The Upside-down Kingdom

This sermon was prepared for Wesley United’s Sunday service on November 19, 2019. The church has pushed Advent ahead by one week, so the readings for the day were for The Reign of Christ the King (Year A Proper 29, Matthew 25:31-46, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23).

Let me start off by saying—wow. The Gospel of Matthew, once again, delivers us a hard-to-swallow image of the end of time, and eternal punishment.

A lens I use when reading texts like this is to remember that this genre of the writing, is meant to be encouraging.

How? You might ask me. Because it doesn’t feel encouraging!

Well, it’s an image meant to encourage the early Christian community—a community that was experiencing persecution, and struggling to find its identity in the midst of the polytheistic Roman Empire. It’s also a community who believed Jesus was going to return soon—in their lifetime soon. So, this style of writing focuses on that… telling the reader that the bad guys will get what they deserve and the small community will be vindicated in the end.

But what about you and me, in 2017? Well, today we celebrate the king of an upside-down kingdom. Before the beginning of Advent, we take a moment to close our church year by celebrating “The Reign of Christ the King”. And this is the lectionary reading we’re given to do that.

It’s a funny celebration too, because in a world where we hold-up the strong, the powerful, and the ambitious, it’s counter-cultural to follow a man like Jesus.

Someone who didn’t exalt himself, but made himself low.

Someone who didn’t demand sacrifice, but invited it by modelling it even to his own death.

Someone who didn’t tell you what to believe, but instead invited you to come and see.

Today, we celebrate the undereducated, blue-collar, nomadic, brown, king of an upside-down kingdom.

And, when we come together, as Christian community, we gather as citizens of this upside-down kingdom. We talk about God’s vision for our world, we sing songs, read prayers, and share ideas about how God calls us to live this ideal out in the world.

But, we’re also citizens of other communities: NDG, Montréal, Québec, Canada. We’re members of companies, organizations, groups and movements. We give our loyalty to many causes, to different leaders, and to diverse ideologies.

Because, we no longer live in a world that is anxious for the imminent return of Christ. The author of Matthew, and the community he writes to was sitting on pins and needles waiting for the return of Jesus and the breaking in of his kingdom. The Ephesian Christian community too was anticipating Jesus’ return—the Apostle Paul genuinely believed Christ would come back within his lifetime.

But he didn’t.

Christianity, as it has continued throughout history, needed to begin asking questions about what it means to live the urgency and power of the gospel message—a countercultural call to justice and reconciliation—while living in our world, as it is.

We have moved from a future-focused vision of the kingdom to something already present and not yet.

We no longer live with the kind of abandon that Christian martyrs in antiquity lived with. Some of our Christian siblings in areas where they experience fierce persecution do. But life, in North America, is pretty comfortable—we’re ok to wait around for a while longer. Jesus can take his time.

But… what would it look like for you to live a life of urgency, with the kinship of God as your focus?

Not everyone can live a life of wild abandon—I’m not encouraging you to go out tomorrow and sell all your possessions to give to the poor (albeit I know someone who might). But, I do think we can still cultivate a kind of urgency here, now. A sense that, the instructions Jesus gave us are important (not because we think he’s going to descend down from heaven any moment) … but because he taught us that every life matters to God—to see his face in the face of those around us.

Those who are hungry… those who are thirsty… those who are lonely… those who don’t have enough… they all matter deeply to God.

There should be a sense of urgency to the way we embody the Gospel because our work brings people closer to God because we are God’s hands and feet in this world. The kinship of God is revealed only in so much as we feel called and are willing to reveal it.

The kinship of God is revealed only in so much as we feel called and are willing to reveal it.

A kinship where the marginalized are given the best we have to offer, where the privileged take a back seat. A kinship where children are highly regarded and have so much to teach us about our own faith journeys. A kinship where caring for the immediate needs of another takes precedence over whether they’ll listen to us first.

And, we’re part of a long tradition of people, trying to figure out the best way to go about it—a community of messy, normal, imperfect people trying to figure out what living as part of the kinship of God means in our context.

If we profess that Jesus is king, albeit in a way completely unlike any other monarch in history, what does it look like to live that out as you, or me, today?

I want to invite you to take a moment, to think about the ways you see the kingdom of God being built in our community, right now. We need to remember and celebrate these moments, because, kingdom-building is hard work.

Take a moment to think of a person, a program, a group, that is doing the work you see Jesus calling us to—it could be in these walls, at your workplace, or in our city.

Now, let’s think about what else God might be calling us to do. Is there a particular group, activity or idea that God has been percolating in you? Do you feel like, as a community, there is a need we’re overlooking? Is there a way we can better live out our citizenship in the world and in the kingdom of God? Where do you see urgency?

Now, think of one thing you can do to make a start, right now. Is there a conversation you think you should have? An organization you want to support? A story you might need to hear?

My hope, and prayer, is that as we go out into the world this week, God will begin stirring us anew and equipping us to continue the work that has already been started, to strength us and refresh our vision for the kinship of God in our homes, our schools, workplaces and communities; revealing it a little more, each day through our lives.

Amen.

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The Reformation, Gospel, and Good Works

This sermon was prepared for the Wesley United Church, Montréal, for Sunday, October 29th, 2017. The scripture reading it is based on is 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 (Year A, Proper 25). 

Continuing our conversation on 1 Thessalonians from last week, we read of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy’s care for this early community. As disciplers, we see them leading by example, reaffirming the values of the movement.

Last week we spoke of the call to discipleship, and this week we continue that reflection as a call to a communal ethic.

Stanley Hauerwaus claimed, that whenever we talk about the church we’re talking about ethics, and vice versa. Whenever we talk about ethics we’re talking about the church. Because, the gospel message is an embodied message—embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, embodied in the lives of his disciples, and in his church.

What does the oldest piece of Christian writing tell us about the ethics of this early movement?

Well, we that it was brought to Thessalonica, as a God-centered gospel, which we could also call an “other-centred” or “self-less” gospel. We read that is not built on pride or greed.

And, we read that is a gospel that doesn’t rely on manipulative messaging, instead on a truthful representation of the character of God.

It is a gospel of tenderness which includes this image, I love so dearly: The image of middle-aged grumpy Paul and his friends, describing themselves as “wet-nurses” whose concern for their own children is so markedly different. A more modern analogy might be that of a daycare worker, whose compassion and tenderness is different with their own children than the kids they work with—it is more intimate. Intimacy is a quality we talked about last week—the intimacy between disciplee and discipler.

Continuing in that vein, there is also a sense of the vulnerability of this gospel, where people share this embodied message by revealing their very selves. A gospel of intimacy and vulnerability.

Paul teaches us that you cannot share the gospel without sharing yourself; it then follows that we cannot be the church, we cannot embody the message, without sharing how it has transformed us—as individuals and a collective.

This summer, the theme at the Rendez-Vous (national youth) gathering was, from our New Creed, to “Be the Church”.

How do we embody the gospel message, as people and together as a church?

We have a complicated history, where more often than not it seems like we have proclaimed a message of exclusion, of colonization, of selectivity, of damnation, and shame. We have definitely been on the wrong side of history, as a community.

Bonhoeffer wrote that “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Bonhoeffer was writing in a time when the church was complicit, or at the very least apathetic, about the atrocities taking place in Germany and across Europe through national socialism. He spoke of a gospel message, a message of grace, that demanded its adherents profess its truth in actions as well as words. His theology, which started in grace, demanded the church get political, get involved in conversations about ethics, and hold one another accountable for their actions—he saw the embodiment of the Gospel in, what he called, the Confessing Church.

How do we embody the gospel message, as people and together as a church?

Before The Enlightenment, religiosity had very little to do with what you believed, and a whole lot to do with how you acted. Faith was based on your piety or right-living—it was demonstrative instead of conceptual.

Today is Reformation Sunday, the Sunday we’ve chosen to mark the 500th year since the Reformation that split the Catholic church into the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. One of the big things that caused the split was the issue of salvation through faith alone. Protestantism rejected the idea that it was faith and good works that ensure our salvation, opting instead for “simple grace”.

However, Pew Forum has surveyed protestants across North America and discovered that, after 500 years, these two parts of our church are more similar than different. Pew Forum reports that 52% of American Protestants agreed that “Both good deeds and faith in God are needed to get into heaven.”

Now, I’m not saying that salvation through faith alone isn’t true or an important Protestant concept, I’ll leave that up to your own reflection, but I think as a community we’ve discovered that faith that isn’t demonstrated is hollow.

James 2:14-17 says: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

How do we embody the gospel message, as people and together as a church?

How do we demonstrate that we are followers of Jesus, our perfect example? A man who called us to care, to clothe, to speak up, and to seek justice?

How do we proclaim the grace that God has extended to us, and show the incredible ways in which God has transformed us? Last we spoke of a message of liberation, so what does it mean to live a liberated life?

Well, if you’re looking for answers, don’t ask me. I can only tell you the ways I feel called to embody the message that was handed down to me. So, I want you to turn to your neighbour, and share for a few minutes.

Get a little vulnerable, and ask one another…

How do we embody the gospel message, as people and together as a church?

The community shared in discussion for five minutes, and then we concluded by singing “What Does the Lord Require of You”.

Discipleship—The Original Pyramid Scheme

This sermon was prepared for the Wesley United Church, Montréal, for Sunday, October 22nd, 2017. The scripture reading it is based on is 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 (Year A, Proper 24).

I will never pass on an opportunity to discuss 1 Thessalonians, which is the oldest text we have from the early Christian church.

I don’t know if you share this same curiosity, but I am fascinated with these folks who found themselves building a community together, after Jesus’ brutal crucifixion and confoundingly empty tomb. A community, not just of Jewish believers who see Jesus as the messianic figure that the scriptures talk about (their liberating king), but also of Greeks who are inspired by the roaming missionaries, and their message of social and gender equality in Christ.

In 1 Thessalonians, we listen to the communal voice of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy as they speak tenderly to one of these groups—a house church in the city of Thessalonica that is in crisis. In the letter, we read between the lines to see the image of a fledgeling community facing persecution and theological quandaries. In the response of the three men, we see the glimpses of the dynamic between the founders and the fold—our oldest example of discipleship in the Christian tradition.

Now, let me clarify that to see, it is our oldest example, with the Gospel being dated later than this early letter. Of course, we inherit stories from Jesus’ ministry, which act as out ultimate examples in the Christian tradition.

Discipleship, which is a word we don’t use outside of religious circles anymore, speaks to a commitment between teacher and student. Apprentices, who carefully watch the master craftsman to learn their trade, are our closest metaphor for this kind of relationship. With both disciple and apprenticeship, there is a strong human connection, as wisdom and experience are passed down from one person to the other. As well, the identity and reputation of the master become tied directly to the work and reputation of the student.

There are certainly other examples of this kind of relationship in the modern world—I attend McGill and the actions of the student body will reflect positively or negatively on the institution as a whole. Yet, in our society which is more individualist than communal, our modern examples lack a certain amount of intimacy or symbiosis. We like to see people for themselves, or at least we like to pretend to, so we try to hold each person for their own individual actions and successes, instead of as groups—it’s why we have MVP awards for team sports.

Now, these three men, crafting a love letter filled with encouragement and advice, are wonderful examples of early Christian discipleship. Like, true teachers, they don’t shy away from correction (which is seen more clearly later on in the letter). Paul, you may have noticed, is very pastoral in many of his letters, but also employs the strong language of correction when his apprentices are, in his opinion, out of line (Galatians is an excellent example of this). Since Paul’s reputation and identity are entwined with the churches he plants—discipleship is both about genuine care but also his self-preservation—it’s complicated and messy.

One of the features of Paul’s letters is that he tries to model to his readers that their identity, as disciples of Jesus, is entwined with the reputation of Christ in the world. He talks about being witnesses, examples, and light; and he always brings it back to Christ. As a disciple of Paul, who is a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, Paul emphasizes over and over again that his disciples are the disciples of Jesus. And he gets pretty ticked when people refer to themselves as the disciples of Paul or the disciples of Apollos; he wants the emphasis to consistently be on God, the starting point of their genealogy of faith. He writes a genealogy for the early church, one that he extends back all the way to Abraham. And, it also extends through history to include you and me.

A characteristic of evangelical movements I really appreciate, is that there’s often a line of transmissions that is kept alive through testimony. By sharing and re-sharing people’s stories of how they came to faith, they recite their genealogies of faith to one another over and over again.

For myself, I am fortunate to know a little about my family’s history. My family is Irish, and my surname, “Mullin”, comes from “Maolan”, an ancient byname meaning “The tonsured one” (tonsuring being an ascetic practice of shaving your head), and refers to a monk or holy man. In early Celtic Christianity, monks weren’t required to be celibate, so my family comes from a long line of Celts who took up the Christian faith and also acted as spiritual leaders.

Do you have a genealogy of faith? Who came before you, and walked a path that you discovered you could follow? Was it a parent or grandparent? A close friend? A spiritual teacher? Or, are you the first of your generation, having stumbled onto “the Way”?

Now, disciples are not merely descendants. Once they’ve “graduated”, they go on to become teachers. We hear of early missionaries and preachers like… the deaconess Phoebe in the Letter to the Romans… or Lydia who founds the house church in Philippi… and Priscilla and Aquila who bring the teacher Apollos to the faith.

Of course, Jesus’ disciples were also commissioned to go out and teach, the Gospels tell us they received this instruction even before his crucifixion.

So, like a pyramid scheme, the disciple becomes the teacher, who disciples others, and so on and so forth. Which, is how you and I came to be here today.

But, unlike a pyramid scheme, this message, or movement, has lasted a long time—millennia. I think Paul, Silvanus and Timothy have an important observation about why that is, they spoke of the message arriving in Thessalonica with power and conviction. And, that it resulted in joy for the community there. Pyramid schemes offer a lot of different things to us…wealth, better looks, more friends, better sex, bigger homes, and happiness.

But, the Gospel offers liberation, so that even in the midst of suffering and persecution there is joy. It was, and is, an alternative to the politically endorsed way of being that said you were born to be a slave, you were born to be a noble person, and that’s the way life is.

These three men speak about chosen-ness—and it always reminds me a little of Harry Potter. Because those books inspired a generation of children who, on their 11th birthdays, crossed their fingers and wished so hard to receive a letter from Hogwarts—something saying they were special and chosen.

There’s a magic in that—being chosen, being uniquely important to someone.

Which, is what Paul tries to instill in his communities—their being loved and chosen by God. Even some of the Hebrew prophets write about this, the being formed lovingly by God in our birth mother’s wombs, and our lives being laid out uniquely for us.

Why do you think Peter, Simon, and the sons of Zebedee leaped at the opportunity to follow this crazy itinerant preacher around the backwaters of Galilee? Because, they were fisherman—they were supposed to do the work their father and his brothers had always done, to work alongside their cousins, so that their sons would go on to do just the same.

And then, this man walks up to them and chooses them. Out of all the men there with the boats, mending the nets, he picks them—the teacher tells them to come and follow him.

Discipleship, is about a special relationship between student and teacher—one that goes beyond care and reputation to seeing the potential within someone else. To saying, this person deserves to hear the words of life, about how important they are to God, about all the good things that God has in store for them—they deserve freedom from the bondage of sin and death.

And, disciples, after having experienced this, want others to be able to experience what they have, and so they become teachers—living out their message through their actions as much as through their words.

Jesus said to them, “Come, and follow me…and bring others.” And, they went.

Where is God asking you to go? Who is he asking you to speak the words of life to?—through your actions as much as your speech. Where is he calling you to be an example to others?

Let us take some time to reflect on these things. Amen.