United in Christ Jesus

This last Sunday I felt led to begin a six-week sermon series on the new identity that Christ gives to us, His people (as opposed to the identity that we make for ourselves).  Here is the first week’s instalment.

Someone said that if there’s something wrong with your church community, we might each begin by looking in the mirror.  Is our congregation unfriendly?  Let me look into my mirror: “Mirror?  Mirror on the wall!” am I unfriendly?  Is our congregation unconcerned about people who don’t know Jesus?  Am I?  Is our congregation behind on its budget?  What about me – am I behind in my giving?  Is there hostility in our fellowship, between members?  What is my attitude like? what is my behaviour communicating to others?

Now, for any number of us there may not be answers to those questions in the mirror.  Sometimes the problems really do lie with other members of the community – but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less a problem that each of us owns.  Because God has brought us together.  A manager of a business was interviewing a potential new employee who asked, “How many people work here?”  To which he replied, “Precious few!”  Such a statement should never be made of God’s Church.  Every one of us is here by His grace; every one of us is a representative of His transformative purpose in the world; every one of us owns the witness and ministry of this congregation – this portion of His Church.

Gaze up, if you will, and view this incredible stained glass window that we have at the front of our worship space.  The triune God is depicted on it, and St. Luke, and St. Stephen.  There are a lot of pieces that make that one window – many pieces of glass, different sizes and shapes and colours.  They’re all pieced together in just the right way that a beautiful mosaic appears.  A mosaic that draws our hearts and minds to God.  A mosaic that light shines through.  In some ways, it’s a picture of our congregation gathered today, isn’t it?  People from different walks of life – different ways of employing our time, different ages, different upbringing – God has put us all together to produce the beautiful mosaic that He has in mind, to draw others to Himself as He shines His light through us into a dark world.  And He does shine through us to other people, because Jesus is about all people – not just the ones who are already gathering in His Name.

Our gospel lesson today told the story of a Canaanite woman who came to Jesus to beg for healing for her daughter.  Jesus told her that He’d been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  How easy it would have been to stick to that external, and to have ignored the internal – to say that she was born into the wrong family, and so stood outside of grace!  Yet Jesus never ignored the internal, and when she exhibited the kind of faith that He’d been searching for and inspiring in the lost sheep of the house of Israel, He didn’t ignore it.  So He stuck to His guns.  Your faith has brought healing.

But we get waylaid by the instruction rather than the principle behind it, and we divide by denomination.  There’s the story of the priest who’d been asked to officiate at the funeral for a Baptist man.  He inquired of his bishop as to how he should perceive.  The response he got was this: “By all means!  Bury as many Baptists as you can!”  John Wesley rightly asked: “Although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union; yet need it prevent our union in affection?  Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?  May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”  Indeed, if we Christians are always bickering with one another, aren’t we denying Christ, the Prince of Peace, who has called us into His one Church, and who prayed in the garden, the night before He was crucified, that we would all be one?

But we get distracted from faith in Christ by loyalty to faction, even within our local congregations; we forget loyalty to Jesus and being open to the work of the Spirit to move us to the holiness of God, and we settle for the way of the world: we preach sermons against gossip and then turn around singing “I Love to Tell the Story,” sharing everyone’s story but Jesus’.  We forget to welcome others into Christ’s fellowship because “someone” needs to do something about the shingles on the roof – there was one man who was approached by the ushers at his church because he hadn’t taken his hat off for worship that day.  His response was telling, “Praise the Lord!  I’ve been coming here for six months and you’re the first people to speak to me.  I figured that would do it!”

We forget to be hospitable, because we’re concerned with what so-and-so is, or is not, doing for us.  We hold grudges against people that Jesus died to redeem.  How easy would it have been for Joseph to disown his brothers?  They’d disowned him years earlier, selling him into slavery (which was, in their estimation, the least they could do for him – considering that he was their brother) which had led him to prison for a crime he hadn’t committed.  In our Old Testament lesson today, they stood before him and he had the power to do anything to them that he wanted.  He could have disowned them, as they had done to him.  He could have practised “eye for an eye” retributive justice on them.  He could have mocked their attempts to get rid of him, because he’d ended up rising beyond anything he’d even dreamed of.  Instead, he turned his mind to God’s purposes – they’d intended evil, but God had used it for good.  They would be saved from the famine on the land, and all their families.

There were a handful of Lutheran pastors who’d decided to “check out” the competition, going to Saturday night mass at the local Roman Catholic church.  They arrived a little late, and found that all of the pews were filled – so they stood at the back.  The priest noticed them and recognized them, and whispered to one of the altar boys, “Go and get three chairs for our Lutheran friends.”  The boy didn’t hear, so the priest spoke a bit louder, motioning to the rear of the congregation, “Three chairs for the Lutherans.”  Dutifully, the altar boy rose and proclaimed to the congregation, who responded as prompted, “Three cheers for the Lutherans!”

Now, something tells me that three “Hip hip hurray!”s (or “Huzzah!”s) would make newcomers feel very out-of-place at our churches, and wouldn’t be a great way to welcome them in.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a good way to welcome people in.  But welcoming people begins with having something to welcome them into.  And having that “something” begins with the unity of the Church.

A piano tuner doesn’t tune each piano to the one that he tuned before it.  He tunes each one, individually, to his tuning fork.  So it is with the Church.  We are not called to factions, or to interest groups, or to follow in one another’s footsteps.  We are called to Jesus, and to have our lives tuned to His.  Believe it or not, when our lives are all attuned to His – instead of trying to attune them with one another’s – we will have greater unity in the Body.  We will actually be in tune with one another.

Seek Christ, who reveals Himself to you, that you may be fit into the wonderful mosaic of His Church which He is building – fashioning us into a great stained glass window, through which His light shines in this dark world.  Amen.

Taking Baptism Seriously 1.0

There are four orders of ministers in the Church.  There are bishops, priests, deacons, and lay.  The Church spends a good bit of its resources on ensuring that the first three are up-to-snuff (whatever that might mean in the given context).  It is generally up to those three, the ordained clergy, to disciple the fourth, the laity, and ensure their up-to-snuff-ness.  Some Christians may not like that idea – they’re not “professional” Christians (ie. not clergy).  Why should they have to be involved in the Church’s ministry?  They were never ordained in the Church – what right do they have to tackle this task?

The old joke was that clergy-people were paid to be good, but that laypeople were good for nothing.  I would dispel this idea to some extent, because I’m not paid to be good.  I am not paid for services rendered.  Rather, I am afforded an allowance, a stipend, by the local church (through the diocese), to allow me to live within this geographical parish.  All of the “services rendered” are a function of the person I am, because of who and what God is continually making me.

In the same way, all Christians are called to ministry because ministry is the fulfillment of who and what God is making them.  Lay people in the Church may not generally consider themselves to have been ordained, and perhaps they weren’t ordained to the particular ministry of the priesthood in the Church, to thus maintain the order of the Church, but something like it did happen to them.  They were baptized.  You were baptized.

There are so many things to be said about baptism, but I will here only point in the directions that we’re going to go in future blog posts.  We can talk about baptism’s roots – where did this practise come from? was it an anomaly that sprung up in a void?  We can talk about the symbolism of baptism – what is signified by the water? what is the meaning inherent in the rite?  We can talk about the elements of baptism – why water? how was it instituted this way?  We can talk about the vows taken in baptism – what are they? what significance do they hold? how are they practically applied to daily living?  We can talk about covenantal relationship with God – what does it mean to be God’s people?  We can talk about taking our own baptisms seriously.

All these and more, to come.

Plato’s Cave?

This week I’m on retreat.  I’m not running away from a battle, but I’m taking some “me” time.  The church recommends these periodically, and provides outlets.  This week the clergy of my diocese (Qu’Appelle) and of the Diocese of Saskatoon are at St. Michael’s Retreat Centre in Lumsden, SK.  Our guest speaker is Bishop Mark MacDonald, and it will prove to be a great retreat.

The Lord has inspired me in a couple of ways since leaving Swift Current today.  I’m not sure if it’s the music I was listening to (my friend Keith Kitchen is my travel companion), or the events of the last few days, or just God’s initiative (which it ultimately relies on, whatever other factors may have paved the way for Him to inspire…), but I’m sharing one thing now.  The other isn’t ready just yet.  Only He knows what else might come, in time.

I was always struck by Plato’s Cave.  If you’re unfamiliar, it’s in The Republic.  Basically, humanity is tied in a cave, and all that people can see is shadows on a wall, being generated by people carrying things past a fire that’s burning at some location behind them.  The philosopher is the human who has broken free from the cave and found a tunnel to the surface.  Upon seeing what things really are, in daylight, he returns to the cave and tries to share with the people there what he has come to learn.  They are resistant to his “new” knowledge, and generally prefer the darkness and the names and items they have imagined from the shadows.  That’s a pretty rough paraphrase, but it will have to function for us just now.  There was always something about that story that seemed to resonate with me, but there was always something missing, something “off” about it, from the reality that I’ve come to know through the Christian faith.

Humanity is trapped in an Imax theatre.  The giant screen in front of them makes them think that they’re travelling, makes them think that they’re interacting with the truth, makes them think that they’re living life.  But they’re deceived.  The truth is that they’re prisoners, and their life is a mirage.  There is a way out of the theatre, and one man, Jesus, who has come in via that way can lead them out.  If they’ll follow Him.  He’ll take them out, if they’ll give up their theatre seats.  Real life, all of the things flashed in front of them on the screen, exists outside of the theatre.  Jesus came into the theatre so that they might have real life, not the mockery of it that the theatre seduces them into.  Many don’t listen to Him: the things He’s describing seem so much like the things they already see before their eyes – isn’t He just imagining something more?  Many don’t listen to Him: the theatre seat they’re in is so comfortable, what if they get up and someone else takes it – or, worse yet, it gets cold (nobody likes sitting in a cold chair!)?

The question before each of us is this: will we go with Him, or will we stay in the theatre?  There is no other way.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

How do we talk about what we believe?  I ask this question in a response to a recent letter-to-the-editor in our national church newspaper.  I was surprised at the letter for a couple of reasons, but pertinent to this blog article was its request (?) that we (I suppose the Anglican Church of Canada) would refrain from adopting a liturgical change(?) which the RC Church had made.  The author shared an experience of attending RC mass at Christmas where the Apostles’ Creed was declared.  The point of contention was that it had been edited to say that Jesus descended to hell.  There was another letter placed with it, in which a bishop suggested that there were no changes in store for the Apostles’ Creed.

Now, I can’t say for sure what the deal is.  The Roman Catholic liturgical reform, of late, has changed their liturgy to use language very similar to the old Anglican Prayerbook language (ie. “And with thy spirit,” rather than, “And also with you” as a response).  I’m not clear on all of the changes, but my suspicion is that the “new” Apostles’ Creed used is the same as the old Anglican BCP one, which says that Christ descended to hell after his crucifixion and burial.  If this is the case, then the bishop’s letter which states that no changes are in the works for the Anglican liturgy can be true – but somewhat misleading.  What it might seem to say is that our version of the creed would never say what the “new” RC one does; however, the truth of the matter is that our version of the creed already does.

Regardless of how many parishes and clergy choose to ignore it, the Prayerbook of 1962 is still the standard for Anglican worship in Canada – not the Book of Alternative Services (BAS).  Here, however, is where I think the problem lies – that is, the “between” that we find ourselves in, with the rock on one side and the hard place on the other.

I suspect that some of the disgust expressed by the first writer to the idea that Christ descended to “hell” has to do with popular depictions and sentiments regarding hell.  To someone who imposes the popular image of hell onto the Bible’s use of that word (and also, then, of the Prayerbook’s use of that term), the idea could indeed be ugly.  The preference would certainly fall to the BAS language of “descended to the dead.”  So the word “hell” is a rock that we come up against, because of its popular usage and the imagery associated with that.

But if we think about what “descended to the dead” means, in popular usage, I don’t know that we find any more of a Scriptural view (or “prayerbook-ian,” for that matter) than “hell” conjures up.  Descending to the dead seems to only mean that a person isn’t physically alive – with no particulars beyond that.  I think that Scripture does suggest some particulars, and it is my suspicion that the people who were versed in Scripture to the extent that the compilers of the prayerbook were, knew of this.  At any rate, it would seem that “the dead” can be as much of a “hard place” as hell, and so I think that we get stuck between the two.  One, popularly, defines the intent incorrectly; the other, popularly, under-defines it.

The truth lies somewhere in-between, and is hinted at in Scripture.  Where did Jesus go between His crucifixion and His resurrection?  Did He go nowhere, and simply cease to be?  Was He simply beginning to rot in the tomb, with no existence beyond it?  The Bible, the canon of which has been received and accepted in the Christian Church as authoritative and sufficient, suggests otherwise.  He preached to those “in prison since the days of Noah.” (1 Peter 3:20).  The Odes of Solomon mention this same phenomenon.

The picture painted for the Church is a picture of Jesus “tasting” the fullness of death.  What would be the point of Him sacrificing Himself for us if He failed to do so?  His vicarious atonement/sacrifice, for it to be vicarious, required Him to bear the punishment of our sin, so that there is no punishment for our sin left to fall to us.  He saves us from that punishment because He took it all already.  What