Worship for Sunday, May 30, 2021

Learning Time: “The God Formula”

The big excitement in Kingsville these days is that we now have a Dairy Queen. I have cycled by it a few times, and there is always a long line of vehicles making its way through the drive-thru line.

Can you remember life before McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s, and Dairy Queen, and all the other franchises? I can’t, but I have heard stories about a time when all restaurants and coffee shops were not the same! Can you imagine?

Years ago I worked at a church in a neighbourhood called Applewood Acres, in Mississauga. One of their claims to fame was that a man named Harlan Sanders lived in the neighbourhood, at least in the spring and summer time, and when he was in town, came to their church. There are pictures of him, in his distinctive white cotton suit, sitting in his favourite pew, with his wife. They were active and committed Christians, having been baptized in the Jordan River in Israel. They were also friends with Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell.  

I wonder what he brought to their church potluck suppers. Harlan Sanders was the founder of Fried Chicken. When he came up with the secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices that made his chicken special, he was also breaking ground in the business world. The genius of what he did was to take a food item that was already popular, and common in the Southern U.S. States, and attach his name and flavour to it. If you wanted to sell the Kentucky Fried Chicken, you had to buy the essential ingredients from him. The person with the secret formula held a lot of power.

As Americans after World War 2 became increasingly mobile, and their interstate highways made travel that much easier, it was not long before it was possible to taste the same fried chicken wherever you went. Was this a good thing? People seemed to think so. It was certainly good for the Colonel, who had a piece of every bucket of chicken. He may not have invented the fast food franchise, but he certainly did well by it.

In the 4th Century after the time of Jesus, the head of the Holy Roman Empire, Constantine, was establishing a different kind of franchise. He made Christianity the official religion. He built churches and cathedrals all over the empire, and formalized a hierarchy of priests, bishops, archbishops based on the command structure of his armies.

The Romans had used religion as a unifying force in their expanding territories for hundreds of years. Whenever they conquered a new land, they would allow the people to keep their local religions and customs, as long as they agreed to worship the Emperor as a god, and make room in their towns, and in their temples, for statues of the Roman gods.

What Constantine did was to take the fastest growing religion in his empire, Christianity, and make it the officially sanctioned faith. To control it, he had to get his hands on the secret formula that made Christianity work- the religious version of the herbs and spices.

Constantine sponsored what later became known as the Council of Nicaea, which brought together the bishops and archbishops, and other key figures in the church. Their job was to sort out the official formula about God.

In the first few hundred years after Jesus’ earthly life, there were a number of competing ways to think about Jesus, and God. Some Christians believed that Jesus did not die on the cross, that he was rescued by his disciples, and went on to live a long life.

Some Christians believed that Jesus was as human as you or I, and that his significance was not in being divine, but in being a person who was so connected to God that he helped others trust that God was real.

Some Christians believed that Jesus really was God made Flesh in the world, but that he could not have died on the cross, because God is eternal and immortal, and nothing humans could do should be able to change that.

Some Christians believed that Jesus existed before the world was made, and was there when all things came into being. In this view, Jesus really is God, but not the Creator. So did that mean that we have two Gods: God the Creator, and Jesus who came to be our Saviour?

It sounds odd to our ears, that Christians in the Ancient World were talking about having more than one god. But they lived in an environment where there were lots of other religions, and most of these religions had more than one god.

This was the problem that Constantine and his religious leaders faced. They needed to find a way to talk about God and Jesus that made Christianity palatable to the people of the Empire, who were used to whole teams of gods, but they also needed to maintain the basic belief that came from Christianity’s Jewish roots, that there actually is only one God, and all others are false idols.

The church leaders bought into this agenda for their own reasons, but Constantine’s agenda was also obvious. He wanted to use Christianity,with its message of only one God, to unify the whole Roman Empire. Religion was then, and remains, a powerful force with which to exert political control.

Trinity Sunday is the church’s occasion to celebrate the work of the Council of Nicaea, and subsequent councils, at which the official description of God was hammered out. The idea is that there is only one God, and God has what the theologians called three “persona”, which we translate as “persons”. I think we might understand the term “identities” easier. The three identities of God are God the Father, or Creator, God the Son, or Saviour, and God the Holy Spirit, who is also called the Comforter.

It was decided that Jesus was, and is, at the same time, completely human, and also completely God. Whatever you think of these ideas, they had a powerful effect on Christians of that time, and for centuries after. Once there was an official formula for talking about God, this formula became the measure by which all religious ideas were judged.

The hierarchy of the church developed a central authority- like the generals in an army. They had the backing of the Emperor, and they used the power of the Empire to wipe out any competition. Any priest, or bishop, or local church that had different ways of talking about God, or Jesus, were declared to be heretics. They were removed from the church, and could be jailed or killed unless they agreed to follow the official teachings. Whole libraries of books were burned, and lost forever, because they did not conform.

It is often said that history is written by the winners. That was also true for theology- for the official ideas about God. Constantine had the winning team, and the losers were called heretics.

The local congregations, and priests, and bishops that survived, were those that used the secret recipe from headquarters. Local variations on the recipe were not allowed. Before long, the same religious food was being cooked up all over the empire.

Was this a good thing? There are arguments to be made either way. The argument in favour is that Christianity needed a unified voice in order to be heard above the voices of the competition- all the other religions of the ancient world. The argument against is that a lot was lost when the local traditions and ideas and ways of expression were wiped out. Perhaps the greatest loss was a loss of confidence, that ordinary people in their own home towns and villages could have something to contribute to an ongoing conversation about the God we are all seeking. There is nothing so powerful as claiming to have all the answers, if you want to stop people from looking at the questions in their own way.

My personal view is that everything we say about God is poetry, not an exact science. Poetry thrives on mystery, and science is frustrated when it can’t answer all the questions. It is shameful that people were persecuted and sometimes killed because their words for God were different. I am convinced that living a faithful life, and building a connection to God, and being able to pray do not depend upon getting the words right. I also suspect that the effort to get the words right was basically a head exercise, and that in its reliance on the intellect, missed out on other ways of knowing God.

God gave us our minds, and our hearts, and our souls, and our full range of senses, and we can use these to become more aware of the ways of God.

Our experience of, and the impact of God, of the holy on our lives, is not easily boxed in by words. Once, when our youngest, Joel and I were out for a walk- Joel might have been 5 at the time, I noticed on the path ahead of us the amazing sky blue of a robin’s egg. I was about to point it out, but stopped myself as we got closer, and I saw that within the broken halves of the egg there was the tiny dark form of a partially formed bird, shiny and wet, and being devoured by insects.

In that moment when I realized what I was seeing, I experienced a powerful lesson about the beauty and brutality of creation- a lesson that I am still not able to put into words. There was life and death, beginnings, and endings, and new beginnings all painted into the scene.

What I saw spoke to my mind, certainly, but also to my heart, and in ways that touched my soul, that I can return to, just by remembering, and re-imagining the scene. I learned, and am learning, something deeper about God, and creation, that does not easily distill down to a few words.

Here is what I think about knowing God: Don’t let anyone’s words about God get in the way. Let the ideas about God be clues in your search, but don’t let anyone convince you that the ideas themselves are perfect, and should be worshipped. Save that for God. Amen

Worship for Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2021

Our worship video for this week involves a lot of hearts, hands and voices, which is fitting for Pentecost, the day on the church calendar that recalls, and celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit on a small group from Jesus’ inner circle, who as a result, find the energy to get out into their neighbourhood and share the Good News of God’s love with all who would listen. On that day, thousands did listen, and somehow heard the disciples’ message in their own languages.

We are working together, adapting to this new time, and to the use of technology, to share our message as we can. This week we have a Harrow Zoom Theatre production of a play for Pentecost written by the Rev. Chris Hancock, who serves St. Andrew’s Church, Box Hill in Tadworth, England. We also have a Pentecost poem read by Gillian Lamoure, that was written by Malcolm Guite, a gifted poet who is also an Anglican priest, and chaplain at a college in Cambridge, England.

Here is the text of our scripture reading, the play, and the learning time:

Introduction to the Scripture Reading:

Our Scripture reading for today is from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, which offers stories from the time immediately following the earthly life of Jesus, that show the Holy Spirit active amongst the early followers of the Jesus Way.


When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.


There were many Jews staying in Jerusalem just then, devout pilgrims from all over the world. When they heard the sound, they came on the run. Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were blown away. They couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, “Aren’t these all Galileans? How come we’re hearing them talk in our various mother tongues?


Parthians, Medes, and Elamites;
Visitors from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia,
    Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
    Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene;
Immigrants from Rome, both Jews and proselytes;
Even Cretans and Arabs!


“They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!”

Their heads were spinning; they couldn’t make head or tail of any of it. They talked back and forth, confused: “What’s going on here?”

 Others joked, “They’re drunk on cheap wine.”

That’s when Peter stood up and, backed by the other eleven, spoke out with bold urgency: “Fellow Jews, all of you who are visiting Jerusalem, listen carefully and get this story straight. These people aren’t drunk as some of you suspect. They haven’t had time to get drunk—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning. This is what the prophet Joel announced would happen:


“In the Last Days,” God says,
“I will pour out my Spirit
    on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy,
    also your daughters;
Your young men will see visions,
    your old men dream dreams.
When the time comes,
    I’ll pour out my Spirit
On those who serve me, men and women both,
    and they’ll prophesy.
I’ll set wonders in the sky above
    and signs on the earth below,
Blood and fire and billowing smoke,
    the sun turning black and the moon blood-red,
Before the Day of the Lord arrives,
    the Day tremendous and marvelous;
And whoever calls out for help
    to me, God, will be saved.”

  • That’s the Spirit”

Cast   Simon Peter: Patricia

 a Roman Centurion: Cary

 a Roman Soldier: Eleanor

Scene – Jerusalem – The two guards are sitting behind a table.

Centurion: Interview with one Simon known as “The Rock”, at the headquarters of the Jerusalem Garrison, 6pm on the Day of Pentecost, in the seventh year of the Prefecture of Pontius Pilate. (To Peter) You are Simon, known as “the Rock”?

Peter: Yes

Roman Soldier:  Why “the Rock” – are you a wrestler or something?

Peter: It’s a long story – Jesus called me that.

Centurion You are from Galilee?

Peter Correct.

Centurion Occupation?

Peter:  Fisherman – well ex-fisherman – put “fisher of men”. (Smiles at the Soldier who is still scowling.)

Roman Soldier  What do you mean fisher of men? You sailors are all the same …

Centurion Look, let’s get on with it shall we? I’ll just put Fisherman

Roman Soldier:  Aren’t you one of those followers of that crazy preacher – Jesus of Nazareth – the one we crucified for calling himself King of the Jews?

Peter:  Yes.

Roman Soldier:   Because we heard that you were denying it – three times in fact.

Peter:  Well yes that’s true I did deny it – I was frightened and confused.

Centurion:   But you don’t deny it now?

Peter:  No.

Roman Soldier:  Because now you are not frightened and confused?

Peter:  No.

Roman Soldier:  (to the Centurion Doesn’t sound much like a Rock to me

Centurion:   OK. So where is his body then? Because we have had a report that it has been stolen.

Peter:  It’s not been stolen – he rose from the dead.

Roman Soldier:    (Mockingly) Rose from the dead?

Peter:  Yes we have all seen him since he was crucified – he is not dead!

Roman Soldier:  So you are saying that he is still alive – that we, the Roman Army, botched the job?

Peter:  No he was dead, but now he is alive – as much as he ever was – in fact even more so – he seems to be everywhere (Pause, then conspiratorially to the Centurion) – we have even seen him eat, shared bread and wine with him.

Roman Soldier:   Quite a lot of wine by the sound of it

Centurion:   Yes – we’ll get to that in a minute. You see, sir, we’ve had a few complaints about disturbances in the city this morning. I should explain, you’re not under arrest or anything.

Roman Soldier:   (Threateningly) Not yet.

Centurion:   We just wanted to check up on what’s going on. We have had some important foreign visitors in here – good, God-fearing people: Parthians, er – who else was it?.

Roman Soldier:  It’s quite a list (Checking his notes, then reading) Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and converts, Cretans and Arabs, Sir.

Centurion:   I’ve never seen so many foreign visitors in the city! It’s like the Olympics are being held here in Jerusalem not in Britannia.

Peter:  Today of all days! It’s brilliant timing, isn’t it?

Centurion:   Is it? Annoying I call it – anyway they seem to be a little bit confused and …

Roman Soldier:   Upset.

Centurion:   Perplexed.

Roman Soldier:    Upset.

Centurion:   (reading notes) “Stunned, excited, amazed, challenged, thrilled”

Roman Soldier:   Upset.

Centurion:   Well, yes. Some of them were upset but not all, it seems. Anyway we’ve had reports about a loud noise …

Roman Soldier:   (from his notes) “like the rushing of a mighty wind”

Centurion:   And flames.

Roman Soldier:    “Coming out of people’s heads”

Centurion:   And you speaking to them in foreign languages.

Roman Soldier:   (Menancingly) How exactly do you know Parthian?

Peter:  I don’t or at least I didn’t – that must be the work of the Holy Spirit.

Centurion:   (writing down) “Holy Spirit” Yes we’re coming to that. But first of all do you want to tell us about the wind and the flames and everything?

Peter:  Well it all started before our teacher, Jesus, was crucified. He said this would happen – that he would send the Holy Spirit to help us when he was gone.

Roman Soldier:   Yeah right – “Holy spirit”, methylated spirits is more like it!

Centurion:   We’re coming to that – so he is gone now, this Jesus?

Peter:  Yes – sort of.

Roman Soldier:  Dead again?

Peter:  No, not dead.  Here, but not here.

Centurion:   Now I’m confused.

Roman Soldier:  They were right – he’s drunk.

Peter:  No, no, not at all – I’m just filled with the Holy Spirit.

Roman Soldier:   Exactly.

Peter:  No – it was only 9 o’clock in the morning that it came – I hadn’t touched a drop.

Roman Soldier:  You’re a sad case – out of it by breakfast and can’t admit it – classic case of denial – repeat after me “My name’s Simon Peter and I’m an alcoholic”.

Peter:  (ignoring him) As I was saying this morning – it’s as we were told in the scriptures in the writing of the prophet Joel. Have you got a Bible? It’s Joel 2: 28-32 “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”

Centurion:   (continuing reading from a Bible which he has found)” Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Roman Soldier:  So are you saying these are the last days? The end of time?

Peter:  Well they may well be – strange things are happening – they may well be your last days – the Roman Empire won’t last forever you know.

Roman Soldier:  I wouldn’t bet on that.  I think the Roman Empire will last a lot longer than your Jesus cult!

Centurion:  (ignoring the Soldier) So what do we need to do?

Peter:  Be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Roman Soldier:  Oh yeah – More of this Holy Spirit

Centurion:   Well it is there in the Jewish Bible – foretold!

Roman Soldier:  You don’t believe this nonsense?

Centurion:   I don’t know – there’s something about this guy. Do you know he baptised 3,000 people today?

Roman Soldier:  I’m off– if you ask me you’re wasting your time with this nutter – good luck to you. (the Soldier leaves)

Centurion:   (turning to Peter) I’m interested in this dead but not dead Jesus character – are you saying he has come back from Hades as some sort of spirit – like a ghost?  Tell me more about him.

Peter:  Do you know what it is to feel truly loved? Utterly known, completely understood and still loved?

Centurion:   No, but I think I’d like to.

Peter:  Have you got any bread and wine – there’s something I need to show you.

Centurion:   Come with me. (They leave together)

Poem: Pentecost (Malcolm Guite)

Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today  the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire,air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in  every nation.

Learning Time: “A New Spirit”

Our story from Acts captures a mysterious moment at which visitors to Jerusalem from many places in the Ancient World not only heard the story about Jesus, but were deeply touched by it. The story says that these people from distant and foreign lands heard Peter’s preaching in their own languages, and more significantly, understood what they were hearing.

As a preacher and follower of the Jesus way, I would be thrilled to know that such a huge crowd was not only listening, but actually finding the message meaningful, and helpful to their lives. As a parent, I have sometimes had the experience of talking in the general vicinity of my kids, without really knowing that they are tuning in.

How amazing that would be, to be in a huge crowd, and have the sense that everybody in the crowd that was on the same wavelength. The closest thing I can envision would be at the start of a big running race. I have run in 2 marathons, 4 half marathons, and Hamilton’s ” Around the Bay ” road race a couple of times. There is something in the air when six or seven thousand people are behind the start line, eager to get moving, and sharing the confidence, the belief, that they will soon be on their way.

To believe that something is possible is powerful. People who run a lot of races, and people who write about running know, that many people run their best when part of a huge field of runners. You can be swept up in the heat of the moment, and fly.

Jesus came to teach people that they are loved by God. His mission was to help them understand that God’s love is unconditional, without strings, and there for every person.

In Jesus’ time, the prevailing message of the culture, and of many religions was that your status in the world was an accurate indicator of your status with God. Rich and powerful people were obviously on God’s “A list”. The poor, the sick, the homeless, the strangers in town, those of different race or culture were all said to  be less favoured by God.

Jesus brought the message that every person is on an equal footing with God. There are no headstarts in the human race. This scandalized people of power and privilege, surprised those living on the fringes, and energized the disciples. There was something about Jesus as a person that helped people believe that it was true, that God was with them, too. This was not just about words or ideas- but about presence. When Jesus would stop in a village or on a hillside to talk about these things, thousands would gather to hear him- because there was something in the air that hinted of possibility, and power, and new life. They could believe that there was more to life than the world seemed to be telling them. That there is a spiritual dimension, and God is with us, even when lives in this world can be hard and sad.

How amazing and exciting it would have been, to be part of the small group of disciples that travelled with Jesus. They were part of something much bigger than themselves. They could see that big things were beginning to happen.

Jesus’ first followers experienced a serious setback when he died. Their movement was just getting going. The wonderful message that God did not play favourites, and that all people are equally loved, was spreading. Some would say that this is why Jesus was killed, because his message about God’s love had profound political implications in a world in which religion was used to control people, and keep them in their place.

Jesus’ friends were not able to protect him when agents of the state arrested him, subjected him to a mock trial, and sentenced him to death. Jesus’ friends were devastated when he died. They may have felt that part of them was dying as well. All that they had learned from him, and the hopes they had for their future, now seemed impossible.

But then within a few days after Jesus death, the disciples began to hear reports that even though Jesus had died, he was still with them. Some of his friends reported seeing him, hearing him. They felt his presence with them. That sense of possibility that seemed to surround Jesus was still there. The disciples gathered together, to try to make sense of these stories, and to figure out what to do next. At one of these gatherings, they felt that Jesus was telling them to wait, that something was about to happen.

Some of the disciples gathered in a house in Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival, which as I mentioned with the children, was a kind of spring thanksgiving holiday. This would likely have been the first holiday gathering for them since the death of Jesus.

It makes me think of how it is for a family facing their first Christmas or other major celebration after the death of a loved one. In my family, the first Mother’s Day after my mother-in-law’s death was like that. We knew we wanted to be together, and mark the occasion- but things had changed, and we had to find a way through it all. This coming Father’s Day will be our first one since my father-in-law’s death, and we will find a way through that.

The amazing thing is that we do find a way through it all. We live, and sometimes before we are ready for it, the life we know changes. We experience loss and death, and wonder if we will be able to go on. This happens for individuals, for families, for churches. It happened for Jesus’s disciples. Maybe they were looking for some sign that things were going to be all right. Not that things would go back to the way they used to be- but that the new way was going to be all right.

And then it happened. The disciples had this experience of hearing a feeling a great rush of wind, like a huge breath of fresh air, that literally blew them away. The story says that something came upon them that was like tongues of fire. They began speaking all at once, in the excitement of the moment.

People gathered around them, and they also got caught up in what was happening. The story says that even though they were from many places, where different languages were spoken, they could all understand what the disciples were saying. There was something bigger than all of them going on there.

This moment has sometimes been called the birthday of the Christian church. The early Jesus movement really got rolling after this. With great fervour and energy they were moving out into the world, venturing on longer journeys, to tell more and more people about God’s love.

We are part of that movement. The refreshing wind that blew through Jerusalem that day can also bring us fresh air, and a new spirit. God is with us here, in this time, in this place. We are experiencing new life in this congregation, and it is great to be part of it. Amen