Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sermon for April 25th: Psalm 23

What Can We Expect from a Relationship with God?

Some years ago Philip Yancey wrote a very fine book called Disappointment with God. In the book he told lots of stories of people who had come into Christianity expecting wonderful things from a relationship with God, but had ended up being disappointed. Some had left the faith altogether; others had stayed, but their faith felt like an empty shell to them.

One of the problems Philip mentioned in the book was the language we use. So often in popular Christian spirituality these days we use phrases like ‘having a personal relationship with God’. And yet, for many of us, what we experience day to day in our relationship with God feels very different from other personal relationships we enjoy. We can’t see God. We can’t hear God. Our prayers are not very often conversational; they feel more like monologues. And although we believe that God does things in our lives, those things aren’t very often completely unambiguous; we interpret them as God’s actions, but others might interpret them differently.

So what can we expect from a relationship with God? Let’s take this question to our psalm for today, probably the best-known psalm in the Bible, Psalm 23.

The Bible tends to address the question of what we can expect from a relationship with God by the images it uses for God. The reality of God is of course far too big for us to take in with our limited human understanding, so the Bible uses images to help us grasp parts of that reality. And so we read that God is like a strong rock, a safe place where we can stand in the storm. God is like a castle where we can be protected from the rage of the enemy. God is like a mother hen, gathering her chicks under her wings to protect them from a fire. God is like the best of fathers, providing for his children, teaching them and disciplining them in a just and loving way, and so on.

Psalm 23 uses two images for God. It might surprise you to hear me say this, because we’ve grown up thinking of this as the shepherd psalm, but if you look closely at it you’ll see that the shepherd image is not the only one used in these verses. In verses 1-4, yes, it’s God as the shepherd who provides for his sheep, leads them in right paths and protects them from danger. But at the end of the psalm, in verses 5-6, the imagery changes; now God is a gracious and hospitable host, welcoming us to a sumptuous meal in his house and then inviting us to move in there with him for the rest of our lives. What do these two images tell us about what we can expect from a relationship with God?

First, we can expect God to provide for our needs. The lovely pastoral imagery of verses 2-3 might sound like therapy for the soul to us, but in fact it talks about how the shepherd provides for the mundane daily needs of the flock.

‘He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake’ (vv.2-3).

‘Green pastures’ are places where there’s lots of good grass for the sheep to eat. ‘Still waters’ are places where it’s easy for the sheep to drink because the water flows slowly, so there’s no danger of them being carried away by it. ‘He leads me in right paths’ means that the shepherd leads his flock in the right direction, away from danger and toward safety and good pasture. And when the writer says ‘he restores my soul’ he’s probably thinking of the word ‘soul’ in its colloquial sense of ‘life’: ‘he restores my life’ – in other words, ‘he keeps me alive’!

So the writer is inviting us to think about the daily necessities of life: food to eat, clothes to wear, water to drink, a safe and warm place to live and so on. All of these things are provided for us by God our shepherd. He has created the earth in such a way that there are adequate resources for everyone to live a simple and basic life, if we will use them wisely and share them justly. He gives us strength to work and families to share with so that we can enjoy the necessities of life. And because there are people in the world who don’t yet enjoy those necessities of life, he calls us as followers of Jesus to live on less than those around us and to give generously so that everyone has enough and no one has too much.

You notice that at the moment I’m not talking about what older writers used to call ‘special providences’ – that is, times when we have a specific need and we pray about it, and God comes through for us in an obvious and dramatic way. I believe in special providences and I think most of us Christians experience them from time to time. But I’m trying to help us open our eyes wide to the totality of God’s provision for us, which isn’t just in those dramatic moments when he responds to an obvious need with an obvious answer; it’s also in the mundane daily experiences of putting food on the table, saying grace and really meaning it. As the writer of another psalm puts it,

‘These (creatures) all look to you to give them their food in due season; when you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things’ (Psalm 104:27-28).

So the first thing Psalm 23 tells us we can expect from a relationship with God is that God will provide for our needs. The second thing is that God will lead us in the right paths. Verse 3 says, ‘He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake’. Obviously, when we’re talking about the shepherd, this means guiding his sheep to the places where they will find the pasture they need, and guiding them away from dangerous cliffs and other places where they could be in harm’s way.

What does it mean for us as Christians to say that God will lead us in the right paths? The whole matter of how God guides us is a difficult one for many Christians. They seem to think that God has some sort of secret plan for their lives, a plan that involves the perfect spouse and the job that’s just right for them and the perfect place to live and so on and so on. But because God enjoys making life difficult for us, he hasn’t made it obvious what those things are, and so we have to worry and fret and listen real hard, because he’s whispering the answer as quietly as he can just to make it extra difficult for us to hear what he’s saying!

Well, I have to tell you the truth and say that I don’t see this in the Bible. In the Bible, there are three main ways of talking about God’s plan for us and how we discover it. First, there’s his general plan of life for all his people, which is given to us in his commandments, and especially in the teaching and example of Jesus. Secondly, there’s his master plan to heal the world and bring in his kingdom, which we know is going to come to fulfilment because he can even take the evil things that people do and bring good out of them in the end. And thirdly, there are those occasions when he has specific tasks he wants individuals to do. Most of the time, he doesn’t have any difficulty telling them what those things are; he sends them a dream, or a prophetic word, or someone brings them a message from God and so on.

What’s the most important aspect of this for me as an ordinary follower of Jesus? Without question, it’s the first one. For me, the most relevant way that God guides me into right paths is by his wise laws and commandments which he has given to us in the scriptures and especially in the life and teaching of Jesus. So I might go to God and say, “God, I really want to know what you want me to do with my life?” And I suspect the answer might be something like this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. How’s that to be going along with? Have you got it mastered yet?” And if I have the chutzpah to say, “No sweat; I got that all down pat last week!” he might say, “Well, how about this one: love your enemies and pray for those who hate you!” And I might gulp and say, “OK – but I think I’m nearly finished that one too – what’s next?” – to which he might reply, “How about this one: “If anyone looks on a woman with lust, he’s already committed adultery with her in his heart – so if your eye causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away”. At which point I might be tempted to reply, “OK, sorry I asked!”

All humour aside, do you see where I’m going with this? If I want to know what God wants me to do with the rest of my life, the most important answer to that question is that God wants me to learn to follow his commandments, especially the teaching and example of Jesus. There’s plenty for me to be going along with there! And if there is more, I need to stop fretting and trust that God is well able, in his own time and his own way, to make that plain to me. Meanwhile, I’ll keep busy with the stuff he’s already told me in the scriptures.

So in a relationship with God, we can expect that God will provide for our legitimate needs and guide us in right paths. The third thing we read about in this psalm is protection from danger. The psalm alludes to dangers in verse 4:

‘Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me’.

Now there is no doubt that we as Christians do look to God to protect us in times of danger. Every morning when I’m saying my prayers I pray that God will protect Marci and her co-workers as they’re driving around the busy streets of Edmonton; I know that there are car accidents every day, and sometimes there are fatalities, and I want God to protect them from that. When we go on long trips we pray and ask God to keep us safe on the road. Those of us who have friends or relatives serving with the armed forces in Afghanistan pray that God would protect them from the enemy and bring them safely home.

It’s natural for us to pray like this, and I think God is happy to hear those prayers. But if you’re like me, and if you think this through a bit, you might find this a bit troublesome. We’ve all heard of people who somehow survive a car accident, or avoid getting on an airplane that crashes, and they say ‘Someone must have been looking out for me’. But whenever I hear that, I find myself thinking, ‘What about the poor sods who didn’t survive? Does that mean God wasn’t looking out for them?’ We know that God does sometimes answer the prayers of his people in a positive way, so that the sick are healed and the hungry are fed and the hostages are rescued and so on. But at other times things don’t seem to work out as well; the fatal disease claims another Christian life, or the Christian in the refugee camp starves like thousands of others, despite their prayers, or the hostages are killed by their captors, despite the thousands who were praying for them.

So what is actually promised to us as Christians? What sort of ultimate protection from danger are we offered?

I think what I can cling to without reservation is the promise that in the end nothing can take us out of God’s hands, not even death. In our gospel reading for today Jesus says,

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).

Because we have this promise, we know that we can never view death in quite the same way. We are in the Easter season, when we celebrate the glorious good news that even death, the most powerful enemy of the human race, was not strong enough to defeat Jesus. No doubt on Thursday and Friday his friends and family were praying desperately that he would not be killed by the Romans, but their prayers did not seem to be answered. On Saturday, they may even have thought that there was no God to answer them; they felt abandoned, and wondered why they had been let down.

We sometimes feel that way today too; it’s as if it’s still Good Friday, when the enemies of God have free rein to do as they wish. But the famous Baptist preacher Tony Campolo once preached a great sermon called, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming!” Yes, it is! Jesus has been raised from the dead, and has promised that one day we too will be raised with him. Then it will be seen that his promise is secure: nothing, not even death, can pluck us out of his hand. And so even though we walk through the darkest valley, we fear no evil; God’s rod and staff comfort us.

So this psalm tells us that in a relationship with God we can expect God to provide for our needs, guide us in right paths, and protect us from ultimate danger. The fourth and final thing I see in these verses is that in a relationship with God we can expect that there will always be a welcome for us in God’s presence. Look at verses 5-6:

‘You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long’.

Now let me say right from the top that the use of the King James Version translation of this psalm in conjunction with funerals has probably give us a wrong impression of what it actually means. As many of you know, the King James Version translates the last sentence of this psalm not as, ‘I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long’, but ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’. And at funerals this psalm is often used in conjunction with the words of Jesus from the gospel of John, ‘in my Father’s house are many mansions’, which is interpreted as being about going to heaven. So it’s easy for people to think that when the psalmist talks about ‘dwelling in the house of the Lord forever’, he’s talking about dying and going to heaven.

Well, he’s probably not. ‘The house of the LORD’ here does not mean a mansion in the sky where we live with God forever. To the writer of the psalm, the house of the Lord was the place where God was worshipped in Jerusalem – later on, the Temple; it was a symbol of God’s presence with his people here on earth. The writer was saying, “I will live my whole life in the presence of the Lord, and I will experience his goodness and love forever”.

Look again at those last two verses of the psalm. What’s the image here? As we’ve said, it’s the image of the gracious host. He has prepared a sumptuous feast for us, a table full of good things to eat. He has invited us to his house to share in the feast. When we arrive, following the hospitality customs of the day, the host anoints our heads with oil as a sign of welcome. And there’s so much wine to share that it’s as if our cup is overflowing throughout the whole meal.

But how does it end? It ends with the writer saying, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long”. In other words, the host isn’t just inviting you for an occasional feast; the host is inviting you to move in with him and enjoy his hospitality every day of your life.

That’s what God is like. We’re no longer guests at his table; we’re members of his family. As members of his family, we’re always welcome in his presence. Whoever we are, wherever we’ve been, we are welcome at his table, today and every day.

What can we expect from a relationship with God? This Psalm tells us four things: that he will provide for our needs, guide us in right paths, protect us from ultimate danger, and welcome us in his presence our whole life long. I’m sure you’ll agree that these are wonderful promises. So let’s press on to know him, so that in our relationship with him we may learn to enjoy these good things he wants to give us.

April 26 - May 2

C A L E N D A R

Monday, April 26th

Tim’s day off

Office Closed

Thursday, April 29th

7:00 am Men’s and Women’s Bible Study at Bogani CafĂ©

2:00 pm Women’s Bible study at Marg Rys’s house

Friday, April 30th

7:00 pm New Member Orientation

Sunday, May 2nd - Easter 5

9:00 am Eucharist

9:45 am Combined Coffee

10:30 am Eucharist and Sunday School

I TE M S T O N O T E

Next New Member Orientation Friday April 30 at 7pm: We will have dessert, coffee and fellowship time. We will also give a short history of the parish and share ideas for our community.

Friday May 7th 7:30 p.m.: Couples’ Night Out: This is a wine and cheese event with a showing of the movie ‘Fireproof’ and a time of discussion afterwards. A signup sheet will be available in late April.

Sunday May 9th: Mothers’ Day brunch (fundraiser for youth attendees at the YC conference.)

Every year a number of our youth attend the ‘YC’ youth conference at the Shaw Conference Centre, an event that has been life-changing for many young people. This year the conference will take place on the weekend of May 28th-30th. As the tickets are quite expensive (minimum of $140 each), St. Margaret’s has purchased them for our young people, and they are now doing fund-raising to cover the costs.

This first fundraiser will take the form of a Mothers’ Day brunch after the 10.30 service. We are suggesting a minimum donation of $10 per person or $25 per family. There will be a signup sheet, and because of space concerns we will not be able to accommodate more than forty people. Please show your support for our youth by coming out to this event.

The upcoming Senior’s Lunch will take place May 13/10 at 11:30 AM at St. Margaret’s church. We have a guest speaker that is associated with our current fund raising outreach project CAMTA (Canadian Association of Medical Teams Abroad). Dr. John Lilley will be sharing his experiences during his recent trip to Ecuador and presenting information on the valuable services CAMTA delivers. Every “Senior” and “Upcoming Senior” is welcome. Please indicate your attendance on the sign-up sheet in the foyer or contact Julie Holmes or Lesley Schindel.

CAMTA (Canadian Association of Medical Teams Abroad. This is a team of pediatric and adult orthopedic surgeons, anesthetists, family medicine doctors and other medical professionals from Alberta. Once a year this team travels to Tierra Nueva Foundation Hospital in Quito, Ecuador, where they work together with local staff to perform total joint replacement surgery, to treat children with club feet and hip dislocations, to enhance fracture care and to share with the local medical community new ways of looking at old problems. CAMTA will donate supplies and equipment to their partner hospitals, and to donate the SIGN nail (see http://www.sign-post.org/) to trauma hospitals in Ecuador where they will be used on the very poor to treat long bone fractures. CAMTA’s 2010 budget is $377,000. We hope to raise $5,000 for them by the end of June.

General Synod Information Event: The parishes of the Whitemud Deanery will be holding a General Synod Information Event on Saturday May 29th at St. Paul's Church, Leduc. Coffee will be on at 9.30 and the event will run from 10.00 - 12 noon. Some of our General Synod delegates will be on hand to walk us through the agenda items, and there will be an opportunity for comments and input. Clergy, wardens, vestry members and diocesan synod delegates are especially encouraged to attend this event. Parish rectors are asked to notify St. Paul's Leduc and the Rev. Tim Chesterton (Whitemud Regional Dean) by Wednesday May 26th regarding the number of people from their parish attending the event.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

May Roster

May 2 – Easter 5- Eucharist – Combined Coffee

Greeter/Sidespeople: G. & K. Hughes

Counter: G. Hughes/ T. Laffin

Reader: B. Mirtle

Readings: Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6

Lay Reader: L. Thompson John 13:31-35

Lay Administrants: L. Thompson/E. Gerber

Intercessor: C. Aasen

Altar Guild (White): 9:00 J. Mill/10:30 K. Hughes

Prayer Team: L. Sanderson/M. Rys

Nursery Supervisor: T. Laffin

Sunday School: M. Cromarty

Kitchen: - 9:45 am M. Woytkiw

May 9 – Easter 6 - Eucharist

Greeter/Sidespeople: E. & D. Mitty

Counter: E. Mitty/B. Rice

Reader: W. Pyra

Readings: Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:22-22:5

Lay Reader: D. MacNeill John 14:23-29

Lay Administrants: D. MacNeill/G. Hughes

Intercessor: M. Rys

Altar Guild (White): 9:00 M. Lobreau/10:30 P. Major

Prayer Team: M. Chesterton/K. Hughes

Nursery Supervisor: M. Aasen

Sunday School: B. Rice

Kitchen: Youth

May 16 – Ascension – Morning Worship

Greeter/Sidespeople: B. & L. Popp

Counter: B. Popp/T. Cromarty

Reader: M. Rys

Readings: Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15-23

Intercessor: D. MacNeill

Lay Reader: Lloyd Thompson Luke 24:46-53

Nursery Supervisor: E. McDougall

Sunday School: C. Ripley

Kitchen: L. Popp

May 23 – Pentecost - Eucharist

Greeter/Sidespeople: D. & L. Schindel

Counter: D. Schindel/B. Rice

Reader: R. Betty

Readings: Acts 2:2-21, Psalm 104:25-35, Romans 8:14-17

Lay Reader: E. Gerber John 14:8-17, 25-27

Lay Administrants: E. Gerber/A. Zinck

Intercessor: L. Thompson

Altar Guild (Red): 9:00 M. Woytkiw/10:30 T. Wittkopf

Prayer Team: M. Rys/L. Sanderson

Nursery Supervisor: K. Hughes

Sunday School: P. Rayment

Kitchen: R. Betty

May 30 – Trinity Sunday – Morning Worship

Greeter/Sidespeople: T. Willacy

Counter: T. Willacy/B. Rice

Reader: V. Haase

Readings: Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5

Lay Reader: D. MacNeill John 16:12-15

Intercessor: T. Chesterton

Altar Guild (White): 9:00 J. Mill/10:30 Worship

Nursery Supervisor: T. Laffin

Sunday School: M. Aasen

Kitchen: V. Haase

May Calendar

St. Margaret’s Anglican Church

Calendar – May 2010


Regular Office Hours: Tuesday - Friday 9:00 am - Noon


Sunday, May 2 - Easter 5

9:00 am - Eucharist

9:45 am - COMBINED COFFEE

10:30 am - Eucharist


Monday, May 3

Tim’s day off

Office Closed


Tuesday, May 4

12:00 Tim at Deanery Clergy Meeting


Wednesday, May 5

2:00 Corporation Meeting


Thursday, May 6

7:00 am Men’s and Women’s Bible Study at Bogani’s

2:00 pm Women’s Bible study at Marg Rys house


Friday, May 7

7:30 pm Couples Night out at the church

Sunday, May 9 - Easter 6

9:00 am - Eucharist

10:30 am - Eucharist

11:45 am Mothers' Day Brunch


Monday, May 10

Tim on holidays until May 17

Office Closed


Thursday, May 13

7:00 am Men’s and Women’s Bible Study at Bogani’s

11:30 am Seniors Lunch

2:00 pm Women’s Bible study at Marg Rys house


Friday, May 14

7:00 pm Hymn Sing at Marg Rys's House


Saturday, May 15th

10:00 Moms' Group at the church

Sunday, May 16 - Easter 7

9:00 am - Morning Worship

10:30 am - Morning Worship


Monday, May 17

Tim’s day off

Office Closed


Tuesday, May 18

11:45 am St. Joseph's Eucharist


Wednesday, May 19

7:15 pm Vestry


Thursday, May 20

7:00 am Men’s and Women’s Bible Study at Bogani’s

2:00 pm Women’s Bible study at Marg Rys house


Sunday, May 23 - Pentecost

9:00 am - Eucharist

10:30 am - Eucharist


Monday, May 24

Victoria Day

Office closed


Tuesday, May 25

Tim's Day off in Lieu of Victoria Day

Office Closed


Thursday, May 27

7:00 am Men’s and Women’s Bible Study at Bogani’s

2:00 pm Women’s Bible study at Marg Rys house

2:00 pm Tim at BARDS meeting


Saturday, May 29

9:30 am - 12:00 pm General Synod Information Meeting at St. Paul's in Leduc


Sunday, May 30 - Trinity Sunday

9:00 am - Eucharist

10:30 am - Morning Worship


Monday, May 31

Tim’s day off

Office Closed



Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sermon for April 18th: Acts 9:1-20

Christian Conversion

My friend Steve was brought up in a non-Christian family and had never had any real contact with the church. But he and I became friends when we were teenagers; we played music together, and after a while he started hanging out with our church youth group. He ended up sitting in on a series of confirmation classes, and when the classes were over the minister, who happened to be my Dad, asked him if he would like to be confirmed. “There’s a problem”, Steve said; “I’ve never been baptised!” “We can soon fix that!” my Dad replied. So a couple of weeks later I had the thrill of standing beside my best friend as he made a public commitment of his life to Christ in Christian baptism.

Like Steve, my friend Terry was not involved in church and had never been baptised, but he was a good friend of Chuck, who was a member of our church. But when he was in his late forties things started to go seriously wrong in Terry’s life – loss of a very well-paying job, and the breakup of his marriage – and he happened to wander into church one day. The preacher that day preached about the story of the lost sheep, and Terry said, “That was me!” So began a process that eventually led to his being baptised in our church.

Unlike Steve and Terry, Keith had been raised as a churchgoer and continued to attend regularly. He was in the oil industry; he had been brought up in a very competitive family where he had learned early on that love was something you had to compete for. He was a churchgoing Anglican but had never found anything especially personal in his religion. As an adult he gradually found that life was becoming too much for him, and through a long series of events he found himself on the edge of a breakdown. One day he went for a long drive in the desert by himself. As he drove he found himself both weeping and praying. In his prayer he said to God, “God, if there’s anything you want in this stinking life, then take it”. That was the beginning of a change for Keith. From that day on, he gradually discovered in Jesus a relationship with a God whose love he didn’t have to compete for. In his later life he had many successes and failures, but he always looked back to that day in the desert as the moment when his life as an intentional Christian began.

These three stories all have to do with what we sometimes call ‘Christian conversion’ – the process by which people come to a lively faith in Christ. Some people come to this experience gradually, as part of a Christian upbringing; they don’t have a ‘darkness and light’ experience, but nonetheless the presence of Jesus becomes real to them and they consciously identify themselves as his followers. Others come from outside the faith and the Christian community and have a definite experience of turning to Christ. The truth is that there are as any different conversion stories as there are Christians, and each of them is a little window into the way the Holy Spirit works in people’s lives.

Today in our first reading we heard the story of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus - better known to us by his Roman name of Paul – who went on to become the great apostle and write many of the letters in the New Testament. This story has often been used as an ideal with which to compare our own conversion – earlier generations sometimes talked about having a ‘Damascus Road experience’. But in fact, just like today, there are many different kinds of conversion stories in the New Testament. Some of them are sudden and some are gradual. Some are dramatic and miraculous, while some are prosaic and low-key. Are there some common elements in them, which we can also detect in this story of the conversion of Saul? I believe there are; let me point out two of them to you.

First, Christian conversion is not just about believing in God; it’s about our commitment to Jesus and our experience of Jesus. Let’s try to think ourselves back into Saul’s frame of mind before he became a Christian. To him, Israel was God’s chosen people, called to be faithful to the one true God in a world of false gods. Saul was looking for the coming of the Day of the Lord, the day when Israel’s enemies would be defeated and the nation would be set free forever. However, he believed that before that day could come, Israel must be totally obedient to the Law of the Lord. That meant observing all the rituals, keeping the Sabbath day strictly, and following all the laws about food you could and couldn’t eat. Above all, it meant avoiding Gentiles, and avoiding Jews who didn’t care about God’s law. He believed that on the Day of the Lord they would all be destroyed.

Saul’s picture of God definitely did not include Jesus; to him, Jesus was a dangerous deceiver. Instead of sending people to the temple to offer sacrifices for the forgiveness of their sins, Jesus boldly declared that they were forgiven because of their faith in him. He ate with sinners and even accepted Gentiles and healed them. He said that observing the food laws wasn’t important since evil came from the human heart, not from unclean food. For all these reasons he could not be the true Messiah, and so his movement must be stamped out for the good of the people. For this reason Saul was on his way to Damascus to hunt down followers of Jesus and arrest them.

Then came the dramatic experience we heard about in our first reading. In the Old Testament, light is often a sign of the presence of God, and so at first Saul might have been excited that God was about to appear to him. But then he got the shock of his life. A voice from heaven asked him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (vv.4-5). Can you understand how decisively the bottom dropped out of Saul’s world at that moment? He was encountering the God he thought he had been serving all his life, and he found that this God spoke to him with the voice of Jesus! Far from being a dangerous distraction from God’s plan, it turned out that Jesus was right at the centre of God’s plan!

Does this sort of thing still happen today? Well, let me tell you Hugh’s story. Hugh was a child of a Jewish family who was sent to an English boarding school in the 1930’s. He had never read the New Testament and knew nothing about Jesus. Listen to what he says about his conversion at the age of sixteen:

I was sitting alone in my study…indulging in a rather pleasant adolescent gloom. I suddenly became aware of a figure in white whom I saw clearly in my mind’s eye. I use this expression because I am pretty sure that a photograph would have showed nothing special on it. I heard the words “Follow me”. Instinctively I knew that this was Jesus… it was an indescribably rich event that filled me afterwards with overpowering joy. I could do no other than to follow those instructions.

Obviously Hugh’s conversion was not just to faith in God in a generic sort of way; it was also about commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is alive today and is still active in people’s lives.

It needs to be said that it is possible to be a religious person but not yet to have found this vital connection to the living God in Christ. Before Saul’s conversion he was a faithful follower of one of the most elaborate religious systems the world has ever seen; his commitment would have expressed itself in regular worship in the synagogue, keeping the Sabbath and the food laws and observing all the commandments. But what was lacking in Saul’s intensely religious life was a genuine encounter with the living God as he has been revealed to us in Jesus. On the Damascus Road, this was what he received. The God he had thought he was serving all his life came to him in the person of Jesus, who he had been persecuting, and this experience changed his whole life and outlook. And when Ananias baptised him and laid hands on him, he received the gift of the Holy Spirit, which meant God came even closer.

So Christian conversion is not just about believing in God; it’s also about our commitment to Christ and our experience of Christ. Secondly, Christian conversion is also about our relationship with Jesus’ family - his Church.

Some years ago I was in a home preparing some folks for the baptism of their children. The godparents were also at the session. It was obvious that they were devoted Christians, but when I asked them where they went to church they said ‘We don’t go anywhere; we just pray by ourselves at home’.

Statistics show us that this kind of isolated Christianity is on the rise, but when we compare it with New Testament Christianity it’s obvious that it’s missing something vital. In the New Testament, being a Christian always involves being in community with other Christians. There are two places in the story of Saul’s conversion where we see this.

The first is in the words of Jesus to Saul. Look again at verses 4-5:

‘(Saul) fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’.

Do you see how Jesus identifies himself with his people? Apparently, to persecute Christians is to persecute Jesus himself. And I therefore conclude that to separate yourself from your fellow Christians is also to separate yourself from Jesus; to reject them is to reject him. This community – this collection of imperfect recovering sinners - is his Body. He expects us to be part of it, and to love it as he loves it.

The second place where we see the importance of the community is in the role of Ananias in this story. Now presumably, since Jesus had already spoken to Saul directly from heaven, he could have said and done everything necessary without the help of a human messenger. But he chose not to. Instead, he chose to ask a scared human being to go visit Saul, to call him ‘Brother’, to baptise him, and to pray for him to be healed and filled with the Holy Spirit.

Many of you can probably think of an ‘Ananias’ in your life. After all, if you are a baptised Christian, someone did the baptising! Perhaps there was also a teacher or a preacher who made the Christian message clear and compelling and helped you come to know Jesus for yourself. Perhaps when you were feeling a bit shy about joining a Christian community, someone welcomed you and treated you like a brother or sister. These things are vitally important, aren’t they?

So Christian conversion isn’t just about a deeper relationship with Jesus; it’s about his people and our relationship with them, too. It involves a commitment to a life of learning to know and love our fellow Christians, a life of worshipping God with them and growing in Christ with them.

Christian conversion is about our commitment to Jesus, our experience of Jesus, and our relationship with Jesus’ family, his Church. Let me close with three brief words of application.

First, some of us here today have been on this journey of conversion for some time. We have experienced the touch of God’s love and his gentle challenge to a deeper commitment to Jesus and his family. For some of us this was a natural progression that began when our parents gave us to Christ. For others, it was a definite journey from a life without God into a deeper awareness of him through Jesus. If this describes us today, then God calls us to continue on this journey; as Peter says in 2 Peter 3:18 ‘Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’.

Second, some of us are being called by God to play the part of ‘Ananias’ in someone else’s life. It might even be someone who looks hopelessly indifferent to Christ on the outside, but, all unknown to us, God has already been at work in their life pointing them in Jesus’ direction. If so, let’s not be afraid to love them, welcome them, speak about Jesus to them, and help them take a step closer to him.

Lastly, some of us may have realised today that our religious life has been entirely consumed by an institution called ‘the church’, but has not included a personal connection with Jesus. If this is me, then God wants me to understand today that Jesus is inviting me into this new life with him. I probably won’t see him as Hugh did, but nonetheless he is still inviting me, asking, “Will you follow me?” If I understand that this is what Jesus is asking of me, then the most eloquent prayer in the world for me is the simple word “Yes”. And if this is you, then at some point during this service this morning, in the quiet of your heart, why not turn to Jesus and say your “Yes” to his invitation?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sermon for April 11th: John 20:24-31

Faith and Doubt

When I was seventeen I moved to Toronto to attend the Church Army training college, so that I could be prepared and sent out as an evangelist. I’d had a very clear-cut conversion experience in my early teens, in which I’d made a definite commitment of my life to Christ. My teenage faith had been nurtured in a church that was experiencing a very lively life in the Holy Spirit, with people coming to faith in Christ, lives being changed, sick people being healed, close small group fellowship and all sorts of exciting things.

But I remember that in the weeks before I left for Toronto for my training, I began to get an uneasy feeling. I was going to be working as an evangelist, sharing the gospel with people and trying to help them come to faith in Christ. I had no problem with doing this in a relational sort of way, but my problem was I didn’t really have a strong intellectual foundation for my faith. In other words, if someone asked me, “Why are you a Christian?” I could tell them the story of how I had given my life to Christ, but I couldn’t tell them why I thought belief in God made sense in a rational and intellectual way.

Fortunately for me, God guided me to C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity. This book is a series of radio talks that Lewis gave on the BBC during the Second World War, and it started off at exactly my point of need: what are the arguments for the existence of God and for the divinity of Christ? Lewis wrote in a very clear way and he laid out a good rational case for Christian belief. It was exactly what I needed. I devoured that book, and I’ve read it many times since then.

I also read many other things that Lewis wrote, and many years later I made an interesting discovery. Lewis spent a lot of time arguing for the Christian faith and defending its doctrines against atheism and unbelief, but in letters to friends he admitted several times that he didn’t always enjoy this work and that he sometimes found it dangerous to his faith. “You see”, he said, “I’ve found that no Christian doctrine seems less probable to me than the one I’ve just successfully defended in an argument!” In other words, Lewis, the great defender of the Christian faith, continued to struggle with doubts!

All Christians struggle with doubt, even the ones we think are the strongest in their faith. I know I certainly do. Journalists were shocked to discover from her private letters and papers that Mother Theresa of Calcutta went through dark times and wrestled with doubts all through her life, but to honest Christians this came as no surprise. I’m reminded of the words of the Christian writer Madeleine L’Engle who, when she was asked “Do you really and truly believe with no doubts at all?” replied, “I really and truly believe with all kinds of doubts!”

Thomas the apostle has come down to us in Christian tradition as ‘doubting Thomas’, although the Bible doesn’t give him that name. He’s mentioned a couple of times in the Gospel of John, and we get the sense that he was the kind of guy who tended to see the cup as being half empty rather than half full; he seems to have had a pessimistic view of life, and faith and understanding were a struggle for him. He couldn’t just say “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!” and pretend that everything was wonderful, and he couldn’t just dismiss the difficult questions. He had to look doubt full in the face. I’m sure Thomas longed more than anything else to be sure of what he believed; he just didn’t find it easy. Personally, I’m glad his story is in the Bible. His story assures us – if we didn’t already know it – that the early Christians were not all strong in their faith and firm in their commitment to Jesus; they were human beings like us and they had the same struggles we do. Thomas speaks for many of us when he voices his doubts and asks for evidence. Let’s see what happens to him in the Easter story.

In the first part of our gospel reading the apostles are together in the upper room where they had shared the last supper with Jesus. The doors are locked, but somehow the risen Jesus isn’t stopped by those locks. He comes and stands among them, shows them the marks of crucifixion on his body, and says, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father sent me, so I send you’. He then breathes on them and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit to do their work.

But Thomas isn’t with them. We’re not told why he wasn’t there, although people have speculated about the reason. William Barclay thought that Thomas loved Jesus so much and his grief was so deep that he just couldn’t force himself to be with the others; he wanted to grieve alone. We know that some people are like that; when they’re sad and grieving, the last thing they want is to be around others, and that may be what Thomas was experiencing. Or perhaps, with his absolute honesty, he was simply the first of the apostles to admit to the hard truth: ‘Jesus was crucified, so he can’t have been the Messiah, or God wouldn’t have abandoned him. We may as well give up and go back to Galilee’.

We don’t know for sure why Thomas wasn’t there. What we do know is that the other apostles were excited after their meeting with the risen Jesus and they told Thomas all about it: “We have seen the Lord!” (20:25). But Thomas wouldn’t buy it: “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”.

And Jesus, amazingly, met Thomas exactly where he was, and fulfilled his conditions to the letter. The next Sunday the apostles were all gathered in the upper room again, and Thomas was with them. Again Jesus appeared to them and gave them his peace. He then spoke directly to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put in it my side. Do not doubt but believe” (v.27). Significantly, we aren’t told whether Thomas actually did touch Jesus’ wounds. What we are told is that he made one of the strongest statements of faith in the gospels. Unlike Mary Magdalene in the garden when she met the risen Lord, he didn’t just say, ‘My Master!’ He said, ‘My Lord and my God’ (v.28). He gives Jesus the name above every name, the name that belongs to God alone, and Jesus doesn’t refuse it. Rather, he says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v.29). And so Thomas’ doubts are taken away when he sees the risen Jesus, and he puts his faith in Jesus as Lord and God.

Now you might be thinking, “That’s all very well for Thomas; he saw the risen Jesus with his own eyes. If I could see Jesus as he did, my doubts would all be taken away too!” But you know, seeing Jesus with their own eyes didn’t always take away the doubts of the early Christians. Matthew tells us in chapter twenty-eight of his gospel that after his resurrection Jesus met with his apostles on a mountain in Galilee, and we read that ‘When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted’ (28:17). Doubting Thomas believed when the risen Jesus stood before him, but not all the disciples found it that easy! Some of them even doubted when the risen Jesus was standing right in front of them; they quite literally couldn’t believe their eyes.

Seeing is not necessarily believing. Jesus did all kinds of wonderful healings and miracles in full view of the people of Galilee and Judea, but what was the result? John says ‘Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him’ (John 12:37). On the other hand, after he turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana, we’re told that ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him’ (2:11). Evidence doesn’t necessarily lead to faith; sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. What makes the difference? John would seem to be teaching us that often it’s discipleship. In other words, those who have already committed themselves to following Jesus and learning to live in obedience to him find their faith strengthened by signs and miracles. But those who refuse to follow him are not usually persuaded by signs and miracles; they can always find an alternative explanation for them.

The fact is that faith is always about far more than intellectual proof; it’s also to do with our attitude and our commitments. In Shakespeare’s play ‘Othello’, a man named Iago plants suspicions in Othello’s heart about the loyalty of his wife Desdemona. There is absolutely no sound evidence that Desdemona has been unfaithful to Othello, but once the suspicion has been planted Othello just can’t get it out of his mind. He chooses to believe it, and so continues to find evidence where in fact there is no evidence. The result is disaster for him and for his wife.

Doubting our faith is often like that; it’s less about intellectual evidence and more about suggestions and attitudes and commitments. There are many reasons why we go through times of doubt. Some of us experience disappointment with God; perhaps we’ve prayed for something that we really wanted and it seems to us that our prayers have not been answered. Perhaps we believed that God always heals the sick, but we’ve gotten sick with a chronic illness and we go through continual suffering, and God doesn’t seem to send any relief. Or perhaps the people of God have disappointed us; we thought the church was going to be a community of love, but it turned out that there were just as many sinners in the church as anywhere else. Or perhaps we have stumbled on the intellectual problems of faith in God and in Christ: If there is an all-powerful God of love, why is there so much suffering in the world? Is there a God at all, and if there is, is Jesus really his son or is he just a great religious leader? Did Jesus really rise from the dead, or are the resurrection stories just fanciful legends?

What do we do with our doubts? I think the story of Thomas would tell us not to try to hide them or deny them. After all, God isn’t fooled; he knows what’s in our hearts. And in many cases, doubt is an important milestone on the journey of faith. Many people are taught the Christian faith in childhood, but it’s not yet their faith – it’s the faith of their parents, or their Sunday School teachers, or their ministers. They can only make it their faith if they start to question it, if they start to have doubts about it, and if they then examine their faith carefully to see if it really is reasonable or not.

So however it happens that doubt comes our way, we shouldn’t try to pretend it isn’t there. We should look it full in the face, we should pray about it, and we should work through it with God and with his people. And I think there are some steps we can take to deal with it.

First, like Thomas, we can ask for evidence. Of course, it’s up to God whether or not he gives it to us, and we need to keep in mind that if a husband is constantly asking his wife for watertight evidence of her faithfulness to him, something’s deeply wrong in the marriage! We can’t completely remove the requirement for trust and faith in Christianity, but there are in fact good rational reasons for believing in God and in Christ. Many excellent books summarise those reasons; I’ve already mentioned Lewis’ Mere Christianity; there’s also Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, George Carey’s Why I Believe in a Personal God, and many others. And there are writers who have focussed on particular issues, such as the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus or the problem of evil and pain. So we shouldn’t be afraid of intellectual doubts; God gave us brains and expects us to use them, and there is plenty of help available.

But as I’ve said, doubt is rarely just an intellectual issue. A friend of mine used to say that if a clever argument can talk a person into becoming a Christian, a cleverer one can talk them out of it again! Christianity isn’t just an intellectual belief in God; it’s also a personal relationship with that God and with his Son Jesus Christ. That’s what Thomas experienced; the fact that in his case it was a visible encounter with Jesus is beside the point. That’s what Jesus says to Thomas in verse 28: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”. And in the following verses the author of the gospel adds a comment: ‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’ (30-31). In other words, a person who comes to faith in Christ experiences far more than the satisfaction of winning an argument about whether Jesus rose from the dead. What Jesus gives to us is life – life in all its fulness. Once we begin to receive that life, it’s not just strong arguments that are keeping us in the faith; it’s our experience of the presence of God and the power of the Holy Spirit as well.

So we should not allow our doubts to keep us from prayer; whether we feel anything or not, we should continue to be faithful in daily prayer and in reading the scriptures, looking to God and trying to deepen our conscious contact with him. And we should continue to practice the teaching of Jesus to the best of our ability, living the life that he taught us. Sometimes this can be the very thing that helps us find the answers to our doubts. It may be true that you can think yourself into a new way of living, but it’s also true that sometimes you can live your way into a new way of thinking.

And one more thing: do not let your doubts stop you coming to church. Thomas missed out on an encounter with the Risen Jesus because he wasn’t with the disciples in the upper room on the Sunday evening when Jesus appeared to them. The upper room is the place where Jesus shared the Last Supper with his disciples and gave them the sacrament that we call Holy Communion or the Eucharist. Since the earliest times it’s been the practice of the Christian church to gather together on the day Jesus was raised from the dead and share that Holy Communion in celebration of his death and resurrection for us. We believe that he has promised to meet us when we gather together to break the bread and share the wine. We don’t always experience this in a tangible way, but we often do have a real sense of his presence here with us as we worship.

Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples on Sunday evening, so he missed out on a meeting with the Risen Lord. Don’t do as he did; don’t miss out on a meeting with the Risen Lord! Be regular in your participation in our gatherings for worship. Come as you are, doubts and all; ask the Lord to help you with your struggles and to find the answers to your questions, and meanwhile, continue to worship with your fellow-Christians and to put into practice the stuff you do believe. Many of us can identify with the man in the gospels who cried out to Jesus, “Lord, I believe: help my unbelief!” In time, the Lord will answer that prayer, but while we wait for his answer, our place is here, with our brothers and sisters, around the table where Jesus has promised to meet us.