Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sermon – “Here is Your Son” (John 19:25-27)

At the cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful mother weeping,
     Close to Jesus to the last.
Through her heart, his sorrow sharing,
All his bitter anguish hearing,
     Now at length the sword had pass’d.
Oh, how sad and sore distress’d
Was that mother, highly blest
     Of the sole-begotten One!
Christ above in torment hangs;
She beneath beholds the pangs
     Of her dying glorious son.
Is there one who would not weep,
Whelmed in miseries so deep,
     Christ’s dear mother to behold?
Can the human heart refrain
From partaking in her pain,
     In that mother’s pain untold?
Those words are an excerpt from a nineteenth-century English rendering of a very long Latin hymn called the Stabat Mater. It focuses on the agony of Jesus’ mother Mary, during those dreadful hours she stood at the foot of the cross in company with three other women and the disciple John, watching powerlessly as Jesus’ life slowly, painfully slipped away from him.
Composer Antonín Dvořák’s rendering of the Stabat Mater takes a good hour and a half to perform. John’s gospel, on the other hand, presents it to us in half a verse, just ten words in the Greek. But of course behind the stark simplicity of John’s account there stands a whole story that goes back to the beginning of the gospel, a story that John does not tell, but for which we need to go to the Gospel of Luke.

Mary’s sorrows

In the opening chapter Luke introduces us to a young virgin, in all likelihood barely in her teens, who receives a visit from an angel. “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! … Do not be afraid… You have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” “I am the Lord’s servant.” Mary replied. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Perhaps some of you are familiar with the more poetic rendering of her words in the old King James Version: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” And this is where Mary’s pain, which culminates at the cross, begins.
For Mary knew that as an unwed mother she would be the scorn of everyone in Nazareth. She would risk rejection by the man whom she was to be married. She could even be subject to death by stoning. And it was only through another angelic intervention (this time to her future husband, Joseph) and the kindness of her cousin Elizabeth who invited her to the seclusion of her home in the hill country, that Mary was saved this threefold humiliation.
Now let’s skip over a few months, until after the time Jesus is born—forty days after, to be precise. Mary and Joseph have come to the big city, to the Temple in Jerusalem, to do what was required of the parents of every first-born male: to present a sacrifice on his behalf. Their intentions were interrupted by a man who suddenly seemed to come out of nowhere. His name was Simeon and Luke describes him as “righteous and devout … waiting for the consolation of Israel”. He took the baby Jesus into his arms, praising God. Then he turned to Mary and prophesied, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” And he concluded with these dark words, addressed directly to Mary: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35).
The next scene comes twelve years later, when Jesus and his parents are again at the Temple in Jerusalem. Assuming that Jesus was with some of the many neighbours and relatives who would have journeyed together, Mary and Joseph had travelled for a day before they began to worry. Then there was a hurried trip back to the city and another day of searching before they found him still in the Temple, conversing with the teachers of the Law. “Young man,” Mary scolded him, “why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been half out of our minds looking for you.” To which came Jesus’ rather mystified reply, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be here, dealing with the things of my Father?” (Luke 2:48-49, The Message). Many have since wondered if Mary’s three days without Jesus were not a precursor to three infinitely more agonizing days that lay ahead for her.

Mary’s solitude

Until we come to the cross, that is where Mary’s story ends in the Gospel of Luke. But we do meet with her a couple of other times, once in John’s gospel and again in the writings of Matthew and Mark. In John it is the famous occasion of the wedding reception in Cana, a settlement located a few kilometers from Jesus’ home town of Nazareth. When the party has embarrassingly run out of wine, it is Mary who takes the initiative to approach Jesus with the problem. “They have no more wine,” she informs him. To which Jesus replies in a sentence that translators have found notoriously impossible to render into English: “Woman, why do you involve me?” The words seem petulant, even rude. However, if you look at the bottom of the page in your pew Bible you will see that the translators have been careful to add a footnote stating, “The Greek for Woman does not denote any disrespect.”
While it may not have been disrespectful, it was not the usual word a son would choose to address his mother. So what is going on here? I think we can find the beginning of an answer in the other gospel incident involving Mary, the one found in both Matthew and Mark. This time Jesus was teaching in a local home. As usual a large crowd had gathered. The house was packed to the point where there literally wasn’t even elbow room. So when Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived, they were not able to make their way past the door. So they sent a message through and word got to Jesus: “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” And how did Jesus reply?
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle round him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35)
The point Jesus was making on that occasion comes out even more clearly on another one, when from out of the crowd a woman cries out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” To which Jesus replies, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:27-28). And if we want to go all the way, we could point to Jesus’ words in Matthew, chapter 10:
For I have come to turn “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:35-37)
So what is happening here? Is Jesus rejecting family relationships altogether? Is he declaring war on the family? I don’t think so—and the answer begins to emerge as we stand with Mary at the foot of the cross.

Mary’s solace

There we see Jesus turning to his mother and addressing her with that same word that we heard at the wedding in Cana: “Woman…” “Woman, here is your son.” Then he looks at John and entreats him, “Here is your mother.”
Now traditionally from many pulpits you will hear a message about Jesus’ deep devotion and care for his mother. And if you have ever visited ancient Ephesus in Turkey, your tour guide would almost undoubtedly have brought you to the site of the house where John supposedly lived and looked after Mary in faithful obedience to his master’s dying plea (and, by the way, for which there isn’t the least shred of evidence!). That interpretation has an honourable lineage, going back to St Augustine in the fourth century. “The good Teacher,” he wrote, “does what he reminds us ought to be done. By his own example he instructed his disciples that care for their parents ought to be a matter of concern to pious children.” [2]
Now I have no intention of denying the fifth commandment or the many New Testament passages that give witness to the importance of the family. Yet what I do believe is that Jesus, in his dying moments on the cross, is pointing to something far deeper and with far greater implications than the obligation to honour one’s father and mother. And it is this: that through his sacrificial death our relationships have been irrevocably altered. The words to Mary and to John point us to the horizontal dimension of the cross: that Jesus died to bring reconciliation not only with God but also with our fellow human beings. We have become members of a new family, knit together not by the ties of blood, but through Christ’s blood shed on the cross.
Think for a moment of this passage, from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith… There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26,28-29)
Or this, from Ephesians:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ… Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household… (Ephesians 2:13,19)
Or this, from the Letter to the Hebrews:
In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. (Hebrews 2:10-11)
Add to these verses the fact that more than a hundred times in the New Testament Christian believers are addressed as “brothers and sisters” and you begin to see that what we are looking at is not an optional extra, not an add-on, but a core feature of our Christian life. That’s why greeting one another with the peace and looking into one another’s eyes as we share the bread and the cup at the Lord’s Supper is so important. It’s why we pray for one another’s needs Sunday by Sunday. It’s why there is a ministry of deacons and why we engage in regular acts of service.
More years ago than I care to admit I remember listening to an LP recording (and there’s a hint as to just how long ago it was!) of New York socialite Gert Behanna. She had reached rock bottom after decades as an alcoholic when she received a little article in the mail entitled “It Is Never Too Late To Start Over”, by Samuel M. Shoemaker. After reading it, she did something she had never done in her life before. She went over to her bed and dropped down to her knees in prayer. But what to pray? “I thought there was a prayer I had to learn once,” she said. “What was it? And I got as far as ‘Our Father who art…’ and then I thought, ‘Our Father, not theirs, not just mineOurs…’ ”[3]
At the moment of her conversion Gert Behanna recognized something profound—that not only did she have a Father in heaven, but she also had a family on earth—sisters and brothers around the world. That horizontal dimension of the cross is every bit as important as the vertical.
When Jesus uttered those dying words to Mary and to John, he was not merely entrusting her to his young friend’s care. He was introducing both of them to a new family—a family brought into being not through the pains of a mother in labour, but by the agony of the cross. As we look to that cross this morning, Jesus also bids us look at one another, and with profound thankfulness to recognize in the eyes and faces of those around us the members of our family. “Woman, here is your son… Here is your mother.”

[1]     Edward Caswall (1814-1878)
[2]     Tractate 19.2 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sermon – “What does he mean?” (John 16:16-24)

I wonder how many of you may have seen Martin Scorsese’s film Silence when it was showing earlier in the year. Sadly, it has received far too little attention and was a failure at the box office. Yet I believe it is one of the most profound films to have been released in years. I won’t tell you too much about it, except to say that it is based on a novel by Japanese Christian author Shusaku Endo.
The story takes place in the late 1600s, with two Jesuit missionaries, Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe journeying to Japan to try to find their former mentor and fellow priest, Father Ferreira, who is rumoured to have abandoned his faith in the heat of the vicious persecution unleashed against Christians. Suffice it to say, the film is gruelling to watch, as the situation becomes bleaker and bleaker for the two priests, not to mention the Japanese peasants and villagers who have embraced the Christian faith.
Here at First Congregational you have been making your way through what are almost Jesus’ final words, spoken to his disciples as they shared their last supper together in the upper room. I can’t help but think that, as in the film Silence, there must have been an overpowering, almost palpable, sense of foreboding, indeed of bewilderment, as Jesus donned a servant’s towel and washed the disciples’ feet, as he warned that there was one among them who would betray him, as sent Judas Iscariot off into the night, and not least as he used the bread and wine of Passover to speak of his own body being broken and his life’s blood being shed for them.
No wonder, then, that the evening was filled with confusion and questions: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” “Lord, who among us would ever betray you?” “Lord, where are you going that we cannot follow?” “Lord, how can we know the way?” “Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?” And now, in this morning’s passage, “What does he mean? We can’t make head or tail of what he’s saying.” (Notice that at this point the disciples’ confusion has reached the stage where they don’t even bother to address their questions to Jesus any longer, but to one another.)
So it is that into the midst of this gloom and confusion Jesus speaks once more: “In a little while you will see me no more…” “You will weep and mourn…” “You will grieve…” Hardly words to instill confidence and hope! Yet I believe that as we look into them, as we take time to examine them, we will find that they are words bursting with a richness that is scarcely possible to fathom. So let’s turn in our Bibles to John 16, verses 16 to 24.

The Wonder of the Cross

The passage begins with Jesus saying to his disciples, “In a little while you will see me no more…” As I’ve suggested already, these words must only have added to their confusion. Twenty centuries later we have the advantage of hindsight. It is clear to us that what Jesus was speaking to them about was his death on the cross. Within a few short hours Jesus would be forced away from them to be humiliated in a series of mock trials before the religious council and the secular authorities. He would be savagely beaten and then subjected to the cruellest form of execution the Roman Empire had managed to devise—the slow, painful process of hanging exposed on a cross gradually to asphyxiate to death. By the time it came to that, however, all but one would have left the scene. Both through the wicked actions of the authorities and through their own weakness, the time was swiftly coming when the disciples would indeed see Jesus no more.
In my mind’s eye I can picture them on that first Good Friday going back to the places where they were staying or possibly to the upper room, their bowed heads and stooped bodies bearing silent witness to the profound dismay and utter bewilderment that filled their hearts. “You will weep and mourn,” Jesus warned them. “You will grieve…”
Yet little did they know that as their hearts were being ripped apart, so too was the veil of the Temple, the thick curtain that separated the Holy of Holies—revered as the very dwelling place of God—from the rest of the Temple. So holy was this place that only the high priest could enter it, and he only once a year, on the Feast of the Atonement (Yom Kippur). He would have a rope tied around his waist, so that if he happened to die or become incapacitated while performing his duties he could be dragged out and nobody need enter to rescue him.
What happened that day on a physical level, dramatic as it was, was only a sign of what was also taking place on a cosmic level. Through his sacrificial death on the cross Jesus had breached the separation between God and humankind that had been a reality since the days in the Garden of Eden.
Centuries before, the prophet Isaiah had proclaimed, “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you…” (Isaiah 59:2) Now, because of Jesus’ death on the cross, the church can proclaim, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain…, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings…” (Hebrews 10:19-22).
Clearly all of this was far beyond the grasp of the disciples. Indeed theologians today still ponder over it with amazement. American preacher Fleming Rutledge spent eighteen years working on her more than 600-page book The Crucifixion. New Testament scholar Tom Wright, who himself has just published a book on the crucifixion, has written, “I am under no illusions that, even if I were to write a thousand pages on the subject, I would never exhaust it.”[1] Surely in the end our response to Jesus’ death on the cross can only be one of amazement and praise. In the words of Isaac Watts,
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

The Wonder of the Resurrection

However, back to the disciples in the upper room… Jesus had warned them that their hearts would be filled with sorrow. But he also promised that they would be filled with exultation. “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me… You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.” And so the scene shifts from Good Friday to the first Easter morning, from Calvary to Joseph of Arimathea’s garden. If those first disciples could not come to terms with Jesus’ crucifixion, how were they to handle his resurrection?
It was only with great difficulty and after considerable persuasion that they came to believe the reality of Jesus’ resurrection after it occurred. They dismissed the women’s reports of the empty tomb and the angels as old wives’ tales. When Jesus appeared before them in the upper room, they at first assumed he was an apparition. So no wonder Jesus’ words about their sorrow being turned to joy and about not seeing him and then seeing him only left them befuddled and confused! I know for certain that I would have been.
Yet within a few short weeks they would be proclaiming, “You … put [Jesus of Nazareth] to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead… Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:23-24,36). The resurrection points to Jesus as an individual utterly unique in the course of history. And that alone would have been enough to blow the disciples’ minds—or anyone’s mind for that matter. But dare I say that that is only the tip of the iceberg?
Look at what Paul writes in his famous chapter on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15: “But Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). You see, Easter was only the beginning. Because of Jesus’ resurrection we can look forward to that day when, as Paul again writes, “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
It’s Jesus’ resurrection that assures us that all the injustices, all the seemingly pointless suffering, the atrocities and the horrors that human beings are subject to will one day be gloriously, mysteriously redeemed. Climatologists warn us that human existence may come to an end when our pollution of the environment reaches the point where human life is no longer possible. Astronomers warn of a collision with a comet of the proportions of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago. Still others see us all being sucked into the oblivion of a black hole. None of them is a pretty picture. But Jesus’ resurrection tells that there is more, that God has greater plans for his creation than we could ever imagine—in Paul’s words, “that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
Now that does not mean that we are not to seek justice, to minister to the downtrodden, or to care for the environment. Quite the opposite: Jesus’ resurrection calls us to be outposts of that new creation that is to come, to be glimpses, even if ever so weak and glimmering, of the light that is to be revealed.

The Wonder of Communion

If all of that were not enough, Jesus reveals a third point of wonder for the disciples. The first is the wonder of the crucifixion; the second, the wonder of the resurrection; and I was going to call the third the wonder of prayer. But on reflection I think it is better to call it the wonder of communion. Listen to Jesus’ final words in this morning’s verses:
Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.
On the surface it almost seems like some magical formula—the kind of thing we read about in fairy tales: “Make a wish and all your dreams will come true.” Yet I suspect that all of us have had enough of an experience of prayer to know that that just isn’t the case. Nor is it what Jesus is speaking about here. For prayer, as we all know, is not some mechanical formula—put a loonie in the slot and down slides a candy bar. No, prayer is a conversation, and like all conversations it is an expression of a relationship.
When we begin to see it in this way, we also begin to recognize that asking something in Jesus’ name is not just a matter of tacking those words onto the end of a petition—“… in Jesus’ name. Amen”—as though that makes our prayer valid in a way that it wouldn’t be without them. No, it seems to me that to pray in Jesus’ name is to pray the prayer that Jesus himself would pray. And that in turn means that a significant element of prayer is seeking his will. It means coming to him and allowing him to come alongside us, and to be with him in the Garden of Gethsemane as the disciples soon would be, where they would hear him utter, “Father, not my will, but yours, be done.”
In that gift of prayer, that gift of communion, of being able to come into his presence, of knowing that he is with us even when we are not conscious of it, Jesus has given us something again that we will never fathom, never understand, yet to those of us who have entered into its mysteries, a gift more precious than words could ever express.
The disciples asked, “What does he mean?” And like them, our minds will never fully grasp the mysteries into which our faith in Jesus leads us. But more importantly he who has died for us, who is the first-born from the dead, and who is ever-present with us—he has grasped us, and he will never let us go.

[1]     “The Cross and the Caricatures”, Fulcrum, Eastertide 2007,

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sermon – “On His Majesty’s Service” (Colossians 1:1-14)

What a perfect day to celebrate an anniversary! I’m sure it wasn’t in anyone’s mind twenty-eight years ago, but this day is recognized in many church communities as the festival of Christ the King. (Some of you on your way here this morning may have noticed the sign outside St Thomas Aquinas proclaiming Jesus as King of all creation.) Many of those churches will be reading today from Colossians 1, beginning at verse 15, which runs as follows:
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Those verses call us to look upwards to the incomparable splendour of the risen, ascended, glorified Lord Jesus Christ, enthroned at the right hand of God the Father. Few other passages in Scripture give us such an exalted picture of Christ, the unrivalled Lord of the church and indeed of all creation.
This morning, however, I want us to lower our sights a little, if you don’t mind, to look at the verses that immediately precede that passage. The apostle Paul is writing to his fellow believers in Colossae—and if I could hazard a guess, I suspect that that church still had a way to go before they would reach their twenty-eighth anniversary. But I believe we can learn some significant lessons from what Paul says both to them and about them. So, if you have a Bible with you, you might want to turn to the opening verses of Colossians, chapter 1.


First-century letters always begin with the identity of the sender, followed by the name of the recipient. And take notice of how Paul addresses them in this case. They are “faithful brothers and sisters in Christ”. Now it seems to me that we must understand that word “faithful” in two senses. The first could almost go without saying: that is, that the brothers and sisters in Colossae were people of faith, men and women who had put their trust in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. I have no need to tell you that faith in Jesus Christ is the foundation upon which the whole Christian life—and, by extension, the church—is built. The letter to the Hebrews makes it clear that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).
I well remember a young man who had begun attending a church where I once served. He was a genuine seeker and his quest went on for months and months. He joined us for one of our annual church retreats and at the closing service I noticed that he came forward to receive communion for the first time. Afterwards I asked him about it and he said to me, “John, I could have kicked myself. All this time I have been thinking that Christianity was about knowledge. Today it finally dawned upon me that it’s about faith—and I took that step.” Yes, it’s all about faith, putting our trust in Jesus Christ.
Yet if that were all Paul meant by “faithful”, he could just as easily have left the word out. Surely there has to be more to what he is saying. Surely what Paul is referring to is not merely their initial act of faith that brought them to Christ and into the church, but also their ongoing faithfulness to him. That’s why the Bible speaks of faith in terms of a race. It’s more than just getting off the starting line. It’s running with perseverance, keeping our eyes focused on Jesus, not giving in to exhaustion or to the world’s enticements, until we reach the goal.
This past week Maclean’s magazine published an article based on a recently conducted study of Protestant congregations in Canada. Their byline read, “An exclusive remarkable study finds that mainline Protestant churches that focus on the Gospel and prayer are growing, while those that don’t are in decline.” I consider that as something of a no-brainer, don’t you? However, the study concluded that churches were considerably more likely to be growing where the pastor and the congregation agreed with the statement, “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb,” read their Bibles on a regular basis, believed that “God performs miracles in answer to prayers” and upheld that it was “very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians”. The study also found that about two thirds of the attendees at churches where these statements were affirmed were under the age of sixty, whereas two thirds of those at churches that did not were over sixty.[1] If our churches are to prosper and grow, then faithfulness to Christ and to the gospel make all the difference.
Twenty-eight years ago First Congregational was born out of a spirit of faithfulness—out of a desire to be faithful to God’s word and obedient to Jesus Christ. God has blessed you over those years and I have no doubt that he will continue to bless you as you continue in faithfulness to Christ and to contend “with everything you have in you for this faith entrusted to us as a gift to guard and cherish” (Jude 3, The Message).


At this point we need to go farther. We need to recognize that faithfulness is not limited to adherence to a set of doctrinal standards or theological propositions. I know churches that are like that and they can be every bit as deadly as those that have left doctrinal standards behind—perhaps even more so! No, true faithfulness will inevitably lead us to action, or what Paul in this morning’s passage calls fruitfulness.
Twice he speaks about bearing fruit. In verse 6 he points to the gospel, the saving good news of Jesus, bearing fruit in their lives and growing throughout the whole world. Then in verses 9 and 10 he tells of his ongoing prayer that they “may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work…”
In all the world I can’t think of anything that I find more delicious than fresh fruit. What is usually the first section you encounter as you enter a supermarket? The fresh fruits. The grocery marketers know what they are doing when they place them right at the entrance. I remember when we lived in Halifax previously I planted a peach tree in our back yard. What a delight it was in late August to go out and pick a ripe, luscious peach warmed by the afternoon sun! So too, I believe, a church that is fruitful brings delight to the heart of God—Christian men and women and children in whose lives are seen those marvellous fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, what the New English Bible calls “the harvest of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23).
It is clear from what Jesus taught his disciples in John 15 that this kind of fruitfulness is a consequence of faithfulness: “I am the vine,” he says to us, “you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing… This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:5,8). It is as we remain connected to Jesus, as his life flows into us and through us, that we are able, as Paul teaches us in this morning’s passage, to “live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God”.
In its final chapter the Bible gives us a beautiful picture of the river of the water of life flowing through the city of God. “On each side of the river stood the tree of life,” John tells us, “bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). Fruitfulness in the Bible is not just a matter of personal enrichment; it’s about making a difference in the world.
From the beginning you at First Congregational chose not to follow an isolationist route. Instead you chose to be fully engaged both with the wider Christian community (for example through Jesus to the Nations and Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship) and with the world (through such ventures as Sunday suppers and the Crisis Pregnancy Centre). There can be a sacrifice in that. It means that resources are often spread thin, people sometimes stretched to their limit. But I want to say that the sacrifice is worth it. And you here this morning are the living proof.


And so we have faithfulness and fruitfulness. And to these we can add a third “F”: fortitude. In far more ways than I can number the world is a very different place from what it was twenty-eight years ago. (And why should we expect otherwise?) The church that once was prominent on Canada’s social landscape has long been relegated to the sidelines. Indeed we are off the map altogether. A generation ago the church may have been regarded as outmoded or even comical. Today in many places Christians encounter overt hostility. I don’t need to tell you. You know as well as I do that as often as not nowadays Christianity is associated with narrow-mindedness, bigotry and intolerance—and, sad to admit, we have to take some of the blame for that.
Yet what we face in North America does not begin to compare with what many of our sisters and brothers are encountering in other parts of the globe. Last Sunday was the World Day of Prayer for Refugees. I am encouraged by the strength shown by our fellow believers in other parts of the world who find themselves under considerably greater pressure than we can imagine. When I was here a few weeks ago I told you how my previous congregation was “invaded” by more than a hundred Karen refugees from Burma. Some of them had spent their entire lives in a refugee camp. Others had been shot at and even shot, sliced with machetes, seen their relatives and neighbours murdered before their eyes. Their suffering for the cause of Christ at the hands of an authoritarian government is little known, and it has gone on for nearly seventy years. Yet their witness for Christ continues to burn brightly and in spite of vicious persecution the church continues to grow.
Their experience is replicated by believers in many other parts of the world, most notably in North Korea, Syria and Iraq. Compared to them, what we face in Canada are minor irritations. Nevertheless, it is easy to become disheartened. In our passage this morning, however, Paul says just the opposite. He challenges us to be strengthened—to look to the Holy Spirit to give us endurance and patience. He encourages us to remember that the darkness that surrounds us must inevitably yield to the kingdom of light. He reminds us that the frustrations of the present cannot begin to compare with the glory that awaits us.
As you look ahead to the next twenty-eight years, who knows what may await you around the corner? But one thing you can be sure of. You serve the King of heaven and earth and his will will not be thwarted. May you continue in faithfulness to him and to his word, in fruitfulness as you serve him in the world, and in fortitude as you learn to depend more and more on the power of the Holy Spirit.
I’d like to conclude with an old prayer that has been traditionally used on this Sunday and that seemed fitting for us this morning.
Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people;
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may by you be plenteously rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Sermon – “A Birthday Prayer” (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12)

Allow me to begin by saying what an honour and a joy it is to be among you at First Congregational this morning on the occasion of your pastor’s birthday. Doug Mott and I go back a long way. I treasure not only my friendship with him and Ann but also the privilege of having watched First Congregational grow from a little gathering in the Police Club to the vibrant community that you are today, playing a significant role in making a difference for Christ in this city.
Not many of you may be familiar with the name of Terry Fulham. But thirty-five years ago he was a major figure in the church renewal scene in North America. Over the course of a few years, under his remarkable teaching and leadership, he had seen his congregation at St Paul’s Church in Darien, Connecticut, grow from a couple of hundred worshippers to nearly three thousand. And people were flocking from all over to find out how it happened.
In response to this Terry Fulham and St Paul’s offered regular renewal conferences for clergy and for lay people. I was leading a church in suburban Montreal at the time. Darien was an easy six-hour drive away, all on Interstates, and so in the fall of 1982 I decided to make the journey.
Now one of the things about St Paul’s in Darien was that they were a praying church. And so if you wanted to participate in one of their conferences you had to register several weeks in advance so that they could have time to pray for you—and I mean really pray. There were a couple of things I was praying about too. One was that I would have a chance to get together with a gentleman named Peter Moore, who headed up a very effective ministry called FOCUS in a number of the east coast prep schools. The other was that I would have an opportunity to meet up with a man who at that time was writing a national syndicated column from an explicitly Christian perspective. Both of these men lived in Darien and both worshipped at St Paul’s.
Well, what should I find when I registered but that I had been booked in to stay at the home of Peter and Sandy Moore throughout the time of the conference? When I asked Peter about the possibility of meeting up with the columnist, he said to me, “Why he’s a member of our home group. You’ll be meeting with them tomorrow evening.” Clearly God was answering both my prayers and those of the good folk at St Paul’s. He had prepared the way before me in what I thought was quite a remarkable manner.
Yet there was a further surprise in store for me. That was that I would be sharing my room with another Canadian, a young associate pastor from a congregation in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Now I don’t think it will take you too long to figure out who that was: none other than your own Doug Mott. I had no idea of the significance of that meeting and the conversations we enjoyed after the conference each day until three years later, when I moved to Halifax and began to serve as rector of St Paul’s Church. And who was one of the first people to welcome me? Of course—Doug Mott.
One of the most precious and significant aspects of our friendship over the years that followed was to share together in a pastors’ prayer group that met over coffee every second Tuesday morning. Over my more than eighteen years in that group I don’t think there was a single one of us who did not go through some significant struggles. There was often laughter, there were sometimes tears, but there was always prayer. The result was that for most of us there was almost nothing that we would allow to get in the way of those precious Tuesday morning times. We were united in the unbreakable bonds of the fellowship of prayer and common ministry in Jesus’ name.
Now here we are, and more than thirty years have flowed under the bridge. Yet I know that you still have the same passion for Christ and the same desire to be of service to him, that you had all those years ago. Indeed, if anything, it glows only brighter. And so, what to preach on, on this significant birthday? Well, the verses I believe that the Lord has given to me are these, from 2 Thessalonians 1:11 and 12. They are the apostle Paul’s prayer for the Christian believers in Thessalonica, and I hope they may become the prayer of all of us for you on this auspicious occasion.
To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfil every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
There is a lot of prayer packed into those two little verses. But it seems to me that Paul is essentially praying for three things: that they may live up to God’s call on their lives; that they may see the fulfilment of their ministry and of their desire to serve Christ; and that the name of Jesus may be glorified in them. Let’s just pause there for a moment to take a brief look at each of them.

Made worthy

Paul’s first prayer for the Thessalonian believers was that they might be worthy of God’s calling. The word for “worthy” in the New Testament is axios. In the early church when the bishop was presenting a newly ordained priest or presbyter to the congregation, they would all exclaim in unison, “Axios! Axios! Axios!” to express their approval of the candidate. I can remember my ordination day and no doubt you can remember yours also, Doug. In my case I remember standing before the bishop as he read to me these words from the Book of Common Prayer:
Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his spouse and his body. And if it shall happen the same Church, or any member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue. Wherefore consider with yourselves the end of your ministry towards the children of God, towards the spouse and body of Christ; and see that you never cease your labour, your care and diligence, until you have done all that lieth in you, according to your bounden duty, to bring all such as are or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ, that there be no place left among you, either for error in religion, or for viciousness in life.
I think if I had had the least shred of wisdom at the time (and not the brashness of a twenty-something year-old fresh out of seminary), I ought to have made a dash for it right out of the service. I was having placed upon me responsibility for the spiritual well-being of men and women and children for whom Jesus had gone to the cross! I wonder, Doug, if you felt the same?
What does it mean to be worthy of our calling? If Peter and Andrew and James and John had had any idea of what they were getting into, would they have so quickly abandoned their boats on the shore of Lake Galilee in response to Jesus call to “Follow me”? Again and again they proved themselves not worthy of that calling: arguing over who was the greatest, asking to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans who wouldn’t welcome them into their village, cowering before a servant girl and denying that he even knew Jesus, passing off the women’s reports of Jesus’ resurrection as nonsense… And the list goes on.
When it comes down to it, let’s be honest. Who really is worthy of God’s calling? Can anyone here this morning stand up and make that claim? I know for certain that I can’t. With the prodigal son I cry aloud, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am not worthy to be called your son.” But of course Paul’s prayer was not that the Thessalonians would make themselves worthy of God’s calling. It was that God would make them worthy. And between those two things there is a world—no, a universe—of difference.


The second part of Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians was that God might “fulfil every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power”. I find that an interesting combination of words: “every resolve for good and every work of faith”. I rather like the way Eugene Peterson put it in his translation in The Message: “I pray that he’ll fill your good ideas and acts of faith with his own energy so that it all amounts to something.”
The words suggest to me that essential to any church, any ministry, is a desire, a vision—we might even say, a passion. There was a fad not so long ago that every church had to have a “mission statement”. And that’s not always a bad thing. The problem is that, from what I’ve seen, many such statements are either so vague and general that they don’t lead you anywhere or they are so specific that they don’t allow for flexibility when circumstances change or the Holy Spirit is calling us to something new. A case in point is the church where I served until a couple of years ago. We found ourselves and our mission radically altered when our ranks were swollen by more than a hundred refugees from Burma.
We never know what surprises God may have for us around the corner. The apostles never dreamed that the church should grow to include non-Jews, or that persecution should only make the church stronger and not destroy it. And Doug, I can’t imagine that when you were first ordained you could have predicted all the twists and turns along the way that have brought you to where you are now.
Some of you may remember Tom Robinson, the founding director of City Centre Ministry here in Halifax. Tom was also the founder of the All Souls’ Clubhouse, an outreach and resource centre to young people in central London. In its early days Tom and his colleagues spent countless hours and gallons of sweat to put together an attractive facility that would house its various activities. Many years later, when he went back for a visit, he found to his horror that almost no evidence of that hard work remained. The building was a shambles. That disappointment quickly evaporated, however, when he visited some of the original members of the club, who were continuing to follow and serve Christ faithfully and devotedly. He was forced to realize that the Holy Spirit is not nearly as interested in building institutions as he is in changing lives.
Doug, I suspect that your experience is the same as mine—that God has taken my “good ideas” (as Peterson put it) and my very limited acts of faith and used them in ways that I might never have imagined. And so, “straining towards what is ahead,” as Paul writes elsewhere, “we press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12-13).


All of this brings us to the third part of Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians: that the name of the Lord Jesus might be glorified in them. And really that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? It’s not me or even the church in the final outcome. It’s Jesus that we’re all about. Like John the Baptist standing in the waters of the Jordan, we recognize that we must decrease if he is to increase.
One of the qualities I have always appreciated in Doug is that he is genuine. I know when he is annoyed about something, or amused, or discouraged, or overjoyed. And I believe that is a quality that the Holy Spirit has used in him (and continues to use) to make Jesus real to others.
Jesus is not going to be glorified by our trying to appear better or holier or more righteous than we are. That is the way of the Pharisees and it will always end in failure. No, as the Bible teaches us again and again, it will only be though God’s grace. By grace we are made right with him; by grace we have heard his call; by grace we have been raised to new life; by grace we are able to enter his presence; by grace we are heirs of eternal life; by grace we have been given the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit; and by grace that same Holy Spirit will somehow take our faltering words and feeble actions that the Lord Jesus might be glorified in us. This was a lesson that none less than the apostle Paul himself had to learn, when he wrote,
But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
Doug, I am grateful for the many ways in which the Lord has displayed and continues to display his grace in you. May he empower you to continue to use both your strengths and your weaknesses to draw others to him—and at this point I think the best thing I can do is to step aside and invite you all to join with me as we bring our brother Doug before the Lord in prayer.
May our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfil every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.