Here is today’s sermon. It’s slightly shorter than usual, because it was preached in an all age communion service. I have left in the references to where the PowerPoint slides fall. If you would like to see the PowerPoint, please email me via the contact page.
There’s one word that stuck out for me in the Easter story this year. It’s not a word you would expect when Easter usually makes us happy.
[SLIDE 2] The word is ‘fear’. What makes us afraid? Suggestions?
There are two groups of people who are afraid in the reading. The soldiers are afraid when the angel appears, rolls away the stone and perches on top of it (verse 4). And the women who go to the tomb are afraid when they arrive (verse 5) and afraid when they leave (verse 8).
Today we’ll think about those two groups of people – the soldiers and the women – and why they were afraid. This will help us understand the importance of the Easter story for us.
Firstly, the soldiers. You can’t blame them for being afraid, can you? It’s not every day that an angel shows up at your place of work and undoes everything you are trying to protect.
Think about what the angel did. In the verses of Matthew’s Gospel just before today’s reading, we hear how the religious authorities asked Pontius Pilate to make the tomb of Jesus secure so that the body could not be stolen. Pilate agrees, and as well as posting some soldiers to guard the tomb, he has a seal put on the stone (Matthew 27:62-66).
We need to think about that seal. What kind of seal was it? Was it this kind of seal? [SLIDE 3]
No: it was a wax seal, like this one [SLIDE 4]. It was the seal of the Roman Emperor, rather like the way even today we put wax seals on legal documents. The seal of the Roman Emperor was not to be broken. Effectively it said, “No-one should tamper with this – on pain of death!”
Well, it’s a good job angels aren’t too worried about the laws of the empire and the penalties for breaking them. And the fear of the guards isn’t just their fear at this sudden, unexpected supernatural act. It’s the fear of empires. It’s the sign that governments and powerful institutions need to fear the kingdom of God.
What do I mean? Well, all sorts of organisations and institutions behave as if they have the final say in the world. Dictators. Governments. Armies. Powerful companies. The media – television stations, newspapers, Internet giants. They think they run our world. They think they can’t be stopped.
[SLIDE 5] Kim Jong-Un can do his worst in North Korea. He can even send his henchmen into a London barber’s shop that mocked his instruction that all men have to have the same haircut as him. But one day he will answer to God.
[SLIDE 6] Rupert Murdoch can run his media empire. His journalists can listen to people’s private mobile phone messages, and his newspapers can print photos that degrade women, but one day he will have to bow down to the God who bursts open sealed tombs.
You name them. If they have power in this world – even and especially big power – then the angel at the tomb reminds them that their power will not last forever. They can do all sorts of things now, but on Easter Day we laugh at their power, because we know who has ultimate power and who gets the last laugh.
Secondly, the women. They are afraid, too, but unlike the soldiers, the angel says to them, ‘Do not be afraid’ (verse 5) and he invites them to view the tomb. He hasn’t rolled away the stone for Jesus to walk out: he has rolled away the stone so the women can go in and realise that Jesus is risen. When they leave, their fear isn’t completely cured, but it is at least mixed with joy (verse 8). [SLIDE 9]
You can’t blame the women for being completely weirded out by the movement of the stone, the presence of the angel, and the absence of Jesus’ body. They never expected any of this. Now they are completely spooked.
But they get to hear the good news: ‘Do not be afraid.’ The resurrection might be bad news for the powerful, but it’s good news for those who follow Jesus. The women get to be the first witnesses of the resurrection. [SLIDE 10]
And you have to stop and think for a moment about how amazing that is. The women are the first witnesses. That might not sound remarkable to us, but two thousand years ago that was revolutionary. Women were not allowed to be witnesses. Only men. In fact, if you want another sign that the Easter story is true alongside what we heard in the Question Time sketch after the reading, this is an additional piece of evidence.
Don’t be afraid, says the angel to the women – people who don’t count in their society, people on the margins, people that the powerful would rather were invisible. These invisible people get the call to take on the most important job on the planet – being witnesses to the risen Jesus. [SLIDE 11]
Yes, before anyone else they get to learn that the risen Jesus will go ahead of his followers – a great promise when we do not know what lies ahead. They get to know that the risen Jesus will meet his followers – the promise that we are never alone in this world.
And it gets even better. The risen Jesus makes them jump out of their skin by suddenly meeting them while they are on their way to tell the disciples (verse 9).
The resurrection, then, turns our world upside-down. [SLIDE 12] Sure, we have to be aware of the powerful, but we don’t need to pay them the respect that many do, because the angels of the risen Jesus are rolling the stones away from their places of death. And when God one day raises all the dead from their graves, their time will be up. Let’s not pretend that the powerful have the last say in this world.
Instead, Easter entrusts the good news to the nobodies. Those who will never gain political power. Those who will never found a multinational company. Those who will never have influence in the media. They get to know that the risen Jesus goes ahead of them and with them. They get to tell the whole world this good news.
And when we face those experiences, the last thing we need is to hear Christian clichés and pious platitudes. In a web article called ‘God Has Let Me Down. There. I Said It’, a woman called Joy talks about having one daughter with heart defects, brain injury and cerebral palsy who died young, other children who are bullied, and one child who says to her, “I have tried praying, but I get no answer. People say they hear God, but I don’t.” In the face of all this, Joy has little patience for those who tell her, “People will let you down, but your Father God will never let you down,” or “God’s ways are not our ways,” and so on.
So my theme for Palm Sunday this year is, Jesus Will Disappoint You.
Now you may think that’s outrageous. We’ve just read the story of the so-called ‘Triumphal Entry’. He has been welcomed with palm branches, crowds have laid their cloaks on the ground like first-century Walter Raleighs, they have sung his praises and acclaimed him king … what could possibly go wrong?
I may not agree with Samuel Crossman, the author of the hymn ‘My Song Is Love Unknown’, who posits that the very crowd who praised Jesus on his entry to Jerusalem is the same mob that called for his crucifixion in place of Barabbas – I think that’s a different group of people – but the Palm Sunday supporters of Jesus will be disappointed by him. He comes in peace, not war. He takes on the religious establishment, but not the occupying Roman forces. He ends up on a cross.
I think we can safely say that isn’t what they were expecting when they sang Jesus’ praises.
When I went to Spring Harvest in its earliest years, there was always a seminar on the final full day before going home that tackled the issue of what to do when you got home. The organisers in those early days knew that while it was uplifting to worship for a week in a big tent with four thousand other Christians, led by a team of crack musicians and inspiring preachers and teachers, it would be very different back home. There would be rickety Mrs Smith on the harmonium, a boring preacher in the pulpit, and a few dozen scattered around a stone edifice from which the brown and green paint is peeling.
Or we have wider disappointments. Perhaps we have great hopes for the church. They might be simply for our own congregation, when we think we are entering a new phase where great strides will be made for the kingdom of God, or we may anticipate a new Spring for the church generally, such as in the 1990s, when on the back of certain dramatic events attributed to the Holy Spirit, many church leaders confidently predicted a spiritual revival in .
Our disappointments, then, may be personal or communal, but there is no doubt we shall have them, and there is no doubt that many of them will not be fixed by Jesus in the way we want.
Well, that’s all pretty bleak, isn’t it? You’ve come to church looking to taste something of the Good News of Jesus Christ, only to be told by some Eeyore in the pulpit that there is none.
Not exactly. But we Christians are too quick to jump to the happy ending, like people who give up reading a novel and skip to the last page. We don’t stay with the tension of the story as we wait for problems to be resolved. We came for good news, and if we can skip all the intervening messy stuff and just go to the good bits. We need the reminder the little girl received when she asked her mother, “Mummy, do all fairy tales end with the words, ‘And they all lived happily ever after’?”
“No,” replied Mum, “some say, ‘When I became a Christian all my troubles were over.’”
We live out our faith in Jesus in a broken, sin-cracked world. And yes, we do know the ‘happy ever after’ ending, and yes, that is the basis for our hope. But we do people a disservice when we minimise their present troubles by rushing to the end of the story.
Imagine Gethsemane, but envision it differently from the way you know the story. See Jesus praying in agony, needing the support of his friends. But instead of them falling asleep and letting him down, can you conceive of Jesus coming to them, asking them to watch and pray even though ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’, and Simon Peter leaping to his feet, saying, “I don’t know what you’re worried about, Master. I know you predicted that you would be betrayed, suffer and die, but you also prophesied that you would be raised from the dead! Everything’s going to be fine!”
Do you suppose that was the kind of support Jesus was looking for in the Garden? Somehow I don’t think so. Yet it’s the kind of encouragement we sometimes offer to people in the church. And when we do this, we let people down. We trivialise their present suffering. We dissolve their current questions. It doesn’t exactly affirm them, does it? Of course the future brings light into darkness, but the road to the empty tomb is riddled with stones and potholes. As the Anglican bishop Nick Baines wrote five years ago at this season,
On Easter Day it is traditional for the service to begin with the vicar proclaiming: ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen!’ The congregation responds: ‘He is risen indeed. Alleluia!’ I think this might be a bit wrong. If we are faithful to the Gospels, the congregation should really respond to the proclamation of resurrection: ‘What?! Don’t be so ridiculous!’ Why? Because the disciples of Jesus did not respond to his resurrection with unbridled joy, but rather with bewilderment and suspicion and doubt.
Even on Palm Sunday, Matthew whispers to us, disappointment can be detected in the atmosphere. As the crowd spread cloaks for him, reminiscent of what people did when Elisha anointed the warrior Jehu king over Israel, and as they acclaim him ‘Son of David’, a messianic title, they fail to notice his mode of transport. He is coming in peace to establish the kingdom of God. Therefore to engage in conflict the powers and authorities as he soon will is more or less to guarantee a grisly fate. Institutions don’t easily release their grip on power, and will often do all sorts of things – scrupulous and unscrupulous – to keep their talons clinging on. That is what they will do with Jesus, and he knows it when he selects a donkey and a colt.
This, though, tells us that although Jesus will disappoint the hopes of his most ardent supporters, he will let them down in order to do something deeper and more wonderful than they could ever have imagined. It cannot be revealed by jumping past the unpleasant parts. It can only come as Jesus journeys all the way into the darkness. And we need to take that same trip with those who today are suffering or disappointed.
But at the same time, the hope is there for those who will not look for a short-cut but who will embrace the disappointment of Jesus in order to find his purposes. It is indeed true that ‘his ways are not our ways’, but we do not learn that by repeating it as a platitude, we learn that by going into the depths with him.
And we need to be ready for the fact that the way he will deliver us in the end will be something we could not possibly have imagined, let alone requested. Just as none of Jesus’ followers expected the Cross as central to salvation, so they also did not expect the Resurrection. If they were good Jews (and provided they were not Sadducees, which none of his disciples seems to have been) then they believed that God would raise the dead at the end of time, following the prophecy of Daniel 12. But not one of them was looking for an empty tomb, despite Jesus’ own predictions of it. Those times when Jesus foretold of his suffering and resurrection simply didn’t register in their minds at the time, because it didn’t fit with their sincere but limited understandings of God’s ways.
The disappointment of Jesus, then, opens us to new ways of God’s working in the world. I don’t mean that in order to give licence to the kind of people who jump onto the latest cultural bandwagon and say it’s what God is doing in the world, but I do mean that our vision of God is limited, and our understanding of his ways – however faithfully we study the Scriptures – will always be finite. Sometimes we get so caught up in our own assumptions and our spiritual short-sightedness that we miss what God is doing.
Remember, for example, George Whitefield challenging John Wesley to preach in the open air to the miners at Kingswood in 1739. Wesley was convinced it was a sin to preach anywhere except in a church building! But God used Whitefield to lead Wesley into what would be central to his life’s work.
Or consider those who object to musical instruments other than the organ in church worship. Guitars and drums are apparently unholy. But such people forget that at one stage in church history that was exactly how people thought of organs in church! It used to be a requirement in Methodist churches that hymn-singing be unaccompanied, and until recent times even the singing at the annual Methodist Conference was without musical instrumentation, facilitated rather by a precentor.
Or think about those who have witnessed the decline and death of a church, or even suffered such hostility in an existing church, that they have gone outside the existing patterns, grieved for their loss, and then started something new with a small group of friend in their living room, or maybe in a pub. Oh, wait – that last example would be Knaphill Methodist Church in 1866, wouldn’t it?
Yes, the God who disappoints is also the God who re-creates, the God of new creation. I think of one of Paul’s prayers in Ephesians where he praises ‘him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine’ (Ephesians 3:20). Or I think back to last week’s Lectionary and my sermon at Addlestone on John 11, the raising of Lazarus, where Jesus causes immense disappointment by refraining from visiting Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters lived until after he had died. But then, having allowed Mary and Martha to begin a journey into grief, he does something extraordinarily beyond their expectations in raising their brother back to life.
I don’t know whether you see Palm Sunday as frothy or as joyful. But either way, I urge you not to let the emotional ecstasy of the crowd mislead you. Start this year’s Holy Week journey as a trajectory downwards into darkness and disappointment. Our God does answer prayer, but he doesn’t have a white beard and he doesn’t wear a red costume. At some point either his answers will disappoint you, or his lack of an answer will disappoint you. it’s even how he treated his Son.
But then, when all hopes have been dashed to pieces on the rocks, witness what God does instead. It may well not be what you originally desired. But it will be new, transforming, and far better than you dared imagine.
This is the faith we embrace as we enter Holy Week. Let us open our arms to greet it.
I want to tell you about a book I have just finished reading. It is one of the best I have read in many a year. It isn’t one of the academic theological books I read. It’s one I want to recommend to my congregations. Unfortunately, I can’t wave my copy in front of you, because I read an electronic version on my Kindle. I could wave my Kindle at you, but that wouldn’t make much sense.
The book is called ‘Resurrection Year’, and it is by an Australian author called Sheridan Voysey. He is a successful radio presenter who has achieved his dream of broadcasting a talk show about life and faith across his native land. But his wife Merryn, a medical statistician, longs to start a family. It is their unfulfilled dream. The opening chapters of the book are a journal of ten years in their marriage when they hope to have a child. They are told they are exceptionally good prospects as adoptive parents, but no phone call about a child to adopt ever comes. When they tell the adoption authorities they want to try IVF again, they are told they cannot remain as potential adopters.
Several rounds of IVF fail. They take one last chance, and all the tests indicate that Merryn is pregnant. They tell their friends and family that a baby is on the way. But it’s one last false dawn. Yes, a gestational sac is growing, but there is no foetus. They have to let their dream of having children die.
The rest of the book chronicles their questions and struggles in faith. God never answers their ‘why’ questions. It also tells how they rebuilt their lives with new hopes – their ‘resurrection’.
For many of us – perhaps most, possibly even all of us – the life of faith bumps up at one or more times in our lives with broken dreams. We hoped for something big. It never happened, or it did but it was taken away from us. Since Mum’s death six weeks ago, our daughter has been asking question after question about why God couldn’t have done things differently for Nanny, or why we will have to wait so long before being reunited with her in Heaven.
I am sure you can add your own examples. In some cases, I know what they will include. For others of you, I do not necessarily know.
But of this I am sure: the Bible knows of this very dilemma, and we do so in today’s Gospel reading as Jesus approaches Jerusalem. The death of Lazarus is a broken dream. And Jesus just seems to make it worse. He knows Lazarus is ill, and he stays away. Not much of a pastoral visitor, was he? Lazarus is a friend. Mary and Martha are friends (verse 5). But still – in a culture where medicine was so primitive – he stays away two more days (verse 6).
So the first thing I want us to appreciate this morning is a painful, yet hopeful truth: Jesus is involved in our broken dreams. Broken dreams do not mean the absence of God, even if they do mean a loss of hopes. We do not understand why Jesus’ work in our broken dreams is what it is – Mary and Martha don’t really receive much of an explanation – but that doesn’t change the fact that he is still here.
It’s rather like the Book of Job. Lots of people are under the misapprehension that the story of Job gives us an explanation for the existence of suffering and of a good God. But it doesn’t. Job only answers one question: ‘Is there such a thing as innocent suffering?’ Its answer is ‘Yes’. When Job finally comes before God towards the end of the book with his questions, God doesn’t answer them. In fact, God more or less says, ‘Where were you when I created the world?’
If Jesus is still involved in our lives when he doesn’t answer our prayers for the fulfilment of our dreams, then what is our response? In one respect, our response is simple, but probably not what we want to do. We simply hang on to him in the disappointment.
That can be tough. But if it is, then remember these things. When we are screaming at God for not bringing to pass the things we have cherished in our hearts, we are not complaining from a position of unbelief. Rather, we are like the child beating their fists against their father’s chest, all the while being held in his arms. God is still holding us in our pain. He may not be answering us for reasons that are inscrutable to us, but he is still holding us.
And moreover this: when God is holding us, his grip on us is stronger than our grip on him. When our world has fallen apart, we may well feel like we cannot hang onto God. But he is stronger than us. As we cry out in our agony, he does not intend to let go of us. He wants to hold us close to him, even if that does mean we punch him in the chest. Remember how many of the Psalms are written by people calling out to God when life is dark. Like Jesus using Psalm 22 on the cross, saying, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’, we have that sense of abandonment but we can still call the Lord ‘my God’.
And this links with the second thing I would like to say from the passage: the faith we exercise is faith in Jesus. I know, I know: this is another of those times when I say the obvious in a sermon. But that’s what happens for Mary and Martha: when Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, called by some ‘God’s favourite place on earth’, he hears them both say, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’ (verses 21, 32).
But there is a difference in their responses. Mary, who is held up as the paragon of faith in Luke’s Gospel for sitting at Jesus’ feet and learning from him, is not the faith-filled one here. Martha, whom Luke depicts as distracted and frantic, is the one who shows glimmers of faith in this story. Mary doesn’t say any more – although we should note that Jesus is not judgemental about this, he is moved by her tears (verse 33).
But Martha does. Listen again to her exchange with Jesus:
20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
She still believes Jesus can do something for her. Her faith is still at one level that of a typical devout Jew, believing that the resurrection of the dead will happen ‘on the last day’. You know and I know that her faith is about to be elasticated, but there is basic faith in God and in Jesus going on here.
And sometimes that’s all we need. That is the raw material God uses to make something beautiful that we had never imagined.
It all puts me in mind of Rolf Harris. It may be contentious to mention him now, given the criminal charges he is facing, but his many talents were a large part of my childhood. An LP of his greatest hits was the first record I bought with my own money (actually a Sunday School prize), and we always watched his television shows. I am sure you recall his catchphrase when he was painting something: ‘Can you guess what it is yet?’ What looked like a few random brush strokes was the beginning of a work of art.
When our dreams are broken, the only faith we may be able to offer Jesus might be just a few random brush strokes, just some basic faith. But God too is able to work with that and create something beautiful.
And that leads on to the third and final strand of what I want to say this morning. Jesus can transform our broken dreams. Mary and Martha wanted their brother Lazarus healed. It didn’t happen. When he died, Martha could still at least believe God would answer Jesus, and that her brother would be raised at the last day. But what Jesus actually did was far more than they could ever have imagined. He goes to the tomb, has the stone rolled away, defies the retching stench, and says, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ (verse 43) He has promised Martha she will see the glory of God (verse 40), and in this miraculous sign she does. He told her he was the Resurrection and the life (verse 25), and now she knows he is.
But the thing about resurrection is that it comes after a death. For Jesus himself to be the resurrection and the life will have to follow his crucifixion.
Yet this does at least mean that if our dreams have died, then the stage is set for new life. Death is not the end for us. It is the end of one act and the curtain closes, preparing us for the next.
Sheridan and Merryn Voysey never did get to have children. And their ‘resurrection’ involved not only the death of that dream, but the burial of Sheridan’s radio career in Australia. They came to the UK, where Merryn was offered a job at Oxford University, and new opportunities began to present themselves to Sheridan in writing and speaking – but not yet in radio again, I believe.
In my own life, I could think about some of the dreams I had for ministry when I set out that have never been fulfilled. Ordination has never opened up doors to the new vistas I hoped it would. Early in my ministry, I was a seminar speaker at two big Christian conferences, but that side of my calling has never taken off. Sometimes ministry has been less about my dreams and more about my nightmares. But at the same time, I have found myself doing other things that I never imagined I would. Things that I never thought would bring me contentment and fulfilment do indeed bring those blessings.
So I want to encourage you this morning if you have broken dreams in your life. Consider today an invitation – an invitation to bring those broken dreams to the altar of God. Remember that an altar is a place where living things are placed in order to be sacrificed. I dare to invite you to lay down your dreams to die, to place what questioning faith you have in Jesus, and enter into your grieving.
But wait for God to bring new life from the tomb. It is what he promises, and it is what he does. You may be tempted by the thought that laying down your unfulfilled dreams on the altar will lead only to a future filled with regret, but we believe in the God who makes dry bones live, the God who brings life out of a cave used as a tomb.
In short, we believe in a God whose Son said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
So we come to this passage for the second time in our series on conflict (which finishes next week). And this time we come at the story from a different angle. It would be nice for me to get out the sermon from a few weeks ago and repeat it, but not so nice for you!
This time, our theme is about the rôle of the Christian community in transforming conflict. The story features both leaders and regular community members, and various Christian traditions see the relationship between them differently.
So, I could introduce you to a friend of mine who was an Anglican rector. He told me once that he saw his task in the church as being like Moses, going up the mountain and coming back down with the will of God for the community to obey. It didn’t leave much room for the rest of the church family to discern the will of God.
And that was rather like the couple who joined one of my previous churches from an Anglican parish church, where the husband had been on the PCC, but had become disillusioned with a vicar whose attitude to the PCC members was, “When I say ‘Jump’, your only response is to ask, ‘How high?’” This husband was a man of strong opinions, and his face didn’t fit anymore.
At the other end of the spectrum are some Baptist churches, where their belief in the ‘priesthood of all believers’ is so strongly combined with their convictions about every member of the Body of Christ having a gift that the pastor cannot lead at all. He or she is regarded as just one member of the congregation with a specific gift to offer.
Of course, the problem for all parties – as it often is with any conflict – is one of power, and if one person or group can gain or keep some power, then sadly it is not always used for the common good, but for personal gain and protection. What principles, then, will enable a Christian community to work through tough issues?
Firstly, I believe Acts 15 models for us a safe community. When the dispute flares up in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas end up in ‘sharp dispute and debate’ (verse 2) with those who want all the male Gentile converts circumcised. What proceeds from there in the discussion and argument in Jerusalem is a context where any person feels safe to make their contribution. People on both sides are passionate, yet both the traditionalists and Paul and Barnabas can have their say. There is no mud-slinging, and there are no so-called ‘ad hominem’ attacks where someone attacks an opponent’s character rather than their argument. ‘The whole assembly’ (verse 12) is involved, and the issues are thoroughly aired. Nothing descends to the juvenile behaviour of a Prime Minister’s Question Time.
The church doesn’t always behave as well as that. I have seen various forms of bullying in church life – or at least subtle intimidation – where it is made clear that unless you hold a certain view you are unwelcome. To do what the early church does in Acts 15 in creating a safe requires high levels of love and trust.
That is going to involve a lot of challenges to our attitudes and to our default reactions. How easy is it, for example, to think of our brother and sister Christians as our enemies when we think they are terribly wrong? I have sometimes listened to character assassinations and assaults on the integrity of other Christians at Church Councils and other gatherings. I knew a Church Council where members turned up each time, with some of them asking, “Who will so-and-so attack tonight?” And we may believe that people are doing things badly or standing for the wrong things, but we cannot allow the situation to degenerate like this – not if we want conflict dealt with healthily. We need to remember what Paul told the Ephesians in chapter six, namely that our conflict is not with flesh and blood but with spiritual forces. A simple remembering that we are sisters and brothers in Christ is one step on the way to creating a safe community.
Within that, we can resolve to think the best about the people on the other side of the debate from us. I confess I’m not always as good at this I would like to be, because sometimes I am searching in my mind for all sorts of hidden, devious motives that those who take a contrary point to me must hold. And while I am not calling for us to be naïve – remember Jesus called us to be ‘wise as serpents’ as well as ‘harmless as doves’ – there is a real case for believing that people have disputed with us for what they perceive to be good and honourable reasons.
Debbie recently went for a job interview at Christ’s College, Guildford. One of the things that impressed her was the slogan printed on every sheet of paper:
At Christ’s College everyone is special, made in the image of God and needs to be treated with respect.
That gets to the heart of the issue. That biblical approach is core to creating a safe community where even conflict can be dealt with in a positive, healing way.
Secondly, I believe Acts 15 models for us a listening community. When the apostles and elders meet to consider the question (verse 6), there is ‘much discussion’ (verse 7) before Peter speaks up. There is ample opportunity for all to have their say. That requires not only the speaking of the contributors from all parts of the community, but tenacious listening from the apostles and elders who are charged with making the final decision.
We have thought about listening earlier in this series, and I offered a definition that ‘listening is not thinking about what you are going to say when the other person finishes talking’. I stand by that, and I want to add some words to it this morning. They come from someone I met on my Bridge Builders course on conflict transformation last September. Chris is an Anglican priest who specialises in reconciliation, and he was on the course seeking further skills. On Friday, he put these observations on Facebook:
Take time and space to listen – I mean, really listen to the other person. Not just to rebut them or defend your self or your belief, but to understand what values are really motivating them and what their needs may be, regardless of agreement or disagreement. The relationship you establish will be richer for it.
It’s challenging, isn’t it? I think I said to you before that like many people, the first thing I want to do in a conflict situation sometimes is defend myself. To be an ‘undefended’ person is scary, but we have to listen in many ways to what others are saying.
The Cantonese word for ‘listen’ is one of those Chinese pictograms made up of a number of elements that contribute to a more complete notion of listening:
Some of us just listen with our ears, accumulating the other person’s words in order to establish the facts. This is important, but it isn’t the whole story.
Some of us use our eyes in listening, watching for body language that tells us things the person’s words don’t – sometimes even contradicting their words. This takes us further.
Some of us listen with our heart, paying attention to the underlying feelings of the speaker. This also helps the process in a partial way.
Finally, some of us listen with undivided attention. It’s so much harder to do that today, when we can be distracted by the portable computer that we call a mobile phone in our pockets.
It is indeed difficult to practise listening on all these levels. And not just difficult, it can be exhausting. But a Christian community that desires to see conflict transformed is one that will commit to costly listening. So will we seek the help of the Holy Spirit in order to become a community of listeners?
Thirdly and finally, Acts 15 shows us a growing community. By ‘growing’ here, I do not mean ‘numerical growth’, I mean growth in grace, development in faith. How so?
A lot of good things happen in this story. It starts with people causing trouble, agitating young Christians (verse 1, cf. verse 24). It is contained in a safe community where there is mutual acceptance and good listening, before the leaders (who describe themselves merely as ‘your brothers’) make their final decision, resulting in an encouraging and diplomatic letter to the younger believers in Antioch (verses 23 to 29). All should be well. The new church is glad, the messengers strengthen them and some of them are sent back with a blessing of peace while Paul and Barnabas remain to preach and teach (verses 30 to 35). Happy Ever After?
No. There is a sting in the tail. Of all the people you don’t expect to fall out with one another up until now, it’s Paul and Barnabas. They have stood together in this crisis. They go back several years: Barnabas supported Paul when others were wary of him. But now they have a bust-up over John Mark. Paul says John Mark has shown he’s not up to missionary work and takes Silas as his new partner, while Barnabas does still trust John Mark and continues to work with him (verses 35 to 40). From now on, Acts follows the Paul narrative, and Barnabas and John Mark disappear from view.
You could read this incident in more than one way. You could say that Paul and Barnabas have failed to learn the lessons of the Council of Jerusalem in transforming conflict. Or you could say that sometimes life presents us with situations where there isn’t simply a right answer and a wrong answer. The rest of Acts seems to vindicate Paul, with its remarkable stories of his subsequent missionary journeys. But although Barnabas and John Mark vanish from the narrative of Acts, they are not erased from Christian history. There appears to have been a later reconciliation. In 2 Timothy, attributed to the time just before Paul’s death, the great apostle says to his young lieutenant,
Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. (2 Timothy 4:11)
Not only that, we have a tradition from soon after the biblical era that John Mark wrote down the reminiscences of the Apostle Peter. We know that document as ‘The Gospel According to Mark’. Paul may have had a dynamic ministry after Acts 15 with Silas and others, but Barnabas’ decision to encourage John Mark, just as he had previously encouraged Paul, seems to be vindicated.
Am I just offering a history lesson here? No. I think this shows the early church in all its immaturity and imperfection, getting things right but also slipping back. However, there was the commitment to growth, the intense desire to go the right way and follow Jesus together.
I expect we can identify with that sense of imperfect community, where one time we seem to do things gloriously well and put a smile on the face of God, yet the next day behave collectively in such a crass, immature way that you wonder whether we are the same bunch of people. And when we do that, we hurt others, as well as making God weep.
The question for us, then, is whether, in the midst of all our failures and foibles, we can radically commit ourselves to growth in the life of the Spirit. The reality is that we are not going to be the perfect community where no-one suffers as a result of our foolishness. We will cause one another pain, however much we may want to be a safe and listening community. Let us not be under any fanciful delusions.
But are we willing to grow? That is, are we willing to repent of our sins and learn from our mistakes when we have hurt others? Are we willing regularly to examine our spiritual lives, and let others hold us accountable, perhaps in a small group? If so, then just such a growing community will more truly become a safe and listening community, where conflict is not only managed, it becomes an occasion for grace and for the spiritual transformation of those affected.
I once heard the great Australian mission leader Michael Frost tell a story of how he had once spoken to a gathering of six hundred Christians. He had retold to them one of the Gospel stories about Jesus, and invited them to imagine themselves as one of the characters in the account. Afterwards, he asked them which characters they had taken on.
To his disappointment, only twelve of the six hundred had imagined themselves as Jesus.
Now I can see why many Christians would be reticent to identify themselves with Jesus. We feel unworthy to do so. But Michael Frost’s point was this: aren’t we called as Christians to imitate Jesus? Isn’t Jesus supposed to be our example? That was how he was hoping people would take his invitation.
And that’s what I hope for us this morning, too – that we shall take Jesus as our example from our reading. Specifically with John chapter four, we are going to take Jesus as our example on the question of mission. We hear a lot about the importance of the church to emphasise mission these days – well, where better to take our model than from Jesus himself? One passage won’t give us an exhaustive treatment of how Jesus models mission for us, but it will give us a good start.
Firstly, Jesus operates by the wind of the Spirit. I don’t suppose that’s a contentious claim, but let me justify it from the passage. The Lectionary this week starts officially at verse 5, ‘So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar’, but I asked for the reading to begin at verse 4, where John writes, ‘But he had to go through Samaria.’
Did Jesus have to go through Samaria? No. If he were a devout Jew, he could have avoided Samaria. Yet he felt a compulsion to go there. I can’t help thinking back to last week’s Lectionary Gospel reading from John chapter three, where Jesus himself tells Nicodemus that ‘The wind blows wherever it wills. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’ Jesus has said that his true followers are blown by the wind of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit takes them on all sorts of adventures, detours and strange, unexpected directions.
But Jesus doesn’t just say this about his followers. He lives that way himself. He had to go through Samaria – when really, he didn’t. I suggest to you that Jesus is living out what he had taught Nicodemus – the life of discipleship is one of being led by the Holy Spirit. It is not predictable, it is not conventional; discipleship is not about accepting the norms by which the rest of society lives. It is not about adopting the expectations of wider society in the way we set the course of our lives. It is about being open to the ‘God of surprises’ who may well want to do unexpected things with us. Paul, the great expert on the Jewish Law, becomes an apostle not to the Jews but to the Gentiles. John, nicknamed by Jesus one of the ‘Sons of Thunder’, becomes the apostle of love. And so on.
Could it be, then, that one reason why we have not been effective in Christian mission in today’s church is that we have not allowed ourselves to be blown into places we would never have anticipated by the Holy Spirit? Could it be that we have so swallowed our culture’s norms that that we have not been in the places God intended us to be? Isn’t it so easy to be sucked into the regular expectations of everyday Surrey? I must get the best education. I must get the best paid job. I must live in the nicest neighbourhood. Not that these are always bad things in themselves, but to default to them without being open to the leading of the Holy Spirit is a huge spiritual mistake with potentially massive consequences.
So – is God challenging any of us not just to accept the expectations of our culture but to be ready to go wherever the Holy Spirit leads us?
Secondly, Jesus conducts mission in the world. The action happens at Jacob’s Well – and I don’t mean the location near Guildford where you might pick up the A3. Jesus is weary and sitting by the original Jacob’s Well (verse 6), and that is where the story unfolds.
How remarkable is that? Remember that Jesus conducted much more of his mission in the world than in the synagogue. And then contrast that with us. We conceive of mission in terms of people coming to us, attending our events at church. We’d rather not get out into the world with our faith, because that makes us nervous. If we really do have to engage in Christian mission, then can we at least please cajole people into coming along to something we’ve arranged ‘at church’, where we feel safe?
Jesus would never have got the woman to a synagogue. She wasn’t a Jew. She was female. She was probably regarded as a ‘sinner’. There was no hope. Operating by the strategies we adopt where we hope people turn up at church would never have reached this woman with the love of God. And increasingly, as fewer and fewer of our population are used to the church environment, the hope that we might just get people along to the place where we feel safe is more and more a misplaced strategy that has more to do with our fears than it has to do with our desire to overflow with God’s love.
Jesus is again acting out something from earlier in John’s Gospel. Not simply the previous chapter, as with following the wind of the Spirit, but the first chapter, with its great Prologue about the Incarnation, where we read that ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (1:14). Jesus is dwelling not in the safe religious space but in the world. And if we are to imitate him, then we must do something similar.
So when a person tells me that they aren’t playing any part in the life of the church because they don’t have a job in the church, I don’t believe them. They are being sent to practise their faith in the world.
I say this as a minister where the expectations of many church members in various churches I have served would cage me inside the church. I have to work at making my connections outside the church. For some while now, that has been in our children’s school community, but that is lessening as the children get older. It is increasing on a Saturday morning as I stand on the touchline watching my son play football, and as I talk with other parents. But as the children’s independence increases, I shall have to be quite intentional about finding my contacts outside the church.
What of us, then? Are we willing to spend time outside the safe environs of the church community for the sake of the Gospel? Some of you have ready-made communities in the work place. Others of you will have to look harder. But please don’t build your whole life around this building.
Thirdly, Jesus goes to the weak and the marginalised. Why did the Jews despise the Samaritans? Go back to 2 Kings 17 and you see. Samaria was more or less the northern kingdom that had so betrayed the faith of Israel that it had been conquered by Assyria in the eighth century BC. After that conquest, Assyria had placed members of other races and faiths there. As a result, faith in Samaria became no longer concentrated exclusively on Yahweh but a compromised mixture. They included idol worship in their religious practice. Anyone with a devotion to ‘pure’ Judaism would find these elements distasteful, if not horrifying.
And not only is Jesus talking to a Samaritan, he is talking to a Samaritan woman. Remember that the pious daily prayer of many a devout Jewish man went like this: ‘Blessèd art thou, King of the universe, who hast not made me a slave or a Gentile or a woman.’ Second class just doesn’t seem to cover it.
Furthermore, this particular Samaritan has a reputation. She has had five husbands, and is now living with a man outside marriage (verses 17-18). Now I used to think this meant John was painting for us the picture of a deeply immoral woman – I remember preaching on this passage as a young Local Preacher and saying she was someone who would go for anything in trousers. But later I realised that wasn’t fair on her – not in a culture where only the men could initiate divorce. She is a broken woman. Men have treated her like an object to be tossed away when no longer required. She can have no reasonable expectation that this devout Jewish man will treat her as anything more than dirt. She is socially and religiously unacceptable.
Except this is Jesus we’re talking about. Jesus, who did not live in fear that he would be contaminated by those who did not meet the highest standards of ritual purity. Jesus, who knows that his following the wind of the Spirit and his commitment to mission in the world have on this occasion led him to this woman – this broken, hurting, rejected woman.
And here is the application for us. Isn’t it easy for us to stay with the nice, clean, safe people – the good churchgoers and if not that, then the pillars of the community? Isn’t it simpler to mix with people from Horsell but not those from Sheerwater?
Actually, no. It isn’t a question of it being ‘easier’ to mix with the ‘right’ types. When we do that, we’re not simply taking the easy option, we’re giving in to temptation.
And neither do I want to see us succumb to patronising other people. This is, after all, the week in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has told us that ‘hard-working people’ (that favourite expression of politicians) like beer and bingo.
What I’m calling for is genuine love for those who are different. I’m saying that Jesus went to the wounded with a message of God’s love for them. To the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well he offers ‘living water’. She is dry, and he offers her divine refreshment (verses 10-15). She is interested in worship God aright, and he promises the help of the Holy Spirit (verses 20-24). She longs for the Messiah, and unlike many other people he meets, Jesus is open with her about who he is (verses 25-26).
While we accept the conventions of society rather than allowing ourselves to be blown by the wind of the Spirit, our faith will atrophy, just like muscles in our body that are never used. While we stay safe and warm, huddled up in the church community, rather than venturing into the world that God loves, we shall never encounter the people God has called us to serve in his name. And while we ignore or despise the weak and the troubled, we shall not have the privilege of encountering many people whom God loves so dearly that his Son Jesus Christ was born, died and was raised from the dead for them. In short, without following the example Jesus sets for us in John 4, our faith is dead, and our churches wither.
But when we are open to being led by the Spirit, God will take us to new, surprising and fruitful places for his mission. When we are willing to go into the world and meet people where they feel secure, God has us beginning to act in faith, and he can use that. And when we are willing to share and demonstrate God’s love in Christ with people who don’t meet our standards of respectability, then God may well be taking us to the very people he has prepared to respond to the Gospel.
So – which of us is willing to follow the example of Jesus?
And to do it this week?
Well, long time no see. I had a couple of sermons it seemed diplomatic not to publish here. I have also been dealing with the suffering and decline of my mother, who eventually died a fortnight ago. Tomorrow I come back from some annual leave and compassionate leave. Below is what I plan to preach.
Conflict is regularly in the news, and especially at present with the dispute between Russian and Ukraine over Crimea. We have a Russian President in Vladimir Putin who clearly wants to flex his muscles as if the Cold War were still going on, just with changed national boundaries. He can threaten both Ukraine and the EU with reduced gas supplies. We have lofty moral statements from British and American leaders, who of course would never contemplate illegally invading another country. Hopefully at some stage the sabre-rattling will end and negotiation will begin.
And we are not immune to major conflict in the church. I am thinking here less of the individual conflicts in a congregation when people upset each other, but more about the major arguments that happen across the wider church. The media loves to report on the convulsions of the Church of England over women bishops and gay rights. It mocks the church, because these issues seem settled in the wider society, and because the world just doesn’t understand the care and caution with which churches try to handle their disagreements, in an attempt to reflect the Spirit of Christ. (Or at least that’s the theory.)
Now you may think this isn’t so relevant to you, as a regular Christian who doesn’t get involved in wider church politics. But it does affect you. The decisions made affect you. The media coverage affects you. information is available at hand for you to have an opinion on these things, and they become topics of debate and even of division in local churches.
So let us look at Acts 15, where we come to the first major dispute for the whole church in her history. There had been small, local disagreements before, but the question here about Gentiles joining the People of God went to the heart of the Gospel. How did they handle their negotiations between parties that started out so far apart in order to come to a common mind?
Firstly, let us look at the content of the arguments presented by the differing parties. We have a number of authoritative sources to which the different campaigners appeal. They look to a number of different authorities that we still use today.
We begin by hearing those who want the Gentiles to be circumcised. They call on tradition: ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the Law of Moses’ (verse 5). This is what has been handed down to us, they say, and this is how we have understood it.
Next, when the apostles and elders meet to consider the issue, Peter addresses them using reason. He points to the way he knew God had accepted the Gentiles by faith and then says, ‘why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?’ (Verse 10)
After that, Barnabas and Paul give an account of their experience: ‘telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them’ (verse 12).
Finally, James speaks up and quotes from Scripture: he cites the prophet Amos and comes to a conclusion from there.
These are the four building blocks of Christian truth – the tradition of God’s people (that is, what has been handed down to us), the use of human reason in a holy and wise way, the appeal to experience in the sense of saying, this is what we believe the Holy Spirit has been doing, and finally comes the authority of Scripture.
Each of these plays a part in the early Church’s decision here, even tradition, which you might think they reject, given that the final decision goes against the traditionalists. But no, because although the tradition is changed, there is a sensitivity to those who value tradition in the letter sent to the Gentile believers at the end – hence asking them to abstain from certain foods and from sexual immorality (verse 29).
Reason is important, too. The old Sunday School song was not ‘Jesus wants me for a zombie’, God wants people who will love him with their heart, soul, mind and strength. Provided we seek to use our minds worshipfully they will make a vital contribution. And that isn’t just for intellectuals: the one who uses reason in this passage is Peter, the former impetuous fisherman.
Experience counts for a lot, too – not in the sense that my experience always trumps your argument, but in the sense that we believe God is active and at work in his world, and so we want to know what the signs of the Holy Spirit’s activity are. That’s what Barnabas and Paul describe.
But Scripture is the ultimate yardstick. While it is too crude to treat it as ‘the owner’s manual’ or as a much neater and more systematic collection of books than it actually is, it nevertheless serves as the framework for God’s authority in Christ, and hence that is decisive for the Christian. ‘O make me a man of one book,’ prayed John Wesley. He used the other sources – reason, tradition and experience – but Scripture was the most important source of knowing God’s authority for him.
Secondly, we need to look at the method used. It’s one thing to talk about these four sources of truth – Scripture, reason, tradition and experience – and to suggest that Scripture is the most decisive for the Christian, but it’s another to put it into practice. You don’t have to be around the Christian church to know how this can go all wrong. Bible verses can be used insensitively, taken out of context and you can pick different verses that seem to support contradictory positions.
To take just one example I could offer among many, I recall being away on a Christian holiday, where one person joyfully (perhaps thoughtlessly) sang along to a song based on a verse from the Book of Malachi which says, ‘God hates divorce.’ The singer had no idea we had a divorcee among us, and still less of a clue that some of God’s displeasure at divorce was about the pain inflicted on people when relationships break down.
Add your own stories – I’m sure you have them.
So how do we use the Bible wisely in negotiating our way to God’s path for us when we are in dispute? The answer I was given when I was a young Christian was about always interpreting the teaching of the Bible in its original context. There is much to be said for the old saying that ‘a text without a context is a pretext’. The apocryphal story of the man who played ‘Bible bingo’ to determine God’s will illustrates this. He opened his Bible, stuck his finger on a verse, and it said, ‘Judas went out and hanged himself.’ Being rather unnerved about this, he opened his Bible elsewhere and again put his finger down randomly. The verse said, ‘Go and do likewise.’ All this could have been guarded against by taking the verses in context and not in this random way.
But even then, interpreting the Bible in context is not enough. It’s not even how the New Testament treats the Old Testament. Think about the Scriptures quoted by the Gospel writers as being fulfilled by the birth of Christ. They generally did not mean in their original context what Matthew or Luke take them to mean when they tell us about the coming of Jesus. ‘A virgin shall conceive’ was originally ‘A young woman shall conceive’, and referred to the coming of a ruler eight centuries before Christ.
But what those writers do there – and which James does when quoting Amos in Acts 15 – is that they interpret the Scriptures in the light of Christ. Amos could not have known that his prophecy about ‘the Gentiles who bear [the Lord’s] name’ (verse 17) had anything to do with faith in the Messiah and the observance of the Jewish Law. But James sees it that way.
And something like that should be our aim, too. When we are working out with other Christians what the way forward should be, and what the Bible above all is saying to us, we need to handle it in what one scholar calls a ‘redemptive’ way. We need to interpret Scripture in a Christ-like way. What does a passage mean in the light of Christ? How does this fit with the climax of God’s revelation to us in Jesus? These kinds of questions will be our method, rather than just thinking, what Bible verses can I shoot at my opponents?
And that leads us to the third and final element of Christian negotiation in conflict: attitude. One way and another, we keep coming back to this, and it’s vital. There is no gloating when the conflict is resolved in Jerusalem. The different parties have come to a common mind without there being any sense of winners and losers. Christian negotiation is not what the world calls a ‘zero sum game’, where victory for one side is balanced out by defeat for the others. It is a common pursuit of God’s will, even if we come from different perspectives – and we must all be open to the Holy Spirit changing us.
Furthermore, the tone of the letter from Jerusalem to the Gentile converts is what some Christians call ‘irenic’ – that is, peaceable. It isn’t a lecture from know-alls to know-nothings. Rather, it says, this is what we have concluded. We would ask you to do this, and we would advise you to do that.
The whole debate and the consequent letter are framed in humility, gentleness and grace. This is a group of Christians living out what Paul described about the humility and servanthood of Jesus in Philippians 2:1-11.
And we need to aspire to this. It isn’t always easy in the middle of passionate debate, but it is vital that humility, servanthood and grace are the dominant tones of our conversation, even of our disagreement. It’s the lack of such things that leads to division and to the demonising of our brother and sister Christians.
For instance: while I’m not in this sermon going to talk about my views on the whole sexuality debate, I will just observe that it is one that could have been conducted in a much more Christ-like way in the church. When pro-gay activists label everyone who disagrees with them ‘homophobic’ or (in one individual case ‘morons’), then what hope do we have? When those who wish to preserve traditional teaching smear homosexuals with the idea that they are latent paedophiles, then that is just as bad. There are dreadful people and dreadful arguments on both sides, to be sure. But there are also people in both camps who want to preserve something important about Jesus and the Gospel. One party is concerned to welcome those who have been pushed to the fringes of society, the other wants to maintain Christian holiness. Both are important to retain.
Can we, when we are tempted to get hot under the collar ourselves about major issues, still retain that humble, gracious attitude that the church leaders in Acts 15 displayed? Can we make sure we are drawing on what each of the sources of Christian truth – Scripture, tradition, reason and experience – tell us? Will we give a priority in all this to biblical teaching, but do so in a way that is in harmony with what we know of Jesus Christ? And can we negotiate our differences in a spirit that is different from the combative, blood-letting approaches of the world – in a style that looks more like the character of the Lord whom we serve?
The Sermon on the Mount is something of a theological football. It gets kicked around by different parties, all claiming it supports their views. And the Beatitudes, which open the Sermon, are dragged into that fight. Is this all about politics in the here and now? Is it about what heaven will be like? Do we sit around and wait for glory? Does the teaching of the Sermon apply to all people, or only to Christians? And so on.
I think we must first of all say that this is material that is primarily aimed at disciples of Jesus. When Jesus sees the crowds, he goes up the mountain, but it isn’t the crowd that comes to him (was he trying to escape from them?), it is only his disciples (verse 1). He is teaching his disciples.
What is a disciple, then? It is someone who is a learner, an apprentice, or a student. In Jesus’ day, bright young men asked rabbis if they could follow them. They would not only learn the rabbi’s teaching, they would also seek to copy the rabbi’s lifestyle, right down to some of the minutest and most private areas of life.
If, then, we are disciples of Jesus, we are those who are being called to learn his teaching not simply by memorising it, but by putting it into practice as he did. It is a lifelong task. No disciple of Jesus can ever in this life behave as if she has arrived. It doesn’t work like that. There is always more to know and more of Jesus’ life to imitate. There is no place for complacency. We should always be thirsty for more of Jesus’ teaching, and we always need to retain a passion to follow the example of Jesus. If we ever can’t be bothered to learn of Jesus or seek to model more of our lives upon his pattern, then something is seriously wrong with our lives, and we are not behaving like true disciples.
The story is told of a young girl who watched with fascination and incredulity as she regularly saw her grandma reading her Bible. “Why do you keep on reading the Bible, Grandma,” asked the girl, “Surely you’ve read it all by now and know it?”
The elderly lady smiled sweetly and replied, “Because I’m studying for my finals.”
I wonder if that is our attitude. We may have been Christians for many years, but still as his disciples we are called to study for our finals. It doesn’t require the physical strength of youth that may have departed years ago, it merely necessitates a serious commitment to Jesus.
For Jesus is no ordinary rabbi. He is not a run of the mill spiritual teacher. Note how he goes up the mountain in this story. That would have been very suggestive to Jewish people. Moses went up the mountain and came down with the laws of God. Any time someone goes up a mountain in Matthew’s Gospel, something big happens.
In fact, just as there were five so-called ‘Books of Moses’ in the Old Testament – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – so there are also five blocks of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew. He is the new Moses.
More to the point, he fulfils the ancient prophecy that one greater than Moses would come, for there is one key difference. When Moses comes down the mountain, he returns with laws given to him by God. Jesus does not go up the mountain to receive from God something that did not originate with him – he gives teaching that is his, and with authority (as we hear at the end of the Sermon on the Mount). We are called to be disciples not merely of a human teacher, but the Lord himself. This is all the more reason to take our apprenticeship seriously. He is giving us the New Law of the Messiah. He brings ethical teaching that is from heaven, based on future judgement and rewards, and earthed in true wisdom, all for our reception and action.
So yes, Jesus gives this teaching to disciples, but the crowd is at a distance, watching them. When we get to the end of the Sermon, we shall find they are still there. You might say that the teaching is given to disciples, but it is to be lived in the full gaze of the crowds, of the world. For this is teaching about a distinctive way of life, and right from the start here with the Beatitudes, we have Jesus painting a picture of good living that is vastly different from worldly expectations.
And that means we are onto our second observation about the text: it’s about what kind of disciples Jesus has in mind. Just pause for a moment and consider the list of disciples he gives us in the Beatitudes: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. While some of those qualities are sporadically attractive to the world, they are not generally the kind of people who ‘get on’ in life. Society likes the full, the happy, the proud, those who aggressively trumpet their rights, the go-getters, those who lust and are lusted after, and those who will stop at nothing to achieve what they want. These are the people we celebrate. These are the kind we reward. Not Jesus’ list. We know how the world mocks the teaching of Jesus: ‘The meek will inherit the earth – provided the rest of you don’t mind, of course.’
If anything, Jesus gives us a list of losers. And you only have to hang around children and young people today to know that ‘loser’ is not a term of sympathy, but an expression of derision. But the disciples of the kingdom don’t look much like a photo-opportunity of celebrities that are getting themselves into our fairly news-free newspapers at the slightest chance. The disciples of the kingdom are usually a long way from the business success stories of our day, the millionaire sports stars, and even the celebrities of the religious world who gain millions of followers and sell thousands of books. Not that God doesn’t love these people too, but those who are alert to the values and ethics of the kingdom Jesus ushered in almost inevitably live different lives.
Why? Because when you look at the kingdom of God as described by Jesus, it is good news for the materially poor and the spiritually destitute. It is good news of healing for those who bear great grief. It is grace and mercy, not judgmentalism. It is about reconciliation, not putting one over your opponent. These are the things you know, appreciate and build on when you apprentice yourself to Jesus. These are the lifestyles you adopt when you sign up to be a student of Jesus.
Yes, they will put you at odds with the world. You may be teased, mocked or worse at times. But this is where following the Lord of life takes you, and in every case he pronounces the word ‘Blessèd’ over you. ‘Blessèd’ doesn’t simply mean ‘happy’, although that can be involved in it. Nor does it always mean that you are having a wonderful spiritual experience – although again, that can certainly be included. But ‘Blessèd’ means that the favour of God rests upon you, and what more could you want? How does a shiny new car compare with the favour of God? What comparison is there between a successful career and knowing God’s favour? Which is better – society putting your name up in lights or God lighting up your life with his blessing? Yes, those who walk in the ways of the kingdom, following Jesus may suffer rejection in this life, but they do so knowing there is One who does not reject them but does the opposite – he approves, he favours, he blesses.
And that leads us to the third and final observation this morning – it’s about the kind of blessing the disciples receive. Here is the list of blessings: theirs is the kingdom of heaven, they will be comforted, they will inherit the earth, they will be filled, they will receive mercy, they will see God, they will be called children of God, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
What do we observe about this list of blessings? Most of them are promised blessings for the future – they will be comforted, inherit the earth, be filled, receive mercy, see God, be called children of God. The first and last, though, don’t speak of the future, they speak in the present tense. Both the first and last blessings say, ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. Of course, the kingdom in all its fullness also belongs to the future. But it also starts now. God is already reigning in kingly power, but in this life his rule over all things is still disputed by rebel forces.
The blessing of Jesus’ disciples, then, is much like the kingdom of God itself. It has started, but is not fully here. There is great blessing to come in the future – there is a bliss to come, the description of which can only paint the shadows. But it is not simply ‘pie in the sky when you die’: the blessing starts now. We can see glimpses of glory even in the darkness of a sinful world. Even now, God begins to make what the American preacher Barbara Brown Taylor calls ‘an altar in the world’. Jacob looked back on his dream of the ladder and said, “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it,” and similarly with us. We may not expect to encounter the blessing of God in a world of sin, suffering, injustice, and death, but he breaks through in the ordinary areas of life as well as in the places we might more conventionally expect him, such as church services. And as he breaks in (not that he was ever absent), he smiles at us. In fact, I like to think that sometimes he even winks at us. He gives us the knowing look of the secret conspirator that all will not remain the way it is, and even now his pleasure is directed to us, with a view to that day when that joy will no longer be restricted by the powers of sin.
Indeed, about five years or so ago there was a Christian song doing the rounds called ‘God is smiling’, and the chorus said this:
God is smiling over us tonight
God is smiling over us tonight
Where hearts are broken, love unites
God is smiling, God is smiling over us tonight.
Yes – as the song says, even (and perhaps especially) ‘where hearts are broken’, God smiles. Not at the pain, but his subversive love breaks in and turns upside-down the pain of this world. And all that is a foretaste of the great reversal that began in the coming of Jesus and will be completed when God has finally made all things new. Then, the new creation will be populated by the meek, the pure, by the righteous, by those who have made peace, and so on.
It seems a long way off now, and it is still discouraging when being an apprentice of Jesus means walking in the difficult ways of the Beatitudes while the world watches, but what a promise is held out before us, a promise that even begins its fulfilment now.
So let us commit again to being the apprentices of Jesus, seeking the power of the Holy Spirit to imitate him. And as the world looks on, sometimes puzzled, sometimes scornful, and at other times curious, let us rejoice that we are ‘blessèd’, the recipients of God’s favour, beginning now and becoming a torrent in the life of the world to come.
You may know the story of a question set in a training examination for police recruits:
‘You are on the beat and you see two dogs fighting. The dogs knock a baby out of its pram, causing a car to swerve off the road, smashing into a grocer’s shop. A pedestrian is severely injured, but during the confusion a woman’s bag is snatched, a crowd of onlookers chase after the thief and, in the huge build-up of traffic, the ambulance is blocked from the victim of the crash.
‘State, in order of priority, your course of action.’
One recruit wrote, ‘Take off uniform and mingle with crowd.’
Which direction do you walk in when there is conflict? Do you walk towards it, or do you – like the police recruit – behave like Jesus really said, ‘Go out into the world, shut up and keep your heads down’?
Perhaps you want to avoid conflict, because you see the potential it has to be destructive. And so our theme this week is about how we can affirm hope in conflict. Because if we come through conflict healthily, it can be constructive, it can result in growth.
So how can we approach conflict in hope?
Firstly, we can have a hopeful attitude to conflict by looking to our future goal. Hope is about what the future will hold, so if we can envisage a future goal and work towards it through conflict, that will help.
And – surprise, surprise – Paul has that in mind in Ephesians 4. It’s about unity, one of the things we fear will be a casualty of conflict. He starts the chapter with the fact that God has already given us unity in Christ, and he looks for us to maintain and build that unity. So the unity that is already given is present in all the ‘one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all’ language (verses 4-6), but he also calls us to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (verse 3, italics mine). By the end of the passage, he is talking about us as one body, where every part does its work together in love (verses 15-16).
Our goal, then, is unity. We have been given and entrusted a basic unity of the Spirit in Christ, but it is our duty to live out the unity we have been given.
What does that mean for us when conflict arises? It means we engage in the humility, gentleness and patience that Paul writes about (verse 2). None of these qualities is about compromising our convictions – humility doesn’t simply mean lying down, rolling over and saying to the other person, “Well of course I was wrong, you are right.” It does mean we bring a certain attitude of heart and mind to the discussion, where we value the worth of the person we disagree with, where we do not shoot them down on the assumption that we are always right and they are always wrong. It means we treat those we disagree with as people who – like us – are made in the image of God, and so should be treated with dignity, love and respect, however much we may genuinely believe they are in the wrong. If we only see conflict as a battle to win, we shall end up with disunity. But if our goal is to resolve our differences honestly and become more united, then we shall bring humility, gentleness and patience to the table. Again, this does not mean we walk away from conflict or pretend it isn’t happening, because those strategies just perpetuate the open wound. But we hold our convictions with a Christ-like heart.
So – to those of you whose natural instinct is to charge into conflict aggressively, I say – by all means don’t duck the conflict, but do take a step back before you get involved in order to check your heart. Please make sure you are entering the fray with humility, gentleness and patience.
And to those of you who find conflict stressful and who would rather duck out, I say – your gifts are needed in order to heal the tensions. You do not need to be afraid of voicing your beliefs, there is an important place for those who would put their point across quietly. We need to hear you, too, and remember that assertiveness is not about being belligerent, it is simply about being able to state your position, your desires and your needs. That truly can be done in a Christ-like way.
There is a second future goal in Ephesians 4, and it is maturity. Listen again to the final three verses of the reading, and note the references to growing up:
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
From infants to a mature body. That is our goal. How often is it that among a group of people who are physically grown up, the level of behaviour when it comes to working through conflict is nothing less than childish? Too often I have come across actions in churches by adults that amount to more than “It’s my ball, I’m taking it home and you’re not playing.”
So what makes for maturity, according to Paul? His answer would appear to be, getting stuck into Christian service. Tracing back the few verses before these, maturity in the church comes from his people learning to serve, and that’s what leaders are about. Immaturity comes when people just say, “Feed me, feed me, I’m not being fed,” and they complain and spread disgruntlement. It’s no good treating Sunday morning as once-a-week spiritual feeding station, then just going away until next week. That’s a consumer mentality that thinks everything we like must be laid on for us, and we should get something for what we pay. Such an attitude knows little or nothing of the Gospel, and it therefore causes strife in the church by its moaning and bleating.
If we are to be hopeful, then, about conflict, we shall see that one of the ways we can become a more mature, grown-up fellowship is by committing ourselves to serve Christ by serving one another and serving the world. That way, we become less me-centred and more God-centred and other-centred. This takes us away from the complaining state of mind that inevitably follows from a mentality that expects everything in the church to be provided on a plate for me. Too often, the problems we deal with are caused when someone moans that the church in some way let her down, when she has not been cultivating an attitude of service herself.
You see, we are not just shaped as people by what we think: we are shaped by our desires and by our actions. And even if we do not currently desire to serve, we should begin serving, because eventually such action will affect our desires and our attitudes towards others.
Thirdly and finally, although I have touched on some practical action as we have considered how our hopes shape us, there is a particular course of action to which Paul calls us to aspire in our desire to grow into maturity. And yes, it comes in those words of his that have become a hackneyed expression in Christian circles: speaking the truth in love (verse 15). This, he says, helps us grow.
But ‘speaking the truth in love’ is difficult. Some of us are better at truth than love, and so we go up to someone and offer ‘a word in love’, which turns out to be cover for negative criticism. Others of us are better at love than truth, and we use love as a justification to avoid a conflict when one is actually needed.
How, then, can we break the impasse? Let me offer a suggestion. While the context and other uses of the word almost certainly refer to ‘speaking the truth in love’, the literal translation here is, ‘truthing in love’. In general, there is not simply an obligation upon Christians simply to speak the truth but to live the truth. Some of our problems are caused by barstool Prime Ministers who love to criticise but do little to live out the Gospel. We need fewer pontificators and more practitioners. When we are devoted to practising the Gospel life – to ‘truthing in love’ – our hearts become softened by grace. We are aware of how much we need the mercy of God, and this affects the way we approach others.
Naturally, it will also bring us into greater connection with the holiness of God, and this will alert us to many things that are wrong with the church and the world. But before that happens, the holiness of God will expose what is wrong with us.
Equally, for those of us who are too nervous to confront an issue and prefer to pretend it’s not a problem at all, living the truth leads us into a greater courage so that we can bring problems out of the darkness into the light where they can be dealt with healthily.
Unity, maturity, truthing in love – yes, we do actually have cause for hope in the face of conflict.
We begin a new sermon series to cover the next three months this Sunday at Knaphill, and as you’ll see from the introduction, it’s on conflict and is loosely based on some Mennonite values.
One of the things I’m pleased that today’s ministerial students are trained in that I wasn’t is in handling conflict. You would think that a college training ministers would include that one, knowing the level of disagreement and outright argument that happens in churches, but it didn’t happen in my time. It’s all very well coming up with pious desires that there should be no conflict in the church, but the reality is that it does happen and it needs addressing. The New Testament calls Christians to be of one mind and purpose, but we clash because we have different interests, different perspectives, different gifts, different personalities … and because, frankly, we are all sinners.
That’s why we are going to spend quite a while examining the theme of conflict. We might like to pretend it doesn’t happen here, but it does. We might think it shouldn’t occur, but it still does. And having had the privilege last September of going away on a week’s training course with an organisation called Bridge Builders that specialises in ‘conflict transformation’, I am using some material from them as the basis for this series. Explicitly, the material for this series comes from a group of Mennonite Christians – a tradition that specialises in peace and reconciliation. It is centred on a group of twelve commitments they made in their understanding of conflict and faith.
We begin with this week with the need to accept conflict. And we take this chunk from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which describes, in Tom Wright’s words,
‘the mutual welcome which … is the concrete, bodily form which ‘forgiveness’ is supposed to take in the present time.’
In other words, this is what the forgiven life in the family of God looks like. It is very much about what we do to avoid unnecessary conflict. We accept that conflict happens, because we are different and fallible human beings, but it is possible in the church to major on minors, and Paul gives us principles to hold us together in the face of our real differences.
Firstly, Paul calls us to accept one another:
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarrelling over disputable matters. (14:1)
He gives two examples of conflict, one about food and one about holy days. Carnivores such as me might be amused to read of him saying that those who only eat vegetables have weak faith (14:2), but this is not a dispute about vegetarianism. It is about a debate that ran not just in Rome among the Christians, but also among the disciples at Corinth. It was about a prevalent issue of that time: meat sacrificed to idols. Generally, the meat you bought in the market had already been offered as a sacrifice at a pagan temple. Some Christians felt ‘strong’ about this and said, “It’s all right, the idols are really nothing at all, so although I wouldn’t worship them, there is nothing to worry about here, I’ll eat the meat.” But others said, “There are demons behind the idols at the pagan temples. I want nothing to do with that, so I will not eat meat.” Both in their way are respectable Christian approaches to the problem. Both reflect the desire to serve the Lord, as Paul goes on to observe (14:3-4, 6b-9).
And if that is the case, the different sides had no business in showing contempt for, or looking down upon, those they disagreed with. Whether to eat meat or to abstain, all sides were servants of Christ. Anything that elevates itself over the common commitment to serving Jesus Christ and divides us off from each other in doing that is not the work of God, but of the enemy.
Perhaps it’s easier to understand in our context when we look at Paul’s other example here, where some keep a calendar of holy days, and others treat all days as the same. It’s like those who keep saints’ days, all the Christian festivals, and follow the Lectionary on the one hand, and those who find none of that helpful. At the more extreme ends, it’s like holding Catholics and Baptists together, but you don’t have to go as far apart as that. Methodist to Baptist would do. Indeed, before she met me, Debbie didn’t even know what Lent was, because it was never marked in her home church. But would it be right for us to unchurch them or them to unchurch us? Of course not! It’s therefore wonderful to live in a village where the Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans and Catholics can run an Alpha Course together.
None of this is to downplay our differences, or our varying convictions. Differences exist, even within our traditions. So we as a church where many people expressed a preference for sermon series as part of Christian teaching find that one or two preachers in the circuit prefer to do all their preaching from the Lectionary. We have good reason for what we do, and they have good reason for their preference. It means it is hard to work in partnership, but we should by no means despise each other.
And just as that is true across churches, it needs to be true within churches. We need to commit to a level of acceptance of each other, whilst respecting our differences.
Secondly, and following on from this as the other side of the coin, Paul calls us not to judge one another. We are well advised not to judge others (14:13), because we shall be judged by God (14:10-12). I take that to mean a couple of things: one is that we should leave all judgement to God. The other is: what will God think of us if we have spent our time ripping other people to shreds?
But rather than just seeing the call not to judge our brothers and sisters as a mere negative command, what can we positively do instead of being judgemental? Paul has some ideas.
One is this: to encourage those we disagree with, we can choose to forgo our own rights. The meat-eater should not eat meat and upset those who struggle with meat that has been offered to idols, Paul says. That isn’t love (14:13-16). I do not have to spend all my time demanding my rights when the exercise of them will become a stumbling-block to others (14:13). I am persuaded that it is all right for Christians to drink alcohol in moderation, but I will not condemn those who disagree. I will not bring a bottle of wine with me to your house if you invite us for a meal. For the sake of Christian love, I will happily put aside my enjoyment of wine. On a corporate level, that’s one reason why I’m happy with the Methodist position that we use non-alcoholic wine at Holy Communion. Our first positive step in avoiding judgmentalism, then, is to remove stumbling blocks.
Our second strategy to counter judgmentalism is to set out to edify others:
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. (14:19)
Edification is the construction of an edifice. It is ‘building up’. Paul calls us to build up, rather than to tear down, which is what judgmentalism does. Perhaps we know that there is someone in the church with whom we have a problem. There is something about them that winds us up. We find ourselves thinking all sorts of unworthy thoughts about them. We may even share some of these with our friends – and may not even realise that we have been overheard. Could you set out to affirm that person, even bless them, instead?
An example of what I mean: when one of my cousins was going out with the young woman whom he eventually was to marry, his future mother-in-law made it plain to him that he wasn’t good enough for her girl. You can imagine what this did to my cousin.
But then he took a transforming decision. He vowed that every time he left his girlfriend’s house, he would say ‘God bless you’ to her mother. At first, he said it through gritted teeth. However, in time, the relationship thawed and became warm. It all happened because he chose to bless.
So I want to challenge everyone here this morning. Is there a person you despise? Is it someone in this church? Will you commit to blessing that person instead? Edification instead of judgmentalism makes all the difference in conflict. You still may not agree with that person. But that does not stop you blessing them.
Thirdly and finally in this approach to conflict, Paul’s word to us is that we should seek to please our neighbours, not ourselves, because this builds them up and follows the example of Christ, who did not set out to please himself (15:2-3).
By ‘neighbours’ Paul still has in mind the people we disagree with – those who eat meat sacrificed to idols versus those who don’t, those who very liturgical versus those who are more extempore in their faith. Our neighbours here are not those who are like us, but those in the family of God who are not like us. If our neighbours were the people who thought like us, then pleasing them would be easy. But instead, Paul lays down a challenge – seek to please those people with whom you are at odds.
Indeed, it is countercultural. We are taught, especially by advertisers, that it is good to please ourselves. ‘Go on, you deserve it,’ they say. ‘Because I’m worth it,’ said the infamous L’Oreal advert. But Christians are to please others, even and especially those they are in conflict with, those where they are risking a major fall-out.
What does this look like? Here’s another story. I once had a barney with a fellow minister. He announced an initiative which involved coming into the area where one of my churches was, and he didn’t consult me or the other church leaders in the area. I sent him a rather angry email, complaining that he hadn’t listened to the existing local Christians in that town. We would have welcomed his church as partners in evangelism, but were upset that they were coming in as if there were no disciples of Jesus already there. It had the potential to be a damaging row.
Yet however much we were upset with each other, we both wanted to put it right. He contacted me and invited me out to lunch at a nice hotel. He insisted on paying the bill. I turned up with a box of chocolates for him and his wife and children. We managed to talk through our conflict, understand each other, and find a peaceable way forward, because we both entered into that lunch meeting with a desire for the other person’s good.
What difference would it make when we disagree at this church if we were to set our arguments within a context of actively wanting the best for our opponent? I think the conflict would be transformed. I think the potential for resolution and reconciliation would increase hugely.
In fact, more than that: Paul says that when we bring this attitude to our differences, we bring praise and glory to God (15:6-7).
So let us accept that conflict exists and happens. Let us not cling onto forlorn hopes that we shall never experience it in the church. But let us approach our so-called opponents in such a spirit of acceptance, a rejection of judgmentalism in favour of edification, and a true desire to please those who antagonise us that a miracle of reconciliation happens, even if neither party manages to convince the other.
Yes, let even the way we handle our conflicts be a witness to God’s reconciling love in Jesus Christ. And may God receive all the praise and the glory.
Are you a church leader who wants to make the most of your life and ministry? Would you like to be part of a supportive network that helps you with this goal? If so, the Focusing Leaders Network, run in the UK by Leadership In Three Dimensions, could be what you are seeking.
There is an initial two-day retreat, with four one-day meetings spread over six months, plus a little bit of homework and an individual coaching session in between meetings.
FLN gives you the chance to reflect on your past, clarify your future and identify the resources that will help you grow and become more effective.
A new cohort for the south-east of England begins soon – with the retreat on 23rd to 24th January at Douai Abbey, near Reading. There have been a couple of late withdrawals, so an opportunity has arisen. Go here for more information.
Finally, let me declare an interest: I am on the board of management for Living In Three Dimensions.