Monthly Archives: August 2007

links for 2007-08-31

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Mad Juggling

I haven’t posted much since we returned from holiday nearly a fortnight ago. The juggling of family and ministry has been crazier than ever. Two days after coming home, Debbie had to go down to our house in Sussex. The tenants had moved out and new ones were moving in last Friday. Although our handyman and his trusty sidekick had put in a fortnight’s hard work, there were still other tasks to be done. I had the joy (?) of looking after the children while trying to do some ministry. We managed to get our regular babysitter for the Wednesday. We had thought it being August it wouldn’t be too bad.

However … on the day we went away, one of my church members died. After some texting and mobile voice calls while we were on holiday, we set up the funeral for the babysitter’s Wednesday. I also fitted in a filling at the dentist’s that day. I moved a stewards’ meeting on the Monday night from the vestry to the manse – although none of the stewards got my message!

Well, I tried to do some work whilst fighting a Canute-like battle against the increasing tide of toys. I was late to bed every night, either with tidying up, or when Mark spent two nights coughing. Then on the Wednesday tea-time, having seen the dentist and taken the funeral, an Anglican colleague phoned. He had a chest infection and couldn’t take a funeral on Friday lunch-time. He had tried several other ministers to no avail, please could I help out? I agreed. The babysitter wasn’t available on Thursday night (when I was going to see the widow), but her mum was. So that funeral was set up.

Then on Thursday lunch-time, the hospital rang. Our daughter Rebekah was put on a waiting list for minor ear surgery at the beginning of the month. They phoned to offer a cancellation for the next day. More babysitting required while I took the extra funeral, and Debbie went to the hospital with our little girl.

During Thursday, the car started playing up. The tick-tock sound of the indicators was on all the time, even when not flicking the indicator stalk. My mechanically-minded curate next-door neighbour thought the relay switches were on their way out. He tried disconnecting the battery and reconnecting it, but the fault reappeared. We left the battery disconnected that night, and next morning I phoned the funeral director to cadge a lift at short notice to the crematorium. The undertaker kindly obliged: it was one of those still-independent family firms where the personal touch is evident. “If we can’t help each other, what are we about?” he said. “Besides,” he added, “I might see you at the crem one day and say, ‘I’ve got a job for you. Another vicar hasn’t turned up!’”

I spent the rest of Friday finishing Sunday’s sermon, and I took Saturday as my day off. We were having a belated third birthday party for Mark. Rebekah’s old child-minder and her family were due to come up and help – except Pat phoned at 10:30. Her daughter and boyfriend had been involved in a car accident. So they didn’t make it. It was whiplash, and the other car drove off before they could get details. But the party went well, and by that evening Debbie and I breathed a sigh of relief that everything would now start returning to normal.

Not on Sunday morning, though. I reconnected the car battery. The ignition fired. All good. But then I released the handbrake, and the car wouldn’t move. I had to borrow Debbie’s car to make a church service, and that afternoon called the RAC. Their patrol man diagnosed a seizure of the rear brakes. Today, it has gone into the garage, and I have had to restrict my movements to when I can borrow Debbie’s car. Some pastoral visiting is having to wait.

Monday was a Bank Holiday (i.e., public holiday) in England and Wales, so a day off. We went out to a large park fifteen miles away, where there was also a market. It was there that the headache began. By the time we got home that afternoon, all I could do was retire to bed and occasionally vomit. Often these headaches attack me on days off, and it can look to the family as if I don’t want to spend time with them – nothing could be less true, but things catch up with me when I relax. Somewhere I have to start taking the mishaps less seriously.

Years ago, my sister gave me a poster. It had a photo of an elephant sitting under a waterfall. The elephant appears to be smiling. The caption read, ‘Life is too important to be taken seriously.’ If only I still had that poster, I’d put it up again.

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links for 2007-08-30

links for 2007-08-25

Sunday’s Sermon: Jesus Versus Religion

Luke 13:10-17

Jesus Versus Religion
If I’m honest – and to my shame – the person I have most been like in this
story is the synagogue ruler:

But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had
cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which
work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath
day.’
(Verse 14)

One time was in the church youth group at my home church. We
had a meeting at one family’s house, and in our number was Linda. She was a
Diana Ross fan. She put one of her LPs (as they were in olden days). One track
was a cover version of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. I was sitting nearest the
stereo. When the line in the song approached where Lennon envisions his
glorious future ‘with no religion, too’, I grabbed the volume control and faded
it down. My Christian friends were mad with me, even though they too disagreed
with Lennon’s sentiments. Have I changed my mind since about Lennon and
Imagine? No. But I have changed my mind about how I should have acted.

Likewise, I recall my first day at work. After lunch, the
training officer asked me what my star sign was. I replied that I was a
Christian, and I didn’t like all that occult stuff. It didn’t go down well. Again,
have I changed my views about horoscopes? No – and it still horrifies me to
find churchgoers who spend more time reading their horoscope than their Bible.
But do I wish I had answered with a different tone? Absolutely.

We don’t know whether the synagogue ruler in the reading was
a Pharisee – Luke doesn’t say. But to some extent, at least he behaves like
one. Banning healing on the Sabbath while allowing animals to be untied sounds
like one of the hundreds of additional rules the Pharisees added to explain,
apply and nail down how Jews were to live out the ‘Torah’ – God’s Law in the
first five books of the Bible. Certainly, he would have been responsible for
practical arrangements for worship[1].

But suppose he was a Pharisee. If so, he came from an
honourable heritage. The Pharisees had begun as a working-class protest
movement against the Greeks, who three hundred years before Christ had
conquered the Promised Land. The Greeks tried to force their culture and way of
life on the Jews. Some Jews embraced it, but many devout Jews resisted, and the
Greeks persisted more aggressively, even banning Sabbath-keeping, circumcision
and temple sacrifices, and putting to death some Jews. In response to this
pressure, the Pharisees emerged from the devout as the resistance party,
cherishing central aspects of their faith, such as the covenant with God and
the joy of keeping his commandments. When one Greek king set up an altar to
their god Zeus in the Jerusalem Temple, a fully-fledged insurgency movement –
the Maccabees – sprang up in opposition, which achieved Jewish independence. By
the time the Romans became the new occupying power and appointed Herod the
Great as king, the Pharisees had become a movement that couldn’t compromise on
one iota of detail about life, and they had drawn up elaborate rules to make
clear who was devout and who wasn’t.

So the Pharisees were about resisting pagan culture and maintaining
the heart of the faith. Their aims were honourable and important, if not vital.
So what went wrong? Two things: one, they had become obsessed with exterior
behaviour and not the heart. Two, they had become small-minded in prescribing
minute aspects of personal behaviour. Eugene Peterson puts it like this:

Imagine yourself moving into a house with a huge picture
window overlooking a grand view across a wide expanse of water enclosed by a
range of snow-capped mountains. You have a ringside seat before wild storms and
cloud formations, the entire spectrum of sun-illuminated colours in the rocks
and trees and wildflowers and water. You are captivated by the view. Several times
a day you interrupt your work and stand before this window to take in the
majesty and the beauty, thrilled with the botanical and meteorological
fireworks. One afternoon you notice some bird droppings on the window glass,
get a bucket of water and a towel, and clean it. A couple of days later a
rainstorm leaves a window streaked, and the bucket comes out again. Another day
visitors come with a tribe of small dirty-fingered children. They moment they
leave you see all the smudge-marks on the glass, they are hardly out the door
before you have the bucket out. You are so proud of that window, and it’s such
a large window. But it’s incredible how many different ways foreign objects can
attach themselves to that window, obscuring the vision, distracting from the contemplative
beauty. Keeping that window clean develops into an obsessive-compulsive
neurosis. You accumulate ladders and buckets and squeegees. You construct a
scaffolding both inside and out to make it possible to get to all the difficult
corners and heights. You have the cleanest window in the world – but it’s now
been years since you last looked through it. You’ve become a Pharisee.[2]

So there seems to have been a cluster of problems, a number
of areas where the devout Judaism of two thousand years ago (as represented by
the synagogue ruler and the Pharisees) clashed with Jesus. If we reflect on
these, we may see some of the differences between Jesus and ‘religion’. Many of
these differences are still around today, and we need to be vigilant lest we
decline from Jesus–centred discipleship into ugly religion.

Firstly, was it wrong for the Pharisees to defend the faith
and devotion to God against a Greek empire that wanted to put the glories of
human cultural achievement centre stage, in place of deep commitment to God?
This is a live question for us, because we face similar pressures. Ours is a
society that encourages us to say, ‘Me first’. Its rampant consumerism is its
god. When 9/11 happened, George W Bush, the supposed born-again Christian
President of the USA, urged people to show patriotism by … going shopping. Likewise,
our culture says, ‘Do what you feel,’ albeit reluctantly qualified by, ‘As long
as you don’t hurt anyone.’ In place of worthy heroes, we have an addiction to
celebrity. Teenage girls state their ambition in life is to become celebrities.
Magazines encourage us to ape the celebrities: look at the fashions they buy,
and if you can’t afford them, here are the nearest copies in High Street stores.
We are raising young people in a culture of violence – witness the shock of
recent murders of young people by young people.

So is it right to stand against this kind of culture?
Absolutely it is. It is a core task of our discipleship to do so. But there is
a difference between defending the faith and being defensive. Defending the
faith is a positive thing to do; being defensive is a negative and fearful
attitude. When I turned down the Diana Ross track in the youth group, I was
being defensive: it was as if I arrogantly feared those stupid words could
convert my Christian friends to atheism. When I arrogantly lectured the
training officer about my opposition to horoscopes, I was someone feeling
desperate to make a stand for Christ as soon as possible. How different I was
from the friend – also in the youth group – who began a career with Barclay’s
Bank. After two weeks at his first branch, someone said to him, ‘There’s
something different about you – are you a Christian?’

What’s the difference, then, between rightly defending the faith
and being defensive about it? I think it’s one of attitude; it’s about our soul.
It’s not about the exterior behaviour so much as about the heart, as Eugene
Peterson said. Defending the faith is based on a humble confidence in Christ,
just as Jesus demonstrated that same confidence in the Father. Being defensive,
on the other hand, is something that emanates from fear: fear that we will not
stand up for our faith, rather than the joy of knowing Christ. Do we defend, or
are we defensive? Do we need to rest more securely in the certainty of God’s
love for us?

Secondly, was it wrong for the Pharisees to start working
out all their additional rules in working out the application of God’s Word to
the faithful life? Somewhere in that project, they were attempting to do
something good. It isn’t always clear what the implications of Scripture are
for us. Often teachers of the faith offer a valuable service by suggesting what
a particular passage or doctrine means for a certain generation. The problem
with the Pharisees, though, as Peterson said, was that they became small-minded
and obsessive. They put their interpretations on a similar footing with Scripture
itself. As a result, rather than bringing the liberating power of God’s love
into people’s lives, they burdened them with weights, rather than lightening
them with the grace of God. Much as they didn’t intend to, theirs was a
ministry of binding and blinding people: binding instead of setting free,
blinding instead of revealing God’s love. This is why Jesus was so angry:

‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie
his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And
ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long
years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’
(Verses 15-16)

If we set animals free for one day but bind people for
eighteen years, something has gone badly wrong. How can we guard against this? I
suggest one of the most important ways we can read the Bible is not to read
texts in isolation. Each word, each verse, each story is set within the big
picture of God’s great story of salvation. If we start applying them without
regard to that big story, we run the danger of abusing them. The old saying is,
‘A text without a context is a pretext.’ Everything needs to be set against the
background of God’s love in creation, and his determined work to bring people
back to him after the ruin of human sin – the forming of a people for himself,
the sending of prophets and ultimately his Son. It is the triumph of life over
death in the resurrection, and the emergence of the Church. It is the story of
grace, in which the kingdom of God battles the kingdom of darkness in all its
manifestations of sin, sinned-againstness and suffering. It is the story where
the climax is defeat for all the enemies of God. Set out interpretation and
application against that glorious backdrop and we can guard against binding and
blinding people.

Thirdly and finally, was it wrong for the synagogue ruler to
desire good order in worship? Surely, this too is an honourable notion. In 1
Corinthians 14, Paul calls for everything to be done decently and in order. But
there is order and there is control. Paul issued his ‘decently and in order’
cry in the wake of self-indulgent people wanting to compete with each other to
make an impression in worship. We can take the desire for order too far and use
it to keep things under our control, rather than God’s. The question, ‘Who is
in control?’ is a question of faith. Either God is in control or we are. If we
are, then we do not trust him. Martyn Atkins,
the current President of the Methodist Conference, tells this story in his new
book:

Throughout the 1990s I served on a small working group that
eventually produced the Methodist Worship
Book
in 1999. Not all our efforts ended up in the book itself, which is
probably a good thing. For example we toyed with a (spoof) ‘rite of renewal’
that consisted of a single rubric: ‘if there is a spontaneous outpouring of the
Holy Spirit, it will happen here!’[3]

It is one thing to have good order to prevent pride and
self-indulgence; it is another to straitjacket God. The synagogue ruler
straitjacketed God. The antidote is to keep order with a light touch, with a
sense of humility and dependence upon the grace of God. It is keeping order
while kneeling before the throne, along with everyone else.

It isn’t a matter simply for those who lead worship or lead
churches: it’s for every Christian, because many of us develop our mechanisms
for trying to restrict God. We are prey to the temptation to tell God what he
may or may not do, or how he may conduct his business. But the sovereign God
will not be restricted. Much as he loves us, he will not bow the knee to us.

The key, then, to siding with Jesus rather than religion, is
to adopt a posture of kneeling in the light of divine grace. Of course, the
Pharisees believed in grace, but sometimes beliefs are reduced to a doctrine
that is accepted in the mind but not practised with hands and feet. Our greatest
need is not only to believe in grace, but also to live humbly in the light of
it. God offers us the grace to do so. May we believe in and live according to
the grace taught and demonstrated by Jesus.


[2] Eugene Peterson, The
Jesus Way
,
p 211. Previous two paragraphs summarise pp 206-211.

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

Sunday’s Sermon: Jesus Versus Religion

Luke 13:10-17

Jesus Versus Religion
If I’m honest – and to my shame – the person I have most been like in this
story is the synagogue ruler:

But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had
cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which
work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath
day.’
(Verse 14)

One time was in the church youth group at my home church. We
had a meeting at one family’s house, and in our number was Linda. She was a
Diana Ross fan. She put one of her LPs (as they were in olden days). One track
was a cover version of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. I was sitting nearest the
stereo. When the line in the song approached where Lennon envisions his
glorious future ‘with no religion, too’, I grabbed the volume control and faded
it down. My Christian friends were mad with me, even though they too disagreed
with Lennon’s sentiments. Have I changed my mind since about Lennon and
Imagine? No. But I have changed my mind about how I should have acted.

Likewise, I recall my first day at work. After lunch, the
training officer asked me what my star sign was. I replied that I was a
Christian, and I didn’t like all that occult stuff. It didn’t go down well. Again,
have I changed my views about horoscopes? No – and it still horrifies me to
find churchgoers who spend more time reading their horoscope than their Bible.
But do I wish I had answered with a different tone? Absolutely.

We don’t know whether the synagogue ruler in the reading was
a Pharisee – Luke doesn’t say. But to some extent, at least he behaves like
one. Banning healing on the Sabbath while allowing animals to be untied sounds
like one of the hundreds of additional rules the Pharisees added to explain,
apply and nail down how Jews were to live out the ‘Torah’ – God’s Law in the
first five books of the Bible. Certainly, he would have been responsible for
practical arrangements for worship[1].

But suppose he was a Pharisee. If so, he came from an
honourable heritage. The Pharisees had begun as a working-class protest
movement against the Greeks, who three hundred years before Christ had
conquered the Promised Land. The Greeks tried to force their culture and way of
life on the Jews. Some Jews embraced it, but many devout Jews resisted, and the
Greeks persisted more aggressively, even banning Sabbath-keeping, circumcision
and temple sacrifices, and putting to death some Jews. In response to this
pressure, the Pharisees emerged from the devout as the resistance party,
cherishing central aspects of their faith, such as the covenant with God and
the joy of keeping his commandments. When one Greek king set up an altar to
their god Zeus in the Jerusalem Temple, a fully-fledged insurgency movement –
the Maccabees – sprang up in opposition, which achieved Jewish independence. By
the time the Romans became the new occupying power and appointed Herod the
Great as king, the Pharisees had become a movement that couldn’t compromise on
one iota of detail about life, and they had drawn up elaborate rules to make
clear who was devout and who wasn’t.

So the Pharisees were about resisting pagan culture and maintaining
the heart of the faith. Their aims were honourable and important, if not vital.
So what went wrong? Two things: one, they had become obsessed with exterior
behaviour and not the heart. Two, they had become small-minded in prescribing
minute aspects of personal behaviour. Eugene Peterson puts it like this:

Imagine yourself moving into a house with a huge picture
window overlooking a grand view across a wide expanse of water enclosed by a
range of snow-capped mountains. You have a ringside seat before wild storms and
cloud formations, the entire spectrum of sun-illuminated colours in the rocks
and trees and wildflowers and water. You are captivated by the view. Several times
a day you interrupt your work and stand before this window to take in the
majesty and the beauty, thrilled with the botanical and meteorological
fireworks. One afternoon you notice some bird droppings on the window glass,
get a bucket of water and a towel, and clean it. A couple of days later a
rainstorm leaves a window streaked, and the bucket comes out again. Another day
visitors come with a tribe of small dirty-fingered children. They moment they
leave you see all the smudge-marks on the glass, they are hardly out the door
before you have the bucket out. You are so proud of that window, and it’s such
a large window. But it’s incredible how many different ways foreign objects can
attach themselves to that window, obscuring the vision, distracting from the contemplative
beauty. Keeping that window clean develops into an obsessive-compulsive
neurosis. You accumulate ladders and buckets and squeegees. You construct a
scaffolding both inside and out to make it possible to get to all the difficult
corners and heights. You have the cleanest window in the world – but it’s now
been years since you last looked through it. You’ve become a Pharisee.[2]

So there seems to have been a cluster of problems, a number
of areas where the devout Judaism of two thousand years ago (as represented by
the synagogue ruler and the Pharisees) clashed with Jesus. If we reflect on
these, we may see some of the differences between Jesus and ‘religion’. Many of
these differences are still around today, and we need to be vigilant lest we
decline from Jesus–centred discipleship into ugly religion.

Firstly, was it wrong for the Pharisees to defend the faith
and devotion to God against a Greek empire that wanted to put the glories of
human cultural achievement centre stage, in place of deep commitment to God?
This is a live question for us, because we face similar pressures. Ours is a
society that encourages us to say, ‘Me first’. Its rampant consumerism is its
god. When 9/11 happened, George W Bush, the supposed born-again Christian
President of the USA, urged people to show patriotism by … going shopping. Likewise,
our culture says, ‘Do what you feel,’ albeit reluctantly qualified by, ‘As long
as you don’t hurt anyone.’ In place of worthy heroes, we have an addiction to
celebrity. Teenage girls state their ambition in life is to become celebrities.
Magazines encourage us to ape the celebrities: look at the fashions they buy,
and if you can’t afford them, here are the nearest copies in High Street stores.
We are raising young people in a culture of violence – witness the shock of
recent murders of young people by young people.

So is it right to stand against this kind of culture?
Absolutely it is. It is a core task of our discipleship to do so. But there is
a difference between defending the faith and being defensive. Defending the
faith is a positive thing to do; being defensive is a negative and fearful
attitude. When I turned down the Diana Ross track in the youth group, I was
being defensive: it was as if I arrogantly feared those stupid words could
convert my Christian friends to atheism. When I arrogantly lectured the
training officer about my opposition to horoscopes, I was someone feeling
desperate to make a stand for Christ as soon as possible. How different I was
from the friend – also in the youth group – who began a career with Barclay’s
Bank. After two weeks at his first branch, someone said to him, ‘There’s
something different about you – are you a Christian?’

What’s the difference, then, between rightly defending the faith
and being defensive about it? I think it’s one of attitude; it’s about our soul.
It’s not about the exterior behaviour so much as about the heart, as Eugene
Peterson said. Defending the faith is based on a humble confidence in Christ,
just as Jesus demonstrated that same confidence in the Father. Being defensive,
on the other hand, is something that emanates from fear: fear that we will not
stand up for our faith, rather than the joy of knowing Christ. Do we defend, or
are we defensive? Do we need to rest more securely in the certainty of God’s
love for us?

Secondly, was it wrong for the Pharisees to start working
out all their additional rules in working out the application of God’s Word to
the faithful life? Somewhere in that project, they were attempting to do
something good. It isn’t always clear what the implications of Scripture are
for us. Often teachers of the faith offer a valuable service by suggesting what
a particular passage or doctrine means for a certain generation. The problem
with the Pharisees, though, as Peterson said, was that they became small-minded
and obsessive. They put their interpretations on a similar footing with Scripture
itself. As a result, rather than bringing the liberating power of God’s love
into people’s lives, they burdened them with weights, rather than lightening
them with the grace of God. Much as they didn’t intend to, theirs was a
ministry of binding and blinding people: binding instead of setting free,
blinding instead of revealing God’s love. This is why Jesus was so angry:

‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie
his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And
ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long
years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’
(Verses 15-16)

If we set animals free for one day but bind people for
eighteen years, something has gone badly wrong. How can we guard against this? I
suggest one of the most important ways we can read the Bible is not to read
texts in isolation. Each word, each verse, each story is set within the big
picture of God’s great story of salvation. If we start applying them without
regard to that big story, we run the danger of abusing them. The old saying is,
‘A text without a context is a pretext.’ Everything needs to be set against the
background of God’s love in creation, and his determined work to bring people
back to him after the ruin of human sin – the forming of a people for himself,
the sending of prophets and ultimately his Son. It is the triumph of life over
death in the resurrection, and the emergence of the Church. It is the story of
grace, in which the kingdom of God battles the kingdom of darkness in all its
manifestations of sin, sinned-againstness and suffering. It is the story where
the climax is defeat for all the enemies of God. Set out interpretation and
application against that glorious backdrop and we can guard against binding and
blinding people.

Thirdly and finally, was it wrong for the synagogue ruler to
desire good order in worship? Surely, this too is an honourable notion. In 1
Corinthians 14, Paul calls for everything to be done decently and in order. But
there is order and there is control. Paul issued his ‘decently and in order’
cry in the wake of self-indulgent people wanting to compete with each other to
make an impression in worship. We can take the desire for order too far and use
it to keep things under our control, rather than God’s. The question, ‘Who is
in control?’ is a question of faith. Either God is in control or we are. If we
are, then we do not trust him. Martyn Atkins,
the current President of the Methodist Conference, tells this story in his new
book:

Throughout the 1990s I served on a small working group that
eventually produced the Methodist Worship
Book
in 1999. Not all our efforts ended up in the book itself, which is
probably a good thing. For example we toyed with a (spoof) ‘rite of renewal’
that consisted of a single rubric: ‘if there is a spontaneous outpouring of the
Holy Spirit, it will happen here!’[3]

It is one thing to have good order to prevent pride and
self-indulgence; it is another to straitjacket God. The synagogue ruler
straitjacketed God. The antidote is to keep order with a light touch, with a
sense of humility and dependence upon the grace of God. It is keeping order
while kneeling before the throne, along with everyone else.

It isn’t a matter simply for those who lead worship or lead
churches: it’s for every Christian, because many of us develop our mechanisms
for trying to restrict God. We are prey to the temptation to tell God what he
may or may not do, or how he may conduct his business. But the sovereign God
will not be restricted. Much as he loves us, he will not bow the knee to us.

The key, then, to siding with Jesus rather than religion, is
to adopt a posture of kneeling in the light of divine grace. Of course, the
Pharisees believed in grace, but sometimes beliefs are reduced to a doctrine
that is accepted in the mind but not practised with hands and feet. Our greatest
need is not only to believe in grace, but also to live humbly in the light of
it. God offers us the grace to do so. May we believe in and live according to
the grace taught and demonstrated by Jesus.


[2] Eugene Peterson, The
Jesus Way
,
p 211. Previous two paragraphs summarise pp 206-211.

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

Sunday’s Sermon: Jesus Versus Religion

Luke 13:10-17

Jesus Versus Religion
If I’m honest – and to my shame – the person I have most been like in this
story is the synagogue ruler:

But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had
cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which
work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath
day.’
(Verse 14)

One time was in the church youth group at my home church. We
had a meeting at one family’s house, and in our number was Linda. She was a
Diana Ross fan. She put one of her LPs (as they were in olden days). One track
was a cover version of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. I was sitting nearest the
stereo. When the line in the song approached where Lennon envisions his
glorious future ‘with no religion, too’, I grabbed the volume control and faded
it down. My Christian friends were mad with me, even though they too disagreed
with Lennon’s sentiments. Have I changed my mind since about Lennon and
Imagine? No. But I have changed my mind about how I should have acted.

Likewise, I recall my first day at work. After lunch, the
training officer asked me what my star sign was. I replied that I was a
Christian, and I didn’t like all that occult stuff. It didn’t go down well. Again,
have I changed my views about horoscopes? No – and it still horrifies me to
find churchgoers who spend more time reading their horoscope than their Bible.
But do I wish I had answered with a different tone? Absolutely.

We don’t know whether the synagogue ruler in the reading was
a Pharisee – Luke doesn’t say. But to some extent, at least he behaves like
one. Banning healing on the Sabbath while allowing animals to be untied sounds
like one of the hundreds of additional rules the Pharisees added to explain,
apply and nail down how Jews were to live out the ‘Torah’ – God’s Law in the
first five books of the Bible. Certainly, he would have been responsible for
practical arrangements for worship[1].

But suppose he was a Pharisee. If so, he came from an
honourable heritage. The Pharisees had begun as a working-class protest
movement against the Greeks, who three hundred years before Christ had
conquered the Promised Land. The Greeks tried to force their culture and way of
life on the Jews. Some Jews embraced it, but many devout Jews resisted, and the
Greeks persisted more aggressively, even banning Sabbath-keeping, circumcision
and temple sacrifices, and putting to death some Jews. In response to this
pressure, the Pharisees emerged from the devout as the resistance party,
cherishing central aspects of their faith, such as the covenant with God and
the joy of keeping his commandments. When one Greek king set up an altar to
their god Zeus in the Jerusalem Temple, a fully-fledged insurgency movement –
the Maccabees – sprang up in opposition, which achieved Jewish independence. By
the time the Romans became the new occupying power and appointed Herod the
Great as king, the Pharisees had become a movement that couldn’t compromise on
one iota of detail about life, and they had drawn up elaborate rules to make
clear who was devout and who wasn’t.

So the Pharisees were about resisting pagan culture and maintaining
the heart of the faith. Their aims were honourable and important, if not vital.
So what went wrong? Two things: one, they had become obsessed with exterior
behaviour and not the heart. Two, they had become small-minded in prescribing
minute aspects of personal behaviour. Eugene Peterson puts it like this:

Imagine yourself moving into a house with a huge picture
window overlooking a grand view across a wide expanse of water enclosed by a
range of snow-capped mountains. You have a ringside seat before wild storms and
cloud formations, the entire spectrum of sun-illuminated colours in the rocks
and trees and wildflowers and water. You are captivated by the view. Several times
a day you interrupt your work and stand before this window to take in the
majesty and the beauty, thrilled with the botanical and meteorological
fireworks. One afternoon you notice some bird droppings on the window glass,
get a bucket of water and a towel, and clean it. A couple of days later a
rainstorm leaves a window streaked, and the bucket comes out again. Another day
visitors come with a tribe of small dirty-fingered children. They moment they
leave you see all the smudge-marks on the glass, they are hardly out the door
before you have the bucket out. You are so proud of that window, and it’s such
a large window. But it’s incredible how many different ways foreign objects can
attach themselves to that window, obscuring the vision, distracting from the contemplative
beauty. Keeping that window clean develops into an obsessive-compulsive
neurosis. You accumulate ladders and buckets and squeegees. You construct a
scaffolding both inside and out to make it possible to get to all the difficult
corners and heights. You have the cleanest window in the world – but it’s now
been years since you last looked through it. You’ve become a Pharisee.[2]

So there seems to have been a cluster of problems, a number
of areas where the devout Judaism of two thousand years ago (as represented by
the synagogue ruler and the Pharisees) clashed with Jesus. If we reflect on
these, we may see some of the differences between Jesus and ‘religion’. Many of
these differences are still around today, and we need to be vigilant lest we
decline from Jesus–centred discipleship into ugly religion.

Firstly, was it wrong for the Pharisees to defend the faith
and devotion to God against a Greek empire that wanted to put the glories of
human cultural achievement centre stage, in place of deep commitment to God?
This is a live question for us, because we face similar pressures. Ours is a
society that encourages us to say, ‘Me first’. Its rampant consumerism is its
god. When 9/11 happened, George W Bush, the supposed born-again Christian
President of the USA, urged people to show patriotism by … going shopping. Likewise,
our culture says, ‘Do what you feel,’ albeit reluctantly qualified by, ‘As long
as you don’t hurt anyone.’ In place of worthy heroes, we have an addiction to
celebrity. Teenage girls state their ambition in life is to become celebrities.
Magazines encourage us to ape the celebrities: look at the fashions they buy,
and if you can’t afford them, here are the nearest copies in High Street stores.
We are raising young people in a culture of violence – witness the shock of
recent murders of young people by young people.

So is it right to stand against this kind of culture?
Absolutely it is. It is a core task of our discipleship to do so. But there is
a difference between defending the faith and being defensive. Defending the
faith is a positive thing to do; being defensive is a negative and fearful
attitude. When I turned down the Diana Ross track in the youth group, I was
being defensive: it was as if I arrogantly feared those stupid words could
convert my Christian friends to atheism. When I arrogantly lectured the
training officer about my opposition to horoscopes, I was someone feeling
desperate to make a stand for Christ as soon as possible. How different I was
from the friend – also in the youth group – who began a career with Barclay’s
Bank. After two weeks at his first branch, someone said to him, ‘There’s
something different about you – are you a Christian?’

What’s the difference, then, between rightly defending the faith
and being defensive about it? I think it’s one of attitude; it’s about our soul.
It’s not about the exterior behaviour so much as about the heart, as Eugene
Peterson said. Defending the faith is based on a humble confidence in Christ,
just as Jesus demonstrated that same confidence in the Father. Being defensive,
on the other hand, is something that emanates from fear: fear that we will not
stand up for our faith, rather than the joy of knowing Christ. Do we defend, or
are we defensive? Do we need to rest more securely in the certainty of God’s
love for us?

Secondly, was it wrong for the Pharisees to start working
out all their additional rules in working out the application of God’s Word to
the faithful life? Somewhere in that project, they were attempting to do
something good. It isn’t always clear what the implications of Scripture are
for us. Often teachers of the faith offer a valuable service by suggesting what
a particular passage or doctrine means for a certain generation. The problem
with the Pharisees, though, as Peterson said, was that they became small-minded
and obsessive. They put their interpretations on a similar footing with Scripture
itself. As a result, rather than bringing the liberating power of God’s love
into people’s lives, they burdened them with weights, rather than lightening
them with the grace of God. Much as they didn’t intend to, theirs was a
ministry of binding and blinding people: binding instead of setting free,
blinding instead of revealing God’s love. This is why Jesus was so angry:

‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie
his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And
ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long
years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’
(Verses 15-16)

If we set animals free for one day but bind people for
eighteen years, something has gone badly wrong. How can we guard against this? I
suggest one of the most important ways we can read the Bible is not to read
texts in isolation. Each word, each verse, each story is set within the big
picture of God’s great story of salvation. If we start applying them without
regard to that big story, we run the danger of abusing them. The old saying is,
‘A text without a context is a pretext.’ Everything needs to be set against the
background of God’s love in creation, and his determined work to bring people
back to him after the ruin of human sin – the forming of a people for himself,
the sending of prophets and ultimately his Son. It is the triumph of life over
death in the resurrection, and the emergence of the Church. It is the story of
grace, in which the kingdom of God battles the kingdom of darkness in all its
manifestations of sin, sinned-againstness and suffering. It is the story where
the climax is defeat for all the enemies of God. Set out interpretation and
application against that glorious backdrop and we can guard against binding and
blinding people.

Thirdly and finally, was it wrong for the synagogue ruler to
desire good order in worship? Surely, this too is an honourable notion. In 1
Corinthians 14, Paul calls for everything to be done decently and in order. But
there is order and there is control. Paul issued his ‘decently and in order’
cry in the wake of self-indulgent people wanting to compete with each other to
make an impression in worship. We can take the desire for order too far and use
it to keep things under our control, rather than God’s. The question, ‘Who is
in control?’ is a question of faith. Either God is in control or we are. If we
are, then we do not trust him. Martyn Atkins,
the current President of the Methodist Conference, tells this story in his new
book:

Throughout the 1990s I served on a small working group that
eventually produced the Methodist Worship
Book
in 1999. Not all our efforts ended up in the book itself, which is
probably a good thing. For example we toyed with a (spoof) ‘rite of renewal’
that consisted of a single rubric: ‘if there is a spontaneous outpouring of the
Holy Spirit, it will happen here!’[3]

It is one thing to have good order to prevent pride and
self-indulgence; it is another to straitjacket God. The synagogue ruler
straitjacketed God. The antidote is to keep order with a light touch, with a
sense of humility and dependence upon the grace of God. It is keeping order
while kneeling before the throne, along with everyone else.

It isn’t a matter simply for those who lead worship or lead
churches: it’s for every Christian, because many of us develop our mechanisms
for trying to restrict God. We are prey to the temptation to tell God what he
may or may not do, or how he may conduct his business. But the sovereign God
will not be restricted. Much as he loves us, he will not bow the knee to us.

The key, then, to siding with Jesus rather than religion, is
to adopt a posture of kneeling in the light of divine grace. Of course, the
Pharisees believed in grace, but sometimes beliefs are reduced to a doctrine
that is accepted in the mind but not practised with hands and feet. Our greatest
need is not only to believe in grace, but also to live humbly in the light of
it. God offers us the grace to do so. May we believe in and live according to
the grace taught and demonstrated by Jesus.


[2] Eugene Peterson, The
Jesus Way
,
p 211. Previous two paragraphs summarise pp 206-211.

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Facebook Faith

Brian Draper has written about Facebook in this week’s LICC Connecting With Culture column. Dave Warnock has recently written two posts on the phenomenon.

Recently I too, succumbed, and set up a profile. I’m too old for MySpace, whose grotty layouts seem to reflect the acne of its most avid users. I only like checking out bands on it, because it’s a great way to preview their music (that’s how I recently got into Duke Special). Facebook seems a little more grown-up, which may be surprising, given its origins among students. Expanding beyond the American student communities and opening up its API to outside developers to produce new applications have both been significant ‘growing up’ actions. Linkedin seems too much about CVs, job hunting and head-hunting – which makes it inappropriate for my particular calling/profession.

For me, Facebook is currently functioning like a broader Friends Reunited. I’ve belonged to that for a few years and made contact with some old school friends, but it’s limited by needing to know the school/college/workplace someone was at. They joy of the last few days on Facebook has been to find again old friends I worked with, especially from ecumenical youth ministry in Hertford in the mid-1990s. I have to remember it isn’t the same as face-to-face contact. It’s a helpful second best to meeting up again with these people who meant the world to me. I’ve never had friends like I had there.

Draper talks about how Facebook could prompt us into strengthening (or renewing?) friendships in their proper sense. He also talks about how well we know ourselves and are known by ourselves and God. Disclosure is an interesting theme for faith and the web. There is the question of how much self-disclosure we engage in online, and open ourselves to the risk of identity theft. It becomes a parallel to the way we fear to open up face-to-face with people, perhaps due to bad past experiences of the wisdom of caution. Jesus didn’t entrust himself to everyone, because he knew what was in their hearts. But – as we know increasingly these days – ‘story’ is vital. Our story and its part in God’s great story is significant, not least because it touches others. In this sense ‘testimony’ is of course much more than a conversion account (as it always should have been).

But Draper’s other comment about how well we know others is one that hits me as a minister, especially in a week when I am consumed with funerals. Whenever I take the funeral of someone I knew in a congregation, I always learn things from their loved ones that I never knew before. That happened to me on Wednesday. I conducted the service for a saint who, in the two years I had known him, had been ravaged by Alzheimer’s Disease. In the address I pointed to 1 Corinthians 13:12, where Paul says that now we look through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face-to-face; we shall know, even as we are fully known (by God). God doesn’t need Facebook; we have his profile elsewhere: Jesus said, if you have seen me, you have seen the Father, and even then, there is more to know of God. But for dear David who died, the Gospel is that not only is his knowledge healed back from the distortions of what it was before Alzheimer’s caused its two deaths (the death of his personality and then the death of his body), he now knows better than he ever did. He knows ‘as he is fully known.’

Facebook can’t do any of that for us, but whatever its faults I am convinced it can be a kingdom of God tool. I don’t mean that we just post a Christian application on our profile. I mean that it can help us get going on that process of knowing one another’s story in the great story of God. That then has to be followed up, and that has to mean incarnationally, in flesh and blood, not the ones and zeros of the digital world.

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