- STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AUGUST 15, 2021
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Call to Worship Revelation 2: 29
“Are your ears awake?
Listen to the Wind Words,
the Spirit blowing through the churches.”
Lighting of the Christ Candle
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
You are always with us.
You made a covenant with Israel. Throughout history, even when they broke it, turning their backs on you, you loved them and called them to return to you. That covenant culminated in Jesus Christ, in an everlasting covenant of salvation and redemption. Jesus said he would never leave us or forsake us. He gave us his Spirit. He is with us to the end of the ages. We praise you for your consistency and grace.
We thank you for your Spirit, with us and within us. Through your Spirit you open the Scripture to us, you tell us your will, you give us guidance in our decisions, you lead us in the direction you want us to go.
We confess that we are unable to hear your still, small voice. We are unable to recognize the promptings of your Spirit. We are disconnected from the peace and dissonance through which you give us affirmation. Worse than that, we do not seek your guidance. We go about our business without a thought for you. We are determined to make our own decisions. We want our own will more than yours. Our actions and choices hurt ourselves and others, but most of all, they hurt you. You are with us, but we have turned from you. Knowing these things about ourselves, we seek your forgiveness.
We gather today in Spirit and in solidarity with all those who profess that Jesus is Lord. Thank you for choosing us and for the faith we share.
May our worship today draw us back to you, so that we may be as devoted to you as you are to us. We lift up your holy name, Father, Son and Spirit. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon Hosea 14 (selected verses)
Return to your God!
Prepare your confession and come back to God.
Pray to him, “Take away our sin, accept our repentance”.
God says, “I will heal their waywardness.
I will love them lavishly. My anger is played out.
I am like a luxuriant fruit tree.
Everything you need is found in me.”
Prayer for Illumination
Holy Spirit, give us the gift of discernment as we listen to your word, so that we may live a life worthy of the gospel. Amen.
1 Corinthians 2: 6 – 16
Acts 15: 1 – 2 & 6 – 21
Matthew 7: 13 – 20
Message Being the Church: Discerning
A priest, a rabbi and a minister hold a contest to see who’s best at his job. The test is to go into the woods, find a bear and try to convert it. After they’re done the priest came back beaming, “I read to the bear from the Catechism, and next week is his First Communion.” The minister was singing hymns of praise and reported, “I found a bear by the stream, preached God’s holy word and he let me baptize him in the river.” The rabbi was bandaged from head to foot and said, “Looking back, maybe I shouldn’t have started with circumcision.”
Sometimes we make poor decisions. Who hasn’t been in a restaurant and ordered a salad while your table mate orders seafood linguine alfredo? The food arrives and you kick yourself for not going with the linguine. I remember to being a child and being taken to buy a coat. My Dad liked one and I liked another, but I said nothing because I thought he knew better, and I wanted to please him. Later, I deeply wished I’d picked the other coat. Oh well, some choices make little difference. Whether you use Oil of Olay or the $300 cream, you’re still apt to have wrinkles as you age. Other decisions change the course of history. Looking for a waterway to the East, Columbus sailed into a whole other continent. Pursuing Russian troops in the winter was disastrous for Napoleon’s army. Walt Disney’s decision to quit being a commercial illustrator to pursue his dream opened a world of wonder. Other decisions have eternal consequences. The simple act of sharing a piece of fruit created a divide between humanity and God. One man checking out an unusual bush led the Israelites to freedom. A rabbi’s silence at a judicial trial opened the path to salvation. These decisions are most important because they’re rooted in God’s plan. To participate in God’s plan, we need to know God’s will. To know God’s will takes discernment.
Let’s return to the topic of circumcision. In the early days of the Church, the Jewish followers of Jesus continued to follow the covenant God made with Abraham. The sign of that covenant was circumcision. Christian Jews believed that Jesus, the Messiah, came to save Israel. If a gentile wanted to be Christian, he must first become a Jew, entering the covenant by being circumcised and following the Jewish law. Paul and Barnabas discerned differently. They believed Jesus had come for every nation and person in the world and that circumcision had become a barrier to them accepting Christ’s salvation. The differences between the two groups became irreconcilable; there was “no small dissension and debate” (Acts 15: 2) between them. So, Paul, Barnabas and a few others were appointed to go to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the seat of the Christian faith – the first and main Church was there as was the governing body or council. Paul and Barnabas made their case, but the Council wasn’t convinced. If there was “no small dissension” in Antioch, there was an even bigger one in Jerusalem. They were at an impasse. Peter stood to speak. Harkening back to his vision of the “unclean” animals, and the conversion of Cornelius, Peter argued that not only were they laying a heavy burden on the Gentile believers, but it was unnecessary because we’re saved by the grace of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus and not by circumcision or keeping the Law. This truth silenced the council. Paul and Barnabas then shared the wonderful things God had been doing among the gentiles. Finally, James, the brother of Jesus, rose to remind the group that the Prophets had predicted the conversion of the gentiles. Convinced by all he’s heard James suggested they direct the Gentile Christians (GCs) to, “Be careful to not get involved in activities connected with idols, to guard the morality of sex and marriage, to not serve food offensive to Jewish Christians—blood, for instance.” (Acts 15:19 & 20). While this may seem restrictive to us, it was a major concession to the GCs. Having reached a compromise, the council in Jerusalem sent a letter with this decision to the GCs abroad.
Let’s look at their process of discernment. I’m going to lay out some observations from the text – these could happen in any order. Also the text doesn’t mention prayer, which is interesting. Probably it’s fair to assume the entire process was a prayerful one. Discernment is not possible without prayer. In our narrative, two groups made an assumption about what they believed God wanted from the Gentiles in order to save them. Their differences threatened to split the Church. Since they couldn’t agree, they went to a body of mature believers asking them to mediate and decide. When there is an unresolvable difference – whether in theology or action, whether between two individuals or two groups, or even within one’s self, it’s wise to turn to other believers who are mature, thoughtful, grounded, open and who desire God’s will above all else. We may seek out Christian friends, a spiritual director or a “soul friend” with whom you share your spiritual journey. We could bring it to Session or another court of the church for council or deliberation, as in the Presbyterian system. Or we could have a discernment circle, as the Quakers do, where insightful Christians ask questions until the Spirit gives you an “aha” moment. When discerning God’s will, we can be too close to the situation or committed to our own viewpoint. We need other Christians, not to tell us what to do but to listen, to pray, to struggle with us, to hear and see what we’re missing, to ask questions and to offer perspective and guidance. We need people who will “speak the truth in love”.
In Acts, both parties stated their viewpoint clearly and calmly, with reasons. To discern God’s answer, we need to know our question. This can be difficult for those who lead with our emotions or who see the grey in every situation or who simply have muddled brains. Contrary to what we may think discernment doesn’t become easier with time. Catherine of Sienna taught that when our relationship with Christ is new, we discern between the bad and the good. Christ calls us to be renewed in Spirit by giving up robbing banks, drinking excessively, being abusive to others or hating ourselves. As we mature in our faith, we begin to discern between the good and the better. A much more difficult call. A person may wonder if God wants them to be a teach or a minister. The assumption may be that ministry is the “higher” calling, but the world also needs teachers. So, we begin to look at our gifts, our temperament, our passion, our history. God uses all these to bring us clarity. The day Terry and I got married, was the day my mother was scheduled to be admitted to her nursing home. My Dad couldn’t be there for both – he had to choose. He chose being with my mother. He made the better of two choices. While I was making my vows, he was keeping his.
In Acts, Peter offered theological reflection. How does the gospel address our concern? Where is God within the situation? What is God saying to you or what do you think God would say? What is God calling us to do? How does this fit in with God’s big plan for humanity or what I know of God’s plan for my life? When we compare our options, what one is most congruent with what we know of God’s will? Remembering that Jesus was always spoke out of love but wasn’t always “nice” – what would Jesus do? Does this option align with the essence of the gospel – that Jesus is God incarnate, who died for our sin and rose to new life to save us, and that salvation is by the grace of God through faith? The Jewish Christians had put our works above God’s grace.
Following this, the disciples listened to the stories of people’s lives and the wonderful things God was doing in and through them. While it’s essential to discern intelligently, we mustn’t forget that people are nearly always involved in every decision. God loves humanity above all else. God loves people. God is at work in their lives. Who are we to say what God can and can’t do? Or if God can bend his own rules for a greater purpose? To help us see what God is doing we need to ask: Is the Spirit at work? How do we open doors for the Spirit’s goals to be accomplished? What biases and prejudices of ours are getting in God’s way? Who are the people involved? What are their stories? How can we love and support them?
James then offered a scriptural insight into their dilemma. He quoted Amos 9: 11 – 13, which, along with other scriptures, speaks of the Gentiles being enfolded into God’s kingdom. Like James, we’re to consider our responses in light of the scripture. Is our discernment congruent with God’s word? That sounds simple, but it’s complicated. We all have favorite scriptures. We can all find a scripture, or twist a scripture, to fit what we want. We can have ungodly motives and use scripture to back them up. As we know, even Satan can quote scripture. We need to consider how many times a rule, a prophecy or a teaching is mentioned. We need to look at the scripture in the context of its day. In the Hebrew scriptures, wealthy men had several wives. As Christians we don’t adhere to bigamy. What changed? Scripture says not to work on the sabbath, but Jesus was called out on this more than once. Why was that okay? Does the scripture we’re looking to for guidance have anything to do with the present situation? What is the Spirit saying through the scripture today? Because Paul was in a shipwreck doesn’t mean God wants me to turn my life into one. We need to learn to pray the scriptures so we can listen to the Spirit through them. Can we move beyond legalism and literalism? Do the teachings of Christ over-ride the teachings of the earlier scriptures? Of course, they do! Loving my neighbour is more important than whether or not I eat shellfish. As complicated as it is, Scripture is important. It is God’s revelation of himself, the place where we encounter Christ and the record of the spiritual experiences of others from which we can learn.
Finally, we come to a decision. This may come from finding resolution within ourselves or from arriving at a place where it is clear what we must do to move forward. Sometimes in the process of listening to one another, we hear something that shifts our perspective. At other times, we may find a compromise which all parties feel honours God. James suggested that they lessen the demands on the GCs and ask them to do three things. How did he settle on those things? Some scholars argue that he was upholding the ritual laws of the Jews. Others believe he was setting a standard of ethical behaviour for people coming from morally permissive societies. Still others say he was setting out guidelines so Jewish and Gentile Christians could socialize together. Since there were Jews all over the world and they found some of the gentile practices repugnant, they were asking the GCs to be considerate of their Jewish brothers’ and sisters’ sensibilities. There is another common thread running through these guidelines. The first of the 10 Commandments reads, “I am the Lord your God… you shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20: 1 & 2). I think all these restrictions help the GCs to avoid idolatry. The GCs came from and lived in cultures with multiple gods. The temptation would be to keep those idols and continue to worship them, while tacking on Jesus. The first directive James suggests prohibits all activities connected to idols. The second directive pertains to sexual behaviours. Many of the temples in Greece offered the services of “temple prostitutes”. Men would make pilgrimages to the temple and have sex with a temple prostitute. This was said to be a mystical encounter that would bring them into a spiritual union with the deity the woman represented. Again, it was a form of consorting with idols. Likewise, much of the food that was not kosher (i.e. the animals were not slaughtered according to the law), was food that had been or may have been offered to idols – by avoiding it all, the GCs would once again escape participating in an act of idolatry. Perhaps all these reasons are valid, and James had carefully discerned the actions most likely to create a moral, ritual or spiritual downfall among the GCs.
One sign that we are making a decision which honours God is that we discern a deep sense of peace or consolation that is born of the Spirit. Our turmoil, agitation, or conflict comes to an end and there is agreement, a sense of “rightness” or of lightness or of calm. Sometimes this comes by way of an insight. If my dilemma is around whether or not to take a certain job, I may wake up to the fact that I want the job, not for God’s glory but for my own. Or that I don’t really want the job, I just want the money. Or that my deepest calling isn’t to that position but to some form of service. Sometimes it is accompanied by compassion, as was James’ decision not to demand circumcision of the GCs. Direction may come by way of a scripture, an insight, a dream or an outer affirmation. God has many avenues to our soul. Our work is to put that discernment into action and live it out to the best of our ability.
Discernment isn’t an exact science. We only know if we’ve discerned well in retrospect. When my Dad was dying, he said he thought he made the wrong choice and should have come to my wedding. I asked why he thought that. He said, “Because I could have supported you, and it would have been a joyful memory.” (He hadn’t had too much joy in the intervening years.) I told him he wouldn’t have been able to live with himself if he’d made that choice. Since life involves other people, we can discern wisely, but we can’t control the outcome. We can also discern wisely and then make a mess of things ourselves. It is, of course, possible that we will miss God’s will and make another bad choice. When that happens, we need grace for ourselves. Thomas Merton said, “I do not always please God, but I desire to please God and I believe the desire to please God, pleases God.” God looks at the heart. In many situations, if we discover we’ve missed the mark, we are able to re-evaluate and change course. Most choices are reversable. God doesn’t trap us in our poor decisions – he saves us from them. We can always repent and go in another direction. Sometimes our initial discernment was a good one, in that we learned something or grew in some way, and having grown it served it’s purpose and we can move on. We need to leave ourselves room to do that and not let our pride get in the way. When we do find we’ve gone astray, we need to remember our God is with us and our God is gracious. To sum up the insight of M. Craig Barnes: when we come to a fork in the road, we must choose one path. Whichever path we choose, God will meet us on that road.
Silent Prayer and Reflection
Generous God, we offer you our gifts. You know we have many plans and ideas. Help us to discern what is your will, so that we may bear fruit for your kingdom. Amen.
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
we are grateful for your presence with us in all things,
especially in times of challenge and change.
We thank you for times of rest and reunion this summer,
for opportunities to see those we have been missing during times of lockdown.
Yet we know this summer still holds deep challenges for many,
and so we bring before you those people and places on our minds and hearts.
We pray for the families and communities facing fire and flood,
watching and worrying about what will remain of their homes and hometowns.
Protect those who fight fires and conduct rescues,
and open our hearts in generosity to do what we can to assist recovery.
We pray for the earth, for the land and the seas suffering in the heat,
and for the creatures being displaced by disaster and disruption.
Protect all that is precious to you in creation,
and open our hearts to live more responsibly
within the balance of life you created.
We pray for people facing hatred and discrimination,
and those coming to terms with historic injustice and injury.
Guide the relations between Indigenous people and other Canadians so our relationships may heal and bring wholeness.
Open our hearts to appreciate the different gifts we have to offer to each other.
We pray for the Canadians who are being held in China
and tried without due process of justice.
Give them strength. Comfort their families.
Preserve their lives and set them free.
We pray for the churches throughout the world, in our area, particularly those in our Presbytery.
Where there is discord, bring your Spirit of peace.
Where there is discouragement, bring hope.
Where there is disobedience, bring faithfulness and love.
Teach us to reach out beyond our walls to invite and welcome people in the name of Jesus.
We pray for all those who are suffering this summer:
those who face pain or illness,
those who are dying or who know bereavement,
all who are anxious about what lies ahead,
and any who do not have enough to make ends meet.
Bring courage and comfort to those who are struggling,
and open our hearts to offer the friendship and companionship
which can ease their journey.
In silence we hold before you those near and dear to us.
Speak to us the truth we need to hear and help us to discern your will in all things:
Receive our prayers, spoken and unspoken, O God,
as we offer the words Jesus taught us:
The Lord’s Prayer
Invitation to Mission
We go from here to listen for God’s word to us,
and to follow where he leads.
Benediction: May the Triune God bless you and keep you.