The Advent and Christmas rush means I’ve missed posting several sermons lately. Hopefully, I’ll post them soon, even though they will be rather ‘after the event’. At least they will be present here then nearer next December for those who search this blog and others for relevant sermons.
In the meantime, here is a sermon for this coming Sunday, when we mark the baptism of Jesus.
If you follow the movies, you may have noticed that in recent months Hollywood has had a bit of a religious obsession. Much of it has been poor, or at least contentious. God’s Not Dead caricatured atheists, Left Behind took up some dubious fundamentalist theories of the end times based on a questionable series of Christian pulp fiction novels, and Noah divided opinion.
Now Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods And Kings has caused a stir. Not just because any such film is bound to provoke polarised opinions (and that’s just in the church!), but because Scott engaged famous white actors to play dark-skinned Egyptians so as to generate box office income. And that’s before we get to the controversies about whether the script took liberties with history and scholarship.
But Hollywood hasn’t usually worried too much about the choice between truth and a juicy story. Coming from a family where my grandmother was a friend of Gladys Aylward, I am only too aware how furious Aylward was with the fictional romance that was invented for the film about her life, The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness (never mind the dubious morals of Ingrid Bergman, who portrayed her).
Let me come back to Exodus, though. Because Mark’s account of John baptising people, including Jesus, has Exodus themes in it. I’ve said before in sermons that the Jewish people of Jesus’ day commonly regarded themselves as being in a kind of exile, even though they lived in their own Promised Land, because they were occupied by Rome. So they longed for freedom. And as well as a theme that was like the liberation from Babylon, the Gospels also contain the imagery of freedom from their original place of captivity, Egypt. The Good News that Mark is beginning to tell is couched at the beginning in Exodus language.
Our problem is that we are so used to hearing these stories in the light of more recent Christian debates and themes that we miss this. Perhaps we hear the baptism stories and start thinking about what we believe about baptism. Is it for infants, or is it for committed disciples?
But we need to return to the Exodus theme. ‘Exodus’ is a Greek word. It is usually taken to mean ‘departure’, and so the second book of the Old Testament narrates the departure from Egypt. ‘Exodus’ as a word is a compound of two other words – ‘ek’, meaning ‘out of’, and ‘hodos’, meaning ‘road’ or ‘way’. This is the road or way you take out of somewhere. It is the escape route that you follow. And so an Exodus theme is a freedom theme. It is about liberation and liberty. I want to explore the baptism of Jesus, then, and its implications for us, under this theme of ‘freedom’.
Firstly, the baptism itself. It’s implicit in Mark what is made more obvious in other Gospel writers, namely that John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance. Mark simply notes,
Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan. (Verse 5b)
It’s therefore strange that Jesus embraces John’s baptism. Why does he need to repent? Again, the other Gospel writers are more explicit about this problem, but Mark characteristically keeps his account brief. Jesus certainly identifies with the people. He is the One who will lead people out of slavery – not, in this case, the slavery of Israel in Egypt, but slavery to sin. As the Israelites came through the waters of the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds) to freedom from Egypt and her powers, so Jesus leads his people through the cleansing waters of baptism to freedom from sin.
This is the good news of Jesus’ baptism: the Messiah has come to lead his people to freedom from sin. It begins with confession and forgiveness, but it becomes a whole pilgrimage from ‘Egypt’ to the ‘Promised Land’, as that initial setting free becomes a journey in which God leads us into freedom not only from the penalty of sin but also into increasing freedom from the practice of sin, until one day, in the New Creation, we shall be free from the presence of sin.
For Jesus, that journey will embrace what our baptism service calls ‘the deep waters of death’. His Red Sea will not only be the waters of the Jordan at John’s baptism, but Calvary and a tomb. But he will rise to new life and ascend to his Promised Land, promising that we will one day go with him at our own resurrection.
This is Good News that says to us, life doesn’t always have to be like this. It doesn’t have to remain a catalogue of remorse and failure. There is hope. We do not have to hate ourselves, because God loves us to the point of offering forgiveness and new life.
Thus begins our transforming journey, in a baptism that calls us out of Egypt and on the road of increasing freedom. It’s worth reminding ourselves of this from time to time.
One person who did that in his life was Martin Luther. He was a man prone to mood swings between elation and darkness. He could be the wittiest person alive, but he could also plumb the depths. But he said that whenever he was most tempted to doubt or to give up, he would remind himself of one fact: ‘I am baptised.’
I am not saying that baptism is some religious magic trick, but I am saying that to remember our baptism is to remember the promises of God to forgive our sins, and the power of God to change us and ultimately all creation, too. It is a sacrament of hope, as well as of beginnings.
Secondly, the Holy Spirit. On the one hand, John promises,
I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit (verse 8)
And on the other, we read,
Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. (Verse 10)
What does this have to do with the Exodus freedom story? It’s about the manner of God’s presence.
I’m sure you will recall that when Israel was being led through the wilderness, it was by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
But now, in the New Covenant, God’s people get an upgrade. Not only will the presence of God (cloud and fire) lead them, now that same presence will come upon all of them and dwell within them. For you frequent flyers, they have effectively gone from economy class to business class.
In Jesus’ case, there is something else. The descent of the Spirit upon him shows that he is the Messiah, for Messiah means ‘Anointed One’. He is anointed, not with the oil used to mark an earthly monarch, but with the oil of God, the Holy Spirit.
And if Jesus the Messiah is anointed with the Holy Spirit and we receive the Spirit too, then that confirms our Christian identity – we are to be ‘little Christs’. No, we are not Messiahs, and heaven deliver us from any more people in the Church with Messiah complexes, but the upgrade to the indwelling Spirit equips us for our pilgrimage to freedom. It is the witness of the Holy Spirit that confirms we are forgiven and loved. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to lead us into increasing freedom from the practice of sin, thus making us more Christ-like. (Although we may more modestly feel it’s a case of becoming less un-Christ-like!)
We need not fear the gift of the Holy Spirit. He is the Spirit of freedom. ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,’ wrote the Apostle Paul. He brings God’s freedom to us, and empowers us then to be ministers of God’s freedom in the world. Through the Spirit’s work, we offer Christ and his liberating work to those in the chains of sin – the chains of their own sin, and the chains imposed by others upon them.
And not for us the limited distribution of the Holy Spirit in the Old Covenant. Now the Spirit is given not only to a select number of God’s people, he is given to women and men, young and old, privileged and poor – anyone who desires to follow Jesus the Messiah, the leader of freedom.
Those in higher church traditions than us have a liturgical symbol for this in the way the bishop applies anointing oil (‘chrism oil’) to the foreheads of candidates for confirmation. I came to like that tradition when I used to take part in ecumenical confirmation services with Anglicans, and concluded that we were missing out on that symbolism. I can offer something ad hoc, in that I possess a bottle of anointing oil, which has a beautiful smell of frankincense, and some people find it helpful to link the fragrant aroma of the oil with the presence of the Holy Spirit, who brings freedom.
Thirdly, the voice of God. The terrifying thunder from the mountain on the Exodus route now becomes the voice from heaven as Jesus comes up out of the water. Heaven is ‘torn open’, the Spirit descends like a dove (verse 10), and the voice from heaven speaks:
‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ (verse 11)
Tom Wright says that we should not see the opening of heaven as like a door ajar in the sky, because heaven in the Bible is rather the dimension of God’s reality that is invisible to us. So instead, this is like an invisible curtain being pulled back so that we see the whole of life in the light of this different reality. And in this case, when heaven opens the curtain into our life, we hear the divine voice that addressed Jesus addressing us, too: ‘You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’
And certainly that is a totally different reality in which to live. Think about God addressing Jesus this way. Mark hasn’t recorded any virtuous acts by Jesus yet at all. His baptism is his first action in this Gospel, and even that is done to him. There is not even a reference to the humility of the Incarnation in Mark. What, then, has Jesus done to earn his Father’s pleasure here? Absolutely nothing. But he hears the voice of unconditional love. God loves him and is pleased with him.
Those of you who are parents, recall those times when you went into your children’s bedrooms at night when they were fast asleep. They might have delighted you that day, or they might have been utter pickles. But still you gazed at them and whispered words about how much you loved them. You had unconditional love for them.
So ask yourself this: is God angry with me, or does he love me? Can I really believe the Good News that God delights in me? This is the liberating news of our New Testament Exodus.
And that is a transforming insight. If God loves us like this, why do we not love ourselves? I don’t mean in a self-centred way. Rather, I mean something that the author Donald Miller has recently written about. In a booklet available online called Start Life Over, he lists five principles towards changing our lives for the better. The second of these is that – strange as it may sound – we are in a relationship with ourselves, so we should make it a healthy one.
What he says is this. To some extent, we all seek the approval of others, but what we don’t notice is how we seek our own approval. It is as if we are two people: one doing the actions of daily life, the other watching those actions in judgement. Miller noticed that a friend whom he deeply admired was always doing respectful things. And he wondered: if I start doing more respectful things, will I respect myself more, and thus change for the better? He writes,
And it worked. I would find myself wanting to eat a half gallon of ice cream while watching television and I asked myself “if you skipped this, would you have a little more respect for yourself?” and the truth is I would. So I skipped it. And I had much more self respect.
I liked myself more.
This sort of thing translated into a whole host of other areas of my life. I started holding my tongue a little more and found I respected myself more when I was more thoughtful in conversation. I found myself less willing to people please because, well, people who people please aren’t as respectable, right? (Page 9)
I suggest to you that this kind of transformation is open to us when we embark on our baptismal journey of freedom, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and hear God’s voice from heaven telling us we are loved unconditionally. It makes change possible.
So often, the way we seek to promote change in ourselves and in others is through threat. We are no carrot and all stick. But all that produces is fear and paralysis. We might see some change, but it is the change wrought by sleeplessness and night terrors, rather than love. Ultimately, it doesn’t achieve much, and it affects us badly as people.
God chooses the way of unconditional love to lead us into freedom.
I seem to have got behind on posting sermons since about the Third Sunday in Advent, sorry. There are several to post, if they are still relevant. (Maybe they will be useful for future Christmas celebrations.) In the meantime, the WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
Madison Square Garden can seat 20,000 people for a concert. This blog was viewed about 61,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Madison Square Garden, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
Do you check the weather forecast first thing in the morning? I may be doing so in order to urge one of the children to wear an appropriate coat for school. So I may check the weather app on my phone, or I may look on the BBC website. I may just catch the forecast in the regional news on BBC Breakfast, or I may see a video of that same regional forecast in my Facebook updates.
But whatever method I use, I have yet to hear a forecast include the words,
“the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” (Verses 24b-25)
Instead, we’re in the territory of dramatic prophetic language. Prophecies of future events in the Bible seldom use prosaic newspaper-reporting-type language: they tend to use coded, strange, disturbing picture language instead. And for his purposes here, Jesus draws on words originally used by Isaiah to foretell the downfall of Babylon and Edom.
And we commonly assume here that Jesus is deploying this apocalyptic language to talk about the end of the world. But at that point, we have to be careful.
Because Jesus speaks in the passage we heard read about two different ends of the world, if I may put it that way. His prophetic weather forecast is not talking about the end of all things – we’ll come to that later as the second ‘end of the world’ – but the end of the Jerusalem Temple.
For that is where the whole of Mark 13 begins. Jesus’ disciples are admiring the beauty of the Temple, only for Jesus to warn them that it will be destroyed, and that Rome will invade it and set up a pagan idol there, a devastating blasphemy for the Jewish people.
We need to begin, then, this morning, with this first end of the world, the end of the Jerusalem Temple. And you may say that shouldn’t be classed as an end of the world. But it was the end of the world at the time for the chosen people. Their whole system of sacrifice and worship was undone by its destruction (even if later they would develop the synagogue approach to faith that was already in existence).
Think of it as a parallel to the old song ‘Don’t they know it’s the end of the world’, where Skeeter Davis sang,
Don’t they know it’s the end of the world,
It ended when I lost your love.
As a romantic break-up can be a personal catastrophe, so much more Jesus knows when prophesying the failure of the Jewish revolt that the carnage and slaughter of life, combined with the annihilation of the central symbol of their faith will be as good as ‘the end of the world’ for his people.
But he also tells his followers that this awful obliteration of the Jewish hope that will come forty years after he speaks will constitute a vindication of him and his ministry. It prompts him to speak about his coming.
Yet – again, we have to be careful! Just as there are two ‘ends of the world’ in this passage, so there are also two comings of Jesus in these verses. And the coming of Jesus associated with the end of the Jerusalem Temple is not what we commonly call his ‘Second Coming’, his appearing again on Earth.
Listen to how he describes it:
At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. (Verse 26)
We have assumed that means his visible return to Earth, but the moment you recognise what Jesus is quoting here from the Old Testament, you will begin to see it differently. Jesus is quoting from Daniel 7 where the Son of Man comes on the clouds of heaven. But he doesn’t come on the clouds of heaven to Earth, he comes on the clouds of heaven to the presence of the Ancient of Days, Almighty God. I believe this is the triumph and vindication Jesus receives after his resurrection when he ascends to the Father’s right hand. His life and ministry receive the big ‘thumbs up’ from his Father.
And in that context, we have a job to do – although again, it’s easy for us, with our wrong assumptions that this is about the Second Coming, to miss that fact. For Jesus says next,
And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. (Verse 27)
We have commonly thought that to mean that God will bring his own people home. But that doesn’t stand up if this is what follows the ascension, Jesus’ coming to his Father, rather than his coming back to Earth.
Why? Remember that ‘angels’ is a word that can also mean ‘messengers’. This is about the proclamation of the Gospel. It is about Jesus’ disciples joining in God’s mission of gathering in his people from everywhere. Christian mission is always the mission of God, in which we are called to participate.
The end of the Jerusalem Temple world and the coming of Jesus to his Father point to the call of the church to engage in the mission of God. Ours is the call to herald the world the One who has been vindicated by Almighty God through his resurrection and ascension. It is our noble call to share in this task, following in the steps of the Early Church. They are the ones Jesus has in mind when he says,
Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (Verse 30)
It is not that Jesus expected his Second Coming to be early and that he was wrong in his prediction, because these words do not anticipate his return. They are about the mission of God taking place after his ascension.
Perhaps this has particular application for churches today. As churches decline and age, there are fewer ministers to go around, and – as we know here – it becomes harder to maintain the building. But these things are our parallel to the Jerusalem Temple – we thought they were essential to the practice of our faith, but they are not. They are props, albeit sometimes helpful props. But God is taking the props away, and we have to focus on the essential call for this age in history. That call is to engage in the mission of God.
So – to sum up this first point – Jesus prophesies the ultimate failure of Jewish revolts against Rome, and knows that many of his fellow Jews will see the destruction of the Temple as the end of their world. God the Father vindicates his unpalatable message and his suffering on the Cross through the resurrection and ascension, in which he is the Son of Man, coming on the clouds of heaven to God. We, knowing that Jesus has been vindicated by the Father, are to hear and respond to the Father’s call to share in his mission of calling people to place their allegiance with the Vindicated One, Jesus Christ.
I said there were two ‘ends of the world’ in this passage. The second I might call any end of the world. That probably sounds absurd to you, but I mean this to be all-encompassing: it can be any personal or corporate disaster where all that we assumed and everything we cherished has collapsed, like the fall of the Jerusalem Temple for the Jews or the collapse of inherited forms of Christianity that we are experiencing. But it could also be the end of all things. I take this view from these words of Jesus in the second half of the reading:
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[c]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: he leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35 ‘Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back – whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the cock crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!”’ (Verses 32-37)
On the one hand, Jesus points back to what he has just talked about, when he begins by saying, ‘But about that day’. But on the other hand, his story about waiting for an owner to come back to a house is different. The servants are not waiting for a catastrophe; rather, they are going to be held to account for their stewardship of what the master has left when he returns.
And that is where we find ourselves. One day, all our opportunities to witness to the kingdom of God and his love in Jesus will be over. Ultimately, that will be when Christ appears to judge the living and the dead. If we die before that day, then that will be closure for us. But it could be earlier. What if I suffer a stroke and my speech and physical mobility are severely impaired? What if I am diagnosed with a grave illness? What if a tragedy befalls a loved one, and I have to give all my time as a carer, no longer having the chance to be much of a witness in the world? Or maybe my world will close in, due to unemployment. What then?
Jesus calls his servants to ‘watch’ for such times, and that doesn’t mean some passive kind of waiting, it means an active waiting. Servants are stewards of what the master has left in their charge. And we are stewards of the gifts God has entrusted to us. This means our talents, our possessions, our relationships, our work – just about anything we are involved in from day to day. If our lives were interrupted today by Christ’s return, or if our lives were shattered by a turn of events, could we say that we have faithfully been using all that God has put in our hands in a way that gives him glory?
I realised that when I was recently granted the extension to my appointment here, it is most probable that after I leave here in several years’ time, I shall likely only have one more appointment as an active Methodist minister. The question of whether I am ‘watching’ over my gifts and calling to make a difference weighs on my mind.
Those of you who are older, and who have made it to retirement may also need the challenge. Will you be able to say that you have made a difference for the kingdom of God when the master of the house comes back, or will you have been sleeping on your talents? It isn’t too late to do something – our Bible contains enough stories of older people responding to a divine call, from Abraham to Moses, from Zechariah and Elizabeth to Simeon and Anna. But do not wait in a leisurely fashion.
Around the time I was finishing this sermon, a friend posted a video on Facebook. He has been posting two songs a day: one to depress you, and one to be uplifting. Last night’s depressing song seemed apposite to what I am saying here: the late Sandy Denny’s ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’
As we contemplate the ends of our own worlds, or even the end of the world as we know it, may we not look back at a frittered life and wonder where the time went.
 Italics mine.
Whoops. I seem to have forgotten to upload two or three sermons lately. Sorry.
While walking down the street one day a corrupt Senator was tragically hit by a car and died. His soul arrives in heaven and is met by St. Peter at the entrance.
“Welcome to heaven,” says St. Peter. “Before you settle in, it seems there is a problem. We seldom see a high official around these parts, you see, so we’re not sure what to do with you.”
“No problem, just let me in,” says the Senator.
“Well, I’d like to, but I have orders from the higher ups. What we’ll do is have you spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity.”
“Really? I’ve made up my mind. I want to be in heaven,” says the Senator.
“I’m sorry, but we have our rules.”
And with that St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell.
The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a beautiful golf course. In the distance is a clubhouse and standing in front of it are all his friends and other politicians who had worked with him. Everyone is very happy and in evening dress. They run to greet him, shake his hand, and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the people. They played a friendly game of golf and then dine on lobster, caviar and the finest champagne.
Also present is the devil, who really is a very friendly guy who is having a good time dancing and telling jokes. They are all having such a good time that before the Senator realizes it, it is time to go. Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves while the elevator rises.
The elevator goes up, up, up and the door reopens in heaven where St. Peter is waiting for him, “Now it’s time to visit heaven…”
So, twenty-four hours passed with the Senator joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They have a good time and, before he realises it, the twenty-four hours have gone by and St. Peter returns.
“Well, then, you’ve spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now choose your eternity.”
The Senator reflects for a minute, then he answers: “Well, I would never have said it before, I mean heaven has been delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell.”
So St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell…
Now the doors of the elevator open and he’s in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and garbage. He sees all his friends, dressed in rags, picking up the trash and putting it in black bags as more trash falls from above. The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his shoulders.
“I don’t understand,” stammers the Senator. “Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time. Now there’s just a wasteland full of garbage and my friends look miserable. What happened?”
The devil smiles at him and says, “Yesterday we were campaigning. Today, you voted…”
Now, I find that joke rather delicious as we approach a General Election in six months’ time. But I didn’t tell it for political reasons this morning. I told it, because it assumes the traditional teaching that our destiny for eternity is either heaven or hell.
And that’s a mistake. The New Testament doesn’t teach that.
Really? Did you hear that right? The minister is saying that heaven or hell is not our eternal destiny?
Well, you did hear me correctly, but I still believe in ‘heaven and hell’. It’s just that I believe – as Tom Wright has put it – that ‘heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world’.
What the New Testament teaches is this: when we die, we rest in either Paradise or Hades. Jesus tells the repentant thief on the cross, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’ In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, he envisions the evil wealthy man as suffering in Hades, the place of the dead. These are resting places, or waiting rooms, until our final destiny.
And our final destiny is not to float on clouds, plucking harps. The end of all things in the New Testament is God making all things new – the heavens, the earth, and our bodies. God’s kingdom in all its fullness constitutes a whole new creation. That’s why at the Last Day, we shall be raised from the dead physically. The idea that the physical and material doesn’t matter, and all that matters is our ‘soul’ is not originally a Christian idea: it comes from Greek philosophy, and from heresies that the early Church rejected. It’s why C S Lewis said that ‘Christianity is the most material of all religions’.
Now plug all that into the Lord’s Prayer, and especially into the lines
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Verse 10)
The first line – ‘your kingdom come’ – is explained by what follows – ‘your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we pray for his will to be done here on this earth, just like it is in heaven, his dwelling-place. We are longing for that kingdom where heaven and earth have been made new, and human bodies made new in resurrection, and where God’s will is done as fully and wholeheartedly as it is in his immediate presence.
So if we want to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, we do something like this. Knowing what we do of God’s will, we imagine what our world as we know it would look like if people were doing the things that give God pleasure.
That’s effectively what Isaiah does in chapter 29 that we heard read before the Lord’s Prayer. Isaiah imagines the dry land of Lebanon becoming fertile, even like a forest. He imagines deaf people hearing God’s message, and the blind seeing again. He envisions the humble and the needy having cause for great joy, instead of being trampled down by the unjust. In fact, he sees a time when such ruthless people will vanish, when mockers will be no more, and when there will be no more evil people manipulating the justice system to their own twisted ends. He sees shamed people standing in awe of God, and wayward spirits and habitual moaners accepting instruction (verses 17-24). All this imagining becomes a vision for the future, and therefore a captivating image to stimulate prayer, and ask God to bring these things about.
Now let’s plug all this into our lives today, because we can do something similar. And we need to, because one aspect of the poor reputation Christians often have today is that we are a bunch of moaners. We are the people who are only known for the things we are against, the things we complain about. One reason Christian MPs can have a hard time in Parliament is because they and their colleagues are subject to hectoring letters and flame-filled emails.
So – rather than just bewailing all that is wrong with our world (and I wouldn’t deny there is a lot that is at odds with our faith) – why don’t we instead start exercising a prayerful, holy imagination to conceive how we would long the world to be. Rather than railing against the way people use the Internet in negative ways, such as verbally attacking others, or accessing pornography, ask in the presence of God what the Internet would look like if it were used in a pure and kind way. Rather than sitting around as barstool Prime Ministers declaiming against a society that is obsessed with money, possessions, and buying the latest thing, prayerfully consider what our culture would look like if spirituality and relationships were dominating values, and the poor were not all derided as scroungers.
In short, for Christians to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ is to serve notice on the ‘moaning minnies’ version of religion that we often serve up, and commit instead to imagining a better world, praying for it, and working for it in the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe that’s what Jesus wanted of his followers when he taught them the Lord’s Prayer.
And there is a specific application to make in this particular sermon and teaching series that we are following. We’ve been thinking about what we’ve called our ‘frontlines’, those places where we are no longer cossetted among our fellow Christians, but interact with those who don’t share our faith. It may be our workplace, our families, our next-door neighbours, or where we spend our leisure time, from the health club to the U3A.
These locations, too, are often far from what we would ideally like them to be. Much as we enjoy the friendship of others there, these places may be centres of gossip, sharp practice, back-biting, and unjust behaviours. Even if it’s not that bad, they can become mundane and meaningless, and hence the parody of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that we sometimes use to describe our paid working life: ‘I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go.’
So here we choose not simply to carp about the things that annoy us, or stay permanently on a downer about the people who get our backs up. Instead, we employ a holy imagination, and ask ourselves this question: ‘From what I know about Jesus’ teaching, what would this environment look like under the reign of God?’ And then we dream what it would look like.
And having established our ‘kingdom dream’, we then pray it: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Little by little, we shall see signs of transformation as we do so.
Now maybe asking us all to be dreamers – even kingdom of God dreamers – will not go down well in some quarters. Dreamers have a bad reputation. They are detached from reality; they are not practical people. And we have seen worldly dreamers who garner a bad reputation. You only have to think of John Lennon singing, ‘You may think I’m a dreamer’ in his execrable song ‘Imagine’ – a song where he exhorts us to ‘imagine no possessions’, all the while being filmed singing the song in his Ascot mansion. Any dream won’t do.
But kingdom dreams are wonderful things. It isn’t for nothing that the Bible often links dreams with visions. They can give direction. Used prayerfully, they can lead to transformation.
So – er – imagine that you are in Washington DC, and a great crowd has assembled to hear you speak. And as you speak your prepared words, you hear the Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson call to you, “Tell them about the dream!”
And you change your speech on the hoof to tell them about the dream. It won’t fire you for much longer, because soon you will be dead. For Mahalia Jackson actually called out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” and you are Martin Luther King, and your speech becomes “I have a dream.” It’s a kingdom of God dream, and it will inspire many to take the torch relay on from you.
This week, then, when you leave the service, I am sending you out to be dreamers. Dream what your frontlines would look like if they were under the kingdom of God, and then pray that God’s will may be done there.
Yes – dream sweet dreams. And change the world.
No new sermons here for the last two weeks, I know – yesterday week was an all age service, and yesterday I had a Harvest Festival where I repurposed an old sermon. Yesterday at Knaphill, one of our Local Preachers, Rob Gill, preached on the second instalment of the Life On The Frontline course. Hopefully the audio should be up here before too long.
And next Sunday, I won’t be preaching at all. We have a guest preacher at Knaphill, my old friend John Hibberd. He will be following up a day conference we are having on Saturday by tackling the question of suffering.
But why not come to the day conference itself? Details are below. You can email me on the address given, and pay on the day.
This morning we start the series of sermons that accompanies our midweek course ‘Life On The Frontline’ that began on Wednesday. And I guess that to use such an image as a ‘frontline’ might need some justifying. If we use the word ‘frontline’ in ordinary speech, we might think of a war zone. And while it is true that Christian mission participates in a spiritual war, that conflict is not with human beings but with spiritual forces. We have no desire to be aggressive towards those who do not share our faith, and those models of evangelism that contain elements of that are styles that we place at a distance from our convictions.
But we do come to a frontline in the sense of a boundary or an interface. Our spiritual frontlines are the places where we connect with those who do not follow Jesus Christ. And that’s what we are exploring in the course and the sermon series.
So this morning’s first sermon has the title of ‘The Frontline Call’. And we get down to some basics about that call using this famous passage that is often called ‘The Great Commission’. Four questions, in fact, about the frontline call: who, where, what and how?
The first question, then, is who? That is, who receives the frontline call? Verse 16 tells us it is ‘the eleven disciples’.
Note those words very carefully: ‘the eleven disciples’. Eleven being one less than twelve, because Judas Iscariot has taken his own life. These were ‘the twelve’. This is the group that Jesus had designated as his apostles. There were twelve of them in order to designate the connection with the twelve tribes of Israel, but now they are reduced to eleven.
And they’re not even called ‘apostles’ here. They are simply ‘disciples’. They don’t come here with special status, but as representatives of all Jesus’ followers. Disciples, not merely apostles, receive the frontline call.
Therefore the call echoes down the centuries to you and me as Jesus’ disciples today. Disciples are the ones who learn from the master, and that’s us. We have so much more to absorb about the way of Jesus. The Greek word for disciple – as I said on Wednesday night – may be paraphrased as ‘apprentice’. We are learning the trade. We are not master craftsmen.
In short, the frontline call, in coming to disciples, comes to a group of people who don’t have it all together. We do not have the spiritual life sussed, we just know that Jesus is the way to go, and we are imperfect followers of his Way.
You might think that Jesus would only call fully trained people to the frontline of his kingdom mission, somewhat in the way that the church doesn’t let a minister loose on a congregation until he or she has had two or three years’ training, or the way a doctor or solicitor has to study for several years before qualifying and practising.
But Jesus has not called a professional élite. He has called ordinary people. While there is a place for certain Christians to be specially trained in understanding other views of life and responding with Christian answers, this is not what Jesus requires of most followers. He simply calls his everyday followers to witness to him in word and deed. We bear witness through our deeds, and we bear witness through our words when we describe what it is like to follow Jesus.
So let no-one here rule themselves out of this high calling. It is for every Christian. It is the privilege of every disciple to let the world see their allegiance to Jesus through their lifestyle and their speaking.
The second question is where? What is the location of our frontline? I know we’ve already answered this in general terms at the beginning of this sermon, but let’s look closely at this passage. Verse 16 again:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee … (italics mine).
The resurrection appearances of Jesus (of which this is one) happen in both Galilee and Jerusalem. When in Jerusalem, they are at the centre of religious and political power. But here, the meeting is in Galilee, far from those corridors of power, far from the sort of place that features in the title sequences of news bulletins.
And it is in our ‘Galilee’, our familiar surroundings, that we find our frontlines. Sure, the Gospel will go to ‘all nations’ (verse 19), but it starts in our daily territories. For some of us who share households with those who do not share our allegiance to Christ, it begins in our homes. For many of us, it is our place of work. It may well also be the school gate or the place where we spend our leisure time – the fitness club, the Women’s Institute, the U3A, the ground where our favourite sports team plays, and so on. Our Galilee may be in our relationships with our neighbours, next door, down the street, and in our community. It may be in our involvement with local affairs, as we get involved with residents’ associations or in lobbying local councillors. It may be the library, the hospital, or even the dentist’s waiting room. I think you get the idea.
Whatever our regular images of the missionary being the one who goes to ‘darkest Africa’ – as if forever defined by “Doctor Livingstone, I presume” – the fact is that Jesus commissions missionaries for Galilee and Knaphill, St John’s and West End, Pirbright and Bisley. We need not be door-to-door types who thump the Bible like a percussion instrument. But we are called to people who live out publicly our apprenticing in the Jesus way, and who give a reason for the hope we have in him.
The third question is what? That is, what are we meant to be doing on our frontlines? Jesus says,
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Verses 18b-20a)
We have something to do, due to Jesus’ authority. But what? The normal order in which our English translations put these words lead us to think that the key idea is ‘go’. But in fact ‘go’ is ‘going’ in the Greek, and it parallels ‘baptising’ and ‘teaching’. These verbs ending in ‘ing’ (or ‘gerunds’ for grammar fans) serve the main verb, which is actually ‘make disciples’.
We are placed on our frontlines in order to make disciples. We who are already disciples are meant to reproduce! But, like ordinary human reproduction, it doesn’t happen overnight. Even on the rare occasions when we seem to witness an instant response, like the way the first disciples ‘immediately’ follow Jesus in the Gospels, we usually find that God has been on the case for a long time. And we are in this disciple-making enterprise for the long haul. We know it will take time for our witness to have an effect. People may not be interested. They may tease or even despise. We won’t always know at first when some people have been set thinking by our lifestyle or our words. Only after a while may tentative questions surface. But we stay at our post.
What does this boil down to? Simply this: that disciples make disciples. There are those who have a special gift in this area, and sometimes we call them evangelists. But even though we are not all evangelists – someone has suggested that perhaps about ten per cent of church members have an evangelistic gift – all disciples are witnesses. Wherever you are this time tomorrow, it is a place where God has put you to live before others as a disciple of Jesus, not only for the sake of your own holiness but also for the sake of those you meet.
Many years ago, my home church once conducted a survey where they asked members what the main calling of the church was. Back came the resounding and apparently uncontroversial answer: worship. But Jesus’ words here show that it isn’t as simple as that. Worship is our purpose when we gather, and yes our lives are meant to be acts of worship, too. But if we worship when we are together, we disciple when we are dispersed.
The fourth and final question is how? Exactly how do we set out making disciples? This is where we come back to that question of the verbs. If ‘make disciples’ is the main verb, then ‘going’, ‘baptising’, and ‘teaching’ are the verbs that explain the ‘how’.
Just as we are learners and apprentices of Christ, so we invite others to learn his ways. Of course we have to ‘go’ to those frontlines in order to do that – it’s a delusion to think people will come to us. And when we do, we ‘[teach] them to obey everything [Jesus] has commanded [us]’. We don’t just do that after they commit to following Jesus, we can do that as part of the outworking of our missionary call. We can say, “I believe Jesus taught us to approach life this way. Why don’t you try it and see what happens?”
So why not think of all the life issues that we might discuss with our friends – how we cope with family matters, finances, major decisions, moral crises, conflicts at work, relationship breakdowns, and so on. Did Jesus have any wisdom to offer on any of these? Of course he did. Without turning into a Bible-basher, is it not possible to say, “What helps me in these difficult circumstances is the teaching of Jesus, when he said …” Just make it conversational rather than preachy. Say it in such a way that someone can respond. See it in the way that you can go into Marks and Spencer and try on the clothes you’re thinking buying in the fitting rooms. We can invite people into discipleship by suggesting they try on the teaching of Jesus for size.
The baptising? If we do that on the frontline, I guess that would be a real ‘water cooler moment’! But seriously, that’s dangling before us the goal. However many people regard it today, baptism began – and still continues in many places – as the sign of irrevocably breaking with the past and following Jesus. It’s the mark of discipleship. It’s why we seek to show and share God’s love on our frontlines, living out our faith before the world.
I think I’ve told before the story of my friend who lost his son to cancer. The young man was diagnosed at around the age of seventeen, and died when he was about twenty. Some months after the death, my friend took a phone call. It was his son’s consultant.
“I’m ringing to invite you to my confirmation service.”
My friend had no idea she was religious.
“I wasn’t,” she said, “but I watched how your son lived out his faith in the face of his cancer, and now I am a Christian.”
You know, I would love not to be repeating that story. Not because it isn’t wonderful – it is. I would prefer not to repeat it, because there were so many similar stories to tell of what happens when we live intentionally as disciples on our frontlines. I’m telling some at the Wednesday meetings for this course. This last week I told one about the witness of a grandmother to her daughter and grand-daughter. I have another one stored up about a Christian woman in the banking industry who changed her company’s attitude to those in deep debt.
But wouldn’t it be great if there were some Knaphill stories to add to the collection? Let’s get to our frontlines – because that, after all, is where Jesus promises to be ‘with [us] always, to the very end of the age.’ (Verse 20b)
Henri Nouwen was a much-lauded Dutch Roman Catholic priest. A brilliant man, he held doctorates in both psychology and theology, and rose through various academic posts to become Professor of Pastoral Theology at the prestigious Yale University. He later taught at Harvard, so effectively he taught at the American equivalents to our Oxford and Cambridge. He also had the common touch, and wrote popular books about the spiritual life that sold in quantities that delighted his publishers. We studied one of them, The Return Of The Prodigal Son, in an ecumenical Lent course here in Knaphill.
But for all his acclaim, Nouwen was uncomfortable. It wasn’t until he joined the staff at L’Arche, an international community for people with developmental disabilities, that he felt he was living a truly authentic Christian life.
In looking for a model of how to live the spiritual life in a secular world, he settled upon the Last Supper, and wrote about it in a wonderful book called Life Of The Beloved. What he said there so struck me when I read it that I want to use his framework as we consider our covenant with God again this year. The covenant meal – Holy Communion – provides a structure for the covenant life.
Essentially, what Nouwen is saying is this: what Jesus does with the bread, he does with us. Hear again verse 22:
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take it; this is my body.’
Note the four actions Jesus does with the bread: took, gave thanks, broke, and gave. Jesus does the same with us, says Nouwen: he takes us, gives thanks for us, breaks us, and gives us.
If that seems a bit far-fetched, then bear with me for the sermon, but also listen to these reflections on the passage before us from Tom Wright:
This Passover-meal-with-a-difference is going to explain, more deeply than words could ever do, what his action , and passion, the next day really meant; and, more than explaining it, it will enable Jesus’ followers, from that day to this, to make it their own, to draw life and strength from it. If we want to understand, and be nourished by, what happened on Calvary, this meal is the place to start.
So, on the day when we once again ‘make this covenant our own’, let us do so by making the covenant meal our own.
First of all, Jesus takes the bread and he also takes us. In our communion service, we represent this simply by unveiling the elements, removing the white cloth. Other traditions process the bread and wine to the table. I don’t do that, and I won’t bore you with the reasons now, but note that we simply take the bread.
And Jesus takes us, too. He takes the initiative to choose and call us. Yes, we made a choice to follow him, but it only came because before we ever thought of him he thought of us, and in his love reached out to us.
We start, then, from a perspective not only of having been chosen by Jesus but in that choosing being taken and held in his hands. Whatever happens from here, we are not alone but in his hands. The covenant life starts in a safe place. As we come to renew our covenant today, we are coming to the One who promises never to leave or forsake us.
So we start from that point of security. Like the child held by the parent, we are safe. Like the friend giving us a hug, we are reassured. Like the beloved held by the lover, we know we are loved. This is the beginning of the covenant. On Covenant Sunday, I am always thinking about those who are nervous about making promises to God which amount to an abandonment to his will and wonder what that would mean. But I come back to the fact that we begin in this place: Jesus takes us. Covenant starts in a good place, not a scary one.
The second action of Jesus is that he gives thanks for the bread – and he gives thanks to the Father for us, too. Again, we might feel uncomfortable, but stay with me to think about this.
One of my nephews used to get so impatient about when a meal was due to arrive that by the time the plate was put in front of him, he was famished. Not wanting to wait a second longer than necessary to eat, he would sometimes abbreviate grace to three words: ‘Father God, Amen.”
Our custom of saying ‘Grace’ derives from the Jewish custom of giving thanks to God for food, and for all sorts of aspects of the material creation. Here, for example, is a traditional prayer said after a meal:
Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who, in His goodness, provides sustenance for the entire world with grace, with kindness, and with mercy. He gives food to all flesh, for His kindness is everlasting. Through His great goodness to us continuously we do not lack [food], and may we never lack food, for the sake of His great Name. For He, benevolent G-d, provides nourishment and sustenance for all, does good to all, and prepares food for all His creatures whom He has created, as it is said: You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing. Blessed are You, L-rd, who provides food for all.
The thanksgiving for the unleavened bread at Passover (and I am assuming Jesus was celebrating a form of Passover with his disciples at the ‘Last Supper’) begins in similar vein. The sense is maintained that created things are good, they are a gift from God, and have a divinely ordained purpose in the world. Therefore God is praised for his good gifts.
And in Covenant, God is praised for his good gift of you. God has made each of us in the church as a gift to one another and a gift to the world. For this reason, Jesus praises the Father for us. It is not that he praises us, but he praises God for us.
Even so, some people find this hard to accept. They feel worthless and insignificant, small and wracked by sin. How can Jesus praise God for me, they ask?
He can, because of God’s work in you. And God has some special purpose for you. He has given you gifts and talents, he has placed you in certain families, neighbourhoods, workplaces, and leisure, and for that Jesus is thankful. However much the holiness of God cannot abide sin, there is no picture here of an angry God, only of the Son of God who is pleased that you are God’s good gift. So rejoice that you are seen this way.
Jesus’ third action is to break the bread, and also break us. Here we may feel we are getting closer to the challenging, if not severe, side of the Covenant that intimidates some church members into not attending this service each year.
At one level, though, this isn’t a fearful picture. For the one bread to be distributed, it has to be broken. And for the one church to be sent on the mission of God, she has to be dispersed to different places. Some of this is just a natural expression of what happens at the end of worship when we are dismissed to serve Christ in the world. It’s like the church building which had a slogan over the exit door: ‘Servants’ Entrance’. We go from here to our separate localities as Christ’s witnesses. We are the church gathered and we are also the church dispersed.
But in another way, being broken by Jesus is part of that submission to whatever he needs to do in our lives. I am not talking about something so extreme as military training, where the civilian is destroyed in order for the soldier to emerge, although we should take seriously the call to a disciplined life as Christians.
And in this respect, Jesus uses the circumstances of life that he allows us to face, or even perhaps brings into our lives, to shape us into better people. However, those life situations are not always pleasant. They may be little different from what people who do not share our faith also encounter, but in our case, Christ allows brokenness to be a tool that leads us to pursue a life that is more like his.
So even in the joy of a marriage, we come face to face with just how self-centred we are. In the loss of something important, we confront the call to decide exactly where our faith and trust lie.
This week I read an extraordinary testimony by the Australian preacher Christine Caine. An energetic pastor, evangelist, and campaigner against human trafficking, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and other conditions in her body. I would love to read you the whole testimony, but it’s long, and I can only focus on a couple of brief parts. Firstly, here are just a few of the words she said to her surgeon after her diagnosis:
Leslie, it’s okay. Cancer is not terminal. Life is terminal. I will live every second of every day that God has ordained for me to live on this earth, and then I will go home. … We are on a battlefield, not a playground; it’s time to go to war. You tell me what to do medically, and I will fight this spiritually, and whatever happens, Jesus will have the final victory.
And then I note how she said,
I wanted to be delivered FROM this situation, but ten weeks later, I discovered God wanted me to walk THROUGH this.
Why walk through this? Because it brought her into contact with other cancer patients. Lonely, fearful people. Those who had lost their hair, were marked with radiation lines, bruised by needles, or unable to walk without assistance. A father wheeling his son in for treatment. In her broken condition, she could minister. As she says,
I wondered why so many people wanted a platform ministry when there was ministry waiting in hospital waiting rooms all over the world.
How many are waiting for us to go to them while we wait for them to come to us?
Waiting rooms are waiting for us.
What are you waiting for?
And this leads me into the fourth and final action of Jesus: he gives the bread, and he gives us, too. That’s where we’ve been heading from the beginning. Just as the bread is destined to be given, so are we. Chosen and cherished by God in his taking of us and Christ’s thanksgiving for us, the breaking that then ensues in the knowledge that we are so loved is in order for us to be distributed into the world.
Just as ancient Israel had to learn that her special covenant with God was not a matter of élite status but in order to bless the world, so the same is true of our ‘new covenant’. It does grant remarkable status to us as children of God, but the purpose is not to luxuriate in that, but to become God’s gift to the world, calling others to meet this astonishing God who calls them too into the covenant community.
And so this theme comes at a good time, with our Life On The Frontline series beginning this Wednesday with a midweek meeting at 8:00 pm and continuing next Sunday with the first sermon in the series. Here is the chance to identify the people and places to which God has given us so that we might be his ambassadors.
If we are serious about renewing our covenant with God this year, we shall be serious about the fact that Jesus gives us to others in his name.
So if you are aware that Christ has taken hold of you and you are safe with him; if you realise that Jesus thanks his Father for the gifts and opportunities he has given you; if you realise that the brokenness in your life has been allowed for a kingdom reason; and if you acknowledge that Jesus is giving you to the world …
… then why not take part in Life On The Frontline. And be ready as part of working out your covenant vows to seek openings to be Christ’s witness in word and deed.
 Wright, N. T. (2004-03-01). Mark for Everyone (p. 194). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
I’m behind on posting sermons – sorry. Here is last week’s sermon. I’ll post today’s sermon tomorrow.
You don’t have to look far on any day to see conflict and relationship breakdown in our world. I was putting together these thoughts on Thursday, and looking at the BBC news, I found these stories:
- The violence conducted by the Islamic State organisation in Iraq and Syria;
- The tensions between Ukraine and pro-Russian forces, along with the questionable rôle of Russia herself;
- A book by French President Francois Hollande’s former partner Valerie Trierweiler about his liaison with the actress Julie Gayet;
- Political argy-bargy over the Scottish Referendum.
And if it isn’t the national and international news, then we know of troubles among our friends and families. We witness the pain of marriage break-ups, family members falling out with each other, people leaving a place of employment because they don’t get on with the boss, and many other things.
Sadly, the church is not exempt from this. Mrs X won’t speak with Mr Y. A group of people will complain about someone else in the church; that person will consider the complaints unreasonable; and the minister gets lobbied by both sides! Or perhaps the minister goes around upsetting people, and either a campaign starts to get him or her removed, or people lie low until the minister leaves.
What a tragedy it is when the church shows the same characteristics as much of the world. At the heart of our faith is the notion of reconciliation. Through the death of Jesus on the Cross, God reconciles us to himself. And we are meant to be a community of reconciliation. Ephesians talks about Jews and Gentiles being brought together in the Gospel. Jesus talks about forgiving one another. In fact, the story that comes straight after today’s reading is the one where Jesus tells Peter to forgive someone ‘seventy times seven’ and tells the parable of the unforgiving servant.
Doesn’t all this show us that the Christian community is meant to be a model of reconciliation to the world? The way we deal with sins and frictions is surely to be a signpost to the kingdom of God for people.
It isn’t surprising, then, if Jesus here wants us to find a way of reconciliation if at all possible when sin damages relationships in the church. I’m going to split his teaching in this passage into two sections. There are practices for us to implement, and promises from Jesus.
Firstly, then, the practices Jesus calls us to implement when someone sins against us. He tells us initially to ‘go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone’ (verse 15b). This isn’t what many of us like to hear. Some of us are nervous, and dislike the thought of confrontation. Others of us rather enjoy gossip, and would prefer to talk about the misdemeanour behind the culprit’s back. We like to engage in a form of revenge by sullying the other person’s reputation on the quiet.
If we fall into one of those two reactions to the idea of speaking alone to the person who has hurt us, we need to hear what Jesus says next about the process. He talks about the aim of going to the person: ‘If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.’ (Verse 15c) The point of going to see someone who has caused offence, says Jesus, is reconciliation and restoration: reconciliation between the two estranged parties, and restoration to full fellowship.
Think about that goal if you have a negative feeling about approaching someone who has done you wrong. If the prospect fills you with nerves, then this reassures you that you do not have to go in with a confrontational attitude. This is about putting things right, and healing the relationship.
And if you would rather gossip about the person, then you need to be challenged by Jesus’ goal of reconciliation and restoration. Despite what is practised in some churches by some Christians, being sinned against is no reason for character assassination. That is the opposite of Jesus’ purposes for his people. We are called to show a different way of life to the world. A lot of Christian witness could be improved by the elimination of gossip in favour of building one another up.
But what if it doesn’t work? There is no guarantee, not even from Jesus. The next stage is this:
But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. (Verse 16)
The Old Testament Law required more than one witness, and Jesus brings that in here. If there is disagreement between the original parties, others are now involved. This isn’t about going mob-handed to the person who has mistreated us. In fact, as Tom Wright says in his popular commentary on Matthew, one point in taking two or three others along with us for the next stage is for the sake of checks and balances. What if I have misconstrued what happened? What if this is a misunderstanding? Others can bear witness and help us through it, if that is the case. Remember, our objective according to Jesus is to ‘regain’ the one who has injured us.
Only if none of this works do we escalate to the level of the church congregation:
If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Verse 17)
Still the hope is that the other member will listen. This is not a court of law; this is the church of Jesus Christ seeking to effect reconciliation. Yes, it may involve difficult and humbling things: if wrong has been done, then an admission of the fact and repentance will be involved. We do not banish someone until these attempts have been exhausted.
But if the person will not respond positively to all these overtures, then the regrettable final stage comes. It is a last resort. We do not leap into excluding someone, but nor do we rule it out if nothing works. For just as Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden due to their sin, and just as the people of Israel were exiled from the Holy Land due to their sin too, so in the final analysis may someone be exiled from the Church for persistent and unrepentant sin. Yes, we know we are all sinners, but those who are not prepared to address their condition before God and his people ultimately place themselves outside the fellowship, and the church must confirm this serious state of affairs. Sometimes only this will bring home the severity of the situation.
These, then, are the practices that Jesus briefly outlines here. Sometimes the process will be more complex than this, but this is only a short account of Jesus’ teaching, and the important point is that we keep to his goal of seeking restoration and reconciliation if at all possible. We only confirm exile from the church when the person has hardened their heart against the Gospel call of grace and holiness.
We need now to think about the second half of the reading, the promises of God that Jesus enunciates for these stressful circumstances. The first promise may not sound much like a promise at first:
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Verse 18)
There are some Christians who think this has something to do with casting out demons, but the context is the one we have of restoring relationships and church discipline. It’s a reminder of who we are as the church: we are the community of God’s kingdom. What we do here is a foretaste of glory. We are rehearsing for God’s great and beautiful reality, his new creation, when he makes all things new. This is our part in making all things new. So be encouraged when you are part of something like this. You are taking part in God’s kingdom work of renewing his world. You are building for God’s great future.
The next promise follows on from this, and it’s one we have misunderstood for so long, because we have regularly quoted it out of context:
Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. (Verse 19)
When we take those words out of context, we read them simply as a promise from Jesus about answered prayer. If two of us agree – and some Christians actually refer to what they call a ‘prayer of agreement’ – then our heavenly Father will do it for us.
This leads to disappointment. How many prayer requests over the years have been ones where you were in agreement with other Christians, but you didn’t receive the answer you desired? Many more than most of us care to admit, I’d venture to suggest.
But the context isn’t prayer requests. The context is this desire to bring restoration after sin, only resorting to exclusion in extreme circumstances. It’s a context where God’s people engage in such things as a preparation for the new heavens and new earth to come, where we model God’s kingdom to the world. And so when we agree on restoration to the Christian community, it truly happens. The Father makes it so. Such is his desire for reconciliation that when we forgive and repent, he makes a way through.
And sadly he also honours the exile from the Christian community where someone has so hardened their hearts to sin that they refuse grace. So our preference for restoration and our last resort use of exile are signs of God’s coming kingdom, and the Father puts his seal on what we do, honouring the state of our hearts. What we do is not idle or independent: it is backed up by Heaven.
Then there is a final promise, and yet again – like all these promises – it is a verse we have taken out of context, misused, and misunderstood:
For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. (Verse 20)
When we are few in number at a service or church meeting, we invoke this verse. God is still with us – and we comfort ourselves with that thought, even if in the ensuing meeting we don’t have much sense of God’s presence at all.
There is some truth in this, and on one level these words of Jesus are radical. Compare it to the Jewish regulation that required at least ten (and they had to be men) in order to form a synagogue, and you see some of the power of these words.
But again, I come back to the question of context. God is with us in the desire to bring restoration. When Jesus speaks or ‘two or three gathered in [his] name’, it’s only four verses since he told the complainant to take one or two witnesses with him, so that the matter might be established by two or three witnesses (verse 16). Context requires us to refer back to that.
And that is why I made the point earlier that those of us who get nervous about this process should hang on for the promises Jesus brings. Not only does he promise us that what we do is a sign of the kingdom; not only does he promise that the Father backs up our work in this area; he also promises to be present with us in the sensitive work of reconciliation, restoration, and repentance.
Why? Because God is committed to this work. Perhaps nothing else shows more clearly the Gospel having an effect upon people’s lives than when they go to extraordinary lengths to overcome estrangement and renew broken relationships.
So we serve a God who does not let sin have the last word: that belongs to grace. And he calls us to be like that: the church is to be a place where the final word goes to grace.
Is that true of us? Here?