September 30, 2018

Be at peace with each other

Be at peace with each other

Be at peace with each other. Words spoken by Jesus to his disciples. When you hear that phrase, what images come to mind? Peace in the world…at home, with family…with friends…
here at church. What does peace…with each other…look like and feel like? Perhaps you associate peace with a certain place. A quiet spot by the water…or out in the fields…or up in the hills. Perhaps you sense peace in the lazy hazy days of summer…or the quiet stillness of a crisp fall day. Perhaps you associate it with world events. Peace…with each other…country with country working together. What image comes to mind when you hear Jesus’ words: “Be at peace with each other.”

That phrase is what stood out for me when I was reading that passage from Mark. Be…at peace…with each other. It is intentional. It contains determination. It involves more than just one person. It is lovely to be in a peaceful setting. Peace and quiet, as we like to say and long for from time to time. But to be at peace with each other, goes beyond the individual to include the community…including the church community. And it goes beyond the individual because it is intimately connected with Jesus. The peace that Jesus gives, we in turn work together to be at peace with each other.

Scripture tells us that peace isn’t something just to enjoy for ourselves. As Christ gives us peace
…we should freely give peace to each other. The peace that Christ gives, is a way of life. It goes
beyond the absence of conflict to embrace our whole being. The apostle Paul puts it this way when writing to the Church in Colossae (3:15): “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” And when we look at the passage that we have today from Mark’s gospel, Jesus wants desperately for his peace to rule in the hearts of his disciples.

Jesus ends his lesson with the disciples with the words: “Have salt in yourselves…and be at peace with each other.” These peaceful words of Jesus are spoken to the disciples after some very harsh statements with consequences for those who cause children to stumble. And those statements were preceded by several events that led ultimately to the harsh statements and the plea at the end of it all to be at peace with each other. It had been a long stretch and everyone – Jesus and the disciples – are tired.

Before the events in today’s story, Jesus had healed a boy who suffered from epilepsy…Jesus had spent some time teaching his disciples that he was going to die…which was then followed, strangely enough, by an argument amongst themselves about which of them was the greatest. I’m sure Jesus just shook his head. My disciples…listen. It’s not about being the greatest. It’s about being a servant of all. It’s about welcoming children in my name. The greatest in God’s kingdom are those who serve the least amongus. Greatness is not measured by comparing ourselves to others.

I’m sure the disciples listened to Jesus. Maybe even shook their head in agreement…but then without missing a beat, John changes the subject back to the disciples, and he starts complaining about a man driving out demons in Jesus’ name…even though he was not one of them. John may have been the one doing the talking…but I expect all the disciples were nodding in agreement to what John was telling Jesus. The disciples seem to have the assumption that they have claim on Jesus’ power. This man is not one of us. He’s an imposter. Tell him to stop doing what he’s doing Jesus!
The disciples whining was not becoming…and Jesus does not reply with the response they were
hoping for. Jesus responds by basically telling the disciples that someone who uses his name is not likely to badmouth him in the next breath. I imagine the disciples were quite taken aback. They expected Jesus’ approval for bringing to his attention this wannabe disciple who was driving out demons in Jesus’ name. After all they were the ones following Jesus…they were the ones listening to his every word…they were the ones committed to following him all the way… not this fellow. Who does he think he is? But for Jesus the action of being freed from the demon was what was important. Don’t stop him, Jesus said. It doesn’t matter if the healing comes from his hand or the hand of another, as long as it comes. “For whoever is not against us is for us.”

You can sense the level of frustration in Jesus’ response, for he speaks to the disciples at length about the dangers of being distracted by the wrong things…and the stumbling blocks we place in front of ourselves and each other. Jesus was concerned for his disciples that they were missing the point. Yesterday they were getting caught up in arguments about who is the greatest disciple …and today they are turning the focus onto others who are not a part of the inner circle and suggesting quite strongly that they be stopped. The disciples were talking about finding a way to keep people out…but Jesus wanted them to seek ways to include, not exclude. And then Jesus really hits the disciples with some harsh language. He really gets their attention. Don’t be a stumbling block. It wouldbe better if you were to put a millstone around your neck and jump into the sea.Instead of going to hell it would be better to cut off a hand, foot or poke out an eye.Better to be maimed in life than to go to hell in the long run.

Why does Jesus speak so harshly about causing one of these little ones who believes in him to stumble? Because Jesus was serious about the treatment of people…the mistreatment of people…and those who claim to follow Jesus but put up stumbling blocks in front of people that prevent them from thriving…are not building up the kingdom of God but tearing it down. Jesus’ extreme language reveals just how important this is to him. The church must always be on the side of building up people…not tearing them down. We must be working together as we seek to be ‘doers of the word and not just hearers’. As we listen and respond. As we put our faith into action. As followers of the Christ we must heed his warning and strive to be at peace with each other.
This call to be at peace with each other is before the church today. Christ has established the Church and there is much work to be done! But when we look at the task before us…it can be daunting. The Church…the established Church…is not as great in numbers as it once was. When we consider the task before us…we are tempted to fall into the trap of longing for the good old days. The good old days when the church buildings were full on Sunday morning. The good old days when stores were closed on Sunday…when the hockey rinks were closed on Sunday…the good old days before Tim Hortons became the gathering place on Sunday. Oh if only everything was closed on Sunday then people wouldn’t have anything else to do but come to church. If only.

Oh the good old days. That’s what the people were pining for in Moses day. The reading from the 11th chapter of Numbers paints a vivid picture of the growing discontent of the people. We are right in the midst of the Exodus. The people have departed from Mount Sinai…and they continue to journey…and they journey…and as they journey…as they wander in the wilderness …the temperament of the people worsens. In today’s reading we find the people in a rather poor mood. They were on the way to the promised land…but they weren’t there yet…and it was taking an awfully long time. The people complain about Moses’ leadership…and they complain about the food…the same old same old manna. Day in and day out. Sure, it kept the people alive…but where is the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost. Where are the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, the garlic. Where is the flavor! Where is the meat! Oh the good old days when there was meat and potatoes on everyone’s plate. Sure, we were slaves…but at least we knew what to expect every day. We didn’t worry…we didn’t have anything to worry about, mind you. But at least we had a variety of food. Oh…the good old days.

Oh how the people complained for the good old days. But words of complaint weren’t coming just
from the people. Moses was troubled by the complaints of the people…and instead of telling them to stop…he turns to the Lord and complains. God, why are you doing this to me? What have I done to make you mad at me? Am I these people’smother? Did I give birth to them that you expect me to nurse them all the way to the Promised Land?Where in the world am I supposed to find enough meat to give to all of them? They keep whining, and whining and whining! If this isthe way it’s going to be the whole trip…either give me some relief…or just kill me now.
It was a desperate time. It was a frustrating time. The burden of leadership had become so heavy that it was intolerable. Death itself preferable to carrying the burden one more step.

Fortunately, God doesn’t respond to Moses’ request to die. God sees Moses’ despair as a cry for help. God hears what is behind the complaining – the weariness of the responsibility of caring for the people all by himself. God gives him what he needs – namely other people who could stand alongside him. Others to share the load. God instructs Moses to gather 70 of the elders at the tent of meeting. There, God talks with Moses and takes some of the spirit that rests on him and distributes it among the elders. It was time to share the burden. Time to answer the call for
help…with help.

As today’s text draws to a close, Moses has the help of the elders…even some who at first glance were not considered leadership material…at least by Moses’ assistant Joshua. But Moses replied to Joshua’s complaint by saying: “Are you jealous for me? Would that all God’s people were prophets. Would that God would put his Spirit on all of them.”

Moses is feeling better, and with a clear mind tells Joshua to stop being jealous. Who are we to tell
God who should or should not be filled with the Spirit. Be happy that God is using them… working
through them…and that they are speaking the words of God.
Is that not what we all want…for all people to come to faith…to be filled with the Spirit of God?
Well yes, but how can we be the church…if the people coming to church…don’t know how to be the church…and do church the way church should be done? Hmmm.

In Moses day, Joshua had a hard time accepting someone new, even though Moses was willing to accept the help. In Jesus’ day, the disciples had a hard time accepting someone new, even though Jesus was willing to accept him. In our day, one of the stumbling blocks that we as church goers sometimes put in front of non-church goers is the impression that the church is a closed group made up of like-minded people. And if you don’t know how to belong…don’t bother applying. Whether that is a fair characterization or not, that is the impression that some people have of the church. And the reality is, is that such stumbling blocks have resulted in the steady decline of church attendance and affiliation. It was in 1971 – almost 50 years ago – that the four large protestant denominations in Canada – United, Anglican, Presbyterian and Lutheran – saw the peak level of affiliation. After that, the decline was considerable. That sobering statistic comes from Stuart Macdonald’s book Leaving Christianity. The new reality is that No Religion on the census form represents the second largest ‘religion’ in Canada. Leaving Christianity provides a great deal of data on the decline of the church…and addresses the shift that the church must meet…that of finding a way of relating to the changed environment that all congregations find themselves in. It’s not about managing a church where everyone in the community attends – the good old days – it’s about engaging with your community in which the majority have no Christian faith…or any religion at all. It’s re-discovering why and how the church can be relevant today. Right?

Peter Bush, past Moderator of the General Assembly, wrote a book review on Leaving Christianity and ends with these words:
One in four Canadianshave “no religion”, thatmeansthey don't know the Christianstory,don’tknow the meaningof Christmasand Easter, havenot heardofthe hopeofthe resurrectionofJesus,havenot heardof the transformingpower of theHoly Spiritto bring healingandhope.How willthey hear that story? Ifthey are to hear the storyit will not be by attendingchurch,sincethey areunlikely to attend church. If they are to hear thestory it will be because someneighbour,friend,co-worker, relative introduces them to part of thestory and then the story draws them in.
We have a story to tell, a story of what Jesusmeans to us, a story of how the Holy Spirit has brought hopeandmeaningto our lives,a storyofhow thecommunityof believerscalledthechurchhashelpedus live into the storyof Jesus, a storythatdeclaresthereis moreto life thanthe consumerismwhich leads to all things becoming commodities.We don't need fancy words or specialtraining, we simply need to have the courage totell the story, the Holy Spirit will do the rest.”

Those words of Peter Bush need to truly be lived out…with each other…as together with the community we strive to be at peace with each other. The church is not an exclusive club, but the place where a cup of cold water offered in the name of Jesus can be a step toward being at peace with each other. May we all both worship together and serve together…and together embrace the words of Jesus: “Be at peace with each other.” Amen.