Saturday, May 26, 2018

Not Always 'From Victory unto Victory'

The ol' 'Elisha, there's death in the pot' experience.

The missionary life we full-time Christian workers portray in our prayer letters and post cards from the field is often filled with glowing reports of accomplishments or exploits meant to inspire thoughts of how good God is, and by extension how good the missionary is as well.  In the meantime, most of the reality is edited out, reality being the tedium of trying to survive in a different culture, the uncertainty of whether I am understanding or being understood, the loneliness of not having things to do on a Friday night or making yet another cup of instant soup for supper.

Well this missionary certainly missed the victory train yesterday.  I am hosting a good friend who is also the new priest in charge of our new Kisumu parish of St. Moses the Black.  Everything went wrong.  I was teaching myself how to make prosphora, the Orthodox communion bread.  So after spending a couple of hours carefully going through all the steps, I put it in the oven.  At the appointed time I took it out and let it cool.  But it was pretty obvious that the inside was still mostly uncooked.  So it wasn't even any good to snack on.  Total fail.  At least I had given myself another day to try again.

And then there was supper.  I had bought dried beans and presoaked them. My thought was to make chili beans and rice for my Kenyan guest.  So I followed the recipe from a trustworthy cookbook.  But evidently the chili powder that the authors of the recipe had in mind was rather different than the chili powder that I bought at my local store.  It was burn-my-mouth, cry-my-eyes-out hot, and for my poor Kenyan guest who comes from a culture that thinks Mchuzi spice is living dangerously, it was inedible.  I just had to dump the whole pot in the compost place.  Total fail II.


And then there was the night.  I live next door to a compound that has two dogs.  And evidently the two dogs spend their life cooped up in a tiny 'dog house' just on the other side of the compound wall, probably about two meters from my open window (open because Kisumu being Kisumu is like summer time in SC without the benefit of air conditioning.)  There are nights where the dogs in question do not bark at anything.  And then there are nights, like last night, where they barked at everything, ALL NIGHT LONG!  And I hear everything when I 'sleep', so I didn't sleep much.  But most of all I was anxious about my guest, who had traveled from Nairobi the night before and then had been fed an inedible meal while watching another example of my culinary incompetence unfold before his eyes.  I found myself awake again at 5 AM and pried myself out of bed to go for my morning run.  And even letting myself out the gate, it squeaked and set the dogs to barking again.  And they continued barking as I headed down the road.  So in terms of providing my guest with a comfortable, restful place to prepare for his ministry in a new parish - Complete fail III.  Even now, midmorning, they are still barking.

Living is hard.  Doing so in a cross cultural situation adds degrees of complexity to the hardness.  And trying to live with all the shortcomings, weaknesses, personal idiosyncrasies and outright sins that I add to the recipe makes this living seem impossible.

The real story about being a missionary is not that I am able to do so much.  It's that God is able to do anything at all, given what He has to work with.  I think it's called 'mercy' and 'grace'.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Churches With No Memory



I live in a city heaving with religion, bustling with religious people.  On my way to my favourite coffeeshop, I walk between an enormous Catholic Church on one side and an even bigger Anglican Cathedral on the other.  On the Ring Road, where I run the last couple of miles of my dawn run, I pass by maybe 10, maybe 15 tin shacks built in a long row on land provided by the county government across a ditch from the road.  Each one of these tin shacks is its own church, complete with it’s own impossibly loud sound system, and its own self-appointed shepherd.  May of the congregants of the various churches have their own colourful uniforms and their own church flags.  I often see one or another on a Sunday procession, complete with drums, with colourful dresses and scarves for the women, a rainbow of coloured cassocks for the men.


I recently took a walk through an unfamiliar neighbourhood and passed by more than 8 small churches (and one ginormous church, a sister to the Nairobi Pentecostal Church in Nairobi, AKA CITAM or Christ is the Answer Ministries).  A drive several days ago through the other side of town took me past church after church, each one with a name that indicated it was not connected to another.

CITAM Kisumu

Some of these churches are started by men (or women!) who have observed that being the ‘bishop’ or the ‘prophet’ or the ‘apostle’ of a church, even a tin shack church, is a good way to make money.  And there certainly are a plethora of examples of such religious leaders who have nice cars, nice houses, nice investments, and nice bank accounts, all off the offerings of the poor, often extorted from them by claiming without their ‘seed money’ God will not bless them because their seed money indicates the measure of their faith in God.


Others of these churches were started as a result of church conflicts.  In churches like this, there is no way to civilly much less Christianly resolve differences.  Too often, one party simply absconds and takes part of the congregation with him or her.  A church that I know in Nairobi suffered one such conflict.  The associate was disciplined by the church board for some malfeasance.  But he didn’t stay around long enough to hear their decision.  Instead he went a few miles down the road, rented a tent and started services.  He began as the ‘pastor’, but the inevitable title inflation took hold and I think he is now Bishop Prophet Dr. So and So (and soon to be an 'apostle', I'm sure), and his ‘church’ is a roaring success.  At least he seems to be doing well by it.


Much fewer are those churches established as a result of evangelism.  Most seem content to attract the disgruntled members of other congregations.

But what nearly all of these churches have in common is that they are churches without a memory.  If there is an awareness of Church history, or of what God has done in the past in and through his people, it is a well-kept secret.  Most of these Bishops/Prophets/Revivalists/Pastors/Preachers are busy looking around at what their neighbours and competition are doing, or going on line to download the latest from the really successful American or Nigerian or even Kenyan health and prosperity heretics.  And it’s not just the Pentecostals.  An Anglican preacher was caught mid-sermon preaching word for word the same sermon from an American prosperity preacher’s website by a friend armed with a smart phone when he became suspicious of some rather non-Kenyan turns of phrase. 


There is a rush, even a desperation for adherents at all these churches, and the preachers employ all the latest gimmicks and strategies to get people in their doors. This is because, crassly put, more people mean more money.  So there is this constant we must figure out and channel what is popular in order to get more people to come. This of course is the old Church Growth movement gone to seed, with all sorts of unintended consequences (or perhaps more appropriately, all sorts of chickens coming home to roost), the result of which is neither ‘church’ nor ‘growth’, at least here. This has the unintended but equally soul-killing consequences of equating Christianity in the eyes of the consumer public with entertainment, with feeling good. with bouncy music and dancing, and with God will give you everything you need (of course if you have enough faith).  Having received this kind of inoculation, it is almost impossible to preach to any of these people a sermon on genuine discipleship and following Jesus and be taken seriously by anybody.

The 'Mightiest Prophet of the Lord' Dr. David Owour

Contemporary Christianity here in Kisumu seems to be all about ME.  There is no interest in reading Church history or theology.  It’s about God doing for me what I need him to do for me.  In this regards, popular Christianity is reverting to a kind of African Traditional Religion, where the religion exists to ensure that God or the spirits or the witch doctor or the holy man protects us from these bad things (curses, sickness, death, accident, infertility, crop failure, drought, etc) and gives us these good things (blessings, children, rain, fecundity, prosperity, etc).  There is no sense of a relationship with God that we destroyed to our great harm that needs to be reconciled, no sense that any of the brokenness around us and in us was in any way caused by me, thus needing repentance by me.  Salvation is reduced to ‘pie in the sky by and by’ with no implications whatsoever for how we might live our lives today.  In other words, ‘Christians’ are coming close to forgetting what it means to be Christians.

Having lost our memory, we Christians spend our time making things up.  We make up what a church is supposed to be.  We make up what ‘worship’ is supposed to be.  We make up what clergy in the church are supposed to be.  We make up what the ‘sacraments’ (or ‘ordinances’) are supposed to be and we make up how we are supposed to do them.  We make up what morality we want to enforce and then pick and choose which issue to be outraged over and which issue to ignore.  We make up what theology we want to endorse.  We make all these things up because we don’t remember.  We don’t remember (or choose to ignore) what Jesus said, nor do we remember what the early Christians practiced.  We have lost our memory.  And as a result, what we think is Christianity is, less and less, not.  We are increasingly busy making up religions in our own likeness.


Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia have their own set of disturbing and heartbreaking symptoms, and their own progressions as the various diseases carry a person down the path of no return.  But one symptom is common to almost all of them.  One begins to lose one’s memory.  I have seen this happen in people that I know and love.  He may start repeating himself, no longer sure that this thought or that concern was something he said already.  But he just said it three minutes ago.  And he will go through the same thing in another three minutes.  She can read the newspaper and comment on an interesting story, not realising that she has already read the same story five times this morning and made the same comments.  When I lose my memory, I forget to eat.  I forget to get dressed. Most distressingly for me and everybody else, I forget who you are.  I don’t recognise you.  I become increasingly walled off from the rest of the world, because I can’t remember anything.  We cannot live without our memory.  We were created to be connected with our past.  It’s how we learn.  It’s what defines us.  It’s who we are.  Without our memory we become less and less human.

Without no history, we Christians have no memory.  And our religion descends into an exercise of selfishness, because there is no loanger any other point of reference than ourselves.  A lot of very intelligent, even well-meaning people can pull off this kind of religion for their whole lives.  But what they are experiencing or describing is no longer Christianity.



This is one of the main reasons I converted to Orthodoxy after a very long season of spiritual discontent.  I have not found the perfect Church.  No, these people manage to be just as maddening as everybody else, just as maddening as I am sure I am to many.  But this is a Church that has not lost its memory.  We are still connected to the ministry, the theology, the priorities, the agenda, the worship of the Apostles on whose faith Christ built His Church.  I don’t think we have lived up to our calling and identity, nor are we doing so now.  But Christ used fishermen, tax collectors and other assorted men and women to establish the beachhead of His Kingdom on this planet.  He simply requires us to be willing to be used similarly for the same thing to happen today.  Besides, being his witness from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, and being the Body of Christ right here in our local place, is a whole lot easier when we remember who we are and why we’re here.

Because we want to remember, we have named our parish after the
4th century African saint and church father,
St. Moses the Black.  It's good to be reminded that Christianity isn't Western nor is it Greek and that
Africans and Christianity didn't just happen yesterday.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Subdeacon





I was ordained a Subdeacon today by His Grace Bishop Athanasios Akunda of the Diocese of Kisumu and Western Kenya.  That I could see this day should give one some indication of what the grace of God is all about.  In addition to His Grace, I am grateful for the prayers, help and example of  my friend and brother Archimandrite Fr. John Wangaru, my friend and brother James Mukuria the newly ordained priest Fr. Ietheros, Fr. Robert Holet of my home American parish St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Virginia, my friend and colleague Fr. Evangelos Thiani of Nairobi, His Eminence Makarios Metropolitan of Nairobi, who opened the way for me to return to Kenya in 2015, His Grace Bishop Innocentios of Rwanda and Burundi who was my first spiritual father when I moved to Nairobi in 2008, and so many others.

A Subdeacon serves at the altar and helps the Bishop or presiding priest and deacon by facilitating the liturgy, making sure the censor or the candles are in the right hands, and that whatever is needed by the Bishop or priest is there at the right time.  It requires being familiar with all aspects of the Liturgy, not just the Divine Liturgy, but Orthros and Vespers as well as other special services.  While the subdiaconate is a minor order, the subdeacon is the head server, coordinating the other servers assisting with the service.  For many becoming a subdeacon is a stepping stone for further service in the Church as a deacon and then a priest.

Pray for me.  It's like mastering a new language.  And already I have made some funny mistakes.  But since everybody else around me has had the same process of learning, there is a lot of grace and good humor that comes to the aid of a neophyte like me.

My friend and colleague at the Sts Anargyroi chanting stand, George from Kabiria in Nairobi, took these pictures of my ordination.

I've been taken by the hand by two deacons and led to the Bishop.

The Bishop laying on hands and praying the prayer of ordination for a subdeacon.

The Bishop presenting me with the vestments of the subdiaconate.

The new subdeacon is vested with the help of the deacons and priests 


The new subdeacon is presented to the Faithful by the Bishop


And he is immediately put to work in the service.
This is during the Little Entrance of the Divine Liturgy.

With His Grace Bishop Athanasios Akunda, after the service.

With the Bishop and my friend James who was ordained a priest  (Fr. Ietheros) during the same service.
It was a big day.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Dependency, Harambees and the Struggle for Christian Stewardship in the Orthodox Churches of Kenya

This was originally a chapter I wrote for a book on Stewardship in Kenyan Churches.  When the publisher who undertook to bring it to publication decided I should broaden my focus to all of Africa, the specifically Kenyan chapters were orphaned and needed a new home.  This one I published last year in a small Orthodox Journal based in South Africa.  Because I am speaking this weekend at a big clergy conference in my diocese, I thought it might be useful to excavate it from the forgotten mines of old academic journals and attempt cheerfully to restart a necessary conversation.

An Orthodox Church building in Kenya funded by well-meaning American donors


    Pharos Journal of Theology ISSN 2414-3324 online Volume 98 - (2017) Copyright: ©2017  Open Access- Online @ http//: www.pharosjot.com

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Dependency, Harambees and the Struggle for Christian Stewardship in the Orthodox Churches of Kenya 

Dr. Joseph William Black Deputy Dean, Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary,  Nairobi, Kenya, Senior Lecturer, St. Paul's University,  Limuru and Nairobi, Kenya josephwmblack@gmail.com 

Abstract

The Orthodox Churches of Kenya, like many other mission churches globally, have long struggled with the issues of dependency, enabled by years of over-generous foreign financial and material support and exacerbated by a strong cultural inclination to appropriate the levers of various patronage systems a means to get ahead relationally, financially and politically.  Dependency and patronage have increasingly become the default posture when it comes to Orthodox individuals and their Churches with respect to how they perceive and handle their financial needs.  Churches have also increasingly made use of indigenous ways to raise financial support, known locally as harambee.   Harambees are widely seen as culturally appropriate ways to raise money when the need is beyond the means of the organization or even individual.  They are often the most successful means that Churches can adopt to push major projects forward such as buying property or constructing the church building.  However, while harambees may be culturally appropriate, in the case of Kenyan churches in general, and Orthodox Churches in particular, harambees enable the Churches and their leaders to sidestep the fundamental issue plaguing their parishes, which is a complete absence of New Testament and early Christian principles of stewardship and discipleship.  When the previous patron can no longer pro-vide the financial support the Church needs, harambees become the new patron that enable the Church to move ahead.  The Church and its members thus never have to address their own lack of stewardship, responsibility and Christian discipleship.  The fundraising targets may all be met, but the Churches remain crippled by ongoing attitudes of dependency.  This article explores the dynamic of dependency and patronage afflicting Orthodox Churches in Kenya, critiques the preferred financial solution of harambee, and challenges Orthodox Christians to take their calling as stewards and disciples seriously as the only way to escape the slough of dependency that, unless addressed, will ultimately consume them.

Keywords: Dependency, deprivation, harambee, stewardship, Kenya


Introduction

St. Barnabas Orthodox Church is an underprivileged Orthodox parish in a remote corner of Kenya about 45 kilometres from the capital city Nairobi.  The parish has a sad history of mismanagement and corruption on the part of an earlier parish priest.  The most recent priest has struggled with the legacy left by his predecessor, a legacy seen most clearly by the church members’ unwillingness to give to support the church’s ministry or to cover the priest’s salary.  When asked, the members say simply that it’s the bishop’s church and so it’s the bishop’s responsibility to pay for whatever the expense might be.  As a result, the priest and his family live in poverty in a Nairobi slum and the church building is literally falling apart.  There were no serviceable toilets at the church, and the priest decided that, for the sake of the faithful, they needed to construct toilet blocks for people who were otherwise were having to walk to a neighbor’s outdoor toilet.  The priest scheduled a harambee and made use of all of his personal and professional contacts to ensure that many people would come and help raise the money so the church could have toilets.  The harambee was
       

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scheduled for after Divine Liturgy on a certain Sunday.  And on the day, many people from surrounding Orthodox Churches came, as did many local politicians, and even the Bishop himself.  Many made significant contributions.   The members of the parish were there as well, but their contribution amounted to little more than a few hundred shillings (a few US dollars).  The harambee was very successful.  Enough money was raised to build the toilet block and also to make repairs to the fence surrounding the church property.  But the parish still believes it’s not their responsibility to cover any of the costs for the church.  The priest continues to scramble to come up with basic supplies such as prosphora (communion bread) and wine.  He pays out of his own meagre resources to buy porridge to feed the children a supplemental meal on Sunday mornings because he noticed that many of the children in the community are hungry.  The parish has not lifted a finger to help feed their own children.  And the parish continues to say that it’s not their responsibility to pay their priest.  And he continues to live in a Nairobi slum, somehow making ends meet by working as a gardener.1

The parishioners of St. Barnabas Church obviously have many issues, but they are right about one thing.  There was a time when funding from generous overseas patrons came to the Bishop enabling him to fund many aid projects and to assist the construction of many Church buildings, as well as provide salaries for priests and workers across the country.  As one might imagine, this had a depressive impact on the amount of monies Churches were able to raise in their weekly offerings.  ‘If the Bishop has the money to pay for everything, why do I need to do anything?’ was a common and understandable sentiment.  Foreign donors were solicited to help ‘poor Africans’ and to do for them what they were not able to do for themselves, or at least that was how matters were often understood.

In recent years, overseas funding has all but dried up, and the Orthodox Church has experienced an unprecedented crisis in funding the various programs and maintaining the various salaries and ministries.  Increasingly local parishes have been forced to step up and take on responsibility for things like salaries and for funding their own programs and projects.  This, of course, has not been a bad thing.  What is telling, however, are the ways local parishes have adopted to respond to their new financial realities.2

Kenyan Orthodox Christians and parishes have been nothing if not resourceful in finding ways to fund salaries, ministries, buildings and projects.  Although some Orthodox parishes are relatively wealthy and some individual Christians have been successful and are prosperous, the vast majority of Orthodox Churches and the people who attend are resource-challenged.  Orthodox Christians and their leaders tend to follow their Protestant neighbors in viewing success in terms of both numbers of attendees as well as relative material prosperity.3  Almost every Orthodox leader has in mind what a successful and prosperous parish will look like, in terms of physical plant, in terms of provision for the priest, in terms of ministries sponsored by the parish.  As is the case with many other Christian traditions, there are not a few Orthodox Churches in Kenya that have begun with services under a tree.  As soon as is possible, a small building with tin or mud wall sides, and a tin roof might be constructed (in the 20th century such buildings might have been made of mud and sticks with a thatched roof).  The ultimate goal for the congregation would be the construction of a permanent structure made of stone with a concrete floor and tin or even a tile roof.  Each step
                                             
 1 The story related actually happened.  The names and location have been changed.
 2 For an early treatment of many of the issues surrounding stewardship in African contexts, see John R. Crawford, ‘Stewardship in Younger Churches: Observations and Caveats From an African Perspective’ in Missiology: An International Review IX:3 (1981), 299-310.
3 See for example,  Peninah Jepkogei Tanui, Dominic Omare and Jared Bogonko Bitange, ‘Internal Control System for Financial Management in the Church: A Case of Protestant Churches in Eldoret Municipality, Kenya’ in European Journal of Accounting, Auditing and Finance Research, 4:6 (2016), 29-46, especially the description of the context, 2933.
     

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along this path seems prohibitively expensive for any congregation, but especially for those who live in the rural areas. 

Although the Orthodox claim to be the original Church and to have best preserved the Traditions of earliest Christianity, with respect to their posture towards money and church offerings, they are not much different from any of their non-Orthodox friends.  Whether rural or urban, whether former mission church or new style Pentecostal, Roman Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox, the process of acquiring funds is remarkably similar across the country.  Because many of these projects are perceived to be beyond the reach of the local membership, the crucial part of any fundraising effort in Kenya is to find outside donors with the means to help.  These outside donors might be wealthy individuals in the local community.  They might be denominational leaders such as bishops or mega-church pastors, they might be politicians who are prominent on the local, regional or even national stage.  The goal is to create an event that brings the people who have resources together with the people who have the need.  And Kenya has developed the perfect, culturally appropriate way of doing just this.  It is called Harambee.

Harambees and Kenyan fundraising 

Kenyan author MacMillan Kiiru defines harambee as ‘a collective effort which means pull together.  It is a strategy for pooling resources of a community together in order to carry out a community project that meets the needs of all community members.’4  Kiiru sees harambee as ‘a built-in provision for self-reliance for the individual and the society’ embodying community ideals of ‘mutual assistance, joint effort, mutual social responsibility’ and community independence.5  Kiiru’s enthusiasm for harambee, given that he is writing a book for Christian leaders on fund-raising, is an indication of how thoroughly the philosophy of harambee has permeated Kenyan Christianity.  Alternatively, Mbithi and Rasmussen view harambee as an attempt at ‘bottom-up’ development to meet local needs which improved self-reliance by making use of indigenous resources and by enlisting popular participation.6

Harambee has its origins from Kenya’s coastal Swahili-speaking people, who used the word ‘halambee’ to mean ‘Let us all pull together.’7  It expresses ideas of ‘mutual assistance, joint effort, mutual social responsibility, community self-reliance’.8  Harambee was used as a rallying cry by the first president of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta to unite Kenyans for the hard work of forging an independent nation after the long and bloody struggle against the British colonial regime.  Most ethnic groups in Kenya have their own version of harambee.  The basic idea is that of coming together as a community to assist a neighbor with work on their shamba or in building a home or in some other special project.  Harambee was also used in funding or providing labor for building special projects such as schools, clinics or churches.  In rural parts of Kenya, harambees can still be used in these ways.  But in the cities and towns, harambees have increasingly become fundraising events, enabling the community to come up with the money, or at least the next instalment, that enables them to progress on a particular project.

                                             
 4 MacMillan Kiiru, How to Develop Resources for Christian Ministries (Nairobi: Uzima Publishing House, 2004), 49.
5 Kiiru, How to Develop Resources for Christian Ministries, 49.
6 Philip M. Mbithi and Rasmus Rasmusson, Self Reliance in Kenya: The Case of Harambee (Uppsala, SW: The Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1977), 9.  See also 146-163.
7 Kefa Chesire Chepkwony,  ‘The Role of Harambee in Socio-Economic Development in Kenya: A Case for the Education Sector’ (unpublished paper, 2008), 4.  http://www.phasi.org/public/harambee.pdf
8 Mbithi and Rasmussen, Self Reliance in Kenya, 13.
       

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Harambees have proven to be an effective tool for local community development.9  Individuals who themselves would be considered poor use the opportunity of a harambee to pool their resources to accomplish a goal that might otherwise seem impossible.  Harambees also bring together disparate portions of the same community, sometimes even of different ethnic groups, and unite them for a larger purpose than their own community’s interest.  Participation of individuals, as Mbithi and Rasmussen note, ‘is guided by the principle of the collective good rather than individual gain’, described as ‘enlightened community and collective self-interest’.10  Kenyans are rightly proud of how this indigenous method of pulling together and pooling resources has been put to use to further development in the wider community and in the nation itself.

Unsurprisingly, Christian churches have made use of the fundraising power of harambee to fund their own building projects and ministry programs.  Church buildings whose construction was funded by one or a series of harambees are everywhere.  And on any given Sunday even today, harambees will be taking place in multiple churches across any given area.  And given that a harambee has proven to be a good opportunity for a politician or for a candidate to be seen, as well as to be seen as being generous, a local harambee, even one sponsored by a church, will often have invited politicians or other local leaders in attendance whose presence and contribution make a splash that’s noted by all in attendance and goes far towards ensuring that the organizers will meet their goals.

Harambees are simply a fact of Kenyan fundraising, and they are often the main strategy that is used by many Kenyan churches to fund projects.  The purpose of what follows is not to criticize harambee as a fundraising tool and a means of empowering a local community to accomplish more together than they could have ever done as individuals.  Instead in the rest of this article I wish to discuss implications of both the patronage and dependency culture and the pervasive practice of harambee in in so many of Kenya’s Orthodox Churches, in view of the Christian calling to be stewards, both as individuals and parishes.

Churches in Kenya 

By whatever measurement one chooses to use, the vast majority of Kenyan churches across the denominational divide are poor.,,.

To read more, follow this link:  http://www.pharosjot.com/uploads/7/1/6/3/7163688/article_17_vol_98_2017.pdf

And then, after you've read it, I'm happy for your feedback, pushback, thoughtful reflection, thoughts on a way forward....

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Why the Resurrection Is Important

Infant coffins under construction in Uganda

Death is a disaster.  God did not create His beautiful, glorious, awesome creation to be defaced by death.  God did not create you and me and all the people of this planet as His images in this place to be marred and destroyed by death.  All of us have been touched by death’s destruction.  All of us will be touched and ruined and destroyed by death.

Death is the result of human disobedience.  Our first parents were created to enjoy God, to enjoy each other, to enjoy the creation.  But both the woman and her husband decided that what they wanted was more important than keeping God’s commandment, than trusting God to provide for them and care for them.  God had given them everything, everything but the fruit from the tree in the middle of the Garden of Paradise, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  God had said, Don’t eat the fruit of this tree, because when you do, you will die.  They chose to eat.  And when they did, their relationship with God died, their connection with the source of their life died, their relationship with each other was broken and ultimately died, their relationship with creation was broken and died.  And eventually their own bodies and souls passed away from walking on this place and they, too, died. 

The curse of our disobedience is death.  And it’s not just this physical death of a human person.  It is the combined brokenness in which we live.  Of infants who die in the womb or are murdered by doctors in clinics advertizing 'safe' abortions, and never see the light of day.  Of children who grow weak and sick and are taken from the arms of their parents by malaria or dysentery or some other preventable childhood disease.  Of the illnesses that strike one here and then one there, and make us weak and feeble.  Of the accidents that come from nowhere and suddenly break and bruise us or take us from this life without warning, like the team of young men in Saskatchewan.  Or those cancers that kill with long, slow pain.  Or the heart attack that stops everything in its tracks.  And it isn't just us people.  And all around us the whole creation has been dragged by our sin into this terrible circus of death.

Roadside coffins for sale in Uganda

The world around us has no useful categories to help us cope with our disaster.  We are counseled to view death as a good thing, a natural thing, something we should welcome.  And then there are the multitudes who choose to ignore that there is any problem at all, and pretend that death simply isn't going to happen, to them at least..  Others choose to make light of death.  And so they call it ‘passing away’, which makes it seem that we are dealing with a mere transition, a going from one state of living in this world to a state of living in some after world.  Even many Christians talk about death as if it is no big deal, as if the person who has died has 'gone to be with the Lord' and how much better that is.  But it seems like we people, even we Christians, are simply trying to put a brave face on something we either don’t know about, something we don’t understand, or something that actually we are terrified of.

We are right to be terrified of death.  Death destroys; it destroys us.  Death takes something beautiful, someone created in God’s very image, and destroys that person, rendering them to muck and dust.  Death doesn't just destroy our bodies, death destroys our relationships and takes us away from the people and things that are most important to us.  I was a pastor for many years and I visited many people who were dying.  And here was this person, who not so long ago was strong and vigorous and busy with many things and full of words and ideas, with lots of friends and family, and now they were lying on a hospital bed, they couldn’t even feed themselves, with barely the strength to open their eyes or say anything except nod their head.  Death destroys.  My mother was afflicted with a long debilitating illness and I watch over several years how this beautiful, active woman, my own mother, became a shell of the person she was.  Her body failed her.  She physically shrank 8 inches.  She became weak and prone to falling.  She lost so much weight she was skin over bones.  And finally, she got into bed for the last time and never got up again.  Death destroys.  Death destroys something that was beautiful.  Death takes away something that is precious to us.  And now my mother is gone.  I don’t see her any more.  She is not around to enjoy her granddaughters.  I can't stop by and enjoy my favorite food.  Where she was is now nothing.  This is what death does.  It kills every single person, and robs the rest of us of those people who are the most important things in our life.

Unlike so many Christians today, nobody in the New Testament makes light of death.  Not Jesus.  Not the Apostles,  Not Paul.  ‘Death is the last enemy to be destroyed’, says the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 15:26).  And this is why what Jesus has done today is so very important.  Jesus didn’t come simply to save our souls.  Jesus didn’t come just to make a way for us to ‘go to heaven when we die’.  This would not be a salvation worth anything.  And preachers who preach this sort of thing are peddling a false and ignorant hope.  That is because we human beings are not just our souls – but God made us both soul and body – that is what it means to be human.  That is what it means to be made in the image of God.  And when Jesus came to save us, he didn’t come as just a spirit.  No, he came as a fully human being, with a real human soul and a real human body.  That’s because the salvation we need is not just the forgiveness of our sins, but the deliverance of our soul and body from the power for death.  If Jesus just died to save us from our sins, then every single one of us would still not be 'saved', because every single one of us has a very serious death problem that forgiveness does not touch.  The salvation that the New Testament announces is not a salvation that sends everyone to heaven.  God is doing something bigger, something greater, something jawdropping, something that includes not just us, but the whole of creation That’s why Jesus went to the cross, not just so that our sins might be forgiven, but that by experiencing death and then breaking death’s power by rising again from the dead, Jesus might save us from the power of death as well, so that on the last day we too might share in the power of his resurrection, so that we, too, might be raised bodily from the grave, so that we, too, might live in the new creation, the new Jerusalem, the new heaven and the new earth, that we might live the lives we were created to live as men and women created in the image of God and now saved from sin and death by Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the dead.

Christ has risen from the dead!  This is unbelievably good news for me and for you this morning.  Everything in our old life was leading to death.  But Jesus is calling us to follow Him, to live a new life that leads to life.  That’s what it means to be a Christian, not just to come to Church, not just to say this or that prayer, not just to 'accept Jesus as my personal savior 'and have my sins forgiven, but to become a follower of Jesus, a disciple of Jesus, to live my life as if Jesus really has risen, and is Lord, and is calling me and you to be his man, his woman, in this place, in this Church.  Most Churches are actually houses of the dead because they are full of people who live their lives as if the gospel isn’t true, as if Jesus death and resurrection is irrelevant to the way they actually live their lives.  But Christ is not irrelevant to our lives – He is the center that holds all things together.  Jesus really did live and do the things we read about in the Bible.  Christ really did die on the cross for you and for me.  And Christ really did rise again from the dead on that first Pascha morning.  And if that’s the case, what should you do?  What should I do?  This is what St. Gregory Nazianzus says:

‘Yesterday I was crucified with Him; today I am glorified with Him; yesterday I died with Him; today I am quickened with Him; yesterday I was buried with Him; today I rise with Him.  But let us offer to Him who suffered and rose again for us – you will think perhaps that I am going to say gold, or silver, or woven work or transparent and costly stones, the mere passing material of earth, that remains here below, and is for the most part always possessed by bad men, slaves of the world and of the Prince of the world.  Let us offer ourselves, the possession most precious to God, and most fitting…’
St. Gregory the Theologian – Homily on Pascha

People who do what St. Gregory exhorts us to do, people who offer ourselves to Christ, to love him with all our hearts, to serve him, to serve and love our neighbor, to give freely to meet every need, we demonstrate the transforming love of Christ, we demonstrate that we understand the resurrection of Christ, we demonstrate that we are Christians.  True Christians.

And that is because resurrection means transformation.  Jesus has the power to change our lives.  To fill us with his love.  To fill us with his hope.  With his healing.  With his power.  So why are there so few people who claim to be Christians actually living as if they have been forgiven, living as if they have been given a new life, living as if God and His Word can be trusted, living as if Jesus really is their Lord?  It can only be because they don’t know Jesus.  It can only be because they don’t really trust Jesus.  It can only be because they love the things of this world more than they love God.  How else can we explain why so many Christians, so many churches are just a joke, they are playing a game, they simply are not serious, pretending to belong to Christ while living their life the way they want to.

What about you?  Christ is risen!  Are you trapped in your fear of dying, in your fear of bad things happening to you? You have maybe lost someone dear to you. Christ is risen!  Are you overwhelmed because of all the terrible things that are going on all around us?  The sickness, the suffering, the dying, the evil the corruption?  Maybe terrible things have happened to you and you have lost hope for your life.  Christ is risen!  And though it seems otherwise in this world we call home, there will be an end, and death and suffering and evil and corruption will not have the last word.  Because Christ is risen!  And what about your life?  Are you living a life worth living, or are you the slave of your passions, the slave of the world’s way of doing things?  Christ is risen!  This world will pass away, and all that is true to Christ will remain forever.  Maybe you need to repent this morning and come back home to Christ.  Maybe we need to rethink whose Church this is and open ourselves to what mission Christ has for us in this place.  Christ is risen!  And because of this our lives will never be the same.  Our Church, if we believe, will never be the same.  And our world will never be the same if we live as if this good news, this Gospel that has come to us is really true.

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.




A sermon preached this Pascha morning at St. Paul's Orthodox Church, Jepkoiai, Vihiga, Kenya.