23 May 2016

Sermon preached 19 May 1996 – “The Freedom of Obedience” (Romans 6:15-23)

I want you to take a moment to try to form a picture in your mind. We are looking down to the narrow pass that separates the twin slopes of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal in Palestine. There beneath us is a vast crowd of the Israelite people. They have gathered at the behest of their mighty leader, Joshua, who has led them into victory after victory as they have laid claim to the land which God had promised them through Abraham centuries before. Now the battles are over. One by one the fortress cities of the Canaanite people have been conquered and the Israelites can look forward to peace in their land.

No longer the powerful young warrior that he once was, nevertheless there is still a commanding power in Joshua’s voice. The nation, he tells them, has come to a crossroads. They are free to settle in the land that God has given them. However, now they must make a choice. Will they worship the Lord and serve him in faithfulness? Or will they turn to the false gods of their ancestors? “If serving the Lord seems undesirable to you,” Joshua calls out to them, “then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…” From the depths of the valley a mighty roar rings forth. “We will serve the Lord,” the people cry, “because he is our God.”

As the noise subsides, Joshua speaks again. “You are not able to serve the Lord,” he protests. “He is a holy God; he is a jealous God.” But again the unanimous cry thunders forth: “No! We will serve the Lord.” Again Joshua waits for silence and speaks. “You are witnesses against yourselves,” he warns them, “that you have chosen to serve the Lord.” A third time the cry echoes down through the valley, “We will serve the Lord our God and obey him.”

In the lives of all of us there are certain defining moments, moments that set the course for much of our future lives. The moment you earned your very first dime; the moment you left home to live in independence from your parents; the moment you said, “I will…” These are some of the defining moments in our lives. And this was such a moment for the nation of Israel.

Another defining moment has occurred at St Paul’s Church this morning. Today in the sacrament of baptism three people, two infants (through their adult sponsors) and one adult, have expressed their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and their desire to follow and serve him. In the washing of water they have visibly demonstrated their wish to die to sin, evil and injustice and to share in the life of Christ.

Baptism is a visible sign of what it means to become a Christian. It is a defining moment in life. As the people of Israel did at Shechem, we are saying, “We will worship the Lord our God and him only will we serve.” But what does this mean? Is what we are talking about a mere symbolic act, a matter of words? In response to this kind of thinking, in verse 2 of chapter 6 and in the opening verse of this morning’s passage from Romans, Paul uses an expression which we find from time to time in his letters. Our New International Version Bibles translate it, “By no means!” In Greek it is me genoito, which the King James Bible translates, “God forbid!” Perhaps the best way of rendering it today might be, “No way!” And so to those who would argue that becoming a Christian doesn’t make any difference to the kind of people we are, Paul responds, “No way!” To those who would want us to think that faith in Christ has no impact on our daily lives, he replies, “No way!” Then in the verses that follow he goes on to explain his answer.

Two kinds of slavery

For his explanation he uses the image of slavery. In the Roman world of Paul’s day there were sixty million slaves, and there can be no doubt that among those who first read his letter in Rome there were some who were themselves slaves. William Barclay gives us some idea of how masters could abuse their slaves the first century:

Pliny tells how Vedius Pollio treated a slave. The slave was carrying a tray of crystal goblets into the courtyard; he dropped and broke one; on the instant Pollio ordered him to be thrown into the fishpond in the middle of the court, where the savage lampreys tore him to pieces.[1]

In truth few masters ever displayed such cruelty to their slaves. In some cases slaves were better educated than their masters, had positions of great trust in the household and were treated with respect. But suppose, Paul suggests to us, you were the slave of a master such as Vedius Pollio and his lot, who treated you with cruelty and contempt from sunrise to sunset every day of your life. Then suppose you had the opportunity to come into the service of a master who was fair and kind, who graciously looked after your needs and treated you only with dignity and respect. Would you choose to go back to your former master? Me genoito! God forbid! No way!

This, says Paul, is exactly what the Christian life is all about. We can be slaves to sin. Or we can be set free from sin to be slaves to God. The choice is ours, and each has its consequences.

Slavery to sin

To be a slave to sin is to be trapped in a downward spiral. Paul uses three words to describe what is involved. The first of them is “impurity” in verse 19. For the ancient Jews impurity or uncleanness was a technical term. It had to do with one’s fitness to join in the religious observances of the nation. If you had a certain type of skin disease or had been in contact with a dead body or if you were a woman in her period or had recently given birth, you were considered “unclean”. But in the New Testament Jesus turns that around.

Nothing outside a person can make that person ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that makes him ‘unclean’. … For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean’ (Mark 7:15,21-23).

What the Bible is saying, then, is that to be a slave of sin means that we become tainted inside, in the realm of our hearts and minds. We do things that we know are wrong because “Everyone else does it, so why shouldn’t I?” We secretly gloat over our fellow workers’ failures because somehow we think it makes us look better. We embroider the truth a little bit when we talk about others, just to give the story a little more spice. This is the kind of thing the Bible means when it speaks about impurity. It is the direct consequence of being in slavery to sin—to all the negative forces in our lives—and the list could go on and on. But Paul has more to say.

Impurity is not the only consequence of our enslavement to sin. Paul goes on to speak about “ever-increasing wickedness”. In Greek the expression means something like “lawlessness which leads only to further lawlessness”. The actual word Paul uses is anomia, which some of us might recognize in the French word anomie. Anomie is a word we hear today to describe the spiritual decadence which is undermining our society inch by inch. We become inured to the outrageously violent words of rap music which pollute our young people’s minds and ears with thoughts about breaking women’s backbones and forcing fellatio on them till they puke, or perhaps even defend it as artistic expression. We criticize governments that move to limit child pornography on the Internet in the name of free speech. We worship athletes and pop stars who leap into bed with literally hundreds of sex partners.

The outcome of such lawlessness can only be anarchy and the general collapse of our society as we know it—and finally the ultimate decay, which is death itself. The progression is easy to follow. Bondage to the forces of sin taints and distorts or inner being. This impurity of heart and mind inevitably leads on a social level to lawlessness and decadence. And that in turn delivers us to that state of being (or non-being) which we call death, where life has been sapped of all of its God-given beauty and meaning. It is a tragic picture.

Freedom in Christ

Right beside it, however, Paul gives us another picture, an altogether different one. The picture this time is not slavery to sin, but slavery to God and to Christ (which, ironically, the Bible tells us, is true freedom). The contrast between the two forms of slavery is total. As with slavery to sin which leads to impurity, lawlessness and death, slavery to Christ also brings with it three consequences.

The first of these, says Paul, is righteousness. We come across this word and its cognates at least fifty-five times in the letter to the Romans, so it is important to understand what Paul means. Essentially, when the Bible speaks of righteousness, what it is talking about is right relationships, living in harmony with God and with our fellow human beings. To be Christ’s willing slave means placing myself in obedience to him. And his first two commands are these: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and you shall love your neighbour as yourself. This is what righteousness means in practical terms. So it is that we ask in the service of baptism:

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

To which the candidates reply, “I will…” In doing so, they commit themselves to living a life of righteousness.

Paul tells us at the end of verse 19 that righteousness leads to holiness. Here I would prefer to use the old word “sanctification”, for what Paul is describing is not a final state, but an ongoing process. “Sanctification” may be even less understood than “holiness”. But what we are talking about is a path, along which as we travel it, we become increasingly infused with the character of God.

From time to time we may see a sunset whose grandeur reflects the glory of God. We may look at the delicate petals of a flower and be reminded of the magnificence and intricacy of God’s creation. How wonderful it would be if people could look at you and me and in us see something of the beauty of God’s nature! When we are enlisted in the service of Christ, that most certainly is the goal that he has set for us. We are embarking on a journey, whose destination is to become more and more like him. “Dear friends,” wrote St John, “now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

To some this path of righteousness and holiness seems dreary and restrictive—and all too often because we Christians have done our best to make it appear so! In reality to give ourselves in Christ in this way is to discover life, life as it was meant to be, life, as Jesus promises, in all its fullness.

To bring ourselves back to where we began: Like the people of Israel at Shechem you and I stand at a defining moment. The words of Joshua ring in our ears, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.” Will we be slaves to our own selfish desires, or will we be slaves to Christ, “whose service is perfect freedom”?

[1]           William Barclay, The Letters of Timothy, Titus and Philemon, 270

15 May 2016

Sermon – “Blown Away” (Acts 2:1-11)

 I’ve been scratching my brain to find a suitable metaphor to describe the experience of Jesus’ followers on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit first came upon them in power. One image that came to mind was the four Pevensie children in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia—Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy—when they first entered that strange, enchanted land with its fauns and talking beavers, a witch who turns innocent creatures into stone and of course Aslan the great lion-saviour.
Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, the second image that came to me (and maybe I am about to reveal things about me that you didn’t want to know!) was from the movie Ghostbusters. Do you remember the scenes where the cameras began to reveal strange things happening beneath the otherwise normal streets of New York City? Odd-coloured vapours arising from the drains, paving stones heaving, gargoyles on buildings starting to twitch…
In each case we are being introduced to a world beyond our own, to the notion that what we consider normal is only the tiniest fragment of a vast, hidden realm unperceived by our senses. For the Pevensie children it lay behind the doors of an ordinary wardrobe. For Dr Peter Venkman and his team of parapsychologists it was hidden in the recesses of a major metropolis.
For Jesus’ followers something of that wider world had been opened up to them as they followed him through the towns and villages of Galilee. There they witnessed things that they would never have thought possible: paralyzed people walking, blind people seeing again, lepers being cleansed, demons being cast out, the dead raised back to life again. To use Jesus’ own words, the kingdom of heaven was among them. And of course things had become stranger still in the days following Jesus’ crucifixion, as he appeared among them recognizably the same and yet somehow strangely different.
Up until now you might say they had just brushed with the kingdom of heaven. On Pentecost they were actually stepping into it themselves for the first time. “Suddenly,” as Luke describes it, “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.” Many of us are so accustomed to reading this passage at Pentecost that I wonder if we haven’t lost sight of what a terrifying event this must have been.
The sound of the wind that swept through the room was not like some gentle summer’s breeze. Nor was it even that of a strong wind in which you might be tempted to go out for a sail or fly a kite. No, it was “a violent wind”, a wind powerful enough to sweep you off your feet and blow down trees. In the words of Psalm 29, it was a wind that “twists the oaks and strips the forests bare”. Those of us who were here in Halifax for Hurricane Juan a dozen years ago would have an idea of what I mean. The word Luke uses to describe the forcefulness of that wind at Pentecost is found in only two other places in Scripture. We come across the first instance as Moses and the people of Israel stood on the banks of the Red Sea with all the might of Pharaoh’s vast army approaching fast behind them. We are told that Moses “stretched out his hand over the sea” and the Lord drove back the waters with a powerful east wind that turned the sea into dry land (Exodus 14:21). The second is when the psalmist speaks of the thick oaken beams of a ship being shattered like matchsticks by a violent wind (Psalm 48:7). Such was the roar that filled the whole house where the disciples were sitting at Pentecost. Those first followers of Jesus were literally being swept up into a whole new world.

New Language

Now one of the problems with wind is that it rearranges things. You’ve just raked up all the leaves from your lawn when a wind comes up and takes you back to square one. You’ve just neatly arranged all the papers on your desk, when someone opens a window and they’re all over the floor. So it is with the Holy Spirit. He has an annoying habit of rearranging our lives, jostling us out of our settled ways, challenging our neat, man-made categories. That was certainly the way it was with the disciples, as suddenly they found themselves praising God in languages they had never spoken before.
Of course what they didn’t know at that point that what was happening to them was not for their benefit but for that of the many pilgrims who were in Jerusalem for the festival. Those visitors began to hear the praises of God being proclaimed in their own individual languages—Parthians, Medes, Elamites and all the rest in that long list of unpronounceable nationalities. And it had them bewildered.
I had a small experience of that when I was rector at St Paul’s Church on the Grand Parade. During the weeks following Christmas we would read from the gospel in a different language each Sunday. The intention was to give us all a greater appreciation of the worldwide church. On one particular Sunday the reading happened to be in Mandarin. As it was being read a man entered the church having just arrived from China as a student. He had come just to take a peek inside an historic building and spoke almost no English. Yet there he was hearing his own language being spoken. Needless to say, it was a deeply moving experience for him and we saw him every week after that.
In the last church where I served, we had a member who had a Master’s degree in Teaching English as an Additional Language. She was keen to reach out to the many immigrants to Saint Paul from all over the world and so she trained some of the members so that we could offer English conversation sessions. In spite of every effort, I think that over a period of two years we had only one taker and we were a little disappointed. Then suddenly we were inundated with more than a hundred refugees from Burma, most of whom didn’t speak a word of English, but the Holy Spirit had made sure that we had our conversation partners in place.
One of the ongoing challenges for the church is to relate the good news of Jesus Christ in language that people can understand. It is a sad fact that the longer we are involved in the church the more comfortable we become with a language called “Christianese”. Words such as “sin”, “repentance”, “grace” and “Saviour” have rich meaning for us and I would not begin to suggest that we even think of discarding them. But they are at best meaningless to the average non-Christian and in some cases they are seriously negatively loaded. (When I was a child I used to think that the Salvation Army had its name because it picked up old discarded clothes and furniture and saved them. I had no idea that people could be saved too!) We need the fresh breath of the Holy Spirit to sweep us out of the language of the Christian ghetto to communicate the good news of Jesus in new ways that touch the minds and hearts and lives of those around us, that causes them to ask questions as the crowd did at Pentecost. “How is this happening?” “What does this mean?” “What shall we do?”

New People

The result of the Holy Spirit’s work on the day of Pentecost was that three thousand people were added to the little band of Christian believers in its first twenty-four hours. I can’t imagine the logistics involved in baptizing all those people! However, I know that growth on a similar scale continues in many parts of the world today. In the Middle East and North Africa there are reliable reports of thousands of Muslims turning to Christ, sometimes quietly and beneath the official radar, sometimes in mass baptisms of dozens, even hundreds, of people. An article a couple of years ago in the London Telegraph told the story of massive church growth in China. It included a calculation by Purdue University Sociology professor Fenggang Yang that by the year 2030 the Christian population of China will exceed 247 million, making it the largest Christian population in the world.[1]
I am sure we welcome such growth. At the same time growth also brings its challenges. Remember that wind of the Holy Spirit, stirring things up, moving them around, undoing our tidy little arrangements? It didn’t take long for that to happen among the Christian believers in Jerusalem. Just move a few pages along in Acts, to chapter 6, where Luke begins, “In those days when the number of believers rapidly multiplied…” It all sounds good. But then he goes on: “… there were rumblings of discontent.”[2] The problem centred on the Greek-speaking believers, who were complaining that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. A couple of chapters later we meet with Simon, who had been a practiser of sorcery and had the crazy notion that he could buy the Holy Spirit with money. In each of these cases (and there would be many more), the problem the disciples were facing was the challenge of growth, as new people came into the community and brought with them new backgrounds, new ideas, new issues, and new needs.
The New Testament bids us look forward to the day when people of every nation, tribe, people and language will stand around the throne of the Lamb crying aloud, “Salvation belongs to our God!” (Revelation 7:9-10) That is a picture of heaven, but from an earthly perspective things can look different. The church in Corinth included in its number women and men who came from backgrounds of sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, thievery, crass materialism, alcoholism, backbiting and dodgy business practices.[3] But they were there because the Holy Spirit had brought them there. I imagine that the lives of the elders and deacons in that church would have been much quieter without them. As it was, however, it must have been something like a bronco ride. The wind of the Holy Spirit was blowing through them—and all they could do was to hold on for dear life and pray!

New Creation

As the Holy Spirit moves through us he will bring new people into our midst—and unless we are only prepared to accept clones of ourselves, that will bring its challenges. But the Spirit is equal to them and we must trust him to do his work.
There is a new movement that has been gaining strength in the church. It’s called “messy church”. I don’t know a lot about it, but I am attracted to the title. I well remember an elderly clergyman coming into my office and staring at my desk. “You know,” he said (and I’m sure you’ve heard this before), “a messy desk is the sign of a healthy mind.” I’m not sure that that is entirely true, but I took it as a compliment. At the heart of “messy church” is the notion that a church that is healthy and growing, a church where the Holy Spirit is blowing, will always be a little messy, a little rough around the edges, perhaps even a little unsettling at times. At the same time it will undoubtedly be an adventure. It will bring rich, deep and lasting relationships as we face life’s challenges together, as we don’t ignore the mess around us and within us and together allow the Holy Spirit to do his work.
All of this is so worth it, because it is part and parcel of participating in God’s new creation irrupting into the old. As in the opening chapter of Genesis, the Holy Spirit is hovering over the waters, bringing about a whole new order from the darkness and chaos that surround us. And you and I have the inestimable privilege, with Peter and James and Mary and Joanna and Andrew and Paul, with Augustine and John of the Cross and Theresa and all the countless saints down through the ages, with men and women and children in Burma and Argentina, Libya and Nigeria and some of the most unlikely places in the world today, of being participants in and witnesses to that new creation.
“Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.” Are you and I willing to be swept off our feet by the Holy Spirit and blown into that adventure which is God’s new creation?

[1]        Tom Phillips, “China on course to become 'world's most Christian nation' within 15 years”, The Telegraph, 19 April 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10776023/China-on-course-to-become-worlds-most-Christian-nation-within-15-years.html
[2]        New Living Translation
[3]        See 1 Corinthians 6:9-10

09 May 2016

Sermon – “A Vacancy Filled” (Acts 1:15-26)

A couple of weeks ago I was in conversation with a friend who is a former Commander in the Canadian Navy. At some point we got onto the topic of leadership in the church and he made the comment, “Leadership is critical.” My immediate reply to him was, “No, leadership is everything.” Now don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t advocating elitism or clericalism in the church. They are both poisonous. What I was seeking to say is that almost always it is the leader who is most influential in setting the tone and direction of the whole organization.
In his book Good to Great, management expert Jim Collins’ research into successful major U.S. corporations led him to the conclusion that the principal factor in their advancement was humble, focused leadership from the top. Ironically, it seems to me that Collins might have come to the same conclusion if he had studied the Bible and not the growth charts of successful American businesses. (However, I admit that his book probably would not have been the best seller that it was if he had!) Think of Moses, for example, the towering leader of the Old Testament, whose imprint remains on the Jewish people (and ourselves) to this day. How does the Bible describe him? “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3).
It should come as no surprise, then, that a number of passages in the New Testament are devoted to the subject of leadership in the church. Allow me to share a few of them with you:
•   Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful in marriage, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach… (1 Timothy 3:1-2)
•   Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. (Acts 20:28)
•   [An overseer] must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. (Titus 1:8-9)
•   To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1-3)
•   Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (Hebrews 13:17)
In this morning’s reading from Acts we are with Jesus’ followers just days after his ascension. And what do we find them doing? Looking for a new leader to replace Judas Iscariot. I believe it is significant that they saw as their very first priority the necessity of filling this gap in their leadership—and they didn’t waste any time in doing it. I also believe that there are some important principles we can draw from their experience about leadership in the church.

Leaders are not above criticism

The first lesson I glean from this passage seems fairly obvious. It is that leaders in the church are not above criticism. Peter speaks fairly, even fondly perhaps, of Judas Iscariot as “one of our number”, one who “shared in our ministry”. Yet he does not make any attempt to cover up Judas’ act of deceit and betrayal, turning Jesus over into the hands of his persecutors. Nor do the gospel writers make any effort to gloss over Peter’s own cowardly denial of Jesus on the eve of his crucifixion or James’ and John’s unseemly wrangling over who should sit at Jesus’ right and left in his kingdom. No, the New Testament is very clear that these men whom the church honours as apostles are human beings, sinners like the rest of us. And we find the same is true in the Old Testament a well. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob the patriarchs of the Israelite nation, Moses its mighty liberator and giver of the Law, David and Solomon its greatest kings, are all depicted not only with their tremendous strengths but also with their weaknesses and shortcomings, some of them truly grievous—“warts and all” as the expression goes.
One of the clearest examples is the apostle Paul, who at a relatively early point in his ministry calls himself “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God”. At a later point he confesses to being “less than the least of all God’s people”. Then finally, as his ministry and his life are nearing a close, he describes himself (in the colourful words of The Message) as “Public Sinner Number One” (1 Corinthians 15:9; Ephesians 3:8; 1 Timothy 1:15).
We do the church and we do the church’s mission a terrible disservice when we place our leaders on a pedestal beyond reproach. Now I am not encouraging the petty passive-aggressive, destructive criticism that can be poisonous in any community. That is another issue entirely. What I am talking about is genuinely caring enough for our leaders to be honest with them.
Bill Hybels is the founding pastor of Willow Creek Church in suburban Chicago. It is one of the United States’ largest megachurches, with a weekly attendance of more than 20,000. He tells the story of how, one evening after putting his children to bed, he zipped down to the church for just a few moments and parked his car between the auditorium and the parking lot. In his mailbox the next morning he found a note from one of his staff, which read, “Bill, a small thing, but Tuesday night … you parked at the side of the lobby, in the no-parking area… We try hard not to allow people, even workers, to park anywhere other than the parking lots. I would appreciate your cooperation too.” Hybels’ reflection on the incident was this: “His stock went up in my book, because he had the courage to write me about what could be a little slippage in my character. Because you know what I thought as I drove up here? I thought, I shouldn't park illegally there, but I mean, I am the pastor. Which translates: ‘I’m an exception.’ ” He went on to comment, “If you people allow me to take three steps down the road of saying that I’m an exception to the rules, I am in big trouble. I am not the exception.”[1]
Leaders are not above criticism. They need correction as much as anyone else, but make sure it is done in a spirit of gentleness and humility, as the Bible instructs (Galatians 6:1), and in love. How grateful I am to those along my way who have cared enough for me and for the church to take me aside and steer me (sometimes painfully) back onto the track!

Leaders must know Christ

The second principle about leadership in the church that I glean from this passage—and this may seem like a no-brainer—is that those who are chosen to exercise it should have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. For the apostles it was essential that the candidate to make up their number be one who had accompanied them “the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among [them], beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up”. Obviously that qualification ended with the first generation of the church. But I believe that by extension our leaders in the church need to be men and women who are engaged in an ongoing walk with Christ, who are being transformed by the love of Christ. Not that they are perfect. As we have seen, even the apostles weren’t perfect. But that they are living in a relationship with Jesus and actively yielding themselves to him as their Lord and Master.
It is very easy to be swayed by eloquent speech, dashing good looks, a brilliant academic record, success in the business world or some other external attraction. But we must remember that God looks on the heart. Think of David and his seven strapping brothers. From all outward appearances he seemed the least likely candidate to lead God’s people. Yet it was he who proved to be the man after God’s own heart.
In my own experience I think of a man who was initially refused for ordination in my denomination because of a severe physical disability. Yet I know that in the course of his ministry God used him to touch deeply the lives of many. I remember going far out to the edge of the city to hear him one Sunday morning in one of the little churches where he served. It was nearly fifty years ago and I can still vividly remember the sermon—one of the most powerful and moving expositions of justification by faith I have ever heard. His physical disability may have made him an unlikely candidate for leadership in the church. Yet his experience of Jesus Christ made him eminently qualified.
Now I am not saying that that is the only requirement for leadership in the church. Read Acts 6 or 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1 or 1 Peter 5 and you will see that there are many more. But beneath them all there needs to be that foundation of an active, living, growing relationship with Jesus Christ.

Leaders are called by God

Following along the same line from that is that leaders in the church need to be called by God. Not every Christian is a leader for a whole variety of reasons. The New Testament lists all kinds of ways in which the gifts of the Holy Spirit can be used to build the church and to carry forward the mission of Christ—prophecy, teaching, healing, helping, guidance, tongues, serving, encouraging, giving, caring, administration, to name a few. Not all of them involve leadership. But each of them plays an irreplaceable part in making the church the living, healing body of Christ in the world.
So how did those first followers of Jesus make sure that the one they were identifying to fill Judas’ place was genuinely God’s choice? Well, to begin with they did the obvious thing: they prayed. They asked God for guidance to select the right person for the job. Then they did something that many people would say was foolhardy. They cast lots. Now I haven’t been around All Nations to know how you choose your leaders. But I’m fairly certain it isn’t by casting lots. And I’m not about to suggest that you initiate the practice.[2] (Although I do think that in the case of our neighbours to the south it might be a far less painful procedure than what they are going through now to find a president!)
But let me ask, why cast lots? Why not vote? In response, think of it this way: Both candidates were equally qualified for the ministry. They both met all the criteria, and I can only imagine that both were excellent men. Casting lots in their case was not an act of naivety or desperation. Rather, it was a way of giving the final say to God. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord,” says the book of Proverbs (16:33). And the apostles were determined to give their decision-making over to the Lord, to make sure that the person filling this key position in the church really was God’s choice and not just theirs. It was a way of giving God the final say. And it’s not that Justus didn’t go on to serve the Lord. Tradition has it that he became the first bishop in what is now the Arab Palestinian village of Bayt Jibrin, and later became one of the church’s early martyrs.
Looking at this church for just a moment, I am so grateful, as I’m sure you are, for the leaders that God has given us here—women and men in whose lives the presence of Jesus is clearly evident. And I pray that we will all do our part to stand alongside them and to continue that tradition of leadership, that together we may be faithful and effective in carrying forward Christ’s mission in the world.

[1]        Bill Hybels, “The Pastor Is Not an Exception”, Preaching Today, October 1997 http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/1997/october/4793.html
[2]        After the service I was informed that this is how a decision is made at this church if there are two qualified candidates for an office!

02 May 2016

Sermon – “Left Behind” (Acts 1:1-11)

I wonder how many of you may have gone to see the film The Martian when it was playing in theatres last fall. It stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a botanist who is a member of a team of astronauts exploring Mars. Early in the story an emergency arises and the crew suddenly has to abandon the planet, with the result that Watney gets left behind. Without giving anything away, much of the remainder of the film is spent with him learning to survive in a hostile environment, while mission control and the rest of the team desperately search for ways to rescue him.
As we think about Jesus’ ascension this morning, I am wondering if that film might not have some parallels with how the disciples must have felt as Jesus departed from them for what they knew was the last time. Forty days had elapsed since the angels had stood at Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb with the message, “He is not here; he has risen!” Over that time Jesus had met with them in numerous places and on numerous occasions—outside the empty tomb, in the upper room, along the road to Emmaus, and on the shores of Lake Galilee. And Paul tells us of a further occasion not recorded in the gospels, when Jesus appeared to a crowd of more than five hundred people. They must have been exciting times. For myself, I know that I never tire of reading those last chapters of the gospels that recount Jesus’ meetings with his followers after the resurrection.
Now, however, they would not be seeing Jesus again. What must have been passing through their minds? What would happen next? How were they going to manage on their own, without Jesus? I can only imagine the eerie silence that must have descended on them, as they stood looking at one another with Jesus no longer in their midst.


Unlike Mark Watney the astronaut, however, who was left entirely alone in a vast and lifeless terrain, Jesus was not leaving his followers to themselves. For sure, they would no longer enjoy his physical presence. Yet they would not be alone. Twice in this morning’s verses Jesus speaks with them about the Holy Spirit: “John baptized with water, but … you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.”
It seems to me that there were at least two truths that Jesus was seeking to get across to the disciples about the Holy Spirit as he spoke with them. First, he told them that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Now I know that that phrase, “baptized with the Holy Spirit”, has brought a great deal of controversy into the church over the past century or so. It has led to congregations and entire denominations splitting apart. To my mind that doesn’t mean that we should just avoid the topic in order to avoid controversy. Quite the opposite: These are the words of Jesus. They are the words of life. We need to study them, to understand them, to appropriate them for ourselves. So let me ask, what did Jesus mean when he spoke about being baptized with the Holy Spirit?
In our western, Reformed tradition, when we hear the word “baptism”, we are more likely than not to think of a little baby being brought to the front of the church and being sprinkled with water. We call it baptism by affusion, as opposed to baptism by immersion, as practised in some other traditions. Now I am not arguing against this practice. In fact I believe it based on good biblical, historical and pastoral warrant. However, I don’t believe we should have it in mind when we read Jesus’ words about being baptized with the Holy Spirit. The truth is that the verb baptizo in the New Testament, from which our word “baptize” is derived, really means to plunge, to sink, to drench, to overwhelm. It is derived from the verb bapto, which means to dip something into dye. We find it in the book of Revelation, used in the depiction of Jesus as the great rider of the white horse, whose robe, we are told is dipped in blood (Revelation 19:13). So what does it mean, then, to be baptized with the Holy Spirit?
Quite simply, I believe it means to be drenched with the Holy Spirit, to allow his presence to seep into every area of our lives. Unlike the sacrament of baptism, I do not believe that this is an instantaneous event but a lifelong process, as we learn to yield ourselves more and more fully to Jesus and to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform and renew us—and that brings us to Jesus’ second words about the Holy Spirit: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.”
I probably don’t have to tell you that the word for “power” in the New Testament is dunamis, from which we derive our English words “dynamic”, “dynamo” and “dynamite”. I may be way off the mark in saying this, but I prefer to think of the Holy Spirit’s power as more frequently like a dynamo than dynamite. Yes, there are undoubtedly those occasional bursts of power, when God reveals himself to us in new and sometimes life-altering ways. (And thank God for those experiences!) Yet by and large, I think it is true to say that the Holy Spirit works as a steady and ongoing presence, increasingly making Jesus known to us and enabling us to follow more faithfully in his steps as we yield ourselves more fully to him.


As he left them, Jesus told his followers not only about the power of the Holy Spirit, but also about his purpose. I have said that Jesus has bestowed the Holy Spirit on us so that we might know his daily presence with us and in us—and that in itself is a wonderful gift. But there is more to it than that. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us not just so that we can have warm, personal feelings inside—our own private nirvanas. The Holy Spirit has come in order that we may carry forward Christ’s mission in the world. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you,” said Jesus. But then he went on (and here comes the scary part!), “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
I wonder if there is anything that strikes more fear into the heart of Christians than the “e” word: evangelism? Our minds conjure up pictures of handing out religious tracts on street corners, or having to stand up and give our “testimony” in front of a crowd, or finding something religious to inject into every conversation. I remember a friend of mine telling how she cringed in her office one day. The weekend was coming up and someone exclaimed, “TGIF!” “Oh,” replied a cheerful soul who took every opportunity to make sure people knew she was a Christian, “you ought to be thanking God for every day of the week!”
Well, you and I both know there is more to being a witness to Jesus than that—and if anything it is considerably deeper and scarier. It has to do with the word “witness” in the New Testament, which is martus. That is the term from which we derive our English word “martyr”. It is no coincidence that in the earliest generations of the church that word shifted its meaning from one who bears witness to Christ to one who gives his or her life for Christ. Within a remarkably short time men and women would find themselves answering for their faith with their lives. Of the twelve apostles, all but one would die a martyr’s death. Peter, tradition tells us, was crucified upside down. Paul, because he was a Roman citizen, was spared the humiliation of crucifixion and mercifully beheaded. And the list goes on and on, right down to our present day, to the horrifying pictures that met us last year of the twenty-one men kneeling on the beach in Libya awaiting execution, refusing to abandon their faith and crying aloud, “Ya Rabbi Yasou”, “O Lord Jesus!”[1]
It is unlikely that that kind of fate awaits any of us, but the point I want to get across is that being a witness to Jesus, a martus, is more than just a matter of words. It encompasses our whole lives. It is not just speaking for Jesus, it is living for Jesus—and if our lives don’t match up with our words, then those words are worse than worthless. Would to God that the power of Jesus’ presence in our lives was such that people might start to ask questions because of them! I can’t think of a more powerful witness to Christ.


Jesus has given us his Holy Spirit. Jesus sends us out as his witnesses. As he departed from his followers, Jesus also left them with a promise. This time, however, the words are not those of Jesus himself, but of the “two men dressed in white”, as Luke simply describes them, whom the disciples suddenly saw standing beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they asked, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Jesus was gone—but he was not gone forever. And time does not permit me even to begin to delve into the details of his return. What is more, I don’t believe that the Bible itself reveals many of those details. I am convinced that God has purposefully left them shrouded in mystery, and yet given us just enough information that we should have a hope that is solid and sure. With the disciples we need to heed the angels’ warning and not simply stand around looking into the sky, so to speak, and waste our time in speculation. More than enough of that has been done already. Countless books have been written about Jesus’ return, ranging from the scholarly to the ridiculous. A Google search on “Return of Christ” will lead you to 86,500,000 results.
To go back to The Martian for just a moment and to astronaut Mark Watney, it seems to me that Jesus’ coming again differs from the attempts of the space crew to rescue their stranded colleague. From my own reading of Scripture, Jesus’ return will not be to rescue us from the world, but to wholly transform the world and ourselves in it—to usher in the new creation in all its glorious fullness. The Scriptures bid us look forward to the day when the trumpet will sound and Christ will put all his enemies under his feet, when death will be swallowed up in victory and our lowly bodies will be transformed into the likeness of Christ’s glorious body, when God’s dwelling-place will be among his people, and he will dwell with them, when there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away. That is the day that not only we, but all creation yearns to see.[2] It is a glorious hope and part of the reason it is not fully revealed to us is because it surpasses anything that our limited minds can even begin to imagine.
That hope, that sure and solid promise, is intended to lead us not to speculation but to action. The risen, ascended, glorified Jesus is calling you and me to be harbingers and heralds of the new creation even as the old is crumbling around us. But he doesn’t ask us to do it alone. We have his promise, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

[1]        Ramez Atallah, Bible Society of Egypt Newsletter, 17 Feb 2015. http://us6.campaign-archive1.com/?u=017b6b7c5bf6d7468fcc6aedc&id=ea8fa5435c&e=b383928924

[2]        See 1 Corinthians 15:52,25,54; Philippians 3:21; Revelation 21:3-4 ; Romans 8:22-23