While Preachers Dutifully Ponder the Doctrine of the Trinity, Our Congregations Shrink???

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday.  In anticipation, preachers all over the world are dutifully pondering the Doctrine of the Trinity desperately searching for something to say to encourage their congregations.

Preachers will trot out tired old clichés conjuring up images of triangles, shamrocks around, or point to H20’s ability to appear as water, ice, or steam while still maintaining it’s unified essence. Or have you heard the one about the 3 blind men and the elephant in the room. That old chestnut is trotted out by many a desperate preacher struggling to put flesh on the doctrine of the trinity. But for the life of me I can’t see how 1 blind man touching the elephant’s trunk and presuming that there is a tree in the room, while a second blind man catching wind of the elephant’s ear is convinced that there is some sort of giant fan in the room, while a third man grabs hold of the tail and is sure that he has hold of a rope, helps you to conclude that just because they’re all sharing a room with an elephant you can now confess that God is indeed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever amen. But all sorts of mental gymnastics will be exercised in the vain attempt to make some sort of sense of the doctrine of the Trinity!

On Trinity Sundays, mindful of the fact that trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity usually leads to heresy: dusty theological books that have not seen the light of day since last Trinity Sunday have been poured over to ensure that the formula’s learned in seminary are repeated correctly and heresy scrupulously avoided. The imaginative among us have attempted to baffle our congregations with our theological intellect, the pragmatic among us have attempted to baffle our congregations with something akin to BS, while the desperate among us have simply tried to survive the Trinity Sunday hoping against hope that no one will notice that we haven’t a clue what we’re talking about.

Perhaps only dear old Dr. Martin Luther possessed the theological integrity sufficient to save a preacher from the perils of preaching on Trinity Sunday. So, before I launch, forth, let me remind you what the instigator of the Reformation had to say on the subject of the Trinity. Martin Luther warned that: “To deny the Trinity is to risk our salvation; to try and explain the Trinity is to risk our sanity.”

I will confess that Martin Luther had much more at stake, literally at stake, than I do, because the truth is that for centuries the punishment for heresy would have found many an ancient preacher burned at the stake. But while the death penalty for heresy has been lifted, the risk to one’s sanity remains.

Now, I will confess that when faced with a particularly difficult theological knot, I prefer to begin by quoting Jesus and not Luther, but alas Jesus remained silent on the issue of the Trinity. So, I did try to find something helpful in the words of the Apostle Paul. But alas, without some really amazing theological gymnastics that are beyond my abilities to comprehend, even the Apostle Paul remains mute on the issue of the Trinity. So keeping in mind Dr. Luther’s dire warning that to,  “To deny the Trinity is to risk our salvation; but to try and explain the Trinity is to risk our sanity.”

Let me remind you that the Trinitarian formula appears in Scripture only once, in Matthew 28, during what is called the Great Commission, when Jesus commands the disciples to go forth, baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. But the doctrine of the Trinity does not appear in the Bible

– The doctrine of the trinity, as we know it, was first formulated in the fourth century, by a couple of guys named Gregory and a woman called Marcrina.

– The doctrine of the Trinity was then developed over hundreds of years

– The doctrine of the Trinity was at the heart of several wars

– Thousands of Christians were killed because they came down on the loosing side of arguments over the doctrine of the Trinity

– No one has ever been able to adequately explain the Trinity

– Every explanation of the Trinity that I have ever come across includes some form of heresy

By the way, just so we’re clear, I rummaged through some of my previous sermons on the doctrine of the Trinity and I must confess that if this were the twelfth century, an angry mob would be stoking up the fires beneath my feet  because based on things I have proclaimed on various Trinity Sundays a charge of Modalism could very successfully be laid against me, as could a charge of Sabellianism. You might be interested to know, that more traditional preachers than I, will no doubt preach sermons this Sunday which will prove them guilty  of Arianism or at the very least Subordinationism. All of these heresies in a bygone age would have left us with a severe shortage of clergy in the church, as many of us would be smoldering at the stake for our crimes. Deciding who is right and who is wrong, who is in and who is out is a deadly preoccupation of humanity, a preoccupation that the church has not been able to escape.

So, with apologies to Dr. Luther, I’m going to go ahead and risk my salvation by declaring that the doctrine of the trinity is but a feeble attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible mystery of the very nature of our God.  We can echo all the creeds of Christendom with as much confidence as we can muster, and as enlightening as some of those creeds may be, they cannot begin to unravel the mystery of the creator of everything that ever was and ever shall be, nor can they fully describe the magnitude of the revelation provided in the life, death and resurrection of the one we call Christ, and when it comes to the power of the Holy Spirit, all our creeds together cannot tell the story of her wondrous beauty.

The doctrine of the trinity is just a tool to help us along the way, the trinity is not God, nor is God the trinity. The trinity is merely a way to speak of the unspeakable. And yet down through the centuries we have used the doctrine of the trinity as an idol and demanded that we worship the trinity as if it were God’s very self.

We have worried more about believing in the trinity than relating to the very One whose relationship the Trinity attempts to describe. For when it comes down to it, what we know of our God finds expression our attempts to describe God as a relational being. For what is the doctrine of the Trinity if it is not the declaration that God is Creator, Christ and Spirit, intimately connected as One; at God’s very core we find a relationship. This should be our first clue that any understanding of God must begin with relationship. Surely it is more important to experience God than to explain God. Surely it is more important to relate to God than it is to preserve a doctrine that has long since failed to describe God.

You’d think that after nearly 2000 years the Christian church would have learned to be more humble in its declarations about God. And yet, today, as we strive to learn more and more about creation, some things remain out of bounds. The church remains unwilling to revisit long established doctrines, choosing instead to insist that we simply believe, because what was good enough for grandma ought to be good enough for us. And if we should doubt the doctrine of the Trinity then all we need to do is study harder and we will eventually understand. And if we are unwilling to work at understanding the Trinity we should simply trust that folks much smarter than us have figured it out so we should simply stop questioning and simply mouth the words. Let the tired clichés and the worn out illustrations suffice, forget about our questions and simply drink the kool-aid and our doubts will somehow magically disappear. And so together we focus on believing what has been handed down to us. And for a great many people that’s good enough. All we really need to do is believe, to have faith and all will be well. But oh so many more of us have grown weary of the tired insistence on belief; you only have to think of the children missing from our churches to know that our doctrines are failing to engender relationship.

I’d like to be able to say, here just learn this and believe this and all will be well,  all we need to do is figure out more up to date methods to deliver the same old doctrines and your grown children will learn to believe, but  I too have my doubts.   You see I don’t believe that the point of a religion is to engender belief. I believe that the point of religion is much bigger than belief. For if a religion does no help you relate to God or to God’s creatures, or enhance your experience of creation, then religion is not life giving and all its doctrines are but fleeting attempts to deny death.

It is far more important to have a relationship with our God than it is to understand doctrines about God. In so far as the doctrine of the trinity helps us to relate to God then it can be said to be life-giving. When the doctrine of the trinity helps us relate to God’s creatures and to God’s creation, then it can be said to be life-giving. But reduced to a formula that we must believe the doctrine of the trinity runs the risk of inhibiting our experience of God and robbing us of a life-giving relationship with God and with the world that God loves.

I am convinced that the only way to ensure that the doctrine of the trinity remains life-giving is to free it from the confines of the past. Despite it’s fear, the church must re-examine its creeds and confessions, open up our dusty doctrines to the light of the 21st century so that those that fail to enhance our relationship to God and to one another can be given a decent Christian burial and those that nurture our relationship to God and to one another can thrive.

We need to prioritize relationship and experience over ancient creeds and doctrines, least our preoccupation with correct belief causes us to miss an encounter with our God.

Trying to understand the very nature of God, is, when you think about it actually an arrogant thing for simple creatures such as we. We cannot hope to understand the nature of God.  So perhaps the most faithful sermon on the Trinity is one that merely sniffs around the edges of the mystery, hunting for something closer to an experience rather than an understanding.  God is the elusive stranger.

Sometimes it is possible to identify God, before God gets away. But most of the time we only recognize God after God is gone, like the drifter who wants to tell you his story only you do not have time, so you hand him a dollar and walk away.  Or the woman with the tearstained face who disappears while you decide whether to ask her what is wrong; or the bewildered child whose mother scolds him for being alive and whose sorrowful eyes catch yours just as she drags him away. These are the strangers who lay claim to our hearts, although they make no claims for themselves.  In their presence we fail them.  It is only after they are gone that we know who they were.  That is why it is so easy for us to sacrifice them.  We did not know.  How could we have known?  Who expected Christ to show up looking like that?

Is it possible for us to attend to our peripheral vision, to see out of the corner of our eyes, to notice those faint sounds of birdsong in the background, to catch those elusive fragrances, that might well be God, the Holy One, coming to us in ordinary space and matter, longing for an intimate encounter?

Let us be ready to notice the Spirit of God in a burning bush, to turn aside for a moment in order to encounter the mysterious, intimate God who comes to us, so that in the power of the trinity we ourselves may be made holy!

            Heirs with Christ –  inheritors and distributers of all God’s love.

            There you see, I’m not suggesting that we toss it all away.

            Down through the centuries God has revealed so much.

            I’m simply pleading that we walk humbly with our God.

            And revel in the mystery.

In a dusty library years ago, I discovered a pearl about the Trinity, which I treasure. It came from St. Augustine, a 4th century bishop who helped to craft the doctrine of the trinity.

            Augustine’s metaphor for the Trinity is that

            God is:  Lover, Beloved, and Love itself.  

            May we learn to walk humbly with that love.

Beyond Tribalism – 21st Century Pentecost

 

Ideas gleamed from Clay Nelson, John Shelby Spong,

John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg

The splendid preacher Clay Nelson of St. Matthew-in-the-city, Auckland, New Zealand, opened me up to a new way of seeing Pentecost.  Nelson tells this lovely little story written by fellow Kiwi Judy Parker, entitled simply “The Hat.”

A priest looked up from the psalms on the lectern, cast his eyes over all the hats bowed before him.   Feathered, frilled, felt hats in rows like faces.  But there was one at the end of the row that was different. What was she thinking, a head without hat.  Was like a cat without fur. Or a bird without wings. 

That won’t fly here, not in the church. The voices danced in song with the colours of the windows.  Red light played along the aisle, blue light over the white corsage of Missus  Dewsbury, green on the pages of the Bible.  Reflecting up on the face of the priest.

The priest spoke to the young lady afterwards:  “You must wear a hat and gloves in the House of God. It is not seemly otherwise.”

The lady flushed, raised her chin, and strode out.

“That’s the last we’ll see of her,” said the organist.

 Later:  The organ rang out; the priest raised his eyes to the rose window.  He didn’t see the woman in hat and gloves advancing down the aisle as though she were a bride.            The hat, enormous, such as one might wear to the races. Gloves, black lace, such as one might wear to meet a duchess.  Shoes, high-heeled, such as one might wear on a catwalk in Paris.            And nothing else.

Now some people might ask, “Is this a true story?”  And I’d have to answer that this story is absolutely true!  Now for some that answer might not be enough and they’d want to know, “Did this actually happen?”  Well, I’d like to think so.  But I doubt that it actually happened. But whether it actually happened or not, most of us know that the truth in this story lies in the power of metaphor.

Metaphor, which literally means:  beyond words. The power of metaphor is in its ability to point beyond itself to truths beyond those that are apparent.  And the metaphor in this story points us to buck-naked truths about tradition, worldly power, patriarchy, hierarchy, orthodoxy and many more truths about the very nature of the church itself and religion in general.  And it doesn’t matter whether or not this actually happened or not. What matters is what we can learn about ourselves and our life together from this story.

The heroine in this little story demands to be heard as she puts all her listeners on notice that the Spirit of God is out of the box and wearing a hat.  The story of Pentecost is just as stunning.  Even though we’ve managed to pretty much domesticate the story by literalizing it and insisting that yes indeed Pentecost really did actually happen just as it is described in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, the story of Pentecost refuses to play by our rules as the power of metaphor turns the Spirit of God loose on our silly notions about history.

Truth is as elusive as it is blatantly obvious and yet we continue to try to deny the paradox of truth. Truth is as colourful as the rainbows that stretch across the sky and yet we continue to try to limit the truth to the simplicity of black and white.             All too often truth’s refusal to fit into our neat little boxes causes us to deny the obvious truth in  favour of a truth of our own creation.

The story of Pentecost is a case in point. For decades historians, New Testament Scholars, and theologians have been telling us that the story of Pentecost is not history.  Like all sorts of stories about the origins of things, the story of the church’s birthday is shrouded in myth and legend. That doesn’t make the story of the church’s beginning at Pentecost any less true, it just means that it isn’t history.

The book of the Acts of the Apostles, was written by the same author who wrote the Gospel According to Luke. We have no idea who this writer was, and the name Luke does not appear on the early manuscripts. The name Luke was applied much latter, by something called “tradition”.  In those days ‘tradition” meant “the church”.  

The Acts of the Apostles represents the voice of someone living in a community at the turn of the first century.  The writer, let’s follow tradition and just call him Luke, the writer known as Luke writes a Gospel also now known as Luke, which tells the story of the life and times of Jesus as known by his community.           Luke also writes the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, which chronicles the story of the early followers of Jesus, who managed to hang together after Jesus was gone and established a movement that changed the world.

Luke writes his account of the founding of this movement out of the context of his community and addresses the needs and concerns of his community.          And in both the Gospel of Luke and in the Book of Acts, the writer makes it clear that he is writing to a character named Theopholous, which in Greek means, Lover of God. Luke addresses his writing to a lover of God and right from the beginning he confesses that he is writing so that you may have faith.  As lovers of God we read these ancient stories so that we may have faith. We do not read them so that we can know the history of events as they actually happened.

Marcus Borg suggests that in reading the stories in the Bible we must ask ourselves two important questions:  1) Why did the writers write the stories that they wrote?  and 2)  Why did they write them the way they wrote them?

When we ask those two questions about the story of Pentecost we begin to see all sorts of truths as we strip away the layers of tradition that have held this story captive to history for far too long. Why did the writer known as Luke write  the story of Pentecost and why did he write it the way he wrote it? 

I suspect that the answer to both of those questions begins to become clear when we pay attention to the story from the Hebrew Scriptures that is often told at Pentecost. Recorded in the Book of Genesis, the story of the Tower of Babel would have been a familiar one to the people of Luke’s community. The story of the chaos that ensues as a result of humanity’s hubris contains truths about tribalism that would have been as familiar to a first century audience as they are to a 21st century audience. 

The perils of tribalism which pits one people against another and one culture against another were ingrained in the religious traditions of the first century.     The writer of Acts uses the story of Pentecost to point to the truth of the Jesus experience. Their experience of Jesus with his radical ideas about a loving God, lead the early followers of the way to a new understanding of faith.          Empowered by Jesus full embodiment of love, the early followers felt compelled to share their experience. Faith did not have to be lived out in fear, even in the face of death. Being faithful was not about being exclusive or tribal, for love knows no boundaries. It wasn’t even about religion which is so often used by the powerful to oppress the powerless. Faith was not about purity but compassion, healing and justice. Faith didn’t need to be destructive if it heightened our awareness that the creation of which we are a part is an interconnected web.

Sadly over the years all too many Christians have seen the story of Pentecost as simply a reversal of the Tower of Babel story. But here we have so much more.      In the Tower of Babel  we have a story speaks to the origins of a kind of chaos that is the result of human arrogance. This chaos leads to disaster. And the response of the people is to adopt a kind of tribalism where eventually only one tribe becomes the chosen people. The chosen tribe then chooses to exhibit a kind of uniformity which defines who is in and who is out. 

Boundaries are established. The religious practice that emerges strives for order and uniformity.  Order is established and the faithful are encouraged to live within the rules. But in the Pentecost story the chaos and disorder is not created by humans but by God. The Pentecost story is about chaos and disorder; about God who is running amok. Boundaries are crossed. Taboos are broken.           Suddenly, like the rush of the wind young people have visions and elders have dreams; dreams and visions that threaten the established order.

Luke’s story speaks directly to his community which has become accustomed to a religion that is a product of its culture; where faith reflects the values of the tribe. Religion is used to give members of the community a sense of who was friend and who was foe. It played to their fear of others who were beyond the tribe. It grounded their xenophobia and ethnocentrism in righteousness.  It served as the glue that told its adherents who they were and who they weren’t.           Religion gave people an illusion of living in an orderly and predictable world.

Outside the boundaries of their religion was a place of chaos. Its inhabitants were judged to be demonic or subhuman. In the early history of Israel those who worshipped gods outside the culture were labeled idolaters. Identifying idolaters gave the faithful of the local religion a target for their contempt and hostility and someone to blame for their disappointments and failures. Along comes Jesus who challenges the status quo along with the powers that be who maintain order by force of might. Violence, greed, and force become the tools to the Pax Romana, which insisted that the way to peace was through force. First you conquer a people, then you wield your power over them to control them so that you can tax them and the status quo is the only kind of peace one can hope for.     And along comes Jesus who points to another way to peace through justice.             People want to believe they want to follow Jesus but their fearful of the chaos that might ensue.  Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.          Chaos is frightening.

Into that mix the writer of Luke offers his story of Pentecost which displays the Spirit of God at work in the midst of chaos. The followers of Jesus are calling their communities out of the constraints of the religious practices of their day. 

The Pentecost story reflects the early Christian understanding of Jesus as a leader who didn’t just address the Chosen People but who engaged the Syrophoenician woman, the Centurion, and the Samaritan leper.

Luke, in the telling of the story of Pentecost, already knew that Christianity had spread to the edge of the known world and to its very centre in Rome.    Christianity had already transcended tribe and tradition.  Jesus inspired a religion of the poor and the powerless without an enemy or enmity and yet inclusive in its membership.

Christianity was as outrageous as a woman who wore a hat, gloves, shoes and nothing else. Sadly, it didn’t take long for the early Christians to try to put the Spirit back in the box.

The story of Pentecost shows the Spirit of God out of the box, prancing about in the town square and intoxicating the people with the sheer beauty of her audacity.

Luke’s Pentecost story served to remind those first Christians of the Jesus call to diversity. That call to diversity has the power to contradict the power of the status quo of tribalism that was exemplified in the story of the Tower of Babel.

The followers of the Way are able to declare that in Christ there is no East nor West, no North nor South, no Jew nor Gentile, no man nor woman.

Luke has crafted the story of Pentecost that declares that in Christ there is no longer Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappodocia, Pontus, Asisa, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the ports of Libya around Cyrene, nor even Romans.  All are one as Christ is One.

In Jesus the followers of the way are challenged to think beyond tribalism, to dream dreams and see visions.

Luke’s Pentecost story calls us to a similar awakening.

An awakening that begs the question:  What kind of Pentecost stories are we called to craft?

Can we 21st century followers of the Way produce Pentecost stories that will boldly declare that we are one with our Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Taoist sisters and brothers, and what about atheists, agnostics and all the poor and the powerless?

I hope that the audacity of God’s Spirit can call us out of our status quo religious practices that keep us from exploring the wonders of the chaos that lies beyond our established religious order.

Imagine a 21st century Pentecost where rather than speaking in languages that we’ve never understood before, we begin to listen to those who we’ve failed to understand before.

Imagine a 21st century Pentecost where Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Taoists, Baha’is and adherents of all sorts of native religions that we’ve never heard of begin to listen to one another. 

Imagine an audacious Spirit calling us beyond Christianity’s exclusivism.

Imagine a vision of Christianity that celebrates not denigrates the truths of the worlds great religions.

Imagine a vision of Christianity whose first impulse is to listen rather than speak; a Christianity that is willing to share its truths in a spirit of co-operation without an emphasis on conversion.

Imagine a vision of a church full of curious Christians, who share a goal of dialogue that seeks not just to create new Christians, but to learn from other religions so that we can become better Christians and those with whom we listen and speak might become better practitioners of their faiths.

Imagine a vision of Pentecost where the wind and the fire represent God out of the box.

Do we have the courage to strip ourselves of the trappings of status quo Christianity and venture out into the world free of the taboos of tradition? Do we have the courage to listen and learn from the truths of other tribes? Do we have the wisdom to embrace divinely inspired chaos?  Some dreams and visions have to be believed before they can be seen.

If the Reign of God is to be realized in all its chaotic splendour, we must put on a new hat, and strip ourselves of the ethnocentrism and chauvinism that cloaks our faith and walk brazenly down the aisle.

Open to the MYSTERY

“Infinity always gives me vertigo and fills me up with grace.”

 Bruce Cockburn

 

In pondering MYSTERY we are always indebted to those who have gone before us.

What follows relies on the work of Brian McLaren and process theologian James Murray

A while back, I went to a lecture given by Brian McLaren. Brian McLaren is one of the leaders of what is being called the Emerging Church Movement, which is a movement that is trying to articulate a new kind of Christianity for the 21st century. McLaren told us a story about a friend of his named John who lives in South Africa.

John is a very wealthy successful Zulu who belongs to a Pentecostal church that preaches what is called the prosperity gospel. This is movement that insists that if you have enough faith God will see to it that you prosper and become very wealthy. Well John belongs to a very large Pentecostal church in South Africa that has tens of thousands of member. John is a very wealthy and successful businessman.  And in John’s church if you are rich you gain entry to the inner circle of the pastor and you are called an Armor Bearer.

But after being involved as an Armor Bearer for many years John becomes disillusioned. John says,  “I’m rich but a whole lot of other members of the church who are good faithful people are poor.”  These folks have been doing everything the pastor has taught them to do and for some reason God just isn’t rewarding these poor folks with riches. The pastor keeps laying hands on them and they are not getting rich. It’s worked for me, but I just can’t figure out why it’s not working for them.” So John starts to have doubts about the prosperity gospel and he is deep in doubt.

A couple of years ago John comes to his friend Brian McLaren and he tells him that he has decided to put his faith to a test. John announces that he is going to read Richard Dawkins book the God Delusion. Now for those of you who haven’t heard or read about Richard Dawkins, he is an atheist who has written several books on the fact that God is dead or just an illusion and that people of the 21st century should just get over it. So, John says he’s going to put his faith to the test and read the God Delusion and put it all on the line.  John says that, “If I become convinced by Richard Dawkins, I will give up my faith and become an atheist.”

So John starts reading, and he’s just going to put it all on the line. It’s sort of a good Pentecostal test.  And John tells his friend, “Brian, I’m a good Pentecostal and I know how to hear the voice of the Lord.  And one morning I was taking a shower and the Holy Spirit spoke to me. And the Spirit said, “This man Richard Dawkins speaks the truth.”

So John says to his friend, “Brian what do I do with this? I know the voice of God and God has told me that Richard Dawkins is speaking the truth.”

Well John is a good businessman and he doesn’t have much formal education, but he wants to figure this out. And he says to his friend, “Brian I just had to live with this terrible paradox in my mind. That God has told me that Dawkins is speaking the truth. And months went by and I was in turmoil about this.” And then he said, “It gradually began to dawn on me that the God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in is the God that the missionaries brought to my people. And it was a white god and a colonial god and that god was used to justify putting all of my people in a position of subservience.” And he said that, “It gradually began to dawn on me that Richard Dawkins is killing a god who needs to be killed.” And he said, “The strangest thing happened after this, I found myself loving Jesus Christ more than ever. Because I realized that Jesus was trying to reveal another vision of God, a vision other than the God who kills and destroys and dominates and judges.”

In Jesus’ parable: “people never put new wine in an old wineskin. If they do, the new wine will burst the skin; the wine will spill out and the skin will be ruined. No, new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. People never want new wine after they’ve been drinking the old. They say, ‘We like the old better’.”

Jesus reveals a vision of a God who is beyond our tribal instincts and understandings; a vision of a God who is beyond our fears. And yet, all too often we prefer the old God better. We long for the supernatural being out there separate from the world who from time to time intervenes in the world; that old God who is out there and who can’t be known directly, but only believed in; that old God who sits waiting on a cloud for us to die so that he can judge us and forgive us and reward us. We like the old wine better than the new wine.  And we have these old wine skins so we try putting the new wine that Jesus brings in those old skins, hoping that they will contain it. But the new wine burst the skins and pours out all over the place.

It’s the 21st century and nobody uses wine skins anymore. Why last year when we toured the vineyards of Niagara we learned that nobody’s using cork anymore. The best of the new wine comes to us in screw-top bottles. We’ve moved on and we’ve learned all sorts of things about creation, and that knowledge of creation has expanded our vision of God in ways our ancestors could never have imagined. It’s time to let the old vision of God die.

It’s time to open ourselves to what Christ has and is revealing to us about a vision of God that moves beyond our fears; a vision of God that is reflected in the cosmos as we are beginning to understand it; a vision of God that enhances our knowledge of God and calls forth a spirituality in us that sustains us in our daily living; a vision of God that helps us to experience God.

By peeling back the layers of the tradition of the Church, by unpacking the generations of theological doctrine, scholars are beginning to see a vision of God that Jesus spoke of. The new vision revealed to us in Christ, is one that reflects the reality that, “God is in the world and the world is in God and God is more than the world.” This is a vision of a relational God; a God who is intimate with the world.

We may long for the all-powerful King God, who with the stroke of his arm imposes his will upon the world, but who among us can be intimate with such a god. Is such an all-powerful God even capable of intimacy or would it be like you or I trying to caress an amoeba.

The ancient mystics found in the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures the vision of God that Jesus lived and died to reveal. They found a vision of God with us, who is compassionate and directing, using our freedom and responsibility, and calling us to use these for the good of others as well as ourselves. A vision of God that emphasizes that, although God is always an important factor in what happens, God does not control history. God is in us and we are in God but we are also members one of another, and our lives are interwoven with the wider natural context of creation as well.

God’s power is relational power as opposed to unilateral power. Unilateral power is by nature coercive—imagine the old god, the cosmic moralist, and ruling like an absolute king. This image is of a God who gives, but does not receive; acts but does not listen; demands but does not compromise; this image of God makes spirituality difficult because it ignores our identities as God’s beloved creatures, it ignores our desires.

The vision of God that Christ reveals is of a God whose power is relational, a God who gives, but also receives, acts but also responds, has a vision but is open to change and transformation. Christ reveals an image of God who creates and gives freedom and creativity to creation. Freedom and creativity are intrinsic to each of us and relational power works to value that by offering a dream or aim to each of us. The future is created out of response and anticipation. The idea of relational power is dependent on diversity, actually welcomes diversity, and offers novelty to each nano second of experience.

Christ’s image of God affirms that God has a vision, appropriate to each moment of experience and, in the broadest sense, for the vast expanses of planetary and cosmic history. God is omnipresent, in all things so there are no God forsaken places. In each moment God presents the world with possibilities. God calls us into God’s dream of the future; a dream of peace and justice and peace for all God’s creation.

If we are in God then what we do matters.  What we do and who we are impacts God. What we do can limit God, but can never defeat God. For in each moment the dream is revised and offered back to us. We can refuse but God does not stop, for there are some who listen and they will guide us. God leads us by persuasion and Christ empowers us by expanding our freedom to be what God is calling us to be, and the Spirit lives and breathes in with and through us.

All of creation is interconnected and intimately related to the Creator.  This expansive vision of God cannot be stuffed into the old wine skins of the institution. New ways of worshipping, new ways of praying, new ways of understanding will move us beyond the old image of God which has soured and turned to vinegar in those old wine skins.

Images of God are but pale reflections of God. Worshipping images of God is a problem as old as time itself.  Such worship has an ancient name. It’s called idolatry. We are called to worship God, not a pale reflection of God. So, our worship will always be incomplete for we peer through a glass darkly. So let us worship with humility, trusting Christ to show us the way.  Let us worship together, mindful that our words and rituals will fail to capture the wonders and mystery of our God, but open to the possibility that together we might capture a glimpse of God or feel the touch of God, or hear the love of God, or recognize the gifts of God as we worship together.

Let us always be prepared to let an image of God die. For we are a people who claim the power of resurrection and we know that in death there is new life. God will come to us again and again, touching, caressing, nudging, persuading, cajoling, imploring, healing, soothing; sometimes shouting, sometimes whispering, often just embracing.

God will be who God will be.  YAHWEH.

Our images of God will come and go, but God remains steadfast. The new wine that comes to us in the life of Christ brings us a foretaste of the feast to come; a taste that reminds us of our connectedness to God and to one another; a sacred connectedness.

So let our prayers open us to the reality of that connection. Let our deeds reflect the confidence that our freedom to act can change the world. Let us be about ushering in the reign of God that Jesus taught. A reign of justice and peace, where each one of God’s children is treasured as God’s beloved.

Let us live with confidence trusting that God is the source of our being.

Let us walk together trusting that God is the ground of our being.

Let us be all that we were created to be.

Jesus said over and over again, in words and in deeds: “Do not be afraid.”

So let us have the courage to drink the new wine that Christ offers and if it tastes a little strange to our palates, drink again, let the flavor move us to a new understanding, a new way of relating, a new way of being.

Let us open ourselves to the reflections of God that are all around us – open ourselves to the God who lives within us.

The Ascension Never Actually Happened – Ascension is Always Happening

Leaving Behind the Miraculous Jesus to Welcome the Human Jesus

The celebration of Jesus’ Ascension is a church festival that I have always chosen to ignore. The ancient tradition that has Jesus floating up into the clouds stretches the credibility of the church to such an extent that I’ve always assumed that the less said about the Ascension the better. But last year I was challenged by a parishioner to try to make some sense out of the Ascension story so that 21st century Christians would not have to check their brains at the door should they happen upon a congregation that still celebrated the day. What follows is a transcript of my attempt to leave behind the miraculous Jesus in order to be better able to welcome the human Jesus down from the clouds. I am indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong together with Clay Nelson of St Matthew-in-the-city for their liberating insights.  

Traditionally, on the 40th day after Easter, the church celebrates the feast of the Ascension. But because so few people in the 21st century are willing to come to church during the week, the Ascension is celebrated by the church on the first Sunday after the feast of the Ascension. Since I have been your pastor we have not celebrated Ascension Sunday. But as this particular Ascension Sunday follows so closely after Jack Spong’s visit with us, I thought that it was about time that rather than avoid the Ascension, I’d like to try to confront it.

Jack has been telling his anti-Ascension story for quite a few years now. Just in case you’ve never heard it or have forgotten it, let me remind you. It seems that Jack was speaking with Carl Sagan, the world-renowned astronomer and astrophysicist. Jack says that Carl Sagan once told him  “if Jesus literally ascended into the sky and traveled at the speed of light, then he hasn’t yet escaped our galaxy.”

With that said, let me just say, that the Ascension never actually happened. It is not an historical event. If a tourist with a video camera had been there in Bethany they would have recorded absolutely nothing. 

I know what the Nicene Creed says, “Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” But like the members of the early church, I do not have a literal understanding of the scriptures. And so, as I do not understand the Bible literally, neither do I understand the Nicene Creed to be a literal interpretation of the faith. Like all creeds the Nicene, Apostles and Athanasian creeds are snapshots of theology as it was at a particular time in history.

We would do well to remember that the Creeds were developed to answer questions about the faith in a time when people understood the cosmos to be comprised of a flat earth, where God resides above in the heavens and located beneath the earth were the pits of hell. I know that the universe is infinite.  I also know about gravity. I also know that it is highly unlikely that Jesus had helium flowing through his veins.  I’ve flown around the world, and I can tell you that there is no heaven above the clouds. So, I can say with confidence that:  The very present Jesus of resurrection faith did not literally elevate into heaven while his disciples looked on.

The writer of the Gospel according to Luke and the Book of Acts are one and the same person. The same writer wrote the Gospel according to Luke to tell the story of the life of Jesus and the Book of Acts to tell the story of the Holy Spirit at work in the followers of Jesus.  Although we don’t know who the author was, we do know that he was not an historian. Neither Luke nor Acts are historical accounts. They are both addressed to a character named Theopholus. Theopholus is  Greek for lover of God. The books are addressed to the lovers of God, that’s you and me and the author makes it clear that he has written these books so that we, the lovers of God, can believe and have faith.  The books were written somewhere near the end of the first century. Somewhere between 50 to 60 years after the death of Jesus.  Perhaps between 80 and 95 of this Common Era.

The important question for most biblical scholars is not whether the Ascension actually happened but rather, what did the Ascension mean to the author in his context. And to that question we might add a more pressing question: Given what the Ascension meant in the first century, does it continue to have any relevance for those of us who live in the 21st century?

I believe that the followers of Jesus experiences of Jesus the man were so overwhelming that they saw in him the human face of God. I also believe that in very powerful ways the followers of Jesus continued to experience Jesus presence.

Those powerful experiences of Jesus after his death were so intense that they defied description. Given that Jesus was now dead and gone, yet his presence still seemed to be with them, the followers of Jesus used the Hebrew story of Elijah and Elisha to construct a belief about the Spirit of Jesus continuing to be powerfully among them.

By the time the writer of Luke and Acts got around to writing these stories down, there were different versions of the story being passed around in the early church. The writer of Luke/Acts paints a picture of a re-formed bodily Jesus going up into the heavens in the Ascension and a windy, fiery Spirit coming down at Pentecost. The writer uses powerful familiar Hebrew images to portray the experiences of Jesus’ followers after his death.

In order for us to move beyond the literal and beyond the historical and even beyond the metaphorical meaning to arrive at the meaning that the story of the Ascension can have for us today in this time and in this place, I’d like to tell you two stories that I heard about from a preacher who serves an Anglican parish in Auckland, New Zealand. Clay Nelson is a friend of Jack Spong who tells great stories.  The first story is an actual, literal, historically accurate Ascension story followed by a metaphorical Ascension story.

The literal historical Ascension story took place in 1982. But it the story that actually began some twenty years earlier when Larry Walters was just 13 years old and he saw weather balloons hanging from the ceiling of an Army & Navy surplus store. It was then that Larry knew that some day he would be carried up to the heavens by balloons. Sure enough when he was 33 years old, on July 2nd 1982, Larry Walters tied 42 helium-filled balloons to a lawn chair in the backyard of his girlfriend’s house in San Pedro, California. With the help of his friends, Larry secured himself into the lawn chair that was anchored to the bumper of a friend’s car, by two nylon tethers. Larry packed several sandwiches and a six-pack of Miller Lite and loaded his pellet gun so that he could pop a few balloons when he was ready to come down. His goal was to sail across the desert and hopefully make it to the Rocky Mountains in a few days.

But things didn’t quite work out for Larry. When he cut the cord anchoring the lawn chair the second one snapped, launching Larry into the skies above Los Angeles. Instead of leveling off at about 30 feet as he’d planned, Larry rose to 16,000 feet and at that height Larry couldn’t risk shooting any of the balloons.    So he stayed up there drifting cold and frightened for more than 14 hours when he found himself in the primary flight approach corridor for LAX.

Legend has it that a Pan Am pilot was the first to spot Larry and quickly radioed the tower telling them that he’d just passed a guy in a lawn chair with a gun. The Federal Aviation Administration was not amused. Larry started shooting out the balloons to start his descent but accidentally dropped the gun. After drifting for a couple of hours he eventually landed in a Long Beach neighbourhood entangled in some power lines. Larry survived without any serious injuries.

Now that is an historically accurate ascension story. It’s a funny story and a true story, but it is not a life changing story. But Larry did inspire a wonderful Australian movie, called Danny Deckchair, which is untrue, is in fact full of truth. Now when a New Zealander recommends an Australian movie, I take notice, so yesterday I watched Danny Deckchair and I do believe that it is a modern metaphorical interpretation of the Ascension.

The movie’s hero, Danny, is a bored labourer who drives a cement mixer. Danny is an unlikely Christ figure whose story is similar to Larry’s. Danny ascends from his backyard in Sydney during a barbecue and lands less than gracefully in a small town in the Australian outback. By this act of departure and arrival everything changes not only for Danny, but also for those he left behind and those he meets in the outback. Danny’s unique departure inspires those at home to take risks of their own: to live life more boldly, to act on their dreams, to become all they can be.

In acting out his dream, Danny finds new confidence and becomes the source of inspiration and affirmation for the townsfolk in the outback who used to see themselves as backwater hicks, but now see the importance of their actions in the life of their town. Everyone is transformed by Danny’s ascension. New Life and love accompany his resurrection.

The writer of Luke/Acts two versions of Jesus’ Ascension are not true like Larry’s lift off but are true like Danny Deckchair.  While the event certainly did not happen in a literal way, the story does attempt to capture the quality of a real man whose coming and going in their lives changed them forever.  The writer of Luke/Acts Ascension story is not so miraculous after all. The Ascension story is about the joy the disciples felt about the ongoing ever so real presence of Jesus after his death. The God they saw in Jesus they found in themselves. In Jesus’ departure they discovered that they could love as wastefully as he did.  They could live abundantly as Jesus did. They could heal and reconcile just as Jesus did.  With Jesus pointing the way they had found God and while Jesus was gone, the God that Jesus pointed to was everywhere, even in them.

If we are to move beyond the literal, beyond the historical, beyond the metaphorical to the life-changing meaning of the stories that have been handed down to us, we may just have to give up our tenacious hold upon the notion of Jesus as some sort of miracle worker who defies the laws of gravity, and time and space.

If we are to engage the stories about Jesus in a way that allows those stories to intersect with our lives we will have to embrace Jesus’ humanity. My Kiwi colleague Clay Nelson puts it like this:  “If your faith is sustained by a miraculous understanding of Jesus that has to ignore what you know about the real world, then let me ask you: Is it a faith that can sustain you in the real world?             Eventually this world of advancing scientific knowledge, that no longer requires a personal God to create, heal and sustain life will make the God we have had irrelevant, if it hasn’t already. I think God would rather be dead than irrelevant.             And if God is irrelevant, Jesus, who has been portrayed by the author of Luke/Acts and the church as the incarnation of this God, will suffer the same fate. If he hasn’t already.”

Nelson reminds us that Jesus was human and the human Jesus does not suffer the fate of an irrelevant god.. “The human Jesus, instead of only showing us God in all God’s glory, also shows us in all of ours. This Jesus becomes a window through which we can glimpse the mystery of love and life and being we are all called into. This Jesus through his radical love of even his enemies invites us into that mystery that surrounds us and is part of our very being.  This Jesus becomes the doorway through which I’m willing to walk into that mystery. For this mystery, I am willing to die to have new life. Mystery makes sense to me, the miraculous doesn’t. The mysterious Jesus inspires me and calls me to new levels of being. The miraculous Jesus helps me as much as telling a child that Santa comes down chimneys. The mysterious Jesus sustains my faith.  The miraculous Jesus impedes my faith.”

Like my Kiwi colleague Clay, I no longer need to believe in a miraculous Jesus in order to experience the mysterious Christ who lives and breathes in with and through Christ’s body here and now.

The writer of Luke/Acts is preparing his audience of God lovers for the arrival on the scene of the very Spirit of God that lived and breathed in with and through Jesus.

So, as we approach the celebration of Pentecost, may you find in these stories handed down to us by our ancestors in the faith an inkling of the powerful presence that Jesus’ first followers experienced after Jesus had left them.

May the joy they felt at the realization that the God they saw in Jesus they now found in themselves. May the realizations that those first followers experienced in Jesus’ departure, when they discovered they could love as extravagantly as Jesus did, that they could live as abundantly as Jesus did. That they could bring about healing and reconciliation just as Jesus did. 

May these realizations live and breath and have their being in you. May you know the joy of seeing Jesus point the way, the joy of finding God, may you know the God Christ points to who is everywhere, even in you. May you love as extravagantly as Jesus loved. May you live as abundantly as Jesus lived.             May you be Christ’s Body here and now, in this place in this time!

Read about the real Lawn-chair Larry here

MOTHERS’ DAY – Peace is the Way

Most of us think of Mothers’ Day as a kind of conventional holiday that celebrates traditional family values; the kind of traditional values that encourage women who are mothers to keep on keeping on.  But celebrating the traditional motherhood is definitely not what Mothers’ Day was originally intended for.  The very first Mothers’ Day was intended to be a celebration not just of mothers, but rather it was designed to be a call to action by all women. 

One of the first founders of Mother’s Day was Anna Jarvis back in 1858.  Anna Jarvis gathered women of the Appalachian mountains together in what she called mother’s day work clubs. Where women worked together to eliminate poverty.  When the Civil War came about, the mother’s day work clubs created medical camps.  They were places of nonviolence for men from both sides who were wounded in the war. 

At the end of the Civil War, Anna Jarvis organized the Mother’s Day Friendship Day, which was a call for radical peace.  Anna Jarvis brought together the leaders from the north and the south for a time of reconciliation.  Mother’s Day was originally about reconciliation and peace.

Then along came a  woman named, Julia Ward Howe who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Julia Ward Howe called for women to protest the cruelties of war everywhere and to gather together to call for peace.  She called for a national day of peace for all women.  She issued women’s’ declaration, and from the streets women shouted :

“Arise then women of this day, arise all women who have hearts, say firmly our husbands shall not come to us reeking with the carnage for caresses and applause.  Arise women of peace.” 

Anna Jarvis’ daughter also named Anna Jarvis approached President Wilson and petitioned for a national Mother’s Day.  It was Woodrow Wilson who called for the second Sunday of May to be the national Mother’s Day. Shortly thereafter, n anti-suffragette movement spoke out against the women who were calling for peace.  So instead of being a day for women who were active and present in the world, it became a day to celebrate mothers who stayed at home with the children.

Anna Jarvis the founder of Mother’s Day was so angry with Woodrow Wilson that she filed a law suit, that petitioned the courts to put a stop to Mother’s Day because as the court papers insisted, instead of it being run by women, suddenly Mother’s Day was being run by men in an effort to keep them in the house barefoot and pregnant. 

Sadly, the world was not ready for such strong willed women to shout out loud. And so, Anna Jarvis was arrested at a Mother’s Day celebration and she spent the rest of her life in a sanatorium? 

On mothers’ day we would all do well to remember Julia Ward Howe’s Mothers’ Day Proclamation.  Dated 1870 but sadly it is still so very relevant today:

Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or tears!

Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have taught them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated earth, a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, Disarm!” The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail & commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesars but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”

Even Eunuchs and Foreigners are Welcome!

I’m told that preachers should never read old sermons. But I’m on sabbatical and so I’m reflecting on where I’ve been and what I’ve learned. I learn a great deal on my weekly quest for the sermon. So, reflecting on where I have been will include reading some old sermons. What follows is a sermon I preached on the 5th Sunday of Easter 2003. In the nine years since I preached that sermon the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada has come a long way. The debate about the full inclusion of GLBT folk in the full life of the church has been resolved. But rule changes don’t always change practices. Sadly, there are still places in our church were not everyone is welcome.  So, I offer this sermon to cybersapce as both a reminder of where we have been and how far we need to travel. Shalom. 

Sunday May 18th 2003

Holy Cross Lutheran

Even Eunuchs and Foreigners are Welcome!

Acts 8:26-40

Earlier this week, I was talking with a few of my colleagues. And as Lutheran Pastors are wont to do, our conversation drifted toward the lessons prescribed for this Sunday.  As we kicked around ideas, most of us agreed that it is difficult to preach on familiar passages.           

Most of you have heard a great many sermons on today’s gospel lesson, and so the challenge for preachers to bring some new insights is made all the more difficult.  So, we joked about just how many ways a preacher can twist and turn those vines until they finally snap off, dry up and rot.

Today’s epistle lesson isn’t much easier.  Preachers are always preaching about love; often we’re preaching to the choir, because most of you already know how much God loves us and how much God wants us to love one another.  Coming up with a new and interesting angle on the second lesson isn’t easy.  So, I suggested to my colleagues that this Sunday rather than preaching one more time about love, why not preach on the first lesson. Why not preach on the story of the Apostle Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian on the road to Gaza? Well it might surprise you to know that no matter how challenging they thought it would be to come up with one more sermon about love, not one of my colleagues thought that it would be a good idea to preach about the goings on in the desert between Philip and that Ethiopian. One of my colleagues even went so far as to say that you would have to be either very brave or very foolish to even try it.

Now I have a confession to make, at the time I had no idea what it was in this particular passage that would make my colleagues so averse to preaching on it. I have to admit that I don’t really remember ever paying all that much attention to this particular story. I have certainly never before studied it in any great detail, but my colleagues’ aversion for this text, made me curious enough to hit the books just as soon as I got home. Despite the fact that this text shows up every three years in our lectionary, try as I might, I wasn’t able to find a reference to a single published sermon on this particular text. It seems that many the great preachers left this one alone.

It didn’t take me long to figure out just why this text is so daunting and why my colleagues are not alone in giving it such a wide berth. Now I don’t claim to be particularly brave, but I’ve already preached on today’s other readings. Besides it’s a long weekend and I figured that a lot of people would be away and I could sneak this one in. So this fool is about to rush in, where many have feared to tread.

Our story begins when an angel directs the apostle Philip to go south on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. On this road in the desert Philip meets and Ethiopian eunuch. Now I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as a really odd way to introduce someone.  No name, just an Ethiopian eunuch, the author must have thought it was important because he tells us not once but five times that the Ethiopian was a eunuch. I know what an Ethiopian is.  Philip has encountered a black African man in the desert. Now that in and of it’s self is pretty remarkable. You will see later that this black man was the first missionary to Africa.

But surely this can’t be the reason why so many preachers shy away from this text. So what exactly is a eunuch? According to the most current scholarship, in the first century a eunuch is one of two things. A eunuch could have been a man who had been castrated.  Now for those of you who didn’t grow up on a farm to castrate means to remove a male’s testicles. So, this particular Ethiopian could have been a castrated male, or he could have been a male who wasn’t like most males. According to the scholars men who showed a preference for other men or displayed little or no interest in women, or who were in anyway effeminate, in the first century these men were called eunuchs.

At this particular time in history, Eunuchs had three major roles in society.  Because it was either physically impossible for them to father children, or because of their preferences highly unlikely that they would father children, eunuchs were often employed as military officers, domestic servants, or treasury officers. Without the responsibilities of children, it was thought that eunuchs would be fiercer soldiers because they wouldn’t be worried about saving their own skins so that they could be around to take care of their children. Without children of their own to worry about eunuchs were also free to be domestic servants and because of their lack of interest eunuchs would be safe to employ around women. Because they were unlikely to father children, rulers could trust that eunuchs wouldn’t seek hereditary power so they were often entrusted with positions in the treasury because they wouldn’t need to amass wealth to pass on to their children.

This particular Ethiopian eunuch was a court official to the queen of the Ethiopians.  Remember the Queen of Sheba, she was a queen of the Ethiopians. At the time Ethiopa was a wealthy and sophisticated place. An Ethiopian queen was called a Candace. So this particular Ethiopian eunuch was a court official in charge of the entire treasury of a rich and powerful queen.

Eunuchs we’re popular employees with queens, who didn’t want anybody casting aspersions on any of their offspring.  Now, while rulers entrusted eunuchs with certain key positions, they were pretty much shunned by the rest of society.        They were outcasts.

According to our story, this Ethiopian eunuch had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home. Now the Bible is very clear on the subject of eunuchs and worship.  According to the Book of Deuteronomy, which contains the law as it was laid out by Moses, eunuchs were forbidden to worship in the house of God.

Deuteronomy 23:  “A man whose testicles have been crushed or whose male member has been cut off is not to be admitted to the assembly of Yahweh.” Eunuchs weren’t welcome in God’s house.

Mind you, according to the Bible none of you are welcome here in God’s house. The Bible forbids the wearing of more than one type of cloth at the same time. According to Leviticus 21:20, anyone who is wearing glasses shouldn’t be here either, because one should not approach the altar of the Lord if they have a defect in their sight.

Did you know that it is an abomination before God to work on the Sabbath and according to Exodus 35: 2 anybody who works on the Sabbath should be put to death. Those of you who cut your grass yesterday, which according to the Bible is the Sabbath, those of you who worked around the house yesterday, well you should be rounded up and executed.

Any women out there who are having their period according to the Bible you ought to leave right now, because you are unclean and you’re making the rest of us unclean as well. And you men needn’t bother smiling, because any of you who have had your hair trimmed, including the hair around your temples ought to know that according to Leviticus 19:27 this is strictly forbidden. And as near as I can tell the penalty for those haircuts of yours is death by stoning.

Now don’t go telling me that the New Testament means that the laws of the Old Testament are no longer valid, because in the New Testament Jesus insists that he has not come to abolish the law, for Jesus said, “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.” According to the New Testament the law stands.

Now lucky for you, I don’t take the Bible literarily otherwise…. what am I saying if I took the Bible literally…I’d have to keep my mouth shut, women are supposed to keep silent in church!

All I know is if you take the Bible literally then we’d need a pretty big pile of stones and very few of us would make it out of here alive.

Fortunately for us, our church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, together with most of the mainline churches like the Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Mennonite, Presbyterian, and many others does not teach or preach that the Bible is to be taken literally. Literal interpretations of scripture belong to those denominations and faiths that are called fundamentalists. Christian fundamentalism is just as perverse and just as dangerous as Jewish and Islamic fundamentalism.  Fundamentalist Christians represent a small but vocal minority within the Christian church.  Lutheran’s are not fundamentalists.

The next time someone asks you if you believe in the Bible, the answer is no, believing in the bible is a form of idolatry! We don’t believe in the bible. We believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel can be found in the Bible, but the Gospel cannot be contained by the Bible.

Jesus Christ is the Word of God, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection reveal the true nature of our loving and gracious God.

Like Jesus we are free to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture.

Like Martin Luther we teach that Scripture should always be interpreted in the light of the Gospel.

Like Jesus we proclaim that wherever two or more of us are gathered in Christ’s name Christ is there also and the Holy Spirit will direct and guide us.

Like Luther we teach that the scripture should not be studied in isolation but in community, so that, guided by the Spirit the community can correct and steer the believer in light of the Gospel.

Therefore, guided by the Holy Spirit I can say that all of you are saints and sinners, and all of you are welcome here in God’s house, despite your haircuts, your impaired sight, your multi-materialed clothing, or the state of your gentiles.

Therefore, guided by the Holy Spirit, I can stand here, as a woman, without a hat, wearing my glasses, and proclaim the Gospel, wearing I don’t know how many different types of material.

Therefore, none of you will have to go home from here today and drag your children out into the town square so that for the crime of not properly honoring their parents your kids can be stoned until they are dead, as per the instructions laid out in the Bible.

Because in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we know that God is love and nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and all that God wants from us is that we should love God and love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

But just try telling that to the religious authorities in Jerusalem at the turn of the first century.

You can bet your bottom dollar, that the Black African, gentile, Ethiopian, Eunuch, wasn’t welcome in the Temple. So he left Jerusalem and was on his way back home, riding in his chariot, reading aloud. That he was reading the scriptures aloud is not the remarkable part. You see the concept of reading silently in your head, hadn’t been invented yet, all readers read aloud in those days. We know from Augustine that up until the fifth century, people hadn’t figured out how to read silently! In fact when people first began to read silently in their heads, the religious authorities thought that it must be the work of the devil and more than a few of those quiet readers were burnt at the stake.

What is really remarkable is that the Ethiopian eunuch actually had to read at all or that he actually knew how to read. This Ethiopian eunuch must have been fairly well off because he was reading from the book of the Prophet of Isaiah and one of those scrolls would set you back quite a bit at the turn of the first century. So, we know he is a man of some wealth and importance, because not only can he afford his own scroll but he actually knows how to read it, not in his native tongue, but in Greek.

I can just imagine him riding along, ticked that he wasn’t welcome in the temple because of his identity as a eunuch, reading of all things the book of the prophet Isaiah. Somehow, we’re not told how, the Spirit tells the Apostle Philip to run after the chariot and join it. Philip goes after the chariot and he must have heard what the Ethiopian eunuch is reading and recognized it, because Philip asks him if he understands what he is reading. Apparently he must have been having some difficulty because he invites Philip to hop in and explain.

The passage the Ethiopian eunuch was reading was about the Suffering Servant of God, who was “cut off” from the people of God. It was no accident he was reading this.  Surely, he was trying to figure out why he himself was being cut off from the people of God because if he was reading this passage, he likely also read the neighboring passages where God promised to bless all those who had been excluded and cut off because they were different.

Isaiah writes:  “Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor!”…”and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree….I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off…Thus says the Most High God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel…”  (54:1;56:4-8)

Yahweh declares:  “eunuchs who keep the Sabbath and follow the covenant will have an everlasting name and blessing, better even than sons and daughters, an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”

Just imagine how powerful these words were in a time when the whole promise of eternity hinged on sons and daughters, something a eunuch could never have. It was as if Isaiah was speaking directly to the Ethiopian eunuch.  Foreigners and eunuchs were supposed to be welcomed at God’s table! Those who had been excluded were supposed to be included, despite the fact that the religious authorities were hung up on the rules that were laid out in Moses day.

The Apostle Philip shared the Good News of Jesus with the Ethiopian eunuch. This Suffering Servant the eunuch was reading about was someone he could identify with. This was a Messiah who had been cut off, just like him.

Suddenly the labels that prevented this man from full inclusion in the assembly of the people of God are overcome…and not even the arid desert can defeat them, for suddenly there is some water and the man asks Philip: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Well according to the rules, Philip should have answered “there’s everything to prevent you from being baptized.” First of all, the Ethiopian eunuch hasn’t confessed what it is he believes. He hasn’t been to baptismal classes. Philip isn’t an ordained minister, this is not an emergency and he doesn’t even know how to baptize.  Anyway the church hasn’t yet approved the baptism of gentiles let alone foreign black eunuchs.

No Lutheran pastor would baptize you without first attending to the rules. The church needs a little good order. Without the rules where would we be? Surely we can’t just baptize anyone and everyone who asks for baptism.  Besides the bible says…

But what does Philip do when the eunuch asks him, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip jumps into the water and baptizes the man. No, messing around, no consulting the rules, no calling the Bishop to see if its all right. Philip doesn’t answer the eunuch with any of our concerns, he doesn’t ask the Ethiopian if he is an open and practicing eunuch or if he’s a don’t ask, don’t tell kind of eunuch.

Nor does Philip qualify his response with reservations, such as: “well, we can baptize you, but we can never ordain you.”  Or “well we can baptize you, but we can’t promise not do discriminate against you.”

The Apostle Philip doesn’t share the church’s concerns. The Ethiopian commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. Philip just hops out of the chariot, and jumps into the water and boldly baptizes this inquiring, scripture-reading, Christ-seeking eunuch.

And maybe, just maybe we can learn something from Philip’s radical act. Maybe instead of talking and arguing among ourselves for years and years, we ought to just jump into the water and trust the Spirit to take care of the details.

According to the story when they came up out of the water, the Spirit snatched Philip away and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.  On his way rejoicing, this unnamed Ethiopian eunuch, became the first Christian in Africa, and is the patron saint of Ethiopia.

Indecently, the Christian church in Ethiopa was in existence long before the church in Rome. Ethiopia has one the longest standing Christian communities in the world. Today, most of the people of Ethiopia are Christians. Centuries of Christianity resulted from Philip’s unlikely mission to an Ethiopian eunuch, through the Holy Spirit’s call to cross the traditional boundaries that existed.

Those traditional boundaries could be supported by quoting scripture and yet the Spirit prompted Philip to cross those boundaries anyway. In the church, we have helped to build and also to tear down some of the strongest boundaries of all.

Some boundaries we have begun to break down, through the Spirit’s help, and others we have only strengthened by our action or our inaction.

In the name of Christ, Christians have justified slavery and Christians have fought against slavery.

In the name of Christ, Christians have oppressed women and Christians have fought against the oppression of women.

In the name of Christ, Christians have condemned gay and lesbian people and Christians have affirmed gay and lesbian people.

The Gospel is not a respecter of boundaries.

It doesn’t matter what the religious establishment says, no one is cut off from Gods’ love.

Scripture insists, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

The Holy Spirit is driving us into the world.  We are not being sent to condemn, but to offer the benefits of the grace and love of God, so, that in the words of the prophet Isaiah, God’s house will become, “a house of prayer for all people.”

A house of prayer for all people, for God is love and there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can separate us from Gods love in Christ Jesus.

The this dear sisters and brothers is the gospel of our God.

So what in the world are we waiting for, for Christ’s sake, let’s jump into the water so that we too can be on our way rejoicing.  Amen.