Monthly Archives: April 2007

links for 2007-04-30

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Methodist Cuts

Today a friend sent me a link to a website entitled ‘Save Methodist Youth Work‘. It is an online petition asking this year’s Methodist Conference to resist making drastic cuts to national support staff for work with children, youth and young adults.

The context is a process called ‘Team Focus': Conference has required 30% cuts in the ‘Connexional Team’ (roughly speaking, that means our national staff and representatives) by September 2008. This is of course due to church decline and reduced income.

A week ago yesterday I heard a presentation about the general plans at our District Synod. I would not wish to blame the person who made the presentation – she was not long off a plane – but it had to be one of the worst things I’ve heard at a Synod in fifteen years. And believe me, I’ve heard some atrocious stuff. It gave me little confidence in the process.

For a start, we were subjected to over half an hour of endless PowerPoint slides, all stuffed with lots of text, and every word being read out to us. Admittedly there was a lot of information to get across, but we really needed an advance paper to read to have any chance of getting to grips with it.

Then there was the content. Some of it was encouraging: streamlining the way you apply for grant aid in Methodism has to be a good thing. The way things are done at present could not have made more complicated  by medieval labyrinth designers.

But some of it was shocking. Naturally with cutting staff from 140 to 100 there will be new or re-jigged jobs. We were told that interviews would be held in November this year, but that job descriptions would be produced next January. Hands up anyone who fancies going for a job  when you won’t know for another two months what the description will be?

There was a glaring admission, too. Apparently there is to be a ‘new culture’ for the Connexional Team (which makes them sound even more like New Labour than their average pronouncements). And, you know what? That new culture will be – wait for it – ‘service’. So what in heaven’s name was it before?

One would hope that although financial constraints have precipitated the process the focus would be mission-led. This is certainly the claim in a press release quote back in January from Ken Howcroft. He said:

“although the Team Focus will sadly lead to job cuts, at its heart is a move to liberate the energy and imagination of individual Methodists in carrying forward the Church’s mission in their communities. We do not want our structures to get in the way of new ideas, and we are moving to a vision where the Team supports local churches in ways that suit them.”

I hope he’s right. But the signs right now are not good. Liberating individual Methodists could be a good and daring thing. It might set us free from the top-down structure that has so frequently inhibited mission in the past. But I suspect this isn’t about liberation at all. It’s about saying, “We can’t do it any  more, so over to you.” Traditional Methodists will see a threat here of creeping congregationalism and a loss of ‘connexionalism’ (that sense that we are all connected). I am not with them. I think it could bring new colour to a denomination that previously specialised in monochrome. I may be sceptical of what to me is the spin being put on the real reasons, but it could be a real chance. It could shake local Methodists out of the infantile dependency culture that expects things to be done for or to them (the same dependency culture that means a congregation thinks it cannot live without a minister, so we don’t have vacancy periods between appointments, during which time a much-loved minister’s departure can be grieved, and people can get ready for a new approach).

It’s a mixed bag, then. The stuff coming ‘down from the top’ makes me squirm, but if this means a loosening of the grip on the local church it might be a good thing. The great shame is to wonder whether this has come too late. Methodism has lost spiritual entrepreneurs in recent years who might have relished this opportunity. It has taken the money issue to force it, not a genuine desire to liberate. At least, that’s the way it looks. I hope I’m wrong.

Have I signed the petition on youth work? At this stage, no, although I could be convinced. I’d want to be sure that if we did preserve good national support it gave something I could have confidence in. Part of me wants to sign up: my wife and children left Methodism after we moved here, because there was no viable children’s ministry in my churches, or the other nearby circuit churches. But in all sorts of areas of church life I’ve grown accustomed to finding the best support and resources outside Methodism. Is that a tragic admission or a positive one?

links for 2007-04-28

Sunday’s Sermon: Who Are The Sheep?

John 10:22-30

Introduction
For a townie like me, sheep are an unfamiliar and tantalising sight. I once
visited friends who had moved to rural Sussex. Next to their palatial mansion
was a farm. My friends observed that all weekend I couldn’t stop photographing
the sheep.

Our daughter is different. Not that we live in a rural area,
but her pre-school recently had a visit from Marsh Farm Country Park
staff. They brought with them chicks and lambs. A few weeks later my wife took
our daughter and son away for a week’s holiday on a farm. When they arrived, the
farm owner greeted them who, knowing small children were coming, brought a
couple of lambs to welcome them. Rebekah took one look at them and said,
‘Haven’t you got any kittens?’ One blasé little four-year-old, one deflated
farmer.

For Jesus and his culture, sheep weren’t just an everyday commonplace;
they were a significant religious image. Never mind the Passover lamb, the
moment Jesus described himself earlier in John 10 as the ‘good shepherd’, he
was dropping a political bomb in the Jewish religious world. Ezekiel had castigated
the ‘shepherds of Israel’ of his day, that is the religious leaders; Jesus, by
calling himself the good shepherd, was implicitly criticising the leaders of
his day.

Moreover, in this passage, it gets worse: not only aren’t
they shepherds, they aren’t even sheep (verses 25-26)! Effectively, they’re not
even part of God’s people!

So the question arises: who are the sheep? What do they look
like? How do you identify them? Jesus seems to know, and in a moment, I’d like
us to explore what he says.

However, before we do, let me note that this question is a
dangerous one. ‘Who are the flock of God?’ can be misused. Some people use it
to make self-righteous descriptions of who’s in and who’s out. For some, it’s
more about trying to keep some undesirables out than finding ways of welcoming
them in. And the descriptions of who’s ‘in’ end up looking uncannily like those
who are making the definitions! We may not know infallibly who is in the
kingdom of God and who isn’t, so we should retain a proper humility. However,
if we are going to think about the question, the most important thing we must
do is make sure we take our bearings from Jesus. In my fallible way, that’s
what I hope we can do this morning.

Here is what Jesus says:

‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give
them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of
my hand.’
(verses 27-28)

1. My sheep hear my
voice (verse 27)

You may know the story about a group of Christians on a pilgrimage in the Holy
Land. From their coach they saw someone hounding a flock of sheep, driving them
and shouting at them to go a certain way. ‘What kind of shepherd is that?’ they
asked their guide. ‘Oh, that wasn’t the shepherd,’ replied the guide, ‘that was
the butcher.’

For sheep, there’s a difference between the shepherd’s voice
and other voices. They are tuned into the shepherd’s voice. The first sign of
being sheep in the flock of Christ is that we hear his voice. We listen to him.
We take direction from Jesus.

There are whole books written on ‘Listening
To God
’, so what can I say in just a few minutes? Let me focus on one area:
the most reliable way we can tune into the shepherd’s voice is to listen for
his word as we read the Bible prayerfully. In Psalm 16:8, David says, ‘I keep
the Lord always before me.’ Joshua is told in Joshua 1:8, ‘The book of the law
shall not depart from your mouth.’ But what should we do about this?

The great spiritual writer Dallas
Willard
has said in his recent book ‘The
Great Omission
’.

Bible memorization
is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation. If I had to – and of course I
don’t have to – choose between all the disciplines of the spiritual life and
take only one, I would choose Bible memorization. I would not be a pastor of a
church that did not have a program of Bible memorization in it, because Bible memorization
is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what they need.’
(page 58)

So take time to memorise a Bible verse. Also, take time over
passages of Scripture. Do what the great ancient technique of ‘lectio divina
suggests: take a passage, read it, reflect on what strikes you, decide how
you are going to respond, and rejoice at what God has said to you.
Read, reflect, respond, and rejoice.

Alternatively, do what Ignatius
of Loyola
recommended in his ‘Spiritual
Exercises
’: having stilled yourself in the presence of God, read a Bible
story and ask yourself, if you were present at the incident, what would your
five senses tell you? What would you hear, taste, smell, touch or say? Read it
again and imagine yourself as one of the people in the story. Get inside their
thoughts, feelings and actions. Read it more and imagine yourself as another
character – even as Jesus, if it is a Gospel narrative you are reading.

Bible memorisation, lectio divina, the Spiritual Exercises
of Ignatius and others are all ways tuning into God. Whether these techniques
are ones that work for you or not, the crucial point is this: the true sheep of
Christ’s flock make sure they hear his voice. What is each of us doing in that
respect?

2. I know them (verse
27)

I struggled with these words at first: ‘I know them’ – doesn’t Jesus know
everyone? In what sense does he know his sheep that is different from the way
he knows all people?

I concluded that ‘knowing’ is not just about knowledge, as
if it were just a collection of information; knowing is also about
relationship. When Jesus says he knows his sheep, I believe he is referring to
intimacy. You may recall how older English Bible translations used the verb ‘to
know’ for the intimate relationship between a man and a woman: ‘Adam knew Eve’,
and so on.

Now before anyone worries I am not suggesting that there is
anything sexual between Jesus and us, but I am saying this: he desires a close
relationship with us. He is always making advances towards us: he speaks, he
acts, and he woos us. He is calling us in the church and in the world. And this
will be especially apparent if we have taken the trouble to listen to his
voice.

Being aware that Christ knows us intimately is a matter of
time and of awareness. A survey
published on Thursday
by Sheila’s
Wheels
, the company that specialises in car insurance for women, claimed
that millions of women only manage ten minutes a day talking to their spouse or
partner. Forty per cent consider a car journey the best opportunity for a
conversation; one in five sends text messages; one in ten relies on Post-It
notes; and one in fourteen emails her loved one. When they do talk, the least
likely topic is the state of their own relationship. It’s a mark of the way
constant pressures bombard us, and a reminder that relationships need nurturing.

I am sure you can see the parallel with the spiritual life:
it, too, needs nurturing, and not just squeezed out by the pressures of
contemporary living. I say that as one who knows his own relationship with
Christ oscillates between the reasonable and the perfunctory. He knows us: how
can we not respond? How can we not carve out time, even if it isn’t regularly
hour upon hour?

Let’s connect, then, our listening that I spoke of in the
first section to this truth, that Christ knows us intimately. Let one inform
and inspire the other. Let us no longer say, ‘Lord, be with us,’ because he is
with us. Instead, let us be aware that he is with us and respond.

3. They follow me
(verse 27)

Here’s the problem, as I see it: we have scaled down the Gospel. In rightly
saying that we are forgiven by grace through faith and not works, we have
sometimes reduced Christianity just to being forgiven now and waiting for
heaven. Because we rightly resist the idea that any divine blessing comes from
our good works, we may slip into another error, and it is the error of being
passive. ‘Let go and let God,’ say some Christians. However, Dallas Willard, in
the book I mentioned earlier, has an important corrective to this:

‘Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.
Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action … the gospel of the entire New
Testament is that you can have new life now in the Kingdom of God if you will
trust Jesus Christ. Not just something he did, or something he said, but trust
the whole person of Christ in everything he touches – which is everything … If
you would really like to be into consuming grace, just lead a holy life. The true
saint burns grace like a 747 burns fuel on takeoff. Become the kind of person
who routinely does what Jesus did and said.’
(pages 61 and 62)

Steve
Chalke
has recently taken to saying that Jesus never called anyone to
become a Christian; he called them to follow him. The flock of Christ are those
transformed by the forgiving grace of God in Christ, but who are then
transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ. It’s embarrassing when
we realise, from either research or personal experience, that the lives of
Christians are often indistinguishable from those who do not follow him.

Why are we not different? Some don’t want the effort: they’re
happy to receive what Dietrich
Bonhoeffer
called ‘cheap
grace
’. Instead, he claimed, ‘only he who believes is obedient’ and only he
who is obedient believes’.

Others want to be different, but don’t break the chains. This
is where the spiritual disciplines of Jesus come into play. Is it possible that
this following Jesus is the fruit of prayerfully reading the Bible, as I talked
about in the first point? Dallas Willard gives a great example of what happens
when we fill our minds with the ways of Jesus:

‘You will remember that Jesus said, “I am among you as one
who serves” (Luke 22:27). And he also said, “Whoever wishes to become great
among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:44) … Being a servant shifts one’s relationship
to everyone. What do you think it would do to sexual temptation if you thought
of yourself as a servant? What do you think it would do to covetousness? What do
you think it would do to the feeling of resentment because you didn’t get what
you thought you deserved? I’ll tell you. It will lift the burden.
(page 60)

This doesn’t happen instantly. We expect too much instantly
in a technological society. But as we pray over the Scriptures and they begin
to transform our thinking, so they will play a major part in transforming us
into followers of the Good Shepherd.

4. I give them
eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my
hand (verse 28)

What does eternal life have to do with the shepherd/sheep image? The preceding
thoughts can all connect: sheep hear the shepherd’s voice, the shepherd knows
his sheep and the sheep follow the shepherd. But eternal life?

I suggest it’s to do with protection. When Jesus talks about eternal life here, he talks
about his sheep never perishing, and not being snatched out of his hand. It has
nothing to do with the possibility that I can stray from the fold, but everything
to do with the truth that Jesus defends and protects his flock from those who
would cause them spiritual danger. He is utterly committed to our eternal spiritual
well-being.

But how is this so? For one thing, it implies that Jesus is
stronger than all the forces that come against us. John was to write in his
first Epistle,

‘You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them,
because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.’
(1
John 4:4
)

We are not caught in a battle between two equal and opposite
forces of good and evil. The life and ministry of Jesus shows that his love and
goodness is supreme. He is able to protect us from eternal loss.

But how he does it is a different matter. It is not by
cosmic violence that Jesus overcomes those who would try to snatch us from his
hand. It is the opposite. Earlier in the chapter he has said that the good
shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John
10:11
). He protects at the cost of his own life. The Cross, in other words,
is not only about the forgiveness of sins, it is about providing all that we
need to keep us secure in the love of God.

How so? For a start, because forgiveness is a guard against
the wiles of the enemy. It answers accusations with God’s verdict of justifying
us by faith. But also, because the Cross and Resurrection are the key to living
a new life. As Christ died for sin, we die to sin, and as he was raised to new
life, we are raised to a new lifestyle. And the Resurrection shows God’s
verdict on the Cross. It makes possible the old adage, ‘When the devil reminds
you of your past, remind him of his future.’ Jesus, in his life, death and
resurrection does all in his power to guard his sheep.

Conclusion
So who are the flock of Christ? They are those people who listen to his word,
respond to his overtures of intimacy, but do not simply lie back and wait for
heaven: instead, they follow their shepherd’s voice and example. Christ the
shepherd draws near to them and protects them with his very life.

Now, on that basis, am I ‘in’? Do I want to be?

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday’s Sermon: Who Are The Sheep?

John 10:22-30

Introduction
For a townie like me, sheep are an unfamiliar and tantalising sight. I once
visited friends who had moved to rural Sussex. Next to their palatial mansion
was a farm. My friends observed that all weekend I couldn’t stop photographing
the sheep.

Our daughter is different. Not that we live in a rural area,
but her pre-school recently had a visit from Marsh Farm Country Park
staff. They brought with them chicks and lambs. A few weeks later my wife took
our daughter and son away for a week’s holiday on a farm. When they arrived, the
farm owner greeted them who, knowing small children were coming, brought a
couple of lambs to welcome them. Rebekah took one look at them and said,
‘Haven’t you got any kittens?’ One blasé little four-year-old, one deflated
farmer.

For Jesus and his culture, sheep weren’t just an everyday commonplace;
they were a significant religious image. Never mind the Passover lamb, the
moment Jesus described himself earlier in John 10 as the ‘good shepherd’, he
was dropping a political bomb in the Jewish religious world. Ezekiel had castigated
the ‘shepherds of Israel’ of his day, that is the religious leaders; Jesus, by
calling himself the good shepherd, was implicitly criticising the leaders of
his day.

Moreover, in this passage, it gets worse: not only aren’t
they shepherds, they aren’t even sheep (verses 25-26)! Effectively, they’re not
even part of God’s people!

So the question arises: who are the sheep? What do they look
like? How do you identify them? Jesus seems to know, and in a moment, I’d like
us to explore what he says.

However, before we do, let me note that this question is a
dangerous one. ‘Who are the flock of God?’ can be misused. Some people use it
to make self-righteous descriptions of who’s in and who’s out. For some, it’s
more about trying to keep some undesirables out than finding ways of welcoming
them in. And the descriptions of who’s ‘in’ end up looking uncannily like those
who are making the definitions! We may not know infallibly who is in the
kingdom of God and who isn’t, so we should retain a proper humility. However,
if we are going to think about the question, the most important thing we must
do is make sure we take our bearings from Jesus. In my fallible way, that’s
what I hope we can do this morning.

Here is what Jesus says:

‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give
them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of
my hand.’
(verses 27-28)

1. My sheep hear my
voice (verse 27)

You may know the story about a group of Christians on a pilgrimage in the Holy
Land. From their coach they saw someone hounding a flock of sheep, driving them
and shouting at them to go a certain way. ‘What kind of shepherd is that?’ they
asked their guide. ‘Oh, that wasn’t the shepherd,’ replied the guide, ‘that was
the butcher.’

For sheep, there’s a difference between the shepherd’s voice
and other voices. They are tuned into the shepherd’s voice. The first sign of
being sheep in the flock of Christ is that we hear his voice. We listen to him.
We take direction from Jesus.

There are whole books written on ‘Listening
To God
’, so what can I say in just a few minutes? Let me focus on one area:
the most reliable way we can tune into the shepherd’s voice is to listen for
his word as we read the Bible prayerfully. In Psalm 16:8, David says, ‘I keep
the Lord always before me.’ Joshua is told in Joshua 1:8, ‘The book of the law
shall not depart from your mouth.’ But what should we do about this?

The great spiritual writer Dallas
Willard
has said in his recent book ‘The
Great Omission
’.

Bible memorization
is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation. If I had to – and of course I
don’t have to – choose between all the disciplines of the spiritual life and
take only one, I would choose Bible memorization. I would not be a pastor of a
church that did not have a program of Bible memorization in it, because Bible memorization
is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what they need.’
(page 58)

So take time to memorise a Bible verse. Also, take time over
passages of Scripture. Do what the great ancient technique of ‘lectio divina
suggests: take a passage, read it, reflect on what strikes you, decide how
you are going to respond, and rejoice at what God has said to you.
Read, reflect, respond, and rejoice.

Alternatively, do what Ignatius
of Loyola
recommended in his ‘Spiritual
Exercises
’: having stilled yourself in the presence of God, read a Bible
story and ask yourself, if you were present at the incident, what would your
five senses tell you? What would you hear, taste, smell, touch or say? Read it
again and imagine yourself as one of the people in the story. Get inside their
thoughts, feelings and actions. Read it more and imagine yourself as another
character – even as Jesus, if it is a Gospel narrative you are reading.

Bible memorisation, lectio divina, the Spiritual Exercises
of Ignatius and others are all ways tuning into God. Whether these techniques
are ones that work for you or not, the crucial point is this: the true sheep of
Christ’s flock make sure they hear his voice. What is each of us doing in that
respect?

2. I know them (verse
27)

I struggled with these words at first: ‘I know them’ – doesn’t Jesus know
everyone? In what sense does he know his sheep that is different from the way
he knows all people?

I concluded that ‘knowing’ is not just about knowledge, as
if it were just a collection of information; knowing is also about
relationship. When Jesus says he knows his sheep, I believe he is referring to
intimacy. You may recall how older English Bible translations used the verb ‘to
know’ for the intimate relationship between a man and a woman: ‘Adam knew Eve’,
and so on.

Now before anyone worries I am not suggesting that there is
anything sexual between Jesus and us, but I am saying this: he desires a close
relationship with us. He is always making advances towards us: he speaks, he
acts, and he woos us. He is calling us in the church and in the world. And this
will be especially apparent if we have taken the trouble to listen to his
voice.

Being aware that Christ knows us intimately is a matter of
time and of awareness. A survey
published on Thursday
by Sheila’s
Wheels
, the company that specialises in car insurance for women, claimed
that millions of women only manage ten minutes a day talking to their spouse or
partner. Forty per cent consider a car journey the best opportunity for a
conversation; one in five sends text messages; one in ten relies on Post-It
notes; and one in fourteen emails her loved one. When they do talk, the least
likely topic is the state of their own relationship. It’s a mark of the way
constant pressures bombard us, and a reminder that relationships need nurturing.

I am sure you can see the parallel with the spiritual life:
it, too, needs nurturing, and not just squeezed out by the pressures of
contemporary living. I say that as one who knows his own relationship with
Christ oscillates between the reasonable and the perfunctory. He knows us: how
can we not respond? How can we not carve out time, even if it isn’t regularly
hour upon hour?

Let’s connect, then, our listening that I spoke of in the
first section to this truth, that Christ knows us intimately. Let one inform
and inspire the other. Let us no longer say, ‘Lord, be with us,’ because he is
with us. Instead, let us be aware that he is with us and respond.

3. They follow me
(verse 27)

Here’s the problem, as I see it: we have scaled down the Gospel. In rightly
saying that we are forgiven by grace through faith and not works, we have
sometimes reduced Christianity just to being forgiven now and waiting for
heaven. Because we rightly resist the idea that any divine blessing comes from
our good works, we may slip into another error, and it is the error of being
passive. ‘Let go and let God,’ say some Christians. However, Dallas Willard, in
the book I mentioned earlier, has an important corrective to this:

‘Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.
Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action … the gospel of the entire New
Testament is that you can have new life now in the Kingdom of God if you will
trust Jesus Christ. Not just something he did, or something he said, but trust
the whole person of Christ in everything he touches – which is everything … If
you would really like to be into consuming grace, just lead a holy life. The true
saint burns grace like a 747 burns fuel on takeoff. Become the kind of person
who routinely does what Jesus did and said.’
(pages 61 and 62)

Steve
Chalke
has recently taken to saying that Jesus never called anyone to
become a Christian; he called them to follow him. The flock of Christ are those
transformed by the forgiving grace of God in Christ, but who are then
transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ. It’s embarrassing when
we realise, from either research or personal experience, that the lives of
Christians are often indistinguishable from those who do not follow him.

Why are we not different? Some don’t want the effort: they’re
happy to receive what Dietrich
Bonhoeffer
called ‘cheap
grace
’. Instead, he claimed, ‘only he who believes is obedient’ and only he
who is obedient believes’.

Others want to be different, but don’t break the chains. This
is where the spiritual disciplines of Jesus come into play. Is it possible that
this following Jesus is the fruit of prayerfully reading the Bible, as I talked
about in the first point? Dallas Willard gives a great example of what happens
when we fill our minds with the ways of Jesus:

‘You will remember that Jesus said, “I am among you as one
who serves” (Luke 22:27). And he also said, “Whoever wishes to become great
among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:44) … Being a servant shifts one’s relationship
to everyone. What do you think it would do to sexual temptation if you thought
of yourself as a servant? What do you think it would do to covetousness? What do
you think it would do to the feeling of resentment because you didn’t get what
you thought you deserved? I’ll tell you. It will lift the burden.
(page 60)

This doesn’t happen instantly. We expect too much instantly
in a technological society. But as we pray over the Scriptures and they begin
to transform our thinking, so they will play a major part in transforming us
into followers of the Good Shepherd.

4. I give them
eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my
hand (verse 28)

What does eternal life have to do with the shepherd/sheep image? The preceding
thoughts can all connect: sheep hear the shepherd’s voice, the shepherd knows
his sheep and the sheep follow the shepherd. But eternal life?

I suggest it’s to do with protection. When Jesus talks about eternal life here, he talks
about his sheep never perishing, and not being snatched out of his hand. It has
nothing to do with the possibility that I can stray from the fold, but everything
to do with the truth that Jesus defends and protects his flock from those who
would cause them spiritual danger. He is utterly committed to our eternal spiritual
well-being.

But how is this so? For one thing, it implies that Jesus is
stronger than all the forces that come against us. John was to write in his
first Epistle,

‘You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them,
because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.’
(1
John 4:4
)

We are not caught in a battle between two equal and opposite
forces of good and evil. The life and ministry of Jesus shows that his love and
goodness is supreme. He is able to protect us from eternal loss.

But how he does it is a different matter. It is not by
cosmic violence that Jesus overcomes those who would try to snatch us from his
hand. It is the opposite. Earlier in the chapter he has said that the good
shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John
10:11
). He protects at the cost of his own life. The Cross, in other words,
is not only about the forgiveness of sins, it is about providing all that we
need to keep us secure in the love of God.

How so? For a start, because forgiveness is a guard against
the wiles of the enemy. It answers accusations with God’s verdict of justifying
us by faith. But also, because the Cross and Resurrection are the key to living
a new life. As Christ died for sin, we die to sin, and as he was raised to new
life, we are raised to a new lifestyle. And the Resurrection shows God’s
verdict on the Cross. It makes possible the old adage, ‘When the devil reminds
you of your past, remind him of his future.’ Jesus, in his life, death and
resurrection does all in his power to guard his sheep.

Conclusion
So who are the flock of Christ? They are those people who listen to his word,
respond to his overtures of intimacy, but do not simply lie back and wait for
heaven: instead, they follow their shepherd’s voice and example. Christ the
shepherd draws near to them and protects them with his very life.

Now, on that basis, am I ‘in’? Do I want to be?

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday’s Sermon: Who Are The Sheep?

John 10:22-30

Introduction
For a townie like me, sheep are an unfamiliar and tantalising sight. I once
visited friends who had moved to rural Sussex. Next to their palatial mansion
was a farm. My friends observed that all weekend I couldn’t stop photographing
the sheep.

Our daughter is different. Not that we live in a rural area,
but her pre-school recently had a visit from Marsh Farm Country Park
staff. They brought with them chicks and lambs. A few weeks later my wife took
our daughter and son away for a week’s holiday on a farm. When they arrived, the
farm owner greeted them who, knowing small children were coming, brought a
couple of lambs to welcome them. Rebekah took one look at them and said,
‘Haven’t you got any kittens?’ One blasé little four-year-old, one deflated
farmer.

For Jesus and his culture, sheep weren’t just an everyday commonplace;
they were a significant religious image. Never mind the Passover lamb, the
moment Jesus described himself earlier in John 10 as the ‘good shepherd’, he
was dropping a political bomb in the Jewish religious world. Ezekiel had castigated
the ‘shepherds of Israel’ of his day, that is the religious leaders; Jesus, by
calling himself the good shepherd, was implicitly criticising the leaders of
his day.

Moreover, in this passage, it gets worse: not only aren’t
they shepherds, they aren’t even sheep (verses 25-26)! Effectively, they’re not
even part of God’s people!

So the question arises: who are the sheep? What do they look
like? How do you identify them? Jesus seems to know, and in a moment, I’d like
us to explore what he says.

However, before we do, let me note that this question is a
dangerous one. ‘Who are the flock of God?’ can be misused. Some people use it
to make self-righteous descriptions of who’s in and who’s out. For some, it’s
more about trying to keep some undesirables out than finding ways of welcoming
them in. And the descriptions of who’s ‘in’ end up looking uncannily like those
who are making the definitions! We may not know infallibly who is in the
kingdom of God and who isn’t, so we should retain a proper humility. However,
if we are going to think about the question, the most important thing we must
do is make sure we take our bearings from Jesus. In my fallible way, that’s
what I hope we can do this morning.

Here is what Jesus says:

‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give
them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of
my hand.’
(verses 27-28)

1. My sheep hear my
voice (verse 27)

You may know the story about a group of Christians on a pilgrimage in the Holy
Land. From their coach they saw someone hounding a flock of sheep, driving them
and shouting at them to go a certain way. ‘What kind of shepherd is that?’ they
asked their guide. ‘Oh, that wasn’t the shepherd,’ replied the guide, ‘that was
the butcher.’

For sheep, there’s a difference between the shepherd’s voice
and other voices. They are tuned into the shepherd’s voice. The first sign of
being sheep in the flock of Christ is that we hear his voice. We listen to him.
We take direction from Jesus.

There are whole books written on ‘Listening
To God
’, so what can I say in just a few minutes? Let me focus on one area:
the most reliable way we can tune into the shepherd’s voice is to listen for
his word as we read the Bible prayerfully. In Psalm 16:8, David says, ‘I keep
the Lord always before me.’ Joshua is told in Joshua 1:8, ‘The book of the law
shall not depart from your mouth.’ But what should we do about this?

The great spiritual writer Dallas
Willard
has said in his recent book ‘The
Great Omission
’.

Bible memorization
is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation. If I had to – and of course I
don’t have to – choose between all the disciplines of the spiritual life and
take only one, I would choose Bible memorization. I would not be a pastor of a
church that did not have a program of Bible memorization in it, because Bible memorization
is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what they need.’
(page 58)

So take time to memorise a Bible verse. Also, take time over
passages of Scripture. Do what the great ancient technique of ‘lectio divina
suggests: take a passage, read it, reflect on what strikes you, decide how
you are going to respond, and rejoice at what God has said to you.
Read, reflect, respond, and rejoice.

Alternatively, do what Ignatius
of Loyola
recommended in his ‘Spiritual
Exercises
’: having stilled yourself in the presence of God, read a Bible
story and ask yourself, if you were present at the incident, what would your
five senses tell you? What would you hear, taste, smell, touch or say? Read it
again and imagine yourself as one of the people in the story. Get inside their
thoughts, feelings and actions. Read it more and imagine yourself as another
character – even as Jesus, if it is a Gospel narrative you are reading.

Bible memorisation, lectio divina, the Spiritual Exercises
of Ignatius and others are all ways tuning into God. Whether these techniques
are ones that work for you or not, the crucial point is this: the true sheep of
Christ’s flock make sure they hear his voice. What is each of us doing in that
respect?

2. I know them (verse
27)

I struggled with these words at first: ‘I know them’ – doesn’t Jesus know
everyone? In what sense does he know his sheep that is different from the way
he knows all people?

I concluded that ‘knowing’ is not just about knowledge, as
if it were just a collection of information; knowing is also about
relationship. When Jesus says he knows his sheep, I believe he is referring to
intimacy. You may recall how older English Bible translations used the verb ‘to
know’ for the intimate relationship between a man and a woman: ‘Adam knew Eve’,
and so on.

Now before anyone worries I am not suggesting that there is
anything sexual between Jesus and us, but I am saying this: he desires a close
relationship with us. He is always making advances towards us: he speaks, he
acts, and he woos us. He is calling us in the church and in the world. And this
will be especially apparent if we have taken the trouble to listen to his
voice.

Being aware that Christ knows us intimately is a matter of
time and of awareness. A survey
published on Thursday
by Sheila’s
Wheels
, the company that specialises in car insurance for women, claimed
that millions of women only manage ten minutes a day talking to their spouse or
partner. Forty per cent consider a car journey the best opportunity for a
conversation; one in five sends text messages; one in ten relies on Post-It
notes; and one in fourteen emails her loved one. When they do talk, the least
likely topic is the state of their own relationship. It’s a mark of the way
constant pressures bombard us, and a reminder that relationships need nurturing.

I am sure you can see the parallel with the spiritual life:
it, too, needs nurturing, and not just squeezed out by the pressures of
contemporary living. I say that as one who knows his own relationship with
Christ oscillates between the reasonable and the perfunctory. He knows us: how
can we not respond? How can we not carve out time, even if it isn’t regularly
hour upon hour?

Let’s connect, then, our listening that I spoke of in the
first section to this truth, that Christ knows us intimately. Let one inform
and inspire the other. Let us no longer say, ‘Lord, be with us,’ because he is
with us. Instead, let us be aware that he is with us and respond.

3. They follow me
(verse 27)

Here’s the problem, as I see it: we have scaled down the Gospel. In rightly
saying that we are forgiven by grace through faith and not works, we have
sometimes reduced Christianity just to being forgiven now and waiting for
heaven. Because we rightly resist the idea that any divine blessing comes from
our good works, we may slip into another error, and it is the error of being
passive. ‘Let go and let God,’ say some Christians. However, Dallas Willard, in
the book I mentioned earlier, has an important corrective to this:

‘Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.
Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action … the gospel of the entire New
Testament is that you can have new life now in the Kingdom of God if you will
trust Jesus Christ. Not just something he did, or something he said, but trust
the whole person of Christ in everything he touches – which is everything … If
you would really like to be into consuming grace, just lead a holy life. The true
saint burns grace like a 747 burns fuel on takeoff. Become the kind of person
who routinely does what Jesus did and said.’
(pages 61 and 62)

Steve
Chalke
has recently taken to saying that Jesus never called anyone to
become a Christian; he called them to follow him. The flock of Christ are those
transformed by the forgiving grace of God in Christ, but who are then
transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ. It’s embarrassing when
we realise, from either research or personal experience, that the lives of
Christians are often indistinguishable from those who do not follow him.

Why are we not different? Some don’t want the effort: they’re
happy to receive what Dietrich
Bonhoeffer
called ‘cheap
grace
’. Instead, he claimed, ‘only he who believes is obedient’ and only he
who is obedient believes’.

Others want to be different, but don’t break the chains. This
is where the spiritual disciplines of Jesus come into play. Is it possible that
this following Jesus is the fruit of prayerfully reading the Bible, as I talked
about in the first point? Dallas Willard gives a great example of what happens
when we fill our minds with the ways of Jesus:

‘You will remember that Jesus said, “I am among you as one
who serves” (Luke 22:27). And he also said, “Whoever wishes to become great
among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:44) … Being a servant shifts one’s relationship
to everyone. What do you think it would do to sexual temptation if you thought
of yourself as a servant? What do you think it would do to covetousness? What do
you think it would do to the feeling of resentment because you didn’t get what
you thought you deserved? I’ll tell you. It will lift the burden.
(page 60)

This doesn’t happen instantly. We expect too much instantly
in a technological society. But as we pray over the Scriptures and they begin
to transform our thinking, so they will play a major part in transforming us
into followers of the Good Shepherd.

4. I give them
eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my
hand (verse 28)

What does eternal life have to do with the shepherd/sheep image? The preceding
thoughts can all connect: sheep hear the shepherd’s voice, the shepherd knows
his sheep and the sheep follow the shepherd. But eternal life?

I suggest it’s to do with protection. When Jesus talks about eternal life here, he talks
about his sheep never perishing, and not being snatched out of his hand. It has
nothing to do with the possibility that I can stray from the fold, but everything
to do with the truth that Jesus defends and protects his flock from those who
would cause them spiritual danger. He is utterly committed to our eternal spiritual
well-being.

But how is this so? For one thing, it implies that Jesus is
stronger than all the forces that come against us. John was to write in his
first Epistle,

‘You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them,
because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.’
(1
John 4:4
)

We are not caught in a battle between two equal and opposite
forces of good and evil. The life and ministry of Jesus shows that his love and
goodness is supreme. He is able to protect us from eternal loss.

But how he does it is a different matter. It is not by
cosmic violence that Jesus overcomes those who would try to snatch us from his
hand. It is the opposite. Earlier in the chapter he has said that the good
shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John
10:11
). He protects at the cost of his own life. The Cross, in other words,
is not only about the forgiveness of sins, it is about providing all that we
need to keep us secure in the love of God.

How so? For a start, because forgiveness is a guard against
the wiles of the enemy. It answers accusations with God’s verdict of justifying
us by faith. But also, because the Cross and Resurrection are the key to living
a new life. As Christ died for sin, we die to sin, and as he was raised to new
life, we are raised to a new lifestyle. And the Resurrection shows God’s
verdict on the Cross. It makes possible the old adage, ‘When the devil reminds
you of your past, remind him of his future.’ Jesus, in his life, death and
resurrection does all in his power to guard his sheep.

Conclusion
So who are the flock of Christ? They are those people who listen to his word,
respond to his overtures of intimacy, but do not simply lie back and wait for
heaven: instead, they follow their shepherd’s voice and example. Christ the
shepherd draws near to them and protects them with his very life.

Now, on that basis, am I ‘in’? Do I want to be?

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links for 2007-04-27

Band Reunions

Of all the band reunions, I’d been most pleased to hear about Crowded House reforming. Genesis was OK, but not without Gabriel and Hackett. The Police – well, if it stops Sting playing the lute. But now the best reunion news of all.

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When People Leave

A friend of mine had a not-so-great present on Easter Day:
two church members chose that day of all days to tell him they were leaving the
church and going elsewhere. They didn’t like his emphasis on children. The fascinating
thing is that they admitted my friend was right to have this emphasis; it was
just that they couldn’t cope with it.

How do we react when people announce they are leaving a
church? I suspect from anecdotal evidence there is a difference between the
minister’s attitude and the congregation’s. Many regular church members hate
the thought of anyone leaving and will do anything to keep them. It is seen as
an issue of Christian love to stay together, even if there are major
differences. These people have probably been friends for many years.

On the other hand, the minister, as an ‘outsider’, may see
it as right and healthy for the church that such people move on, and maybe even
healthy for the leavers, to. In my friend’s case, I couldn’t help but think of
a number of things: one was the value that Jesus put upon children, which
validates his stance (and about which there was no argument). Another, based on
that, was the words of Mother
Teresa
, namely that Jesus loved all people, but he loved children the best.
But perhaps most decisively it was the story of the ‘rich young ruler’. Years
ago in a book called ‘Sold
Out
Clive
Calver
observed that in the modern church when the
young man went away
we would have run after him and negotiated a lower
standard of discipleship just to keep him. To his credit my friend did not do
this.

Sometimes, then, it’s a Gospel thing to let people go. But there
is a difficult and delicate task of navigating this with those who are upset
that their friends have left. Even if we are relieved that someone has gone, we
should take no public pleasure in it. Even the relief might better be shared
privately with ministerial colleagues. It is not something we should in any way
risk appearing as, ‘I’ve won!’ Perhaps it can be compared on a small scale to
the scriptures that speak of God taking no
pleasure in the death of the wicked
, and not
wanting anyone to perish but all to come to repentance
.

I have seen people leave churches I have served, and I confess
to mixed emotions. I was encouraged by the words of an experienced Baptist
pastor when in my first appointment and enduring a rough time over this issue. He
told me something that an older minister had shared with him when he was a
young pastor: ‘Sometimes there are blessèd subtractions from the church roll.’

At the time I was facing a difficult pastoral situation that
in the end took over two years to resolve. Child protection legislation and
procedures were not established in the way they are today and I was faced with
three people in a church whose attitude to the children they led was
disturbing. With the support of my church stewards I began action to remove
them from office. One long-standing church member demanded an audience with me.
He expressed his horror at what I was doing. I was prevented from giving him
the full details, because aspects of the case were delicate and had to be kept
pastorally confidential. It is an unpleasant experience not to be able to
defend yourself when you know you are innocent. But Jesus went through far
worse than I did in that respect, of course. At the end of the conversation he
announced what he had already decided, namely that he was going to leave the
church in protest at my actions. Nothing I might have said would have swayed
him. From my side it was a case of, ‘Don’t confuse me with the truth, I’ve made
up my mind’ – except, as I’ve said, I couldn’t share truth with him. I took
comfort in the idea of a ‘blessèd subtraction’.

But there have also been two occasions during my ministry
when I have virtually prayed people out of a church, and perhaps that’s rather
shocking. Without giving specific details of the circumstances, let me nevertheless
expand that. In both cases a couple of people were opposing and obstructing
everything I was trying to do in leading the church forward into mission. Praying
like this is not something to be done lightly, and I have developed some
criteria to examine before daring to pray like this.

In each case I had to examine my own heart before praying
like this. The full prayer was, ‘Lord, please change them or move them. I’d far
rather you changed them, but if they won’t change, then please move them.’ I had
to be sure that I really meant it when I prayed, ‘I’d far rather you changed
them’. If that were the case, then I would be coming from a perspective of
grace and love.

I also had to be sure that they were not simply critics who
needed to be listened to and learned from, that is, people whose objections
needed taking into account and who themselves might be willing to hear my
responses, even if they still disagreed. The situation had to be worse than
just being traditionalists: they had to be people whose motive was the
obstruction of mission. Given that, I prayed this prayer in both cases. In one
circumstance, I believed that Freemasonry was involved, and in both cases they
tried to use their existing power bases in the church against the church
stewards and me.

Because of the power issue I look for signs of bullying. A lot
has rightly been written about the way some church leaders bully congregations,
but the converse is also true. There is nothing Christian in letting bullies
rule the church.

This is a prayer approach that takes seriously the
missionary nature of the church. It must not be deployed (and in any case,
Christian prayer is not a magical incantation or a button to press and make
something happen automatically) just for the sake of me getting my way and
having things the way I personally enjoy them. It must be about the fundamental
nature of the church, and that nature, I believe, is missionary.

Praying like this is not without its problems, even if the
above criteria have all been clearly fulfilled. One unresolved question I have
is this: it’s rather like the police stepping up patrols in an area that has
suffered vandalism. The vandalism stops in that area, but the perpetrators
simply move to another location and continue their behaviour. So if bullies
leave a church, they may go and bully people in another congregation. This has
not been far from my mind when referring such people to the local Methodist
minister. The best I can say is that at least unlike the police and the vandals
I have been able to forewarn the minister privately how they have behaved. At least
that way the minister can, if s/he chooses, establish a watching brief from the
word ‘go’.

There is another side to this: what if I am the receiving
minister when someone has left another church and come to one I am serving? Early
in my ministry, I established a principle, and I have seen no reason to change
it: if someone moves churches because of a fallout at the previous one, I will
not let them hold any post for at least six months. If they have left for bad
reasons, then these need to be processed and come through to repentance, if
reconciliation with the former congregation is not possible. If they have left
because they were victims, then they need time for their wounds to heal and for
them to forgive. Putting troublemakers or ‘spiritual tourists’ (those who move
from church to church, even within the same town) in positions of
responsibility is clearly dangerous and foolish. But it needs to be observed
for the wounded, too: wounded, unhealed people are those with the potential to become
abusers. Marc Dupont
has a telling, if self-admittedly dubious exegetically, example of this in his
book ‘Walking
Out Of Spiritual Abuse
’: he talks about how King Saul was one who acted
abusively, not least towards David. But when he was selected as king, he was
found ‘hiding
in the baggage
’. Often, says Dupont, it’s people with ‘baggage’ in the
metaphorical sense who end up as abusers; just to look for the outright evil
people as being candidates to cause damage is short-sighted.

These, then, are just a few of the thoughts that have been
triggered in my mind by my friend’s Easter Day experience. They are not
fully-formed, even after nearly fifteen years in the ministry. You may well be
able to refine them – and if so, please leave a constructive comment below. But
if you are going through a trying time, then I hope they will encourage you.

Praise And Criticism

Great quote from this week’s Ministry Toolbox by Rick Warren:

“Praise and criticism are like bubble gum – you chew on them but you don’t swallow them.”

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