Monthly Archives: April 2008

Theological Roots Of Mission

In which Len Hjalmarson develops Alan Hirsch‘s view of mission as Christology – Mission – Ecclesiology: NextReformation » missional rooting. He points out that God has always been on mission, and that God’s work of mission begins with forming Israel. Hence the root of mission is not Christology but the Trinity.

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If Jesus Had A Blog

I can only aspire to this: Letters from Kamp Krusty: New Kamp Krusty Feature: “If Jesus Had a Blog”

Support

Ten days ago, my blogging friend Will Grady wrote this heartfelt post: Loneliness in Ministry « Ramblings from Red Rose. He poses important questions about church leadership.

There are structural attempts to support, but they tend to have inbuilt defects. A Methodist District will run a group for those in the first five years of ministry (the so-called ‘Under 5s Group’ – kind of like playgroup for ministers). Some Districts even run these groups for those in the first ten years. I remember being ordered to avail myself of the fellowship – something wrong there! A lot depends on whether you get on with the leader and the other members.

The same is true of the regular circuit staff meeting. That, though, has a further handicap: you can be consumed with business and forget the soul. It does have the advantage of being a good place to talk through difficult issues, but whether you bare your soul there is a judgment call, especially as the superintendent minister is your ‘boss’ and could be involved, if there were disciplinary issues. What exactly can you confess?

That in turn has a connection with the rôle in our system of the Chair of District. At one stage, District Chairs were seen as pastors to the pastors. I don’t doubt that many intend to be so, and on the odd occasion one has been so for me. However, one gave the game away in an annual letter when he said that each minister in the District was entitled to one hour of his time a year. Thanks, but no thanks, I thought. Furthermore, they would be even more closely involved in any disciplinary procedures, so a certain caution can inhibit you, especially if you’re thinking some non-Methodist thoughts.

Where have I found support? I’ve learned over sixteen years to look for it outside the structures, and often outside Methodism. That isn’t a criticism of Methodism, it’s just a fact about the tendencies of structures and institutionalism. Friendship is vital, and in my first circuit while I was single the local URC minister (herself also single) spotted my need for support, and invited me to join one of her church’s home groups. It was a generous move on her part. Out of that group and some other work came a bunch of us who used to meet socially on a Friday night for pizza, a video and some red liquid you wouldn’t use in a Methodist communion service. Those people became among the dearest friends I have ever had in my life.

In the last circuit, it was the monthly meeting of a group of similarly-minded church leaders from across the denominational spectrum. We worshipped and prayed together, shared our news and supported each other.

I have also found the need for inspiration from outside. In the first circuit, I travelled regularly to St Andrew’s Chorleywood while David Pytches was the vicar, for leaders’ days. These were held about six times a year. I was also a member of the (now defunct) Evangelical Forum for Theology, a small academic Methodist network. Our annual conference/retreat was a highlight.

Here, I meet monthly or so with a vicar friend as prayer partners. We have a similar outlook and have similar church situations. Other support has been more difficult to garner, and I often feel quite dry spiritually. There are some possibilities, but diary clashes have been the usual problem.

What means of support do others use and recommend? Let’s encourage one another.

links for 2008-04-27

Tomorrow’s Sermon: Recalibrating Christian Mission

Acts 17:16-34

Introduction
Voting. However cynical we are about politics, our culture is saturated with
it. We are a democracy, and we vote for our leaders. Local elections are
looming in many parts of our country. Opinion polls attempt to predict who will
win a General Election, and politicians pay close attention to them.

Voting is present in the epidemic of reality shows on the
TV. We decide the fate of a wannabe singer on The
X Factor
. We judge the aspirations of someone who wants to be famous for
being famous on Big Brother.
We choose between desperate has-beens, trying to resuscitate their careers on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here.

Now, if I asked you to take a vote on the Book of Acts, as
to which passage had led to the most discussion, I doubt you would choose today’s
reading. Perhaps you would choose chapter 2, with its account of the first Christian
Pentecost. Maybe you would go for chapter 9, dramatically recounting the
conversion of Saul on the Damascus Road. Both those stories are popular and
controversial. But among the scholars, Paul in Athens wins the vote:

‘In fact, it has attracted more scholarly attention than any
other passage in Acts.’[1]

Apart from the question of how Paul’s speech here relates to
his teaching in his epistles (which I won’t bore you with in a sermon),

‘Luke has presented us here with the fullest example of Paul’s
missionary preaching to a certain kind of Gentile audience (namely, an educated
and rather philosophical pagan one without contacts with the synagogue)’[2].

In that respect, this story commends itself to us, if we are
to have a missionary engagement with our world. It is to some extent a pagan
one, and has little contacts not with the synagogue but with the church. For several
years, I have referred to this passage in that respect. Indeed, I chose to preach
on it only a month after starting here
, when I did a series of sermons about
our missionary relationship with a changing world. Today, the Lectionary brings
me back to these verses[3],
and the chance to reflect again on how we exercise our missionary calling
today. What does missionary commitment require of each one of us?

1. Passion
Paul is waiting for some friends. Rather than idle his time away, the first
thing Luke tells us is that

‘While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply
distressed to see that the city was full of idols.’ (Verse 16)

‘Deeply distressed.’ The Greek is the word from which we get
our word ‘paroxysm’. It’s a word for strong negative emotions. The city was
full – no, weighed down – with idols. That it would be upsetting for someone
Jewish like Paul is obvious on one level: the Ten Commandments prohibit graven
images of God, so idols are out. But it was worse in Athens. Jews often alleged
that there was a link between idolatry and immorality. The content of some
Athenian idols would have backed up that claim.[4]
As it’s Sunday morning, I’ll spare you the tawdry details.

We too face a culture that is ignorant of the God and Father
of our Lord Jesus Christ. There are many reasons for this, some of them our
fault as the Church, but the desire (need?) for worship persists, and so we
have idolatry today, some of which is connected to immorality.

We can list today’s idolatries easily: sex, shopping, money,
possessions, and so on. But there are bigger questions for us: does seeing
people worship in this way arouse passion in us as Christ-followers or not? And
if it arouses passion, is it a godly passion?

There are several reactions we can have to contemporary idolatry.
One would be apathy. We see false and unhealthy worship, but can’t be bothered
to make a stand. Either that, or we’re more worried about people’s reactions if
we say something, so fear keeps us quiet.

Another is that we can react passionately, thinking we are
doing so for God, but being quite ugly. Passion turns to judgmentalism.

Or we can be passionate for the wrong reasons. We look at
the numbers flocking to sporting events or the shops on a Sunday, and bewail
our own small numbers. If we’re not careful, our real reason is not a desire to
honour Jesus Christ, but the fear that our little religious club might close. ‘Can
we fill all the vacant jobs here?’ is a poor reason for evangelism.

The passion Paul had was a passion for the glory of Jesus.
If the worship due to his name were being directed elsewhere, even if out of
ignorance rather than deliberate choice, that moved him. He challenges us to
leave behind apathy, anger and selfishness as reactions to idolatry, and
instead react out of a heart full of love for Jesus. I believe Paul could only
have reacted as he did in Athens if he regularly remembered how much God in
Christ had done for him who once had been a sworn enemy of the church.

We don’t have to have had dramatic ‘Damascus Road’
conversions like him, but a sense of how wonderful God is, how much he has done
for us, how gracious and loving he is in contrast to us will do more for
mission than a thousand training programmes. It’s a passion that comes from God’s
grace, and which is nurtured in worship, prayer, fellowship, Bible meditation
and getting on with the life of a disciple. In other words, God has acted in
extravagant love towards us, and we receive and respond. Then we have a passion
for Jesus and a passion for those who do not love him.

2. Engagement
If you have a passion for Jesus and for those who don’t know him, then the
last thing you can do is sit around and moan. Nor can you bury your head in the
sand and say, ‘It’s all hopeless.’ Passion will drive you to engage the love of
Jesus with those yet to know him.

And that passion drives people out into the world to engage
with the idol worshippers and others. It doesn’t say, ‘We’ve got an interesting
event on here, why not come and join us?’ Those happily worshipping idols see
no reason to do so, and nor did the Athenians. Paul went to them to engage them
with the Gospel; he didn’t set up camp and invite them onto his territory. So –
he went to the synagogue (not that he considered his fellow Jews idolaters, but
he believed Jesus was the fulfilment of all their hopes), where he didn’t get
up and give an altar call: he ‘argued’ (debated) with the Jews and the Gentile
God-fearers (verse 17). That is, he was in conversation with them. He didn’t
solely use set-piece speeches.

He did the same in the mainstream Athenian culture, because
he also went to the market place to debate with whoever was there each day. Here,
we need to understand that the market place wasn’t simply where you went to buy
your strawberries and potatoes: it was the centre of civic and cultural life in
Athens. If you wanted to make an impact upon the life of the city, you went to
the agora, the market place and
started networking with people there. Therefore, we have our priorities out of
kilter when we are happy that someone answers a call to preach or offers for
the ministry, but we are less impressed when somebody becomes a bank manager, a
teacher, an artist, a musician or a secretary.

Yesterday, I read the
words
of a Canadian businessman
who had been reflecting on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, where he
tells his disciples they are the salt of the earth. Here is just one of his
thoughts:

‘Salt NEVER serves its purpose staying in the shaker.
The purpose of the Christian life is found when “shaken out” to flavour the
world. Too often the highest vision of ministry given to Christians is to be on
the church platform, rather than changing the flavour of the world.’

If disciples are the salt of the earth, then, the church is
the saltshaker. Our purpose is not to create an alternative social life and
entertainment menu for Christians: it is to shake the salt out into the world,
where it will do its work of engagement. Yes, we are here to heal, comfort and
encourage, but never by keeping the grains in the saltshaker.

3. Contact and
Conflict

Paul causes a stir in Athens. Some find him intriguing, others are disparaging.
Still others are confused: he is advocating a god called Jesus, and a goddess
called Anastasia (the Greek for ‘resurrection’, which is a feminine noun). The
Areopagus, the city council that decided which gods were acceptable to be
worshipped, decides almost to put him on trial – or at least put his views
under their microscope.

How does Paul respond? Much of his speech follows the
conventions of ancient rhetoric. He speaks in their style. Unlike when he is in
a synagogue, he doesn’t quote the Scriptures – but his content is scriptural. His
only direct quotes come from Greek cultural sources such as poets – but he uses
them to support his argument and bring the challenge of the Gospel to his
hearers.

And his point is this: the Athenian approach to God is plain
wrong. God the Creator doesn’t need idols, nor is he dependent upon what human
beings do. You’re muddling around in the dark, he tells his listeners. God
excused that in the past, but not any longer: he will judge the world. His
promise that he will do so is that he has raised Jesus from the dead. This isn’t
comfortable stuff. Paul is under suspicion. In response, he criticises Athenian
beliefs, and ends by proclaiming the Resurrection, and Athenians didn’t believe
anyone would be raised from the dead[5].

Paul, then, knows the Gospel, and has taken the trouble to
know the society to which he is proclaiming that Good News. The Gospel is his
foundation, but how he shares it depends on the people with whom he is
engaging.

It’s this knowing the Gospel and knowing our world that is
important for us. Some of us know one far better than the other. There are
those Christians who spend so much time in Bible study, but they wouldn’t have
a clue how to relate to non-Christians. But there are others who wrap
themselves up in the world and are ignorant of the faith. The world easily squeezes
them into its mould[6]. They
are barely distinguishable from their non-Christian friends.

Let me pose this as a challenge, then: do I fall into one of
these extremes? Am I so caught up in Bible study and Christian books that I can’t
connect with people who need the Gospel? If so, will I take the time to listen
and understand our world? We can do this by nurturing conversations with
friends, reading newspaper leader columns and paying attention to popular
culture, such as music and television. While we do this, we look for the
underlying assumptions and subject them to Gospel scrutiny.

Or am I so absorbed by the world that I am losing my
Christian distinctiveness? If that is me, then I have a different challenge. I may
need the discipline of daily Bible reading. Good quality Christian books may
help me. (Ask me if you want recommendations about books or Bible study notes.)
I may well find it helpful to join a fellowship group where we spur one another
on in our discipleship.

Conclusion
Sometimes in a world that seems increasingly ignorant of the Gospel, if not
hostile to it, the task of Christian witness seems daunting, if not hopeless.
But when we read of Paul taking the Good News to pagan Athens, we realise that
nothing is impossible with God. No, he didn’t see masses of converts, but he
did make some headway.

The change requires a degree of recalibration for us as
Christians from what we have been used to. We can’t rely on commonly accepted
beliefs or the idea of a ‘Christian country’: we need a passion for Jesus and
for people not yet in the community of faith. Nor can we expect to do things on
our terms and our territory: we need to move out in engagement. Finally, we
need to bring the Gospel and the world together, not only in our actions but
also in our thinking, so that we can shape our missionary task appropriately.

Are we up for the challenge?


[2] Ibid,
main text.

[3]
Although it only includes Paul’s speech from verses 22 to 31. I think you need
the whole story for the context.

[4]
Witherington, p 512f.

[5]
Witherington, p 532.

[6]
See J B Phillips’ translation of Romans 12:1-2.

Tomorrow’s Sermon: Recalibrating Christian Mission

Acts 17:16-34

Introduction
Voting. However cynical we are about politics, our culture is saturated with
it. We are a democracy, and we vote for our leaders. Local elections are
looming in many parts of our country. Opinion polls attempt to predict who will
win a General Election, and politicians pay close attention to them.

Voting is present in the epidemic of reality shows on the
TV. We decide the fate of a wannabe singer on The
X Factor
. We judge the aspirations of someone who wants to be famous for
being famous on Big Brother.
We choose between desperate has-beens, trying to resuscitate their careers on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here.

Now, if I asked you to take a vote on the Book of Acts, as
to which passage had led to the most discussion, I doubt you would choose today’s
reading. Perhaps you would choose chapter 2, with its account of the first Christian
Pentecost. Maybe you would go for chapter 9, dramatically recounting the
conversion of Saul on the Damascus Road. Both those stories are popular and
controversial. But among the scholars, Paul in Athens wins the vote:

‘In fact, it has attracted more scholarly attention than any
other passage in Acts.’[1]

Apart from the question of how Paul’s speech here relates to
his teaching in his epistles (which I won’t bore you with in a sermon),

‘Luke has presented us here with the fullest example of Paul’s
missionary preaching to a certain kind of Gentile audience (namely, an educated
and rather philosophical pagan one without contacts with the synagogue)’[2].

In that respect, this story commends itself to us, if we are
to have a missionary engagement with our world. It is to some extent a pagan
one, and has little contacts not with the synagogue but with the church. For several
years, I have referred to this passage in that respect. Indeed, I chose to preach
on it only a month after starting here
, when I did a series of sermons about
our missionary relationship with a changing world. Today, the Lectionary brings
me back to these verses[3],
and the chance to reflect again on how we exercise our missionary calling
today. What does missionary commitment require of each one of us?

1. Passion
Paul is waiting for some friends. Rather than idle his time away, the first
thing Luke tells us is that

‘While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply
distressed to see that the city was full of idols.’ (Verse 16)

‘Deeply distressed.’ The Greek is the word from which we get
our word ‘paroxysm’. It’s a word for strong negative emotions. The city was
full – no, weighed down – with idols. That it would be upsetting for someone
Jewish like Paul is obvious on one level: the Ten Commandments prohibit graven
images of God, so idols are out. But it was worse in Athens. Jews often alleged
that there was a link between idolatry and immorality. The content of some
Athenian idols would have backed up that claim.[4]
As it’s Sunday morning, I’ll spare you the tawdry details.

We too face a culture that is ignorant of the God and Father
of our Lord Jesus Christ. There are many reasons for this, some of them our
fault as the Church, but the desire (need?) for worship persists, and so we
have idolatry today, some of which is connected to immorality.

We can list today’s idolatries easily: sex, shopping, money,
possessions, and so on. But there are bigger questions for us: does seeing
people worship in this way arouse passion in us as Christ-followers or not? And
if it arouses passion, is it a godly passion?

There are several reactions we can have to contemporary idolatry.
One would be apathy. We see false and unhealthy worship, but can’t be bothered
to make a stand. Either that, or we’re more worried about people’s reactions if
we say something, so fear keeps us quiet.

Another is that we can react passionately, thinking we are
doing so for God, but being quite ugly. Passion turns to judgmentalism.

Or we can be passionate for the wrong reasons. We look at
the numbers flocking to sporting events or the shops on a Sunday, and bewail
our own small numbers. If we’re not careful, our real reason is not a desire to
honour Jesus Christ, but the fear that our little religious club might close. ‘Can
we fill all the vacant jobs here?’ is a poor reason for evangelism.

The passion Paul had was a passion for the glory of Jesus.
If the worship due to his name were being directed elsewhere, even if out of
ignorance rather than deliberate choice, that moved him. He challenges us to
leave behind apathy, anger and selfishness as reactions to idolatry, and
instead react out of a heart full of love for Jesus. I believe Paul could only
have reacted as he did in Athens if he regularly remembered how much God in
Christ had done for him who once had been a sworn enemy of the church.

We don’t have to have had dramatic ‘Damascus Road’
conversions like him, but a sense of how wonderful God is, how much he has done
for us, how gracious and loving he is in contrast to us will do more for
mission than a thousand training programmes. It’s a passion that comes from God’s
grace, and which is nurtured in worship, prayer, fellowship, Bible meditation
and getting on with the life of a disciple. In other words, God has acted in
extravagant love towards us, and we receive and respond. Then we have a passion
for Jesus and a passion for those who do not love him.

2. Engagement
If you have a passion for Jesus and for those who don’t know him, then the
last thing you can do is sit around and moan. Nor can you bury your head in the
sand and say, ‘It’s all hopeless.’ Passion will drive you to engage the love of
Jesus with those yet to know him.

And that passion drives people out into the world to engage
with the idol worshippers and others. It doesn’t say, ‘We’ve got an interesting
event on here, why not come and join us?’ Those happily worshipping idols see
no reason to do so, and nor did the Athenians. Paul went to them to engage them
with the Gospel; he didn’t set up camp and invite them onto his territory. So –
he went to the synagogue (not that he considered his fellow Jews idolaters, but
he believed Jesus was the fulfilment of all their hopes), where he didn’t get
up and give an altar call: he ‘argued’ (debated) with the Jews and the Gentile
God-fearers (verse 17). That is, he was in conversation with them. He didn’t
solely use set-piece speeches.

He did the same in the mainstream Athenian culture, because
he also went to the market place to debate with whoever was there each day. Here,
we need to understand that the market place wasn’t simply where you went to buy
your strawberries and potatoes: it was the centre of civic and cultural life in
Athens. If you wanted to make an impact upon the life of the city, you went to
the agora, the market place and
started networking with people there. Therefore, we have our priorities out of
kilter when we are happy that someone answers a call to preach or offers for
the ministry, but we are less impressed when somebody becomes a bank manager, a
teacher, an artist, a musician or a secretary.

Yesterday, I read the
words
of a Canadian businessman
who had been reflecting on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, where he
tells his disciples they are the salt of the earth. Here is just one of his
thoughts:

‘Salt NEVER serves its purpose staying in the shaker.
The purpose of the Christian life is found when “shaken out” to flavour the
world. Too often the highest vision of ministry given to Christians is to be on
the church platform, rather than changing the flavour of the world.’

If disciples are the salt of the earth, then, the church is
the saltshaker. Our purpose is not to create an alternative social life and
entertainment menu for Christians: it is to shake the salt out into the world,
where it will do its work of engagement. Yes, we are here to heal, comfort and
encourage, but never by keeping the grains in the saltshaker.

3. Contact and
Conflict

Paul causes a stir in Athens. Some find him intriguing, others are disparaging.
Still others are confused: he is advocating a god called Jesus, and a goddess
called Anastasia (the Greek for ‘resurrection’, which is a feminine noun). The
Areopagus, the city council that decided which gods were acceptable to be
worshipped, decides almost to put him on trial – or at least put his views
under their microscope.

How does Paul respond? Much of his speech follows the
conventions of ancient rhetoric. He speaks in their style. Unlike when he is in
a synagogue, he doesn’t quote the Scriptures – but his content is scriptural. His
only direct quotes come from Greek cultural sources such as poets – but he uses
them to support his argument and bring the challenge of the Gospel to his
hearers.

And his point is this: the Athenian approach to God is plain
wrong. God the Creator doesn’t need idols, nor is he dependent upon what human
beings do. You’re muddling around in the dark, he tells his listeners. God
excused that in the past, but not any longer: he will judge the world. His
promise that he will do so is that he has raised Jesus from the dead. This isn’t
comfortable stuff. Paul is under suspicion. In response, he criticises Athenian
beliefs, and ends by proclaiming the Resurrection, and Athenians didn’t believe
anyone would be raised from the dead[5].

Paul, then, knows the Gospel, and has taken the trouble to
know the society to which he is proclaiming that Good News. The Gospel is his
foundation, but how he shares it depends on the people with whom he is
engaging.

It’s this knowing the Gospel and knowing our world that is
important for us. Some of us know one far better than the other. There are
those Christians who spend so much time in Bible study, but they wouldn’t have
a clue how to relate to non-Christians. But there are others who wrap
themselves up in the world and are ignorant of the faith. The world easily squeezes
them into its mould[6]. They
are barely distinguishable from their non-Christian friends.

Let me pose this as a challenge, then: do I fall into one of
these extremes? Am I so caught up in Bible study and Christian books that I can’t
connect with people who need the Gospel? If so, will I take the time to listen
and understand our world? We can do this by nurturing conversations with
friends, reading newspaper leader columns and paying attention to popular
culture, such as music and television. While we do this, we look for the
underlying assumptions and subject them to Gospel scrutiny.

Or am I so absorbed by the world that I am losing my
Christian distinctiveness? If that is me, then I have a different challenge. I may
need the discipline of daily Bible reading. Good quality Christian books may
help me. (Ask me if you want recommendations about books or Bible study notes.)
I may well find it helpful to join a fellowship group where we spur one another
on in our discipleship.

Conclusion
Sometimes in a world that seems increasingly ignorant of the Gospel, if not
hostile to it, the task of Christian witness seems daunting, if not hopeless.
But when we read of Paul taking the Good News to pagan Athens, we realise that
nothing is impossible with God. No, he didn’t see masses of converts, but he
did make some headway.

The change requires a degree of recalibration for us as
Christians from what we have been used to. We can’t rely on commonly accepted
beliefs or the idea of a ‘Christian country’: we need a passion for Jesus and
for people not yet in the community of faith. Nor can we expect to do things on
our terms and our territory: we need to move out in engagement. Finally, we
need to bring the Gospel and the world together, not only in our actions but
also in our thinking, so that we can shape our missionary task appropriately.

Are we up for the challenge?


[2] Ibid,
main text.

[3]
Although it only includes Paul’s speech from verses 22 to 31. I think you need
the whole story for the context.

[4]
Witherington, p 512f.

[5]
Witherington, p 532.

[6]
See J B Phillips’ translation of Romans 12:1-2.

Tomorrow’s Sermon: Recalibrating Christian Mission

Acts 17:16-34

Introduction
Voting. However cynical we are about politics, our culture is saturated with
it. We are a democracy, and we vote for our leaders. Local elections are
looming in many parts of our country. Opinion polls attempt to predict who will
win a General Election, and politicians pay close attention to them.

Voting is present in the epidemic of reality shows on the
TV. We decide the fate of a wannabe singer on The
X Factor
. We judge the aspirations of someone who wants to be famous for
being famous on Big Brother.
We choose between desperate has-beens, trying to resuscitate their careers on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here.

Now, if I asked you to take a vote on the Book of Acts, as
to which passage had led to the most discussion, I doubt you would choose today’s
reading. Perhaps you would choose chapter 2, with its account of the first Christian
Pentecost. Maybe you would go for chapter 9, dramatically recounting the
conversion of Saul on the Damascus Road. Both those stories are popular and
controversial. But among the scholars, Paul in Athens wins the vote:

‘In fact, it has attracted more scholarly attention than any
other passage in Acts.’[1]

Apart from the question of how Paul’s speech here relates to
his teaching in his epistles (which I won’t bore you with in a sermon),

‘Luke has presented us here with the fullest example of Paul’s
missionary preaching to a certain kind of Gentile audience (namely, an educated
and rather philosophical pagan one without contacts with the synagogue)’[2].

In that respect, this story commends itself to us, if we are
to have a missionary engagement with our world. It is to some extent a pagan
one, and has little contacts not with the synagogue but with the church. For several
years, I have referred to this passage in that respect. Indeed, I chose to preach
on it only a month after starting here
, when I did a series of sermons about
our missionary relationship with a changing world. Today, the Lectionary brings
me back to these verses[3],
and the chance to reflect again on how we exercise our missionary calling
today. What does missionary commitment require of each one of us?

1. Passion
Paul is waiting for some friends. Rather than idle his time away, the first
thing Luke tells us is that

‘While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply
distressed to see that the city was full of idols.’ (Verse 16)

‘Deeply distressed.’ The Greek is the word from which we get
our word ‘paroxysm’. It’s a word for strong negative emotions. The city was
full – no, weighed down – with idols. That it would be upsetting for someone
Jewish like Paul is obvious on one level: the Ten Commandments prohibit graven
images of God, so idols are out. But it was worse in Athens. Jews often alleged
that there was a link between idolatry and immorality. The content of some
Athenian idols would have backed up that claim.[4]
As it’s Sunday morning, I’ll spare you the tawdry details.

We too face a culture that is ignorant of the God and Father
of our Lord Jesus Christ. There are many reasons for this, some of them our
fault as the Church, but the desire (need?) for worship persists, and so we
have idolatry today, some of which is connected to immorality.

We can list today’s idolatries easily: sex, shopping, money,
possessions, and so on. But there are bigger questions for us: does seeing
people worship in this way arouse passion in us as Christ-followers or not? And
if it arouses passion, is it a godly passion?

There are several reactions we can have to contemporary idolatry.
One would be apathy. We see false and unhealthy worship, but can’t be bothered
to make a stand. Either that, or we’re more worried about people’s reactions if
we say something, so fear keeps us quiet.

Another is that we can react passionately, thinking we are
doing so for God, but being quite ugly. Passion turns to judgmentalism.

Or we can be passionate for the wrong reasons. We look at
the numbers flocking to sporting events or the shops on a Sunday, and bewail
our own small numbers. If we’re not careful, our real reason is not a desire to
honour Jesus Christ, but the fear that our little religious club might close. ‘Can
we fill all the vacant jobs here?’ is a poor reason for evangelism.

The passion Paul had was a passion for the glory of Jesus.
If the worship due to his name were being directed elsewhere, even if out of
ignorance rather than deliberate choice, that moved him. He challenges us to
leave behind apathy, anger and selfishness as reactions to idolatry, and
instead react out of a heart full of love for Jesus. I believe Paul could only
have reacted as he did in Athens if he regularly remembered how much God in
Christ had done for him who once had been a sworn enemy of the church.

We don’t have to have had dramatic ‘Damascus Road’
conversions like him, but a sense of how wonderful God is, how much he has done
for us, how gracious and loving he is in contrast to us will do more for
mission than a thousand training programmes. It’s a passion that comes from God’s
grace, and which is nurtured in worship, prayer, fellowship, Bible meditation
and getting on with the life of a disciple. In other words, God has acted in
extravagant love towards us, and we receive and respond. Then we have a passion
for Jesus and a passion for those who do not love him.

2. Engagement
If you have a passion for Jesus and for those who don’t know him, then the
last thing you can do is sit around and moan. Nor can you bury your head in the
sand and say, ‘It’s all hopeless.’ Passion will drive you to engage the love of
Jesus with those yet to know him.

And that passion drives people out into the world to engage
with the idol worshippers and others. It doesn’t say, ‘We’ve got an interesting
event on here, why not come and join us?’ Those happily worshipping idols see
no reason to do so, and nor did the Athenians. Paul went to them to engage them
with the Gospel; he didn’t set up camp and invite them onto his territory. So –
he went to the synagogue (not that he considered his fellow Jews idolaters, but
he believed Jesus was the fulfilment of all their hopes), where he didn’t get
up and give an altar call: he ‘argued’ (debated) with the Jews and the Gentile
God-fearers (verse 17). That is, he was in conversation with them. He didn’t
solely use set-piece speeches.

He did the same in the mainstream Athenian culture, because
he also went to the market place to debate with whoever was there each day. Here,
we need to understand that the market place wasn’t simply where you went to buy
your strawberries and potatoes: it was the centre of civic and cultural life in
Athens. If you wanted to make an impact upon the life of the city, you went to
the agora, the market place and
started networking with people there. Therefore, we have our priorities out of
kilter when we are happy that someone answers a call to preach or offers for
the ministry, but we are less impressed when somebody becomes a bank manager, a
teacher, an artist, a musician or a secretary.

Yesterday, I read the
words
of a Canadian businessman
who had been reflecting on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, where he
tells his disciples they are the salt of the earth. Here is just one of his
thoughts:

‘Salt NEVER serves its purpose staying in the shaker.
The purpose of the Christian life is found when “shaken out” to flavour the
world. Too often the highest vision of ministry given to Christians is to be on
the church platform, rather than changing the flavour of the world.’

If disciples are the salt of the earth, then, the church is
the saltshaker. Our purpose is not to create an alternative social life and
entertainment menu for Christians: it is to shake the salt out into the world,
where it will do its work of engagement. Yes, we are here to heal, comfort and
encourage, but never by keeping the grains in the saltshaker.

3. Contact and
Conflict

Paul causes a stir in Athens. Some find him intriguing, others are disparaging.
Still others are confused: he is advocating a god called Jesus, and a goddess
called Anastasia (the Greek for ‘resurrection’, which is a feminine noun). The
Areopagus, the city council that decided which gods were acceptable to be
worshipped, decides almost to put him on trial – or at least put his views
under their microscope.

How does Paul respond? Much of his speech follows the
conventions of ancient rhetoric. He speaks in their style. Unlike when he is in
a synagogue, he doesn’t quote the Scriptures – but his content is scriptural. His
only direct quotes come from Greek cultural sources such as poets – but he uses
them to support his argument and bring the challenge of the Gospel to his
hearers.

And his point is this: the Athenian approach to God is plain
wrong. God the Creator doesn’t need idols, nor is he dependent upon what human
beings do. You’re muddling around in the dark, he tells his listeners. God
excused that in the past, but not any longer: he will judge the world. His
promise that he will do so is that he has raised Jesus from the dead. This isn’t
comfortable stuff. Paul is under suspicion. In response, he criticises Athenian
beliefs, and ends by proclaiming the Resurrection, and Athenians didn’t believe
anyone would be raised from the dead[5].

Paul, then, knows the Gospel, and has taken the trouble to
know the society to which he is proclaiming that Good News. The Gospel is his
foundation, but how he shares it depends on the people with whom he is
engaging.

It’s this knowing the Gospel and knowing our world that is
important for us. Some of us know one far better than the other. There are
those Christians who spend so much time in Bible study, but they wouldn’t have
a clue how to relate to non-Christians. But there are others who wrap
themselves up in the world and are ignorant of the faith. The world easily squeezes
them into its mould[6]. They
are barely distinguishable from their non-Christian friends.

Let me pose this as a challenge, then: do I fall into one of
these extremes? Am I so caught up in Bible study and Christian books that I can’t
connect with people who need the Gospel? If so, will I take the time to listen
and understand our world? We can do this by nurturing conversations with
friends, reading newspaper leader columns and paying attention to popular
culture, such as music and television. While we do this, we look for the
underlying assumptions and subject them to Gospel scrutiny.

Or am I so absorbed by the world that I am losing my
Christian distinctiveness? If that is me, then I have a different challenge. I may
need the discipline of daily Bible reading. Good quality Christian books may
help me. (Ask me if you want recommendations about books or Bible study notes.)
I may well find it helpful to join a fellowship group where we spur one another
on in our discipleship.

Conclusion
Sometimes in a world that seems increasingly ignorant of the Gospel, if not
hostile to it, the task of Christian witness seems daunting, if not hopeless.
But when we read of Paul taking the Good News to pagan Athens, we realise that
nothing is impossible with God. No, he didn’t see masses of converts, but he
did make some headway.

The change requires a degree of recalibration for us as
Christians from what we have been used to. We can’t rely on commonly accepted
beliefs or the idea of a ‘Christian country’: we need a passion for Jesus and
for people not yet in the community of faith. Nor can we expect to do things on
our terms and our territory: we need to move out in engagement. Finally, we
need to bring the Gospel and the world together, not only in our actions but
also in our thinking, so that we can shape our missionary task appropriately.

Are we up for the challenge?


[2] Ibid,
main text.

[3]
Although it only includes Paul’s speech from verses 22 to 31. I think you need
the whole story for the context.

[4]
Witherington, p 512f.

[5]
Witherington, p 532.

[6]
See J B Phillips’ translation of Romans 12:1-2.

Funeral Poetry

Kim opines about that awful funeral poem, ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep.’ Yes, the closing words ‘I am not here, I did not die’, are dreadful. They play to the denial that happens in the face of death. The loved one did die: that is why we are here.

Worse for me is Henry Scott Holland’s, ‘Death is nothing at all.’ Holland was, I believe, a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral. Of all people, he should have known that (please forgive the double negative coming) death is not nothing. It is the last enemy.

Such poems provide false comfort. Sometimes I have had to have them included in a service, often because the family has already told the undertaker what they want in the service before I have been contacted. In such situations, I have found diplomatic ways of explaining in the service why I see things differently. I have never had poor feedback from doing so.

Ironically, in the face of all the denial these poems propagate, W H Auden’s bleak ‘Funeral Blues’ (popularised in ‘Four Weddings And A Funeral’) seems more honest, even if it is tragically devoid of hope.

And from a Christian perspective, I am happier with ‘What Is Dying?’, the piece about a ship sailing away out of sight over the horizon, but being greeted in another port.

What do others think?

Bored With Postmodernism

Paul Roberts is bored with the froth of postmodernism: staring into the distance::as far as our eyes can see » The Postmodern: boring the people of Britain since 1999

Curious for a pioneer of alternative worship …

Wedding Music

My new favourite blog, Stuff Christians Like, had this post a few days ago: Stuff Christians Like: #161. Refusing to make songs you can slow dance to.

In the comments, several people riff on the theme of (un)suitable music for first dances at weddings. Debbie and I only had a wedding reception with food. We’re both allergic to dancing, but not to food. We were more – ahem – creative with our choice of entry music and exit music for the wedding service itself. For the bulk of the ceremony, we were trad. Hymns included ‘Be thou my vision’ and ‘And can it be’. I’m sure there was a third, but I can’t remember it.

But as I say, the entry and exit music were not quite what you would expect at a Christian wedding. Debbie, having been a biker in her youth, wanted to walk down the aisle with her Dad to Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be wild’ (that’s from the hippie biker film ‘Easy Rider’, young people). We had timed it at the rehearsal so that she would arrive by my side just as the chorus came in for the first time. My mother was in the row behind me. As we stood for the entrance of the bride, she poked me and said, ‘What is this song, darling?’ Our Chair of District also came to the service. As an accomplished classical musician, I have no idea what he thought of the choice.

But I had the choice of exit music. I brought two possibles, and we experimented to see which one had the better rhythm for walking out to. In the end, the theme tune to the 1960s TV show Thunderbirds won out over The Simpsons main theme. We hadn’t told my two young nephews, who were page boys. They were delighted.

As a minister, then, I have little room for argument when couples don’t come up with the usual Mendelssohn and Wagner requests (or Widor’s Toccata, but that depends on the organist’s competence). Perhaps my favourite memory was an African-Caribbean wedding in Chatham. The bride came in, not only with her father and bridesmaids, but a whole long procession, American-style. As a song by Eric Benet played, they danced down the aisle, their forerunners scattering petals. When she left with her new husband, they went out to live African drums.

The one shame about that wedding was that the bride had, as a young woman in Wolverhampton, been a babysitter for Beverley Knight, now a famous British soul singer. Ms Knight was supposed to turn up at the wedding and sing. Unfortunately, recording commitments (she was recording her ‘Who I Am’ CD at the time) prevented her. Instead, an anonymous female singer from a black-majority Pentecostal church sang an a capella solo of Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’ (and – yes – Al Green, not Tina Turner). On the spur of the moment I dropped my standard wedding sermon and somehow linked that song with the Bible passage from Ruth that the couple had chosen for the ceremony.

Does anyone else have fun stories about wedding music?

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