Sermon 3 Easter Yr A

You can read my sermon for May 8, 2011 by clicking this link: 3 Easter Yr A

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Sermon 7 Easter Yr C

7 Easter Yr C, 16/05/2010

Jn 17:20-26

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Praying for Christian unity”

Once a man had a dream in which his hands and feet and mouth and brain all began to rebel against his stomach. “You good-for-nothing sluggard!” the hands said. “We work all day long, sawing and hammering and lifting and carrying. By evening we’re covered with blisters and scratches, and our joints ache, and we’re covered with dirt. And meanwhile you just sit there, hogging all the food.”

“We agree!” cried the feet. “Think how sore we get, walking back and forth all day long. And you just stuff yourself full, you greedy pig, so that you’re that much heavier to carry about.”

“That’s right!” whined the mouth. “Where do you think all the food you love comes from? I’m the one who has to chew it all up, and as soon as I’m finished you suck it all down for yourself. Do you call that fair?”

“And what about me?” called the brain. “Do you think it’s easy being up here, having to think about where your next meal is going to come from? And yet I get nothing at all for my pains.”

And one by one the parts of the body joined the complaint against the stomach, which didn’t say anything at all.

“I have an idea,” the brain finally announced. “Let’s all rebel against the lazy belly, and stop working for it.”

“Superb idea!” all the other members and organs agreed. “We’ll teach you how important we are, you pig. Then maybe you’ll do a little work of your own.”

So they all stopped working. The hands refused to do lifting and carrying. The feet refused to walk. The mouth promised not to chew or swallow a single bite. And the brain swore it wouldn’t come up with any more bright ideas. At first the stomach growled a bit, as it always did when it was hungry. But after a while it was quiet. Then, to the dreaming man’s surprise, he found he could not walk. He could not grasp anything in his hand. He could not even open his mouth. And he suddenly began to feel rather ill.

The dream seemed to go on for several days. As each day passed, the man felt worse and worse. “This rebellion had better not last much longer,” he thought to himself, “or I’ll starve.”

Meanwhile, the hands and feet and mouth and brain just lay there, getting weaker and weaker. At first they roused themselves just enough to taunt the stomach every once in a while, but before long they didn’t even have the energy for that.

Finally the man heard a faint voice coming from the direction of his feet.

“It could be that we were wrong,” they were saying. “We suppose the stomach might have been working in his own way all along.”

“I was just thinking the same thing,” murmured the brain. “It’s true that he’s been getting all the food. But it seems he’s been sending most of it right back to us.”

“We might as well admit our error,” the mouth said. “The stomach has just as much work to do as the hands and feet and brain and teeth.”

“Then let’s get back to work,” they cried together. And at that the man woke up.

To his relief, he discovered his feet could walk again. His hands could grasp, his mouth could chew, and his brain could now think clearly. He began to feel much better. “Well, there’s a lesson for me,” he thought as he filled his stomach at breakfast. “Either we all work together, or nothing works at all.”1

This moral tale also rings true for us Christians. Today, in our gospel, which is the closing portion of Jesus’ high priestly prayer; Jesus prays for his disciples and all future followers of Jesus—including you and I. In this prayer, Jesus prays for Christian unity. He asks “that they may all be one.” The unity of Christians, Jesus asks for is a oneness of Christians that reflects the unity, the oneness of God the Father and Jesus himself. Jesus prays that just as the Father is in him, so he is in his followers, and his followers reflect that unity and oneness to the world. So urgent is Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity that he prays: “that they may become completely one.” Yet, tragically, our Lord’s high priestly prayer has not become a reality—at least not in a complete way. Sad to say, there are still plenty of divisions within Christendom—not only are Roman Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Churches divided from one another; each denomination is often deeply divided from within. Even on a local, congregational level, there can be some very serious divisions and conflicts.

Adding to the scandal of divisions among Christians are at least two factors occurring right now. The televangelists continue to misrepresent genuine Christianity with their distorted preaching of a selfish, prosperity gospel. Several of these televangelists manipulate their supporters—constantly asking for money and then, once they receive the money, it is not spent to help the needy, but to purchase mansions, private planes, and other expensive items for the televangelists. This unethical and unchristian behaviour is not only a scandal and stumbling block for many Christians, but also for the world. People outside the Christian faith say, “If that’s what Christianity is about, then I want nothing to do with it.”

Moreover, the recent stories about the cover-up of child abuse by the clergy in the Roman Catholic Church, with the Vatican’s protection of abusive clergy and failure to report abuses to the civil authorities; certainly is a scandal and stumbling block to the whole of Christendom as well as the world. Such factors do not fit into the holy purposes of Christ’s prayer for Christian unity! In fact, they further divide Christians and turn those outside the Christian faith even further away from Christianity.

So what is the meaning of Christ’s high priestly prayer? In what way do Christians fulfill Christ’s prayer for the unity of Christians? I think that when Jesus speaks of a unity between himself and the Father; when he says that the Father is in him and he is in the Father and we are in him; that he is employing relational language. The unity and oneness is an intimate relationship of love. Taking a practical example, in real life, we often notice similarities between parents and their children. We hear comments like: “He is his father’s son,” or “she is her mother’s daughter.” Of course the relationship between parents and their children is, ideally, one of love, as well as one of genetics and biology. In terms of Christian faith; we become like God our Father and Jesus our Brother who created us in his image and made us members of his family through the sacrament of Baptism. Furthermore, we also become like those who we look to as mentors, models of faith. Of course our Perfect Exemplar is Jesus. So it is Christ and his Spirit working within us that unites us with him and makes us one in him and with one another as we think his thoughts, speak his words, and do his deeds in loving service and obedience to his will.

Some Christians would say that what Christ referred to in this prayer for Christian unity was an ecclesiastical structural unity—that we merge into one denomination. Other Christians are sceptical about that. Some Christians would say that our quest for unity involves everyone believing the same doctrines in exactly the same way. Again other Christians are sceptical about that. Some Christians would say that unity is in worship. However that too causes some degree of scepticism as some Christians prefer the formality of ancient liturgies and traditional hymnody, while others prefer more informal worship with contemporary rock-and-roll and jazzed-up or bleus songs and choruses. Yet other Christians say that the best opportunity for unity is in the service of humankind through social justice and peace projects. Again other Christians are sceptical about that because of the variety of political ideologies and the desired goals and means to reach them.

Historically, during the last century and now into the twenty-first century; two of the signs of Christian unity are through the reading, study and preaching of the Word and in prayer. Members from a variety of denominations meet together more frequently today for the reading and study of the Bible. Ordained clergy from many different denominations also meet to read and study the Bible to prepare for preaching the Word on Sundays. In many denominations around the globe, Christians now follow a Revised Common Lectionary so that the biblical readings each Sunday are the same in all of the churches. Christians from a wide variety of denominations also meet together for Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and World Day of Prayer Worship Services.

I think that many Christians are beginning to realise—some have realised it long ago—that if we are going to reflect the oneness and unity that Christ prayed for; then we too are called into deep prayer for and with one another. We too are called to pray Christ’s high priestly prayer that it may become more of a reality for us today. That reminds me of the following inspirational story on the power of prayer to unite brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe.

After World War II, Martin Niemöller once spoke of how, when he was finally arrested by the Gestapo and taken to prison, his old father had said to him: “Be of good cheer, my son. Remember that there will be Christians praying for you from Greenland to the Pacific Islands,” and of how that knowledge, in the next eight years, many of them in solitary confinement, had kept him not only sane but even joyful. Bishop Eivind Berggrav, the splendid Primate of Norway, who for his part in leading the church resistance had been kept under house-arrest in the forest. He told of how the man who brought the rations to the cottage whispered through the window: “My old woman and I were listening to the BBC last night and we heard the Archbishop of Canterbury pray for you by name.” And Berggrav concluded: “God has been saying to us, during these war years, ‘My Christians, you are one. Now behave as if that were true.’”2

Never underestimate the power of prayer and the power of God’s Word—they can both work wonders beyond our wildest imaginings. So with that in mind, we pray: “that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” In Jesus’ name. Amen!

1 Cited from: William J. Bennett, Editor, The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories (New York, Toronto, London, et. al.: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1993), pp. 386-387.

2 Cited from: Oliver Tompkins, “A Personal Retrospect and Assessment” in: The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 40, No. 3-4, July-October 1988 (Geneva: World Council of Churches), p. 319.

Sermon 2 Easter Yr C

2 Easter Yr C, 11/04/2010

Rev 1:4-8

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Hope in times of persecution”

When life is full of one trouble after another, what do you need the most? If our government changed their policy from allowing religious freedom to a hostile one of persecuting Christianity—what message would be most appreciated in such circumstances? Well, in our second lesson today, the writer of Revelation, John, in exile on the Island of Patmos, is writing to the Christians in the Roman province of Asia. John was likely writing sometime in the 80s or 90s A.D. when Domitian was the Roman Emperor. Domitian insisted on his subjects worshipping him as lord and god. If Christians refused, they would be persecuted and killed.

John’s message is a little strange. Why? Because it is in the form of a letter, yet it is also, in part, a vision or dream or series of visions and dreams that John was given. The dreams and visions are full of symbols and written in symbolic language. John likely wrote it as an underground code language so that the Christians would receive it and understand it without the Revelation being censored or destroyed by the hostile Roman government. John wrote this apocalyptic literature to encourage the Christians in Asia and give them a message of hope in times of persecution. Even though they suffered under Caesar’s power, John said that they worshipped Christ who was more powerful than Caesar. The slavery and persecution of Caesar could not destroy them. Inside the persecuted Christians were free and could live freely under the power of Christ working in and through them.

People who believe that the powers of oppression have been defeated by the victory that Christ won in the resurrection can indeed live as free people. In his book Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink tells how members of the Solidarity movement claimed freedom even under Communist oppression in Poland:
Solidarity in Poland proved that Jesus’ nonviolent way could be lived even under circumstances of Communist oppression and martial law. People said to one another, in effect, “Start doing the things that you think should be done, and start being what you think society should become. Do you believe in freedom of speech? Then speak freely. Do you love the truth? Then tell it. Do you believe in an open society? Then act in the open. Do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely.” This behaviour actually caught on, leading to “an epidemic of freedom in a closed society.” By acting as if Poland were already free, Solidarity created a free country. The “as if” ceased to be pretense and became actuality. Within ten years, Solidarity had taken over the government.1

So, too, in the persecuted Church of the first century, the ancient Christians believed and lived “as if” ceased to be pretense and became actuality. The early Christians defied Caesar’s vainglorious lordship and divinity. Listen to the subversive language of John—making superior claims of Christ’s Lordship and Divinity.

John speaks of Christ as “the faithful witness.” In the Greek, the word for witness can also be translated as martyr. So John is referring, in a slightly veiled fashion, to Christ’s death on the Cross. Jesus was “faithful” in that he knew he was going to his most despised death on the Cross—having predicted it at least three times on his way to Jerusalem. If you’re like most folks, you would rather avoid such a cruel and indignant death if you were given the opportunity to do so. Not Jesus. Rather, he was “faithful,” willing and ready—insofar as anyone can humanly be ready—to face his suffering and death. John says Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s will led to him being a witness and/or martyr. The irony and economy of God is such that it reverses everything we, in our human nature value. Jesus was a witness, a martyr because of his faithful, innocent suffering and death. He was a witness to countless others down through the centuries who also would face untold sufferings and cruel deaths. Jesus’ death on the Cross continues to give strength and courage to those who suffer and die today due to injustices and the evil abuse of power. His death on the Cross also provides hope to the hopeless; those whom the world today could and does care less about; the forgotten ones living under oppressive regimes; the lost children and youth who are forced into military and sexual slavery, and drug addiction by evil predators, thugs and bullies. Jesus’ death on the Cross was also, and especially, for the least of these his brothers and sisters.

John goes on to make the claim that Jesus is “the first-born of the dead.” In this claim, John is referring to Christ’s resurrection and the hope that those who follow him shall also be resurrected from the dead. As the “first-born” he is the privileged and honoured One who conquered the powers of sin, death and evil by God raising him from the dead. The apostle Paul says that one of the inheritances of our baptism is that we too shall share in Christ’s death and resurrection. So, again, in response to this inheritance, we are free to live “as if” there is a resurrection in every death that we die. We die in countless ways as we journey through this life. However, death does not have the last word; Christ’s resurrection power transforms our deaths into new, resurrection life because he is the first-born of the dead. Moreover, as the first-born of the dead, he has, as we learn in John fourteen, gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us; waiting with open arms to welcome us into his resurrection presence. We have a foretaste of that already through the Church, the Word and the Sacraments, along with the communion/community of sinner-saints—delighting in each other’s company; you, me, and folks of every tribe and nation.

Another claim that John makes for Christ is that he is “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” In making this claim for Christ, John is saying that the exalted Christ is the highest authority over all other earthly authorities. The exalted Christ in heaven is King of kings and Lord of lords as a consequence of his all-sufficient victory over sin, death and the powers of evil. Reference to Christ being first-born and ruler of the kings of the earth is most likely based on Psalm 89:27, where we read: “I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” A close study of Revelation shows that John knew the Hebrew Bible thoroughly and quotes from it often, either implicitly or explicitly. This verse from Psalm 89 was interpreted by the Jewish rabbis to be a reference to the Messiah. So here John is saying that Jesus is the Messiah and he rules from heaven over the kings of the earth. Such a claim, once again, of course, is a challenge to the lordship and divinity of the Roman Emperor.

Continuing with the passage, John then moves from highlighting the claims of Christ’s Lordship and Divinity to describing what Christ has done for us. In Lutheran tradition, we are fond of saying to know Christ is to know and receive his benefits.

John says that Christ loves us. His love is perfect love. He is not a fickle, “fair-weather” lover—only in times of joy and success. No. His love is an everlasting love—it is always there for us. He loves us at our worst, at our best and every time between the two extremes. His love is an unconditional love. He does not say, ‘I’ll love you only if you do this or that and fulfill thus and so conditions. No. He loves us without placing any conditions on us. He says, ‘I love you because I love you, without conditions.

Another benefit John says that Christ does for us is he has “freed us from our sins by his blood.” In the Hebrew Bible, God told the Israelites to place the blood of a lamb on their doors; that blood would be seen by the angel of death who would then pass over that door and everyone in the house would be saved from death. Christ for us Christians is our Passover Lamb. His shed blood has atoned for our sins. Just as the Passover for the Israelites saved them from death and brought them freedom from Egyptian slavery; so Christ our Passover Lamb and his shed blood saves us and has freed us from slavery to our sins. We are now freed to love and serve God and neighbour thanks to Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross.

Yet another benefit Christ has given us John says is that he has “made us a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” That is a quotation of Exodus 19:6: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” Jesus has done two things for us.

He has given us royalty. Through him we may become the true sons (and daughters) of God; and, if we are sons (and daughters) of the King of kings, we are of lineage than which there can be none more royal.

He made us priests. The point is this. Under the old way, only the priest had the right of access to God. In the vision of the great days to come Isaiah said: “You shall be called the priests of the Lord” (Isaiah 61:6). In that day every one of the people would be a priest and have access to God. That is what John means; because of what Jesus Christ did access to the presence of God is now open to every (person).2 So for folks living under persecution, such benefits would be most uplifting and motivate them to live life to its fullest with courage and commitment to Christ, their risen Lord and Saviour. May it also be true for us today. Amen.  

1 Cited from: Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 265.

2 Cited from: Wm. Barclay, The Revelation of John: Volume 1 Chapters 1-5 (Burlington, ON: Welch Publishing Co., Inc., 1976), p. 35.