Conversations with the Nations

Conversation with the Nations

Rev. Wayne Stretch June 4, 2023 Trinity

In the scriptures these past weeks, we’ve been reading Luke’s description of the early days of the church that has been called a Christian Camelot – a marvellous harmony of souls beloved by others and demonstrating the impact of the resurrection in their daily life together (Acts 2:43-47). The fishermen and women of Galilee were not complicated. They ‘wore’ their testimony simply and with courage: We must obey God rather than any human authority Peter said when directed to stop talking about the resurrection. The great Pharisee and teacher of the law, Gamaliel, after examining Peter and John, told the council, keep away from these guys; because if this is a human effort it will fail, but if not you may find yourself fighting against God!

Yet, the reality for the first church began to change very rapidly. Thousands of both Hellenized and traditional Jews were flooding into the young community of the first followers of Jesus. The home-grown Galileans were both thankful and amazed at this changing reality… indeed, we read that many priests also were becoming Christians (Acts 6:7b).

But this great movement of the Holy Spirit brought with it great disruption so that the first followers were immersed into controversy and conflict of the same nature as that which resulted in the death of Jesus. And soon the new Christians would be threatened with the same fate themselves.

It’s into this situation in the early church, that we read in Acts about the life and martyrdom death of Stephen. Stephen’s life was a hugely impactful example of love and humble service to Christ… especially the courage and mercy he showed at his death. Indeed, it was the persecution of the church aroused by Stephen’s death that drove the young Christians out of Jerusalem and into the world (Acts 8).

Perhaps though, the key reason for Stephen’s importance to the young church is the fact that he was captured by a vision that Christianity was to be for the nations… for all times and for every place and every person. Biblical scholars note that Stephen was a ‘Hellenist Jew’… a Jew who spoke Greek, admired Greek culture and adopted its ways…. as had most of the world at that time. The 60 million people who lived in the Mediterranean basin (including Palestine) embraced Hellenized culture, philosophy, architecture, sculpture. Rome governed the world, but the Greeks had the world’s soul. The language of western Asia and the Mediterranean basin was Greek, not Latin. Galilee was bi-lingual, Aramaic and Greek the two spoken languages. It was into this Hellenized world that the Messiah came …in the fullness of time.’

A gospel for both Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female…forced its way into ‘Camelot’ and presented a great challenge to that early fire of faith in the first disciples.

This is not un-familiar to us in the present day. Deeply entrenched social and cultural issues, and challenges to national identity are being tested by growth from immigration in many first world countries. And accommodating those differing ethnicities and traditions are a challenge to the Christian church’s identity as well, bringing new cultural aspects to our worship… and to our understanding of mission at home and among the nations.

Stephen engaged his Hellenized world… he spoke with and listened to those with differing views of life and faith that his own (Acts 6:8ff). Many of us today recognize that the use of church-words can sound sanctimonious to some who hear it. The reality of the Great Commission of Jesus is that it commands an openness to the gentile world… preaching Jesus to the ends of the earth.

Perhaps this is why so many established churches today are changing their names. Just recently, Glad Tidings Pentecostal updated its name to Coastline Church, with no mention of its denominational connection. It’s becoming common, especially among the churches that are trying to appeal to the unchurched by removing unfamiliar labels.

And it is one way of recognizing that for Jesus, and so for Stephen and Paul, Christianity could not and did not remain forever a sect of Judaism, stuck within the synagogue. Instead, the final words of the Jesus – the Great Commission – became an empowering call to action that changed the course of all history and the eternal destiny of all humanity: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. (And then the empowering words…) Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit… teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19). And I am with you always, to end of the age.” The reality of the great commission is that it is relational… it’s show and tell.

The first disciples had primary relationship with Jesus… they walked, talked, and ate together. They experienced life together. ‘Making disciples’ is a result of building trust, spending time with others and experiencing Christ together with them.

In an ancient world accustomed to the violent rise and fall of empires and to national disputes addressed on battlefields not by diplomats, the call to “all nations” is breathtakingly wide. It still is today. There is room in it for our enemies, room for those on the margins, room of ‘outsiders’ in Jesus’s commission.

As disciples of Christ we are instructed to go to the nations. The nations do not have to come to us; instead, God’s servants – and so also God – will draw near to all people.

Much has changed since Biblical times, certainly… but much also remains the same. The church’s mission to “all nations” now, as then, is the dominant claim over our lives.

Dale Woods, a past principle of our Presbyterian seminary in Montreal, met with our session two weeks ago to help us prepare for a 2-day collaborative conversation next week with the elders from our other Victoria Presbyterian churches. Dale has participated with 3 churches in the New Westminster area as they’ve identified ways that, by working together, they gain encouragement, and uncover renewed vision for future ministry.

Dale said the most important thing they’ve learned in New West experience is that conversation leads to Trust. He said they’ve developed what they call a Culture of Conversation! They realized they needed to know what really mattered to one another… to learn from and to listen to each other. They began by asking each other 2 questions: What really matters most to you?’ And ‘What human hurt or hope moves you?’

The answers to those questions and the conversations that grew out of them, resulted in a deepened trust among them and a desire to identify a mission they could have in common. They took a second step and invited 3 people of various backgrounds – not actively involved in a Christian church but living in New Westminster- to join them for a half hour each. They asked them the same 2 questions.

Those conversations became the starting place for the growth of a mission as churches together… a mission of providing food for their neighbours. It is a mission that has grown to provide food to over 1000 needy persons and families a week and involves many who attend the 3 churches… as well as more than a 100 volunteers from other churches, other faiths, and no identified church or faith at all. It has resulted too, in 3 New Westminster churches desire to be a church family together… and they are now Trinity church, and are sharing people resources, mid week study opportunities, small group interest-based activities. Some elders in their joint session and others within the church offer pastoral care for those in need within and beyond the church… and they pray for one another. There are challenges and some growing pains along the way, for sure… but there is determination, trust and renewed hope in those churches. It is the hope that comes from reaching out, from listening to and sharing Christ with one another and with our neighbours. We can be in prayer together that similar conversations we will take place this weekend, and that trust will deepen, and faith opportunities will emerge from a culture of conversation going forward for all of us in the Presbyterian churches in Victoria.

As we turn to the Lord’s Table together, let us partake understanding that it is not only for ourselves we receive God’s love, but for the whole world. The communion meal is really an enactment of the gospel to the nations, a place where Jesus hosts us all as participants in a culture of holy conversation.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.