The “Great Clean-up”

Notes for a sermon at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, St. Albert, Alberta, May 22, 2022
Texts: Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29

I bought a new phone a few weeks ago. The old one was working reasonably well, but the manufacturer was no longer providing security support, and some newer apps required a more current operating system. Transferring all my stuff to the new phone was quite easy, and then I turned to the old one, first deleting all the personal stuff I could find, and then deleting the apps. I realized afterwards I didn’t need to bother with all those deletions, because doing a factory reset would clear everything identifiable. The factory reset took a few minutes, and by the time it was done the old phone was in the same state as when I took it out of the box several years ago — just as its builder intended.

Something like this is going on in today’s lesson from the Revelation to John, a part of the great vision which concludes the book in Chapters 21 and 22. Revelation is easily the most misunderstood book of the Bible, and it has unfortunately become one of the most often-cited texts by certain kinds of Christians. The error many people make is to treat it as prophecy for these times, connecting its images and scenes to events today. These things are then interpreted as “signs of the times,” an indication that God is about to step in and wipe everything out. It is commonly seen as foretelling the end of the world. Wrong!

Revelation is the New Testament’s only example of “apocalyptic,” a genre of literature common in Jewish circles in the centuries before and after the time of Jesus. The only other example that made it into the Bible is Daniel, from which Revelation draws much of its imagery and themes. Both books were written to people of faith suffering oppression from an oppressive power. In the case of Revelation, the intended audience was Christians under the Roman Empire. Both books are written in a kind of code which would be understood by the faithful, but not by the oppressors. Both have the same message: stand firm in the faith, and the conqueror will be vanquished.

Revelation’s message is really very simple: God wins!

One of the book’s images is the “Beast,” a metaphor for the Roman Empire. The city of Rome is never mentioned by name but is referred to in another metaphor as “Babylon the Great,” another oppressor of God’s people in times past. Much of the book makes horrifying reading, but the tone shifts dramatically in Chapters 21 and 22. Instead of doom, death, and destruction we are presented with a vision of a “new heaven and a new earth”. That word “new” is perhaps a bit misleading – it should better be read as “renewed” or “re-created.”

In some video lectures (“Victory and Peace or Justice and Peace?”) I watched recently, New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan said that Revelation is not about the end of the world. Rather, he said, we should see it as God’s “Great Clean-up.” This is the reset to end all resets! At the end of this age, earth will be restored to God’s purpose, as Jesus taught us to pray:

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

The book does not end with a destroyed earth, but rather a redeemed earth. In the new age, on this reborn and renewed earth, all evils and sorrows will be gone, and everything will be according to God’s will, God’s holy purposes. As Genesis tells it, the world began being broken in one garden, around one tree. God will restore it to its original purpose in a second garden, with a new tree of life and a new river flowing from the throne of God.

But that’s in the future – sometime! It’s a wonderful promise, but it has not yet been fulfilled. Just look around you to see how things are not as God would wish them to be. War, mass shootings, civil unrest, famines, pandemics… Do I need to go on?

Almost everyone is aware in their own way that “Things just ain’t right!” And almost everyone seems to have their own recipe for making things right. Politicians of various stripes will give you a variety of remedies. Raise the question with five friends over coffee (or some other libation), and you’ll get at least six answers. If you’re so inclined, you can consult your horoscope or your tea leaves. But what I often hear is this: some people are ready to give up, and some others claim to know what will fix everything. I don’t accept either of these all-too-human views.

If we only listen to human voices, all we will get is human solutions to human messes. We must look elsewhere, finding a different sort of guidance from a different source for helping to bring this world closer to the reality expressed in the Great Clean-up. Another well-known New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, calls this activity “building for the kingdom.” In the video companion to his book “Surprised by Hope,” (HarperOne 2008) he likens it to being like a stone mason carving individual stones for the building of a great cathedral. The mason knows his task, and he also knows that if he does not do it up to standard, the piece may not fit where it is intended, and part of the big enterprise may fail. The mason is guided by the master mason, who is guided by the architect, who is guided by a higher authority.

And that’s how it is with Jesus’ people in this in-between time while we await the Great Clean-up. We are not called to sit idly by as we wait for God to get in with the push broom and the Lysol. We have a role to play, working as if it has already begun. But how do we know that what we are doing is according to God’s will, and not ours? My friends, we have a guide for our work. Jesus promised this guide to his disciples before he went to his death:

the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

The Great Clean-up will come in God’s own time. In the meantime, amid all the troubles of this present age, we are called to work for that coming, living into it, living as if it had already happened. It’s a tall order, I know, but we are not alone.

Jesus is with us always to the end of the age, and the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, is within us – individually, and (more importantly) corporately – at all times to guide us into the peace which Jesus left us. Our job is to listen – to pray! – and then, hearing, to work for what is good and holy and peaceful and loving.

We are not alone.

Thanks be to God!

The Devil Quotes Scripture

Notes for a sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Brandon on February 21, 2010, the first Sunday in Lent. Texts: Luke 4:1-13; Ps 91:1-2, 9-16

As I worshiped this morning at Holy Trinity, Old Strathcona (Edmonton), I thought back to this sermon I preached nine years ago.
I believe it has continuing relevance to issues in the church today.

As many people are aware, there has been much turmoil in the Anglican Communion in recent years. If one only followed the secular press, the impression would likely be that the issues centered on sexuality, specifically same-gender relationships. While we should not ignore the significance of “the issue,” we in the church need to pay closer attention to the underlying questions that have served to make the presenting issue such a hot button. Among other issues, there are questions of “theological anthropology”—the doctrine of what it means to be human; questions of ecclesiology—the doctrine about the church; and very importantly, the matter that is my concern today, questions of our understanding and use of scripture.

As we begin the season of Lent, when the discipline of Bible reading and study is specially emphasized, we do well to take a careful look at how we approach the Bible. The first thing we need to observe is that there is no single right way to read scripture, and certainly no definitively Anglican one. The Anglican Communion has recently appointed an international commission to study Anglican use of the Bible. As one commentator noted, if we were all agreed everywhere on our use of the Bible, the commission would be unnecessary.

This morning we heard the traditional Gospel for the first Sunday of Lent, Jesus’ temptations. We could spend much time with the actual temptations. What I instead want to draw our attention to today is the manner of Jesus’ response to the devil—he quotes scripture, citing two texts from Deuteronomy. The devil presents the first two temptations in his own words, but in the third, he turns Jesus’ tactics back at him. The devil quotes scripture!—the very same psalm we used this morning.

Jesus’ response to the third temptation—another text from Deuteronomy—ends the debate. Using one text to counter another shows us very clearly that simply quoting a verse from the Bible never proves anything. If you search hard enough, you should be able to find a text supporting almost any position you want to take on any given issue. Texts taken out of context can be twisted into almost any interpretation we choose, and that is not an appropriate use of scripture. That’s what the devil does in the third temptation, and although Jesus counters the challenge with another verse, what he is really doing is pointing beyond the text to what came before it—God’s own purpose, God’s own ways.

In the temptation story, both Jesus and the devil appear to use scripture in a literal fashion, but Jesus’ final response goes beyond a literal reading to find the deeper reality behind the “plain sense” of the words.

As we open our Bibles seeking to receive God’s word, we should remember that God came before the book, which is written in human language and interpreted by human minds. No language can fully encompass the reality which is God and God’s ways. No written word can ever truly express the Living Word of God. Nonetheless, we rely on “The Good Book” to guide us into a deeper understanding of who God is, and who we are before God. This understanding comes as we live into the words, making them our own, seeking to model our lives on God’s ways, revealed through the pages of scripture, and in the life, work and person of Jesus.

The great 20th-century theologian Karl Barth said that the Bible is not the Word of God, but rather becomes the Word of God when it is interpreted in a community of believers. The interpretation—the meaning of the words—is found in the lives of those who seek by God’s grace to hear the truth within and beneath them. What do our words mean? We reveal the answer in and through our lives. What is the meaning of Jesus as the Word of God? The answer is revealed in his life, death and resurrection.

However we view the Bible, from a completely literal approach to the totally metaphorical, simply reading the words is not sufficient. As we together seek to live into the words we read and pray, we come together to embody the Word of God. We take the texts off the page, and into our lives, turning the words into the Living Word—the power of the Holy Spirit enlivening and mobilizing the People of God.

Even in its diversity. Anglican tradition does have a number of “fixed points.” One is that we use the Bible a lot. Our worship has much more actual scriptural content than you will find in some churches who proclaim themselves to be “Bible-based.” We read scripture in a disciplined and detailed fashion. Furthermore, our liturgies—both BCP and BAS—are full of scriptural quotations and allusions. The big differences within Anglicanism lie in manners of interpretation. Some read the Bible as literal words of God. Others receive scripture as a unique human response to hearing the word of God. The question that divides these two positions is “Did it actually happen that way?” Those who take the first viewpoint are inclined to say “Of course it did. The Bible (i.e. God) says so.” Those who take the second viewpoint will tend to give a less definitive answer, seeking to bring other evidence (science, history, archeology, etc.) to bear on the text. And the twain shall never agree.

A question which divides is not helpful in bringing people together and building up the Body of Christ. A question that can help us come together is “What does it mean for us today?” We seek to find meaning in action, in our lives together.

The devil can quote scripture, using the written word of God to tear down God’s people like someone bashing a wall with a hammer. Let us remember: a hammer may be used to tear down, but it can also be used to build up, just as the Word of God is intended to build up, to strengthen and empower God’s people.

Scripture was the fundamental tool of Jesus’ ministry, from his time in the desert to the time of his Ascension. So may we follow his example, using the written word to help us continue to become the Living Word, as we follow the Incarnate Word of God.


The Sacramental World of the Bible

Originally written for “Trinity Today,” the monthly newsletter of Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Old Strathcona, Edmonton, Alberta

As General Synod 2016 approached, Anglicans across the country were invited to study a report entitled “This Holy Estate,” on the question of same-gender marriages. The Thursday morning study group at Holy Trinity Anglican Church spent four weeks in this undertaking. It was an illuminating time for me, not because it changed my perspective on the “big question” (it didn’t much!), but because it showed me just how broad a spectrum of viewpoints could be encompassed in a group of less than ten people, particularly with respect to the Bible and how we read it. None of us in the group read the Bible from a purely literal standpoint, but the place it occupied in our lives was very different, from a profound reverence to near-indifference.

The exercise led me to ponder how we ought to approach the holy Scriptures. I am suggesting that we take a sacramental view of the Bible, which I believe will help to open its words for us to become the living Word of God.

The Sacraments as we understand them have both a material and a spiritual reality: the material both points to and conveys the spiritual. The water of Holy Baptism points beyond itself to the reality of incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church. The bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist likewise points beyond, to the reality of the presence of Christ in the gathered community and the world around us. In the same way, the words of the Holy Bible lead us beyond the printed page to the reality of God’s presence in humanity and in the world which God created, and ultimately to the redemption of the world through the death and Resurrection of Jesus.

Although Anglican tradition has always placed a high value on Scripture, let it be said here that we do not worship the Bible, but rather the God whom the Bible reveals. The great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker said that the Church – the “called-out” people of God – is founded on scripture, tradition, and reason, which has come to be known as “Hooker’s tripod.” Through the interplay of the three legs, the Church can continue to move forward in its participation in God’s mission. Clearly, Scripture has a foundational and supportive role in this mission.

From itpexels-photo-372326.jpegs beginning, Anglicanism has placed a high value on the public reading of Scripture. Besides being written in English, the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) made some important innovations in worship. Cranmer reduced the multiple monastic daily services to two, the “daily offices” of Morning and Evening Prayer, with the implied expectation that people would participate daily. A system of reading the scriptures (a “lectionary”) was provided for these services, so that anyone who attended them regularly would hear the entire Old Testament every two years, the New Testament three times a year, and the Psalms monthly. While daily attendance at the offices was the exception, the Prayer Book established the centrality of the Scripture in our worship.

More recently, we have come to understand the Eucharist as our church’s central act of worship. While the Sunday lectionary we now use is not nearly as comprehensive as the original daily lectionary, it still places a considerable portion of the Bible before worshipers on a regular basis.

Unlike some other churches of the Reformation, the Anglican church has never defined itself confessionally, by articulating core beliefs to which all members are expected to assent. We have instead tended to define ourselves as a communion through our liturgies. Our worship tells us – and others – who we are. If our worship defines us, it is no stretch to see that the importance of the Bible in our worship also helps to defines us.

So… how do we read the Bible? How do we understand what it is and what it is not? How can it speak to us today without it becoming stale? The Collect of the Day for the Sunday between Nov. 6 & 12 gives some hints about our church’s historical view of Scripture.

Eternal God,
who caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning,
grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,
that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

(Anglican Church of Canada, Book of Alternative Services, p. 391,
or the Book of Common Prayer, p. 97)

First, it does not say that the Bible is “God’s Word” but rather that God caused it to be written. Fallible human beings put pen to paper to write its many and varied texts, under divine guidance but not as God’s holy puppets. They saw and heard and remembered – and then wrote.

Second, it clearly asserts that the scriptures are to be used. They are given for our learning: “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.” How we do this is a matter of personal choice and habit. There is no one right or wrong way for Christians to interact with the Scriptures, except of course, not to do so at all!

Third, we see that our interaction with the scriptures is not a mind game—knowledge for the sake of knowledge—but should lead us beyond the written word to the Incarnate Word. The intended learning should change us. The goal is always a deeper relationship with God in Christ—everlasting life. We are called to become the living Word of God in the world. The Bible is not the end-point of our faith. It is the prime foundational document of the Christian faith, a faith which is not in the Bible but in the one to whom it points.

How do people use Scripture? Sometimes we may sit alone with our Bible in reading or meditation. Very often we hear Scripture proclaimed in the liturgy. At times, we may join in Bible study. In whatever way we interact with Scripture, we are invited to let the words before us change us and draw us ever deeper into a relationship with the One who caused those words to be written. This is truly sacramental – a holy action drawing us closer to God. The Word of God is thus not a static reality on a printed page, but a dynamic reality in the lives of the faithful.

I sometimes preface sermons with this prayer, which I now offer in closing:

Gracious God
Through the written word and the spoken word,
May we become your living Word,
Through him who was and is the Word made flesh,
Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. AMEN.

A Community that Sends

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity (Strathcona) on August 27, 2017

Texts: Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

Last Sunday, Fr. Chris spoke of the challenge to the Church to “go out.” There is much more that can be said about this, including Archbishop William Temple’s dictum that the “Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members.” One way of stating our mission: We are to go out to be of benefit to the world around us.

Let’s back this up a step or two, and think about who is doing the sending. What kind of group is it that can send its members out in this way? I take my cue from Paul, and his appeal to the church in Rome, part of which we heard in today’s lesson. The lectionary does us a bit of a disservice, by splitting Chapter 12 between two Sundays, but let’s work with what we have been given.

Paul starts out by saying, “I appeal to you therefore…” That last word should alert us to the fact that what comes next is not some sayings plunked into the text in an arbitrary way. It has a context.

The preceding three chapters (9 – 11) deal with what some contemporary scholars consider to be the central issue of Romans, the question of the fate of Israel. Paul agonizes over the problem, lamenting the fact that most Jews have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah. He ultimately refuses to let go of his faith in God’s fidelity to his promises, concluding that in God’s great mercy, salvation would not be denied to the people of Israel. The section closes with an outburst of praise (curiously not in the Lectionary):

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord?
   Or who has been his counselor?’
 ‘Or who has given a gift to him,
   to receive a gift in return?’
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen.

And… therefore…

If God has been gracious to all, our response should then be to strive to live lives that reflect that grace, not merely as individuals, but in a company of the faithful whose corporate life displays God’s grace. Paul uses the image of the body, more concisely than in 1 Corinthians 12, to argue that we are interdependent—needing each other and rejoicing in each person’s unique gifts. Paul enjoins us “not to think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] ought to think,” but to regard ourselves with “sober judgment” as members of the Body of Christ. I might use “humility” here, remembering that that doesn’t mean self-abasement (“worm theology”), but being honest with ourselves, with our brothers and sisters, and with God, about who we are and what are our gifts.

It is easy to miss how counter-cultural is Paul’s concept of Christian community. He wrote:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God…

The world in which Paul lived was the Roman Empire, one of the most successful regimes in history. This was a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity, enforced by Roman military might. However, the Empire relied on a rigidly structured society, in which everyone knew his or her place, and upward social mobility was almost unheard-of. The subjugated peoples of the Empire could enjoy the benefits of Roman rule so long as they kept to their places. Into this mix, Paul throws a huge measure of egalitarianism. When he calls on followers of Christ to see themselves as no better than they should, it implies that they should regard their companions on the way as their equals, just as Jews and Christians are equal in God’s economy of grace and mercy.

The point of the church, however, is not just to build a community where everyone loves each other. That’s a good thing by itself, of course, but the mission of proclaiming God’s love in the marketplace must be based in a people practicing what they preach. The life of the Christian community is a large part of its message.

Harold Percy, a well-known Canadian writer about mission, has outlined Christian mission in terms of the Kingdom of God. We are called
to proclaim the Kingdom,
to celebrate the Kingdom, and
to model the Kingdom.

When people look at us—a community of people who follow Jesus as the Messiah—they should see a body which strives to behave as if God’s reign is being fulfilled in our midst. Our calling is to be a model of the Kingdom. Of course, models never quite live up to the reality they are pointing to; every church community inevitably falls short of the Glory it is striving to proclaim. But that doesn’t mean we should quit trying!

It grieves me deeply to know that there are people who assert themselves over others by “who they are,” at times invoking the name of our Saviour. We saw some of the symptoms of that in Charlottesville two weeks ago. So-called “identity politics” have no place in God’s Kingdom. White supremacy, racism, anti-Semitism, misogynism, homophobia and their like are evils upon the body politic. When they find their way into Church life, they are toxic to the Gospel we are called to proclaim.

We are followers of Jesus of Nazareth, the one whom Peter confessed to be the Messiah. Jesus came to “draw all people to [himself].” As his Body, we are called to draw all people to him, inviting all to share in the grace, mercy, and unbounded love of the God who cannot let his people go.

God loves ALL his people—and so should we!

Let’s go and show it.

All Things New

Notes for a sermon on Rev. 21:1-6
Holy Trinity Edmonton, April 24, 2016

These past two Thursdays mornings, the study group discussed “This Holy Estate,” the report by a commission of the General Synod which seeks to find a theological case for the amendment of the Marriage Canon to permit same-gender weddings. I’m not going to discuss the report here, but one of the report’s questions on which the group spent time was the issue of how Anglicans use scripture. The answer is—to put it very broadly—very broadly!

Even within the group who met this week, we found a wide range of approaches to the Bible. I believe we would be fairly representative of the spectrum of Anglican practice. But even within this spectrum, none of us approached the Bible completely literally. More importantly, I believe, all of us affirmed the value of interpreting it in community.

The question of how to read and interpret Scripture is crucial; not just in the matter of same-gender marriages, but in how we frame the corporate life of the Church. We Anglicans have historically defined ourselves as a liturgical church, not simply because we “do liturgy,” but because our Scripture-filled liturgies express who we are.

Why am I spending time on this? In part because it’s a current topic in the Church’s decision-making, but also because we are in the midst of a series of readings from the Revelation to John, the book of the Bible with the most convoluted and controversial interpretational history.

It has a complex history of usage. It almost didn’t make it into the Bible. In the Orthodox Churches, which never read it in their liturgies, it functions more like an appendix. Some today tend to dismiss it as a historical relic with little relevance today. Other churches find it a rich source, constantly mining it to attempt to read the signs of our times. The central interpretational problem, I believe, is in the book’s use of symbolism, more by far than other book of the Bible.

My view of Revelation: it is a letter to seven churches experiencing oppression under the Roman Empire, probably written in the last decade of the 1st century. It uses coded language and symbols, largely drawn from Ezekiel and Daniel, telling of the tribulations that the churches will face, and exhorting them to stand firm, because, in the end – God will win! The meaning of the symbolism would be clear to anyone familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, but unintelligible to others. Reading its message could be dangerous in the political climate of the time. Perhaps we could think of Revelation as “underground prophecy”.

One thing I am sure it is not is a book of clues about how to read contemporary events. Its roots are in the 1st-century Church, and the actions of “Babylon the Great” (read “Rome”) in the oppression of Christians who refused to bow the knee to Caesar.

For three Sundays we have selections from the book’s final chapters, presenting John’s vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” and the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven. There are great battles in the preceding chapters, but now we hear God proclaiming that he will make his dwelling place among humanity, and every tear will be wiped away. It is a vision of everlasting peace and justice, and of the ultimate fulfillment of God’s purpose for creation.

It is not a vision of death and destruction and the ending of time. There is no rapturing of the faithful into heaven, no wiping out of all things. Instead, we see a new creation, where God will reign among his people for ever.

But just what does this mean: a “new” earth?

A family member makes his living as a cabinet maker. He recently posted some job pictures, showing a kitchen before and after his work. It was recognizably the same space, with the same general layout, but it was clearly new – almost unrecognizable. It was the same, but renewed, freshened, given new life. It seems to me that the new creation of which John tells us is much like this: the same, but renewed and given new life and purpose. It recalls stories of resurrection appearances in which Jesus is not recognized at until some cue happens. Remember how Mary Magdalene at the tomb believes Jesus to be the gardener until he calls her by name.

The same but different is an integral part of John’s vision for the age to come.

It is a vision of a redeemed creation. We are perhaps more accustomed to thinking of redemption as pertaining to people, but we should never forget that we human beings a part of creation. We are not independent from this earth, but are radically dependent on it. God’s self-description points to this dependence:

alpha and omegaI am the Alpha and the Omega,
the beginning and the end.

The second part could also be translated as “the origin and the fulfillment.” The end (Gk telos) is not a point beyond which nothing else is, but the fulfillment of God’s intentions for this renewed creation. From here on, everything will work together in harmony according to God’s desires—all creation singing God’s praises as the divine purposes are brought to be.

John’s final vision is of the world (creation) as it should be. It is a future vision, to be sure. It might be easy and tempting to dismiss it, but let us please not do that. Let us instead affirm that God will, in God’s own time, restore and redeem creation, and that God’s people will live in peace and justice for ever.

In the meantime—in these times—we are charged not to cede defeat to the powers, but to stand firm in the sure hope of God’s redemption, to work as we are able for the fulfillment of John’s vision, when God makes All Things New.

God’s love wins. That’s the message of Easter. We proclaim it aloud in our gatherings. Let us go forth to proclaim it even more loudly in the world we live in, through all we do and say.

Amen.