Devastation in Fort McMurray

beacon-hillFire officials battling a raging wildfire are braced for another hot, dry and windy day in Fort McMurray, Alta., warning that the situation could be as bad or worse than the day before, when whole neighbourhoods burned down and the entire city was evacuated.

With strong winds likely to fuel the fire, thousands of residents have fled the city and up to 20,000 evacuees are expected to arrive in Edmonton.

Allen said the focus Tuesday was to get residents out of the community to keep them safe. On Wednesday, efforts will be focused on fighting the blaze and protecting critical infrastructure, including the bridge that spans the Athabasca River and links the two sides of the city.

The next update from the Wood Buffalo municipality is expected at 11 a.m. MT.

Late Tuesday, provincial and fire officials reported several residential neighbourhoods in the oilsands capital that they believe have been lost to fire.

They also warned that Wednesday would not necessarily be any easier.

“The worst of the fire is not over,” said Bernie Schmitte, manager of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. “We’re still faced with very high temperatures, low relative humidity and some strong winds.”

Robin Smith, press secretary for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said no buildings were on fire as of about 6 a.m. Smith said the focus for fire crews is to ensure no one is hurt and to prevent damage to critical infrastructure, with a focus on protecting the neighbourhoods of Timberly and Thickwood.

Read the rest here. And pray for rain; that’s the absolute best thing that could happen right now.

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Psalm 47: Preliminary Sermon Explorations

I plan to preach on Psalm 47 this coming Sunday. Here it is in the New Revised Standard Version translation (more or less!):

Clap your hands, all you peoples;
shout to God with loud songs of joy.
For Yahweh, the Most High, is awesome,
a great king over all the earth.
He subdued peoples under us,
and nations under our feet.
He chose our heritage for us,
the pride of Jacob whom he loves.

God has gone up with a shout,
Yahweh with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
sing praises to our King, sing praises.
For God is the king of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm.
God is king over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne.
The princes of the peoples gather
as the people of the God of Abraham.

For the shields of the earth belong to God;
he is highly exalted.

And here are some preliminary thoughts I’ve written down as I’ve been studying the psalm today.

‘Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy’ (v.1). Come on now – we’re Anglicans! That’s way to demonstrative for us! Seriously, that sort of exuberant worship is not something we Anglicans do very often. It’s a temperamental thing, but it’s important for me to remember that the national temperament of the Jewish people who wrote the psalms was apparently way more open to this sort of communal joy than we are. Years ago I read the story of Michelle Guinness, a young English Jew who became a Christian, and eventually married a Church of England minister. She had been raised in a community that sang that psalms in a very lively fashion, and was very disappointed when she discovered Anglican chant. ‘What have you done to our psalms?’ she complained to her husband!

Nancy deClaissé-Walford comments:

‘Christians brought up in more traditional, rather staid worship environments often find the ideas of ‘clapping hands”, “shouting”, and “singing praises” too boisterous for the context of the formal worship of God. But in situations of utter joy and thankfulness, the raucous “joyful noise” to God is not only appropriate, but the only response that fully expresses the heartfelt gratitude of communities of faith’. (Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Psalms in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament.

The words ‘nations’, ‘peoples’, and ‘all the earth’ are repeated seven times in this psalm. These are the pagan nations, the ones who surround Israel and are worshippers of Baal and Ashtaroth and Marduk and Osiris and all the other ancient gods of the Middle East (Greece and Rome weren’t on Israel’s radar screen yet). The psalmist summons these pagan nations to leave behind the worship of their ancestral gods and worship Yahweh, Israel’s God, because he isn’t just one god among many – he’s ‘the great king over all the earth’ (vv. 2, 7) and ‘God has become king over the nations’ (v.8). Note that the psalm does not yet assume that the gods of the nations are unreal – just that they are inferior to the god of Israel, who is actually the king of them all.

Nancy deClaissé-Walford comments:

‘In verses 2-5, the worshippers are told why they should shout. Because (kî) the LORD Most High is…a great king over all the earth (v.2). The appellation Most High is a term often used to describe the God of Israel when people other than the Israelites alone are being addressed. Thus, from the outset, the psalm celebrates the enthronement of the LORD Most High as a great king over all peoples’. (Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Psalms in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament.

The evidence that Yahweh is the great king over all the earth is found in verse 3: ‘He subdues peoples under us, nations under our feet’. I expect that this is referring originally to the Exodus, where Yahweh defeated the gods of Egypt and drowned their armies in the sea. But it may be, if this psalm comes from the time of David, that the writer has some contemporary application in mind as well: God defeated the Philistines through David, and he also defeated the Moabites and Ammonites and made them pay tribute to David.

So this is not an evangelistic triumph we’re celebrating here – as if Jewish missionaries went out and preached to all the pagan nations, and the people abandoned their gods and turned to Yahweh. In the original context it seems to be a military conquest that the writer has in mind. God has been enthroned as king of all the earth because of his triumph over the enemies of Israel, and the people of all the nations must now bring tribute to him.

Verse 5 says, ‘God has gone up with a shout, Yahweh with the sound of a trumpet’. Is this referring to a particular historical event? One candidate might be the story in 2 Samuel 6 of how David brought the Ark up from the house of Abinadab (at first) and (later) the house of Obed-Edom, and brought it into the city of David with joy and dancing. But in fact the enthronement of Yahweh as supreme over all the earth and all gods is common in the psalms, and enthronement psalms are a recognized genre. J. Clinton McCann comments:

‘Mowinckel’s theory of an annual celebration of God’s enthronement at the New Year festival (as part of the Feast of Booths) is questionable; however, it cannot be doubted that the theological heart of the psalter – God reigns! (see Psalms 29, 93, 95-99) – was celebrated liturgically upon some occasion, perhaps in a procession involving the Ark (see 2 Samuel 6, Psalms 24:7-10, 132:8). It is simply impossible to know whether such a liturgical enactment took place as part of a New Year festival, as part of one of the three pilgrimage feasts, or as Gerstenberger has suggested, as a regular part “of early Jewish worship liturgy that jubilantly records the history of Israel’s election by Yahweh (vv.4-5) and glorifies his supreme, as yet unrealized, power over all the earth (vv.3, 8, etc.)”. Given this uncertainty one must conclude that more important than the original setting of Psalm 47 is the actual content of the psalm: God rules the earth!’ (J. Clinton McCann, Psalms in The New Interpreter’s Bible).

He also says,

‘To borrow Mowinckel’s words, v.5 itself is a “preeminent visible centre”. In contrast to Mowinckel, however, we may conclude that what is celebrated – God’s reign – lay at the heart of all Israelite worship, just as the proclamation of God’s reign lies at the theological heart of the psalter’ (J. Clinton McCann, Psalms in The New Interpreter’s Bible).

Verse 9 says,

‘The princes of the peoples gather
as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
He is highly exalted’.

In Genesis 12:3 God says to Abraham: ‘I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’. So the idea from the beginning was not that Abraham’s call was about his family and his people only, but that he would be a blessing to all nations – that his journey of worship and holiness with Yahweh the God of Israel would be a light he could share with the people around him, and that this would be true for his descendants as well.

So verse 9 says ‘The lords of the peoples have gathered, the people of Abraham’s God’ (Goldingay’s translation) – or (NRSV) ‘the princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham’. This envisions a time when the God of Abraham will be worshipped outside the ethnic and geographical boundaries of Israel, and pagan peoples will be included in ‘the people of Abraham’s God’.

But in what way can God be King of all the earth when so many people ignore and disobey him? Well, God is not king of all the earth in the sense of a tyrant who forces people to obey him. He is king of all the earth because he has created it out of nothing and it belongs to him; he has never given it away or shared it with anyone. Likewise, ‘It is he that made us, and we are his’ (Psalm 100:3), so he is our king in an objective sense, whether we acknowledge the fact or not. We are all accountable to him, and one day we will have to give account to him for our obedience or disobedience to his will – or, more appropriately, for our response or lack of response to his loving invitation to know, worship and obey him.

Still, Christianity also teaches that ‘God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year’. Human beings have free will and our decisions have real consequences, so God is not the cause of all the events that happen on earth – far from it. But nonetheless, in his mysterious way he is at work, bringing good out of evil and making even the evil acts of human beings a part of the mysterious process by which his will is fulfilled (e.g. the acts of Judas, and of the Jewish leaders and Pilate who crucified Jesus).

John Goldingay comments:

‘In church yesterday we made our usual outrageous confessions, such as the declaration that Jesus is Lord. They are outrageous because the day’s news seems to belie them. Dozens of people have died in an attack on a mosque in Pakistan. Car bombs have exploded outside a British cultural relations centre in Kabul. In the United States, many people with cancer cannot get the drugs they need, partly because the drug companies don’t make enough profit out of making them. Radiation has been discovered in rice near Tokyo. Scores of people have been killed in anti-government demonstrations in Syria. Jesus is Lord?

‘When Israel declared that Yahweh is God, that its God is king of all the earth, it made its equivalently outrageous confession, and when it challenged all the peoples of the earth to join that declaration, its confession was the more outrageous. How could it make such a confession?…

‘…Psalm 47 looks back to the events that made Israel Israel – that is, it refers to Yahweh’s original subduing of the country’s inhabitants and his gift to Israel of its mountain country, which Yahweh loves. Israel settled in this mountain country on God’s coat tails as God made his ascent there like a warrior with a shout and with the sound of a horn signalling the moment for advance. So Israel’s outrageous statement is that Yahweh is “the great king over all the earth”. The title is one the king of Assyria claimed (it comes in the story of Isaiah 36-37 about the Assyrian attempt to take Jerusalem…). It would be a plausible claim. But Psalm 47 says with great chutzpah, “You know who is the real king of all the earth? I will tell you”’ (John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone: Part 1).

So this psalm calls on people all over the earth to acknowledge the Yahweh, Israel’s God, is not just one God among many, but the ‘great king over all the earth’, the one supreme God. And in the same way, for us New Testament believers, we are called to see our Lord Jesus Christ as not just one lord among many, but as God’s anointed king, the one to whom ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’ has been given by God (Matthew 28:18).

Jesus sent his disciples out into all the world to preach the Gospel, make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to follow him. All of those people already had allegiances to other gods, or to the god of Israel. I don’t think this means that everything about their ancestral religions was bad – God was present everywhere, and he had not left himself without light in any corner of the earth. But in Jesus, God himself has come among us, and so he is the clearest and most accurate picture we have of what God is like and of what his will is. Also, his life and death and resurrection have provided the means of deliverance from sin and death. This Gospel need to be proclaimed to all the world, and everyone should be invited to follow Jesus.

Verse 9 of our psalm envisions the kings of all the nations around Israel coming to worship Yahweh. The New Testament has a similar vision when it talks about people from every tribe and language and people and nation coming to serve God.

‘You (the Lamb) are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth’ (Revelation 5:9-10).

There is no hint here of conquest, unless it is God’s conquest of the powers of evil, the devil and his hosts. Just as Yahweh defeated the gods of Egypt and ransomed his people from slavery, so Jesus has ransomed a holy people for God through his death, a people from every nation and language and tribe. They are a kingdom with Jesus as their King; they are priests worshipping God and interceding for the whole world. This is the true fulfilment of Psalm 47:9, but it is an entirely different kind of fulfilment than the one the psalmist envisioned: not conquest, but men and women and children from all over the world freely accepting Jesus’ offer of salvation and through him becoming God’s holy people.

John Goldingay connects the Old and New Testament interpretations of this verse:

‘The description of the nation’s leaders, their lords or shields, gathering to acknowledge Abraham’s God is an act of imagination, but it is a vision whose fulfilment is guaranteed by what this God has done already. At the beginning of Israel’s story people such as the Gibeonites were compelled to make this acknowledgement of Israel’s God; they are a first stage in a process which will eventually come to completion. Once again the psalm shows how Israel knew that Yahweh’s involvement with Israel was not focussed merely on Israel for its own sake. Precisely because Yahweh is the king of all the earth, Israel’s faith involves an interest in the whole world. The lords of the peoples gather as the people of Abraham’s God or with the people of Abraham’s God (the terse sentence doesn’t make clear which is the right translation, but it makes little difference). The point is not merely that they should be ‘saved’ but that they should recognize God as God. Analogously, what God has done with and through Jesus is the guarantee that the world will recognize that Jesus is Lord’ (John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone: Part 1).

I think the Ascension Day application of this psalm is very powerful. Just as God is enthroned as king of all the earth in this psalm, and the nations are gathered as his people, so Jesus, God’s anointed king, has now been enthroned as Lord of all, ‘king of kings and lord of lords’. He has not ‘subdued peoples’; he has subdued the powers of evil and conquered them by his faithful death and his glorious resurrection. And so, on Ascension Day, God lifted him on high and gave him the place of authority, ‘seated at the right hand of God’, from where he was able to pour out the Holy Spirit on his people and send them out into all the world to proclaim that the world has a new King: not Caesar or the corrupt gods of Rome that he represents, but the Lord of love who washed his disciples’ feet, and who gave himself for them and us on the Cross.

So it is appropriate for us to sing and shout and praise the Lord!

J. Clinton McCann says,

‘It was a persistent temptation for the people of Israel, and it has been and is a persistent temptation for the church to make our God too small. We are quick to recall that God “chose our heritage for us” and loves us (v.4), but we are quick to forget that God loves the world and that all the world’s rulers and people “belong to God” (v.9). The Christian practice of speaking about Jesus as a personal Saviour may be symptomatic of our forgetfulness, for often we seem to mean that we own God rather than that God owns us. To worship the God of Abraham and the God revealed in Jesus Christ is to worship a universal sovereign, and it means claiming every other person in the world as a sister or brother…

‘…In accordance with Psalm 47 and in accordance with the proclamation of Jesus (see Mark 1:14-15), we say that God rules over all and thus that the world is the sphere of God’s sovereignty. Our profession is eschatological, because it does not appear that God rules, and the world is full of opposition to God’s sovereignty…But our profession is no less real. In liturgy, we say and act out the reality that our lives and our world have been shaped by God’s loving rule. At the same time, our speaking and acting contribute to the further shaping of ourselves and of our world in conformity to God’s claim. For us, the “real world” exists insofar as God’s sovereignty is acknowledged in word and in deed…

‘Psalm 47 is traditionally used by the church on Ascension Day. The church thereby claims that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus represent the essential claim of Psalm 47: that God rules over the world and lovingly claims all the world’s peoples’ (J. Clinton McCann, Psalms in The New Interpreter’s Bible).

 

 

Show of Hands: ‘Twas on One April’s Morning’

Here’s a gorgeous version of the old folk song ‘Twas on one April’s Morning’ by Show of Hands (Phil Beer and Steve Knightley, with Miranda Sykes on bass). The last verse, which they do in three part harmony, is absolutely beautiful.

Show of Hands’ website is here.

‘Mainly Norfolk’ gives a good survey of recorded versions of the song, and a couple of versions of the lyrics, here.

Bird-Watching and the Breathtaking Personalism of God

Yellow_Warbler_-_Prince_Edward_Point_National_Wildlife_Area_-_Ontario_CanadaBig thank you to my friend Rick Rice for referring me to this excellent article about the impact of language on our ability to notice individual details in the created world around us. As a birder, I was of course attracted immediately to the way the author used her experience with bird-watching to illustrate the point she was making.

A few years ago, as a freshman in college, I was out in the woods late under a full October moon. My classmates, who were drinking in the hut across the field, hollered at me to come back and join them. I shot back gaily, “I can’t! I’m talking to the moon!”

Indeed, I had been standing there enraptured, with my neck craned back at a right angle, and getting stiff, too. Most of this flower-child act, to be perfectly frank, was designed to catch the attention of a certain long-haired senior. It didn’t work.

Now I pass my days as a stay-at-home mama to a son who’s a far stride more genuine than I am, since he actually is enraptured by everything. In the midst of caring for him, I recently decided to do something just for me, something I love — so I took up bird-watching. Goodness knows I do enough standing at the window and saying, “Bird. BIRD. Look, a bird!” (Enraptured Son is easily distracted, so the birds have already proven themselves to be an ally.)

Quickly, “look, a bird” has changed to, “look, a brown-headed cowbird and his wife!” Suddenly, there are birds everywhere I look. (I have to be very firm with myself when I’m driving.) The broader category of “bird” has been replaced with a hundred sub-categories. Now I am seeing that this one flies in scallops, that that one prefers to eat off the ground. This one keeps going back to the marsh, and then way up to that treetop. That one would rather run and hop than fly.

Somewhere in the middle of all that information, they stopped being “bird” and started being “you.” You’re awfully territorial! You’re smaller than a mouse! You can’t sit still for a second, can you? Would you turn around so I can get a look at your belly? Oh look, when you open your wings up, there’s red and yellow!

You are lovely.

Read the rest here. And please do read it; it’s well worth it.

 

‘Two Conversions’: a sermon on Acts 11:1-18

I once heard a friend of mine, who is a gifted evangelist, talk about an Agnostics Anonymous group he had run; he had invited people of no faith or of very uncertain faith to come together and have some conversations about their doubts and questions about God and Christianity. There was a good response to his invitation and the group ran for a few weeks. One of the interesting things was that, when my friend presented what he thought were good arguments for the existence of God, most of the people in the group weren’t particularly moved by them. But at one point he asked, “Have any of you ever had unexplained experiences of God or the supernatural?”. Immediately heads started to nod all around the room!

One of my convictions as an evangelist is that the risen Jesus is at work long before I arrive. We tend to think of the world around us as anti-God and anti-religion, but what we often miss is that spiritual hunger is alive and well. Twelve-Step groups are predicated on the existence of ‘God as we understand him’, and they’re springing up all over the place. First Nations spirituality is firmly based on faith in the Creator. And many, many people who never darken the doors of a church are actually quite curious about God.

Canadian sociologist Reg Bibby has spent his lifetime analysing data about faith in Canada. In a book published in 1995 he indicated that 40% of the people he interviewed believed it was possible to have contact with the spirit world, and 90% said they had asked questions about what happens after we die. 30% believed in reincarnation, 80% believed that God exists, and an amazing 35-45% claimed to have experienced God in some way. I couldn’t find the figure, but I remember Reg Bibby saying that a large percentage were willing to admit that they had unmet spiritual needs. Sadly, though, the majority said they did not believe they could get those needs met in churches.

So we have a situation where church attendance has been steadily falling for decades, but interest in the spiritual dimension of life is not – in fact, I think there are signs that it’s rising. Many Canadians are spiritually curious, but they aren’t convinced that the church has anything worthwhile to offer them – at least, not convinced enough to cross the barriers we unintentionally put in their way. And yet, most churches still hope that unchurched people will start attending church. Most clergy see success in terms of increasing church attendance. And when we’re asked what we’re doing to try to reach new people, we talk in terms of the welcome we give them when they come to church. But of course, they have to come in order to experience that welcome. And most of them aren’t coming.

When we turn to the pages of the Book of Acts we discover a completely different story. The followers of Jesus in the Book of Acts don’t seem to have had public church services to which the general populace were invited. They did not wait for people to come to their services. The movement was entirely in the other direction. Ordinary Christians – not just apostles and evangelists, but ordinary Christians too – saw it as part of their Christian journey to go out with this message and pass it on to others. And that’s exactly what they did.

Some of them – apostles like Peter and John and Paul and Barnabas – went on long missionary journeys around the Mediterranean world, announcing the Good News of Jesus and planting little communities of new Christians. But it wasn’t just apostles who spread the gospel. Acts 8 tells us about a severe persecution that broke out against the Christians in Jerusalem; many of them scattered around the countryside to escape with their lives. But verse 4 says, ‘Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word’.

I can imagine how that happened. These early Christians moved out to new communities and set up businesses there. They got involved in their communities and made friends. And in the context of those friendships, from time to time conversations would take place about faith and spirituality. Just like today, spirituality was a hot topic in the ancient world! And those ordinary Christians were excited about Jesus; they believed he was alive and was living in them by his Spirit, and they were finding joy and hope and strength in him. It was natural for them – as natural as breathing – to tell others about him and to invite them to follow him too.

But there was a barrier they had to cross. And Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, is very interested in that barrier. He’s so interested, in fact, that he takes several chapters to tell the story of how it was crossed.

You see, the early Christians were all practising Jews. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the fulfilment of all the promises God had made to his ancient people. It was quite obvious to them that his message needed to go out to all Israel, so that God’s people could hear about their Messiah and pledge their allegiance to him. They didn’t need persuading about this. When the Holy Spirit fell on them on the day of Pentecost, it led to an explosion of witness, as Jewish Christians went to other Jews and told them the good news.

But they took a little more persuading to go beyond the borders of ethnic Israel. Samaritans were the first outsiders they reached out to; in Acts chapter eight we read of how Philip was the first to proclaim the gospel to the people of Samaria, and a phenomenally successful mission took place there.

But the Samaritans had some connection with ancient Israel. They were worshippers of Yahweh, the God of Israel, and they had their own version of the ancient scriptures of Israel. Gentiles were an entirely different story. It made no sense to many Jewish Christians to take the message of Jesus to Gentiles. Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the fulfilment of God’s promises to his ancient people. Yes, of course Gentiles could become Christians – but they needed to become Jewish first. So the men would have to be circumcised, and then men and women would have to be taught to obey the laws of Moses, keep a kosher kitchen, observe the sabbath and all the Jewish holidays. Have you ever tried to seriously live by all the laws of the Old Testament? Believe me, you have to really want to do it! And all of that was before they could be baptized and become Christians!

But apparently God had other plans. Acts chapters ten and eleven tell the amazing story of Cornelius, the Roman army officer who was curious about the God of Israel. Our first lesson today told the second half of the story, but let me fill you in on the first half too.

Cornelius was a centurion living in the coastal town of Caesarea. Acts 10 says he was ‘a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God’ (10:2). This is extraordinary. Here is a man who presumably was raised to worship Jupiter and Mars and Venus and all the other ancient gods of Rome. But somehow he’s turned from all that and become a worshipper of the one God of Israel. He’s begun to practice at least two of the three spiritual disciplines of godly Jews – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Clearly, God is already at work in his life. He hasn’t been circumcised or become fully Jewish, but he’s certainly on the fringe.

Apparently this was not an unfamiliar story in the ancient world. Here and there, the early Christian missionaries ran across Gentiles who were curious about Israel’s God. Apparently they’d become dissatisfied with the old pagan gods; they’d been attracted to the idea of monotheism and the ethical standards of the Ten Commandments. There were enough of these people that they had a name; they were called ‘the god-fearers’. And Cornelius was one of them.

So Acts 10 tells of how Cornelius was praying one day when he had a vision of an angel telling him that his prayers had been heard. He was to send to Joppa to the house of Simon the Tanner, where a man called Simon Peter was staying; Simon Peter would tell him what he needed to know. So Cornelius immediately sent his messengers on their way.

Simon Peter was indeed staying with Simon the Tanner, as we read in last week’s reading from Acts. The next day, as the messengers were getting close, he went up to the roof of the house to pray and there he too had a vision. It was a sheet being let down from heaven full of all sorts of non-kosher animals. “Up, Peter!” said the voice; “Kill and eat!” “Never, Lord; I’ve never eaten anything unclean!” “Don’t call unclean what God has cleansed!” The vision was repeated three times, and then, as Peter was reflecting on it, the messengers arrived. We can imagine the penny dropping in Peter’s mind. “Ah! Unclean food – unclean Gentiles – maybe there’s a connection, perhaps?”

So he went back to Caesarea with the messengers, and they came to Cornelius’ house. There they found a good-sized group, because Cornelius had called his relatives and close friends together to hear the message; see what happens when you follow the leading of God in evangelism, instead of trying to make it happen by your own plans and efforts? Cornelius told Peter what the angel had said, and Peter immediately began to speak to the group about the story of Jesus and what it meant: that he is Lord of all, and that all who believe in him receive forgiveness of sins through his name.

But Peter didn’t get to finish his sermon, because the Holy Spirit fell on the hearers just like on the day of Pentecost, and they started to speak in unknown languages, praising and worshiping God. The Jewish Christians who had come with Peter were absolutely amazed that this was happening to Gentiles, and Peter said, “Well, since God has obviously given them the same Spirit he gave to us, I guess we’d better baptize them! Any objections?” Hearing none, they all proceeded to get wet!

But a few days later, when Peter returned to Jerusalem, he was challenged about his activities. “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them!” This was reprehensible behaviour for a faithful Jew; in a world where Romans were assimilating people left and right, the only way Judaism would survive would be for Jewish people to stick strictly to their laws and customs.

So Peter explained himself. He told how the whole thing had been God’s initiative: God had sent an angel to speak to Cornelius; God had spoken to Peter in the dream about the unclean animals, and when they got to Caesarea, God was the one who had poured out the Holy Spirit in a supernatural way on these unclean Gentiles.

‘“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them as it had on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’. 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?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life!”’ (Acts 11:16-18).

So in this story we can see two conversions taking place, and both of them are the will of God.

First, there’s the conversion of Cornelius. In chapter ten, after he hears Cornelius’ story, Peter says, “I truly understand that God knows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:34-35). This sounds very good and tolerant, and as good pluralistic Canadians we’d all be cheering for Peter at this point.

But Peter doesn’t mean that God’s okay leaving Cornelius where he is. Peter doesn’t say, ‘Carry on with your prayers and almsgiving, you’re fine as you are’. This man has already been on a spiritual journey; he’s left the false gods of ancient Rome behind, and begun to worship the God of Israel. And God wants him to move further now; God wants him to believe in Jesus, who is not only the Messiah of Israel but the Saviour of the whole world.

This is the consistent message of the whole New Testament. Jesus did not say to his first disciples, “Go into all the world and tell them that they’re fine the way they are”. He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). The New Testament tells us that it is God’s will for people to turn from their previous allegiances and become disciples of Jesus, and that it’s our job as a church to take part in that process. We’re to be witnesses, and the way we’re to do that is not to wait for them to come to us. Jesus didn’t say, “Wait”; he said “Go”.

This is the second conversion. The first conversion is for people who have not yet become followers of Jesus to turn to him and begin to follow him. We assume these days that they don’t want to do that. In fact, Jesus is not an unsympathetic figure. Many people don’t know much about him, but when they hear about him, they tend to like him. But they need help learning about him, and learning what it would mean to be his followers.

That’s the second conversion. You and I are the ones who need to be converted. We need to be converted from our preoccupation with what goes on inside the doors of the church. We need to be converted from our reluctance to open our mouths and say anything about Jesus to other people. We need to be converted from our tendency to put barriers in the way of people who might be interested in Jesus.

What barriers? One of the biggest ones is our refusal to talk about Jesus outside the doors of the church. Why do we do that? Maybe we’re afraid people will think we’re fanatical or intolerant. Maybe we’re afraid our friends will reject us. But whatever the reason, most Christians won’t open their mouths. And that means that non-Christian people have to come to church to hear about Jesus.

Do you know how hard that is? We don’t think it’s hard, because we’ve been doing it for a long time, but for most Canadians, especially young Canadians, it’s totally unfamiliar territory. Hymns, pews, service books, eating someone’s body and drinking his blood – this all looks and sounds weird to them! I’ve had non-Christian friends who I’ve invited to church tell me how difficult it was for them to step across the threshold. You may not think it’s a barrier, but it is.

Why do we make them cross that barrier before they can hear about Jesus? After all, they’re our friends, our family members. We have good, trusting relationships with them. Why would we not listen for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, trust that he’s been at work in their hearts already, and then look for opportunities to have some natural conversations with them about Jesus and what he means to us?

This is the second conversion. To Luke, the author of Acts, it’s a huge thing. It means that those early Jewish Christians left their comfort zone, crossed the barrier and went to the outsiders, and discovered there, to their amazement, that Jesus had been there before them. The Holy Spirit had already been at work in Cornelius’ heart, preparing him to hear the gospel message. All Peter had to do was show up and open his mouth, and God did the rest.

Will you give God permission to do that through you? Will I? That’s the challenge God is giving us in this story today.

Over to us!

William Shakespeare, April 1564 – April 23rd 1616

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Thank you, Will.

You created some of the most unforgettable characters ever to grace a stage.

You taught us that the English language could sing to rival any other, and you invented more than 1700 words that we’re still using today (‘bloodstained’, ‘premeditated’, ‘impartial’, ‘tranquil’, and – would you believe, anyone? – ‘puking’, to name just a few).

You held up a mirror and you showed us ourselves, in all our shame and in all our glory.

You died four hundred years ago today, and we will never forget you.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

– Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1

 

If you want to find out more about Shakespeare, the best thing to do is to go see one of his plays. Summer Shakespeare festivals are coming up; ours in Edmonton is the Freewill Shakespeare Festival. This year they’re doing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Love’s Labours Lost’, and festival passes are on sale now.

There are many excellent editions of Shakespeare’s ‘Complete Works‘. I actually own two – a very old edition with just the text, and a big monster with excellent supplementary notes. I enjoy them both, for different reasons.

If you want an entertaining biography, my favourite is the one by Bill Bryson, ‘The World as Stage‘.

Here’s my favourite Shakespeare quote, from Portia’s speech to Shylock in Act IV, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.