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The Rev. Robert Campbell's Sermons

Agents of the Kingdom, July 8, 2007 (PDF format)

From 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

Giving Thanks in All Things, October 10, 2004

Tempted - As We Are, February 29, 2004

Baptized with the Spirit, January 11, 2004

Looking Forward in Hope, November 30, 2003

The Most Church I Ever Knew, November 23, 2003

The New Passover, October 5, 2003

Reachable By Jesus? September 21, 2003

Get Up And Go, June 15, 2003

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 second time.

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 gospel.

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 kingdom.

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.

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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 today.

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 shouldn’t 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 thanks.

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 God’s 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 all things.

Rev. Robert Campbell, Westminster United Church, October 10, 2004.

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February 29, 2004
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 stay clean.

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 tempted.

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 today’s 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 started?

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 today’s 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 wilderness?

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 can’t 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 vulnerable.

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

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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;
how 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 Christ’s 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 I’ve largely avoided over the years. Baptism in the Spirit is not an easy subject, and I’ve 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 false teaching.

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. Swaggart’s 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 baptismal font?

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 worship them.

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:

"Here is 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' baptism:

"suddenly 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

"how God 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 Spirit’s 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 Christ’s 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 the afflicted,

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. God’s 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 you’re about the work of God in the world, the Spirit will find you.

Rev. Robert Campbell, Westminster Church
Preached January 11, 2004

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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

In the 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. We’re not sure we understand it, and to the extent that we do, we’re 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 world’s 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 skin.
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, it’s bad-all-over biblical language seems confirmed by today’s 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 people’s 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 God’s 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 David’s son, Solomon, who accomplished the task and built the temple. Those were the days of Israel’s 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 the worst.

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 America’s 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 near.”

I don’t 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 God’s 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 don’t need a promise of something more from God.

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 city’s 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.

I’m ready to embrace the promise that God’s kingdom will come, that God’s 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 humanity’s yearning for something better than it can manage in its own strength will be fulfilled. I’m 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 world”s 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 its fulfilment.

We don’t 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 God’s faithfulness to Jesus Christ. 1

Jesus, 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 God’s gracious power to redeem. No horrible disaster that might befall us is beyond God’s 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

* * * * * * *

“When 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 hope.

Rev. 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.

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The Most Church I Ever Knew
November 23, 2003

This 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 Westminster’s 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 don’t 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 Board’s 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 don’t 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 don’t 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. It’s 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 that’s part of it. It doesn't just mean the Sunday morning coffee time with everybody enjoying everybody else's company, though that’s part of it. It doesn't just mean the good feeling we have when we all agree with each other, though that’s 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 it’s easy, but also showing hospitality when it’s 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 minister’s assistant.
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 wasn’t 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 don’t 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.

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At the 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 early church:

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 Jesus loved.

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

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THE NEW PASSOVER; A Communion Meditation
October 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.

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September 21, 2003 Mark 2:13-22

When 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 don’t much like it, perhaps are challenged by it to go where we don’t 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, today’s 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 wasn’t 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?

It’s 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, I’d have welcomed it. A generous comment made in a safe place. But, in fact, it is in an unsafe place where he says this. He’s 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 Rome’s 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 didn’t 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.

It’s 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 Hell’s 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 it’s not the kind of company I would wish for myself. And I ask, why is this person C who will be revealed in Mark’s 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 God’s commandments?

My concern mirrors that of a group present in the story, the Pharisees. They ask Jesus’ disciples about their leader’s social habits: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” They are clearly alarmed. They cannot understand this behaviour from a religious teacher.

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 I’m not going to name from the pulpit. Now, I don’t 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 God’s 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 bad company.

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. Can’t 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 doesn’t appear to care what the good people may think, and he’s 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 I’ll make them pay up C that’s what I thought. As for their religion, they could keep that C I didn’t want it.

“That was before I met Jesus. I’d heard of him, of course C who hadn’t? People were saying that he was a prophet. That cut no ice with me. If he’s a prophet, I thought, he’ll 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 wasn’t ready for that. I told him, “Don’t you know what I am? My kind doesn’t mix with your kind”. He smiled again and said, “Yes, Levi, I know what you are C you’re the one I’ve 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, “I’m not the kind of person you might think I am. You don’t know much about me. How do you know I won’t 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 we’ll both take a chance on that, won’t we?” And here I am, as you see. I’m not saying I’ve never let him down. But he’s never let me know. And I’m sticking with him for good.”

Whether or not I have captured Levi’s 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 can’t 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?

That’s 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 didn’t 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 today’s 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 hasn’t 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, pp.314-315.

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June 15, 2003

“But now get up and go into the city,
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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