Jesus is Not Divided

Audio clip and bulletin notes for a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on Jan. 22, 2017, in a series called “Jesus: Our Church’s One Foundation.”

This sermon continues our reflection on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians through the story of Gaia, a fictional woman in first-century Corinth. In this sermon we learn about the divisions that plagued the Corinthian church and hear the first words of Paul’s response (1 Corinthians 1:10-18).

Audio: “Jesus is Not Divided”

Pastor’s Notes:

North Shops, Corinth (Holy Land Photos)

North Forum Shops, Corinth (Holy Land Photos)

  • The church in Corinth was a church divided over sexuality and marriage, spirituality and worship. There were factions within the church, each with its favourite theology and preferred leaders. Underneath all this were questions over how to faithfully follow Jesus within a diverse and changing culture.
  • In part the divisions in Corinth were caused by an exclusive devotion to celebrity Christian leaders. ““I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” [that is, Peter,] or “I follow Christ” (1 Cor 1:12).
  • In part the divisions in Corinth were caused by a narrow focus on one’s preferred way of thinking about Christian faith and life. Some emphasized their “freedom” in Christ, not being bound by rules, while others emphasized their abstinence from worldly pleasures. Some emphasized their “wisdom” and boasted in their knowledge, while others emphasized their direct personal connection with God, communing with Christ through special spiritual experiences.
  • In 1 Cor 1:13 Paul asks a rhetorical question: “Is Christ divided?” The obvious answer is “No, of course not!” Jesus is not divided: he is for all people, and he works by his Spirit through many diverse people with many different abilities and temperaments, backgrounds and experiences and perspectives. As Paul says later in the letter: “All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Cor 3:21-23).

Questions to Ponder:

  • In the wider church, or here at MMC, or in my own life, how do I see “an exclusive devotion to celebrity Christian leaders”? or “a narrow focus on a preferred way of thinking about Christian faith and life”?
  • How do I think about what it means to be a Christian? What specific things am I doing to broaden my understanding of this?
Posted in Michael Pahl | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Fellowship of Jesus

Audio clip and bulletin notes for a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on Jan. 15, 2017, in a series called “Jesus: Our Church’s One Foundation.”

In this first message in the series we meet Gaia, a fictional Christian woman in first century Corinth. Through her we learn of the church in Corinth and hear the opening words of the Apostle Paul’s letter to this fractured Christian community (1 Corinthians 1:1-9).

Audio: “The Fellowship of Jesus”

Pastor’s Notes:

Temple of Apollo, Corinth (Holy Land Photos)

Temple of Apollo, Corinth (Holy Land Photos)

  • The church in Corinth was a church divided over sexuality and marriage, spirituality and worship. There were factions within the church, each with its favourite theology and preferred leaders. Underneath all this were questions over how to faithfully follow Jesus within a diverse and changing culture. These realities are true for many churches today, and this makes 1 Corinthians one of the most relevant biblical books for us to study.
  • Throughout 1 Corinthians Paul turns the Corinthians’ focus to Jesus, crucified Messiah and risen Lord. He is our gospel, the foundation of our faith, the ground of our salvation, the source of our wisdom, and the basis of our unity (1 Cor 1:17-25; 3:11; 8:6; 15:1-5).
  • In 1 Cor 1:9 Paul says, “you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Contrary to our popular use, “fellowship” is not something we do but something we have, even something we are: we are together “the fellowship of Jesus,” the community of those gathered around Jesus, God’s new society structured around Jesus.

Questions to Ponder:

  • In what ways do I see the problems and questions of the Corinthian church in the wider church today? in our church?
  • What are some things that potentially distract me (or us) from focusing on Jesus in my life (or in our church life)?
  • What difference might it make if we understand “fellowship” not so much as something we do but as something we are, “the fellowship of Jesus,” the “Jesus community”?
Posted in Michael Pahl | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Jesus: Our Church’s One Foundation

During January and February 2017 our Sunday worship focused on the theme, “Jesus: Our Church’s One Foundation.” My sermons in this series explored 1 Corinthians 1-3 as seen through the eyes of Gaia, a fictional Christian woman in ancient Corinth who hears the Apostle Paul’s words for the first time. Here are links to audio clips and bulletin notes for the series, along with a concluding post of historical and biblical notes related to “Gaia’s Story.”

welcome-jan-2017

Posted in Michael Pahl | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

My Pastoral New Year’s Resolution

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. I’ve tried them in the past, but they’ve never worked. “Resolution” can sounds so decisive, so irrevocable. So guilt-inducing.

Let’s call this my pastoral New Year’s goal, then. Here’s what I’m aiming for as a pastor for 2017: to be patient in love, persistent in prayer, faithful in teaching the Scriptures, and bold in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.

commitmentIf that sounds like liturgy, that’s because it is. This was the commitment I made before our congregation when I was installed as pastor. Really, then, my 2017 pastoral New Year’s goal is simply re-committing myself to this calling.

I’ve often been distracted from this. To be fair to myself, though, it’s awfully easy to get distracted from this.

Many pastors feel like they have “a hundred bosses,” or whatever the size of their congregation is, because every person in the church has a different, particular understanding of what it means to be a “pastor,” who a pastor is supposed to be and what they are supposed to do. Some want a congregational visitor, others a community activist, some a spiritual guru, others a private therapist, some a thoughtful theologian, others an extroverted evangelist—and that’s only a small sample of the options. Just imagine the multiple personalities required to do all this, let alone the superhuman skills and physics-bending time and energy.

Into this vortex of competing expectations and impossible demands I hear Jesus’ simple call to me as pastor, a call nicely summarized by that installation liturgy: be patient in love, persistent in prayer, faithful in teaching the Scriptures, and bold in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Be patient in love. This is not so much a specific task to do as it is a general orientation for everything I do. And this is as difficult for me as it is for anyone else—contrary to another common expectation, pastors are not inherently “more spiritual” than others. Yet it is an orientation all Christians are called to nurture in Christ by his Spirit. In whatever tasks I do, in whatever roles I take on, in 2017 I want to strive to be patient with others as I seek to love them in the way of Jesus. (Lord, have mercy!)

Be persistent in prayer. Here my pastoral calling starts to become more specific, and in this I have much room for improvement. This is not incidental to my ministry, but central: to persevere in prayer for those among us and around us, to be deliberate in making and taking time to speak the names and stories, joys and sorrows of our congregation and community before God. May this year be a year of rekindled prayer in my life, in every area of my life.

Be faithful in teaching the Scriptures. You’d think this would already be well in place. After all, this is an area of expertise and experience for me, and teaching the Bible is one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. I have a Ph.D. in biblical studies, for goodness’ sake! But for various reasons this has been pushed to the margins in my ministry. No more: in the coming year I am determined to re-claim this calling, to find and create opportunities to teach the Scriptures in all their difficult challenge and inspired insight.

Tissot - Jesus TeachingBe bold in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is something I have been doing—every sermon I preach is a proclamation of the gospel—but I am resolved (yes, on this I’m “resolved”) to do this even more. Our world—and each one of us—desperately needs to hear God’s good news again and again and again. But beware: this is not the gospel many of us grew up with. It’s the gospel of God’s kingdom come on earth, justice and peace and flourishing life for all, brought about through the crucified and resurrected Jesus. It promises true life, abundant life, but it demands our very lives: walking in the cross-shaped footsteps of the resurrected Jesus. In 2017 I intend to preach this gospel of peace at every opportunity.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that these are the only things I’ll be doing as pastor this year. There are all kinds of specific tasks, necessary or urgent or both, that are part of a lead pastor’s role in this day and age. But these are the things I’ll be focusing my time and energy on, for these are the things to which I have been called.

So watch out, world! Look out, Morden Mennonite Church! Pastor Michael is on the loose! Let 2017 be the year in which I take a leap of faith closer to the goal for which I was commissioned: being patient in love, persistent in prayer, faithful in teaching the Scriptures, and bold in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!

By God’s grace, may it be so.

Posted in Michael Pahl | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Perfect Portrait of God

I’m not a visual artist. I cannot draw, I cannot paint. My stick figures don’t even look like stick figures.

But over the last ten or fifteen years I’ve begun to develop an appreciation for the visual arts. I think it really started when we lived in England and we took advantage of all the free museums and art galleries. And so I’ve been working out what kind of art I like: John Constable’s English Romantic landscapes, Claude Monet’s French Impressionism, among others.

de-grebber-god-inviting-christ-to-right-handI also have an interest in religious art, Christian religious art in particular. Ancient Eastern icons. Rembrandt’s portrayals of the life of Christ. Depictions of God—like the famous one in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, or this one by Pieter de Grebber.

It seems that when we attempt to portray God visually, this is where we often end up: God is an old man with a white beard. He might be a kindly grandfather figure, benevolent and benign. Or he might be an untouchable monarch in all his pomp and state. Or he might be a judge, robes swirling, scowling with the full force of the law. But he’s an old man with a white beard, regardless.

And, in our portaits of God, we imagine God as up there, out there, somewhere other. God is heavenly holy, unreachable, untouchable. God is immensity. God is eternity. God is omni-potency.

But did you know that God has actually given us a self-portrait? This portrait of God is an “exact representation of God’s being,” as Hebrews 1 puts it. It is the “very image of God,” as Colossians 1 says. And—although God has nothing against old men with white beards—God’s self-portrait is nothing like our typical picture of God.

This perfect portrait of God is Jesus.

This means that the perfect portrait of God is a baby, born of water. Umbilical cord twisting toward his mother. Amniotic fluid matting his dark hair against his olive skin. Eyes tight shut, mouth open, wailing his newborn cry.

The perfect portrait of God is a child. Toddling, falling, and getting back up. Forming first words—“Abba,” perhaps. Laughing at silly games, scraping knees in play, being comforted in a young mother’s warm embrace. God’s kingdom belongs to such as these.

The perfect portrait of God is a teenager. Learning, questioning, questioning again—even the chief rabbis in Jerusalem. Taking on responsibility, taking on independence, taking on hopes and fears to guide his years ahead. God’s kingdom belongs to these as well.

The perfect portrait of God is a young adult, born of spirit. Living and loving, laughing and lamenting among kith and kin in a small village in Galilee. Acquiring his father’s craft, creating something out of nothing but a bit of formless wood or stone.

The perfect portrait of God is a grown human, fully alive. Devoted to God in faith, committed to others in love, tenacious in hope for good things to come. Doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God. The whole Law is summed up in these things.

weistling-kissing-the-face-of-godThe perfect portrait of God is Jesus. And this changes everything.

God is not in the earthquake, not in the storm, not in the fire—but in the still silence of a sleeping baby, a mother’s gentle whisper.

God is not in our chariots and horses, our instruments of power and death—but in our acts of tender love and humble compassion.

God is not in our strength, nor in our riches, nor in our wisdom—God is in the poor in spirit, the humble in heart, in those who must rely on God even for their daily bread.

God is not in our might and power—but in the Spirit, God’s persistent yet gentle wind of peace.

God is not in our impressive words written or spoken—but in the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth.

God is in a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Our Lord, Emmanuel, “God With Us.”

A meditation given at Morden Mennonite Church on December 25, 2016. Click on images for sources.
Posted in Michael Pahl | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Meditations on a Healing Foot

Three months ago I broke my foot. I’ve been hobbling around on crutches or limping around with a walking cast for thirteen weeks.

Three-plus months, thirteen weeks, and this is the picture that met me when I sat in the doctor’s office the other day.

I know, I thought the same thing.

“Um,” I ventured, “that jagged zig-zaggy bit there…is it supposed to be like that?”

Sure, I was told, it’s “not ideal.” It is, however, “sufficiently aligned.” And “fusing nicely.”

Good enough to ditch the walking cast and start doing some weight-bearing physiotherapy.

I know, I thought the same thing.

“Really?” I said to the doctor. “You’re sure about that?”

“Yes,” he reassured me with a smile, “this is what healing looks like.”

This is what healing looks like.

Almost everyone I know doubts this. I’ve showed the picture to several people. Heard from a few with medical connections. I hear back a collective, “Hmm…”

Yet I have to trust the doctor. He’s an orthopedic surgeon. This is his life, broken bones and such things, especially in the foot. Yes, it’s not ideal, but it’s “within acceptable range.” And it doesn’t actually feel too bad. Some stiffness and soreness, a little tenderness and still some swelling. All normal. My motion is ahead of where one might expect, my physiotherapist says.

This is what healing looks like.

Healing looks like unexpected zig-zags and jagged edges. Slow-forming calluses and even slower fusion. Soreness, stiffness, tenderness, swelling. Not necessarily ideal, but sufficient. “Acceptable.”

This is what healing looks like.

Healing looks like oozing sores and crusty scabs.  Scars forming, and remaining. Twinges every time you step in that particular way, or always at that time of year when the temperature drops.

This is what healing looks like.

Healing looks like chemotherapy and radiation. Losing one’s hair, growing back fuzz. Trips, endless trips, to the doctor, the specialist, the occupational therapist, the physiotherapist. And pills! Endless pills, sorted by shape and size and colour and time taken.

This is what healing looks like.

Healing looks like therapy sessions with the psychologist. A short stint in the mental health facility. Being admitted to the psych ward. Taking medication faithfully, doctor’s orders, even when you’re sure you could now go without it.

This is what healing looks like.

Healing looks messy. It’s painfully slow. And it’s not always the outcome we want, the “ideal.”

Sure, there are times when healing looks like the instant fix. The man leaping up and carrying his mat. The woman knowing immediately her bleeding had stopped. These are remarkable because they are so exceptional.

For there are many times when healing looks reluctant, even shameful. Seven dips in a muddy foreign river. Needing a second crack at healing blindness, or a gooey paste of spit and mud to do the trick.

And there are times, all too many times, when healing just doesn’t happen the way we want. Leaving a dear friend sick, even when you’ve got a reputation as a healer. Crying out to the Lord again and again and yet again to be healed, only to be answered with “My grace is sufficient for you in your weakness.”

There’s that word again: “sufficient.” What we really need, not necessarily what we think we need, or what we really want. Like “daily bread”: just what we most need, just when we most need it.

And what we most need is “grace”: unmerited favour from God, and from others. Grace to be who we are, in sickness and in health. Grace to face each day, one day at a time. Grace to experience flashes of joy and the deep ache of hope. Grace to grieve. Grace to be among those we love, and who love us. All this grace, even in our weakness. Especially in our weakness.

This is what healing looks like.

This is what healing looks like.

This, too, is what healing looks like.

Image: Mironov, “Christ Healing the Blind Man”

 

Posted in Michael Pahl | Tagged | Leave a comment

Christ Our Crucified King

Christ the “King.”

The “kingdom” of God.

I wonder if we’re too used to these words, “king” and “kingdom.” They don’t unnerve us quite the way they should. They should be deeply unsettling.

After all, “kings” are absolute rulers. Each one is a single chain in a dynasty of absolute rulers. They rule over a “kingdom,” a geographical area inhabited by their subjects. The language of “king” and “kingdom” evokes power and privilege: servants at their beck and call, armies under their command, courtiers seeking their favour, their word the law of the land.

And kings have not had a good track record through history, especially not in ancient history. Their kingdoms have, by and large, been oppressive and unjust for all but those at the very top of the social pyramid, those closest to the king. Kingdoms are hierarchies of the strictest order, patriarchies of the strongest kind.

With ancient kings and kingdoms we’re a million miles away from Queen Elizabeth II, a million light-years from a representative democracy like Canada.

And it was into this jarring world of “kings” and “kingdoms” that Jesus came—and turned things on their head. Because Jesus was no ordinary king, and his kingdom no ordinary kingdom.

No king would be born in a barn, attended by the local riff-raff. But Jesus was.

No king would grow up in near-poverty, in a no-name village on the way to nowhere. But Jesus did.

No king would be heralded by a camel-hide-wearing, insect-eating, power-denouncing prophet. But Jesus was.

No king would choose both political insiders and political revolutionaries as his dinner guests, sharing bread and cup with them at his table. But Jesus did.

No king would heal sick peasants for free, or cure the daughter of foreign woman, or the servant of an enemy soldier. But Jesus did.

No king would promise their kingdom to the poor and oppressed and warn off the wealthy and powerful. But Jesus did.

A king would ride into the capital on a warhorse, armor gleaming and armies marching—not on a lowly donkey followed by religious pilgrims, like Jesus did.

A king would demand an audience with the powers-that-be and exact vengeance for his shameful suffering—not stand bloodied before them in dignified silence, exposing their injustice for all to see, like Jesus did.

Velazquez - Christ CrucifiedA king would be enthroned on a grand dais in pomp and ceremony—not lifted up on an executioner’s cross in darkness and storm, like Jesus was.

Jesus was no ordinary king, and his kingdom no ordinary kingdom.

We’ve seen this already in our previous text from Luke’s Gospel—God’s Messiah, the King of the Jews, dying on a Roman cross, making promises of paradise to a condemned criminal. But we also see it in the opening chapter of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

Here Paul talks about God’s kingdom this way:

God’s kingdom is the “kingdom of his beloved Son.” That sounds like ancient patriarchy—men holding all the cards in the game of life. But Paul’s point is to use these words to recall Jesus’ baptism—“You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” Which means Paul’s point is to use these words to bring to mind all those ancient promises about Israel’s Messiah—Jesus is the true “Son of God,” the “Messiah,” the one who will bring about God’s kingdom on earth.

God’s kingdom is a “kingdom of light.” It is here on earth—make no mistake about it. But it’s not about a geographical location. God’s kingdom is “not of this world”: it is from beyond this world of darkness and death. But it is coming “on earth just as it already is in heaven”: God’s kingdom brings heaven to earth.

Wherever the light touches—this is where God reigns. Wherever oppressive evil is banished—this is God’s kingdom. Wherever life blooms in the midst of inevitable death—this is God, reigning from his throne.

Wherever God’s will is done—this is God’s kingdom. Wherever daily bread is provided for all—this is God’s kingdom. Wherever sins are forgiven, both “us” and “them”—this is God’s kingdom. Wherever people are delivered from the time of trial, wherever people are protected from evil—there God is, reigning as king.

All this and more is what Paul means when he says that God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”

God’s kingdom is also a “kingdom for all creation.” All things, Paul repeats, all things have been created in Jesus and through Jesus and for Jesus. All things are sustained in Jesus, held together in him. All things, all things are reconciled to God through Jesus. All things: visible and invisible, both on earth and in the heavens. All things.

And so God’s kingdom is a “kingdom of reconciliation.” Paul’s words here don’t just mean, “There’s no more fighting.” When Paul speaks here of Christ “reconciling” and “making peace,” he speaks of restoring something broken back to a harmonious whole. All is justice. All is life. All is peace. Shalom.

And so this reconciling work of God overturns the human hierarchies of this world, whether based on gender or race or wealth or status. There’s a reason why the New Testament says that we will “reign with Christ”—the fulfillment of God’s kingdom is a communal reign, all of us gathered together around Jesus, fulfilling the promise of being created in God’s image. And this communal reign has already started: “in Christ,” Paul says, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.”

Remember, Jesus is no ordinary king, and his kingdom no ordinary kingdom.

Excerpted from my sermon at Morden Mennonite Church on November 20, 2016, for Christ the King Sunday. Image: Velázquez, “Christ Crucified”
Posted in Michael Pahl | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment