Sharing burdens and carrying loads.

May only the truth be spoken, and may only the truth be heard,
In the Name of the One True and Living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

For anyone who has been in the Church for any amount of time, the lessons assigned in the BCP lectionary for this morning will be familiar ones.

We all know, as Paul writes to the Galatians, that part of the calling on our lives as Christians is that we must bear one another’s burdens.  And many of us, I’m sure, are familiar with the healing of the 10 men with leprosy: they cry out to have their burden lifted, Christ hears and has mercy on them, all are healed, but only one returns to say “thank you”.

They’re familiar lessons, but as I sat down to read them this week, I was struck by something that, for how ever many times I’ve read it, I never really noticed before.

I was sitting at my desk, my Bible opened up to Galatians 6, where Paul writes “brothers [and sisters], if anyone is caught in any transgressions, you who are spiritual should restore them in a spirit of gentleness… bear one another’s burdens”…

“Oh good”, I thought.  “This is an easy one!” 

But then I kept reading.

“Bear one another’s burdens”, but then, two verses later, Paul writes “let each one test his own work… for each will have to bear his own load.”

Hold on…  What’s this about? 

He just told us that we have to bear each other’s burdens… and then, two sentences later, he’s telling us that we each have to bear them ourselves?  What’s up with that!?  That can’t be right, can it?

So naturally, like any student of scripture, I opened up every Bible translation I could find, reading them side-by-side.  And, amazingly, all agreed: “bear one another’s burdens, but, each one must bear his own load.” 

Then, being the nerd that I am, I left the office and ran home at lunch to get my Greek New Testament, just to make sure my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me.  And sure enough: yes, the scriptures are very clear: it is the solemn, God-given duty of every Christian to bear one another’s burdens, and, at the same time, each must bear their own load.

So what’s the difference?  What’s the difference between a burden and a load?

Calling out to God for what?

Every person who has ever lived knows what it is to have a burden.  A burden is something that weighs us down, that pushes us beyond our ability.

As I was thinking on it, a burden is something that causes our head to be cast down as we lean into the weight; it’s something that causes our eyes to be downcast and our bodies and attitudes to be come rigid and tense as we try to bear up against something that, in all reality, has the potential to crush us.

And yes, everyone know what it is to have a burden.  Your burden and my burden aren’t alike: something that might seem easy to you could be the very thing that is wearing me down, the thing that tempts me to go it alone, until finally, trusting only in myself, I find my soul crushed. A burden can be anything, but the thing they have in common is that they keep our heads down, they keep us from looking up and calling out to Christ, they make us rigid and tense as we try to brace ourselves against a weight that is too much for us to bear.

Everyone has a burden.  It could be an illness, a disease that we feel we have to battle alone as we become bitter in the process; it could be an addiction – drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography, gossip, or an addiction to creating drama in bad relationships – that keeps us from being who God wants us to be; it could be financial, stuck at the bottom of a pit of debt, or the reality that we live in a broken world where it’s cheaper to feed your kids chips and pepsi than milk and vegetables; or, our burden could be could be pride over how well we’re doing; or, it could be a burden of shyness that makes us sit back and feel insecure; it could be guilt over something that we’ve done that we feel is just too bad to really be forgiven; it could be the burden of our own life stories, as almost everyone has some traumatic hurt in their past which causes them to put on a mask, to put on a happy face as they try to bear the burden alone. 
Everyone has a burden.

But the Good News is that we, the Church, the Body of Christ, together bear one another’s burdens.

That Gospel way of life that Jesus invites us to live calls us to lift up our heads, lift up our eyes from those burdens that are too much for us to bear; and as we lift up our heads, we see Christ lifted up, we hear the Gospel that burdens are lifted at Calvary, and with our heads lifted and our eyes set upon the Lord, we notice our brothers and sisters around us to bear our burdens, knowing that – by God’s grace – what is impossible for me might not even be a temptation for you, and all of us together, with our eyes on the Lord, and filled with the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit will bear one another up so that we can do the work God has given us to do!  Amen?

But did you hear that last part?

Bear one another up so that we can do the work God has given us to do.

Bear one another’s burdens so that we can each carry our God-given load.

Everyone has a burden.  Everyone wants it lifted.  But, once it’s lifted, are we willing to carry our own load, to do the work God has given us to do?

One of the things I’ve learned over 18 years of one sort of pastoral ministry or another is that God never blesses us for our own sake.

Blessing, or healing, or the easing of a burden is never an end in itself.

If I say “Lord, heal me, so I can get back to living my own life my own way”, that’s not a prayer prayed in faith.  That’s a prayer prayed in selfishness.

If I say “Lord, this burden is too much for me; take it away so I can go back to relying on myself”, then we’ve missed the point.  No wonder the answer to that prayer is “no”.

God doesn’t bless us for our own sake.  He heals us, He blesses us, He strengthens us for His glory, so we can be part of His glorious story of salvation which we are called to bring to all people.

We, God’s people bound together by the Holy Spirit, bear one another’s burdens so that we can get back to doing that work that God has given us to do, so that we all can get back to bearing that easy yoke and light load of sharing the good news with others who need to hear it, of discipling, taking another Christian under your wing as an apprentice, as each person learns what it means to live as a Christian, to live as an apprentice learning to share the image and likeness of our Lord and Master.

Yes, we are to bear one another’s burdens so that each can carry their own load.  We bear one another’s burdens so that each can be a productive and fruitful member of the Body of Christ, the Church.

A Lesson from Lepers

I think we see a perfect example of all of this in the story of Christ healing the lepers.

Leprosy, as you know, was an incredible burden.  It was an all-consuming disease, there was no hiding it, but not only did it take your body, leprosy took away everything.

For those bearing the burden of leprosy, it meant they were fully banished from the life of the community.  Leprosy took away their work, it took away their families.  These 10 men in the Gospel, they were sons with elderly parents who needed caring for, they were husbands and fathers with wives and children who needed food and a roof over their head, they were men with real skill, bakers, carpenters, metal workers, leaders in the marketplace, leaders in their communities, each making a living with bills to be paid and work to do as they provided for themselves and for those they love.

Their burden, leprosy, took it all away. 

They couldn’t work, they couldn’t see their parents or wives or sons or daughters, they couldn’t provide for their families, as those they loved either relied on the goodness of their neighbours, or faced homelessness.

(You know, I can’t help but notice a similarity between these effects of leprosy in Jesus’ time, and the effects that addiction has in our own day)

They have this all-consuming burden.

And, turning to Christ, their burden is lifted.  But it’s a weird story!  They aren’t healed instantly and told to go on living the way they are. 

No, not at all.  How does Jesus heal them?  He says “go, show yourselves to the priest”.

Have you noticed this before?  He doesn’t wave His hand and say “your request has been granted, now go about your merry way”. 

No.  Jesus says “go back to town.  Present yourself to the leaders of your community.  Have them declare that you’re back, that the one who was lost has been found, have them declare that yes, you used to be a leper, but your burden has been lifted, so now you can get back to doing the work you have been given to do”.

Have you noticed that before?  In healing the lepers, Jesus doesn’t answer their prayer and leave them to go about their way.  Jesus answers their prayer by saying “go back to town”.  Jesus lifts their burden so that they can get back to carrying their load, so that they can get back to being sons, and husbands, and fathers, so that they can stop being outcasts and get on with being fruitful members of the community, so they can get back to using the gifts and skills God has given them, and as they get back, they carry with them this amazing, life-changing testimony of God’s fathomless mercy, as they now live lives to God’s glory in the world.

Friends, God doesn’t bless us for our own sake; God doesn’t lift our burdens so we can go back to living our own way. 

A Challenge for Ministry

My brothers and sisters, think about how the Church reaches out to those in need?

So often we as individuals, and together as the Church, will ease the burden of those who are weighed down. 

But are we sharing that burden as an end in itself?  Or are we inviting them to lift up their head, to see Christ lifted up, to recognize us standing around them as Brothers and Sisters, supporting and inviting them to bear their own proper load, to join us in that God-given work of being the Church, of being life-long apprentices of Jesus our Lord and Master, as those who were lost join their voices to the chorus of the redeemed in every age who proclaim the Good News of salvation?

My friends, we are to bear one another’s burdens; but we are to do it in a way that enables each, that teaches each, that supports each in doing the work we have been given to do, as many members knit together into one Body under one Head, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

May God Almighty guide us and lead us as we bear one another’s burdens, not as an end in itself, but so that, by His grace, as people who know what it is to have their burdens lifted, we can together sing “To God be the Glory, great things He has done…” now and forevermore.  Amen.

The God who is More

This is Trinity Sunday, the appointed day for us to celebrate, proclaim, and – on some level – try to explain to doctrine of the Trinity.  It’s a day dedicated to that central, crucial Christian belief that there is One God in Three Eternal Persons, that the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God, but there are not three gods, but one; perfectly united, existing in a way far above and beyond anything in the created world.

Now, as it happens, it’s also my last Sunday as your rector… so naturally, I guess I have to take this morning to try and teach you everything I know about the Trinity, right!? 

…Or maybe I should just copy what Jesus said in the gospel today: (just look at it – how perfect)  “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now”.  That might be more accurate!

If there is one thing I believe we should take away from Trinity Sunday, it’s this:
our God is more. 

I could almost end it there.  That’s what Trinity Sunday is all about.  Whatever we wish God would be, however we would dream up a god in own image to meet our needs, the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is more.  It should really be no surprise that God more than we can easily comprehend.  A god you or I could figure out wouldn’t be much of a god at all. 

But that’s the fundamental truth of this day: our God is more.

God is more than we could imagine.

Lots of people long for a saviour.  Across all of human history, people have drempt up superhero stories, longing for a a messiah-figure to save them from the predicament they find themselves in.  It’s fallen human nature to look for help on our own terms, isn’t it?  To find a hero we can hide behind.  We want a solution that we can understand, and that doesn’t ask too much of us (it’s like me wanting to get fit but not wanting to do any exercise!). 

But one of the biggest proofs that the Trinity is real is, simply, it’s a description of God that is not self-serving.  It’s not God made in our image; it demands real humility on our part.  I mean, who in their right mind would cook up a plan to tell the world about a God whose nature we cannot accurately describe?  It’s either crazy… or it’s real.

And we know it’s real – because in God, in the person of Jesus the Son, we don’t just get the saviour humanity is longing for.  Our God is more: we find a saviour who calls us to be his apprentices, and expects us to learn from him and imitate him with our lives, to the point where the highest goal for each of us is to be like Jesus. 

But God is more.  In Jesus we don’t find a good teacher by human standards; no, when we fail we don’t get an angry note covered in red ink; when we act out we don’t get sent to the principal’s office: we get picked up and carried over his shoulder, as a good shepherd seeks out the smelly, stubborn sheep who wanders away.

A saviour who loves us; a teacher who calls us to be more; and a shepherd who picks us up and draws us back into the fold.  That alone is more than we could imagine.

But there’s more.  We don’t just have a saviour, teacher, and shepherd.  There’s a loving Father, above and beyond all the failings of human parents, who is more than everything we think a father could be… and he’s the king who owns it all. 

Lots of cultures, lots of people and nations since the beginning of time have drempt up a god who is a king, who demands their allegiance and service.  But who would dream up that the eternal king would send his only Son to save us by his sacrifice, not to demand anything from us, but so that all who were willing could be adopted into the royal family as sons and daughters?  You see, that’s the great message of this day: God is more

And He operates through his Holy Spirit, all-powerful, almighty, yet gentle and wanting to co-operate with us from within.  We serve a God who brought all of creation into being, and who will finally make all things new, and yet, scripture says, he won’t so much as blow out a smouldering wick or break a bent blade of grass; instead, he stands at the door and knocks; and if the door is opened, he moves in and starts renovating from the inside out.  And, from within, God the Spirit calls you to be more like Christ; in actions, in words, in keeping quiet when your words don’t bring life and justice.  Inspiring ordinary, broken people like you and me to do things that aren’t just pleasing to God, but which actually bring him glory. 

God is more.

But God isn’t just more than we can imagine…

God is more than we could ask for.

If there’s one thing I hope this parish remembers from our three years together, it’s this: you need to dream big, you need to be bold, you need to stop making all the right, logical, reasonable excuses, and you need to remember that, God, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.  You need to remember that, if you’re seeking and doing God’s will, you will have everything you need.  But if you want to wait until you rely on your on strength and rely on your own bank account, you’re guaranteed the opportunity God has in store will pass you by. 

Trinity Sunday tells us that the God we serve is more than we could ever ask for, so let’s not limit what he calls us to do.

If anyone is hungry – anyone – whether that’s a physical hunger, or it’s that deep spiritual hunger, that ache in the pit of the stomach for those who don’t know the purpose of life and don’t know where to find that daily bread, God is the answer, who does he call to be part of the solution?  You.

If anyone is thirsty – anyone – who is parched and dry and shrivelled up, who’s the answer?  God is.  And who does he call to be part of the solution?  You.

Who knows someone who is lonely?  Who knows someone where all they long for is not to have to do life alone?  Who is the answer to human loneliness?  God is.  And who does he call to be part of the solution?  You.

If anyone is wavering, wandering, flailing around making absolutely nothing of their life, going around without direction, having a great passion but nothing to invest it in except a bottle or worse, who will give us all the opportunities we ask for and more?  God.  But who does he call to share that message?  You.

Do you know someone confused about the purpose of life?  Confused about spiritual things, looking for something that makes sense?  Sure you do.  Who is the answer to all of those spiritual searchings and more?  God is.  And who does he call to be part of the solution?  You… he wants you to invite those people to Alpha (so don’t let God and your neighbour down – ‘cause we believe you’re the solution God has sent!).

When we’re facing our own mortality, when we’re dealing with the fact that, until it’s remade by God, creation won’t last forever, that our bodies will wear out, some sooner, some later, who is the answer to all our hopes, who can drive away our fears?  God.  And who does he call to share that hope?  You.

When we’re facing our failures and have to admit that we’ve missed the mark, that we can’t stand before God face-to-face and say “I did good, you owe me”, who is that source of boundless mercy and fathomless grace?  God is.  And to whom has he entrusted that message?  You.

When we’re unsure of the future, when we’re certain our plans won’t work because there’s no sensible human reason why the least and smallest and weakest should ever succeed, who is the one who chooses the last and the least to do His work?  God is.  And who is God calling to be those through whom his glory does absolutely remarkable, unimaginable things?  You.

And, my friends, when, like on Friday night, our cup is running over, we’re joyful, we’re feasting, we’re enjoying each other’s company, and we’re echoing the Gospel as we call out far and wide and invite any and everyone to come in and share in the feast, who’s the one providing the abundance?  God is.  And who does he want to experience that abundant life?  You.

My friends, God is more.  He’s more than we could ever imagine, and he gives more than we could ever ask. 

But, as I leave you this week, as you go out into the future as those who have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, and who have heard, from my lips, time and time again, of the great opportunities that God has called you to, it’s time to take up the torch.

Be bold.  Be faithful.  Trust in God.  And don’t ever forget, that God, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. 

Do you believe that? 

…now keep living it… and all to God’s glory.  Amen.

The Holy Spirit’s Gifts: Awareness, Attunement, Ability

Come, Holy Ghost, who inspires our souls with your celestial brightness; teach us to know the Father and transform us into the image of the Son, in whose name we pray. Amen.

As Christians, as those faithful people of the New Covenant living after Pentecost, we believe and we know that God the Holy Spirit is with us and in us.  We believe and we know that the Holy Spirit is – as Jesus promised – our “Helper”.

That’s part of our core doctrine, one of those things we all agree to believe if we want to call ourselves Christians. 

But what does it mean to say that the Holy Spirit is your helper

If someone who was curious about the faith asked you, maybe someone whose parents never brought them to Sunday School, or someone who showed up at GriefShare or Alpha and started to explore these things for the first time, how would you explain what it means to have the Holy Spirit as your helper?

And, if it’s true that the Holy Spirit is not just with, but is actually in you – right now – could it be that you actually have access to more divine help than you realize?

What does it means to say that the Holy Spirit is your helper?

I want to suggest three ways, three words that all start with the letter ‘A’ to help us remember exactly how the Holy Spirit is at work inside of you, even here this morning.

And those words are Awareness, Attunement, and Ability

Awareness.

Throughout scripture, the biggest work of the Holy Spirit is making God’s people aware of their situation.  Whether it’s the Spirit inspiring prophets to open people’s eyes to the path they’re on, whether it’s the Spirit enlightening kings to accomplish what God has in store for his people, or whether it’s the Spirit at work in the Apostles to give them the words to say to bring the message of hope and healing and forgiveness in Jesus to many different peoples and nations and cultures, the constant thing the Holy Spirit is doing in you is making you aware of your situation, from God’s perspective.

You know, the human mind is a wonderful thing.  As the Bible says, we really are fearfully and wonderfully made: we have incredible power to shape the world around us, but the same hands and the same tongue that can create and build something beautiful can also be used to tear down and destroy.

But even the sharpest human mind can never be fully aware of our surroundings or the effects of our actions.  Our mind is dependent on our senses, and that’s where we are limited.  I only have one set of eyes – I can’t see all sides of a situation; and like it or not, my senses are often clouded.  Relationships, desires, passions, hurts, past failures, scars, lessons “learned the hard way” are like lenses that block our senses.  It’s like coming inside with your sunglasses still on and instinctively reaching over to turn on the lights.  Our minds are only as good as the information coming in, but the shields and scars and coping strategies that we put on to make our way through the world really do prevent us from seeing things as they really are.

This is where the Holy Spirit helps us – but only if we’re willing to listen.

We believe that, right here, right now, the Holy Spirit is in us, making us aware of the bigger picture; making us aware of how things really are from God’s perspective.

…ok, so that all sounds nice, but how does this “Awareness” actually help us? 

The Holy Spirit is at work in you when you have a great plan to put someone in their place, when you have a great plan (at least from your perspective) to show how you’re right and someone else is wrong… and then you get that feeling in your gut.  That feeling that makes you say “darn” (or perhaps something more colourful), that feeling that puts you in your place; that feeling that doesn’t come from your mind, and more often than not is the furthest thing from what your mind wants; that feeling that says, “hold on now, there’s more to the story.  Yeah, what they did was wrong, yes you’re right – at least partially.  But there’s a broken person behind that action, a person that God wants to build up, a person that enough people have already tried to tear down.  …So shut your mouth and say your prayers”.

That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.  To bring that awareness, and that stinging, frustrating gut feeling that you need to open your eyes, shut your mouth, get over yourself, and say your prayers. 

Have you ever thought about the work of the Holy Spirit in those terms?  You know, speaking in tongues might be pretty flashy, or having a tongue of fire appear over your head would be pretty cool, but I’m thankful for the Holy Spirit dwelling within me to say “…shut up, Alex.  There’s more to the story.  See things from God’s perspective.  See the brokenness in that person’s action… and see the brokenness in your reaction, so now get over yourself and trust in God.”  That’s the help of the Holy Spirit – the gift of Awareness of how things really are.

Attunement

The next way the Holy Spirit helps us is what I call “Attunement”.

Now if you know anything at all about music, you know the importance of being in tune.  You can be a star musician, you can have the best technique, the best instrument, the greatest skill, but if the strings aren’t in tune, it’s never going to turn out the way it was supposed to.

But, beyond that, an engineer would tell you that poor tuning is actually destructive.  If you build a bridge and you don’t take the vibration of the cables into account, what’s going to happen when a strong wind blows?  Same thing with a skyscraper or designing a car or anything else. 

All the beautiful sounds on earth are created by vibrations – but when things aren’t well-tuned, vibrations can bring down a building or a bridge, they become not just destructive, but self-destructive.

So how does the Holy Spirit help us with being attuned to God?

Well, remember as we read through the Old Testament, and even as we read through the Gospels, all the countless, countless times when people are heading in the wrong direction, missing the point, headed for their own destruction, making their bad situation worse than it was before, and we shake our heads and say “why are they so stubborn?”. 

…and then, maybe, we look at our own lives and wonder the same thing.

A big part of the Holy Spirit’s work is to be, more or less, a sort of built-in tuner.  As we gain awareness of how things really are, from God’s perspective, He also calls us to tune in to His will.  It’s that voice of God within that says “trust me to work all things together for good; come and be part of it, don’t get in my way”. 

And that’s a tall order.  God’s ways are not our ways, and when we look back and see God’s wisdom at work, it’s rarely the way any rational human would have guessed – I mean really, it’s Pentecost; we’re here today because God sent out some Galilean fishermen to change the world!  Not a great plan by human standards.  And, like it or not, God wants to use a couple of dozen, mostly grey-haired people in this room to bring hope and healing to Fort Smith.  Again, not a great plan by human standards.  But, if we allow the Holy Spirit within us to tune us in, when the wind of God blows, we’ll work together to create the most beautiful harmony.

That’s the attunement that the Holy Spirit provides, dwelling within us to point us and call us to tune in to God’s will, to align our own wills with His, so that rather than making a dangerous or destructive dissonance, we’re working with God to create something beyond what we can ask or imagine.

And when that happens, when we have Awareness and Attunement with God’s will, the Holy Spirit brings…

Ability.

I’ve known people who’ve been really frustrated.  They want the fruit of the Spirit, they pray for the fruit of the Spirit, asking God for joy and peace, for love and kindness and gentleness and self-control.  I’ve known people who have earnestly offered themselves to be pastors and teachers and evangelists… but they hadn’t opened their eyes to that awareness that the Holy Spirit brings, and their own will wasn’t attuned to God’s, so of course a loving God wouldn’t say yes to their prayers, since they’d only end up worse off than they were before.

But when we’re aware and attuned with God, that’s when he gives us the ability to rise to the occasion.  And sometimes it’s dramatic – there are those in this room who have seen real miracles in their lives.  But often it’s much more mundane.  It’s me, having a terrible speech impediment, stuttering and being too shy to speak, to the point where half of my teachers going through school never heard my voice. 

I was a musical kid, but ask my mother, how many times did I enter the music festival or be set to play in a year-end recital, only to be crippled by fear and an upset stomach.  But when I stepped up to lead the church in singing, when I became aware of a real need and tuned myself in to God’s will, even as a child of 12, that fear went away.  God gave the ability. 

I would actually skip school when there was public speaking to be done.  But when God, through the Church, said ‘I’m calling you to ordained ministry’, and I tuned in and said ‘I don’t know about this, but if it’s God’s will, then ok’, suddenly the fear was gone.

…And you know what?  In just the three years I’ve been here, there are at least a half a dozen others in this room who have had the same experience.  When we’re aware, when we’re attuned, God will give the ability to do more than we asked or imagined, and all for his glory.

So on this feast of Pentecost, store away those three “A”s.  If you’ve been baptized and have faith in Jesus, the Holy Spirit is already in you… let him make you aware of how things are from God’s perspective; let him tune you in to God’s will; and then don’t be surprised when God gives the ability to do the work you’ve been given to do. 

To God be the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.

The 7 Pillars of Christian Unity

Lord Jesus, teach us to echo your prayer, and to live by the Spirit, that we may be one as you and the Father are one.  Amen.

This morning we hear again that second-most-famous prayer of Jesus: that we, the Church, may all be one, as He and the Father are one.

Unity is one of those things that looks great on paper, but the reality is something that requires a lot more work – and a lot more humility and sacrifice – than you’d ever think it would.

On paper, unity is easy: it’s the coming together of different parties to create something better than they could ever be on their own.  Yeah, sign me up!

The coming together is one thing.  Even here in this room, it’s not that we don’t like each other, but we have a great group of people who wouldn’t naturally be found in any other setting.  And that’s a good thing: any “church” that is only made up of people who share worldly interests or who look the same or vote the same isn’t much of a church at all.

Coming together is one thing, but coming together to create something better than they could ever be on their own – that’s another matter.

If you’ve ever found yourself working in a union, you know that unity by itself isn’t always productive; but when everyone can come together with the goal of working together, everyone benefits and some real progress can be made.

And certainly scripture uses the example of marriage as the image of unity within the Church – a man and woman coming together, not to lose themselves, but to really create something that goes beyond the individual – and as we all know, that, too, requires real work.

For any sort of unity to produce fruit, to create something better, we need both the willingness and the action.  It’s not enough just to want to be united – it’s not enough just to sign up or show up; we need to match that willingness with steps to carry it out. 

Unity, the creation of something better than we are on our own, requires both willingness and action.

The Unity of the Church

In Confirmation Class at some point you probably learned (I hope!) that as Christians we have 7 pillars of unity.  Jump in with me if you remember them:

We have one Body, one Spirit, one Hope of our eternal calling.
One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all.[1]

(What?  Well remedial confirmation classes start on Tuesday!
If these aren’t familiar you might want to take notes!!)

Those pillars, those 7, are the “willingness” side of Christian unity.  In a marriage you make vows to each other, stating your willingness to come together as one, to the exclusion of all others.  In a union, you have a collective agreement that both parties are willing to follow, to the exclusion of anything that violates the agreement. 

In the Church, we have 7 things that we are all willing to abide by for the sake of unity, to the exclusion of all else. 

We will to be one body.  Our purpose is to come together as one, throwing away all the worldly divisions that get in the way.  We have to actively work against the constant human temptation to break us up into groups based on one thing or another.

We agree to abide by the same Spirit, given at Pentecost.  That’s why, for instance, in today’s lesson from Acts 16, fortune-telling is forbidden, because it’s reliance on a different spirit.  That’s why in Revelation 22, “sorcerers” are among those who find themselves left outside of the eternal city, because turning to witchcraft is a refusal to rely on the Holy Spirit of God.

As the Church we have one hope.  That’s one we often forget, because there are as many reasons to go to church as there are people in the pews.  Some of us need peace and quiet, a break from the week; some of us need an opportunity to serve, while others need the support and friendship or to hear words of encouragement. But, beyond all that, to be a member of the church is to be willing to pin all your hope on Christ’s promises in the New Covenant – on his victory, and God’s provision, and that strength made perfect in weakness as we seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

Then there are the four other things that we have to agree to, that we have to will if we want to be members of the Church: we agree to acknowledge Jesus as Lord.  We know He is the one true Lord, so we don’t fool around with any falsehoods about that.  We proclaim one Faith passed down from generation to generation and found in the Creeds, knowing there’s a lot of room for interpretation, and no one of us will ever ‘figure it all out’, but to be a member of the Church is to say that unity on these pillars is more important than you or me “figuring out” each tiny detail.  We agree to be united in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, recognizing that it’s God who saves us and cleans us up, but that anyone who wants to clean themselves up will find themselves left out.[2]

And that last pillar that we all agree to for the sake of unity is that we agree to have one Father of us all.  That’s huge.  It means that, anyone else who is living by these same 7 pillars is my brother or sister… whether I like it or not!  It means we may bitterly disagree on how to live our faith, or the church’s duty to transform the world around it… but if God’s my Father, than anyone else who calls God their Father has to be my brother or sister.  So I have to live like it.

That’s why Revelation 22 says the sexually immoral and murders and idolaters and everyone who loves falsehood is left outside of eternal life – not because they checked the wrong boxes in terms of sins.  No, not at all.  But because these are things that destroy the family of God.  To abuse a brother or sister, to lie to them, to kill them, or to go all out and refuse to recognize God as Father – they rip apart the fabric of the family, and we’re called to live as those with one Father of us all.

Those are the 7 things all Christians across time and space have agreed that it means to be part of the church.

But real unity, the creation of something better than we can be on our own, requires both willingness and action.

The Action of Unity

It’s not enough just to sign up, to consent to those 7 things.  That’d be like planning a wedding and making marriage vows and then thinking the hard work was over! 

The work of echoing our Lord’s prayer that we would be one means that we put that willingness into action. 

And for the Church, when we’re talking about the unity of the Church, that action shows up in three ways.  Unity of Identity, Unity of Purpose, Unity of Direction.

Unity of Identity

Identity is a bit of a buzzword these days, as it should be.  How do you identify?  Is it enough to say “oh yeah, I believe the creeds.  One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, that’s greatIs that enough?  Or do we need to make that faith our identity.

Or, in other words, is going to church something you do, or is being a member of the Church something you are?

If we ever want to see Christian unity in the world, we need to get serious about making our faith a key part of our identity… not an activity on the side.

Unity of Purpose

Have we gathered for the right reasons?  When one congregation only supports its’ own activities, when we don’t see ourselves as being on the same team, then the answer has to be “no”. 

You know, this was St. Paul’s message to the Corinthians… when they gathered, everyone had their own motives.  And, the first and easiest rule of biblical interpretation is, simply, don’t be like the Corinthians!  As a general rule, if the Corinthians did it – don’t!

When we gather, when we serve, when we fundraise, is it to achieve our own goals?  Or is every action – from washing pews to folding bulletins to shovelling snow to feeding the hungry and comforting those who grieve – is it all part of carrying out that mission to go and make disciples and share the good news?

Unity of Direction

You can have the same purpose but be headed in opposite directions.  The leaders of the Liberals, the NDP, and the Tories all have the same purpose: they want to win, but they’re headed in very different directions to get there.

If we want to put Christ’s second-most-famous prayer into action in our lives, if we want to finally know and see what it’s like for the church to come together to accomplish more than we could ever do on our own, more than we could even ask or imagine, we need to walk the same way. 

Thankfully, we don’t need to make that up – after all, we’re called to be followers, and when we get off track, we have a good shepherd who will put us gently over his shoulder, or put his crook around our neck and reel us in – one way or the other!

But it’s no good, either within our congregation, or amongst the three Christian churches in our town, or in the Church around the world, for us to be walking different directions.  Unity requires that we set the same goal and walk forwards with humility, trusting that there’s a job for each of us to do, and if it’s done to God’s glory and with even a little pinch of real faith, even the mighty mountains will hop out of our way.

My friends, think about these things.  And, this week, take a look and see if there’s an opportunity in your life to really echo Jesus’ prayer with action.  And may we always pray, with Him, that we may all be one, as He and the Father are one.  Amen.


[1] Ephesians 4:4-6

[2] This is the reference to the “dogs” in Revelation 22, being unclean.

Peace isn’t a thing to search. Peace is a lifestyle.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid”.  John 14:27

We live in a world that is searching for peace. 

We want there to be peace on the earth – for wars and striving to cease between nations, and races, and peoples.

We want there to be peace at home – we all know homes that are less than peaceful, with partners who fight, with families that can’t be together around the table without full-blown fights, or perhaps worse, a slow-burning conflict that eats away over the years.

If you’re like me, you might just be looking for some peace and quiet; looking forward to those rare moments when you can unplug without having the next thing rattling around in your head.

For many whom you know, their search is to make peace with their situation: to get to a point of accepting all the things that are outside of their control – whether it’s sickness or an uncertain future, or the pains of the past – and get to the point of knowing peace rather than a struggle.

Some devote their lives to finding peace in a broken world, a world where things are rarely ever black and white, where, anytime people are involved, there’s bound to be good and bad mixed up together, as even the best of human intentions are still wrapped up in our brokenness.

And in those moments when we think about what happens next, the world we live in is obsessed but confused about finding peace with God.  Some bend over backwards trying to convince themselves that God doesn’t exist so they can put their minds at peace, while others resort to all sorts of bizarre practices in an effort to “find peace” with the Almighty.

Our world, at this point in history, is more obsessed with finding peace than we even realize.

But what if we’ve got it wrong?

Jesus said “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.

And we say “yes!  Give us some of that peace!  Bring it on, that’d be great”.

But this is where the world has it wrong.

Peace isn’t a thing. 

Peace isn’t a thing to be given and received.  Peace isn’t a thing to have or to hold onto.

People spend their lives searching for peace, but peace isn’t a thing to be found.

(Now stick with me, because this is so mind-blowing, but it’s also so obvious once we come to see it).

Let’s take the war in Ukraine as an example.  We all want peace in Ukraine.  We all want Russia to stop, to turn from it’s plans, and for there to be peace once more.

But how does that happen?  How does Ukraine get peace?  How does Russia give Ukraine peace?

Can Russia load some peace into a truck, drive it over the border, and say here you go, this is what you wanted, have a truckload of peace?  No, how silly, of course not.

But when we talk about God’s peace, we slip into that sort of “truckload” thinking.  Like God has a warehouse of peace out there, I wish he’d give me some.  When it comes to making peace with an illness, or a past hurt, or a strained relationship with a parent or your in-laws, we slip into thinking of peace as a thing.  Something to have, to be given by one party – maybe as part of a long-awaited for apology – to then be received and stored up by another.

But peace isn’t a thing.  It doesn’t come in truckloads.

No, and this is where the world goes wrong: peace is a state of being; peace is a status that exists between two people or things; or as my wife put it so wisely last weekend, peace isn’t a thing – it’s a lifestyle, it’s a way of living.

It’s not given or received; it’s achieved when the tension is set aside, when the two sides accept that they cannot control the other, when they choose to live at peace.

…and this is where we’d do well to remember that we’re all searching for peace, on every level of our lives, from our homes, to our families, to our situations, to our place in the brokenness of the world around us, to that ultimate peace at the last when we all meet the Lord face to face.

We need to stop asking God to “give us peace”, at least if we’re thinking of peace as a thing, something that He can drop off at our doorstep.

Instead, we need to pray that God will teach us His peace. 

Teach us, show us what it means to be at peace.  To live a lifestyle of peace, to move towards peace as a state of being; to look at a situation and say, “yes it’s broken… but I don’t want to be at war over this, I’m at peace”; to look at things outside of our control and say “I’m not going to be at war within myself over this, I’m going to be at peace with the things I cannot change.”

Peace is a lifestyle.  Peace is a state of being, a state to be achieved, not a thing to be received.

You see, this is where a plain reading of the scriptures is so important.

Now you might be thinking, ‘hold on… Jesus said “my peace I give to you”’. 

Right!  But Jesus didn’t then hand the disciples a little box of peace, did he? 
Peace is a status, peace is a way of life, peace is a lifestyle, as Kristina put it.

Jesus extends his status, his peaceful state of being to the disciples – and that includes you and me.  Is Jesus uncertain about the future?  No. Is Jesus upset about the past?  No.  Does Jesus feel powerless about a sad and broken world, waiting for that day when every tear and disease will be wiped away?  No.  Does Jesus feel like the temptations and evil in the world might get the better of him?  Not one bit.  Is Jesus worried about his place when he comes to stand before his Heavenly Father?  Never, certainly not.

That’s the status, that’s the state of being, that’s the lifestyle Jesus wants to give to you.

“My peace I give to you.  Not as the world gives”… it’s not coming on a truck!  No, I bestow this peace upon you, now live into it.  “Let not your hearts be troubled, and neither let them be afraid”. 

And, my friends, it is a ridiculous peace – a peace that passes understanding.

Does it make any sense that I shouldn’t fear tomorrow?  No… except Jesus invited me to live into his peace.

Does it make any sense that I can take a step to restore a relationship, that I can admit when I’ve done something wrong, really ask for forgiveness, and then carry on instead of sitting and wallowing in that failure?  No… except Jesus invited me to live into his peace.

Does it make any sense that we can look at our bodies wearing out, we can look at the scars of sin and abuse and addiction in the world around us, and yet be at peace in spite of the world not being as we know it was meant to be?  No, that makes no sense, it passes all understanding, except when we enter into the peace of the one who promised He will restore all things.

Does it make any sense that I can live my life without any fear of the grave?  No, except I’ve been invited into that lifestyle of peace with God my Father; He looks at me as his child in need of healing and mercy, and like the prodigal son, I will live my life running toward Him to fall at his feet.

When God’s peace, like a river, rushes over us, we need to remember that the point isn’t to grab buckets and try to store up as much of that peace as we can.  Peace doesn’t work like that.

When peace, like a river, washes over us, the point is for us to get caught up in that current, to be washed away in that stream, as peace with God and with our neighbours becomes a way of life, carrying us along, not something to be dipped into when we need it.  Not because we’re happy with the way the world is, with the way things are, but because we’ve made God’s peace our lifestyle, we’ve entered into that status of being at peace, and because of that – whatever happens – my heart doesn’t need to be troubled, and I do not need to be afraid: I have that ridiculous, incomprehensible peace that comes from knowing ‘I am a child of God’.

The whole world is searching for peace.  But we need to remind ourselves, and often, that peace isn’t a thing to grasp at or cling to, it’s a way of life.  It’s a way of life we find when we pray for God to give us his grace, and the strength, and the mercy, and the understanding, to look at the world around us – broken as it is – and see it, and ourselves, through His eyes; to have the grace to say “it is well”… “I don’t like it, it’s not as it should be, but I am at peace with God, I will be at peace with my neighbor, so my heart won’t be troubled, I will not fear – not even the power of the grave – because it is well with my soul… now, and forevermore.  Amen.

There’s a gap in God’s story (and we’re in it!)

Well, after 31 weeks, today we come to the end of our walk through the Bible.  Since September, we’ve gone all the way from Genesis now to wrap things up in Revelation.

I won’t speak for everyone, but I know many of us have found this not just ‘worthwhile’, but completely eye-opening.  I’ve been reading and studying the Bible a long time, but I wish someone had given me a gift like this years ago – the gift of not getting lost in the weeds, but zooming out to see the big picture; the perspective-changing, mind-blowing gift of seeing how Adam, Eve, and the serpent connect to Moses lifting up the snake on the pole, and Jesus being lifted up on the cross; the gift of seeing how creation, the flood, Moses floating down the river in a basket, and the crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan all relate to your own baptism; the gift of seeing why it was necessary for God to give the Law even though He knew we couldn’t keep it, and how the whole point of the new covenant is that God says “I will do it for you, you just need to trust me”; the life-changing, overarching gift of coming to see that, no, bad things don’t “happen for a reason”, but God can and will use the bad things of a broken world to bring about incredible good; the gift of learning that God does keep his promises, He does finish what He starts, whether that’s with us or in spite of us, and the quicker that we admit that He’s God, the quicker He can heal us, open our eyes to see ourselves as the beloved children that He wants us to be, and then offer ourselves to bring that good news to a hurting world.

What a gift. 

And it’s one of those things you won’t unlearn.  Once you’ve seen how the story fits together, how each character in the Bible has a part to play in God’s big plan, I think you can’t go back – and that’s a good thing.  It’s not a book of superheroes, but it’s also not a dry instruction manual: it’s a story; it’s a story of great love, of betrayal, of broken trust, but also of healing, and restoration, and victory over darkness.  And it’s eternal – it’s God inviting ordinary, broken, hurting people like you and me to trust Him, to learn to be apprentices of his son, to let the Holy Spirit move in and fix in us what we could never fix ourselves, and then to find ourselves doing things we wouldn’t ever dream of.

And the best part is that the story isn’t over.

There’s an incredible gap between chapter 30 and chapter 31, and it’s important we don’t miss it.  We’re living in that gap – the same Spirit who led the apostles to shake the world upside down, the same power that rose Jesus from the dead, the same Almighty God who can turn shipwrecks and imprisonments into victories, is at work in you and me, inviting us, in the same way that He invited Abraham and Moses and Ruth and Esther and the rest, to have our names written into the story. 

Think about that: the only thing that separates you from any one of these characters is time and place.  They’re ordinary men and women, caught up in the pain and circumstances of a broken world, facing doubts, carrying burdens, working through struggles and feelings of inadequacy, many with a past that haunts them, or with a point in their lives that made them want to give up.  Everyone in the story shares that struggle – even Jesus, because that’s what we mean when we say “he was made man”. 

But God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  His plan to break the curse, to restore humanity, to let us dwell in his presence and share in his glorious life is just as true for you today as it was for anyone we read in these pages.

And the invitation is just as real, too.

And have you noticed… the people around you are saying yes!

Look at our little church.  Look at the work we’ve done, not in our strength, but in our weakness!  You’d never imagine that this little group of people – less than 2% of our town – would be able to touch so many lives in so many ways.  We’ve got people who have never led a program before, and wouldn’t have ever dreamed of it, saying yes to God – “with God’s help”, I can lead GriefShare.  Listen to that: with God’s help, I can offer healing to those who are hurting!

With God’s help, I can be a lay leader, I can tell my story and help to lead my congregation.  We’ve got not one but two lay leaders who never dreamt of doing what they’re doing, but who said “ok… with God’s help, I can do it!”.

Over this summer you’re going to launch an ad campaign for Alpha; you’re going to run Alpha during a season without a Rector, and it’s going to be great!  And you’re not going to do it for yourselves – you already know the story.  You’re going to do it for your friends and neighbours and the strangers down the street, and you’re going to go beyond your comfort zone and you’re going to invite them in… why?  Because you’ve learned that it’s not about your strength or your words; it’s about trusting God through your weakness, and learning to simply say “ok… with God’s help, I can”.

I mean, seriously: a few of us were talking one day last fall about how to welcome seniors in, since the senior’s room in the rec centre is closed… and then what happened?  God said “here you go, do you trust me?” as the federal government handed over $23,000 to do a monthly seniors’ program.  Absolutely crazy, never in our wildest dreams.  But God invites us, and all we have to say is “ok… with God’s help, we can”.

We’ve learned – and are learning – to trust.  We’re not rich, but when’s the last time somebody stood at this lectern to worry about money.  No – we’re learning that God provides even more than we need, as long as we trust him to do it.  It’s like the manna in the wilderness, if we trust God to provide what we need for the moment, He will, but if we try to hoard it so we don’t need to trust anymore, it dries up. 

We’re learning to trust.  Going without a rector is hard, and we’re certainly sad to go, but we’re not going to worry about it – there’s no point!  We know God’s going to finish what He starts, so God will raise up people and equip them with the gifts we need.  We’re trusting, not worrying: and God provides.  Just this week, we got confirmation that we have a theological student coming as our full-time intern for July and August, and though I can’t share any details yet, there’s already a good application from an experienced priest who feels called to serve here.

You see, there’s a big gap between chapter 30 – the end of Paul’s life, and chapter 31.  And we’re living in that gap.

Each and every day God calls you individually and together as a church to be part of this incredible story that is still being written.

We know how the story ends.  It hasn’t happened yet, but the same God who kept His word and who empowered ordinary people to do the impossible has said it’s His plan.  We know God’s plan to dwell in paradise with redeemed humanity will be accomplished.

And, not to be harsh, but we should realize at this point that God’s plan doesn’t depend on me or you.  It doesn’t depend on St. John’s.  God will finish what He started with or without us.  But, He invites us to be part of it.  He says “do you trust me?  …Let’s do this!  Come, be part of my story.”

So the only question is whether we say “Lord, that’s crazy, I’m not qualified, I don’t have the answers… but, “I will, with God’s help”.

Or whether we say “no thanks”, and become one of those who stand in the way; whether God accomplishes his plan in spite of us.

My friends, the serpent’s head is crushed.  Death and the grave will be thrown away.  The curse will be ended, and humanity will finally be set free to reflect God’s glory instead of being bent inward on ourselves.  We will, one day, maybe soon, maybe long after we rest with our ancestors, be gathered before God to hear those wonderful words “well done, my good and faithful servant”, and welcomed into the land of love, peace, joy, and light that God had planned from the beginning.  You and I, if we’re willing, will live with all the redeemed in the light of God’s presence, with access to the tree of life itself.

But for now, we’re living in the gap in the Story.  And the characters, unlikely as it may seem, are me and you.

Will we be part of God’s story?  Let’s say yes.  Let’s continue to trust, more than we’ve ever trusted before.  Because you never know – it could be that, a couple generations from now, the story of this little church in this little town is the story that other Christians read for inspiration.  We know God uses the littlest and the least… but first, we have to say “yes”.

To God be the glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.

God’s Power Working in Us: The Bible is not a book of superheroes!

As we come towards the end of our year-long walk through scripture, this week we’ve read the amazing story of Paul’s ministry.

And if you’ve done that, if you read through Paul’s ministry as outlined in the book of Acts and in his letters, chances are you’re just blown away.

Wow!  Right? 

What a story!  What a life!  What amazing commitment!

What a brave guy – here he was, trained and groomed for a career that was opposed to everything the Church was about.  What courage it takes to have a total change of heart, and then be open about it; to admit his mistake and his failure, change directions, and move forward.

He was open and honest about his past.  He spoke up for what was right.

He helped people in need, right where they were, without any hope of getting anything back in return.

Such sacrifice; such boldness; such commitment.  Through many trials and tribulations, through many ups and downs, it was like each challenge propelled him forward to the next victory that God had in store.

We look at St. Paul’s life and we say… wow.

…And that makes sense. It’s an amazing story.

But then we get to First Corinthians 15.  And we’re confronted with a shocking message.  Paul says: No, I’m not special.  

Paul says: No, hang on here guys.  I’m just passing on what I received.  This isn’t my message – Jesus appeared to 500 others before I met him.  You might think I’m this great apostle, but hold on.  “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle… but by the grace of God I am what I am.”

What do we make of that?  We read our Bible and say “wow, look at Paul!  What a story!  How awesome, what a life, what a guy”.  And then, in the midst of that story, Paul says, “no, hold on now: I’m not special.  I’m the least of the apostles.” 

Superheroes take us off the hook.

I think the way we read it says something about human nature.  We love to find a good story, to elevate a good person to the status of “superhero”. 

Now don’t get me wrong – it’s good to recognize achievements, and for others to have a good example to follow.  But, too often, I think we want to put a good person on a pedestal, to make them into a superhero, because it takes us off the hook.

Wow.  Look at his boldness.  Look at his courage.  Look at how he helped others and made sacrifices with no chance of getting anything in return.  Look at his commitment.  Wow… “He must be special”, we say.  “I’m not like that.  I couldn’t be like that.  I’m no Paul, or Peter, or Mary”.

But if there’s one thing I hope we’ve learned as we’ve read through the scriptures this year, it’s that we need to stop doing that. 

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Ruth, David, Solomon, Esther, Jeremiah, Mary, Joseph, Peter and James and John and the rest.  They’re not superheroes.  And that’s the point.

They’re ordinary people, offspring of Adam and Eve stumbling along in a broken world, carrying hurts and pains, having a past full of struggles, each full of reasons to say “no”, but each having the grace and the faith to say “yes” to God, to take that next step in faith, and to trust that God will guide the future and finish the good work He has started in them.

Paul’s life is amazing.  But he isn’t special.  And that’s the point.

Peter’s life is amazing.  He offered the hope and healing and peace that comes through faith in Jesus.  But he isn’t special.  He was a stubborn fisherman with a short temper.

Matthew’s life is amazing.  He wrote eloquently about how Jesus fulfilled all the hopes of Israel as the Messiah.  But let’s remember: those inspired, divine words that we read here this morning were written by a sketchy tax collector who collaborated with a foreign army to make a few bucks.

And Mary Magdalene, that first witness to the resurrection is the same one that, just a few years earlier, everyone dismissed as demon possessed.

The Bible isn’t a book of superheroes.  And that’s the point.  They’re normal people; imperfect, scarred people with a past and more than a few bad decisions along the way.  But… what’s different about them?  They know Jesus, they trust him, and they decide to follow.  And all the rest is nothing more than the power of God working in us, which can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

They’re normal men and women.  They do extraordinary things because they say “yes” to God, and let His power work through them.

Let that sink in.  Think about that.

How much damage has been done through the years because we’ve read the Bible as a book of superheroes?

People look at those in the church, they look at you and me gathered here today, and they say “huh, what a bunch of hypocrites.  They’re no heroes, they’re not perfect, they’re normal people.”

Well, yeah, that’s the point!  The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.  And the Good News of God isn’t that he selects a few heroes for his work.  No, it’s that the power of God, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. 

Working in us.  Normal people, with normal problems and normal struggles.  The only difference is that we know Jesus, we trust in Him, and we decide to follow where he leads.

Your Story is part of God’s Story!

As we work our way to the end of the Story, there’s a big idea I want you to grapple with this week.

You have a story; and your story is part of God’s story.

Why?  Because God is at work in you.  God is unchanging.  He’s the same yesterday, today, and forever.

And the God of Adam and Eve, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, of Jacob, of Ruth, of David, of Esther, of Mary, of Paul is the God of Isabel, of Mark, of Frieda, of Milly, of Alex, of Tanya, of you.

As we read Paul’s incredible story, you need to step back and realize that you have a story.  That your story is part of God’s story. 

…so are you willing to tell it?

Every one of us here has an incredible story of God’s grace and goodness.

Maybe you weren’t shipwrecked or thrown in prison, singing hymns until an earthquake broke down the door.  But you have an incredible part in God’s story.

Every one of us has a story full of incredible ups and downs.  Every one of us has a story where we thought we understood things, but then God opened our eyes, and we discovered we were looking at things the wrong way.  We were blind, but now we see.

Every one of us knows what it is to be in an awful, painful, terrible situation – to feel the effects of sin in a broken, sick world – and then have the grace to look back, and though the situation was awful and not what God wanted, because we trust in Him, He brought healing through the pain and our loving God brought good out of the bad.

Paul’s no superhero.  Paul was a mean guy on the wrong path.  But he came to know Jesus.  He came to trust in God, and made a decision to follow where God leads.  And Paul’s story became part of God’s story, because God’s power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

Your story is part of God’s story.  Will you tell it?

When we tell the story – our story – people will listen.  Honesty, openness – it’s a challenge, but it’s such a breath of fresh air that people are blown away when we take off our masks and speak of God’s goodness, far more than we could ever earn or deserve.

We worry about how to spread the good news.  But your story is part of God’s story, so all you have to do is tell it.  Now, we have to be clear that it’s God’s story: that God is unchanging, and what he did for Peter, Paul, or Mary, he did you for you, and he can do for any of us.  It’s a story of trust in God – it’s that same message we hear throughout the scriptures.  Ordinary people who say “don’t put your trust in me.  Don’t hope in me, but come, trust in the One I’ve learned to trust in.  Hope in the One who is faithful and who holds the future.” 

They’re not superheroes.  And that’s good news, because neither are we.  But, all of us, each of us, are children of God by adoption, those whom He loves, and by His grace alone, your story is now part of God’s story. 

So tell it, and give the Glory to God whose (say it with me) power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Why do we call today “good”.

Why do we call today ‘good’?

In the midst of desolation and despair; in the midst of betrayal and abandonment; in the midst of utter darkness closing in on an innocent young man: why do we call today ‘good’?

Many have offered their answer: is it Jesus being punished for our sins, as though God required punishment?  Is it Jesus offering himself in a deal with the devil, as though God owed Satan anything? 

These answers all fall short because they fail to line up with scripture.  No, fundamentally, this day is ‘good’ because on this day, God fulfilled his promise.

The Son of Man will crush the Serpent’s Head.

On the very day that disobedience, and thus death, entered the world, God cursed the devil, saying “cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals” (Genesis 3:14), but with that ancient curse, God made his first promise to humanity. 

God said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers.”  Yes, the serpent, those deceiving jaws trying to swallow up creation in death will indeed strike at our heels.  That’s the story of the rest of scripture, and it’s our own story, as we spend our lives in a broken, bent, and fallen world, surrounded by deceiving jaws and venomous bites, hell bent on leading us to curse God and embrace death and despair.

But, we forget that first promise of God: God said yes, Satan, and the rebellious forces of the world, the flesh, and the devil, “you will strike his heel”; but… just wait.  

The son of man, “he will crush your head”, O deceiving serpent.  (Genesis 3:15).

Today is “good” because today is the day that God fulfilled that promise.

There was no other good enough.

As scripture teaches us, humankind could never triumph over death.  Sure, we live our lives with sin biting at our heels, but there’s a more fundamental problem: it’s not just that we all find ourselves disobedient, self-centred, self-absorbed, prideful, bent inward, and quick to abandon our God-given duty. 

Even if you or I managed to be perfectly obedient to God, we’d still have a problem: we’ve inherited the curse.  That serpent’s venom first flowing in Adam and Eve, turning their hearts to stone, turning their hands to evil, puffing-up their heads to see themselves as not needing God; that same venom was passed down to you and to me.  As the psalmist put it, “I’m not really a man; I’ve been a sinner since my mother’s womb”.

You see, escaping despair and death isn’t about being “good”, about checking the right boxes, about performing well, about earning a place.  No being “good” means being free from the curse of sin.  And, simply, there was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.  It would take a new, a fresh humanity: God Himself creating a new, unstained, uncursed flesh; a fresh start, or, as the Bible says, a “second Adam”, a new man, born without the serpent’s venom coursing around in his veins. 

That’s the miracle of Christmas – a fresh start, a new Adam, the promised Messiah of God, born humbly to live and die as one of us.

But why is today “good”?  Because today is the day that God fulfilled that first promise.  That first Good Friday was really and truly the day when, once and for all, the Son of Man crushed the serpent’s head.

Sin biting at His heels.

Just moments ago, we heard Jesus, hanging stripped, bloodied, and beaten on the cross; the Incarnate second Person of the Trinity, God-in-the-flesh cry out in desperation and dereliction “My God… why have you forsaken me”.

It’s a shocking statement, God Himself feeling abandoned.

But we have to remember that, last night, at table with his bumbling, cowardly disciples, the only one since Adam and Eve to ever be born free from sin’s curse, freely accepted that weight.  And why?  Out of unimaginable love.

He said: “this is my blood… the blood of the new covenant… given for the remission of sin”.

Think about that: He who knew no sin, willingly saying, “My Father loves them; I love them; I’m sending my Spirit to dwell in them: I will bear their curse”.

Parents – I know you’ve been there.  You see your child hurting, and you say, “I wish I could deal with this, not them; I don’t want them to bear this pain alone”. 

Christ was the one and only person free from the curse, so he was the one and only who could make the offer.  And then, in that moment, as he prepared to die, the weight of every sin was laid on his shoulders.  Every sin.  The curse, the shame, the guilt of every man, woman, and child, in each and every moment.  The weight of every disease, the devastation of every earthquake, fire, and flood in this broken world.  All poured upon humanity’s fresh start, as God, the one who knows no sin, feels the desolation and utter separation not of one man’s sin, but of every evil thought, every evil deed, and every broken aspect of a world whose very nature is turned against God.

And just when it looks like evil has won;
just when it looks like those ravening, hissing jaws are closing in on the Son of God;
we hear those beautiful words.

“It is finished”.

It is finished.  No, not Jesus’ life. 
No, the promise has been fulfilled.  “It is done”.  God has kept his promise. 

Just when you thought the serpent was going to claim another victim:
No.  “It is finished”.  The Son of Man has crushed the serpent’s head.

We call today “good” because God kept his promise.
We call today “good”, because this is the day that everything changed.

Or has it?

Jesus broke down the gate of hell; Jesus loosed the chains of death; Jesus opened the path to eternal life. 

But you and I, more likely than not, are going to leave today, just as we came.  Bearing the same weight, and guilt, and shame. 

But we call today “good” because it doesn’t have to be that way.

We feel weighed down, we feel trapped, we feel chained in… but we call today “good” because Jesus removed the weight, broke down the wall, and loosed the chains.

He opened the path, and said “Come”. 

But most of us choose to sit. 

Most of us sit in the dark corner of sin’s prison, looking at the chains of shame on our hands and our feet, carrying a heavy load of guilt that keeps us from ever looking up… even though we don’t have to.  We sit in the dark corner of prison, not realizing that the wall’s been broken down.  We look at the chains of shame, not realizing that they’re not attached to anything, and, in Christ, we’re free to let them go.  We feel the weight of the world, not realizing that we’re the ones holding on the straps, not the other way around.

We call today “good” because God fulfilled his promise.

We call today “good” because sin, shame, guilt, and the fear of the grave have been defeated as the Son of Man crushed the serpent’s head.

But it’s only “good” if we get up, drop that weight, let go of those chains, and follow Christ up and out of the pits of despair that have become far too comfortable.

Today is truly “good”… but, it comes to each of us as a question:
Will you let this be good news for you? 
Will you share in Christ’s victory, and follow him out of the pit of despair?

Or have we become too comfortable to even realize the freedom that has been offered?

Who is Jesus, and why it matters.

Not too long ago – earlier last week, in fact – I asked a group of Christian people “who is Jesus”?

The answers were good: He’s the Son of God; He’s the Saviour of the world; He’s the Lamb of God who died for our sins; He’s fully man but also fully God; He came to teach us how to live and to show us God’s mercy.

And I found myself saying “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes”… those are all really great answers.  They’re all 100% true, they’re all essential beliefs for Christians in every time and every place.  But there’s one aspect of who Jesus is that I believe Christians often overlook, and that leads us to having a lopsided understanding of the Bible.

All of those answers: Son of God, Lamb of God, Fully man but fully God, and all the others are entirely true, but would have been a total surprise to any of God’s people in the Old Testament.  No, rather, as we read through the Old Testament, God’s faithful people are full of expectation, but it’s all tied to God’s promises.

Throughout the Old Testament, who are they waiting for? 

The Messiah – the anointed one who will fulfil the promises of God.

They’re waiting for fulfilment of the promises: through Moses, God promised that another messenger – greater than the other prophets – would come, a messenger who knew God face to face.[1] 
God’s people were waiting for that messenger greater than Moses.

God had promised to David that one of his offspring would sit on a throne that could never pass away, drawing in all the nations of the earth.[2] 
God’s people were waiting for the Son of David who would have an eternal throne.

God had promised to Abraham that, through his offspring, all the nations of the world would be blessed through obedience;[3] but as we know all too well, humanity’s skill is disobedience, and with a few exceptions along the way, by and large Israel hasn’t done a good job of blessing all those around them. 
God’s people were waiting for one who would reveal His glory to the world
.[4]

But first and foremost, what is that first ever promise that God makes in scripture?  That oldest promise – a solution to the mess that Adam and Eve have made for all people?

Genesis 3:15: “The offspring of woman will crush the serpents head”… not unlike John 3:15: “that everyone who believes may have eternal life”.

Jesus is the Son of God, He is the great Teacher, He is the Saviour.  But, [as we find ourselves reading about the baby of Bethlehem in the midst of Lent,] the essential point from the perspective of the Old Testament is that Jesus is the fulfilment of all of God’s promises.

The turning point of all history.

As we read the Old Testament, you can fell the tension building.  When will these promised things happen?

But this is the climax of The Story, and my friends, it’s also the climax of all of human history.  The coming of Jesus, the eternal Word of God taking on our humanity, God-with-us in the flesh changes everything.  Seriously – there’s good reason we mark history as “before the coming of Christ” and “after the coming of Christ”, and we’d do well to remember that the coming of God in the flesh, God breaking into the midst of our fallen world to fulfil what we could never fulfil ourselves, really does change everything about the world and our place in it.

What do I mean?

God with us.

In the beginning, the intention was that we would walk with God.  Not some spiritual nonsense or happy feelings, but that we would walk and talk with God, we would enjoy His company face to face, that we would know Him as He knows us, and in doing so, all our needs would be fulfilled because we’d be hanging out with the literal Creator of everything.  All we had to do was trust Him.

But they didn’t.  So there was a divide.  Death entered the world.

Now don’t think of death as a random punishment; it’s not.  It’s simply the consequence for choosing to walk away from the Source of Life.[5]

And that was the beginning of the end, right there in the third chapter, on those first few pages of your Bible.  They chose to walk away from the Source of Life itself.

And because God is the very opposite of everything death is about – God and people simply couldn’t be in the same place anymore.  It’s not that God didn’t want them there – He wanted them there so much that the rest of scripture is about how He did that! 

It’s just that there are some things you can’t force and you can’t fake.  You can’t force love, you can’t force trust; and it does no good to fake them either.

Now, as we know, God didn’t abandon his people. God is continually reaching out to them, continually breaking into the mess of the world, continually calling people out to be part of His plan.  When people actually get close to God, amazing things happen!  Miracles and healings, prosperity and peace; Moses’ face lit up light a lightbulb compared to the dark world around him!

But even Moses couldn’t see God face-to-face, because he was infected by death.  That serpent’s venom was handed down from generation to generation, and there was no way humanity could escape it.[6]

This is the problem.  This is why humanity can’t ever carry out God’s plans or fulfil those biggest promises as the years go by.  From our birth in a fallen world, we’re all sharing the same human condition, separated from the presence of God.

But as Bishop Ed Salmon used to say when he was up to his elbows in grease, fiddling around inside the engine of the old cars in his driveway, “the only way to fix a broken system is to get in there and get your hands dirty”.

That’s what the birth of Jesus is all about.  Have you ever thought of it in those terms?

The Son of God born in a manger in Bethlehem, living as one of us, and being rejected, pierced, hung on a cross, and laid in the dust of the grave is God rolling up his sleeves and getting his hands dirty, breaking into a fallen world to fix what we could never fix on our own. 

Hebrews puts it better: “Because the children of God share in flesh and blood, the Lord himself partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death”.  A flesh and blood problem needed a flesh and blood solution.

And so, this week, and as we head toward Holy Week and Easter, I invite you to think afresh about the work of Jesus.  As we read through the life of Christ, I invite you to see God rolling up His sleeves and doing what we can’t do for ourselves. 

And as we frame it all in the lofty words of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”, I want you to reflect on the sort of love that shows.  Love that will strip off all the majesty of Heaven so that he could become the lowest of the low, as once again God uses those whom the world rejects to fulfil his promises.

And as you read the gospels, I want you to do your very best to connect it all back to Genesis.

In the beginning God wanted to walk and talk and live with men and women, but they rejected Him.  In Jesus, God walked and talked and lived with men and women, making himself so vulnerable, free to be rejected once more.

And then grapple with the fact that, our faith and our belief is that God comes among us again and again, in His Word, in the bread and wine – the flesh and blood solution to our flesh and blood problem – that we will share today, and indeed He comes any time two or three are gathered in this messy world to talk about our faith in Him.  This Lent, grapple with the fact that God, through the Messiah who fulfils all of His promises, wants to walk and talk and live with us, and reaches out, even today, even though you and I are free to reject him. 

…But then remember this faithful promise, also made by the one who keeps all his promises “… to all who do receive him, who believe in his name, he gives the right to become children of God”.  He keeps all of his promises – and for that we say ‘to God be the glory’, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] Deuteronomy 18:15; Deuteronomy 34:10-12; Hebrews 3:1-6

[2] 1 Kings 9:5; Jeremiah 33:17-26;

[3] Genesis 22:18

[4] Isaiah 60:1-6

[5] Feel free to tell me that I’m undermining the wrath of God, but don’t worry: I certainly believe that judgment is real. I don’t, however, subscribe to any atonement theory that sees God as a jilted lover seeking revenge for Adam and Eve’s sin; rather, as a loving Father who is full of justice, there are consequences for their disobedience.  God’s righteous anger which burns against fallen humanity must be at their actions and decisions, since He ultimately and simultaneously loves them enough to send His only Son to save them.

[6] Though I’m focusing on the result (captivity and slavery to death) rather than the act of original sin, I do believe this to be a faithful rendering of the Augustinian idea of a seminal defect: that concupiscence and death are passed on in the “DNA” of humanity, which is precisely why a virgin birth is necessary: God injects an original, incorrupt line of human nature back into the human race.

God’s Plan for Trauma-Informed Reconstruction:

A Time of Reconstruction

All this week, I’ve been reflecting and meditating on this idea of rebuilding. 

I firmly believe that we find ourselves, here today, in a period of God-given reconstruction.  If you’re like me, perhaps you’ve realized that you need some renovations in your personal life.

Certainly, our church is in a period of rebuilding.

But it’s bigger than that.

Because, as much as televangelists and old-fashioned revivals might tell us different, faith isn’t just a personal matter. 

For God’s people, amazingly returned to the promised land with all that they need having been provided, it’s not just houses or city walls that need to be rebuilt.  The entire community needs rebuilding; the way people think, the way people care, the way people relate to one another all needs to be built up out of the rubble.

That was true in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, and I firmly believe it’s true today.

Thanks be to God: we don’t have the physical destruction that requires physical rebuilding.  But let’s be honest: we, as a community, as a nation, have been beaten down.

We see the light at the end of the Covid tunnel, and what do we find?  All of our systems are broken.  Government isn’t working; social services isn’t working; health care, education, the economy – it isn’t working as it should.  It needs rebuilding; and not just patching, like rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, it needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

But I believe we need to acknowledge, together, the toll these last few years of our lives have taken on us.  If it’s not too painful, think back through these past few years.  Every time we begin to feel there’s a reprieve from Covid, our society has been faced with something else.  Civil injustice and racism brought to light by the Black Lives Matter movement; the discovery of thousands of unmarked graves at residential schools; protests, blockades, and now a war; and still in this country thousands on reserves go without safe drinking water, though it doesn’t even make the news.

In our own community we’ve lost friends.  For long periods we’ve been unable to gather to grieve together, as we’re now realizing just how very different Fort Smith looks today compared to this time in 2020. 

And now, in the same week that we’re adjusting to loosened restrictions, our own community finds itself dealing with absolutely senseless violence, as a family grieves, and police continue to comb our streets.

Nobody’s in the mood for rebuilding.  We’re tired and worn down.  This never-ending series of events has taken its toll. 

But for me, one thing is clear: we can’t just “keep on truckin’”.  When the path you’re on is leading nowhere good, the answer isn’t to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

The truth is that all of us have experienced a chronic low-grade trauma. 

If we had experienced all of this at once, we’d be utterly broken.  But, as often happens with chronic traumatic experiences, the damage is done a bit at a time.  On the one hand that makes it manageable, or at least sort-of.  We learn to adapt with the terrible situations a little bit at a time.  The down side, however, is that we end up accepting the situation as “normal”; as a coping mechanism, we end up lowering the bar for what it feels like to be healthy and happy with each new traumatic experience. Finally our bodies and our spirits and our hearts are telling us that something is terribly wrong, but our minds are trying to convince us that the situation we’re in is “normal”.

We, our church, our community, our nation, needs to acknowledge the mess we’re in; and we don’t need to patch things up… we need to rebuild.

God’s Plan for Trauma-Informed Reconstruction:

Thanks be to God, scripture gives us a plan for trauma-informed reconstruction. It took science a thousand years to finally realize that trauma has an effect on the human person, but, not surprisingly, we read about it back in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah!

Now, I know what you might be thinking: after all that we’ve been through, we don’t have the energy to rebuild! 

But this is what we can learn from Ezra and Nehemiah.  You’ll remember that the people were divided.  They returned to Jerusalem in a heap of rubble, and the youth celebrated at the opportunity to rebuild, while the elders wept at all that had been lost.  This division became a barrier to moving forward, because everyone was concerned with their own interests. 

But God’s solution was for people to see the bigger picture, to see themselves as one family, one body, where the stronger support the weaker, where one shares memories to encourage the other, and where all realize that they need the other: that, in spite of the disagreements or weakness or sadness or pain, they are better together than they could ever be on their own.

And finally, once they are united, we see what I believe is a biblical pattern for moving forward through the pain and trauma we’ve all experienced in the past two years.

1. Do what you can do.

When Nehemiah set out to rebuild the walls, he ordered everyone to start carrying stones.  But what did he quickly realize?  Not everyone is called to do the same work.

Some were energized, strong, tired of being idle, and finding themselves in trouble because they didn’t have enough to do.  They needed to get to work.

But, through no fault of their own, others weren’t able to carry stones.  They were anxious, as rumors of wars circled around them; they were weakened by years of exile and division.  They became the defenders of the community. 

Now, what sort of defenders do we need in our rebuilding?  We need those who watch out for us, ensuring we’re taking care of ourselves.  We need those who can offer a word of encouragement, or just put on a pot of tea and share the sort of personal contact we all need to re-learn after two years of low-grade trauma.

But that’s huge: like the people of Israel, in our own rebuilding, we need to learn that it’s ok for different people to be called to be involved in different ways, as long as we’re supporting one another, following where Jesus leads..  Some move bricks, some care for and watch out for those who are moving bricks; all together, God uses his people to rebuild their community.

2. Read the Bible.

I’m struck in today’s lesson just how seriously they take the word of God.  Before the exile God sent prophet after prophet, but no one cared.  At best they smiled and nodded, they said ‘I’m spiritual, not religious: I like to have my Baal statue and my Ashtoreth pole, since there’s many paths to God’.  It wasn’t until their society collapsed that God’s people realized that they weren’t taking him seriously.

As we rebuild our personal lives, and this church, and this community and our great nation, we need to be serious about the Bible. 

Not to beat people over the head with it.  Certainly not.  But to submit ourselves to it. To acknowledge that it’s primary message is that I’m wrong, I need God, I can’t do it on my own, and that our one and only hope in life and death is that we are not alone but belong to God.  That’s our message.  And yes, that sort of dependence is utter foolishness to many in the world around us… until it isn’t.  Until it finally clicks, when their eyes are opened and they see how the last thing we really need is any sort of independence or progress on the road that we’ve been on.  What we need is to trust in the one who keeps his promises, who can do more than we can ask or imagine when we put our trust in Him.

3. Tune out those seeking their own good.

This is a tough one.  Remember when Nehemiah was rebuilding the walls?  The governors of the surrounding nations sent him letter after letter, they would send messengers and drop by unannounced… to do what? 

To discourage.

Why were they set on discouraging God’s people?  Because they were profiting from the mess the world was in. 

This is a big one.  Part of trusting in God, in being serious about his Word, is learning to tune out those who are seeking their own good, those who are exerting their own power and control instead of learning to rely on God. 

Nehemiah, it says, simply ignored the letters.  That’s easier said than done, isn’t it!

But part of the work of rebuilding means learning that, if something is really true, we don’t need to justify it, or argue about it.  We can simply rely on that which is true, and let those discouraging voices wear themselves out. 

Again, this is where it’s important to have those defenders – those people in the family of the church who are encouraging and supporting and making a cup of tea for those who need it!

4. Be Doers of the Word

Finally, as we learn from the Letter of James, we need to be doers of the word, not just hearers.  The work of rebuilding our church; the work of rebuilding our community and our society means that we hear God’s Word and then do it.

We hear our need of repentance, so we repent.

We hear our own need for forgiveness, so we offer it to others, lavishly and with patience.

We hear the message – not that we’ve got it all together, but that we need to bind the broken, to build up those who feel beat down, and to call the world into a relationship with God and ourselves, so that all the nations can be blessed through us.  So we do it. 

For some of us, that means getting serious about the calling that God has on your life for ministry; as more than one person in this congregation is discerning a call to training and a greater ministry in the community.  But, for most of us, that means being serious about #1 – doing what you can do.  If you can’t do the heavy lifting, encourage those who can.  If the only load you can carry right now is to boil the kettle, pick up the phone, and invite someone over for a chat, do what you can do.  You never know, the person who looks busiest might really be longing for that invitation, and in need of some friendship and support themselves!

A Time of Rebuilding

Our world, our society, our church: we’re all in a time of rebuilding.

We need to acknowledge the trauma we’ve experienced.  We need to push back against lowering the bar of what is healthy, not to place demands on others, but to work together to rebuild a community that is supportive for us all, from the ground up.

God will build his Church.  He can heal our land.

For we know he keeps his promises.  With him all things are possible, and if we trust him, he’ll accomplish in us, weak as we are, far more than we can ask or imagine. 
To God be the glory now and forevermore.  Amen.

Note: With our bishop’s permission, we’ve set aside the Lectionary for this year and have been reading through The Story, a 31-chapter abridgment of the entire Bible aimed at increasing our awareness of God’s grand story of salvation found when we read Genesis – Revelation as a single proclamation of God’s love for us and his plan for the redemption of the World. Today’s readings at home were from Ezra 7, Nehemiah 1-2, 4, 6-8. We also read Psalm 147, James 1:22-25, and John 2:13-22.