A Growing Industry

Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes

Did you know that in 1990 the winery industry in British Columbia had 1, 476 acres of vineyards. At the end of 2014, in just 25 years the production has grown to 10, 260 acres of vineyards. There are 252 licensed grape wine wineries in BC with just over 60 more other fruit wineries. There are five designated viticultural areas, obviously the Okanagan, as well as Similkameen and Faser valleys, Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. And then there are four emerging regions Shuswap, North Okanagan, Thompson Nicola and West Kootenays. There are over 80 grape varietals produced in this province with Pinot Gris being the top white variety and Merlot the top red variety. I know for some of you this is not appealing at all, and maybe a bit concerning, but I couldn’t help researching these statistics while studying the gospel passage. I discovered that this year is the 25th anniversary of VQA in British Columbia. Like CVPC it is a young industry compared to its counterparts around the world, that’s right I just compared our church to a winery, but despite its young age the wine industry is a booming in BC. It is a $225.9 million dollar enterprise.
But growing grapes is actually a fairly complicated and lengthy process. For the first couple of years, the vine should not be allowed to produce fruit as it needs to strengthen its root system before it can support the extra weight of fruit. Although this is never overtly referenced it seems to me to be a great metaphor for the church and perhaps those of you who have been a part of this congregation since the early days can remember what it was like setting roots down before attempting to grow outward. Pruning is also of the utmost importance to growing grapes. If a vine is not pruned not only will it run rampant but the canes will only produce fruit once. Most vineyard guides say to remove at least %90 of the previous season’s growth. It seems like a lot but I like this image as it refers to our journeys of faith. That we need to remind ourselves to take times where we cut back on our responsibilities and take time for spiritual growth. That we have moments in which we need to focus on being rooted so that we have the strength to carry the fruit. Of all the metaphors and parables that Jesus uses throughout the Gospels the image of the vine and and the vine grower is likely the one that remains most relevant to our context. We aren’t all shepherds or prodigal sons, we aren’t all tax collectors or Samaritans but all it takes is one short drive up Anderton or along the 19A to find a vineyard.
The allegory in John 15 proceeds in a straightforward way. Jesus is the vine, the Father the vine grower, and the community the branches. The vine grower lops off any branch that does not produce and prunes any branch that does. The image of a grape vine is an image that is borrowed and adapted from Old Testament imagery for Israel. Psalm 80 actually says, “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.” Referring to the exodus story for the early Hebrew people. In Isaiah 5 there is an entire song entitled, the Lament of the Unfruitful Vineyard in which the prophet warns, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” Isaiah in his capacity as a prophet is warning the people that they have broken covenant and one of the consequences of this break in the relationship is exile. When Jesus says, “I am the vine” he is stating that he is the new covenant, the new relationship between God and God’s people.
The synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, called as such because they have similar stories, also use the imagery of a vine and vineyard but it should be noted that those stories reflect violence and greed. Whereas John’s image focuses more on love, fruitfulness and relationship. In the synoptic parable the absentee landlord sends his son to the tenants, which is more appropriately translated as vine growers, these tenants had previously beaten and killed the earlier emissaries and the son is also killed. But in John’s version, God is the vine grower, who prunes the branches for abundant fruitfulness. John’s theme of light is also prevalent in this passage. Grapevines do need pruning; grapes need sun but not too much. So in this image the Father does that precision tending for the perfect balance of light and shade.
There is a major focus on fruitfulness throughout this passage. In these eight short verses the words “bear fruit” appears six times. Now, Jesus used this metaphor before there were all kinds of manipulations that could occur in growing grapes. I’m not up on wine-making history but I suspect, that in Jesus’ time there weren’t too many hybrid varietals, maybe not even all the grafting on stocks that happens today. Rather it was a simple process that happened truly organically. If the vine was true and the gardener good, if the pruning is done correctly and carefully then bearing fruit is not something that the branches do by force but rather something that the vine grower controls. Jesus goes on to say that the branches do, however, choose whether to abide or not.
The verb to abide, like bearing fruit, appears over and over, eight times in four verses in this section and it will come up again next week, as it often does in John. Like light, abiding is a major theme in this Gospel. It is how John speaks of love and how God’s love is known. The branches must abide because without the vine, they are fruitless; they can do nothing. Jesus as the vine motivates growth but it is God who ultimately sets the conditions.
So what happens when it seems our works are fruitless? The Rev. Dr. Meda Stamper, a New Testament scholar says, “If you want the fruit of this vine, this is where you get it, by abiding here. But just as there is no fruitfulness in not abiding, so there is no real future in focusing on those fruitless branches. In the first place, we’re all just branches ourselves, not vines, and certainly not in charge of the vine. We don’t even make ourselves fruitful. We cannot possibly discern what is happening with the rest of the vine. For all we know, what looks like removal is actually pruning for abundant fruitfulness. Whatever is going on with the other branches is in any case the work of the vine grower. Our sole responsibility to the rest of the branches is love. It is perhaps also worth keeping in mind that branches don’t live off their own fruit. The fruit is for someone else.” This feeds into our interpretation of love which the passage next week will focus on. What Stamper means is that in some ways, we can not compare ourselves to other branches, and we should not attempt to be something we’re not.
Stamper’s words and this passage has been particularly relevant to me this week as I chaired the commission to look into the dissolution of Knox, Port Alberni. Presbyterians have had the longest continuous presence in that valley of all the Western religious traditions and so it is extra hard to see this congregation come to a close. But as this congregation closes its doors there are new possibilities taking shape. Perhaps with the sale of the building there will be new funds available to do a mission or ministry there that has yet to bear fruit because it needs to grow new roots. Sometimes we don’t understand the pruning, sometimes we don’t understand why once fertile ground is all dried up but we are not the gardener. Perhaps it is just merely a crop rotation.
Jesus says, just as the branch is part of the vine and cannot live apart from the vine, so we abide in Jesus, the true vine. Note, this is not an individual piety but a community. We are the branches, not I am the branch. We can only bear fruit when we work together as branches and when we are extensions of the vine. Of course God wants us to produce fruit and to be drawn into a unified relationship between Father and Son. But just as God’s love and presence are gifts so too is God’s pruning. Amen

Family Sunday

Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes

This service featured several videos from youtube:

Kid President – 20 Things We Should Say More Often

Little Things

Why Pray?


Bible Text: Acts 4:32-35, John 20:19-31 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes

As many of you know my family are big music lovers. Although the rest of my family is quite musical I’ve just managed to maintain a love of music. Our love, however, is quite diverse. My Father the blues fan, my Mother the Canadian folk fan, my brother the electric fan and I run the gambit. There was, however, one artist that we could all agree on when I was growing up. One artist who was able to span our musical tastes and genres. One artist who has had a a number one single on the Billboard chart in each of the past six decades. She is so accomplished that she is known as the Goddess of pop. To date she has released 25 albums. She has also had a fairly successful movie career winning an Oscar, Emmy and three golden globe awards. Any guesses on who it might be? It is Cherilyn Sarkisian, also known as Cher. I know its hard to believe. Incidentally Cher will be 70 next year. I know that seems hard to believe. Well, in 1998 the Goddess of Pop released her 22nd album. The title track “Believe” was my family’s favourite. It was certainly a departure from her usual successes and adopted more a dance-pop vibe. Critics claim that it was this song, that resurrected her career, revived her ability to be a chart topper, gained her a following among younger fans and cemented her as one of the greatest. The song “Believe” was also the first commercial recording ever to feature the now much over used audio processor software called Auto-tune. The song is about overcoming a tragic heartbreak and gaining a sense of self, having the ability to live life again after such a crushing relationship. The chorus is a question, “Do you believe in life after love?” and there is no way I am going to attempt to sing in her signature contralto voice. But this question, do you believe in life after love? Is rather appropriate for this week.
For the disciples it was difficult to live life as it had once been. Our passage begins with them locked in a room, afraid, and not sure what to do. Despite stories of the resurrection and rumours of visions of Jesus by the women among them they aren’t quite ready to believe it. After all, it seems hard to believe in life after what they have witnessed in Jesus’ death. The crucifixion was a crushing defeat in their belief and relationship with Jesus.
It is the week after Easter, or what is called in the church season, the second week of Easter. In fact, the season of Easter is 10 days longer than the season of Lent in the church year! But we often treat it as a one week event and the lectionary, the tool the reformed church uses to assign Scripture lessons each Sunday. doesn’t really help us here. This happens to be the only Sunday in the entire 3 year cycle that contains the same Scripture passage every year. So in reality if you’ve been to one service on the second Sunday of Easter in your life, you’ve been to them all because the Scripture doesn’t change. We know the story. We can all go home. But that is part of the challenge for today. The story is as familiar to us as a top 40 hit song by a musical legend that’s been playing over and over in our heads. What more is there to learn? As with any Scripture lesson our interpretation is influenced by our tradition, doctrine and experience and as a result there is much for us to gain from hearing the story again.
Jesus appears and offers peace to the disciples. He shows them his hands and his side, sends them forth into the world and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit. With God’s grace to guide them, they witness to Christ’s resurrection, sharing their gifts with those who are in need. This is John’s version of Pentecost. This is John’s version of the birth of the church. And Thomas is missing. Imagine missing out on a great historical event that all your friends have witnessed. Imagine those friends telling you all about it and how amazing and life changing it was. “Oh Thomas, you should have been there! Jesus was right here among us, he showed us his wounds, and then he left us with an incredible gift. Oh, Thomas you really missed out!” I understand Thomas’s response. He’s disappointed, offended, discouraged and feels left out.
If you were to ask Thomas, do you believe in life after love? His initial response would be, No and I don’t think it was entirely due to his doubt but to the fact that he felt like he had been forgotten. Thomas is given a bit of a bad rap in that he is the only one coined as a doubter when in reality all the disciples were in a room afraid and doubting. I know I promised not to do this but in Cher’s immortal words. “No matter how hard I try, You keep pushing me aside, And I can’t break through, There’s no talking to you”
I find that there is something appealing about Thomas. He is our kind of guy. We, and certainly our modern culture, can identify with this scepticism. I have to admit I kind of like Thomas for this reason. There are numerous times when I’m not willing to buy into a belief just because someone says I should or tells me about their own personal experience. We are trained not to believe everything we read or everything we are told. There is a lot of misinformation out there and we are encouraged to be sceptical. Thomas refuses to believe in the resurrection based on mere hearsay. He wants physical proof and he wants to experience it all. Thomas wants to see. Thomas wants to touch. Thomas wants to witness. That’s not much different from what we want.
Thomas’s response to the disciples is harsh and negative. It is actually harsher than we realize in the Greek translation. Thomas says, “I will not believe” but the Greek is a aorist subjunctive. Meaning it is a classical form that emphasizes an emphatic negative in the future. So, in reality Thomas is saying something more like, “Never will I believe”. This is then contrasted with Jesus’ appearance, Thomas’ touching, and Jesus’ words, “Do not doubt but believe.” In this experience Thomas has a complete turn around and exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” That one remark is called the climax to the Gospel of John because it is the first time that Jesus is acknowledged as God. Through his experience Thomas is able to have faith in God.
The desire for experiential proof is completely normal and a part of our expectations when it comes to what people tell us. Mike and I are always telling our friends back East, its one thing to see pictures of Goose Spit, the Comox Glacier, and Nymph falls. Its a whole other thing to experience it. In this age of proving hypothesis through experiments it is totally normal to ask for proof. Proof is what everyone prefers. If that were not true we wouldn’t have the kind of debates we have had of late about things like climate change. I would argue that sometimes it doesn’t even matter how much proof is out there about one thing or another. It will never be enough until it is fully experienced.
That’s the reality for us. God, in God’s infinite wisdom, has deemed that we are not to be the ones locked up in a room with the other disciples but rather disciples sitting in a church millennia later. We can not experience the resurrection with Thomas or the other disciples. We live in an age of wonders but when it comes to resurrection faith ours is not and can not be based on sight, feel or even witness. But it can be experienced. That is the true gift of the Holy Spirit. With the Holy Spirit comes the truth of God’s love and it illuminates our faith and even our scepticism.
When Jesus breathes on the disciples it alludes to the 2nd chapter of Genesis when God forms humanity out of dust from the ground and breathed into Adam’s nostrils with the breath of life. This commissioning by Jesus with the Holy Spirit is a creation story. Life is not something to be proven but experienced. Faith is not something to be proven but experienced. It is experienced by the breath of God, by the Holy Spirit flowing through us and being breathed upon others by our faith in action.
The concluding verses in our passage, “that these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah” move us from one of needing proof to experience. The grammar is also important, here the Greek employs a perfect tense. These things are written, indicating the book’s continuing validity. Writing in the ancient world was strongly connected with auditory activity. While only a handful of people could read the text many more could hear the text. Reading in silence was almost an unknown activity. As a result this Gospel story moves us from a need to see or touch or feel to hearing and experiencing and believing.
Do you believe in life after love? Do you believe in faith after experience? Amen

Donkey Detail

Bible Text: Mark 11:1-11 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes

When I tell people that my undergraduate degree is in archaeology I can usually catch a flash of excitement in their eyes. Even for just a moment they think of adventure. That archaeologists live like Indiana Jones or Laura Croft using weapons, winning arm wrestling competitions, running from booby traps, following treasure maps, and ending up in a pit of snakes. At the very least they think of a documentary that they saw on the Knowledge network of an exciting discovery in a remote part of the world. I hate to break it to you but the life of an archaeologist is not that exciting. I remember spending an entire semester, 4hrs a week for three months piecing together shards of a large jug from Mesopotamia. Even when we worked out in the field we spent more time on our hands and knees trowelling through dirt one milometer at a time then finding anything. We became so desperate for a discovery that we started hiding loonies in each other’s pits just to keep it interesting. I hate to tell you but most of the time archaeology is mundane work. Cataloguing nail after nail, gathering statistical information, sitting in a lab with a broken piece of pottery. In my five years in the field I never once had to arm wrestle, escape from bad guys nor did I find any snakes (If you are not sure what I’m talking about go home and rent Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark). I think, however, this is the same for most careers, tasks and vocations. There are elements that are exciting, rewarding, and enjoyable but many more times when it is just about getting the job done, about the routine, everyday, unremarkable moments of our jobs. The truth is ministry is often no different. Discipleship is often no different. Today of all days, even with the exciting exclamations of hosannas! And Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, it is quite evident that sometimes it is about the little things.
Of course right before the story of the palms there is some excitement. Right before our narrative begins Jesus heals blind Bartimaeus. Bart cries out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy upon me!” His first cry is followed by rebuke and Bartimaeus cries out louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus then responds and heals this man. This is in fact the first time Jesus is called the Son of David in the Gospel of Mark. The juxtaposition is perfect, just as Jesus is about to be paraded in to Jerusalem, the City of David, a man calls Jesus the son of David. Meaning Jesus is the anticipated king, the one who they have been waiting for, the one who will restore the kingdom of God, the Messiah. This is an exciting moment but just as this excitement begins Jesus turns to two of his disciples and asks them to do a very mundane task.
Mark writes that Jesus asks two of his disciples to go get a colt. Of course other translations and Gospels describe this story slightly differently but the point is that Jesus rode in on a small, humble animal. The discourse between Jesus and these two unnamed disciples is quite lengthy. This is out of character for Mark who is usually very abrupt and concise with his stories. This time there is great attention to detail and in fact the description of where, how and why a colt takes longer to read and describe then the procession itself! Over half of this passage is taken up with mundane details about acquiring an animal.
I wonder if when the disciples were called to drop their nets and be fishers of people whether they realized just how basic some of their jobs would be. Thomas Long a professor of theology and amazing homiletic writer once said that when he took his ordination vow, “Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love?” he didn’t realize what kind of jobs that would entail. He says, “Such language implies that ministry is a brave white-water romp over the cultural rapids toward global transformation in the name of Christ. Never once is it mentioned that serving the people with energy, imagination and love often boils down to stuff like ordering bulletin covers, changing light bulbs, visiting people in nursing homes who aren’t quite sure who you are, getting brakes relined on the church van, making a breathless Saturday afternoon run to the florist because someone forgot to pick up the palm branches, and as two of Jesus’ disciples found out, finding a suitable donkey at the last minute.” For the record I am willing to do all those things except maybe reline tires on the van. Its best if I stay away from vehicle maintenance.
Often our work as a community seems like we are just fulfilling chores. But at this junction of the mundane, just as Jesus asks these disciples to fetch a colt, a pretty basic chore, Mark also notes that Jesus imparts some of his best theological wisdom. Getting that donkey, fulfilling that chore, is part of preparing the way of the Lord!” The way to make our hearts and minds ready for Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, into our world, into our time and place, is by preparing everything, even the little things, even the dirty jobs. The way to prepare is not by becoming valiant leaders, or defenders of Christendom, but rather by performing humble and routine tasks. When Jesus said, “Follow me” it was leading them into a ministry of handling all the details of every day living.
Tom Long’s words help here as well, “On the one hand, we are called to prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry and it is his ministry, not ours that ultimately counts. We are but donkey fetchers. On the other hand, because we are-in ways often hidden from our eyes- preparing the way of the Lord, the routine, often exhausting, seemingly mundane donkey-fetching details of our service are gathered into the great arc of Jesus’ redemptive work.”
Of course as we wave our palms and shout our Hosannas there is a festive flavour to our service, and by service I mean both worship and work. After this passage Jesus will go into the temple not to conquer it but to cleanse it. There is an energy in the crowd that we wish we could maintain as we face the week ahead. We want to keep our hands in the air and say, “Jesus is number one!” We want every aspect of our ministry to be dynamic and exciting and living like every day is a palm parade but discipleship isn’t always that exciting and certainly isn’t always that easy. Sometimes discipleship is a dirty job, like going into a stable and leading a colt to our king. Sometimes discipleship is all those routine tasks.
We are heading into the most holy of weeks. These are not routine services. It is our time to face what will be the most challenging time of the lives of the disciples with Jesus and there was nothing mundane about it. As a result we often think that these little tasks are doing nothing to improve or prepare the way. But in reality, what this passage of the palms tells us is that when we are preparing the coffee, washing the dishes, putting the chairs back, taking minutes, sitting in a meeting, doing our vocal exercises, watering the plants, dusting the sills, hanging our banners, prepping our Sunday School room, putting out toys in our nursery, picking up a friend on our way or even out of our way, vacuuming our carpets, doing our chores in this church, it is all part of our donkey fetching details, a part of our discipleship. This passage in Mark tells us that discipleship is standing in a stinky barn trying to corral a colt for Jesus. Thank you for standing in the stable with me, doing all that you do as disciples of Christ. Amen

Last Chance

Bible Text: John 12:20-33 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes

This may be our 20th anniversary year but did you know that there is another institution or rather, event that next year will be celebrating its 30th anniversary. In 1986 Tim Horton’s began its “Roll Up the Rim” campaign. For 29 years, during the lenten season, we have been trying our luck with a cup of joe. And yes, did you realize that one reason why roll up the rim happens over lent is that two things people give up most is coffee and donuts and as a result the franchise needed to come up with a marketing campaign that would discourage people from giving those items up. At this time of year, we Canadians become more like our national animal than consumers of baked goods and caffeinated drinks because it demands that we act like beavers,  using our teeth to break the tightly woven up paper lip of our cups. According to the cups there are millions of prizes. Did you know that in its inaugural year the biggest prize one could win was a snack box of timbits. Of course this competition is not without its controversies. It goes without saying that there is a severe problem with all those paper cups being disposed of and littering our roadsides. We can’t forget the time in 2006 when two families went to court over an SUV , valued at $32,000 when a little girl picked up the winning coffee cup from the garbage. When the little girl couldn’t roll up the rim she asked an older girl to help her and thus the court battle begun. Well, we are in the final days of this contests as it only runs until April 2, that’s right, right before Easter. It is your last chance to possibly win with a cup of coffee. I don’t know what it is about last chances, but often when we hear that it is our last chance for something our adrenaline kicks in. It’s quite a marketing trick. Who knows when the opportunity will arise again, if at all!
Today we hear Jesus’ last public discourse. Most of the observers likely had no idea that this was the last time Jesus would address a crowd. In fact, it was likely only Jesus who knew this. Who knew that he would not have another opportunity to preach and teach with such an audience. After this chapter in John Jesus will spend time in the upper room with his disciples. Certainly some of his best lessons are yet to come but they will only be shared with a select few they will not occur in a public arena.
Our passage begins with some Greeks wanting to approach and talk to Jesus. It may seem irrelevant to the story as even Jesus himself seems to ignore the request. But it is probably more telling than we realize. John’s gospel was written in a time and context in which the ties between those who follow Jesus and Judaism are being severed, and Jesus needs to appear to be responsive to the concerns of a broader world and people. The conversation that follows is in part a response to this request. If you wish to see Jesus, then this is what you will and must see and do.
This includes a concern as to why it is necessary for Jesus to be crucified in order to save humankind. The Gentile, or Greek, audience would not be burdened with the same expectations that made Peter, and others who believed Jesus to be the Messiah, reluctant to accept a suffering Messiah. As I have mentioned before they were reluctant to reconcile the humiliating death by crucifixion when they expected the Messiah to conquer the Romans not be defeated by them. This is not a concern shared by the Greeks who are living not so much in oppression as privilege and their religious context does not carry with it knowledge or need for a saviour. As a result Jesus needs to explain why his death is not only relevant to his Jewish followers but his Gentile ones as well. This passage is a reflection of some of the discussion from last week in when the Gospel frames the trial, torture, and crucifixion in terms of glorification rather than humiliation. For example, the agricultural metaphor of a seed being planted before it can grow and bear fruit is followed by a reminder that anyone who wishes to follow Jesus must also be ready to experience the “glory” of losing his or her life.
Jesus last public words also foreshadow his personal words to the disciples. The metaphor of bearing fruit will receive fuller treatment in the image of the vine and the branches in Chapter 15. But seeing as Jesus is currently speaking to a mixed crowd, perhaps his comment has less to do with the function of Jesus’ death as it does with the possibility of what the disciples and audience will do when Jesus is gone. In fact, Jesus tells them they will do more than they are doing now once Jesus is gone. So much of this last discourse from Jesus is about discipleship regardless of whether they are Jews or Gentiles. To serve Jesus is to follow Jesus and to follow Jesus is to do the works that he did, to feed and tend his sheep, to witness and testify on his behalf.
There are of course words of judgement in this text as well because this is the last time the public world will hear Jesus’ words. Karoline Lewis wrote a commentary on John and she writes, “To listen to Jesus is to believe in him and this for all intents and purposes, is the last chance. The ruler of this world will be cast out [This will begin in the next chapter with Judas’ betrayal]. This is another example by which to know that what Jesus says is true.” Although we seem to feel like he is focusing on his death , after all the subheading in the NRSV says, “Jesus Speaks About His Death”, in this case death and glorification are synonymous. Like last week we are faced with a bit of a paradox. Yes, Jesus’ death will be painful and humiliating but in John’s Gospel Jesus seems prepared for it. He knows this is all part of the plan. In death, God glorifies Jesus’ name. Similarly in the darkness of death there is light.
It is possible that Jesus is not concerned that the hour of death is coming because he does not cling to earthly existence. Perhaps that is the message from this passage for us today. We are distracted by marketing ploys, distracted by competitions, distracted by earthly things but Jesus tells us in order to have true life we need to turn away from those distractions. Jesus is calling us, his followers, to give up everything for his service. Whatever may bind us to this life, whatever we have grown to love, must be secondary to our desire to be with Christ. This is not just something we should apply to ourselves over this last week of Lent but they should have meaning throughout the church year and throughout our lives. We don’t want to miss our chance to hear God’s voice calling us to attention. Amen

Are you ready to rumble?

Bible Text: John 3:14-21 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes

Believe it or not I was once a huge wrestling fan and I don’t mean the sport. I mean the terribly dramatic, often controversial, ever choreographed, World Wrestling Entertainment. I was such a fan that I have attended Wrestlemanias and Monday night Raw events live. I know, your estimation of me has plummeted. However, it is important that you know who I really am. Now back when I was following this wrestling entertainment it was called the world wrestling federation and there was one particular wrestler who held the belt for a long time, Stone Cold Steve Austin. His signature moves included the piledriver and the spinebuster but his finisher move was the stone cold stunner. And I never thought I would open a sermon talking about him. However, it was this stone cold stunner that won him the King of the Ring title in 1996 when he won against Jake “the Snake” Roberts. At the time Jake’s character was portrayed as a born-again Christian. Upon winning the match Austin turned to Jake and said, “You sit there and you thump your Bible, and you say your prayers, and it didn’t get you anywhere! Talk about your Psalms, talk about John 3:16, Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your” I think you get the point. After that the words Austin 3:16 became the most popular catchphrase in wrestling history and the slogan Austin 3:16 became one of the best-selling T-shirts in the franchise’s merchandising history. It also inspired numerous spin off slogans, always finishing with the numbers 3:16. I can vividly remember one of my peers talking about the slogan and I was able to explain to him where it came from. In my own little way I was able to evangelize while equally shouting at a live event at the Skydome in Toronto. In an attempt to mock, criticize, demean and ridicule, the Bible’s best known Scripture passage, this character actually spread it and reached a demographic that the church has struggled to reach and speak to for decades, teenage boys.
John 3:16 has become a kind of trademark for many Christians. In one sense, that’s perfectly fine, we all need a little snippet of something that helps us get through a tough time. Or a mantra or motto that we can turn to as a reminder of who we are and why we do what we do. However, it has also become a way to reduce and simplify one aspect of the Gospel to a quick sound bite. Yes, it is true this one simple passage was Jesus’ way of providing a kind of summation of God’s good purposes for the world. But at its deepest level there really isn’t anything simple about it.
Although we tend to treat this passage as a slogan it really needs to be taken in context. And the context suggests that the truth about God’s purposes in Christ is confusing and troubling. Even Nicodemus, a learned man, a scholar and leader within the Jewish community finds it confusing, In part because it demands that he let go of all that he has accomplished and understood, let go and become like a newborn, ready to receive the world on completely new terms.
What makes this passage extra specially difficult is that Jesus chooses to describe himself using the troubling passage from Numbers. He says that he is like the serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness. In the story from Numbers, God sent the poisonous snakes into the Israelite camp as punishment for the people who were complaining against God. When the people repented God told Moses to fashion a serpent out of bronze and lift it up on a pole. Jesus says, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” In Greek the word is “hypsoo” which literally means not just to be lifted up but “to exalt”. This is one of these contrasts that I was talking about in the introduction. It points to both a physical lifting up of Jesus on the cross and a lifting up in exaltation of Jesus by God. The cross is a moment of complete suffering, total humiliation and utter defeat. But also in John the death, resurrection, and ascension create one divine moment of God fulfilling a promise in Jesus Christ. This is similar to the paradox required by the Israelites when they had to look upon the very thing that brought death in order to receive life. The cross for us is a symbol of hope but also great suffering. We are smack in the middle of our lenten journey and we too are asked to look upon Jesus who was humiliated in a crucifixion but also acknowledge with joy what we receive as a result.
Part of the lesson this morning is humility as we are humbled by what we learn in the passage and struggle to understand. When we attempt to understand this Gospel passage as more than just a catchphrase we must be prepared to ask questions about a world with which we may not be familiar. This difficulty is confirmed by the centuries of controversy that grew out of John’s Gospel. Along with humility of understanding we must also come away with encouragement. This passage from John provides an excellent model for Christian faith and practice. It demonstrates that it is difficult, dynamic and life changing. It is not just an attempt to memorize a few traditional verses and statements. This is a passage that should be lived more than anything else. What better way to live it than to come to this table in communion.
We are asked to believe in this love, suffering, sacrifice and miracle. But what does it mean to believe? Homiletics scholar Lance Pape says that “To believe this Good News in a way that brings salvation requires more than “believing” it requires “trusting in”. To trust in Jesus is not simply to believe something about what happened long ago, but also to let our own lives be transformed by the Jesus we encounter in this story.” This trust is threefold. One, placing our trust in Jesus means withholding our ultimate loyalty and trust from other things that ask us to pledge our allegiance. Two, placing our trust means noticing that the new life Jesus offered was especially difficult for those bound by their religious traditions, and three, placing our trust in Jesus means confronting the uncomfortable truth that God’s purposes for those God loves are not synonymous with our own values of happiness. Pape goes on to say, “The trail of faith that Jesus blazed reveals that while, there is nothing in this world worth killing for, there are things worth dying for. The lifting up of Jesus reminds us that the true life God has promised us is not the life that we can secure for ourselves through self-interest and caution.”
To also say we believe in Jesus so that we are not condemn to hell is, well rather, a cheap form of faith. If that is the only reason we are here and say we believe than we aren’t really following Jesus. The Greek work for eternal, perisson, actually means abundant or full. As a result it is as much about a quality of being as it is about time. What that means is that we need to emphasize not just a slogan but a lifestyle, that it is not just about belief but about experience, experiencing abundant life by following the way and teachings of Jesus. That is why we are here this morning, to experience life giving bread and drink.
We come to the table today, a table which Jesus has prepared, and we come hoping that we can trust enough to surrender ourselves to Jesus’ love and suffering. This is a paradox we see even today as people attempt to manipulate, ridicule and use Scripture to serve there own means. Even it is coming from an entertainment wrestler. We all wrestle with our belief. We all wrestle with the challenging texts that confront us in the Bible. We all wrestle with our ability to trust in God. We all wrestle with our experiences of God. But that is also precisely why we come to this table. It is not a meal for those who completely understand, or believe or experience but rather for those who love God a little and want to love God more. Amen

What a time to be the church!

Bible Text: Mark 8:31-38 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes

Following a service it is customary for the minister to stand and shake hands as people are leaving. On one such Sunday a man who the preacher had not seen for some time approached the minister as she shook hands with this man, the minister said, “You need to join the Army of the Lord!” The man looked at her and said, “Pastor, I’m already in the army of the Lord”. The minister questioned him, “If that’s true how come I only see you at Christmas and Easter?” The man whispered back, “I’m in the secret service.”
Although I would likely never tell someone they need to join the “army of the Lord” it is true that there are people we only see on the High holy days. We can bemoan the changing landscapes of our society and criticize that people just don’t seem to have their priorities straight. On this, the day of our annual meeting, no doubt we will discuss the future and the very legitimate concerns we have. But in all honesty, aside perhaps from the very early church, this is the best time to be the church. This is a time when we really and truly can practice what we preach, can live the gospel, as Jesus says in our passage this morning, take up our cross! But as it was with the disciples so it is with us, taking up our cross is not exactly what we have in mind when it comes to living out our faith.
Our passage in Mark this morning is the first of three conversations that Jesus will have about his death. We are so accustomed to the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection that we overlook just how shocking, terrifying and upsetting it must have been for the disciples. This is the most shocking thing Jesus has said to them thus far. The disciples have witnessed miracles, heard his teachings and received his mission. They have established that the hope of the Israelite people is personified in this man. They assume that he will be the one who will bring freedom from the Romans. They are beginning to put it together that this guy is the Messiah. Everything they have seen Jesus do and heard him say until this time has been impressive and brought about big hopes for the future. And then he has to go and spoil it. Jesus astonishes them by saying that he will undergo suffering and will be rejected and killed. It is the worst possible thing that Jesus could have said.
I feel for Peter because, as I’ve mentioned before, it seems that he is only expressing concern. I feel as though “rebuke” is too strong of a word. Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah but instead of encouraging this realization Jesus sternly orders the disciples present not to tell anyone. In part this is because Jesus knows that Peter represents the average observers- that what they are witnessing is the end of an era and the Roman rule will come to an end. Peter does not comprehend that Jesus represents a different kind of Messiah than was expected by the majority of the Hebrew people. For centuries, the Jewish people had asked God to provide them with a new anointed one, a new king David who would defeat the oppressors. This is why as soon as Jesus begins to explain that he will suffer and die Peter objects. Peter’s expectation of the Messiah is not for a suffering Messiah but for a conquering one. Little does he realize that what Jesus will conquer is so much more than an oppressive government.
In many ways the church needs to reflect on this passage a little more. In our minds to be successful means to be prosperous, strong and influential. That’s how our culture understands it but also how we tend to understand our church. We base the success of a church on numbers, youth, and influence in the community. The golden age of the church is no longer- but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact, it means we can become more as Jesus intended for the church. Dr. Douglas John Hall, a theology professor at McGill describes this as the end of Christendom. In Christendom the church was riding high. It dominated the personal, social and political lives of the north western hemisphere, particularly in Europe. There were grand cathedrals built, the church had armies to do its bidding and priests lived as kings. But also under Christendom came the crusades, the witch hunts, and residential schools. There was no need to take up a cross, no need to deny oneself anything, no need to work hard at being the church. Hall sees hope in a post-Christendom church, “Our mandate is not to judge the past so much as to let the past instruct us for the future…The Christian faith is being made free from its captivity to political, cultural, racial and (yes) religious structures to the end that it may be and become what in essence it is: salt, yeast, light.”
The reformation it many ways was an attempt to return to the theology of the cross, as members of the reformed church we must remember we have not completed the task, we are indeed reformed but also always reforming. I also have respect for Pope Frances, of late his actions have demonstrated that we need to return to a mandate of being followers of Christ, that is, disciples, by denying ourselves and taking up our cross. By living with and among those on the margins.
But be careful, taking up the cross and denying oneself does not mean a contrived kind of humility. It does not mean to suffer for sufferings sake. Following Jesus does not mean demeaning ourselves. Rather it is to do the very best we can with the talents and abilities God has given us. We are to be the body of Christ in the world- Jesus- who suffered, died and was resurrected. But as Paul says, “For as in one body we have many members and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace give to us.” When Jesus says take up your cross it means to join him in this life giving not life taking mission with our various gifts. Also to deny oneself means to keep our priorities in harmony with Jesus, with those two great commandments, Love God and love your neighbour.
This is a good time to be the church. This is a good time for us to meet and reflect on the year gone by and begin to vision for the future. We are blessed to be here, you know it and I know it. Therefore what a privilege it is to take up our cross and be the body of Christ in this world at this time for this community. Amen.