Monthly Archives: June 2008

The Five Hundred Pound Weekend

Saturday was manic. It’s usually my sermon-writing day, but it was the summer fayre at our daughter’s school. That clashed with with one of my churches running a family fun day themed on the new Prince Caspian film. (And by the way, if other churches are thinking of taking up this theme, Damaris have some useful resources.)

The school fayre seemed to go very well, and it relieved us of much cash in our three hours there.

The family fun day exceeded our expectations. All forty-five plastic toy swords that had been bought at Poundland went, the visiting magician went down well, kids enjoyed fancy dress (one had been in his costume since 6 a.m.) and they loved the arts and crafts and, naturally, the barbecue.

Best of all, people couldn’t believe we’d put it on for free and didn’t want a penny. That was always our intention, but it was made possible by an anonymous donation of five hundred pounds from someone in the church who wanted to ensure that everything was provided free, gratis and otherwise at no charge. I had the privilege of telling the assembled families at the end of the magic show that we weren’t asking for donations, because we believed in a God who offered his love free, with no strings attached.

I finished yesterday’s sermon late at night, and then rushed to prepare a PowerPoint on Sunday for the morning service. It was a service of prayer for healing. We invite people to receive a quiet laying on of hands with anointing oil, and while they are being prayed for, the congregation participates in intercession, and we put the usual intercession topics up on the screen.

Not only that, we were dedicating some new song books. One of our ninety-something members had died a couple of months ago, and nearly five hundreed pounds had been given in her memory. In view of the decades she had spent worshipping God in Broomfield, one of her sons requested we update some of our worship material. So we had replaced our battered old 1990 editions of Mission Praise with the most recent (2005) edition. The stewards gave these out at the beginning of the service, and one of the lady’s grandsons played the organ.

We were introducing two songs that might have been new to the congregation, in preparation for the forthcoming Chelmsford Christian Festival. It had seemed best to have CDs available to play over the PA, rather than play them on organ or piano. Half way to church, I realised I’d left the CDs at home. I only got to church ten minutes before the service, hardly ideal, and discovered then that the grandson was willing to play both! He was excellent, I must say.

That evening, I came back from a quarterly ecumenical service in Hatfield Peverel for an exciting climax to the weekend. No, I don’t mean Spain’s thoroughly deserved victory over a moribund Germany in the final of Euro 2008, I mean something else …

This too involves a death. One of our Hatfield Peverel members died last August. I had only known him as an Alzheimer’s Disease sufferer, but before that cruel illness had struck, he had been a talented pianist. When he went to glory, his widow (who has herself since passed away) gave the church £5000 in his memory. With her blessing, we replaced our ailing baby grand piano with a Clavinova. (And we also had a Hammond organ – though sadly not a B3!)

But the problem was what to do with the now unwanted Chappell Baby Grand? We called on the expert opinions of piano specialists from local music shops. Nobody was that keen to relieve us of it. At the Church Council, I offered to auction it on eBay. Being the only person in that small church with an eBay seller account, and also enjoying playing with my digital SLR camera, I listed it. Last Thursday week, I uploaded the listing for a ten-day auction. It was scheduled to end at 10:20 pm yesterday.

So it was that I sat at the screen last night with some supper, regularly hitting F5 on the keyboard to refresh the page. I had been looking regularly during the ten days. Well over five hundred people viewed it. Forty or so ‘watched’ the piano. Half a dozen folk asked questions, most of which I referred to my musicians at the church, since I am not a muso.

On Saturday morning, it looked like it was all going wrong. Bids had suddenly jumped overnight from £51.00 to £222.52, and this having started the auction at 99p. However, I looked at the feedback record for the woman in pole position, and found that three times out of four in the last year she had failed to pay for auctions she had won. I cancelled her bids, and banned her from ever bidding on anything I sell. Back to £51, then. That guy must have been pleased: his maximum bid was £200.00.

Seasoned eBayers will know, though, that most of the action happens near the end. In the last twenty minutes of the auction, it took off. £155, £165, £222.52 – that figure again – I hurriedly checked the record of the bidder! Until finally, the piano sold for five hundred and ten of our finest English British pounds. If you don’t believe me, click here. The winner was a lady from Staffordshire who had not asked any questions, and like everyone else bidding, had not seen the instrument, even though I had offered in my item description to arrange viewings. It’s a long way and a lot of money. And within ten minutes of the auction finishing, she had paid me via PayPal.

What an end to a frantic weekend! That kind of money will make a difference to our little chapel.Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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Tomorrow’s Sermon: Mission Is People

Matthew 10:40-42

Introduction
I’ve heard teachers say that schools would be much easier without the children. There’s a tendency among ministers to say that churches would be much easier without the members!

Both of these comments are unrealistic and unfair, but probably borne of frustration, especially when things don’t go smoothly or in a hoped-for direction. School is nothing without the students. And church is nothing without the members.

Which brings us to the climax of Jesus’ teaching on mission in Matthew 10 that the Lectionary has been tracking for the last three weeks. Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus encouraging us with a vision of ‘Mission Possible’; last week, we heard him encourage us to be neither surprised nor afraid in the face of opposition.

Now, this week, in the final instalment from Matthew 10, Jesus brings it all together with the importance of people. Strategies can wait. Tactics are not of primary importance. People come first in Jesus’ vision. These three verses are saturated with the centrality of people rather than programmes for the mission of God. As we explore the different people Jesus talks about here, we get more flavours of mission.

1. You
‘Let’s talk about you.’ It sounds like a chat-up line. But Jesus begins by talking about his hearers. ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me’ (verse 40) is where he begins. Now if Jesus said that to me – ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me’, I’d think, steady on a bit! That’s a huge statement to make. How can people receiving me, a mere messenger, be like receiving Jesus himself?

The reason I think that way is because I think of messengers in the modern way. I don’t expect our postie to represent any of the people who send me letters that he delivers. He’s just an intermediary, doing his job. That’s why we say, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’ when someone brings bad news.

In Jesus’ day, however, it was different. People wrote letters, but had no postal service. To get their letters delivered, they had to choose people who were reliable not only to take the correspondence to its destination, but also to deliver its contents. Those who delivered letters were the personal representatives of the writers. You could say that those entrusted with delivering correspondence in the ancient world were ambassadors for the writers.

So when Jesus says, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me’, he is saying, ‘You are my ambassadors. I trust you to go into the world in my name and speak my message.’ That is the sense in which people welcoming us is like welcoming Jesus. Not that we are his doubles, but that we are his ambassadors.

That itself may still be nerve-wracking! Who, me, acting as Christ’s representative? But yes, it is true, and it is the greatest honour open to a human being. No honour bestowed by society can compare with this. A Christian musician by the name of Abraham Laboriel was asked to be part of a band that played at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration, but he had an existing commitment on the date in question, and so he declined. ‘Don’t you know you’re going to be playing for the President of the United States?’ the organiser asked him. ‘Don’t you know I play for the King of Kings every time I play?’ replied Laboriel.

The world knows we are Christ’s representatives: let’s accept our commission.

2. Prophets
Next come the prophets:

‘Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward’ (verse 41a).

I think this expands the notion of the ambassador. The ambassador represents the king’s message; the prophet brings the king’s word. Prophets are those people who clearly bring God’s message to the current situation. They do so with such a vivid sense that we know we must decide in response to God.

They are not merely wordsmiths, although the words are important. Like their biblical counterparts, they may enact the message in such a way that we gain a clear sense of God’s mind. They may be Desmond Tutu laughing in the face of apartheid. They may be John Sentamu cutting up his clerical collar on television as condemnation of Robert Mugabe. However, they may also be the person with the quiet word for another that came as they prayed.

Prophets, then, have a key rôle to play in calling people to repentance, commitment and steps along the road of discipleship. Thus, we can say they have a missionary function.

The questions for us are who are the prophets in our midst? And might we have a prophetic edge to our words and deeds? It requires people who in the first instance are more willing to listen than to speak, to pray rather than preach. True prophecy only comes from communion with God.

3. The Righteous
Next, Jesus says,

‘and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous’ (verse 41b).

Who is ‘a righteous person’? Shouldn’t that be all Christians? Yes, of course. However, there is also something specialist about this, too. And just as prophets extend the notion of ambassadors, righteous persons extend what we understand by prophets. Our mission isn’t merely to proclaim the word, like ambassadors, nor to declare and enact it, like prophets. Our mission also involves living the word of Christ, and that’s what makes for ‘righteous’ people in Jesus’ eyes.

We see it today in a movement that is taking the Gospel into impoverished areas. As it does so, it is impressing and challenging young people. It’s often called ‘the new monasticism’. In the UK, a good representative is The Eden Project: not the eco-friendly destination in Cornwall, but Christian outreach on the Wythenshawe estate in Manchester, living and serving the needy. In the USA, it’s most high profile project is The Simple Way, founded by Shane Claiborne and five other members of Eastern University who decided to move into an impoverished suburb of Philadelphia.

Why do these projects have an impact? Here is what a Christian youth worker and researcher called Jason Gardner says about them:

‘This ‘new’ type of church offers a clear and gospel-motivated alternative to consumer culture. It has also found, much like the church of the New Testament and the campaigns of Wesley and Whitefield, that where the gospel most appeals is amongst the marginalised.’[1]

As another researcher, Bob Mayo, puts it:

‘…having it all is seen as a right, not a luxury.’[2]

Our mission, then, involves a form of righteous living that not only reaches the poor and those on the margins, but also challenges the greed and selfishness of our culture. That might put us on a cross, but God tends to raise up his crucified ones.

4. The Little Ones
Here is a fourth group Jesus mentions at the end of the reading:

‘… and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’ (Verse 42)

Who are ‘these little ones’? The immediate context demands that they be disciples, too, who are engaged in mission. The phrase occurs elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel and seems to refer to disciples, perhaps particularly vulnerable ones.

I believe Jesus is telling us there is a proper vulnerability about mission. Christian mission is not about going in, guns blazing, and forcing people into submission. The mission of Jesus means going to the world in love, and love of necessity means being vulnerable. We take risks when we love people in the name of Jesus. Sometimes it hurts.

I love talking about the witness Debbie and I share in among the communities at Rebekah’s school and Mark’s pre-school. However deeply rewarding it feels at times, there are other occasions when we know our efforts have failed or been rejected. One person we desperately wanted to help chose instead to listen to the dangerous counsel of a couple who were steeped in the occult. That hurt. We wondered about the consequences for her children. But nobody can force Jesus on people. In the pain of vulnerable love, the little ones of Jesus need their cups of cold water from others.

However, for all the disappointment, it’s important to go on being vulnerable, being ‘little ones’, not ‘big ones’, so to speak. That’s how Jesus engaged in his Father’s mission. That’s how we do, too.

You might think I’ve finished at that point – I’ve gone through the groups of people who are welcomed – the ambassadors, prophets, righteous ones and little ones. However, there is one other group to consider:

5. Whoever
Yes, we need to think of the ‘whoevers’ in this passage: ‘whoever’ welcomes the ambassadors, prophets and righteous ones, and who gives a cup of cold water to the little ones. These ‘whoevers’ are the hidden people in the reading.

Jesus makes room for the anonymous ‘whoevers’ in mission. He has a place for those who will not be in the public arena in the way that ambassadors, prophets and righteous people – and even, maybe the vulnerable ones – might be.

The thread running through Jesus’ thought here is that mission requires support. Any and every Christian can support mission by offering practical help and moral support to those who find themselves on the front line of witness in the world. We’ve done that to a small extent this last year in supporting our missionary charity for the year, the Mission Aviation Fellowship. We’ll continue that with a new missionary cause from September, which the Church Council decided last Monday would be Street Pastors. We’ll be providing our cups of cold water in prayer, finance and educating ourselves and others about these outreach projects.

It’s not something that has to be limited to a church’s official missionary causes. It’s something every Christian can do individually. It might mean looking out for particular Christians we know, who may be involved in some challenging witness and showing interest and offering support. Equally, we could contact a mission organisation that grabs our attention and begin receiving their literature, giving money and praying for them.

None of this excuses us from our own involvement in witness as we live in the world. All Christians are still just as much called to speak, enact and live God’s word in a loving and vulnerable way. Support for other missionaries is vital, but it cannot be a cop-out from our own responsibilities. We have a twin rôle: we engage in our own witness, and we seek to meet the needs of others as they bring the love of Christ into the world.

Conclusion
Does it still seem incongruous that Jesus chooses us to be his ambassadors, prophets and righteous ones? Does it seem strange that he calls us in our vulnerability and anonymity to be his representatives and missionaries? Consider this story:

After Jesus ascended, the angels gathered round to ask him what his plans were now, after his death for the sins of the world and his mighty resurrection. ‘Wow, Jesus,’ they said, ‘what are you going to do now?’

‘I have entrusted the next stage of the mission to eleven men,’ replied Jesus.

‘Men?’ gasped the angels. ‘But what if they fail, or make mistakes, or sin? What’s your backup plan, Lord?’

‘I have no other plan,’ said Jesus.

And he hasn’t. We are his plan. We’ve heard about the possibilities and the difficulties. Now is the time to step into our destinies.




[1] Jason Gardner, Mend The Gap, p 133.

[2] Bob Mayo et al, Ambiguous Evangelism, p 144, quoted in Gardner, p 142.

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

Tomorrow’s Sermon: Mission Is People

Matthew 10:40-42

Introduction
I’ve heard teachers say that schools would be much easier without the children. There’s a tendency among ministers to say that churches would be much easier without the members!

Both of these comments are unrealistic and unfair, but probably borne of frustration, especially when things don’t go smoothly or in a hoped-for direction. School is nothing without the students. And church is nothing without the members.

Which brings us to the climax of Jesus’ teaching on mission in Matthew 10 that the Lectionary has been tracking for the last three weeks. Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus encouraging us with a vision of ‘Mission Possible’; last week, we heard him encourage us to be neither surprised nor afraid in the face of opposition.

Now, this week, in the final instalment from Matthew 10, Jesus brings it all together with the importance of people. Strategies can wait. Tactics are not of primary importance. People come first in Jesus’ vision. These three verses are saturated with the centrality of people rather than programmes for the mission of God. As we explore the different people Jesus talks about here, we get more flavours of mission.

1. You
‘Let’s talk about you.’ It sounds like a chat-up line. But Jesus begins by talking about his hearers. ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me’ (verse 40) is where he begins. Now if Jesus said that to me – ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me’, I’d think, steady on a bit! That’s a huge statement to make. How can people receiving me, a mere messenger, be like receiving Jesus himself?

The reason I think that way is because I think of messengers in the modern way. I don’t expect our postie to represent any of the people who send me letters that he delivers. He’s just an intermediary, doing his job. That’s why we say, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’ when someone brings bad news.

In Jesus’ day, however, it was different. People wrote letters, but had no postal service. To get their letters delivered, they had to choose people who were reliable not only to take the correspondence to its destination, but also to deliver its contents. Those who delivered letters were the personal representatives of the writers. You could say that those entrusted with delivering correspondence in the ancient world were ambassadors for the writers.

So when Jesus says, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me’, he is saying, ‘You are my ambassadors. I trust you to go into the world in my name and speak my message.’ That is the sense in which people welcoming us is like welcoming Jesus. Not that we are his doubles, but that we are his ambassadors.

That itself may still be nerve-wracking! Who, me, acting as Christ’s representative? But yes, it is true, and it is the greatest honour open to a human being. No honour bestowed by society can compare with this. A Christian musician by the name of Abraham Laboriel was asked to be part of a band that played at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration, but he had an existing commitment on the date in question, and so he declined. ‘Don’t you know you’re going to be playing for the President of the United States?’ the organiser asked him. ‘Don’t you know I play for the King of Kings every time I play?’ replied Laboriel.

The world knows we are Christ’s representatives: let’s accept our commission.

2. Prophets
Next come the prophets:

‘Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward’ (verse 41a).

I think this expands the notion of the ambassador. The ambassador represents the king’s message; the prophet brings the king’s word. Prophets are those people who clearly bring God’s message to the current situation. They do so with such a vivid sense that we know we must decide in response to God.

They are not merely wordsmiths, although the words are important. Like their biblical counterparts, they may enact the message in such a way that we gain a clear sense of God’s mind. They may be Desmond Tutu laughing in the face of apartheid. They may be John Sentamu cutting up his clerical collar on television as condemnation of Robert Mugabe. However, they may also be the person with the quiet word for another that came as they prayed.

Prophets, then, have a key rôle to play in calling people to repentance, commitment and steps along the road of discipleship. Thus, we can say they have a missionary function.

The questions for us are who are the prophets in our midst? And might we have a prophetic edge to our words and deeds? It requires people who in the first instance are more willing to listen than to speak, to pray rather than preach. True prophecy only comes from communion with God.

3. The Righteous
Next, Jesus says,

‘and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous’ (verse 41b).

Who is ‘a righteous person’? Shouldn’t that be all Christians? Yes, of course. However, there is also something specialist about this, too. And just as prophets extend the notion of ambassadors, righteous persons extend what we understand by prophets. Our mission isn’t merely to proclaim the word, like ambassadors, nor to declare and enact it, like prophets. Our mission also involves living the word of Christ, and that’s what makes for ‘righteous’ people in Jesus’ eyes.

We see it today in a movement that is taking the Gospel into impoverished areas. As it does so, it is impressing and challenging young people. It’s often called ‘the new monasticism’. In the UK, a good representative is The Eden Project: not the eco-friendly destination in Cornwall, but Christian outreach on the Wythenshawe estate in Manchester, living and serving the needy. In the USA, it’s most high profile project is The Simple Way, founded by Shane Claiborne and five other members of Eastern University who decided to move into an impoverished suburb of Philadelphia.

Why do these projects have an impact? Here is what a Christian youth worker and researcher called Jason Gardner says about them:

‘This ‘new’ type of church offers a clear and gospel-motivated alternative to consumer culture. It has also found, much like the church of the New Testament and the campaigns of Wesley and Whitefield, that where the gospel most appeals is amongst the marginalised.’[1]

As another researcher, Bob Mayo, puts it:

‘…having it all is seen as a right, not a luxury.’[2]

Our mission, then, involves a form of righteous living that not only reaches the poor and those on the margins, but also challenges the greed and selfishness of our culture. That might put us on a cross, but God tends to raise up his crucified ones.

4. The Little Ones
Here is a fourth group Jesus mentions at the end of the reading:

‘… and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’ (Verse 42)

Who are ‘these little ones’? The immediate context demands that they be disciples, too, who are engaged in mission. The phrase occurs elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel and seems to refer to disciples, perhaps particularly vulnerable ones.

I believe Jesus is telling us there is a proper vulnerability about mission. Christian mission is not about going in, guns blazing, and forcing people into submission. The mission of Jesus means going to the world in love, and love of necessity means being vulnerable. We take risks when we love people in the name of Jesus. Sometimes it hurts.

I love talking about the witness Debbie and I share in among the communities at Rebekah’s school and Mark’s pre-school. However deeply rewarding it feels at times, there are other occasions when we know our efforts have failed or been rejected. One person we desperately wanted to help chose instead to listen to the dangerous counsel of a couple who were steeped in the occult. That hurt. We wondered about the consequences for her children. But nobody can force Jesus on people. In the pain of vulnerable love, the little ones of Jesus need their cups of cold water from others.

However, for all the disappointment, it’s important to go on being vulnerable, being ‘little ones’, not ‘big ones’, so to speak. That’s how Jesus engaged in his Father’s mission. That’s how we do, too.

You might think I’ve finished at that point – I’ve gone through the groups of people who are welcomed – the ambassadors, prophets, righteous ones and little ones. However, there is one other group to consider:

5. Whoever
Yes, we need to think of the ‘whoevers’ in this passage: ‘whoever’ welcomes the ambassadors, prophets and righteous ones, and who gives a cup of cold water to the little ones. These ‘whoevers’ are the hidden people in the reading.

Jesus makes room for the anonymous ‘whoevers’ in mission. He has a place for those who will not be in the public arena in the way that ambassadors, prophets and righteous people – and even, maybe the vulnerable ones – might be.

The thread running through Jesus’ thought here is that mission requires support. Any and every Christian can support mission by offering practical help and moral support to those who find themselves on the front line of witness in the world. We’ve done that to a small extent this last year in supporting our missionary charity for the year, the Mission Aviation Fellowship. We’ll continue that with a new missionary cause from September, which the Church Council decided last Monday would be Street Pastors. We’ll be providing our cups of cold water in prayer, finance and educating ourselves and others about these outreach projects.

It’s not something that has to be limited to a church’s official missionary causes. It’s something every Christian can do individually. It might mean looking out for particular Christians we know, who may be involved in some challenging witness and showing interest and offering support. Equally, we could contact a mission organisation that grabs our attention and begin receiving their literature, giving money and praying for them.

None of this excuses us from our own involvement in witness as we live in the world. All Christians are still just as much called to speak, enact and live God’s word in a loving and vulnerable way. Support for other missionaries is vital, but it cannot be a cop-out from our own responsibilities. We have a twin rôle: we engage in our own witness, and we seek to meet the needs of others as they bring the love of Christ into the world.

Conclusion
Does it still seem incongruous that Jesus chooses us to be his ambassadors, prophets and righteous ones? Does it seem strange that he calls us in our vulnerability and anonymity to be his representatives and missionaries? Consider this story:

After Jesus ascended, the angels gathered round to ask him what his plans were now, after his death for the sins of the world and his mighty resurrection. ‘Wow, Jesus,’ they said, ‘what are you going to do now?’

‘I have entrusted the next stage of the mission to eleven men,’ replied Jesus.

‘Men?’ gasped the angels. ‘But what if they fail, or make mistakes, or sin? What’s your backup plan, Lord?’

‘I have no other plan,’ said Jesus.

And he hasn’t. We are his plan. We’ve heard about the possibilities and the difficulties. Now is the time to step into our destinies.




[1] Jason Gardner, Mend The Gap, p 133.

[2] Bob Mayo et al, Ambiguous Evangelism, p 144, quoted in Gardner, p 142.

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

Tomorrow’s Sermon: Mission Is People

Matthew 10:40-42

Introduction
I’ve heard teachers say that schools would be much easier without the children. There’s a tendency among ministers to say that churches would be much easier without the members!

Both of these comments are unrealistic and unfair, but probably borne of frustration, especially when things don’t go smoothly or in a hoped-for direction. School is nothing without the students. And church is nothing without the members.

Which brings us to the climax of Jesus’ teaching on mission in Matthew 10 that the Lectionary has been tracking for the last three weeks. Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus encouraging us with a vision of ‘Mission Possible’; last week, we heard him encourage us to be neither surprised nor afraid in the face of opposition.

Now, this week, in the final instalment from Matthew 10, Jesus brings it all together with the importance of people. Strategies can wait. Tactics are not of primary importance. People come first in Jesus’ vision. These three verses are saturated with the centrality of people rather than programmes for the mission of God. As we explore the different people Jesus talks about here, we get more flavours of mission.

1. You
‘Let’s talk about you.’ It sounds like a chat-up line. But Jesus begins by talking about his hearers. ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me’ (verse 40) is where he begins. Now if Jesus said that to me – ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me’, I’d think, steady on a bit! That’s a huge statement to make. How can people receiving me, a mere messenger, be like receiving Jesus himself?

The reason I think that way is because I think of messengers in the modern way. I don’t expect our postie to represent any of the people who send me letters that he delivers. He’s just an intermediary, doing his job. That’s why we say, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’ when someone brings bad news.

In Jesus’ day, however, it was different. People wrote letters, but had no postal service. To get their letters delivered, they had to choose people who were reliable not only to take the correspondence to its destination, but also to deliver its contents. Those who delivered letters were the personal representatives of the writers. You could say that those entrusted with delivering correspondence in the ancient world were ambassadors for the writers.

So when Jesus says, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me’, he is saying, ‘You are my ambassadors. I trust you to go into the world in my name and speak my message.’ That is the sense in which people welcoming us is like welcoming Jesus. Not that we are his doubles, but that we are his ambassadors.

That itself may still be nerve-wracking! Who, me, acting as Christ’s representative? But yes, it is true, and it is the greatest honour open to a human being. No honour bestowed by society can compare with this. A Christian musician by the name of Abraham Laboriel was asked to be part of a band that played at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration, but he had an existing commitment on the date in question, and so he declined. ‘Don’t you know you’re going to be playing for the President of the United States?’ the organiser asked him. ‘Don’t you know I play for the King of Kings every time I play?’ replied Laboriel.

The world knows we are Christ’s representatives: let’s accept our commission.

2. Prophets
Next come the prophets:

‘Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward’ (verse 41a).

I think this expands the notion of the ambassador. The ambassador represents the king’s message; the prophet brings the king’s word. Prophets are those people who clearly bring God’s message to the current situation. They do so with such a vivid sense that we know we must decide in response to God.

They are not merely wordsmiths, although the words are important. Like their biblical counterparts, they may enact the message in such a way that we gain a clear sense of God’s mind. They may be Desmond Tutu laughing in the face of apartheid. They may be John Sentamu cutting up his clerical collar on television as condemnation of Robert Mugabe. However, they may also be the person with the quiet word for another that came as they prayed.

Prophets, then, have a key rôle to play in calling people to repentance, commitment and steps along the road of discipleship. Thus, we can say they have a missionary function.

The questions for us are who are the prophets in our midst? And might we have a prophetic edge to our words and deeds? It requires people who in the first instance are more willing to listen than to speak, to pray rather than preach. True prophecy only comes from communion with God.

3. The Righteous
Next, Jesus says,

‘and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous’ (verse 41b).

Who is ‘a righteous person’? Shouldn’t that be all Christians? Yes, of course. However, there is also something specialist about this, too. And just as prophets extend the notion of ambassadors, righteous persons extend what we understand by prophets. Our mission isn’t merely to proclaim the word, like ambassadors, nor to declare and enact it, like prophets. Our mission also involves living the word of Christ, and that’s what makes for ‘righteous’ people in Jesus’ eyes.

We see it today in a movement that is taking the Gospel into impoverished areas. As it does so, it is impressing and challenging young people. It’s often called ‘the new monasticism’. In the UK, a good representative is The Eden Project: not the eco-friendly destination in Cornwall, but Christian outreach on the Wythenshawe estate in Manchester, living and serving the needy. In the USA, it’s most high profile project is The Simple Way, founded by Shane Claiborne and five other members of Eastern University who decided to move into an impoverished suburb of Philadelphia.

Why do these projects have an impact? Here is what a Christian youth worker and researcher called Jason Gardner says about them:

‘This ‘new’ type of church offers a clear and gospel-motivated alternative to consumer culture. It has also found, much like the church of the New Testament and the campaigns of Wesley and Whitefield, that where the gospel most appeals is amongst the marginalised.’[1]

As another researcher, Bob Mayo, puts it:

‘…having it all is seen as a right, not a luxury.’[2]

Our mission, then, involves a form of righteous living that not only reaches the poor and those on the margins, but also challenges the greed and selfishness of our culture. That might put us on a cross, but God tends to raise up his crucified ones.

4. The Little Ones
Here is a fourth group Jesus mentions at the end of the reading:

‘… and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’ (Verse 42)

Who are ‘these little ones’? The immediate context demands that they be disciples, too, who are engaged in mission. The phrase occurs elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel and seems to refer to disciples, perhaps particularly vulnerable ones.

I believe Jesus is telling us there is a proper vulnerability about mission. Christian mission is not about going in, guns blazing, and forcing people into submission. The mission of Jesus means going to the world in love, and love of necessity means being vulnerable. We take risks when we love people in the name of Jesus. Sometimes it hurts.

I love talking about the witness Debbie and I share in among the communities at Rebekah’s school and Mark’s pre-school. However deeply rewarding it feels at times, there are other occasions when we know our efforts have failed or been rejected. One person we desperately wanted to help chose instead to listen to the dangerous counsel of a couple who were steeped in the occult. That hurt. We wondered about the consequences for her children. But nobody can force Jesus on people. In the pain of vulnerable love, the little ones of Jesus need their cups of cold water from others.

However, for all the disappointment, it’s important to go on being vulnerable, being ‘little ones’, not ‘big ones’, so to speak. That’s how Jesus engaged in his Father’s mission. That’s how we do, too.

You might think I’ve finished at that point – I’ve gone through the groups of people who are welcomed – the ambassadors, prophets, righteous ones and little ones. However, there is one other group to consider:

5. Whoever
Yes, we need to think of the ‘whoevers’ in this passage: ‘whoever’ welcomes the ambassadors, prophets and righteous ones, and who gives a cup of cold water to the little ones. These ‘whoevers’ are the hidden people in the reading.

Jesus makes room for the anonymous ‘whoevers’ in mission. He has a place for those who will not be in the public arena in the way that ambassadors, prophets and righteous people – and even, maybe the vulnerable ones – might be.

The thread running through Jesus’ thought here is that mission requires support. Any and every Christian can support mission by offering practical help and moral support to those who find themselves on the front line of witness in the world. We’ve done that to a small extent this last year in supporting our missionary charity for the year, the Mission Aviation Fellowship. We’ll continue that with a new missionary cause from September, which the Church Council decided last Monday would be Street Pastors. We’ll be providing our cups of cold water in prayer, finance and educating ourselves and others about these outreach projects.

It’s not something that has to be limited to a church’s official missionary causes. It’s something every Christian can do individually. It might mean looking out for particular Christians we know, who may be involved in some challenging witness and showing interest and offering support. Equally, we could contact a mission organisation that grabs our attention and begin receiving their literature, giving money and praying for them.

None of this excuses us from our own involvement in witness as we live in the world. All Christians are still just as much called to speak, enact and live God’s word in a loving and vulnerable way. Support for other missionaries is vital, but it cannot be a cop-out from our own responsibilities. We have a twin rôle: we engage in our own witness, and we seek to meet the needs of others as they bring the love of Christ into the world.

Conclusion
Does it still seem incongruous that Jesus chooses us to be his ambassadors, prophets and righteous ones? Does it seem strange that he calls us in our vulnerability and anonymity to be his representatives and missionaries? Consider this story:

After Jesus ascended, the angels gathered round to ask him what his plans were now, after his death for the sins of the world and his mighty resurrection. ‘Wow, Jesus,’ they said, ‘what are you going to do now?’

‘I have entrusted the next stage of the mission to eleven men,’ replied Jesus.

‘Men?’ gasped the angels. ‘But what if they fail, or make mistakes, or sin? What’s your backup plan, Lord?’

‘I have no other plan,’ said Jesus.

And he hasn’t. We are his plan. We’ve heard about the possibilities and the difficulties. Now is the time to step into our destinies.




[1] Jason Gardner, Mend The Gap, p 133.

[2] Bob Mayo et al, Ambiguous Evangelism, p 144, quoted in Gardner, p 142.

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Save Zimbabwe From Mugabe

There is a new online petition from Avaaz here. Please consider signing it. The petition lobbies for influential African leaders, especially Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, to broker a government of national unity under Morgan Tsvangari in Zimbabwe.Technorati Tags: , , , ,

Synchroblog: Missional Church In Traditional Church Contexts

Rick Meigs called for a synchroblog today on Missional Church. I only have time for some brief thoughts, but here goes.

I’m defining missional church as an incarnational approach to mission. Mission is inherent to the nature of the Trinity, because love reaches out beyond itself to others. We see that most of all in the incarnation of Jesus. Although I am an evangelical, my theology cannot solely be around the Cross, as if everything else about Jesus – his birth, life and teaching – were just an interesting prelude. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, then the risen Christ said to the apostles (and, by implication, us), ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ Therefore the manner of Christ’s coming is a pattern for the mission he calls us to share, just as his cross is not only the means of salvation but a pattern of discipleship as we take up our own crosses. The church is thus constituted by mission. To accomplish this, the ascended Christ sends forth apostolic, prophetic and evangelistic ministries as well as the pastoral and teaching ministries to which we are used.

This presents an enormous challenge to those of us rooted in a Constantinian tradition of church. The long term effects of making the church not only respectable but ‘official’ has affected more than the ‘established’ traditions of church, and even – I would venture to suggest – many of those rooted in the Radical Reformation. ‘Official church’ at its worst treats all citizens as default members of the church. Even without that scandalous assumption, it makes church a natural place to go for rites of passage. It has cultivated a mentality that people ‘come to church’. This leads to ‘attractional’ models of church, where we implore people to ‘come to us’. It also leads to a truncated view of ministry, purely of the pastoral and teaching offices, because if everyone is already a Christian, that is all that is needed.

Therefore missional church raises questions of the nature of the church, of models of mission and of church leadership.

Firstly, the nature of the church is questioned, because while it has been defined in terms of the company of Christ’s people, traditional theologies have then moved onto elucidating ‘the marks of the true church’. For Protestants, these have been about the preaching of the Word, the administration of the two gospel sacrament and – in the case of the Radical Reformers – the application of church discipline. Others have made particular forms of ordained ministry key matters, such as bishops in the so-called historic succession, and communion with the Bishop of Rome in the case of Roman Catholics. For Catholics, lacking the last category makes other groups ecclesial communities but not proper churches.

Missional church changes all this. It affirms the epithet of Emil Brunner that ‘The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.’ Mission is the nature of the church. We don’t simply engage in mission in order to maintain our numbers: we participate in the mission of God, because that is our spiritual DNA. Thus mission is not the preserve of enthusiasts or the particularly gifted, even if some have a clear calling to evangelism; it is at the heart of what it means to be church.

I venture to suggest, therefore, that it is wrong to say that ‘worship’ is the prime activity of the church. Instead, glorifying God is: that encompasses both worship and mission. When we define worship as the church’s primary calling, we end up – especially with a Constantinian inheritance – spending time amongst ourselves, rather than ‘incarnationally’ in the world.

Secondly, missional church calls into question models of mission, and here I mean it questions the attractional approach to mission. Older generations in traditional churches, who still by and large set the agenda, grew up with a culture that knew more of the Christian story, where it was not unusual to go to church. Mission became, as I said, ‘come to us’. But that only works if there is an existing natural affinity for church. Mostly, that does not exist in the UK any more. We are three generations away from that. I do not want to deny for one moment the idea that the goal of mission is to incorporate people into the Body of Christ, but coming to join the body may not be the first step it once was. Instead, incarnation means that we go onto other people’s territory, where they feel comfortable, rather than we (in our fear?) asking them to come to where we feel safe. Jesus certainly never pursued a ‘safe’ agenda. He did teach and heal in synagogues, but much of what he did was outside.

Therefore if missional church means that mission is central to who we are, then, the next thing that follows is that the mission to which we are called is something we engage in the world. We share God’s love in word and deed in society. We demonstrate God’s love. We seek to be an example. We aim to earn the right to speak about Christ and his claims on people’s lives in the world, rather than at guest services or seeker-sensitive worship.

Thirdly, this all has implications for how churches are led. We ordain to ministries of word, sacrament and pastoral charge. These are all fundamentally pastoral roles. There is nothing unworthy in any of them. However, in themselves they are incomplete. Also, by elevating these we marginalise the apostolic call to church planting and networking across Christians, the prophetic call to bring God’s word to the world and the evangelistic mandate to call people to discipleship. The people with these gifts and callings end up as mavericks, and are then criticised and rejected. But then we wonder why the church has little impact in society! Could there be a link? I think there is.

For me, then, this is a call to expand our notion of ordination (if that is what we practise) and leadership. We have to be careful about it, because some of those who consider themselves ‘apostles’ or ‘prophets’, for example, can end up on ego trips every bit as seriously damaging as those of abusive pastors. It is not therefore simply a case of individual calls, although it will involve that, carefully tested to ensure there is a Christlike servant approach at the heart of the person. But it is also about welcoming these ministries in the heart of the church.

There we go, that’s about as much as I have time to type today. It is hardly comprehensive, but what I have said lays out in summary form some of my passions on this theme.

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Today’s Sermon: Opposition To Mission

Matthew 10:24-39

Introduction
There are two opposite reactions I find among Christians to the conflict our faith may cause us in our society. One group looks for ways of witness where they will be respected. The other group seems almost to go looking for persecution.

With those different reactions, we come to today’s Lectionary Gospel reading. It is quite a shock after last week’s passage, where we saw that the mission Jesus calls us to is very much a ‘Mission Possible’. He is quite clear that the Gospel will not always be popular. How should we take account of that? That’s what this week’s sermon is all about. Here is what Jesus tells us:

1. Don’t Be Surprised
Here’s how Jesus opens what he says:

‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! (Verses 24-25)

In other words, if Jesus is maligned, the same thing will happen to his followers. The ambition always to be able to witness to Christ and be respected is a futile one. Some will respect us. Others will not. Jesus himself suffered rejection, and so will we. So get used to the possibility that not everybody will like what Christians stand for and say. We may rightly not want to be confrontational unless we have to be, but there is no way of being faithful to Jesus and remaining permanently popular.

So does that mean that the Christians who go around looking for persecution are right? No. This is no reason to be deliberately offensive. The call of the Christian is still to do good to all, even loving our enemies. Jesus does not call us to pick a fight.

Nor is there a case to exaggerate the level of opposition to us and develop a persecution complex, as some Christians do. It is true that the Christian faith is much more marginal in our society today. It is less accepted, and before that, it is less understood. So we are likely to lose more debates in the public arena than before. Legislation that disregards the need of a child to have a father is one example. So is the upset caused by ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’. But we face much less opposition in this country than in many lands. Talk to Indian Christians, facing organised opposition from Hindu political parties and Muslims. Appreciate the underground Christians who can only meet covertly in other lands. They suffer persecution.

Our problem comes because for centuries we have been used to Christianity being central to our national life. We can probably trace it all back to the fourth century, when the Emperor Constantine apparently converted to Christianity, and made the faith not only respectable, but the official religion of the Roman Empire. We have had centuries since then of an Established Church, and since Henry VIII, the sovereign has been the head of that church. That has left us much less used to the idea that Christians could face general opposition. (We have had Protestant-Catholic wars, of course, and followers of the Radical Reformation such as the Baptists would know more of the sense of alienation. However, the general point remains.)

So we need to hear Jesus say to us, ‘Don’t be surprised if following me brings you into conflict with the world.’ It is normal. Don’t go looking for it, still bless people, but it will happen. You may not expect it, you may consider it unjust, but it is standard treatment in the world for Christians. We are like the minority Jewish community in exile in Babylon. We live with different values in an alien empire. Life will not always be comfortable for us.

2. Don’t Be Afraid
If opposition is going to come, isn’t it natural to be afraid? Yet Jesus’ next words are ‘So have no fear of them’ (verse 26); ‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul’ (verse 28); and ‘So do not be afraid’ (verse 31).

The Bible has three hundred and sixty-six occurrences of the words ‘Do not fear’: one for every day of the year. Jesus, then, gives three of them here. There are three reasons not to be afraid of our opponents.

The first is that the enemies of Jesus will be judged. That is what Jesus means when he says that ‘nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known’ (verse 26). This isn’t a warning that God will expose all our inner thoughts. Rather, like a Robert Mugabe today, God’s opponents think they can keep their evil secret, but God will expose it, either in this life or the life to come. Justice will arrive. We are easily consumed with the here and now, but the eternal perspective reassures us not to fear our accusers.

The second ‘do not fear’ also reassures us that no enemy can ultimately destroy us, not even by killing us. There is a story told from the early centuries of the church, about a Christian artisan who was commissioned to make objects for a pagan temple. One of the famous early church leaders, Tertullian, told the man he must not accept the commission, because he would be supporting idolatry. The man, however, needed the income, and said, ‘But I must live.’ ‘Must you?’ replied Tertullian. No one but God can take away eternal life.

The third ‘do not fear’ comes with the assurance that we are worth far more than the sparrows, for whom the Father cares. It’s about not being afraid, because God values us much more highly. A sparrow may fall to the ground, and so may we. But we are made in the image of God. We are loved with an everlasting love. God’s love may not prevent us from suffering, any more than it stopped Jesus going to the Cross, but we are loved and cherished. God will preserve us.

God will judge his enemies. They cannot kill our eternal life. God loves us and he will preserve us. Believing these things, we can own the name of Jesus in the teeth of opposition in the world. So when we are mocked for our faith in Jesus, we can stand firm. When we are smeared for standing for social justice for the poor and the weak, our feet are on solid ground. When our belief in ancient wisdom is ridiculed as outdated nonsense, Jesus is pleased with our courageous stance. Yes, the world will throw words, laws and even violence against those who are faithful to Christ, but we need not fear. In Christ, we have something they don’t have. Something indestructible.

3. Don’t Be Surprised (Part 2)
Why a second part to what I’ve already said in my first point? Because that’s the way Hebrew logic often works. In our culture, we’re used to arguments that proceed along straight lines. So if there are three sections to an argument, we have the first part, the second part builds on it and then the third part builds on the second.

Not the Hebrews, though. Rather than a straight line, they argued more in a series of concentric circles, or a spiral. Either way, the outside stuff led to the centre.

So here, we have the other part of the ‘don’t be surprised’ teaching (verses 34-39). But boy, are we surprised! Jesus hasn’t come to bring peace but a sword (verse 34)? Jesus has come to split up families (verses 34-37)? Jesus calls people to give up their lives (verses 38-39)? What have we here – a cult leader?

I think we have shock language from Jesus. Like many Jewish people, he used extreme language to make a point. I believe he is saying that we shouldn’t be surprised if the opposition to our faith and mission comes from closer quarters than we might expect. We may reasonably anticipate disagreement from atheists and followers of other faiths. But what if those we expect to love us are our fiercest critics?

It was certainly Jesus’ own experience. His own family members thought he was out of his mind. If they had had the power in the first century to have him sectioned under the Mental Health Act, they would have done so.

Not only did his family oppose his mission, so did his spiritual family. Those most passionate to defend the pure Jewish faith had Jesus in their sights. Eventually, they got him.

This has been true throughout church history. The Church of England opposed John Wesley. The Methodists opposed General Booth. If we get passionate about the mission of Jesus today, we should not be surprised if the first wave of opposition comes from within the ranks of the church. The late American saint A W Tozer said that the average spiritual temperature in most churches is so cold that when a normal Christian comes in, everyone assumes that person has a fever. So people will gently try to tell us to cool down or calm down. If we don’t, then the next step will be a certain amount of emotional arm-twisting: ‘Please don’t be divisive.’ If that doesn’t stop us, then things will happen behind our backs, gloves will slowly be removed, and the unpleasantries will begin. No, do not be surprised if those who like an arctic spiritual temperature start to fight to keep it that way, and all in the name of faithfulness.

Conclusion
So do not be surprised. There will be opposition to living for the mission of Jesus, the Mission Possible. And it will start in the unlikeliest of places, with the people you might naturally consider your allies. This is the outward concentric circle of Jesus’ teaching here.

But that means it is there to focus us towards the centre. What’s in the centre? We’ve already looked at it. That was my second point, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ Jesus has given us reason after reason not to be afraid when we encounter resistance to his mission when we are faithful to him.

Opposition will come: it’s no good pretending otherwise, or trying to devise strategies that keep us sweet with everyone. If we manage that, then at some point we are likely to have been unfaithful to Jesus. But neither are we to be unnecessarily provocative. Our provocation is with the weapon of love.

When the opposition comes, it will come not initially from our natural enemies, but from those closest to us, especially at first from the family of God. It’s nothing unusual for religious people to employ heavies. But God will judge those who are merely religious without loving Jesus. They cannot take away our eternal life. They cannot replicate the fatherly love and astonishing grace that God has for his children.

So do not be surprised if faithful witness means a drop in your popularity rankings. Do not be surprised if trouble comes from surprising sources. But do not be afraid, either. Jesus keeps saying, ‘Do not fear’. And he has good reason.

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Today’s Sermon: Opposition To Mission

Matthew 10:24-39

Introduction
There are two opposite reactions I find among Christians to the conflict our faith may cause us in our society. One group looks for ways of witness where they will be respected. The other group seems almost to go looking for persecution.

With those different reactions, we come to today’s Lectionary Gospel reading. It is quite a shock after last week’s passage, where we saw that the mission Jesus calls us to is very much a ‘Mission Possible’. He is quite clear that the Gospel will not always be popular. How should we take account of that? That’s what this week’s sermon is all about. Here is what Jesus tells us:

1. Don’t Be Surprised
Here’s how Jesus opens what he says:

‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! (Verses 24-25)

In other words, if Jesus is maligned, the same thing will happen to his followers. The ambition always to be able to witness to Christ and be respected is a futile one. Some will respect us. Others will not. Jesus himself suffered rejection, and so will we. So get used to the possibility that not everybody will like what Christians stand for and say. We may rightly not want to be confrontational unless we have to be, but there is no way of being faithful to Jesus and remaining permanently popular.

So does that mean that the Christians who go around looking for persecution are right? No. This is no reason to be deliberately offensive. The call of the Christian is still to do good to all, even loving our enemies. Jesus does not call us to pick a fight.

Nor is there a case to exaggerate the level of opposition to us and develop a persecution complex, as some Christians do. It is true that the Christian faith is much more marginal in our society today. It is less accepted, and before that, it is less understood. So we are likely to lose more debates in the public arena than before. Legislation that disregards the need of a child to have a father is one example. So is the upset caused by ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’. But we face much less opposition in this country than in many lands. Talk to Indian Christians, facing organised opposition from Hindu political parties and Muslims. Appreciate the underground Christians who can only meet covertly in other lands. They suffer persecution.

Our problem comes because for centuries we have been used to Christianity being central to our national life. We can probably trace it all back to the fourth century, when the Emperor Constantine apparently converted to Christianity, and made the faith not only respectable, but the official religion of the Roman Empire. We have had centuries since then of an Established Church, and since Henry VIII, the sovereign has been the head of that church. That has left us much less used to the idea that Christians could face general opposition. (We have had Protestant-Catholic wars, of course, and followers of the Radical Reformation such as the Baptists would know more of the sense of alienation. However, the general point remains.)

So we need to hear Jesus say to us, ‘Don’t be surprised if following me brings you into conflict with the world.’ It is normal. Don’t go looking for it, still bless people, but it will happen. You may not expect it, you may consider it unjust, but it is standard treatment in the world for Christians. We are like the minority Jewish community in exile in Babylon. We live with different values in an alien empire. Life will not always be comfortable for us.

2. Don’t Be Afraid
If opposition is going to come, isn’t it natural to be afraid? Yet Jesus’ next words are ‘So have no fear of them’ (verse 26); ‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul’ (verse 28); and ‘So do not be afraid’ (verse 31).

The Bible has three hundred and sixty-six occurrences of the words ‘Do not fear’: one for every day of the year. Jesus, then, gives three of them here. There are three reasons not to be afraid of our opponents.

The first is that the enemies of Jesus will be judged. That is what Jesus means when he says that ‘nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known’ (verse 26). This isn’t a warning that God will expose all our inner thoughts. Rather, like a Robert Mugabe today, God’s opponents think they can keep their evil secret, but God will expose it, either in this life or the life to come. Justice will arrive. We are easily consumed with the here and now, but the eternal perspective reassures us not to fear our accusers.

The second ‘do not fear’ also reassures us that no enemy can ultimately destroy us, not even by killing us. There is a story told from the early centuries of the church, about a Christian artisan who was commissioned to make objects for a pagan temple. One of the famous early church leaders, Tertullian, told the man he must not accept the commission, because he would be supporting idolatry. The man, however, needed the income, and said, ‘But I must live.’ ‘Must you?’ replied Tertullian. No one but God can take away eternal life.

The third ‘do not fear’ comes with the assurance that we are worth far more than the sparrows, for whom the Father cares. It’s about not being afraid, because God values us much more highly. A sparrow may fall to the ground, and so may we. But we are made in the image of God. We are loved with an everlasting love. God’s love may not prevent us from suffering, any more than it stopped Jesus going to the Cross, but we are loved and cherished. God will preserve us.

God will judge his enemies. They cannot kill our eternal life. God loves us and he will preserve us. Believing these things, we can own the name of Jesus in the teeth of opposition in the world. So when we are mocked for our faith in Jesus, we can stand firm. When we are smeared for standing for social justice for the poor and the weak, our feet are on solid ground. When our belief in ancient wisdom is ridiculed as outdated nonsense, Jesus is pleased with our courageous stance. Yes, the world will throw words, laws and even violence against those who are faithful to Christ, but we need not fear. In Christ, we have something they don’t have. Something indestructible.

3. Don’t Be Surprised (Part 2)
Why a second part to what I’ve already said in my first point? Because that’s the way Hebrew logic often works. In our culture, we’re used to arguments that proceed along straight lines. So if there are three sections to an argument, we have the first part, the second part builds on it and then the third part builds on the second.

Not the Hebrews, though. Rather than a straight line, they argued more in a series of concentric circles, or a spiral. Either way, the outside stuff led to the centre.

So here, we have the other part of the ‘don’t be surprised’ teaching (verses 34-39). But boy, are we surprised! Jesus hasn’t come to bring peace but a sword (verse 34)? Jesus has come to split up families (verses 34-37)? Jesus calls people to give up their lives (verses 38-39)? What have we here – a cult leader?

I think we have shock language from Jesus. Like many Jewish people, he used extreme language to make a point. I believe he is saying that we shouldn’t be surprised if the opposition to our faith and mission comes from closer quarters than we might expect. We may reasonably anticipate disagreement from atheists and followers of other faiths. But what if those we expect to love us are our fiercest critics?

It was certainly Jesus’ own experience. His own family members thought he was out of his mind. If they had had the power in the first century to have him sectioned under the Mental Health Act, they would have done so.

Not only did his family oppose his mission, so did his spiritual family. Those most passionate to defend the pure Jewish faith had Jesus in their sights. Eventually, they got him.

This has been true throughout church history. The Church of England opposed John Wesley. The Methodists opposed General Booth. If we get passionate about the mission of Jesus today, we should not be surprised if the first wave of opposition comes from within the ranks of the church. The late American saint A W Tozer said that the average spiritual temperature in most churches is so cold that when a normal Christian comes in, everyone assumes that person has a fever. So people will gently try to tell us to cool down or calm down. If we don’t, then the next step will be a certain amount of emotional arm-twisting: ‘Please don’t be divisive.’ If that doesn’t stop us, then things will happen behind our backs, gloves will slowly be removed, and the unpleasantries will begin. No, do not be surprised if those who like an arctic spiritual temperature start to fight to keep it that way, and all in the name of faithfulness.

Conclusion
So do not be surprised. There will be opposition to living for the mission of Jesus, the Mission Possible. And it will start in the unlikeliest of places, with the people you might naturally consider your allies. This is the outward concentric circle of Jesus’ teaching here.

But that means it is there to focus us towards the centre. What’s in the centre? We’ve already looked at it. That was my second point, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ Jesus has given us reason after reason not to be afraid when we encounter resistance to his mission when we are faithful to him.

Opposition will come: it’s no good pretending otherwise, or trying to devise strategies that keep us sweet with everyone. If we manage that, then at some point we are likely to have been unfaithful to Jesus. But neither are we to be unnecessarily provocative. Our provocation is with the weapon of love.

When the opposition comes, it will come not initially from our natural enemies, but from those closest to us, especially at first from the family of God. It’s nothing unusual for religious people to employ heavies. But God will judge those who are merely religious without loving Jesus. They cannot take away our eternal life. They cannot replicate the fatherly love and astonishing grace that God has for his children.

So do not be surprised if faithful witness means a drop in your popularity rankings. Do not be surprised if trouble comes from surprising sources. But do not be afraid, either. Jesus keeps saying, ‘Do not fear’. And he has good reason.

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Today’s Sermon: Opposition To Mission

Matthew 10:24-39

Introduction
There are two opposite reactions I find among Christians to the conflict our faith may cause us in our society. One group looks for ways of witness where they will be respected. The other group seems almost to go looking for persecution.

With those different reactions, we come to today’s Lectionary Gospel reading. It is quite a shock after last week’s passage, where we saw that the mission Jesus calls us to is very much a ‘Mission Possible’. He is quite clear that the Gospel will not always be popular. How should we take account of that? That’s what this week’s sermon is all about. Here is what Jesus tells us:

1. Don’t Be Surprised
Here’s how Jesus opens what he says:

‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! (Verses 24-25)

In other words, if Jesus is maligned, the same thing will happen to his followers. The ambition always to be able to witness to Christ and be respected is a futile one. Some will respect us. Others will not. Jesus himself suffered rejection, and so will we. So get used to the possibility that not everybody will like what Christians stand for and say. We may rightly not want to be confrontational unless we have to be, but there is no way of being faithful to Jesus and remaining permanently popular.

So does that mean that the Christians who go around looking for persecution are right? No. This is no reason to be deliberately offensive. The call of the Christian is still to do good to all, even loving our enemies. Jesus does not call us to pick a fight.

Nor is there a case to exaggerate the level of opposition to us and develop a persecution complex, as some Christians do. It is true that the Christian faith is much more marginal in our society today. It is less accepted, and before that, it is less understood. So we are likely to lose more debates in the public arena than before. Legislation that disregards the need of a child to have a father is one example. So is the upset caused by ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’. But we face much less opposition in this country than in many lands. Talk to Indian Christians, facing organised opposition from Hindu political parties and Muslims. Appreciate the underground Christians who can only meet covertly in other lands. They suffer persecution.

Our problem comes because for centuries we have been used to Christianity being central to our national life. We can probably trace it all back to the fourth century, when the Emperor Constantine apparently converted to Christianity, and made the faith not only respectable, but the official religion of the Roman Empire. We have had centuries since then of an Established Church, and since Henry VIII, the sovereign has been the head of that church. That has left us much less used to the idea that Christians could face general opposition. (We have had Protestant-Catholic wars, of course, and followers of the Radical Reformation such as the Baptists would know more of the sense of alienation. However, the general point remains.)

So we need to hear Jesus say to us, ‘Don’t be surprised if following me brings you into conflict with the world.’ It is normal. Don’t go looking for it, still bless people, but it will happen. You may not expect it, you may consider it unjust, but it is standard treatment in the world for Christians. We are like the minority Jewish community in exile in Babylon. We live with different values in an alien empire. Life will not always be comfortable for us.

2. Don’t Be Afraid
If opposition is going to come, isn’t it natural to be afraid? Yet Jesus’ next words are ‘So have no fear of them’ (verse 26); ‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul’ (verse 28); and ‘So do not be afraid’ (verse 31).

The Bible has three hundred and sixty-six occurrences of the words ‘Do not fear’: one for every day of the year. Jesus, then, gives three of them here. There are three reasons not to be afraid of our opponents.

The first is that the enemies of Jesus will be judged. That is what Jesus means when he says that ‘nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known’ (verse 26). This isn’t a warning that God will expose all our inner thoughts. Rather, like a Robert Mugabe today, God’s opponents think they can keep their evil secret, but God will expose it, either in this life or the life to come. Justice will arrive. We are easily consumed with the here and now, but the eternal perspective reassures us not to fear our accusers.

The second ‘do not fear’ also reassures us that no enemy can ultimately destroy us, not even by killing us. There is a story told from the early centuries of the church, about a Christian artisan who was commissioned to make objects for a pagan temple. One of the famous early church leaders, Tertullian, told the man he must not accept the commission, because he would be supporting idolatry. The man, however, needed the income, and said, ‘But I must live.’ ‘Must you?’ replied Tertullian. No one but God can take away eternal life.

The third ‘do not fear’ comes with the assurance that we are worth far more than the sparrows, for whom the Father cares. It’s about not being afraid, because God values us much more highly. A sparrow may fall to the ground, and so may we. But we are made in the image of God. We are loved with an everlasting love. God’s love may not prevent us from suffering, any more than it stopped Jesus going to the Cross, but we are loved and cherished. God will preserve us.

God will judge his enemies. They cannot kill our eternal life. God loves us and he will preserve us. Believing these things, we can own the name of Jesus in the teeth of opposition in the world. So when we are mocked for our faith in Jesus, we can stand firm. When we are smeared for standing for social justice for the poor and the weak, our feet are on solid ground. When our belief in ancient wisdom is ridiculed as outdated nonsense, Jesus is pleased with our courageous stance. Yes, the world will throw words, laws and even violence against those who are faithful to Christ, but we need not fear. In Christ, we have something they don’t have. Something indestructible.

3. Don’t Be Surprised (Part 2)
Why a second part to what I’ve already said in my first point? Because that’s the way Hebrew logic often works. In our culture, we’re used to arguments that proceed along straight lines. So if there are three sections to an argument, we have the first part, the second part builds on it and then the third part builds on the second.

Not the Hebrews, though. Rather than a straight line, they argued more in a series of concentric circles, or a spiral. Either way, the outside stuff led to the centre.

So here, we have the other part of the ‘don’t be surprised’ teaching (verses 34-39). But boy, are we surprised! Jesus hasn’t come to bring peace but a sword (verse 34)? Jesus has come to split up families (verses 34-37)? Jesus calls people to give up their lives (verses 38-39)? What have we here – a cult leader?

I think we have shock language from Jesus. Like many Jewish people, he used extreme language to make a point. I believe he is saying that we shouldn’t be surprised if the opposition to our faith and mission comes from closer quarters than we might expect. We may reasonably anticipate disagreement from atheists and followers of other faiths. But what if those we expect to love us are our fiercest critics?

It was certainly Jesus’ own experience. His own family members thought he was out of his mind. If they had had the power in the first century to have him sectioned under the Mental Health Act, they would have done so.

Not only did his family oppose his mission, so did his spiritual family. Those most passionate to defend the pure Jewish faith had Jesus in their sights. Eventually, they got him.

This has been true throughout church history. The Church of England opposed John Wesley. The Methodists opposed General Booth. If we get passionate about the mission of Jesus today, we should not be surprised if the first wave of opposition comes from within the ranks of the church. The late American saint A W Tozer said that the average spiritual temperature in most churches is so cold that when a normal Christian comes in, everyone assumes that person has a fever. So people will gently try to tell us to cool down or calm down. If we don’t, then the next step will be a certain amount of emotional arm-twisting: ‘Please don’t be divisive.’ If that doesn’t stop us, then things will happen behind our backs, gloves will slowly be removed, and the unpleasantries will begin. No, do not be surprised if those who like an arctic spiritual temperature start to fight to keep it that way, and all in the name of faithfulness.

Conclusion
So do not be surprised. There will be opposition to living for the mission of Jesus, the Mission Possible. And it will start in the unlikeliest of places, with the people you might naturally consider your allies. This is the outward concentric circle of Jesus’ teaching here.

But that means it is there to focus us towards the centre. What’s in the centre? We’ve already looked at it. That was my second point, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ Jesus has given us reason after reason not to be afraid when we encounter resistance to his mission when we are faithful to him.

Opposition will come: it’s no good pretending otherwise, or trying to devise strategies that keep us sweet with everyone. If we manage that, then at some point we are likely to have been unfaithful to Jesus. But neither are we to be unnecessarily provocative. Our provocation is with the weapon of love.

When the opposition comes, it will come not initially from our natural enemies, but from those closest to us, especially at first from the family of God. It’s nothing unusual for religious people to employ heavies. But God will judge those who are merely religious without loving Jesus. They cannot take away our eternal life. They cannot replicate the fatherly love and astonishing grace that God has for his children.

So do not be surprised if faithful witness means a drop in your popularity rankings. Do not be surprised if trouble comes from surprising sources. But do not be afraid, either. Jesus keeps saying, ‘Do not fear’. And he has good reason.

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Problems With Reading This Blog

In the last couple of weeks, I have now had four people report difficulties with this blog. The latest is Peter Kirk, overnight. Previously, Mary Roberts had difficulties, but solved them by changing from Internet Explorer to Firefox. However, although I dislike Internet Explorer due to its lack of standards compliance, the blog should still be readable. Another person has emailed me privately, and a fourth has said something to my wife. I have checked with Typepad, but no major general faults have been reported in the last fortnight that would explain any of these problems, although they did acknowledged something was awry three days ago.

So, as a first step to recognising a potentially large problem, I thought I would put up this post and invite you to describe in the comments section the problems you are having. (That is assuming you can log onto the site and read it in the first place, of course! If you can only read this in a feed reader and not get onto the site, then email me: dave AT davefaulkner DOT co DOT uk.) If there is a clear pattern, I shall raise a fault with Typepad, if appropriate. Alternatively, it could simply be that I have made the blog bloated with all the graphics and widgets.

Peter recommends WordPress as an alternative. There are two versions of it. One needs the blogger to install it into web space. At the time of setting up this blog, I couldn't do that, because I was using existing web space with my ISP for my old website. I could go that route now, because I no longer use that site. I could take it down, assuming I can access the site, and I've been having trouble on that front. However, the main disadvantage I anticipate would be the time needed to install and learn the WordPress software. What do WordPress aficionados think about the time required to master it? Richard, do you have any wisdom here?

The other is that WordPress also have a slightly less well featured hosted service. This wasn't available when I set up this blog. That would be an attractive alternative, especially as it is free, unlike Typepad. The disadvantage might be the shortage of features. Again, if any wordpress.com users would like to share their experiences, I'd be very interested to hear from you.

I don't want to contemplate Blogger. I tried using it once, in parallel to my old blog, but at the time it was unreliable, and messing about with templates was horrendous. Perhaps it has improved. Pam, Katherine and others, any thoughts? Is it better these days?

Of course, Dave might be on hand to keep me in the Typepad fold and explain everything! But I think, given the number of recent contacts with me about the problem, the question needs raising, so I await your thoughts eagerly.

UPDATE: The main text loads properly in Internet Explorer, but not everything appears in the left-hand column, and the right-hand column is completely blank. This, declares IE, is 'done'. Safari can't open it at all, but I find that's a regular enough problem with Apple's hopeless browser not to use it. Opera displays the page quickly and perfectly.

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