Let It Be Soon

I’m off to bed on this Easter Eve night, looking forward to leading Easter Sunday worship tomorrow. But let me leave you with this rather long and rambling thought.

In some Anglican circles on the Internet, prophets of doom are foretelling the end of churchgoing. All this streaming of services, they say, will show people that they don’t need to go to church. They can stay home and watch it in their pajamas.

Well, if your church is a spectator activity, I guess that may be true. But mine is not, and neither are most churches I know. They are communities of friends who love each other. We love hearing each other’s voices when we sing and pray. We shake hands and hug when the services begin and end. We get together for Bible study and for lunch groups. We build and paint and fix and work together to make life better for the people around us.

Let’s make no mistake about this. Right now we’re doing what we have to do—staying away from each other. But we’re not doing it because we want to. We long for that day when we can stand together again around the altar and share communion with our sisters and brothers. We long for the sound of each other’s voices and the feeling of each other’s hugs. We miss the gentle conversation, the jokes, the smell of the candles, the warmth of the sun streaming through the church windows. We miss each other. And we long, we ache, to be together again.

The end of churchgoing? I think not. I’ve had email after email from parishioners thanking me for all the work we’ve put into making online church work. But every single one of them is longing for the day when it won’t be necessary any more. And so am I. I’m a preacher, not a broadcaster. My sermons are preached in front of groups of people, people I know and love. I can sense when they’re with me. I can tell by their faces when they’re finding the message exciting, or challenging, or captivating, or boring, or too long! I live for that sense of connection I get when I’m standing up before a real live flesh-and-blood congregation of people I know and love.

Christ is Risen, and I know it, so I’m not without hope. I know God will bring us through this time. It’s been well said that at the moment we have to stay apart, so that when we come together again, no one will be missing. I get that. But that day when I can throw open the church doors and welcome the family home again will be the high point of this year for me. I know that day is probably some months away yet, but I can’t help the fact that, in my heart of hearts, I’m longing and crying out, “Please God, let it be soon!”

The Power of the Cross

I want to speak to you today about our epistle reading, from 1 Corinthians 1.10-18, and I want to begin by acknowledging how difficult it can be for us to read a letter like this and think ourselves back into the situation of the people who first heard it. Let me quickly name some of the differences between them and us.

First, we aren’t the first Christians in Edmonton. Christian churches have been active in this area for at least a hundred and fifty years, and many of us come from families that have been Christian for much longer than that. But this was not true of the people who first heard 1 Corinthians. They were the first Christians in Corinth.

Sometime in the late forties A.D. a short, unimpressive-looking wandering preacher named Paul arrived in one of the busiest and most prosperous cities of the ancient world, the city of Corinth, capital of the Roman province of Achaia. In Paul’s day it was a multicultural city, more Roman than Greek, with a good number of rich people and tens of thousands of slaves, and more gods than you can even begin to imagine.

When Paul arrived in Corinth he soon met a Jewish couple who were in the same business as him: tent-making. Their names were Aquilla and Priscilla, and they had recently arrived from Rome. It’s not clear whether they were already Christian when Paul met them, but if not, they became Christian very quickly. Paul moved in with them and they became business partners, and in his spare time, Paul went to the Jewish synagogue and tried to convince people there that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. They put up with him for a while, but eventually they’d had enough, and he left them and moved his activities next door, to the house of a man named Titius Justus. He was probably one of Paul’s first converts in Corinth, and so was a Jew called Crispus, a member of the synagogue. Things took off from there, and before long there were probably several thriving house-churches in the city of Corinth.

So, with the possible exception of Aquilla and Priscilla, these first Corinthian churchgoers were all brand new Christians. They could remember a day when they had never heard of Jesus, they could remember when Paul first preached the Gospel to them, and they could remember their decision to become Christians. Their baptism was an adult, believer’s baptism. Their conversion was a darkness to light, ‘was blind but now I see’ kind of experience. That’s the first difference between them and us.

Second, their church life was very different from ours. Our church is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. We meet in a very nice building set aside for the worship and life of our congregation. We have an administrative framework, a full-time, paid parish priest, a governance structure, and centuries of traditions. We have written Bibles we can hold in our hands and a defined theological tradition to help us interpret them. We come together to worship using a liturgy with roots that go back almost two thousand years.

The Corinthians had none of that. Their churches had no paid professional leaders. They met in people’s homes and had no written order of service. They had no Bibles to read from, unless some of the Jewish members had been able to copy out by hand a few of the most important passages from what we call the Old Testament. If there were Bible readings, they were probably delivered from memory, and the New Testament didn’t even exist yet, so stories of Jesus were like gold dust, and if you knew a few of them, you were always busy sharing them! As far as we can tell their communion service was more like a pot luck supper, and some people were actually getting drunk at it! There was no international church structure that defined Christian doctrine, and not much of a process to discuss issues when they came up.

Third, their Christian experience was far more vivid and egalitarian than ours. In 1 Corinthians we read that when they came together, their services were more like a free-for-all. I imagine them sitting in the round, facing each other in their small house churches. When they were praying, it was normal for someone in the group to receive a message from God to pass on to the people, which would be done, and people would listen and weigh what was said. Sometimes a member would suddenly break out in an unknown language—‘speaking in tongues’, it was called—and when they were finished, someone else would speak in Greek (everyone’s common language), the Holy Spirit giving them the interpretation. Different people exercised gifts of healing and miracles, or received revelations from God about things they couldn’t have known by their own natural abilities. It was all very exciting and supernatural; there was nothing boring or predictable about it.

We know from the book of Acts that Paul stayed in Corinth for about a year and a half, and then he moved on to share the Gospel in other communities, taking Priscilla and Aquilla with him as far as Ephesus. We presume that when he left, he had appointed teams of elders to lead the house churches, but they weren’t priests or ministers the way we understand them; at best, they were a cross between lay readers and vestry members. We can imagine what powerful figures Paul and Priscilla and Aquilla had been when they were living there, and how much the people missed them after they left. And after a while, troubles began.

Apollos was a powerful, charismatic preacher who encountered Priscilla and Aquilla in Ephesus. John the Baptist had set him on the way to faith, but he hadn’t yet been baptized as a Christian. Priscilla and Aquilla helped put him on the right track, and before long he was full of enthusiasm to share the Gospel in Corinth, so off he went. Paul, by his own confession, wasn’t much of an orator, but Apollos was amazing, and he held the crowds spellbound. Some people started making comparisons in their mind. “Wow—Paul wasn’t really anything to write home about compared to this guy!” So he began to attract quite a following in Corinth.

And there was another party too. We know from the New Testament that some of the more traditional Jewish Christians weren’t very happy with Paul. He was telling the Gentiles that it wasn’t necessary for them to be circumcised and keep the Jewish laws; all they needed was to believe in Jesus, be baptized, and walk the way of love as Jesus had commanded. This made no sense to the Jewish Christians: God had promised to send the Messiah to Israel, so in order to benefit from the Messiah, you had to be Jewish! So Gentiles who wanted to become Christian had to be circumcised (if they were male) and take on the whole Law of Moses.

Paul was constantly trying to fight off the verbal attacks of these people, and we can make a very good guess as to what the strongest one was. “Well, you know, Paul did a very good job in his own way, but he’s not a real apostle! He didn’t actually follow Jesus around Galilee and listen to him preach, so it’s not surprising that he got a few things wrong, is it? And now we need to set you straight about those things.” We don’t know for sure whether Peter was ever involved in those disputes, but we do know that those Jewish Christians claimed his authority. “Peter was the one Jesus actually appointed as our leader, you know, not Paul!”

So that’s what’s going on in our reading for today. Some messengers had come to Paul to tell him the Christian community in Corinth was splitting up into opposing groups. “Apollos is the best!” “No, no—we’re loyal to Paul!” “No—Peter is the original leader, so we’ll follow him!” And perhaps worst of all, a fourth group was saying, “None of you lot are real Christians—we’re the only ones who really follow Christ!”

Now, on this point, we might find it easy to identify with our ancient Corinthian sisters and brothers! Because of course, since the earliest time, we Christians have found it very hard to stay united around Jesus. Apollos and Peter and Paul are long dead, but others since their time have been influential leaders, and those leaders have attracted their loyal followers. Presbyterians and Reformed Christians around the world look to John Calvin. Lutherans look to Martin Luther. Mennonites look to Menno Simons. Twentieth century evangelicals might have looked to Billy Graham. Very few Anglicans are actually great admirers of Henry VIII, but we do like Thomas Cranmer, who wrote the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549!

Today we see how some TV evangelists are strong preachers with great communication skills and all the wonders of modern technology to help them reach their audience. Modern Corinthians might say, “I follow Joel Osteen!” or “I follow Paula White!” or “I follow Kay Arthur!” But let’s not get too smug about this; it’s not only evangelicals and Pentecostals who get easily wowed by strong leadership. I watch the way people treat the Pope sometimes, with crowds of hundreds of thousands flocking to meet him as if he was Jesus Christ himself. And, even closer to home, I have sometimes been told that I’m a real follower of C.S. Lewis!

What’s wrong with all this? What’s wrong is, first, that it distracts people from following Jesus, and second, that it emphasizes human strength rather than human weakness.

In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul makes a radical statement: God’s power is made perfect in weakness. And the Christian gospel glories in weaknesses. In the passage just after our reading for today, Paul says, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1.22-24). Let’s stop for a minute to notice the shocking nature of that statement. ‘Christ’ is the Greek word for ‘Messiah’. The Messiah was supposed to be a king who God was going to send to defeat Israel’s enemies and set them free. ‘Christ crucified’? What a nonsensical statement! ‘We proclaim the king who was defeated by the Romans’? How is that good news? How can that help us?

But we know that Christ crucified is the heart of the Gospel. This is the power of God—that when he came among us in Jesus and we rejected him and killed him, he didn’t destroy us in rage but forgave us in love. This is what the Cross tells us. The Cross shows us how truly sinful we are: when pure love incarnate came among us, we rejected him and killed him. But it also shows us how full of grace and love God is: when we rejected him, he did not reject us. His love was never defeated. His love was victorious. And if we were missing the point, the resurrection underlined it gloriously for us.

So ‘Christ crucified’ would be an embarrassment to Jews and to Gentiles, but Paul refused to be embarrassed by it; he made it the centre of his message. And he made sure the Corinthians knew that they were called to walk in the way of the Cross too. Let me close by reminding you what that means for us today.

First, walking in the way of the Cross means that love is always the centre of what we do. Not flashy communication techniques. Not powerful speakers or great preachers. Not the world’s most impressive church building. No: a love that is so stubborn that it refuses to give up, even though it’s rejected over and over again. That’s God’s love for us: a love you don’t have to earn or deserve, that comes to you as a free gift from God, because God is love. But it also comes to us with a challenge: love as you have been loved. Leaders aren’t meant to impress us; they’re meant to love us, and lead us in love and service to one another.

Second, walking in the way of the Cross means suffering is inevitable. Powerful people didn’t like Jesus, so they crucified him. Powerful people always have the most to lose from a gospel that tells them they are not god; only God is God! If we follow Jesus consistently, he’s going to challenge our allegiance to wealth and power, and challenge others through us, and we can expect to suffer for that.

But we can also expect to suffer because of love itself. If we give ourselves in love to others, there will be a price to pay. It’s so much easier to do what we want all the time and let others look after themselves. To enter into a relationship with someone is to open yourself up to pain, because when they suffer, you suffer with them. That’s what Jesus did when he became one of us and eventually died our death. And now he tells us to take up our Cross and follow him. What did we think that meant, if it’s not suffering?

So walking in the way of the Cross means love is at the centre, and suffering is inevitable. But finally, walking in the way of the Cross means looking to the Resurrection. If Jesus had been crucified and stayed dead, no one would have taken any notice, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation today. But when his followers began to see him alive again, and began to get it through their heads that God had raised him from the dead, that changed everything! God had vindicated everything Jesus had said and done. He was the Messiah, he was the Son of God, he had given his life a ransom for many—and now he was exalted to God’s right hand as Lord of all. So there was no need to fear. What’s the worst our enemies can do to us? Kill us! Well, they killed Jesus, didn’t they? And look what happened to him! And one day, we’re promised that it will happen to us, too!

Paul says, ‘The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know that it is the very power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1.18 NLT) Far more powerful than the preaching of Apollos or the signs and wonders done by charismatic preachers. Far more powerful than all the Greek philosophers in all their wisdom. Far more powerful than any politician or celebrity or CEO or self-help guru. In the Cross of Christ, the indestructible love of God meets all our human failure and despair, and gives us fresh hope and new life. So let’s glory in the Cross of Christ, and not be ashamed to make it the centre of our message and the centre of our lives. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Fellow-workers

Our church is at the end of a week-long Day Camp, ‘Kids’ Kapers’, that we run in co-operation with another local congregation, Crosslife Church. All week long volunteers and kids have been having fun exploring the story of Jonah together. I’m only marginally involved – I lead a ‘circle prayer’ at the end of opening devotions every day – but I’m mightily impressed by all the work the volunteers are putting in. Clearing the chairs out of the sanctuary to make room for the program. Preparing stories and songs and materials and food. Being at the church for hours and hours every day. Dealing with joyful kids and difficult kids. I’m privileged to be with these ‘fellow-workers’ in Christ.

I was struck again this week in my daily Bible reading by Paul’s sense of fellowship with those who share in the work of the gospel. The Letter to the Romans concludes with one of his longest ever ‘greetings’ section, quoted here in the New Living Translation:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. Welcome her in the Lord as one who is worthy of honor among God’s people. Help her in whatever she needs, for she has been helpful to many, and especially to me.

Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus. In fact, they once risked their lives for me. I am thankful to them, and so are all the Gentile churches. Also give my greetings to the church that meets in their home.

Greet my dear friend Epenetus. He was the first person from the province of Asia to become a follower of Christ. Give my greetings to Mary, who has worked so hard for your benefit. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews, who were in prison with me. They are highly respected among the apostles and became followers of Christ before I did. Greet Ampliatus, my dear friend in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys.

Greet Apelles, a good man whom Christ approves. And give my greetings to the believers from the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my fellow Jew. Greet the Lord’s people from the household of Narcissus. Give my greetings to Tryphena and Tryphosa, the Lord’s workers, and to dear Persis, who has worked so hard for the Lord. Greet Rufus, whom the Lord picked out to be his very own; and also his dear mother, who has been a mother to me.

Give my greetings to Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who meet with them. Give my greetings to Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and to Olympas and all the believers who meet with them. Greet each other with a sacred kiss. All the churches of Christ send you their greetings.

A couple of things strike me about this passage. First, Paul had never visited the church in Rome, but he knew so many people there! In those days there was no Facebook or Twitter, no telephone and not even a reliable mail service! And yet Christians across the Mediterranean world knew each other; they knew each other’s names, they obviously travelled and had fellowship with each other, and they shared warm affectionate for each other as they cooperated in the work of Christ.

And that leads me to the second thing. There’s very little mention of official titles in this passage, beyond the brief note that Andronicus and Junia were ‘highly respected among the apostles’. We know that the early churches did have a simple structure: a team of elders to give oversight and care to the congregation. They probably weren’t paid and they certainly weren’t ‘lone wolves’. But the word ‘presbyter’ (elder) is never mentioned here. The most common word is simply ‘worker’ or ‘fellow-worker’. ‘Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers’ (and I love the fact that they have a church meeting in their home!). ‘Mary, who has worked so hard for your benefit’. ‘Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ’. ‘…Tryphena and Tryphosa, the Lord’s workers’. ‘Persis, who has worked so hard for the Lord’.

I think ‘fellow-worker’ is one of Paul’s favourite terms for his fellow-Christians. There’s no mention of priest or laity, educated or uneducated. All are members of the Body of Christ. All can share in the work of Christ. Yes, elders provide care and leadership, but they are also simply ‘fellow-workers’.

In the modern church there are often debates about ordination, what constitutes a valid ordination, how we raise the money to pay these full-time ordained people and so on. I don’t see these debates in the early church. If you are a baptized Christian, filled with the Holy Spirit, then you are a fellow-worker with Paul and the others. Christ has a job for you to do, and you’ll find your greatest joy in doing it. It might be as simple as making the coffee and treats. It might be to share your faith story with others, or to be a listening ear for those who need it, or to guide children as they grow in Christ, or to give careful attention to the stewardship of the church’s finances.

No matter how big or small the job, we are workers together in Christ. In the end, hierarchical titles aren’t that important. The important thing is that we listen to the call of Jesus, and follow him joyfully together.

‘Small Church Essentials’ by Karl Vaters: Introduction

41qsejNasDL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve really enjoyed reading Karl Vaters’ new book ‘Small Church Essentials’. You can find out a lot about Karl by reading his blog ‘Pivot‘ at ‘Christianity Today’ or checking out his website New Small Church.

I need to work my way through the book again and start implementing some of the many ideas I haven’t begun to practice yet. I thought blogging my way through it might help with that. So here’s the first post, on the Introduction (pp.9-13).

In the Intro Karl makes three statements about what small churches need in order to become great (hint: in Karl’s language, ‘Great’ does not automatically mean ‘bigger’):

  1. They have to believe they can be great.
  2. They have to see what a great small church looks like.
  3. They need resources designed for great small churches.

As I reflected on these questions I saw immediately that for me, as a small church pastor, point 2 is crucial. Church growth literature and denominational authorities tend to peddle visions of what a great large church looks like, but that’s not helpful for us small church pastors. We are the ones who believe that it is more than possible to have the kind of church life described in the letters of Paul in a small church than a large church. After all, for the first two or three Christian centuries the ‘house church’ was the norm – so everything essential to church life must be doable in a large living room!

My own pastoral vision is crucial here. Do I have a vision of what a great small church looks like? In this book Karl constantly comes back to the Great Commandments (‘Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself’) and the Great Commission (‘Go and make disciples of all nations…baptize them…teach them to obey everything I have commanded you’). I would add as foundational the Great Confession that Peter makes in the Gospels (‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’). Our vision for small church greatness must focus on these essentials:

  1. Jesus is the Messiah (i.e. the king who sets us free), the Son of God.
  2. Jesus calls us to be his disciples, to make new disciples and to teach them to put his teaching and example into practice in daily life.
  3. Jesus calls us to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Small churches don’t have excess time, volunteer hours, and money. We need to focus on the things Jesus is calling us to do and not get distracted.

******

A bit further on in the introduction Karl talks about the stereotypes people have of small churches: they are…

  • Inward-focussed
  • Threatened by change
  • Filled with petty infighting and jealousies
  • Not reaching their communities
  • Poorly managed
  • Settling for less

His comment is ‘That’s not a description of a small church; it’s a description of an unhealthy church’. There are plenty of small churches that are:

  • Friendly
  • Outward-looking
  • Missional
  • Innovative
  • Generous
  • Worshipful

As I reflected on these two lists, it came to me once again that it’s probably a case of ‘as pastor, so church’. Which of these lists best describes me? Am I inward-focussed, threatened by change, absorbed by petty infighting and jealousies, not reaching my community, poor at time management, with a tendency to settle for less? Or am I friendly, outward-looking, missional, innovative, generous, and worshipful?

When I look at the first list, it’s the last two that convict me. I’m not a good time manager – I know it’s one of my greatest ministry weaknesses – and I really need to work on that, while not getting sucked into time management tools that work better for large churches (later in the book Karl outlines as very helpful ‘321’ planning system that works really well in small churches). And also I do tend to settle for less – ‘good enough’ – in myself and in church life – rather than pushing myself to be better and inspiring the church to be better too.

So my take-away work from the intro is:

  1. Have a clear picture of what greatness looks like in a small church (hint: it probably centres on the Great Confession, the Great Commission and the Great Commandments) and share this with others.
  2. Work on my time-management and planning skills.
  3. Instead of ‘settling for less’, develop a regular (weekly, monthly, yearly) discipline of asking ‘How could we do this better?’ (or, alternatively. ‘What could we do that would be better than this?’).

 

Finding the Rhythms

As a much younger minister I spent seven years in two different parishes in the Diocese of the Arctic: All Saints’, Aklavik (1984-88) and Church of the Resurrection, Holman (now Ulukhaktok) (1988-91).

One of the things I learned there was to find and take advantage of the natural rhythms of the life of the community and the parish. For instance, in both those communities a lot of people went out on the land for the summer – to fish camps, mainly. And those who stayed in town were busy. The Arctic summer is short, and if you need to get some outdoor work done, the window for that is short too. People don’t want to be bothered by the minister at those times.

So I learned to slow down in the summer, but I also learned to do what everyone else was doing – build a new skidoo shed, or fix some broken windows, or repair a damaged roof. Summer was a good time for fixing buildings and other practical projects. That was the rhythm of life.

Now I live in Edmonton and there’s a rhythm here too. Many of my friends assume that Christmas is my busiest time of year, and they’re surprised when I tell them Easter is a lot busier! But they also don’t get the basic structure of church life in Alberta: really busy (with short lulls) from mid-September until the end of April, then mainly quiet for the four months of May to August. Our winters are long, and once the weather warms up people don’t want to be bothered with meetings and study groups – they want to get out and enjoy God’s creation.

So I run with that, and I enjoy it. Early May to mid-September is time to take a bit of holiday, to read more, to visit and spend time with individuals and to do a bit of planning. The rest of my year goes better if I do those things in the four months of Spring and Summer.

There are little lulls in the winter, too. For instance, things kick into high gear in mid-September: we start small groups and courses and study activities, and these generally run until the end of November. But we don’t do much in December; people are cruising into Christmas and their lives are taken up with that. So I’ve discovered that late November/early December is a wonderful time for me to take a week’s holiday. I get back in time to start the run-up to Christmas, but I’m refreshed from a week of rest. Christmas goes better for me if I do that.

That’s what I’m up to this week. My day off is Monday so I’m actually taking eight days’ holiday, from Monday to Monday. Tomorrow (Wednesday) we’re taking off to see old friends in Saskatchewan for a few days. Looks like the weather will be fairly mild (always a factor at this time of year), so driving will be okay. I’m looking forward to some good friend times, and I know I’ll come back in a better frame of mind.

Things will then get busy again: Our Christmas variety concert – planning for special events – home communions – Christmas services in nursing homes – a ‘When Christmas Hurts’ service – a ‘Lessons and Carols’ and ‘Bring a Friend’ service – and then the special services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

After Christmas there’s a slow down (unless there’s a pastoral emergency; I say that because for the past four years I’ve had deaths in the parish during or just after Christmas). January is steady but not frantic. What many people don’t know is that in church offices this is ‘Annual Meeting season’; we’re busy getting reports prepared and doing other preparation work for the Annual General Meeting (which in our parish takes place in mid-February).

And then comes Lent. Usually we do some extra programming, so things kick into high gear again. Holy Week (between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday) is extremely busy. But by the time Easter comes we’re near the end of April, and people give a great collective sigh of relief and start going out to the lake on weekends. Church life slows down to a leisurely crawl. If clergy and leaders are wise, they don’t try to fight that. We need that time of rest and renewal.

Rhythms of life. It’s good to find them and good to take advantage of them. Life goes better if we do.

Who is my neighbour?

When I was young I understood the word ‘neighbour’ to have a very specific meaning: the person who lives next door.

Occasionally it would be extended a bit. In a small village of a few hundred people, many of them related to each other, the term ‘neighbour’ might reasonably be applied to everyone in the community. Or in the inner-city (like Woodland Road in Leicester, where I spent the first few years of my life), it might mean other people who lived on the same street. 

But ‘neighbour’ always implied proximity. And usually (although this was rarely spelled out) it also involved similarity: neighbours are people like us.

Jesus, however, had a different definition. Let me quote it to you in full:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10:25-37, NRSV)

Let me point out two things about this passage.

First, Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’. That’s because it’s the wrong question. The lawyer thinks the commandments are an entrance exam he has to pass in order to receive eternal life. He wants to know what the pass mark is: what’s the least he can get away with? That being the case, if there are fifty people in his village and only twenty of them qualify as his ‘neighbours’, why would he waste time loving the other thirty? There’s nothing in it for him!

Jesus, however, sees things differently. To him, the commandments are not an entrance exam, they are a description of what eternal life looks like. Growing in joyful obedience to those commandments is what our life is going to be about, now and forever, until we are reshaped into people who obey them not out of obligation, but out of delight. They aren’t an exam that we will complete: they are our new way of life.

So Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question because he doesn’t accept the premise it’s based on. And this leads to the second thing: Jesus’ redefinition of the word  ‘neighbour’. ‘Neighbour’ isn’t a description of a person who lives near us and who looks like us; it’s a description of the relationship between a person in need and the person who stops to help them. A person in need, whether I know them or not, is my neighbour. When I stop to help them, I am behaving like a true neighbour to them.

And it’s not an accident that Jesus chooses to make this an inter-racial story. The Samaritans were mixed-bloods, with centuries of animosity between them and the ‘pure’ Jews of Judea. But a Samaritan was the one who stopped to help this (presumably Jewish) victim of a mugging, while the priest and the Levite (also Jewish) refused to do so. They refused to be neighbours to the man in need; the Samaritan chose to be a neighbour.

In recent weeks we have seen shocking racial hatred, especially today in Charlottesville, Virginia. This hatred is antithetical to the message of Jesus Christ. Jesus recognizes no boundaries; he crosses borders, reaches out to all people, treats Samaritans and Roman soldiers (and women, children, tax collectors and prostitutes) with respect, and tells us that we are even required to love our enemies. There is no escape from the command to love, because it is the nature of the God we believe in, a God who loves his enemies.

I want to say as clearly as I can that any kind of racism – against aboriginal people, against black folks, against Asians, against Jewish people or Muslims (although ‘Muslim’ is a religion, not a race) or anyone else – is totally antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The God Jesus taught us about is the God who created everyone and loves everyone. The Church must stand clearly for the message, and live it out in its daily life. 

I would be the first to admit that we in the Church have often fallen short of this. We have allowed our governments to tells us it’s okay to hate and kill people it calls our enemies. We have colluded with the state in the sinfully misguided and wicked institution of the Residential Schools. And we continue to drag our feet on recognizing the rights of the original inhabitants of this country. So yes, we have a lot to repent of.

But let’s not fail to name the goal we’re aiming for. Let’s be clear: Jesus calls us to be neighbours to one another, to love one another, to help those in need whether they are ‘like us’ or not. One of his early followers, Saul of Tarsus, taught that in Christ ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). 

All one. The Church is called to demonstrate before the watching world what a reconciled humanity looks like. The Church is called to live this love, and then to share it with others and invite them into it. And we cannot do that if we allow ourselves to be divided along lines of race. To allow that would be a complete betrayal of our message.

We are one family. So let us do our best to live as one family, and refuse to let the power of evil divide us.