Hespeler, 9 January 2021 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 (Click to Read)
The church is facing an unprecedented crisis, one that absolutely threatens its very existence. And the leaders have all come together to figure out how they are going to deal with it. You see, there was a time not all that long ago when the church and its message was considered to be socially acceptable. I mean, maybe not everybody agreed with everything that the church was doing but, at least they saw the people in a good light.
But now, all of a sudden, that seems to be changing. Why, just recently there was a church leader that a bunch of people tried to cancel because they found his views to be offensive. And, as a result, a lot of the believers have been spooked. They are not so sure anymore that they can really trust the institution of the church and they have set out to try and establish and live out their Christian faith on their own terms.
They are, to use a word that has become popular lately, deconstructing their faith. They are kind of tearing it apart and examining every part of it to try and decide what they can do without and what, if anything, is worth keeping. They are then reassembling their faith in a new way and in a new place. Some of them have figured out how to live out that faith in innovative ways, without all of the structures that had traditionally been there. Some are calling this an emergent way of being the church
But the really odd thing is that this strange, jury-rigged faith actually seems to be connecting to the people that they have encountered. Somehow, despite the lack of traditional structures and different ways of doing things, the message about Christ and his love and amazing grace is still getting through to people. So, this emergent church has been seeing some growth
The Leaders are Concerned
But the traditional leaders of the church are concerned. They have remained where they have been and so all of this innovation and growth has taken place without their leadership and sanction. They are justifiably concerned that it will lead to the faith going way off track. So, they have gotten together to talk about what they should do. For a while, they do give a lot of consideration to how they might be able to shut all of this down. Maybe they should be putting out statements that deconstruction is going to get people condemned to hell or that these emergent type churches aren’t real churches. Maybe one of them, one who commands true respect, should go out and rebuke these people for their free thinking and innovation.
There is so much at stake that the arguments rage late into the afternoon. But then, tired of arguing, they decide to take a different approach. They pause for prayer and open their hearts to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And that is how they ultimately come up with a very different kind of plan. They decide that two of the most important leaders in the entire church, Peter and John, will go out and they will lay their hands on the believers in Samaria so that the Holy Spirit may clearly be seen as part of the work that they are doing out there.
Acts and the Growth of the Church
At the very beginning of the Book of Acts, the author who, by the way, is the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke, tells us exactly how the story he’s going to tell is going to unfold. He puts his summary of the plot of the book on the lips of Jesus just before he ascends into heaven. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;” Jesus says, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
So, in the writer’s mind, these steps in the growth of the church and the expansion of its impact from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and beyond were inevitable. It was bound to be a story of continual triumph and success. But it is kind of easy to look on such events in hindsight and see them that way. It was likely a little different to actually live through them. In fact, if you read between the lines, it is pretty clear that the early church actually experienced these transitions as crises and problems to solve.
We certainly see that clearly when the church makes the jump to “the ends of the earth,” especially through the ministry and preaching of the Apostle Paul. In fact, the church nearly tore itself apart as it dealt with the very difficult questions that Paul’s ministry raised – questions about the keeping of the law, circumcision and the eating of blood and animals sacrificed to other gods.
The Samaritan Problem
And there is no doubt that the early church saw the transition into Samaria as similarly problematic. You can understand why. Jews and Samaritans generally did not agree about anything, especially when it came to religious matters. They had different scriptures and different ways of worshiping even if the Jews grudgingly admitted that they actually worshipped the same God.
So, there is no question that the leadership in Jerusalem, who, according to Luke, was left behind in Jerusalem following the “cancellation” of Stephen the martyr, was very concerned about what the Samaritans might do if they were allowed to co-opt the Christian faith. It is certainly very likely that the apostles in Jerusalem debated excluding the Samaritans from the young church or putting some severe restrictions on them. They certainly would have hesitated to allow them to just live out the faith in the way that suited them most.
Receiving the Holy Spirit
That is why what the apostles actually did is so important. We are told that they sent Peter and John, two of the most important leaders in the church, to Samaria so that the Samaritans might receive the Holy Spirit. Now, the giving of the Holy Spirit is a very important matter in the Book of Acts. The author of this book makes a great deal about the various manifestations of the Holy Spirit throughout his story.
The gift of the Holy Spirit, often accompanied by signs and marvels such as speaking in strange tongues, always accompanies any important transition in the life of the church. It is there on the day of Pentecost when the apostles are given their leadership and authority. It is there when Peter first takes the gospel to a Gentile family.
The gift of the Holy Spirit obviously means many things. It is about power and ecstasy and about bringing the entire community of the church together. It is a sign of the power of the gospel to change people’s lives. But above all, it is what gives the believers the power and authority to work out the faith in their context. Because they have the Spirit, Christians can confidently interpret the scriptures and the sayings of Jesus and they have the power to determine for themselves how they are going to live out these truths.
So, in many ways, the Samaritan problem was one of the first really big challenges that the apostolic leadership of the church had to face. The question was whether they were going to hold onto that power to define and control the way the faith was lived out or if they were going to allow others to share in that power. They had all kinds of reasons not to do what they did. I’m sure it would have seemed much safer to them at the time. But, because they did the right thing and decided that the gift of the Holy Spirit could be shared even with Samaritans, the church was able to enter into a brand-new phase of growth that was beginning of truly changing the world.
Now, as I say, because the writer of the Book of Acts sees all of this with hindsight, he just assumes that it was all inevitable. Of course, that was what the church was going to do. But my experience with the church is that we rarely have that much ease in dealing with these kinds of transitions as we live through them. Oh no, we gripe and we complain and we blame people when they start approaching the life of faith in new or innovative ways. We try to do whatever we can to shut it down. Above all, we do not want to give it our blessing.
Examples from our History
Even a light summary of the history of the church will show you that. How many Christian groups down through the centuries have been persecuted and criminalized just for wanting to live out their faith in different ways? The Lutherans were rejected and persecuted by the Catholics for insisting on salvation by faith alone. The Mennonites believed that their faith would not allow them to fight in wars and they were killed or sent into exile because of it. The Anabaptists wanted to celebrate baptisms a little bit differently from other Christians, and so the Presbyterians decided that they should be punished by being drowned. The list goes on and on. But it is really significant that, in the Book of Acts when faced with the Samaritan problem, we are told that the apostles did otherwise.
The Present Crisis
All of this is extremely relevant to the church at this moment in time. I think that the church may be facing yet another Samaritan problem. There are all kinds of reasons why people are no longer approaching the Christian faith as they once did. I’m sure you are aware of many of these trends.
For one thing, we find ourselves living in an age where people are just not very trustful of institutions in general. And so respect for the church as an institution in society has definitely been on the decline. Of course, many have simply abandoned the church entirely, while others have sought to develop their own non-institutional or even anti-institutional Christian practice. The church certainly often experiences this as a threat.
Abuse and Intolerance
There is also no question that the church has been fundamentally damaged by endless stories of abuse. We have come to understand that incidences of abuse of power and authority, of sexual and physical assault are all too common in the church. People have suffered as a result and experienced a great deal of trauma. All of this has certainly made them call into question the very organization of a church, and the theology and teaching that supports it, that seem to allow these kinds of things to continue to happen.
Others have come to the place where the traditional answers the churches have given to the tough questions of life no longer work for them. They are tired of the rejection by some Christians of scientific truths, of the mistreatment of people who do not fit into strict gender or sexuality roles. They have grown tired of the thinly veiled racism that they have encountered. These kinds of things are behind what might be called the deconstruction movement which ends with some rejecting the faith entirely, while others attempt to hold onto certain parts of it as they reconstruct a faith that works for them.
Accelerated by the Pandemic
These are forces that have been at work for some time now. But many of the effects have been accelerated by the strange situation we have been living through for the past two years. The world has just changed too much too quickly. It has changed politically, socially and economically and so people cannot just be content with how we’ve always done things. It is not that people have given up on faith in general. Yes, some have, but that is not the biggest issue. It is that they have learned to work out their faith in new ways and without needing to rely on institutional supports (like buildings and authority systems and schedules) that were once considered so essential.
What will be our Response?
And so, it seems, the church today is dealing with yet another Samaritan problem. Are we going to fight against this, rail against innovation and different ways of being Christians in the world? Are we going to insist that, in order to be considered good Christians, that they conform to our ideas of how it has to be done? If so, it is quite possible that the church might get left behind in Jerusalem while the real growth is taking place out there in Samaria.
But what if we were to do what those early Apostles did and acknowledge that the Christian faith that is emerging actually does have the Holy Spirit working within it? What if we were to lay our hands upon what God has frankly already been doing out there in Samaria and actually seek to support it, even at the risk of it costing in terms of what we once considered to be our essential institutional supports for the church? I believe that this might be the most important question the church is facing in our time, and I pray that we are open to the leadership of the Holy Spirit as we seek to answer it.
Watch the sermon video here:
Hespeler, 2 January 2022 © Scott McAndless
Jeremiah 31:7-14, Psalm 147:12-20, Ephesians 1:3-14, John 1:1-18 (click to read)
If you are familiar with the passage that begins the Bible, you know that it tells the story of the creation of the world as we know it. God starts out, “in the beginning” with something referred to as the heavens and the earth. And here’s the first thing you need to know about that phrase. The ancient Hebrews did not have a word for what we call the universe. The only way they had a speaking of everything that existed was by referring to everything that they could see, the heavens (which were always plural, by the way) and the earth. That was how they spoke about the whole universe
So, in Genesis, God basically begins with everything that exists. But that everything that exists seems to be in a bit of disarray. We are told that “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” And I don’t know if you have ever encountered “a formless void,” but it doesn’t sound to me like something that you would want to run into in a dark alley.
The Elemental Formless Void
Have you ever been in that place in your life when you’ve lost something or someone that means absolutely everything to you? Do you remember how it felt, how utterly empty everything felt in that moment? You felt as if there was a hole inside you that was so big that all the tears in the world would never fill it. Well, that is maybe a helpful way to think about what is meant by a formless void. Except, I imagine, the very worst emotions you felt in that moment did get a little bit easier to manage as time went by, even if you still carry them with you. But this formless void that existed at the beginning of all things, there is something enduring about it for it is in the very structure of the universe itself. And the churning waters that it contains within it, they seem dangerous and full of chaos.
And there is a profound truth in that. It is saying that there is an inclination that is built into the very structure of the universe towards emptiness, towards darkness, chaos and loss. And I know that sounds a little bit bleak, but I really don’t think there’s any denying it. Left to itself, that is where the universe goes. In fact, this is even a truth that has been recognized by science. There is a law in the science of thermodynamics, the study of relationship between various kinds of energy, that states that in any closed system will eventually tend towards entropy. Entropy is basically a fancy word for a formless void. And the universe is the ultimate closed system. So, even science agrees that the universe tends towards a formless void.
Other Similar Creation Stories
So, that is where we start at the beginning of the Bible. But let me encourage you not to despair because the story that follows is the story about what God has done about that. Up until this point in the Bible’s creation story, there is actually very little that is different between the story of creation in Genesis and the creation myths you would have found in other ancient Near Eastern cultures. They all begin with an opening picture of a formless void and chaotic waters. Some of the ancient myths even go so far as to picture the pre-existing chaos as a great monster that threatens the very idea of existence itself. That is certainly a very memorable image, but it is still saying basically the same thing as Genesis.
But it is at this point where you start to see the Bible story diverge from the mythologies of other people. In most of these other stories, what happens next is that some hero god comes along and attacks the chaos monster in order to destroy it in a great primeval battle. In other words, we get even more chaos and entropy unleashed to defeat the original chaos and entropy.
The Spoken Word Brings Order
But the really different and interesting thing about the Bible story is that God takes a very different approach. What happens in Genesis? God speaks. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” It is the divine spoken word that has the power to bring light into the oppressive darkness. Even more important, the divine word is able to bring order to the primeval chaos as God sorts the light from the darkness and goes on to put everything – the water, the land, the various species of animals and so on each in their proper place.
That is a powerful idea, isn’t it? The notion that by speaking and naming what we see in the world, we banish the chaos and the formless void that is always threatening. And the ancient Hebrews were not the only ones to understand this important truth. The ancient Greeks also understood it and expressed it in their own way.
An Idea from Greek Philosophy
They also understood that the universe was ordered and brought into being by a word. They called it, using their own language, the logos. And logos is a Greek word that can be translated as word, but it always meant more than what we mean by word. It meant speech, but it also meant discourse and reason. In the fifth century BC, the philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus declared that the logos was the foundational principle of the universe, the ultimate source of all knowledge and order. So, in a way, the ancient Greeks and ancient Hebrews agreed that the universe as we know it was called into being by a word.
The Gospel of John Brings it all Together
And you need to understand that all of that was in the background when the writer of the Gospel of John took his pen in hand to begin to write, in the Greek language, his account of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. He began with the words, “In the beginning,” because he knew that that would make all of his readers think of the beginning of the creation story in Genesis and everything that went with the story, including the aching emptiness at the heart of the primeval formless void.
But then he goes on from there to say what was in the beginning – the logos. Yes, I know that it is translated in our Bibles as the Word. But it matters a great deal that the Greek word that he used was logos. With that one word, he managed to do something truly extraordinary. He evoked approximately 400 years of Greek thinking and philosophy on the nature of the universe, existence and being.
So, with the first six words of his gospel, this writer manages to bring together the entire Hebrew and the entire Greek understanding of the universe and the place of humanity within it and put it all together. And he expects all of his readers to make all of those connections. He wants you to think of that great formless void at the beginning of all things and at the centre of the universe.
Not Just Cosmology
But he doesn’t only want you to think of it in the sense of a theoretical tendency towards entropy as defined by the science of thermodynamics. I mean, sure, it is that. But where that formless void touches us most deeply is on a personal level. It is found in that deep-seated fear of the chaos and the darkness that I think we all recognize lurks somewhere out there in the universe for all of us. It lurks in the emptiness that we feel deep inside over the trauma or loss we have experienced. We want to know what will save us from that.
And the gospel writer’s answer to that question is the same answer that the Greek philosophers gave: the logos. It is the power of reason and discourse and the spoken word that gives order to that chaos. He even speaks of how it responds to the darkness we sometimes feel within in very specific terms. “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
He Speaks to our Elemental Struggles
And so it is that, in these few words, we have a response to some of the most basic needs and fears that we struggle with. In the face of our fear of the formless void, the gospel writer calls us to consider how God brought order and meaning out of the primordial emptiness by speaking but a few words. In response to our dread of the chaos that seems to want to overtake this world and everything in it, he shows us the organizing principle of Greek philosophy, this idea that the logos allows us to organize the world and make sense of it.
And I think that these are very helpful answers and yet, at the same time, I think there is something missing. Because here is the problem, when you are really struggling with the existential dread that sometimes seizes us in this world, it is all well and good for someone to come to you and speak of a creator who intended that this world would be good and that you would do well in it. And it is all very well and good for someone to come and speak to you of noble philosophical concepts that give theoretical answers to the questions that sometimes overwhelm your life.
But are these things really enough when you are truly struggling? Not necessarily. They might be helpful concepts. They might be intellectually stimulating and have a logic that brings you to soothing conclusions, but that may not be enough.
We Need More than an Intellectual Answer
That may not be enough, because feelings like dread and fear and despair strike us at a level that goes much deeper than our intellect or our logical mind. These are things that affect us at some of the deepest levels of our being. That is why you cannot just reason somebody out of a depression. That is why, if you tell someone who is irrationally afraid of the dark that they have no logical reason to be afraid, it doesn’t actually help them. We need more than an intellectual understanding of the work of the creator and an explanation of philosophical principles if we are going to navigate some of the hardest things about life in this world.
And so it is that the gospel writer gives us more than just ideas and logic. He goes on to say some truly remarkable things about the logos. The first truly remarkable thing he says comes in verse one: “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So here we discover that the logos is not merely the spoken word or the principle that aids God in the creation but is actually indistinguishable from the Creator. This is comforting because it means that God’s does not battle the darkness and chaos of this world as a kind of hobby, but rather because it is absolutely essential to God’s nature. For God to abandon us in the face of the formless void would actually be for God to abandon God’s self.
An Unexpected Twist
But the really surprising twist that comes in this passage arrives in verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” This verse changes the course of the entire passage and takes it in a direction that is very different from the course of both Hebrew theology and Greek philosophy. We are no longer just speaking about a spoken word or a philosophical principle. We are speaking about how all of this becomes flesh, becomes one of us. And that is, of course, what the early Christians experienced in Jesus of Nazareth. And it did not necessarily make sense in terms of previous teachings or philosophies. But they knew that they had experienced something truly unique in Jesus.
Christ is the Answer
For here is the wonderful truth that is given to the people of God in Jesus. Yes, we do live our lives in the fear of the formless void. We live in the shadow of the chaos that threatens to overtake us at any moment because that is the nature of the universe. But Christ has shown us something else. Christ has shown us not only that God overcomes the darkness and the chaos, but that he is that victorious God and allows us to experience that victory in him.
It is Christ who comes alongside us to personally comfort us when we are struggling with the darkness and fear. It is Christ who, in his person, offers us meaning and purpose when the universe attempts to take those things away from us. Because he comes in the flesh, Jesus can struggle with all of those things – the fear, the darkness and that howling sense of emptiness – and can actually understand and sympathize with what it is that we feel. That is the power of the logos made flesh.
This opening prologue of the Gospel of John is a passage that pushes theology and philosophy into new territory. But don’t just think that this is about intellectual concepts of the nature of God and the universe. This is about God connecting with you exactly where you are and in the midst of the struggles of what seems to be a dark and threatening universe. It is about Jesus lightening the darkness that sometimes threatens to overwhelm you. That is what the Evangelist does for us with only six words.