Making Known God’s Saving Power
May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, 2that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.
On April 5, 2013 Toronto resident Maria Carreiro won 40 million dollars in a Lotto Max jackpot. News outlets carried stories with the typical picture of the happy recipient receiving a giant cheque from a Lottery representative. Mrs. Carreiro said her husband has quit his job and that she will share her newfound wealth with her five grandchildren and three children; aiming to buy new homes for herself and her daughter, buy new clothes and go on a much-delayed honeymoon to Hawaii. Her plans in the meantime were a little less extravagant: dinner with her family at the Mandarin All-You-Can-Eat Buffet.
It is interesting that most news stories of lottery winners include some comments on what the recipient will do in the wake of their sudden financial windfall; what difference will this make in their lives. What will you buy; what will you do (or stop doing)?
Next Sunday is the Sunday we mark the Ascension of our Lord to heaven; we read the story of that post-resurrection appearance of Jesus gathered with his disciples on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem and its temple just the other side of the Kidron Valley. So, what’s next, the disciples want to know. “Here you are Jesus, back from the dead, looking good, with all this power in your resurrected body (mortal has put on immortality, as Paul put it), so do we get to oust the Romans now?” So what is going to happen now; now that you are alive after being dead? What’s next?
Most of us have some idea of what’s next after a sudden financial windfall; we can dream of the world of meaning such wealth can create because we comprehend the purchasing logic of money. But when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus—is it immediately obvious to you what’s next? The truth is that the resurrection creates its own meaning of what’s next; a world of meaning we could never have imagined. Who among us could have predicted Jesus’ answer—you will be my witnesses. It is worth noting the fleeting nature of the meaning that financial windfall creates placed alongside the eternal world-altering significance the resurrection forges. (I find in my own heart that I am way-too attracted to the financial windfall.) These Apostles were so convinced of the surpassing value of the One to whom they bore witness they were willing to give up everything else for his sake. I wonder if the church today in North America has dulled passion for the wonder of the risen Jesus.
1. On the calendar of The United Church of Canada Sunday, May 5 is noted as Rural Life (Rogation) Sunday. What’s rogation? In the history of the church Rogation Days are days set aside to observe a change in the seasons tied to the spring planting. These days are observed each year just prior to the marking of the Ascension of Jesus. They are days of prayer to ask for God’s protection in calamities, and to obtain a good and bountiful harvest.
Psalm 67 is a psalm of praise of God for causing the earth to yield its increase in yet another year. The tense of the verb about the earth yielding its increase can be read as either accomplished or yet to come; some read this Psalm as a spring-time prayer for the harvest to come; others (NRSV) as a post-harvest prayer. In either case Israel understood each plentiful harvest as a fulfillment of God promise of blessing given in Leviticus 26:4, and as a pledge that God is with his people, and that its mission to the whole world shall not remain unaccomplished.
Suburbanites, like us, with grocery store shelves laden with produce year round are, generally speaking, removed from the immediacy of our dependence on earth giving its annual increase. Further, the idea that all of this increase is dependent on the gracious action of God is ignored. In addition, that God gives such because God has a mission in mind for his people to fulfill is ever more of a stretch for us.
God gives the increase of the earth not so that we will have lots of food—as good as that is in and of itself—but so that people may engage in his mission for the world. One thousand years before Jesus appears in Galilee the Psalmist prayed for the fulfillment of God’s promise to bless—I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit (Leviticus 26:4)—in order “that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.”
God’s mission for his people Israel is that God’s saving power be known among all nations. You can imagine, during the days between resurrection and ascension, as Jesus “beginning from Moses and all the prophets, interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” that this text from Psalm 67 about making God’s salvation known to the nations comes alive with new meaning in light of the resurrection; in it is contained Jesus’ answer to their question of what’s next—you will be my witnesses.
The resurrection means that the crucifixion of Jesus is effective for everything God intended; it means there is no limit to the effectiveness of his love, of his giving himself for us. Simply put Jesus is God’s salvation. Keep in mind that Biblically speaking to know God’s salvation is never merely to know about it, as if sharing information (though it includes proclamation); to know is to experience. The word of God is identical with the person Jesus Christ; to make known God’s salvation known is to make Jesus known. The Apostle Paul wrote that the saving power of God is the power God put to work when he raised Jesus from the dead. (Ephesians 1:19-20)
As a brief aside, it is my conviction that the planting of a garden is an act of faith. Indeed, gardening can produce a number of practical benefits for us; the chief benefit is that year over year as we experience the variations in weather and precipitation we learn how dependent we are on the earth giving its increase—faith teaches us that all of this is derived from God’s ongoing gracious care.
2. It must have seemed a very odd question; but then again Jesus is always correcting our questions, asking us questions, helping us see beyond our suppositions and the meaning we have ascribed to things.
We are now standing with Jesus at the pool of Bethesda that is in Jerusalem close to the Sheep gate. There is a story circulating that when the waters of this pool are stirred up the waters momentarily contain special healing power. Consequently, the five porticoes that surround the pool are filled with many invalids. Jesus walks over to one on these people—a man who had been ill for thirty-eight years. His question to him sounds to us like one that goes without saying; “Do you want to be made well?” Isn’t this why this man is at the pool?
It is interesting that that man said “I have no one to put me into the pool.” In the course of four decades no one took pity on him. Is it possible that this man had the kind of personality that could curdle milk? As the story unfolds we learn that the man never even bothered to get Jesus name—he couldn’t tell the Jewish leaders who healed him. It was later that Jesus sought him out again and said to him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more.”
The story shows us that the healing of disease is included in God’s salvation that is Jesus Christ; it anticipates that great consummation when these things shall be no more. But you will note in Jesus subsequent word to him he had, more importantly, been released from the power of sin. Telling him to not to sin any more surely implies that Jesus empowers such a way of living.
“Do you want to be made well?” Jesus’ question isn’t limited to this man at the pool or directed only to those who are ill in general. When it comes to God making God’s salvation known the response of many is that they were unaware they needed saving; we are surprised by God’s announcement that we are diseased. As we have noted on other occasions, the remedy for our sin—Jesus’ self-giving on the cross—reveals the disease. We come to know of our sickness as a part of the cure. We are blinded to our sin by our sinnership. Theologian Karl Barth making the same point from another angle of vision wrote: “The illusion that we can rid ourselves of our illusions ourselves is the greatest of all illusions.”
How has the world responded to Jesus’ question? Open any news vehicle, print or digital, and it is evident in what is chronicled that humanity is quite comfortable with its pathologies. We are fairly sure that we can rid ourselves of our illusions ourselves; but these illusions have proved quite stubborn as generation after generation shows in fondness for its own iteration of all-too-familiar hostilities.
The gospel forges its own world of meaning—a world of meaning humanity cannot uncover or discern left to itself—as God makes his salvation known in coming himself in Jesus of Nazareth. By faith we are invited to say “yes” to his penetrating question—do you want to be made well; to have our lives unfold in the reality he is forming for us by his saving grace.
The world of meaning that is forged in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead isn’t only about the life to come. We are witnesses now in our time and place; the age to come has dawned and we live in it now. I observe that this man, healed of his malady, was called on to live in the here and now with all the responsibilities attendant to life. The help he received in Christ did not exempt him from challenges or future health issues—but aided him nonetheless.
In April the results of a major new study were published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. It tracked more than 12,000 Canadians over a period of 14 years and found that regular attendance of religious service offers significant protection against depression. Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan write that incidence of clinical depression was 22% lower among those who attended religious services at least once a month compared with people who never attended.
I am not suggesting that if you attend church you will never suffer depression nor that faith will exempt us of it. However, many believers can testify that Christ has supported them through it; the risen Jesus never abandons us. His saving power is wherever he is present and by faith he is present in our lives.
3. The story of the book of Acts is the story of Jesus’ followers living out their kingdom calling to be witnesses. We read today of Paul coming to Philippi and the first European convert to Christ named Lydia. Philippi was founded in 356 BC by Philip of Macedonia (father of Alexander the Great) and made famous by the Roman Emperor Augustus who decided it was an ideal place for retired army officials. Consequently the city grew in people and stature.
It attracted business people and entrepreneurs. Lydia was just such a person, a self-employed cloth merchant. Europeans of her era valued clothing made from cloth that had been dyed in an exquisitely beautiful purple. The purple dye came from a substance found in shellfish. It took thousands of shellfish to yield a usable amount of dye. As a result the purple cloth was exceedingly expensive. Lydia owned and operated a carriage-trade business that sold upper-end women’s clothing. She wouldn’t have been out of place in Toronto’s Yorkville or New York’s Fifth Avenue.
In many respects many among us are just like Lydia. Unionville has grown in people and significance compared to its humble beginnings. People are her to work and live or to live as they work in a nearby city. What Lydia found in Jesus Christ was the one she could say “yes” to with all that she was. She was a God fearer; that is she was attracted to the monotheism and ethics of Judaism but didn’t go the whole was of becoming a Jew. But when she heard Paul and the risen Christ loomed before her she said yes; she and her household were baptized.
Lydia’s commitment to Christ did not mean that she gave up her business. She continued to be that seller of purple; but her life was re-arranged. Someone else took first place. She now saw that she could serve in the mission of God to make his salvation known; to make Jesus Christ known. When she invited Paul and his mission team to “come and stay at my home” she is offering it as a centre of operations from which Paul can father launch this mission work. Her home is likely the place where the church of Philippi began to meet.
You can read of Lydia’s influence in Paul’s letter to the Philippian church when he thanks them for their generous financial gift they sent to him while at Corinth to free him for the work of proclaiming the gospel. Consider this; the mission of Christ to Europe’s people made its path directly through Lydia’s home. In a similar way it makes its way through our homes as we promote and support making God’s salvation known.
In a small museum in Northeastern France, there is a famous sixteenth-century altarpiece, painted by Matthias Grünewald for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim. In the centre of this massive work of art is Jesus Christ, hanging on the cross. On his right, his mother, Mary, collapses into the arms of the beloved disciple, John, overcome by her grief. At his feet, Mary Magdalene prays fervently, the jar of perfume ready and waiting to anoint her saviour. But on his left is John the Baptist, standing out of place and out of time.
Of course John the Baptist was not really at the crucifixion, because he had already died, but the artist decided to include John in this scene. So there he stands, barefoot, with his cloak of camel’s hair, and his long beard; in his left hand, he holds an open book; his mouth is closed; but with his right hand he is pointing to Jesus. And in the painting that outstretched right index finger is disproportionately long; so as you look at the scene your eye is drawn to the long finger of the Baptist, pointing to Christ.
This is the mission Christ gave his church. May we ever remain faithful to this calling.