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?
Sorry I haven’t (so far) been able to post last Sunday’s sermon, the first after my summer holiday. I have some computer problems. If I can post it when those issues are resolved, I will. In the meantime, here is the latest sermon in the series on Acts for this coming Sunday.
The desire for popularity starts young. Will you be picked first for a sports team at school, or will you be the one left at the end, who is unwanted by either captain? You fall in and fall out with the trendy girl.
In adulthood, you may want to be popular with the boss, or you may participate in cultural expressions of popularity, such as so-called TV talent shows. Either you vote for your favourite singer on The X Factor or you even enter for it.
And more widely, we have the irony that among the people most admired in society are often those who have loosened themselves from addiction to the approval of others. They say and do what they think and care about, regardless of whether people agree or support them, and strangely that is applauded. Perhaps when we laud those who are not addicted to approval, we realise deep down inside that our own desire to be endorsed by others is an unhealthy trait.
In our reading, Paul and Barnabas – who have just escaped possible death in Iconium – find themselves subject to an opposite manifestation of mass hysteria: huge acclaim. Not that they went looking for it, but if a lame man is healed through your words (verses 8-10), then maybe it isn’t surprising if you find yourself on the receiving end of adulation. Today, the TV crews would be there, experts would be pronouncing on the matter, and all this a few hours after it had been extensively dissected on Facebook and Twitter.
What goes right and what goes wrong in this story when it comes to the question of popularity?
Firstly, the crowd goes wrong, because they instantly lapse into idolatry. Granted, it is a spectacular deed, both unusual and miraculous, and you can’t blame them for thinking that God is at work somehow. The trouble is, they identify the human messengers with God. But it’s quite a leap to assume that Barnabas and Paul must be the Greek deities Zeus and Hermes (verse 12), and the priest of Zeus, who wants to offer a sacrifice of bulls and the honour of wreaths to the apostles (verse 13), doesn’t exactly show much discernment.
Now we may well find it hard to identify with the specific details in this part of the society. Probably very few of us have seen a verified miraculous healing, and it’s unlikely that any of us have been venerated as divine beings.
But perhaps we have known something like this on a more modest scale. God may have helped us to do something important. Perhaps we helped someone in need, and it all seemed rather ordinary to us, but then people began to praise us. How do we handle that?
I touched on this a few weeks ago when we considered the death of Herod Agrippa, who failed to give glory to God when he was wrongly praised for being divine. You may recall that he didn’t pass the praise onto God. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to respond to praise. Perhaps you remember me telling you the story of Corrie ten Boom, who said that when she received a compliment, she thought of it as being like a bunch of flowers that are not meant for her. So she enjoyed the smell of the praise, rather like she would a bouquet. But then she would pass the accolade on to Heaven, saying, “This is all for you, Lord.”
We can see here how very quickly the apostles reject the status accorded to them. They are deeply distressed, as the tearing of their clothes (verse 14) shows. But let’s be very careful, because although Barnabas and Paul are careful to direct all the praise to God, what they do is not an example of what some people call ‘worm theology’. That is, just because they want God to be praised rather than themselves, they do not say things such as, “I am only a worm.” All the elevating of God that they do is not done to project themselves as worthless wretches. This is not the Uriah Heep definition of ‘very ‘umble’.
The apostles know that God was the author of the lame man’s healing, and so they speak passionately about his goodness. They speak about his provision to all (verses 15 to 17), just as Jesus had said that God made the sun shine on both the just and the unjust (contrary to the misquote that ‘the sun shines on the righteous’). They spoke of God’s goodness to all in creation and provision, something that John Calvin was later to label as ‘common grace’. Even before anyone discovers the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for them, God has already shown ‘common grace’ in the way he has laid on good and necessary things for the sustaining of love, and has done so without favouring one group over another. It is not true that God only blesses the Christians: he starts by blessing all people.
And it is this kind of God who, the apostles say, calls people to repentance. We hear no description of a God whose severity is such you think he suffers from permanent indigestion. No: we hear the call to turn to him because everything else is so worthless in comparison to his goodness (verse 15).
Their concern is not to make fans for themselves, but disciples for Jesus Christ. I wonder whether that is our prime desire when someone praises us. If we too, believe in such a good God, a God of love, then should we not be more concerned for his popularity than ours?
And how might we respond if we do witness something out of the ordinary? Is it with adulation? Is it with some kind of ‘fan club’ mentality for the human beings at the centre of it? Isn’t it about time Christians stopped participating in the celebrity culture that obsesses our society? And isn’t it time that we stopped playing the same game in the church?
Some Christians today talk about ‘making Jesus famous’. To me that’s rather clumsy language, but it does make the point about the priorities we are to have when it comes to popularity. Whose fame are we concerned about? Do we want to burnish our own reputation, or do we want Jesus Christ to be promoted?
Secondly, the Jews from Antioch and Iconium also go wrong. Their problem is not idolatry – they knew their Ten Commandments – their problem is jealousy.
Now it’s all too easy today to take a misguided steer when it comes to the New Testament tales of Jewish people opposing Jesus and the early church. We know from the appalling legacy of history that the last thing we want to do is recreate what a Jewish friend of mine at work experienced as a child, when she was regularly called a ‘Christ killer’ in the street.
But neither can we simply take these stories in terms of the way Martin Luther and some of his successors interpreted them, namely that here was a group of people who had treated religion as a list of rules rather than as an experience of grace. The real situation was probably rather different. They were deeply devout, committed people, who wanted to know how God drew the boundary markers to denote who was ‘in’ when it came to faith and who was ‘out’. They understood that in their faith God had saved them by grace, but they saw good deeds not so much as saving them as proving they were members of the chosen people.
In other words, they weren’t that dissimilar to a lot of modern religious people. We may know that God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ and his death upon the Cross, but we then have certain standards to determine who we think are real Christians. Those standards may have some connection with the Bible, or they may have a little more to do with our wider cultural. Sometimes they will be explicitly stated, and at other times they will implicit assumptions.
Why go through all this about the Jewish opponents of the Gospel, including those who stone Paul and leave him for dead here (verse 19)? Because I want us to understand that it’s quite dangerous when we look down on them. We can be uncomfortably like them. We too, in our desire to protect and honour the name of our God, can also fall into the same poisonous, lethal trap. In our zeal for God, we can, if we are not careful, unleash deadly energies as a result of our jealousy that can damage others.
I have seen it happen in churches when a new, young, enthusiastic Christian grasps something about the Gospel and runs with great energy and excitement with it. Many people are thrilled, but some others who are more experienced in the faith think that they should be the people receiving recognition. So they plot – usually quietly, behind the scenes. The young Christian is subject to whispers, questions, and ‘concerns’. Only if these don’t work does the game become more aggressive and public.
I have also seen it happen in churches when some people think that a certain area of church life belongs to them. They have a monopoly on it. Nobody else is allowed to enter their domain, or to make creative suggestions, because no-one can possibly do it better than the existing incumbent. So when someone else does come up with a good idea and people love it, they throw a tantrum and wreck relationships.
Oh, we may not try to stone someone physically, but if we have not guarded our hearts against having a jealous reaction when someone else achieves popularity, then we are capable of causing other forms of destruction.
What can we do about this? How can we avoid jealousy when someone else is in the limelight and not us? I believe the simple answer is to remember that everything in the Christian life is about grace – the undeserved favour of God. It is not simply that grace comes into play so that we initially receive forgiveness and a place in the family of God. Everything from there on in as well is about God’s grace. All the good things we receive are not because we have kept certain rules or standards that maintain a place within the ‘boundary markers’. No! It is always about grace. However much we change (and even that is by the grace of God), we are still not rewarded according to our perfection. God continues to bless and to use sinful, broken, frail people in the Church. And yes, that most certainly includes me.
In other words, let us pause to reflect upon the fact that we shall always be dependent upon God’s grace in Jesus Christ. We are never so good that we can dispense with it. And if that is the case, then we must live like Jacob, with a limp, a limp that says we are sinners in permanent need of God’s mercy. And when we see ourselves like that, it is hard to keep up a sense that somehow I deserve something better than that upstart who has taken the spotlight off me.
Friends, we owe it to God, to the Church, to the world and to ourselves to guard our hearts with our perpetual need of grace.
And it is that same deep awareness of grace that will also make us see how ridiculous it is to promote ourselves instead of Christ. Once we recall how much we owe to him, we just look petty and silly when we think we should be elevating our own cause rather than his.
So – come, Holy Spirit, fill our hearts with a profound appreciation of grace. Convict us of sin where we have inflated our own self-importance in place of all that Jesus did for us on the Cross and in leaving the tomb empty. Enable us to be unconcerned about our own place in the church or society. Instead, fill us with a passionate desire to see Jesus Christ gain the glory for all that is good.
Sound consultant Julian Treasure shares insights into what constitutes good speaking, in both a technical and an ethical sense. Well worth ten minutes of your time.
Alan Hirsch argues that hyperbolic church growth depends on an understanding of Christians being constant disciples, not simply worshippers, attenders, members or consumers.
What would be on your list?
Read Carey Nieuwhof’s piece ‘5 Things Netflix Is Showing Church Leaders About The Future‘. Not all of these developments are good: who wants a model of Christiani disciples as isolated content consumers?
But in other places, there are some big and positive challenges to the church here: to see Sunday morning as more than singing and speaking, but about building relationships. To tell our great story well. To focus on our purpose, and to call people to something greater than themselves.
See what you think and let me know in the comments below.
A break from the Acts series this week, as I visit a church that generally uses the Lectionary for its sermons. If you want to hear something on Acts of the Apostles, go to Knaphill Methodist’s media page in the next couple of days and you’ll hear the recording of the all age service there in the sermon series.
On Wednesday, our daughter left junior school. My wife Debbie and I went to the Leavers’ Assembly at the school that afternoon, which was taken by the entire Year 6 cohort. They didn’t just look back at their favourite memories of junior school life, they also looked forward. Three of the children acted in a series of sketches, imagining themselves sixty years on at a reunion. Some children – including our Rebekah – stood up and told everyone what their ambition was. Becky’s, by the way, is to become a wildlife photographer.
Did you have a dream for your life? What happened to it? Did you realise it in full, or perhaps in a modified form? Or did it fall away?
And did you have a dream for what you would accomplish through your faith in Jesus Christ? I wonder what has happened to that over the years. Is it still intact? Or did it slip through your fingers?
Today, as we come to the end of Matthew 13, the great chapter in this Gospel of parables, we encounter a set of five final parables about God’s dream – his kingdom. Unlike our dreams, God’s dream of the kingdom, which is his ambition for creation, is one that will be fulfilled.
Let’s explore these parables in outline with the hope that we might recover our God-dreams for his kingdom. To do this, I’m not going to look at any one parable in detail, but rather pick out the big themes. Between them, the five parables give us three major themes.
Firstly, Jesus calls us to dream small. We have the parables of the mustard seed that starts small but grows into a tree (verses 31-32), and the parable of the yeast, a small amount of which leavens three measures of flour (verse 33).
Yes, these things end up big, but they start small. And the trouble with many of our dreams is that we want to go big from the start. In fast food terms, it’s as if we want to supersize them. So you can go to some major Christian conferences and leave with a rallying call to ‘take this nation for Jesus’. Or you can hear other Christians talking up massive social justice campaigns.
But, says Jesus, the dream of God’s kingdom starts small before it grows. An American Christian called James Davison Hunter has thought deeply about this. He has noticed these big projects of both conservative and liberal Christians to change society. The conservative Christians tend to believe that if we could only launch some mass evangelism efforts and see many people converted, then our culture would change. The liberal Christians identify a social evil and attempt to rally people to that cause, thinking that a political change will improve things.
Hunter, though, says that neither strategy works. What we need, he says, is ‘faithful presence’. We need Christians who will be a faithful witness where they already are. This, he argues, will be salt and light in society, and ultimately have more of a chance to bring sustained change to our world.
In this light, think back to the video you watched after we heard verses 31 to 33.
Jeremy Cowart grew up in a Baptist church in Nashville, Tennessee. He wanted to become a painter, and indeed that is how he started out in his working life. Through painting, he discovered an interest in graphic design, and through that got to learn the famous computer software Photoshop. And through Photoshop, he discovered what would become his true life’s passion – photography.
Still living in Nashville, one of the centres of the American music industry, he had several friends who were musicians. Some of them asked him to take the photos for their CD booklets. As some of those bands became more successful, so they recommended their friend Jeremy to their record companies, and this eventually meant he was asked to go to Los Angeles to shoot pictures of musicians. He became very well known among some of the world’s most famous musicians, and through that was also asked to take official photos for television programmes and some of the most famous celebrities on the planet.
As a Christian, Cowart wondered what he could do with his fame and influence. He has even been named ‘the most influential photographer on the web’. He realised that photography could bring a sense of dignity to many downtrodden and poor people in the world. Alongside all their known needs for food, shelter, money, housing and other essential things, he knew that many of these people would have their self-esteem vastly improved if they could be given a professional portrait photo.
So he started to contact people around the world in his industry: fellow photographers, but also hairstylists and make-up artists. A few years ago, on a December Saturday, they offered their skills to people in various communities. It is now an annual event, with over 20,000 professionals involved each year. They take their expensive cameras and lenses, lighting and backgrounds, make-up and so on to a local centre. They befriend people, take their photos, print them on the spot, and give them free of charge. The photographers pay all the costs, and are encouraged not just to take and give the photo, but to go the extra mile for these people.
There are wonderful stories coming out of this movement. Prostitutes have given up their trade after many years, because they finally felt loved and realised who they could be again from looking at their image. One group reported this story:
The lady with the lighter blonde hair was the first to get her photo taken. We asked her if she’d like us to do her hair and use some makeup. She was ecstatic and didn’t know what to say. She sat there with a smile on her face the whole time and was so thankful for someone to care for her.
One lady just looked at us, almost in tears, and said “why are you doing this for us?” We explained that it wasn’t because of anything in us, but because of what God has done in us that causes us to love one another and bear each other’s burdens.
We ended up giving out our contact information to everyone who attended that day and we’ve had several responses back for prayer, needing help finding a job when you have 2 felonies, and helping finding places to live and get established.
We also partnered with Crossway Publishers. They gave us 40 brand new ESV bibles to give away. We signed and gave away 38 bibles. Some people were even coming in and asking for a Bible, but didn’t necessarily want a portrait.
We got so many hugs that day!
Jeremy Cowart started out anonymous and became world-famous. His idea began small, but now touches thousands every year. This is mustard seed faith. This is the yeast at work.
Is there something small you could do for the love of God and the love of others with your talents? Who knows how it might spread and make parts of this world more like God’s kingdom.
Secondly, having begun by dreaming small we can now dream big. Here we come to the parables of the treasure hidden in a field (verse 44) and the pearl of great price (verses 45-46).
I once heard of a man who left a church in disgust when another worshipper told him that the only proper giving to the Lord’s work was a tithe, that is, ten per cent of his income. The man walked out, saying, “How dare he! It’s none of his business! It’s up to me to choose how much I decide to give!”
Was the disgruntled worshipper right? No. Was the advocate for tithing right? No – even though a case can be made from the Scriptures for Christians to tithe. (Although it’s a contentious issue, and I’m not going to enter into it now.)
No. The offering God wants from us is not ten per cent, but a hundred per cent. The one who discovers the treasure sells all he has to acquire it, and so does the merchant who discovers the supremely valuable pearl.
As I once heard it said – and the first part of this at least goes down well in Surrey: God is a capitalist. He only believes in takeover bids.
God and his kingdom, with its wonderful vision for how things can be and how things will be, is such a captivating, heart-stirring sight that the only proper response to it is to give our entire selves in the cause.
There was a slogan at the recent World Cup Finals which caught the mood of this well: ‘All in or nothing.’ That could summarise what commitment to Christ and his kingdom is about. When we think of what he has done for us – especially on the Cross – how can it be any less?
You start by dreaming small, simply aiming to take your gifts and talents and create a faithful presence in the world. But you back it up with a big commitment. You put heart and soul, mind and body behind that small faithful presence. It’s one thing having a dream, but it’s no good sitting around, waiting for it to happen. It takes commitment of the blood, sweat and tears variety to make it come into being.
And all of this means it’s about time we stopped playing church. You know – coming on Sunday, thinking that means we’ve done our duty to God and ignoring him for the rest of the week. Or moaning and groaning about everything we don’t like, as if faith were some consumer item to be loved or loathed. Recently I heard the story of a person who said to the preacher after the service, “I didn’t like the hymns you picked this morning.”
“That’s OK,” replied the preacher, “we weren’t singing them for you.”
Church is not being run for your benefit or mine. Church is here to give glory to God in worship and in mission, and to train us all up as wholehearted disciples. God is completely devoted to that. The only fitting response on our part is to back our small dreams with big commitment.
Thirdly and finally, we need to dream long. We come to the parable of the net, in which the good fish from the catch are kept but the bad ones are discarded, as a sign that the separation of the evil and the righteous will happen at the end of the age (verses 47-50). In today’s reading it stands alone, but just as there is a pairing of the mustard seed and the yeast parables, and of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price parables, so the parable of the net pairs with the story of the wheat and the weeds (tares) that Matthew placed earlier in the chapter, at verses 24 to 30.
These two parables encapsulate the long-term dream of God’s kingdom as a place where righteousness is all-pervasive, and evil is conquered. War, chaos, suffering, famine, sickness, and other ugly members of their family are gone, not least because God has banished those who perpetuate wickedness.
Somewhere in the heart of our kingdom dreaming is often a desire to obliterate evil now. so when sin rears its head again, or violence wins another day (and we have too many examples of that in the news right now), then we can become discouraged. Why doesn’t God throw away the bad fish now?
And if we’re not careful, our deeply committed discipleship turns into an aggressive crusade against others. What’s more, if we dare to look in at ourselves, we too are a disturbing mixture of good and evil. If we need mercy ourselves, how much more should we seek it for others?
So we need patience. God is playing a long game. There will be setbacks along the way, but none of these need deter us. To put it another way, sometimes we treat the Christian life like a hundred metre sprint, but actually it’s a marathon. So we keep plugging away, even when – as marathon runners say – we ‘hit the wall’.
The parable of the net (and the parable of the wheat and the weeds) reminds us that it is worth the slog of keeping going in kingdom things. One day people will be receptive and we shall be encouraged, but on other days we won’t.
In one of the darkest periods of my life and ministry, there was one Bible verse that just about kept my head above water, even though I didn’t understand what God was doing in the situation. It was the final verse of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the Resurrection, where in the light of that great hope he tells his readers, ‘your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’ Nor is ours.
And as those who face far worse than we do – such as our persecuted brothers and sisters who have fled Mosul in Iraq in the face of the evil ISIS movement – one day there ‘will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ for the wicked. I know we get edgy about longing for judgement and that’s reasonable when our desire for God to judge people is really some religious blood lust. But when people are suffering serious premeditated wickedness, as is happening in northern Iraq and other parts of the globe, then this is purely a heartfelt cry for justice, even if it comes within the framework of God’s long game, while he longs for even the most sinful of people to repent and find his mercy.
The long dream is one with an awesome climax, and it requires us to dream big in the level of our commitment. But it all starts with the small dream, the faithful presence in the world using our gifts to bless people outside the church now.
Will you leave this place this morning to begin – or to re-engage – small, and trust God for what he will do?