Sermon: Honouring a Legacy

Originally preached in Chapel at Tyndale University College & Seminary on Wednesday, July 5th

Listen to the audio, here:

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How did you first hear of Jesus Christ? How was the faith transmitted to you? Do you ever think of what it took for the story of God to reach us in the year 2017, over 2000 years after the death of Christ? It’s easy to say, “well God makes it happen”. This is true, but God doesn’t work in isolation. He partners with us and that partnership doesn’t always seem fair or easy or for that matter bloodless. Much blood has been spilled to ensure the survival and continuation of this faith we call Christianity. We still encounter it today; thinking of our brothers and sisters in Syria and other places. I want today, to give us pause and cause to consider what it has taken to get us the message today. We will do this by delving into the brief but pivotal story of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian church.

To talk about the life of St. Stephen, we need to remind ourselves where we are in the story of Scripture. Through the Word, earth and the heavens were created and life began. The curse entered the world and so did death. The covenants of Abraham and Moses were established, leading to the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Humble and meek as a baby was He born. 33 years did He live, teaching and ministering to those he encountered preaching of the kingdom of God and encouraging all to follow Him to a better way. He was then arrested and condemned to death. 3 days later he rose from the dead and then ascended to Heaven. His life, work, and message were his legacy to the church. It was entrusted to them and through pentecost the church began.

As the mission developed it became clear that the Apostles couldn’t and shouldn’t do everything. They then appointed Deacons, of which one was St. Stephen. We don’t know a lot of about Stephen, but what we do know is important and his story his pivotal for the spread of the gospel.

As soon as Stephen is commissioned by the apostles he is described as a man full of faith and the holy spirit. A man who is full of grace and power, who performed many wonders and signs, in his ministry to widows. It was not long however before he drew the negative attention of the Jewish leaders and brought to trial on falsified charges. His face was described as being as bright as an angels.

The persecution of Stephen is a wonderful example of a believer who listened to his master and trusted the teaching he had received. In the gospel of Luke, it records Jesus as warning:

“12“But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake. 13“It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. 14“So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves; 15 for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute.”

When pressed to refute the charges again him, Stephen didn’t so much offer up a defence as he did a witness. His speech is masterful and leads us through the stories of Abraham, Jospeh and Moses. He reminds them what God did through each of these men. He talks about “our ancestors”, “our people”, how Moses received life-giving words to “passed on to us”, how “our ancestors” refused to listen to Moses. Further he reminds them that it is again “our ancestors” who carried the tabernacle with them through the wilderness. He is constantly including himself in the story – “our ancestors”, “our people”…

Then, he drops the bombshell and signs his own death warrant. The Jewish system was completely connected to the temple system. But, God, as revealed through Jesus is a boundless God. God’s love is so great that he circumvented the temple system and came to earth to bring salvation to His creation.

Stephen says: “The Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands… Then, quoting the prophet Isaiah says ”

Heaven is my throne,
And the earth is my foot stool.
Could you build me a temple as a good as that?
Asks the Lord.
Could you you build me such a resting place?
Didn’t my hands make both heaven and earth?

Queue the fireworks. Stephen has just used their own scriptures against them. This is a direct challenge to the temple system of the day. But wait, he’s not done yet. He was a man full of grace, spirit and power and he has’t even mentioned Jesus Christ yet.

Here we see a change in Stephen’s emphasis. No longer is he talking of “OUR” – our ancestors, our people, etc. As one who has accepted Christ’s message he knows the rest doesn’t apply to Him.

He continues and says “YOU stubborn people” – some translations will say stiff-necked – YOU stubborn people! YOU are heathen! – Stephen is not interested in making friends. You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. In the greek, the word ‘heathen’ can also mean ‘uncircumcised’. Now, remember, circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic covenant and an absolutely central component of their faith. He was now accusing them of being surface level believers. That their circumcision was literally, only skin deep. It did not penetrate their heart. We would hear similar words from Paul. In Philippians 3:3, Paul writes: For we who worship by the Spirit of God are the ones who are truly circumcised. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us. We put no confidence in human effort, OR in Romans 2:29 “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”

Must YOU forever resist the Holy Spirit.
YOUR ancestors did and so do YOU
Name one prophet YOUR ancestors didn’t persecute
THEY even killed the one who predicted the coming of the RIGHTEOUS ONE – THE MESSIAH
Whom YOU betrayed and murdered
YOU deliberately disobeyed God’s law.

YOU resist
YOU persecute
THEY killed
YOU betrayed
YOU disobeyed God’s law

YOU are HEATHEN!

Stephen clearly wan’t trying to talk himself out of the charge or his impending fate. He has submitted himself totally and completely the will of God, the spreading of the Gospel and calling the Jews to repentance. He was trying to save them. Stephen was directly pointing the finger of guilt away from him and towards them. He was calling them to a life free from the temple system, free from following strict laws, free from a limiting view of God to following the God of boundless love. To the truth that God is Love as personified in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Now, Stephens was standing trial in front of the Sanhedrin. The council, essentially the high court. So, we might expect that what came next would be the result of careful thought and deliberation. In fact – to skip to the end for a moment – Stephen’s death does not appear to have been an official judgement, but the result of a mob mentality. We know this because it does not appear that under Roman rule they had the authority to assign someone the death penalty. In John 18:31 the Jewish leaders, in order to convince Pilate to crucify Jesus, tell him they “have no right  to execute anyone” and thus the death of Stephen becomes a mob murder, rather than a state execution.

Stephen is granted a great comfort by God, when he looks up and sees the glory of God and sees Jesus standing in the place of honour at God’s right hand. It is curious that Jesus here is standing. Normally we are used to hearing of him sitting at the right hand… Is this just a different way of depicting Jesus? Is he standing in preparation of welcoming home his good and faithful servant, or is this an allusion to Daniel 7: 13-14, which reads.

I kept looking in the night visions,
And behold, with the clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man was coming,
And He came up to the Ancient of Days
And was presented before Him.

And to Him was given dominion,
Glory and a kingdom,
That all the peoples, nations and men of every language
Might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And His kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed.

Here the Son of Man, as Jesus also describes himself, is standing in judgement and if correct, this may mean that Stephen’s vision means that Jesus is standing in judgement of his accusers. So, no wonder then that his accusers became all the more enraged when he TOLD them what he had seen.

“Look! I see the Son of Man standing in the place of honour at God’s right hand!”

They rushed Stephen, taking off their own clothes – presumably to give them more freedom in the rock throwing arm – and began stoning Stephen – careful to ensure that they did so outside the boundaries of the holy city.

Stephen’s life, once again parallels that of Christ. In his anguish, in his pain, he manages to get out the prayer: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” AND “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!”

And then he died. But with his death, God was not defeated. His plans that all be saved were not derailed.

With this event, the first great persecution of the church began. The chief persecutor was Saul. Saul thought nothing of Stephen’s death and it seemed to embolden him and energize him to pursue his duties with vicious cruelty and vengeful anger!

What happens next is perhaps one of the most awesome and amazing bits of God’s story and early church.

The believers began to scatter all over; except that is for the Apostles. The greek word for scatter is as for the scattering of seed. Perhaps, like mustard seeds.

As the Gospel of Matthew records, Jesus said “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches.”

The grains of mustard seed that were the early church was forcibly distributed throughout God’s creation. The enemy was not winning; indeed this is an amazing example of using the enemy’s tactics against him. The seeds were spread and were planted. The gospel was spoken far and wide to eager ears, evil spirits were cast out screaming and the paralyzed and lame were healed, and many believed and were baptized. And there was great joy! And in the end, of course, Saul himself came to know the Lord Christ, repent of his wicked ways, and spread the Gospel even further, including through his letters so that we too may benefit from his zeal for the gospel.

St. Stephen, the first martyr of the church, did not die for nothing. His death was the catalyst for the spreading of the gospel defeating all the enemies designs. He also helped usher in one of the greatest evangelists of the new testament: Paul.

Stephen trusted in the legacy of Christ. He trusted in His teachings and message. Christ’s legacy of love inspired Stephen to serve widows, to exalt the name of Christ, even unto death. Even his death, with his plea that his murderers not be judged for their actions, was Christ like.

To all the Apostles, disciples, and believers who we read about in Scripture we owe our thanks.

To the early church, who stewarded the faith and the scriptures down through the ages, so that 2000 years later we can be here, living this faith, we owe our thanks. To the preachers of old, down to those who passed the faith on to us, we owe thanks. The faith depends on no one person, but an unbroken chain of disciples, filled with the spirit, who have as faithfully as they could and with the stewardship of the Holy Spirit, passed on the faith from generation to generation.

The question for us today is simple: in all the ways that we can live out our faith, in all that Christ has taught us, are we honouring our Christian past. Do we live in a way that honours our heritage, the blood shed by the Apostles, the witness of the martyrs past and present?

That is our call. To continue to pass this faith, bought by the blood of Christ and those who have come before us, down to the next generation and to encourage each other as we run the race.

Amen.

BENEDICTION
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Our Common Responsibility

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I’ve recently begun reading through Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Laudato Si (Praised Be To You) with a friend at work. It’s 184 pages, so not a quick read, though the language isn’t very technical (so far), so most of me readers should be able to get through it pretty quick if you want to.

It’s broken up into 9 separate chapters, each covering a different angle. I’m partway through chapter 2, and so far I’m enjoying it immensely. There is much that is challenging in it, comforting, and several things that make me grateful for the Catholic perspective on the issue of creation.

I don’t intend to provide a commentary on the entire letter, but only to highlight some of what my friend and I found of interest. I will post more as it appeals to me.

FOR ALL THE CHURCH
For all the talk that this is the “climate change” encyclical (and it is that), it is much more than that. I would submit that even if you don’t believe humans are contributing to global warming and negative climate change, what he presents should be taken on board by all Christians, as a call to the church universal’s responsibility to the creation, of which it is a part. There is a way in which we are to relate to the rest of creation which is proper and ordered, and the all too common way today, which is disordered.

Quoting Patriarch Bartholomew, who wrote “inasmuch as we all generate small ecological damage”, we are called to acknowledge “our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation”. (page 8) Using strong language, which will continue through the document, the Patriarch states that “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”.

Drawing on the life of his name sake, Pope Francis draws on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, who is describes as a “mystic and a pilgrim”, who was particularly concerned with “God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. ” (page 9).

Deriding our current mechanistic hermeneutic to reading the book of nature, (Pope) Francis, further recounts that (Saint) Francis’ “…response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. (page 10).

There is much talk of “calling” today. What do I feel called to? To what is God calling me to devote my life? Do we feel called to live in harmony with the rest of the created world, of which we are an integral part? Pope Francis believes our duty is clear: “Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.”

ULTIMATE RESPONSIBILITY NOT AUTHORITY
We all come from God. Yes, we have been given a unique place in the hierarchy of creation, but that position comes with ultimate responsibility, not ultimate power. It also restricts our power over our fellow creation. Francis connects our humanity with the necessity to fall in plan with God’s plan.

“Authentic human development has a moral character. It presumes full respect for the human person, but it must also be concerned for the world around us and “take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system”.8 Accordingly, our human ability to transform reality must proceed in line with God’s original gift of all that is.” (Page 6)

He further quotes Pope Benedict XVI who wrote “the book of nature is one and indivisible” and that “the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence”. We can’t go on living our lives assuming we can do whatever we want, just because we’re human, and think that the impact of those actions, are amoral, or worse, condoned by God.

Our responsibility to the rest of creation, is perhaps first a responsibility to recognize and affirm that all of creation brings glory to God, not just us. We must therefore tread carefully when we impact the ability of the rest of creation to bring glory to the God that created all us. Francis uses quite forceful language when he emphasizes this point: “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.” (page 25).

We, rightfully I think, applaud our artisans who create beautiful art and music, but what homage do we pay to the one who created the forests and the sky, the sunrise and sunset? Do we honour the artist by defiling their painting? Do we scrawl our own initials on it, and claim it to be our own? Never. So, why do we do the same with the paintings of God? Do we seek to replace the beauty of God with that which we create? Believing we can best the Creator-God?

Francis observes “We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.” (page 26).

We are all part of creation. Our unique and special relationship to God and His creation, is an authority in as much as we have ultimate responsibility, not ultimate authority. As our Lord Christ Jesus teaches us, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16 NIV).

Becoming too familiar with holy things.

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I just finished reading a wonderful spiritual reflection by an Episcopal priest, Marcus Halley, on why he has started wearing his cassock again. It’s beautifully written and although it is mainly of interest to his fellow Priests, he asks a question that’s important to all of us: Are we becoming too familiar with holy things?

Halley writes:

The Eucharist became another “task,” something else “to do” on a Sunday morning as we priests, the “professionally religious,” engage the hundreds of people who come to Church looking for something – peace, joy, community, love, fulfillment, coffee.  It became a ritual in the worst sense – a habit that I was too familiar with. That Sunday morning when I stood before God’s altar, holding the bread and wine that still seemed to me to be just bread and just wine, I had a moment when I wanted to cry because despite my best effort, I had become too familiar with holy things.

As a former pastor and now, sometimes small group leader, there’s nothing I enjoy more than leading communion. I think it’s one of the most amazing gifts the church has been given. It’s a mystery, it’s wonder, it’s basic, it’s deep, it’s… Something only God could construct.

Even if you don’t subscribe to a sacramental understand and prefer the term ordinance, the question is still valid. Do you take your Bible for granted, do you take the Church and other Christians for granted? How about your baptismal call? How about the death on the cross and resurrection of our Lord? How about your salvation and the leading of The Spirit, working in and through your life? Do you take the very existence of your faith for granted? Is it so well worn that it is no longer new?

Like Fr. Halley’s professor said, we must “always … be on our guard against becoming “too familiar” with holy things.

Fr. Halley found renewal in taking his eucharistic preparation more seriously.  It helped him renew his call as a Priest. How can you renew your baptismal call to live out the resurrection everyday, to be a witness to the Gospel and to seek the leadership of the Holy Spirit daily. Are there aspects of belief that are a little dried up and needs the living water of our Lord to renew them? 

Seek the LORD and his strength; seek his face continually.
Psalm 105:4
 

Believing in the Church

Henri Nouwen, in his Bread for the Journey:  Daybook of Wisdom and Faith, the reading for October 18, has challenged me once again:

The Church is an object of faith. In the Apostles’ Creed we pray, “I believe in God, the Father . . . in Jesus Christ, his only Son . . . in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” We must believe in the Church! The Apostles’ Creed does not say that the Church is an organization that helps us to believe in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No, we are called to believe in the Church with the same faith we believe in God.

Often it seems harder to believe in the Church than to believe in God. But whenever we separate our belief in God from our belief in the Church, we become unbelievers. God has given us the Church as the place where God becomes God-with-us.

I’ve never thought of it this way, the Church as an object of faith. Or, that, by consequence, the job of the church is not to help make us believe, at least not in the first instance.

Change wisely

Mountain Church Lisri

This is great article that outlines much of what the struggle I’ve been having with church these days. While I am eternally grateful for my current church for introducing me to Jesus, I crave more. I want deeper, more sacramental, more mystery and majesty, more awe and wonder than my current church can provide. Right now I find the answers in the ancient churches that aren’t so concerned with being hip and with it. If a movie theatre works for you, that’s wonderful, but I think they’re ugly, dark and a bit depressing (a friend recently described it as oppressive going to church in the dark of a theatre), I want beauty, stained-glass, and a crucifix to focus on when I worship, and solemnity and reverence. Then, when that’s over and I’ve been filled with Christ and renewed for the week to come, send me out, put me in the game, I’m ready to serve the world around me.

Andrea Palpant writes:

For more traditional congregations that struggle to keep youth in the pews, take heart. The old model isn’t necessarily lost. Praxis and churches like it have a place — they draw people who would otherwise never set foot in church, people who have a legitimate contemporary aesthetic that appreciates informality and mainstream music. But your church has a place, too.

Consider the changes that people go through between age 22 and 32. Consider that some of us in time renew our appreciation for the strengths of a traditional church: historically informed hierarchy that claims accountability at multiple levels, historically informed teaching that leans on theological complexity, and liturgically informed worship that takes a high view of the sacraments and draws on hymns from centuries past.

You can read the rest here.

Pope Francis’ First Encyclical “Light of Faith”

 

Pope Francis released the first encyclical of his Pontificate today. Sources say this was actually started by Benedict XVI. The former Pontiff’s 3 previous encyclicals had covered the virtues of “Love, Hope, and Charity” and this current release covers the topic of faith.

Read it here

The light of Faith: this is how the Church’s tradition speaks of the great gift brought by Jesus. In John’s Gospel, Christ says of himself: “I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (Jn 12:46). Saint Paul uses the same image: “God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts” (2 Cor 4:6). The pagan world, which hungered for light, had seen the growth of the cult of the sun god, Sol Invictus, invoked each day at sunrise. Yet though the sun was born anew each morning, it was clearly incapable of casting its light on all of human existence. The sun does not illumine all reality; its rays cannot penetrate to the shadow of death, the place where men’s eyes are closed to its light. “No one — Saint Justin Martyr writes — has ever been ready to die for his faith in the sun”.1] Conscious of the immense horizon which their faith opened before them, Christians invoked Jesus as the true sun “whose rays bestow life”.2] To Martha, weeping for the death of her brother Lazarus, Jesus said: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (Jn 11:40). Those who believe, see; they see with a light that illumines their entire journey, for it comes from the risen Christ, the morning star which never sets.

 

BIC Positions

If you’ve ever wondered what a typical anabaptist denomination believes on different issues, head on over to the website for the Brethren in Christ Church (US) where they have published a variety of pdf pamphlets on an array of issues. I have found these very helpful at various times to help others make decisions in light church teaching.

They cover:

Check them all out here