Sunday, April 27, 2014

"Peace be with you" (a sermon for April 27th on John 20:19-23)

Who wants to be a failure? No one that I know! We’d all like to succeed, whether we’re talking about our work or our personal lives. Most people would like to have good marriages and strong families, with kids who grow up to be happy and successful as well. We’d like our businesses to succeed so that we can earn enough money to get by on, as well as having a sense of pride and satisfaction in what we do. Most clergy that I know want to be pastors of successful churches – churches that are growing in numbers and growing in the good effect they’re having in their communities.

And I suspect that all of us here today would like to be successful in our Christian lives as well. We’d like to get better at reading the Bible and praying; we’d like to be stronger in our faith, more resolute in turning away from our sins and learning new habits that help us follow Jesus. We’d like to be growing more like Jesus with every year that goes by. Who wouldn’t want to be a successful Christian?

No, we don’t want to be failures who find ourselves falling back into sinful habits that we thought we’d gotten the better of. We don’t want to be people who let the Lord down. We don’t want to be people who are too scared to speak up for him when all our friends are dissing the Christian faith. We don’t want to be people who run away and abandon Jesus when he is arrested and taken to trial before the high priest and the Roman governor.

And that, or course, is exactly what the disciples we read about this morning had done. On the night before Jesus died, when he was arrested in the garden, they had run away and abandoned him to his fate. Peter and John were a little braver; they had followed the guards to the high priest’s house, and Peter had even gone into the courtyard. But there he was recognized, and his courage failed him, and he denied three times that he even knew Jesus.

Imagine the feelings of these men and women on the first Easter Sunday when they begin to hear strange stories about the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Jesus. No doubt they felt as we would have felt. No doubt they were caught between joy and skepticism, not knowing whether they dared believe it. No doubt they were also caught between excitement and fear. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if it was true? If we really did see him alive again, we’d know for sure that he was right, and that he really was the Messiah God sent. But wait – what’s he going to say to us? Is he going to remember that we all abandoned him and ran away? You know what he’s like: if he’s frustrated or angry with us, he’s never slow about expressing it! Do you think he’s going to have any time for the likes of us, after what we did to him on Thursday night?”

Let’s remind ourselves again of what happens. Look with me at John 20:19-20:
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said “Peace be with you”. After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

‘Peace be with you’ was a fairly common greeting in those days; the Hebrew word of course is ‘shalom’, and if you go to the Middle East today I’m told that you will often hear a similar greeting: ‘salaam!’ – also meaning ‘peace’. But the fact that John has Jesus saying it three times in the space of eleven verses must mean that there’s something more than convention going on here! A few hours earlier, the risen Jesus was walking on the road to Emmaus with two of his followers, who had not yet recognized him. They told him about all the things that had happened on Good Friday, and Jesus’ response to them was not ‘peace’ at all; it was “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared” (Luke 24:25). Now this is more like the Jesus they know and love! And surely the disciples in the upper room must have been expecting something similar.

But no, Jesus utters not one word of rebuke for all that happened on Thursday night; he says “Peace be with you”, and then, significantly, he shows them the wounds in his hands and his side. His resurrected body still carries the marks of his suffering. And why had he gone through that suffering? For them, of course, and for us too! The reason he had hung there on the cross was because of all the sin and rebellion and failure of the human race, from beginning to end - including the failure of his eleven frightened apostles who’d run away and left him to his fate. And you and I are included in that, too. Jesus has willingly given his life for all of our failures, so that we can be forgiven.

What does that mean for us? St. Paul says ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1). You and I have been brought into union with Jesus through faith and baptism. So there is no condemnation for us. We all fail the Lord, every day, but this need not disqualify us from ever being able to do anything for him again. We can bring our failures and sins to his cross, ask him to forgive us and to help us to do better, and then get up and try again in his strength. And just as he did for the disciples in this story, Jesus takes away our guilt and gives us peace in return. “Peace be with you”; that’s his first word to us today.

But it doesn’t end there. This was a very confused group of people. They’d expected that Jesus was going to set up the kingdom of God on earth, drive out the Romans and bring justice and peace for Israel. After all, he was the Messiah and that’s what the Messiah was supposed to do. But then he’d been arrested and crucified. That wasn’t in the script they had. As far as they could tell, God had abandoned Jesus to his fate, and that must have meant that Jesus had been wrong and they’d been wrong too. So they had been wasting the last three years of their lives; they’d built them all on a lie. What were they to do now? They had no clear plan about that. They were confused about the past and they were confused about the future as well.

In Luke’s version of this story, in chapter 24:44-47, he adds a detail that doesn’t appear here in John:
Then (Jesus) said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you - that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled”. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem”.
‘He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures’. In other words, he helped them see that the death he’d suffered on the cross wasn’t just a tragic accident, but it was part of the plan from the very beginning. No doubt they remembered him foretelling that he had come to give his life to ransom many people. And suddenly the light went on in their minds; suddenly it all made sense for them. The only way they could think of later to explain their sudden understanding was to say that he had ‘opened their minds’.

But if the past had become clear, the future suddenly became very clear too. Look at John 20:21: ‘Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you”’. You thought you were going to quietly wander off and go back to fishing, did you? Boy, were you wrong! Your life from now on will have a completely different focus: you must go all over the world and tell everyone what you’ve seen and heard. You must call people to turn from their sins and their previous allegiances, and put their faith in the Living Jesus as their Saviour and Lord.

In a couple of weeks we’re going to be having a Vision Day here at our church. We’re going to be thinking about basic questions like, ‘Why is our church here? What is the Mission God has called us to?’ The word ‘mission’ comes from the Latin word for ‘sending’, and here we see Jesus ‘sending’ his followers out: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”.

You and I are sent out into the world with the good news of Easter. By his death and resurrection, Jesus has won the decisive victory over evil and made it possible for us to be God’s friends again. Now Jesus is calling everyone to turn away from their sins, put their faith in him and become his followers. You and I are called to spread that message everywhere. Most of us aren’t being called to leave our jobs and homes to do it. We don’t need to do that. We already have a circle of influence there: Our families, our friends, the people we work with and associate with every day. Our job is to be the best advertisement for Jesus that we can be, by our lives and by our words, so that through our witness they come to believe in Jesus.

I remember the first time I had the joy of seeing someone come to faith in Jesus as a result of my witness – at least, in part; it was Steve, my best friend in high school. We had been playing music together, and I had invited him to come to church and help us out in our music group. He and I had many conversations in which faith came up, and eventually, through a variety of circumstances, he ended up sitting in on a confirmation class. At the end of the class it turned out that he had never been baptized, so I had the joy of standing beside my best friend when at the age of sixteen he gave his life to Christ in baptism. And I have the joy of knowing today that he is still following Christ, forty years later, and has been active in sharing the good news with others too.

There’s nothing complicated about this, and it doesn’t need to be scary. I never saw Steve as an evangelism project; we were simply two friends talking about things that were important to us, and the Holy Spirit used that to lead him to faith in Christ. This is our call as Christians today. Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. He calls us to take his message out to others and invite them to become his followers too.

So we’ve seen that Jesus comes to his disciples with a greeting of peace: the past is forgiven, and there’s an opportunity for a fresh start. He also gives them a new purpose in life: they are to continue his mission of taking the good news of the kingdom of God to all people everywhere.

Now at this point you may be thinking “That’s too much for me. I can’t talk to people about Jesus. My friends won’t want to know me. People will laugh at me. I’m going to fail again and let the Lord down and so I’ll be right back at the beginning of this passage all over again!”

These fears are natural, of course, and I’m sure the first Christians had them too. In fact, they probably had an even worse case of the jitters than we do! After all, Jesus isn’t asking most of us here to go very far with the message: just our part of Edmonton. And he’s not asking most of us to go up to strangers on the street and talk to them about the Gospel: just our friends and family. But look at what these men and women in our story today were asked to do: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The ends of the earth!

These men and women weren’t superhuman, you know. They weren’t saints in stained glass windows. They weren’t professional priests, and they’d never been to seminary. They had no special training in evangelism, and they’d conclusively demonstrated on the night that Jesus was arrested that they weren’t  especially strong or brave. My guess is that when Jesus told them to go into all the world and spread his message, they were every bit as terrified as you are.

Jesus knew that, of course, and he knew that by themselves they just weren’t up to the job. But look what happens next in the story, in verse 22: ‘When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit”’. In Acts, Jesus adds, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8). Jesus came to them in their weakness and gave them power, the power of the Holy Spirit. And he gives us that same power.

This means that we can relax, knowing that this witnessing business isn’t something we’re doing all by ourselves. It’s a partnership; we learn to walk in step with the Holy Spirit and take advantage of the opportunities he gives us. Personally, my experience is that the opportunities that we didn’t plan for are sometimes way more effective than the ones we did! Sometimes we’re involved in conversations with friends, and something gets said, and suddenly there’s an opportunity for us to put in our little word of witness. We don’t need to get uptight about it; the Holy Spirit is well able to use whatever we offer. Once we start taking the risk of trusting him and taking those opportunities when they come our way, we’ll be amazed at how sometimes just a few words can make a lot of difference in a person’s life.

Are you intimidated by the fact that, just as the Father sent Jesus, so now Jesus is sending you? Of course you are! Who wouldn’t be? But here’s my suggestion: take Jesus up on this promise of the Holy Spirit. Every morning come to him in prayer: “Lord, please give me opportunities today to be a witness for you, and also, please fill me with your Holy Spirit so that I can recognize those opportunities and make the best possible use of them”. That is a prayer that God will never fail to honour.

Let’s go round this one last time. This isn’t just a story of something that happened a long time ago. In a sense, you and I are in that upper room with the first disciples too. Just as the risen Jesus came to them, so he has come to us with his words of peace: not reproach for our failures, but forgiveness and restoration. He has come to give us a new purpose in our lives: carrying on the mission the Father gave to him, sharing the good news of the Kingdom of God by our actions and by our words. And because this isn’t something that’s humanly possible, he’s come to give us a new power as the Holy Spirit fills us and equips us to do this work together.

These gifts are all possible because Jesus is alive. A dead Jesus, of course, would be much less demanding, and maybe sometimes we’d prefer that! But the real Jesus is not dead; he’s alive, and he’s at work in the world spreading the love of the Father, just as he always was. You and I are called to be more than just churchgoers; we’re called to be missionaries, joining Jesus in this work of spreading the Father’s love and inviting people to be reconciled to God. This is not a burden: it’s an adventure, made possible by the joy of the resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit. Personally, I’m excited about it. I hope you are too!

Friday, April 25, 2014

April 28 - May 4th, 2014

Events This Week

April 28th, 2014
Office is closed.
3:30  Loshbough Rental
May 1st, 2014
7:00 am Men’s & Women’s Bible Studies at the Bogani CafĂ©
2:00 pm Women’s Afternoon Bible Study @ M. Rys Home
May 4th, 2014  3rd Sunday after Easter
9:00 am Holy Communion
Coffee between Services
10:30 am Holy Communion and Sunday School & Baptism
Coffee after Baptism

Remembering Joan: On Thursday, May 15th, 2014 @11:30 a.m. the Lunch Bunch will be remembering Joan Reiffenstein at St. Margaret's Church! Everyone is welcome. Please bring your stories and pictures! There is a sign up sheet in the front foyer or call Julie Holmes at 435-4208 or Lesley Schindel at 989-3833 if you will be attending.

DATE CHANGE!!!!!! We will be having our 2nd annual Garage Sale on May 31st, 2014!!!! Please start saving your old items for this fundraiser. Sign up sheets are on the table in the foyer.

On Saturday May 10th from 9.00 - 3.00 the Rev. Nick Trussell will lead us in a Vision Day which is designed to help us create a new Mission Action Plan for our parish.
Mission is what we do to share the love of Christ in actions and words with our neighbours near and far. A plan is a simple tool to help us do this effectively and intelligently.
I hope as many people as possible will come to the Vision Day on May 10th. Sign up sheet is on the foyer table.

Rosters for May 2014

May 4th, 2014   3rd Sunday after Easter & Baptism
Coffee between services & after service.
Greeter/Sidespeople: T. Willacy/T. Wittkopf           
Counter: T. Willacy/D. Sanderson                                   
Reader: D. Schindel                                   
(Acts 2:14a, 36 – 41,Psalm 116: 1-3, 10-17, 1Peter 1: 17-23)
Lay Administrants:  D. MacNeill/M. Rys                       
Intercessor: C. Aasen  (use form on p. 155 only)                       
Lay Reader: B. Popp              (Luke 24: 13-35)                       
Altar Guild (white)M. Woytkiw/L. Pyra (Baptism)
Prayer Team:            L. Sanderson/ E. Gerber                       
Sunday School (School Age):  M. Aasen
Sunday School (Preschool): T. Laffin
Kitchen: - 9:45 am   J. Johnston/ 10:30 - Hospitality           
Music: M. Eriksen
Altar Servers: E. Jayakaran

May 11th, 2014   4th Sunday after Easter  
Mother’s Day
Greeter/Sidespeople: The Hughes           
Counter: G. Hughes/B. Cavey                                   
Reader:  T. Cromarty                                   
(Acts 2: 42-47, Psalm 23, 1Peter 2: 19-25)
Lay Administrants:  C. Aasen/D. Schindel                                               
Intercessor:  D. MacNeill                       
Lay Reader: L. Thompson            (John 10: 1-10)                       
Altar Guild: (white)M. Lobreau/A. Shutt
Prayer Team: M. Chesterton/K. Hughes                       
Sunday School (School Age): M. Cromarty           
Sunday School (Preschool): M. Rys
Kitchen:  B&L Popp
Music: E. Thompson           
Altar Servers: A. Jayakaran

May 18th, 2014   5th Sunday after Easter
Greeter/Sidespeople: The Aasen’s           
Counter:  C. Aasen/R. Mogg                       
Reader: S. Watson                       
(Acts 7: 55-60, Psalm 31:1-5,15-16, 1Peter 2: 2-10)
Lay Administrants: D. MacNeill/T. Wittkopf                       
Intercessor: L. Thompson                                   
Lay Reader: E. Gerber                        (John 14: 1-14)
Altar Guild (white)P. Major/K. Hughes
Prayer Team:  S. Jayakaran/M. Rys                                      
Sunday School (School Age): J. Oujla           
Sunday School (Preschool):  J. Oujla
Kitchen:  E. McFall                       
Altar Servers: E. Jayakaran

May 25th, 2014   6th Sunday after Easter
Greeter/Sidespeople: The Schindels           
Counter: D. Schindel/D. Sanderson                                   
Reader: B. Popp                                               
(Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66: 7-18,1Peter 3: 13-22)
Intercessor: B. Popp                       
Lay Reader: D. MacNeill            (John 14:15-21)           
Altar Guild (white):  M. Woytkiw/MW            
Sunday School (School Age):  K. Durance
Sunday School (Preschool): T. Laffin
Kitchen:  B. Cavey
Music: R. Mogg                       

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Lord of All (a sermon for Easter Sunday on Acts 10:36)

On Good Friday we were talking about the incredible scene in John’s Gospel where Jesus is on trial before Pontius Pilate. Jesus has been brought to Pilate as a potential rebel against the Roman Empire, one who claimed to be ‘King of the Jews’. Of course, he doesn’t look very much like a king – this carpenter rabbi from Nazareth with his ragtag band of followers doesn’t look like much of a threat to the mighty legions of the Roman Empire. But Pilate has to be careful; unlikely-looking figures have started revolutions before, and if the crowds get behind them, things can get messy.

So Pilate questions Jesus, and at one point he gets frustrated because Jesus won’t answer his questions. He says, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” And then Jesus looks at him and says, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:10-11).

Here are the kingdoms of this world going head to head with the kingdom of God. Pilate is the representative of the Roman Empire; he commands the legions and he has the power to kill anyone who gets in his way. And he’s quite prepared to assert that power over Jesus. Jesus, on the other hand, has walked all over Galilee and Judea proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand: that God, not Caesar, is the true ruler here. Even now, when he’s on trial for his life, Jesus still maintains that God is in control. Pilate thinks Jesus is on trial in his court, but Jesus thinks Pilate and the whole world are on trial in the court of God. Pilate thinks there are enormous consequences for Jesus if he gives the wrong answers to his questions. Jesus thinks there are enormous consequences for Pilate, and the whole world, if we reject the one God has sent as his anointed King.

Less than a decade after this scene in Jerusalem, another Galilean preacher stood in front of another representative of the Roman Empire, albeit a much more friendly one than Pilate. The Galilean preacher was Simon Peter, and the representative of Rome was the centurion Cornelius, a godly man who had been told by an angel to send for Peter and listen to what he had to say. We read the words Peter spoke to Cornelius and his household in our reading from Acts this morning; let me remind you of a couple of verses:
Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation everyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all” (Acts 10:34-36).
Jesus Christ is Lord of all – what a breathtaking claim for Peter to make. How had he come to believe it?

He had come to believe it because of Jesus’ resurrection. Peter and his friends had thought that the mission of Jesus was over on Good Friday. Jesus had obviously been wrong, and Peter had wasted three years of his life following him. But on the third day Jesus triumphed over the greatest enemy any human can face – death itself. If he was Lord over death itself, what could possibly be left outside the scope of his authority? And so Peter and his companions devoted the rest of their lives to spreading the good news that their Jesus, the loving, wise, and sometimes infuriating Master they had followed for three years, was in fact the one who God had anointed as Lord of everything and everyone.

Let’s go back to the Friday night after Jesus died. The Sabbath day started at six o’clock in the evening, and all the stores were closed. The women were not able to buy all the supplies they needed to properly prepare Jesus’ body for burial. So they promised themselves that they would come back after the Sabbath and finish the job. Jesus was buried hurriedly in a rich man’s tomb, a cave in the hillside with a huge stone rolled over its entrance. Later on that night, a Roman guard was posted to keep it secure.

It’s a little difficult to be sure of all the details of what happened on Sunday morning. Not surprisingly, when they started writing down the events years later the eyewitnesses didn’t always remember everything right. What order did things happen in? How many women went to the tomb? Who exactly said what? Did Mary Magdalene see Jesus first by herself, or was she with someone else at the time? This shouldn’t surprise us, of course; eyewitness accounts are often like that, and when the early church was deciding which books should be included in the New Testament, they very wisely chose not to try to harmonize the four accounts of Jesus’ resurrection.

But we can be sure of the main events of that Sunday. Early in the morning the women went back to the tomb and found the stone rolled away, and no sign of the guards. Inside the tomb the body was gone. Interestingly, though, the grave clothes were not – and the women probably grasped very quickly that this made it very unlikely that it was the work of grave robbers, who would have left the body and taken everything else. Some accounts say that the women saw a vision of angels who told them that Jesus had risen. However, they were understandably terrified and they all ran away. Some accounts say they saw Jesus at that time; others say it wasn’t until a little later.

When Peter and John heard about this, they ran to the tomb and found everything as the women had said. After they left, John’s gospel tells us that Mary stayed weeping by the tomb, and there she had an encounter with the Risen Jesus. Later that afternoon Jesus also appeared to Peter, but we aren’t told anything about that meeting.

That same afternoon, two of Jesus’ followers were walking to the village of Emmaus when Jesus came and walked with them. At first, mysteriously, they didn’t recognise him. But when he entered their house and broke bread with them their eyes were opened, and they ran back to Jerusalem with the news. The apostles were gathered in the upper room where they had eaten the last supper. There at last Jesus appeared to them as a group.

For a period of forty days these appearances continued. Jesus’ followers never knew for sure when he might show up! And even though they didn’t see him again in the same way after he ascended into heaven, they all believed strongly that he was still with them, in a way that was very real to them. And so they went out and shared this good news with the whole world, as he had told them to do.

What impact did these events have on these early Christians? What impact do they have on us today? Well, one thing we can say for sure that the early Christians believed is this: the Resurrection means that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.

The world in Jesus’ day was ruled by an evil tyrant: the Roman emperor. Of course, the Romans themselves didn’t think they were evil; they thought they had brought peace, justice and good government to the world. But conquered peoples tend to see this differently, as the British learned in the last century to their cost. Two of the titles the Romans gave their emperor were ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’; he had the power to save any who called on him should he decide to do so, and his authority was absolute.

But now the apostles went out and told everyone that their Master Jesus was the Saviour of the World and the Lord of All – the very titles Romans gave to their emperor! The apostles called this message ‘The Gospel’ – the ‘good news’ – the message that the one who will have the last word in history will not be an evil tyrant, but their loving Lord who gave his life for everyone. The final triumph will be the triumph of good, not evil.

We all know that the history of the world is littered with the graves of formerly powerful people. Empires and emperors come and go. Napoleon’s empire passed away, and so did the Third Reich and the British Empire. One thing all the tyrants of history have in common is that they all died! Lenin’s body was preserved in Red Square for seventy years after he died, but he never spoke or did anything after his death. In all of human history only one leader has been raised from the dead: the one who lived, not by the love of power, but by the power of love. He alone is Lord of all, and on the last day his authority will be supreme. In the Christian Church, we’ve always believed that this is really good news!

Nonetheless, questions naturally arise in our minds about this. There is so much suffering in the world, so much injustice, so much anger and violence, and the question so many people struggle with is, ‘Where is God in all this?’ So if Jesus Christ is Lord, why isn’t he acting like a Lord? Why is he a hidden Lord? Why isn’t he putting down the evil and establishing the good? This is an excellent question and it goes to the heart of the way that Christians believe God works.

In some Christian circles you hear a lot about ‘the second coming of Jesus’, but in fact this phrase is not often used in the New Testament. Rather, the New Testament writers tend to use phrases like ‘the day of his appearing’ or ‘the day he will be revealed’. In other words, he isn’t absent: he’s present, and he is Lord, but at the moment his Lordship is hidden. It isn’t obvious right now as we look at the world around us – but one day it will be plain to all.

It’s a bit like the old story of the prince who fell in love with the peasant girl. If he made himself known to her as the prince, she would have no choice but to accept him; who would turn down the chance to marry a future king? But he wanted her to fall in love with him for who he was, not for his position and power in society. And so he disguised himself as a peasant too, and wooed her in that disguise. Only after she had accepted him did he reveal to her who he really was.

One day our Lord Jesus will be revealed for who he really is, the Lord of the universe, and everyone will have to acknowledge his Lordship. However, the deep longing in the heart of God is for people to acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus of their own free will. We sing a song around here with these lines in it: ‘One day every tongue will confess you are God; one day every knee will bow. Still the greatest treasure remains for those who gladly choose you now’.

And that leads to you and me, and our decision to follow Jesus as our Lord and King. How do we respond to this Easter Gospel story? I think there are three things that this message evokes in us; three words that I want to leave with you this morning.

The first word is joy. The Easter story tells us that on the last page of the story, love wins! Tyranny, evil, and death do not get the final word. Jesus was raised from the dead, we too will be raised from the dead one day, and Jesus’ kingdom of love will finally be seen for what it really is - the ultimate reality of the universe. And because of this, we’re full of joy this morning.

The second word is discipleship. In Matthew chapter 28 Jesus says these words to his disciples:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Because Jesus is Lord – because all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him – he summons all people to be his followers and to learn the new way of life of the Kingdom of God through him. This is what our baptism means – that we are apprenticed to Jesus as kingdom people. Our business as baptised Christians is to go back into our daily lives, into our homes, our places of work and leisure times, and learn to live in obedience to him day by day.

The third word is invitation. The song says ‘Still the greatest treasure remains for those who gladly choose (Jesus) now’. If we truly understand what this Easter Gospel is all about, we’ll go from this place today excited about sharing the joy of the resurrection with others. Jesus is alive, and he continues to do wonderful things in the lives of ordinary people. We’re called by God to tell others this good news and to invite them to become Jesus’ followers too. We’re called to be ‘contagious Christians’: people whose love and joy is truly infectious, people who change the world around them by the kind of people they are, and who invite others to do the same.

Joyful disciples of Jesus who spread his love to others: that’s what the Easter story calls us to be. May it be so, for you and me, with the help of our risen Lord Jesus! Amen.

Friday, April 18, 2014

What is Truth? (a sermon for Good Friday)

Note: this sermon has been strongly influenced by chapter three of Brian Zahnd's book Beauty Will Save the World.

A couple of years ago some of us here at St. Margaret’s did a group study on Brian Zahnd’s wonderful book Unconditional? It was a challenging book about the power of forgiveness, based on Jesus and his life and teaching. Brian showed us pretty convincingly that grace and forgiveness are right at the heart of Christian faith – God’s forgiveness of us through Jesus, and our call as Christians to be people of forgiveness ourselves, passing on the blessing we’ve received to those who have hurt us. In other words, ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’.

Brian has returned to this theme recently in a new book called Beauty Will Save the World. The title doesn’t mean what you think it means. The ‘beauty’ that Brian talks about in the book isn’t the beauty of a work of art or a piece of music or a wonderful landscape; it’s the beauty of the love of Jesus, that led him to offer his life on the cross rather than resisting his enemies and defeating them in a military confrontation. In other words, we’re back with the message of grace that Jesus demonstrates as he stretches out his arms on the cross; he accepts the worst that the world can deal out to him, and he responds with love and forgiveness.

It’s an amazing thing, when you think about it, that the cross could ever be seen as a thing of beauty. It’s an amazing thing that the Christian religion has adopted the cross as its number one symbol. Just look at our church today! Right at the front, the centre of everyone’s attention, is the Cross, and sometimes if the light is shining just right you can actually see the shadow of the cross on the wall on either side of it, so that it looks like three crosses together. Outside on the cell tower we have a cross, and we have a large cross on the corner of the property as well. There must be hundreds of crosses on churches in Edmonton, and some of the churches are even built so that their floor plan resembles a cross. The cross is also one of the most common items of personal jewelry. You can buy solid silver or gold crosses costing hundreds or thousands of dollars; crosses seem to be part of the required uniform of heavy metal bands, and many artists who aren’t particularly Christian still seem to feel the need to paint crucifixion scenes.

How did this happen? When you think about it, it seems quite strange, as strange as people wearing little guillotines around their necks, or churches decorating their buildings with gold and silver hangman’s nooses! In a few minutes we’ll sing ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’; imagine if we sang ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Electric Chair’? But that’s how it would have sounded to the early Christians. When Paul said, ‘May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Galatians 6:14), he was referring to a form of execution that the Romans reserved for traitors against the empire. ‘May I never boast about anything except the fact that our Lord Jesus Christ was executed as a rebel and traitor against the empire’! More than a little weird, don’t you think?

What has happened, in fact, is that Jesus has changed everything. By his death on the cross he has not only changed our relationship with God; he’s also changed the way we see death, the way we see the cross itself, and the way we see the world. Up until the death and resurrection of Jesus, the world was organized on the principle of power: God is on the side of the big battalions, might is right, and the way to solve the problems of the world is to use war and violence to impose your will on others.
Of course, we can still live that way if we choose to do so: the vast majority of people in the world still seem to make that choice, and probably the majority of Christians do so as well. But the death of Jesus has opened up a new possibility for us: we don’t have to live by the principle of power and violence any longer. Instead, we can choose to live by the principle of sacrificial love. In fact, we’d be wise to make that choice, because at the cross of Jesus the old way of violence and power has been tried and found wanting in the court of God, and it now stands under his judgement.

What do I mean by this? Well, turn with me to John 12:31-32. Jesus is speaking:
“Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”. He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
‘Lifted up’, of course, is a figure of speech for crucifixion. Jesus is making it clear that he understands how he’s going to die – in the open, for all to see, judged and condemned as a traitor against the Roman empire.

But Jesus also says some more mysterious things in this passage. He says that somehow his death is going to drive out Satan from being what he calls ‘the ruler of this world’. When the world organizes itself on the basis of power and violence and the cycle of revenge, then the world is making Satan the de facto ruler, and giving its allegiance to him. But if the world is reorganized around a new principle – the principle of forgiveness and self-sacrificial love – then Satan’s way of doing things has been rejected, and he’s been kicked off the throne in favour of a new ruler, one who exemplifies the new way of doing things.

But there’s something else here too. Jesus says that his crucifixion in some way judges and condemns the world; “Now”, he says, “is the judgement of this world” (v. 31). In other words, in the mind of Jesus there were actually two trials going on in our gospel reading for today: Jesus was being tried in the court of Pontius Pilate, but at the same time the world was being tried in the court of Jesus Christ, its true ruler. Let’s think about these two trials for a few minutes.

The gospels tell us that Jesus went through a religious trial before the Jewish high priest Caiaphas, his father-in-law Annas, and the Jewish ruling council. That council convicted him of blasphemy for claiming that he was the Son of God, and also calling himself ‘the Son of Man’. That, by the way, is a mysterious reference to the book of Daniel, where ‘one like a Son of Man’ comes before the throne of God and is given power and authority and a kingdom that will never end. Jesus said to Caiaphas: “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64). In other words, Jesus claimed that he was establishing the Kingdom of God and receiving God’s authority to rule over the nations. This was why the Jewish ruling council condemned him as a blasphemer.

But the Jewish council needed to make the charge stick with the Romans in order to get Jesus executed, and the charge of blasphemy was of no interest whatsoever to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. So Caiaphas played a different card before Pilate: he pointed out that to claim to be the Messiah wasn’t just a religious claim; it was also political. The Messiah was the king God was going to send to free his people from injustice and oppression. Jesus was claiming to be the true Jewish king, and that was a political matter. Potentially, he could be a threat to Roman rule.

So Pilate was forced to take an interest. Jesus was brought into his headquarters for questioning, and Pilate challenged him directly: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33). Jesus gave a rather cryptic answer, and then he explained himself:
“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (18:36).

The old King James Version translated those words as “My kingdom is not of this world”, and generations of Christians heard that as meaning, “My kingdom is not in this world”. But that can’t possibly be what Jesus meant; if it was, Pilate would have lost interest in him and let him go. A purely heavenly kingdom would be no threat at all to Rome. No: Jesus said, “My kingdom is not from this world”, or, we might paraphrase, “my kingdom is not like a worldly kingdom”. What’s the difference? Worldly kingdoms tend to be established by violence and defended by violence – “my followers would be fighting” - but Jesus is now establishing a new kind of kingdom in this world, based not on violence but on sacrificial love.

Well, now Pilate is confused. How can Jesus’ kingdom be a real kingdom without an army to enforce its rule and to defend its king? So he says, “So you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice”. Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” (vv.37-38).

Jesus is then taken away and flogged, and then brought back to Pilate with a bloody back, a crown of thorns on his head. Pilate tries to question him again, but Jesus is silent. Eventually, frustrated, Pilate says, “Do you not know that I have power…to crucify you?” (19:10). This, you see, is Pilate answering his own question. What is truth? Truth is power: the power to kill is the ultimate truth in Pilate’s world. And it’s the ultimate truth in the world today too. The principalities and powers, as Paul calls them, have organized this world in such a way that power, especially violent power, is the bottom line, the ultimate truth. This is why Jesus refers to Satan as ‘the ruler of this world’.

In this encounter, you see, Pilate and Jesus are both witnessing to their truth. For Pilate, the ultimate truth is that the world is run by men of power, who have the power to enforce their will by killing people. If you want to get ahead and live successfully, you have to organize your life around this basic fact: don’t annoy the men of power, because they can do bad things to you. So you’d better do what they say, whether you like it or not. What is truth? The truth is the cross, Pilate says: “I have the power to crucify you”. The cross to Pilate is a symbol of the power of the empire; it’s a symbol of the view that violence is the ultimate answer.

Jesus also believes that the truth is the cross, but not as a symbol of power. To Jesus, the cross is the way he is going to draw all people to himself. It’s a symbol of a willingness to die rather than inflict harm on others. It’s a symbol of indestructible love: You can kill Jesus, but you can’t kill his love for you. Even as he hangs there, he’s praying for his murderers: “Father, forgive them”. Ultimate truth, Jesus is saying, is not power enforced by violence; it’s love expressed through forgiveness.

The philosopher Nietzsche thought that Pontius Pilate got the better of this exchange, and on the face of it, it looks as if he’s right. After all, Pilate was able to force his will on Jesus; he was able to have him killed by nailing him to the cross. He was able to remove the potential threat to the Roman empire. So it looks as if Pilate was right: truth is power.

We can be tempted to feel that way today. What’s the good of loving your enemies in a world where enemies inflict so much evil? What’s the good of forgiveness in a world where people inflict such heinous crimes on each other? What’s the point of trying to follow the way of Jesus when it seems so impractical? And so we can easily be tempted, as Brian Zahnd points out, to believe in Jesus but not to believe in Jesus’ ideas. In fact, I would suggest that large parts of the Christian church, throughout much of our history, have believed in Jesus without believing in Jesus’ ideas.

Nietzsche, of course, felt as he did because he didn’t believe in the resurrection, and he didn’t especially believe in love, either. So he was more than a little biased, and when he declared Pontius Pilate the victor, there were a couple of things he overlooked.

First, he overlooked the victory of love. Yes, Pilate demonstrated conclusively that he had the power to kill Jesus. But the Good Friday story also demonstrates conclusively that he did not have the power to kill Jesus’ love. As the executioners were nailing Jesus to the cross, Jesus was praying for them: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The gospels also tell us that while he was dying in agony, with the weight of the sins of the whole world on his shoulder, he took time to speak to one of the revolutionaries who was crucified with him, and to assure him that he would be with him in paradise.

What’s going on here? God, the creator of all things, comes and lives among us as one of us, and the representatives of all that is best in the world – God-given religion, order, and good government – conspire together and kill him. We, the people, agree with their actions; when we’re asked what we want, we yell out, “Crucify him!” But how does God respond? Not by hurling lightning bolts and frying his enemies, but by love and forgiveness. This is the sacrifice that saves the world, when Jesus allows himself to be killed rather than to respond with violence and revenge. You can kill him, but you can’t kill his love for you. This is the victory of love.

Nietzsche also, of course, ignored the verdict of God the Father, because he didn’t believe in the resurrection. For the early Christians, this was the pivotal moment. On the evening of Good Friday, they all thought that the Jesus movement was a failure; Jesus couldn’t possibly have been the Messiah, because if he had been, God would never have abandoned him to his enemies like that. But then came Easter Sunday and the incredible realization that God had raised Jesus from the dead. What did it mean? Paul, writing about it twenty-five years later, said that Jesus ‘was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead’ Romans 1:4). Declared by whom? By God, of course! The resurrection was God’s declaration that Jesus was right and Pontius Pilate was wrong: truth is not power enforced by violence; rather, truth is love shown through forgiveness.

And this is the verdict of the heavenly court. As we said, Pilate thought Jesus was on trial in his court, but it turned out that the whole world was also on trial in the court of Christ. “Now is judgement of this world”, said Jesus (John 12:31). The story of the cross is the story of the trial of the world; we like to think we’re on the side of the angels, but when God comes among us, we choose Barabbas instead, a murderer and an insurrectionist. And we continue to choose the way of hatred and violence; just look at the movies we prefer to watch! Look at the wars that rage all over the world! But at the cross God has condemned this whole exercise, and given his heavenly endorsement to the way of Jesus by raising him from the dead.

So today we’re invited to choose, and there are no guarantees about that choice. If we live by the way of Jesus, we may well end up as he did, victims of violence and injustice. And although we believe he was raised from the dead, we have no proof of our own resurrection, other than his promise, “And I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:44).

Jesus’ kingdom is not like an earthly kingdom, but it is present, here and now, and all who want to enter it can do so, as we put our faith in him and learn the way of life he taught us. But the earthly kingdoms are still present too, of course; Pontius Pilate is still here, pouring scorn on Jesus’ truth and continuing to assert that power enforced by violence is the only real truth. One day, we’re promised, Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. But until that day, we walk by faith, not by sight. All we have to go on is God’s promise.

Is that enough? I guess that’s the question we each have to answer for ourselves. Is Jesus’ version of the truth right, or Pilate’s? And if we think that Jesus’ truth is the right one, are we going to take the risk, and make the decision to live by it?