Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Faith, Hope and Love of Noah: Sermon, May 17, 2020

Who will harm you if you are zealous for good? But happy are you even if you suffer because of righteousness! Don’t be terrified or upset by them. Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience. Act in this way so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ may be ashamed when they slander you. It is better to suffer for doing good (if this could possibly be God’s will) than for doing evil.

Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this in order to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit. And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. In the past, these spirits were disobedient – when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water. Baptism is like that. It saves you now – not because it removes dirt from your body but because it is the mark of a good conscience toward God. Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at God’s right side. Now that he has gone into heaven, he rules over all angels, authorities, and powers.
1 Peter 3:13-22, Common English Bible

So we haven’t read a lot from the First Letter of Peter. It’s one of those books tucked in at the end of the New Testament, with Hebrews, James, Jude and so on, and we just don’t seem to get to it that often. But it does have some very meaningful things to say. The writer speaks about the story of Noah. We read two books about Noah and the ark during our children’s storytime, and went over the story of God telling Noah to build a big boat, two of every kind of animal, the flood and the rainbow. The First Letter of Peter talks about how God patiently waited during the time of Noah, and how Noah built an ark in which eight lives were rescued through water. It’s referring to the human family on board, Noah and Mrs. Noah – we never learn her name – their three sons and their daughters in law.

The letter uses the Noah story to make a point about baptism. But I think it can speak to us baptized people in this time. Look at this story – there is a disaster, a family is in isolation for a long period, they look for signs that they can come out, finally they do, they give thanks to God in worship. It’s all there in the Noah story, and it’s the story of our recent past, our present, and, we hope, our future.

This would be a good time to talk about what has been the theme of government news conferences the last week: reopening. People ask me, when will we be back in our church building. And the short answer is, I don’t know. Ontario just began the first phase of the three-phase reopening plan for the entire province. The United Church of Canada also has three phases in its guidance for governing boards as they decide when to reopen, in consultation with the province, local health unit, and United Church regional council. Phase one is reopening the building so small groups may meet in person, with physical distancing and wearing masks. Worship would continue to be online, or possibly outdoors. The second phase is resuming in-person worship, with appropriate health measures. Phase three would be full return, but still subject to health and safety regulations.

The guiding principle in these three phases of reopening is the safety of all who enter the church building. Let me say some more about this. You may have seen Facebook posts or heard people say something like, “how come 500 people are allowed in Home Depot but we can’t worship in church?” Well, let me respond. Churches are not businesses. We need revenue coming in because we have expenditures going out, but the similarities end there. We are not like Home Depot, or the health unit, or a charity, even if we have a charitable registration number. We are here, as the First Letter of Peter says, to proclaim that “your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” We are here to celebrate God’s presence, to live with respect in creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope. We are tell each other and tell others that in life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone. God is with us. No one else does this. Home Depot isn’t doing this. Our message includes but goes far beyond just saying “stay home and wash your hands.”

Church buildings will be among the last to reopen, because worship services, like other indoor gatherings, are what are called superspreader events. They are high risk activities involving a high risk population, because there are a lot of older people. And it is difficult to reduce these risks. There was a United church in Calgary that had its last worship service in the sanctuary the same day as us, March 15. There was a social time after church for a member’s birthday. They took all the precautions. There were fewer than 50 people there, so it was allowed. They stood six feet apart in the church hall. Those serving food used gloves and tongs. They did everything right. And yet of the 41 people there, 24 got the coronavirus and two have died.

To resume worship in the church building, the final phase of reopening, we would have to make significant changes to the way we gather. We probably won’t have greeters. There may not be a printed bulletin. We will have to sit six feet or more apart, and, yes, this means you may not be able to sit in your usual seat. We will probably have to wear masks. We may have to limit the number of people in the building. We won’t have any contact with each other. The entire space – pews, hymn books, floors, doors, everything – will have to be sanitized after every service. If you go to the washroom, that will have to be cleaned immediately before the next person can use it. And this is an even bigger issue, there will be no singing. Singing expels a cloud of droplets into the air, and if you have the virus, even if you don’t have symptoms and don’t know you have it, those droplets contain the virus. Someone could walk 10 feet from where you sat, 20 minutes after the final hymn, and become infected from the virus remaining in the air.

We have a responsibility that businesses don’t have. We can’t love and serve others, we can’t proclaim Jesus our judge and our hope, without obeying his commandment to love one another. If we are to worship again in the church building, we can’t just adhere to the letter of the health regulations. We have to act in the spirit of love. We need to learn the lesson of our siblings in that church in Calgary, who did everything correctly but are still desperate to relive that day and do it differently so no one became ill and no one died. The Board and the Session may decide that even with all this in place to let us worship in person, there is still too much of a risk of infecting people we love. Many of us may make that decision for ourselves and stay away. We would continue to have worship online to serve those who can’t come, and have to figure out how to serve those who currently can’t access worship online and would probably not be able to attend in person either.

It is perfectly understandable that we want to get back into the buildings that mean so much to us, and we want to see each other in person. We want to be back to normal. But what is “normal” will change. Think about Noah and his family. When they got off the ark, got back to normal, the normal was completely different from before. We know something about this here along the St. Lawrence Seaway, starting over after a flood.

And, you know, the Noah story shows that not reopening the building until we are good and ready isn’t about a lack of faith. Noah and his family didn’t get off the ark early. We need the faith of Noah and his family, who stayed on that ark for over a year, the Bible story says. And we need the hope they had, that their time on the ark would indeed end. First Peter says, “Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it.” We do have hope. We can defend our hope, telling anyone who asks that God is with us now in this time and will still be with us in the new normal, whatever that is like. And we need love. We can say that we are not living in fear now – we are obeying Jesus, who told us to love our neighbours. Scripture says, faith, hope and love abide, these three. Noah had all three despite a great disaster, the Christians First Peter was written for had all three despite persecution, and we have all three despite a pandemic. Noah and his family, the first Christians, neither had buildings to worship in, yet they worshipped, in faith, hope and love. And so do we, together with each other right now, no matter how long it takes to reopen fully.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Two Parades (Pandemic Edition): Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
“Tell the daughter of Zion, look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Matthew 21:1-11, New Revised Standard Version

I have said on other Palm Sundays that the story of this entire Holy Week is one of contrasts. The happy crowd of Palm Sunday, shouting Hosanna, and the angry crowd of Good Friday, yelling Crucify him. Celebration, and rejection. Joy, and abuse.

And another contrast is that there is more than one parade into the city. There is the one we just heard about, Jesus on a donkey in a crowd of excited pilgrims coming for the religious festival. That is one parade. The other is the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who travels to Jerusalem each year to take personal charge during the festival. One parade has happy shouts; the other has the tramp of Roman boots. One parade has waving palm branches; the other has imperial shields and spears and helmets. One parade has a poor Jewish man on a donkey; the other has the Roman Emperor’s representative on a war horse wearing full armour.

It seems to me on this very unusual Palm Sunday of 2020 that these contrasts are still with us. Churches all over the world are breaking bread and drinking the cup in the simple meal to remember Jesus – but online, to keep each other safe, to flatten the curve, as we say now. And the contrast is with the empire, just as it was in the time of Jesus, the empire of political and business power that is ramping up its calls to get rid of these measures to flatten the curve, to get everyone back to work, to let the virus run unchecked while – so they say – protecting seniors and disabled people. Of course, in reality seniors and disabled people, and people of all ages, would die in great numbers, but that’s a cost billionaires are prepared to pay. And just as in the time of Jesus there were religious leaders who disapproved of his parade, in our day there are pastors who want exemptions so they can keep their church buildings open and services full, when this will bring sickness and death to the people they are called to safeguard.

Two parades. Two visions of how to love, or not, our neighbours, of commitment, or not, to the common good. You know, in this time we can live without church buildings. What we can’t live without is the church, without love, without loving, without being God’s people, followers of Jesus Christ, called to be the church and love and serve others here and now in the circumstances we are in. Easter is coming, when love can’t be kept in the grave, when life bursts forth, when Jesus is raised from death to triumph over the culture of death too many of the world’s political and business leaders want to entrench. The Lord and Son of God isn’t the Emperor in Rome, who had those titles. The real king comes riding on a donkey. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Christmas Message We Need to Hear: Sermon, Christmas Eve, December 24, 2019

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. The census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was that, while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find the Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at these things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.
- Luke 2:1-20, New King James Version

If you visit our house at this time of year, you will notice that we have a few – as in a couple of dozen – nativity scenes, with the characters from the Christmas story. We have one from Honduras made out of corn husks, one I bought in Nicaragua moulded in clay, painted on wood from El Salvador, a couple from Ecuador with the characters dressed in Inca peasant clothing, more from the Cayman Islands and Indonesia and Bethlehem itself, and my parents’ nativity set in the original box with the tag telling me they paid $2.97 at Kmart. Our latest one is a gift from the Ingleside congregation and is a Canadian nativity, with a moose and beaver as the animals, Mary and Joseph in Mountie uniforms, and the baby lying on a maple leaf. Someone said it looks like the police are apprehending the baby. That’s a different the Christmas story!

And not all these scenes have all the characters, other than, of course, Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. Some don’t have wise men. Some don’t have shepherds. Some don’t have the animals. But nearly all of them have an angel. Because, perhaps, angels have the main speaking part in the story we just read, telling the shepherds about the baby and what his world-changing birth means, and proclaiming God’s glory and peace on earth. This is important – and the most important line in the story is the very first thing the angel says.

Do not be afraid. These are words the shepherds need to hear; they are out, minding their own business, earning a living such as it was, and as the story says, this angel appears and God’s glory shines around them, and they are greatly afraid. Terrified. Scared out of their wits. And the angel says, “Don’t be afraid.”

And this isn’t the first time an angel says this in the Christmas story. These are words Mary needed to hear. An angel comes to her and tells her that she, a young unmarried woman, will become pregnant and will give birth to a child who she will name Jesus and who will be called the Son of God. And Mary, the story says, is confused. As you would be. And the angel says, “Don’t be afraid.”

Now, the news that his fiancĂ© is pregnant causes Joseph just a bit of concern, and he decides to call off their engagement. But an angel appears to him in a dream, and says the words Joseph needed to hear. The angel says, “Don’t be afraid.”

What the shepherds needed to hear. What Mary needed to hear. What Joseph needed to hear. And, tonight, at Christmas of 2019, what we need to hear. Don’t be afraid. Because we spend a lot of time and effort being afraid – of what’s in the news, of changes in our culture, of what the future holds, of loss of a loved one or a relationship or a job or our health or even the Christmas we used to know. And the angel says, “Don’t be afraid… Look! I bring good news to you – wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your saviour is born today. He is Christ the Lord. You will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger” – and the angel’s words are true, and we will find our Saviour, God come to live among us, born as we were, in Bethlehem 20 centuries ago, and right here, right now, born in the hearts of everyone who makes room for him so they can sing with the angels, “glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace.”

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Book Review: Church Reformed

The Barnabas Agency was kind enough to send me a review copy of Church Reformed, by Tim Bayly (Warhorn Media, Bloomington IN, 2019, 166 pages) - it is available from Amazon in Canada and the United States.

I was intrigued by the news release, which says:

In the newly released Church Reformed, (published July 2019, Warhorn Media) Pastor Tim Bayly draws on over 35 years of ministry to address the failures of the American evangelical church. As he exposes the lies Christians have believed, he shows how the Church is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

Evangelical publishing has had a field day presenting solutions to the modern crises in our churches. As church attendance falters, books multiply—books on growth, strategies for reaching millennials, new models of doing church to appeal to youth, and on and on ad nauseam.

Too many of these models take their cue from the very trends and ideas that have caused the problems. But what if there was a way to climb out of the hole we’ve dug? What if the church found the power to attract people we thought we’d lost—just by returning to a humble, biblical pattern of church life?

Church Reformed is a call to embrace what we see modeled for us in the Bible and by our fathers in the faith across church history. It's a call to be committed to the Church that Jesus Christ bought with his own precious blood. As Tim says,

"Jesus loves the Church, and we should too."

I certainly agree that there is a veritable publishing industry built up around books, strategies and models for church growth and "getting the young people back in." I'm also of the firm belief that decline in church attendance and influence in North America is the result of demographic and cultural changes that no one model or strategy is going to reverse. So I was interested to read what Tim Bayly, who is senior pastor at Trinity Reformed Church in Bloomington, Indiana, has to say.

Bayly begins by stating that "one of the legacies Evangelicalism has bequeathed to Christians today is growing separation between becoming a Christian and becoming a member of the Church of Jesus Christ." I wholeheartedly agree, although with the caveat that I also encounter lots of people who claim membership in the Church while not having been active in the Church for years. But as Bayly says, the Church is no longer viewed as essential to Christian growth as, for instance, conferences, Facebook groups, music, podcasts, Christian books, and so on. The age-old temptation of believers - one we find reflected even in patristic writings, 15 centuries old, not to mention C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters and many other works - is to think that people will come to faith more easily if they can avoid all the drama of the Church: infighting, hypocrisy, abuse of authority.

Church Reformed is, in Bayly's words, a call to return to our Mother the Church and love her - to put it another way, to commit ourselves as disciples of Jesus to involvement in a local community of faith and to the authority, accountability, deep relationship and, yes, even discipline that comes with it. "Jesus loves his sheep. He expects His servants to love them also. How can we claim to love Jesus while turning our noses up at the smell of His flock?"

Bayly goes on to look at who is the Church, grounding his own writing in the words of scripture and the Reformers, specifically Martin Luther and the Westminster and Belgic Confessions (coming from a Reformed tradition myself, I appreciated this). He follows this with one of two very helpful chapters on sacramental theology, this section dealing with baptism, how we enter the Church. The book then moves into its second part, what does the Church do, with four devotions (found in Acts 2:44-47) that were the priorities of the apostolic church: the teaching of the apostles, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Each has its own chapter, with that on the breaking of bread, the Lord's Supper, being the second in the book on sacramental theology. Bayly proceeds in the book's third part to examine threats to the Church: naiveté, hypocrisy and "gathering goats." This last chapter critiques the modern Christian emphasis, at least in North America, on money and numbers as measures of church growth and "success"; "what we're really saying," Bayly comments, "is that we want to do whatever we can to add people without having to discipline, feed, rebuke, clothe or love them."

So I appreciated Church Reformed, with its grounding in scripture and the Christian, specifically Reformed, tradition, and its call to commitment to the local faith community with all its blemishes and joys. But at a few points Bayly's writing irked me. One of his main points is his preaching against schism; the local church may have many defects and sins, but the believer must remember that while the Church has never been perfect, Jesus owns her, and He is the one who says He came for sinners. Bayly says in one moving passage about the experience he and his wife had one local church, "that church was beautiful, and it was as weak and needy and sinful as we were. (It) loved us despite how weak and needy and sinful we were, and we loved her back."

But a few pages prior to this story, he writes in criticism of readers who say that "no church should ever be given up on and that's the reason you're still in your pro-abortion, pro-feminist, pro-gay church of Satan." So what is the dividing line? When is a church too "weak and needy and sinful," in his view, for followers of Jesus to continue to be members? Bayly himself admits that he and his spouse attended a church that had women elders, even though he is a strong complementarian, writing in the chapter on apostolic teaching about the issue of women elders and staff in congregations, and stating that "the real test of our devotion to the teaching of the apostles is whether we use the pulpit to call the women of the congregation to submit to their husbands."

His disdain for mainline Protestant churches is evident throughout, even for denominations that come from the same Reformed tradition. He was in the Presbyterian Church (USA) at one time, which he describes as having "deeply wicked" pastors and elders who endorse "the slaughter of the unborn" and "fornication, adultery, sodomy, and every other form of sexual perversion." Elsewhere he claims that "it is true that mainline churches have abandoned all pretense of fidelity to Scripture," and introduces his writing on prayer during worship by saying that "I'm not talking about liberal churches, but conservative congregations who would see themselves as committed to the Bible and to the Lordship of Jesus Christ."

Being ordained in what he calls a "church of Satan," a denomination with a Reformed heritage which has had women and LGBTQ people in leadership for decades and at one time saw itself as "liberal evangelical," I have to push back. Bayly may not think that mainline churches have any commitment to the Bible and the Lordship of Jesus, but I am surrounded by clergy and lay colleagues with a deep love for the Trinitarian God, who proclaim that Jesus is Saviour and Lord, and who invest many hours in studying, pondering and praying about the Biblical text so they can preach in a way faithful to the Reformers who made the sermon the centrepiece of worship. I utterly reject that mainline Protestants have abandoned fidelity to scripture - in fact, I am so tired of hearing this that whenever I come across it on social media I ask for details. Did the person making this criticism hear this directly in a sermon or read it in a publication? If so, how is it unfaithful? Are they simply repeating something they believe, or do they have evidence for this claim?

And I was struck that Bayly devotes six pages of his chapter on prayer to the elements of Reformed Lord's Day worship from the 16th century: call to worship, prayer of confession, assurance of pardon, the Ten Commandments, psalm or hymn, prayer for illumination, scripture reading, sermon and closing prayer, pastoral prayer and Lord's prayer, psalm, Lord's Supper, and blessing. He calls on modern evangelical pastors and elders to study the order and wording in worship during the Reformation and how the Reformers returned practices to those of the early Church. But who uses this liturgy today? Mainline Protestants. The service outline he presents is basically the one I use every Sunday, and very similar to that set out in The United Church of Canada's worship resource Celebrating God's Presence as a pattern of worship common to all Christians. Bayly would find that "churches of Satan" like ours, the United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and other mainline churches are the most faithful to Reformed liturgical practice.

Bearing this in mind, any Christian, whether or not they are in church leadership, can benefit from reading Church Reformed in order to orient themselves to loving and participating in Christ's Body through the local church - remembering that in some instances the author assumes that his own interpretation of scripture and tradition is the correct, and only, one.

Monday, June 10, 2019

94th Anniversary of Church Union

The United Church of Canada was formed on June 10, 1925, 94 years ago. From C.T. McIntire's chapter, "Unity Among Many: The Formation of The United Church of Canada, 1899-1930," in The United Church of Canada: A History, edited by Don Schweitzer:
A rousing worship service in Toronto on the morning of Wednesday, June 10, 1925, formally inaugurated The United Church of Canada. In a flash, nearly all the Methodists and Congregationalists of Canada, as well as most Presbyterians and many independents, blended into one vast new nationwide body. The heat wave of previous days broke during the night of the ninth, just in time to help make the event 'an hour of palpitating joy.' Eight thousand people filed inside The Arena, a wrestling palace and professional ice hockey venue, transformed for the occasion into sacred space. Thousands of others in Toronto and across the country attended parallel services, and thousands more listened to the proceedings broadcasted live on the radio. Still more saw exhaustive reports in the newspapers the next day. The venue and the numbers spoke volumes. The United Church of Canada aspired to be Canada's church, a church of the people.
And from Phyllis Airhart's A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada:
The church that was ceremonially born in Canada on 10 June 1925 is usually cast as a new and youthful player on the international religious stage. Critics often panned it as modernist and depicted its founders as innovators who had been captivated by the novelty of church union. There was within the uniting traditions a strong progressive element, to be sure. Canadian churches were not the first to propose 'organic union' between rival confessional families, but such a proposition had never actually been consummated elsewhere on such a large scale.

Personally, I can't think of anything more fitting for a Canadian church than being founded in a hockey rink.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Body of Christ: Sermon, April 28, 2019

Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the religious authorities, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.

So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”

So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
John 20:19-31, New King James Version

We have read every word of the story in John’s Gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus, beginning on Good Friday with his trial, execution and burial, through his grave being found empty on Easter morning and his appearance to Mary Magdalene. And today we pick up right where we left off in the Easter Sunday service, and we are now at the evening of Easter day. Remember that morning two of the male disciples had seen that the tomb was empty, the body of Jesus was not there, and then Mary Magdalene had come and announced to all of them that she had seen Jesus.

Now, here they are, still in hiding, for fear of the authorities who might be coming for them next. They must have been anxiously debating what this empty tomb and Mary seeing Jesus could mean. And Jesus himself comes and stands among them, even though the doors are locked, and greets them: “Peace be with you.”

So much of this Easter story deals with Jesus appearing in his resurrected body that I want to talk about this. On Easter morning his body isn’t in the grave. The cloths in which his corpse were wrapped are lying there as if the body just vanished. John is making the point that the risen Christ encountered by the disciples is the same as Jesus of Nazareth who they followed until his death. He shows them his body. He speaks. He can be touched. In other stories he holds things, he starts a fire, he cooks, he eats. He isn’t a ghost, or a reanimated corpse like a zombie. These were common in stories told at that time, and the Gospel writers want to rule this out. He is the same person as before.

But he is also mysteriously different; he can appear and disappear, he can go through or around locked doors, he isn’t always easily recognizable to friends who have known him for a long time. So Jesus is alive, but changed somehow.

On this evening of the first Easter, Jesus shows his disciples his hands and side, still bearing the wounds of his crucifixion. He does the same a week later, when Thomas is there. This means more than just proving that he is indeed the same man who was crucified. The body of Jesus is important in Christian thought, because we believe that, as we say in A New Creed, Jesus is the Word made flesh. John expands on this at the beginning of his Gospel: the Word, the divine, became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. The Word became flesh. The divine became human, in the body of Jesus – the body that is raised from death by God’s power.

And that resurrected body continues to carry the wounds of the nails and the spear, suffered for us. This is a powerful image for all of us. But it is tremendously meaningful for disabled people that the Word made flesh, the divine incarnated as human, has physical impairments. The Christ is disabled. His resurrected body, which presumably could have been without blemish, remains broken. For disabled people, who bear the marks of disability in their own bodies, this is truly liberating.

When we talk about the body of Jesus, we may not be speaking literally. We may be following the Apostle Paul, who calls the churches to which he is writing “the body of Christ.” The church is the continuation of the risen body of Jesus. In Scripture the church is born when the Holy Spirit is sent upon the followers of Jesus, as Jesus promised. In another story, in the Acts of the Apostles, the Spirit comes at Pentecost, after the final appearance of Jesus following Easter. Here, in John, it is on this Easter evening, as Jesus breathes on his disciples, an act of creating, just as when the world was formed, God breathed life into the first human. Jesus says, “receive the Holy Spirit.” He gives them the authority to forgive sins. The church has begun. This is an in between time, after the resurrection but before Jesus ceases to appear to his followers in his risen body. This is a transition period, from being able to see and touch and hear Jesus physically, to Jesus being present in the Holy Spirit. The church is to continue as his body.

We have been hearing a lot about churches lately. Church is guaranteed to get on the TV news twice a year, Christmas Eve and the Good Friday and Easter weekend. But there were also the terrible attacks on Easter worship services in churches in Sri Lanka. And the week before, the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

There was much emotional reaction to that fire, from people who have been to Paris and visited the cathedral, and from those who have never been there. Crowds of Parisians stood watching the fire and singing hymns. I think the response to the fire tells us something about the church as the body of Christ. We know, in our minds, that the words of the song are true: "the church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people." Church can be anywhere, for God can be anywhere. The psalm says, if I could fly on the wings of the dawn, to the farthest side of the ocean, even there God would be with me. Church can be outside. It can be in a house. That’s where the first churches were. Before our ancestors could build churches on the Canadian frontier, they worshipped in houses and outdoors. I have a drawing of Presbyterians in Upper Canada celebrating communion outside. In Beijing, China, I was told that there are 100,000 worshippers on Sunday, but only 21 Protestant church buildings, so many people attend at 500 affiliated meeting points in houses or offices or warehouses.

And yet, although we don’t need dedicated church buildings, we want sacred spaces. Every major religion has some kind of building for worship: a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a temple, a gurdwara. We can trace this progression through the Bible: God was worshipped at rough open-air altars, then at dedicated holy sites outdoors, and in a tent traveling with the people of Israel. King Solomon built a small temple; it was destroyed by invaders. The temple was rebuilt; it was destroyed. And the Jewish people continued to worship in synagogues.

Sacred buildings speak to us. They can be beautiful in their simplicity, like the Methodist chapel at Upper Canada Village. They can be lovely in their ornate art and exquisite architecture, like Notre Dame. They embody the body of Christ, with memories of generations who have gone before, and artifacts of the long-dead but remembered faithful. We are devastated when we lose them. Also last week, the United Church at Pacquet, Newfoundland, burned, and the members of that community were as much in grief as the people of Paris. In both places the heart, the centre, with all of its memories and associations, is gone.

And yet there is resurrection. The body of Jesus, which was broken and died on the cross, was raised from the grave. The body of Christ, the church, burned and blasted and broken in fires, in bombings, in floods, in scandals and decline and doubt, will rise again, as sure as springtime returns to bring new life to the barren land. The body retains the wounds it has suffered, but it still brings peace, forgives sins – and celebrates God’s presence, lives with respect in creation, loves and serves others, seeks justice and resists evil – and proclaims Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope. For in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Essential Agreement

I am one of the authors of a document, released by the Theology and Inter-Church Inter-Faith Committee which I chair, on the meaning of "essential agreement" for United Church of Canada candidates for ministry and ministry personnel. This work was done at the direction of the last General Council (the 43rd, meeting in 2018) of the United Church. The document itself is on the United Church Commons - here is the summary statement.

From its beginning, The United Church of Canada has required persons entering ministry to be in “essential agreement” with the denomination’s Statement of Doctrine and to see that Statement of Doctrine as in substance agreeable to the teachings of Scripture.

The Statement of Doctrine currently consists of the Preamble and Twenty Articles that formed the original Doctrine section of the Basis of Union (albeit as that section has been amended on a few occasions since 1925), plus three other United Church faith statements adopted by various General Councils: the 1940 Statement of Faith, the New Creed (also known as the United Church Creed) in 1968, and A Song of Faith in 2006. Each of these documents expresses the substance of the Christian faith, as understood by the United Church, in the spirit and context of the time in which it was written.

Two common misconceptions exist about essential agreement. Some persons think that essential agreement means that a candidate must believe and accept each and every word of the United Church’s Statement of Doctrine. Others have concluded that because the denomination does not require “literal subscription” (i.e., literal agreement) to its Statement of Doctrine, a candidate for ministry, and ministry personnel themselves, can believe whatever they like and still claim to be in essential agreement. Neither understanding is accurate.

Essential agreement means that the examining committee must be able to find that a candidate they are interviewing stands sufficiently within the Christian tradition, as expressed in the United Church’s Statement of Doctrine, to be able to carry out ministry in the United Church faithfully, intelligibly, and with integrity. The examining committee must be able to reach this conclusion because those whom it agrees to recommend for authorized ministry must be able to teach, preach, do pastoral care, and provide outreach and service to the wider community in continuity with the Christian faith as expressed in the doctrine of the United Church. In carrying out the ministerial office, ministers re-present the Christian tradition and the United Church to those with whom they interact, both inside and outside the particular communities they serve. They need to be able to carry out those functions of ministry faithfully and with integrity.