Sunday, May 23, 2021

Reflections on the Fruits of the Spirit

New chapter, Ancient Story, Same Thread — The Spirit Bears Fruit — Pentecost Sunday
Acts 2:1-4; Galatians 4:1-7, 5:16-26

Words from Eleanor Yoder, Joshua Wenger, Gloria Diener, Dorothy Logan, Tim Gredler, Genevieve Cowardin, Don Steiner, Becca Tice, and Dick Alderfer.

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Sunday, May 16, 2021

Phil Kniss: All are one? What sort of one?

New chapter, Ancient Story, Same Thread — Easter 7: May 16, 2021
Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29

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For a long time, and more so in the last year,
we’ve been in a season of deep and hurtful divisions,
and we are weary.
We carry, in our spirits, in our minds, in our bodies,
deep longing for healing, for restoration, for justice,
and especially for unity—
in our extended families,
in our church,
in our neighborhoods and communities,
in our political life as a nation.

Enough already, of all this divisive rhetoric,
and refusal to listen or compromise,
and demonizing the other.
Let’s come together for once.

But being one is a real puzzle.
Not just because we don’t quite know how to get there,
how to create the unity we seek.
We also aren’t entirely clear on what we really mean,
or what we want.

Out of our same mouths come a cry for greater unity,
and . . . praise for the beauty of diversity.
We even put the two together, on purpose,
calling for unity in our diversity.

Makes for great slogans.
But life on the ground is too complicated to capture in a slogan.

So let’s talk a bit about unity in the church.
That’s a topic I come back to often,
because I’m passionate about it.
In fact, about a month from now
we’ll be talking about it again in a study on Ephesians.
On June 13 Tom Yoder Neufeld,
a theologian from University of Waterloo,
has agreed to bring us a sermon on the subject.
It’s okay to keep coming back to this.
It’s something Jesus had intense feelings about.
Read John 17 again sometime,
one of Jesus’ most passionate outpourings
of his heart to God in prayer,
was about his disciples being one.

The apostle Paul was also passionate about it.
Today’s text from Galatians ended with,
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,
nor is there male and female,
for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But what in the world does that mean?
That’s one of the most often-quoted verses in all of Paul’s writings.
But depending on who’s quoting it,
very different things are communicated by it.

If all are one in Christ, what sort of “one” do we mean?

Well, if Jesus and Paul put so much blood, sweat, and prayers
into the unity of the church,
how did that all work out, now 2,000 years later?

The World Christian Encyclopedia
counts over 43,000 Christian denominations.
Mennonite Church USA is only one of those.
There are over 100 separate Mennonite-Anabaptist denominations
around the world.
A dozen or so in the US alone.
Once you add in Baptists, and Lutherans, and Methodists,
and Presbyterians, and Pentecostals, and Catholics, and Orthodox,
well, the mind just spins.

How do you think Jesus feels about all these denominations?
Do you suppose he’s weeping over all this?
It’s popular to think so.
I’ve often heard preachers point to the thousands of denominations,
then point to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 and say, what a shame!

But is it . . . really?
Does Jesus weep about denominations?
I seriously doubt it.
Sure, parts of our Christian story of schism,
are absolutely shameful, and worth weeping over.
I suppose Jesus weeps, and so should we,
there could have been a better way forward
than to walk away and cut off relationship.

But is many denominations proof of the church’s failure?
Should our goal be to eliminate denominations?
I say no.
And God has no interest in that project, either.
Getting Christians to eliminate denominations
and merge into one global Christian body
doesn’t even register on God’s radar, I dare say.

Unity? yes.
But keeping us all in the same organizational body? Ehh . . .
Being ONE in organization, more often than not,
simply gives the impression of being one in Christ.
Organizational unity doesn’t measure a whole lot.
It certainly doesn’t measure spiritual one-ness.

Usually there’s more conflict within a particular body,
than between bodies.
Mennonites have more to fight about with each other
(and we do),
than Mennonites have to fight about with Lutherans.
Episcopalians have more to fight about with each other
(and they do),
than Episcopalians have to fight about with Methodists.

So where do we find our unity?
If it’s not in structure and organization . . .
it must be in theology.
We’ll achieve unity once we are on the same page
in beliefs and practices.

And obviously, that would be Anabaptist beliefs and practices,
because when Jesus prayed in John 17 that his followers be one,
he meant all Christians should believe and act like Mennonites.
Uh . . . that was a joke.
Even if we’d like to mean it, at some secret level.

Well, yes, we should do good theological discernment
and work toward greater consensus.

But is it God’s will that all Christians
all around the world,
at all times,
think the same way about God?
Is that what Jesus meant when he prayed?
or that Paul meant when he wrote letters?

Should all Christians always
operate with the same metaphors for God?
have the same vision of how God works in the world?
use the same doctrinal language
to describe our experience of God?

If our answer is yes,
we are denying a basic truth about God—
that God is with us in the real world,
and not just in the abstract.
Theology is not a pure intellectual exercise.
It’s a practice in applying truth to our lives here and now.

God has different ways of working
and even different agendas,
when God is at work in a community of new immigrants
fleeing violence and poverty,
or . . . in a 200-year-old Swiss-German village in Ohio,
or . . . among the urban poor in Chicago,
or the wealthy on New England island resorts,
or among Appalachian people.
Not to mention, when God is working
in Myanmar, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, or Finland.

Even in our one hometown of Harrisonburg,
should we do theology the same way
in our neighborhood in Park View,
as we do in Old Town Harrisonburg,
or in a JMU student housing complex,
or in a trailer park where little English is spoken?

No! Our practices, our metaphors, our theological priorities,
cannot be uniform wherever we go.
The way we articulate and practice our faith changes,
according to context.

So I have to say,
I don’t think Jesus and Paul were praying
that Christians be theological carbon copies of each other.

So . . . when they call for us to be one,
what sort of “one” did they mean?

For Jesus, it was a profound relational oneness.
His prayer overflowed with phrases like,
“As you and I are one, Father, may they be one.”
“As I am in you and you in me, may they be in us.”

For Jesus, there was a deep continuity and connection
between the mission and purposes of God in the world
and what Jesus did and said.
Jesus prayed for this same continuity to permeate his followers.

The invitation is . . . to be One. In. Christ.
To be steeped in the way and the person of Jesus.
To be so immersed in the life and teachings of Jesus,
so filled with the Spirit of Jesus,
that the line between us and Jesus gets blurry,
and hard for others to distinguish.
That we could come together as Jesus people,
and pray as Jesus did,
“As we are in you, and you are in us,
may we also be in one another, in the world.”

If we are in unity with the purposes of God in Christ,
we will be in unity with each other . . .
even with different languages of faith,
even with different metaphors,
even with different ways of doing moral discernment
in our context.

This is an organic unity,
and needs organic metaphors.
Denominations and organizations and structural cohesion
have their necessary and rightful place.
We do need to sort out how to have an orderly religious life.
But I won’t die on that hill.

I am going to seek out a more life-giving and biblical metaphor.

The Tree of Life, for instance.
What a rich image from scripture!
I wonder what would happen if we Christians
spent as much time and effort contemplating that image,
as we spent arguing over doctrine and church polity.

We’re about to hear the choir sing, from 2019, and you may join,
on a profound organic confession of faith,
centered on this biblical image.
Let me read a few of the lines.

There in God’s garden stands the Tree of wisdom,
whose leaves hold forth the healing of the nations.
Tree of all knowledge, Tree of all compassion,
Tree of all beauty.
Its name is Jesus . . .

See how its branches reach to us in welcome;
hear what the voice says, ‘Come to me, ye weary!
Give me your sickness, give me all your sorrow.
I will give blessing.’

This is my ending; this my resurrection;
into your hands, Lord, I commit my spirit.
This have I searched for; now I can possess it.
This ground is holy!

This ground is holy!
And this ground, where the tree grows,
will help us be one in the way that really matters.

Let’s listen, and sing.

—Phil Kniss, May 16, 2021

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Sunday, May 9, 2021

Paula Stoltzfus: Rooted and grounded living

New chapter, ancient story, same thread — Easter 6: Living by Faith — Senior Blessing Sunday
Galatians 1:13-17, 2:11-2

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Graduations, milestones, turning over a page, chapters in life, pivotal moments, all of these words and phrases have become a part of our lives to articulate a moment in time when transition and change occurs. 

We recognize the milestone of graduation today.  We mark all kinds of milestones. They range from a child’s first steps, riding a bike, driving, first job,to personal achievements, degrees, age and kinds of relationships. We often think of these with positive emotions. Other pivotal moments such as accidents, illness, deaths aren’t generally our choice and can be unwelcome experiences. This pandemic has been unwelcome and we describe life accordingly, like pre-pandemic.

Our passage in Galatians has Paul speaking of a pivotal moment in his life, pre- and post- Jesus encounter. This encounter, which is recorded in Acts 9, called him to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles.  This was such a profound experience that his name changed from Saul to Paul, marking the change in him. 

Paul had always been a man of faith.  He grew up and was zealous in his Judaic faith, to the point of violently persecuting Jesus followers.  His personal encounter with Jesus was so profound that he turned from persecuting to proclaiming.  Paul didn’t change in how he passionately lived out his faith, it just changed focus.

To use Jesus’ imagery of the kingdom of God being like a mustard seed, the seed of faith that had already taken root within Paul began drinking from new water, intermingling his roots with Jesus’ love for the Gentiles, casting branches that offered shade and sustenance for others on the journey.  

Or how about yeast?  The active organism of Jesus’ grace and faithfulness to all, including the Gentiles, began to raise and bubble up Paul’s faith permeating him and spreading to others.

In each of these images there are more elements than just the seed and yeast, for they by themselves don’t produce anything.  It is as they encounter soil, sun, food, air, and time, does growth occur.

In our lives, we encounter the world around us, the created order as well as our own created order, if you know what I mean.  We each have our own personalities, rhythms, meanings, relationships, from which and through which we take in the world.  These are active elements that shape who we are.

Faith in God is one of those active elements.

All of these impact how grounded we are or how active the leaven is in our being. They influence how we weather the events of life. So when our world gets rocked by an unexpected death or illness, or we face a vocational shift, or we are seeking meaning in life, what and who we have around us help provide a rutter, a leavening agent, or grounds us just enough to keep us from falling.

No matter what place in life we are at, we are always choosing what matters, relationships, faith, where we spend our time, all influence our journey. 

And so, I leave us all with a few questions to lean into:
What elements of your life can you identify that root you in God’s beloved creation?
What hopes and promises are you absorbing from your environment that awaken your soul to the radical love of Jesus?
How do mysteries and wonders of the Spirit aerate your internal soul? 

May the love of God and fellowship of humanity help sustain us for the milestones we encounter.

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Sunday, May 2, 2021

Phil Kniss: Believe the Good News!

New chapter, ancient story, same thread — Easter 5: The Church Listens, and Moves
Acts 15:1-18

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As I said last week, the sweep of our biblical narrative is winding down.
We began last fall in Genesis,
and we end in a few weeks on Pentecost.
But really, there’s no end in biblical narrative.
The story rolls on.
The story shapes us and our life in the world.
And life in the world shapes how we read the story.

The church of my childhood read the story differently than I do now.
For that matter . . . it read the story differently
than did the church of my great-grandparents,
and the early Anabaptists,
and the church in Acts 15.
This is a dynamic relationship—
between God’s people and God’s word.

And it’s on full display in Acts 15, the famous Jerusalem conference,
the mother of all church conferences.
First of countless times the church gathered to sort out differences.
A few hundred years later the Council at Nicaea
produced the Nicene Creed,
and later, Councils at Constantinople, Chalcedon, & more.
The Protestant Reformation held major disputations and councils.
The Anabaptists held a significant, and secret, one in 1527,
in Schleitheim, to unify their scattered movement.
Catholics had their Vatican Councils.
In the 1960s Vatican II brought massive change.

In all these,
the church is trying to work out the dynamic relationship
between God’s people in a changing world,
and God’s will and word revealed in scripture.

As long as the church exists,
we will need these Councils and Conferences.
It’s just a fact.
Because our faith is not wooden.
It is not abstract.
It is not a pure intellectual exercise.
It is grounded in the real world,
and applied in real relationships.
Therefore, it moves.
Our faith, and its expression, is subject to change,
because we live it out in this world, not that one—
here, not there,
now, not then.

Are there constants? Yes.
Should we be guided by our past? Of course.
Are there unchanging principles? Yes.
But generally, I think,
they are fewer in number than we would like.

And . . . you might then ask . . . does God change?

In many places, scripture answers with, “No.”
Hebrews 13: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.
Malachi 3: For I the Lord do not change.
1 Samuel 15: God is not a man, that he should have regret.

In many other places, scripture answers with, “Yes.”
Genesis 6, before the flood: The Lord regretted
that he had made human beings on the earth.
Exodus 34: God declares he will do away with his people.
Moses begs and pleads, and scripture says,
“God repented, God changed his mind,”
and did not carry through on his plans.
Same in Jonah, about destroying Nineveh.
Over and over, scripture tells us God “relented” or “was sorry”
or “changed his mind.”

Does God’s will change?
Scripture has an internal debate about that.
There’s a biblical yes and a biblical no.
So both must be true in certain ways.

That, at the least, should make us humble about knowing God’s will.

Yes, we know certain things about God’s character,
and I’m willing to stake my life on those—
God loves us deeply, and unconditionally,
God desires our wholeness and shalom,
God is just and righteous,
there is a special place in God’s heart
for those who suffer, or have their humanity diminished.

But get much more specific than that,
and I say let’s hold that in an open palm,
not a closed fist.
Let’s keep examining it in the faith community,
opening ourselves to scripture, and
opening ourselves to the living and dynamic Holy Spirit.

The Jerusalem Conference in Acts 15 was exactly that kind
of open-palm moment.
The church decided God’s will for them, at that time and place,
had changed from what they knew earlier,
from their holy scripture.
They decided some commands in the Torah—namely circumcision
and some other Hebrew practices
were now, in this context,
being set aside because the Holy Spirit was evident
in the changes.
They saw evidence of the Holy Spirit at work,
not just in Samaritans,
and Jewish people from Ethiopia,
as we saw in Acts chapter 8 last week,
but also in outright Gentiles,
who did not follow the law God gave them through Moses.

We cannot overestimate this.
The theological ground on which they stood, shifted.
In other words, this was an earth-shaking decision.

From Acts 15 on,
as the Jesus movement spread far from its Jerusalem origins,
and went throughout the Roman Empire and well beyond,
their unity would be tested over and over again.
Not because they were walking away from their faith in Jesus,
but because they needed to keep asking,
what does faith in Jesus look like here? and now?

You think we have trouble maintaining unity
in this age of polarization, and culture wars,
and radical social and political divides?
Think this is new?
Then you have not put yourself in the shoes
of Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus in Acts,
both belonging to the same house church,
trying to sort out moral and ethical questions of the day.

We should all be familiar with this conference in Acts 15.
Read the rest of the chapter after our service.
They set the bar for us.
They showed us to hold to the core,
and watch for the Spirit’s new move.
They believed the Good News!
They identified the good things the Holy Spirit was doing,
and believed those good things,
and acted on them.

When scripture says “believe the Good News”
it’s not a call to some abstract intellectual system of beliefs.
It’s a call to believe what our eyes are seeing.
To notice where people are coming alive,
are finding hope and joy,
and then move toward that,
instead of shut down God’s activity
because it doesn’t fit our framework.

This is hard work, but important work,
and it happens every time the church grows.
This whole conflict the Jerusalem Conference tried to resolve,
would never have happened,
were it not that the movement spread,
and more people came into the church.

The church is not like other membership organizations.
Our metaphor is a body.
We’re a living organism, not a chart on the wall.
When a new member gets grafted into the body,
our body itself changes.

When we as a church are invitational, are missional,
we are not saying,
come into our space, and do as we do, and become just like us.
We are saying,
be grafted into our body,
and help change us from what we are without you,
to what we will become with you.
Any church that assumes an invitational posture,
is also inviting conflict and change.
It comes with the territory.

Reminding us of this beautiful, and unsettling, truth,
is especially appropriate on this day of two significant rituals.
We received three new members today,
so our body just changed.
And together, with these new members,
we now come to the table that unites us,
the Lord’s Table, where all of us are on level ground,
in need of God’s transforming grace in Jesus Christ.

The new members, by the way,
were delivered a fresh loaf of bread, and some juice,
yesterday, by Pastor Paula,
as our way of saying to them, you are part of the whole,
thank you for helping us become.

I invite our attention now to the table in the front,
as I recall the words of Jesus to his disciples . . .

The Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed,
took a loaf of bread,
and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said,
“This is my body that is for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Now, wherever you are, whether you’re alone . . .
or whether you’re a family with children running around,
gather together, invite everyone to join in,
take the bread and cup and partake,
remembering your part in this body,
and remembering Jesus’ invitation.

It’s a daunting invitation to a challenging life.
But God says to us,
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you,
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,
The river shall not cover you.

Now, eat, drink, and meditate as our 2019 church choir sings.

—Phil Kniss, May 2, 2021

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