Rev. Robert Campbell's Sermons
Agents of the Kingdom,
July 8, 2007 (PDF format)
the Past - For the Future, July 1, 2007 [Canada Day] (PDF format)
Gifts that Last, May 13, 2007 [Mother's Day] (PDF format)
The Surprising Values of Jesus, March 13, 2005
Thanks in All Things,
October 10, 2004
- As We Are, February 29, 2004
with the Spirit, January 11, 2004
Looking Forward in Hope,
November 30, 2003
Most Church I Ever Knew, November 23, 2003
New Passover, October 5, 2003
By Jesus? September 21, 2003
Up And Go, June 15, 2003
SURPRISING VALUES OF JESUS
March 13, 2005
It may be some comfort to us modern day disciples of Christ to know that
the original disciples had their flaws. They were folk of high ideals,
but mixed loyalties; devoted to Jesus, but distracted by the world; trying
to follow their teacher and master, but often making the wrong turn. In
reading Mark's gospel, you soon come to the conclusion that these men,
among other things, were not terribly perceptive. Time and again they
failed to understand Jesus' teachings, even when he explained things a
Now, the disciples' were slow to catch on because, quite simply, Jesus
represented something radically new, a way they had never before encountered.
Jesus was using his ministry to show what things were like when God's
will was actually done, not merely made the object of lip service. He
was using his ministry to reveal the kingdom of God as opposed to trying
to create yet another kingdom of this world. He was using his ministry
to introduce heaven to earth.
While the message of Christ was new, what the disciples understood was
the old and familiar, the wisdom and ways of the world. They marvelled
at Jesus' teaching, because he taught with authority; they were awed at
his miracles, because he displayed tremendous power; but they were neither
mentally nor spiritually ready to hear his proclamation that the kingdom
of God was at hand. It was not until the crucifixion and resurrection
had interpreted Jesus' ministry for them that they were able to grasp
what it had all been about.
Like the disciples, we are thoroughly schooled in the wisdom and ways
of the world. As with them, Christ's pronouncements still have the capacity
to sound radical to us. And his actions go beyond our understanding. So
it is we should expect our attitudes - the way we see things and what
we regard as natural - to be challenged by what Jesus says in this morning's
Here we encounter values of our Lord that, even now, have the capacity
to surprise and startle us. The first value is suffering. Jesus
predicted that suffering awaited him in Jerusalem. He said of the Son
of Man - an Old Testament title for the Messiah which he applied to himself
- "The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the
scribes, and they will condemn him to death;...[and] the Gentiles...will
mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him." Yet, despite
what he believed awaited him, Jesus pressed on towards that city. The
disciples were astonished. Why would the Master deliberately adopt a course
of action that would lead him into suffering? They had adopted the maxim
that suffering, though an ever-present danger in life, was something you
avoided if you possibly could. And while you might not be able to escape
illness or accident, you could certainly avoid delivering yourself into
the hands of your enemies.
The disciples would have understood more easily if Jesus had stayed in
the quiet, rural area of Galilee where he was popular and appreciated.
They would have understood it had he avoided Jerusalem, where the chief
priests and scribes whom he had alarmed could use their power to put him
away. One thing the twelve followers could clearly perceive was the almost
certainly disastrous consequence of bringing the campaign against the
elite right into the elite's own back yard. And Jesus also realized the
inevitability of suffering if he remained on a collision course with those
in society who possessed power. But he pressed on anyway, because he felt
his task of proclaiming God's kingdom could not be accomplished unless
he confronted those who stood in the way of God's kingdom.
So Jesus accepted suffering. Can we learn anything from this? Does his
suffering reveal anything about God to us? Well, one revelation is that
God is not aloof, removed, separated from our problems. God has not left
us alone and abandoned the world to its fate. Instead, God has chosen
to enter fully into our world, to become one of us, to experience what
we experience, to suffer as we suffer.
George Macdonald put it this way: "The Son of God suffered unto death,
not that men [and women] might not suffer, but that their sufferings might
be like his." Jesus shared in the wide range of human experience.
He endured emotional pain and humiliation. Remember those words from today's
lesson: "They will mock him, and spit upon him." He endured
physical pain: "They will...flog him and kill him." He knew
the pain of disappointment and broken dreams. And the pain of a teacher
whose disciples do not comprehend him. And the pain of loneliness, the
feeling of being utterly abandoned, even by God. The cross which bore
him, he carried heavily in his heart, and the record is that he shouted
out in his agony: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me."
Yet, these were not his last words. His last words were so striking for
one who had endured such suffering: "Father, into your hands I commit
my Spirit." He had come to realize that the Father was with him even
on the cross.
When life goes against us, it is so easy to feel alone and unregarded.
Yet, the experience of Jesus is that God can be found in the place where
life goes against us. He found that God is present, even in times of extreme
torment. His experience affirms that God is with us in our suffering C
not causing it, but working through it; not absenting Godsself from us,
but drawing us closer to Godsself. God is more than an eternal being.
An eternal being might be pretty apathetic about human beings. But God
is our Father, who, in Christ, suffers with us, cares for us, and reaches
out to us in love. As a great hymn of the church teaches us to sing: As
with a mother's tender hand, God gently leads the chosen band. This truly
is the good news of the gospel.
The second surprising value mentioned in today's gospel is service.
Again we see the values of the disciples in conflict with those of Jesus.
James and John who, with Peter, formed the inner circle, came to Jesus
and asked to sit one at his right hand and one at his left hand in his
glory. In a worldly sense, it was probably not an unreasonable request.
After all, as insiders, James and John were probably as close and as valuable
to Jesus as anyone. But Jesus did not deal with the request in worldly
terms. He explained that he was not in the business of meting out honour
and position. He even offered an antidote to the worldly standard. He
said: "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize
as their rulers lord it over them....But it is not so among you; but whoever
wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes
to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not
to be served, but to serve."
Now it is clear that Jesus is not talking about service here in a way
that the disciples would find easy to take, or that we would easily embrace.
When we think of service, we think of helping one another out. We think
of service clubs that do good work. We think of people taking on community
and recreational and church responsibilities. We serve by sitting on a
Board. We serve by coaching a team. We serve by canvassing for the Heart
Fund. We serve by organizing medical supplies for International H.O.P.E.
or conducting tenant interviews for the Westminster Housing Society. Of
course, this kind of service is necessary and invaluable. But when Jesus
talks about service, he carries it even further. For those who would be
great in the kingdom of God, service means being the servant or slave
of all, a concept Jesus once illustrated by talking a basin and towel
in hand and doing slave's work, washing the feet of his followers.
Jesus uses the word "slave." Slaves do not do things for their
masters because they feel like it, or out of the generosity of their hearts;
but rather because it is their duty and these things are required of them.
Slaves do not count themselves another's equal, but as inferior. Slaves
do not live for themselves, but for the other. Now, Jesus does not use
the word "slave" rhetorically. He is not exaggerating to make
a point. This is how he lived. When the king of heaven came to earth,
did he come as a celebrity with an entourage? Was he treated as royalty?
Did he take his place in society's elite? Did people defer to him? Was
he accorded great prestige? Did he make the list of the world's richest
billionaires? No. None of these things. Rather, we see a Galilean carpenter
who, to our knowledge, accumulated no clothes except the ones on his back,
and never held any formal position. This, frankly, did not matter to him.
What was crucial for him was to work the works of his Father and to do
that, the one thing truly necessary was that he live for others. "Slave"
is not too strong a word to describe his self-assessment.
In his ministry of service, Jesus has given us a glimpse, a portent, of
God's kingdom. In so doing, he has faced any who would follow him with
a decision. Can we remain content to affirm the customary social standards?
Can we be satisfied to concern ourselves primarily with being comfortable
in the world? Or will we expand our idea of service beyond its traditional
expression to embrace the idea of service as Jesus has put it into words
and actions? Will we accept God's kingdom, for there the mark of greatness
is indeed living not for oneself, but for others?
The third surprising value of Jesus encountered in this morning's gospel
is sacrifice. "The Son of Man came...to give his life as a
ransom for many." That Jesus should describe his purpose in life
in such terms was totally incomprehensible to the disciples. Another time
when he predicted the manner of his death, Peter took him aside and rebuked
him for talking like that. I suspect Christ's sacrifice sets our modern
age on edge as well.
It is not that we disregard sacrifice. We respect and honour it. I need
only point to the outpouring of grief and feeling this past week for the
four slain officers of our R.C.M.P.. However angered we might be at the
circumstances of their deaths, we find it necessary that those deaths
receive a fitting memorial. For it is clear that all the young men and
women who enter our police forces do so in the full knowledge that there
might come a day when they will be called upon to sacrifice life in fulfilling
the duty to serve and protect. Such a choice they have been prepared to
make. We honour that.
The people of Italy have been sharing an experience much like ours as
they have honoured memory the security agent who, in a fateful instant
in a barrage of gunfire, made the decision to throw his body over that
of the journalist whose release from the insurgents he had just secured,
saving her life by the offering of his own.
Such sacrifices we honour, but we would have equally wished that they
could have been avoided. With Jesus, things move to a different dimension
because, with him, we are not dealing with sacrifice as an awful possibility,
but a terrifying certainty. In any age it is hard to understand why somebody
would regard it as his mission in life - not the choice of a moment, but
his mission in life - to give up life for the benefit of others.
Yet, this is exactly what we are confronting here. And it must be said,
if the death of Christ on the cross cannot reach people, surely nothing
can. For those of us who can be moved by and respond to a genuine act
of self-giving love, let us well regard this: Jesus Christ saw that living
for others involved willingness to die for others. As he looked ahead
to his own death, he saw it not as an accident or tragedy but as an offering
by which people would be blessed. The disciples who seemed unable to comprehend
this before it happened, understood it well afterwards. For the three
of whom we have spoken today - Peter, James, and John - all eventually
gave their own lives in the service of Christ's cause. Any sacrifice,
great or small, that demonstrates outgoing love in the way that Jesus
did in his sacrificial life and death, is a mark of greatness in God's
Suffering, service, and sacrifice: these are values
of Jesus, ones which challenge our normal way of seeing and doing things.
They are perhaps easy to admire, but not so easy to adopt. Yet, if we
do break out of our conventional attitudes, and embrace these surprising
values, we may just find that their practice will lead us to the God whom
we seek and will give us the life abundant that Jesus said could be ours.
Rev. Robert Campbell,
Westminster Church, March 13, 2005.
THANKS IN ALL THINGS
October 10, 2004
"The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread,
and when he had given thanks,
he broke it, and said, 'This is my body which is for you.' "
- 1 Corinthians 11:23-24
It is thanksgiving. It is a time to be thankful and to give praise to
God for the many blessings bestowed upon us. It is a time for rejoicing
and celebration. The harvest of field and orchard and garden is in
or this year I suppose we should say, partly in and God has crowned
the year with bounty.
The second weekend in October, when families gather and, at some point,
sit down to the traditional turkey dinner, is a time to be thankful.
It is less clearly a time to feel thankful. Our feelings are often
governed by our circumstances.
Some of you might have strong reasons to feel thankful at this time. Perhaps
you have a healthy new child or grandchild. Perhaps a son or daughter
has landed a good job in the career of his or her choice. Perhaps an engagement
has taken place and you approve of those who are to be your in-laws. Perhaps
you are going to make a profit this year in your business or on your investments.
Perhaps, after years of effort and saving, you've been able to buy a new
home or cottage for yourself. Perhaps you are simply enjoying your health
and your work and your hobbies and your friends. If this is you, you have
reason to feel thankful this Thanksgiving Sunday.
But surely there are others whose circumstances are different. Perhaps
you are experiencing strife in your home. Perhaps you have a son or daughter
who is living dangerously, frittering away life and its opportunities.
Perhaps you have a spouse or parent who refuses to understand you. Perhaps
there has been a death in your family and you are not finished grieving.
Perhaps your doctor has given you bad news about your health or your prospects.
Perhaps you're not going to make a profit this year. Perhaps you're just
holding on to the business or the practice by the skin of your teeth,
and you think you may lose it. Perhaps your job is insecure in this world
of globalization and outsourcing. If this is you, you may feel no thankfulness
So it is, friends, that if thanksgiving is simply a matter of reflecting
on the success we have enjoyed, the trouble we have avoided, or the wealth
we have accumulated, then it is not a celebration in which we may all
equally participate; for there are many of us who have not enjoyed success,
or have not avoided trouble, or have not accumulated wealth. And if thanksgiving
amounts to taking a day to block out of our minds the bad things that
have happened in order to make it easier to dwell on the good, then I
cannot see that the festival is very meaningful or helpful to us. For
if we have to turn our backs on certain realities in life in order to
give thanks, then how realistic is our thanksgiving?
For our thanksgiving to be authentic, we must be able to lift up our whole
year and everything in it in praise and blessing to God. In order for
it to be authentic, it must be inclusive praise, not selective praise.
Our thanksgiving must not merely select the good and eliminate the bad,
but must somehow take account of both. The apostle Paul puts it this way
in a letter to the Thessalonians: "Rejoice always, pray constantly,
give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ
Jesus for you."
Make no mistake, these are not easy words. It is a tall order to give
thanks in all circumstances. As we reflect on the dark moments of our
lives, we might say that it is impossible. Yet, Paul gave thanks in all
circumstances and I think we are aware that some of them were pretty harsh
- including the final one, imprisonment and martyrdom for his faith.
It is my conviction that what made it possible for Paul to give thanks
in all circumstances was the example of his Lord, Jesus Christ. For Jesus
did not confine his praise to the times when life was easy and progress
was satisfactory. He also gave thanks when life was hard and distressing.
The most notable and noble example of this is described in today's text.
Jesus is in the Upper Room with his disciples to observe the Passover
Feast. It is the night of his betrayal and the Lord knows that he has
been betrayed by one of his inner circle of followers. It is the night
before his death by crucifixion, and Jesus is well aware that this is
the fate that awaits him. The world is closing in on him. So what does
he do? Paul tells us: The Lord Jesus on the night that he was betrayed
took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said,
This is my body which is for you.
Jesus gave thanks. Facing the struggle of his life, he gave thanks. In
the midst of distress and sorrow, he gave thanks. Now, you might think,
that makes no sense. And I suppose you could search for explanations that
would allow you to discount Jesus behaviour.
You might reason that, in giving thanks, Jesus was just following a custom,
in the way we do when we ask the blessing, so we shouldnt read too
much into his act. Well, it is true that, before sharing the bread of
the Passover, it was the custom to say a prayer of thanksgiving to God
for his saving works in the life of Israel. So Jesus was following a custom,
but we know that he was never the type of person to stick to custom for
its own sake. When it seemed appropriate to heal on the sabbath, doing
work on a day of no work, he dispensed with custom. When it seemed appropriate
to challenge customary interpretations of the law, he did so.
As he felt free to depart from custom, we may assume that when he kept
to it, it was for a very good reason, that it was a deliberate and conscious
act. And so we may accept that, when in the Upper Room with disaster hovering,
Jesus gave thanks, he did it not merely because he had always done it,
but because it is right to give thanks in all circumstances.
Then again, you might want to argue that what Jesus did may have made
sense for him, but wouldn't for us. That he is in a different league from
us. That it would be easy for him to give thanks in situations where such
words would get stuck on our lips. But that idea is soon dispatched when
we see his struggle and emotional turmoil when he prays in the Garden
of Gethsemane just before his arrest. No, it was not easy for him to give
Yet, he did it. Fully aware of the troubles that lay ahead, Jesus made
the decision that, in all circumstances, it is right to give thanks, and
he did this, consciously, genuinely, and sincerely.
For our Lord, thanksgiving was more than a feeling. Thanksgiving was
an attitude. For him, giving thanks was not just something you did
when you felt like it. It was something you made a policy to do all the
time, and he did it, even when facing humiliation and death.
One resource that makes thanksgiving possible is faith. On the
night he was betrayed, Jesus was able to give thanks because he had faith
in the providence of God. He had faith that God would provide him with
the strength he needed to face what he had to face and do what he had
to do. He possessed this faith because, as he looked back over the history
of his people, he saw that God had never failed to provide what was needed
to face the day. Indeed, on this sacred night, he celebrated the Passover,
commemorating the fact, that in Israel's darkest hour, God had lifted
his hand to deliver his people from their captivity in Egypt. And so,
in his own darkest hour, how could God fail to help him?
The same faith is ours to have as we remember what God has done. And we
have even more to remember. We recall a second Passover, when God passed
over our sins and Jesus willingly bore the burden of them instead, carrying
them to the cross and there atoning for them.
When we remember that the eternal things in our life, the things that
really matter, have been dealt with, accounted for, resolved, then we,
too, may find the faith that gives thanks in all circumstances.
Another resource that makes thanksgiving possible is hope. Jesus
gave thanks because he had hope. His own immediate prospects were poor,
but he hoped in the promises made by God's prophets that God's kingdom
would come and the faithful would participate in it.
There was no visible evidence of God's kingdom that night in the upper
room, when the enemies of God and the things that prevented a good life
for Gods people held sway. But Jesus knew that God is always working,
even in the time that seems the bleakest, and that his kingdom is growing,
even when it is heavily beset by foes. Jesus himself had told the parable
of the kingdom of God being like a seed growing secretly in the ground,
we know not where or how, invisible to our eyes, until suddenly it shoots
forth in all its glory.
On that dark night of his betrayal, Jesus could see no sign of the kingdom
of happiness, peace, and fulfilment, when all would be well with God's
people and sickness, despair, and crying would be no more. But he knew
that the kingdom was growing secretly and he took hope in that. He exercised
his hope by giving thanks.
Giving thanks in every circumstance is an act of faith and an act of hope.
May our thanksgiving be born out of these things today. If, in addition,
you happen to feel thankful, because the year has gone well and there
has been joy in your life, so much the better. But you will not always
feel thankful. Hard times will come and giving praise will not always
be the easiest thing in the world to do.
So you must pray for the faith and hope that will enable you, like our
Lord Jesus Christ, to know that in all things God will provide for you
and sustain you. And so it will be possible for you to give thanks in
Rev. Robert Campbell, Westminster United Church, October 10, 2004.
- AS WE ARE
Hebrews 2: 10-11a, 14-18; Luke 4:1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from
the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,
where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.@ - Luke 4:1-2
I want to begin today by paying you a compliment, which is, that all of
you have struggled, or are now struggling, with temptation. Now, while
you are thinking about whether or not you really want to accept that compliment,
I want to emphasize I am not talking about temptation in the trivial sense
of the word, such as when you say:
"I was tempted to pick up a couple of extra tins of tuna, because
the sale price was really good."
"I was tempted to write the Free Press to tell them what I thought
of that article."
"Mrs Brown's mincemeat tarts are so tempting, that it's hard to
keep from eating every one on the plate."
No, I mean word in the serious sense, as our Lord taught us to use it:
Lead us not into temptation. I mean the dark side of temptation,
as when we sing in the hymn, Abide With Me: "I need thy presence
every passing hour; What but thy grace can foil the tempter's power."
The temptation I am talking about is the magnetic pull into evil and self-destruction
and the destruction of others. The temptation I am talking about is the
urge, the need, to have something, or do something, in order to to satisfy
some overwhelming desire that, if given into, will result in some great
cost to ourselves or to others.
Now then, considered this way, is it really a compliment to say you are
struggling with temptation? I believe it is. To begin with, only good
people suffer from temptation. Bad people can do wrong without any difficulty.
It comes naturally to them. Good people actually have to be tempted to
do wrong. Temptation implies resistance to the wrong that is contemplated.
Temptation implies a war that is going on in an essentially clean heart.
Temptation becomes an issue where there is a clean heart that wants to
So the fact that you are struggling with temptation is not a sign of wickedness.
It is a sign of virtue. A sign that you are aware of good and evil, that
you can distinguish between the two.
Moreover, it is a compliment to say you are struggling with temptation
because you are keeping some very good company. Jesus Christ himself was
Now there is a strange resistance to this fact, interestingly enough,
in the church, of all places. The United Church, for example, produces
bulletin covers that many congregations use for their Sunday worship.
I came across one for the First Sunday in Lent. Printed prominently on
it was the todays text about Jesus being led into the wilderness
by the Holy Spirit; or I should say, part of it. The part about what happened
in the desert was left out. As if the words, "tempted by the devil"
were not to be spoken in polite company. Well, at least the text was not
rewritten to say, "Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness on a
journey of self-discovery."
Jesus Christ was tempted, but you would never know it by the way some
preachers tackle this passage from Luke. I once heard a sermon in which
the minister portrayed this event as one in which Jesus coolly and rationally
worked through the various options for conducting his ministry. The devil
was just some kind of literary device for raising the various choices
Jesus had to work through. The idea that Jesus might actually have sweated
or agonised over these choices seemed totally foreign to that minister.
Why the desire to reduce forty days in the desert to a forty-minute theology
class? Why the desire to treat this as an occasion where Jesus considered
a few policy alternatives rather than to see it as the struggle of his
life? Why treat this passage as a case of Jesus deciding what his ministry
will look like, rather than what it really is, which is a case of Jesus
fighting with the temptation to abandon his ministry before it even gets
Mel Gibson has just produced a movie that has provoked enormous controversy,
The Passion of the Christ. I saw it on Friday and will speak of
it later in Lent for it is a movie that is certainly commanding attention.
But todays passage puts me in mind of the last movie about Jesus
that caused such a firestorm of argument. That was Martin Scorcese's,
The Last Temptation of Christ. When it came out, Christians everywhere
were scandalized. Some of the resistance to the movie was quite understandable.
For the temptation it described was the desire of Jesus to come down off
the cross, get married to Mary Magdalene, make love, have children, live
a normal life. Well, you certainly cannot build that case without doing
violence to the accounts we read in the gospels. The movie was not faithful
to scripture and, for that matter, never pretended to be.
However, as I listened to people react to The Last Temptation,
and read some of the things that were said in print, I began to realise
that many, many Christians were distinctly uncomfortable about the idea
that Jesus might be tempted by anything at all. They were incredibly resistant
to the idea that Jesus might be vulnerable, struggling, wavering - human.
How would they have reacted to a movie that sought seriously to represent
the three real temptations, the spiritual warfare that went on in the
I began to be sad for Christians who would not allow Jesus to encounter
the devil, to have his humanity, to be tempted, who, even if they had
allowed that Jesus might have been tempted, would have ruled out from
the start any possibility of his being defeated! For they were denying
themselves some very good company in their own struggle against temptation.
I prefer to be with those Christians who accept Jesus as the letter to
the Hebrews presents him to us: "one who in every respect has been
tested as we are" (4:15).
Once we begin to understand Jesus' time in the wilderness as a struggle
in earnest, the passage helps us to understand some other things as well.
For one, it reminds us is that merely knowing something is wrong or harmful
to us or others, will not defeat the urge to do it. If something is wrong,
if it is harmful, why cant we just say "no" and find the
temptation gone? Why does the evil pull keep coming back? This has often
seemed to me to be an element of unfairness in life? Well, today's lesson
does not tell me life is fair. But, it does tell me Jesus had to endure
the very same thing.
Jesus knew right away that the thoughts being insinuated into him were
wrong. For every suggestion that he act selfishly, he was able to retort
a scripture quotation that rebuked the devil. But, by itself, that did
not solve the problem. If it had, Jesus would only have been in the wilderness
for forty minutes. He was there forty days. Knowing something was wrong
did not end the struggle for him any more than it does for us.
A second thing this passage may remind us is that we are all vulnerable
to temptations at different points. As I read carefully the three temptations
of Christ, I find I am somewhat tempted by one of them, but not at all
by the other two. I feel better knowing I do not have to struggle with
some of the things that beset him. The flip side of that is that I am
tempted where he is not.
We are tempted at different points. Some of us struggle with the urge
to sexual wrongdoing. Lust rages within us. For others, it's not a problem.
Some of us have no problem with drugs. For others they are a source of
perpetual temptation. Their very existence precipitates a life of struggle.
Some of us have no difficulty being as honest as the day is long. Others
are tempted to get ahead, to gain advantage, by doing dishonest things,
by cutting corners, by cheating, by theft. We are tempted at different
points, but we are all tempted at some point.
We are never tempted where we are strong, but always where we are weak.
That is simply because the adversary is resourceful. He will go where
it is easiest to break down resistance. That is the way he worked it with
Jesus. He would never have tempted Jesus with the possibility of sexual
impropriety. Jesus' problem was not self-control. That's pretty clear
from any basic reading of the gospels.
Instead, he tempted Jesus to grab for quick success in his ministry through
the way of bribery and power and show rather than to take the long road
of service and suffering and sacrifice. The Lord knows, Jesus wanted his
ministry to be a success. And the way the Father had ordained did seem
to have the smell of failure about it. The evil one knew where Jesus was
vulnerable. We can hardly expect that he will fail to know where we are
A third thing we are reminded by this passage is that, no matter how shameful
is the thing that tempts us, it can scarcely be more shameful than that
which tempted Jesus. Hollywood thought it had come up with something juicy
by suggesting that Jesus lusted after Mary Magdalene. Well, good grief.
The Bible contains something far juicier. Here, in Luke Chapter 4, we
have an account of Jesus being tempted to turn his back on his own Father,
to misuse his powers grievously, to set aside his humanity, to forsake
the very mission that brought him to earth in the first place, to become
a man for self rather than a man for others. He contemplated it and did
not reject it easily.
The deepest temptations which beset me, I am far too ashamed to talk about.
But I thank God that Jesus was not too ashamed to talk about his deepest
temptations with his disciples so that we might know of them today. It
tells me that the black space where I have to struggle has been shared
by my Saviour, who struggled there, too. So while I could not talk to
you about the temptations that shame me, I can say that I am not ashamed
to be tempted. I am in good company.
And if we are in good company, knowing that Jesus has been tempted as
we have, does that not tell us where we can look for resources to fight
temptation? Surely, Jesus' tactics in the struggle against temptation
can be our own.
How does Jesus fight the devil? Obviously, he does not attempt to defeat
him through the use of superhuman powers. He has just been tempted to
use his powers improperly. As soon as he tries to fight this battle using
them, he knows the devil will have him.
Moreover, Jesus does not attempt to overcome the devil by force of will,
by being the strong person, by relying on his own intestinal fortitude.
Clearly, that's not enough to beat temptation.
No, Jesus does battle with temptation by falling back on the Word of God.
Every time a tempting suggestion is made, Jesus is able to counter with
a passage that indicates the suggestion goes against the will and way
of God. Jesus draws on a resource that is outside of himself in order
to prepare for this conflict.
The Word of God in the scriptures has a way of clarifying the issues for
him. I shows how the devil's lie is a lie, how the arguments and persuasions
that temptation uses are not finally solid or sound.
The Word of God reminds Jesus that he is not alone in hearing the tempter's
alluring voice. The answers Jesus gives from the Old Testament show he
knows that the tempter is doing to him exactly what he did to the children
of Israel in their wilderness experience. The Word of God keeps Jesus
from being isolated, cut off from the experience of others in his struggle.
The Word gives him perspective, what a person most needs when temptation
is breathing down the neck and smothering the inclination to virtue.
If Jesus fought temptation using the resource of God's Word, why would
we try anything else? We may think that the Son of God could have an expertise
in the scriptures we could never match. But really, he had to learn the
scriptures just the way we do. He had about thirty years to learn them,
immerse himself in them, before battling what tempted him - less time
than most of us have had. If we will not use the resource Jesus employed
successfully, we will allow temptation the upper hand.
When I said at the beginning that those of us who are tempted - and surely
that is all of us -are keeping good company, I meant that Jesus has been
there, too, but, there is more to it. Because he has walked through the
wilderness, surely that means we need not walk through the wilderness
alone. The letter to the Hebrews says: "Because himself was tested
by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested"
(2:18). Not only is the weapon he used available to us, but he himself
is with us in the fight.
Rev. Robert Campbell, Westminster Church, February 29, 2004
WITH THE SPIRIT
January 11, 2004
Isaiah 42:1-4, Matthew 3:13-4:1, Acts 10:34-43
"How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with
the Holy Spirit and with power;
he went about doing good and healing all that were oppresses by the devil,
for God was with him." - Acts 10:38
A service of baptism is taking place in church. The acolyte pours the
water into the font and the minister begins to offer a prayer: Pour
out your Holy Spirit upon those presented here today, that they may have
power to do your will, and continue forever in the risen life of Christ.
At every service of baptism, there is a prayer for the Holy Spirit. At
every service of confirmation, there is a prayer for the Holy Spirit.
We offer such prayers because, at Christs baptism, the Holy Spirit
was powerfully present and poured out upon him.
But what do such prayers mean? What are we really asking for here? What
do we expect might happen in answer to such prayers? These are questions
Ive largely avoided over the years. Baptism in the Spirit is not
an easy subject, and Ive always worried that I would sound rather
vague and unclear in talking about it.
I know my hesitation is not shared by others. I once watched televangelist,
Jimmy Swaggart, holding forth on the Spirit before a large and expectant
congregation. He made it quite clear to them what they should expect in
answer to their prayers. If you have been baptized by the Holy Spirit,
he fairly shouted, you will unfailingly speak in tongues. And if
you do not speak in tongues you have not been baptized in the Holy Spirit.
A burst of applause and a chorus of "Amens" swept through the
room. This was clearly what the people wanted to hear.
That moment has always stayed with me, partly because of the fervent nature
of Mr Swaggart's declaration, partly because of the intense desire of
the crowd to believe what he was saying, and partly because there is not
one scintilla of biblical evidence to support his pronouncement. I kept
asking myself, "Why did he say that? Why did he insist on something
that not only is not supported by the Bible, but can be fairly easily
refuted with the use of appropriate biblical texts?"
When the apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians [Ch.14],
talks about speaking in tongues, he indicates that it is a gift of the
Spirit, and admits that it edifies and uplifts those who have that gift;
but he calls it the least of the gifts of the Spirit, for it benefits
only the person who has the gift. More to be cherished he says, are spiritual
gifts that are uplifting to the whole community of believers. And as for
talk that the ability to speak in tongues is the only sure evidence that
one has been baptized with the Holy Spirit, Paul would describe that as
Why, then, this amazing pronouncement from Jimmy Swaggart? I think it
has to do with a great desire amongst many in our time for a concrete,
personal, almost physical experience of God. We are living in a time when
that yearning is out there, and maybe, in here. A time when people respond
warmly to the word spirituality even as they turn a cold shoulder
to the word religion.
It is a time when many Christians crave the assurance that is more than
faith, but experience. In Mr. Swaggarts circle, that desire happens
to be channelled into a yearning for the gift of tongues. It is a gift
that is rated so highly because it is considered a concrete demonstration
that God is with you, that the Spirit is upon you. And so, though Paul
would say, "Earnestly desire the higher gifts," in some circles
this has become the highest gift.
It was easy for me to conclude that Mr Swaggart's pronouncements about
baptism in the Spirit, while perhaps well-intentioned, were certainly
wrong-headed. But, if his preaching does nothing else, it should challenge
those of us in a more mainstream tradition to begin to speak simply, biblically,
and clearly about baptism in the Spirit, because that is surely a gift
that we want for every Christian. Otherwise, why pray the prayer at the
Now, in this time when people are yearning for spiritual experiences,
I think the first word we have to say is a cautionary one. Baptism in
the Holy Spirit is not about "feeling the Spirit's presence."
As soon as you start talking this way there is the danger that you will
want to try to grab hold of the Spirit, possess this Heavenly Dove, manipulate
this Breath of God. It becomes a subtle breaking of the second commandment
in which God warned the children of Israel not to make any images and
You can create a spiritual atmosphere in worship, and should; you can
create in yourself a spirit that is open to God's Spirit, and you should;
but you cannot command the presence of God's Spirit; and above all you
must not think of the Holy Spirit primarily as a provider of spiritual
experiences, or as a confirmer of religious faith, or as the One who makes
you feel close to God.
Well, then, what is the purpose of the Spirit, and where do you find the
One whom Jesus called the Counsellor? To find an answer to these questions,
we might do well to consider how the Spirit operated in the life of our
Lord Jesus himself. There are many passages of scripture that speak of
his having received the Spirit.
We are prepared for this in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament.
For example, in the 42nd chapter of Isaiah we read:
my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have
put my Spirit upon him.
God places his Spirit
upon his chosen servant, and, of course, the church has always regarded
Jesus as the one in whom this prophecy was fulfilled.
Indeed, this is made explicit in the gospel accounts. For example, the
third chapter of Matthew has this to say about the occasion of Jesus'
the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending
like a dove, and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, 'This
is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'"
That Christ was Spirit-filled
was the conviction of the apostles who preached the good news during the
days of the early church. As we see in the tenth chapter of Acts, when
Peter spoke of the ministry of Jesus, he was sure to make reference to
anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power."
But why did Jesus
need the Spirit? Was it for his own edification and spirituality? Was
it to make him closer to God? We know of the closeness of the Son to the
Father; it shows in the way Jesus spoke of his Father in the gospels.
Was this why he was given the Spirit?
I think the answer is "no". It goes without saying that Jesus
had a great spiritual life, but it was not to give him such a deep spirituality
that the Spirit was bestowed upon him. At least, not if we are to believe
the passages we read today from Isaiah and Matthew and Acts. In each of
these passages the Spirits impact is decidedly practical and purposeful.
In Isaiah, the Spirit is placed upon God's servant so that the servant
might bring forth justice to the nations.
In Matthew the Spirit descends upon Jesus and then drives him into the
wilderness where he may plan his ministry.
In Acts, God anoints Jesus with the Spirit, and then Jesus goes about
doing good and healing.
It is pretty clear, in other words, that the Holy Spirit was bestowed
upon Jesus not for his own satisfaction, not that he might become a more
spiritual person, not to increase his faith, not to make him closer to
God, but so that he could do the work God planned for him:
to establish justice
to perform a ministry
to do good and
to heal the oppressed.
The Holy Spirit is
always connected in the gospels with the work that Christ does. He could
not have done it had the Spirit not supported him, had God not been with
him. Now, if all this is true of Jesus Christ, how could it not be true
of Christs followers? God gives his Spirit not primarily for personal
edification C as in speaking in tongues or other deep spiritual experiences
C but so that God's purposes and work may be accomplished.
Now, you and I know that, in one sense, the work of Jesus of Nazareth
is completed. He will never again perform a miracle, a healing, or utter
an inspired teaching. His work was the work of a specific time and place
C it is concluded. But the Spirit that empowered Jesus is working still.
When some important person, or someone who has influenced us greatly,
has passed on, we often say, so-and-so is dead, but that his or her spirit
lives on. We mean that this person has left behind something of value,
a contribution that continues to have an effect.
But with Jesus, when we say that he is at God's right hand in heaven,
but his Spirit (here with a capital S) carries on, we mean, not only that
everything Jesus of Nazareth did continues to have an impact, but more
importantly, that which empowered him may empower us; that which was bestowed
on him, may be bestowed upon us. If we follow our Christian calling to
be Christ's disciples and workers of his mission, we too will be empowered
by the Spirit.
Now, this is the opposite of the consumer approach to religion. Frequently,
people approach the church and the faith in the fashion of religious consumers,
looking for an experience that will provide them with spiritual satisfaction.
The desire of Christians for a sense of the Spirit's presence is often
the desire for a comforting and pleasing inner experience, a desire to
know that we are on the right track with God. Mr Swaggart's comments about
speaking in tongues as evidence of the Spirit's presence, is an example.
But the Spirit is not given, nor can the Spirit be grasped, for such purposes.
These are be by-products of the Spirit's presence, but if the Comforter
and Counsellor is among us it is primarily for other reasons.
That the Spirit is present is determined not by the emotional level of
our worship, nor by the feelings of inspiration we may get from time to
time in church, nor by the number of people who choose to sit in these
pews, nor by the busyness and hustle and bustle of church life.
There is but one guarantee of the Spirit's presence: that is that God's
people want to do God's work:
a work of establishing
just relationships between people and in society,
a work of speaking
peace to troubled consciences,
a work of comforting
a work of
healing the oppressed,
the kind of work
that was Christ's.
If God's people want
to do God's work, there will be a baptism of the Spirit. Gods Spirit
will be among them to empower that work.
So then, where might you find the Spirit? Well, in fact, you do not do
the finding. But, if youre about the work of God in the world, the
Spirit will find you.
Rev. Robert Campbell,
Preached January 11, 2004
FORWARD IN HOPE
November 30, 2003
Now when these things begin to take place,
stand up and raise your heads,
because your redemption is drawing near. - Luke 21:28
21st chapter of Luke, we hear Jesus talking in a language we are not used
to, and we have a hard time knowing what to make of it. He sounds as if
he has stepped out of that weird and fantastical book that concludes the
Bible, the Book of Revelation. Like the language of Revelation, the apocalyptic
language that trips off Jesus tongue in this chapter is the language
of upheaval, of the world being turned upside down. Were not sure
we understand it, and to the extent that we do, were not sure we
like it. For Jesus speaks of wars and rumours of wars, of nation rising
against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; of earthquakes, famines,
floods, plagues; of dreadful portents and signs in heaven; of fear and
foreboding about what is coming in the world.
This is not the reassuring language we come to church to hear on a Sunday
morning. But while it may not be reassuring, we cannot say that it is
unrealistic. When Jesus looks at the signs of his times and says to his
hearers that the world is not getting better and better, but that in many
ways things are falling apart, that the world is becoming unstuck and
unglued, do we not find echoes of our own world in what he says?
As we look to the future, we would like to envision a beneficent globalization
and healthy democracy and breaking out in all corners of the earth. What
faces us instead is the increasingly bloody confrontation of civilizations
and religions. As we scan the horizon, what we would like to see is peace
and prosperity for all the worlds peoples. What faces us instead
are violent upheavals, chaotic disturbances, epidemics: AIDS, SARS, and
more new threats undoubtedly to follow, some of them outsmarting our science
and our drugs.
When Jesus looks into the heavens and sees, there, signs of strange, cataclysmic
events, is his vivid, cosmic, apocalyptic language really so odd to us?
For we look at the heavens in our own time and see global warming, the
thinning of the ozone layers, ultraviolet light causing cancer of the
When you think of it, Luke 21 might well become the language of our time.
What better language than that of dreadful portents and great signs
from heaven to describe the devastation wrought by a military employing
the technology and tactics of shock and awe? What better language
than that of fear and foreboding to describe the misery and
hopelessness wrought by murder-suicide bombers blowing themselves up,
and as many as they can take with them, at bus-stops and restaurants and
synagogues and at the gates of embassies? This strange, explosive, its
bad-all-over biblical language seems confirmed by todays headlines.
How can you honestly look up into the heavens and not feel that the old
world is breaking apart?
But, just as you are ready to run for the hills, Jesus turns things around.
His analysis is ultimately favourable. He concludes his catalogue of what
is coming upon the world by saying: Then they will see the
Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when
these things take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption
is drawing near. Now, whatever exactly that means, if Jesus believes
that redemption is drawing near, he is not being pessimistic about the
future, but hopeful. Jesus looks at the signs of the times that would
cause so many to despair and he says that, on the contrary, these things
are coming to pass that you might intensify your hope.
What Jesus is doing here is use the language of apocalyptic to undermine
false hope and set peoples sights on true hope. To get the full
picture of how he does this, we have to go back to the beginning of the
chapter. There, we find Jesus teaching at the temple in Jerusalem just
days before his arrest. And the people he is speaking to are enamoured
with the temple, itself. They point out to Jesus that it is adorned with
beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God. This building is the glory
of their holy city, Jerusalem.
Now, Jesus understands where these people are coming from. He knows why
the people of Israel have placed their hope in the temple and everything
it stands for. It is to them the sign of Gods favour. It recalls
their glory days as a nation. It was David, their greatest king, who had
established Jerusalem on the mount of Zion, made it his capital, and dreamed
of building a house for God there. It was Davids son, Solomon, who
accomplished the task and built the temple. Those were the days of Israels
greatest wealth and territorial expansion.
The descendants of David and Solomon let it all slip away. While they
jockeyed for power, the kingdom suffered and was divided into two. The
northern half eventually succumbed to the Assyrians and, later on, the
southern half fell to the Babylonians, who sacked Jerusalem, razed the
temple to the ground, and carried off the brightest and best of the people
into exile. But, in the ways of great powers, the Babylonians were in
turn eclipsed by the Persians, who allowed the remnant of Israel to return
home. Those folk picked up the pieces by raising the walls of Jerusalem
and rebuilding the temple. And through several more periods of colonization,
the temple stood, right down until Jesus day. The Romans might appoint
the governor, but the people could still gather in Jerusalem and go to
the temple to practise their faith.
It was the great reminder of their past glory and the guarantor of their
future glory. But what does Jesus say about the temple? The days
will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown
down. And Jerusalem? When you see Jerusalem surrounded by
armies, then know that its desolation has come near...Jerusalem will be
trampled upon by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
Is it a wonder that the people turn on Jesus, who here foretells the destruction
of the great anchor of their faith? Who here takes that last crutch this
downtrodden and oppressed people have leaned upon, and pulls it out from
under them? But he has to do it. The walls of Jerusalem and the walls
of the temple, beautiful as they might be, redolent with history as they
undoubtedly are, in the end, no more than the product of human endeavour
and fulfilment of human aspirations, and as such are not capable of sustaining
ultimate hope. And it falls to Jesus to tell them this and to foretell
And the worst did indeed come to pass when the Romans destroyed city and
temple some thirty-five years after these words were spoken.
We are a people who can imagine what that experience must have been like
for the people of Israel, for we are a people who saw the twin towers
in New York come down. I remember sitting one day in the plaza of the
World Trade Center, looking up at those two massive towers, symbols of
Americas greatness, constructed to convey the message of might,
and wealth, and above all, of permanence. They looked as if they would
stand for ever. But, like the temple in Jerusalem they came down. The
works of man have no permanence.
Now, 9-11 was a great psychological blow to the people whose city and
whose nation was symbolized by those towers. Yet, that event did not materially
alter the distribution or balance of power in the world. But when the
temple in Jerusalem came down, it was as if the last thing those people
had was taken away.
And yet, the message of Jesus to his hearers is not one of despair, but
of precisely its opposite. He is saying to them, When you are at
the end of your tether, as you will be, God is not at the end of his.
It is precisely when you are at your extremity, when the world is quaking
underneath you, when fear and foreboding abounds, and everything is shaken,
that you should look up. And you will see the Son of Man coming
in a cloud with power and great glory...[and] your redemption...drawing
I dont know if this is the gospel Jesus listeners wanted to
hear, indeed, if it is the one we want to hear. We would far rather have
the gospel of shallow optimism: Things are getting better and better.
Technology has transformed our life. This the best of all possible worlds.
Instead, Jesus gives us the gospel of unadorned reality: This is not the
best of all possible worlds. It is a fallen world. A world you cannot
finally control or shape to your own ends. But, no matter how deep the
suffering, no matter how protracted the struggle, there is nothing in
this world that will prevent Gods redemption from drawing near.
How do we respond to this promise? I suppose there may be some of us who
do not feel we need it, who would rather take a pass on all this apocalyptic
language. I think you would have to be pretty insulated from life to take
this approach, but maybe there are some of us who fall into that category.
Some of us may get to sail through life with nary a worry about our work,
our families, our place in the world, dwelling all our days in peace and
safety in an untroubled country. Some of us may get to keep our health
and happiness and prosperity until the day we draw our dying breath. Maybe
those of us so lucky dont need a promise of something more from
But I think that is not most of us. Many of us will experience the shaking
of the foundations that Jesus describes. Many of us will endure the breakdown
of marriage and family despite the best of our efforts. Many of us will
face economic hardship because we cannot keep up with galloping globalization
or advancing technology. Many of us will endure catastrophic illness or
disability that will make us wonder how or if we will ever get through
it. Many of us will be up against situations where our own unaided human
effort simply will not do the trick. Perhaps that will make Jesus
promise of interest to us.
And even if we are lucky and do not find ourselves participating so directly
in the sufferings and sorrows of the world, many of us will become disheartened
as we witness the plight of those who do. Perhaps that will make his promise
of interest to us. It does to me.
I have been watching on television pictures of the carnage in the streets
of Istanbul, carnage that malignant men and women could bring to any citys
streets. I have read the story of the young girl in Baghdad who last week
persuaded her father to allow her to skip school and come to spend the
day in his workplace, only to die when a bomb went off just outside his
store and a piece of shrapnel caused her bottom half to disappear. I have
seen the images and I have read the stories and I am ready to look up
and see the Son of Man coming in a cloud and to know that
redemption is drawing near.
Im ready to embrace the promise that Gods kingdom will come,
that Gods will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven, that the
world will not stagger for ever under a burden of sorrow and suffer for
ever in its fallen ways, that humanitys yearning for something better
than it can manage in its own strength will be fulfilled. Im ready
to embrace that promise. Perhaps you are, too.
But what right do we have to trust the promise? Luke evidently expected
its fulfilment in his own time. But his hope did not come to pass the
way he expected. His generation passed away, and the Son of Man had not
come and the redemption had not occurred. Many generations have now come
and gone and we still await the coming of the Son of Man.
It is often said that Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
and there are those who have ceased to follow the way of Christ because
they think these promises have failed and these hopes have been dashed
forever. And so I ask, in the face of the worlds long wait, what
right do we have to expect the fulfilment of the promise that Jesus makes
in Luke 21?
This goes to the core of our faith. If Jesus story ends with the
crucifixion that was hastened, if not precipitated by these words that
he spoke the temple, then we have no right to expect it at all, no right
to expect that life will be anything other than an endless struggle with
bitterness for many individuals, communities, and nations.
But if the story ends with resurrection and ascension and the pouring
out of the Spirit of the Father and of the Son upon the church to keep
alive faith and hope in the promise, then we have every right to expect
We dont pray, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done as
a people of the cross only, but as a people of the cross and empty tomb.
We pray these words as an act of confidence in the God who on the Sunday
after Friday demonstrated he has what it takes to shake the earth to its
foundations and to remake it.
Reflecting on the event of Easter, James F. Kay, who teaches preachers
at Princeton Seminary, is prompted to say:
If the Gospel is
good news, it is not because it predicts a bright, shiny future based
on our morality or piety. The Gospel is neither a cocoon that insulates
us from the sufferings of this present age nor a pair of ear plugs that
shuts out the groaning of creation...The Gospel is good news, not because
it predicts a future based on our good behavior or other present trends;
the gospel is Good News because it promises a future based on Gods
faithfulness to Jesus Christ. 1
the one who entered into this creation with us, the one who stands beside
us, even through suffering and death, turns out to be the very one who
is the promised Son of Man who will come with clouds of glory. The glorious,
all-powerful, Son of Man is the same Suffering Servant who died for us
on a cross and rose for us from the tomb. So while we do not know what
the future holds, we do know who holds the future. We have a future and
it belongs to him.
That is why we are called to live today with confidence and not with fear.
We do not have confidence because we know exactly what tomorrow will look
like. We have confidence because we know that, in Jesus Christ, God does
not give up on the world. No horrible wrong that we might commit is beyond
Gods gracious power to redeem. No horrible disaster that might befall
us is beyond Gods compassionate power to set right. He will not
leave us to our own devices. Having come to us in Jesus of Nazareth, God
promises to come among us as the great Son of Man, seated on the clouds,
to rule the world. And when we see his face, we will find it is none other
than the face we met in the babe of Bethlehem.2
* * * * *
these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because
your redemption is drawing near. With these words, Jesus gives us
a hope that, whatever might happen in the meantime, no matter how long
the meantime may last, the final outcome of life is guaranteed; that the
last word on earth, as it is in heaven, will lie with light and not with
darkness, with good and not with evil, with life and not with death. He
gives us a hope that invites us to defy darkness, evil, and death and
to live for light, goodness, and life. He gives us a hope to conquer despair
and nerve us with the encouragement to persevere in faith and in love.3
And so, friends, let us look forward, and let us live forward, in this
Robert Campbell, Westminster Church, November 30, 2003.
1James F. Kay, The
Seasons of Grace, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p.7.
2Adapted from William Willimon, Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending,
in Pulpit Resource, November 30, 1997, p.35.
3Adapted from Stephen B. Dawes, Advent; Despair or Hope? in Expository
Times, October 2003, p. 25.
Most Church I Ever Knew
November 23, 2003
year theme of our 2003 Stewardship Campaign is Proud of Our Past
X Confident of Our Future. That is a good theme. We know that in
many ways we have a distinguished past. This is so because the people
of Westminster have lived up to the statement that this building makes.
As you walk or drive by this church, the great greystone facade, with
its majestic towers, says to you, "Cathedral". And it is the
nature of a cathedral to be a church not just for its own members, but
for everybody, to be a church where those who will never have their name
on the rolls can still feel a sense of ownership, of belonging C that
this is their place, too. And through the years Westminsters doors
have always been wide open to the community.
Come inside, and the majesty of the sandstone gives way to the softly-arched
auditorium with its warmly curved pews. This sanctuary says, "Meeting
Place." And it has been a place where the gathered community has
been nurtured and nourished, where our members have become a family, and
have been privileged to share their life with folk from every part of
the world who have come to join us in worship on a Sunday morning.
Up front, the choir loft nestled in front of this magnificent and magnificently
displayed organ says, "A home for music." I dont need
to tell you how true we have been to that calling.
Down front, the central pulpit, reaching out into the congregation says,
"A crucible for preaching." We have sought to maintain that
tradition as well.
And the windows, the two great nave windows and the rose window in the
balcony, which let the light of God stream in through the symbols of each
of the uniting churches, symbols anticipating the union that was still
thirteen years away when this church was built, these windows say, "In
our diversity, unity." And, at its best, Westminster has been a church
that has enabled people of different religious and social backgrounds
and points of view to find a common bond.
The character of this building has helped to shape the character of its
people, and their efforts have bequeathed us a past of which to be proud.
Some of those people are the big names who went on to greater glory. I
think, as did Dr. Harland last Sunday, of John Sutherland Bonnell whose
preaching gave hope, encouragement, and healing to a generation scarred
by the depression. What a great feeling it gave me to visit the Fifth
Avenue Church in New York City, that great cathedral of American Presbyterianism,
and to see his picture on the wall, and to know that it was here with
the folk of Westminster, that he learned, and grew, and prepared for a
marvellous and wide-ranging ministry in that city.
I think of Ernest Marshall Howse, whose columns I used to read every Saturday
in the Toronto Star when, as a prairie boy, I was studying theology in
that city. By then, of course, he was a past moderator of the United Church
of Canada. Think of all the initiatives and adventures undertaken during
his pastorate, what he did for this congregation, but think also of what
this congregation did for him in helping him to prepare to offer his talents
on a wider scene.
I think of Lois Wilson, recently a member of the Senate, also a moderator
of our United Church, a president of the World Council of Churches, and,
of course, a candidate for the ministry from Westminster. I think of how
she typifies the broader view, the imperative for outreach, and the concern
for justice and wholeness in the world that has characterized this congregation
in its best moments.
I think of these famous people, but I think also of the not-so-famous
Westminsterites who have given their time, worked hard, served dutifully,
offered a hand, imparted encouragement and hope on behalf of this congregation.
So many wonderful ideas have come out of this church, many of them now
widespread in society C the aid and settlement of refugees, day care for
school children, affordable housing for the poor. But it took ordinary
people, accepting the challenge, devoting their energy, giving hours and
hours of time, to make these things come to pass.
I love the stories of our ordinary members who have made their spiritual
sacrifice to God through this congregation.
I think of Bob Jeske, giving up every Sunday afternoon to come and open
up the church for the young people of the area so they could play in the
gym and have something constructive to do.
I think of Dorothy Russell, who for forty years co-ordinated the contribution
of baby layettes to the north end mission on Stella Avenue. The mitten
tree in the narthex is a fine memorial to her, for she was the one always
saw to it that wool was given out to our knitters to make up items for
the Christmas Cheer Boards hampers. She was the one who made sure
there were enough knitted toques, mitts, and sweaters to meet the demand
of children going to Mulvey School.
I think of Peter Bennett and his ministry of greeting at the front door.
So many people who found their way into this church on a Sunday morning
report that the warmth and personal nature of his welcome was decisive
for them in the decision to stay and become a part of the congregation.
I think of the three marvellous ladies whom we have lost in the last month,
Marjorie Roberts, Olive Wright, and Doris Hetland. Their loyalty to this
community and their gracious and committed service made me glad to be
associated with Westminster.
We have a past of which to be proud. And now we look to the future.
And I ask this morning, what gives us the right to be as confident of
our future as we are proud of our past? Surely, it is a matter of continuing
to be faithful to our old calling in whatever ways a new century demands.
Even in changing times, we dont need to reinvent the wheel, but
we do need to be remembering and, if necessary, rediscovering, what have
been the authentic marks of the church from its earliest days.
If we look to the New Testament, and read the story of the church when
it was young, very much a minority, sometimes even a persecuted minority,
without the social supports that go with being an established religion,
without any status in the world, without much property or wealth, we find
it nevertheless held a hope that made it supremely confident of its future.
The early church may have been small but it was clearly confident.
And as you read through its story, you find three things that marked what
the church was and did, three things that need to remain central in its
life today. These marks are preserved for us in three Greek words. Now
we dont all need to be able to read the New Testament in the original
Greek, but we would do well to know these words.
The first mark of the church is kerygma. It means preaching, proclamation,
an announcement. Its the telling of an old, old story while singing
a new, new song.
Now, friends, I know how preaching has become a bad word in some circles
and how "preachy" has become a label to avoid. Yet, proclamation
is our first responsibility, because it is the first thing our Lord did.
Before Jesus did anything else, he preached. It's the first thing the
gospel writers say about him. And the result of that preaching? The people
came in droves. They just kept coming because of his good, fresh, clean
word. It addressed and spoke to their needs and their hearts. They were
touched. For he had a lot to say to the lives that they were living. And
his preaching challenged their presuppositions. It made them human.
When Jesus kerygma, Jesus word, settled into their lives,
it led to the discovery of other words. The prodigal son found the word
home when he thought he had lost it forever. In a jail cell, sentenced
to death, thinking his time was coming to an end, Paul found the word
peace. In a jail cell! Simon Peter, after the crucifixion, after he had
lied and betrayed the best and brightest he had ever known C Peter found
a word: Forgiveness. Zacchaeus C short, despised, hated by his own people,
a tax collector C turning his back on his own kind, but called down from
the treetops by Jesus who said, "I'm going to dine in your house,
today" C Zacchaeus discovered the word I. I am somebody. And all
over the Mediterranean world, in Corinth and Galatia and Ephesus and Jerusalem
and Philippi and even in Rome, they began to discover this marvellous
word church. It was good thing. A special place where people were healed
and changed and forgiven and stretched.
This all arose out of the kerygma, spoken first by Jesus, and later spoken
about him. It arose out of the proclamation of the good news that had
been enfleshed in his life: the cleanest, dearest, most generous life
they had ever witnessed.
This is Stewardship time at Westminster Church and today you have an opportunity
to do something with a pledge card C to make an estimate of your givings
for the coming year. There will be a card for each of our members, but
there will also be some cards produced without a name on them in the hope
that those new to the church will want to take a card and make a pledge.
The pledge card you will receive is a challenge to help us keep the word
kerygma strong and sure in this place.
Preaching. Telling a story. Speaking good news. We do it on Sundays in
word and in hymns and in anthems and through sacraments and through Sunday
School. There is a cost to these things, but when we bear this cost, people
can encounter a good word. In a broader sense, we do this work through
the week as well. That is what this building is all about. Do you have
idea how busy this place is? There is something going on all the time.
Here, in this building, the church is making something good happen, or
making it possible for something good to happen. There is a cost to this
as well, reflected in some pretty interesting utility bills. But when
we bear this cost, people find a word that is not much in evidence elsewhere
in society. A word that tells them: You count. You can make a difference.
God loves you. Kerygma.
The second mark of the church is koinonia. Koinonia means fellowship C
but fellowship that's more than the fellowship we usually mean when we
use that word. It doesn't just mean the church pot-luck supper, though
thats part of it. It doesn't just mean the Sunday morning coffee
time with everybody enjoying everybody else's company, though thats
part of it. It doesn't just mean the good feeling we have when we all
agree with each other, though thats part of it. It's more. And we
would lose something if we were to settle for just the sunny side of fellowship.
We need to find the costly side as well.
For koinonia means "to take in" C period, without qualifications.
It means "to embrace." Koinonia means enjoying one another when
we are getting along, but sticking with one another when we are not. Koinonia
means showing hospitality when its easy, but also showing hospitality
when its hard. Koinonia means there is a place here for everybody
who loves the Lord Jesus, irrespective of how much or how little we might
like them. Koinonia is a for better or for worse kind of thing, because
now we are a family in the Lord.
When we make koinonia a daily part of who we are, we create a force field
of love in this world, that changes lives in ways we might never imagine.
I was talking the other day with a retired United Church minister in our
city named Don Hilton. He started out in a different denomination and
when he enrolled in university, he went to a church of that denomination
not far from here. He was scarcely taken notice of. He was clearly unimportant
and did not matter. After one service he asked an usher if he might meet
the minister and was advised that the minister would certainly be too
busy to see him, but that he might make an appointment to see the ministers
One Sunday Don elected to come here and see what was inside this place.
He was warmly welcomed by an usher who took him to his pew. After the
service, the same usher took him and some other young people to meet the
minister, Dr. Howse, who had a conversation with them and invited them
to the youth group meeting that night. Don Hilton discovered a completely
different atmosphere here from what he was used to. And it wasnt
long before he was a member of the United Church and studying for the
ministry. He gives credit to Westminster for that turn in his life. You
might say that he got the call through the koinonia he found here.
The church budget exists to facilitate koinonia. I want to be very clear.
In a world in which some people think they dont matter, it is our
business to let them know that they do. And in a world of deep divisions
and enormous chasms, it is our business to build some bridges. And in
a world that in many ways has become so rootless, with relationships so
temporary, it is our business to help people find home. So we ask you
to help Westminster keep hammering out the meaning of this word, koinonia,
and to ensure that it is always a mark of our church.
The third mark of an authentic church is diakonia. That means to serve.
Service is a word that seems to be fast disappearing in our world of instant
tellers and bagging your own groceries and pumping your own gas and rarely
getting a real live human being on the other end of the line. But it is
a word that must remain alive in the church.
Diakonia. It does not mean to serve the church. It means the church serves
the world. It means that we make the world better by what we do and who
we are. And the good news is that everybody is a part of that. Everybody.
Like the little boy, we take our loaves and fishes C just the little bit
that we can bring C and we give it to Jesus and we stand back and watch
a miracle happen. That's what this pledge card is all about. It's doing
your part and standing back and watching the miracle happen.
This is the time of year when the Budget and Management Committee pours
over the figures of givings and expenses and struggles to find a balance.
It is the time when they work out our budget for the coming. I hope your
response to the Stewardship Campaign will enable them to stretch that
budget so that we can serve more.
We at Westminster are in a position to do this because others before us
have given in the spirit of diakonia. A generation before ours built this
building and sacrificed to pay the mortgage, so that, today, there no
line for the banker in our budget. A generation before ours, and some
of our own generation, have contributed generously to the Westminster
Foundation so that, when we need a new roof, or to have the sanctuary
repainted, or the stained glass windows repaired, you do not need to dig
into your pockets a second time, because those costs will be covered.
Because others before us have known the meaning of service, and have given
in that spirit, we now have more financial freedom than many congregations
in this city to stretch our budget in the direction of service.
Whether it happens will depend upon each of us and what we do at this
stewardship time. Your gift, symbolized by this pledge card, is important.
It helps us turn outward C in love and service C to do more than think
about ourselves, but also about others.
What exactly our diakonia, our service, will look like in the future,
I do not know. That will depend on how our particular collection of talents,
abilities, connections, and interests rub up against the needs and opportunities
we can identify in our community and, indeed, across the world. I would
only say this: that our service needs to continue to be modelled upon
that of the one whom we follow as Lord.
We have worked hard as a congregation in the cause of affordable housing
because we follow a Lord who had nowhere to lay his head.
We have sought to welcome and assist the refugee because we follow a Lord
who himself became a refugee within days of his birth when his life was
sought by a wicked king.
We have sought to provide the medical means of healing and hope to the
distressed in Africa and Latin America and the Ukraine because we follow
a Lord whose ministry was most marked by the healing of disease and the
restoration of dignity.
And so long as we continue to let our communal life be moulded by our
Lord Jesus, we can trust that he will show us where our service lies.
* * * *
end of a long and distinguished ministry a great preacher and teacher,
Carlyle Marney, told his church in North Carolina on his last Sunday with
them: "You were the most church I ever, ever knew." Every minister
would love to be able to say that about the church he or she serves, and
I'm sure every layperson would love to be able to say that about the congregation
of which he or she is a part.
How could this church be the most church? I think by keeping at the centre
our life those three Greek words that come to us out of the life of the
Kerygma = preaching a good news that is for everybody.
Koinonia = fellowship. A circle that takes everybody in and makes
a place for them.
Diakonia = service. To each other and to the whole wide world that
For the sake of a confident future for our church, I want you to think
about these words this stewardship season. When you fill out your card,
I want you to imagine what you can do to help these words to be strong
and well-used in this place. And as you remember this church and these
people in your prayers, ask God to help us to make this the most church
we ever knew.
Rev. Robert Campbell, Westminster Church, November 23, 2003.
For the inspiration to focus on the marks of the church revealed in
the words kerygma, koinonia, and diakonia, I am indebted to my friend
in ministry and fellow scholar at the Princeton Institute of Theology,
Rev. Roger Lovette of Birmingham, Alabama. It is from Roger, also, that
I heard the story of Carlyle Marney's last Sunday
NEW PASSOVER; A Communion Meditation
5, 2003, Exodus 12:1-14
Jesus last act of ministry was to keep the Passover with his disciples.
The Passover, or Feast of Unleavened Bread, was the central liturgical
act in the Jewish religion. Through it, the children of Israel remembered
how God delivered them from slavery in Egypt. Now at some point in the
feast, the words that we heard this morning from the Book of Exodus, which
tell of the institution of the Passover, would have been read, or at least,
recalled. I wonder how Jesus and his disciples would have coped with those
words, for as I read them, two things struck me. The first was the sheer
bloodiness of this event: the instruction for each family to slaughter
a lamb; and for the whole congregation of Israelites to do it together
in a great assembly; followed by the smearing of the lambs' blood on the
two doorposts and lintel of each Israelite house. This sort of thing seems
grotesque to the middle class 20th century mind. How would it have seemed
to Jesus and his disciples?
The second was the horror of the act for which the Passover was named,
the passing over of the Israelite houses while the first- born of the
Egyptians, not just of their royalty and generals, but of their humblest
citizens, even prisoners, are struck down; the last of ten plagues to
force the Egyptian Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go. That the innocent
must die so that the oppressed might go free, seems to me a situation
fraught with tragedy. I wonder what Jesus and his disciples made of it.
Now I realize that I do not read this passage with the memory of those
who had been oppressed in Egypt, used as slave labour to build the great
cites, and treated harshly. I do not read it with the outrage of those
who remembered Pharaoh's decree that "Every boy that is born to the
Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile." I do not come to the passage
with vengeance in my heart, regarding the destruction of the Egyptian
first-born as an evenning of the score and as punishment richly deserved.
Not standing on the same ground as the oppressed Israelites, I find myself
asking, was the death of the innocent really necessary? Particularly when
it is attributed to God? Some theologians argue that it was. They say
that, given Pharaoh's attempt to claim Israel's children, only God's counterclaim,
only God's assertion of authority over the Egyptian people, only this
demonstration that the first-born belong to the Lord, not to Egypt's gods,
would finally be enough to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.
But I wonder if there was no other way than through the suffering of the
innocent. It is heartening that the people of Israel are finally about
to secure their release, but I find myself taken aback, even indignant,
on account of the tragedy that has befallen the Egyptians. And I wonder
what Jesus made of the Passover, this commemoration not only of release
and freedom, but also of bloodshed and death.
Well, the answer is that what Jesus made of the Passover is a new Passover,
marked by a meal which celebrates release and freedom secured at the cost
of bloodshed and death. The history recalled in our meal parallels the
history recalled in their meal. Jesus, in celebrating the Passover, gave
it new words and a new focus, but some things did not change. As with
the Passover, the Lord's Supper is focused on the shedding of blood, though
now it is not the blood of lambs that is spilled out, it is the blood
of the Lamb, the blood of Jesus himself. As in the Passover, the first
born dies, though now it is not the death of the Egyptian first-born,
but the death of God's first-born. And as in the Passover, it is the innocent
one who pays the price of freedom, though it is not the freedom of the
Hebrews we are talking of here, but our own freedom from sin.
So then, if the Passover seems a gruesome business, why does Communion
not? Is it because of the way we celebrate the Sacrament? I find myself
as a minister trying to do what I observed in church as a child; that
is to conduct communion with dignity and reserve and solemnity, trying
to infuse a devotional quality into this liturgical act; trying to make
it a beautiful service. That is always the way I've seen it done. Could
it be that the way we do it dulls the sharp edge of the events that we
are commemorating, re-enacting, reliving here? Or is it that the words
themselves, because they have been repeated so often, no longer sound
discordant but lovely? Why is it not troubling and terrible to hear him
say over the bread, "This is my body, broken for you?" Why is
it not appalling to hear him say as he lifts the cup, "This is my
blood which is poured out for many?"
Actually, some folk in the church are troubled by what they have heard
in the Sacrament of Communion and they would like to see the service altered.
They want to keep the meal but to remove from it the images of suffering
and death. I have attended Communion services in which this meal has been
detached from the event of the cross; where the prayer of thanksgiving
made no reference to Christ's sacrificial offering, but spoke rather of
Jesus' teaching or his passion for justice or his vision of a new humanity;
where the words of institution were not spoken. When the bread was broken,
we did not hear, "The body of Christ, broken for you," but simply,
"The bread of life." When the cup was lifted it was not, "The
blood of Christ, shed for you," but simply, "The cup of life."
Such an approach avoids the gruesomeness of Jesus' end. The only problem
is that Jesus Christ is having nothing to do with it. When he gave us
this meal, it was not to represent and lift up humankind's highest and
noblest aspirations and hopes. It was to represent the fact that God makes
common cause with our world of frequent compromises with evil, continuing
brutality, and sin ever at our doorsteps. When he instituted this meal
and gave it its form and focus, he clearly intended that our gathering
at this Table would be a gathering at the foot of the cross. And so, at
the heart of our religion we find ourselves having to contend with the
condemnation of the righteous, and murder by the state, and the sacrifice
of the first-born, and the death of the innocent.
And while that is not comforting, it is a realistic. For the intrigue
of evil and the shedding of innocent blood are facts of life in this world.
And a sacrament that spoke merely platitudes and offered only niceties
would ultimately have little to say or offer to such a world.
Consider this: The first Passover was observed in a world where Pharaoh
tried to kill all the first born of the Israelites, and the Israelites
escaped only after the first born of the Egyptians were dead. How far
have we come from that world? How far have we travelled in 4,000 years?
I read something a decade ago that was so chilling I cannot get it out
of my head. It was during the civil war in Bosnia when the city of Sarajevo
was under siege. It was calculated that 40 to 50% of all the people killed
in Sarajevo by snipers during the conflict were children. We are not talking
here about children who were unfortunate enough to be in the way of an
indiscriminate mortar shell, as horrible as that is. We are talking about
children who were actually lined up in somebody's sights. The person who
pulled the trigger knew exactly who he was killing. Oh, we are indeed
a fallen world, and the hard heart of Pharaoh is the heart of many in
our own time.
Now I can attest from the experiences of my own life, as most of you can
attest from yours, that in many ways ours is a wonderful world, a beautiful
world. But we also know that it is a cruel world. And we must have something
to say not just to the beauty but to the cruelty.
And Jesus Christ has done that by giving us a new Passover. In this new
Passover, the burden of the world's sin and woe is once again borne so
that people might find freedom from the cruelty which has invaded their
lives. But, in this Passover, the one who pays the price is not an innocent
victim. Oh, he is innocent, but he is not a victim. He is one who has
chosen this path and pursued it relentlessly. Once again, blood is shed,
but this time God provides the blood. Once again, the first-born is sacrificed,
but this time it is God whose Son is taken. The pain is born by God in
Godsself in the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
In a world that still reeks of enmity and descends all too frequently
into violence, once again blood is shed, but this time it is not the blood
of the child of somebody who might strike back, it is the blood of the
Son of the One who will not strike back. The cycle of sin is broken, for
those who will have it broken. This is what is declared to us at this
Table that stands at the foot of his cross.
Now even as we participate in this meal, we know full well that the kingdom
is not here yet, that the achievement of the cross still awaits its full
realization in the world. But we nevertheless keep the feast in the way
that the first Israelites kept the Passover. For them it was a liturgy
that preceded the liberation they were promised, a liturgy to keep hope
in freedom alive. And so for us, the Lord's Supper is a liturgy that precedes
the liberation we are promised, it is a meal to keep our hope alive, until
he comes again.
REACHABLE BY JESUS?
September 21, 2003 Mark 2:13-22
Jesus heard this he said to them, Those who are well have no need
of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous
but sinners. - Mark 2:17
There are many hard
passages in the Bible. Some of them are hard in the sense of being hard
to understand. Some are hard even though they may be easy to understand.
Hard because we get the message right away and dont much like it,
perhaps are challenged by it to go where we dont want to go. Such
texts may make us uncomfortable, they may upset us, anger us, so that
we find ourselves resisting the text, maybe even opposing the text, as
we hear it read or preached on.
For me, todays passage from Mark Chapter 2 is hard in this second
sense of being troubling. So whenever it has come up in the lectionary,
which has been about eight or nine times in my ministry, my coping strategy
as a preacher has been to find a compelling reason to be preaching on
some other text that Sunday. This year, I decided that such avoidance
was not faithful, that it was time to confront my reluctance and figure
out where it was coming from.
And actually, that wasnt too hard to figure out. It is not that
I am bothered by the particular pronouncement Jesus makes here: Those
who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick: I have
come to call not the righteous, but sinners. Who could disagree
with that in the abstract?
Its the context in which the statement is made that I find hard
to take. If Jesus had gone to the synagogue on a Saturday morning and
said this in the service, Id have welcomed it. A generous comment
made in a safe place. But, in fact, it is in an unsafe place where he
says this. Hes at the house of Levi, a tax collector, having dinner
with tax collectors and sinners.
Now, this where we have to stop and remind ourselves that tax collectors
in the Palestine of Jesus day were not respectable civil servants,
but amongst the lowest of the low-lifes in society. In Palestine, the
taxes were being collected for the Roman government, or for the petty
kings who ruled as Romes agents. No Jew worthy of the name would
stoop so low as to be a tax-collector for the Romans. So the dirty business
was left to the criminally inclined who didnt mind how shady the
job was provided there was money in it. They got a commission on what
they collected. And although the amounts were fixed by the Roman government
there were plenty of opportunities to fiddle with things and cook the
books. Tax collectors could reckon on bribes from people who ought to
have paid more, and they could bully people who ought to have paid less.
No doubt about it, these crooks were in the money all right. They were
hated for their corruption and they were hated for turning their backs
on their own suffering people.
Its hard to imagine a parallel group in our own culture. But we
can say that the social standing of tax collectors was such that going
to a dinner party with them would have been about as respectable as, in
our era, attending a function at a Hells Angels clubhouse. Being
seen chatting with them would have been as respectable as being seen,
today, chatting with a pimp and his prostitutes. Mingling with them would
have been as respectable as mingling in our time with disgraced Enron
executives or any such people who make their living preying on others.
This is not the kind of company I would wish for Jesus because its
not the kind of company I would wish for myself. And I ask, why is this
person C who will be revealed in Marks gospel both as the Messiah
and the Son of God C why is this man consorting with the very people who
are dragging society down, whose way of life is a violation of one after
another of Gods commandments?
My concern mirrors that of a group present in the story, the Pharisees.
They ask Jesus disciples about their leaders social habits:
Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners? They are
clearly alarmed. They cannot understand this behaviour from a religious
Now we all know that there is a great deal of conflict between Jesus and
the Pharisees in the gospels, this being the first instance of it in Mark.
And because we are on the side of Jesus C we are Christians, after all
C we have perhaps allowed ourselves to become conditioned to treat the
Pharisees as cardboard cut-out characters, easily identified as the bad
guys, and rejected, rather than as real people who need to be taken seriously
because of what they offered to their society. I was alerted to this tendency
to caricature this group when our local Member of Parliament recently
referred to a group of people lobbying against him on the same-sex marriage
issue as Pharisees, bastards, and a part of the anatomy that Im
not going to name from the pulpit. Now, I dont know if Pat Martin
goes to church, but if he does, his minister owes him a sermon or two
on the Pharisees, sermons that would help him to understand the depth
of their concern for the faith, the law, and the traditions of Israel;
their high level of commitment to a life for themselves that was above
reproach and that set an example for Gods people. The Pharisees
efforts may have been misguided and misdirected in some ways, but their
level of earnestness and sincerity and commitment should not be doubted.
And, in this case, I cannot help but raise the same question as the Pharisees.
I do not ask it censoriously, but I ask it anxiously: Why does Jesus
eat with tax collectors and sinners? He seems to be choosing pretty
The named tax-collector is Levi, better known to us from the other gospels
as Matthew. He has recently become a disciple of Jesus and to celebrate
it he gives a party for the Master, to which he invites some of his tax-collector
friends. Levi can well afford to throw such a party, given what he has
been doing for a living. Jesus must surely know that what he will be eating
will be bought with money extorted from rich and poor alike. Cant
he see how bad this will look? Yet, he goes. A Pharisee would consider
himself defiled if he as much as brushed against a tax-collector in the
street. As for sitting down to a meal with him, he would rather have died.
Yet these are the people with whom Jesus is hobnobbing and dining out.
There seems to be so much risk to Jesus in being with these people. The
risk of being thought badly of by people who count, and surely the Pharisees
count in his society, among devout Jews. The risk of his intentions being
misunderstood. The risk of his reputation giving a shine to a way of life
that ought to be criticized or condemned. The risk of their lifestyle
tainting his reputation, thus undermining his ability to minister to other
segments of society. The risk of being taken advantage of by those who
have shown so little respect for others, who have shown no regard in their
lives for the common good. But Jesus doesnt appear to care what
the good people may think, and hes not about to be deterred by whatever
risks there may be.
Indeed, more than dine with the tax collectors, he has called one of their
number to be a disciple. He evidently feels that he can reach Levi and
make of him something that Levi never imagined he could or would be. I
try to imagine how Levi would recount the exchange between him and Jesus
on the day of his call.
Yes, I was a tax-collector. And believe me, I made a very good thing
out of it. And why not? My name was mud, anyway. All these religious,
holy types treating me like dirt, so Ill make them pay up C thats
what I thought. As for their religion, they could keep that C I didnt
That was before I met Jesus. Id heard of him, of course C
who hadnt? People were saying that he was a prophet. That cut no
ice with me. If hes a prophet, I thought, hell be one of them.
And the less I have to do with them the better. Then one day he came into
my office. At first I was speechless. These holy types would always send
the money by messenger rather than come near me C afraid of catching a
fever, I guess. Finally, I found my voice. I said, What can I do
for you, sir? He smiled at me CC smiled CC and said, Levi,
I want you to come with me, to become one of my company. I need a fellow
like you with a good business head on his shoulders. Well, I wasnt
ready for that. I told him, Dont you know what I am? My kind
doesnt mix with your kind. He smiled again and said, Yes,
Levi, I know what you are C youre the one Ive been looking
for. Follow Me! and then C well, I surprised myself C I did just
that. Shut up the office and went along with him.
But as I went I began to get cold feet. So I said, Im
not the kind of person you might think I am. You dont know much
about me. How do you know I wont let you down? He looked at
me with a twinkle in his eye and he said, Well, of course you might
C and perhaps you will. But well both take a chance on that, wont
we? And here I am, as you see. Im not saying Ive never
let him down. But hes never let me know. And Im sticking with
him for good.
Whether or not I have captured Levis thoughts accurately, one thing
that seems clear is that Jesus must have made a successful choice in him,
because there is no record in the gospels that Levi ever let him down.
Judas betrayed him. Peter denied him under pressure. James and John completely
misunderstood him and spent all their time arguing about who would sit
on his right hand in his kingdom. But, astonishing at it may seem, we
have no hint that Levi turned into anything other than a faithful disciple.
So, there you have it, Jesus reaches out to a man whom I cant imagine
I would ever have reached out to, whom, I suspect, many of us would not
have reached out to, and the fellow turns out to be reachable by Jesus.
And the challenge in that for me, and for any of us who might have sided
with the Pharisees on this one, is to consider whether there is someone
out there or there are some people out there C on the other side of goodness
and virtue and respectability C who could be reached, who could be helped,
who could find a better life, if only I, if only we, would find the compassion
and courage we see in Jesus, and do as he did?
Thats one question, but there is another. When I observe that Levi
was reachable by Jesus, that these tax collectors and sinners who came
to the party were reachable by Jesus, I have to ask, is there anyone in
the story who was not reachable by Jesus? Well, we begin to get the impression
here that the Pharisees are going to fall into that category, and that
does get confirmed as we read along in the gospel of Mark. You see, the
Pharisees were pretty clear that they were among the well, not the sick,
the righteous, not the sinners. Oh, they may have loved to sing their
own version of, Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a
wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now
I see. They may have loved to sing such hymns, but they never considered
seriously for one moment that they were lost and needed to be found. That
was inconceivable to them. They were the righteous who needed no repentance.
They didnt need what Jesus had to offer.
With their attitude, how could Jesus reach them? But had the Pharisees
underestimated their own lostness? They certainly thought they were righteous.
And it is true they were free from the ugly, glaring sins of the tax-collectors
and harlots and the rest of the common people they despised so much. The
sins of the Pharisees were not greed, or lust, or dishonesty, but pride,
contempt, and coldness of heart; and worse than that, fear, fear of other
folk whom God had created in his own image. In their goodness and self-discipline,
they managed to abstain from a host of bad and destructive things, but
in their fear they got themselves all pinched up in a loveless religion
whose piety was too petty and whose God was too small. The Pharisees may
well have needed rescuing every bit as much as the tax-collectors.
And so the question I need to be asking, and that others need to be asking
who, like me, find themselves occupying pretty much the same ground as
the Pharisees in this story is, To what extent am I reachable by
Jesus? What do I need to change to make myself reachable by Jesus?
Now, it would not be right in this sermon just to ask questions and not
make any declarations. So let me close with a declaration. One thing todays
passage tells us for sure is that Jesus is always reaching out, seeking
the ill, pursuing the lost, carrying with him the tools of a rescuing
compassion and a transforming love. And whether our lostness be like the
lostness of Levi and his friends or like the lostness of the Pharisees,
we may be glad that when we have lost our way God hasnt lost or
forgotten us, but has sent his Son to find us and bring us home again.
Rev. Robert Campbell, Westminster Church, September 21, 2003
The social background of tax collectors in Jesus era and the
imagined conversation between Jesus and Levi were adapted from The
Good Shepherd by H. F. Lovell Cocks in The Expository Times, 1963-1964,
UP AND GO
June 15, 2003
“But now get up and go into the
and you will be told what you have to do.” - Acts 9:6,
The conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus
is certainly one of the more dramatic stories of the New Testament, not
only because of what happens on this dusty highway, but because of who
it happens to. By this point in Luke’s story of the origins of Christianity,
Saul has emerged as the church’s leading persecutor and a thoroughly nasty
piece of work. We first encounter him at the martyrdom of Stephen, one
of the deacons of the young church. When members of the synagogue, infuriated
by Stephen’s adversarial speech-making, drag him out of the city and set
about stoning him, they lay their coats at the feet of Saul, who, we are
told, approves of the execution (Acts 7:58; 8:1). But Saul is not just
a witness to violence against Christians. He is the chief perpetrator.
We read that he begins to ravage the church in Jerusalem, having his thugs
barge into house after house, dragging off men and women and committing
them to prison (Acts 8:3). Having terrorized the church in the Holy City,
now he obtains authorization to do the same in Damascus, where he plans
to arrest as many Christians he can lay his hands on and drag them back
to Jerusalem for trial and punishment.
All this comes to a grinding halt on the road to Damascus when, in a moment
of blinding light, a voice from heaven asks him, “Saul, Saul, why are
you persecuting me?” All of a sudden, Saul begins to understand that he
has been wrong about Jesus of Nazareth and that people like Stephen had
been right about him when they claimed that he had risen after being put
to death. The scene ends with Saul taking orders from the one whose name
he has been trying to stamp out: “Get up and go to the city, and you will
be told what you have to do.”
The story of Saul reveals a God who works by conversion. Today,
we honour Paul, as Saul was later to be called, as the church’s first
great theologian, and the apostle who conducted the mission to the Gentiles
and took Christianity beyond the bounds of the house of Israel to the
world. But this story of the road to Damascus reminds us that none of
this was Paul’s idea. It was God who was setting in motion the mission
of the church. It is God who calls, converts, and commissions.
Because Christ is alive and the Spirit is present, it would be no surprise
if we could all tell stories of conversion. Few of them would be like
that of Paul’s. His encounter with Christ was so dramatic because he had
a dramatic distance to go before his life could be brought to Jesus. But
like Paul’s story, ours would be stories of God’s taking the initiative.
I have never spoken of my conversion experience in a sermon before, but
because I have been an ordained minister for twenty-five years this month,
it seems like an appropriate time to relate the experience that led me
to be where I am today. I was about 15 or 16 years of age: a self-styled
and precocious agnostic who went to church only because his parents insisted
on it but who regularly challenged them, and others, on the veracity and
credibility of the faith. In those days I knew everything, and one of
the things I knew was that Christianity all this God-talk
was not true, that it was all a lot of hokum and wishful thinking. Yet
something started gnawing at me, and I began to think about things a second
time. One weekday afternoon I went into our church. It was empty, quiet,
and I plunked myself down in a pew to reflect on a few things related
to faith and belief. And perhaps I did that, but what I most remember
is that I had an experience of God. God’s presence in the room became
palpable to me though there was no blinding light, no voice from heaven,
and no words of instruction.
Yet, it was certainly my “Get up and go” experience. I walked into that
church doubting the whole Christian enterprise. I left it that day knowing
that God was alive and convinced, moreover, that God was calling me to
ministry. Like Saul, I had my own agenda but, as with Saul, God’s agenda
prevailed. I can’t be any more specific about my sense of call to be a
Christian and to be a minister except to affirm that I am not doing
what I am doing because it was my idea. It was somebody else’s idea. That
is what I mean when I say that God acts by conversion.
Now, our conversions may never be like Paul’s in their decisiveness and
intensity. But they will be like Paul’s in this sense. Paul was a Christian,
not by his own decision, discovery, or desire. Rather, he was called,
chosen by the action of the living Christ. His relationship to Christ
was Christ’s idea before it was Paul’s. Paul didn’t decide for Jesus on
the road to Damascus. Jesus decided for Paul. Paul didn’t think his way
into the Christian faith, even though he was to become the greatest thinker
of the early church. No, he had an experience of the risen Christ.
The reason that conversion is essential is that the choice is somebody
else’s before it is ours. In the 15th chapter of John, Jesus says to his
disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you
to go and bear fruit” (v.16). That is still the operative word. You are
here today, as his disciples because, for some strange, surprising, wonderful
reason, he wants you to serve him, to tell and show all the world that
he is alive and determined to have the world as his own.
The message of Easter is that our God will stop at nothing to redeem this
world unto himself. Nothing the cross, defeat, death nothing
will defeat the accomplishment of God’s purposes in the world. If you
are here this morning as a disciple, and you are, then you, yourself,
have become a sort of proof of Easter, a living breathing testimony that
God really does work wonders in the world. After all, God got you.
In its own way, your story of being brought to God is probably no less
dramatic than that of Paul’s. When you think of all the reasons you might
not be here, when you think of all the defences against Christ that the
world throws up, when you think of the defences you may have thrown up,
it makes your conversion nothing short of miraculous. Like the one who
travelled the dusty way to Damascus before you, you were called, converted,
and commissioned to be one of Christ’s people, to help him in his great
mission and ministry of compassion in the world.
To you also have been spoken the words, “Get up and go.” And I believe
that you will go where that command leads you, because you know that the
one who has given it is alive today and as faithful and true as ever.
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