Monthly Archives: March 2016



[Friday, March 25]  Today is Good Friday. Tomorrow is referred to as Holy Saturday and on Sunday Christians celebrate Easter—the most important feast in the Christian calendar. As I was contemplating what Easter sermon I was going to preach my thoughts somehow turned to a document from the early Christian church: The Mystagogical Catacheses of Saint Cyrill (the bishop of Jerusalem towards the end of the fourth century AD). The reason that I am rather well acquainted with this writing of this important church father is the fact that, in the 1970’s, I had to study the Greek text of this document as part of my studies for a degree at the University of London.

In this text Cyrill provides us with am extensive, but fascinating, picture of what happened in the church in Jerusalem during the night preceding Easter Sunday. It was considered the most suitable moment to baptize those who had been instructed in the Christian teachings. The baptism was by immersion; it was preceded and followed by a whole range of different rites—most of which gradually disappeared in the passing of time. When the night had ended the newly-baptized were allowed to participate for the very first time in the Eucharist—the Lord’s Supper. A remarkable aspect was also that the newly baptized were now given the privilege of praying ‘the Lord’s Prayer’. They had now become true children of God’s family and thus they were now entitled to address God, together with others, as ‘our Father’. Baptism was, however, the central event in this ‘holy’ night. As Christ had risen from death on Easter morning, likewise the newly-baptized now had symbolically risen with Christ from the grave, so that they could begin in new life with their risen Lord.

Reading and studying this lengthy Greek text posed, at the time, quite a challenge for me. Somehow its memory re-emerges when Easter time has come. For a moment I considered to use this document as the basis for my Easter sermon, but then I did not immediately see how I would do this. And so, I started to delve in the sermon collection of my forty-plus years of preaching, and hunted for a sermon that I might choose and adapt for this week.  When I go back to sermons I have preached in the past, I sometimes encounter some that I would not want to use again. There are some sermons that make me wonder: How did I ever dare to present something like this to the people? But occasionally it also happens that I am happily surprised and conclude (perhaps with a sense of misplaced satisfaction): This was quite a good sermon!  That was the sense I had when I found the Easter sermon that I preached once before, namely in 2009 in the church in Zeeland. I knew straight away: This is the sermon I will use again this Saturday morning.

This then is the sermon I will take along when I drive tomorrow morning to Utrecht. There is one aspect that I will emphasize even stronger than I did in 2009. After his resurrection Jesus Christ appeared a number of times to his disciples and to a number of other people. At one occasion he was seen by a few hundred people (1 Corinthians 15:6). It struck me then, and now again, that the Lord was only seen by people who already knew him. That included the 500, who are referred to as ‘brethren’. Could this perhaps explain why today so few people are able to discern an other Reality behind the eggs and the Easter bunny? Could it be that today also Christ only appears to those who already know him, and have followed him for some time, while remaining unseen by those who do not believe in him? That will be the Easter message that I take with me to Utrecht tomorrow. Thank God that Christ is willing to appear to us and to be a living presence in our lives. The sermon will be shorter and simpler than the multi-hour ceremonial in Cyrill’s days in Jerusalem, but I hope that nonetheless tomorrow the message will also ‘land’ in Utrecht.


Learning about being different


It is already some eight or nine years ago that I was invited by the Kinship organization to present a few worships to European Kinship members during a few days somewhere in the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant. I have forgotten the name of the place where we were together in a small seminar hotel. For those readers who do not know what the Kinship organization is all about: Kinship wants to provide support to (mostly) Adventist people with a ‘different’ sexual orientation.

Of course, I knew, before I went to this place, something about homosexuality. I had met gay people or persons whom I suspected of being gay or lesbian. And I was aware of the fact that there are also Adventist church members who are ‘different’. But it was during this meeting that, for the first time in my life, I was together with Adventists who were very open about their sexual orientation. These days proved to be a tremendous eye opener for me. I listened to the, often tragic, stories of men and women who had been awfully treated by their church. Some even had been denied membership in our church, even though they had been attending church and had supported their church for decades. Up to that time I had not made any in-depth study of the topic and had hardly thought about the theological aspects. I still had the idea that it might be possible for a person to change his/her orientation. And there were also other major gaps in my knowledge of what it means to be ‘different’.

Since that time I have regularly attended Kinship meetings and have been in frequent contact with Adventists who are gay or lesbian. I have read about it and at times written about it. Some of the comments I received were positive, but some were also quite critical (to phrase it very euphemistically). In recent times I have been invited in various places to explain how my views have developed over time, and why I think that my church ought to give full space for members who are gay or lesbian, so that they will not only feel welcome  but may also participate fully in the life of the church.

Last Monday, quite early in the morning, my wife and I got in our car to drive to a small town in Germany, some 50 kilometers south-east of Frankfurt-am-Main, for the annual meeting of a group of Kinship-‘allies’—people who have some influence in the church and who want to have a better understanding of what it means to be gay or lesbian and want to plead for more understanding and tolerance in the Adventist Church (considering that this still leaves much to be desired.) My week was not going to be very hectic. I was scheduled to give two 30-minute worships and to give two presentations about the theological issues around homosexuality. Most of the time I spent listening and took part in the discussions.

I must admit I still have quite a few questions for which I have no answers. As a heterosexual I still do not really understand what it means to be gay. But in recent years I have discovered that the percentage of gays and lesbians in the Adventist Church is not smaller than elsewhere in society. Quite regularly people (who sometimes have not yet come ‘out of the closet’) tell me of their experiences, or fathers (and especially mothers) tell me about their son or daughter . . . They appreciate meeting and talking to someone who knows something about the topic and does not stand ready with a judgment.  This has stimulated me to be an ‘ally’ (of ‘friend’ might be a better word) of Kinship and to continue my study of the issues—even if not all people think that this is a good idea. This week has given me an even stronger commitment to do what I can to make my church a ‘safe place’ for my brothers and sisters who are ‘different’.


Rwanda and ‘the 28′


Rwanda is a relatively small country in Central Africa. It dominated the news headlines in 1994 because of the terrible genocide in which at least 800.000 people were brutally killed during the bloody tribal conflict between the Hutu’s and the Tutsi’s.

Rwanda is a little smaller than the Netherlands (respectively about 26.000 and 42.000 square kilometers). The current population of this fertile country, with a pleasant climate, stands at almost 12 million. The Rwandese people are very religious. A little more than half of them are Roman Catholics. About 36 percent of the population is Protestant. Seventh-day Adventists represent with 11 percent of the people (or ca. 1,3 million persons) a rather prominent section of Protestantism. The data are provided by the Rwandese government and include also non-baptized family members. According to the statistics of the Adventist Church it has a little over half a million names on its membership rolls.

A significant part of the population has had some education and is literate. The literacy percentage for adult women is between 50 and 60 percent and for adult men a bit higher.

Why did I look for these data? The reason is that the Adventist Church in Rwanda features at this moment rather prominently in the Adventist press. A big-scale, nation-wide evangelistic campaign is under way, in which even the president of the General Conference will actively participate. Everywhere in the country series of meetings are being held and in the near future a massive ‘harvest’ is expected. Until recently a baptism of some 60.000 people was projected. The Adventist Review reported a few days ago that the Rwandese church leaders now believe that in May as many as 100.000 people will be baptized.

These are incomprehensible numbers, especially for church members in the Netherlands where a baptism of five persons is considered a major ‘success’. Surely, in a country like Rwanda it is easier to persuade people to become Adventists than it is in Western Europe. But one should not have the idea that in Rwanda new members grow like ripe oranges on a tree along the waterside, and that these will automatically fall into the water as soon as someone shakes the tree just a little. I am sure an enormous amount of hard work is being done, with many pastors and others working in over-drive. And I must assume that there is an colossal amount of organization behind all of this.

It is great to see how the church grows exponentially in many parts of the world. But I do wonder to what extent it is possible the teach all these 100.000 new members—in a relatively short period of some months—all 28 Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This question is even more pressing when we assume (as seems reasonable to do) that a major percentage of these new members are people who have decided to leave the Catholic Church and are men and women who cannot read or write. Roman Catholic Christians are not particularly known for their extensive knowledge of the Bible and Adventists are expected to read their Bible and study their sabbatschool lesson faithfully!

How much will these new members, at the moment of their baptism, know of the Adventist teachings? I assume they will have heard of the Second Coming of Christ and of the Sabbath and that they have understood that baptism by immersion is the only valid form of baptism. But how many of them will know about a heavenly sanctuary? And will they be able to explain the essence of the ‘three angels’ messages’? Will they have a clue about the prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation? Have they even heard the name of Ellen White? To be honest, it does not bother me too much. If these people want to be baptized, they are—as far as I am concerned—very welcome and I believe that in the years to come they will gradually learn more about what it means to be a Seventh-day Adventist.

However, I would like to ask some church leaders why they keep emphasizing that one cannot be a good Adventists if one does not fully accept all the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. Why is there such a high threshold for people in the secularized West who have discovered the Adventist Church and not for the people in Rwanda? Maybe some day these leaders will explain it to me. But in the meantime I say to my new fellow-brothers and –sisters in Rwanda: Welcome! Or in their own Kinyarwanda languages: Karibu Sana!


Bridges, no walls


The world was ecstatic with joy when on November 9, 1989 the Berlin wall ‘fell’. Since 1961 the wall had split the city in two parts. After World War II there were two Germany’s, and now there were also two Berlins. The city was painfully cut in two, with families and friends separated from each other. When people tried to scale the wall shots were fired, sometimes with fatal consequences. Some attempt to flee to the West were successful, for others they ended in tragedy. The Berlin wall was a construction of concrete, but it functioned also as a symbol for everything that separates humans from each other. Of one thing we were sure in 1989: this must never happen again. This is something we do not want to see again, ever!

This was just over 25 years ago. For people in Western-Europe Berlin has become a favorite destination for a long weekend, a few days away from home. Tourists look for the small portion of the wall that remains and they visit the museum, close to the former Checkpoint Charlie, that tells them about the wall and attempts to pass it. But, other than that, the wall sinks ever deeper in our collective memory.

Strangely enough, today we  once more see and hear  political leaders and political parties that want to build walls. ‘Large numbers of people in Western Europe loudly proclaim that we must ‘close our borders’. Sad to say: We hear such voices also in the Netherlands! These voices are, in fact, calling for new walls, while not so long ago we were delighted that we could travel in a large part of Europe without ever showing a passport.

We hear people about the need for physical walls, barriers of barbed wire, or high fences that will stop the movement op people flooding into Europe. The argument is that we must create a barrier to stop the tsunami of refugees. We are told that there are actually lots of fortune hunters, (economic refugees) among the asylum-seekers. The Balkan-route must no longer be an attractive option.

On the other side of the ocean Donald Trump tirelessly advocates the construction of a barrier along the Southern border of the United States, to stop the flow of Mexicans. He has said that he would also like to see a fence along the border between the United States and Canada, but he realizes this is somewhat more difficult to realize, with a border that stretches over many thousands of miles.

In some exceptional cases it may be necessary to build a wall. As long as we have prisons it may be unavoidable. And who can forbid homeowners to put a fence around their property?  But, in general, the principle should be: building bridges is much better than constructing walls. Civilized nations—certainly when they brag about their Judeo-Christian roots—must do everything they can to prevent the erection of walls between nations and people groups.

The New Testament tells us (Ephesians 2:14-16) that Jesus came to remove all walls between people. In his days there still was a barrier in the precinct of the Jerusalem temple, between the area that was reserved for the Jews and the section where others were also allowed. This wall, we are told, has been removed forever. It is a symbol for the removal of all walls between people, everywhere.

I do not deny that our political leaders face immense problems around illegal immigration and that the refugee crisis in Europe is extremely complicated. But building walls cannot be part of a solution. And, by the way, this also applies to the church. Whenever there are walls between individuals or groups, who have  diverse opinions or interests, we need builders of bridges and not of builders of walls.