Monthly Archives: May 2010
The other day, a friend of mine said he was contemplating ‘pulling a sickie’. You may be surprised to know that my friend was another minister. (Not a local one!)
He wanted to go sick today. Why? Because today is Trinity Sunday, a notoriously difficult Sunday on which to preach. Preachers wonder how they are going to communicate a great and subtle doctrine, and congregations say they struggle with this belief – yet they don’t want difficult sermons. Nobody wins.
I have preached on the Trinity before, but I did it in a series of five sermons to make it manageable. I don’t think you can do it adequately in one sermon, and so I am going to take one of today’s Lectionary readings and expound its central theme.
I am taking Romans 5:1-11. You may have found the arguments in those verses demanding to cope with, but its appearance in the Lectionary today is timely for Methodists. Last Monday was the anniversary of what we call John Wesley’s conversion, and this passage was said to be Wesley’s favourite portion of Scripture.
The great theme of this passage is justification, a theme dear to Wesley and central to his life and preaching. So that is our subject for today: justification.
We ought then to ask, firstly, what is justification? Many people puzzle over this great biblical word. I once witnessed an oral examination of a Local Preacher (now a minister) who clearly didn’t even recognise the word. It often isn’t used in modern paraphrases, yet it is one of the great words of the New Testament, and denotes one of the great Christian doctrines.
When Paul uses it here, he does so in a much larger context. In expounding justification and the righteousness of God in Romans, he sets it in the great biblical story of God’s love in salvation. So more than once he returns to the story of Abraham, when God began his rescue work not just for individuals but for a broken creation when he chose Abraham and entered into a covenant with him. Everything God does from then on – including the coming of Jesus – builds on that foundation.
What does that mean? It means that God’s righteousness is his covenant faithfulness. He didn’t set out first of all to save people by them obeying the Law given at Sinai and then when that failed save people by faith in his Son. He has always been consistent, even if it meant bringing in a new covenant with Jesus after his people failed in the old one. He gave the Law at Sinai not that people might practise it in order to be saved, but that they might do it as a sign that he had saved them. In other words, keeping the Law of God was an act of gratitude.
What we are celebrating in justification by faith in Christ, then, is God bringing his historical purposes to a climax in his Son. This is where he was always headed. We are celebrating the work of a faithful God.
But there is another angle to consider about justification. We need to think of it as like a law court. You may have heard people describe being justified as ‘just if I’d never sinned’. There is some – er – justification – for this view. In both Hebrew and Roman courts, the person who received the favourable verdict of the judge was said to be ‘justified’. If you brought a complaint against someone and the court found in your favour, you were justified. If you were charged with a crime but acquitted, you were justified. To be justified was to be in the right with the judge.
The New Testament, though, takes this image from the law court and gives it a startling use. We read in this passage that ‘Christ died for the ungodly’ [my emphasis] (verse 6), and this is linked with being ‘justified by his blood’ (verse 9). How can the ungodly be justified? How can sinners be ‘in the right’ with the Great Judge? For the wonder of this doctrine is that in Christ God does indeed acquit the guilty.
It is not that a loving Jesus placates an angry Father. It is rather that a loving Father gives up his Son for us. As verse 8 says,
But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
As a human father myself, that idea sends shivers through me. What if I had to give up my daughter or son for the blessing of others? It would tear my heart apart. But God in his love had his own heart torn apart in giving up his Son to the Cross so that we might be acquitted, forgiven. Father and Son were at one in love to achieve this status for us, without which we would stand before the heavenly court irredeemably guilty.
Secondly, what are the benefits of justification? God has always wanted to bless his creation. In justification, we see that played out through his covenant faithfulness and his sacrificial love. We no longer stand under a sentence of condemnation. What does that mean?
One consequence is that we have been ‘reconciled’ with God (verse 10). It isn’t simply an absence of condemnation. It isn’t merely the cessation of hostilities. Justification heals a broken relationship. Through it, we are reconciled to God.
In other words, we used to be estranged from God. God might long to bless everyone and everything in his creation, but the rebellion of our sin put us outside the possibility of blessing, in a place where we were opposed to his plans for good. But in justification, God – the wronged party! – puts things right. Through Jesus Christ and his death on the Cross, God says, “Welcome home.”
Have you ever been at odds with someone for a protracted time? What is it like when the relationship is healed and you are friends again? That is what justification does. Perhaps the Parable of the Prodigal Son puts it well. The shock of that parable to Jesus’ hearers is that the father doesn’t wait in a huff and demand humiliation from his errant son. Rather, the father is scanning the horizon, actively looking out for his wayward younger son. And when he sees him, he runs to him and arranges a feast.
So it is with justification. God is not cold and clinical in acquitting us of our sins. He is warm and fatherly, thrilled to have us back in the family. So the Christian doesn’t need to stand at a distance from God. Justification welcomes us back into the fold, and even near the centre, by the heart of God.
I know some churchgoers are nervous of that kind of religion that merely treats God as some kind of cosmic mate, but there is still no reason to hang back at a distance from him – not if you believe that God has justified you by faith through the death of Christ. God invites us to move closer to him. Do we think he endured such pain in love and faithfulness, only for us to remain remote from him?
There is another benefit to justification in this passage, and it is mentioned right at the beginning: peace. The reading opened like this:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (verse 1)
‘Peace’ and ‘reconciliation’ are similar words. As I am sure you have heard preachers say before, in the Bible ‘peace’ is more than the absence of war. If we think peace breaks out the moment a truce is declared or one side surrenders, then we have a very truncated view of peace. To be sure, peace begins when hostilities end. But that is not the limit of peace.
For although the Greek New Testament word for peace is weaker than the Hebrew Old Testament word for it, I am sure Paul would have been drawing on his Old Testament roots when he said that a benefit of justification was peace with God. Peace in the Old Testament is not a negative word, merely about the absence of something (namely, war). It is a positive word. It is about the presence of something good. It is about the presence of flourishing, harmony and justice. When God’s peace breaks out, individuals are in harmony with God and with one another. When God gives his peace, there is healing. When the peace of God comes to a group or a society, there is justice. Indeed, it doesn’t even stop with human beings: the Old Testament envisions the whole of creation enjoying harmony and goodwill when the peace of God reigns.
So if God gives us peace when we are justified through Jesus Christ, not only do we receive the peace of sins forgiven, we receive so much more. Our relationship with God becomes warm. We seek to live in love and harmony with one another. We seek the good of society. We look for the healing of creation. In doing so, justification gives us a glimpse of God’s future – not only because it anticipates God’s gracious acquittal of us on Judgment Day, but also because the gift of his peace that comes with it begins to shape us into his new society, the people of his kingdom.
And that starts to merge into the third question I want to ask of this passage: what are the consequences of justification? Well, the moment Paul describes peace as a benefit, and given that – as I have just claimed – that peace starts to shape us into God’s future – it’s not surprising that he says that ‘we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God’ (verse 2). We have something to look forward to: a sure and certain hope that is the gift of God.
Now that hope does something in us. If our peace with God through justification enables us to anticipate God’s great future, and if that gives us hope for the future, it also does something for us in the present. Because the here and now is far from an image of God’s kingdom. Not only do we fail in our discipleship, we face disappointments and opposition. Justification might lead us out of guilt and estrangement from God, but it plunges us into a new situation of conflict with a sinful and broken creation.
But … God uses this for good. He forms character in the justified disciple. He uses the trials that we inevitably face as his justified people to shape our lives and to fortify that hope we have:
And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Verses 3-5)
Through justification, God may make his Church into a sign and foretaste of his kingdom, but the world doesn’t always like that. Nevertheless, we are the ones with the certain future. Because of hope, we have reason to hang on in there when the going gets tough. God shapes us and in forming our character through endurance, he uses the suffering inflicted on us to make us more ready for his coming kingdom. The justifying God even uses evil against itself to promote good. So if we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, we have every reason to push on and discover that God is using the pressure to make us into diamonds.
So in conclusion, justification is a great and glorious theme in the Bible. It is the story of the God of sacrificial love and covenant faithfulness, who reconciles us to himself through his only Son, and grants us a peace that is a foretaste of his coming kingdom. This brings us into conflict with the world, but filled with hope we endure and God uses that to transform our characters.
This wonderful gift is received only one way. By faith. It is the gift of God to those who will trust in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, and who will turn from their selfish ways to partner God, by the power of his Spirit, in his kingdom project.
Today, then, let us rejoice again in the wonderful gift God gives us through faith in his Son, and let us recommit ourselves to his kingdom purposes.
Alternatively, if we have spent years in church thinking that something else would see us right for eternity, let us turn away from our folly, confessing our wrong and humbly receiving all that God has done for us in Christ.
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I realise that in recent weeks this blog has been little more than a place to post my sermons. Life has been busy. Some of that has been ministry – some big and painful things have happened, which I won’t discuss here for reasons of pastoral confidence.
We have also been busy with preparations for our forthcoming move of circuit. In August, we shall be on our way to Surrey, since (subject to the approval of the Methodist Conference) I shall take up a new post in the Woking and Walton-on-Thames circuit. We have made a couple of visits down there – one to check things out at the manse, another this last week to have a full tour of the school our children will be attending.
While we were at the school, we drew our children’s attention to a project they have that links them with a village in Uganda. The people grow chillis to sell in order to make a living. There is now a link with a local school there, too. We explained that people in other countries don’t always have the food or money that we have.
All I can say is, it’s funny and illuminating to see how young children take in these matters. The next day, Mark (our five-year-old) announced he no longer planned to follow a career as an author. Instead, he was going to set up huge supermarkets in Uganda, bigger than Tesco’s or Morrison’s, so that people could choose what they wanted to eat. We pointed out they still wouldn’t have much money and wouldn’t be able to buy all the lovely things in his supermarkets.
“That’s easy,” he said. “I’ll open shops where they can buy money.”
Sigh. If only …
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Perhaps you know the old story of the vicar who visited a primary school where they were learning the Creed. The children lined up for the vicar and one by one recited a section. However, an embarrassing silence enveloped proceedings part-way through.
Eventually, one child blurted out an explanation. “I’m sorry, the boy who believes in the Holy Spirit isn’t here today.”
Is there sometimes an embarrassing silence about the Holy Spirit in our churches? That can be true in some traditional churches. Well has it been said that Catholics believe in Father, Son and Holy Mother, whereas Protestants believe in Father, Son and Holy Bible.
The reasons for embarrassed silence aren’t hard to find. Often, they can be put down to one word. Fear. The Holy Spirit? Or worse, the old name ‘the Holy Ghost’. It sounds spooky, if not frightening. On top of that, you get stories like this one in Acts 2 with the account of people speaking in tongues. In some circles, I have only to mention that and people get upset with me!
As a result, we either ignore or domesticate the Holy Spirit. When we domesticate the Spirit, we reduce his work to a bland coating of the mundane. It’s like cooking without spices or herbs.
What a tragedy. For Pentecost is one of the key events in God’s story of salvation, along with creation, the Incarnation and Easter. And while today I don’t have time to explore the particular anxieties many have around the specific issue of speaking in tongues, what I want to do in this sermon is explore the purposes of Pentecost.
Here’s the first purpose: Pentecost makes us more like Jesus. Let me give you some background in order to explain that. If you know your Bibles, you will know that Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles are both written by the same author (whom I take to be Luke himself) to the same recipient (a character otherwise unknown to us called Theophilus). Luke’s Gospel describes what Jesus began to do and teach; by implication, Acts is then Part Two of his story. In Acts, Jesus is still at work, but by the Holy Spirit through the Church.
In particular, there are parallels between some of the early episodes in Luke’s Gospel and those near the beginning of Acts. Both contain a promise that disciples will be ‘baptised with the Holy Spirit’. Then the Spirit comes down – upon Jesus at his baptism and upon the disciples at Pentecost. After that, there is a key sermon that explains what God is fulfilling – Jesus preaches at Nazareth, Peter preaches in Jerusalem after the Pentecostal outpouring. Then there is witness to people nearby.
Put that together, and what is Luke telling us? He’s showing the early disciples going through the same process as Jesus. Pentecost begins their empowered public ministry just as the baptism did for Jesus. By drawing these parallels, Luke is telling Theophilus – and us – that the Holy Spirit has come in order to make us ‘little Jesuses’. The Spirit has come to make our lives and ministries much more like that of Jesus.
How often is it we lament that our lives are nothing like Jesus at all? Quite frequently, I’d guess. As Christians, we want to be more like him, but much of the time we know how vast the distance is between the way we live and how he did on earth.
What failing or weakness do we lament in our Christian lives? Is it that, unlike Jesus, we struggle to display selfless, sacrificial love? The Holy Spirit is here to move us closer to the example of our Saviour. Is it that we have no assurance that our prayers are heard and answered? The Holy Spirit comes to move us in the right direction. Do we lack courage to share the love of God with others through our words and deeds? Again, the Holy Spirit comes upon us to remake us more in the image of Christ.
Let me put it another way, in order to underline this point. Many Jewish people celebrated Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, as a commemoration of when God gave his people the Law at Mount Sinai. God gave the Law after he had delivered his people from Egypt. It set out the ways they were to please him in gratitude for that deliverance. We too seek to please God out of gratitude for our deliverance (not from Egypt but from our sins). The Pentecostal gift of the Spirit is what enables us to please God. God has shown us the ways we might please him, but he has also given us his Spirit so we may have the power to do what delights him.
The second purpose is this: Pentecost is a taste of God’s kingdom. Let me introduce this thought with an illustration. Every now and again, we go into Chelmsford town centre on a Saturday as a family for various reasons. There is one stall among all the market stalls where we are almost guaranteed to stop every time. That is the fruit and vegetable stall. Apart from the fact that we enjoy buying some of their delicious fruit, they have samples available on a table by the stall. Usually they have cut up oranges and pineapples in the hope that passers-by will try some and then say, “Wow! I must buy some!” Regardless of whether we are going to buy any, our seven-year-old daughter Rebekah stops off for a little feast. In her eyes, the fruit samples are there purely as a public service.
Pentecost is like the opportunity to sample a taste of some fruit, too. The Jewish Feast of Weeks was a harvest festival. Not a full harvest festival like that celebrated at the end of the summer when all the crops have been brought in, but a festival of first fruits. When the first crops came in during late Spring, the people got a taste of what was to come three months or so later.
Pentecost, then, becomes the taste of what the fullness of God’s kingdom will be like, when God sends his angels to bring in the great harvest of the ages. Just as the Resurrection of Jesus is also described as the first fruits (of the great resurrection of all) and anticipates the day when God will make all things new, so too the gift of the Holy Spirit brings a foretaste of the new creation, when God will renew the heavens and the earth. Every sign of the Spirit’s work now, whether large or small, quiet or loud, private or public, is a taste of God’s fruit stall.
So when the Holy Spirit inspires us to care for the stranger, we taste God’s future. When the Spirit calls someone from the darkness of sin to the light of Jesus Christ, our taste buds anticipate the flavours of the kingdom. When the same Spirit does a work of healing in a life (be that physical, emotional, social or any other kind of healing), we glimpse the glorious future where there will be no more pain. When the Spirit leads God’s people to confront evil powers with a prophetic word of truth and justice, we taste the new society to come. When the Holy Spirit does his supreme work of revealing Jesus to people, we get a flavour of that time when we shall no longer know in part, but see him face to face.
Yes, it is frustrating and painful that not everyone is healed, not everyone responds to the call to follow Christ, and that powerful forces dish out injustice. We long for the great harvest of love, healing, righteousness and justice. But right now we are in the era of the first fruits. God calls us to welcome his Holy Spirit and co-operate with him, so that there may in the meantime be many more foretastes of his kingdom when he will rule unchallenged.
The third purpose I want to highlight is that Pentecost is about mission. Even though I take it not that the disciples spoke to the crowd in ‘other tongues’ but rather that the crowd overheard, what is clear is that the Holy Spirit crosses national and cultural boundaries so that people hear the praises of God in their own languages.
Now on one level, there is something almost unnecessary about this miracle. Although the Jews who heard were from different lands, these are almost certainly
‘not in the main … pilgrims [who had] come to Jerusalem from the Diaspora for the feast, but rather Diaspora Jews who had come to live or retire in Jerusalem, and no doubt would have attended some of the synagogues founded in Jerusalem by Diaspora Jews’
In other words, this is a group of people who could speak a common language together anyway, despite their different nationalities. They could understand Hebrew, the language of their faith. Why not just address them in Hebrew?
But the Holy Spirit takes the Gospel to them in the language of each of their cultures. They do not have to work within the language and culture of the established religion in order to hear the Good News.
For me, this is a vital approach in mission. One of the problems we have in church life is that we want to draw people into the community of faith, but we expect them to adapt to our ways of doing things and learn our jargon. We add unnecessary barriers to the acceptance of the Gospel.
This is not what the Holy Spirit does. Think about the ministry of Jesus himself in the Incarnation. He did not stand at a distance and expect people to come to him. Rather , he took on human flesh and dwelt in the midst of the people to whom he was sent. The Holy Spirit mirrors Jesus. He desires to take the Gospel to people where they are in a form they can understand.
That becomes the challenge for us. When we are filled with the Spirit, we shall not simply want to make more people who are Methodist or United Reformed like us. We shall want to establish new communities within the many cultures of our world, our nation, and even of our locality. That’s why ‘Fresh Expressions’ and all sorts of experiments in sharing the Gospel in culturally appropriate ways are at heart Spirit-led approaches to mission.
We should expect this. When Jesus told his followers they would be baptised with the Holy Spirit, he said the consequence would be that they would be his witnesses. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of mission. The disciples were to be witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, in Judea and all Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’. Again, the work of the Spirit is not in creating a church that waits for people to come to her on her terms. The Spirit makes us missional people who move out of our comfort zones into the places where those who need the love of God are comfortable. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we share the love of God in Christ in other people’s comfort zones, not our own. This is what Spirit-led people do.
In conclusion, then, we have every reason to welcome the Holy Spirit rather than fear him. Who wants to be more like Jesus? Let us welcome the Holy Spirit. Who is hungry for a taste of God’s coming kingdom? Let us invite the Holy Spirit to come. And who wants to share the love of Christ in word and deed in a needy world? The Holy Spirit is already at work, within us and going ahead of us. Let us seek more of his power.
Yes, come Holy Spirit.
 See Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, p128f.
 Although we’re not absolutely certain this was the case at this time – see Witherington, p131.
 Witherington, p135.
You may know that my ‘claim to fame’ is that I studied Theology under George Carey, and that he was one of my referees when I candidated for the Methodist ministry. When George left the world of theological colleges to become Bishop of Bath and Wells, he was soon asked to be present at the reopening of a post office in Wells. The reopening was scheduled for Ascension Day. George discovered that the organisers wanted to mark the reopening happening on Ascension Day by him going up in a hot air balloon while people sang the hymn, ‘Nearer my God to thee’!
The story of Jesus’ ascension is a problem for us. Developing knowledge of astronomy over the centuries has meant that it is difficult to believe that geographically heaven is ‘up there’ and hell is ‘down below’. Despite the fact that Christians have long since abandoned such over-literal interpretations, you may recall how in the 1960s the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said that [Yuri] “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any God there”.
So we might think that the doctrine of the Ascension is worth rejecting. But in response to that we might say, how else do we know that Jesus Christ is reigning in the universe? If he didn’t return to his Father’s side, what did happen to him? If he returned to heaven in a different way without dying, how did he do so? Might we have in the story of Jesus’ Ascension what is sometimes called a ‘miracle of accommodation’? In other words, Jesus accommodates himself to the limited understanding of his followers by the miracle of rising into the clouds as the only way they would have understood that he was returning to his Father’s presence. In that sense, it’s similar to the creation stories – we’re not meant to take them literally, but they are written in the language of the creation stories of their day.
So if at the Ascension Jesus shows the disciples in their limited understanding that he is reigning at the Father’s right hand, what might he teach them – and us, too, with our limited understanding – through this event? I believe he has something to tell us about the church. I want to share ‘Three ‘W’s’ about the church that we see in the light of Jesus’ Ascension.
The first is that he calls his disciples to be a waiting church. Luke reports,
While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. (Verse 4a)
He goes on to show that that ‘promise of the Father’ is the gift of the Holy Spirit. At first, you might think this is not relevant to us, because since Pentecost Christians don’t have to wait for the Holy Spirit. When we turn from our sins and put our faith in Christ, we receive the gift of the Spirit.
And the thought of not having to wait fits with our culture. Do you remember the advert for the old Access credit card, which said it ‘takes the waiting out of wanting’? A society built on credit (or should we say debt?) does not want to wait for anything or anyone. As the rock band Queen sang, ‘I want it all and I want it now.’
It’s something that society does to religious faith and practice, too. Our great annual season of waiting, Advent, is crushed by the unwillingness to wait for Christmas. We are infected by the disease of impatience. We expect instant solutions to deep problems. One application of something that ‘works’ elsewhere and we think the tribulations of the church will be solved.
But God calls us to be a waiting church. The best things take time. They take God’s time, and come in God’s timing. We know it is unwise to give children everything they want, and especially at the moment they request it. So it is between God and us, too. He has wise reasons as a loving parent for making us wait, even for good things.
In particular, I suggest that one reason he keeps us waiting is that he wants to develop character in us. If we received all we asked for instantly, we would love God for the gifts rather than loving him for who he is. Sadly, too many of us in churches are infatuated with the blessings rather than the One who blesses. We want what we can get out of God, rather than to follow him and love him in Jesus Christ.
So God makes us wait. Holy waiting purifies our motives and focuses our hearts. We grow in grace and become more tuned into the purposes of God, rather than the lusts of our hearts. Our willingness to wait is a mark of true discipleship. And that is what the church is meant to be: a group of disciples, those who are learning the ways of Christ. Waiting puts us in a position where we learn Christ. Is that what we want? If it is, let us accept the grace of waiting.
The second characteristic of the church at the Ascension is that she is a witnessing church. What happens after we’ve waited and the Holy Spirit has come? Jesus is quite clear:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Verse 8 )
Make no mistake, the Ascension leads to Pentecost. In fact, Easter leads to Pentecost. With Pentecost comes the gift of the Holy Spirit. And with the gift of the Spirit comes the promise that we shall be witnesses.
In particular, the witness that happens starts from where we are and moves outwards. Just as the disciples were in Jerusalem when they received the Holy Spirit, so their witness began there but it didn’t end there. It went to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. Their witness may have begun with the people with whom they were most familiar, but gradually the Spirit drove them further from their comfort zones to be witnesses to Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit does the same today. We make a grave mistake when we think witness is about us staying where we are and waiting for people to be attracted to us. That’s actually a cop-out from being witnesses to Christ, and thus cannot be a work of the Holy Spirit.
No. Instead of the idea that we attract people to us while we sit comfortably (or uncomfortably) in our pews, the Holy Spirit sends us out from the place that suits us to the world as the witnesses of Jesus. The word is not ‘come’ but ‘go’. A witnessing church asks, how are we going into the community and beyond, carrying the love of God in Christ?
Similarly, a witnessing church does not say, how can we attract enough people into this congregation so that it survives for another generation? It won’t say that, because that is a selfish question, more concerned with personal preservation than the Gospel. Jesus said that those who wanted to save their lives would lose it. Those who lose their lives for his sake and the Gospel’s will save their lives.
So a witnessing church, filled with the Holy Spirit, says, the love of God in Christ is such a beautiful gift. Where are the people who need that love? And in the waiting time of Ascension, a true church is consumed with that vision of witness that its members plan how to move out from the church base, spreading God’s redeeming love in Christ to people in spiritual need, material need and social and emotional need.
If this happens, then the church will meet as much as she needs for worship, fellowship and discipleship – but no more. It will not simply become the centre of our social lives, but the refuelling station as we venture into the world, filled with the Holy Spirit. Our social lives will more likely be fulfilled in the world as we network with friends who do not yet know how much Jesus Christ loves them.
At Ascension-tide, then, the church anticipates this mission. We allow this mission to be the organising principle of church life. And we long for the equipping power of the Holy Spirit in order to put it into practice.
The third and final characteristic of the church at Ascension (at least in this sermon) is that she is a watching church.
While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Verses 10-11)
This last week I went to the races. Sandown Park, to be precise. I go once a year. Before you think I have a gambling problem, let me explain that it was to attend the annual Christian Resources Exhibition. I was helping to staff the Essex Christian Healing Trust stall, but also found an hour or two spare to look around for myself, buy presents for the family and new clerical shirts for myself. When I was trying to hunt down a gift for Debbie, I was accosted by one stallholder who wanted me to know that his organisation had collected together all the scriptures about the Second Coming and it was their sole aim of their charity to make known what they saw as the truth on this subject. I took their leaflet and hurried on.
Similarly, it was only the other day that one churchgoer told me how a relative lectured him for twenty minutes about the imminence of Christ’s Second Coming.
Hence many of us become nervous of the fervent, if not extreme Christians who go overboard on this theme. We tend to think they’ve consumed too much fruitcake. And that’s before we get to the sects and the cults with their bizarre readings of Holy Writ.
Nevertheless, we are to watch for the coming of Christ. Not in a standing-around-waiting posture, for which the men in white robes seem to censure the disciples here. Just doing that achieves nothing. The doctrine of Christ’s return was never meant to reduce us to inactivity and inertia. Quite the opposite, in fact. When we look for the coming of Christ, we are anticipating the fullness of God’s kingdom, the new creation in which God will bring into being the new heavens and the new earth.
What does that mean? If we are filled with hope because Christ is returning, then while that may give us inner peace, it also gives us holy restlessness. We want to see the kingdom of God, so we get on with building for it. We call people to follow Jesus. We bring relief to the poor, and seek to change all that puts them in poverty. We bring God’s healing to the sick. We look after the creation that God is going to renew.
Such a church is vibrant internally and externally. Internally, it is a forgiving, loving and safe place to be, where the only fear is awe at the presence of God’s holiness, not a worry that people have to tread on eggshells in the presence of bullies. Externally, it is known as a people who would be missed by the community if they folded, who champion the poor, and who have a winsome but challenging word for the world.
Let me ask, then, whether we are a church of the Ascension. Are we willing to wait, so that God may form us more in the image of Christ? Are we witnesses, replacing the idolatry of church as social club with church as fuelling station for sorties of love into the world? And are we watching for Christ’s return, aligning our life and witness by the shape of his coming kingdom?
Too often in the Methodist tradition we ignore the Ascension. O that we embraced it and let it shape us.
When somebody leaves a job, we normally buy them presents. When I left my office to study Theology, my friends bought me a set of mugs, given the image of students sitting around drinking.
But when a ministerial colleague left the first circuit in which I served, he reversed the custom. Before Ken left to follow his calling as a prison chaplain, he gave gifts to all the staff. I still remember that he gave me a book by Henri Nouwen, the (since deceased) Dutch Roman Catholic priest.
And today’s reading is about parting gifts. It’s about parting gifts, given by the one who was going to leave. On this Sunday after Ascension, we go back to a passage where Jesus promised what he would give his disciples when he left them. What did Jesus leave his first disciples – and, by implication, us?
The first gift is one that effectively says, I’m not really going.
Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.” (Verses 23-24)
Physically I’m going, says Jesus, but the Father and I will be present in your lives. It’s rather more than what we mean when we say we will be with someone in spirit: Jesus and the Father will actually be present spiritually, in a way ordinary humans cannot be.
So Jesus is saying this isn’t a complete going away. You won’t be bereaved, I’ll just be present in a different way, in some sense a better way. Not only will Jesus be present with those he shares his earthly life, he will be present with all disciples. And further, it won’t just be Jesus who is present, but the Father, too.
Hence, all the wistful, romantic views about how wonderful it would be to have walked with Jesus along the shores of Galilee are punctured. Jesus says, this way is better. It is more blessèd for him to ascend and then come spiritually with the Father to all disciples. Let those of us who have never physically seen Jesus view ourselves as second-class Christians.
This, then, is a beautiful gift for the parting Jesus to give. He and the Father will be spiritually present with all Christians. There is no distinction between superior and inferior disciples. All are valued, and this is shown by the divine presence in all followers of Jesus.
There is, however, a challenge that goes with this first parting gift. Jesus associates this gift of divine presence with obedience to his word. To repeat the quote I just gave, Jesus says that the promise of his and the Father’s presence is to ‘Those who love me [who] will keep my word’ (verse 23), and in contrast ‘Whoever does not love me does not keep my words’ (verse 24).
What do we make of this? Is Jesus making it some kind of condition that he and the Father will only come to those who are goody-goodies? If so, it’s hardly some kind of gift. In that case, rather than a gift, their presence becomes some kind of reward or payment. You could say their presence would be more like wages for doing the right thing.
But I don’t think it is that. Jesus is setting this parting gift in the context of a relationship based on love. When people love one another, they both want to be with each other and they want to do what pleases the other party. That is what is going on here: both a close presence (‘we will come to them and make our home with them’) and a desire to please (‘Those who love me will keep my word’).
Put all that together, and what have you got? You’ve got a relationship where one party is going away, with all the potential heartache of a parting. But you have something there that cannot be paralleled in ordinary human relationships, in the way that Jesus and the Father will spiritually make themselves present in the lives of disciples. Our part is in love to ‘keep’ the words of Jesus.
That word ‘keep’ is interesting. It isn’t just about obeying, although it includes that. We keep the words of those we love. Think of a couple who are going out together, and especially if they live miles from each other, they will keep one another’s words. Letters will be kept, emails will be filed away, and especially when they are apart the correspondence will come out and someone will pore over it for nuances of their beloved’s thoughts and feelings. Only in the light of that devoted reading will they then act, because they have learned what pleases the one they love.
I’m sure I don’t have to ram home a spiritual application too hard after that. Keeping Jesus’ word means reading what he has said to us in a spirit of devotion, because we love him and he loves us. As we do so, we gain a feel for what pleases him, and we then set out to please him. All this brings him (and the Father) closer.
The second gift comes in verses 25 to 26. We’ve had Jesus and the Father, now we receive the Holy Spirit:
I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
Let’s pick up on that word ‘Advocate’. Other translations say ‘Comforter’, ‘Counsellor’ or ‘Helper’. Which one is right? All of them. And more. It’s one of those rich Greek words in the New Testament: paraklétos, and because it is so layered with meaning some people like to leave it virtually untranslated as ‘Paraclete’. If you did translate it literally, it would be something like this: ‘one called alongside’. So you can see why English versions opt for words like ‘Comforter’ or ‘Helper’.
However, paraklétos had a particular application in the legal world. It referred to ‘a helper in court’. And from that you can see why some English translators choose words such as ‘Counsellor’ (think of ‘learned counsel’ in our legal parlance) or ‘Advocate’ (especially if you think of that word’s use in the Scottish legal system).
Add to this ‘helper in court’ Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit ‘will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’ (verse 26), and you get something like this. The Holy Spirit is the helper in court who reminds us what Jesus says. You could say, then, that the Holy Spirit here is Jesus’ helper. He is an advocate for Jesus to us. He helps us hear that word we are longing to pore over in our relationship of love with Jesus. On our own we cannot hear the word of Jesus. Even if we read it in the pages of Scripture, it just doesn’t jump off the page and sink into our being. But the work of the Holy Spirit makes the difference. Not that it then always becomes easy to hear the word of Jesus, but the Spirit makes it possible and real.
If you stretch the legal language a little further, then perhaps there is a particular time when the Spirit does this for us. If there is a ‘court’ context, then perhaps this is a promise that the Holy Spirit will especially help us receive the word of Jesus when we are ‘on trial’ for our faith. Not necessary literally on trial, although that is true for so many Christians around the world, but when we are under pressure, facing difficulties or opposition, the Holy Spirit comes to us and makes the message of Jesus clear to us.
This, then, is the second parting gift from Jesus. The Holy Spirit will help us hear his word in order to dwell on it and please him, but especially in times of stress he will make the voice of Jesus clear to us.
The third and final (at least in this passage) gift is peace. Verse 27:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
It’s a verse I often read at Methodist funerals, and I hoe it provides comfort to people in the deepest sorrow. It’s a verse I’ve applied to my own life at times of great nervousness. This may seem trivial compared to bereavement, but when I first took my driving test I was a bag of nerves. My foot beat time on the clutch – so much for the three-point turn – and I was in such a state that I pulled in behind a bus, waited for it to move off, completely oblivious to the fact that it was at a terminus, having completed its route. The second time I took my driving test, I wanted to avoid being a nervous wreck again and I memorised this verse. I was duly calm, and performed well in the test.
Except I didn’t pass. I sustained a puncture a quarter of a mile from the end of the test route. Although I had completed all the statutory manoeuvres, the examiner refused to proceed to the Highway Code test (no written exam in those days) and gave me a ‘no result’!
So we tend to apply this verse about Jesus’ promise to give a parting gift of peace in rather personal, if not individual terms. Yet however valid that is, I have been struck this week by the thought that Jesus might originally have meant it in a different way.
Jesus doesn’t simply give this gift of peace to individuals here, but to a group – his disciples. Some of our conventional understanding of this verse will still make sense in terms of the Ascension – if they are troubled by the thought of Jesus’ departure, he will calm them. Likewise, if they are under pressure, if not in a ‘court’ situation, then the gift of peace alongside the Spirit’s work will be invaluable. But I suspect he means more.
If it is peace in the midst of a group, then is Jesus not saying that peace should characterise his disciples? Should we not be known as a community of peace? By that, I don’t mean that we never have arguments, nor that we sweep our differences under the carpet. I mean that our life together as Christian community is one of harmony, healing, well-being and justice. Is that what we are like?
The other night I went to hear Sam Norton, the vicar of Mersea Island, speak at Chelmsford Cathedral Theological Society. During his talk, he showed us a photo of the Amish community in the United States, and we remembered the terrible murder committed in their midst by an outsider a couple of years ago and how they pulled together in forgiveness. That, surely, was a Christian community that had practised the gift of peace given to them by Jesus and then when the crisis hit it was more natural to them to practise it also when under strain.
In other words, if we receive the parting gift of peace from Jesus, we need to put it into practice. It is no good just waiting for the crisis. We need to turn things into regular habits. The regular practice of peace will make us what one writer calls ‘the peaceable kingdom’. And by that I don’t mean simply sharing ‘The Peace’ at Holy Communion as we shall do in a few minutes: I mean the habits of peace that involve forgiveness, reconciliation, believing the best of one another and so on.
In conclusion, Jesus gives us a word about joy at the thought of his forthcoming departure:
You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. (Verses 28-29)
You wouldn’t normally mark the departure of a loved one with joy for yourselves, even if you were happy for them. But if the departure of Jesus means parting gifts like these – a loving relationship with him and the Father sustained by deep love and keeping his word, the Holy Spirit bringing the word of Jesus to us even in the most testing of situations and finally a communal peace – then do we not have every reason to be joyful that Jesus departed the earth for the right hand of the Father?
If there was one subject I disdained at school, it was English Lit. Too girlie by half, it was. Especially for us scientists. What use was it? I never clicked that literature was a powerful way of communicating a message, despite my enjoying the (anti-)war poetry of Wilfred Owen. Eng Lit was the only O-Level for which I didn’t revise. For some reason, I failed it.
My views began to soften a few years after leaving school. An article in Buzz Magazine extolled the virtues of a Christian rock poet called Steve Turner. I sought out his first book ‘Tonight We Will Fake Love’. The edition I have sells for £45 today on the Internet. If only I had the original edition from Charisma! A few years later it was followed by ‘Nice And Nasty’ , which contains his famous poem ‘History Lesson':
And to drive home the point, that poem appears four times throughout the book.
Other collections followed, notably ‘King Of Twist’, and Turner also ventured into rock books (having started as a rock journalist). He wrote biographies of, or titles themed on, the Beatles, U2, Johnny Cash, Van Morrison and the rôle of religion in music. He also wrote a splendid book on a Christian vision for the arts entitled ‘Imagine‘.
But just lately I’ve come back to his books, and here’s how it happened. Recently I spoke at a midweek renewal meeting as a favour to the friend who runs it. He met me before the meeting and gave me an envelope. I protested.
“No, Mike, I’m doing this tonight because you are my friend. I don’t want a fee.”
But he insisted. “It’s not a fee, it’s a gift. Spend it on the children.”
I soon knew what I wanted to do with this gift. Since the mid-90s, Steve Turner has written collections of poetry for children. I have longed for the time when I could introduce our two to his work. Off I set on a virtual journey to [the] Amazon, and into my basket I placed ‘The Day I Fell Down The Toilet‘, ‘Dad You’re Not Funny‘, ‘I Was Only Asking‘, ‘Don’t Take Your Elephant To School‘ and ‘The Moon Has Got His Pants On‘.
They arrived this weekend. For the last two days there has been unbridled hilarity at our dining table as the children have either asked me to read another poem to them, or they have read some out loud. Sometimes the language needs a little explanation, but Steve Turner is giving my children a further introduction to the joys of language at a younger age than I ever had. What a gift.
One thing you learn early as a preacher is when to turn the lapel microphone on. In my case, I check that the sound operator will fade my microphone down during the hymns, as I wouldn’t want to add to the congregation’s agony by inflicting my singing on them. Many and legion are the stories of preachers who turned on the microphone too early, disappeared to a small room before the service, only for the entire congregation to learn where they had gone.
Sadly, our Prime Minister has not learned that lesson. This week, Gordon Brown has been The Preacher In The Loo.
I refer, of course, to what has become known as ‘Bigotgate’. I pass no comment on whether Gillian Duffy’s question about eastern European immigration was racist, nor on whether the PM was right to call her a ‘bigoted woman’. Nor do I deny that many people in all kinds of occupations let off steam about difficult individuals when they [think they] are in private.
But what I think cannot be denied is that the Prime Minister was two-faced. When talking with Mrs Duffy, he praised her to the heights, but made his disdain for her known afterwards. If he had simply maintained a level of politeness with her publicly but not told her how wonderful she was, this might have been a lesser incident, rather than a potentially defining moment in the General Election campaign. Anyone who holds a position of responsibility that depends in some way on the favour of those you are meant to lead will surely have some sympathy with Mr Brown, because you sometimes find yourself having to be polite to someone when you’d rather not be. But Gordon Brown went beyond that to the point of contempt, in my opinion.
At the same time, isn’t it frightening to reflect on all those who have been quick to criticise, as if they wouldn’t do anything of the sort? Some chance. No doubt they are correct to say that the Prime Minister is a man with a hot temper – there seem to be too many other stories confirming that. But are we to imagine he is the only politician like that?
Isn’t it something, then, that we come to a famous passage in John’s Gospel this week about love? There’s never much love lost in a General Election campaign. The handshakes at the end of the televised leaders’ debates have to rank amongst the most insincere you will ever see.
But what about us in the church? Let’s go back to those words of Jesus:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (Verses 34-35)
I simply want to reflect on two aspects of this teaching about love. Firstly, what is ‘new’ about this new commandment? I think that’s a fair question to ask. It’s not the first command to love in the Bible. It’s not even the only reference to it in Jesus’ teaching. Elsewhere he was asked what the greatest commandment was. He replied that it was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. He then sneaked in a second one: love your neighbour as yourself. So hasn’t he already made the command to love plain?
I find that comes over to me strongly in one of the Methodist communion services, where we speak of hearing the ‘commandments’ before we confess our sins. What commandments do we read? These two – to love God wholeheartedly and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Then, tacked on after them, we hear the command in today’s reading, to love one another. How in heaven and earth can Jesus add a new commandment onto the two he has given as combining to form the greatest commandment? As the great theologian Tom Jones might put it, “What’s new, pussycat?”
Principally what is new here is a new standard of love. Our standard for love is the example of Jesus. ‘Just as I have loved you, so you should love one another’ (verse 34). If we want any idea of what love means, we need to look at Jesus and how he loves. It wouldn’t take us long to think about a number of ways in which the love of Jesus challenges us to deeper love.
To begin with, take the way in which he took on human flesh and lived among us to bring God’s redeeming love to us. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14) or in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, ‘The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood’.
When I was serving in my first circuit, there was a painful split at the local United Reformed Church. Some had good and necessary reasons for leaving a damaging situation. Others left, they said, to set up a new church on a poor housing estate where there was no church building. They began to hire the St John’s Ambulance hall and hold services on a Sunday afternoon. However, they made little impact on that community.
It wasn’t hard to see why. None of these Christians moved onto the estate. They commuted in from their more comfortable estates every week. They weren’t prepared to pay the price of love that Jesus paid in becoming flesh and dwelling among the very people he wanted to love.
Because that is what love looks like, according to Jesus. You can’t love from a distance. Jesus loved close-up. It’s why I say we can’t expect to spread the love of God in this community unless we are taking that love into the community, rather than simply putting on attractive programmes here and expecting people to flock to our doors. Love Jesus-style doesn’t work like that.
It’s the same in terms of love for any person in need. In another previous church, we once had a mission team visit us for a few days. They partnered some of our members in visiting local houses and pubs, looking for opportunities to share the Gospel.
At the end of the time, we held a service, and afterwards I was sitting down, talking with a young mum who had just joined the congregation, along with her husband, daughter and son. She was telling me how she had lived in fear for the previous six months, because she had found a lump in her breast. Worse, by profession she was a radiographer and she was sure she knew what it was.
Sitting in the row in front was one of the mission team. He overheard this and swooped in with all sorts of platitudes about how she was failing to trust in God. Today, eleven years later, the memory of that incident still makes me mad. That mission team member made no attempt to get alongside Carolyn in her pain and fear. He just launched sentiments and Bible verses like missiles. He didn’t ‘dwell with’ Carolyn, as Jesus would have done. But that’s love ‘as he has loved us’. Hands get dirty. Time and energy are spent. Money and possessions are deployed for others. Because we move into the neighbourhood of those who need love.
Which means also that Jesus-style love is sacrificial. For, as we know, ultimately he loved us by laying down his life for the world. Love is a lot more than dewy-eyed teenagers looking forward to another romantic liaison. Love comes with a cost. It cost Jesus everything. It is hardly likely to cost us any less.
We know how seriously the early church took this. Famously one Christian from around the end of the second century to beginning of the third called Tertullian said, “We share everything except our wives.”
Another early story is of the Christian craftsman who, in order to make ends meet, had accepted a job to make idols for a pagan temple. When challenged about this by a church leader he replied, “But I must live!” The leader replied: “Must you?”
We could find countless examples from other places and times of Christians who knew that real love meant a willingness to sacrifice, even to lay down one’s life – because that is what Jesus had done in love for the world.
And that is why the second aspect of Jesus’ teaching in this passage is about the outcomes of love. Loving one another according to the pattern of Jesus isn’t just a new standard of love, it’s about a new order. The outcome is described in verse 35:
‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
The mark of the Christian community, according to Jesus, is love. It is what distinguishes us. Just as Jesus and the Father were so united with each other, so the Christian church is to be bound up as one with each other in mutual love. As the pagans looked at the early Christians and wondered, “See how these Christians love one another!” so that is not meant to have changed.
Some of you have told me examples of when such sticking-together, sacrificial love has been the gift of this church to you in times of need. Most notably I have heard people speak about such love here in bereavement or in chronic illness.
Nevertheless, it’s always good to be challenged and stretched. As Christians we cannot be complacent and opt for the kind of faith that is merely comfortable and just looks all the time to be patted on the back and sent on our way rejoicing. Given the importance Jesus places here on the world being able to tell that we are his disciples by our love for one another, it seems apt to raise a few simple challenges about our love for one another.
Let’s name a few, then. If Jesus and his Father were and are so at one in their love for one another, isn’t it time to drop all the talk about whether we are ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ a particular person?
Or – if we see how wrong Gordon Brown’s behaviour was towards Gillian Duffy, is it worthy of us to tell people to their faces how wonderful they are, all the while behind their back running a campaign against them?
Similarly, if we truly believe in love like Jesus did, can we treat people as objects, or as means to an end, or even just as bait to attract others?
And if love unites us, can we entertain the idea of cliques in a church?
Oh – and by the way, if these examples shock or surprise you, I have based every one of them on incidents or attitudes I have witnessed in Methodist churches.
What should we do? If we have hurt someone else and they know that it was us, then we need to ask their forgiveness. The sharing of The Peace in a few minutes’ time could be a time for that. If the boot is on the other foot, and we are the wronged party and the other person knows they have hurt us, then in love we need to offer forgiveness. Again, The Peace would be a good time to do this.
Naturally, if one party does not know about the hurt, that might not be advisable. If the other party is not present today, loving offers of reconciliation in repentance or forgiveness need to be offered outside this service.
If one party does not know about the hurt, then perhaps it is best simply to settle this privately with God, unless he directs us otherwise.
But however God leads us, let us remember this. It is not by our beautiful buildings that the world will know we are Jesus’ disciples. It is not by our attractive programme of events that the world will know we follow Jesus. It is by the quality of our love that the world will see our devotion to Jesus.
Nothing could be more important.