Who Can Be Part of the Faith?

A few years after Jesus’s death, a man named Jewish man named Saul was travelling around the Roman Empire trying to stamp out the Jewish Christians. At this time most of Jesus followers were Jews who saw Jesus as fulfilling the role of the Messiah who would save the people from oppression and, specifically, from the Roman Empire. The Jewish Christians were trying to reform Judaism and Saul—along with others—was trying to maintain the Jewish faith as it was. The early Christians were afraid of Saul. They had all heard the stories of this man who was trying to capture or kill all the Christians.

As Saul was travelling, there was a moment when he saw a bright light. He fell to the ground and a voice said, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul was blinded and the people travelling with him took him into the city of Damascus. A disciple named Ananias came to him after three days and healed his eyesight. This experience was one that changed Saul’s life.

Saul became the missionary we now know as Paul and spent the rest of his life travelling around the Mediterranean. He started many churches and as Christianity split from Judaism he was an advocate for the non-Jewish Christians. One of Paul’s strengths was his vision of communities of faith where people were welcome regardless of their differences.

Paul started the church in the Greek city of Corith. Because Paul was a Jewish Christian he would go into the Jewish Synagogue to try and convince the Jews who were worshiping there that Jesus fulfilled the scriptures. Some people were convinced and joined the Jesus movement. Some were not convinced.

After a time, Paul left Corinth and continued travelling—still setting up churches. While he was travelling Paul would write letters back to places he had already been. Corinthians is one of the letters that he wrote to the church in Corinth. He writes to the church there and tells them to get along. Some of the Christians in Corinth were claiming to follow Paul. Some claimed to follow Apollos or Peter. Paul points out that it isn’t about the individual leaders but about how those leaders help people recognize the Risen Christ and in experiencing the Risen Christ they experience God in their lives.

And Paul should know. Part of what made Paul’s ministry so powerful was that he spent the first part if his life trying to get rid of the Jesus followers. It wasn’t that he just didn’t like them. He tried to kill them. He was filled with hatred and violence towards followers of Jesus. Why should the Christians accept him as one of them? Why should he become someone that others looked to as a great leader? Why should he become someone recognized as wise? By our standards Paul should always have remained as an outsider in the faith. How can you trust someone who was out to kill your group of people?

And yet, there was something about Paul’s experience of the Risen Christ on the way to Damascus that changed his life. He had a mystical experience which opened him to God and then he went and learned from other Christians and from people who actually knew Jesus when he was alive.

We don’t have the benefit of being able to learn from people who actually knew Jesus. What we have are imperfect stories and letters recorded in scripture. What we have are the stories of many generations of faithful people seeking to follow Jesus in their lives. What we have are the stories of our own lives. All of these stories help us to recognize God in our own lives and the lives of people around us.

Paul has an unlikely missionary and yet the world was changed because of his ministry. Paul was imperfect. He didn’t get the first part of his life right but his life was more than his mistakes and more than it could have been on his own. We come to our own faith as we are in any given moment. We come with all the mistakes and imperfections of our lives but we trust that God can transform our lives and work through us. We come with all of who we are.

Part of what was happening in the Corinthian church was that people were wanting to create a unified group. They wanted a group of people who looked the same, acted the same and believed the same. But that wasn’t the reality of Christ’s body then. It isn’t the reality of Christ’s body now.

 

The Christians in the early church were squabbling over who followed the correct leader. They were squabbling over whether you could be Christian without being Jewish. They were squabbling over correct doctrine and practice. As people of faith, we continue to squabble over doctrine and faith. We continue to squabble about who is welcome and who is not. The details of who we are or how we come to the faith are ours and they are unique to us. Paul shouldn’t have been welcomed. He shouldn’t have led the early Christians because of his background—because of what he was before his experience of Jesus. In his letter he was reminding the church that we will always have difference among us and that God can work through imperfect (and all of us are imperfect) people. What holds us together in spite of our imperfections and our difference is the centrally of the Risen Christ in our lives.

 

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Holding Beliefs in Tension

After Paul’s dramatic conversion to Christianity, he traveled all over the Mediterranean preaching the good news. In today’s story, he stopped to preach in Thessalonica, Greece and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath—three weeks in a row to preached about Jesus. It makes sense that Paul would go into a synagogue to preach since he himself was Jewish and most of the Jesus followers also identified themselves as Jewish. They understood Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah. They saw him as standing in the tradition of the prophets and as being the next political leader of the Jewish people. These Christian Jews lived the Jewish traditions and worshiped in the synagogues with their family and friends.

Paul convinces some of the listeners in the synagogue that his story of Jesus is true and so they also become followers of Jesus. The Jewish people who were not following Jesus weren’t happy about this so they stirred up a mob and started looking for Paul and Silas and attacked Jason and some other new followers and threw them in jail until they could make bail.

These events established the Christian church in Thessalonica. Paul and Silas escaped and continued their journey around the Mediterranean setting up churches but these events were not written down until later. In the meantime, Paul started writing letters to all the churches he had helped established to encourage them and to continue teaching from a distance. Thessalonians is the first of those letters.

Back to the story in Acts… There was tension in many Jewish communities between the Jews who followed Jesus and those who did not.  In many cases this tension became violent and the Jesus followers were forced to leave their synagogues and temples. There was also tension between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians. The Jewish Christians saw Jesus as an extension of the Jewish faith and felt that the Gentile Christians needed to convert to Judaism and follow Jewish customs in order to be considered Jesus followers. Paul was an early teacher of inclusivity and was clear in the churches he taught and established that Gentile followers did not have to convert to Judaism. All of these tensions eventually led to the establishment of Christianity as its own religion.

For the Jewish people, where they drew the lines of who’s in and who’s out was a big deal. Sometimes it split families and communities. Throughout the history of the church there is tension between groups of people who identify as Christian and yet believe differently. That’s part of the reason there are so many different denominations. Sometimes the splits are amicable but sometimes the splits are bitter and even violent. And in these splits, the body of Christ is broken. The debates over who belongs and who doesn’t continue within the Christian church and within the United Church.

There is often a tendency to want the people in our group, in our denomination or our congregation to believe and worship and behave in the same way we do. But the United church has a history of trying to hold in tension many different beliefs. There is currently a debate that is focused on a minister named Getta Vosper. She represents a movement within the United Church and many other denominations that identify themselves as Progressive Christians. In the video below, Gretta speaks about the congregation she serves which identifies itself as theologically barrier free.

Gretta Vosper

The point is not whether you agree with Gretta but how we choose to respond to people who disagree with us. We need to understand that there has never been one single set of beliefs in the Christian church. We have never all agreed on who God is, who Jesus is or how God calls us to live. Life is simpler if we simply assume that there has only been one way and that people who disagree with us are deviating from what God intended. Christians have never come to a complete consensus in their belief.

We could draw the lines around the church very tightly but then the question becomes which set of beliefs do we consider the standard beliefs. I know there are some who find what Gretta has to say very uncomfortable and would not want to participate in worship that she leads. And that’s OK. There are people who would come and worship here and find this congregation uncomfortable. And that’s OK.  Recognizing that there has never been a consistent standard of belief helps to put our own faith within a broad context that allows for many different perspectives of faith. We need to recognize that the spirit works through many different people and in ways that we don’t always understand or appreciate.

When we begin pushing people out—whether theologically conservative or progressive— the church as a whole suffers. We are no longer the whole Body of Christ. We need that variety of theological perspectives to help us grow and learn from each other so the Body of Christ can be healed.

 

Invisible People

Last week we the story was about Jesus appearing to the disciples and their witness to Jesus as he ascended into God’s kingdom. After Jesus disappears into God’s kingdom we have the story of Pentecost. This is the moment when God’ spirit comes to the disciples in wind and flame and they discover gifts and powers and languages they didn’t know the possessed. Last week I talked about Altered States of Consciousness. Pentecost is another example. Something strange and unusual was happened. It made sense to the people who were experiencing it and it was very real. To the outsiders, the disciples appeared drunk. The disciples insisted that what was happening we real and eventually they were able to convince the bystanders to join the Jesus movement.

Now, in this story, (Acts 3:1-10) these same disciples are able to heal and it is a dramatic healing. There is a man sitting outside the temple. He is reliant on others to carry him around. He isn’t allowed in the temple. He begs the people coming and going from the temple to feed him, to give him money. Sometimes, he gets lucky but most of the time people don’t even see him. Peter and John arrive at the temple and the man asks them—just like he asks everyone for alms—for food, for money.

They stop and look at him. They don’t avert their eyes and carry on. They don’t pretend that they can’t hear him asking for help. They look at him and actually see him: dirty, smelly, maybe with a few open wounds and broken teeth. They invite him to look back at them. In that gaze—something happens.

Peter doesn’t have food or money to give but he does have something more powerful. He has the ability to heal. Peter reaches out, takes the man by the hand and suddenly he is standing. He is standing for the first time ever. And then he jumps and walks and leaps. And where does he jump and walk and leap? Not outside the gate of the temple but inside the temple—probably the first time he had ever been allowed inside.

This man who had spent his whole life being an outsider is now suddenly allowed within the sacred walls of the temple. People who had never noticed him before suddenly recognized him. There is power in being seen and in being recognized. When the man was sitting outside the temple, he was just the man who sat outside and begged. He wasn’t part of the community. Most people wouldn’t have taken time to learn his name or to speak to him. He was always the outsider.

One of my field placements was in a safe shelter for women. On my first day there, at lunch time, I got my lunch and went and sat in the dining room with the women and children staying at the shelter. Within five minutes, one of the other staff members came and got me and brought me into the office. I thought maybe there was a staff meeting or something important I needed to learn. What they wanted me to learn was the proper boundary. There were the women and children (mostly Aboriginal) who were staying in the shelter and there were those who worked in the shelter. Eating a meal together was crossing a boundary that was often very uncomfortable—for me and for others.

As a newbie to that environment I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I eat my lunch in the office with the other staff members? After all we were all going to go home in a few hours and have a “normal” life outside the shelter. Should I cross the boundary and eat with the women and children that I was there to serve and care for? If I did that I might alienate the other staff members that I needed to learn from and who were going to be responsible for evaluating me. Eating separately made it easier to pretend that “they” are not like “us.”

Eating separately allowed myself and others to distance ourselves from the horror of the stories, from the reality that many people live with violence.

As I settled into the field placement and became more comfortable with the environment, I found myself eating more and more in the dining room with the women and children. What I found was that I heard stories I wouldn’t have otherwise heard. People shared themselves with me over a meal in a way that couldn’t happen by sitting in an office filling out forms.

These stories speak to how healing happens when we take time to see and listen to people who are invisible. I imagine Peter and John seeing the man outside the temple—really seeing him. The fact that they saw him and stopped to speak to him allowed him to be healed. But it wasn’t just a physical healing. Because they had seen him and listened to him he was now able to enter the temple—a place he had never been before. Because he could enter the temple, he could be seen by others. He was no longer the outsider. He was no longer just the beggar sitting outside the gate. He was the one jumping and walking and leaping. He was the one now leading praise to God.

Invisible people, like the man at the gate, exist all around us.

How can you see the invisible people in yourcongregation? How can you see the invisible people in your community? How can you see the invisible people around the world?

Witness

witness

http://bethesdapres.org/
Cong_life/2011-
revival%20info.htm

Today we begin reading the book of Acts. The book of Acts tells the story of what happens after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was written by a Jewish Christian writer for a primarily Jewish-Christian audience—four generations after Jesus’ death around 80-90 C.E. There are two stories happening in Acts. The first has to do with Jesus appearing to the remaining eleven disciples and sending them on a mission. That’s what we heard this morning. The second story line has to do with Paul and his missionary work. As all these people tell the story of Jesus they come into conflict with the communities they are working in as the new Christian communities try to make sense of who Jesus is for them and what they are to do now that Jesus is gone.

Acts is written as the sequel to the Gospel of Luke – possibly by the same writer. Both are written for Theophilus. Theophilus seems to be the patron of the writer. If that’s the case Theophilus may have been someone wealthy and important and the writer of Luke-Acts may have been seeking financial support for this new ministry.

The disciples are hanging out in Jerusalem. They have seen the risen Jesus at the end of the book of Luke and then Jesus returned to God. In these conversations, Jesus had told the disciples to stay in Jerusalem and wait for instructions. The disciples are still waiting for Jesus and God to send the Romans packing. They are waiting for Jesus to become the new king.

Instead Jesus disappears from them and is taken to heaven. This needs a bit of explanation. In the ancient world there was no concept of space. What they could see in the sky was all that existed. The flat earth was enclosed in a dome (sky) and the stars and moon were attached to that dome. When you passed through the dome you would reach God’s realm. There was a belief that was an opening in the dome above the temple in Jerusalem. It is through this opening that Jesus disappeared.

In this passage (Acts 1:1-11), the disciples experience an Alternate State of Consciousness. These experiences can include things like dreams, daydreams, nightmares, hallucinations, fugue states, prayerfulness, a hypnotic trance, near death experiences, and drug induced experiences. There are at least 30 different states of consciousness that people might experience.[1]

The book of Acts and the whole Bible contains many episodes of these alternate states of consciousness. In order to fully understand the stories we find in scripture we need to understand that for the people having these experiences, they are real experiences—even if no one else shares the experience. In our own culture, someone may have had a death of someone close to them. They might experience that person sitting in their favorite chair. No one else might be aware of the presence. When they tell others about what they experienced they might be met with scepticism and others may try to dissuade them from believing their own experience.

Think about the Easter story for a minute. His friends have watched Jesus die. They saw his body being placed into the tomb and yet on Easter morning, there is no body. Something happened. For the disciples who first saw the risen Christ, the experience was real. They couldn’t explain it but for them it happened and was real. I’m sure the people around them were sceptical and tried to tell them it wasn’t possible.

In this passage, the disciples have been continuing to learn from the risen Christ and have conversations with him in this altered state. And now that risen Christ tells them that they will be his witnesses—that they will tell everyone about him through all the earth. And then they see Jesus being taken to the sky, into God’s presence. None of this has a logical, rational explanation but that doesn’t mean the disciples didn’t experience it. It is a bit like trying to explain a dream to someone. Sometimes what we experience in these altered states of consciousness can help to make sense of the world and help us figure out what to do next. Sometimes what we experience in those moments is simply comfort.

Also important for understanding the book of Acts is the concept of being a witness. The first type of witness Acts talks about are the ones who were with Jesus. These are the ones who followed him around the countryside and experienced him in life. These are the people who were present at his death and then later experienced the risen Christ. But also in Acts we find witnesses who didn’t experience Jesus in life. They experienced Jesus only through an alternate state of consciousness. Paul (who we will come to in a few weeks) and Stephen are examples of these types of witnesses. They didn’t know Jesus before death but they had mystical experiences that made Jesus real in their lives. The writer of Acts makes a distinction between witnesses—those who have had an experience of Jesus (whether grounded in physical reality or an alternate state) and those who confess their beliefs about Jesus based on second or third hand knowledge.

So when we say our creeds and tell the stories of Jesus we are confessing what we believe to be true based on what we have learned from others. When we talk about experiences in our own lives—moments when the Jesus story comes alive to us, when Jesus comes to us in a dream or a prayer or we know with certainty that Jesus is with us in some way—we become witnesses. The Acts story is all about the first witnesses. It is the story of the early church, re-told so that another generation will know the stories and be able to experience the risen Christ for themselves.

We are invited to enter the story of the early church and to hear the witness of the first Jesus followers. It isn’t enough for us to simply hear the witness. We are also invited to experience the risen Christ in our own lives so we also can become first hand witnesses of Jesus at work in our lives and in the world.

[1]. Malina, Bruce J., and John J. Pilch. Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Acts. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008, Alternate States of Consciousness.

Welcome to Easter

the-empty-tomb-george-richardson

http://www.fromthepulpitofmylife.
com/2015/04/empty-tomb/

A reflection based on Mark 16:1-8.

What an awful few days. First, Jesus was arrested and they took him away. All because of Judas, his friend who betrayed him—turned him in. The Peter denies knowing Jesus—denies having ever met him, let alone being one of his followers. Then I watched in horror as they beat him. They took him out of the city and made him carry his own cross for as long as he could. And then they crucified him like a common criminal. All he had ever done was love everyone. How is that a crime? And now everything is even worse. I went with Mary and Salome to his tomb. We didn’t even have a chance to prepare his body for a proper burial because it was the Sabbath. Now we can’t because he is gone. The man in the tomb said that Jesus had risen and would meet us in Galilee. How can this be true? Where did they put his body? We saw him die.

While he was dying someone taunted him, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.”

Perhaps the most difficult thing in life is to believe something that seems almost impossible. I want so badly for what I heard in the tomb to be true but I don’t know if I can believe it after everything that’s happened. I don’t know if I can trust the significance of this miraculous event. I want it to be true. I want to believe that death doesn’t have the last word in a world of violence and hatred and poverty. I want to trust that there is something beyond this horrible death and that the death means something.

Even if I believe what I saw and what I heard, why should anyone else believe my story, my experience on this first Easter morning? Would you believe my story? Would you believe that it’s real?