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Reformation 500 – The Next 500 years for Lutherans, Protestants and the Church

This year is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous act of nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st.

This act is considered by many as the beginning of the Reformation.

For Lutherans, Martin Luther’s particular witness to the gospel of Christ forms the basis of our confession and understanding of the Christian faith.

So as Reformation 500 approaches this year, Lutherans all over the world are commemorating the anniversary (as opposed to celebrating) and we are trying to include brothers and sisters of other denominations, particularly Roman Catholic, where possible.

As I attended the National Convention of the denomination in which I serve, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, we have been asked to consider what the next 500 years will bring for Lutherans, and all Christians.

This question has been rumbling around in my mind for a long time and in a renewed way this 500th anniversary year.

This is not an easy question to answer. It is deeply related to the biggest struggles of European and North American churches, most notably it relates to our experience of decline. Before getting to what I think the next 500 years will hold for us, the issue of delcine needs to be addressed.

Humans have this habit of thinking that what just happened will continue happening indefinitely. We, in this North American context of Lutheranism and wider Christianity, have been experiencing churches that are dropping in membership and attendance, budgets that are getting bigger while giving is shrinking and the average age of those still in the pews and contributing is getting older. And because this is our most recent experience we assume that the future holds more of the same.

But this is actually a really poor prediction model.

Let me put it in different terms.

50 years ago, the same kind of convention that I attended for my denomination would have looked like this: The-American-Lutheran-Church-Constituting-Convention_2-18-13

Now imagine going to someone standing in that crowd and telling them that in a mere 50 years, that the 3 or 4 Lutheran bodies that each look like the above picture will be merged together and look like this when they gather:

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Photo Credit – https://www.facebook.com/CanadianLutherans/

Thousands reduced to less than 200.

Those people back in the 50s and 60s would have laughed and laughed and laughed… But this is where we are now. So what would make people today laugh and laugh and laugh… not a prediction of more of the same. But perhaps a predication that churches will be filled once again… filled with a new spirit and new vitality that we would have never dreamed or imagined. It won’t be the 50s again, but it will be something unexpected and new.

You see, we also have to think back 100 years to gain perspective. Much of North American Christianity looked similar to where we are now. There were some large and thriving groups, but lots of small communities barely able too keep up buildings, barely able to pay pastors, barely able to fund seminaries or missionaries or wider church structures. Many church groups were marginal to larger society and many churches didn’t make it and were lost to history.

But think about it, society was in a time of great transition. Conflict was the story of global politics (WW1), immigration was high (settling the western part of the continent), new technologies were changing the way people lived (electricity, telephones, automobiles, modern medicine etc…). And it remained messy for nearly the entire first half of the 20th century.

But this chaotic situation eventually led to many, many people seeking a truth greater than themselves, finding solace in the promises of a God who was in control when the world seemed ready to end, finding comfort in faith despite the rapid pace of new technology constantly changing the world.

We don’t have to think about our current world situation very long to see the similarities, to see that our political and economic world which once seemed to provide a stability for people to live their lives on, is turning into an instability that is only going to get worse before it gets better.

Most predications that I hear about the next 500 or 50 or 5 years tell us that decline will simply continue indefinitely and we are just going to have to accept that.

I don’t.

I don’t think that the antidote to decline is to simply be better sales people for church with flashiest and shiniest features to entice largest slice of a shrinking pie of interested people into church.

I think the church is about to be one of the few places of hope that many people will have to turn to in our increasingly chaotic world. I think that some political leader may just push that red button (and no it will not be like an apocalypse movie) or some aspect of climate change will be pushed over the edge, or some hacker will decide that it is time to empty everyone’s bank account… or most likely I think that through difficult struggle and resistance the average people of the world – who are sick of living under systems that privilege a small few – will decide this is not acceptable anymore.

And a paired down church will have to be ready. Ready to welcome the masses who have no where else to turn for hope. The masses who no longer rely on the invisible forces of the world (governments, international organizations, corporations and civil society) to care for them.

Over the coming years and decades, as most church leaders anticipate more decline, the world is going to surprise us. The world is going to surprise us by needing what the church has to offer.

Let me offer and example.

In 2015,  the National Church Council of the denomination that I serve in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada wanted to challenge our church body to 4 different ways of commemorating Reformation 500. We were encouraged to raise $500,000 for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), to provide 500 scholarships for students in Jordan and the Holy Land, to plant 500,000 trees and to sponsor 500 refugees.

As the story goes, the intial idea was the above with one fewer zero on each number. But a particular council member said, “let’s slap a zero on these challenges.”

Of course the council did not expect us to meet those goals, but swinging for the upper deck was better than just going for a base hit.

Two years later, we have raised 150,000 for the LWF (3 times the pre “slap a zero on it goal”), we have provided 160 scholarships (3 times the original goal), and we have planted 80,000 trees (almost two times the original goal.

But here is where it gets interesting.

Since 2015, and with several months to go before Oct 31, we have sponsored 540 refugees exceeding the “slap a zero on it” goal and more than 10 times the original goal!

How did we do that?

Well just a couple months after our 2015 national convention, the body of a young Syrian boy named Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey. A boy who had been denied entrance to Canada. A boy whose tragic death mobilized the world. 

So did we meet our “slap a zero on it goal” because we are a church of expert refugee sponsors? Hardly.

But rather the world needed what we had to offer. Which was communities small enough to care for families who needed help, but large enough to mobilize enough money, furniture, and volunteers to settle newcomers in our commmnities.

All we needed to do was let our anxieties about decline die just long enough to see that God was bringing about tangible new life through us. God is using us for real resurrection.

It is in this intersecting place that a declining church meets a world in need of hope.

The decline of North American churches in the past few decades is not a never ending trend. But I do think God is using this time to help us shed our baggage. God is letting us struggle so that we can get all the wrong fixes and solutions to decline out of our system. So that we can try trendy music and flashy tech and hip pastors. So we can try to reincarnate the knitting groups and service clubs and curling bonspiels of the past. So that we can get all the complaining and shaming of our family, friends and neighbours over with. So that we can see that nothing we come up with will be the solution to our problems.

God is letting us experience decline long enough to finally die to our memories and nostalgia of the glory days and realize that the only thing the church ever had was the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection. All we ever were at our best are communities grounded in Christ’s new life given for us.

To be honest, I think in many ways the next 500 years for Lutherans and for North American Christianity will look a lot like the last 500. We will continue to be communities where the gospel is preached and where the sacraments are administered. Sometimes we will be strong in number and power. Other times we will be weak and marginalized. But in the end, neither of those realities matter.

That God is answering all the sin and death in the world with resurrection and new life proclaimed in churches just like us does.

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Abraham failed the test… and so did God

Genesis 22:1-14

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. (Read the whole text)

Here we are back into the long season of green, the chance to explore the various stories the bible. The Gospel readings of this season tell about Jesus’s teachings and ministry. The Epistle readings take us through the various letters of the New Testament to explore what was happening in the early church. And the Old Testament readings give us the stories of God’s people.

Today, the story of Abraham and Isaac is simply too tempting to avoid exploring.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is one we know well. It is a story that is not only familiar when we hear it, it is one whose themes are used over and over in literature, movies  and TV. How often is the hero in a movie faced with an impossible choice involving the sacrifice of someone that they love?

The reason that Christians know this story of Abraham so well is that it is often used as an example of faithfulness. Abraham is an example of unwavering faith, so the idea goes. And on the surface it is an idea that makes sense.

In order that Abraham demonstrate his faith, God orders Abraham to put his faith before everything. Before the love he has for Sarah and their only son. Before  the love that Abraham has for Isaac, the son who will be person who carries Abraham’s legacy into the future. Without Isaac, Abraham and Sarah are simply people who will be forgotten to the sands of time.

And Abraham delivers. He shows us what it means to be faithful. Abraham’s faith is so powerful an example that even the authors of the New Testament point to it as a model to follow.

Abraham is willing to sacrifice his own son if God asks. Unwavering faith.

Or perhaps blind faith.

Or perhaps radical faith.

Radical fanaticism even.

Because we don’t usually call people willing to kill for their faith great examples… we have other words for those people don’t we?

And what about God? In this story, God asks his chosen disciples and follower to sacrifice his son, the very son that is the fulfillment of the covenant.

Have we read this story right? Christians have been using Abraham as an example of faith for hundreds of years, and the Hebrew people for thousands before that.

But blind faith or radical fanaticism is not normally the kind of faith that we are trying to help grow in people, in ourselves.

And a God who toys with us simply to “test” our faith doesn’t seem very loving or caring.

So what is going on in this story?

Well, to understand how Abraham and Isaac arrive at this moment, we need to go back to the beginning.

The oldest part of the bible is not found in the stories of creation or the garden of Eden or in Noah’s flood. Rather Abraham’s is the oldest. And ten chapters before Abraham and Isaac, the story begins. Back when Abraham was Abram, and Sarah was Sarai, God called these two to take up everything they had to go to the land that God would show them.

Abraham’s story begins with a 3 part covenant made with God. God promises Abraham land, descendants and a relationship. And this 3 fold promise becomes the focus of the rest of the book of Genesis, and to some degree the rest of the Old Testament.

So Abraham and Sarah pack up everything and go. And when God says, “Go” Abraham is really good at going. He is always willing to go when God calls.

But it is this other part of the promise… the descendants one that Abraham has trouble with. Going is easy… when God commands it, Abraham does it either out of faithfulness or perhaps fear. But the promise of descendants is tougher. Faith in this promise cannot be rooted in obedience out of fearfulness. Believing that God will provide this barren couple with children takes hope, it takes faith in the future, and faith in the third promise, that Abraham and Sarah are indeed God’s chosen.

And so Abraham goes, but as soon as he encounters the powerful Pharaoh of Egypt he gives Sarah away to be a part of Pharaoh’s harem, claiming Sarah is his sister, not his wife. So God has to intervene to save the day.

And then Sarah, fearing that she will not provide a son, tells Abraham to have a child with the servant Hagar, who gives birth to Ishmael… but he is not the son that God promised.

Next God tells Abraham directly that Sarah will bear a son, and all Abraham can do is fall to the ground in laughter.

And two weeks ago we heard the story of God showing up again to tell Abraham and Sarah that she will bear a son and this time Sarah laughs.

And after all this, Abraham gives Sarah to King Abimelech for his harem, again requiring God to intervene.

So finally, after 9 chapters of Abraham’s struggle to believe the promise of children, Sarah gives birth to Isaac.

And the long awaited, hard to believe promise has come to fruition.

Yet still Abraham still struggles to believe in the promise, in hope for a future. Even with Isaac in his arms now.

Some Rabbis suggest that the test that God gives Abraham is not one of obedience. That it isn’t a game of chicken that God is playing. In fact, God knows that Abraham will follow the commands, he has always been willing to go when called.

But does Abraham have faith in God’s future? Does he believe that God will make him the father of God’s chosen people?

So just one chapter after Isaac’s birth, God gives the command to sacrifice Isaac.

So Abraham goes and for three days – without a word of protest – walks to the mountain with Isaac. And when they arrive, Isaac asks where the lamb to be sacrificed is… and Abraham says something about God providing it, knowing full well that there isn’t a lamb. Abraham then leaves his servants and pack animals behind, and goes to the ritual place with Isaac. There he ties up his son, binds his son like lamb to be slaughtered and places him on the altar.

And without hesitation raises the knife.

In that moment, when you take into account everything that has happened in the ten chapters before this… Abraham has not passed the test.

He has failed.

And so has God.

For ten chapters, through rescuing Abraham from himself, from proving wrong Abraham’s laughter at what he and Sarah thought was impossible, God must have thought that Abraham would finally believe that promise, the promise of descendants, the promise of hope and a future.

And yet for 3 days Abraham marched to mountain without a word of protest. Abraham looked his son in the eye and lied about what or who would be sacrificed. Abraham tied up his son and placed him on an altar of sacrifice. God must have expected that Abraham would protest or bargain, just as he had for the people of Sodom. God must have thought that Abraham would demand that God live up to the covenant, that God certainly wouldn’t just arbitrarily take away Abraham’s future. God waited for the protest. But nothing.

And so Abraham fails the test… but so does God, for a good test is one a student can pass.

And yet there on mountain, standing above Isaac with his knife in hand… just maybe it is Abraham who teaches God something, maybe it is Abraham who tests God.

Perhaps after 10 chapters of trying to get Abraham to believe in the covenant, in the promise of hope and future that God makes with Abraham, God realizes that Abraham cannot have faith… only fear. Fear that drives him to go when God commands, but fear that prevents him from having hope.

So God intervenes.

God caries the hope for the future that Abraham cannot.

God upholds God’s part of the covenant… even if Abraham cannot have faith in the promise…

God will have hope in Abraham, even when all the signs say that God shouldn’t.

God sends a ram.

God sends a ram who is a sign that God will not give up on us.

God sends a lamb who will be not a sign of death on an altar, but life on a cross.

A lamb whose coming into our world will signify God’s unwavering faith in us.

A lamb who is God’s promise of hope and future in the flesh.

For you see, we are just like Abraham.

In fact we are Abraham.

We too find the promises of God laughable, we find the threats to our future too much to confront, we too have difficulty seeing our hope and our future… even when God plunks signs right in our arms.

And so God sends us the lamb who will save us.

The Christ who is found in the thicket of the church.

The Christ who is mercy and reprieve from the knives that we threaten our hope with.

The Christ who is life, when there is surely and only death in store for us.

The Christ who is God’s promise in flesh.

Abraham’s faithfulness is nothing to be marvelled at, he isn’t a model to aspire to…

Abraham is a model of the faith we already have.

As too is Abraham’s fear the same fear that we carry. Fear that is dispelled each and every time we gather around God’s word of promise and hope for us.

Abraham reminds us that God knows we cannot be faithful on our own… and so God is faithful for us. God knows that the promise of Christ is our hope and our future.

God is one the passes the test for us.

Two Sparrows for a Penny

Matthew 10:24-39
Jesus said to the twelve disciples…,

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

“For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household… (Read the whole passage) 
As we begin this long season of green in the church, we start with some bold words from Jesus as told to us by the Gospel of Matthew. You would think that we could start this season of Jesus’ parables, preaching, and ministry with something a little more tame. But that is not Matthew’s style.

The 4 gospels, and their four authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, but in very different ways. Just like 4 pastors might preach very different sermons on the same topic. If we were to imagine what kind of people the gospel writers were, John might remind us of an academic, a professor type passionately using lots of words to describe his topic of study. Luke would be the compassionate care-giver, always thinking of the less fortunate. Mark should remind us of a mystic, a wise spiritual advisor who never says more than he has to.

And then comes Matthew. Matthew is like the TV evangelist, the mega church preacher preaching to a stadium of people. Matthew is the type who has all the answers. Matthew can spitfire verse after verse of scripture without hardly taking a breath. Matthew knows what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad.

And so, as we hear Matthew collect some of the sayings of Jesus, he gives them to us in spitfire fashion, one after another. 

Together, they almost sound like a warning. Warnings about being in the right allegiance, about following Jesus in the right way, about being a disciple and the dangers of what will happen if we choose the wrong side:
“If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”
“rather, fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
“whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”
“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
“For I have come to set a man against his father,”
“whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me”

Wow… harsh stuff.

The Gospel of Matthew has been the most popular gospel of Christian history. For nearly 1000 years, it was the only Gospel that christians used. And when we hear what Matthew offers us today, as harsh as Jesus sounds, Matthew’s popularity makes sense. Matthew offers us what we want to hear. Easy answers. Right and wrong answers. Matthew offers us a legalistic path to the truth. Do this, this and this, and you will be okay. Do that, that and that, and you will go to hell.

Matthew’s approach to Jesus’s words appeals to our fears. Matthew frightens us into feeling secure. Matthew warns us of the danger in the world, and then tells how we can avoid it. Just like a good salesmen or TV evangelist.

And we lap it up.

We love the binary, right/wrong, us/them answers. We love the categories of us and them. We like knowing what to be afraid of in the world, and how we can protect ourselves. We like it all because it is easy, it feels safe, we feel like we are in control.
And that need for control comes from a place deep within us. It is from Original Sin, the Old Adam, the Old Sinner that wants to be like God that drives to easy answers that Matthew and so many others try to give us. And it this original sin that what we are washed of in Baptism. 

In Baptism, God begins the hard work of stripping away our need for control, our desire to be like God. And it is hard for us too. It is hard to deal with questions. Answers are easy. It is hard work to live with the ambiguities, the grey in life. Binary, right/wrong is easy. But it is hard to be uncertain, to be vulnerable. It is easy to know who and what to be afraid of so we can stay safe.

We don’t want to deal with questions or uncertainty or ambiguity. We like it when someone gives us the answers we want to hear.

But that is not Jesus’s way.
Even while Matthew is trying to give us the harsh Jesus, the one who warns, one with easy answers and ways to protect oneself from all the dangers, Matthew cannot help but let Jesus break through with the Gospel. In the midst of swords, devils, fighting families, choosing sids, taking up our cross, denying Jesus… It almost passes us by.
Two sparrows for a penny. Jesus says, do not two sparrows cost a penny. Two things so invaluable and worthless that you can’t even sell one for a penny, you have to offer two. Even these do not live or die apart from God. God is interested in everything or everyone. God is not choosing sides, God is not about right/wrong binaries, God is not out there offering easy answers. Jesus is showing us a God who is found even with the worthless sparrows. Nothing is too small, too inconsequential for God. In a world that wants Jesus to tell us what we want to hear… this is not it.
And even St. Matthew, the author of the most famous and often used of the Gospels, cannot keep Jesus breaking through to us, breaking through our desire for easy  answers. Matthew cannot help but show us God. 
So often the answers we long to hear are not the ones that God gives to us. Even as Matthew strives to give us a Jesus who is out separating good from bad, right from wrong, and while we lap it up. No matter how much we want the easy, safe, secure, certain answers, Jesus is giving us something else.

Jesus is giving us questions, Jesus is giving us ambiguity, Jesus is telling us that God’s concern for the world is so much bigger than we can imagine. Two sparrows for a penny. Something that isn’t even worth the smallest coin imaginable… even this sparrow does not live or die apart from God. God is working in ways and in places that we would never think to look. It is not flashy or showy or easy. It isn’t a list of requirements or steps to follow. It is hard, yet life giving work.

And what God is up to begins in baptism, begins in the waters of new life. God uses baptismal waters to introduce new questions into our world, questions of mercy, forgiveness, and life. God shows us that God’s world is so much deeper and wider than we could ever imagine.

Matthew’s harsh words like sword, Beelzebub, denial, against, unworthy – they are designed to scare us, scare us into binary right-wrong thinking and easy answers. But today, Jesus is all about the sparrow. The thing that seems worthless, even this is important to God. God breaks through our desire for an easy to categorize world. God breaks through with questions and ambiguity, but God also breaks through in the baptismal waters with grace, mercy and new life.

Doubting the Trinity 

Matthew 28:16-20

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Read the whole passage)

Holy Trinity Sunday is a unique festival in the church year. All the others ones tell specific stories, like we celebrated last week at Pentecost. The coming of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire to the disciples, who then preached the Gospel was a story of drama and intrigue. Holy Trinity Sunday is quite a contrast. It is about a doctrine of the church. The trinity describes who God is, yet it is a complicated and often difficult to understand concept that we struggle to explain. We have all heard the children’s message examples. God is like water, solid, liquid, gas. God is like apple pie: crust, filling, ice cream. God is like someone who puts on different hats, sometimes a parent, sometimes a child, sometimes a friend. Each example that we try give ends up failing when stretched too far. The relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit is just too much, too broad, too complex to explain.

It is no wonder that some of the disciples doubted Jesus, even as they witnessed him ascending into heaven from the top of a mountain. They had stuck with him through the whole story. They has seen the improbably acts of his ministry of teaching and miracles. They had seen him fall into the execution plot of the temple authorities. And they had now heard the rumours and seen Jesus alive, even though he should be dead.

This is the final moment in the story of Jesus, and the final moment of the Gospel of Matthew. It hardly seems like the time for the disciples to still be doubting, yet the doubters are sticking out like a sore thumb there on the mountain top, not quite ready to get on the bandwagon. Their doubt is pulling them apart, pulling and tugging them away from the moment.

As the disciples stand on the mountain top and witness the risen Jesus with their own eyes, the doubt that some felt was probably not disbelief.  But perhaps they had a hard time making sense of what exactly all of this meant, all the events they had just lived through and all the the things that Jesus had told them. Their doubt is not skepticism, but rather a sense of being overwhelmed and pulled in different directions. Our doubt comes from the same place.

Doubt pulls us apart, it threatens to unravel us and undo our sense of understanding and meaning. Faith and doubt are nearly the same, as they are the way we put together all this stuff about God, about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Neither faith, nor doubt are about knowing with certainty or about complete skepticism. Rather, faith and doubt are lived experiences, part of day to day living with all this stuff about God and Church. Faith and doubt are a relationship and they are a part of being in relationship with God and each other. Faith is planted in grown through worship and prayer, in families and at church. It is a part of everyday life. And in the same way, doubt creeps into all parts of life. Self doubt, doubt when it comes to others, doubt when it comes to the community. Doubt comes in the moments when we are stretched to limit and when making sense of everything is too much to do on our own.

Did you notice the contrast that Matthew makes when it comes to doubt. He does not say some believe, and some doubted. Or some had faith and some doubted. Or some were certain and some doubted but Matthew reminds us where are our doubts are met. Simply believing harder or being more certain are not the solution to doubt. Matthew says that the disciples worshipped but some doubted. All the disciples worshipped, and in the mist of their worship some doubted.

And despite their doubt, Jesus gives them all the same task. To preach the Gospel and to Baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus words are not just for those who feel like they have a strong faith or feel fairly certain of the message. The mission of the Gospel is for all members of the community. The doubtful and the faithful, the same group. And so is Jesus’ promise for all, not just for those feel like it is true in a given moment, but Jesus reminds and helps his followers to remember exactly what that promise is, “Remember, I am with you until the end of the age”.

Our doubt comes most alive in worship. And Jesus meets us in our doubts in worship. When we gather, there will always be some of us that doubt. We will all have times when we are feeling pulled apart and unsure…  when it will be hard to speak the words of worship. Words like, “Peace be with you” or “Lord to whom shall we go?” or “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”.

But it is in these words that the community of God, the community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity comes to us. The Trinity comes to us remembering us. Re-membering us together. Re-joining us, in faith, to the community of faith. Being re-membered, or made a member again, is part of the work of the Trinity. It is a part of the dance of the Trinity to give and receive, to move back and forth, to go forwards and backwards. The Trinity has room for our doubts, room for us to not understand and yet still be a part of the community.

There the disciples are, and there we are, in the mist of worship, some with doubts. And the promise that Jesus makes, the promise that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit makes to us, is that we are remembered. We are not given certainty and Jesus does offer to help this crazy story of God in the world make sense. But the Trinity offers a place to be a part of the community. The Trinity is the promise that we are re-membered and re-joined.  God remembers and rejoins to the dance of the one in three, the back and forth, and the to and fro. God remembers and rejoins us in worship, with our faith and with our doubt.

Amen. 

You are witnesses of these things

Luke 24:44-53
… Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

The great day is coming to an end. For 7 Sundays we been celebrating the resurrection, celebrating Easter. We have witnessed the empty tomb, seen the wounds of Jesus with Thomas, walked to Emmaus with the two disciples. We have heard about the Good Shepherd who calls his sheep by name, and of the Father’s house with many rooms. And last week Paul preached to us about a God who knows us each, and wants to be involved in each our lives, and in the life of our community.

All of this and everything from the angels who announced Christ’s birth, to his ministry and teaching, to his trial, crucifixion and resurrection… all of this has been preparation for the disciples. Preparation for Jesus to leave them behind.

As Jesus speaks to his followers today, they are not quite sure what they are seeing. For them it is still the first day of the resurrection, Easter Sunday. They have heard two of their members tell the story of how Jesus walked with them on the road to Emmaus, but now when Jesus himself shows up they are uncertain if he is a ghost. Jesus offers to let them touch him to see that he is real and he eats some fish to show that he is alive.

Yet, up until now the disciples had been packing themselves up and getting ready to leave. They had followed Jesus around for years, dutifully supporting him as he went about this ministry. Yet, in the last few days everything had come crashing apart. Jesus was arrested, put on trial, and then executed like a common criminal. After that disaster there was nothing left for them. Their hopes for a messiah had been crushed. The excitement of following a popular preacher and healer had been replaced by disappointment, shock and grief. For the disciples, the story was over, there was nothing else to stay for.

 

Packing it all up and heading home is natural for us. When things do not go the way we expect, we are good at moving on. A relationship doesn’t work out, move on to the next. An employment prospect doesn’t work out, we find another. A loved one becomes ill and dies, we push away the grief and try to pretend that everything is fine. Everything inside us tell us to avoid the pain, avoid the conflict, avoid the shame. And so we do.

Packing ourselves away is simply self protection. Withdrawing from life is simply a defense mechanism meant to keep us safe from harm. As we share in this community each week, as we are fed through the word and through the Body of Christ it probably seems like a simple matter to live boldly as a Christian. And yet, Monday morning arrives, and that community that felt so empowering seems so far away.

The disciples must have felt the same way. Jesus is dead and gone. The reason for staying has been taken away. The hope that they had in this little community has been ripped away from them.

And then Jesus shows up again. Jesus shows them that he is alive again. Jesus reminds them of who they are and what they have become.

You are witnesses of these things.

Jesus’ words spark something in the disciples. He isn’t there to hold their hands, or to lead them around galilee and judea. Jesus is not the witness. Jesus is the story. The Old Testament, Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms, those were all about Jesus… God has been preparing the people of Israel for the Messiah for a long time.

The disciple’s own experiences of the previous week. The trial, crucifixion, death and now the appearance of the resurrected Christ. This is how Jesus has been preparing his followers.

While they have packed themselves up, Jesus has done the opposite. He has unpacked, opened up, changed them. Jesus takes all that they have learned and all that they have experienced and places it in front of them once more. Jesus says to them: You are witnesses of these things – You are witnesses of God’s work in the world, Witnesses of the Messiah come to save, Witnesses of death being turned into life. The disciples have learned the story, and now it is their turn to tell it.

 

And Jesus names us Witnesses today too. Jesus gives us a story to tell also. Like the disciples, we have heard the scriptures and been prepared for the coming of Messiah. We have experienced the life, death and resurrection of Christ. And in those things, Jesus has opened us up and unpacked us. Jesus has washed and fed us. Jesus has prepared us to stay.

Jesus gives us a story to tell by making us part of the story. As we are washed in the waters of baptism again each Easter, we also dies and rises with Christ anew. In baptism is where we all begin as witnesses. Witness to the God who knows and loves us all.

And in Baptism, Christ makes his story our story. We are not only witnesses to Christ, but we become part of Christ’s body, Christ’s community. Where there only seems to be death, where all we want to do is to pack up and move on, Christ appears showing us new life. Christ turns us from packed up to unpacked, from dead to alive.

As we move to the end of this great day of Easter, to then end of this long celebration of the resurrection, God is preparing us. Not preparing us to be alone, but to be tellers of the story. God names us as witnesses, unpacking within us the good news given and shared for all.

The Unknown God and the God who knows

Acts 17:22-31
It would serve us well to listen carefully to Paul today. Paul is telling us about a radical God that we don’t get to hear about very often. His words might have originated in Athens, from the place where Greek philosophers would gather to argue and debate ideas. But make no mistake, Paul is speaking directly to us. And there is a sadness in his sermon and there is a certain joy. The joy is the proclaiming the living God in whom we live – we move- and have our being. The sadness is in realizing that God is essentially unknown to most North Americans. 

The place and people to whom Paul was speaking was not much different than our world today. The Athenians were careful folks who liked to hedge their bets when it came to religion. Scattered throughout the city would have been statues and temples to numerous Gods. To Greek Gods, Romans Gods, Persian Gods, and many more. Newborns would often be dedicated at each temple, just to make sure that all the bases were covered. Zeus, Athena, Mithras, Poseidon were all honoured just to be sure.  

And just in case any gods had been overlooked, there was the statue to the unknown God. A coverall, so as not to offend any other gods out there that didn’t have specific statues or temples. 

When Paul was in Athens, his purpose wasn’t to preach or evangelize. He was just visiting, waiting for his friends to re-join him while they preached in a neighbouring city. Paul, was more like a tourist than a traveling preacher. Yet, when he saw this statue to the unknown God, he must have seen an opportunity. An opportunity to address a culture that was quite concerned with covering their religious bases by doing the right rituals and keeping the right rules. The Athenian philosophy of religion was, make the gods happy and they won’t bother you,  

The pluralistic religious system of the Athenians is not all that far off from our modern version of religion that is practiced today. In fact, sociologists have come up with a term for the most widely “practiced” religion in North America, and it is probably not the familiar name of a denomination. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This term was born out of study North American Teens and their views on religion. There was a surprisingly high level of agreement on what teens thought about God and the faith. There was no difference in views between those who were regular church attenders their whole lives to those with no church background at all.
These are the core statements of their faith:

1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.

2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

Good people go to heaven when they die

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is basically the belief that God sets out some ground rules for behaviour which is the moralistic part. The Therapeutic part is that God is a being who exists to make us feel good and solve our problems. Deism is belief in a God who just created the world and left it to its own devices, God does not have much bearing on the rest of our lives and doesn’t really engage us personally.   

The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the God of Oprah, Hollywood and financial gain. It is the God of inspirational greeting cards, reality tv, music videos and consumerism. Making money, being self-centered and ignoring the big issues of life are also encouraged, because God wants to send us to heaven as long we are good people, which most of us are. 

This distanced, self centered approach to religion is precisely what Paul’s words address today. And this kind of religion is exactly what our sinful selves wish religion to be. The pluralism of the ancient greeks and modern day Moralistic Therapeutic Deism appeal to us at our basic levels. They are religions were we get to be in control, and God gets to be a divine therapist and butler. They don’t demand anything of us, and they don’t intrude on our daily lives in any kind of real way. They are the perfect religion for a curved in on itself humanity. 

As Paul walked around the Aeropagus, looking at the variety of statues he must have been asking himself, 

What about sin?

What about evil?

What about death?
What about hope?

What about grace?

What about love?

For Paul, all of the greek Gods would have been unknown. His are the questions that none of the unknown Gods could begin to answer. These are the questions that sit below the surface when life is going well, but that rise up and force us to consider them when things go wrong, when life begins to hurt, to be painful. The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism seems pretty empty in the face of addiction, disease, divorce and separation, in the face of death. It seems pretty empty in the face love, beauty, sacrifice and wonder too. 
In fact, the unknown gods of the ancient greeks and of our modern world are not really gods at all when compared to the God who washes, names, dies with us and raises us to new life all in the one baptism. These gods not compare to the One who feeds, forgives, joins and loves in communion. The god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism does not compare to the God who was born, who lived with us, who died on the cross and rose on the third day in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Paul sees the opportunity with the statue of the unknown God, to show his audience that God is known. And even more so, that God knows us. As Paul preaches to the Athenians: 

What you therefore worship as unknown, I proclaim to you. God is known. 

What a radical difference from what the Athenians knew. Paul does not just re-interpret the unknown God, but re-interprets the whole religious system. The God that Paul knows is the one who created all things. The God that Paul knows is the one who gives us life and movement and being — and does not require petty sacrifices in order to show mercy. The God that Paul knows, know us — knows what it is like to be born, to live, and die as one of us. 

The who God knows us sees us — all of us. Sees our faults and failures, our imperfections and loses. Our confusion and blindness. Our intolerance and bigotedness. Our despair and frailty. Our successes and hopes. Our dreams and desires. Our joys and our loves. All of these God sees. 

The God who knows us hears us — our pleas for help. Our anger and frustration. Our sadness and sorrow. Our celebrations and thanksgivings. Our happiness and our wonder. Our normal and everyday words. All of these God hears. 

This God who knows us loves us — all of us. God loves all of us as a whole. All of us as individuals. All of us personally, intimately, completely. This God loves us despite our sinfulness and despite our faithfulness. This God who knows us simply loves us without condition. 

The unknown Gods of ancient and modern times promise heaven for good behaviour. 

But the God who knows us promises New Life to those that are dead. New Life for all creation. New Life for each one of us.

In a world that is often looking to cover its bases and for people whose best vision of what God could be is a divine therapist and butler, God offers so much more.

As Paul preaches to the Athenians and to us, the unknown distant gods that we try to make happy are not gods at all. The God of all creation, of all life, of all that moves of all that is. This God is known. This God is known because this God first knew us. As Paul preaches:

What you therefore worship as unknown, I proclaim to you. This God knows us. 

Amen. 

Making Demands of Jesus

John 14:1-14

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. (Read the whole passage)

We are on the back half of Easter, heading towards the Ascension and Pentecost. To be sure, we are still celebrating the resurrection on this great 7 week long day of the resurrection, but as the day gets longer we are starting to look forward to what comes next in this world of the resurrected Christ.

Today, we begin hearing a series of conversations between Jesus the disciples, where Jesus prepares his disciples for the beginning of the church, Christ’s body on earth. These familiar words of Jesus begin, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”

These words are the familiar words spoken at many funerals, words of comfort and assurance, at least the first 7 verses. But today, we get the bigger picture, the next 8 verses. These familiar words put in context become one side of a larger conversation.

Jesus begins by telling his disciples of what has been prepared for them by the father. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says, “For in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Jesus says that God has room for many, an idea foreign to the world disciples, where most believed that God only had time and space for the very righteous.

So naturally, the disciples aren’t entirely sure of this idea. Two of them speak up with doubts. Thomas is the first. Thomas asks a vulnerable and honest question. “How can we know the way.” It is a a good question. Thomas is expressing the doubt side of faith, the uncertainty of faith, the part of faith that questions our own worthiness. It is a question echoed through the centuries, asked by St. Augustine and which led to the doctrine of original sin. Asked by Martin Luther, which led to the Reformation and Lutheran doctrine of unconditional grace. Still asked today by many who wonder what the future of Christianity will be.

Thomas’s questions is a genuine one, one that desires to draw closer to, and understand God. It is a question that we all ask too, when our doubt it real, but also when we are open and honest about ourselves. When our doubt is about us and our role in faith.

Jesus gives an answer to Thomas, but Philip isn’t satisfied. Philip’s question is not so much a question, but a demand, an order. “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” If we are not careful, we skip past this statement, and focus only on Jesus’ words about how he and the father are one. Yet, if we pause to consider what Philip has said, we see just how problematic it is.

“Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” It is a command rooted in insecurity. It is comes from a place of discomfort, from a place that prefers not to sit with the uncertainty of Thomas’s first question. It is an order that wants to jump to answer, instead of exploring the question. Philip’s order to Jesus is one we know well too. We have moments when we make demands of God, when we want faith to be easy, simple and certain. Sometimes, like Philip, we just want to be satisfied instead of dealing with the real questions of faith.

We all have Thomas moments and Philip moments. Moments when we can honestly and openly ask genuine questions of faith like Thomas “How can we know the way?” And moments when we just want to jump to the answers, moments when we don’t want to deal with the struggles and uncertainty of believing in Jesus, like Philip, “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”

These two contrasting statements by these disciples demonstrate just how fickle we can be when it comes to God, yet Jesus’s response to these two very different ways of asking the same thing shows us how God is with us.

Jesus doesn’t give either Thomas or Philip what they want. Jesus instead gives them what they need. To Thomas, Jesus responds with assurance. He doesn’t tell Thomas what the way is, but instead who the way is. Jesus tells Thomas that it isn’t about our ability to know the way to God, but about who will take us there. Jesus assures Thomas that Jesus is one taking us to the Father, that Jesus is the one who will guide us to the house of many dwelling places. Jesus will show us the Father.

And even though Jesus sounds almost hurt, if not annoyed with Philip, “How can you say show us the Father?” Jesus still responds. Jesus stays with Philip’s discomfort with uncertainty. So Jesus reminds Philip what he has seen and heard, he reminds Philip who he is speaking with, the Messiah, the one who comes in the name of Father, who reveals the Father, who does the Father’s works. This is not evidence or proof  that Philip can be certain of, that can satisfy. Instead, this is the promise of a relationship. A messy, uncertain, faith demanding promise made through relationship instead of through the evidence. Jesus reminds Philip having faith in the Father is not easy, nor something to be controlled and Philip is uncomfortable because he wants certainty.

Whether we are Thomas, open and ready for Jesus, or whether we are Philip, uncomfortable and impatient, Jesus meets us where we are. Jesus meets us in all of our doubts, no matter what they look like. And Jesus promises our troubled hearts that he is the way. They Way to God’s house, the the Truth revealed in flesh, the One who will bring us to New Life.

Amen.