Renewal in the City
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, June 20, 2021
Reading: Acts 2:1-12; 17-21
He spoke with clarity, compassion, and a deep well of knowledge in a lecture that I heard last week where the Bishop of Malaysia of the Methodist Church, Bishop Yung, spoke from the depths of his heart about the mission of the church. He addressed historically what happened to the mission of the Christian church over the last 100 years and that was the nature of his academic work. He looked at how Christians came together in Edinburgh in 1910 for a World Missionary Conference to see how the various denominations could work together to enhance the global mission of the church.
Arising out of that 1910 conference, the United Church of Canada was born 15 years later, bringing different denominations together with a common mission. In 2025 we’ll be celebrating the 100th anniversary of our denomination and Timothy Eaton Memorial Church will be one of the places holding a service that will be broadcast throughout the nation to commemorate this milestone.
In 1910 there began the ecumenical and a missionary movement. It had other conferences in Uppsala, Sweden in 1968, in Cape Town in 2010, but Yung points out that in that 100 years a great deal changed in the Christian mission. For example, 80 percent of the confessing Christians in the world lived in the north and the west and 20 percent lived in what is known as the majority world or the rest of the world, but by 2010 everything had changed. The majority world was now up to 66 percent and the north and west was only 34 percent. In 100 years, Christianity went through a seismic shift.
He points out that throughout that 100 years the northern and the western churches have to a large extent not concentrated sufficiently on doctrine and on the person of Christ. Rather, they have been consumed by unity and the desire for a mission that brings everyone together but does not always look at it theologically. He suggests that even to this day – despite this mega shift that has taken place – according to the great missiologist Andrew Walls, African theologians and ministers are hardly even quoted and in the north and the west we still think the mission goes from us to the rest of the world rather than the rest of the world to us. Now, he says this not to depress the northern and the western church. He’s not trying to make people feel disheartened or discouraged, but he does feel that the shift that has taken place should make us all realize that regardless of where we are in the world, even in the supposed affluent countries of the world, we are still the centre and the focus of where mission should take place.
I remember 30 years ago at a conference on mission saying that I felt that it was time for the majority world to send missionaries to us and not to always think of it going the other way. Indeed, the world has changed and there is a global phenomenon of Christianity finding its roots in very different places. But we shouldn’t be surprised by this. When I look at the passage from the Book of Acts today, it speaks about the nature, expansion, and the reach of the gospel. From very humble roots the Christians, the early believers gathered in an upper room, as we looked at a few weeks ago, to wait patiently for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had ascended to heaven and promised that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them and they would then be his witnesses.
Well, I’ve saved that moment for today for two reasons. One, because we’ve been looking at the spirit and the renewal of creation and the world. But this is also in terms of our eastern orthodox friends and fellow Christians, their Pentecost. So, I think it’s fitting to concentrate on this text there and then. This is important. The spirit came upon those early believers and transformed and empowered them. They not only spoke in a language that everyone could understand regardless of where they were from, but they also had a profound sense that the mission of Jesus Christ was continuing in their words and in the activity of the spirit in their lives. Jesus, the Risen Lord, continued to work through and in the power of the Holy Spirit amongst that fledgling community. There are lessons for all of us from that moment and that’s what Bishop Yung was getting at and what I want to look at today with a great sense of passion and a focus on mission right here and now.
The first thing we learn from that very earliest Acts experience, though it must never and cannot ever be a complete template for what we experience, there are always going to be differences. Nevertheless, from its very origins the church was globally in its nature. In Jerusalem, at the time that the spirit came upon the disciples, there were many difficult things that people were dealing with. We forget that the spirit came upon those disciples at a time when they were subjugated by Roman power. They had a ruler in charge of their nation, and they could not come and go without the permission of a Roman hegemony. It was present everywhere. A powerful empire at its peak.
There were also their own political leaders, their own monarchs who had become co-opted by the power of Rome and were almost silent in the face of oppression. The people were wistfully looking back to the days of the Maccabean Revolt 164 years before and thinking of the glory days when they could overthrow the Seleucidan powers. Many had died in those times and they were looking back now and questioning their history and wondering if it was all that it was cracked up to be. Their religious leaders were divided. Amongst the Jewish community, the Levites, the scribes, and the Pharisees had different views on interpretations of the law, how to worship God, whether there was a resurrection from the dead. This was not a homogenous group of people that gathered in Jerusalem. Even more than that, we are told that they were so diverse that they had come from all the nations under heaven. An exaggeration, but certainly all the nations in which Jews were present and coming back to Jerusalem for the Passover.
They came from as far west as Rome, and as far south as Egypt. They came from Phrygia, Cappadocia and Crete, Arabs, people from Europe. This was a diverse group of people coming into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover and at that very moment when the nations of the world were gathered in Jerusalem, God poured out his spirit upon his disciples to speak to them in a language that they could understand. It mattered not where they were from; the tongue, the power of the Holy Spirit spoke with conviction.
When you look in the Book of Acts at some of the people who became Christians as a result of the witness and the power of the Holy Spirit, we find an Ethiopian eunuch, probably called Simeon, who became a believer and a follower in Jesus Christ. We have Cornelius, a Roman centurion who became a Christian, heard the gospel and responded. Even before the ministry of Paul, to the gentile world the very earliest body of Christ was a global body of Christ. It was made up of the parts of the world that represented its breadth and the universality as they knew it at that time.
That is why for those who were the very earliest believers they took no account of a person’s race or colour, language, culture or nationality. None of those things mattered because, to quote the great prophet Joel, “When the spirit comes all flesh will respond and hear about the spirit of the living God affirming the person of Jesus Christ.”
It is not surprising that this notion of the universality of the global reach of the earliest Christians was manifested in the Christian creeds. Those who wrote the Apostles’ Creed a few hundred years later said these words and you will have said them too if you’ve been confirmed in the church, “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church” – and by Catholic we mean universal. The universal church. No boundaries, no distinctions. This is not a white person’s religion. It is not a brown person’s religion or a black person’s religion, an Asian person’s religion, or an Indigenous person’s religion. It is Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour pouring out his spirit on all flesh regardless of the background and the tradition from which people come, and I think we lose that sometimes.
I’ll be honest with you, I have read some absolutely atrocious things over the last few weeks online and in articles that talk about the Christian faith as if it is, was, or should be within the confines of a particular racial or linguistic demographic and this runs completely contrary to the nature of the church from its very beginnings. I like what Bishop Yung was saying, “It is everywhere and to all people that the spirit and the church has a mission.”
Just to bring this home. I was reading the history of some of the Canadian theologians, ministers, preachers, we sometimes forget their names. We think of famous names from famous pulpits or seminaries who have written academic works of some note, but I ran across a name I’d heard a long time ago but did not really focus on, Josiah Henson. Henson was born in 1789 in Maryland. He was a slave, a black slave and at the age of 18 became a committed Christian. Over the next few years, he led blacks to freedom and emancipation through the underground railroad, helping them cross the border to come into Canada. Then in 1830 he arrived in Dresden, Ontario and there he set up the Dawn Settlement. He made sure that people had the opportunity to pray and worship all along the underground. Even when some of them went home after the emancipation proclamation, he was still there helping people, nurturing them, saving them from grief because of this faith in Christ, because of his sense of freedom. So much so that one of the greatest Christian preachers of all time, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, had him preach at this church. A Canadian and a legend.
I think Andrew Walls is right. We sometimes think that we only have a certain canon, a certain group of people that we can turn to for our theological support, nurture and inspiration, but it’s global. It’s always more far-reaching than we ever know and that we found at the very beginning in the Book of Acts. The spirit has no boundaries on its work, and we shouldn’t set up any boundaries either. The mission of the church is always local, it’s not just global. It’s right here, it’s right now.
There are, of course, similarities between Jerusalem at the very beginning of the First Century AD and Toronto where we are now. There are profound differences and 2,000 years has made a big difference in terms of history. There is baggage that we have to carry around with us but there are also wonderful things that have been done and great achievements, but the fact of the matter is, there are certain things about Jerusalem in the time of those earliest disciples, and we in Toronto that are eerily similar.
Jerusalem was in many ways quite a violent place because of the presence of the Roman Empire. There were radical groups trying to overthrow the Romans. There were those who, when we look at the crucifixion of Jesus, wanted to save Barabbas, and were insurrectionists. So, there was violence in the city, there was a deep sense of being ill at ease. There was fear, even hatred, of the oppressor and there was tension within the religious community, who looked upon each other with suspicion and looked upon the new Christians, the new followers of Jesus Christ with suspicion.
When I look at Toronto right now, I must admit I think we need a profound spiritual renewal in our city. I’m thinking of the number of young people who this year alone and over the pandemic have died as a result of stabbings and shootings. You can’t even go on CP24 in the morning because what happened the night before is depressing, and it’s a constant trickle. No, it’s not a great big flood, it’s a constant trickle, but it’s a sign of a toxic spirit within our city that there is violence in certain areas, mainly with the subjugation of the poorest in our city, and it should bother us. There is a mission to young people who are involved in such activity. There are profound differences of opinion and even hatred at times amongst people of different religious traditions.
Just last week I had conversations with a leading rabbi here in Toronto, I’ve known him for a while and I respect him. He was talking to me about threats and antisemitism and he thanked me for calling him and reaching out to express my love and my concern and to say that this is unacceptable. I called an Imam, who I have known and taken part in a few events with over the years, and I explained to him my deep concern about Islamophobia. I have spoken to Indigenous leaders, mainly Christian theologians and those ministering in Indigenous communities about the pain that they are facing. But even on our own doorstep here at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, we had a memorial on our steps some of the members of our congregation set up for the children who died in Kamloops. They put out shoes and an orange jacket and within a day the orange jacket was gone so we put up a sign saying, “This is a memorial” and then the shoes disappeared. Now, I can understand if somebody needs shoes and they’re poor, fine; an orange jacket, fine; but they also took down the sign.
You see, there’s something not right here in our city and that needs to be addressed. I don’t believe that you can simply legislate people’s goodness as important as it is, I don’t think you can stamp out hatred and avarice simply by a stroke of law or a piece of paper, I think these things go much deeper just as they did in Jerusalem in the time of Jesus.
I was reading a quote in a book by David Watson, One in the Spirit. A book I often turn to. Watson, an Anglican from York in England, now deceased was a wonderful man, who I knew personally and who had a quote from one of my heroes, Richard Baxter, who was a Reformed theologian and pastor during the reformation in England and someone that I studied on my sabbatical at Oxford. Baxter said this a long time ago, “The work of God must needs be done! Souls must not perish, while you mind your worldly business or observe the tide and the times and take your ease, or quarrel with your brethren!” Watson went on and said, “We are all on urgent business for the Lord. We must therefore sink our differences. Remember the fact of our oneness in Christ and unite together to proclaim our Lord and our Saviour.”
We can do many things in mission in our society and so we should. We should care first for the poor and the vulnerable, the weak, the sick, the hurting, the lonely, the dispossessed. We should have an outreach and a mission that really is costly on our part, but we must also have a mission to the spiritual life of our people, the spiritual life of our city, and the spiritual life of the church. Baxter points out that all these other things that we do are focused on worldly things but there comes a time when one must also concentrate on the things of the spirit, the things that are transcendent, the things that ultimately save us that we find in the gospel of Jesus our Lord. In that spirit, with that spirit working in us, we find a renewed mission.
Wherever you are today listening or watching, I hope you will turn deeply in prayer and ask for the Holy Spirit to give you a mission in our city and to be witnesses to the wonders and the signs, to quote our text today, of our wonderful and glorious God. “May you” as Yung said, “find your mission right now.” Amen.