Monthly Archives: March 2007
I’m doing the short ‘adult talk’ in an all-age service this Sunday. That is, we believe ‘all age’ is for all ages and not just a children’s service where adults are ‘entertained’. Here it is.
Several churches have their traditions for Palm Sunday, in addition to giving
out palm crosses. Here I’ve learned it’s to parade around the building singing ‘We
have a king who rides a donkey’ to the tune of ‘What shall we do with the
drunken sailor’ (very Methodist choice of tune, there). We’ve had to improvise
this year with the building expansion, of course. Parading inside isn’t quite
parish church to my main church in the last circuit also had a regular
feature every Palm Sunday. Live in the sanctuary each year was a donkey – Dave The
Donkey. I was so glad I wasn’t there for them to associate the name. Especially
as Dave The Donkey had a reputation for impersonating a famous Blue
Peter elephant of years gone by.
However, the donkey is not a figure of fun in the Palm
Sunday story. The colt is there to show us that this is the king who is
arriving in Jerusalem. Jesus sends his disciples to find ‘a colt that has never
been ridden’ (verse 30), because you can’t give anything second-hand to the
king. The entry into Jerusalem invites us to see Jesus as king, but we see a
very different king from normal expectations.
What kind of king has to borrow a donkey? Not your usual king with the
trappings of wealth, power and attendant minions. Jesus has no wealth, his only
earthly power is his influence on the crowds (and that will disappear in the following
few days) and he has an unreliable group of followers.
It’s not exactly like our cult of celebrity, is it? He doesn’t
quite compare with overpaid, underperforming footballers who struggle to get by
on £100,000 a week. He doesn’t compare with those who are famous for being
famous (step forward, Jade Goody). We don’t know whether he had the looks that
would have guaranteed a television career today with associated coverage in
And we are lured by similar approaches in the church. We feel
that unless we have the latest thing we can’t compete as a church. So you’re
nobody unless you’ve been to the latest conference, read the latest book or
installed a video projector. I’m not against conferences, books and video
projectors – indeed I enjoy all three – but by making the latest and greatest
the focus of our attention we forget the primary approach of Jesus, which is
that he accomplished his mission with simplicity and in poverty. His poverty
calls us back to priorities, the priorities of sacrificial love.
What kind of king has to borrow a donkey? One who by the end
of the week would also be in a borrowed tomb. Take away the trappings and look
at the core.
Jesus the king enters on a donkey, not a charger. According the prophet
Zechariah that was a sign of a peaceful,
victorious king, not a warmongering one:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Perhaps you recall the story of James and John asking Jesus
to send down judgment against villages that rejected Jesus. Not for nothing
were they nicknamed the ‘sons of thunder’ – first-century Hell’s Angels, if you
like. However, Jesus said ‘no’ to that approach, however much he warned of the
consequences of rejecting him. Jesus was the king who would conquer in peace,
not by threats and violence. He would not take life; he would lay down his own
And you know what? Jesus’ peaceful reign even transformed
the sons of thunder. James himself would die a martyr’s death (Acts 12:2). John
would become ‘the apostle of love’, writing his entire first epistle around the
theme of love.
The peaceful reign of Jesus enthroned on the Cross still
transforms people like nothing else. Armies can make people cower into
submission or force them into resistance, but they can’t change the sickness of
the human heart. The peaceful reign of Jesus can, forgiving and conquering sin,
providing the model for a different way of life.
Witnessing this poor and peaceful king the crowd bursts into praise:
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
‘Blessèd is the king who comes in the name of the Lord’ – a quote
from Psalm 118:26, which we often adapt and use in our Holy Communion services,
where we are going to take bread and wine in memory of his death and marking
his covenant with us. For Christians looking back these words are part of our
holy rejoicing that Jesus the king died for us and for the world.
Then look at the other words of the crowd’s praise here: ‘Peace
in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.’ What do those words sound like? Are
they not reminiscent of the angels’ song to the shepherds when Jesus was born:
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
The words of praise ‘Glory in the highest heaven’ bookend
the birth and death of Jesus in Luke. At his birth they celebrate his coming;
at Palm Sunday they anticipate what he is about to accomplish through his
rejection, suffering, death and resurrection.
All of which means that Palm Sunday has implications for
Good Friday. I recall as a child asking my mother why we called it Good Friday, and she tried her best to
explain to me. And there are people in our churches who barely notice that it’s
Good Friday. Some think that our
services on that day should only be characterised by grief and shame. I once
had a church steward pray in the vestry before a Good Friday service and refer to
the day as a ‘tragedy’. He missed the
whole point of the day.
Palm Sunday calls us not to miss the point of Good Friday. In
highlighting the poverty of Jesus the king who majored on sacrificial love and
Jesus the peaceful king who conquered hearts and minds that way rather than
with violence, we are led to praise. Reverent praise, to be sure. But praise
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I don’t know about Christmas being a minister’s busiest time, I usually reckon it’s Holy Week and Easter. So this year I blocked out some time to get ahead with my preparation. I’ve just finished my sermon for Maundy Thursday, and here it is.
Maundy Thursday: the day in Holy Week when we commemorate Jesus washing his
disciples’ feet, his institution of the Lord’s Supper and his betrayal and
Tonight of those themes I have chosen to focus in on the
institution of the Lord’s Supper. It is – or should be – ‘the meal that
unites’, as two authors called their book on the subject.
Yet while for some of us it unites across all Christian boundaries – ‘all who
love the Lord Jesus are welcome at his table’ is the invitation – for others
you can only share together if you have come to a substantial agreement on
theological issues (the divisions with Roman Catholicism would fall here).
Moreover, we have different theories about the Lord’s
Supper. Some believe the bread and wine truly change into the Lord’s body and
blood. Others say no, but Christ is really present in the bread and wine.
Another group says it is just a memorial meal and a fourth group (me included) says
that nothing happens to the bread and wine but when we obey Jesus in faith he
meets with us in a special way.
However, this evening I want to side-step these debates. I
have my views, as I have just indicated. But a few years ago somebody bought me
a book that has helped me see Holy Communion in a new light. The author was the
late Henri Nouwen and was entitled ‘Life
Of The Beloved’.
Nouwen takes the four actions of Jesus with the bread – he took it, blessed it,
broke it and gave it – and makes them the basis for spiritual living in the
world. For he says,
These words also summarize my life as a Christian because, as
a Christian, god has called me to become bread for the world: bread that is
taken, blessed, broken and given.
Tonight’s theme, then, is about how we are ‘bread for the
world’. Just as Christ took, blessed, broke and gave the bread, so he takes,
blesses, breaks and gives us. And what follows is my take on this wonderful
insight from Nouwen.
Jesus takes the bread in his hands. In our communion services we may mark this
either by processing the bread and wine to the front or (as I prefer) simply uncovering
And he ‘takes’ people, too. He has always chosen people. In
the Old Testament we see God taking a small, insignificant race, Israel, so
that he may make them a people for his praise who will witness to him in the
This theme is not about pride: God tells Israel he didn’t
choose them because they were big or special – quite the opposite – but so that
they might declare his praise in the world.
And it’s not about saying, ‘Why should God choose me? I’m
insignificant and worthless.’ For God precisely chooses the insignificant so
that the world can see he is working by his grace.
And what God did in the Old Testament with Israel he does
since New Testament times with the church. God also calls us to be his people
to proclaim his praise in the world. We are not superior because we know Jesus,
and we are not inferior because we are sinners. It is all about his grace. We
have been taken, or chosen, for the special purposes of God. And that is not
simply true of us corporately as ‘the church’: it is true for each of us
individually as Christ’s disciples. He has taken or chosen us precisely because
there is something unique that he can do in and through us.
This ‘taking’ is not something we should resist. In the Old
Testament Jonah seems to stand for Israel in his resistance of the call and his
desire to go somewhere rather more congenial than Nineveh, where heathen
Gentiles awaited him. But God said, no, I have taken and chosen you for that
exact reason. He says the same to us when we want to resist and choose a quiet,
For granted, knowing that we are chosen and taken may mean a
rough ride. You will know the apocryphal story of the Jew who cried out to God
in prayer, ‘O Lord I know that we are your chosen people, but couldn’t you
choose some others once in a while?’ But the taking is gently insistent and
persistent. God in Christ takes us; he takes each one of us, and readies us for
his holy purposes, just as Jesus did with the bread at the Last Supper. In fact,
he takes and holds us in his hands when we do not have the strength to hold
onto him, and even when all we want to do is beat our fists against him. Still he
takes and holds us, ready for special use.
Jesus not so much blessed the bread as blessed God for it. That is, he thanked
God for the bread. The Greek word is eucharisteo,
‘I give thanks’, from which we get our word ‘Eucharist’ as a name for the
Lord’s Supper, and the ‘Eucharistic Prayer’, the great prayer of thanksgiving
in Holy Communion.
Now just as Jesus thanked his Father for the bread, so he
also thanks God for us. Yes, you heard me aright: he thanks God for us. Some of
us find that hard to believe. ‘How could Jesus possibly thank God for me? I am
such a mess. I am a terrible sinner.’
But we are blessed. God made us in his image. That image may
have been damaged, but he is restoring it through the death and resurrection of
Christ and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. He blesses each of us with gifts,
talents, passions and particular character traits that shape us into the people
he is calling us to be.
God is not forever angry with us, as some would have us
believe. He may get mad with us and frustrated with us, but that doesn’t change
the fact that he blesses us. Parents know that they can tear their hair out
over their children but still be thrilled with them. It is the same with our
heavenly Father and us. There is a verse in the prophecy of Zephaniah that
The Lord, your God, is in
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you<!– +fGk Syr: Heb he will be silent+e –>
in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
That is the God who blesses: who rejoices over his people
with gladness, renews them in his love and exults over them with loud (yes,
This blessing isn’t just a ritual, such as a brief prayer
over someone who comes to the communion rail but doesn’t want to receive a
sacrament. Henri Nouwen tells a story to that effect in ‘Life Of The Beloved’. He
was working in a community for
people with learning disabilities in Toronto when one of the residents,
Janet, asked for a blessing. Being a Catholic priest, Nouwen made the sign of
the cross on her forehead. “No, that doesn’t work. I want a real blessing!” she
protested. Nouwen promised to do so at an act of worship.
He announced Janet’s request for a blessing at a service. She
came towards him and snuggled up to him while he covered her with the sleeves of
his white robe. “Janet,” he said, “I want you to know that you are God’s
Beloved Daughter. You are precious in God’s eyes. Your beautiful smile, your
kindness to the people in your house and all the good things you do show us
what a beautiful human being you are. I know you feel a little low these days and
that there is some sadness in your heart, but I want you to remember who you
are: a very special person, deeply loved by God and all the people who are here
God’s blessing – which either comes directly or through
people – is there to remind us how special and precious we are to God.
Jesus broke the bread in order for it to share it with his disciples at the
Passover – just as he also broke the loaves of the boy to give it to the five
Jesus breaks us, too, so that we are ready to be bread for the
world. One way is how he graciously addresses our sin, so that we might be
forgiven and renewed. Then our sin – especially our hypocrisy – is less of a
barrier in our witness.
We may find he breaks us and leads us to repentance in
surprising ways. Last week in the Lent course on prayer, we read of Jesus
meeting Zaccheus. Some of us noticed how Zaccheus’ change of heart didn’t come
through Jesus applying a dose of fire and brimstone but because of grace: Jesus
said, ‘I must come to your house for tea today.’ Jesus wanted the company of
someone who was ostracised by everyone else. That grace and love broke Zaccheus
and turned his life around. So too his grace breaks us that we might be better
There are other kinds of brokenness, though. There is the
brokenness of our suffering and pain. Jesus uses this in giving us to the
world. I find the insights of a writer called Brian Jones helpful. He says there are
two kinds of miracles. The
first is what he calls ‘instantaneous miracles’. These are when in direct
response to prayer someone is healed or other suffering is relieved. Instantaneous
miracles are rare, but they do happen. When they do, there is a testimony to
the world of the God who heals brokenness.
But there are also ‘perseverance miracles’. The Greek word
for ‘perseverance’ means ‘to stand under’. When the Holy Spirit enables us to
persevere through our brokenness that too is a miracle and a testimony. How we
cope with our brokenness can be bread for a broken world.
Finally, there is another kind of breaking that Jesus does
with his church. It is the breaking from Sunday to Monday, the breaking from
the gathering as we worship together to our dispersal into the world. Much as
we may enjoy each other’s company, some of us enjoy it rather too much. We make
the church not only the centre of our lives but the circumference too. We expect
it to supply not only our spiritual life but our social life as well. But Jesus’
‘Great Commission’ contained the word ‘Go’. The risen Christ told the
disciples, ‘As the Father sent me so I send you.’ Our unity is intact wherever
we go but are broken up, dispersed into the world as witnesses. It is what we
put rather politely in the liturgy: ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.’ For
that, he breaks us out of the comfort of our church ghetto.
Jesus gives the broken bread to the disciples. And he gives us, with all our
brokenness, whether healed or lived with, to the world.
I once worked with a guy called Javed. He was a very
good-looking bloke who thought he was God’s gift to women. He would boast about
going on a date with a woman who would immediately want him to move in with
her. One year for his birthday we bought him a t-shirt with the slogan, ‘So
many women, so little time.’ To our disappointment, he took it as a compliment.
We tend not to like people who arrogantly consider
themselves ‘God’s gift’ in some way, whether it’s to the opposite sex, a
football team or even the church. There is an ugly pride about such people. But
there is a healthy sense in which we are all ‘God’s gift’. Jesus has given each
of us to the world. It gives us no rights to preen ourselves in front of
others; instead, his giving of us makes us servants in the world.
The Maundy Thursday story and the experience of sharing
bread and wine at the Lord’s Table are not designed to keep us cooped up behind
the doors of a church building. They are designed to unlock our upper rooms
where we have huddled in fear of the world and set us free with Pentecostal power
to be God’s gifts to the world.
There are people each of us know who could do with receiving
a gift from God. Jesus calls us to pray that gift to them, to bear that gift to
them and even to be that gift to them. In other words, it is to experience the
truth of Jesus’ words that it is more blessèd to give than receive. The giving
may be like the simple joy of giving a loved one a present and being thrilled
to see their delight in receiving it. Other times our giving may be
cross-shaped, as it was about to be for Jesus after he instituted the Lord’s Supper,
and for which he reason he commanded us to eat and drink in remembrance of him.
It’s not about being gifted people and feeling that perhaps I
have little to give: it’s about being willing to be given. Nouwen illustrates this
by writing about two of the people with learning difficulties in the community
Bill, who suffered intensely as a result of shattered family
relationships, has a gift for friendship that I have seldom experienced. Even when
I grow impatient or distracted by other people, he remains always faithful and
continues to support me in all I do. Linda, who has a speech handicap, has a
unique gift for welcoming people. Many who have stayed in our community
remember Linda as the one who made them feel at home. Adam, who is unable to
speak, walk or eat without help and who needs constant support, has the great
gift of bringing peace to those who care for him and live with him.
We may feel as inadequate as the five loaves and two fish
seemed to be, but what matters is not talent and ability but saying, ‘Yes,
Lord, give me to others. Let me be a blessing.’
For this is what the taking, blessing and breaking all lead
towards: that God might give us away in the cause of spreading his love in the
Donald Bridge and David Phypers, The Meal
That Unites? London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1981.
Henri J M Nouwen, Life Of The Beloved,
London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1992.
 Ibid., p57f.
What follows is based on Jones’ weekly email, ‘Non-Religious Devotional
Thoughts’ for 28th March 2007: ‘Two Kinds Of Miracles’. You can sign
up for the email at http://www.brianjones.com/devotionals.html.
op. cit., p91.
I’ve just completed running the same Lent course on prayer in two different churches. For most of the five weeks it has felt like a slog. Comments on the suggested prayer patterns such as, ‘No, that did nothing for me'; struggling with the usual small group issue of who is confident to speak and who isn’t; and finding that people haven’t done the suggested prayer exercises in between sessions (the book says the success of the course depends on this).
So imagine my surprise in brief feedback sessions last night and this morning to hear a raft of positive comments. Some couldn’t pinpoint anything but knew the course had done them good; some had never engaged at this level with how to pray before and they were glad they had; a couple mentioned specific prayer exercises that had been significant for them.
This was greatly encouraging but also raises various questions: was it all just building up under the surface until at the end the benefits became clearer? Was I desperate for some kind of human affirmation rather than divine, given that in one of these two churches it’s hard to get feedback most times except when someone wants to moan (not that I’ve had any of the standard moaners in the groups)? Had I not trusted the Holy Spirit to be at work?
I don’t have the answers, but I’m grateful. Ironically some of the course material might help me explore that. Two of the highlights for me were the way the book expounded both the lectio divina method of praying the Bible (helpfully expressed not in Latin headings, which I’ve never studied, but as ‘read, reflect, respond, rejoice’) and the examen method of examining where God has been at work in the previous day. I suspect I might need to do an examen of the entire five weeks, because clearly God was at work and I didn’t notice at the time, just as it’s possible with a daily examen to review the day’s activities and realise God was up to something under my nose but I missed it in the busyness of life.
Wayne Field posted a comment on my piece yesterday about ministerial stress. It appears Wayne is part of a team blog of Australian pastors. This post in particular caught my eye about how a church may find vision for mission – an intersection of the leader’s passions, the church’s gifts and the community’s needs. Sounds simple and obvious, doesn’t it? Until you think, why didn’t I see it before?
Jonathan Gledhill, the Bishop of Lichfield, has addressed his Diocesan Synod, having noted that nine of his clergy resigned on health grounds between 1999 and 2005. He plans to bring in health checks. One of his clergy said these checks should include not only physical but mental health, since anxiety and stress were major issues today.
I found it interesting to read this today, when I have been to see my GP this morning. It was a follow-up appointment, having seen him last month in the wake of … a health check, which this Methodist District pays for every two years. Although my recent urology appointment cleared me of anything sinister in that region, there remained the questions of my raised blood pressure and cholesterol.
The bad news was that the hospital had failed to report my cholesterol score in the blood test report, so I’ll have to waste another morning returning to have the test again. (Not that my GP is too worried, though.)
My blood pressure is a bit higher than he would like it: not so much as to need tablets, thankfully. He said that two things were needed to reduce it: one was that my new régime of regular exercise will help bring it down, the other was the stress of my work. ‘Get rid of the stress,’ he said. ‘More like deal with the stress,’ I replied. I could of course get rid of the stress but that would involve the nuking in Christian love of certain select individuals, and the consequences might hamper my ability to minister and be an active father and husband.
One in particular took special trouble to be rude, hostile and pejorative yesterday at an annual General Church Meeting. Fortunately many in the church know what this person is like. I don’t know how this person squares their behaviour with Christ, but I must quickly add a cliché about how we all fall short.
As to dealing with the stress, from the spiritual side some of that will come from the persistent discipline of forgiveness and from allowing my belief that I am made in the image of God and redeemed at immense cost reminding me how loved and treasured I am by God that I can have confidence in him. Moving that from head to a body that seems to go into a reflex stress reaction is something I haven’t solved yet.