Two Notorious Disciples

On Sunday August 28th we moved The Commons’ Gathering out to the shores of Lake Ontario. We sang some songs together, participated in our Sunday Evening Prayer Liturgy and heard some thoughts from our good friend Caleb Ratzlaff. Caleb is a Commoner Alumni and although we were sad to see Caleb, Jenica and their kids move from Hamilton (we don’t support or condone our friends moving from Hamilton!) we are always happy to have them come back for a visit. Our theme all summer has been Disciples of Jesus, the people that were drawn to Jesus during his time here on Earth. Caleb did some sharing on two of the more notorious disciples that were given the title of Apostles. Here are some thoughts Caleb sent to me along with his teaching notes:
Caleb 2

Apostle Reflection
by Caleb Ratzlaff

I wrote a reflection on the word Apostle. I didn’t share it Sunday but I wrote it with the Commons in mind so I thought I’d share it here.

The New Testament describes the way Christ’s disciples become apostles. This word “apostle” means, literally, “to send away.” In order to send someone away, he or she must first be with you. The apostles must have been at some point in the presence of Christ before he dismissed them, before he sent them away. And it is this event — the send-off — from which their title is derived. Typically Christians focus on being with Christ, following close behind him, being “Christ-like.” However, to be an apostle means something a little different; it emphasizes a departure from Christ, a commission.

My two adorable little boys follow Jen and I everywhere as they learn, grow, and mature. But a day will come when they must be sent out from under our feet into the world where, as Leland likes to say, it’s “too sunny”. The shift from child to young adult or disciple to apostle is a significant movement.

The transition between being a follower and being sent away is challenging. When we are sent away, we encounter new surprises, things that don’t fit perfectly into the curriculum, and now we must decide what to do without referring to an authority. And this tension, between following and making it up as we go, never subsides, it’s always with us as new surprises hide in each moment of our lives. Although exciting this movement can also be a struggle. Change, as we say, is never easy.

A parent’s desire for a better life for her child is a common hope. Wouldn’t it be great if all children grew to be kinder, gentler, and more compassionate than their parents? Similarly, I believe this hope parallels the words of Christ when he says, in John 14:12a, that those who believe in him will not only do the works he has done but will do even greater works than these. So on the one hand, we learn from Christ’s example, just as a son watches his mother. On the other hand, each day brings new challenges some of which demand a response that goes beyond the lessons learned, a response of even greater works than the teacher. In fact, justice and love require that we continually invent ways of caring for the uniqueness of each situation and person. The lessons we learn, from Christ or from our parents, can only guide us, they do not provide an answer book for all the problems we will face in our lives. Hence, to go out into the world is to do more than simply follow. It requires that we become apostles, that we are sent away by our teacher, and perhaps achieve greater things than the examples we try to imitate.

14202534_10154584364127873_5821692470078585918_nGathering at The Lake
Teaching Notes by Caleb Ratzlaff
August 28th, 2016

Judas’ Offence:

The gospels are not shy in their portrayal of the way the disciple’s struggle to understand Christ’s potentially life-changing lessons. Part of this difficulty is due to the offensive nature of Christ’s message. In most gospels, it’s not difficult to understand how Christ offends the teachers of the law. Less clear is the way Christ offends his own disciples. In the Gospel of Mark, we find evidence of at least two disciples, Peter and Judas, offended by Christ’s teaching. The offence takes place in the moments leading up to and following Christ’s arrest.

In Mark’s account, the start of this rising action is found a story the NIV titles, “The Widow’s Offering”. In Mark 12 verses 38-40 Jesus tells his disciples to “watch out for the teachers of the law… They devour widows’ houses”. He then instructs his disciples to observe a poor widow as she tithes her last two small copper coins. Speaking of the widow, Jesus says “she, out of her poverty, put in everything–all she had to live on” (Mk. 12:44b). Many accounts of this episode praise its illustration of true faith and adoration. Although the widow’s action is admirable, Jesus doesn’t praise what he sees happening. Rather, I believe, Jesus draws the disciples attention to this event as a way of illustrating the injustice of the temple system. Those living in already desolate conditions are being compelled to tithe their daily bread. In the tradition of the apocalyptic prophets who preceded him, Jesus then gives a long monologue in which he warns the teachers of the law of their coming destruction. This monologue is bookended by two stories, the first being the story of the widow and the second being the story of the unnamed woman with an alabaster jar.* The unnamed woman anoints Jesus with oil. Like the widow, she gives a token of immense value in honour of her beliefs. This event offends all the disciples who express disgust at the woman’s seemingly wasteful actions. In response, Christ says something about the anointing that he does not say about the widow’s two coins; he calls the anointing a beautiful thing. In these two stories, Mark shows how the life of Christ directly opposes the temple system. Christ himself replaces the temple as the new dwelling place of God.

Interestingly enough it is after this episode in each gospel, the interaction between Christ and the unnamed woman, that Judas decides to stop following Christ. We can only speculate what Judas was thinking in this moment, but it seems clear that the interaction between these two provoke him to act. One could argue the case that Judas genuinely desired to help the poor, after all, in the Gospel of Mark it wasn’t simply Jesus’ condemnation of the temple system that provoked him. I believe Judas saw something that Peter and the other disciples had yet fully understood. What he understands isn’t altogether clear to me. But it seems to be the case that he realised that Christ was calling his disciples to not only free the oppressed but identify with them by finding freedom and beauty in weakness. The women’s gift is perhaps wastefull and unwise, but she is not coerced. Her actions display a kind of faith denied by the temple system and somehow enabled by Christ’s life. Although I’m still unsure of the exact nature of this teaching, it offends; it goes against Judas’ preconceived ideas of what is right, just, and admirable. This offense touches on the heart of Christ’s message as he states that the unnamed women will be remembered so long as he is remembered. The parallel between Judas and Peter in the next scene, makes it seem plausible that it is the dawning of this offensive teaching that leads all the disciples to desert Christ on the day of his arrest.

The last supper takes place immediately after Christ’s anointing. During this scene, Mark makes it very clear that Christ knew his disciples had not yet grasped the full nature of his message. It is for this reason that he gives two predictions or warnings. First, Jesus says that one of his disciples will betray him. In response, each disciple takes a turn wondering if it is he. One of the only ways I can explain the reason Jesus sits down to enjoy a meal with a friend who he knows wants him dead, is because he believes his betrayer can still change. And so, rather than shunning Judas, Christ continues to teach through his example, sharing a meal with his enemy, calling him a friend, and demonstrating the radical nature of hospitality. Such an act begs the question, is there a setting at our tables for deniers and betrayers? The second warning or prediction comes after the meal, when Christ tells his disciples that they will all fall away (Mk. 12.27). Mark records Peter’s protest, “Even if all fall away, I will not,” he says and all the disciples agreed that they would follow Christ to the death. Like his first warning to Judas, this second warning falls on deaf ears, as Peter too ends up denying Christ.

The last scene occurs in the garden of Gethsemane. It is here that Judas betrays Christ. At his approach, a disciple cuts off someone’s ear and Christ immediately condemns the violent encounter saying, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?” (Mk. 14.48). In Matthew, it is Peter who wields the sword and in this case, Christ condemns the violence by calling Peter Satan. Interestingly enough, in John and Luke it is Satan who enters Judas the moment he decides to betray Christ. Christ’s proclamation of non-violence results in his total abandonment in the garden. Even Peter, with seemingly no one left to follow, denies Christ three times, breaks down, and weeps.**

In this drama, the gospels point to the way Christ’s teaching offend the violence found in both politics and religion. Christ exchanges the coerciveness of violence for the power and beauty of weakness. At this first sending of the apostles, the moment when they are forced to make a go of it on their own, both Peter and Judas struggle to understand and live Christ’s example.

The following poem by Luci Shaw illuminates the parallel found in the gospels between Peter and Judas:

by Luci Shaw

because we are all
betrayers, taking
silver and eating
body and blood and asking
(guilty) is it I and hearing
him say yes
it would be simple for us all
to rush out
and hang ourselves
but if we find grace
to weep and wait
after the voice of mourning
has crowed in our ears
clearly enough
to break our hearts
he will be there
to ask us each again
do you love me.


Foot Note:
*Nik Ansell makes this observation in, “Commentary: Mark 12:38-13:2.” In Third Way 20/4 (May 1997): 20.

Seeking the Holy Spirit

Pen Pals Slide -April-June copyEphesians 3:14-21
Teaching Segment Notes
by Randell Neudorf
May 17th, 2015

“14 For this reason I fall on my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth receives its true name. 16 I ask God from the wealth of his glory to give you power through his Spirit to be strong in your inner selves, 17 and I pray that Christ will make his home in your hearts through faith. I pray that you may have your roots and foundation in love, 18 so that you, together with all God’s people, may have the power to understand how broad and long, how high and deep, is Christ’s love. 19 Yes, may you come to know his love—although it can never be fully known—and so be completely filled with the very nature of God. 20 To him who by means of his power working in us is able to do so much more than we can ever ask for, or even think of: 21 to God be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus for all time, forever and ever! Amen.”
– Ephesians 3:14-21 (Good News Translation)

When we read from The Bible at The Commons we are always asking ourselves:

  • What do these words have to say to us today?
  • What do they mean for us as Commoners gatheredin this City of Hamilton, on this corner of Wilson & Hughson?”

Today’s passage is a Prayer by the Apostle Paul for the Ephesian church plant, but Paul is also praying for “All God’s People,” everyone who is seeking to follow after Jesus. That includes us Commoners gathered here today.

9167It seems like everyone who has had a turn teaching for this series, has been liking our Mennonite Believers Church Bible Commentary on Ephesians by Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld. I’m going to be using this as well. Any theological ideas or historical facts that I mention are taken from this book.

There are some words from our reading that I would like to highlight. Paul starts his prayer with telling us he is on his knees. Now here is one of those historical facts. Jewish prayer was usually done standing, Paul’s falling to his knees posture is that of a prisoner or someone who is about to die. Paul is starting his prayer off by submitting to God as the ultimate authority over him.

The theme of authority continues, when Paul states that “every family in heaven and on earth receives its true name” from God. “Family” is a word picture that can also be used to think about a Tribe, Group, Nation, or Community. The idea of Naming, is really a claiming. Our author—Paul—was originally named Saul, and when God claimed Saul—with a radical conversion experience—God did so by giving Saul the new name of Paul.

I can relate to this idea of claiming someone with the giving of a name. My wife and I have started a tradition where each of our kids has a virtue given to them as a middle name. One is Hope, the other is Courage. When we adopted our youngest son he came already named, but we added the middle name of Justice. The act of giving a middle name as part of the family tradition we had created was an act of us claiming this boy as part of our family. In some ways it was even more profound then us giving him our last name.

With this act of naming in our text, there is a hint that God’s parenthood and desire for redemption knows no bounds. Paul knows this first hand because he was trying to kill everyone connected to the church and in the middle of this persecution Paul was adopted into the Christian faith by Jesus himself.

sign1The parenthood nature of God is most often described as Father. This is sometimes problematic. The word Father (like every word) carries baggage:

  • It is a Gendered term, and doesn’t express the full nature of God being neither and both Melissa-and-MicheleMale & Female.
  • Even a good human Dad makes mistakes (just ask my kids) and not all human Dad’s are even good, and so the word father may not paint the same picture for everyone.
  • Father can also have a priestly connotation. Someone who is outside or above the rest of society.

When we hear Paul’s use of the word father I want you to think “Partnership,” like a Father & Sons family business. The Parent who is so excited to include their child in the family business that they say it right on the sign.

Higgs Nightsighnomore-packshotdesporte-sons-seafood6848562389_66b88bdda0100341480-steinway-piano-gettyp.530x298$_35 - Hamilton
russ-and-daughters-suitcase-magazine1-690x4001400 Bishop and sons
store front - Hamilton

Randy Art 2012 (250 of 275)Next we come to a prayer for “Power through God’s Holy Spirit.” The Greek word for Spirit is the same word for Wind or Breath. The Wind has the power to move and Breath is part of the process of naming & claiming.

As I read Paul’s prayer for us at The Commons I really latched on to the words  I ask God from the wealth of his glory to give you power through his Spirit to be strong in your inner selves” Without the Holy Spirit of God working on our inner selves our outer selves won’t be able to look anything like Jesus. I really feel like this is going to be a theme for us as a community over the next year—being sensitive and aware of the Holy Spirit and Strengthening & Nurturing our Inner Being.

I remember Pernell Goodyear (our first pastor) telling me that for the first 4 years of this church, all we talked about was “Community.” Every scripture, every story seemed to be pointing towards the importance of life lived in community. During our years at The Freeway Coffee House one of the big themes was “Justice.” Having a Third Space, selling Fair Trade Coffee, creating a culture of volunteerism, and so many of our people getting jobs in the not for profit sector, it was all about justice. I really believe that our next focus will be on the Holy Spirit. It isn’t that we have never talked about the Holy Spirit before, but I think that there is a feeling that we need to get more familiar with the Holy Spirit, and collectively learn to connect to the Spirit of God.

The Spirit that lives within the followers of Jesus then finds expression in the outer reality of the Church (in Community, Justice, Peace and all those good things) – and it is rooted in love– “God’s love, Christ’s Love, and the Our Love” each one is meant to effect & flow from the other.

Being more intentionally connected to the Holy Spirit connects us to a greater understanding of God’s love. Paul prays that we would grasp & understand God’s love in all 4 of its dimensions (wide, long, high, deep). Some scholars say that this points to the mystery of God’s love, we generally experience the world in 3 dimensions, and Paul uses 4 words to describe the dimensions of love, so we are going beyond how we normally experience things. To understand God’s love we are entering into mysterious territory, the territory of the Spirit.

CandlesAnother symbol used to understand the Holy Spirit is a Lamp, a Light , or a Burning Candle. When thinking of The Holy Spirit as light, we are, “acknowledging the spirit as the source of our inspiration, insight, mental illumination, revelation, guidance, and direction.”(

“Grasping the 4 dimensions is an invitation to grasp reality fully. Viewing reality through the Christ. This is not a personal reality, it is the truth through Christ for all Jesus Followers.

In the Message Bible, the end of Paul’s prayer is translated as:

“God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.”

So I don’t know where this “Holy Spirit Focused Leg of Our Collective Journey” is going to take us, but I do know it is time for us to try and enter deeper into God’s Spirit. There is something missing.

I have been thinking about this for a while, and with being exposed to some Spiritual Practices at our monthly Supper Clubs last year, and most recently this theme of listing to the Holy Spirit emerged about a month ago when I went to a Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC) church planting workshop. The morning was a typical church planting get together. It was organic, we each got to talk for 10 minutes about our church communities (telling everyone what is unique and cool about us). Then a lengthy lunch break was had so we could organically connect and start conversations that were sparked by the morning sharing. Still very typical and familiar church planting fair. Then it got a little crazy…

A guy named Jim Loepp Thiessen, the pastor of a Kitchener church plant called Gathering Church led us in a listening prayer exercise. Now you might be surprised that when a bunch of church planters get together that we don’t often have huge times of prayer. Networking, yes. Interactive worship, yes. A short prayer at the beginning and ending of the day, yes & yes. A whole afternoon dedicated to learning to listen to the Holy Spirit? No not the norm! So this is out of my comfort zone.

First, we were asked to partner with someone we don’t know. Not so strange, I’m thinking “They probably are just trying to get us to know each other better. we will share some prayer requests with each other and then pray together.” No, not so. Jim tells us that we are going to listen for “What is God’s heart for this person?” We are suppose to listen to the Holy Spirit concerning this person we have never met and then write that prayer down and share it with them. Well this is way out of my comfort zone!!! While nervously looking at the people around me I see that I’m not the only one out of my comfort zone.

The blank piece of paper is very intimidating and I feel no connection to the Holy Spirit, I can’t hear any divine words or glimpse any pictures from God, everything is blank like my page. Jim starts to speak into our fear. I can’t remember the exact words but I remember him saying something like:

  • “The reason I paired you with someone you don’t know is so that the Spirit’s voice is not over shadowed by your own thoughts. If you don’t know the person’s situation you have a better chance to flex your Spirit listening muscles. It is a small muscle that needs to be flexed with practice.” Practice, like a spiritual practice, perhaps I can enter into this.
  • “If nothing comes to mind just start writing and see where it goes.” I start writing slowly.
  • “Don’t worry, the worst that can happen is that when you share what you heard, it won’t resonate with the person.” He is right, I won’t be causing anyone irreparable damage, either the words resonate or they don’t. It is a process to try. My writing takes up speed, it is hard to know if these words are mine or God’s but I don’t have to decide that, I just need to participate in the exercise, stretch that muscle.
  • There must have still been some tension in the room because Jim told us “The Holy Spirit isn’t going to out you. God is not going to tell your partner your deepest darkest secret, that isn’t usually how the Spirit works. I’m not going to say that it never happens, just that it almost never happens. If you have been praying for something to come to light that you have been hiding in your life then God might choose to do that, but if you don’t want that to happen, it won’t.” Wow! any apprehension that was left in me was gone, and I gave myself over to listening and writing, with no worries about what my neighbour might be hearing for me.

I shared what I had written, and was amazed at the effect it had on my partner. It resonated in his life with things I had no knowledge of and he took it as confirmation of prayers and discussions he had already been having. Then I hear God’s heart for me. It was simple and point form, and profound with resonance. Some of the points talked to my personal insecurities, and some talked about my ministry life. Both of us were a little stunned and said that this was well out of our normal experience, but were happy to have both found resonance with what was said. There was a weight that lifted. A feeling that in the midst of all the details that we think we need to balance and juggle, that God is in control, and we don’t need to worry so much.

Jim wasn’t done, he then put us back into our table groups and said we are going to do the same listening prayer for one person at each table. He asked for a volunteer from each table, I never volunteer for anything. Mennonite pastors are a polite bunch so a couple people said “I’ll go but if someone else wants to, then I’m happy to let them.” Inside I want it to be me so bad, so I just name it “I’m going to be selfish, I really need it to be me.” It is agreed and we all sit there in silence, with everyone writing down what they are hearing from the Spirit for me. They speak them to me, and I hear resonance in a number of the responses.

The words spoken to me and the experience is very precious to me. I have actually started a prayer journal and pasted all these little bits of gold into it, so that I can hold on to the experience and the messages and not let them be lost, forgotten, or explained away.

I’m in no way an expert on listening to the Holy Spirit, but I know I want to learn more. I want this to be more natural, I want us as a community to find ways for this to be natural. The church is a diverse group, and the Holy Spirit finds unique expressions in each part. So I don’t want people to be afraid of the prospect of the Holy Spirit being our next collective theme. Will we become a Charismatic Church? Will we all become Mystics and live in a cave? No, I think we can learn from other traditions but that our journey will be our own.

So again not being an expert I have been going back and forth all week about whether we try a listening prayer exercise. I’ve decided to be brave and to ask you to go out on a limb with me. Now I’m not going to pair you up, we all know each other too well. I found a more solitary exercise on line.

Love Casts out Fear - Nick SI want you to look at this “Love Casts Out Fear” image By Nick Schuurman (see more of Nick’s beautiful art here), just to name that this is a scary thing, and that it is OK to feel apprehensive. That being said, I’m also going to ask you to try and flex your listening muscle. Remember the worst that can happen, is nothing will happen.

Here is An Exercise in Listening to God by Marjorie J. Thompson

  • Compose yourself in quiet.
  • Breathe deeply and gently.
  • Re-collect yourself before God.
  • Ponder a significant question you have about your life (not an abstract question).
  • Pose your question to God.
  • It may help to imagine asking Jesus.
  • Be in silence, open to what comes. Don’t try to think up an answer.
  • Allow images, impressions, words, feelings, intuitions to surface.
  • If insights arise, note them on paper

If nothing comes to you, don’t worry! Try one of these ideas later in your week:

  • Go for a walk with no agenda.
  • Pick up clay, paper and crayons, or some creative medium and just play.
  • Journal a dialogue: allow an interior conversation to unfold between you and God/Jesus/Spirit.

If something comes to you as gift, give thanks!
If you think you might have gotten a clue, pray to stay alert to further signs.
If nothing discernible happened, ask to hear/see what you need over the next few days.

Exercise taken from pp. 127 of The Way of Discernment, Leader’s Guide 
by Marjorie J. Thompson.