Saturday, December 24, 2011

What Do You Mean, "Peace?"

           A few weeks ago the big multi-colored light show went up in Cobourg’s Victoria Park, a few blocks from where I live. The park is full of snowmen and Santas and sleighs. I have to admit, too, that the whole thing is quite pretty.

            Of course, the lightshow makes no mention of Jesus. As far as the Cobourg goes, there isn’t any room for Jesus in the park. I have to admit, even though I understand that secular government has to make reasonable accommodations for those of other or no faith, I am a bit grumpy about it. Though it brings a smile to my face to see how St. Peter’s church, across the street, responded to the town’s secular light show with its own tiny, perfect, subversive little manger scene on the front lawn.

            But before we blame the town of Cobourg too much, perhaps the Christians among us ought to ask whether or not we’re guilty of the same thing. We often water down the meaning of Christmas too. Take, for example, how we debase the word “peace.”

            Let me illustrate. So far I have received nine Christmas cards. Three mention peace. The first one says, on the front, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth Peace.” On the inside it adds, “May the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” Just in my heart? So what happened to peace on earth?

            The second card has a pretty picture of a cute country church with a horse and sleigh on the cover. Inside, it says, “May your Christmas be filled with the gifts of joy and peace.” This peace is nothing but a romantic nod in the direction of nineteenth-century Christmases past.

            The third card says, “Winter Wishes,” and inside, “wishing you the quiet beauty of a peaceful holiday.” That’s it. Here peace is nothing more than a warm fuzzy for my heart.

            None of these cards gets close to describing something like Biblical peace. Isaiah says that the Prince of Peace is working for a time when every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be fuel for the fire. Biblical peace encompasses an end of all the world’s wars. The Biblical idea of peace is shalom, where each one of us is in right relationship with God and every single one of our neighbors all around the world, from Canada to Palestine and North Korea and beyond.

            And Christians are supposed to be ambassadors of that peace, today—ambassadors of reconciliation, says the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5. We are called not merely to speak just to people’s hearts or hopes for a quiet, tranquil dose of Christmas cheer, but we are called to be God’s ambassadors to speak to the powers of this world.

            A daunting task. But, if nothing else, Christianity is an invitation to live large. God invites us all to be part of a cosmic peace process. Question our government’s choice to fight offensive wars rather than serve as peace-keepers. Reject the need for bloated military spending on ever more high-tech fighters that can only serve the military needs of our neighbors when our citizens are freezing in the dark in Attawapiskat. Condemn the sale of armaments to despotic regimes. Write politicians. Support peace organizations like Amnesty International and Doctor’s Without Borders. When you pray for healing for Aunt Sally’s gall bladder, don’t dare to forget to pray for an end to heavy losses of civilian life in places like Afghanistan and Syria in the same breath.

            My friend Mark VanderVennen recently wrote a book about peace entitled Hope in Troubled Time. Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from South Africa, wrote the foreword. In it, he said, "peace is not a goal to be achieved but a way of life to be lived."

            The bottom line is this. Let’s not debase or water down the peace language of Christmas. As much as Jesus cares for our souls and wants us to feel warm fuzzies, what he actually wants is for our feet to follow his in the struggle for world peace. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Second "Not Sure" Video Posted by Eerdmans

Eerdmans did a television interview with me at my Grand Rapids launch. I posted part one yesterday, and here is part two. The interview covers topics such as why one can't really have a personal relationship with Jesus, ethnic churches, why prayer isn't about power, and the kind of response I've had to the book so far. It comes in four two-minute segments. Check it out!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

"Not Sure" Video posted by Eerdmans

Eerdmans recently interviewed me about my new book, Not Sure: A Pastor's Journey from Faith to Doubt. I've never been able to speak off of the top of my head as well as I can write, but I do think these turned out pretty good. Check them out!

Interview with John Suk about faith and doubt

Monday, December 5, 2011

Does the Gospel Have a Short Shelf Life?

(This is a sermon I preached on the theme of "gospel," based on Isaiah 61 and Colossians 1:1-8. I asked for advice about what to say about the gospel's relevance on Facebook, and incorporated some of that into the sermon. So, I'm interested in knowing whether or not you think I got the relevance of our good news out there in this effort. And thanks for everyone who helped me think it through. John)
            Have you heard the good news? Western society, as we know it, has been saved!

            In fact, Western Society as we know it, from to McDonalds to Wall Street was actually saved 2500 years ago, just before the flowering of classical Greek civilization. In the years just before Plato and Aristotle and Sophocles and their invention of drama and philosophy and science, evil Persia was trying to conquer Greece. But at the Battle of Marathon, the forces of Greek Athens defeated the violent, repressive Persians and their strange ideas. Winning the war against Persia was such good news that Philippides ran all the way from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens, 42 kilometers, without stopping, to announce the good news—“We won.” And then Philippides died of exhaustion.

            Now, doesn’t the Athenian victory at Marathon just make your head spin? Doesn’t it make you want to party and dance?

            Or not?

            That’s the trouble with good news, isn’t it? Good news usually has a short shelf life. For example, one day you are single, then you meet the right guy, and you fall in love, and pretty soon you’re engaged. Good news! So you tell all your friends and they “Like” your announcement on Facebook and they plan a Jack and Jill party for you. The next Sunday everyone crowds around you at church and looks at the ring and oohs and aahs and then, just like that, it’s over. The next Sunday no one asks you about your engagement anymore. People have moved on. Good news has a short shelf life.

            And that is a problem for the Bible, and the story of Jesus too, don’t you think? Isaiah says the Messiah will be anointed to preach good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, and he will proclaim freedom to the captives. Good news!

            And, in fact, that is exactly what Jesus did. Even more, he died for the sins of the world, too. Even rose again on the third day. Paul, in our text from Colossians is still beside himself when he talks about it, even 30 years after the resurrection: “We always thank God, he says, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have . . . the gospel is bearing fruit and growing.”

            But it is now 2000 years later. Are we still elated, with Paul? Are we so excited about the gospel that it continues to bear fruit and grow among us, in surprising and new and numerical ways? Do you stay excited about the gospel even when you have tests to take, or weddings to attend, or jobs to keep? Or has the gospel of Jesus, like the good news of Marathon, passed its “best before” date?

            Besides, some of the reasons given for being excited about having a Messiah back then just don’t seem to resonate much in our day and age, anymore. We have OHIP and modern medicine for healing; welfare, unemployment insurance and food banks for the poor. We have counselors for the brokenhearted, and the church will even pay the bill, if you use our CAP program from Shalem. On top of that, unlike the people Isaiah was writing to, we’re not exiles in a foreign land. And unlike the people Jesus ministered to, we’re not living under a foreign dictatorship. Life is actually very good for most of is. So what makes the gospel good news in the middle of our already much better than average lives?

            In fact, there are some great Biblical & theological reasons for thinking of the gospel as good news. I was reminded of that this week, on Facebook. I put up a post saying I was writing a sermon about how the gospel was good news, but then added some comments to the effect that it seems like old news that doesn’t get anyone excited. I asked my Facebook friends if they had any ideas about how to convince people that the gospel is still good news for today.

            I got lots of suggestions. One CRC minister said that, quote, “the good news is that god continues to move in and through us as the body of Christ as we bind up the brokenhearted, as we share out coat with him who has none” and so on. That is, the gospel will seem like good news if we do the wonderful but difficult things the gospel asks of us. I thought that was a good answer, as far as it went. It is true. But . . . is that tidy theological explanation really going to make our teenagers, or a middle-aged long-time member bored with church going to sit up and take notice? Will it make us dance?

            Someone else said that “how can experience of the God that we’re ultimately made to be in relationship with be anything but good news?” Well, for those who have the experience, great! But he is in heaven and that is a long ways away. And what about all those people who don’t have that experience, people who are distracted, or people who are bored by church, or people who have doubts, or people who are depressed, or people who can’t really be bothered to study the matter—which covers a lot of people!

            Another Facebook friend said it is all about the already and not yet . . . that is, Christ has already risen but he has not yet returned, and we have to somehow concentrate on what we know has happened and thus imagine how it is going to be when Jesus returns. But then, in a moment of light-hearted honesty, he also said, “tough stuff! That is why you get paid the big bucks. I’m sure they listen to you.”

            But it is tough stuff, because the gospel is ancient, and there just are a million and one excuses, or reasons, or whatever for leaving this building and never coming back because you have decided it isn’t relevant anymore, or it is just old, old news.

            So I have to say something about why you should never leave. I have to say something in defense of the goodness of the gospel, even after 2000 years. So here it is:

            The gospel is still good news, because even if you ignore it, even if you are distracted by your toys or responsibilities, and even if you find church boring--the God of the whole cosmos is really here and really did the things this book [The Bible] said he did. Even if your life goes on without you hardly noticing it, nothing in you, good or bad, can cancel out the overwhelming cosmic reality of a God who wants you all for himself, who wants you so badly that he was willing to die for you, in spite of all your hang-ups, distractions and shortcomings. None of these things can make God, or what he did, go away.

            The birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus are all just as real as the air you breathe. The love of God for you is far more certain, and costly for Jesus, than anything anyone is ever going to do for you. And all the wonders of nature, the birth of Alys (who we baptized today), the starry skies on a moonless night or the fish that swim in Rice Lake – all these wonders are nothing compared to what God has really done in Jesus or the fact that God wants you and I to be his love in a broken, violent, and dangerous world.

            Listen. I know you might have to do a bit of digging around in scripture to convince yourself. I know that you may have to look past some of the shortcomings of the people in this church—or any church—to really get a sense of the power of it. I know that you may have lots of reasons to prefer being distracted than applying yourself to considering what I have said. But I also know that none of this makes it any less true that God loves us fiercely. He wants your knee to bow and your tongue to confess along with every other knee and tongue in creation. And he wants it so bad that even though he was God, he became human to convince us, and died on a cross to make it so.

            That birth and death was a long time ago. Like the Battle of Marathon. But the love? The eternal hope? The life he has given you to live in love? The adventure of it all? That is for today. Like Isaiah says, “Now is the year of the Lord’s favor.” And like Jesus says, when he quotes our passage from Isaiah. Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Good news.