A story among stories.

A changing audience – a deep hunger for hope – a lifetime of different , and often contradictory interpretative methods; when you bring all these things together, it creates a precarious environment for anyone who wants to share the hope of the gospel.  I  know this from personal experience, having entered my vocation in the church at a time when “organized religion” is falling out of favour (in Europe and North America, at least) even while spirituality is highly regarded, and faith based advocacy in political circles continues to blur the lines between God and Caesar.

We’d like to imagine that this is a modern problem, fuelled by things like Sunday shopping and families with too much access to too many activities.  It would be easier to blame the changes in society for the decline in religious observance (in general) and the slow, uncomfortable demise of our local congregations (in particular), but those changes are only part of the story.  Neither are the obstacles faced by the church today unique to our time.  There have always been those who chose a different path; who hold faithfully to different systems of belief; who scoff, express doubt or try to undermine the work of those dedicated to following Jesus.  And while our recent history has been uncomfortable (at best) and shameful (at its worst), the history of Christian witness can offer some hope for us.

The history of the church in North America is told in many different ways.  We prefer to tell it as the story of those who, in the beginning, fled the religious uncertainty of Great Britain and (later) Europe.  Or better still (from our perspective) we tell the story of the beginnings of the ‘global’ spread of Christianity, a task undertaken by diligent and faithful disciples of Jesus…but that is never the whole story.

Canada (in particular) has been on a journey of healing and reconciliation that brought a different story to light – a partnership between church and state that tells the story of cruelty and oppression.  This is the story of those who lived in harmony with creation until they were forced to sing another song – a Christian song.  The ‘christian conquest’ of what Europeans once called ‘the new world’ is the story of mission misappropriated and the gospel twisted to accomplish the goal of earthly powers.  So sure were we that the goal of Christian witness was to “make disciples of all nations”, that we never questioned the methods of disciple making.  Assimilation became the goal, but that is not what the gospel asks of us.

The example of Jesus – the lessons of the good news of God’s love, made known in Christ’s triumph over death – these are certainly meant to change lives.  Even now, my goal as a minister of the gospel is to invite people to consider their opinions – and so occasionally I must challenge prevailing opinions.  I do that with respect, but without apology, for one of the tasks of Christian ministry is to open people to the opportunities to live in the love of God, that we might express that love through our work, our compassion, our attitudes and our relationships.  But that change is best accomplished when it is discovered in grace – when it is accomplished as a result of mutual discovery and cooperative enterprise rather than shaming, coercion and other questionable methods.  And our lesson this morning from Acts helps us to see how that might be accomplished.

Paul is outside his comfort zone.  A new city in a foreign (to him) country.  He is on a journey of proclamation – urged by the Spirit of God to share the story of Jesus.  He begins by appealing to his co-religionists – expat, religious Jews like himself – to be careful, as his first impression of the city is that it is a dangerous place for those who profess faith in the one, ‘true’ God. He has spent time arguing in the synagogue, but the audience is wider than he imagines.  The locals who learn of his eloquence (or babbling, as some call it – see Acts 17:16-18) invite him to speak to the citizens in the public square.  He has noticed certain things about the city; temples, monuments, and shrines.  And of course, there are people.  Hundreds – thousands of people.  A seemingly endless audience for his message.  A city full of potential disciples.  So this invitation to speak must have seemed a gift from God to Paul – an opportunity to “set people straight” and win souls.  Where to start…?

Though the story begins with his general observation that these folks may be the original pattern for the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd, Paul goes on to tell the story of God’s love as it has been revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  He proclaims the gospel – offering the truth that his experience of Christ has revealed to him.  There is some scoffing, and some desire to continue the discussion (v. 32-34), but Paul, we are told, is content to leave it at that.  Some are convinced, and become disciples; others are left wondering.

Paul loses no sleep, and no time.  He moves on.  He does not insist – he doesn’t institute educational programs, or launch a school of theology to ensure that his ideas don’t die – for he knows that these are not his tasks (nor are they his ideas) – Paul isn’t ‘making’ disciples’  – that’s never Paul’s job, no matter how his later writings describe the results of his life of witness.  God does the work of disciple making through the power of the Spirit and the Risen Christ.  Paul’s job is to tell the story – to witness to the change in himself, and leave others to draw their own conclusions.

As part of the church in Canada today – this church, and hundreds just like it find themselves in an uncomfortable position.  Our witness has endured 150 years, give or take.  The story has been told, and heard, and trusted and believed…and doubted, questioned, quarrelled with and ignored.  The audience for God’s message of hope is renewed generation by generation – but while the need remains constant, the desire to hear (or the ability to hear?) is continually displaced.  The quest to find people who are willing to see the world through the eyes of God’s love is a constant struggle.  The history of the church works against us, as the failures of the church to honour the spirit of the gospel are laid bare to judgement.  But we are beginning to learn the lessons our history would teach us.

Our perspective should no longer be that of conquerors, but rather companions in a life journey, limited by our mortality, and threatened by our failure to recognize the frail nature of human relationships (with creation and with one another).  And companions don’t threaten. Neither should they engage in behaviour that doesn’t respect the humanity of those they encounter on the journey.

We are called to witness an ancient truth in modern times.  We recognize a wider variety of opinions in the global audience that is now ours, thanks to technology.  We are faced with the potential for much more resistance than Paul ever encountered – from those who are finding the courage to tell their  own story; those who have been damaged or ignored or dismissed or forgotten by those who claim to follow Christ.  This is our audience, and our former methods won’t earn us a hearing.  We must accept that the world has changed, and honour that change, even as we offer evidence of the grace of God that is at work in us.  We must honestly acknowledge the damage that has been done in the name of Jesus.  We must listen to the stories of those whose hurt is real.  And then we can tell our story.

For the gospel of Christ is the story of grace and hope that helps us see the world in a fresh light.  His is the story of limitless love that dares us to love one another even half as well as God loves us.  The story is ours to tell, but the work of transformation is out of our hands.  The Spirit is at work in the gospel shared – even in those places where the story has been told badly, or shared with wrong intentions – For the Spirit will work; revealing hurts and offering understanding, forgiveness and freedom.  The Spirit works to bring new perspectives to light.  The Spirit is adept at opening the eyes of the blind and setting the captive free, and that is good news indeed for all who dare to tell the story; who dare to share the love of God in Jesus.

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