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“By What Name?” “What is on Second!”

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

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.
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.


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
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

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.


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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The Last Page

Posted by on Sunday, March 31st, 2024 in Minister, News
Watch sermon video here

Hespeler, March 31, 2024 © Scott McAndless – Easter Day
Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, John 20:1-18, Mark 16:1-8

The end of the Gospel of Mark has always been a bit of a mystery and a problem. It ends rather abruptly. The women come to the tomb on Easter morning to anoint the body of Jesus, but they find it empty. A young man dressed in white informs them that Jesus isn’t there, that he has risen, and that they must tell the news to the others so they can all meet the risen Jesus in Galilee. But then the women don’t tell the others – they don’t say anything to anyone because they are too scared.

And that is it. The gospel ends right there. There are no appearances of the risen Jesus. There is only a vague promise that people will be able to see him at some point and that promise doesn’t even get passed on. It is a weird ending, isn’t it?

Alternate Endings

You are not the only people to think so. Right from the very beginning, Christians were very dissatisfied with the ending of Mark. So much so that very early on, people wrote their own longer endings that they tacked onto it – endings that we still often include in our modern Bibles.

But we are certain that those endings were not part of the original text. They do not appear in the oldest and best manuscripts of the gospel. And the later manuscripts disagree over which ending to add. Some even indicate that they don’t think that the endings they have included are the right ones.

So, as far as we can tell, the oldest manuscripts of the gospel really did end at verse eight. That means one of two things. Either the original ending was lost almost immediately after it was written, or this strangely abrupt ending was intentional.

I think that it is the latter. The author ended it that way on purpose. But to understand that purpose, you need to understand something about the author of this gospel and why he was writing it.

About the Author

The gospel was written anonymously, so we don’t know what the author’s name was. But the church decided to name him as Mark. That’s a convenient name, so let’s just stick with it. Most scholars agree that Mark wrote his gospel sometime around 70 AD and that it was the first of our gospels written. We know that Mark wrote it then because he makes references to contemporary events in ways that indicate that his readers should know what he is talking about.

And what are these contemporary events as Mark is writing? Mark is writing around the time of the great revolt of Judea against Rome. It was a dreadful period. There were wars and rumours of wars, an era of death and destruction. It culminated with Roman victory and the destruction of Jerusalem and its holy temple. And Mark was looking on from some distance while all of these terrible things took place.

Mark’s Reaction to Events

He reacted much like you or I would. He was upset and frightened. He was also angry with some very specific people. He was mad at the Jewish leadership who had chosen to follow the path of violent revolt led by bandits.

And he was also very mad at the leadership of the church – the disciples of Jesus, the women who had followed him and even the family of Jesus (his mother, brothers and sisters). He felt as if they had failed to lead the church in the path of Jesus at a critical time.

And so, Mark decided to do something constructive with his disappointment and his anger, something that no one had attempted before. He decided to write the story of Jesus’ life and death and to write it in a way that would help the people of his age navigate a world full of dangers and disappointments.

And as people who are often alarmed at some of the disturbing things happening in our world and often deeply disappointed by both our national and church leaders, I think that we might benefit from understanding why he wrote as he did and especially why he chose to end his story in such an odd way.

A Few Inches Left

Mark had been working and writing his account of the good news about Jesus for weeks. As he looked at the scroll of parchment that had cost him at least two months’ wages, he noted that there were only a few inches left on the end of the scroll. He would have to wind up this story quickly, but he wanted to make it clear to his readers what they were supposed to do with what they learned. He wanted to make sure that they were set up to do better than those who had failed to follow in the path of the Christ.

He had written this book to tell people the story of Jesus, of course. But he also wanted to make sure that the people he was writing it for – the people who were living through the same horrors as him – responded well. And maybe he kind of wanted to make sure that they understood who to blame for the present state of affairs. So, what really mattered to him what not just what Jesus had done and said, but also how people had responded to him so poorly.

The Barabas Incident

He felt as if he had perfectly encapsulated this in one of his favourite episodes that he had just written the other day. He told of how, when Jesus was on trial before the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate offered the people a choice. They could either choose the way of Jesus and peace, or they could choose the way of violence and war – which Mark had personified as a dangerous bandit named Barabbas.

He felt pretty sure that his readers would know not to read that in a strictly literal way. I mean, the name Barabbas (which meant “the son of the father”) was clearly made up. And everyone knew that no Roman Governor would release a violent prisoner just because it was an important festival.

No, surely people would understand the deeper truth of that story – that the Jewish people’s choice to follow bandits like the zealots and the sicarii into an ill-advised war against Rome was the ultimate rejection of Jesus and everything that he had stood for.

Yes, he had communicated his disdain for the Jewish leadership very effectively! But he was even happier with the criticisms of the leadership of the church that he had slipped into his narrative.

The Failures of the Disciples

He knew some of those leaders personally – the disciples and the brothers of Jesus in particular – and he had been repeatedly disappointed by their lack of faith and of courage in these crisis times. Again and again, they had acted in ways that demonstrated that they really hadn’t understood what the message of Jesus was about.

And so, as he told the story of Jesus, he had made a point of playing up every incident in which Jesus criticized them – every time he told them to “be not afraid” or told them that they had “little faith.”

And every time that Jesus told them what the plan was – of his coming death and resurrection – Mark made a point of following up with an episode in which one of them rebuked him or a couple of them tried to jockey for more important leadership positions. Surely no one would be able to read this gospel without coming away with an understanding of how abysmally the disciples had failed.

Jesus’ Family

And as for Jesus’ family – especially Jesus’ brother James who had led the Jerusalem church through the crisis so ineptly – Mark had included an episode that he hoped would permanently discredit them.

You see, Mark had discovered that there was an occasion when Jesus’ mother and brothers decided that Jesus was deranged, and they tried to forcibly take him away to have him committed. Oh, you can bet Mark made a point of including that episode and contrasting it to Jesus saying, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:35)

So, Mark felt as if he had thoroughly criticized leadership for their failures. But now he had about six inches of parchment left. The question was how he could end this in a way that would give his readers some hope for the future.

The Appearances of the Risen Jesus

Mark believed – he knew deep in his heart – that Jesus had risen from the dead. He had included three times in his gospel the prediction of Jesus that he would be raised. He also knew that the risen Jesus had made appearances to various people. As it was often repeated in the churches, he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time… Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” (1 Corinthians 15:5-7)

But he also knew what people like Peter, James and those apostles had done with their experiences. They had used them to fight with one another over who should lead and to pretend that their experiences were better than anyone else’s. And look at where that had led them all!

And so, Mark resolved not to include any resurrection appearances in his blockbuster ending. Why start any of those fights up again? And so, as he took up his pen, he decided that he would end instead with an invitation to his readers.

The Women at the Tomb

“When the Sabbath was over,” Mark began to write, “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.”

Yes, he realized, this was yet another dig against the followers of Jesus. Jesus had told them not once, not twice but three times that he would be raised by the third day. They should have known that he wouldn’t be in the tomb by Sunday morning.

But of course, they got it wrong. As far as Mark was concerned, almost all of those who had followed Jesus during his life had got it wrong. But these women were about to get the lesson of their lives, not to mention the biggest fright as well.

An Invitation

And so, Mark didn’t tell of an appearance of the risen Jesus to them. If they had one, he knew that they would only misuse the experience like the others did. And so, instead, he gave them a message and an invitation. “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

This was an invitation, not to believe someone else’s account of them seeing the risen Jesus, but to experience it for yourself. All you had to do was go to Galilee and you would see him.

Now what, exactly, Mark meant by “go to Galilee,” I’m not entirely sure. He may not have meant it literally in terms of travelling to a specific place. Maybe, in the turmoil of the revolt, he thought of Galilee (which had been ravaged by the Romans) more as a state of mind than a place. But I’m pretty sure that Mark was making a promise to his readers: you can and should experience the resurrection for yourself.

Message Interrupted

How do I know that? Mark tells us that this all-important message wasn’t passed on. He ends his entire gospel by saying that the women who had received this message “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Yes, as far as Mark was concerned, the original leaders of the church had failed one more time.

And, because they had failed, the earliest church had been forced to fall back on hearing the testimony of people like James and Peter who had seen the risen Jesus. But they were denied that experience for themselves. And Mark had seen how badly that had gone.

But now, you see, there was a possibility for a new beginning. The message that the women had failed to pass on had now been transmitted. Mark had transmitted it in this gospel. The church now had the message! And they could go to Galilee, whatever that meant, and they could experience the power of the resurrection for themselves. That is the final promise of the final words of the gospel of Mark, and, as far as I’m concerned, that is a pretty powerful promise.

Mark’s Final Challenge

The ending of the gospel of Mark does seem strange to us, especially because we have the other gospels that were written after it and that put such emphasis on the experiences of those who first witnessed the resurrected Jesus. I believe that Mark knew about those experiences, but he had been disillusioned because the people who had had them failed to be good leaders of the church.

Mark thought it was time for something else. It was time for all God’s people to experience the power of the resurrection of Jesus for themselves. That was the challenge and invitation he ended his gospel with as he was writing for people whose entire world was falling apart.

And I am feeling like we might be in need of something similar. As the world around us fills with chaos and fear, as we see the leaders – both political and spiritual leaders – who have disappointed us, what are we supposed to do? Do we give up because their way of doing things is failing? No, it’s time for a new approach. Instead of assigning power and authority to certain people because of the experiences they claim, it might be time for us to seek the power of the resurrection for ourselves. Will you come to Galilee to see him for yourself?

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