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The Butterfly Effect

Sunday in the Octave of St Peter: 4th July, 2010
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Luke 10:1-12, 17-20

Physicists these days sometimes speak about the 'Butterfly Effect'. It is a feature of the mathematics of chaotic systems. Put simply, it describes the way that an apparently insignificant effect, like the motion of a butterfly's wing, can be amplified by Nature to produce dramatic and spectacular effects, sometimes many kilometres away.

Normally, if you throw a stone in a lake, the circular ripples you generate quickly die away as they expand from the point of impact. But in some circumstances those ripples do not die away. They are reinforced to become larger and larger waves. Thus, for instance, according to chaos theory, the minor disturbance in the atmosphere caused by the beat of that butterfly's wing could give rise to a hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or a monsoon in Bangladesh. This is why predicting the weather more than a few days ahead is such a complex, some would say impossible, business.

The Butterfly effect doesn't only operate in the sphere of meteorology — sometimes it can be seen at work in history too. The ripples of Jesus' one solitary life did not die away at death. On the contrary, the effects of Jesus' coming have increased in amplitude and expanded in diameter, until they have become great tidal waves encompassing the entire globe.

The Book of Acts traces the early progress of those ever-increasing circles of Jesus' influence. It is in fact the second part of a two-volume treatise. We know the first part as the Gospel of Luke. Both parts are dedicated to the same man, Theophilus. He may well have been a Roman aristocrat, for Luke, the author, addresses him as 'Your Excellency'. It seems that Luke writes them in order to inform an educated Gentile of the extra-ordinary and growing effect of Christianity on the world. And Acts is a further contribution towards that goal. In the opening verse of Acts, Luke writes: 'In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach.' (Acts 1.1) Notice the word 'began'. In his Gospel, Luke told us how Jesus was born in an obscure village to a peasant woman. He told us how he grew up in the humble home of Joseph the carpenter. He recounted his short adult ministry; which though supernatural was confined within the boundaries of Judea and its neighbouring provinces. Even his preaching the 'good news' was confined, for the most part to Palestine. But there were hints that his mission was to have a 'Butterfly Effect' and that the 'good news' was for the whole world.

Today's Gospel passage represents one of those hints of Jesus about the world wide mission of the church. In sending 70 (or as some manuscripts say 72 disciples) ahead of him in pairs on a mission, our Lord is employing symbolism. The number is usually thought to be symbolic of the nations of the world, a view the Jews based on Genesis chapter 10, where there are 70 nations according to the Hebrew text and 72 in the Greek translation of the Hebrew text known as the Septuagint. Hence, the different numbers in various translations. I might say that Australia and New Zealand are not mentioned in the list of nations in Genesis 10 but Luke understands this number as 'representative geography'. The number 70 or 72 symbolizes the 'whole world'.

When Luke gets to the end of the Gospel account with the story of Jesus death and resurrection, it is not all over! In his second volume, it is as though he is saying, 'this is only the end of the beginning. There is much more to come yet.' The story of this one solitary life did not end with death or even resurrection and ascension. Jesus is still doing things in the world and having a more and more conspicuous effect upon human history as the circles of his influence spread further and further afield. Indeed, he is not going to be satisfied until those ever-increasing circles have embraced the four corners of the world.

At the beginning of Acts, his disciples asked him, 'Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?' The minds of the disciples are clearly focused around the destiny of their own nation — Israel. In spite of all Jesus' teaching and hints, their ideas of the kingdom of God are still fundamentally chauvinistic and territorial. They have yet to understand the 'Butterfly Effect'. They haven't got the message of the 70 or 72 — with its meaning of the 'whole world'. So that there could be no mistake about the scope of the mission, the risen Lord said to the disciples: 'You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.' (Acts 1:8) This verse constitutes the agenda of the whole Book of Acts.

'Listen,' says Jesus, 'the ripples which my death and resurrection have set in motion must expand: first here in Jerusalem, but then in Judea and Samaria and finally to the ends of the earth. And you, my disciples, are going to play a key role in that expansion process. You will be my witnesses.'

The Book of Acts is, in many ways, simply the record of the fulfilment of that agenda. It chronicles how the apostles did indeed take the news of Jesus' resurrection to the world, so that instead of his influence petering out after his departure, it grew greater and greater until the 'Butterfly Effect' of his life sent waves battering on the very capital of the ancient world itself. What we find in the Book of Acts is the very remarkable story of how a group of immensely chauvinistic Jews broke out of the cultural box of their parent Judaism and began to baptise into one church of Jesus Christ, first Samaritans, and eventually uncircumcised Gentiles.

Peter, our patron, was involved in this 'Butterfly Effect'. In Acts we read how he was led to the home of a Gentile Centurion, Cornelius. There he was to learn that it was no longer appropriate to apply the distinction of 'clean' and 'unclean' either to what you eat, or 'with whom you eat it'. 'God has shown me', he says, 'that I should not call any one impure or unclean'. The story is so pivotal that Luke repeats it no less than three times in Acts. God brought Peter from being a man of his Jewish culture to being a man of an international Kingdom. 'Who then was I to deny baptism to Cornelius and his household?' he asks.

All this was part of a centripetal movement from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria and ultimately to Rome. Each of these key geographical markers is important to Luke, but eventually they become dispensable. The temple and mount Zion give way to a new Temple that was not a location but a people. The special image begins to lose its geographical reference. Jews and Gentiles, insiders and outsiders of God's covenant with Israel, are able to enter God's presence in the Temple. In the church both have access to God. God's presence is now among his people in the metaphorical Temple they themselves compose.

This new centre is 'everywhere and nowhere', just as with the advent of postmodern globalization the ends of the earth are everywhere and nowhere. God's people move from place to place, but not from a geographical centre to a geographical periphery. Mission now is 'from everywhere to everywhere'. As we saw on a recent ABC TV Compass program, mission in the Roman Catholic Church is from Nigeria to Tasmania. It's under our noses. It's overseas. It's next door.

We Anglicans are not good at witnessing to our faith. In fact, we have turned the 'Great Commission' to make disciples of all nations into the 'Great Suggestion' which we proceed to totally disregard in our individual lives and our church planning. We easily become a ghetto, preoccupied with our domestic life, ignoring the plight of the least, the lost and the lonely. Or worse still, some us have made 'The Great Commission' the 'Great Omission', claiming that evangelism is something that is the prerogative of evangelical Christians alone. Even though Brian McLaren considers himself an evangelical, he says that the word 'evangelism' has become 'so bastardized that I can hardly bear to use it'.[1]

A report entitled, Sharing the Gospel of Salvation has just been released in the Church of England, with a very helpful forward written by the archbishop of Canterbury and the archbishop of York. It is an attempt to clear up some of the misconceptions that Anglicans have about evangelism. Let me conclude by mentioning just three points from this important report.

1. The report reminds the church that it began because evangelism happened

The Church of England's roots lie in the process of conversion, of 'Christians sharing the gospel with non-Christians and these non-Christians then accepting Christianity in place of one of the many other forms of religious belief prevalent in the later Roman Empire'. We are in church today, because some one has shared the Gospel with us.

2. The report calls for confidence in our Gospel message

For 2000 years the apostolic faith has been subject to every form of attack and it is still here and thriving. One is reminded of G.K.Chesterton's comment that five times the church went to the dogs and each time it was the dog that died.

This report urges Christians not to be shy of expressing their convictions in a multifaith society. 'Our other faith partners wish us to be unashamedly Christian'.

3. The report emphasizes the importance of genuine trust and friendship

'Sharing the gospel' it says, 'is not an exercise in the selling of a product in a competitive marketplace of religions'. 'Christ's saving work is not a commodity to be sold but a gift to be shared. If we keep always in mind the central insight that it is not we who bring others to Christ but God working in them, we can avoid colluding in the marketing mindset which would paint every evangelist as a huckster and portray God's children as 'targets' for conversion. ... Without trust there will always be suspicion and a sense of being used for some other purpose.'

'Trust is created through personal human encounter, often in the simplest human activities of conversation about the ordinary things of life, through sharing food and through little gestures of kindness and appreciation.'

Our Lord promised Peter that even the 'gates of hell' are no match for the tidal power of a church built on the solid rock of the confession that Peter himself made when he declared Jesus to be the 'Christ, the Son of the Living God'. Let us remind ourselves every day with thanksgiving that we are members of St Peter's Church and every day hang on to that simple promise of Our Lord that the future of his church is as solid as a rock, where there is enthusiastic ongoing and outgoing mission. Let's not be ashamed of the 'Good News' Peter proclaimed. Let's rather, like him, be determined to be part of the 'Butterfly Effect' that can magnify the impact of our lives as it magnified his testimony.


[1] Brian McLaren, More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2002) p.12.


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