Pre-GC42 ~ Revelation 21:1-5
On Tuesday I will get on a plane bound for Corner Brook, Newfoundland for our national church meeting called General Council which happens every three years. I am an elected commissioner, and I’m also co-chairing a Sessional Committee that will be meeting 4 days before everyone else gets there to go over something called the Comprehensive Review.
For the past three years we’ve been in discussions about how to restructure the church in light of the reality of reduced finances and reduced people power. Sound familiar?
The Task Group that’s been looking at this has put forward an audacious plan that, if adopted, would significantly change the way our church functions. The committee I’m on will look at those 7 massive proposals and the 100 plus response proposals and make recommendations to the whole court by the time they arrive on the weekend.
I won’t lie, I’m feeling the weight of it. Please pray for me!
The scripture theme for General Council this year is Revelation 21:5 “Behold, I am making all things new.” Let’s have a look.
As with any scripture interpretation there’s more than one way to approach a passage. There is not one single proper correct interpretation, although sadly that’s the impression preachers sometimes give. We make choices all the time.
The big question for me is ‘what is driving your choices’?
Why do we choose this or that interpretive direction?
What’s the theological concept influencing your choices?
One interpretive tack for this passage is to think of it in conversation with Isaiah 43:18-19. Through the prophet God says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
The time is the late sixth century BCE, when Judah was suffering under Babylonian rule. Some of the people were exiled in Babylon while others were forced to stay behind and work the land. They were a conquered people. They were a conquered people because, in their minds, they were being punished for turning their attention away from God.
So this prophetic message is good news indeed. It says to forget about the past, forget the old ways, forget how you may have messed up, and look to the future. Through the prophet God says, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” You can see how this could be a powerful image for the Church in their time and ours.
We’ve seen the writing on the wall for years but we’ve been reluctant to face it.
We’ve spent so long focusing on creating great citizens that maybe we’ve not done such a great job growing deep and mature Christians.
So we’re kind of in exile.
We are, in some ways, a conquered people.
Christendom is dead.
Churches that 40 years ago were bursting at the seams now have congregations that could fit in a living room.
The days of us being the go-to place for politicians and social commentary are long gone.
And God says, “Never mind about the past – let it go – I’m doing a new thing – watch for it and go with it.”
However, our theme verse is not from Isaiah 43 it’s from Revelation 21. The context is very different. Revelation 21 is the second last chapter in the whole bible – it’s the culmination of the story of God and God’s people.
People mistakenly think Revelation is about the destruction of the world but that is a serious misreading of the text. It’s not about the destruction of earth but rather it’s about the earth transformed by God’s Presence. It’s about a visionary dream that someone has about what the world would look like if the Lord’s Prayer actually came true – “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The book of Revelation imagines our redeemed world in light of the life, teaching, and resurrection of Jesus. It’s a glimpse of the effect God’s Presence would have if we were all actually present to God. The visionary says, “the home of God is among us. God will dwell with us; we will be God’s people, and God will be with us.”
Opposite to the context of the exile in Isaiah, in Revelation God is wondrously and absolutely present. There’s no punishment, it’s all blessing.
Revelation 21 has God saying, “Behold I am making all things new” – it does NOT say “Behold I am making all new things.”
I think that’s a critical distinction.
Making ‘all things new’ is the opposite of making ‘all new things’. Apocalypse is all about beauty obliterating the distance between ‘heaven and earth’. It’s the ultimate renewal.
This interpretive tack emphasizes how God redeems, God reshapes, God renews – pointing us toward modifying the current way instead of making up a new one.
Both interpretations are entirely and completely valid. It’s about a choice. The task group that put the Comprehensive Review proposals together were clearly far more influenced by the Isaiah 43 interpretation.
And that is a faithful, solid interpretation, well-grounded in good theology. I can respect that choice, and if the church chooses to go that route I can authentically go with it.
However, as you might guess from listening to me preach over the years, my interpretive preference is for the renewing of all things rather than replacing them. God’s Presence transforms who we are and how we are – it does not replace us with a new, improved model. We don’t stay the same, we are changed, but we’re still us.
The Comprehensive Review is the main focus of this year’s General Council meeting. It has to be. As a denomination, by 2018, we are going to hit the financial wall (or go over the cliff – pick your favourite catastrophe metaphor). One way or another we must do things differently in the future because the way we’ve been doing them is unsustainable.
But the structure of the church, whether we have presbyteries and conferences or clusters and regions, is only one of the big ideas this year.
We’re also discussing doing minister training in radically different ways, and addressing the challenges of how to view people who are functioning as ministers (especially in remote or harder to serve places) who may not be trained and formed as ordered ministers but are seen that way by the churches they serve. It’s tricky, and highly contentious.
Then there are all the proposals about the environment, divestment, Israel/Palestine, social justice issues, and of course all the tweaks to our Manual.
The workbook for the meeting clocks in north of 1000 pages. It’s available on the GC42.ca website if you’re looking for a little light summer reading!
One of the most important proposals, in my view, is currently tucked away in a side commission to deal with, but I hope it gets moved to the full court.
It proposes that we conduct a comprehensive examination of our denomination’s vision, mission, and ethos.
Frankly, this should have been done before the Comprehensive Review but there simply wasn’t enough time. We had procrastinated too long about the financial issues and couldn’t wait any longer. (Sound familiar?) Despite all the other stuff we’ll tackle I think approving this look at our vision and mission as a whole church is the single most important thing we’ll do next week.
So, what are my hopes and dreams and worries about GC42?
I hope that even though we don’t have a clearly articulated and shared vision of who we are and what we’re foundationally about that we can do our discerning and make our decisions grounded in Spirit-centred principles and values.
I hope that we can keep noticing God’s Presence and be present to it even as we sit at tables, speak at microphones, debate parliamentary procedure, and endlessly nitpick and wordsmith over language.
I worry that the scope of the proposals are so vast that they’ll be overwhelming and we may end up throwing our hands up in surrender and making rash decisions because we “need to get this done” rather than prayerfully taking the time we need.
I worry that group-think can at times be more powerful than Spirit-think.
And I worry most that in these uncertain times our instinctual reaction may be to turtle and lurch toward congregationalism and away from our ethos as a united and uniting church.
And my dream for this General Council is that the worship will be deeply spiritual, the conversations will be rich, the friendships and connections will be strong and revitalizing, and that the spiritual depth of our Moderator Gary Paterson will be absolutely infectious.
Gary has been a terrific Moderator. I knew he would be from the first time I heard him speak because he chose Ephesians 3:14-21 as his core text for his nomination, which as you know from last week is my favourite in the whole bible – so I knew we’d be sympatico. In a triennium focused on structural and financial questions Gary has managed to keep it grounded in Spirit and faith. I pray that our next Moderator (whom we’ll elect next week) will be able to carry on with that tone.
“Behold, I am making all things new.”
Indeed, there can be no doubt, by the end of this General Council our United Church will be changed. I know that the commissioners who gather are people of great faith who absolutely love this church of ours.
And we need your prayers. I need your prayers!
The work begins on Wednesday and goes through until Friday August 14th. It will be hard, and frustrating, and exhausting – and inspiring, and wondrous, and awe-full.
You can follow along from home if you like.
I am asking you to hold us in your prayers for these two weeks, and to be patient and gentle with us as we return home to explain where the Spirit led us.
In some ways the stuff at General Council can seem so far removed from the day to day life of a congregation that it seems like it just doesn’t matter.
And to be candid, Faith United is a strong, spiritually grounded, vital, viable, healthy church that will be able to grow and thrive no matter what structural or denominational changes happen.
But the whole point about General Council, about gathering as a national expression of the body of Christ, is to remember that we’re not about individual church silos – we’re in this together.
Our creed says, “We are not alone; we live in God’s world.”
And our crest says, “Ut omnes unum sint” – that all may be one, and “Akwe Nia’Tetewa:neren” [aw gway – nyah day day waw – nay renh] – all my relations.
I pray that we will hold fast to those core ideas about our interconnectedness, for if we do then we can authentically and boldly embrace God’s blessing: “Behold, I am making you new.”