Monthly Archives: May 2007

Blogging Holiday

I’ll be holidaying from blogging for the next two weeks. Next post some time on or after the 26th.

About these ads

links for 2007-05-11

Photo Slideshow

I’ve just added another widget to the left-hand side of the blog template. Down at the bottom you’ll see ‘Photo slideshow’, a rolling show of some photos I have up on Flickr. I picked this up from Sally Coleman‘s blog – and, by the way, congrats to her today for being accepted for ministerial training.

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

Digital Faith Part 3

Just time to note this quickly – I’ve had these tabs open for a week or so in Firefox: further to my previous posts on ‘digital faith‘ the new book by David Weinberger of Cluetrain Manifesto fame, entitled ‘Everything Is Miscellaneous‘, sounds interesting. I first came across Cory Doctorow’s review and then from a Christian perspective Bill Kinnon mentioned it in a post about Rupert Murdoch. Essentially, Weinberger argues that old forms of hierarchical classification no longer work – this is the Web 2.0 era of tagging. As I say, no time to explore now, but sufficient to note that this sits with postmodern suspicions of power, with digital faith issues of interactivity and indeed with the Body of Christ.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , ,

links for 2007-05-10

Pentecost Sermon

OK, here is the sermon for Sunday fortnight:

Acts 2:1-21

Introduction
The 1970s were a time of great liturgical change in the Church of England, with
different forms of service coming out on a trial basis at regular intervals.
The then Bishop of Kensington is said to have turned up to lead a confirmation
service which he began with the words; ‘The Lord is here.’ In line with the
latest liturgy, he was expecting the response, ‘His Spirit is with us,’ but
instead there was a stony silence. He tried again, a little louder: ‘The Lord
is here!’, but again there was no reply from the congregation. So he said it a
third time, this time with still greater emphasis. When this once again failed
to produce any response from the congregation, he turned to the vicar and said:
‘The Lord is here, isn’t he?’ To which the vicar replied: ‘Not in our book he
isn’t.’[1]

The Lord is here: his Spirit is with us. This we celebrate
at Pentecost. In this sermon I want to look at some of the big themes
associated with the coming of the Holy Spirit. (I’ve dealt separately
with the question of speaking in tongues.)

1. Unity
The story begins with a note of unity:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in
one place.
(verse 1)

Whether the ‘they’ is the hundred and twenty disciples of
Acts chapter 1 or just the apostles, what matters is that ‘they’ – a corporate
group of Christ’s followers – ‘were all together in one place.’ Jesus had told
his disciples to stay in the city of Jerusalem until the power of the Holy
Spirit came upon them. The blessing falls on disciples united in prayer. It is
the New Testament fulfilment of Psalm
133
, where those who live together in unity receive the Lord’s commanded
blessing.

It is the same thing seen among groups of Christians who
desire to see God’s Holy Spirit work powerfully today, both within and beyond
the church. They seek to live in unity, and pray together. I was part of one such group in my last
appointment. Every Wednesday lunch-time there was a united act of worship,
preceded by a prayer meeting. It was not a gathering that sought to deal with
all the institutional differences between various Christian denominations, it
was a movement that tried to build united relationships and reconciliation across
the Body of Christ, and to see this as a springboard for spiritual renewal and
change. There were odd bits of theology where I disagreed with some of the
founders, but the basic vision – united relationships and prayer for the sake
of church and social transformation – seemed sound to me.

The testimony is similar from countries where the Gospel is
spreading to many people. I have had the privilege of meeting several Ugandan
Christians, and while their cultural style of praying might be different from
ours, the same truth remains: a church united in prayer is one either already
empowered by the Spirit or it soon will be.

It is not that in unity we manipulate the Spirit, but it is
that unity pleases the Spirit and discord grieves the Spirit. Unity in our
relationships and praying together is a way of saying that the work of the Holy
Spirit is welcome here. Opposite trends – be they Christians remaining in
isolation from one another or worse, fighting each other – are ways of saying
that we care little for the power of the Holy Spirit.

I am not suggesting that people here do not pray. But I am
suggesting that a coming together in prayer that is for more than just the
‘enthusiasts’ would be quite an indication of our desire to meet with the
Spirit of God. It will be good, therefore, if our forthcoming Sunday morning
prayer meeting becomes a gathering not merely of the faithful few but has a
wide membership. That would be an indication that we wanted to do business with
God.

2. Mystery
Luke, the writer of Acts, wasn’t present at that first Christian Pentecost. He
must have relied on eye-witness testimony for his account. But clearly those in
attendance when the Spirit fell struggled to describe what happened. Listen
again to some of the language:

‘a sound like the
rush of a violent wind’ (verse 2, italics mine);

‘Divided tongues, as of
fire’ (verse 3, italics mine).

It’s mysterious stuff, beyond capturing in human words. There
is something elusive and beyond our control about the Holy Spirit. Jesus hinted
at as much in his famous conversation with Nicodemus:

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of
it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with
everyone who is born of the Spirit.
(John 3:8)

I have listened to preachers tell congregations that the
Holy Spirit is a gentleman, as if he is some kind of souped-up spiritual
epitome of Britishness – that he will play by the rules, never force himself on
us, and only do things when invited, a sort of ‘You first’, ‘No, after you’
kind of spirituality. It seems to me this is nonsense when confronted with the mysterious,
can’t pin him down behaviour of Acts 2 and elsewhere. John Wesley, for one, had
to come to terms with the fact that the Spirit’s work and leading did not
always coincide with English manners: take the struggle Wesley had to accept
that he was being called to preach outdoors, not just inside church buildings.
But then see the spiritual fruit that resulted when he followed the Spirit’s
leading.

I have equally listened to preachers who effectively claim
that the Holy Spirit only works in wild and wacky ways. But that, too, is to
limit the Spirit: it is to tell the wind of God where he may or may not blow.

The mystery of the Spirit is that he may work in ways we
find strange or uncomfortable (the gift of speaking in tongues, people falling
down when prayed for, to give two quick examples) or he may choose to work
quietly and gently. The manner is up to him. He is the third Person of the
Godhead, and he shares the divine characteristic of sovereignty. He chooses,
not us. The guideline we have in discerning what is the work of the Holy Spirit
and what isn’t is not to ask whether an experience ticks our boxes (whether we
prefer the spectacular or the polite); the test is whether what happens gives
glory to Jesus Christ, promotes his Gospel, and leads to changed lives. Our
response, simply, is to let the Holy Spirit be God and work as he sees fit,
glorifying Jesus however is best – whether that suits our tastes or not.

3. Worship
I find people often assume that when the disciples spoke in tongues, they addressed
the assembled crowd. But my reading of the story is different: I think the
crowd overheard the disciples:

‘in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds
of power.’ (verse 11)

What did they overhear? ‘Speaking about God’s deeds of
power.’ I suggest that in the context this is a description of worship. Worship
declares God’s mighty works. It proclaims his acts of salvation, just as we do
in the Holy Communion thanksgiving prayers. It says he is worthy of praise,
because he has been at work decisively in history and is still at work.

It is not surprising, then, that great movements of the Holy
Spirit have frequently been accompanied by, or even characterised by, worship.
Surely this is why Charles Wesley wrote something like ten thousand hymns and
poems. Is this not why the Welsh Revival of a hundred years ago is remembered
as much for its singing as for the accounts of judges leading penitent
criminals to forgiveness in Christ? I submit it is also why the Pentecostal and
charismatic movements of recent decades have had sung worship at their heart.

Of course, worship is not to be limited to singing (nor even
to our gatherings on Sundays) and the work of the Holy Spirit goes beyond worship,
as we shall see when we come to the fourth and final theme of this sermon.
Equally, there are some Christians who practise a form of religious escapism
into worship events and services, and there are others who doggedly defend the
great hymns while not living out the doctrines those hymns describe.

But at the same time the 1936 Methodist Hymn Book was right
to say that ‘Methodism was born in song’ and Brian Hoare in his hymn ‘Born in
song’ was correct to say that ‘God’s people have always been singing.’ When the
Holy Spirit is at work in individuals or in communities there is a note of
worship in the air. A popular story in recent years has been about one Chinese
Christian who was imprisoned for his faith. He asked to be put to work clearing
out the open latrines at the jail. When asked why he should volunteer for such
a putrid task he replied, ‘Because if I work there I can sing praises to God as
loud as I like and no-one will stop me!’

When our lives are not full of praise, there may be more
than one reason. It does not necessarily mean we are insensitive to the work of
the Holy Spirit. We may be distressed, depressed, grieving or stressed, for
example. And equally we cannot live our entire lives on a spiritual ‘high’. But
if our spiritual lives have become characteristically dull and monotonous,
might that be a sign that it is time to seek a refreshing touch of the Holy
Spirit? Jesus did after all refer to the Holy Spirit as ‘rivers of living
water’ (John 7:37-39).

4. Mission
The speaking in tongues may not be mission, but what follows is. When the crowd
is amazed and the scoffers pooh-pooh, mission follows. Peter stands up with the
eleven, and addresses the crowd (verse 14). In our reading, we heard the first
part of Luke’s summary of his speech.

For Peter, then, mission is not a technique he has learned
and practised: it is an overflow of spiritual experience, as the Holy Spirit,
the rivers of living water, cannot be contained within him but inevitably flow
out and touch others. Granted, there are things to learn – note how Peter knows
his Bible and his message – but these are futile unless in the first place
there is a living experience of Christ through the Spirit that bubbles up and
out of us.

At the age of four, our daughter has her first obsessive-compulsive
disorder. She loves to wash her hands. Any excuse, it doesn’t have to be after
a visit to the loo. But she cannot always turn off the taps completely. If she
has had the plug in the basin, we are grateful for the overflow pipe. Mission
is our overflow pipe; the problem for many of us is we have learned how to turn
off the taps. Being open to the Holy Spirit is about turning on the taps again,
and not worrying too much about the mess!

Often I hear Christians say, ‘I couldn’t possibly talk about
my faith to others: I don’t have the knowledge. I wouldn’t be able to answer
their difficult questions.’ There are a number of responses to this. The most
important thing to say is that the one non-negotiable attribute of a Christian
witness is to have a live experience of Christ through the Holy Spirit. You
don’t have to have all the answers, that’s God’s job. In any case, not
everybody is argued into the faith by persuasive debate. Do read up and learn
more about your faith, of course – there is no excuse for ignorant Christians –
but get your priorities straight. And the first priority in mission is not to
be clever and have alphabet soup after your name, it’s to have a life that is
manifestly influenced by Jesus Christ. And that is the work of his Spirit. Do
not despise the intellectual aspect of Christianity – there is a proper place
for it – but place it in the service of your relationship with God in Christ,
not the reverse, which is putting the cart before the horse.

Conclusion
What are we to do, then? I think the answer is to be some kind of Christian
Oliver Twist. We come with our bowl and ask for ‘more’. The difference is, our
heavenly Father is no mean Fagin character, looking scornfully upon such
requests. No, he delights when we want more of him. In Ephesians 5:18 Paul
calls us to continue to be filled with the Spirit – and I take that as an open
invitation to come back to the Father’s table with an empty bowl and say,
‘Lord, fill me up again.’

Do we dare to pray that? May it be our regular and persistent
request. Heaven will be thrilled.


[1]
Simon Coupland, A Dose Of Salts,
Crowborough, Monarch, 1997, p70f, #68, citing Mark Stibbe.

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

Speaking In Tongues

I’m trying to get ahead for Pentecost, due to some impending leave. As I began preparing (yet another!) sermon on Acts 2, I found myself going in several directions. Eventually I put aside the stuff trying to allay the fears of traditional churchgoers about the gift of tongues into a newsletter (‘Topic’) article. Here is what I wrote. The sermon will follow in the next day or two.

I am writing this before going on holiday. I am in the middle of trying to write my Pentecost sermon three weeks ahead of time. As I scribbled my notes, I realised I was going in two directions. I had some big points to make about the work of the Holy Spirit, but I also knew that every year when we read Acts chapter 2, a number of Christians get nervous about the references to speaking in tongues. Like a columnist in the Methodist Recorder last year who described a televised act of worship that featured speaking in tongues, they want to add a cautionary note: ‘Don’t try this at home.’ Therefore, I decided I would separate out the two strands of my thinking. I would develop the big themes for the sermon, and use my column in Topic to try to help people who are worried about the gift of tongues.

The New Testament presents ‘tongues’ as a gift of the Holy Spirit, and for that reason I think the first thing to say is this: a gift from God is always a good gift. Jesus said that if earthly parents knew how to give good gifts to their children, how much more does our heavenly Father (and especially with the gift of the Spirit). However, to some Christians, speaking in tongues doesn’t feel like a good gift. They may have seen or heard people using it, and thought the users were behaving unnaturally. Perhaps they seemed to have been ‘taken over’, or they appeared to have lost their self-control; they might even give the impression of being mentally unbalanced. But in my experience that is as much to do with the personality of the user as it is to do with the gift itself. I have also seen the gift of tongues used quietly and gently. Nevertheless, let us also not despise those who are more extravert in their personalities.

A second issue raised is whether people are speaking in a known or unknown language. At the first Christian Pentecost in Acts 2, members of the international crowd overhear the Galilean disciples speaking in their own languages. On the other hand, when Paul discusses spiritual gifts at length in 1 Corinthians 12-14, he speaks about ‘tongues of angels’. Some language analysis of tape-recorded tongues-speaking has suggested that most instances are not a recognisable human language – which might make you think that the examples witnessed since the Pentecostal revival that begun a hundred years ago brought this back to prominence in Christianity is not the gift spoken about in Acts 2. However, it might be Paul’s ‘tongues of angels’. On the other hand, there are many documented examples of anecdotal evidence where somebody heard a tongues-speaker use a language that the hearer knew, but the speaker didn’t. A minister of mine was one such witness: a member of another congregation received this gift and began using it, but was worried about it. She used it in the minister’s presence, and he was amazed: she had recited Philippians chapter 2 in New Testament Greek. He knew the Greek from his theological studies, but the woman had never learned it. So perhaps we should go for Paul’s fuller description of the gift: tongues are ‘tongues of men and angels’. The gift can be a known or an unknown language.

A third concern is whether this gift is irrational. We have to be careful before assuming that something, which doesn’t make sense to us, is irrational. Paul said that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. Is it possible that tongues falls into this way of seeing things? By way of developing this thought, let me suggest that tongues is like ‘the language of love’. People who are very close to each other sometimes have a private set of words that they only use between themselves. This is often the case between lovers, and can be true between twins, especially when they are young. If ‘tongues’ is like the language of love, then it can from our perspective be a form of worship. Just as couples express their private adoration of each other, so tongues can be adoration of God.

However, the worship element may be more than praise: it may also include intercession. I know Christians who have begun to pray in tongues when they faced a difficult situation, and they did not know how to pray about it. Perhaps it was also wise for them not to know what to ask for, in praying for someone: the needs might have been too private, yet the person needed prayer. For one person I know, this first happened when out of his depth praying for a convert who had deep problems stemming from mental illness and drug taking. That same friend had another experience years later when praying for a female friend who was ill: he did not know that his friend had cystitis (which she was too embarrassed to talk about with a male friend), but as he prayed in tongues, she was healed.

(Such a private use of tongues needs to be distinguished from the teaching Paul gives about its public use, where an interpretation must follow, since worship is meant to be edifying.)

Maybe, then, if we can see tongues this way, we can relax on the question of whether it is rational, and rejoice instead in seeing it as a gift of beauty. Yet this thing of beauty is also a challenge. God may remind us that some of our concern for being rational is a disguised attempt on our part to keep control of things, rather than submitting to his Lordship. Well has one preacher observed that God sometimes offends our minds to reveal our hearts. ‘Tongues’ can be a reminder of our humility and dependence upon God. What could be more beautiful than remembering our need to trust God?

Another question I have heard is this: do I have to speak in tongues? One friend of mine came across some people giving out religious tracts, who told him that unless he spoke in tongues he wasn’t a Christian. It’s easy enough to kick such nonsense into touch, because nowhere in the New Testament is it made a condition of salvation. However, other Christian groups have made tongues-speakers first-class Christians and others second-class, and that is a problem to address.

I would respond to this by going to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians. Different members of the Body of Christ have different gifts – not everyone has the same gift. Furthermore, he sees tongues as one of the minor gifts, and calls his hearers to aspire to the greater gifts, such as prophecy. Yet at the same time, he says he speaks in tongues more than any of the Corinthians do, and wishes everyone had the gift! On that basis, then, there is no compulsion to speak in tongues (but remember any gift of God is good), yet if it is a minor gift maybe it is the one that sets some people on the road into exploring the gifts of the Spirit. Moreover, if we do say it is only a lesser gift, then Scripture challenges us to seek the more substantial ones. William Davies, a former Principal of Cliff College, once said about tongues: ‘All may, but not all must.’

Perhaps after the length of this article you can see why I had to separate this out from my Pentecost sermon! I hope I have contributed to allaying fears on this subject, but I also hope this challenges you. Could each of us make this our Pentecost prayer? ‘Lord, fill me more with your Holy Spirit. I welcome whatever gifts you give me, that I may use them in your service.’

Technorati Tags: , ,

links for 2007-05-06

Tomorrow’s Sermon: A Vision Of The Resurrection Life

Revelation
21:1-8

Introduction
Elaine in our church youth group always had a pungent way of putting things. ‘I
think after a few hundred years of singing and playing my harp, I’ll get bored
with eternal life,’ she said once.

Elaine’s problem is a common one, even if we don’t put it
that way. We have a truncated view of the life to come, a limited view of
heaven the resurrection life.

Revelation 21 expands our vision of the resurrection life,
with its picture language that is meant to stimulate a holy imagination. And
John gives us this vision so that the vision of the future might give us the
hope and motive to prepare for it by the way we live today. It’s a ‘Your will
be done on earth as it is in heaven’
passage. It deserves to reading more than at funeral services, although it
gives great hope there. It’s for everyday Christianity as well as times of
grief and crisis.

1. Creation
Verse 1:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven
and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

Sometimes our expectations of heaven are not very physical.
If you want to float on a cloud, plucking a harp, fine – so long as you like
harps. We talk about leaving the body behind and just being spirits. You get a
flavour of this in old gospel hymns like ‘This world is not my home’:

This world is not my home I’m just passing through
my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
the angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
and I can’t feel at home in this world any more
(Full lyrics
here)

However, this language is foreign to the Bible. If ‘this
world’ means the values of a society hostile to Christ, it’s OK. But it’s not
OK if it implies something that lacks the physical and material dimensions. We
believe, after all, in the resurrection of the body. Since God raised Jesus bodily from the dead, we know that he
cares about his physical creation. And God promises ‘a new heaven and a new
earth’. The old earth and heaven pass away, but God replaces them, he doesn’t
do away with earth and heaven forever.

Exactly what this new heaven and earth constitutes is futile
to pursue, because this is picture language. The words, ‘the sea was no more’
give the clue that this is not meant to be taken literally. They also point to
what this new creation involves. The sea was quite a metaphor in the ancient
world. It stands for everything that is opposed to God’s ways. Earlier in
Revelation the sea is the place from which the ‘beast’ who had made war on
God’s people had arisen from (Revelation
13:1, 6-7
). Isaiah had compared the wicked to a tossing sea (Isaiah 57:20). Hence, the
catalogue of wickedness with which our reading ends that God excludes from his
future. (The Lectionary excludes this verse! Is that shortsighted political
correctness?) The power of the sea made it a suitable symbol of dread and fear
for ancient people. Therefore, the new creation will contain no wickedness or
reason to fear.

What, then, does this mean for us? If God’s new creation
shows that he is interested in the physical and the material, and if it
banishes evil and fear, how might we go along with the grain of his new
creation? One simple thing is that God calls us to emulate as faithfully as we
can his concern for the physical world. So a major factor I took into account
when deciding where to cast my vote on Thursday was, which party would be best
for environmental care (or ‘creation care’, as I would call it as a Christian)?
It means concern for people’s material needs – and not privileging those closer
to us on the planet. So God calls us to care about politics, health care,
economics and science as well as our personal concern for people we know.

In addition, if God’s new creation also excludes wickedness
and everything that causes fear, then we have more reason for involvement in
public life: law making, law enforcement, the judiciary and campaigning for
justice. The list of evils in verse 8 that are God will exclude is a
wide-ranging one: ‘the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers,
the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars’. It reminds me of
a summary I once heard about the sins condemned by Old Testament prophets as
covering idolatry, immorality and injustice. It transcends left wing and
right-wing concerns. And God’s faithful church will do the same, if she is in
tune with her Lord’s new creation.

2. Community
Verses 2-5:

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out
of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a
loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am
making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are
trustworthy and true.’

The holy city, the New Jerusalem: it’s not about the
buildings of the city; it’s about the people. The holy city is ‘prepared as a
bride adorned for her husband’ and it is where ‘the home of God is among
mortals’. Salvation was never just individual: God was always about building a
new community, a people for his praise, a kingdom of priests.

Therefore, we are not a religious club (which is why we
never take up a collection but make an offering). We are God’s missionary
community. We are his alternative society. We are his vision for how he always
intended society to be. If we live up to that, we shall be a prophetic
community, whose love rubs society up the wrong way, and thus we shall earn
suffering for our troubles. That is why God promises to live in our midst and
wipe away tears, death, mourning, crying and pain.

The challenge comes as to whether we are allowing God to form
us into some kind of alternative community. In Christ God calls us and forgives
us; he grants us new life in his Son. Then he moulds us together so that we
live out our forgiveness together, and we live out the new life in Christ
corporately. We are creating a new culture:

But that culture is not defined by certain types of music,
liturgical practice, language etc., but by certain qualities: forgiveness,
patience, kindness, hospitality, chastity, generosity etc. That is the culture
of church – those are the values we hold to, try to inculcate and we do it
by telling the Christian story over & over because it reminds us who we are
- deeply loved and forgiven children of a heavenly father.
(Graham
Tomlin
’s blog;
audio clip here)

Here is our vision – to get beyond the shallow understanding
of culture based around our tastes in style and entertainment to something much
more substantial – a community that loves and forgives; a community that cynicism,
snide comments, sarcasm and put-downs behind herself; a community that
practises forgiveness instead of harbouring bitterness; a community that builds
reconciliation. This is to anticipate the New Jerusalem, the holy city. This is
what it means to be the bride prepared for Christ, her husband, doing the
things that please him, because they are the things that he loves to do.

So out with the spite, the pride and the snobbery; in with
ongoing prayerful reflection on the ministry of Christ and the life of the
early church. It won’t be some instant, whizz-bang change, but slowly the Holy
Spirit will change our hearts and infuse in us the life of Christ as we pray
the Bible and open ourselves up to his work. Then we shall anticipate the
culture of the New Jerusalem, the beautiful bride of Christ.

3. Conquest
Verses 6-8:

Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the
Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift
from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these
things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the
cowardly, the faithless,<!– +fOr the unbelieving+e –>
the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and
all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur,
which is the second death.’

Conquest is a strong word – a negative word, perhaps. It can
imply aggression and violence. However, the conquest recorded by John is rather
different. ‘Those who conquer’ (verse 7) and who will be children of God are
those who overcome opposition to their faith, who remain constant in the time
of suffering. That is not about being violent, but about enduring and remaining
faithful to Christ. It’s about patient perseverance that holds onto Christ. Loyalty
to Christ is about being the opposite of those who end up in verse 8 suffering
the ‘second death’. Instead of being cowardly it involves courage; instead of
faithlessness there is loyalty, even under pressure; in contrast to the
polluted we refuse to accept the warped values of our society; rather than
being murderers we value and uphold life; instead of being fornicators we display
exclusive loyalty and seek purity; in place of sorcery and the magic arts of the
occult we humbly trust God and the power of his Holy Spirit; rather than being
idolaters we seek to worship God alone; and instead of being liars we seek to
speak, uphold and live truth, the truth which is Jesus Christ.

This is how those who have been raised to new life in Christ
live, or at least aspire to live. It’s a tall order. It means living in
contrast to the values that surround us. How often do we look back with shame
and realise we have succumbed to society’s pressures rather than conquering and
overcoming in the name of Christ? Don’t we long to live differently?

Perhaps we get a clue from the description of those who
conquer in the preceding verse, that is, verse 6. There they are called ‘the
thirsty’, and they are promised the water of life. Thirsty people conquer. Those
who are thirsty for God receive the inner resources to overcome opposition to
their faith. Those with a deep desire for God, those for whom God and nothing
else will do, who long for him with all their hearts – these are the ones who
receive the water of life and are strengthened to conquer.

Yes, it is thirst
for God. A sip will not do. A nod of the hat to God and getting the religious
duty over as quickly and painlessly as possible do not constitute thirst. Developing
an appropriate disciplined spiritual life, pursuing him in Scripture, prayer,
fellowship and the world is thirst. As the psalmist said:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
   so my soul longs for you, O God.
(Psalm 42:1)

Those who long like this, who – in the words of the American
preacher Tommy Tenney are God Chasers – are the ones who will
receive the water of life that gives strength to overcome opposition and
conquer evil. My thirst varies – the challenge for me is to live on the proper
Christian assumption that all my life’s longings are only truly met in Christ.
When I do, I shall be truly thirsty. And God will strengthen me.

Conclusion
On this fifth Sunday of Easter, we may feel we are starting to get a distance
from the Easter story again and the risen life of Christ. But Revelation 21
gives us this vision of resurrection life. We anticipate the new creation with
our public life; we anticipate the new community by living the forgiven and
forgiving life; and we conquer evil as we thirst for God and he supplies our
needs. May this vision call us forward into God’s future.

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

Tomorrow’s Sermon: A Vision Of The Resurrection Life

Revelation
21:1-8

Introduction
Elaine in our church youth group always had a pungent way of putting things. ‘I
think after a few hundred years of singing and playing my harp, I’ll get bored
with eternal life,’ she said once.

Elaine’s problem is a common one, even if we don’t put it
that way. We have a truncated view of the life to come, a limited view of
heaven the resurrection life.

Revelation 21 expands our vision of the resurrection life,
with its picture language that is meant to stimulate a holy imagination. And
John gives us this vision so that the vision of the future might give us the
hope and motive to prepare for it by the way we live today. It’s a ‘Your will
be done on earth as it is in heaven’
passage. It deserves to reading more than at funeral services, although it
gives great hope there. It’s for everyday Christianity as well as times of
grief and crisis.

1. Creation
Verse 1:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven
and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

Sometimes our expectations of heaven are not very physical.
If you want to float on a cloud, plucking a harp, fine – so long as you like
harps. We talk about leaving the body behind and just being spirits. You get a
flavour of this in old gospel hymns like ‘This world is not my home’:

This world is not my home I’m just passing through
my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
the angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
and I can’t feel at home in this world any more
(Full lyrics
here)

However, this language is foreign to the Bible. If ‘this
world’ means the values of a society hostile to Christ, it’s OK. But it’s not
OK if it implies something that lacks the physical and material dimensions. We
believe, after all, in the resurrection of the body. Since God raised Jesus bodily from the dead, we know that he
cares about his physical creation. And God promises ‘a new heaven and a new
earth’. The old earth and heaven pass away, but God replaces them, he doesn’t
do away with earth and heaven forever.

Exactly what this new heaven and earth constitutes is futile
to pursue, because this is picture language. The words, ‘the sea was no more’
give the clue that this is not meant to be taken literally. They also point to
what this new creation involves. The sea was quite a metaphor in the ancient
world. It stands for everything that is opposed to God’s ways. Earlier in
Revelation the sea is the place from which the ‘beast’ who had made war on
God’s people had arisen from (Revelation
13:1, 6-7
). Isaiah had compared the wicked to a tossing sea (Isaiah 57:20). Hence, the
catalogue of wickedness with which our reading ends that God excludes from his
future. (The Lectionary excludes this verse! Is that shortsighted political
correctness?) The power of the sea made it a suitable symbol of dread and fear
for ancient people. Therefore, the new creation will contain no wickedness or
reason to fear.

What, then, does this mean for us? If God’s new creation
shows that he is interested in the physical and the material, and if it
banishes evil and fear, how might we go along with the grain of his new
creation? One simple thing is that God calls us to emulate as faithfully as we
can his concern for the physical world. So a major factor I took into account
when deciding where to cast my vote on Thursday was, which party would be best
for environmental care (or ‘creation care’, as I would call it as a Christian)?
It means concern for people’s material needs – and not privileging those closer
to us on the planet. So God calls us to care about politics, health care,
economics and science as well as our personal concern for people we know.

In addition, if God’s new creation also excludes wickedness
and everything that causes fear, then we have more reason for involvement in
public life: law making, law enforcement, the judiciary and campaigning for
justice. The list of evils in verse 8 that are God will exclude is a
wide-ranging one: ‘the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers,
the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars’. It reminds me of
a summary I once heard about the sins condemned by Old Testament prophets as
covering idolatry, immorality and injustice. It transcends left wing and
right-wing concerns. And God’s faithful church will do the same, if she is in
tune with her Lord’s new creation.

2. Community
Verses 2-5:

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out
of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a
loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am
making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are
trustworthy and true.’

The holy city, the New Jerusalem: it’s not about the
buildings of the city; it’s about the people. The holy city is ‘prepared as a
bride adorned for her husband’ and it is where ‘the home of God is among
mortals’. Salvation was never just individual: God was always about building a
new community, a people for his praise, a kingdom of priests.

Therefore, we are not a religious club (which is why we
never take up a collection but make an offering). We are God’s missionary
community. We are his alternative society. We are his vision for how he always
intended society to be. If we live up to that, we shall be a prophetic
community, whose love rubs society up the wrong way, and thus we shall earn
suffering for our troubles. That is why God promises to live in our midst and
wipe away tears, death, mourning, crying and pain.

The challenge comes as to whether we are allowing God to form
us into some kind of alternative community. In Christ God calls us and forgives
us; he grants us new life in his Son. Then he moulds us together so that we
live out our forgiveness together, and we live out the new life in Christ
corporately. We are creating a new culture:

But that culture is not defined by certain types of music,
liturgical practice, language etc., but by certain qualities: forgiveness,
patience, kindness, hospitality, chastity, generosity etc. That is the culture
of church – those are the values we hold to, try to inculcate and we do it
by telling the Christian story over & over because it reminds us who we are
- deeply loved and forgiven children of a heavenly father.
(Graham
Tomlin
’s blog;
audio clip here)

Here is our vision – to get beyond the shallow understanding
of culture based around our tastes in style and entertainment to something much
more substantial – a community that loves and forgives; a community that cynicism,
snide comments, sarcasm and put-downs behind herself; a community that
practises forgiveness instead of harbouring bitterness; a community that builds
reconciliation. This is to anticipate the New Jerusalem, the holy city. This is
what it means to be the bride prepared for Christ, her husband, doing the
things that please him, because they are the things that he loves to do.

So out with the spite, the pride and the snobbery; in with
ongoing prayerful reflection on the ministry of Christ and the life of the
early church. It won’t be some instant, whizz-bang change, but slowly the Holy
Spirit will change our hearts and infuse in us the life of Christ as we pray
the Bible and open ourselves up to his work. Then we shall anticipate the
culture of the New Jerusalem, the beautiful bride of Christ.

3. Conquest
Verses 6-8:

Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the
Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift
from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these
things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the
cowardly, the faithless,<!– +fOr the unbelieving+e –>
the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and
all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur,
which is the second death.’

Conquest is a strong word – a negative word, perhaps. It can
imply aggression and violence. However, the conquest recorded by John is rather
different. ‘Those who conquer’ (verse 7) and who will be children of God are
those who overcome opposition to their faith, who remain constant in the time
of suffering. That is not about being violent, but about enduring and remaining
faithful to Christ. It’s about patient perseverance that holds onto Christ. Loyalty
to Christ is about being the opposite of those who end up in verse 8 suffering
the ‘second death’. Instead of being cowardly it involves courage; instead of
faithlessness there is loyalty, even under pressure; in contrast to the
polluted we refuse to accept the warped values of our society; rather than
being murderers we value and uphold life; instead of being fornicators we display
exclusive loyalty and seek purity; in place of sorcery and the magic arts of the
occult we humbly trust God and the power of his Holy Spirit; rather than being
idolaters we seek to worship God alone; and instead of being liars we seek to
speak, uphold and live truth, the truth which is Jesus Christ.

This is how those who have been raised to new life in Christ
live, or at least aspire to live. It’s a tall order. It means living in
contrast to the values that surround us. How often do we look back with shame
and realise we have succumbed to society’s pressures rather than conquering and
overcoming in the name of Christ? Don’t we long to live differently?

Perhaps we get a clue from the description of those who
conquer in the preceding verse, that is, verse 6. There they are called ‘the
thirsty’, and they are promised the water of life. Thirsty people conquer. Those
who are thirsty for God receive the inner resources to overcome opposition to
their faith. Those with a deep desire for God, those for whom God and nothing
else will do, who long for him with all their hearts – these are the ones who
receive the water of life and are strengthened to conquer.

Yes, it is thirst
for God. A sip will not do. A nod of the hat to God and getting the religious
duty over as quickly and painlessly as possible do not constitute thirst. Developing
an appropriate disciplined spiritual life, pursuing him in Scripture, prayer,
fellowship and the world is thirst. As the psalmist said:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
   so my soul longs for you, O God.
(Psalm 42:1)

Those who long like this, who – in the words of the American
preacher Tommy Tenney are God Chasers – are the ones who will
receive the water of life that gives strength to overcome opposition and
conquer evil. My thirst varies – the challenge for me is to live on the proper
Christian assumption that all my life’s longings are only truly met in Christ.
When I do, I shall be truly thirsty. And God will strengthen me.

Conclusion
On this fifth Sunday of Easter, we may feel we are starting to get a distance
from the Easter story again and the risen life of Christ. But Revelation 21
gives us this vision of resurrection life. We anticipate the new creation with
our public life; we anticipate the new community by living the forgiven and
forgiving life; and we conquer evil as we thirst for God and he supplies our
needs. May this vision call us forward into God’s future.

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,190 other followers