April 22, 2012

The following sermon, titled “A New Opportunity,” was written and presented by Dr. Matthew Neufeld, Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan, and member of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Saskatoon.

When I finished secondary school the world was a different place from what it is today. The globe was divided into three “worlds”: the first or “free” world, the second or communist world, and the third world. The first and second worlds had been in a so-called Cold War for over forty years, and competed with each other for the loyalty of the third world. By the time I started my first year of university relations between the main antagonists of the Cold War—the USA and the USSR—had improved a bit. Mostly this was because the Soviet Premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, had made efforts to reform his country’s economy and allow more openness in society. Still, when I turned 18 in late October of 1989 there was no reason to think that the Cold War would end anytime soon.

But then one day, the world changed.

I will never forget walking into the TV room of my university residence on 9th November 1989—what I saw on the screen was a picture I’d never have imagined. People were standing on top of the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate. People were standing and cheering and laughing and hugging each other on a place where only the previous day they would have been shot outright. It was unbelievable.

As I tell my students in my first-year European History survey, within eight weeks of the “fall” of the Berlin Wall, the communist regimes of central Europe had essentially collapsed—mostly non-violently. At a stroke, it seemed, the Cold War was over. Premier Gorbachev said as much at Stanford University Business School in February 1990. European and North American statesmen and stateswomen got together later that same year to celebrate the dawn of a new era. At the end of their meetings they released what they called A Charter for a New Europe.

The document opened with a ringing affirmation that things were different:
Europe is liberating itself from the legacy of the past. The era of confrontation and division of Europe has ended. After two disastrous world wars and decades of Cold-War tension, peace was at hand—so it seemed.

But peace was not at hand. Peace was not at hand for the people of southeastern Europe, for the people of Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Mostar, Kosovo and Belgrade.
The world was different, the Cold War was over, communism as a political force in European politics had collapsed, but there was still conflict, still confrontation and division. The world was different, but sadly all too similar to before.

Events like the end of the cold war and its shattered promise of peace make me wonder about the sort of change that really lasts, that really makes a difference.
It is really the case that the more things change the more they stay the same?
The gospel reading for today invites us to think about Big Events and about what is different and what is the same afterwards.

What can we do, what ought we to do, in light of world-altering change? World-altering change need not be only the result of the sort of Big Events I’ve been talking about so far, like the end of the Cold War, or September 11. There are Big Events for our community, our families, and our church.

What should we conserve? What should we cast aside? And, the question arises from our Gospel reading: what new thing, what new challenge does the marvellous, unexpected and transformative reality of the Risen Jesus call us to embrace?

The gospel reading for today reminds us that the Risen Jesus gives us freedom (and power) to risk what we thought was forever for the unfolding reality of God’s purpose for us and for the world (repeat).

There are two aspects of the story in Luke 24 I want to highlight. One is about the difference the resurrection makes for understanding who Jesus is. The text is very clear—the risen Jesus is the same person as the crucified Jesus. In the story, the disciples are gathered together on Easter Sunday evening, having just heard from the two disciples who’d met Jesus on the road to Emmaus.

While they were trying to get their heads around this news, suddenly there was Jesus himself, standing in their midst. They were terrified and incredulous. They couldn’t believe their eyes—they thought they were seeing a ghost—an ethereal creature from the world of the dead.

But no, Jesus was not a ghost—the Risen Jesus had—has—a body one can touch and see. “Look at my hands and my feet” Jesus said, “see that it is I myself.” Touch me and feel that I’m real!

Jesus then proved he’s a body not a ghost by asking for a snack; before his disciples eyes he ate a piece of cooked fish. No ghost could do that, only someone with a body. Still, the disciples did not really get it; they couldn’t really believe that it was Jesus. “In the joy of their disbelieving” says Luke, meaning they thought it was just too good to be true.

But it was true; it really was Jesus. The same person crucified on Good Friday is standing before the disciples on Easter Sunday evening. He is the same, but he’s also different. He has a body, a body his followers can see and touch, a body that can take on solid food, but also a body that can suddenly “be” amongst them.

The Risen Jesus has a body that identifies him as Jesus (the crucified one) but that is not identical to his old body. It’s the same AND it’s different. What the disciples thought was real and forever—Jesus is dead—wasn’t the case: Jesus was alive. But he was newly alive, differently alive than they had ever imagined was possible. God had raised Jesus to a new kind of life—one where he was the same person but also really, radically different.

To convince the disciples of this, Jesus turned their attention from his body to the Bible. “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Here too was some new out of something old, the “Old Testament” to be exact. Jesus opened his disciples’ minds to show them that what the Bible was all about all along was what had happened to him—God’s anointed one, God’s champion on earth, God’s Messiah, must suffer and die and then be raised.

The disciples, and the people more generally hadn’t seen that in the Scriptures in that way before—they thought Messiah was supposed come and liberate God’s people from their suffering and oppression. Not suffer and die a shameful death. The message of Scripture, Jesus was saying, is that God’s servant gets beaten up, rejected, afflicted, cursed and killed—and that this has been God’s plan all along. In fact, it completes or “fulfills” what’s been happening in Scripture up till then. Jesus’ life and mission were line with God’s plans from the very beginning, going all the way back to Abraham, and Moses and David and all the prophets like Isaiah.

Jesus began his ministry in his hometown synagogue by reading from the Isaiah scroll:
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners… Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4. 18-20, 21)

Peter echoes this message in Acts 3 to the crowd that had gathered around him after healing the disabled man at the Temple: Jesus was rejected by his own people; his own people killed him, but God raised him from the dead. “This is how God fulfilled what he had foretold all through the prophets…” That was the unexpected message—that the Messiah should suffer and die was really the completion of God’s plan all along.

Jesus’ ministry was an offer—repent and receive God’s forgiveness. Turn your life around and accept God’s welcome—come to the banquet that’s prepared for everyone who wants to join in! And here came another unexpected thing: the thrust of the message is expansive—goes out—and inclusive. The offer of repentance is for all people. Forgiveness is for the whole world. Jesus’ ministry was in line with God’s plan for his people Israel and the whole world. Now, after Easter, after seeing and hearing the Risen Jesus, responsibility for that mission falls to the disciples, to the Church, to you and to me.

What new thing, what new challenge does the marvellous, unexpected and transformative reality of the Risen Jesus call us to embrace? For one thing, it calls us to live out the expansive and inclusive thrust of the gospel. It starts in Jerusalem but is for the whole world. It starts with what and who we are, and dares us to be and to think different in light of the new reality of the Risen Jesus.
The Risen Jesus gives us freedom (and power) to risk what we thought was forever for the unfolding reality of God’s purpose for us and for the world.

God’s purpose is expansive and inclusive—it is for all people. But it starts with particular people at a certain place at a certain time: a few dozen disciples in Jerusalem. A few dozen Presbyterians in central Saskatoon. God starts with people willing to risk what they thought was forever for the unfolding reality of God’s purpose for us and for the world. Like a handful of young people who probably imagined that they would live and die in Galilee, that what they knew would last forever, that is until they encountered Jesus the Christ.

Change happens, some of it massive and monumental; some of it tiny and incremental. What new thing, what new challenge does the marvellous, unexpected and transformative reality of the Risen Jesus call us to embrace?
This province, this city, is not what it was a decade ago. Change has come to Saskatchewan, and for many people, the changes have been very good. But the times have not been equally good for everyone.

This is a reality Stewart Folster and the staff at Native Circle Ministry encounter almost every day. The “Saskaboom” has tripled the value of many peoples’ homes while leaving others homeless. Revd Folster challenged us a few weeks ago with some radical proposals to deal with the Ministry’s impending deficit: seek funding from Aboriginal-run casinos; partner with non-Christian communities. Can we even imagine such things? On the other hand, could the disciples have imagined that first Easter Sunday that before too long they would be worshipping with foreigners—basically the enemies of their people—and that they would cast aside centuries of tradition for the sake of welcoming non-Jews into the Church?

God starts with people willing to risk what they thought was forever for the unfolding reality of God’s purpose for us and for the world. The disciples encountered the Risen Jesus and it transformed what they understood about God’s plans for them and for the world. The world changed, and they were changed. But not totally—they were still the same people, doing the same sort of work for God that God had been inspiring and empowering and challenging all along. Similar to the Risen Jesus—they were different but still the same.
Like so many people in Europe, Corrie Ten Boom’s life was changed profoundly by the Second World War. In 1972 she penned a short account about a personal risk she took just after the War for the sake of God’s expansive and inclusive purposes.

It was in a church in Munich that I saw him, a balding heavy-set man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. … And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man.

I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were! Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent. … “You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me. “But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein, …” his hand came out, … “will you forgive me?”

And I stood there — I whose sins had every day to be forgiven — and could not. Betsie had died in that place — could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do. For I had to do it — I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us.

“If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” … And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion — I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!” For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.1

“This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

That day in 1947, Corrie Ten Boom took a huge risk; she risked forgiveness and was a witness to the reality of Easter and the risen Jesus. Lord, make us witnesses of your peace. Amen.

1 Guidepost article ©1972 “I’m Still Learning to Forgive”