Saturday, September 11, 2010

Homily – September 12, 2010

Text: I Timothy 1: 12-17

For all of its supposed benefits, the cult of the individual has eroded many of the commonly-held values of western society. Rowan Williams, in his book, Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement, has described three of these values, childhood and choice, charity, and remorse, and suggested that at the turn of the millennium, we are the poorer for it. As a society, he states, we have lost something of our humanity over the last few decades, leaving in its place, pain and suffering. We are he says, lost souls. Love, the willingness to risk, the desire to be present to one another in speech and act have in many ways been lost. “Lost souls: that is what the “lost icons” of the title point to. The skills have been lost of being present for and in an other, and what remains is mistrust and violence.” (Rowan Williams) Mistrust and violence. Such is the consequence of the gradual erosion of the self which we now find at the turn of the millenium.
Individualism has developed to its present state over the course of many years. Some attribute this development to religion. For example, the Reformation emphasized the importance of the individual in matters of faith and the need for personal decision. Others have located the problem within the recent development of social structures themselves, which have turned persons into consumers or objects and emptied them of moral capacity or standing. Whatever its cause, the fact remains that individualism as a social phenomenon is a significant presence among us within the church. And yes, its cumulative effect on society and the church has been mostly negative. But I want, today, to suggest that there is a way to think of the individual in a more positive light and that is the way St. Paul does in this his first letter to his young protégé, Timothy.

Our text is located in the beginning of 1Timothy. Paul aim in writing this letter is to instruct Timothy on how to approach those in Ephesus who presume to be teachers of the gospel but are in fact leading their followers back into a slavery of sorts. They advocate a return and diligent following of the law. Paul saw the danger and reminded Timothy of it. The law may be a way to discern sin, Paul says, but it is not a way to offer new life. The only way to do that is through Christ which is the heart of the Gospel. Using himself as an example, Paul says that the message of salvation is based on mercy, the boundless mercy of God who in Christ came into the world to save sinners “of whom I am the foremost.” Paul remembers out loud what that meant. “A blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” Even then Paul gratefully acknowledges that through Christ he (Paul) he was adjudged to be faithful and worthy of appointment to the service of God.

Note that Paul uses the words “I” or “me” 12 times in these few verses. It might seem that Paul is exaggerating the importance of his individual self. But exactly the opposite is true. Rather than put himself forward as the paragon of virtue or the pre-eminent example of true discipleship, Paul describes himself as the foremost recipient of God’s grace and mercy. In other words, Paul would have you think that “no one needed saving like I needed saving.” And why does he do this? So that others would see the grace of God in him and thereby be encouraged to seek God’s grace and mercy themselves.

And so in the remainder of this letter he is offering these instructions to Timothy so that he too can realize the fulfillment of God’s call on his life just as Paul understood them to be the foundation of his own calling. As Paul writes in verse 16, so that Jesus Christ “might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.” Paul is an example to Timothy; Timothy is now to become an example to those in the church.

Our text is Paul’s way of saying, “let your life speak" (to adapt the well-known title of Parker Palmer’s book of the same name). By modeling the mercy and grace of Christ, your life is a witness to the saving work of Christ. By being the undeserving recipient of God’s salvation, you are a sign of hope to the world around you. Let your life and words testify to the gracious love of God. Just as the shepherd leaves the safe 99 sheep and looks for the lost 1 until it is found, so God looks for the one sinner who repents. Just like the woman who loses 1 silver coin but still has the other 9, will carefully sweep and clean her house until she has found it. Yes, the many are important but the one is just as important.

Yes God has come to save the world; but God has also come to save me and you. That is why we continue to search out the unlovely, the lost, the street person, the hurting one, the one who hurts others. We seek them out one by one because God sought us out one by one. The other person is equally deserving of God’s love because we, each of us, has been loved. And because each of us is loved, we have been welcomed into God’s family where the “me” turns into an “us” and we are not alone any more.

I spoke earlier of a loss of childhood, charity and remorse in contemporary society. All of these values and others as well have contributed to a loss of the recognition of ourselves in the faces of others. We personally turn evermore inward and increasingly see people around us as impersonal abstractions. It is only as we begin to understand that it is a personal God who has come in the person of Jesus Christ, who bids me to come and follow him and then immerses me in grace and mercy such that I am able to say Yes to God’s Yes, that I will be able to look at my neighbours, see myself and Jesus in their faces and say God’s yes to them, showing them the grace and mercy offered to me, and so begin the journey of faith with them in the company of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus we also say with Paul: To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The End of Summer

For me the end of summer came today. The reality that both my children have not only left the home but also the province, the sobering realization that the weather is cooler, the leaves are changing colour and the garden is spent, and the noise of school children on their way to school have all left the indelible conclusion that summer is over. Not that that is a bad thing, in and of itself. Rather, it is more of a sadness or wistfulness which distance between loved ones and the passing of the joyful colours of spring and summer invites.

But there is also the pride and joy which accompanies the wistfulness in seeing the younger generation moving forward with skill and purpose toward their own place in the world. There is much in the world that needs attention. May they find their niche and place to share their gifts and themselves.


Some ask the world
       and are diminished
in the receiving
       of it. You gave me

only this small pool
       that the more I drink
from, the more overflows
       me with sourceless light
                          -R. S. Thomas

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Atonement Theology in the Church

Recently I engaged in an internet conversation with other Mennonite pastors over the issue of atonement theology and evangelism. The responses were significant and not surprising. Most had real trouble with the substitutionary penal model. A simplistic rendering of this approach is that because God hates sin, God's wrath and judgment are directed toward that which is sin or sinful. Humankind sinned at the beginning by disobeying God's commandment and thereby comes under God's wrath and judgment. Jesus' death turns God's wrath away from sinful humanity by taking the penalty of human sin, which is death, upon himself and absorbing God's punishment in the place of humankind thereby reconciling humankind with God.

There was a strong reaction against this notion of the appeasement of an angry God. For some, it suggests that God needs to be placated like a divine and arbitrary bully and therefore pastorally difficult to apply positively to those coming from abusive or self-destructive backgounds.  Others saw it as contrary to a non-violent God whose love for humankind is expressed in Jesus' action of self-sacrifice. And for others there was too much of an individualistic sense about it outside of the community of faith, and an 'alien' work of God as it were, a forensic declaration but not a transforming reality. As Robert Friedmann would describe it in his book A Theology of Anabaptism, too much 'gerechterklaerung' and not enough 'gerechtmachung.'

In the next number of posts, I hope to write more about the atonement in the Anabaptist/Mennonite context.  Books like J. Denny Weaver's A Non-violent Atonement and Scot McKnight's A Community Called Atonement are recent attempts to address these issues. Other models such as the 'Christus Victor' or the 'Exemplar' models have also been advanced recently and have distinguished theological and historical pedigrees. How can we engage in this conversation profitably and without tearing ourselves apart? Next post I propose to look at the Confession of Faith from a Mennonite Perspective.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

One of the facts of life is that I'm getting older. For those who insist that "we're not getting older", we're getting better", I beg to differ. Take two titans of the 20th century, both of whom lived to a grand old age - Leo Tolstoy and Winston Churchill. I've recently seen two films, The Last Station, a story of the last days of Leo Tolstoy who is played powerfully by Christopher Plummer, and The Gathering Storm, the more-or-less historical account of the years leading to World War II and the ascent to power of Winston Churchill played to perfection by Albert Finney. Politically, there is little in common between them: Tolstoy is an anarchist and Churchill is a Tory. But in other ways there is much similarity: both have incredibly large egos; both are beastly to their wives and their families; both are unremittingly selfish and both have objectionable personal habits. Other then that, they have a vivid sense of their place in history and an near-mystical appreciation of the responsibility they have to fulfill. I enjoyed both films very much. But I disliked the faint conclusion that getting old means becoming unreasonable or insufferable. Perhaps these presentations serve a purpose when they remind me that fame, fortune or power is never an excuse to become an angry, frustrated and unreasonable old man.