Wednesday, April 5, 2017

To be continued...

Our sessions are taking a summer break.
We'll back in the Fall :-)

The Six Great Ends 6. The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world

We continue our series that takes a look at 6 historic statements of the purpose of the church that were first proposed at the beginning of the last century and have been a part of the Presbyterian Book of order ever since.

The Six Great Ends of the Church (From the Book of Order F-1.0304)
  • The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind
  • The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God
  • The maintenance of divine worship
  • The preservation of the truth
  • The promotion of social righteousness
  • The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world
Today we are taking a look at number six. As with our previous session I'll be referencing a book edited by Rev. Joseph D. Small “Proclaiming the Great Ends of the Church” that contains a number of essays on each of the statements.

The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world
  • Our first session, about the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of all humankind, focused on the preaching and teaching ministry of the church.
  • Our second session focused on ways we nurture each other through fellowship and service.
  • The third great end drew our attention to the maintenance of divine worship, worship being the place where our lives connect with God.
  • The fourth session looked at the preservation of the truth, in particular the truth of the gospel.
  • The fifth Session looked at the churches responsibility in the public arena.
The Sixth Great End is "The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”

The dove, a representation of the Holy Spirit, is in flight over the earth, carrying an olive branch.

The reference is to Genesis 8:11: "And lo, in her mouth a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth."
This also speaks of the eighth day of creation, symbolic of God’s grace coming into the world, through the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus Christ.

The light rising behind the earth represents the dawning of God’s kingdom.

We read in Matthew 4:17 that right from the start of His ministry Jesus began to preach that "The kingdom of heaven is near." “Near,” in both English and Greek (eggizo) is an ambiguous word. In English a 'near miss' is something that didn't happen. Yet ones “Nearest and dearest” expresses an emotion embedded in your heart. In Greek the word can mean “joined together,” “just at hand,” or even “approaching”.

So when we speak of exhibiting the Kingdom of heaven to the world, what are we speaking of? Showing the world something that has already arrived, something yet to come, or maybe, something in between?

In our companion book is an essay by Tom Are Jr. titled “Life in the Waiting Room”. He references First Thessalonians 1:1-10.

1 Thessalonians 1:1 Paul, Silas and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you. 2 We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. 3 We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. 6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord's message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia--your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead--Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. (1Th 1:1-10 NIV)

In that passage Paul praises the Thessalonians for (v.7) being a “Model” to believers in other places. If you are modeling something you are “exhibiting” it. The exhibit in this case is their perseverance in the faith amid a situation that could easily cause them to despair. One of their faithful aspects is “Waiting” for Jesus to be revealed in all glory. So... we see how they demonstrate that the Kingdom is something that had arrived, something that was a happening, yet something they were waiting for. In that ambiguous sense... the kingdom was near.

In his essay Tom Are Jr. speaks about going on long journeys with kids in the car who keep asking “Are we there yet?” How there is always the sense, in any venture of faith, that you are never quite there, but always traveling. The song “Still haven't found what I'm looking for” by rock band U2 well captures that feeling.

I believe in the Kingdom Come, then all the colors will bleed into one, but I'm still running. You broke the bonds and You loosed the chains, carried the cross of my shame, I believe it. But I still haven't found what I'm looking for. I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

Tom Are Jr. compares the Church to a hospital waiting room. He writes “Paul says the church lives in a waiting room. We wait for what God will do next. We wait for the life of Christ to breathe among us. But our waiting is not sitting around. Out waiting is not simply passing time. Beverly Gaventa captures the character of Christian waiting: “To wait is to expect.” The Thessalonians waited. They expected Jesus, who lived and taught and suffered and lives again, to show up among them. They waited for the Son of God to appear among them. This hope is not passive. Hope is not a spectator sport. Hope involves the whole life, the whole heart, the whole being.

Returning to our banner, it is significant that the dove, the image of the Holy Spirit, is carrying something. In all the other banners the dove is just a lone dove. But in this final banner the dove carries something visible and tangible, an olive branch, that represented the waters had begun to recede and peace was starting to return after the chaos of the flood.

This was not an easy time for Noah and his family. Can you imagine being on the boat and all you can see is sea, sea, sea, sea, and then see more sea? Then a dove turns up. He'd seen a dove before, but a dove with a branch? Been a while! Such a little, insignificant thing. A branch. But it was a sign, it was an 'exhibition of the kingdom of heaven.' It was a breath of peace in a time of waiting.

So we are encouraged to do the little things that show to the world we are waiting. Not sitting it out in despair... but waiting in hope. Tom Are Jr. concludes his essay; “However you think about it... there is nothing our world needs more from the church these days more than this: that we live like a people who still have hope in God's Kingdom. The world needs us to live like a people who know there is something we are waiting for.

All this talk of kingdom come leads us towards the final book of the 66 books in the Bible, the Book of Revelation, which is precisely where M. Craig Barnes, in his essay “Living under Heaven” takes us. He offers two selections. Rev 21:1-4 & Rev 22:1-5.

Revelation 21:1 Then I saw "a new heaven and a new earth," for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Look! God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 'He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Rev 21:1-4 NIV)

Revelation 22:1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. (Rev 22:1-5 NIV)

Barnes begins by speaking about the dire situation in which Revelation was written. It was a time of persecution and martyrdom, an age when it looked like “Game Over” for the Christians. John himself is a political prisoner, an exile on the island of Patmos.

During such times it is not unusual for religious folks to come up with predictions about the end of the world. Only takes a drop in the stock market or a an unexpected blizzard in late spring to have some sad clown out there with a placard declaring “You're all doomed, the end is near!”

What is significant about John's vision is that it so overwhelmingly positive. Doom is expressed against all the forces that cheapen and destroy life, war, famine, illness, empire building and other devilish forces that make life hell on earth for some. Vindication is given to those who have suffered for the gospel. Justice comes and people fall down to worship the God, who in Jesus Christ, has fulfilled all His promises.

Revelation is the only book in the whole New Testament that contains the word “Hallelujah”... meaning “Praise God!”... a rather startling phrase to use given John's circumstances. “I'm in exile. The church is being destroyed. We might not make it. Praise God!”

Rather than being a statement about “Game Over” John's revelation is a “Game Changer.” He tells us “This is how it ends. This is how it finishes. This is what we are waiting for. This is what we are working for.” The eradication of a world where nation seeks to dominate nation, a world without war, where healing is more important than fighting, a world where there is enough for all and all have their place and at the center of it all is God. Glorious. Seen like we've never seen. Worshiped ... because this is heaven. Hallelujah. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."

Barnes writes: “Here is John's point: if you believe that heaven is waiting up ahead for you, then it is always before you. Heaven exists not just as a future place you go when you die but also as an inspiration for the life you have today. If you believe that Jesus Christ is behind you and ahead of you, then you can certainly believe that he is also above you. This frees you to live under heaven every day of your life. And that will make all the difference in how you live your life. In fact in can make a world of difference.”

He speaks of how many people, in church history, who made a significant difference to the life of the world, were those who fully believed in the reality of the world to come. St Augustine, whose vision of the city of God changed the way nations grew, Martin Luther and John Calvin, who re-formed a church that had lost her way, William Wilberforce and John Newton who started a movement that dismantled the slave trade, Martin Luther King Jr. who tried to teach us to be color blind, Mother Teresa who, through her work in the slums of Calcutta, reminded us that all people, regardless of race. Color or creed, deserve to live and die with dignity.

Barnes concludes... “None of the saints in heaven are there as a reward for a life well lived. They are all there because the grace of God raised them from dead before they died. From the moment of their baptisms they lived as exhibitions of the kingdom of heaven, participating in Christ's wok of bringing heaven to earth... lift up the risen savior so that you too may find a sacred vision for making a world of difference in your corner of the earth beneath heaven.”

It is difficult to read scripture and conclude that God calls to a life of ease. This is not a Yellow Submarine “Where every one of us has all we need.” We are invited to a life of engagement, that will sometimes stretch us beyond what we feel we can endure. We are surely only prepared to do that if we embrace the vision of John, that this life is not all of life. There is something more. There is the kingdom of God. Eternal. Everlasting. But even then... we are human and we doubt and we struggle and we often fail.

Dan Chun's essay, “Do not grow Weary” encourages us to remember that the little olive branch we carry, may not seem to be much, but it can still make a huge difference. That the key is to keep sowing seeds. It's not our job to create the harvest, that is up to God. But unless the seed is sown, there never is a harvest. He directs our thoughts to Galatians 6:7-10.

7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Gal 6:7-10 NIV)

Don Chun's particular work is with the International Justice Mission which seeks to rescue children from violent oppression in South Asia, Africa and Latin America. He writes of how not only is this a heart breaking tragedy, it's also heart breaking work in which the odds seemed stacked against them. Poverty, corruption, economics, violence, supply and demand... so many factors mitigate against their success. Long hours needed to be spent in surveillance, preparing legal work, finding people and agencies that can be trusted.

He talks of how – for a price – a police agent may tip off an illegal brothel exploiting children or the owner of a factory employing child labor, right before a raid... and how months of preparation could be written off in a moment. Holding out an olive branch when somebody has a gun ready to shoot the dove is not easy! Yet they carry on. Because the harvest is saving a child who needs to know that God loves them.

He talks of how evil people are depending on good people giving up. Of them growing weary, of them throwing in the towel and being overwhelmed by despair. He writes Evil bets on good people quitting and saying “Forget it.” So the way to defeat evil is not to quit and not to grow weary in doing good – to keep on keeping on. The way to defeat evil is to persevere in doing good together with a community of encouragers. The church is called to be that community.”

It is through not giving up and not giving in that the church fulfills it's call to exhibit the Kingdom of heaven to the world. It is by consistently sowing seeds and refusing to turn a blind eye that the church, as a community, seeks to change the world into a more heavenly place!

The arena of our personal influence may not be as dramatic as that of the International Justice Mission. Yet we are all called to model Christian living in our place of work, through our family life, within our friendships. None of us are off the hook when it comes to caring!

Recall the words of Protestant pastor Martin Niemoller, who opposed the regime of Hitlers Germany and spent the last 7 years of Nazi rule in concentration camps;

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me, - and there was no one left to speak for me.

He was speaking these words in particular to the church, as he believed that the Protestant Churches, in their failure to speak out against Nazi ideology - were complicit - through their silence - in the Nazi imprisonment, persecution and murder of millions of people. "The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” is not an optional extra but an essential part of the sacred calling of the Church.
The final essay in our book, by Fairfax F Fair, pastor of Highlands Church, Louisville, Kentucky, is titled, appropriately “Exhibiting the Kingdom.” He references Matthew 25:31-40

31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.
32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' 37 "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?
38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' 40 "The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.' (Mat 25:31-40 NIV)

One of the things he talks about in this sermon is our incentive for doing good. Why do we do what we do? We can do things for many reasons. Out of duty. To get credit. But for Christian people the incentive has to come back to one thing. We love because Christ first loved us. Our incentive for reaching out to others is that God has reached out to us in Christ. Our incentive for healing others is that Christ has healed us. Our incentive for forgiving others is that God has forgiven us in Christ. We are sharing in Christ's work because He has overwhelmed us by His grace... and we respond to grace by grace and with grace.

He writes about small olive branch like actions that we can all engage in; “Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Who here could not give another sandwich, a cup of water, a friendly hello? Jesus is not demanding that we move mountains, or repay the staggering national debt, or find a cure for cancer. Jesus is talking about simple kindnesses that are within the capability of all of us. We can speak respectfully to everyone we meet and even greet them with a smile. We can stop to listen to a child or an older adult. We can make a phone call to someone we miss seeing in worship” (P163).... “We exhibit the kingdom by showing the love of God because it has been shown to us.” (P164)

In ancient Christian numerology the number 8 had a particular significance. 8 was the number of resurrection. Christians met on the 8th day to worship (Of course that was also the first day!) One reason given for the church moving from worshiping on the Jewish Sabbath (the seventh Day) to the day after (the 8th Day), was that they believed that the resurrection was such a momentous event that it changed everything... including their day of gathering together. For a group made up of predominantly Jewish folk, this was a statement that something of seismic proportions had happened, the beginning of a new age, a new covenant... a New Testament and so much more.

This new age that has dawned is not the end of the story. It's the preparation for it. It's the age in which we, in the words of N.T. Wright, are called to “Practicing in the present, tunes we will sing in God's new world.” We are not there yet! We still haven't found what we are looking for. We are called to hold out the olive branch (with the help of the Holy Spirit). We are called to keep sowing seeds and not grow weary in doing good. We are called to be 8th Day Easter people with Hallelujah as our song. We are invited to be so heavenly minded that we will not rest till we see signs that God's will is being done on the earth as it is in heaven. This sixth end... encompasses many of the previous five.

We exhibit the Kingdom of heaven whenever we are faithful to the first end – the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind. The church alone is given the task of proclaiming Jesus Christ. That uniquely, is our responsibility. "Preach the Word" (2 Timothy 4:2)

We exhibit the Kingdom of heaven in our communal life as we share together in fellowship and seek to encourage one another in the faith, through both empathy and instruction. That is the second great end; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God. "Take care of my sheep." (John 21:16)

We exhibit the Kingdom of heaven as we gather for worship. It is through worship we open our hearts to the empowering of the Holy Spirit and are equipped for our mission. It is in worship we are reminded that life is not about us, but about God. That third great end; the maintenance of divine worship is essential in fulfilling the two great commandments. It is where we express our love for God and work at the tough task of loving each other. "I will worship the Lord in Hebron." (2 Samuel 15:8)

We exhibit the Kingdom of heaven whenever we uphold the truth of the gospel. In an age where moral absolutes are increasingly challenged we proclaim that there is good and there is evil and by God's help we can discern the difference. Such is our fourth end; The preservation of the truth. "The truth will set you free." (John 8:32)

We exhibit the Kingdom of heaven as we reach out way beyond our walls. We are called together, not to stay in a holy huddle, but, as our mission statement declares, we are growing in faith, because we are called to serve. The promotion of social righteousness is not an optional extra but the way the Kingdom of God impacts the Kingdoms of this world. "Let justice roll on like a river" (Amos 5:24)

Exhibiting the Kingdom of heaven, the sixth great end reminds us that while we are all just passing through God invites us to leave a mark, to leave this world a better place by living our lives faithfully in the light of the love of Jesus Christ and in the strength His Holy Spirit supplies. "The kingdom of heaven has come near." (Matthew 10:7)

So there you have it. The Six Great Ends of the Church. Thanks for traveling with me through these foundational descriptions of the mission and purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ, and in particular that strange little corner of the great church that call themselves Presbyterian (USA).

The Reverend J. Pratt B.D.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Six Great Ends 5. The Promotion of Social Righteousness

THE SIX GREAT ENDS OF THE CHURCH.”
5. The promotion of social righteousness

We continue our series that takes a look at 6 historic statements of the purpose of the church that were first proposed at the beginning of the last century and have been a part of the Presbyterian Book of order ever since.

The Six Great Ends of the Church (From the Book of Order F-1.0304)
  • The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind
  • The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God
  • The maintenance of divine worship
  • The preservation of the truth
  • The promotion of social righteousness
  • The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world
Today we are taking a look at number five. As with our previous session I'll be referencing a book edited by Rev. Joseph D. Small “Proclaiming the Great Ends of the Church” that contains a number of essays on each of the statements.

The promotion of social righteousness
  • Our first session, about the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of all humankind, focused on the preaching and teaching ministry of the church. 
  • Our second session focused on ways we nurture each other through fellowship and service. 
  • The third great end drew our attention to the maintenance of divine worship, worship being the place where our lives connect with God. 
  • The fourth session looked at the preservation of the truth, in particular the truth of the gospel.
The Fifth Great End represents "The promotion of social righteousness."

The banner represents Amos 5:24
 "But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream."

One of the defining tenets of Presbyterian faith is that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. That our salvation is linked to what Jesus has already done for us. If folk ask when were we saved, our answer is “Just over 2000 years ago when Christ died upon the Cross for our sins.”

We tend to focus less on the world to come and far more on what it means for the gospel to be birthed in our current, everyday, now world, of today. That, briefly stated, is what the promotion of social righteousness is about. We are called to apply ourselves to fulfilling the prayer we make each Sunday; “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth... as it is in heaven.” We recognize not only is this our call, but a call that we cannot fulfill without God's strength power and guidance. Hence at the top of our banner is the Dove, indicating the initiative and empowering of the Holy Spirit.
A good starting place for our deliberations is the Sermon on the Mount: Luke 6:20-26

20 Looking at his disciples, he said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
23 "Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
24 "But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
(Luk 6:20-26 NIV)

The teaching Jesus offers is hard to grasp. Being poor, hungry, sad and hated is not what any sane person would described as being blessed! This idea that the rich are going to be punished, the well fed go hungry, those who laugh be moved to tears and folk we regard as honored are equated with false prophets... well, this needs some unpacking.

One way of looking at this passage is that it is about the difference the coming of the Kingdom is meant to make to the world in which we live. That God has heard, and is on the side of those who are in need, and that God's plan is that those who have plenty, get with God's program and do something to help those less fortunate than themselves.

This is the approach Timothy Hart-Andersen takes in his essay “Plain Talk From Jesus on Poverty and Wealth” P118-9

“He (Jesus) knows that the poor suffer and die from lack of food;
Blessed are you who are hungry now.
He knows that the poor are often filled with despair;
Blessed are you who weep now.
He knows that the poor are forced to live on the margins;
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you.

For to you, Jesus says, belongs the reign of God, where you will no longer be hungry, where you will no longer weep, where you will no longer be excluded.

Not everybody standing there on the plain listening to Jesus is poor. Neither are all of his disciples. But the rich who want to follow Jesus will be expected to view their wealth in new ways. Levi, for example, is a tax collector and man of means. He throws a banquet After Jesus calls him as a disciple, to celebrate his change of life.

Jesus is not against the rich; He is is simply saying God has a a particular interest in the poor.

If those at the bottom of the pile are going to see there lot improved it is only through those at the top of the pile, permitting some of their blessings to overflow. Again we are with Amos 5:24 "But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Our banner pictures the Holy Spirit's work as overseeing the overflow.

Again to quote Hart Andersen: “If we hoped our religion could remain fundamentally a private matter we were mistaken. If it makes us squirm to be bought face to face with our material abundance, then so be it. The gospel is not meant to justify our standard of living. It was and is meant to be heard by the poor as good news... Jesus makes the elimination of poverty – the promotion of social righteousness – a fundamental aim of those who choose to follow Him” (P119)

As a fund raiser many moons ago I wrote a song for a Christian Aid appeal. While the song had a particular focus on the plight of street children in Brazil, one of the lines applied to all those occasions we are inspired to help others; “Let us listen for the voice of Jesus calling, speaking to us through their need, Whatever you do for the least of my brothers, You do it for Me.

We love because Christ first loved us, we serve because Christ first served us, we reach out to the poor, because He reached out to the poor. It can be a thankless task. Even Jesus said that we will always have the poor with us. And we may feel like our contribution is such an insignificant drop in the ocean. The fact that after over 2000 years of the Christian message being proclaimed, the world still seems as harsh and cruel and impoverished as it ever was, can be disappointing.

Our next passage reminds us, that even those who were closest to Jesus, like his cousin John the Baptist, sometimes asked if the Kingdom of God was really coming, or were to they to expect something else? John, as you know, fell foul of the authorities when he questioned the ruling elites morality, and he was imprisoned.

Matthew 11:1 After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.
2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples
3 to ask him, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?"
4 Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see:
5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me." (Mat 11:1-6 NIV)

John had every reason to question. He had given his life to declare the coming of the Kingdom. He was about to lose his life and was in a jail cell. Had it all been worthwhile? Or had he given his life for an illusion. He knew the promises of the Messiah and it didn't look like, from his perspective, that change was coming any time soon. The reply Jesus sends him directly focuses on promises of the coming kingdom that were given through Old Testament prophecy.

Isaiah 35:3-6
3 Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts, "Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you."
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. (Isa 35:3-6 NIV)

These were words John was incredibly familiar with. They would have resonated with John in a deeper way than we can ever understand. This was a way for Jesus to reassure John that his work had not been in vain, but that God's plan, for “justice to roll down like waters” was going forward, albeit in a way that was not as spectacular as some envisioned. It is as though Jesus is inviting John to modify his vision, while at the same time affirming it was the right vision to hold.

In her essay “Deepening Disappointment” Elizabeth McGregor Simmons talks of how she observed “sight being restored to the blind” in the life of one of her congregation called Murray. Murray was losing his sight and there was no cure on the horizon. He had partnered up with a visually handicapped trainer, Ernie. They were sharing their journey with the congregation at a special event that a introduced them to Ernie's seeing-eye guide dog Mikey.

She muses sometime after the event how she was struck by Jesus reply to John... “Go and tell John what you hear and see... the blind receive their sight.”

As I read those words I thought, “You know, Murray is still blind. Ernie is still blind. And what that means is that in a certain sense, the fulfillment of Isaiah's vision of restoration and wholeness for the whole creation still lies out there in the offing. And in this realization, there is disappointment. But at the same time, there is Mikey. And there is the Guide Dogs of Texas organization. And there are Ernie and Mikey showing us how they work together to “See”. … And all of us who were there last Sunday afternoon went away less blind than we had been before. And in all of this, in the deepening of our disappointment, if you will, there is, by the grace of God, great joy as well.”

The disappointment seems to come when we start trying to measure the results. When we start trying to quantify what we have achieved. But the thing about a rolling stream is that it never stops. For sure, it can dry up, but as long as it is rolling, you don't try and drain it and count the droplets. If you do, that's when the perspective changes and the disappointment takes over!

Our upcoming service this Sunday gives us the account of a man who is born blind. There are many disappointing things in the passage. His healing results in trouble from the authorities and ends up with him being thrown out of his church! The disciples are revealed to have taken on board some pretty bad theology that related sickness to people sinning. The religious authorities are revealed to be clueless.

This peace and justice stuff! Messy. Not always clear. Often tricky. One step forward one step back kind of affair. But the stream keeps rolling. And we are called to keep it flowing! And if that sounds crazy, then the essay by Joseph Small, titled “He's Crazy” (meaning Jesus) may offer us some insight. He begins it by referencing Mark 3:20-35.

20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, "He is out of his mind."
22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, "He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons."
23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: "How can Satan drive out Satan?
24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.
25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.
26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come.
27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man's house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man's house.
28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter,
29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin."
30 He said this because they were saying, "He has an impure spirit."
31 Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him.
32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, "Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you."
33 "Who are my mother and my brothers?" he asked.
34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers!
35 Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother." (Mar 3:20-35 NIV)

As the mission of Jesus gained momentum, His family looked on with great concern. They could see it was heading for trouble. He kept saying the kinds of things that everybody thought, but nobody dared to say. He kept calling people to account for themselves. And when He was challenged He responded in a ridiculous way, by healing, by offering hope, by love! Who did He think He was? Forgiving people?Healing people? Welcoming sinners and tax collectors? Talking to Samaritan women by wells in the heart of the noonday sun? God or something? His family tried to put a stop to it.

So did the authorities. But they were not as kindly disposed as His family. They just declared Him to be outright evil. In league with the devil. Doing the right things but for the most evil of reasons... the most significant evil being that it showed them up for the shallow, despicable tricksters and hustlers they actually were.

Yet some of them knew better. But they wouldn't admit it. This was their 'unforgivable sin'. That they knew Jesus was right, but called Him wrong. They knowingly participated in ascribing the works of God's Spirit as being evil. The unforgivable sin isn't suicide, or sexuality or a bunch of other stuff the religious right may tell us... it is deliberately ascribing to evil... what you know is the genuine work of God. The passage explains this... gives us the reason why Jesus talks about an unforgivable sin. Verse 30 “He said this because they were saying, "He has an impure spirit."

Jesus is even crazy enough to suggest that the hallowed institution of the family was not the all important relationship to have in life. That there was actually one relationship... our relationship with God... that mattered more. This is tough teaching! This is hard. “Honor thy father and mother!” But not if they are preventing you from being the child of God that you are intended to be. Ouch!

He rambled through a world that prized order, a world that gave authority only to people with the right qualifications and expected little or nothing from common people. Jesus expected great things of ordinary people, even gathering poor, uneducated folks as disciples and then giving them authority to heal diseases, forgive sins, and break down societal barriers of race, class and gender. Entrusting His mission to ordinary people was not rational.

It was all crazy. None of it made sense. Who Jesus was, what He said and what He did, were incongruous in a world that looked on departures from 'the way things were' as loony at best and dangerous at worst. The reaction of Jesus' family and of the religious and political authorities was understandable. It was all crazy.” (P130)

One of the phrases you often hear in peace and justice circles is that the church is called to “Speak the truth to power. ”As we saw in the last session, not just any random truth, but the particular truth that we find in scripture and which was exemplified and lived out by Jesus through the words and actions of His ministry. It is a truth at variance with the ways of the world. It can be an uncomfortable truth. But unless we act upon it, through the promotion of social righteousness, then the Kingdom on earth can never come “As it is in heaven.”

Joseph Small concludes: “Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God – God's new way in the world – in which social righteousness – reordered relationships among all people – would be the order of things. No more of the tired old “Way things are”, but new, God-given, Christ inaugurated, Spirit-powered possibilities for human living. In short,Christ calls us now to embrace the crazy possibility that life in this world can be free and full for all of God's people, Christ calls those of us who want to be followers to go where He goes, even when efforts for a more just social order seem foolish, or quixotic, or even a bit mad

At the start of Luke's gospel, Jesus makes a bold statement, not only about His mission, but about who He was. Luke 4:16-21.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.
21 He began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (Luk 4:16-21 NIV)

Here is the Jesus manifesto:
  • Proclaim good news to the poor.
  • Proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
  • Set the oppressed free,
  • Proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
There He stands... in His hometown in His home church...of all places,... declaring...“The Spirit of the Lord is on me” and “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.By the time the sermon was over they tried to throw Him off a cliff. Yes, it went THAT well! Crazy or not, faithful churches take the words of Jesus seriously. They recognize that the promotion of social righteousness is not an optional extra, but an essential part of the gospel message.

In his essay “A Vision for the city” Scott Weimer writes about moving to lead a church in Atlanta and seeking how that Kingdom manifesto of Jesus can be put into practice.

He speaks of how the word “Poor” had many different meanings. The poor … “spiritually”, and the poor, “economically.” One of the things his church has now established is a Men's Bible Study that brings together business professionals and homeless people in the neighborhood. The program has offered to both groups unique perspectives and been transformative in impact. Some of the homeless are no longer homeless. Some of the professionals now have a completely different perspective about causes of homelessness and how they can help.,

As the congregation became made aware of human trafficking... in particular the sexual exploitation of children... they have involved themselves with a program called GRACE (Galvanizing Resources Against Child Exploitation)... a city wide program. Some older widows have offered rooms in their homes as safe havens. Others in the congregation have shared their gifts in counseling and law.

To fulfill the injunction to “Proclaim the Year of the Lord's Favor” the church has begun to offer services of wholeness and witnessed God's healing in unexpected ways. They are embracing spiritual gifts that they had previously ignored.

He writes (P137) “Daily, Jesus is opening the spiritual eyes of our congregation… we are praying that God will continue to enable us to support the ministries that proclaim good news to the poor and oppressed in our city and around the world. We now see the world with eyes that focus on needs far beyond our own immediate personal concerns.”

For our own church there remains the challenge as to how invest in ministries of compassion to fulfill the gospel mandate first delivered by Jesus in His hometown. These are challenging times for us as a church. Last Sunday saw just about the lowest attendance I've seen since I arrived here as your minister. People have left us. We have cut back, not expanded our mission giving. Some of our most faithful mission workers have grown old and can no longer do what they once did. Others have not jumped up and taken their place. These are not the New Beginnings that I had expected when I came here.

So I am very glad to have this opportunity to think about the Great Ends of the Church. Am I sometimes discouraged? Of course. But so far nobody has attempted to throw me off a cliff because of something I said in a sermon. And we are still pursuing the goal of “Promoting Social Righteousness.”

This session reminds us to keep reminding ourselves that we are the privileged ones of this world and God's expectation is that we share what we have and lift up those less fortunate than ourselves. We read in Matthew 25:42-45 about judgment. 

For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' "He will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' 

 Judgment is framed in terms that ask, “Did you care?”

We may at times become overwhelmed by the size of the task. It is a slow, frustrating, process. Kingdom work always is. That's what John experienced in the darkness of his prison cell. We may sometimes question if what we are doing really counts.

There is a story about a man walking along a beach. Every now and again, he comes across a starfish and throws it back in the sea. Somebody challenges him, “You fool. You can't pick up every starfish on the beach. Do you think you can really make a difference?” The man picked up another starfish, threw it in the sea and said “Makes a difference to this one!”

Yes. People will think we are crazy. They thought Jesus was crazy. Or bad. Or just plain wrong. But He just kept on saying “The Kingdom is near! Join me in the work. Be my sisters and brothers and Mothers as we work together to make it real”

The prophet Amos declared... "But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." There is no shortage of ways we can be involved in the work of peace and justice. Be it racial issues, gender issues, homelessness, human trafficking, immigration rights, the rights of prisoners, be it through the legal process, the political process, be it through community meeting or prayer meeting, be it fighting cancer or raising awareness of world poverty, be it the environment or the dismantling of nuclear arsenals... one of the six Great ends of the Church remains... "The promotion of social righteousness."

Next Time... The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world .

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Six Great Ends 4 The Preservation of the Truth

THE SIX GREAT ENDS OF THE CHURCH.”
4. The Preservation of The Truth

We continue our series that takes a look at 6 historic statements of the purpose of the church that were first proposed at the beginning of the last century and have been a part of the Presbyterian Book of order ever since.

The Six Great Ends of the Church (From the Book of Order F-1.0304)

  • The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind
  • The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God
  • The maintenance of divine worship
  • The preservation of the truth
  • The promotion of social righteousness
  • The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world

Today we are taking a look at number four. As with our previous session I'll be referencing a book edited by Rev. Joseph D. Small “Proclaiming the Great Ends of the Church” that contains a number of essays on each of the statements.

The Preservation of the Truth.

Our first session, about the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of all humankind, focused on the preaching and teaching ministry of the church. Our second session focused on ways we nurture each other through teaching and service. The third great end drew our attention to the maintenance of divine worship. So we move to number 4 "The Preservation of the Truth."

 

The banner represents the light of truth shining in the darkness.

The dove reminds us that the truth we proclaim to the world is the gospel of Jesus Christ, God with us and for us.

We are reminded of a scripture verse: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5)

Against the background of a world where many hold to a philosophy that declares all truth is relative, we suggest that there are absolutes.

The particular truth that we seek to uphold is the truth of Jesus Christ, as revealed in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament.

In the midst of a changing theological landscape we declare ourselves to be both “Reformed” and “Reforming.” We recognize that the present work of the Holy Spirit enlightens our understanding of the mission and purpose of Jesus Christ and how we see the work of God.

To a multi-faith world we declare that there are unique aspects to the gospel that need to be upheld, while acknowledging that God is God and free to reveal truth in ways that are unfamiliar to us .

Let's begin with a reading in which Pilate asks Jesus a searching question; “What is truth?”

28 Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate came out to them and asked, "What charges are you bringing against this man?" 30 "If he were not a criminal," they replied, "we would not have handed him over to you." 31 Pilate said, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law." "But we have no right to execute anyone," they objected.
32 This took place to fulfill what Jesus had said about the kind of death he was going to die. 33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" 34 "Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?" 35 "Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?" 36 Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place." 37 "You are a king, then!" said Pilate. Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." 38 "What is truth?" retorted Pilate.”

Pilate seems a little confused as to why Jesus was even on trial. He seems perplexed by the Jewish customs and squabbles that have led to His arrest. He asks Jesus “What is it that you have done?” (verse 35).

We don't seem to be any better at answering that question for people. We talk a lot about the compassion and love and the healing presence of Jesus, but at the same time share this narrative of how hated He was, and how religious folk in particular saw Him as an incredible threat to their beliefs and how, even though He was the greatest, most wonderful, beautiful person that ever walked on the earth, God allowed Him to be betrayed, persecuted and crucified by people who truly believed He deserved to die.

And those abstract answers Jesus gives to Pilate... “My kingdom is not of this world. … my kingdom is from another place” “The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” These are not statements that sound like they could be used in a courtroom defense trial. They are deeply philosophical and theological... and they produced a reaction of scorn from Pilate... “Huh! What is truth!”

In his essay on “Learning to tell the Truth” Chris Currie writes “In John's gospel, Jesus talks about truth a lot. Truth becomes flesh in the first chapter of John; the truth sets us free in chapter 8; Jesus declares Himself to be the way, truth and life in chapter 14, and here in John 18, just before His crucifixion and death, Jesus confesses that His major purpose on earth is to testify to the truth. Could it be that John is not simply leading us to the Cross as a tragic end to an otherwise noble life, or as a mysterious accident that came upon an unsuspecting religious leader, but that he is leading us to the Cross because it is precisely there, in the Cross, that truth is fully revealed?”

The Cross speaks to us as an uncomfortable truth. This was Pilates problem. He didn't want to deal with the truth about Jesus. He recognizes that Jesus may well be innocent, but … heck... there were just other things that needed dealing with. It was just not convenient to do the right thing!

At the Cross God is revealing truth in the most uncomfortable way imaginable. God is revealing that at the core of God's being is a refusal to turn away from us, even if it costs a completely innocent and beautiful human life. That God's solidarity is of such a depth, that God would rather accept betrayal than be divorced from being part of our lives.

As Chris Currie again writes “The truth about us is not rooted in our own deepest desires and longings, and even our own plans, but in Jesus Christ and His Cross. That can be hard to swallow.

The Cross is an uncomfortable truth, because we are Pilate. We would rather not have to deal with taking the side of justice and righteousness. The Cross is uncomfortable because the truth is that had we been living in the days of Jesus we would have sided with those who shouted “Crucify”. The Cross is uncomfortable because we are frail disciples like Peter who would have denied Him, like those who ran away, maybe even like Judas who would have betrayed Him for thirty pieces of silver, if we thought we could get away with it!

Remember that song? “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?... oh oh oh oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble! The truth of the cross... and our complicity in the same sins that nailed the Savior to the wood, should indeed cause us to tremble at our shallowness and sinfulness.

We fool nobody but ourselves if we believe we would be the only person in Jerusalem that dark night who saw what was really happening and would have spoken in Christ's favor! The Cross is the place where God says, “To hell with your sophistication and enlightened views and good intentions. You are no different than anybody else. You are human and You cannot save yourself” That can be hard to swallow. That is the uncomfortable truth of the Cross.

But it's also a glorious truth. For it means God, in Christ, has done for us what we can never do for ourselves. Offer hope. Open a doorway to righteousness. Clear away whatever it is about us, that stops us pursuing God's kingdom with vitality and passion. That is the truth that we need to preserve, for it grants us a way to serve God with strength and courage. Which just happens to be part of our next reading about Joshua (1:1-9)

Joshua 1:1 After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses' aide: 2 "Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them--to the Israelite's. 3 I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. 4 Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates--all the Hittite country--to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. 5 No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.
6 Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them. 7 "Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. 8 Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. 9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go."

If God commands Joshua to be strong, courageous, fearless and confident, we can assume it was because God knew that, in his heart of hearts, Joshua felt fearful, weak, discouraged and not up to the task. Joshua's source of confidence is in one thing alone. God promises to be with him. It is God who will make a way. It is God who will protect him, v9: “The LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”

This is strength and courage, not in self-sufficiency but in God's ability. Just as our salvation is rooted in what God has done for us, so our ability to do the things God calls us to do, is linked to God's ability to empower us, through the Holy Spirit, for the tasks God wishes us to accomplish. In his sermon on “Leading in God's Way” Jerry Cannon writes “Real success is not a matter of strength and courage alone, but strength and courage that comes from the knowledge that God is walking with us”. (p.99)

It is this knowledge that God “has our back” that offers to us the guts, the grit and the backbone to live for God. Cannon continues; “I think we need to apply this principle not only to our personal lives but also to the life of this congregation. It would be easy for or us to look at the life of this congregation with only our human eyes and human understanding and say, “We're to small and insignificant to have any influence …. Let's just do what little we can and be satisfied with that”. You know what that kind of statement says? It's a weak excuse for a weak faith. If we are going to lead God's way, the first thing we must do is be strong and courageous, for the Lord our God is with us wherever we go.”

Another uncomfortable truth. We can be self satisfied and allow our fear to guide our ventures, rather than allow God to lead us into unknown adventures! The solution to such a dilemma, in Joshua's case, is found by applying the truth of the Book of the Law to his life. “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (verse 8).

Cannon, again writes;The sure way of connecting the law to the heart is the saturation method.... Saturation? Think of the head football coach winning the championship football game and being bathed in a bucket of Gatorade. And think of that bath being repeated day after day. Saturation in the truth of God's Word connects law to heart, truth to life.”

He suggests that when we try to live without consulting God's Word, it is deliberate, voluntary ignorance. Such ignorance will not stop us from suffering the consequences of acting stupid. He concludes; “The wisdom we need is available. In the Christian life, it's not just about reading God's Word occasionally; it's about meditating on its truth and letting God's Word saturate our spirit and shape our lives.”

Again, we are back with that idea that as a Christian church we are called to preserve the truth, a very particular truth, namely the truth that is found within the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Another reading... 2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2 Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

When I was a pastor in Beckley, WV, just a block away from the church was Mountain State University. The local Methodist minister worked part time there as an adjunct professor teaching the ethics course. A couple of times, when he needed to be away, he asked me to stand in for him. One of the sessions I took had to do with the sources of authority upon which we make our decisions.

We listed a number of topics on the board. Killing. Cheating on a spouse. Abortion. The theft of food by a hungry person... and then talked not only about the rightness or wrongness of the actions, but also “Why” they were right or wrong. How did they effect others? How did they effect the society in which the action took place? How did they effect the individuals involved?

It lead into such questions as; “Do right and wrong depend upon the culture we live in, or are there such things as absolute right and wrong? And who decides how right and wrong should be either punished or rewarded? Is morality subjective or objective?”

In his essay “A Passion for Truth” Peter B. Barnes talks about four sources of authority.

The first is science. Science offers us observable realities. The earth goes around the sun. Of course it does. But simple facts and statements are not always helpful in making ethical decisions. Just because the earth goes around the sun does not mean I should not punch you in the nose if you trespass on my property. Facts can be interpreted. Statements like “Studies have shown” or “Polls indicate” are taken as indicating something important. In the current political climate, they are also questioned. The phrase “Alternative Fact” springs to mind!

Second there are cultural norms. Whatever becomes normative for society, as reflected in popular culture, becomes the accepted authority. The phrase “Everybody is doing it” becomes “So it must be the right thing to do!”

Thirdly, there are subjective feelings. “I have to do what's right for me”. “How can it be wrong if it feels so right.” So called 'situation ethics' base the rightness or wrongness of an action, upon past or present experience and emotional feelings. “If it feels good and it doesn't hurt anyone, then just do it.”

Fourthly, there is revelation. Barnes comments: “For Christians the Bible serves as the revelation of objective truth from the One who is beyond scientific verification and who is not bound by cultural norms or subjective feelings. Revelation is God's truth freely given to us.”

It is this concept of revealed truth that the church has historically sought to defend and preserve. It comes from the concept that there is a God, that this God has spoken to us over the centuries though flesh and blood people, who recorded what was revealed to them in Scripture. Most of all God has revealed God's truth in a person, Jesus Christ, who, in John's gospels terms, was the “Word who became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Paul talks to Timothy about Scripture as being “God-breathed” and essential for equipping the disciple in the ways of the kingdom. That we should teach sound doctrine because there was a tendency for folk to prefer hearing whatever suited their “need of the moment” rather than embracing God's revelation.

When, on the first Sunday of Lent we were thinking in our service about the temptation of Jesus, in Matthew's gospel, we saw how He counteracted the devil's lies with the phrase, “People do not live on bread alone, but upon every Word that come from the mouth of God

Bill Robinson (quoted by Barnes) writes; “As Christians we believe in absolutes. Early church councils affirmed the anchors of our faith. Jesus made absolute claims. He said that He is the only way to God – a rather incendiary remark in today's pluralistic world. But as Christian leaders our stout defenses against attacks on moral and spiritual absolutes often omit the way in which we embrace those absolutes – by faith. As finite creatures, we cannot know absolutes absolutely. When Jesus claims to be the only way to the Father, by faith we believe Him. It is not an absolute claim we mortals can prove empirically. But evidence supporting the reliability of Scripture, along with witnessing the profound impact of Christ's transforming love, allows us to hold a reason based faith that Jesus was telling the truth.”

Having said that Jesus is “The Truth”... we know we are not the only show in town. Not only do other philosophies offer differing ways of discerning truth, other religions contain truths at variance with those contained in the Christian Scriptures. How do we deal with that? That's the subject of Michael Lindvall's chapter titled; “My Way or the Highway or Many Roads to Heaven” But first... another reading.

John 14:1-14
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father's house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?
3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going." 5 Thomas said to him, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" 6 Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him." 8 Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us." 9 Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? 10 Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. 12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

Lindvall points out that when Jesus made the statement about being “Way, Truth and Life” there existed no such religion as Christianity. He was talking to a small group of followers who were about to witness His betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection “These words are part of Jesus' struggle to make His disciples understand why there is no way around the cross. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life - and that way that truth- and that life are about to be made visible in the towering tragedy of the cross and the towering miracle of the resurrection. In context, Jesus's point is there is no way to the Father except by self-denial, obedience and trust such as this.

He notes that there have been two polarizing views of Jesus words. The first, often adopted by those of a conservative persuasion, he characterizes as “My way or the highway.” According to this perspective, all other religious and philosophical perspectives – be they Humanistic, Buddhist, Hindu or Islamic – with the exception of Jewish texts in the Old Testament – are at the best wrong and at their worst demonic. This is the way of Christian exclusiveness. There is no way but the Christian way, no truth but the conservative interpretation of Christian truth and the only outcome for life for those who don't accept the conservative presentation of Jesus as the way is to burn in hell. My way or the highway.

The liberal alternative is to suggest that “Many roads lead to heaven.” There is one God. So aren't all religions simply different pathways to the same destination? The moral relativism of the 1960's decided for us that there are no such things as absolutes. He writes “Life is like going through a cafeteria line; some folks like the meat loaf; others like the chicken tetrazzini. Some folks like Jesus, others like Buddha. Take your pick. It's all the same. As long as you are tolerant, it's just a matter of personal spiritual preference.

The problem with this view is maybe illustrated by Steve Turners poem “Creed” in which he writes “We believe all religions are basically the same. At least the one that we read was. They all believe in love and goodness. They only differ on matters of creation, sin, heaven, hell, God and salvation.” Anybody who has actually studied comparative religion will be clear that all religions are not the same and most disagree on the two basic principles of what God is like and why we are on the planet!

The problem with “My Way or the Highway and Many Roads to Heaven” is their over-simplification of the issues involved. Reformed theology has wrestled with the question of how to relate to our religious and non-religious neighbors for centuries and the answer that they have reached is simply that - it is not simple.

However, there are two insights reformed theology offers that need to be held together.

The first is this. As followers of Jesus Christ we are invited to believe, implicitly and courageously that the way of life He offers to us is truly the way to live and a true reflection of what life is all about. That if we throw the weight of our life upon His revelation, then we will truly experience the abundant life that God desires for us, life that is not lived within the boundaries of womb to tomb, but within an eternal expanse that goes from before the womb to beyond the tomb.

As we study the way of Jesus we will observe His acceptance of people... religious and far from godly, Jew and Samaritan, Gentile and Roman, Greek and heathen, outsider and insider. The only ones Jesus seems to reject are those who claimed to know religion so well that they created regulations that made themselves the only true people of God.

Lindvall writes about not seeing people who do not share our perspective as 'scalps' to be collected for the Kingdom, yet always being prepared to talk about the love and acceptance we have found in Jesus Christ and be prepared to affirm the way, truth and life we have found in Him, with out suggesting that other folks perspective, experience and understanding did not have an equally validity.

The second principle he suggests we need to hold on to is the sovereignty of God. To quote “The sovereignty of God says that if God wants to speak through secular art or pagan philosophy, even other religions, God can perfectly well do so, simply because God is God and God's freedom, God's sovereignty, cannot be bound. The sovereignty of God reminds us that the divine mystery cannot be fully contained in any system of thinking.... the church doesn't contain God, God contains the church.”

This is not a new idea. The second century theologian Justin Martyr spoke of how pre-Christian philosophers such as Plato, when he wrote about the “Logos”, the eternal word of God, were giving expression to truths about Christ before Jesus had even been born. Likewise, the whole Old Testament pointed to His coming in ways the writers could never truly understand from their historical perspective.

Lindvall concludes “If we keep our eyes on these two towering truths, in tension with each other as they may be, we find this dynamic place towards the center. And here we can be clear about our Christian conviction, on the one hand, and be open to those with other convictions on the other. Yes, Jesus Christ is my savior, and none other. But the God this very Jesus mediates to me is a vast God.”

I would also want to add that we can read the words of Jesus about being “Way, truth and Life” in either an exclusive or an inclusive fashion.

If we read them in an exclusive way, we would seem to be in denial of the way Jesus actually ministered to people. If we say that only those who hold to a certain form of theological expression that holds out no hope beyond it's narrow terms, then we seem to be in denial of the very person who made the statement, that He Himself is the Way and, Truth and life.

If we hold to an inclusive way of understanding His words about being Way, Truth and Life, then we will suggest that wherever a person is finding a way to be the person God is calling them to be, wherever a person is discovering a truth that is setting them free and wherever a person is discovering a way to truly to live, then knowingly, or unknowingly, they are discovering something about Jesus Himself. Such would appear to be totally in syn with the gospel accounts of Jesus ministry, who excluded nobody except those who denied the broad scope of God's love towards them.

The Fourth great end of the church: The Preservation of the Truth.

The light of truth shines in the darkness. The dove on the banner reminds us that the truth we proclaim to the world is the gospel of Jesus Christ, God with us and for us. We are reminded of a scripture verse: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5). Against the background of a world where many hold to a philosophy that declares all truth is relative, we suggest that there are absolutes. The particular truth that we seek to uphold is the truth of Jesus Christ, as revealed in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament.

In the midst of a changing theological landscape we declare ourselves to be both “Reformed” and “Reforming.” We recognize that the present work of the Holy Spirit enlightens our understanding of the mission and purpose of Jesus Christ and how we see the work of God. To a multi-faith world we declare that there are unique aspects to the gospel that need to be upheld, while acknowledging that God is God and free to reveal truth in ways that are unfamiliar to us .

The preservation of the truth. And next time... number five. “The promotion of social righteousness.”