Friday, December 31, 1999

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
on Sunday, December 31, 1999
at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
TEXT: Luke 24:13-27

Not long after I had commenced my first ministry in a church in Nova Scotia, I was invited to do something that frequently clergy are invited to do and it's a privilege, namely to go and celebrate the birthday of one of the elders within our congregation. In this particular case it was a 99 year-old lady and she was known in the community affectionately as Aunt Agnes and the whole community from the bus drivers to the bank manager knew who you meant when you talked about Aunt Agnes. And there was a long lineup to go in and see her and I, as the minister, of course was very much esteemed by the people there and thrilled that I was present and in a rather sort of obsequious way, a gooey way, felt that I had to represent the church and I went up to her and I thought I'd have something wise to say so I shook her beautiful, beautiful, almost translucent white hands and her eyes opened up and she saw me and a grin across her face and I said, "Happy Birthday, Aunt Agnes, Happy Birthday, and I just hope that a year from now I will be able to be here again and to shake your hand." And she said with a gleam in her eye, "Well, I don't see why not, you look rather healthy to me." Well, you can imagine for once in my life I was speechless.

Tonight we have another similar celebration, another moment to celebrate a milestone and it is a milestone really which for we who are the disciples of Jesus Christ is ultimately our night. It may be a change in digit, it may be a transition in time, but for you and I who love Our Lord Jesus Christ, it is the celebration of 2000 years of his presence and his life in the church. It is a moment for you and I also to take stock of those things which really do matter in our lives. It is a moment of transition, it is a moment of change.

Over the last two weeks, I've been sitting and going back and reading not only magazines and the newspapers, but 2000 years of the church's history and it has been for me an exciting and an enthralling and a liberating journey, to think that our brothers and sisters just under 2000 years ago used to meet in homes and break bread and share the wine and met secretly so the officials would not know that they gathered. And from those seeds, from those seeds of the apostolic teaching that talked about Our Lord Jesus Christ for 2000 years, the Christian church went through social ascendency to a social pariah. We have been both light in the world and at times, unfortunately, a symbol of darkness. And now at the end of 2000 years, we have another moment, another transition, a moment of excitement. But we do so, and we gather tonight with many challenges that face us on the brink of a new millennium. For example, it is hard for us now at the end of this millennium in this culture simply to convert people by matter of influence or power. They are little influenced by what sometimes we have to say and are only influenced by what we do. We live in a society now where there is so much information, so many competing views of God. As Oliver Wendel Holmes called it, a marketplace of opportunities that indeed no longer do we have a Christian hegemony where our view of God is the only prevalent view, but rather we are sometimes one view amongst many within our culture. We struggle and we rail against the challenges of secularism, the belief that somehow materialism and the promised land is found by what you accumulate rather than who you are. And in the midst of all this, the Christian church continues to bear witness.

I was reading a very moving article by John Updike in the New Yorker magazine in November and in it he stressed this very issue that we struggle with as Christians. He said, "Theistic exercises in science and logic from Aristotle to Aquinas to deism, may fortify the already persuaded, but they will not convert disbelievers." He says, and I go on, "Belief, like love, must be voluntary." And that is exactly the challenge that lies before the church at the end of this millennium in this culture. It is no longer able to appeal to history. We are not always able to appeal to guilt when people often have no sense of sin. Rather, we have a new challenge and the challenge, I believe, is to show in the world in which we live the vitality of the Christian faith; that the Christian faith is always an encounter, it is an encounter between God in Christ and we ourselves. It is borne out of a faith in a living Christ and for all that we talk of 2000 years of history, it is 2000 years of Christ's risen presence in our midst in the church, in the world through the very power of the Holy Spirit which he promised.

And so in the belief, my friends, that this is a living faith, I want to look at two things tonight which I hope will encourage us and move us greatly. They are faith as an encounter and faith as an imperative.


First of all then ? Faith as an encounter. And I use as my text that great passage from the Gospel of Luke, the passage where we see Jesus confronting Cleopas and his friend on a road and it is an encounter because as they are gathering and they are moving along, they are dejected and first of all in their minds there are thoughts of hopelessness. When they meet this stranger on the road, they come up to him and they said, "We had hoped, that this man Jesus, who had died in Jerusalem, was going to save Israel." They cast their eyes down and they are dejected and all the things that they had dreamt for and hoped for were gone. Oh, they had heard his great parables, they had probably even witnessed his miracles, they were even willing to keep their faith after his crucifixion, but now the sun is setting on the third day and on the third day they had expected him to rise and they cannot believe what has happened. There is one poet who once put in beautiful words, "I have seen the spring sunshine from an empty heaven upon a souless earth." That is how Cleopas and his friend were feeling.

And there are many of us, my friends, who at the end of a millennium also in our hearts look around the world and we see the problems and we get overwhelmed at times and we become dejected. We see the state of the earth that God made and we find it crumbling and we find it in pain. We look at immorality within our society and we look and we see even in a hundred years what has happened to the sexual morays of our time and we wonder where on earth this is going to end. We look at the social inequities that exist within our society or between the north world and the south world and we wonder whether or not there will ever be equality amongst God's people. Indeed, we look at many things: the growing tribalism that exists between people on the basis of their cultures rather than the unifying principles that hold humanity together and like Cleopas, we say, "Oh, my goodness, where is Jesus Christ in the midst of this," and some say he is not here, some say his church has no relevance, it is all indeed going down. But the servants of Jesus Christ for 2000 years have seen these things before. We have seen these things arise and like Cleopas, we need to have an encounter, an encounter with what happened to them. It was a transition from their thoughts of hopelessness to their affirmation of faith. At the moment of their greatest despair, Jesus of Nazareth, the risen Lord, comes up to them and he starts to unfold the history of scripture and he shows them that through Moses and the prophets, the suffering servant was supposed to die anyway, that in the midst of the suffering of the world, the suffering servant had to suffer along with humanity, had to suffer along with the world, in the world, for the world and then in a moment when they realized that this was the one who was speaking to them the word of God, they said, "Did not our hearts burn within us as he opened scripture unto us."

And then the climax, the climax came when he sat down and they took the bread and they broke it and they took the wine and they drank it and all of a sudden in this sacrament, the sign, they realized who he was.

Just like Cleopas. For 2000 years, even when we have had thoughts of hopelessness, God in Christ through the word and the sacrament, has come into our midst. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, people have been transformed, what they previously could not believe or understand, what they could not previously cope with or bear, Christ comes to us and transforms us.

And I talk here tonight, my friends, from the deepest personal experience. Many years ago, not long after I had started to study theology, I went to a small congregation on the outskirts of Grahamstown in South Africa and I was asked when I went there to minister in a very poor Xhosa congregation and while I was there I got to know the congregation very well and like I do here at Timothy Eaton, offered a Bible Study and on one Tuesday night when it was very dark, in the middle of a South African winter, in the middle of a July day, I sat down with some of the students and some of the young people in our church and we did a Bible Study on, believe it or not, Romans Chapter 12.

And when we were studying this, all of a sudden there was a terrible noise outside and I didn't know what was going on, there was a sound of, almost a sound of thunder, there was this terrible burning smell, there was something that was making me cry, and when I went outside and I walked into the streets, it was like something out of Dante's Inferno. And I came to one of the young boys who was running down the street and I asked him what was going on and he said, "We have just stoned our principal to death." I said, "You've done what?" He said, "We have stoned our principal to death." And they had stoned him because he was participating in the educational system supported by Apartheid, and the children would have none of it. And I said, "But, this is terrible, you should never have done this, you should never have resorted to this violence," but it was too late. The police and the military had now moved in. The children were being forced off the street, they were being hunted down. There were rubber bullets being fired in the streets, there were tanks rolling down the main street and the one place where the children felt that they could come was into my little congregational church.

Within a matter of half an hour, the streets were cleared, but my little church was full and we waited and we hunkered down and there was a smell of burning and smoke and the horrible, horrible stench of gasoline. And we just waited. I don't know how many children were in my church, seventy, eighty. They were sitting under the pews and they were sitting in the organ pit and one of them was actually hiding behind the pulpit, they were terrified, and we waited there until 2:00 o'clock in the morning, until there was a knock on the door and there before me was a policeman and two corporals. And they said, we would like to have three boys that we know that are here that we believe have been ringleaders and I not knowing who the ringleaders were or the boys were, looked to the congregation and looked to the children who were there and it was obvious from their eyes that these boys were in that church. They could not have been more than fourteen years old. And the Police Commandant said to me, "I want you to hand over the boys." I looked and I saw the fear in eyes of the children and I said, "No, I'm sorry, you can't have them." And he says, "I don't think you understand, Reverend, and so he ordered one of the constables to put the barrel of the gun in my chest. He said, "Now then, are you going to hand over these boys?" And I was terrified and I had no power within me, I had no strength of my own and I just simply said what comes through faith, I said, "In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, put down your guns and leave." And with that, the two constables began to weep. The commandant left. He said, "I will be back at dawn, you know what you have to do." And between dawn and 5:00 a.m., the boys were out of there. The power of the grace and the name of Jesus of Nazareth still lives, trust me.


But faith is not only an encounter with a living Christ, it is also just as importantly an imperative. It is a call to live then in the light of that Christ. Again I turn to the passage from the book of Romans and I love the line by G.K. Chesterton, who once said "Christianity hasn't been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and hasn't been tried." The Christian faith is difficult. Following Jesus Christ is costly. It demands your life, your soul, your all. There is no half measure once you turn to Christ in faith. And this, I believe, is one of the great challenges that we face because as C.S. Lewis says, "We can't do that as nice people," we can't indeed be obedient to follow this Jesus Christ just by being nice, we burn out when we try to be nice. We become depressed when we try to be nice. We become discouraged when we try to be nice. No, as C.S. Lewis rightly said, the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not invite us to be nice people, “It invites us to be new persons.” It invites us to be people who are empowered by God to live the life of discipleship now, to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit in order that we might walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. We are not disciples then simply on the basis of our own will, we are disciples on the basis of the power that God himself gives us. And when you look at a great passage like that from the book of Romans, you will realize as I do that you cannot just simply do these things on your own, it has to be a result of the power of God's spirit with you.

Look, for example, at what Paul says in this great book of Romans, the summary really of all that it means to be a Christian. He said, for example, "You are to be full of joy and hope." Where does that come from if it does not come from a belief in the providence of God. He said that you are to be patient in affliction. You know as I've gone back and I've looked at the history of the church and its ebbs and its flows, a number of things have struck me and one of them is that at times the church has indeed been afflicted, that when Alaric came into Rome, St. Augustine and the church that had really webbed itself to the Roman Empire had a crisis of faith and did not know where it should go or what it should do and in his great book, The City of God, Augustine gives hope on the basis of God's continued providence, grace and revelation. That the church does not have to rely on culture, it does not have to rely on its traditions, rather it relies on its Lord and it is precisely that faith that gave hope to those Christians when everything around them was folding.

In the great tradition of Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, a church that was a Methodist church, I was reading once again the life of John Wesley, and in 1735 when he had his Aldersgate experience, the church that was around him was dying. They had great edifices, but no one was attending. The clergy were corrupt and apathetic, rationalism was ruling the day. There were social inequities where the poor weren't cared for, the illiterate were pushed to one side and the ignorant given bottles of gin to keep them pacified, and in the midst of this came John Wesley to proclaim the word of God, to proclaim the word of hope, to proclaim the risen Christ, and Britain was transformed. And so my friends, in moments of dire straits when all seems lost or it seems culture has won its day, or that the spirit of the age is predominant, the Christ never lies down.

We are also called to be fervent in prayer. My friends, at the end of the millennium, this is indeed always a call to prayer. Again I look at the church when it had become formal, when it had become powerful, when in the 12th century the Popes ruled Rome with an iron hand, when the West was in conflict with the East you find someone like Hildegard of Bingan, a simple nun who calls the church to prayer and to a modern devotion and to a mysticism that is rooted and grounded in the living Christ. A simple woman, but again a woman who understood the power of prayer and without people like that throughout the centuries who have got on their knees and prayed, where would the church be at the end of this millennium?

We are also called to be hospitable, to open our homes, to open our hearts, to open our doors. You know, the most simple example of this that ever happened to me was in Springhill, Nova Scotia. I had literally just got off the plane from South Africa. I had absolutely nothing. I owned nothing. A suitcase, an NIV Bible and my guitar was about all that I had. And when I arrived, one of my very good friends, who's a Presbyterian minister, may the Good Lord bless him, said, "I would like you to come and stay with me for a few days, I have just accepted a call to a pastoral charge in Springhill, Nova Scotia. You know the place, Andrew, where the mine disasters were and where Anne Murray came from,” which he said then was another musical disaster, but that was just his own taste, or lack of it, or lack of it! He said, "Welcome to Springhill," and then his congregation decided that when they heard that there was a young man from Africa coming, they should do everything in their power to help him and within a matter of twenty-four hours of my arriving in the community, they went out of their way, people had boxes of things, there were more clothes and rucksacks and teapots - I'm still using the teapots - there were brooms and brushes, there were jackets, there were boots, there were parkas, somebody even went down to the local Zellers store just to make sure that this guy would be outfitted and when they asked for my dimensions, they were incredulous, but that's another point!

And then they decided that they would throw a fundraiser for me and oh, the excitement in the town of this African guy arriving and how they're helping a guy who's a refugee who needs help, and I must admit I was thrilled to pieces until I walked into the building and they were all gathered there, all the members of the Presbyterian church, eager to see this new guy who's the friend of the new minister and I walked in and they took one look at me and they were thoroughly disappointed. And I said, "Well, what's wrong, nobody seems to believe that I'm the poor guy from Africa who's got nothing." And one woman came up to me and said, "You're the wrong colour, young man, you're the wrong colour." I said, "Do I have to give everything back then now?" She said, "No, we know your plight, we're just a little surprised." It's nice that there are white Africans just as there are black Canadians! But that was hospitality. To an unknown person, an unknown face, these people poured out their hearts.

My friends, you don't just do that, you do that because there's something in you. It is the spirit of Christ.

The last word that I have for you is the closing word of Paul's 12th chapter of the Book of Romans. He said, "I also want to make sure that you do not repay evil for evil." My friends, there is still evil in the world. There is a spiritual power of evil. There is an evil that takes people's lives, there is an evil that oppresses and subjugates and binds, but the cross of Jesus Christ always stands as the one symbol that is against evil because it did not adopt evil's methods to defeat it. It adopted sacrifice. It adopted self-giving love. It lay down itself and it was holy. At the end of this millennium, Christ calls us to resist evil, but evil with good. Evil resisted by the power of love. Death resisted by the power of the resurrection. Doubt resisted by the power of a Christian life, for our Christ will never, ever lie down. Amen.