, we are told that, as soon as some issues around fair distribution began to be raised, they were only too happy to give up this power and pass it on to a group of deacons who were empowered to make sure that any distribution was fair.

Who Actually Caused Trouble

In fact, there is only one story of anything going wrong with this way of organizing things. The only people who caused trouble in the system were a wealthy couple named Ananias and Sapphira. They sold some of their property and decided to hold back some of their wealth for themselves. And then they lied about it. Their greed made them lie and try to cheat the system. The problem, when there was one, wasn’t the poor people. It was the rich ones.

What Influences Us Most?

Now we are supposed to be people who take the Bible seriously – who allow the Bible to influence how we relate to the world. And that makes me think that there is something wrong when we read a passage like this and our first instinct is not to say, “Wow, we should find ways to take this story and apply it to the way that we try to do things today.” No, our first reaction is to think, “That would never work because poor folks would abuse any such system!”

And do you know what that means? That means that we have allowed the assumptions of our modern society and of our economic system to have more influence over us than the Bible.

Today’s Crises

Just look at how we talk about and try to respond to some of the huge crises that are affecting our society these days. We have a housing crisis. It seems that every year more and more people cannot afford suitable housing. We have an affordability crisis as people find that they cannot afford the basics of life.

Alongside of that, and certainly connected to that, there is a debt crisis with more and more people carrying a weight of debt that they will never be able to get off their backs before they die. That is, I realize, only a part of what we are dealing with as a society, but everyone agrees that these are deep problems that are affecting all of us to a certain extent. And they are certainly affecting the poorest among us most of all.

How We Respond

But it is very revealing how we talk about these problems and how we attempt to address them. Rather than talk about the availability and affordability of housing, we tend to focus on the proliferation of encampments and the dangers that they pose to property. When we talk about building more housing, the only way we can consider doing this is by getting private developers to build that housing. And, of course, any private company is necessarily going to be more concerned with its own profits than making sure that everyone can afford the housing they need.

Dealing With Inflation

And what about inflation? The causes of the inflation we are dealing with are complex, but there is no denying that a lot of it has to do with ongoing supply-chain issues, the continuing effects of the pandemic and a lack of competition in major corporations. It is not caused by rising wages for workers; they have largely remained flat for decades now in many cases. Companies and corporations have seen their profits go way up, but employees and workers have not seen their wages rise at anywhere near the same rates. In the past wages may have been a major driver of inflation, but today that is not the case.

Nevertheless, guess what economists are doing to address the problem of inflation. They basically only have one strategy and that strategy is raising interest rates. And if you ask economists how high interest rates fight inflation, they will let you know. High interest rates cause higher unemployment which tends to drive wages down. The only solution they are offering to fight inflation is to bring wages down. Apparently, there’s nothing they can do about competition or excess profit taking or even supply chain issues.

Our Ideology

All of that is simply an illustration that, when it comes to economic issues, we have an ideology. And it is the same ideology that says that the story in the Book of Acts would never work. The ideology of our society is that all economic problems are caused by poor people and by working class people.

We tend to think of poverty as a moral issue, that is to say that we assume that people are poor because they are somehow morally deficient. That’s why we blame them for economic ills and why the only solutions we can come up with are solutions that discipline the poor in some way. And we have heard this ideology so much that we cannot even imagine thinking about such economic matters in any other terms.

Thinking Differently

But then we open up the Book of Acts and we are forced to think in other terms. I think that is a very good thing. We all need to have our basic assumptions challenged from time to time. And I believe that our society is in great need of that challenge right now.

I am not suggesting that we could cure all of the economic problems in our society by abolishing private property and making it so that everything is held in common. I am actually quite sure that we could not make that work. But the reason why it wouldn’t work is not because of the laziness of the poor. It would be because of the greed of the wealthy that would not permit it to work.

What We Lack

But the other reason why it wouldn’t work for us is because we lack what the people of that early church had. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” What we are missing is the power of the resurrection and especially that “great grace.”

The Meaning of the Resurrection

I know that, when we talk about what the resurrection of Jesus means, we tend to think about it in terms of the impact it makes on another life in another world. We think of the promise that, because Jesus has been raised from the Dead, we also may be raised and so we can live to all eternity in the presence of God.

That is true; the truth that Jesus has been raised is a promise to us that God will raise us as well. But we do not need to wait until we come to the end of life in this world in order to have the resurrection of Jesus transform us. We can experience its power to transform our minds and fill us with grace now.

Transformation

That is what happened for those early Christians that allowed them to live in such a radical way. They learned to look at their possessions and property in new ways and to realize that these things had no value if they could not be used to better the lives of their siblings in Christ.

And, because they were filled with a grace that came from God, they could see that, if some were poor, it was not because there was any deficiency in them. Yes, perhaps they had faced some adverse circumstances, or they had lacked the advantages that others enjoyed, but there was nothing wrong with them. They did not hesitate to share what they could.

That is what I feel we are often lacking – the transformative power of the resurrection and the ability to see one another with grace. Is that why it seems so impossible today to offer people a way out of poverty? Is that why we only seem to be able to set up the system so that the rich only get richer while the poor only get poorer?

Beyond Economic Systems

Economic systems, as far as I am concerned, are kind of morally neutral. Capitalism, socialism, communism, anarchism, they all have their pitfalls and their shortcomings to be sure, but they are not, in themselves, good or evil. I believe that any of them could work given two things: the transforming power of the resurrection that allows people to see possessions in a new light and the power of grace that allows you to see people without judgement.

Where I think we need to put our energy, therefore, is not into promoting this system or that system as a solution to all of our economic woes. The systems are broken and will remain broken until our humanity can be made new.

Why Jesus Came

But that is why Jesus came – not just to offer us a way to heaven or to teach us to worship God in some particular way. Jesus came to transform our humanity. And yes, I know, as his followers we are still caught up in a world where the greed of some will continue to trap people in perpetual poverty and try to blame them for it while doing it. But we don’t have to buy into that. We can choose to buy into the transformative power of the resurrection and we can choose to view people with nothing but grace.

By doing that, the church in Jerusalem offered a testimony to the world that things could be different. Just think what we could accomplish if we were half as courageous as them.

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