Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Seeing the Vision

Seeing the Vision
Acts 16:6-15[1]
  Many of us find as we take our journey through life that we have “growing points” at various stages. At times it may be job-related; at other times it may involve our personal lives. The way life changes and challenges us means that very few of us will manage the journey without facing some kind of “growing points.” For me, it was learning to live by myself. I had never really done it. I went from living at home, to living with a roommate at college, to being married. When I found myself single again 7 years ago, I had to learn to become comfortable living by myself. It wasn’t particularly easy. Some of you may have faced a similar experience. I would say most of us have had to deal with some kind of “growing point” at some time.
  One of the real challenges with this kind of experience is that it typically takes us outside of our “comfort zones.” Sometimes way outside! We may have to re-evaluate some or all of what we have held onto in order to define our identity. We may have to learn completely new ways of finding meaning and joy in life. We may have to re-define the “dream” that inspires us. We may have to see anew the “vision” that guides us. “Growing points” aren’t particularly welcome. But if we are willing to learn from them, we can emerge from the experience healthier, stronger, and perhaps even happier with our lives.
  I think that our scripture lesson from the book of Acts for today may contain a “growing point” for the Apostle Paul. It’s not obvious, especially because we are used to thinking of Paul as the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” So when we hear of Paul’s vision of a “man of Macedonia,” a part of what we would have called Greece, it makes perfect sense that they were “convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them” (Acts 16:10). After all, in describing his initial encounter with the risen Christ, Paul himself said that it took place “so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles” (Gal. 1:16). So it would seem that this was a perfectly natural “next step” in Paul’s journey as an Apostle and preacher of the Gospel to the Gentiles.
  But if you pay attention to the story of Paul’s career in the book of Acts, you find an interesting detail: whenever Paul and his companions entered a new city, they started their ministry in the Jewish synagogue. In fact, it would not be an overstatement to say was their primary “mission strategy.” When they came to a new city, they went straight to the synagogue. In fact the book of Acts says it was his “custom” to attend the local synagogue on the Sabbath day wherever he went (Acts 17:2). It was a logical place where Paul could find people who might have an interest in the Gospel. Perhaps it was also “familiar territory.”
  But when Paul first “crossed over” into what was essentially new territory, and came to the city of Philippi, apparently there was no Jewish synagogue there. The Scripture lesson says that at first “they remained in the city for some days” (Acts 16:12). Then on the Sabbath day they went outside the city by the river “where we supposed there was a place of prayer” (Acts 16:13). And indeed, there they met a group of women gathered for prayer and shared the gospel with them. They planted a church in the house of a wealthy businesswoman named Lydia. And the church at Philippi flourished.
  For Paul and his companions, this was a different strategy. They were in new territory, since they had “crossed over” from the Middle East into Greek lands. I wonder what they were doing “for some days” in Philippi. I wonder if they were dealing with culture shock. I wonder whether they were unsure as to how to proceed, since there wasn’t a Jewish synagogue where they could begin their work of preaching the gospel. I get the feeling they were “improvising” a bit. But what they had was a vision and a conviction: Paul’s vision of “helping” the Greeks, and the conviction that God had called them to proclaim the gospel to people who worshiped pagan gods and lived very differently. So they found a way to carry out their conviction in the midst of uncertainty and they improvised!
  I’ve had this experience myself living overseas. It was my family’s custom to find a church home wherever we lived. When we lived in Germany, we initially planned on going to the local German language church. But then culture shock got the best of us. My wife didn’t really know German, and we had a toddler and a newborn. So instead, we wound up at MacDonald’s. We didn’t much like MacDonald’s, but it felt like home. While we were there we ran into another American family who told us about an English-speaking church not far away. That became the church we attended while we lived in Germany. We followed our conviction to find a church home and so we were able to deal with the uncertainty of an unfamiliar situation.
  I’ve said many times that our church is in “unfamiliar territory.” I think that’s true for almost all churches in our culture these days. Just about every church is trying new and different strategies for reaching people. Some of them have decided to jettison their traditions regarding worship and even what they believe in order to get more people in the pews. I would prefer to do as Paul and his friends did: holding fast to our vision and our conviction. But in order to do that, we have to know what our vision for ministry is. We say that our vision is to serve. But what do we hope to accomplish through that service? I think we also have to have an idea what we’re “convinced” God has called us to do. I think we might start by exploring the idea of following Christ in order to lead others to follow him. That’s a vision that can lead us to find new ways of serving others in this changing and challenging time. It’s a vision that can help us to improvise and innovate, while still holding firmly to our convictions.

[1] © Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/26/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

No Distinctions

No Distinctions
Acts 11:1-18[1]
  Last week we talked about how the church in our day doesn’t exactly have a positive image, at least in our culture at large. One of the things the church is known for is being perceived as stuck in a rut. We are judged to be “out of date” in our attitudes, in our thinking, and in our worship. Indeed, the basic order of worship we follow dates back 1400 years! And, of course, it’s a curious fact that when you walk into some churches, you can tell when they stopped adapting, because their clothing, their hair styles, even their patterns of speech reflect a particular time. Some of the most obvious examples are the Mennonites and the Amish. But it’s found in churches of all stripes.
  In this church, however, we have embraced more than twenty significant changes or innovations in the last 5 years! Of course, not everyone has been 100 per cent on board with every one of those changes. But for a church, that’s a lot of change! And I think it raises a question for us as a church: when is change something to be embraced, and when should we stay with tradition? That’s not an easy question to answer. I think most of us in the church have had to live with the tension of wanting to change in order to grow, but also wanting to maintain traditions that define the church for us.
  In our Scripture lesson from the book of Acts for today, we get to “listen in” on how the early church dealt with change. In fact, I think calling it a “change” is a vast understatement. The issue they were dealing with very likely felt more like an earthquake that was shaking loose all the foundations upon which their faith and their life were built! Peter had preached the gospel to Gentiles. For us that seems logical, because we assume that was the trajectory of the Gospel: from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. But the actual working out of that trajectory involved negotiating some very tricky pitfalls surrounding the relationship between the Jewish people and those they considered “Gentiles.”
  By the time of the New Testament, the Jewish people had been forced to find a way to interact with Gentiles for several hundred years. They had been spread across the Mediterranean world, beginning with the Babylonian exile 700 years before Jesus. One of the ways that people groups survive being dispersed among other cultures is to define certain “boundary markers” that are considered absolute. For the Jewish people, they were circumcision (as a religious rite), keeping the Sabbath, and observing the food laws regarding what was “clean” and “unclean.” These were non-negotiable; they were the boundaries that protected Jewish identity. The Jewish people viewed making distinctions between who’s “in” and who’s “out” as a matter of survival.
  In our lesson, we hear about Peter’s experience with preaching the gospel to the household of a Roman centurion named Cornelius. This constituted more than a logical next step in the Christian mission. It was a blurring of the distinctions that secured what it meant to be Jewish in a world where that seemed to be threatened at every turn. So it should come as no surprise that when Peter’s actions were reported in Jerusalem, the complaint against him was that he went to “uncircumcised men” and ate with them (Acts 11:3). The primary concern was not over the fact that he had baptized Gentiles as converts to the faith. Rather, it was that he had broken the boundaries that protected their Jewish identity, and they felt threatened by that!
  Peter replies by recounting, “step by step,” the process by which he had been led to do such a “scandalous” thing. He begins by telling them about the vision he had of being commanded to eat all kinds of foods that were considered “unclean” by the Torah of Moses. In response he objected, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth” (Acts 11:8). The answer he received was, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Obviously, Peter claims he was led to cross the Jewish boundary lines by a vision from God. Beyond that, when the men from Cornelius came to the house and asked for Peter, he tells them that “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us” (Acts 11:12).
  Now, so far, we’re completely in the realm of Peter’s own personal spiritual experience. And, of course, relying on individual experience alone is not always the wisest course. But Peter goes on to recount that as soon as he began to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles, “the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15). Now we’re dealing with the experience of a larger group of people. Beyond that, Peter used “the word of the Lord” to interpret this boundary-breaking experience. He recalled that Jesus said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 11:16). Peter’s conclusion was straightforward: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17).
  I know that change is difficult for most of us. I’ve been through my fair share of changes, both those I embraced and those I resisted, and believe me, I understand. But if the church is to remain vital and relevant through changing times, we may have to give up some of the “boundaries” and “distinctions” we have relied upon to feel stable and secure. We will have to be open to the working of the Spirit among us. As we together try to discern the guidance of the Spirit, we can continue to look to the word of the Lord to guide us. With the guidance of the Spirit, the Scriptures, and the community in which we seek together to discern our path, we can learn to let go the human distinctions we may rely on for stability and security, and trust God to lead us.

[1] ©Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/19/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Following Jesus

Following Jesus
John 10:22-30[1]
  The church in our day is known for a lot of things.  Unfortunately, not many of them are positive. At least not in our culture at large. In our day, the church is known for things like covering up serious abuses by the clergy. At the same time, it’s known for heaping loads of guilt on people who don’t seem to “fit in.” The church in our day is known for manipulating people into giving what amounts to huge sums of money. Almost in the same breath we could say it’s known for spending extravagant amounts of money on itself. Or at least it is known for the extravagant amounts of money its “leaders” spend to create their own versions of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. I’m not sure that much of what the average person on the street thinks about church seems very positive.
  In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus makes some interesting remarks about what characterizes those who at least claim to follow him. In the first place, he calls them “my sheep”! While that is a familiar image in the Bible, I’m not sure it’s one that makes following Jesus attractive in our society. Being a “sheep” means not having the ability to stand up for oneself. Being a “sheep” means blindly following someone else, even when that person doesn’t deserve our loyalty. “Sheep” are meant for “shearing,” and in our world, that means being taken advantage of by those who are unscrupulous and deceptive. Being a “sheep” isn’t an image that most people would embrace in our day.
  Nevertheless Jesus calls those of us who would follow him “my sheep.” I think at least a part of what he is saying is that those who seek to follow Jesus belong to him. Not only does he give his “sheep” eternal life, but also Jesus says very pointedly, “No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). So part of following Jesus, part of being one of his “sheep,” is that we belong to him. I find that aspect of being a “sheep” to be comforting. In a world so full of uncertainty, injustice, corruption, and even violence, it is a comfort to know that no one can snatch us away from Jesus.
  More than that, Jesus says that those who follow him are his “sheep” because they listen to him. He says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (Jn. 10:27).  Earlier in this chapter, he makes a similar statement: “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (Jn. 10:14-15). Those who belong to Jesus know him in the same way that Jesus and the Father know each other. They hear his voice and follow him. That seems to me to be a remarkable way to describe the church: the fellowship of those who know Jesus, who hear his voice, and follow him.
  Of course, that’s easier said than done. Talk of hearing voices in a religious or spiritual context can make people think you’ve lost touch with reality. And the claim that “God told me” has been used and abused in every conceivable way. Yet, when it comes down to it, what Jesus says distinguishes those who belong to him is this: “I know my own and my own know me” and “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” It would seem to me that some kind of spiritual relationship with God is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Christ. And that includes an active attempt to know God, to hear God’s voice, and to put into practice what we hear.
  I don’t think that means that we turn loose all moorings and leave the church at the mercy of whatever someone claims God told them. For one thing, I think we can assume that the voice of God in in our day will speak in a way that is consistent with the Scriptures as the primary witness to the living interaction between God and the human family over the centuries. So paying attention to the Scriptures can help us in our effort to listen for the voice of God. Another check on an “anything goes” approach to spirituality is that we tend to hear God’s voice better when we do so in community with others than when we are listening alone. I think a final test for the quality of our attempt to listen for God’s voice has to be the fruit it bears in our lives. If our discernment of God’s voice leads us to be more patient, more kind, more merciful, more understanding, more loving—in short, if it leads us to live in a way that is more like Jesus—then I think we’re on the right track. 
  At the end of the day, however, there has to be some kind of effort on our part to actually seek God. That is an essentially personal endeavor. You can do it together with others, but no one can do it for you. In order to do that, you have to finally give to God that place in your heart that you usually reserve for the things you cherish most in this life. Somewhere in your being you have to make the decision that seeking God’s presence is a vital part of your life. Sometime you have to decide in your heart that aligning your life with God’s will and God’s way is of central importance. Somehow you have to come to the place in your soul where you realize it’s essential to at least try to listen for God’s voice.  
  When I think about his, my first thought is a question: Can you imagine the response if the church came to be known as the people who belong to Christ, and who seek to listen for his voice? Can you imagine what would happen if the church became known as the people who know Christ and who truly seek to follow him? I’m not sure I can. But I’d like to try.[2] I think we have to begin by making the decision that listening for God and seeking to follow Christ is something vital to our ability to experience what Jesus called “eternal life.” When we are living out the mercy and compassion of Christ, it seems to me that we’re doing a pretty good job of listening for God. Then maybe we can become the kind of people who are known for knowing Christ and for seeking to follow him.

[1] ©2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/12/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. The Book of Order 2017-2019, F-1.0301 (p. 2), where we say that we believe we are called to demonstrate in our life as a community that “in Christ, God is making a new creation,” which is “a new beginning for human life and for all things” that has occurred in Jesus Christ.

Open Our Eyes

Open Our Eyes
Acts 9:1-20[1]
   Some say that the hardest thing to do is to tell another person, “I’m sorry.” And I would agree that it can be difficult to say those words. It takes humility to be able to apologize to someone we’ve offended or wronged. But as hard as it is to utter the words, “I’m sorry,” I think it is even harder to say the words, “I was wrong.” Apologizing still leaves room for the possibility that you didn’t mean any harm. Saying, “I was wrong” goes beyond that and accepts responsibility for offending someone. That can really challenge us to the core of our identity. Saying “I was wrong” can be humiliating, and painful.
   In our Scripture lesson from the book of Acts for today, we learn that Saul the Pharisee found out that he was wrong in a dramatic way. Given our general impression of St. Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, we might find the description of Saul the Pharisee a bit shocking. The Scripture reading says that he was “breathing threats and murder” against the disciples of Jesus (Acts. 9:1)! It’s hard for us I think to imagine the same Apostle who wrote “Love is patient; love is kind” (1 Cor. 13:4) acting out such vicious hostility. Apparently, it was not enough for Saul the Pharisee that the Christians had been driven out of Jerusalem. He was on his way to Damascus to arrest them and drag them back for punishment!
   I think it may be hard for us to understand what would inspire such intense violence. In the case of Saul the Pharisee, it would appear that what he would later call “the scandal of the cross” (Gal. 3:13) was the basis for his zeal to attack believers. The fact that Jesus had been crucified constituted for Saul conclusive proof that he could not have been the Messiah. According to the Hebrew Bible, a crucified man stood under God’s curse (Deut. 21:23). So for Saul, the gospel that the crucified Jesus was God’s Messiah constituted blasphemy.[2]  In Saul’s mind, he was rounding up blasphemers for the punishment they deserved.
   But as he was on his way to Damascus to carry out his violent intentions, he met the living Christ along the way. It’s hard to tell exactly what happened because the book of Acts recounts it three times in three slightly different ways. But the dialogue makes it clear that Saul met Jesus. And Jesus was the one who had been raised from the dead and was alive forevermore, not some messianic pretender Saul thought was dead. Interestingly, when Christ confronts him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4), he replies, “Who are you, Lord?” Despite his preconceived notions, he recognized that he was dealing with some kind of divine encounter. I’m sure he was stunned to hear the answer: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5)!
   In that moment, I can just imagine what must have been going through Saul’s mind. He had been violently pursuing Jesus’ followers out of a conviction that they were the worst kind of blasphemers.[3] I would think that meeting Jesus on that road started his mind swirling in the most intense kind of re-evaluation of his life we could imagine. I would say that when he opened his eyes and could not see, it was symbolic of the blindness from which he had been doing things he now regretted. After all, even at the end of his life, St. Paul could still call himself the “chief of sinners” because he formerly persecuted the church (1 Tim. 1:15).
   When I think about this story, I wonder what made such a dramatic change in the life of Saul, a strict Pharisee who had been so zealous for God and God’s Torah that he had condemned the followers of Jesus to death (Acts 26:10). I think surely the fact that he came face-to-face with Jesus must have been a powerful experience. I would imagine that he felt not the anger or rejection he may have thought he deserved, but grace, mercy, and love. And above all, I think he experienced an acceptance that transcended anything he had ever known. When Ananias came to him and called him “brother Saul,” and baptized him, I think it must have affected Saul deeply. More than that, when he learned he was “an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15), I think it must have been deeply humbling to him.
   A lot of eyes were opened in the course of these events. Saul’s eyes were opened. Jesus was not an impostor, he was truly the Messiah and Son of God, as Saul began to preach immediately after being baptized! The believers were not blasphemers for proclaiming a Gospel he now knew to be true. The eyes of many in the early church were opened to the power of God: their most violent opponent had been transformed into a brother and a fellow believer, and he proclaimed the faith he once tried to destroy. Although it took some time for the Apostles in Jerusalem to trust him, even they ultimately received Saul the Pharisee as a brother. A lot of eyes were opened indeed.
When our eyes are opened, it often involves a recognition that we’ve been wrong. That can be a hard experience. It involves admitting that we’ve been acting on assumptions that were false. It involves recognizing that we may have been in the wrong in the things we’ve done and said. All of that is humbling, and challenging. I think what makes such an experience truly life-changing is when we admit we are wrong, but find that we are accepted nevertheless. There are times when we come face to face with our wrong thoughts, words, and deeds. Hopefully when that happens, we will embrace the opportunity to have our eyes opened, and to take a different direction with our lives as did Saul the Pharisee.

[1] © Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/5/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 71: “A crucified Messiah was worse than a contradiction in terms; the very idea was an outrageous blasphemy.”
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1:199, where he says that Paul is “an opponent and persecutor of the community simply because (cf. Rom. 9:4f.) he stands for Israel, for its election and calling, for its mission to the world, for the course and development of its history as the history of salvation, and therefore for the faithfulness which is to be shown to God in the form of the faithfulness of Israel, its obedience to the Law which He has given it and its trust in the promises which He has made to it, … . He persecutes Christians because he sees that this economy of reconciliation and revelation is questioned, transcended, relativised and outmoded by them, i.e., by their proclamation of the person, work, lordship and authority of the Jesus of Nazareth rejected by Israel and delivered up by it to be crucified, by their declaration of His Messiahship, election, calling and commission, of His history as salvation history, of the demand to obey Him, to trust in the promise given in Him, to believe the Word spoken in His existence.”