Saturday, April 27, 2013

The 5th Sunday of Easter, Year C

Living a New Commandment

Readings: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

In considering the readings for this week I found myself wanting to know and understand what it is the average person on the street thinks about Christianity, and in particular about what we as Christians stand for. I turned to You Tube, and of course, there were many videos interviewing people about exactly that. From my perspective all of the stereotypes appeared. Christians have lost touch, are boring, judgemental, hypocritical, fanatical, strict and rigid in their beliefs, biased, prejudiced against gays. I heard that Christianity makes no sense; that Christians think they are perfect. Several thought that Christians are anti-science, discounting evolution and the existence of dinosaurs. Many people said that they had no need of organized religion or opined that it is simply propaganda. Others felt a sense of loss that they did not go to church but felt that they would be outsiders who simply did not belong. Many of them said that Christians are good hearted. They said that churches provided a place where you can go when you are in trouble. It was a useful process that reminded me of the plurality of the society in which we live and of how out of touch we can become as Christians. How do we become an inclusive community of faith that is able to minister to the needs of an ever changing society?

That is not a question unique to the twenty-first century. It is something with which the early Christians had to grapple. They were Jews who were redefining an ancient religion. Even beyond their difference of opinion with their Judaic roots, the early Christian Church in Jerusalem was divided into two further camps; Paul on the one hand was liberal, having done a ninety degree turn around from his Jewish roots, while Peter was conservative, kosher in his views. Suddenly Peter realizes and begins to proclaim that one of the sacred cows of Judaism has crumbled before his very eyes. It finally comes to him that “God is no respecter of persons.” Of course, that leads to a dispute with the Jerusalem Christians to whom he is aligned, so Peter recounts the vision that God has given him that has changed his perspective.

“I was praying,” he says. “I saw a sheet lowered in front of me and it was filled with four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles and birds. The voice told me to kill and eat. I protested, saying that it was unclean. The voice said to me, ‘What God has made clean you must not call profane.’ He explains to them that he had the vision, not once, but three times. He goes on to recount how God lead him along with six others of the community to the household of Cornelius in Joppa. There they witnessed the coming of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his household. They were amazed that God could give the same gift to a Gentile as had been given to them. Peter recognizes that in every nation are people whose worship is acceptable to God. God is indeed no respecter of persons.

It is not something that we as Christians are quick to recognize, even about our own faith. We are a divided Church; there are denominations, there are sects within denominations; there are liberal and conservative views; there are fundamentalists. The question still remains: Who do we hinder from coming to the table? How do we come to terms with the diversity of the Christian faith? How do we even begin to understand that people of other faiths also serve God.

How do we learn that lesson? Is it not exactly the same way that Peter learned it? Is it not through our relationships with people that we come to that understanding? As a woman priest I have had to overcome stereotypical thinking in every parish in which I have served. I was the first woman to serve in my curacy and in both of my parishes. I have to say, as time goes by and more people experience the ministry of women it becomes easier. Perhaps you have watched The Vicar of Dibley. In the first episode Geraldine Grainger goes to Dibley to meet her congregation. She is met at the door by David Horton, the chair of the council. She notes the look of dismay on his face when she explains that she is the new Vicar. “Oh, I see you were expecting a bloke, beard, Bible, bad breath?” she says to him. “Yes! Something like that,” he replies. Then he introduces her to another of the members of the congregation. “This is Geraldine. She’s the new Vicar.” “No she’s not!” he replies. “She’s a woman.” I have to say, the conversation is not that far off what I have experienced from time to time. And yet like Geraldine as I have developed relationships within the parishes those responses have changed to positive ones. One dear person in my parish in Mississauga admitted that he had grave misgivings when he first heard that I was to be the new Incumbent. He left for a time, but was drawn back to his home church, and eventually became my warden and a real support to me in my work there.

What my parishioner discovered, what Peter discovered, what we all need to discover, is that no discrimination no matter how biblically based we believe it to be can stand in the way of God’s love. That is the overriding message of the gospel. Jesus offers a new commandment, that we love one another as God has loved us. The old commandment said that one should love neighbour as self. That means we love, not because we like or are bound by family, or because of geography, but because they are redeemed. That is a good commandment. It is the basis of the Golden Rule that finds it way into every religion. The new law goes beyond that; it demands that we love better than ourselves, so that we would die for our friends. Jesus does not just command us to love; he actually loves even more than we can ask or imagine. To follow Christ, to be disciples, we must by the grace made available to us love our brothers and sisters within the human community. What we do for our neighbour we do for Christ. Love is the evidence of our Christianity. It allows us to see Christ in others. It breaks down the barriers. It demands that we choose love, that we do the loving thing.

When did you choose love? When did you do the loving thing, maybe not perfectly, but a loving thing just the same? When did you offer love that put the other first even while it hurt you? When did you love someone who was difficult to love? When was the love you offered rebuffed? How were you able to resolve a situation with someone you just could not love?

The kind of love Jesus spoke about calls us to generosity. It is a giving, not of material goods, but of oneself, sacrificial giving. Not many are called to the ultimate sacrifice, but we are all called to sacrificial love. God’s grace is free; love, on the other hand, is costly.

It requires a commitment to a spirit of giving. It is something we experience and live. It is lived out in community by the care we have, one for another. That is why it is the mark of the Christian.

How do we show that kind of sacrificial love? Do we show it in the respect we have for the human family? Do we really care for our planet? Do we care for, and nurture others? Do we show it in our values in a society that struggles with issues that devalue human life? Do we show it in our response to the aged, the abused, the hopeless? Who do we love? Who should we love? It goes back to Peter’s understanding that God is no respecter of persons. When we exclude people because they are different than we are, or because they are poor, or uneducated or gay we give lie to this truth. We give lie to the truth of the great commandment.

Love clearly has to do with caring for others. If we do not care about others, then no amount of churchgoing, no amount of money, no amount of faith, will give us any cause worth working for. How can we even believe in God if we lack concern for others?

Love is not some sentimental thing. It is shown in our lives by our genuine, sacrificial, Christ centred love for others. It doesn't come naturally, or all at once. We must be empowered to do it. It begins with us, now, right where we are. Once in a while we are graced enough to recognize it and to come to a sudden, clear recognition of the risen Christ who lives in those we love.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C

The Profile of a Christian

Readings: Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

A Confirmation class was discussing what being a Christian entailed. They were asked to use certain passages of Scripture to come up with a job description for a want ad to hire a Christian. The final result read something like this.

Wanted: Dedicated and committed Christian to work for the Lord. Must have the following qualities.
• Pray without ceasing
• Be willing to be the servant of all
• Love God with all one's heart and one's neighbour as oneself
• Always put others needs before one's own
• Follow without counting the costs
• Do good deeds
• Perform miracles
• Be kind and compassionate in all one’s dealings
• Work for no pay
• Be a good steward

As a follow up they were asked if they would consider such a position themselves. They talked about the drawbacks, but also about what the benefits might be. I suspect that most of us would find many drawbacks and very few benefits if we were to truly take in what the cost of being a Christian should be.

The early Christians struggled with exactly that. What did it mean to be a Christian? Christianity had never been intended to become a new faith. They were Jewish. The link to the synagogue and their Jewish roots was a strong part of their identity. When the Jewish community became hostile toward the new sect, they had to struggle against persecution. They were enthusiastic in their proclamation. They were fervent in their desire to share the gospel message. They understood their vocation. God had clearly called them to continue the earthly work of Christ. They tried always to grow in the image of the one whom they followed. They struggled with their identity as Christians.

Our society can certainly understand the need for identity. It is of the utmost importance to our culture, particularly for young people. It informs the way we think of others. We identify people by the way they speak, by the clothing they wear, or by the colour of their skin. We tend to choose friends who are like us in appearance, in the way they think, in the way they act. It is very difficult to break into a group with an identity differing from one’s own.

What identifies us as Christians? Do we have anything that sets us apart as a community? Do we have a profile? Surely if we consider ourselves to be set apart by God then there should be distinguishing characteristics in our lives, things which set us apart from the world and make being a Christian different.

The readings today give us a sense of the profile of the Christian from the perspective of the early church. The Acts of the Apostles tells the ongoing story of the disciples of Jesus following the resurrection. This time the story centres around Peter. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter cannot help but share the Good News of his life and the lives of those around him transformed by the resurrected Christ. Peter and the others continue the work begun by Christ. He is called to Joppa where the community is in mourning following the death of a woman, Tabitha, who spends an enormous amount of time and energy in ministry to those in need. In her own quiet, servant ministry she has had an amazing impact on the Christian community. The women have lovingly brought in tunics and other clothing to display remembering how their lives have been transformed by the compassion and service of this good woman. They offer prayers for each other. They minister to each other.

And then Peter empties the room, approaches her bedside, kneels and prays. It is a simple prayer said in faith. “Tabitha, get up.” Peter's confidence is testimony to the power of God in his life. Hopefully it speaks to the power of the resurrection in the life of the church today, and in our own lives.

The profile continues to build in the passage from the Revelation of John. John was able to look beyond the ragged, frightened band of Christians to what was to come. He saw himself as part of a world-wide community of faith, a countless multitude of believers, a communion of saints. He recognized the risen Christ within the earthly community, present amid the trials and tribulations of this world.

The good shepherd passage from the gospel of John with its identification of the characteristics of the Christian gives us a wonderful profile of what it means to be live the Christian life. For one thing we are ‘belongers’. “You do not believe because you do not belong,” Jesus says to the people who confront him about who he is. They want to know if he is the Messiah. They want an easy answer. A simple yes or no will do. They don’t want to struggle with who he is. They don’t want to take the time to check it out for themselves. They want him to plainly identify who he is so that they can believe. But Jesus tells them clearly that believing is belonging when it comes to one’s relationship with God.

When we belong, it is like being branded. There is stamped on our attitudes, our manners, our personalities, the sign that God owns us. That is our belief about baptism. We are signed forever with the sign of the cross. We are branded. We belong to God.

Part of our identity as Christians is that sense of belonging to the community. It is no accident that people come wanting to belong. If ministry is to be effective then there must be a strong sense of community. People need to be made welcome and given a sense that they belong so that this community of faith continues to grow and thrive.

Those who belong are listeners. “My sheep hear my voice,” said Jesus. While others in our materialistic society listen for the ring of the cash register, we should be listening for the voice of God. It may be a still small voice. Or God may be heard in the whirlwind, the thunder, and the chaos and catastrophe of our lives. If we are listeners then we will hear the voice of God, soft or loud, communicating with us. Speaking to us through the symbols of our faith. Speaking to us as we come to worship. Speaking to us as we celebrate life. Speaking to us at times of difficulty and despair. Speaking to us through our relationships with others. Speaking to us through our sense of community. Speaking words of wisdom that help us to be good stewards of all that God has created.

Finally, those who belong are followers. “My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus says, “and they follow me.” Following means serving God. Serving others on God’s behalf. We serve God in our families and in our daily lives. We serve in the community, in the political and economic struggles of our society. We serve as advocates for the poor and those in need. We serve wherever lost sheep are struggling to find meaning and purpose in life.

God calls each and every one of us to loving service. It is the reason God created us. It is the reason we were baptized. It is why we call ourselves Christians. No matter what role we have or what occupation we choose, to be a Christian is our common vocation. Let us allow God to lead is in new directions, to open us up to new ways of worshipping, to respond to a world in need by living our lives of faith. That is how we will become shepherds to others. That is how we will open the doors of faith to those who would know Jesus, the Good Shepherd. That is how we will get on with the work of being the Church in the world. Thanks be to God.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Third Sunday of Easter, Year C

Do You Love Jesus?

Readings: Acts 9:1-20; Psalm 30:4-12; Rev 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

The common thread through the readings today is our encounter with God. How do we experience the risen Christ in our lives?

The first one, whose encounter is recalled, is Saul. We later know him as Paul. It is hard to imagine an angrier or more threatening person than he. He was very much opposed to the fledgling faith. He had the authority to persecute those who followed the risen Christ. He was single minded in his mission.

That is, until the day he was travelling to Damascus. He saw a bright light. He heard a voice. He fell to the ground. "Why are you persecuting me?" the voice demanded. He asked who it was, but in his heart he knew. As far as Saul was concerned, Jesus of Nazareth was dead. And good riddance to him! But on hearing the voice, he could not help but realize the life-bond that exists between Jesus and those who follow him.

It was a turning point for him, in Greek, μετανοια. It means literally turning around, doing an about face. We would call it conversion. There in the dust of the road, blinded by the brilliance of the light, he encountered the risen Lord. He realized how Christ identifies with us. He got up, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing for the next three days. Three days of physical blindness, but what is that after a lifetime of spiritual blindness? And it was followed by a different kind of seeing, not sight, but insight, which brought him into a new relationship with God. He began a new life of witness to the risen Christ he had so vehemently persecuted. He began to preach the word of God as strongly as he had once preached against it. He focused his anger, energy, vehemence, single-mindedness on God.

Then in the Gospel we hear of another encounter, this time between the risen Christ and Peter.

"I'm going fishing," Peter says.

"We'll go with you," say the others. Boats, nets, business as usual! Do you suppose they are trying return to normalcy, to their former way of life after the terrifying events of the past few days? Who could blame them? Yet it is not what Jesus had in mind.

They got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Not one fish all night long. Just after daybreak, they saw someone on the beach. Not that they recognized him. He told them to cast the net on the other side of the boat. What did they have to lose! They did as he had suggested. And suddenly they were swamped with fish. One hundred and fifty three of them! It was then that Peter recognized Jesus. In his excitement he jumped into the water to get to Jesus faster.

But the encounter wasn't over. In fact, the real encounter had not yet begun. Peter was not ready to take on the responsibility of carrying on Jesus' work. He was still reeling from the events of the past few days. He had betrayed Jesus. He had run away. What's more, there was some unfinished business. There was an unfinished conversation.

Jesus had not forgotten. He picked up the conversation just where he had left off. "Do you love me, Peter?" It must have startled him.

"You know I do."

"Then feed my sheep," Jesus tells him. Then he asks him again. Is this some kind of bad dream? And then a third time Jesus asks him the same question. And finally it sinks in to Peter's brain. What has held him back from following Jesus to the cross? If he loves Jesus, then of course it follows. He must feed the sheep. He must continue the work that Jesus began. It must not come to an end. The work, he began to realize was just beginning.

All of the stories are about turning points. We all have them. When I was making a big change in my life, preparing to leave teaching and go back to school to study theology, a good friend gave me a lovely gift, a beautiful cut glass swan. “You need markers to help remember the important times in your life,” she told me. It was a wonderful thing for her to do, but I couldn’t help reflecting on my own that I already had markers in my life. There was my baptism when my parents and sponsors made promises for me. The sign of the cross left its mark on my forehead. Water and light became symbols of my emerging faith.

Then at Confirmation I undertook those promises for myself. The laying on of hands by the Bishop imprinted that faith in my life.

Then there are the times in my life when I recognized the risen Christ. For me, there was no earth shattering, transformative moment. Instead there were constant turning points, aha moments, when I grew in faith.

If we look back at our lives we can all find such turning points, such markers. They may not be life shattering. They may not even seem important now. We may feel almost embarrassed about them. But they are important, for they are spiritual landmarks that set us apart as Christians. They mark our lives. They help us to frame our life of faith. Sometimes we experience one powerful event, which changes us dramatically. More often, it is a series of events, some that we scarcely remember. Both experiences of conversion are authentic. Both experiences are part of our life journey.

What does it mean to be a Christian? It is important to find opportunities to explore and witness to how Christ is working in our lives. It is important to witness to the power of the resurrection. We all have faith stories. They are important in our lives. They emerge out of our every day experiences. Because they are so personal, it is a real privilege to be invited to share in the stories of other people. We need to hear how others have struggled with faith. For it is part of our Christian journey. It is part of our communal experience.

For all of us it was a journey, and what we most needed on that journey was the companionship of other people. We needed that sense of community. It is most likely why you stay connected to this community of faith.

“Do you love me? Jesus asked Peter. He asks that same question of you and me. How do we answer it? We may identify with Paul whose encounter on the Damascus Road was earth shattering. Or we may identify with Peter's slow and steady response. But our experience is unlikely to be like any other. It doesn't need to be as long as our response is the same. Paul encountered Christ and went on to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. Peter became the rock on which the Church was built. The disciples got up from breakfast and began spread the gospel. The heart of the matter lies in our response to that eternal question, "Do you love me?" For if you love Jesus then you must feed the sheep.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Second Sunday of Easter
Year C

Opening Locked Doors

Readings: Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 2; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

It is evening on the first day of the week. The disciples are huddled behind locked doors. After the death of their beloved leader they are naturally fearful. Jesus’ death had changed everything. Their hopes and dreams had been shattered. They feared for their lives. They had seen their leader cruelly executed. They lived in fear of the consequences of being a follower of Jesus. And so they locked the doors.

Are there doors that we lock for fear? Are there issues that are simply too painful for the Church to look at? Do we close our minds to change because we fear what it will mean in our lives? Does fear keep us from being totally committed to the message of the Gospel? We do not live in a perfect world. We are faced every day with inequities. There are problems we cannot solve. There are situations that seem insurmountable. There are injustices. There are tragedies that cry out for an explanation. There are conflicts that we cannot handle. Sometimes it seems easier and more prudent to huddle behind locked doors.

The disciples did not remain frozen in their fear. They unlocked the doors. They went back out into that same world. They faced those same authorities. They went out preaching and teaching in Jesus’ name. They did it with fervour and commitment. Even jail could not hold them back. “We must obey God rather than humanity,” they declared to the same people in fear of whom they had locked the doors.

What empowered them to unlock the doors? What made them willing to live dangerously for their faith? It had to be more than the hope of winning some nebulous crown in another dimension. Their whole outlook changed. Your whole perspective does not shift without a momentous reason. For them to joyfully risk their lives, to endure beatings and imprisonment for the sake of the Gospel, something unimaginable had to have taken place. They were committed. They were totally and utterly convinced of their cause, and equally convinced of the blindness of those around them.

There is only one possible answer to the change. Nothing, not a lock on a door, not the grave, not their betrayal of him, could keep Jesus from coming. He came and stood amongst them, offering peace, offering hope. And it changed them.

“We have seen the Lord,” they said to Thomas. When you have seen the One you thought you was gone forever, standing before you in all of his risen glory, when you are convinced that the power of death is overcome, then everything changes.

Notice that it didn’t change for Thomas, at least not right away! “If I could see, I would believe!” he tells them. He just cannot see the signs of resurrection. In his deep pain and anguish he cannot see that he has missed something. Something has changed. The disciples have been empowered. He cannot see through his sorrow to the hope in their words. He cannot experience the peace that Jesus has brought.

How like Thomas we are! If only I could see, then I would believe. Prove to me that God is alive. Where can I see resurrection in this world in which I live? I see only death.

There is a sweet ad. I cannot even tell you what it is for. In it, a young boy is hitting a ball with a bat. He says, “I’m the greatest hitter in the world!” and then misses totally. Finally after several tries he picks up the ball once more and proclaims, “I’m the greatest pitcher in the world.” Think back to your own childhood. Consider what you believed. As children we were able to believe the impossible. That ability disappeared as we were taught that the world of imagination is not true. Faith requires that we will ourselves not to disbelieve, that we naively recapture the sense of wonder that we had as children.

Perhaps it is easier to do if we consider some words of Aristotle. “That which is impossible and probable is better than that which is possible and improbable.”

Magic is possible, but it is certainly improbable. We have all watched with amazement as a skilful magician works his magic. Our eyes tell us to believe. We want to believe. We know that it is a trick. We try to figure out how it is done, but underneath it all we just want to believe in the magic. We know that things are not as they appear to be.

We live in an age where impossible things become reality every day. Growing up, Saturday afternoon meant a trip to the movies. When the feature was over we would sit mesmerized by a serial. They would show a new segment of a science fiction film about space travel. It seemed far beyond the realm of possibility. Rocket ships! Moon landings! Visiting other planets! Yet not many years later, I listened on the radio as the first people walked on the surface of the moon.

Resurrection on the other hand is impossible; but in the light of the reaction of the disciples it is also probable. If we are a people of the resurrection, then we must live as an Easter people. That may mean a change in our direction. It may mean unlocking the doors that hold us back in our fear. It may mean advocating for justice. It may mean taking a committed stand against society.

It is a standing joke about the Miss World Beauty Pageant as every contestant is asked what their hope is and all make the same reply, “World peace!” But I suspect that if I asked each of you this morning what you hope for that at least somewhere in your first few responses, world peace would appear.

We long for peace and harmony in our world. We hear on the news of terrorist acts and we long for peace. We hear of North Korea arming itself and we long for peace. We hear of young people being shot on our city streets and we long for peace. We hear of family violence and we long for peace. We deal with conflict in our personal lives and we long for peace.

And there is Jesus in the midst of us, wounded hands extended, offering peace. In that gesture, offered to us in the same way it was offered to the first disciples of Christ, we recognize and accept God’s love for us. We accept in faith the teaching of the apostles and their proclamation that they “have seen the risen Lord.” Then we allow God’s gracious Spirit, the peace he came to bring, to fill, energize and propel us toward a committal of all we are and have. Then we will know and experience the power of the resurrected Lord in our lives. We too will proclaim, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

The Second Sunday of Easter, Year C

Opening Locked Doors Readings: Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 2; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31 It is evening on the first day of the week. The d...