Sunday, April 28, 2019

Second Sunday of Easter

Revelations 1
John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia:
Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits[a] before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
7 “Look, he is coming with the clouds,”[b]
and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”[c]
So shall it be! Amen.
8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

When in doubt, you should prepare an elevator speech.

You can picture the moment: the doors close and you discover yourself stand beside someone important to your work: client, boss, supervisor and so on. You now have the duration of the elevator ride to describe something important. So you prepare an elevator speech.

This was the basic advice that Carmen received as she embarked on her advanced degree: have a summary statement prepared that describes your research, and what you hope to prove through your dissertation. It’s sort of one-part selling yourself and one-part being clear in your own mind. If someone is going to ask, you need to rehearse what you’re going to say. Apparently “oh, not much,” or “you know, this and that” won’t cut it.

So it may be time, then, for a little thought experiment. Imagine the every-persuasive Joan has you delivering an Easter lily, and you step on the elevator, flower-in-hand, and the person standing beside you says “what’s the occasion?” In this thought experiment you are not allowed to say “oh, not much,” or “you know, this and that.” You need to declare that you are delivering a flower to a member of your church, and you wait for the next question.

And since this is my thought experiment, I’m going to steer the hypothetical conversation to something like, “United Church huh, what do you folks believe?” This is the moment you think ‘elevator speech, elevator speech—I knew I should have followed that advice and prepared an elevator speech.’ And then you speak.

I’m not going to put words in your hypothetical mouths, instead, I’m going to share a bit of work from the late Michael Martin, who taught religion at Boston University. When I say “taught religion” I should clarify, since his most important book is called The Case Against Christianity. It’s ironic on a few levels, but we won’t get distracted by that. Nevertheless, he does us a big favour by beginning his book with a really good definition (set of definitions?) of what Christians believe.

He begins by defining a basic Christian.

[You are] a basic Christian if and only if [you believe] that a theistic God exists, that Jesus lived at the time of Pilate, that Jesus is the incarnation of God, that one is saved through faith in Jesus, and that Jesus is the model of ethical behaviour.

In other words, you believe there is a God, that Jesus came from God, lived and died, saves people, and teaches us how to live. That’s a basic Christian. Then he biggie sizes his definition by adding another layer, the Orthodox Christian: You’re orthodox if you are a basic Christian but you also believe in the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Atonement, the Resurrection and the Second Coming. I hope it’s a long elevator ride, maybe the CN Tower.

Again, in other words, you take the basics and add a layer of belief that the church in its history has declared as important. These ideas begin in scripture, to be sure, but they come to full flower though councils, creeds and the work of important thinkers. So we have the basic Christian and the orthodox believer. So what else?

Michael Martin’s not done, because he adds another layer to the story. He adds two types of liberal Christians, the first that believes in God, and believes that Jesus lived and taught some important ethical lessons. And then the final one, what Martin calls the extreme form of liberal Christianity: following Jesus as an ethical teacher, and stripping away everything else. And then he adds a little side note: that many Christians wouldn’t consider liberal Christians to be Christians at all. That sounds like my Pentecostal cousins, who give me that sad look because they seem to know I’m going to hell, but that’s another story.

Basically, you need to stop the elevator. And you might need a chart, or a list, or maybe a tattoo, upside down so you can read it. Or maybe you just know that there are the things you cling to, and there are the things you can set aside (or you’re just not sure about). And that’s okay. In the United Church we talk about the “big tent,” the spectrum of belief that makes up the diversity of our denomination, and the extent to which we put service in the name of Christ ahead of doctrinal differences. There seems to be some minimal standards of belief for ministers, but that’s a conversation that is far beyond the scope of this sermon.

I share all this today because I’ve had a couple of days at a learning event and I’m thinking the diversity of the church as it was described by the various speakers, and also because Revelations opens the same topic, and seems to find a way to help us summarize who we are and what we believe. So what is this book we seldom read and rarely hear preached? What can we say about the Book of Revelations?

The first answer would be “it depends who you ask.” Before we ask, however, here is the nutshell summary: seven letters to seven churches, some prophetic visions for us to ponder, and a description of the second coming of Jesus, or the culmination of human history, a new heaven and a new earth. After the nutshell, things start to get messy.

Some scholars think it’s a creative retelling of recent history, some a forecast of coming events, and some an elaborate allegory, layers of symbolic meaning for us to unpack. We would need the afternoon to debate and decide, so instead I might have us look at the letters, and what they say about the church in that day.

All seven churches were doing something right, and the author makes careful note of what they upheld and what they resisted, the good news in a good news/bad news summary. Then the bad news: in Smyrna they’re too fearful, in Pergamum they flirt with strange ideas, in Thyatira they need to take the personal boundaries seminar again, and in Laodicea they are lukewarm, not too hot and not too cold.

In other words, just like churches today. Churches that seem afraid of the streets that surround them, churches that get strange ideas or have no ideas at all, churches with too many huggers or not enough huggers, churches that are too hot or too cold, or poor old Laodicea, forever not-too-hot-and-not-too cold.

St. Paul adds another set of churches, from the “foolish Galatians” to the church at Corinth, a church that makes Game of Thrones look like a church picnic. Yet all of these churches are in the fold, trying to find their way in a world that is at least indifferent and in some cases hostile. They are doing their best to follow the Way of Jesus in a confusing mess of half-expressed belief and human failure that seems to define any attempt at being the church in the world.

So back to Revelations, we get a gift from John of Patmos, visionary and supervising minister, shepherd to these seven churches. He begins his letter and sets out his own definition of the basic Christian:

Follow Jesus, a faithful witness to the ways of God, the first to die and live again, the king of kings. He loves us, and he died that we might live, and be free from sin. He made the church into a sign of God’s Kingdom, to serve God and give God the glory forever more. Jesus will return on the clouds one day, and appear to everyone, even those who turned away. “I am the Alpha and the Omega” says God in Jesus, the first and the last, “who is, and who was, and who is to come.”

It’s an awesome elevator speech, and an amazing summary of the Christian hope. Jesus prayed “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” which distills our passage even further. Wait for the Kingdom of God to appear, wait for the time when earth and heaven are one, wait for the moment when God’s dream for the earth is fulfilled. Theological arguments will fall away, the foolish and the wise will stand together, and all will dwell in the completeness of God. Alpha and Omega will define us, Jesus the first and the last, setting aside all that divides us and confounds us and then drawing us together.

In the meantime, in the time before the promised time, think about your elevator speech. Think about the words that might be new life to someone else, or at least cause them to lean in as you describe this community of believers: diverse, but bound together; far-from-perfect, but made the semblance of God; and ever-patient, convinced that the coming Kingdom will renew the earth and all her people. Amen.


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