Sunday, June 24, 2001

"A Tale of Two Cities"
The firm foundation of Christ vs. the distorted ideals of the world

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, June 24, 2001
Text: Acts 17:1-15

A member of the clergy was given the responsibility of thanking Groucho Marx. He stood up and in a few eloquent words that outlined all that Groucho Marx had done for the world, he said: "Mr. Marx, you have brought a great deal of enjoyment to the world."

Groucho Marx then stood up to respond. He said: "Yes, Reverend, and you have taken all enjoyment out of it."

I think there are many people who echo the words of Groucho Marx, don't you, who seem to think that the Christian faith is somehow something that is terrible or awful? Why anyone in his right mind, who wants to live a joyful and a peaceful life, would embrace such things is beyond the imagination.

In fact, I find these days that the Christian faith is very often reduced to just a few key things, a series of prohibitions. Often the general populace seems to think that the Christian faith consists of nothing more than abstaining from a few things that seem to give everybody else a great deal of joy. Religion and faith, therefore, are nothing more than a series of prohibitions that make life less palatable and enjoyable.

Or else the Christian faith is reduced to a series of moralisms, such as Love your neighbour as yourself. It sounds good; nearly everybody wants to embrace it. In fact, in many ways the secular world at times embraces it better than we do ourselves. Thus, when reduced to a series of nice ideas, or good concepts, or just being a good citizen and a kind soul, it seems that all the trappings of religion, the centrality of worship, the need to study the word of God and the very act of discipleship are irrelevant. You reduce Christianity to a series of nice moralisms and good, upright behaviour.

Sometimes, though, the Christian faith is reduced to the irrational and the illogical.
I don't know how many of you opened your papers this week, but there was an article on a scholar from McMaster University, Sandra Witelson, a neuro-specialist, who was talking about finding God in the human brain. She pointed to the left part of the brain and said: "There is God."

Now she is the one who is in possession of Einstein's brain. She could never understand why Einstein was such a man of faith and why he believed in a supernatural power and a divine being. She has therefore been searching for the location where we as human beings construct the irrational concept of God. She actually says that belief in God is irrational and illogical.

In other words, the Christian faith is reduced to simply a manifestation of the brain. Some people have something in the left part of their brain that causes them to worship this God with greater passion than other people do.

You see, my friends, very often Christianity, the Christian faith, is reduced to an idea. It is reduced to a philosophical concept, a series of nice ideas that are platitudes. Once it has been so reduced, once it has been brought down to the level of idea, then, in a sense, it can be very easily dismissed and pushed to the side as an irrelevancy for our time.

The early Christians, however, did not see the Christian faith as an idea. They did not see it as an ahistorical concept of being nice or doing a few good things. The earliest Christians, and indeed the Church for two thousand years, and our Jewish forebears as well, believed that we have a historical faith. They believed that we have a faith that is based on a revelation; that in that time God seals the covenant with humanity; that in time God uses a nation or God comes in the form of his Son; or, through the power of the spirit, God calls a covenantal community called The Church to live in time. The Cross is not an idea: The Cross is an event. The Resurrection is not nice thinking about eternal life: The Resurrection is a statement of God doing something dramatic in time.

The Christian faith, then, cannot be reduced simply to an idea, an ahistorical concept. The Christian faith is based on revelation and it is based on God's activity in the world.

Now, I want to look this morning at the story of two cities which, upon hearing the very message of that historical moment and of the Cross and the Resurrection, responded very differently. I think there is a clue in their response as to how in fact we as Christians both proclaim and live the Gospel in the world in which we live, and how we bear witness to the city.

At this time of the year I usually like to talk about Canada Day, but Reverend Black will be addressing that next Sunday and we will sing the National Anthem.

I want to talk, however, about right here at home. I want to talk about the city, because the city and the world in which we live are becoming more and more important. What transpires in the city often leads the way for the rest of the nation. So this is, this morning, the tale of two cities.

The first of these cities is Thessalonica. Thessalonica was a wealthy city. It was on the junction of the Aegean and the Danube. At the time when Paul and Silas went to preach in it, it was one of the great metropolises of Macedonia. It was considered a great trading spot. It was an intellectual centre. It was a place with a large Jewish community and many synagogues. It was a place where religion was debated on a feverish level. It was a city of immense importance, so much so that, for the most part, the Romans left it alone and allowed it to go about its business.

We read the story of Thessalonica in the Book of Acts. Our first encounter is where Paul and Silas go into the synagogues for three weeks, three Sabbaths - many people speculate it was for a lot longer - in order to proclaim the Gospel. As was their right, they stood up and tried to show people through the Holy Scriptures, through the Jewish scriptures, that Jesus was the Messiah; that God had done something unique in the history of the world.

The people of Thessalonica were called to respond to that unique revelation. We read, however, that in a matter of days a revolt broke out. There was great opposition to what Paul and Silas were saying.

Now, when you read Luke, it's very unclear exactly who was completely upset. Clearly there were women who were receiving the message. There were Greeks who were receiving the message and there were some members of the Jewish community who were open to the message; but there were many that were not. The latter started a revolt within the city and little bit of exaggeration by Luke suggests that the whole city was in a turmoil. Methinks that the whole city, perhaps, was not quite in a turmoil, but certainly a good portion of it was.

So they tried to chase Paul and Silas out of Thessalonica. They tried to stop them from proclaiming the Word. Paul and Silas went into the home of a man called Jason and Jason gave them refuge there, for he was a Christian. But Jason himself was arrested and a false charge was laid against him and Paul and Silas. The charge was that they were purporting to promote another king, a king who would oppose the emperor, a king who would be a challenge to the power of Rome. They gathered together and drove Paul and Silas out of the city. Jason himself was imprisoned and had to pay some money to get out.

What intrigues me about Thessalonica, however, is why the message did not seem to be well received. Luke gives a clue to this. He says first of all that the people of Thessalonica were of a closed mind. In other words, they decided that they had already figured out their nice, delineated religions and didn't want to hear the message of a Messiah. They certainly did not want to hear the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Very often, my friends, even religion, never mind the secular world, can be closed-minded; can shut out, in a sense, God's message and God's revelation.

There is a wonderful story from when a huge Methodist conference was held in Indiana in 1870. The president of the college that was hosting it got up to speak. He said: "You know, enormous changes are going to be made in the world that lies ahead of us."

A bishop who was in the midst of it said: "Well, okay, can you tell me what the changes are, that are going to be made?"

He said: "Some day, humanity is going to be able to fly in the sky."

Well, the bishop took great exception to this. He said: "Under no circumstances! The Bible makes it abundantly clear: The only creatures that will ever be able to fly are the angels." And so he vehemently opposed the president.

The bishop who made that comment was called Bishop Wright. He was the father of two little boys called Wilbur and Orville, and we all know what happened there!

Sometimes we close our minds and, when we do so, we close our minds not only to truth in general but to truth in particular. Sometimes we have already created, in a sense, an idol of our ideas of what our faith in God should be; but the message of the Cross is always a scandal to those ideas, because it says you can't reduce the Christian faith simply to some moralisms, or to some nice ideas, or to some philosophy. The Cross will always stand as the ultimate test, the ultimate sign of God's act of revelation.

There's a wonderful story in Dickens' (and you knew I was going to come to this eventually) A Tale of Two Cities. In the earliest part of the book, we encounter an aristocrat called the Marquis de St. Evremonde. The Marquis is a nasty piece of work. He calls the peasants dogs, pigs, vermin and idiots.

After he ran over and killed a child on the side of the road in his horse and his cart, he went up to the peasants and said these words to the crowd: "It is extraordinary to me that you people cannot take care of yourselves and your children. One or the other of you is forever in the way. How do I know what injury you have done to my horse?"

Now, I say this because I have often been suspicious of power. Power and sovereignty often find the greatest scandal to be that of suffering and of self-giving. The two are often poles apart.

I think that is one of the reasons why Thessalonica with all its wealth and with all its wisdom, a city that had courted the Romans, a city that had delineated itself nicely along peaceful, religious lines, could not stand to hear the word of the Cross of the Messiah. They could not stand it because the power of sovereignty could not conceive of a suffering servant as a sign of God's redemptive activity in the world.

And so when Paul and Silas come up and proclaim it, when men like Jason receive it, when the women in the city who seemed to follow it gladly did so, they were rejected and they were driven out, because sovereign power so often finds the suffering of God to be anathema. It's contrary to the whole idea of religion that is very often set up in the city.

This brings me to a second place. The city of Berea. Berea was 45 miles to the west of Thessalonica. It was much smaller. It was much poorer. It didn't have much of a Roman guard in it. It had synagogues, just as Thessalonica did, but it was really a poor and impoverished city of little importance.

Paul and Silas, when they were driven out of Thessalonica, went to Berea where they were amazed because their message was well-received. They found, so Luke tells us, that many of the affluent women in the town came and studied the Bible. They found that even many of the wealthy Greek men were open to the Gospel. This was a totally different idea from Thessalonica. These were people who had opened their hearts and their minds.

Now, our translation doesn't do it justice, but there is a wonderful line in there that says in Greek that they are generous of spirit, that they are open of mind, that they are well bred. And the people of Berea, you see, decided that, unlike the people of Thessalonica, they were going to open their hearts and minds to the Gospel. They were going to listen to what Paul and Silas had to say. They weren't going to drive them out, just because their ideas were contrary to theirs. They were going to have a liberal spirit and open their minds and hearts to the message of this Messiah. In other words, they allowed the city to hear the word rather than to constrain it and to drive it out.

Now, ironically, we read that Paul wrote to the Thessalonians years later. The Thessalonian church had actually continued to grow after he had left. As with the church of Berea, we hardly ever hear of it again.

But the fact of the matter is that in Berea there was an openness of spirit, there was a welcoming idea, there was an opportunity for the word of the Gospel to be heard. A tale of two very different cities, which brings me then to our own city - a tale of two cities today.

I fear that the Christian faith, for all the errors that we have committed, is often looked upon with suspicion. While great things are done in the name of this city and in the name of the church, while there are many ways in which Christians come together and work for common causes, there is sometimes within the city a desire not to hear the word. We would rather just have our ideas and keep them to ourselves than allow the message of the Crucified One to be heard more clearly.

I could not help but think of A Tale of Two Cities this past Friday morning. I had heard a great deal about it but I had never seen it, and so I decided to drive down to what is familiarly known as "Tent City." I parked my car quite a way away and walked down and I observed Tent City.

I was very careful. Sometimes we clergy become sentimental and stupid at such moments. I thought if anyone were to come and look into my backyard and snoop around, I wouldn't take too kindly to it. I decided, therefore, that I wasn't going to get too close, lest they should think that I was somehow invading their own particular, private place.

Nevertheless, Friday morning was a damp morning. It had rained heavily the night before. You can imagine that on a damp and humid morning it was actually still quite cool in many ways. The land was pungent and clearly the ground was not safe. I just walked around for a while and turned. I looked and there in the distance, on the horizon, was the skyline of our great city.

I agree with Jack Diamond, the architect: It is a skyline that we have to be very careful about, that we have to protect. It's a beautiful thing in many ways. I looked at the skyline of the city and I looked at Tent City where I was and I felt I was a thousand miles away. You know the old saying: Out of sight, out of mind.

It's very easy, I think, for the city to roll along its path: a place of great joy for many people; a place of great wealth for many people; a place to celebrate. I think it's the greatest city I have ever lived in in my life. It's a wonderful place, but there are times in which it becomes "a tale of two cities:" A city that we see, and a city that we do not see, or that we do not want to see, an underside to a city.

I think, as servants of Jesus Christ, it is very important for us once in a while just to remind the city that there are two tales within it. I wonder where Jesus would be lying at night if He were to return? I wonder where the man who had no place to lay his head, no place to call his home, would be?

There is a sign in the minister's office in the Metropolitan United Church. It just says: "We follow a homeless man." My concern is that the city in which we live becomes a place and a home for Jesus Christ; for both the proclamation of his Word and for the people for whom he came.

I sometimes wonder if we have another "tale of two cities." We have a tale of a city where you can go down to any corner store and, in the name of freedom, pick up any pornographic literature, no matter how much it might objectify people. In the name of freedom it is a means of expression. Yet we live in a place where one of the most dangerous things that we might do is to begin a council meeting with prayer. Is this not a tale of two cities? Is this not Thessalonica and Berea?

When people make racial epithets, all in good humour but nevertheless distasteful, the great outcry is that such things might cost us the chance of hosting the Olympics. That is the biggest concern in the minds of most people, not that Africans, with whom we live side-by-side each and every day, will have felt that their concept of themselves has gone back 200 years. It's sometimes a tale of two cities.

As Madame Roland said as she went to the guillotine in 1793: "Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name."

There is still a place, you see, for the Word of the incarnate one, Jesus Christ. It is needed not simply because it is a nice idea, but because it is God's act of self-revelation. It is of a cross.

At the end of the book, A Tale of Two Cities, we read a very moving story. It is the story of a man called Carton, a lawyer from England who has decided to give his life in place of a man called Charles Darnay. Even though he had done no wrong, he is being wheeled to his death. Alongside him is a young girl from the aristocracy who is also going to be executed.

She says to Carton: "Can I hold your hand?" The two of them are wheeled along. As she gets to the point where she is to be executed, she looks at him and says: "It has been good to hold your hand. I feel you have been sent from heaven today." With that, she dies and, with that, Carton dies. The book comes to an end.

As a Christian I have thought, my friends, that this very act of sacrificial love, this very act of Carton giving himself in the midst of a violent and corrupt city, is still a wonderful sign of what it means to follow the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

But you know, we cannot demand of the city what we are not prepared to demand of ourselves. We cannot demand of the city that it remove its ennui if we ourselves are not passionate about our faith in Christ. We cannot ask the city to be just if we ourselves are not opening our Scriptures and seeking what God's righteousness is for our lives. We cannot say that we are the followers of Jesus Christ if we ourselves are not, like Carton, willing to give ourselves as a gift from heaven to our city.

This summer, it will always be a tale of two cities. The question is: "Which one will we be, Thessalonica or Berea?" I leave you to ponder it. Amen.