Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sermon for September 28th: 'Bible People You May Not Remember' #6: Philemon and Onesimus: From Slavery to Freedom

Most of you are probably familiar with at least the outlines of the story of John Newton, the author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. Newton was born in 1725 and went to sea with his father at the age of eleven. At the age of eighteen he was pressed into naval service and later joined the crew of a slaving ship. For many years after this he made his living in the slave trade, picking up slaves on the African coastline and transporting them to the West Indies or the American colonies. Quite apart from the evils of slavery itself, the way the trade was conducted was nothing short of barbaric. Conditions on the ships were grim, and it was not uncommon for half the slaves to die in transit to the Americas. Despite these details, most of the inhabitants of ‘Christian’ England saw nothing wrong with slavery, and many even appealed to the Bible to justify it. ‘The Old and New Testaments regulate slavery’, they said, ‘but nowhere is it suggested that it is wrong’. They even went so far as to accuse abolitionists of being soft on the authority of scripture.

In 1748 the 23-year old John Newton went through a horrendous storm at sea, and this was the beginning of a gradual process of Christian conversion in his life. There is no doubt that from the time of that storm he was on a genuine spiritual search that led him to faith in Christ, and eventually, in his late thirties, to ordination as an Anglican minister. He went on to have a highly influential ministry in two parishes, one in the countryside and one in London. He became a great letter writer and gave spiritual guidance through the mail to many people he never met; many of his letters survive and are a great treasure house of eighteenth century evangelical spirituality. And of course he also wrote many hymns: not only ‘Amazing Grace’ but also ‘How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds’, ‘Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken’, and many others.

But the curious thing about Newton, from our point of view, was that for some years after his conversion he continued to work in the slave trade. He saw no contradiction between being a Bible-believing Christian on the one hand, and imprisoning human beings and transporting them across the ocean to spend the rest of their lives in brutal servitude, on the other. In this, of course, he was a child of his time, but to us it seems strange that he could not see the contradiction; it seems so obvious to us that the two can’t go together.

And that leads us to the two Bible people I want to talk about today. We’ve been working through a series of sermons on ‘Bible people you may not remember’, and today I want to tell you about two people I'm sure most of you won't remember: Philemon and Onesimus. Most of what we know about them comes from a little letter that Paul wrote to Philemon toward the end of the New Testament; Onesimus is also briefly mentioned in Paul's letter to the Colossians.

Well, let’s read between the lines a bit and see what we can discover, or surmise, from these sources. It seems as if Philemon and Onesimus were residents of the city of Colossae, in modern-day Turkey. Paul had never been to Colossae, but one of his colleagues, a man named Epaphras, had taken the gospel to that city and had planted a church. It seems as if the church may have met in the house of Philemon, because at the beginning of the letter to Philemon Paul addresses it ‘to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in your house’ (Philem.1-2).
However, although Paul had never been to Colossae, he seems to have had a previous relationship with Philemon, because a little later in the letter he alludes to the fact that Philemon ‘owes to him his very soul’. From this we can perhaps surmise that Paul was the one who had first shared the gospel of Christ with Philemon and been the instrument by which God brought him into the kingdom. This didn’t happen at Colossae; somewhere along the way, Paul and this wealthy Greek man must have met up, and the meeting had changed Philemon’s life.

Who was Onesimus? He seems to have been one of Philemon’s slaves. His name means ‘useful’ or ‘beneficial’, and Paul plays on this name a lot in the letter. ‘Formerly he was useless to you’, he says to Philemon, ‘but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me’ (v.11). And later he says, ‘Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord!’ (v.20). Truly, St. Paul is the patron saint of all bad punners! Onesimus does not seem to have been a Christian when he lived in Philemon’s house, and at some point he decided to run away. He might even have stolen some money or property to take with him.

We have no way of knowing how Onesimus ended up in Rome, far away from Colossae, but eventually he did go there, and somehow he met Paul. At this time Paul was in prison, but he was not the sort of man to let that stop him from doing the work of the gospel, and it seems as if he was the one who led Onesimus to faith in Christ; in verse 10 of the letter to Philemon he says, ‘I am appealing to you for my child Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment’. That ‘father and child’ language was often used by Paul to talk about people who had become Christians through his ministry.

So now we have a new Christian in Rome, a former slave, and Paul knows the man who used to be his owner. Somehow, Paul persuades Onesimus that he must go back to his former owner. We can imagine the young man’s reluctance; not only was slavery obviously a lot less attractive than freedom, but the penalties for runaway slaves were harsh. Still, Onesimus agreed to do this, and when a young man called Tychicus took a letter from Paul to the church in Colossae, Onesimus went along, carrying a letter to his former owner.

In the letter Paul has two requests to make of Philemon. First, he wants him to receive Onesimus back – ‘not as a slave’, he says, ‘but as a beloved brother’. ‘If he owes you anything’, he says, ‘charge it to my account’ – and then, as if in an afterthought, he adds ‘although of course you owe your very soul to me!’ From this, as I said earlier, we can guess that Paul was the one who led Philemon to Christ as well. And the second request is that Philemon will send Onesimus back to Paul as his helper, because, as he said, he finds him very useful. Did Philemon go along with what Paul was asking? Well, the fact that the letter was preserved for posterity would lead us to think that he did; after all, if he had ignored the request, he would hardly have kept the letter and passed it on to the church to be preserved.

This story of Philemon and Onesimus raises all sorts of issues for us, and it gives us a glimpse of the gospel at work changing the attitudes of people in the ancient world and today.

Nowadays all of us would probably agree that the idea of slavery was quite wrong. If every human being is made in the image of God, how can one human being ever ‘own’ another? And as for the misery and degradation that have been inflicted on slaves throughout history – how can Christian people have ever thought that this was okay? But at one time they did; we human beings take a long time to learn.

In the Roman Empire at the time of Paul someone has calculated that there were sixty million slaves. The empire was absolutely dependent on them. They did a huge part of the manual labour, but they were also teachers, accountants, government ministers, and so on. In fact, the Roman Empire was just as dependent on slaves as our modern society is dependent on technology. Imagine if I stood up in church on Sunday and said, “Technology is wrong – everyone needs to unplug everything and get back to living in a more natural way”. Well, we could do it, of course, but it would cause absolute chaos. You can’t just snap your fingers and change the way a society functions overnight. You have to take baby steps.

And it was the same with Paul and the Christian message in the Roman empire. It was not possible for Paul to end the institution of slavery in the Roman Empire overnight. And so he took baby steps, and this little letter to Philemon is one of them. “I want you to receive him back”, he says – “no longer as a slave, but as more than a slave, a beloved brother”.

Onesimus and Philemon were brothers in Christ – that was the totally subversive message that Paul was preaching. Once that idea got through Philemon’s head, how could he ever treat Onesimus like a slave again? Both of them had heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the preaching of Paul, and both of them had responded in the same way – they had believed, and they had given their lives to Jesus by being baptized. Baptism is such an egalitarian sacrament – slaves and free, rich and poor, all going through exactly the same water on exactly the same basis. And having been baptized, slaves and slave owners then came together every week to the Lord’s Table and received the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ. In fact, slaves might even be the ones who gave the bread and wine to their masters – or the other way around!

The family of the Lord, you see, is a family where social and racial differences disappear. Unfortunately the church has often forgotten this; churches have set aside special seats for rich and powerful people and have given special treatment to the mighty in the land. But the Gospel message is totally subversive to this. The Gospel says that every single human being is made in the image of God and is loved by God, without any difference of class or race or status. Every human being is a sinner in need of forgiveness. Christ came and lived and died for every human being, without exception, and everyone is now invited to come to Jesus, to put their trust in him, to receive God’s forgiveness and to take their place as a member of God’s family. And we’re called to see people as God sees them and treat them as God treats them.

When my children were young we spent four years living in the little community of Aklavik in the western Arctic. The people there were what we used to call ‘Eskimos’ and ‘Indians’, and my kids played with them and made friends with them. One day Sarah, who was about six at the time, was reading a book about Indians, and she said to Marci, “I don’t know any Indians”. “Yes you do!” Marci replied. “Who?” So Marci started listing off the names of her friends, and Sarah said, “I didn’t know they were Indians!”

That’s the way Jesus lived his life; he just didn’t notice the differences other people saw. When he saw a leper, or a prostitute, or a Samaritan, he treated them with love and respect. He did the same thing with rich friends like Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha. To him, every human being was loved by God, and he loved them in the same way.

In his letter to the Galatians Paul says something very profound. Let me read it to you:
‘In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28).

That's the vision that inspired Paul to take baby-steps toward a Christian community in which there were no distinctions between slave and free. But before we get too smug about how far we've come since those days, let's ask ourselves whether there are other aspects of that vision that we've been blind to. It seemed like common sense in John Newton's day that the Bible sanctioned slavery; today the idea seems ludicrous to us. But what about our complacency about differences of wealth? Nine-tenths of the Christians in the world live in what we would call poverty, but that doesn't seem to cause us to lose much sleep as we continue to plan luxurious holidays. It certainly hasn’t stopped me from buying expensive guitars! And throughout Christian history, ever since the time that the emperor made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire in the fourth century, Christians have been taking up arms and killing their fellow-Christians who wear the uniform of another country, even though Jesus told us to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us.

So perhaps we hadn’t better be too smug about our modern enlightened attitudes toward slavery. We're still a long way from accepting all the implications of the idea that all believers are equal in Christ, and that all believers are one in Christ. Our Christian conversion – my own Christian conversion, I’m ashamed to confess – still has a long way to go.

No slave or free. No rich or poor. No upper class or lower class. No First Nations person or white person. No American or Iraqi. No worker or management. No liberal or conservative. All equal in Christ Jesus, and all one in Christ Jesus. That’s the Christian vision. Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon were taking baby steps toward it in their day. In our day, we must continue to work toward it. So let’s ask ourselves: what inequalities between Christians, what divisions between Christians of different races or nationalities or ideologies, is God calling us to break down? Some of those inequalities or divisions are supported by the society around us. Do we have the courage to ignore the sanctions of society and do what the gospel of Christ calls us to do?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sermon for Sept. 21st: 'Bible People You May Not Remember' #5: Ruth, the Faithful Outsider

Many years ago when Marci and I had not long been married, we moved to a little town in northeastern Saskatchewan, where I worked as parish assistant in three little Anglican congregations – Arborfield, Red Earth, and Shoal Lake, one white community and two Cree reserves. In the little town in Ontario where I’d been living and working before we were married, we’d come across a little Gospel Hall with Sunday evening services, and since I didn’t work Sunday evenings and we liked to try different things, we went along to their services. We found them to be a warm and friendly little church and we went back to worship with them several times. So when we moved to Arborfield, we were pleased to discover that there was a Gospel Hall there too, and we looked forward to joining them from time to time.

That’s when we found out that not all Gospel Halls are the same! We went to a Wednesday evening prayer meeting that we saw advertised on their notice board, but we quickly discovered that they weren’t really expecting, or even wanting, visitors from another church. At the front of their meeting hall the chairs were set around in a rough square, facing each other, and then the rest of the chairs at the back of the room were in rows facing the front like an ordinary church. When we walked in the regulars were all sitting in the square at the front; they were astounded to see us, and when we told them who we were, we were quickly ushered into a seat in one of the rows, outside the square; “You can sit here”, we were told. We got the message loud and clear: we were outsiders, and they were suspicious of outsiders. Not surprisingly, we never went back.

I suspect that if you were a foreigner, moving to Israel in ancient times was a bit like us going to that Gospel Hall. Israel had a strong sense of its nature as a distinct society, worshipping the one true God while all its neighbours worshipped idols. And in the law of Israel there were strong statements about not marrying outsiders and keeping pure from their idolatry and sin. But in the story of Ruth we read about someone who bucked that trend, and, possibly to her surprise, she found a community that was willing to welcome her.

Historically this little story is set ‘In the days when the judges ruled’. In other words, we’re taking about the time after Moses and Joshua led the people out of Egypt and into the promised land, but before the days when there were kings like Saul and David to rule over them. The story starts in Bethlehem in Judea, with a man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion. There was a famine in the land, so Elimelech took his family to the neighbouring country of Moab to live. This would be rather adventurous for an Israelite, as the Moabites were traditional enemies of Israel.

Elimelech died soon after the family arrived in Moab, but the two sons both married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth – another unusual thing for an Israelite family. They stayed in Moab for about ten years, and then both Mahlon and Chilion also died, leaving Naomi all alone with her foreign daughters-in-law. Naomi heard that the famine was over in Bethelehem, so she decided to go home to her own country, and her daughters-in-law began to go with her. But she tried to discourage them from doing so: ‘Go back to your own mothers’ houses’, she said, ‘and may the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt kindly with me. There’s no point in you coming along with me; even if I were to marry again and have sons, would you wait ‘til they were grown and marry them?’ This refers to a custom in ancient Israel; when a man died without children, his brother was to marry his widow and raise up children who would be counted as the dead man’s children, so that his line would continue. From this we can infer that both Mahlon and Chilion had died without producing heirs.

Well, Orpah turned back and returned to her own land, but Ruth would not. ‘Where you go, I will go’, she said to Naomi. ‘I’ll live where you live, your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and I’ll be buried with you’. And so Naomi accepted her company, and the two returned to Bethlehem together.

Of course in those days, two women living alone without a man to support them would have been in a vulnerable position. How would they earn a living? There was a requirement in the law of Moses that at the harvest time farmers should leave the wheat standing on the edges of their fields so that the poor and needy could ‘glean’ it. Also workers who accidentally dropped stalks of wheat were not to pick them up again but leave them for the poor. So Naomi sent her daughter in law to glean in a nearby field; it happened to belong to a man named Boaz. When he heard who Ruth was – apparently her reputation of caring for her mother-in-law had gotten around - he instructed his workers to make it easy for her by intentionally dropping some wheat behind them, and he also invited her to eat with his workers when they took their lunch break. So Ruth did quite well that day, and at Boaz’ invitation she stayed in his fields and gleaned behind his workers all through harvest time.

We need a little background in Jewish law to understand what happened next. As we’ve already seen, there was a lot of concern for the continuation of family lines and family property. If a man died leaving a widow, the law required that a near relative should marry the widow, so that the man’s land would not pass outside the clan or tribe. The nearest relative, the one who had the obligation to marry the widow, was called in Hebrew the ‘goel’, which we could translate ‘kinsman-redeemer’; it was his job to ‘redeem’ the land if it was to be sold to support the widow, and to marry her as well.

It turned out that Boaz was a very close relative to Naomi’s late husband, and so Naomi’s next plan was to try to set him up with Ruth. She sent Ruth to the place where Boaz and his workers were winnowing barley at their threshing floor. ‘He’s going to sleep there tonight’, she said; ‘When he’s fallen asleep, lie down at his feet, and when he wakes, he’ll know what to do”.

Sure enough, Boaz woke up during the night and saw Ruth lying there. When he asked what she wanted, she replied, ‘Spread your cloak over your servant, because you are the goel’. Boaz was very pleased; apparently he was an older man, and she was a younger woman, and he was flattered that she had gone to him rather than someone younger. ‘I’ll do what you ask’, he said, ‘but we’ve got to do this right. It’s true that I’m a close relative, but there is someone who’s closer still, and he actually has the right to redeem your father-in-law’s land. If he’ll do it, fair enough; if not, I will’.

So Ruth stayed the rest of the night, and in the morning Boaz gave her a sack of barley to take home for her and her mother. Then he went into town and took his seat at the gate, which was where business deals and legal matters were transacted in those days. Pretty soon the other man, the closer relative of whom Boaz had spoken, came by, and Boaz invited him to sit down. He then asked for ten elders of the town to sit there as witnesses, and they did so.

Boaz then said to the other man: ‘Our relative Naomi is going to sell the land that belonged to her late husband Elimelech. you’re the goel; you’ve got the right to redeem it. I need to know if you’re going to do so, because if not, I’m the next in line’. The man replied, ‘I’ll redeem it’. Boaz said, ‘The day you buy the field you also acquire the hand of Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth the Moabite, to continue the dead man’s name on his inheritance’. The other man replied, ‘Then I don’t want to do it, because I don’t want to damage my own inheritance’. So Boaz said to the people sitting around, ‘You are witnesses that I’ve acquired Elimelech’s land, and also the hand of his daughter-in-law Ruth’, and they agreed, ‘We’re witnesses’.

So Boaz married Ruth, and they had a son who they called Obed. What follows is remarkable: Obed became the father of Jesse, and Jesse became the father of David, the shepherd boy who became the great king of Israel. So David’s great-grandma was a foreigner, a Moabite woman, an outsider. And not only that, but Jesus was a descendant of David, so Ruth took her place in the family tree of the Messiah.

On one level this becomes a lovely romantic story, a strong contrast to all the savagery and killing going on in the book of Judges which is set in the same time period in Israel’s history. In fact, in the 1950s a Holywood movie was made of this story, bringing out the romantic elements to the full! But on another level there’s a lot going on theologically in this story.

In the Old Testament we see a discussion going on about what it means to be God’s faithful people. The Israelites saw idolatry as the basic sin. If you worship something that is not in fact God, then you’ve taken the one true God and replaced him with a lie. And worshipping a lie, you then come to believe all sorts of other lies about the sort of life you ought to live. That’s why the Ten Commandments lay such strong emphasis on not worshipping false gods. ‘You shall have no other gods before me’. ‘You shall not make for yourself a graven image’.

The dominant strand in the Old Testament holds the point of view that, if you want to keep yourself free from idolatry, the best thing to do is to avoid idolaters. So keep strict boundaries for the people of Israel; don’t allow foreigners in, don’t trust them, and certainly don’t intermarry with them. We see this line taken in two books that were probably written at about the same time as Ruth – Ezra and Nehemiah. In those books, Israelites who have married outside of the ethnic boundaries of Israel have committed a grave sin; they’ve brought Israel into the danger of being tempted toward idolatry again. Ezra and Nehemiah and people like them could point to all sorts of evidence, too: ‘Don’t you remember the story of King Solomon? He started out good, but then he married a bunch of foreign women who worshipped false gods, and the next thing you know, he was worshipping their gods too!’

As I say, this disapproving stance toward outsiders is the dominant view in the Old Testament. But it’s not the only view. There’s another strand with a more positive attitude toward foreigners, and the story of Ruth is part of this strand. Here we don’t see any disapproval of Ruth’s status as a foreigner. No one accuses her of being an idol-worshipper who was trying to lead Israel astray. In fact, we’re told explicitly at the beginning of the story that she says to her mother-in-law Naomi, ‘Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God’. In other words, this foreigner, who had been raised to worship the Moabite gods, decided to become a worshipper of Yahweh, the God of Israel – and no one questioned that this was a perfectly right and proper thing for her to do.

But she needed someone to bring her into the family, and in the ancient world the only way this could happen would be if someone in the family married her. A woman couldn’t just up and change her religion without consulting her husband! And so Boaz acted as her goel, her kinsman-redeemer, marrying her and bringing her into the family of God’s people – and into a very privileged place in the family history, as the great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest king.

In New Testament terms, we Canadian Christians are like Ruth. In the Old Testament we would have been seen as outsiders, ‘strangers to the covenants of promise’, as Paul puts it. The Jews were in, but we were not. But we have a redeemer, a goel, who has brought us into the family. Isn’t it lovely that in the Bible the relationship between Jesus and his Church is often seen as a marriage: the Church is ‘the Bride of Christ’. He has extended the borders of the family of God’s people, and now we’re inside.

But you can get too comfortable inside, and forget what it’s like for people who are still on the outside. That’s not a good place to be for followers of the redeemer Jesus, who was constantly on the lookout for outsiders who he could bring in. And like ancient Israel, we have a choice about this. We live in a culture that is becoming less and less friendly to organized religion. Our society used to be thought of as Christian, but now it definitely isn’t. So what are we going to do? Are we going to circle the wagons, concentrate on our own little religious club, and assume that everyone out there has no interest in God and Christ at all? Or are we going to go out confidently into a world that belongs to God, whether it acknowledges the fact or not, with the message that Jesus gave us: that everyone who is carrying a heavy load is invited to come to him and find rest, that all people are invited to become his disciples?

But we need to remember one thing – and I’m going to leave you with this thought. Would Ruth have come into the family of Israel without Naomi to bring her in? I suspect not. No matter how interested she was in the God of Israel, the boundaries would have been just too great. And outside the borders of organized religion there are many people like Ruth – people of good will, people who are wanting to know God, people who are curious about Jesus. I suspect that you know some of those people; I know for sure that I know some of them. Are you going to be Naomi for them – the one who will invite them to come in, the one who will introduce them to Jesus their redeemer?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sermon for Sept. 14th: 'Bible People You May Not Remember' #4: Thomas, the Faithful Doubter

For the past few weeks we’ve been thinking about the stories of some characters I call ‘Bible people you may not remember’. These are not the people whose names are up in lights, so to speak, in the Bible story; these are the ones whose names are in smaller print. We’ve looked at Barnabas the encourager, at Priscilla and Aquila who hosted a church in their home, and at Nathan the courageous prophet who faithfully delivered God’s message to King David, even though to do so was dangerous for him. Today we come to a character sometimes known as ‘doubting Thomas’ – although I hope that, by the end of the sermon today, you might possibly have a more generous view of him.

Some of you will know that my favourite character in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories is Puddleglum the marsh-wiggle. I won’t waste time explaining to you what a marsh-wiggle is; if you’re really interested, read Lewis’ story The Silver Chair! Suffice it to say that Puddleglum is the typical pessimistic curmudgeon, the one for whom the glass is always, not half empty, but ninety percent empty! He always sees the dark side of every situation, and he’s the one who always prophesies doom and gloom. And yet, when he’s been given a command by Aslan – the lion who represents Christ in the Narnia stories – he knows he’s bound to obey it, and he does so.

In one classic case, Puddleglum and the children in the story are faced with a choice about whether they should untie a man who looks very much like a madman, but who has implored them to let him go ‘in the name of Aslan’ – which was one of the signs Aslan had told them to watch for at the beginning of their quest. One of the children asks Puddleglum, “Do you mean it will be alright if we untie him?” The marsh-wiggle replies, “I don't know about that. You see, Aslan didn't tell Pole what would happen. He only told her what to do. That fellow will be the death of us once he’s up, I shouldn't wonder. But that doesn't let us off following the sign”.

This is why I love Puddleglum so much. He has all sorts of doubts, and he can’t see the way forward very clearly, and he’s the least hopeful person you would ever meet, and yet he’s always faithful to Aslan. He reminds me of another quote from C.S. Lewis, this time from The Screwtape Letters, that great imaginary correspondence between a senior and a junior devil on the art of temptation. In one of the letters Screwtape, the senior devil, tells the junior devil, ‘Our cause is never more in danger than when a human who no longer wants to obey God, but still intends to do so, looks around at a universe from which all trace of God seems to have vanished, and prays and asks why he has been forsaken – and yet still obeys’.

And this is why I love Thomas so much as well! Like Puddleglum, he’s the one who always sees the dark side of every situation; he’s the one who not only has doubts, but is willing to own up to them; he’s the one who’s not afraid to ask the difficult questions that no one else wants to ask. And yet, through it all, he’s still faithful to Jesus. Let’s recount the things we know about him from the gospels.

Thomas was one of the original twelve apostles, and in John’s Gospel he’s given the nickname ‘Didymus’ which means ‘The Twin’. He appears in all of the lists of apostles given in the various gospels, but the only one that mentions him at any length is the gospel of John.

The first mention of him comes in the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in John chapter 11. Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha seem to be special friends of Jesus; Lazarus gets seriously ill, and the sisters send Jesus a message about it. But when Jesus gets the message, he says to his disciples, “This illness doesn’t lead to death; rather it’s for God’s glory and the glory of the Son of God”. So even though he loves Mary and Martha and Lazarus, he stays where he is for two more days.

Then he has a strange conversation with his disciples. First he says, ‘Let’s go to Judea again’. They reply, ‘Lord, the Jewish leaders were trying to stone you there, and you’re talking about going back?’ Jesus says, ‘Aren’t there twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day don’t stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because they have no light’. Then he says, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I’m going to wake him up’. The disciples reply, ‘Lord, if he’s asleep, he’ll be all right’. But Jesus has been using ‘sleep’ in the figurative, Christian sense, and so he says plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I’m glad I wasn’t there, so that you may believe. Come, let’s go to him’. Then the gospel-writer says, ‘Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him”’ (11:16).

Doubting Thomas indeed! He’s got the same questions as the other disciples – ‘Why on earth would you go back to a place where they were recently trying to kill you?’ – but he’s also quite clear about his commitment to Jesus. Jesus is their Master, and if their Master says they’re going to Judea, well, that means they’re going to Judea. If it means that Jesus dies and they die with him, so be it: Thomas has committed himself to following Jesus, and that’s what he’s going to do. So tell me, why do we call this man, ‘Doubting Thomas’ and not ‘Faithful Thomas’ or ‘Brave Thomas’ or ‘Committed Thomas’?

Let’s be clear: Thomas’ faithfulness doesn’t mean he has no doubts or questions. This is obvious in the second place he’s mentioned in John’s pospel, the upper room on the night before Jesus died. You can find the story in the first few verses of John chapter 14. Jesus has been talking with his disciples about his death, and he encourages them not to let their hearts be troubled, but to believe in God and also believe in Jesus. ‘My Father’s house has plenty of room’, he says, ‘and I’m going there to prepare a place for you. When I’m done, I’ll come back and take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I’m going’.

At this point in time I can imagine all the other apostles nodding their heads very seriously - ‘Yes, Lord, we know the way. Of course we do; we’re spiritual and wise and you can count on us’ – while all the time, deep down inside, each of them is thinking, ‘What on earth is he talking about?’ But only one of them is honest about his ignorance, and that one is Thomas. ‘Know the way? What on earth are you talking about! We haven’t got the faintest idea where you’re going, so how can we know the way to get there?’ And thanks to Thomas, we have the famous reply from Jesus, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Some of you may have gotten the idea over the years that it’s somehow unspiritual to ask questions. And of course none of us likes to look stupid in front of other people. But one of the things I’ve learned is that if someone sitting in a group has a question they want to ask, there’s a good chance that other people in the group have the same question. If one person has noticed that the emperor has no clothes on, chances are that someone else has noticed it as well! So Thomas teaches us that we shouldn’t be afraid to speak up and ask our questions, even if they seem to us like stupid questions. People who ask their questions have a chance of getting them answered; people who pretend they don’t have any questions are doomed to stay in their confusion and ignorance forever.

And yet it’s all still in the context of Thomas’ stubborn faithfulness. Why does he ask Jesus where he’s going and how to get there? Because he wants to go there with him, of course! If Jesus is about to lead the twelve of them against a thousand Roman soldiers, Thomas plans to be there – he just needs the address where everyone’s going to meet up, thank you!

The last story about Thomas is probably one of the most famous in the gospels; you can read it in John chapter 20. On the evening of Easter Sunday, the followers of Jesus were meeting in the upper room where they had shared the last supper with Jesus, but for some reason Thomas was not with them. You know the story; Jesus suddenly appeared to them and said, “Peace be with you”, showed them his hands and side, and gave them the commission to go out into the world on his behalf, just as he had come into the world on his Father’s behalf.

The disciples of course were very excited about all this, and no doubt they told Thomas about it when he came back; “We’ve seen the Lord!” But Thomas, quite reasonably, wasn’t buying this idea of resurrection. Most Jews did believe in the resurrection of the dead, but only the resurrection of all the dead, at the end of the age, when the world would be judged and the kingdom of God would arrive. The idea of one person being raised from the dead in the middle of time made no sense to Jewish people at all; it wasn’t in their script! And so Thomas says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).

A week later (this would be the following Sunday evening) the disciples are again gathered in the upper room and Thomas is with them. Jesus appears to them, gives them his greeting of peace, and goes straight to Thomas. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (v.27). And then Thomas gives one of the strongest professions of faith in the New Testament; he exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus replies, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (vv.28-29).

That’s you and me, of course; we’re the ones who have not seen the risen Lord with our own eyes, but we have believed in him anyway. Thanks to Thomas the doubter who would not pretend to believe until he actually did, we can have some confidence that the risen Lord was really risen and really did appear to his followers. And we can also have some confidence that this story of Thomas is true. After all, if it wasn’t true, would Thomas have allowed a fiction like that to be included in the gospels?

Now I suspect that many of us are like Thomas. The Christian writer Madeleine L’Engle was once asked by one of her students, ‘Madeleine, do you really and truly believe without any doubts?’ and she replied, ‘I really and truly believe, with all kinds of doubts!’ This is a reality for most of us.

At our men’s Bible study a while back, I remember we were discussing the question of doubt, and which parts of the Christian faith we had most doubts about. I replied that, for me, ‘answered prayer’ is something I have difficulty with. I’ve heard so many stories of people who have prayed for things and not received them, and, truth be told, I haven’t received everything I’ve prayed for either. So I find it difficult to pray with faith; I’m afraid of being disappointed again. It’s much easier for me to pray a risk-free prayer like ‘Your will be done, Lord’, which doesn’t open me up to the possibility of failure.

So what am I to do with my doubt? Well, I’m not to pretend that it’s not there – that’s very clear from the story of Thomas. When he has questions he asks them, and when he has doubts he expresses them, and Jesus doesn’t rebuke him for doing so. In fact, Jesus is quite willing to give him the evidence he needs: ‘Go ahead – touch my hands and side, just as you asked’. So if I have questions that need answering, I’m encouraged to ask them; if I have doubts, I need to be honest about them.

But all of this takes place in the context of faithfulness. I may find that I have doubts about what the cross means, or whether the resurrection actually happened, or whether Jesus really is the Son of God, or some other doctrine of the Christian faith. I need to pray about my doubts and also talk about them with people who might be able to help me find the answers to them. But while I’m thinking and talking and praying, I need to keep on doing my best to put into practice the things that Jesus taught us to do.

You see, a lot of us have grown up with the idea that believing leads to action – in other words, you think your way into a new way of living. You believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and so you come to put his teaching into practice. But the fact is that it often happens the other way around; in fact, for those who grow up in the Christian faith, I expect that it usually happens the other way around: as we are growing up our parents teach us to practice the Christian faith, and then gradually we come to understand it and believe it for ourselves. In other words, we live our way into a new way of thinking.

So Thomas is the model for the faithful doubter – the person who struggles with unbelief, and yet continues to be loyal to Jesus through it all, even to the point of being willing to ‘go to Jerusalem and die with him’. So as we struggle with our own doubts, let’s pray that God will help us find answers to them, but while we’re searching, let’s also choose, with God’s help, to put into practice the things that Jesus taught us, so that through our practice we may come to a clearer and deeper belief.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Sermon for September 7th: 'Bible People You May Not Remember' #3: The Courage of Nathan

There’s a story told about one of the 16th century Anglican bishops, Hugh Latimer. He had courageously denounced King Henry VIII for his sexual excesses, and in anger the king had demanded that the bishop preach before him in church the next Sunday and retract his accusations. Remember, this was the king who had several of his wives executed on trumped up charges because they did not produce the male heir he wanted so much! The story goes that Latimer got into the pulpit to preach on the following Sunday and began his sermon with these words:
“Hugh Latimer, dost thou know before whom thou art this day to speak? To the high and mighty monarch, the King's most excellent majesty, who can take away thy life if thou offendest; therefore take heed that thou speakest not a word that may displease! And then consider well, Hugh, dost thou not know from whence comest thou; upon whose message thou art sent? Even by the great and mighty God! Who is all present! and who beholdeth all thy ways! and who is able to cast thy soul into hell! Therefore take care that thou deliverest thy message faithfully”.
Latimer then went on to repeat the charges he had originally laid against the king. Everyone present was sure that Henry would have Latimer beheaded, but to their amazement the king was impressed by the bishop’s courage, and said, ‘Blessed be God that I have so honest a servant’.

I have always been impressed by this story, because I’m not a courageous person myself. I’m far too worried about what people will think of me – even people who don’t have the power to have me beheaded – and I’m far too liable to temper the things I think I should say for fear of offending others. And so I’m particularly looking forward to hearing my own sermon today – the third in our series on ‘Bible people you many not remember’ - about the courage of the prophet Nathan.

Nathan was a court prophet in the time of King David, who came to the throne of Israel around 1000 B.C. We would like to know how David and Nathan met, but we have no information about that. In those days it was common for kings to employ prophets and seers who would consult the Lord on their behalf; many kings of Israel and Judah did the same thing throughout Old Testament history. I expect that many court prophets became sycophants who simply said what their masters wanted them to say. We read a story of a group of prophets like that in the last chapter of 1 Kings, when King Ahab of Israel wanted to go up to battle against the Arameans at Ramoth Gilead and he asked his court prophets if it was a good idea. Some varieties of prophecy in those days seem to have included dancing and music and trances and a lot of ecstatic stuff, and we get the idea that this was what was happening on this occasion. Almost all these prophets told Ahab to go ahead, and the Lord would give him the victory; only one, Micaiah, told him the truth, and Ahab rewarded him with bread, water, and a prison cell! But Micaiah was right, and Ahab died in the battle at Ramoth Gilead.

We can understand why the prophets would be tempted to say what their masters wanted them to say. Survival at court, when the king was not only paying your wages but also had the power of life an death over you, would no doubt be much simpler if you simply took the line of least resistance. The thing that impresses me about Nathan is that he apparently had the courage not to do this.

The first time he is mentioned is in 2 Samuel 7. After years of struggle against Saul, David had finally become the king of Israel and Judah and had united them into one country under one monarchy. He had established his capital at Jerusalem, and his marriage to Michal, the daughter of Saul, had strengthened his hold on the throne. He had brought up the ark of God – not Noah’s ark, but the box in which Moses had placed the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments - and had given it a new home in Jerusalem.

Now he decides that he wants to go even further, and build a temple to Yahweh, the God of Israel, in his capital city. He says to Nathan: ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent’. Nathan, probably quite pleased with the thought that the King is thinking of building a temple (a temple in which, no doubt, he would have a leading role to play) replies, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind, for Yahweh is with you’.

But in fact Yahweh is not with David – at least, not with respect to this project. During the night Nathan has a dream in which Yahweh speaks to him and gives him a message for David. ‘Are you the one to build me a house? Ever since the day I brought the people up from Egypt I’ve lived in a tent, and I’ve never complained! Did I ever rebuke the leaders of the people for not building me a house?’ God went on to recount all that he had done for David, taking him from the sheep, making him king over Israel, cutting off his enemies – in other words, ‘Yahweh will make you a house’ (v.11) – in the sense of a home and a dynasty, ‘the house of David’. It will be one of his sons, who will reign after him, who will build the temple to Yahweh.

This was Nathan’s dream, and now he had an unpleasant task – he had to go and tell the king what God had said, thus ‘eating his own words’! We’re not told whether or not Nathan struggled with this; he simply obeyed. ‘In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David’ (v.17). And David’s response was positive; he went into the tent where the Ark was kept, ‘sat before Yahweh’, and prayed, thanking God for his promises and submitting to his will, praying that God’s name would be magnified and that his blessing would come on his people.

The second time we read about Nathan is in connection with one of the most sordid parts of the story of David – his affair with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband, Uriah the Hittite. You can read about it in 2 Samuel 11 and 12.

It was springtime, ‘when kings go out to battle’, but for some reason David didn’t go – he sent his general Joab and the army, and they ‘ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah’. But David stayed in his house in Jerusalem. One afternoon, after he had risen from his afternoon nap, he was walking on the roof of his house when he looked down and saw a woman bathing in the courtyard of a neighbouring house; her name was Bathsheba and she was very beautiful. David was tempted, and he gave into the temptation; he sent for her, and she came to him and had sex with him. We can assume that she didn’t have much choice in the matter; refusing the king could have lethal consequences in those days.

But Bathsheba became pregnant, and this presented David with a problem. Theoretically, he was under the law of God, which forbad adultery and required that adulterers be stoned to death. Bathsheba’s husband Uriah was a soldier in David’s army, off fighting on his behalf against the Ammonites at Rabbah. So David decided to bring Uriah home and give him a chance to sleep with his wife, so that everyone would think the child was his. So he sent a message to his general Joab asking for Uriah to be sent to him. He then wined him and dined him and sent him home to his wife.

But to David’s surprise, Uriah didn’t go home; he slept on the steps of the palace with his fellow-soldiers. When David asked him to explain himself the next day, he said, ‘The army is sleeping out in the field; how could I bring myself to sleep at home with my wife? That wouldn’t be fair to my fellow-soldiers!’ David tried again the following evening, getting Uriah drunk, but Uriah drunk turned out to have more integrity than David stone cold sober. Nothing could induce him to go home.

So David wrote a letter to Joab. ‘Send Uriah into the thickest part of the fighting’, he said, ‘and then withdraw and leave him there’. Joab had done a few hatchet jobs for David before and had probably learned not to ask questions; he simply did as he was told, and Uriah was killed. Bathsheba mourned for her husband, and then David sent for her and made her his wife. And that, he thought, was the end of that.

Except that it wasn’t the end. 2 Samuel says, ‘But the thing that David had done displeased Yahweh, and Yahweh sent Nathan to David’ (11:27b - 12:1). God gave Nathan a message of rebuke to speak to David, and we can well imagine how Nathan felt when he heard it. He was being sent into the presence of the king who had the power of life and death over him, to rebuke him for something that David desperately needed to be kept secret. It’s not hard to guess how scared Nathan must have been. But he went, and he told David a story.

There was a rich man who lived in a certain city, he said, with flocks and herds enough and to spare. Beside him lived a poor man who had nothing but one little ewe lamb; he brought it up and his kids played with it and it used to eat at his table and drink from his cup, and it was as dear as a child to him. Now one day a traveler came to stay with the rich man, and the rich man didn’t want to kill one of his own animals to feed the traveler, so he sent to the poor man’s house, took his little lamb, and killed it to make a meal for his guest.

When David heard this story he was furious; ‘As Yahweh lives, that scoundrel deserves to die! At the very least, he should pay the poor man back four times the amount!’

Then Nathan pointed at David and said, ‘You are the man! God took you from your father’s house and made you a servant of Saul, and then he made you king in Saul’s place; he gave you wealth and fame and wives and children, more than you had ever dreamed of! But you despised Yahweh; you killed Uriah the Hittite by the sword of the Ammonites, and you took his wife for yourself. And because you’ve done this, the sword will never depart from your own house, from this day on’.

Some years ago a TV miniseries was made of the story of David. In the TV version, at this point in the story, Joab (who had been standing beside the king) drew his sword and raised it to strike Nathan down. But the king lifted his hand and said, “No – he’s right”. We’ve no idea if anything like that actually happened, but we do know that David, like King Henry in the story I began with, was cut to the heart by Nathan’s words. “You’re right”, he said; “I have sinned”. Nathan went on to pronounce the consequences of David’s sin: the child born to Bathsheba would die. This turned out to be true, and so did the other things Nathan had said: from that day on, the house of David was torn by strife, which you can read about in the rest of the second book of Samuel.

These two stories – the story of David’s idea of building a temple, and the story of David and Bathsheba – are almost the only stories where Nathan is mentioned in the Old Testament. In both of them, he is given the task of speaking an unwelcome word to the king. In both of them, he must have known the risk he was taking. But in both of them, he was faithful to God who sent him, and he delivered the message that had been entrusted to him. That’s courage.

What does courage feel like? Leonard Cheshire, who flew bombers for the Royal Air Force during World War Two, once said that there are two kinds of courage. Some people, he said, just feel no fear; they can go and perform all sorts of hazardous exploits and it never bothers them, because they’re just not afraid. These people are useful to have around, he said, but the problem is that they’re more than a little crazy!

But there’s a second group, he said; these are the people who feel fear to the full, but have trained themselves to ignore it and to do as they’re told, because it’s their duty, and because the lives of others are dependant on them. This group, he said, is the braver group.

But note what this means: for these people, courage feels like fear! In fact, courage isn’t something you feel at all: it’s something you do. To be afraid of the consequences, but still to do what you think you have to do: that’s courage.

Jesus warned us that life would not be easy if we followed him. In last week’s gospel we heard him say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Jesus was warning us that, just as he faced opposition for his faithfulness to God, so we would face the same opposition. Doing the right thing will not always pay well. Speaking the truth will not always win us lots of friends. Being faithful to Jesus will not always be the best way to have a successful career.

Does that scare you? It scares me, too, but we must not let that fear paralyse us. So let us pray that God, who gave Nathan the courage to do what he had to do, will also give courage to us, that we may live day by day as faithful followers of his son, Jesus Christ our Lord.