Us & Them & We

(Galatians 3:23-29; John 17:20-26)

Sun, July 10, 2016 – UBC Digby – J G White

Monday, I went to a family picnic and met some long-lost relatives.  I knew Grampie and a bunch of his family were to be at Port Maitland beach, so I found them.  I walked over to this group of, well, mostly strangers, and I was welcomed! There were three or four great-aunts and uncles I did know, and a couple cousins. But I got to meet a brother and sister of my grandfather I’d never met, plus several of my first cousins once removed, second cousins, etc.  I was immediately welcomed, even hugged by perfect strangers.  They fed me hot dogs and potato chips.  They laughed & told stories. We’re strangers no more.

That was, of course, an easy moment for Us and Them to become We.  We were family after all, the White family.  Some of us just had not met yet.  

Many other moments in life the ‘Us and Them’ doesn’t naturally become We.  We have plenty of ‘Us versus Them’ in our society, in our lives.

Politics in Canada, Great Britain, the United States, and everywhere, is always Us vs. Them, eh?  The tragic violence we have been hearing about this past week – shootings and the like – show the heart-breaking destruction of Us vs. Them.  The beauty of diversity and differences among us humans has a dark shadow of hatred and mistrust and competition.

How do ‘us and them’ become ‘we’?  Outsiders become insiders?  Strangers become friends?  It actually starts, as it did for me at Port Maitland beach the other day.  We start by learning that we already are made to be one by God.  And because of that, we are all more alike than different.

You are all one in Christ Jesus, wrote Paul to the Galatian believers.  Even among churches, there are such barriers and a lack of team spirit and family living.  Sometimes we Christians are so different from one another; sometimes the slightest small differences are the molehills we make into mountains.  I have had no contact, in two years, with the Pastor or people of the Bible Believers Baptist Church, near here.  One might expect various Baptists to get along, but sometimes the closer we are in name, the less cooperative we are.  We get to celebrate with Grace United today as they covenant with their new Minister.  Despite how different we may be from them – and some of you left them to become part of us – I trust that we are one in Christ.  One with Grace United, one with Bible Believers Baptist, etc.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  (G 3:28)  More than anything in this strongly worded letter, Paul is telling some congregations to be what they are: act like it!  Not telling them what to do to become one.  Telling them they ARE one – now be who you are.  

These are remarkable words of Paul.  Paul who wrote this letter as an early Christian missionary.  Paul who had been a Jew, even a religious expert in the law, and a Pharisee.  Paul who would know well the daily morning prayer of the Jews that thanked God that “Thou has not made me a Gentile, a slave or a woman.”  Paul turns this on its head with his statement.  Those age-old divisions are broken down by Christ crucified.  All are included.  All are one.

We remembered today, in that great prayer of Jesus recorded in John 17, that the Saviour, before He died, asked that all those who followed Him and His Way would be ONE.  As He and God the Father are One, so may they be one / we be one.

So know this… and live it.  Perhaps this begins with knowing the oneness God creates in us.  Then, taking steps to live together as one.  Knowing the lengths the Creator has gone to reconnect with humanity – the Jesus story – and remember that with everyone we ever meet.  

Lee Bilcher put out a little statement on July 4th:

So I am an American who lives in Canada, who is celebrating our Independence Day. Just a few days ago my brothers and sisters in Canada celebrated Canada Day. At the end of the day, do we serve someone whom is elected when an election is called or every four years? Aren’t we all citizens of heaven and serve the One [who] is the same yesterday, today and forever?

Indeed.  Amen!  Lee is remembering teachings like Philippians 3:20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.

We will not know every other citizen in heaven who lives in our own town with us.  We will not like every other citizen of Christ’s Kingdom we do know.  We will not get along perfectly with everyone else on Jesus’ team in Digby County.  Yet in Christ we can still remember and respect each one who is with Him.

The longing of believers for us to get along – and to get together – is sometimes a strong but sad longing.  We wish for cooperation and fellowship, but know it ain’t gonna happen.  A Canadian worship song I like a lot – which we might learn someday – is ‘Deep In Our Hearts,’ by John Oldham (1995).

Deep in our hearts there is a common vision;

Deep in our hearts there is a common song;

Deep in our hearts there is a common story,

Telling Creation that we are one.

Deep in our hearts there is a common purpose;

Deep in our hearts there is a common goal;

Deep in our hearts there is a common message,

Justice and peace in harmony.

Deep in our hearts there is a common longing;

Deep in our hearts there is a common theme;

Deep in our hearts there is a common current,

Flowing to freedom like a stream.

No matter what you are, what kind of person you are, you are:  Created by God.     Valuable to God.

Like all others. A hurting soul.  A hurter of souls.      

Can be saved by Grace thru faith in Jesus the Christ.

Relate to God the same way as all others.

There is amazing welcome, reconciliation, fellowship, cooperation, and ministry possible for people.  Not because of us; because of Christ.  But it takes our willingness to cooperate with what the Spirit of Jesus desires to do among us. In this world we shall be light.

Amid the violence and hurt between people that is so painful right now, or still aches from events long in the past, Christ can take us forward.  He may desire us to let go of prejudice and privileges we have, to be a brother or sister to others.  He may guide us to listen long and hard before we spout off our opinion, our answer.  Jesus may open our eyes to know the power and responsibility we have to make a difference in our society. You are the salt of the earth: light of the world

I met Mark Buchanan years ago on a Pastor’s trip to Bolivia. I soon learned he was not only a Baptist Pastor in British Columbia, at that time, but also the author a several good books.  

Mark wrote the feature article in Mosaic, the spring 2016 issue – our Canadian Baptist magazine.  Did some of you read his article, The Day I Stopped Driving By, about fellowship and ministry and reconciliation with First Peoples?  He ends the article with this story.

Ray Aldred is a Cree storyteller and Christian theologian, and a dear friend and colleague of Mark.  Recently, they both spoke at a church conference on missions.  They decided on the final evening of the conference to weave their talks together, back and forth, circling each other’s stories, building off each other’s insights.  It was like a tribal dance.  Obviously, they had to choreograph it.

“I think you should invite me up right at the start,” Ray said.  “I will honour the traditional occupants of the land and thank them for allowing us to be here.  And then I will pray with smoke.”

Praying with smoke is a Cree tradition (shared by many Plains Tribes) of burning sage or sweet grass  in an abalone shell(the fragrance of which bears an unnerving resemblance to cannabis), snuffing out the fire, and wafting the smoke, with an eagle feather, until its fragrance pervades the room, all the while inviting the Spirit to come from all four corners of the earth and, like the fragrance, fill the room.

Mark: “Um, ok.  You know people will freak out?”

“I know.” said Ray.  

“I’m good then.  Let’s do it.” said Mark.

So they did.  And people freaked out.

Mark was up next.  “I sense,” he said, “that many, if not most of you, are deeply uncomfortable with what just happened.  I’m going to ask you to do something with that: neither reject it nor embrace it. I’m inviting you, instead, to hold it in open, upturned, outstretched hands.” – he modeled this as he said it.  “And I’m asking that you give both Ray and me an honest hearing.”

That seemed to settle things down, and so Ray and Mark spoke, back and forth, moving in and out of each other’s space, doing their dance.  They talked about the broad sweep of the Canadian church and government relations with First Nations people throughout our shared history.  They talked about the tribal, ceremonial, and storytelling roots of biblical faith.  They talked about how the church had repeatedly missed opportunities with First peoples to share the full gospel in all its wild, profuse, subversive, scandalizing extravagant beauty and potency; had failed to incarnate the wide-open arms of God, and yet every once in a while had got it right.

By the end, Mark sensed a new readiness and openness among those present.  He stood on the platform and held out his open, upheld, outstretched hands.

“Some of you,” Mark said, “still aren’t sure what to do with what you saw earlier.  But I’m sensing that most of us – maybe all – want to be part of a new story.  We’ve heard enough of the old story to feel some appropriate guilt and shame and heartbreak.  But what use in getting stuck there?  Let’s resolve to create a different future.  I’m not even sure what the next step is, other than it involves a fierce ‘Yes’ to that different future, and unswerving commitment to write a new story.  If you want to be part of that, would you stand, and with open, upturned, outstretched hands, say to God, ‘Yes.’

As far as Mark could tell, the whole congregation stood.

Us and Them can become WE.  Thanks to God.  ‘There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, there is no longer European and Cree, there is no longer black and white; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are heirs according to the promise.’  

This is our Faith. That Jesus makes us Children of the family of God.  We can be Clothed with Christ.  The Us vs. Them become One, become We.  

No Foolish Faith

(Genesis 15:1-6; Galatians 3:1-14)

Sun, July 3, 2016 – UBC Digby – J G White

For two years or so, my wife, Sharon, has been learning to play the guitar.  In one series of lessons, Sharon happened to learn to play a classic teen tragedy song called Last Kiss, first recorded in 1961.  About a girlfriend killed in a car accident, the chorus asks: Oh where, oh where, can my baby be?

The Lord took her away from me

She’s gone to heaven, so I’ve got to be good

So I can see my baby when I leave this world.

Is that the Gospel?  The Good News?  “She’s gone to heaven, so I’ve got to be good, so I can see my baby when I leave this world.”

I’ve got to be good.  This is so inextricably bound to our cultural ideas of heaven and the afterlife.  But it does not quite sound like grace, the grace of God that comes to us through Jesus.  Do we get to heaven by doing enough good and avoiding enough wrong?  By obeying laws – the Ten Commandments; Jesus’ teachings? The Bible does speak of, after all:  the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.  For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: (Rom 2:5-6)

And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books.  And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. (Rev 20:12-13)

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. (Mtt 16:27)

No wonder people feel the weight of guilt at times, and strive to work their way into God’s good books, into God’s good graces, we might say.  But this legalistic way is not the real way to God, not the whole story.  Obeying God’s law is not the Gospel.

Paul wrote to his friends in Galatia with personal, passionate alarm:  You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? …Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? (Gal 3:1, 2)

Last week one person was able to join me to talk over the first half of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.  (Hopefully by the end of this month more of us can gather to talk over the whole book!)  Early in the story, in the long pilgrimage of the man named Christian, he carries an immense burden of shame and guilt on his back.  After being well-advised by a man named Evangelist, Christian gets let astray when he meets up with a fellow named Mr. Worldly Wiseman.  

Mr. Wiseman asks Christian what he is looking for.  “I know what I desire to obtain, stated Christian. What I desire is ease – to be eased of my heavy burden. . . Worldly began his advice: why, in that village over there, the one named Morality, there dwells a gentleman whose name is Legality. He’s a very judicious man with a good name, an individual who has skill to help people off with such burdens as yours are…”

Go to Mr. Legality, in the village of Morality. This route is off the path that Christian had been given by Evangelist.  When Christian is stalled on his journey when facing a dangerous spot, Mr. Evangelist finds him again, and warns him of this wrong path.

Evangelist says to him: This Legality, therefore, is not able to set you free from your Burden.  No one was as yet ever rid of one’s Burden by him; no, nor ever is like to be; for by the deeds of the Law no one living can be rid of one’s Burden. Therefore,  Mr. Worldly Wiseman is an alien, and Mr. Legality is a cheat. . . Believe me, there’s nothing in all this noise you’ve heard from this foolish man except a plan to cheat you of your salvation by turning you away from the Path in which I set you.”

The rest of the story – of the Gospel – includes the cross of Jesus.  His sacrifice for us.  He makes things right with God, and offers this righteousness to us.  Paul wrote to his friends:  For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse… Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”   

According to Paul, a life of striving to obey the rules is a foolish way.  So it was for Christian in the novel by John Bunyan.  The path of faith – of confidence in Jesus – is right, and is a more arduous journey than the path of trying to obey and earn one’s way to heaven.  Christian has a long way to go in getting to the Coelestial City.   But it is the right way.

Yet, when we step back and consider our own experiences a Christians, so many people have a stage in life of trying to be good for God, and working our way to heaven.

Back in the 5th century AD, St. Augustine wrote about the “4 States of Man”:

* The first state of man (the haec sunt prima) is “living according to the flesh — with reason making no resistance.” This is life without religion, and even without much for morals.

* The second state of a human is “recognition of sin through the Law . . . but sinning knowingly.”   This is the stage of knowing there is right and wrong, and knowing we do wrong.  

* The third state of a human is “faith in the help of God — but one perseveres in seeking to please God.”  This stage is common for Christians.  We give our heart to Jesus, so to speak, but we keep striving and struggling to live up to all the Bible tells us – still acting on our own – and the Bible tells us a lot on how to live!

* The fourth state of a human is “the full and perfect peace in God.” This we find in harmony with Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. At last, one is confident in the Saviour, and trusts in Jesus righteousness instead of one’s own goodness.  One’s goodness springs from the new life with God, not vice versa: not living good enough to live with God.  

Augustine continues, “Even the good merits and qualities which people may display toward one another are gifts from God. Every good quality comes from His grace. God’s mercy is the ground of salvation.” (The History of Doctrines, Reinhold Seeberg, p. 366)

So, we have the opportunity, to  bear witness to this grace of God.  Whenever someone does speak of being good – good enough for God – we know there is a better approach.  God is good enough.  It is this Amazing Grace everyone sings about.  It is the God who is Love, that people speak but don’t quite know.  “We love because God first loved us.” 1 John 4:19.  

We occasionally hear an old hymn about Jesus’s sacrifice at Calvary that begins with this stanza:

My song is love unknown, (Samuel Crossman, 1664)

my Savior’s love to me.

Love to the loveless shown,

that they might lovely be.

Oh, who am I that for my sake,

my Lord should take frail flesh and die?

God’s love for us is real when it is still unknown.   ‘My Saviour’s love to me.  Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.’  This fills out the Good News. R 5:8 tells us ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.’  

So, give good news to others.  The life of goodness is not a battle to behave well enough to be rewarded.  The good life is a gift from God – seen in Jesus and His story.  The real work of day-to-day life is to accept and receive the grace of God, instead of being independent.  Christianity takes effort, but not earning our way.

“God does not love you because you are good. God loves you because God is good.” – Richard Rohr.