Ethnonites, Two Canoes, and Letters to the Editor

Ethnonites, Two Canoes, and Letters to the Editor

A sermon on Pentecost

Acts 2:1-7, 42-47

We have this phenomenal story in the book of Acts that is called Pentecost.  It’s been 50 days since Jesus rose from the dead, and it is today that we celebrate the Holy Spirit descending upon the disciples and the birth of the Christian community called the church.

Now, this is a fascinating story that happened one thousand, nine hundred and eighty years ago that has massive implications for how the disciples viewed Jesus, their faith, and themselves.

The disciples were speaking in different languages, one of the biggest signs that following Jesus is not bound up in ethnicity or culture.

Did you know that there are more Mennonite in Africa than North America and Europe combined?  Did you know that almost 25% of churches part of Mennonite Church Canada offer services in languages other than English?    Di you know that first non-white Mennonite was baptized in Indonesia in 1851?

While I think we know this, I think that those of us who can trace our roots to Russia and love our Low German slang often need reminders that we don’t have a stronger claim than others on being Mennonite.  When Ash and I were in Winnipeg, there were at least 3 occasions where we were asked by people in our Mennonite church how we can be Mennonite if we didn’t speak German or know what a certain ethnic food was.  I was their pastor, and they were asking if I was a Mennonite?

Mark Van Steenwyk is a author and activist in Minneapolis who found his way to the Mennonite Anabaptist church as an adult.  He wrote this:

I’ve met folks who have been Mennonites for decades who still feel like outsiders. We welcome folks with our words but often push them away with our actions and cultural hang-ups. To be a Mennonite, for me, means accepting the reality that I’ll never be as Mennonite as other people.

Ouch.

Just because someone doesn’t fit into your narrow understanding of what a Mennonite is does not give anyone the right to make them feel like a second class Mennonite.

Are you an Ethnonite?  Or an Anabaptist Mennonite?

Of course we can still find meaning in the history of the first Anabaptists and Mennonites… But let’s try something here.

Here’s a picture.

How many of you have never seen this picture before?  How many of you have?  How many of you don’t know what the story is behind this picture?  How many of you do?

Thursday was May 16.  On May 16, 1569, over four hundred and fifty years ago, the guy on the left was killed.  But I’m not going to assume that you know this story, because some of us are new to the Mennonite world.

The guy on the left is Dirk Willems.  He was in jail for being an Anabaptists.  He escaped from prison using a rope made of knotted rags.  As he was being chased, he crossed a frozen pond.  His pursuer fell through, called for help, and Dirk went back to save him.  He was rearrested, tortured and burned at the stake.

It’s a tragic story.  But it’s also one of the best embodiments of true Evangelical faith that does what Jesus says by loving its enemies.

Is Jesus the centre of youth faith?  Is the community the centre of your life?  Are peace and reconciliation the centre of your work?   Then welcome aboard.  There’s room for you on this ship.  You can join this fascinating historical movement rooted in Jesus, community and peace.

Pentecost is a good reminder about how big the Kingdom of God truly is.

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Pentecost is also amazing because it tells us what the very first believers did.

They sold their possessions and gave to anyone in need.   How are you doing on selling your cabins and emptying your RRSPs and giving to anyone in need?  You’re probably doing as good as I am, which is not very.  I even own 2 canoes.

The more I read my Bible, the more I keep coming back to how much our faith and our money are connected.  Sometimes I even think it’s just as important as what we believe.

I know that’s a fairly blasphemous statement, but so is this:

You guys are all into that born again thing, which is great. We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemus. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the kingdom of God, I can tell you that you just have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy too…[awkward silence.] But I guess that’s why God invented highlighters, so we can highlight the parts we like and ignore the rest.  – Rich Mullins

Before Jesus starts his ministry, John the Baptists tells his listeners that if they have two coats, they should give one away.  After Jesus’ ministry, the first disciples sold a lot of their stuff to give to the needy.  There’s a reason why these two stories bookend the ministry of Jesus.  Our generosity matters.

And the best part is that this remarkable generosity led to thousands of people joining them.  Pentecost is a fairly good reminder of how selfishness kills Christianity, and while sacrificial generosity builds it up exponentially.

Jim Wallis – “When people of faith say and do what their faith tells them to say and do, others are first surprised, then they are attracted.”

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But this Pentecost, to all you faithful church attendees who know that it’s always cold and rainy on May Long weekend, instead of only going back to the first Pentecost and looking at what God has done in the past, I’m also going to attempt to see what God is doing in our present, and possibly our future.  Because the Spirit descending on followers of Jesus isn’t something that only happened 2000 years ago.  It continues to happen to this day.

I think that one of the ways that Pentecost is among us today is our continued contextualizing of the gospel.  Namely, that we work hard at discerning ways in which the message of Jesus is relevant to our context and culture.  And us here at Grace are in a unique place.

We live in a country where less and less and less people go to church.  If the church attendance graph is linear, the protestant church in Canada will cease to exist in 20 years.  We are living in a post-modern and secular society.  We are living in a world where the Christian voice is one of many.  Some people live in fear of this.  But I love living in this world.  It makes me be that much more intentional about how my faith shapes my life.

But we’re also in a town called Steinbach, where many people cling to Christendom ideas, where we act like the whole town is or should be Christian.  We see Bible verses on neon signs, still have religion classes in school, and can see Bible verses used out of context and as a weapon simply by reading the letters to the editor of the local paper.

We, here, are caught in the middle of these two clashing worldviews.  And much of us making the gospel relevant to our context is more or less ignoring both of them and simply follow Jesus as humbly as we can.

I was at a seminar once, and the speaker asked us a question:  “If your church ceased to exist tomorrow, who would miss it?”  He was hoping that he’d shake us up a bit to get us to be relevant to our context.  Me?  I was actually quite insulted.  So were some of my friends.  One of them raised her hand and said:  “Who would miss us?  The world.”  It wasn’t quite the answer he was looking for.

But think about it.  Southeast Helping Hands would be short 2000 lbs of rice.  The kids in Pauingassi wouldn’t have a family camp.  Soup’s On and Southeast English Literacy Services would have to find another building.  All the vegetables that will be grown this summer in our garden would have to be grown elsewhere.  Who would make the thousands of lunches for the local school kids?

But it’s not just our official church programs that would be missed. I actually take great pride in being a church that frees up its members to be relevant to their communities.

One of my friends coaches volleyball, and he shared with me some of the guilt people project on him for being so involved in his job and coaching that he doesn’t have time to participate in all the ways he’d like to at his own church.  My response to him was:  This is your calling now.  There will be a time in your life when you can work at church.  For now, be a Christian coach.

We need people who understand humble service and sacrificial living and social justice and non-violent love of enemies to serve on school boards, library boards, and chambers of commerce.  We need people who can name everyone as beloved and worthy of love to coach our hockey and ultimate teams, work at Envision community living, teach our students or run a homeless shelter.  We need Christians who think that we’re not all leaving this planet with a one-way ticket to heaven and so thus we shouldn’t take care of the Earth, but rather Christians who believe that God made the world good, and thus organize pick up and walks.

We need people deeply invested in our community and world.  People who don’t let fear rule their lives, people who advocate for a separation of church and state, people who can find creative ways to address the biggest problems of our times… people who are able to look for hope in a sometimes hopeless world.

So maybe our Pentecost moment is less of a moment, and more of a way of life.  Which I’m fine with, because the early followers of Jesus weren’t called Christians.  They were simply part of a movement called, “The Way.”

“The Way.”

This Pentecost, may you find life as you join “the way”.  May you trust the Spirit to help put Jesus at the centre, to invest deeply in community, and humbly work towards being God’s hands and God’s feet in this world.

Amen.

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