August 21, 2016

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Luke 9:46-56
Acts 17:16-34
John 8:2-11

“The Fruit of the Spirit is GENTLENESS”

Parents and teachers well know the challenge of trying to guide children towards right behaviour, discipline, respect, and good relations with their neighbours. It has been a challenge in every generation to teach our children how to live well, instilling in them good values and self-discipline to help them through life.

As I talked about with the children this morning, our methods of discipline in school have changed over time, probably for the better, as we’ve moved away from corporal punishment towards more gentle methods. But as many of us have experienced, if we don’t use any form of discipline consistently, it usually leads to chaotic classrooms and children with very short attention spans and even less regard for others.

I’m no expert on discipline, and I would defer to some of the teachers in our congregation as to what works best today for children of various ages. But as a minister, I would like to suggest this morning that God – as our loving Parent, our heavenly Father, our nurturing Mother, our divine Teacher – God wants to teach us God’s own loving ways, and perhaps struggles similarly with how to discipline us.

Even those of us who might get a good mark for effort are still struggling day-by-day to follow the basic commandments that God has set for us. And when we stop trying (which we all do at times) and give in to our selfishness, our egos, our vanity, or our fear… we are likely to completely fail as disciples of Jesus who are supposed to be following the example and way of life that Christ showed us.

If we read back through the Hebrew Scriptures, we find a record of God’s efforts to get us back on track. Way back at the beginning of the story, in the garden of Eden, human beings made our first mistakes. We broke the one rule that God gave us. And the punishment was that our lives would be more difficult, and we wouldn’t get to live in an idyllic garden anymore.

But after that, things seemed to go from bad to worse for humanity. By the time of Noah, people had become so cruel, and violent, and evil that God decided the only way to fix the problem was to wipe us all out and start again! That’s what the great flood was all about – the harshest form of discipline is to kill them all and begin again!

But after that, God changes his strategy for discipline. God recognizes that human beings are always going to make mistakes, and he promises never to wipe us out completely again. And that’s when God starts making covenants, promises, agreements with the people that God will be loving and faithful, and the people should try to live by the commandments and be faithful to God as well.

Of course, it continues to be a struggle. God gives the people leaders and prophets to guide and correct them along the way… but so often those prophets are just ignored, rejected, or even persecuted for proclaiming the harsh message of “turn back to God, or else!”

So finally, God determines to send his own Son. And in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s commandments of love are taught, and demonstrated, and proclaimed with clarity to all who have ears to hear, minds to understand, and hearts to experience the loving presence of God among us.

In Jesus’ preaching and teaching there is still the same call of God that there always was for human beings to love God and love our neighbours as ourselves. But there is a gentler character to the message now – not so much a warning to avoid punishment, but an invitation to join in the joy and wonder of knowing and loving God and our neighbours.

I selected two stories from the Gospels that demonstrate that gentle Jesus very clearly, and how he guided his followers to this new way of thinking and relating to others.

In Luke’s Gospel, James and John are challenged to embrace a different way of teaching and correcting that involves gentleness. They are the disciples that are nicknamed the “sons of thunder” because of their power, strength, and boldness. Today I am imagining them looking like big, strong, proud Usain Bolt – the fastest man in the world. But Jesus is teaching them another way.

Already in the passage, Jesus has gently scolded them for arguing about which one of them is the greatest. He’s placed a little child in front of them and told them that true greatness is demonstrated in welcoming the little ones and caring for the least among us.

Next, Jesus encourages John to let someone be who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. “He’s not part of our group, Jesus! Shouldn’t we make him stop?” But Jesus says, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.”

Then they come to a Samaritan village where the people are not friendly, and no one is interested in welcoming Jesus and his friends. So the “sons of thunder” are ready to show their power and strength. They ask, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

“No, no, no! Leave them be,” Jesus replies. Jesus is the Son of the God who promised NOT to wipe us out again, no matter how awful we have become.  Jesus is the Son of the God who wants to gently lead and guide us like a loving shepherd who cares for each and every one of his wandering sheep.

And then there is that memorable and poignant story from the Gospel of John. The scribes and Pharisees bring in a woman who has been caught in adultery, and they make her stand before all of them. We are horrified today by what they are about to do to her, and even more horrified when we hear of women being stoned even today in some places for adultery, even adultery over which they had no control because they were raped.

But the law says that the punishment for adultery is stoning, and the religious leaders want to test Jesus to see if he will follow the law faithfully. We may notice that Jesus doesn’t suggest that adultery is okay. He doesn’t give excuses for the woman, or even test whether she is guilty or not.

What he does do is remind those religious leaders that none of us has kept the law perfectly. Every one of us has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And gentle Jesus does not choose to condemn and punish the woman or any of those men standing there with their stones. He offers grace, he offers forgiveness, he offers an invitation to a new way of life that is moving away from sin and towards God.

Sometimes we may reflect on the state of our world today and feel overwhelmed by the corruption and violence that seems to be all around. But when we read history, or reflect on the world in the times of Jesus, it becomes clear that such violence has pervaded every generation and almost every part of the world.

I am thinking of Jesus’ words of lament over the stubbornness and violence of human beings. In Matthew’s Gospel, not long before he is arrested and crucified, he cries out: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”

And then he verbalizes the divine response to such bad behaviour. He doesn’t want to kill us, stone us, punish us, or wipe us out. Gentle Jesus laments, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

But Jesus doesn’t give up on Jerusalem, and he doesn’t give up on us. He continues his mission all the way to the cross – the ultimate sign of our corruption and violence, and the ultimate symbol of his love.

After that, one might think that we would finally get it, and turn our lives towards God as we have come to know him in gentle Jesus. And to some degree at least, we have done so. Jesus’ early disciples and people like the Apostle Paul got the message, and they began to share it across the known world.

I included the story about Peter preaching in Athens this morning because it shows how Peter finally understood the gentle, invitational message of the gospel. He didn’t go in there preaching hell-fire and damnation, but he showed respect for the people of Athens, shared his experience of Jesus the Christ, and gave them the opportunity to follow Jesus with their lives.

Since then, the Church has often forgotten the gentle Jesus that we are called to follow, especially in our attempts to make disciples of all nations. At times in history we have forced conversions on pain of death, and in more recent times we have gotten the gospel message mixed up with our cultural norms and done violence to our neighbours by wiping out their languages, cultures, and often godly practices.

Today we are reminded that one of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives will be gentleness. We are called to follow the way of gentle Jesus in this time and place. Yes, we are called to discipline and guide our children in Christian practices. Yes, we are called to share our faith with friends and neighbours. No, we are not supposed to condone or accept violence, hatred, or wrongdoing that we see around us.

But our call is to be gentle messengers of Jesus today – sharing our faith, inviting others to know God through Jesus Christ, calling people to do what is right, standing up for justice and mercy – not through violence, but through sacrificial care and advocacy.

As this calling is difficult, we give thanks that God in Jesus Christ continues to be gentle and patient with us. Amen.