Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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An exposition of First Corinthians chapter three

An older brother, a minister, once suggested to me that I should write about one portion of this chapter. He didn’t tell me what I should write, but appeared to have confidence that I would be able to cut through the misinterpretations of the apostle Paul’s words that are often repeated in our day and make plain what he was really saying.

Twenty years have passed, the brother no longer walks this earth. But that suggestion and the confidence implicit in it have continued to echo in the recesses of my mind. Today it is time to sit down and make it happen. I will discuss the whole chapter because I don’t believe we can understand any one part of it if we do not understand the whole.

1 Corinthians 3:1 ¶ And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ.
2 I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.
3 For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?
4 For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?

The brethren at Corinth did not have confidence in one another, or in the church. They had been converted, yet they were still set in the pagan pattern of following a teacher, rather than being followers of Christ. For this reason Paul told them they were still babies, at the very beginning of the life of faith, still feeding on only the simplest spiritual nourishment.

5 ¶ Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?
6 I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.
7 So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth;but God that giveth the increase.
8 Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour.
9 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building.
10 According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon.

Paul is telling the Corinthians that the new spiritual life they have found came from God, he and Apollos are only servants. He begins with the metaphor of a vine that they have planted and watered, but the life in the vine came from God, not Paul or Apollos. Then he switches to the metaphor of a building, saying that all together they are one building. The foundation has been laid and many are building upon it, but they must be careful how they build.

11 ¶ For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
12 Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;
13 Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.
14 If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.
15 If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.

The only possible foundation for the building of God, the church, is Jesus Christ. As there is only one foundation, there is only one building. The verses that follow are not meant to be understood in an individualistic way. They speak of the materials used to build the church, some are precious metals and stones that come from God and cannot burn. But ministers, parents, all of us really, will sometimes use our own reasoning to try and build the church, but these materials tend to weaken the structure, rather than strengthen it.

Yet there is grace for those who are building upon the true foundation, even if some if their efforts will not stand the test of fire. Paul is not saying that our personal salvation is at risk when in ignorance we use inferior materials, his words should lead us to sanctification, to let burn what will burn so that we may continue to build with the materials that are durable.

16 ¶ Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?
17 If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.

English-speaking readers of today find these verses difficult to understand. Our language has dropped the singular pronouns thee and thou, and even the plural pronoun ye, replacing all three with the plural you. Those pronouns had a purpose and we need to understand them to grasp what is being said in passages such as this.

When Paul uses the plural pronouns ye and you in these verses he is addressing the church as a whole, all members. But the temple of God is singular. He does not say “thou art the temple of God,” or “ye are the temples of God.” He is saying that altogether we are part of one temple, or church. This distinction is not something created by stuffy old translators 400 years ago, this is exactly the way Paul wrote in Greek.

Other passages that speak of the church as a single building or temple are found in 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Timothy 3:15; 1 Peter 2:5-7 and Revelation 3:15.

There is one passage which says something a little different: “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?” (1 Corinthians 6:19 ). Some people want to take this verse as the key to understanding all the others just cited. But that is to make those verses contradict what they so clearly state. Perhaps the best way to understand this verse is to read it in the light of the passage from 1 Peter which speaks of living stones. The temple of God is not built with stones that have no life in them. Just as in the case of Solomon’s temple, they must be prepared to fit before they are added to the temple.

When we interpret 1 Corinthians 3:16 as referring to each believer as an individual temple then it is easy to interpret verse 17 to refer to things that defile our own body, such as smoking, drug use, and immorality. Those are serious concerns, and they are addressed in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20). But this verse goes deeper than that.

Think of Achan in Joshua chapter 7. Achan took things that he knew he should not have and hid them in his tent, thinking that what others didn’t know could not harm him. But his action defiled the whole company of God’s people and God did not help them fight against their enemy, leading to much loss of life. When Achan’s sin was punished, then God once more gave the people victory over their enemies.

We are tempted to think as Achan did: “Nobody sees or knows what goes on in my private world. What harm can it do? ” It does great harm, not just to me but to all the church, even if no one knows the source of that harm. A living stone in the wall of God’s temple who permits himself such defilement causes the whole temple to be defiled. That stone no longer has the life of God within and must be removed and cast aside.

The difference between such a person and Achan is that in the gospel era there is opportunity for the defiled stone to have the fire of the Holy Spirit rekindled within and then be returned to a place in the wall of the temple.

18 ¶ Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.
19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.
20 And again, The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.

The wisdom of this world tells us that once a person has given his heart to God it is impossible for him to once again be lost. We have an enemy who delights in feeding us that kind of wisdom because it hinders us from hearing God’s call to repent and re-consecrate our lives to Him. It is better to think of ourselves as fools and ask God to direct us in the way that will safely bring us to our eternal home in heaven.

21 ¶ Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours;
22 Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours;
23 And ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s.

God has given servants to the church to preach the gospel, to teach and to guide His people. Let us honour and respect such men; but we must not glorify them or compare them with one another. Each one has gifts to help in building the walls of Zion. Those gifts are given to help us and to glorify Jesus Christ and God.

The following reasons are therefore the cause of our separation.

May it be known to everyone that the cause of our separation has been such; for the essential truth of faith, and the interior knowledge of a true God in three persons in a unity of essence, a knowledge that neither flesh nor blood gives; the proper worship due to God alone, the love which belongs to him above all things, the sanctification, the honor which is due to him above all things and all that is called the living hope that is through Christ in God; regeneration and inner renewal by faith, hope and charity; the merit of Christ in all sufficiency of grace and justice; the communion of all the elect; the remission of sins, the sanctity of life, and the faithful fulfillment of all commandments by faith in Jesus Christ; true repentance, perseverance to the end and eternal life.

The truths which concern the ministry are these: the external assemblies of the ministers with the people who are subject to them, in suitable place and time, to instruct them in the truth through the ministry; in the truth mentioned above, bringing it there, strengthening it, and maintaining it there by faithful and frequent assemblies; the good ministers being, as to faith and conduct, an example of obedience, and following with vigilance the practice and example of the Lord to the flock.

The things that ministers are bound to do to serve the people are these: to preach to them the word of the gospel and the word of reconciliation, or the law of grace, according to the purpose and intention of Christ. For they are to announce the word of the Gospel, and the sacrament is joined to the word, confirms its intention and significance, and strengthens the hope in Christ in the faithful. Communion administered by the minister contains everything of the essential truth. And if there are some other things that concern the ministry, they can all be included in what has been said.

Now, of these particular truths, some are essentially necessary to the salvation of the humans, the others are conditionally necessary. They are contained in twelve articles, with the addition of several words of the apostles.

Six Iniquities of Antichrist
1. The errors and impediments presupposed by the Lord, concerning the Antichrist, are the following: varied and innumerable idolatrous service, granted against the commandment of God and of Christ, not made to the Creator, but to the creature seen or unseen, corporeal or spiritual, intelligent and sensible, produced naturally, or by any art, or under any name whatsoever, as of Christ and saints, and, relics, and persons in authority, to which creatures is rendered a service accompanied by faith, hope, actions, prayers, pilgrimages, alms, offerings, sacrifices, very expensive. They serve such creatures, they worship them, honor them in many ways, by singing, by panegyrics, by solemnities, by celebrations of masses, by vespers, by compliments to these creatures, by hours, by vigils, by feasts, to acquire grace, acquisition which is essentially in God alone, and meritoriously in Jesus Christ, and which is obtained only by faith by the help of the Holy Ghost.

For there is no other source of idolatry but a false opinion concerning grace, touching the truth, touching authority, invocation, intercession, which the Antichrist removes from God to assign to the ministries and works of his hands, the saints and purgatory. And this iniquity of the Antichrist is directly contrary to the first commandment of the law.

Similarly, the unrestrained love of Antichrist for the world is the source from which all the evils and sins of leaders, directors, and officers proceed in the Church; sins which remain without correction, and which are contrary to the truths of faith and to the knowledge of God the Father, according to the testimony of John, who says: He who sinneth neither knows God nor has seen him. For if anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

2. The second iniquity of the Antichrist is that he places the hope of forgiveness, grace, justice, truth, and eternal life, not in Christ, nor in God by Christ, but in men living and dead, in authority, in ecclesiastical ceremonies, in blessings, in sacrifices, in prayers and in other similar things mentioned above, and not in a true faith which produces repentance, with charity, the removal of evil and the advancement of good.

So the Antichrist teaches not to hope firmly for regeneration, strengthening, spiritual renewal or communion, the forgiveness of sins, sanctification in eternal life: but by the sacraments and by his perverse simony, means by which the people are deceived, and having all things for sale, he has imagined old and new ordinances to obtain money, allowing that if someone said or did this or whatever, he wants him to acquire grace and life. And this double iniquity is, properly called, in the Scriptures, adultery and fornication. Therefore, such ministers, who lead the rude people into such errors, are called whores of the Apocalypse. This iniquity is contrary to the second article, and also contrary to the second and third commandments of the law.

3. The third iniquity of the Antichrist is that, besides what has been said, he has invented false religious orders, rules, monasteries, churches, as means of acquiring hope. Similarly, they affirm, against all truth, that it is a duty for everyone to hear masses often and devoutly, to receive the sacraments, to confess (but rarely with contrition), to fast or to empty his purse, to be a member of the Roman Church, to indulge in or deliver to rule or hood. And this iniquity of the Antichrist is directly contrary to the eighth article of the symbol: I believe in the Holy Ghost.

4. The fourth iniquity of the Antichrist is that, being himself the fourth beast formerly described by Daniel, and the whore of the Apocalypse, he attributes to himself names, authority, power, the dignities, the ministries, the offices, the writings, to the point of equalizing and comparing themselves to the true and holy mother Church, in which there is ministerially, and not otherwise, salvation and truth, as to the life, doctrine and the sacraments. For if it were not that she covers herself and her ministers with error and manifest sinners, she would be abandoned by all if she were known.

But because the emperors and kings, and the princes, judged that she was like the true Holy Mother Church, they loved her herself and endowed her against the commandment of God. This iniquity of the ministers, of the subjects, of those ordained in error and in sin, is directly against the ninth article: I believe the holy Church. These things belong to the first part of the article.

In the second place, in fact, by participating in only the external forms, according to the humanly ordered and invented usages, they believe and hope to have their part in the truth of the offices of pastors and the cure of souls, as if those who would be shorn like lambs, who would be anointed in the manner of a wall, and who would receive the blessing by touching the book and the chalice, could claim to be rightly ordained priests.

It is the same with the subjugated people, if, because he has his share in the words, the signs, the external exercises, and in their various ceremonies, often repeated, he persuaded himself that he had part in the truth which is covered with them. And this is contrary to the other part of the eighth article: I believe the communion of saints.

One thing is to be done, it is necessary to move away from the very evil communion of the monks who, to bring carnal men to themselves, make them hope, by means of things of nothing and avarice, that they will make them share in their poverty and chastity, whoever they may be, or whether they are lustful or avaricious, provided they give gifts to them..

5. The fifth iniquity of the Antichrist is that he promises, by deception, forgiveness and remission of sins to sinners not truly contrite and who have not firmly renounced evil deeds. And he first makes this promise of the remission of sins by means of auricular confession and the absolution given by men, by means of pilgrimages dictated by greed.

This iniquity is contrary to the eleventh article of the Creed: I believe the remission of sins. For this forgiveness depends on the authority of God and the ministry of Jesus Christ, by partaking in faith, hope, repentance, charity, and obedience which, according to the Word of God, is in man.

6. There is yet a sixth iniquity, that they prolong the hope of forgiveness until the end of life, by means of the hidden iniquities already mentioned for the manifest sinners, and especially by means of the extreme unction and purgatory dream, so that the unlearned men, who do not know the truth, persevere in error and are absolved of sins from which they have never moved away from by free will so that they could hope for it. coming remission and eternal life. This iniquity is directly contrary to the eleventh and twelfth articles of the faith.

Things by which the iniquity of Antichrist is covered

First and foremost, this iniquity is covered by an external profession of faith. With regard to which, the Apostle says: For they confess in words that they have known God, but they deny him by their deeds.

It is covered, in the second place, by the long duration of time, by scholars, by religious orders, men, virgins and widows, and also by a numerous people, of whom it is said in the Apocalypse: And to him power was given over every tribe and tongue, and nations, and all who dwell on the earth will worship it.

Thirdly, by the spiritual authority of the apostles, against whom the Apostle says: We can do nothing against the truth, and no power is given to us for destruction.

Fourthly, by many miracles done here and there, which the Apostle says in this way: His coming is according to the work of Satan, accompanied by all kinds of miracles, false signs and wonders, and all the deceptions of iniquity.

Fifthly, outward holiness, prayers, fasts, vigils, and alms; against which the Apostle says: Having the appearance of piety, but denying its strength.

Sixth, by some words of Christ, and by the writings of the elders and by the councils, which they follow, as much as they do not condemn their bad life and their pleasures.

In the seventh place, by the administration of the sacraments, by which they vomit the universality of all errors.

Eighth, by remonstrances and verbal preaching against vices, as they say and do not.

In the ninth place, some of them live in a pretense of virtue, and others truly lead a virtuous life. For those chosen of God, having good will and good conduct, retained there as in Babylon, are like gold with which the wicked Antichrist covers his vanity, not allowing true worship to God alone neither hope in Christ alone, nor attachment to true religion.

These things and many others serve as cloaks and garments to the Antichrist, by means of which he covers his deceitful malice, so that he may not be reproved entirely as a pagan, and in whose shadow he may walk dishonestly as a whore.

Time to make a decision

At least I thought we had exhausted all the possibilities in trying to find a church that still believed and lived the old Anabaptist faith. Could I have missed something? Or had I misunderstood something?

If I was honest with myself, I had felt more at home in congregations of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite than anywhere else. But the fear of being deceived was holding me back from considering whether this church might be what I was looking for.

Just what does “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5) mean? I went alone to pray and ask God to help me see what the Bible really taught about the church. As I rose from the prayer, I felt a need to read again what Menno Simons wrote about the signs by which the true church of God could be identified. He listed six:

1. By an unadulterated, pure doctrine.
2. By a scriptural use of the sacramental signs.
3. By obedience to the Word.
4. By unfeigned brotherly love.
5. By an unreserved confession of God and Christ.
6. By oppression and tribulation for the sake of the Lord’s Word.

As I read them this time, and considered all the churches we had known, it was suddenly crystal clear that there was no other church to which even one of these signs could be applied. We had met many friendly and helpful people, they seemed from the outside to get along well together. But could it be called unfeigned brotherly love when they didn’t really trust each other? Many churches talked about the new birth, and about spiritual unity. Yet they baptized anyone who said they had been born again and had communion at appointed times, even though they were not fully at peace with one another.

These thoughts were pointing me strongly toward the Holdeman Mennonites. But what about the claim of exclusivity? Once again, I looked to see what Menno said. It wasn’t hard to find and again I understood something I had missed before. Here is what Menno wrote:

Reader, understand what I mean ; we do not dispute about whether or not there are some of the chosen one’s of God, in the before mentioned churches ; for this we, at all times, humbly leave to the just and gracious judgment of God, hoping there may be many thousands who are unknown to us, as they were to holy Elias ; but our dispute is, in regard to what kind of Spirit, doctrine, sacraments, ordinances and life, Christ has commanded us to gather unto him an abiding church, and how we should maintain it in his ways.

Menno obviously believed there were many Christians in other churches; he was not saying that there was only one church in which one could be saved. But he was concerned that other churches were offering comfort to the unsaved and not guiding and supporting those who were saved.

My heart was settled. I knew where God wanted us to be and where I wanted to be. I made several two hour trips to visit a minister in the Linden Congregation of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite and knew that was where I wanted to be.

This was too abrupt a change in direction for Chris. She was frightened and not at all willing to make another move. She felt at home where we were and was sure that I was deceived. We hashed this over many times without getting any closer to seeing things the same way. The possibility that we might have to part ways loomed before us.

Finally we knelt together and prayed about the direction we should take. When the prayer was finished, Chris said she still felt the same apprehension about the direction I was taking, but she would go with me.

The night before we left, the bishop and his wife invited us for supper. Before we parted, he had one last warning for me. “You have expressed some misgivings in the past about the Holdeman church. I share those misgivings. We have never seen it happen that a church could drift from full obedience to the truth and recover itself. When a church has drifted, it is time to come out and start over again on the gospel ground.”

As I listened to those words, I realized the bishop understood a church to be merely a man-made entity. What he meant as a warning I took as a confirmation that God was leading me to a church where He was doing the building and the refining.

Books I didn’t like

Among the thousands of books that I’ve read in my lifetime there have been books that were useful and informative, books that conveyed truths that have inspired me, books that were merely interesting, books that were so uninteresting that I never finished reading them and books that were well written but quite deceptive. Here are four books from that last category that stand out in my mind.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand: I was young and impressionalbe when I read this book. Still, the idea of a better world that would be built by pure unbridled selfishness didn’t impress me as being a world where I would want to live. I didn’t find John Galt a very sympathetic hero, either.

In His Steps by Charles Sheldon: I have read this book four times, trying to figure out how anybody could consider this a Christian book. What I found was people who read the Bible but never got any direction from it; people who prayed but never got any direction through answers to prayer; people who sang hymns but never got any direction from the words of the hymns. The only way they got any direction was to ask themselves  “What would Jesus do?” Then they found the answers within themselves.

Well, actually the answers came from Charles Sheldon. The whole sin problem in the world is the fault of privately owned business and the solution is for ordinary people to band together to counteract the nefarious influence of big business. The newspaper owner is the epitome of Sheldon’s solution when he plans to turn the newspaper into an employee owned cooperative.

Sheldon called himself a Christian socialist. Notice that socialist is the noun and Christian is an adjective, mere camouflage for the real message Sheldon wants to convey. He uses Christian words all the way through, but they are eviscerated of all meaning. It is very skilfully done, but this book is actually a primer on socialism.

A Theology for the Social Gospel by Walter Rauschenbusch: Rauschenbusch follwed in Sheldon’s steps and coined the term “social gospel” in the early 1900’s. This book reveals the full scope of his thinking. There is no such thing as a sin against God. God appears to be a philosphical construction to provide a framework for ethical teaching, not a divine person who actually exists. Sin and redemption are not matters of personal concern, but involve all of society. The sins for which Jesus died are: religious bigotry; the combination of graft and political power; the corruption of justice; the mob spirit and mob action; militarism; and class contempt.

Rauschenbusch taught that there were two kinds of business organizations: the saved and the unsaved. Unsaved business are those that are privately owned, saved businesses are socially owned, such as cooperatives and goverment owned businesses.

One hundred years have passed since this book was published. I see the results all around me: churches, political parties, cooperatives and government owned businesses built on social gospel principles. I don’t see any evidence that they have succeeded in ushering in Rauschenbusch’s vision of the kingdom of God.

The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life by Hannah Whittal Smith: This is another pseudo-Christian book which I have read several times. All I could find was pop psychology couched in Christian language. If people are unhappy and unfulfilled, they might want to ask if there is some sin hindering them, or are they not hearing and following the voice of the Holy Spirit. There is no mention of any of that in this book. It is do-it-yourself Christianity. I would recommend the Bible and genuine Christianity.

A parable about a parable

The kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. The words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 13:45-46

Renowned investigative reporter Ernest Digger has just returned from a trip to the Middle East where he was able to track down a descendant of the merchant in Jesus’ account. Here is his report:

—Joseph ben Ezra did not want me to tell where he lives, so I will just say his home is in a small mountain village. His house is small and sparsely furnished. He does not appear to be poor or rich, but able to provide for the needs of his family by weaving carpets of traditional style.

—Mr ben Ezra, I understand that you are a descendant of the pearl merchant of whom Jesus spoke?

—Yes, through the grace of God I am one of the descendants of that illustrious man.

—What can you tell us about your ancestor?

—He was a rich man, but he sold everything he had to obtain that precious pearl. Of course he could not sell that pearl, so he turned to making his living as I am doing today. He left instructions for his descendants that they should always live humbly and simply to hour God for the great gift that he had found.

—What happened to the pearl after your ancestor died?

—No one knows. It disappeared.

—He did not bequeath it to his children?

—There were mysterious words in his testament. He said that the pearl could not be given from one person to another, but each one would have to do as he did, sell everything they had to obtain the pearl.

—Have you done that?

—I am not a rich man. All that I own would be too paltry a sum to buy such a pearl.

—Has anyone in your family obtained such a pearl?

—There are stories. I once met a distant cousin who said he had such a pearl. He told me the same ridiculous story about how I could have one too. I would have to sell everything I have, even the clam shell that once contained the pearl.

— You have the original shell?

—Yes I do.

He showed me a large oyster shell, carefully wrapped in a cloth.

—So, you have the shell, but not the pearl?

—Yes, but don’t you see how beautiful it is? See how the mother-of-pearl inside almost glows. It is a beautiful and precious thing. I cannot afford the pearl, but this treasure reminds us continually of that pearl our ancestor found.

—Still, you have only the shell, not the pearl.

—But surely that is enough. Would God require me to sell the shell and everything else I have and deprive my family of their living? That would be unreasonable.

—Thank you for your time Mr. Ben Ezra.

—You are most welcome. May the peace of God be with you.

Strangely enough, I later met several relatives of Mr. Ben Ezra. Each told much the same story and each had an oyster shell that they claimed to be the original.

The cackle or the egg?

chicken-180596_1280

The cackle of a hen is a promise that she has laid an egg. But my farm boy experience taught me that sometimes the cackle was a false promise – no egg could be found.

Christians put a lot of emphasis on experiences, and rightly so. Christian life is a new life that must begin with a new birth, an experience. As we grow after the new birth, there should be other experiences: a deeper consecration, a correction in the course our life has been taking, a conviction about whom we should marry, a conviction for service.

I wonder, though, if we should put less emphasis on the experience and more on the result. Some people claim heart-warming experiences with the Lord, but nothing changes in their life. They have mistaken the cackle for the egg.

Blaise Pascal wrote that the heart of man is so wicked that as soon as he begins to think of getting converted he believes he is converted. Someone who has travelled in Christian circles long enough knows what an experience sounds like. He may want so badly to have his own experience that he manages to convince himself that he really has had one.

This is a dangerous situation. Forty years ago my wife and I went to hear David Wilkerson speak in Regina, taking a friend with us. Our friend was deeply moved during the meeting and stood when the call came. All the way home she bubbled over with how her life was going to be different from then on. The bubbles lasted a couple of days and then were gone, leaving no sign of a change in her life. It wasn’t David Wilkerson’s fault, he gave good direction, but our friend didn’t make a connection with God. The cackle filled a momentary emotional need but left no trace of changed life.

As Mennonites, we do not baptize solely on the basis of a person’s experience. The person who claims to have had a new birth experience tells that experience to a congregation made up of people who are born again and know how it transforms a life. The congregation decides on the baptism, not just on the basis of the experience, but on the substance of the changed life they have observed in the convert.

I don’t mean this to sound disrespectful of anyone. But I do want to point out the emptiness of telling a wonderful experience with the Lord when there is no evidence of a changed life. Years ago a friend told me about someone with whom he’d had some costly business dealings. I’ll call the man Andy. My friend said “Every time Andy gets into trouble, he get’s born again. He’s been born again four or five times already and he’s still the same man he always was.” I knew the circumstances and I knew my friend was telling things as they were. Andy’s multiple claims of being born again were no more than empty cackling.

I don’t want to hear that so-and-so has had an experience. I want to see that his life is transformed. Just like I don’t care how often a hen cackles, I want to see the egg.

Travelling home

It was pouring rain, with low-hanging clouds, when our friends drove us to the Vancouver Airport. Our holiday was over, we’d visited family and friends we hadn’t seen for years, and now we were on our way home to Montréal.

Eventually we were seated in our plane at the beginning of the runway. The jet engines roared to life and we began barrelling down the runway, straight for the ocean. From where I was sitting it looked like it was just at the last moment when the nose tilted up and we were airborne. In a few seconds everything below us disappeared and we were lost in the clouds. Soon I felt the plane make a u-turn to head east, then it continued to climb until we were above the clouds.

For the next five hours there was only this fluffy white mass as far as the eye could see. I trusted that we were flying over the Rockies, the Prairies, then the forests and lakes of Ontario. I could see nothing to prove that, but I trusted the pilot would bring us to our intended destination.

Darkness comes early in January and then I could only see the clouds directly below the airplane. Then there was a glow of light below and ahead of us and before long we were flying above this glow that penetrated the clouds. There was still nothing else to see but I knew we were nearing home. The plane made another u-turn and headed west. Many planes a day made this manoeuvre above our home on the east side of Montréal, so I knew where we were.

The jet engines were quieter now, the airspeed began to diminish and we descended into the clouds. We flew on, swathed in clouds, with the glow of the city beneath us. Finally, we broke beneath the clouds and directly in front of us I could see the lights of the runway. The plane descended, touched down smoothly and we were back home in Montréal.

We saw nothing on the ground to tell us where we were during that whole 4,500 km journey and we knew the pilot didn’t either. But he was getting his information from another source and we trusted he knew exactly where we were at all times.

Not all journeys are that relaxing. My wife is on a journey of cancer treatment at this time and I am along for the ride. Today we will be in Saskatoon for another round of chemotherapy. She has Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia and is receiving two drugs that target the white cells affected by that disease. We trust the oncologist and the nurses, but the journey is wearisome. The disease makes her tired already and one doctor told us the treatment will make her more tired and that before she is done she will be tired of seeing the Cancer Clinic and tired of seeing the doctors there.

It helps that we know that others have followed this same treatment protocol and have had their health and energy restored. It is not a journey we wanted to make, yet we have chosen to take it because the alternative would be worse. Someone, whom we once considered a trustworthy friend, has suggested a better way of treatment. We know that most of those who have chosen that “better way” are no longer living. So we go on, trusting that we will arrive at our desired destination.

There is another journey that we are all taking, the journey of life. It is not a passive journey where we are just carried along, but those who have chosen Christ as their guide have a promise of one day reaching Paradise, a paradise that will probably be far better even than the one from which our first parents were chased because of sin.

It isn’t always a smooth journey, the road is often rough, there are hills to climb and storms along the way. There are “friendly” voices which tell us there is a better, easier way. We dare not trust them, we have seen the wretched end of many that were lured onto the easier way. But we have not travelled this way before, the landmarks are unfamiliar, sometimes we go off course.

Our Guide is always there to help us correct our course, find the right landmarks and to renew our courage. And every step we take brings us closer to that City of Light where we can rest for evermore.

The loneliness of the pathfinder

Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. Isaiah 6:16

We have joined a grand throng of pilgrims and strangers, wending our way through a wilderness where we have never gone before, on our way to a city we have not seen. Multitudes have passed this way before us, generation after generation, for hundreds of years.

At first there is much rejoicing and the signposts that mark the way can be seen clearly. Yet it seems to happen once every generation that we become aware that we have not seen any signposts for some time. The majority are certain that we are on the right way, we have not changed direction. Others begin to murmur and express doubts whether we are still on the old path. Some become convinced that the throng has lost the way  and venture off to search the wilderness for signs of the right path.

Soon they are back, claiming to have found evidence of the true path to the celestial city. But each one has a different story of where that path is. There is much discussion and disagreement but eventually little groups of people venture off this way and that and are never seen again.

But there are a few who have gone back to find the old signposts and then searched for the ones that should have been there to mark the pathway from that point on. They find them, damaged, broken down and easy to ignore. They set to work to repair them and go back to tell the others that the old pathway has been found. Some laugh, most are doubtful, but a few follow and are convinced that the old pathway has once more been found. Little by little, others are convinced and join them and soon there is once again a great multitude walking on the ancient pathway.

Every generation needs its pathfinders to seek for the old ways by which pilgrims have made their way to the celestial city. But let the pathfinder stick to finding the ancient landmarks and making them visible once more so that others can safely find their way. If they begin to criticize those who won’t listen, accuse their leaders of deceiving the multitude, or declare that they want nothing to do with such stubborn people, they will not draw anyone to the true way.

They are pathfinders. It is not their responsibility to force others to follow the path, but simply to make sure that the way is clearly marked so that others can follow it.

Could this be idolatry?

Aaron, an elderly brother from the congregation whee we used to live, had been driving down a lonely highway in Texas. After an hour or two he saw a young man hitchhiking and offered him a ride. The young man got into the back seat and they chatted a little. All was silent for a while, then the hitchhiker said “Jesus is returning soon.” Aaron looked back, but the back seat was empty. He had not stopped the car, but the hitchhiker had vanished.

Or so I was told. When I asked brother Aaron about this he said it had never happened. This story was heard often about 35 years ago, always about a friend of a friend, never a first hand account. Perhaps it is still being told. What makes people want to believe stories like this?

A few years later thee was a story going around in Amish and Mennonite communities about an Old Order Amish family with eleven sets of twin boys. Pretty soon the number was up to an even dozen. Then they were reported to be moving to Tennessee, to join a Church of God in Christ, Mennonite congregation. Brother Rodney from our congregation was travelling in Pennsylvania with his family at this time and news came back that he had met this family. I asked him about them when he returned home. He had never seen them. It appears that nobody else ever did, either.

A few years after that, there were news articles in the local daily newspaper about a young father with incurable cancer. The family heard about a clinic, in Texas again if I remember rightly, with a promising new therapy. They would take the patients urine, extract antibodies from it and inject them into the cancer patient. There were glowing testimonials of the success of this therapy. But it was prohibitively expensive.

The young couple sold their home, there were community fundraisers to help cover their costs, and they set out with high hopes. There were a few early reports in the paper telling how he was beginning to feel better already.  Then nothing.

Two months later there was a tiny item in the back of the paper reporting the death of this young man. He left a wife and several small children who were now completely destitute. However, the clinic in Texas was probably doing quite well financially. (I believe they were later shut down by the authorities.)

Why are people tempted to believe such stories? Why are so few motivated to seek out the truth? When people choose to believe a lie, either because it is interesting or because it offers hope in a hopeless situation, is this not a form of idolatry?

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