Year B, Pentecost

It has long been our concern in our various congregations that the Church we have known and loved is fading out. Can it be revived?

Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

It is not surprising that the story of Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones is prominent in our Pentecost readings, as it is probably the most graphic account in the Old Testament of new life brought by God’s Spirit/Wind in answer to the prophetic word spoken in faith and obedience. In the OT “bones” often represent the essence of humanity, life: “our bones are dried up”, “my bones waste away”, “a downcast spirit is like dry bones.” Dry bones mean utter death: not a hope of revival, yet it is right here that a new community is brought into being by the Spirit of God.

The transformation from death to life goes on constantly in God’s church and world, in ways great and small, often unexpected. The story is told of a young woman pastor in the USA who was sent to an old inner city church which had been in decline for twenty years, with just a handful of faithful elderly left: “They won’t except much ministry from you – just go there, visit them, and do the best you can.” She was bitterly disappointed, for she had always enjoyed working with young children and young families, but she recognised this as a call from God, so prayed that she be led to fruitful ministry, even in this declining parish. A few months later she was visiting in the hospital and stopped to talk to a new mother with a newborn son. They talked about the experience of childbirth. “The worst thing is,” said the young mother, “is that we have had to have this baby by ourselves. Our parents live all the way across the country. Since this is our first baby, it’s a little scary for us; we have no-one to ask what to do next, no grandparents. Most of the people in our neighbourhood are young couples like us. I wish this baby had some grandparents.” Suddenly a light came on in the young pastor’s brain. Why, she had a group of ready-made grandparents sitting before her every Sunday morning!

To cut a long story short, she talked the congregation into visiting the home of every new baby born within a couple of miles of the church. These “Baby Visitors” turned out to be a wonderful evangelistic programme. Young couples needed someone to be excited about the birth of their children. The church had a surplus of wisdom, time and energy for this very purpose. So it was hardly surprising that soon these babies were being brought to the church for baptism, and a crèche was established, later a kindergarten. Today this church is reborn, with dozens of young families coming in. The church that was supposed to be on the way out has been resurrected. It has long been our concern in our various congregations that the Church we have known and loved is fading out. Can it be revived? Only if God provides the new life needed. Let us be in prayer, open to Him to catch the first glimmers of light as He starts to move us forward as He has planned for us.

Year B, Easter 7

The Church Council is a member short due to the treachery and defection of the previous incumbent, it is vitally important that the gap be filled, and so – nominations are called, an election is held and Matthias is elected. (I wonder how they determined whether those who voted had had their baptism confirmed and so were eligible to vote?)

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-21

Oh no! Surely not! For years we have been bemoaning the fact that the [Uniting] Church has degenerated to a secular corporation with elections, budgets, committees and all the other trappings; we have longed to go back to the New Tesatament Church, a spiritual body praising God, proclaiming the Good News, teaching Scripture and in Christ’s Name performing great works in the power of the Holy Spirit. But now, at the very beginning of the journey, with Jesus having ascended out of their sight, what do we find? The Church Council is a member short due to the treachery and defection of the previous incumbent, it is vitally important that the gap be filled, and so – nominations are called, an election is held and Matthias is elected. (I wonder how they determined whether those who voted had had their baptism confirmed and so were eligible to vote?)

But Jesus, having removed His physical presence from them, is now making provision for His presence (and that of the Holy Spirit), His teaching and His ways to be mediated to future generations. And as Jesus Himself could not fulfill His redemptive purpose without being fully incarnated and made one with us in all our humanity, neither can the Church, His Body now on earth. Jesus did not come to us simply as a noble abstract idea or mushy feeling: He came as a real person, a Jewish rabbi from Nazareth. And He didn’t work alone, momentarily touching people’s hearts and letting it go at that. From the first He called real flesh and blood people like you and me to daily take up our cross and follow. That’s the Church. Of course we still set our minds on heavenly things, but we don’t live in heaven yet. We live down here among real people who are sometimes lovable but more often exasperating, sometimes faithful but more often foolish – but this is exactly where God meets us in the Risen Christ

We have all known or heard of people or groups who are said to be “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use.” That’s not the real Church, which on the contrary is here among real people with real problems, and thus must have structure, organisation, with due processes, protocols, duly elected leaders and all those other things that we thought were so inimical to the Gospel! This is not to say that all Church bureaucracy is good: history is littered with the shattered fragments of Church organisation which proved to be wrong or to which we clung well past its use-by date. Like all else in God’s world, we are in constant flux and turmoil. But the Risen Christ promised that He would not leave us alone as He returned to sit at the right hand of the Father, but would give us ongoing guidance and comfort through the Spirit and – surprise! – through the Church.

Gracious God, we pray for Your Church, Your distinctive way
loving people by working through people. When we look at the
Church as we know it, often timid, frequently lethargic, set in our
ways, uncertain and unsteady, we wonder what You see in us.
Give us eyes to see the Church as You see it, witness to Your
presence in the world, sign of Your determination to have humanity
for Your own, signal that You have not left us to our own devices.
Give us patience with the Church as it is, vision to see the Church
as it can be, and a renewed conviction that, by Your grace, we can
be the Church You mean us to be.
Amen
(Adapted from a prayer by William Willimon)

Year B, Easter 6

The slave does what he is told – he does not have the privilege of knowing what is in the master’s mind; Jesus does us the supreme honour of inviting us into His confidence as loved and trusted friends.

Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

Poor ScoMo! He is finding out what every Prime Minister from Edmund Barton on has had to learn – once exalted to this high office, you will not be able to say or do anything right again: there will always be some self-righteous know-all to tell you how wrong you are and how unfit for office. But Scott seems to have outclassed them all with his latest: why, he has actually said – shock! horror! – “God wants me to be Prime Minister!” O the embarrassment! Now, I am not necessarily a fan of Scott Morrison, who comes across as a very mediocre and lack-lustre Prime Minister who has fallen into this position at the time of the greatest crisis the world has known in a century (and I’d like to see his detractors do any better under the circumstances!) But on the question of God’s choosing him, I would make two comments in his defence. Firstly, he was speaking at an in-house gathering of fellow Pentecostalists, not to Parliament, the media or the electorate generally. In such a context, as anyone who has been to an Emmaus Walk or similar gathering would know, “God has called me” is an expression not of arrogance but humility, astonishment, even fear and anxiety, that God should lay His hand on such as I to do His great work. Secondly, if I understand correctly, his words were made public, not by the Pentecostal Church, but by Rationalists who we know seize on anything they can to discredit the Christian faith, and are far more narrow and bigoted than any Christian group ever was.

All this soliloquising has arisen as I pondered over Jesus’ words in this week’s Gospel: “You have not chosen me; I have chosen you.” In evangelical circles a lot of emphasis is placed on “deciding” -“I have decided to follow Jesus. . . No turning back. . .” Now it is indeed extremely important that we think seriously about where we stand in relation to Jesus, but sometimes we forget that any decision we might make about Him would be pointless and empty had He not already chosen us. These words are spoken in the context of the parable of the Vine and the branches: Jesus chooses us to “bear fruit” by loving one another in the same way that He has loved us; by taking His love and goodness out into the world we are fulfilling His purpose of redemption.

And further to this, Jesus tells them, “I no longer call you servants …” (the Greek word is actually “slaves”) “… but friends.” The slave does what he is told – he does not have the privilege of knowing what is in the master’s mind; Jesus does us the supreme honour of inviting us into His confidence as loved and trusted friends, with whom He can share His hopes and dreams, confident that we will listen, and by participation help in the fulfilment of those dreams. How great a privilege is that! Some years later Paul would write to the Corinthians: “You are not your own; you were bought with a price” that price being, of course, that Jesus died for us. With such value placed on us, how can we not respond in love to the fellowship of His service?

Otago Local Gatherings

Faith Thinking Course

Hi everyone

A reminder about this Faith Thinking course, which starts this Thursday (please note that these will not be recorded).

Going Deeper into 1 Corinthians 

by Professor Paul Trebilco, Theology Programme, University of Otago.

7-9pm, Thursday May 6, 13, and 20. Burns 7

This Course costs $20. To enrol please go to: https://www.otago.ac.nz/continuingeducation/index.html

Faith Thinking courses are jointly organised between the Theology Programme and some Dunedin Churches, and supported by Continuing Education at the University of Otago. 

Year B, Easter 5

Philip is suddenly called by an angel to go out into the desert – at noon of all times: “Lord, are trying to fry me with heat stroke!?” And in that unlikely scenario he falls in with an unlikely cavalcade: a high ranking official of the Ethiopian Government is on his way home from from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem: black, from a country about as far from Jerusalem as you could get (“the ends of the earth”), and – wait for it! – a eunuch!

Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

Next Sunday, 9th May, is Mother’s Day (or Mothering Sunday), long recognised as a significant day both in the Church and the secular community. But I remember a time years ago when there was a wave of antipathy from some Christians against this day, on the grounds that it diverted attention away from Christ and made of “Mother” almost an idol. Certainly there was a lot of mawkish sentimentality which had accrued to the occasion which was honouring neither to God nor to mothers; hopefully we have moved away from that now and can regard the figure of “Mother” as a symbol of the Family – nuclear, extended, clan or tribal, according to the cultural perceptions of the people concerned – from the earliest times the primary unit of mutual love, care and support, and the place for the nurture and training of children in the life they should live.

The Church, like the Jewish community before it, has always upheld the sacredness of the Family. From the day I began in ministry the cry has been, “We’ve got to get the young people in!” Yet it has always been problematic as to how best to incorporate children, and with them their families, in any realistically effective way into the Church. And since the church and the family are both human institutions, they will invariably fall short of God’s purpose and even be the cause of more harm than good. In the USA many churches now celebrate “The Festival of the Christian Home” (=Family), but what now becomes of the person who through no fault of his own has no family and can never hope to belong to one?

I explained several weeks ago that the Easter season readings from Acts are chosen to show how the Resurrection and subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit are leading the young Church into radical and sometimes uncomfortable ways of relating to others around them; but probably none so radical as the one described in today’s Acts reading: Philip is suddenly called by an angel to go out into the desert – at noon of all times: “Lord, are trying to fry me with heat stroke!?” And in that unlikely scenario he falls in with an unlikely cavalcade: a high ranking official of the Ethiopian Government is on his way home from from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem: black, from a country about as far from Jerusalem as you could get (“the ends of the earth”), and – wait for it! – a eunuch! Whether by accident, decree, or even choice, this was a sexless being, much more familiar to the ancient world than to ours, highly placed in his own country – but never able to procreate or have a family. For this reason he would be banned from participating in Jewish worship (Deuteronomy 23:1). Yet he had been so drawn to the Jewish faith that he had made that arduous journey and maybe even suffered the indignity of being refused admission to the Temple and forced to glean what he could from listening outside. Yet Philip finds him still poring over the Scriptures, trying to discern their meaning, and eagerly turning to Philip when he sees him as one who might guide him.

And Philip, himself guided by the Spirit, explains to this “outsider” the wonder of the Good News of Jesus Christ Who brings the one who cannot be in a family into the one great Family of His Church. And when the eunuch asks for baptism, Philip, who once would have been horrified by the idea, readily accedes to the request, having learned that Christ Jesus overcomes all barriers to true humanity and fellowship, as even the best of human institutions never could.

Who might be the “eunuchs” of our modern world? The mentally ill? The physically challenged? The down-and-out habitual sponger and gaolbird? Whoever they are, however uncomfortable for us to deal with, Easter and Pentecost have a powerful message to them, and to us about them. How do we go about responding to that message?