Change Is In The Air- Part 2
Change is in the Air – part 2
June 26, 2022
Last week we spoke about the changes that have occurred in the church in general and locally here in NLUC over the last 20-odd years and especially over the last 3 years of the pandemic.
I touched what the Psalmist wrote in Ps 42 verse 4 – how he cried out for the worship routine that was no longer, how he longed for that to come back. I also touched on how we could relate to that lament and hanker after what has been and likely will never be again in terms of worship style and routine. But instead of lamenting for what has been, we should be excitedly anticipating what God is doing now and in the future.
The question I posed for each of us to think about is: “What is my role in this new reality of the post-Covid church?”
With change always comes opportunity, and today we will focus on that which is unchangeable – even in the new realities we live in.
Galatians 3:26-29 and Ephesians 2:19-21
26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.
The restrictions we faced during 2020, 2021 and the first part of this year have forced us in NLUC, and the church in general, to adapt to new ways of worship. As we explored last week, this change has had its ups and downs. The technological challenges posed by on-line and hybrid livestream services were many – and competently handled by folks in our church family. There have been glitches – sure – on some Sundays the link to the on-line service did not work and in some instances the internet connection did not perform as it should. But overall, we have moved into a new way of worship.
Our church family has changed as well. There are several faces I do not remember from pre-Covid days (but then again, my memory is not always accurate!). Our family has also become more diverse – I do not think I would be exaggerating if I said we have someone from each of six of the seven continents in our family. But more importantly, our church family has expanded. I know that today there are people logged onto the livestream service as far away as Toronto. Even in Europe and South Africa there are folks tuned in. More people typically join us on livestream than what physically come into the church building on a Sunday morning. Scattered as we may be, we are, however, one in Christ.
The passage from Galatians that we read this morning has been preached on many times, by many different people. But today this passage, that Paul penned 2,000 years ago (give a take a few years), takes on a new reality.
When we could not meet to worship in person we were forced to turn to the technological, digital world. And I discovered that I could join people as far away as Michigan in the USA and Randburg in South Africa for worship. The physical barriers of time and place no longer applied. It became possible to experience Paul’s statement of unity as expressed in Galatians in a new way. We could become one in Christ, in spirit, regardless of where we might be located physically.
This new way, this new reality, is here and must continue. No longer should we be focused on our own, small world. We are one, as Paul states, and in the post-Covid digital world we can bridge the divides among us. We need not think of our church family as being confined to this church building, as North Lonsdale United Church. We need not even think of our church family as being confined to the United Church of Canada. Or even as our church family encompassing only those of the Protestant tradition. When we worship Christ as Lord, we are one in Him, wherever we are and whatever label we may want to put on the doors of building we worship in. We are free in Christ to live for Him. And by living for Him, we can set an example that can make disciples for him!
Allow me to speak briefly of our church building. Look around you. The structure you see is not North Lonsdale Church. It merely the building in which we, as the church, meet. The church is more important than the building, However, this building is very important in the sense of community service. There are 17 community groups that meet in our building every week. Together they occupy this building for 65 hours every week. In addition, 3 church groups meet here weekly, and another 3 once a month. The building serves an important purpose in the community – but it is not the church. We are. And in a new reality, we need not, and should not, confine ourselves geographically – we have the opportunity and the means to make anyone who logs onto our website as much a member of our family as those who walk through the door.
Let me also clarify. By welcoming people into our church family, I am not suggesting that we twist their arms and make them members of Lonsdale United Church, necessarily. That would be nice, sure, but that is not the purpose of us welcoming anyone. The Great Commission is clear – to make disciples. Not to expand the membership of this or any other congregation or denomination.
As we survey the world around us, we find that whereas Christianity is growing and flourishing in places and in ways we might consider non-traditional. It appears that the traditional way of “doing” church is struggling. We spoke about that last week.
That should not be the trigger for us, as a “traditional” congregation, to go and sit in ashes and sackcloth (if I may use a Biblical term for getting despondent and depressed). It should be the trigger for us to look with anticipation to see what God has in mind for us! The Maranatha group is meeting in July to discern what God has in His plan for NLUC. We should, however, all be in looking to see what God is doing. That was the purpose of the question last week – to see what our role is going to be in this new reality we are in.
I am not clairvoyant, and I do not know exactly what is in store for us. I do know however that the way we used to do church 10 and 20 years ago – even 3 years ago – will not come back. This is exciting! Change is in the air!
There may be some who would respond to say that the senior members of this congregation have done their bit. A substantial number of us are, shall we say, in a mature stage of life. Or, as a friend put it, we are playing the overtime period in the hockey game of life. Or, if rugby is your sport, we could say we are playing in injury time of the rugby game of life. Should that stop us from being a part of God’s plan? Not at all.
Allow me to speak to the senior demographic of our family for a moment. When we were younger, we served in many different ways. As Sunday School teachers maybe, or by working in our garden, or organizing and coordinating the Sharing Abundance suppers, serving food, washing the dishes, baking pies, leading or attending Bible study groups, pitching in to help paint the church building or help with the janitorial duties – whatever. As we grew older, our roles changed. But these new roles – whatever they may have been or are – are just as important as those we fulfilled before. Last week a dear member of our church family phoned me. She commented on the story I told about the church in Lonsdale and how most of that church family were young people. Then she asked (and I paraphrase) “But what about me? I am over ninety years old. Where do I fit in?” I cannot answer that question directly, but I can maybe give some guidance.
When a good friend in Germany retired as a Lutheran pastor, we had a long discussion one evening about where his path would be leading now that he was no longer in full-time ministry. The conclusion we came to was that, for the man and the woman of God, there is no retirement date. There is only a change in job description. Recently I had a similar discussion with a pastor friend who is a couple of years from his retirement from full-time ministry. We may step down from a specific ministry role, but our role as disciples has no “best before” date. We are and remain disciples of Christ until we have the glory to meet Him face to face one day. So we remain active in our ministry role, which may and will change as we grow older. A kind word here, a smile there, a word of encouragement or a prayer of support may be part of, or maybe the entire new job description. This is exactly what lay behind the question I posed last week – what is my role in God’s plan?
Let’s get back to the main point.
We have discovered, in the discombobulation of the pandemic restrictions, a new way to make Paul’s call for unity a reality. We were dragged, kicking and screaming (I speak for myself!), into the age of using technology as a communication medium for God’s glory. That does not mean we ignore or cast aside the age-old method of getting close and (hopefully, one day) freely shaking hands and hugging like we used to do.
The new hybrid world does have some distinct advantages:
The pandemic restrictions and isolation have, to a large degree, helped to break up what I called the “holy huddle”. People who, over many years, worshiped and worked together became, naturally, close. Sometimes, without meaning to, they then made it difficult for others to join in. Ministry groups may have fallen into this trap, and it may be possible that entire congregations had developed a holy huddle attitude.
At the same time, it has shown us a way to expand our caring bubble beyond our physical church family. Folks from far away can, and do, link up and gain strength and encouragement from that which we livestream and post on the website.
In the Scripture we read this morning, Paul ensures us that we are one in Christ. There are no distinctions or divisions. Paul provides some contrasting comparisons to make his point: Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. Slaves were chattel – property – and the owner could do with them whatever pleased the owner with the full might of the law behind it. Even to the point of killing a slave with impunity. Females in those days were subservient to males by law and custom. These contrasts were already significant in their elimination. But when Paul wrote that there is no longer Jew or Gentile but only followers of Christ, he was bridging an enormous cultural gap – much larger than any such gap we can find or even imagine in our society today. The chasm between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbours was unbridgeable – except through the new freedom found in Christ. Think for a moment about Peter’s experience in Joppa and Caesarea (Acts 10, especially verse 28).
28 He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.
The cultural divide between Jew and Gentile in those days would make the divide between nations and races we seem to find so difficult to bridge today laughably insignificant.
In the letter to the Ephesians, part of which we read this morning, Paul used the image of a building to describe the followers of Christ, when he wrote that “In [Christ] the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord”.
Paul likened the church to individual stones joined together into a building, with Christ as the cornerstone, built on the foundation of the teachings as passed down from the apostles and the prophets. When I read this, I saw in my mind’s eye the cathedral in the Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa, Italy. The famous leaning tower is adjacent to the cathedral. The cathedral, however, does not lean and has stood solidly ever since the 11th century – close to 1,000 years! It is constructed of marble of different shades and the design incorporates several cultural influences. The cathedral is a magnificent example of individual stones joined together into one building, with a massive cornerstone anchoring the structure.
This is for me a beautiful metaphor of the call for unity that Paul extended to the Ephesians two centuries ago. I also believe that this is relevant today – especially in the situation we, as the church, find ourselves in today. One of the stumbling blocks for people who are exposed to Christ’s teachings for the first time as adults, is the splintering of the church. This is seen in the numerous different denominations, who all profess to reflect of Christ’s teachings accurately. And in each denomination, there are different congregations, each doing its own thing – and in many cases struggling to survive on their own. We sang about restoration of unity earlier – let us anticipate how God is planning to achieve this, and what we can do to bring our part in this unity.
Later in his letter to the Galatian churches Paul returns to the topic of freedom. Let us refer to a couple of key concepts in the letter to the Galatians (Galatians 5:1; 16; 22;23) and link that to the topic of unity.
1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians in part because they were being bamboozled by those who wanted them to revert to an outward show of faith through circumcision. Paul stressed to them that in Christ they were free and should not let themselves be slaves to a set of man-made rules. Being slavish followers of such rules, Paul states, is to try to achieve justification “by the law” (verse 4). The only way to justification, Paul wrote here and in several other passages, is by faith, through grace. We need to look beyond the rules and opinions that divide us and focus on the important, central concept of the Gospel – it is by grace through faith that we are saved. Nothing more, nothing less.
We are free in Christ. We are one in Christ. We are to live for Christ. We are to be disciples of Christ.
Walk (or live, in another translation) by the Spirit, Paul advises. This means that we allow the Spirit to guide us in what we say and do so that we can reflect, or rather exude, the image of a disciple of Christ.
How can we go about this, and how do we know that we are on the right track?
Years ago, in a Bible study group, this question came up. One of the participants gave a simple but profound answer. Whenever he was uncertain as to whether he was doing the right thing, or saying the right things, he said, he would imagine Christ standing next to him, watching him and listening intently to him. That image, he claimed, kept him from messing things up.
It can indeed be a sobering pause, to imagine Christ standing at one’s shoulder.
A story is told about a police officer pulling a driver over. He asked the driver for her drivers license and the ownership documents for the vehicle. She complied reluctantly and aggressively, and he spent quite a bit of time on his laptop confirming everything. When he handed her the documents back and wished her a good day she snapped “why did you stop me?”
“Madam”, he replied, “I noticed the Christian symbol of the fish on the back of your car and then I saw how you swore and yelled at the driver who had inadvertently cut you off at the last traffic light. Your behaviour did not match your profession of being a Christian, so I became suspicious that the vehicle might have been stolen.”
Our behaviour and our claim of being a disciple must align, otherwise we are fooling ourselves – and nobody else. Think also of the truism that we are the only Bible most people will ever read.
What, then, characterizes a disciple of Christ?
The passage from Galatians 5:22 sums it up – the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. It is interesting to note that, although Paul lists nine characteristics, he refers to “the fruit” – singular. It indicates that Paul considered these characteristics indivisible – a disciple would not display some but not others.
Love – that is agape, unconditional love, the driving force behind wanting to help and lift others up – goes hand in hand with joy and peace. Joy and peace are closely related and refer to an inner strength that supersedes and overcomes external trials and problems. Peace, in this sense, is not the absence of conflict, rather the ability to face any situation life might throw at us with the inner peace that comes from being in tune with God. From this also, comes the joy that finds delight in life and in God’s creation everyday.
Patience, kindness, goodness and gentleness are, again, all closely related concepts. It would indeed be very difficult, for example, to be kind or gentle if one is not patient. Impatience, whether with our circumstances or with those around us, could also rob us of our sense of peace and joy.
The two that I have kept for last – faithfulness and self-control – are arguably the most important of these important characteristics of a disciple. Faithfulness speaks to being consistent. What we profess to be true today must also be so tomorrow, and what is unacceptable today must also be unacceptable tomorrow. It also speaks to being consistent in the way we project the other characteristics of love, joy, peace, patience and kindness. Self-control, on the other hand, is a tricky term – we could be tricked into believing that we are in control; that we are controlling ourselves. If we believe that we are going to blow it in a big way and not be effective disciples. Our self-control must be anchored in the Spirit that indwells us – it is really Spirit-control.
To sum up:
In Part 1, last week, we spoke about discipleship. We are called to make disciples of all nations and the best way we have to make disciples is to BE a disciple.
Being disciples, we are called to unity. Unity in our faith – there is one God, one faith, one baptism as Paul put it. In this new world we are in, in the post-Covid time, we need to look at overcoming and wherever possible eliminating those things that separate us as people and as Christians. If we are to mimic Paul’s metaphor of being stones joined together into a building, with Christ as the cornerstone, for the glory of God, then we need to pack up our silly little individual tents and get with the building program.
Change is in the air!
Go then, with the grace of God, the power of the Holy Spirit and the love of Christ and be the disciple you are called to be.
Hennie Prinsloo, North Lonsdale United Church
June 26, 2022