Conversion and Growth (a sermon on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)

Today we start a series of New Testament readings from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which was written to a group of people who had only been Christians for a very short time – perhaps only months.

Paul and Silas arrived in the city of Thessalonica in about 50 A.D.; they came from Philippi, where they’d been thrown in jail because of their missionary activity. But they were stubborn, so they got busy again right away spreading the gospel. They found a Jewish synagogue and for three successive Sabbaths they went there and shared the good news of Jesus with Jews and Gentiles; they pointed to the Old Testament texts about the Messiah and said, “It’s talking about Jesus of Nazareth; he’s the Messiah”.

Some people believed them, and a little church was born. But the Jewish leaders got jealous and formed a mob; they tried to find Paul and Silas, and when they couldn’t, they found Jason (who had been hosting them) and they took him and a few other Christians before the city council. ‘These guys are breaking the emperor’s laws! They’re saying there’s another king, called Jesus!’ So the other Christians quickly sent Paul and Silas away for safety, and the young church had to face a time of persecution without the help of their founding missionaries.

We know Paul was worried about these baby Christians and he tried to get news about how they were doing. Eventually he took the risk of sending his young assistant Timothy back to see how they were doing. When Timothy returned Paul was overjoyed to hear all was well, although the new church did have a few questions they wanted to ask him. So right away, Paul sat down to write them a letter, one of the first letters he ever wrote; that’s the letter we read from this morning.

It can be hard for us to connect with this letter, for two reasons. First, the Thessalonian Christians had had a definite ‘darkness to light’ conversion experience. Most of them had been worshipers of idols, but when they heard the message Paul preached, they left their false gods behind and turned to the one true God who had been revealed to them in Jesus. But many of us haven’t had this sort of experience. We’re followers of Jesus, but we came to it much more gradually; perhaps we’d even say we’ve been following him our whole life long.

Second, their church was very different from ours. Paul uses the Greek word ekklesia; we translate it ‘church’, but it actually meant a gathering, even a town hall meeting. Their ekklesia had only been in existence for a very short time – probably less than a month – when Paul had to leave it behind. There were probably only a few of them, meeting in the round in someone’s living room. They had no organization, no priests, no access to written scriptures, no prayer books or anything like that. All they had was faith in the one true God, commitment to Christ, a real experience of the Holy Spirit, and a shared memory of the things Paul had taught them by word and example. But apparently that was enough! The whole world, Paul said, was telling the story of their conversion.

What can we learn from them today? I suggest we can learn first what a Christian conversion might look like, and second, what Christian growth looks like.

First, what does a Christian conversion look like? The classic description of Christian conversion is ‘I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see’. John Newton, who wrote these words, had been a godless sailor and slave trader, but he had a gradual conversion experience that started when he went through a terrible storm at sea, and eventually he came to faith and commitment to Christ. He would have identified strongly with the metaphor Jesus used of a ‘new birth’ – that would have been a good way of describing what he had experienced.

But for many of us in our church today our experience was not so clear cut. Some of us have had moments of epiphany when our eyes have been opened to new truth about Jesus. Some of us can identify decisive moments in our Christian journey, others perhaps can’t. So does the story of the Thessalonians have anything to say to us? Yes, it does.

Try to imagine what their conversion was like. Their city was full of temples to the Greek and Roman gods. Every civic event would begin with a sacrifice to the gods. Almost all the meat sold in the marketplaces would have come from animals that had been offered in sacrifice in the temples. The trade guilds held their meetings in the temples and started with worship of the gods. Even farmers planting fields went to the temples to ask the gods to grant them fertility; not to have done so would have been as foolish to them as refusing to buy crop insurance would be to farmers today.

To them all this worship of idols seemed good and right and true. To be asked to leave all this behind would be as if a preacher today told us we had to give up our cars and computers and cell phones. Most of us would have a hard time imagining how we were going to live our lives without those things.

So what happened to these Thessalonians? Look with me at verses 9-10:

For the people of those regions report about us the kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

This was their conversion story: they turned away from false gods and put their faith in a true and living God who had been revealed to them in Jesus.

Today we’re surrounded by false gods. They demand our trust and loyalty – and sacrifices. There’s the false god of money and possessions, which often demands that we sacrifice our time and our relationships so we can have all that it offers. Closely related is another false god called ‘success’. A third false god is called ‘nationalism’, and sometimes it asks us to sacrifice our lives – or the lives of our enemies – to its thirst for blood.

For some of us the desire to be liked and respected by others is a kind of false god. Maybe we feel insecure inside; maybe we’re not sure who we really are. But if we can just get others to like us, we think the ache inside will go away. So we bend ourselves into pretzel shapes, sacrificing our true selves as we try to be what others want us to be. But it never works. False gods can never deliver on their promises, because they aren’t real.

We Christians believe there is one true God who created the universe and everything in it. But we also believe he came to live among us as one of us in Jesus. We believe Jesus is our most accurate picture of what God is like. So conversion is a process of turning from false gods to the one true God, and giving our allegiance to his anointed king, Jesus the Messiah.

The Thessalonians made that decision at their conversion, but they probably had to keep on making it. Every day when they walked through the marketplace the voices of the false gods would be calling them back. It’s the same for us today. Think of the false god of materialism. It has its priests – the advertisers who spend their lives trying to make us discontented so we’ll buy more stuff. “If you just buy this”, they say, “You’ll be happy; you’ll finally find what you’re looking for”. And so you and I need a daily process of conversion – turning away from the lies the false gods tell us, and turning back to Jesus and the Father he has revealed to us.

So this passage shows us first of all what conversion looks like: a continual process of turning away from the lies of false gods, and putting our trust in God our Creator, the God Jesus has revealed to us. Secondly, it shows us what Christian growth looks like. Look at verses 2-3 with me:

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Most of Paul’s first hearers were probably illiterate, and Paul knew he’d be moving on pretty quickly to start new churches in different cities. So he got pretty good at developing little summaries to help new Christians remember the important things about their Christian faith. One of those summaries was this triad of ‘faith, hope, and love’. We’re probably most familiar with it from 1 Corinthians 13:13: ‘And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love’. We find it here in a different order: ‘your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’. These new Christians were like newly-planted trees; they needed to grow, but grow in what? In these three cardinal virtues: faith, love, and hope.

First comes faith. To Paul, this means believing the promises of God and trusting the God who made the promises. Paul liked to tell the story of old Abraham in the book of Genesis. He was a wrinkled old man and his wife was long past child bearing age, but God promised him descendants; Abraham believed him, and God credited it to him as righteousness. But this faith wasn’t just a feeling; God commanded Abraham to leave his home in Haran and go to the land of Canaan, and Abraham obeyed and went.

In the New Testament we can think of Jesus walking on the water, holding out his hand to Peter and saying ‘Come’. The feeling of faith wasn’t enough; Peter had to take the step out of the boat, risking a soaking! Or we think of the four men who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus; it says ‘Jesus saw their faith’, but what he actually saw was the action that their faith prompted.

True faith always leads to action; it leads to a changed life. A few years ago my cardiologist said to me, “Mr. Chesterton, you can get off these blood pressure and cholesterol pills in a couple of years if you want; it’s all to do with getting serious about diet and exercise”. I believed her, but belief wasn’t enough; I had to put into practice the things she said. Those changes were the evidence of my faith in her. I guess that for the Thessalonians, the evidence of their faith was that they didn’t go to idol temples to offer sacrifices any more.

What’s the evidence of my faith in Jesus? What’s the evidence of yours? If we were on trial for our faith would there be enough evidence to convict us? And how can we grow in our ‘work of faith’? What’s the cutting edge for you and me?

Faith comes first, but the next thing Paul mentions is love. Faith is directed toward God and Christ, but love is directed toward others. The Greek word Paul uses for love is ‘agapé’, so he’s not talking about feeling love for someone; he’s talking about a way of life in which we do what’s best for others, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not. It’s what Jesus is doing when he washes his disciples’ feet or when he gives his life on the cross for us.

It’s an active virtue; Paul talks about our ‘labour of love’. In the early church it sometimes meant sharing their possessions with each other, rich members helping poor members so all were equal. This is the love that brings neighbours together to build barns for each other; it takes people into hospitals and jails to visit the sick and the prisoners. It took Mother Teresa to the streets of Calcutta to care for lepers; it takes other people to work in AIDS clinics or to cook meals for church members who are sick. All of this is serving others in the name of Christ.

In his first letter John says, ‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’ (1 John 3:18). People today are tired of empty words; they want to see actions. What’s our labour of love? What’s mine? What’s yours? What are we doing to actively love others? How can we grow in this?

Faith is directed toward God and Christ; love is directed toward other people. Hope is the third thing, and it’s directed toward the future. In the Creed we say, ‘Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead’, and in the Lord’s Prayer we pray, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’. In other words, we know there’s still something lacking in our experience of God’s plan; even though we know and follow Jesus, there’s still a lot of evil in the world and in us. Those Thessalonian Christians experienced that; they’d only been followers of Jesus for a few weeks and they were being persecuted already! What kept them going through that? Paul pointed to their ‘steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’.

Studies of concentration camp inmates have shown that those who can hang on to hope have a better chance of survival. Christians believe that if it’s true that God raised Jesus from the dead, then nothing is too hard for him – and because of that, we can be people of stubborn hope. We believe his promise of a better future, so when the present looks dark we can still have joy in him. And we don’t give up on people, because we know that God hasn’t finished with them yet.

Is this you? Is this me? Are we people of stubborn hope? And how can we grow more steadfast in our hope?

Let’s go around this one last time. First, the false gods are all around us; they are tempting us all the time. Some of their lies are frankly incredible; I think of the cult of celebrity, which is nonsense when you think of how many celebrities are in rehab, or jumping from relationship to relationship; why on earth would we want to be like them? So our Christian life is a constant process of turning once again from these false gods to the one true God Jesus has revealed to us. What’s your favourite idol? What’s mine? How can we be steadfast in turning away from them and turning to Christ? How can we help one another do this?

Second, our Christian life is about growing in faith, love, and hope: the faith that changes our lives – the love that shows itself in hard work to help others – the stubborn hope that keeps us serving God and loving people, because we believe in God’s future. Which of these three characteristics are we strongest in? Which do we need to work on? How can our brothers and sisters in Christ pray for us and help us grow in faith, hope, and love? Let’s take a moment of silence to think about those questions, and then we’ll pray.

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My week

Every now and again people ask me what an Anglican priest does all week long. So I thought I’d let you know what this week looked like.

I start each day with a time of personal prayer and journalling. Then Marci and I have tea and pray Morning Prayer together.

Monday is my day off, so I stayed home.

A good part of my week is spent at my desk doing ‘preparation’. Prep work this week has included:

  • Preparing a sermon for Sunday (from start to finish this takes about 6 hours)
  • Other Sunday prep (intercessions for our early service, annotating my bulletins, church setup, posting sermons on various websites etc.)
  • Reading and preparation for our vestry meeting Wednesday night
  • Reading and preparation for our Bible Study group Thursday morning
  • Preparation for our Lay Evangelist training day Saturday (this took about 6 hours to complete)
  • Preparing and sending out a questionnaire about small groups in our church
  • Preparation for a seniors’ home service next week (it’s Tuesday morning so I won’t have time to prepare for it next week).
  • Planning for next week, and some advance planning too.
  • A little bit of reading and study (I’ve been working my way through Turnaround and Beyond, by Ron Crandall).

Meetings and appointments:

  • Tuesday I met with my office administrator at 9.00 to plan our week.
  • From 11.00 to noon Tuesday I had a computer link meeting with the search committee for a new national director for Threshold Ministries (I’m on that search committee).
  • Tuesday afternoon I went downtown to have coffee with a clergy colleague – we meet from time to time to encourage each other.
  • Tuesday evening I spent a couple of hours with a family from our church – visited with the kids and read to them, then after their bedtime I had a good long conversation with the couple.
  • Wednesday I had a meeting of our vestry (church board) in the evening
  • Thursday morning I had a morning Men’s Bible Study at a local coffee shop 8 – 9 a.m.
  • Also Thursday morning I had a meeting of the search committee for wardens and vestry members for next year 10:30 – 11:30.
  • Our lunch bunch (AKA ‘seniors’ lunch’) met at the church from 11.30 – 1.30. Good time of fellowship was had by all.
  • Later in the afternoon I went back downtown for a meeting with my bishop.
  • Tomorrow (Saturday) I’ll be leading a formation day for our diocesan Lay Evangelists in Training. It takes place at St. Margaret’s and will keep me busy from about 8.45 a.m. – 3.30 p.m.
  • Sunday I’ll be at the church by 8.30 a.m.; services are 9.00 and 10.30 a.m., with coffee hour after the second service. I’ll get home about 1 p.m.

Sometimes I have pastoral appointments Sunday afternoon; this week I don’t have any, so I’ll be taking my sabbath from 1.00 p.m. Sunday afternoon to 8.30 a.m. Tuesday morning.

And there you have it: a week in the life of a parish priest!

Giving Up Our Feeble Excuses (a sermon on Matthew 22.1-14)

I suspect that a moment ago, when our gospel reading ended with the words ‘This is the gospel of Christ’, a few of you had difficulty replying ‘Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ’. You might even be thinking “I was told the word gospel meant ‘good news’. How is it good news that God loses his temper, destroys people and burns their city? How is it good news that people get bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? How can that possibly be the gospel of Jesus Christ? It sounds more like Donald Trump on a Tweet storm!”

Usually when we react viscerally to a scripture reading like this, it means we need to find a different way into it. Sometimes when we look at something from a different direction, the view can suddenly be transformed. So instead of taking the role of God’s judge and jury in this reading, maybe we should take a different point of view. Maybe we should put ourselves into the story as the ones who refused the invitation to come to the wedding banquet. Maybe the question we should be asking is “Why do we do that? Why refuse God’s invitation to the greatest joy imaginable to human beings? And what sort of feeble substitutes do we prefer instead?”

Let’s set the scene for a minute. This Gospel reading follows on closely from the second half of Matthew chapter 21. The scene is the temple, less than a week before Jesus’ death. The chief priests and elders have come to Jesus where he’s teaching in the temple courts. “Who gave you authority to do this?” they ask.

In reply Jesus reminds them of his baptism by John at the Jordan River, when the Holy Spirit filled him and the voice from heaven said “This is my beloved Son”. He then begins a series of parables. The first concerns two sons. The father came to each of them and asked them to go work in his vineyard. One of them said he would, but then did nothing about it. The other refused, but later changed his mind and went out to work after all. “Just like the tax collectors and prostitutes who heard John”, Jesus said; “They turned away from their sins and accepted his message, but you people did nothing about it, despite all your fine words” (see Matthew 21:23-32).

Then comes a second parable, a well-known one in ancient Israel. A landowner has a vineyard and he lets it out to tenants, hoping for a share of the crop as his rent. “Ah”, the hearers would have thought, “We know this story – it’s in Isaiah! The landowner is God, and the tenants are the leaders and people of Israel”. But then Jesus gives the story a twist: when harvest comes the tenants refuse to pay the rent. When the landowner sends servants, they beat them up, and when he finally sends his son, they kill him and throw his body out of the vineyard. Remember, this story is told in the Temple, less than a week before Jesus’ death. Let the reader understand!

Jesus ends the story by asking the question, “When the owner comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They replied, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time”. Good thinking, priests and elders! Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (see Matthew 21:33-46).

You see what’s going on here? Jesus is the Son of God, sent by God to the tenants of his vineyard, asking for the fruit of holiness and faithfulness. But what does he get instead? Leaders who are in love with their own power. People who assume they’re on the inside track with God, but there’s very little real love of God in their hearts, and very little practice of love in their lives. They have the name of God’s people, but actually they love something else more than God. And because of that, the vineyard will be taken from them and given to someone else. By the time Matthew wrote his gospel, the message of Jesus had gone out to the Gentile world, and Gentiles were pouring into the church, full of the joy of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. But the majority of the original invitees – Israel – continued to reject Jesus and his message.

And that brings us to today’s parable. A wedding banquet was a common symbol for the kingdom of God in the time of Jesus. This is the marriage of earth and heaven! For so many people God seems far away; his presence is just a dream they long for, not a daily reality! But Jesus has come to change that; he’s come among us to reconcile us with God and one another. Already the work of reconciliation has begun; Jesus has gone to the Cross out of love for all people, forgiving us rather than taking revenge on us. Now the invitations are going out to all the world: Come to the feast! Any day now, it’s going to take place!

In the time of Jesus there were no clocks, so you couldn’t say “Come to the wedding banquet next Saturday at 3.00 p.m.” Preliminary invitations would go out, but when the actual day came people just had to make sure they were ready. When the food was cooked and everything was prepared, the servants would go out again: “The feast is ready – come and enjoy it!”

That’s what happens in Jesus’ story. The original invitees are the people of Israel, and especially their leaders. They know there’s a seat at the banquet for them, ready to be claimed. But when the time actually comes, suddenly they aren’t interested. “But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them” (vv.5-6). Luke’s version of the story goes into more detail:

‘But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies”. Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies”. Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come”’ (Luke 14:18-20).

So these are folks who have accepted the original invitation, but when the day arrives, they suddenly find that they have something better to do. Their love for the King and his Son takes second place: there’s business to take care of, land to buy, people to please. God will understand, won’t he?

Let me ask you: who is really being hurt here?

Consider this: Long before anything existed – long before there was even a ‘long before’ – there was God. God has always existed. God is three in one and one in three, a perfect community, full of love and totally satisfied. It’s impossible to imagine God being dependant on us for happiness. God had no needs that God could not take care of. All joy, all love, all life, was in God, to a degree that would fry our brains if we tried to imagine it.

But then God decided to create. And what God created was vast. We can’t even take in the sort of numbers involved. Millions of light years. Billions of stars. Fourteen billion years between the big bang and us. Stars spinning. Planets orbiting. We feeble little humans have only begun to explore it all, even with all our modern scientific knowledge.

This is the God who in joy decides that earth needs five hundred thousand species of beetles! The God who puts the most beautiful creatures on the planet down in the depths of the ocean where it’s totally dark, where no one can see them except him. The God who designed the incredible mystery of DNA. The God who created Mount Robson, who thought dinosaurs were a cool idea, who defies artistic rules and paints the skyline in orange and gold in incredible sunsets.

Wouldn’t you love to know a God like that? I mean, it’s a scary thought, given how much power he must have, but the thought of actually having a relationship with that God – learning from him – living your life in his company – doesn’t it get your heart beating just a little bit faster?

Well, the Bible says, that’s exactly what God wants! That’s exactly why God created you! God wants you to live for all eternity in his presence. He created you for the pleasure of knowing you, and he wants you to have the pleasure of knowing him. And as you begin to know him, you will gradually discover that it’s the most absorbing and thrilling and fulfilling experience you can have in your life. Getting rich can’t compare to it. Being successful can’t compare to it. Sex can’t compare to it. They’re all fleeting and temporary pleasures. What he’s offering is something that starts much more quietly and unobtrusively, but gradually grows into a joy we can’t begin to imagine right now. When Jesus says that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself, he’s saying “This is what life is all about. Find this, and you’ll find the very reason you were born. Nothing less than this will satisfy”.

But to be honest, I don’t always believe him.

In a sermon preached during World War Two, C.S. Lewis said these words:

‘It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.’

We’re offered the wedding banquet, and we choose the five yoke of oxen instead. I mean, oxen can be cool, but do you really want to choose plodding through a muddy field behind oxen, rather than the brightness and joy of the King’s wedding banquet? Really?

Well, this is me. Maybe it’s you, too, I don’t know, but I know for sure that it’s me.

Let’s get real here. Let me tell you about a conversation that plays itself out in my head from time to time. “I’m late this morning, Lord, and I’ve got work commitments. I’m going to have to take a rain check on prayer this morning”. “Why are you late, Tim?” “Well, I accidentally stayed up too late last night, Lord, and I overslept this morning”. “Why did you stay up late, Tim?” “Um, I’d rather not say, Lord”. “Come on, Tim – are you seriously trying to fool me. You do remember who I am, right?” “Oh – all right, I was on the computer, Lord!” “Doing what, Tim? Reading about the suffering of refugees, or feasting your mind on thrilling theology?” “Er – not exactly…” “Well, then…?” “Oh, if you must know, I was on Facebook! Someone on Facebook was wrong, and I had to correct them!” “And what time did you finish correcting them?” “2 a.m.!”

So who’s suffering in this scenario? Me, of course. I’m the one building the mud pie in the slum. I’m the one choosing the muddy field and the five yoke of oxen rather than the brightness and joy of the King’s wedding banquet.

I’ll tell you what I think: I don’t think God has to cast me into the outer darkness. Usually, I’m the one who casts myself there. I choose the oxen in the muddy field, and then I experience the consequences of it. God doesn’t take away my joy; I can do that all by myself.

So in this parable Jesus is giving us a loving warning: choices have consequences. I’m sorry, Great Big Sea, but there is no such thing as living ‘consequence-free’! If I choose to live my life without taking time each day for prayer, the consequence is going to be that God is a distant rumour to me, not a living Father. If I only go to church on Sunday when I don’t have a better offer, then I’m going to miss out on the consistent experience of listening to the scriptures, praying with God’s people and being fed with the Body and Blood of Christ. If I choose the couch and the TV rather than caring for the lonely and cultivating better relationships with my family members, then I’m going to experience more and more loneliness and depression myself.

This is not about fear of punishment. It’s about being offered everlasting joy, and choosing something less than that. I wonder what your favourite joy substitute is? And I wonder how it stacks up against the King’s wedding banquet?

So here’s the challenge. The invitation has been sent out. It’s in your hands and mine. Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10) or “in all its fullness” as the NIV says. The banquet table is set. Your seat is reserved. Now’s the time to come.

Don’t put it off. Don’t leave it to tomorrow – or when the kids get a bit older – or when you retire and have more time. You have all the time in the world to do the things God is asking you to do.

He does not ask you to do the impossible.  We all have the same number of hours each day; we all make choices about how we use them. The question is not about how I’m going to use next week, or next year, or ten years from now. It’s about what I’m going to do today. Mud pies in a slum, or the joy of the beach and the ocean? Five yoke of oxen in a muddy field, or the wedding banquet of the king? The joy of gradually growing closer to the God whose love keeps all of creation in existence, or the quiet desperation of realizing that my favourite excuse isn’t nearly as attractive as I thought it was?

Don’t put it off until tomorrow. Who knows whether or not they have a tomorrow? I don’t, and neither do you. The only day we have is today. So today, let’s accept the invitation from the king and come to his wedding banquet.

Selfish Generosity (a sermon on 2 Corinthians 9:6-15)

When Marci and I started our married life, I was working in the parish of Arborfield, Red Earth and Shoal Lake in northeastern Saskatchewan. Arborfield was a farming community and Red Earth and Shoal Lake were First Nations reserves. There was a lot of driving involved. On Sundays we had a 10 a.m. service in Arborfield, I went home for a quick lunch, then left at noon for the 1.30 service at Red Earth – that was a 60 mile drive, about 40% of it on gravel roads. After the Red Earth service I then drove another 25 miles on gravel to Shoal Lake for the 3.30 service, after which I drove home just in time for a 6.00 supper. During the week I spent one day in Red Earth and one day in Shoal Lake, so you can imagine that I got to know the inside of my car fairly well!

To get to the two reserves from Arborfield I had to drive through a larger community, Carrot River. A couple of years after we moved to Arborfield a man called Marvin started a Christian bookstore in Carrot River. This was years before Chapters thought of putting a coffee shop in a bookstore, but Marvin always had a pot of coffee on, and I got into the habit of stopping in there from time to time when I was going back and forth to the reserves.

Marvin was always glad to see me and before long he started giving me books for free. It got a little embarrassing after a while. I remember saying to him one day, “Marvin, the Christian bookstore business in Carrot River can’t be very lucrative. You’re never going to make much of a profit if you keep giving me books for free”. And he smiled and said, “I know, but I’m having a lot of fun doing it!”

Marvin, you see, had discovered the secret of selfish generosity.

That sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? What do I mean by ‘selfish generosity’? Let’s explore it together for a few minutes.

Our epistle for today is the last part of a unit in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians – a church Paul had founded himself a few years before. In these chapters Paul is writing to his friends in Corinth, encouraging them to get involved in a giant fundraising project he’s organizing for the benefit of the poor in Jerusalem. If there is one phrase that sums up the theme of these two chapters, it would be ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ (9:7). We’re sinful human beings and so our natural tendency is to be grudging givers; Jesus, on the other hand, is working on renovating our hearts, and so he wants us to learn that one of the great secrets to a joyful and happy life is generosity.

When you go home today I would encourage you to read through the whole of 2 Corinthians chapters 8 and 9 to get the context. In these chapters Paul points to Jesus as the great example of gospel generosity: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’ (8:9). He talks about generosity in the context of our total Christian commitment, talking about his friends in the churches in Macedonia and using them as an example for the Corinthians: ‘They gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us’ (8:5). He talks about the principle of kingdom equality: ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little’ (8:15). And he also talks about generosity in poverty: the Macedonian Christians were poor but they gave anyway because they loved to give. In other words, if we wait until we think we can afford it, we’ll probably never start!

Today’s passage comes at the end of the section and our theme is ‘Selfish Generosity’. The question Paul is considering is this: Yes, there’s an obvious payoff for the Jerusalem Christians in the Corinthians’ generosity, but is there a payoff for the Corinthians, too? Is their giving for their benefit as well as Jerusalem’s? Paul thinks it is, and he spells out that payoff in our passage. Listen to verses 6-9:

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written, ‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor, his righteousness endures forever’.

Now I would suggest that this is not the normal way we think of ‘giving to charity’. Suppose I get one of those phone calls from STARS ambulance or cancer research or whatever, asking me for a donation of $100. Now, I’m a selfish human being like anyone else, so my first thought is going to be ‘What had I planned to spend that $100 on?’ I’m in competition with the charity, you see? If I keep the money, it can be of benefit to me. If I give it to them, it will be a benefit to them, which will probably be a good thing, but I won’t get anything out of it.

Paul challenges this way of thinking. The farmer who plants seed in the ground isn’t making a donation, he’s making an investment. The food he’s able to grow will be a benefit to others because they’ll be able to eat and not starve, but it will also be a benefit to the farmer, because it will bring him an income. Paul is challenging me to rethink my perspective on generosity. My gifts to the poor are not a donation; they’re an investment in the work of God’s kingdom. That work will benefit others, but it will also benefit me. I’m not just giving gifts, I’m sowing seeds, and in good time I’ll be able to reap a harvest.

So what exactly are those benefits? Paul points out three things. First, he promises that if we are generous to others, God will provide for our needs as well. In verse 8 he says,

‘And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work’.

And in verses 10-11 he goes on to say,

‘He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity’.

Note carefully what Paul says here. He doesn’t make an unconditional promise that God will give us everything we want. In fact, in other places in the New Testament Paul works hard to reduce the list of things we want; in 1 Timothy he says that godliness with contentment is great gain, and he defines contentment as being happy with food and clothing (I think if he’d lived in Alberta he would have added ‘a warm house’ as well!).

So he isn’t saying, ‘If you give generously God will reward you by pandering to your materialistic lifestyle’. Rather, as the New Living Translation puts it in verse 8, ‘God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others’. Do you see God’s priority here? It’s not that I’ll be able to buy an even nicer and more expensive guitar! It’s that I’ll always have enough to provide for my basic needs, and then to continue to be generous to the poor. So it’s not an extravagant payoff, but it is a payoff!

So the first benefit is a promise that God will provide for our needs too. The second benefit is the enduring benefit of a righteous character. In verse 9 he quotes from Psalm 112, which talks about the righteous person:

‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
His righteousness endures forever’.

The Bible has a lot to say about the difference between a benefit that is only temporary and one that lasts forever. We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can take nothing out with us – nothing material, that is. You’ve heard the story of the two millionaires who were discussing a friend of theirs, also a millionaire, who had died recently. One of them said, “I wonder how much he left?” The other replied, “Everything!” When we stand face to face before our maker, the size of the bank account that our relatives are fighting over won’t make a bit of difference. What will make a difference is our righteous character.

And what does righteousness mean? This quote from Psalm 112 makes it clear that it includes generosity to the poor. ‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever’. It’s not just about doing our best never to harm anyone; as someone once said, ‘a fence post can be a good Christian by that standard’! It’s about practical love for those who really need it. If we allow the Holy Spirit to shape us into the kind of people whose greatest joy is to be generous toward those who are in need, that is a benefit that will be with us forever.

Think about it for a minute; everyone thinks that when they die, they want to go to heaven. But what sort of a place is heaven? In heaven there’s no selfishness, no greed, no ownership of any kind. What kind of person can enjoy that sort of place? Can a selfish and greedy person enjoy it? Isn’t it more true to say that a selfish and greedy person who went to heaven would find it to be hell? So shouldn’t we consider it an urgent priority to ask God to change our hearts so that we can be the kind of people who will find heaven to be heaven and not hell?

Are you beginning to see how generosity can be a real benefit to us? I hope you are.

Paul has pointed out two benefits to us: God will provide for our needs, and we will have the lasting benefit of a righteous character, which will make us the kind of people who can arrive in God’s eternal kingdom and actually enjoy it! But there’s a third thing: the benefit of the prayers of those we have helped. Look at verse 14:

‘…while they (that is, the Christians in Jerusalem) long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you’.

Actually, there are two sides to this. In verse 12 Paul refers to prayers of thanksgiving, and in verse 14 to prayers of intercession. It’s not hard to imagine what he has in mind. This wonderful gift arrives in Jerusalem, and the poor Christians there are filled with joy, because they realize that they aren’t going to starve after all. “Thank you, God, for those wonderful Christians over in Corinth!” they say; “Thank you for their love and generosity. Please bless them and give them all they need, and help them grow as followers of Jesus too”.

The most wonderful gift anyone can give us is to pray for us. As I sit at the front of the church week by week, I listen to our intercessors leading the prayers of the people, and they all do such a great job. I’m especially grateful to those who pray for me and for my family as part of their prayers. And I’m grateful for my Mum, who prays for me every night; I send her my calendar every week and I know she uses it in her prayers and asks God to bless the specific things I’m doing in this parish. And she always asks me if there’s anyone else in this parish she can pray for. You can’t put a dollar value on that; it’s priceless.

So, here are three benefits Paul points out to us: this is the payoff for our growth as joyful givers. First, God will provide for our needs too, so that we can continue to be generous. Second, we’ll be growing in righteous character, so that when we finally arrive in God’s Kingdom we’ll be the kind of people who can enjoy it, rather than finding it to be hell on earth. Thirdly, when the poor receive our gifts their hearts will overflow with thanksgiving to God and with prayers for us, and those prayers are worth more than a million dollars in the bank.

So what is our response? Let me close by pointing out to you the three things that Paul recommends to us.

First, he recommends that we give generously. Verse 6 says, ‘The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully’. This is obvious: if the farmer wants a big crop he has to scatter a lot of seeds; if he only plants a little, he’s only going to have a small crop.

A word of caution here, though. A rich person may give more dollars than a poor person, but the gift is no sacrifice to them, because they’re still giving from their spare change. The point is not how much we give, but how much we have left over. Generous giving is sacrificial giving, giving that means there are things we’d like to do that we can’t do because of it. That’s what Paul is recommending.

The first guideline is to give generously. The second is to give freely. Verse 7 says, ‘Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion’. It’s possible to give generously with the hand but to continue to grasp the gift with your heart, and to wish you’d never given it. That sort of generosity may be a benefit to the recipient, but it won’t be a benefit to the giver. Note what Paul is saying here: no one can judge another Christian for how much they give. It’s true that in the Old Testament 10% is the standard, but what’s important is not a legalistic attachment to percentages – what’s important is that my heart is transformed so that I become the sort of person whose greatest joy is generosity. When that happens, percentages will be unimportant; I’ll be giving all the time because it brings me joy.

And that leads to the third guideline: give generously, give freely, and give cheerfully. Verse seven says, ‘God loves a cheerful giver’. God isn’t trying to make us all into miserable people who can’t even buy an ice cream cone for ourselves without feeling guilty about all the poor people who could have been helped by that $3.50! No – God is longing to increase our joy! He wants to make us happier, more cheerful people, and he knows that generosity is an infallible way to do that!

Do you want to have more joy in your life? Do you want a sense of satisfaction? Do you want to be able to go to sleep at night with a sense of joy in having made a real difference in the lives of people? Well, sisters and brothers, God wants that for you as well! Here’s an infallible rule: misers are miserable (funny how the two words are related!), but generous people are full of joy. So not just for the benefit of the poor, but for our own benefit too, let’s pray that God the Holy Spirit will change our selfish hearts into generous hearts. Will you pray that for me? I’ll pray it for you, too, and then we can continue to work on it together.

The Heart of the Gospel

We are told in several places in the New Testament to follow the example of Jesus, to be ‘imitators of Christ’. This includes attitudes such as humility (eg. Philippians 2:1-11), but if we ask the question, ‘How specifically should I practice that?’ only one concrete behavioural example is given: Don’t retaliate when you are mistreated, but love your enemies (1 Peter 2.21-23).

Why is this spelled out? Because this behaviour is at the heart of the Gospel. The heart of the Gospel is the story of a God who loves his enemies, forgives those who murder him, and reaches out to those who reject him. We are told to ‘Go and do likewise’.

Who Does Jesus Think He Is? (a sermon on Matthew 21:23-32)

On Friday night we had the opening service of our diocesan synod at All Saints’ Cathedral. Earlier in the evening in the foyer of the cathedral there was a lot of activity – registration tables, a light supper, some displays and information for delegates to take in. People were milling around, many of them rather smartly dressed, and as we got closer to the starting time some people in robes started to appear. There was the bishop, wearing her cope and mitre, obviously a rather important person. Eventually the service began with an opening procession into the cathedral – the choir, the leading clergy of the Diocese, followed by the bishop. In processions like this, the person who comes last is always the most important person, and in this case there was no doubt who was in charge!

Now – imagine that about half an hour before the service a well-known religious rebel comes into the cathedral foyer. He’s not ordained, has never been to any seminaries, doesn’t have any official position in the Diocese of Edmonton, but he’s got a name for clever teaching and spending time with the poor and needy. Imagine he sets up a display in the foyer with a microphone and starts addressing the people as they come in to register for synod. He just assumes he’s got the right to do this, even though he hasn’t asked permission beforehand. Pretty soon a huge crowd is gathering around because he’s a good speaker and he knows how to get their attention. Before long no one is paying any attention to anything else going on, and archdeacons and cathedral deans are looking nervously at their watches, wondering when he’s going to stop so that they can begin the opening service of Synod. And the question on the minds of all the people in authority is the natural one: Who does this guy think he is, waltzing in here like this and taking over our Synod service?

And that’s the question in the back of people’s minds in our gospel for today. We’re close to the end of Jesus’ ministry; the cross is only four days away. For months rumours about Jesus have been buzzing around. He’s a wonderful teacher who can hold the attention of an enormous crowd. He’s got the common touch; ordinary people love listening to him. He’s done hundreds of amazing miracles, healing sick people and even raising the dead. He’s broken all sorts of barriers, spending time with women and children and Roman soldiers and tax collectors and sinners.

So who does he think he is? A lot of people see him as a prophet, sent by God with a message for Israel at this point in her history, but some of the leaders see him as a false prophet, trying to make a name for himself and leading Israel astray. A true prophet wouldn’t be so soft on outcasts and sinners like Jesus is! Some people are even using the word ‘Messiah’ – the king like David who would set God’s people free from their enemies and establish God’s righteous kingdom on earth. But Jesus wasn’t behaving like a politician or a king; he wasn’t raising an army or proposing policies or leading a rebellion against the Romans. He himself used the term ‘Son of Man’ for himself – a very ambiguous phrase. It might just mean ‘human being’, but in the book of Daniel there’s a mysterious passage about ‘one like a Son of Man’ who comes before the throne of God and is rewarded with power and authority and an everlasting dominion over all the people on earth. Is that who Jesus thinks he is? And if it is, is he quite right in the head?

Then comes what we now call ‘Palm Sunday’. Jesus and his disciples are on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover; they’ve been gathering a crowd as they’ve made the journey from the north, and when they get to Jerusalem Jesus stages a triumphal entry into the city right out of the Book of the Prophet Zechariah:

‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ (Zechariah 9:9).

So Jesus rides into the city on a donkey’s colt; his disciples cut palm branches and shout ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ A huge crowd gathers to greet him. Once he’s in the city he goes straight to the Temple and totally disrupts it; he turns over the tables of the money changers and drives out all the buyers and sellers, quoting Jeremiah to them: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers’ (Matthew 20:13).

And for some reason the authorities do nothing. Maybe it’s the presence of the huge crowd; maybe they sense that if they try to oppose this popular young prophet, they might be taking their lives in their hands, even though there are Roman guards to back them up, just a stone’s throw away in the Fortress Antonia. The last thing they want is a riot in the temple courts; the Romans will not be pleased if that happens. So the leaders fume, and do nothing.

And now it’s Monday morning, and this insufferable young man is back in the Temple again! There’s already a crowd there, but the leaders can’t restrain themselves any longer. There he is, sitting down in the Temple courts with a huge crowd listening as he teaches them. He’s acting as if he owns the place! So the chief priests – the ones who really own the place! – march up to him and ask the question, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (21:23).

Now, you’ve been listening to Jesus for a while in this church. Tell me, how likely is he to give a direct answer to a direct question? Not very likely, right?

Except here, there’s method in his madness. You see, the question they really want to ask him is “Are you the Messiah?” If they can get him to say, ‘Yes’, then the Romans will be on board with their agenda right away, because ‘Messiah’ is a political word. The King who sets God’s people free and restores justice and righteousness to Israel is not a popular idea among the oppressors! Any would-be Messiah is deadly dangerous, and the Romans had a lot of practice in crucifying them without mercy.

So what they really want Jesus to say – in public, with hundreds of witnesses – is “You ask me by what authority I’m doing this? Well, duh! Can’t you see? I’m the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed king of Israel. God has sent me to set his people free. And you know what, I just happen to be a descendant of the royal house of David, so that’s a nice piece of serendipity, isn’t it?”

But Jesus is too smart by far to do that. He knows there’s a cross ahead for him, but not yet; he’s got a few more things he wants to say and do first, so he’s not about to deliver himself into their hands.

And so he says, “Let me ask you a question in return. When John the Baptist was baptizing people – was that just something he made up out of his own head, or was it God’s work? Was his baptism from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

I can imagine the chief priests and elders looking around nervously at the crowd. John the Baptist had been a very popular figure, and most of the common people saw him as a true prophet of God. But he had been arrested and executed by King Herod Antipas, who was in bed with the Romans, and this had left a very bad taste in most people’s mouths. For the chief priests and elders to denounce John as a false prophet in front of that whole crowd might have been to sign their own death warrant. Jerusalem crowds could be very volatile, and who know whether Jesus would stir them up or not?

So answering their question with this question was a very smart move on Jesus’ part. But it wasn’t just arbitrary. He had a personal connection with John the Baptist. If you remember back at the beginning of the gospel story, Jesus had joined the crowd around John at the Jordan River, and had gone down into the water himself to be baptized. And do you remember what happened when he came up out of the water? Yes, the Holy Spirit came down and rested on him, ‘anointing’ him with God’s power and authority for his ministry. The word ‘Messiah’ means ‘anointed one’. So if Jesus truly is the Messiah, God’s anointed king, then John the Baptist is the one through whom the anointing came. So if the chief priests and elders could not recognize the authority of John – if they couldn’t conceive of the possibility that he might have been speaking for God – then they were unlikely to be able to recognize the authority of Jesus either.

But there’s another piece of evidence Jesus is ready to point to, and so he tells the little story of the two sons. Their father goes to the first son and says “Son, will you go and work in my vineyard today?” “No way!” the young man replies – but later on he changes his mind and goes. The father then goes to his second son. “Son, will you go and work in my vineyard today?” “Sure!” the young man replies – but does nothing about it. His obedience is all words, not actions.

“You guys are like that second son”, Jesus said to the chief priests and elders. “John the Baptist came to you in righteousness with a challenge from God – to repent – but you ignored him. But these tax collectors and prostitutes believed him, and they turned from their sins and turned to God because of his preaching. They’re like that first son, the one who refused to obey but later changed his mind and went. And that’s how we know that John’s ministry was from God: he touched the lives of people and brought transformation”.

And this is where this parable hits home for us today, isn’t it?

After all, we believe in Jesus. We’re pretty sure we’ve got the right answer to that question “By what authority are you doing these things?” We know who he is! In our epistle for today Paul says,

‘Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:9-11).

By what authority is he doing these things? By the authority of God! We know that in Jesus God has come among us in a unique and powerful way. When Jesus speaks, we hear the voice of God through him. This is what we Christians believe. In a few moments we’ll stand up together and announce it yet again: “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord”.

And we’ve heard his word of grace. Remember, ‘grace’ is the Bible word for God’s unconditional love. We don’t have to earn it or deserve it. We’re not disqualified from it because our skin’s the wrong colour or we were born in the wrong country. This ‘amazing grace’ comes even to ‘a wretch like me’ – even though I fall far short of God’s plan for me. I might not look outwardly like one of those tax collectors and prostitutes, but there are lots of less visible ways that I haven’t loved God with all my heart and my neighbour as myself.

But that’s okay. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, Jesus says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). What we’ve done – or failed to do – in the past does not disqualify us from receiving God’s invitation. God starts with everyone right where they are. “Come to me”, he says, and that invitation goes out to everyone.

But we do have to come. We can’t just sit there and say, “Isn’t it wonderful? God sent Jesus to call us back to him! He’s the real Messiah, you know!” – and then do nothing about it!

This is particularly important for those of us here who have made baptismal promises – and most of us here have made those promises, either at our own baptisms or someone else’s. In those promises we committed ourselves to turning away from sin and evil. We said we would turn to Jesus, put our whole trust in his grace and love, and follow him as our Lord. In other words, his teaching and example would be the pattern for our lives, and we would commit ourselves to learning to follow that pattern – always knowing that when we failed, his forgiving love would be ready there to catch us.

But here’s the danger for liturgical Christians like us: these words on the page can be – well, just words on the page. We can say them with our lips, but not believe them in our hearts or live them out in our lives. And if we do that, they’re not really worth anything.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about people who try to follow Jesus and fail – we all do that. I’m talking about people who mouth words with their lips but have no intention of practising them. People who stand for the gospel reading on Sunday and say ‘Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ’ when they hear the words of Jesus, but then go out on Monday with a knowing smile and say to themselves “Well, Jesus’ teaching doesn’t really work in the business world, does it?” Or, “I’ll get to it one day – but today is not that day!”

Remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount? Who is the wise man who builds his house on the rock? Just the one who hears the words of Jesus, or recites them? No: the one “who hears these words of mine and acts on them” (Matthew 7:24). May God give us grace today to do that.