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The Birth of the Church

By Rev. Bob Thompson

 

Acts 1: 6-11

 

The last time I took leadership of Sunday morning worship was the Easter service at the end of March. At that time, I told the story of my experience when Lorraine, my first wife died, and then shared the “aha” moment when I realized that my story of life after death seemed to mirror the Easter experience that we read about in the gospels. Today, I want to finish that story.

 

You will remember that I talked about my own experience, and said that when Blair, our minister, asked us where we thought Lorraine was now, the question took me to the thin place of Celtic spirituality, where the separation of the physical and the spiritual is tissue paper thin. And I realized that Lorraine was still with me. In my “aha” moment in the Easter story, I realized that Mary Magdalene played the same role as Blair – she took the disciples to that same thin place where they had the same experience.

 

I said that I didn’t think our experience was just memory – it wasn’t just remembering what it was like when our loved ones were with us, because in both instances, the experience pointed us to the future rather than to the past. I knew that Lorraine’s presence was to remind me, and to convince me, to start writing. The disciples realized that Jesus was there to remind them of the dream of the kin-dom community, and that he would continue to be with them as they brought that to reality.

 

I want to make an aside comment here, because many of you have asked me if I started writing at Lorraine’s urging. It took a long while, because I didn’t know what to write about. Don Sawatzky gave me a clue about that a few years back, when he asked me if my faith had changed in the years since I was ordained, and if I would reflect on my faith in the same way now, as I did then. The answer is, of course, no. All of us change through the years, and my faith is no different. You could say the same thing about your faith. We have grown and evolved. But his question got me thinking about what I believe now, and how different it is from what I believed at the beginning of my ministry. And that is what I decided to write about. And so, I have been writing. And when we made the decision to take turns doing the services after Joan left, I decided that what I had been writing would be the food of the reflections I would share. These reflections are not what I would have said, or how I would have said it in the past. They are not fiction – they are what I believe now. And they are evolving. Nor are they my attempt at the facts about what the church teaches, as I might have attempted in the past. Many of the things I say challenge church teaching. Instead, perhaps, you could call these reflections my spiritual autobiography. In process.

 

But back to my story. I experienced Lorraine’s presence for about three months. In the Biblical accounts, the disciples experienced Jesus’ presence for about forty days, until the Ascension. But in both cases, the experience ended, and here’s how it happened, and what I think about why it happened.

 

It was the first Sunday of Advent, after Lorraine died. At the beginning of the church service, Blair invited us, as he always did, to stand and share the peace of Christ with each other. I stood, and suddenly had the strongest feeling that something was different. Something had changed. What was it? Then I realized that Lorraine was gone. I no longer felt her presence. And I can see the parallels with the Easter story. Suddenly, Jesus was taken from them – that story we just read, about the Ascension.

 

Of course, I don’t believe that Lorraine left. It didn’t escape my notice, that this was the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the new year in the church calendar. A time of new beginnings. Very clever of Lorraine, except she wasn’t into that sort of symbolism. I was. I believe it was me who had left that ‘thin place’, where I had felt her presence. Why would I do that? I think that time with her had been preparation for the future, but now it was time to get on with it. I couldn’t continue to think – now I had to do. And it was all subconscious. I didn’t consciously make the decision to leave that thin place. But at some level I had been preparing for it, and the start of the new church year – the time of new beginnings, was obviously the time to make the move.

 

I believe that the disciples knew as well that Jesus’ presence with them had been to encourage them to be about the building of the new kin-dom community, and that he would continue to be with them in spirit as they did it. But they had to be about it, and they were ready to go. I don’t think it happened on one day, in one place. The Biblical story about the Day of Ascension, was a collective story of how the disciples, individually and in their own time, made the decision to leave that thin place. Like me, they believed it was Jesus who was leaving – not them.            But still, it was time to move on, and to get to work.

 

And that, I believe, is how the church was born.

 

I had been forming this reflection throughout my holidays, and I had been pondering the relevance of all of this, for us today. What does this have to do with the way we live our lives? And I had a long time to ponder, spending nine days in a row at sea, on a 22-day cruise.

 

What kept coming to me were some words from the prophet Micah – words that I have loved and that have often inspired me. He said, “God has shown you my friend what is good. And what does God require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God”.

 

We have already been shown what is good, and we know what to do. Our values have come from our parents, our family and friends, from our faith. If I were to ask you what values you live by, we would all name ones like justice, mercy, kindness, love, compassion. And Micah said, we already know that.

 

I believe that, like the disciples, we have known the God presence with us, that has taught us what is good, and encouraged us to be about the building of the new kin-dom community where those values are becoming reality. And, with that God presence, we have accomplished things – the Thrift Store, the Community Fridge, the Refugee Committee, Affirm. Those and other examples that come to mind.

 

I think that we often try to use prayer as a way of dealing with the things we feel we can’t fix. And I get frustrated with that. We often begin our payers with something like “O God, we pray for” and then comes what? A wish list? A laundry list? A to-do list. All of things we want this God to intervene about -- to fix. Things we feel we can’t do ourselves. And I quite frankly don’t see any evidence of places where this interventionist God has fixed any of the things we are praying for. And if I did see some evidence that some God out there had fixed some of the thing we had been praying for, I think my reaction would be anger. If this God could do those things, then why didn’t he or she do it sooner. Why does there have to be so much pain, suffering, sadness and fear, if there is an interventionist God who could change all of that? And why do we need to plead with this God to act. Our stock answer in the church has been to say that God’s ways are mysterious, and we can’t understand them. We just have to accept them. Baloney.

 

But we can’t stop praying. I think that, in what I am saying, prayer becomes even more important. Every time we pray about what is in our hearts and minds, we are visioning the kind of world that we want to live in – the kind of world we want to leave to our children and those who follow. And at the heart of it all is the question of what we are going to do to make it happen. Of course, that fills us with anxiety and dread, because if we are praying for peace in Gaza or Ukraine, or ways to deal with the climate crisis, what can we do about it? How can we make that happen? The temptation is to look for someone or something, more powerful than us, to do it for us... an interventionist God. The disciples show us a different way. Trust in the tools of justice, kindness, love and compassion, that we have already been given, and know that as we move into the world to live them out, the God presence will be with us, to encourage us and to give us strength to make it happen.

 

 “God has shown you my friend what is good. And what does God require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God”. And I don’t think we should shortchange that last bit: “walk humbly with your God”. I want to hearken back to Richard Wagamese, who said that we need to open the eyes of our heart, to see the wonder, the majesty, the beauty and the power in God’s creation, and to not be so focused on our human creations and accomplishments. Walk humbly with our God.

 

The disciples didn’t face the ascension with fear, when they left that thin place, and the presence of Jesus. They left it with excitement and resolve to face the future. And so do we.

 

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