Monthly Archives: June 2010
I’m proud to have a guy called Dave Hedgecock in one of my congregations. His Christian faith has led him to some extraordinary feats of fund-raising for local and national charities. It’s over £200,000 at the last count, and in 1987 he was made a Freeman of the Borough. There is a local campaign to see him honoured. None more worthy, in my view. You can read about his achievements here, and how he attributes it to his Christian faith.
But he rang me on Saturday morning. He was due to be collecting at the local Morrison’s supermarket at lunchtime for the local hospice. He had just been called to say that Morrison’s had declined permission. There seems to be an issue since Morrison’s took over from Somerfield. While some charity collections continue (friends of mine were in there recently collecting for autistic children), to my eyes it has declined in frequency. I cannot prove that, but I do know that the current Mayor of Chelmsford had to approach them personally in order to get permission for there to be collections towards his nominated charities for his year of office. If the Mayor himself has to go to get it sorted, then something is wrong. (And Alan plays the organ once a month for us, so this is a real church issue for me.)
I’m going to take this up with the local press. I think this needs coverage.
Eunice Attwood's inspiring Vice-Presidential address to the Methodist Conference.
So, England were deservedly thrashed by Germany in the World Cup today. If I have any hope as an England fan, it’s that this humbling will wake up a sport drenched in greed, with players who earn five times in a week what I earn in a year and who still lust for further dosh with Hello magazine spreads, and start coming back to some healthier values. I’m not optimistic, though. Not while the Premier League has its stranglehold on the ‘national game’.
But there is another dark side. The English propensity to football hooliganism is infamous. Though far less evident than it used to be, the real issue seems not its near-eradication at the top level, but that it has moved to other arenas. There is still football-related violence in this country, but much of it now happens away from the stadia. Last week, I had an email from TEAR Fund which included this sobering statistic:
on England match days during the last world cup violence in the home went up by 25% in British homes, it is utterly unacceptable and totally preventable.
How sick is that? And tonight, after England’s defeat, the violence has come near to us on our estate here. Only yesterday, some lay leaders at the local parish church said they had already sustained £3000 of damage to the premises after earlier England games in the tournament, and they were talking of mounting a guard near the building after today’s match.
I don’t yet know whether anything has happened there this evening, but for approximately two hours from 7 pm, we have been serenaded by hovering police helicopters. Checking friends’ status updates on Facebook, we discover that a number of incidents have occurred. There has been a glassing at a local branch of Tesco (I’m not sure which one). Trouble also broke out at a pub we know that shows football on large screens inside while children play outside on a bouncy castle. And there has been an incident with baseball bats and a gun at the pub-restaurant on our quiet, middle class estate. That establishment is right opposite our children’s school. People are staying inside their houses, with windows closed on the hottest day of the year so far.
I cannot prove that any of these incidents are football-related, but the timing is suspicious, especially for an area that is largely unfamiliar with this kind of trouble. Of one thing I am sure, though: our society that trundles along without God should not be so complacent. It reminds me of two powerful quotes from Eunice Attwood’s wonderful Vice-Presidential address to the Methodist Conference yesterday. Firstly, speaking of when she began to get involved with Healing On The Streets:
One of the Big Issue sellers who I know well, called me over and with a very serious look on his face said, ‘At last you’re here, we need you Christians here, Eunice. Why doesn’t the church come here every day? It’s no good staying in your lovely buildings’.
Secondly, in talking about her work with Street Pastors:
When John Wesley came to Newcastle in 1742 he spoke these now famous words, ‘I was surprised so much drunkenness, cursing and swearing even from the mouths of little children) do I never remember to have seen and heard before in so small a compass of time. Surely this place is ripe for him who came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’
I didn’t get out on the streets tonight. Was I wrong? I don’t know. With police cars, a riot van, paramedics and other supporting people, part of me says I shouldn’t have meddled. But I didn’t know about those details until the helicopters started to disappear, and it’s surprising how alluring putting the rubbish out, emptying the dishwasher and making the children’s sandwiches become. But whether I succeeded or failed as a Christian tonight, Debbie and I shall have a rôle as representatives of the Prince of Peace tomorrow morning at the school gate, when we discover whether and how much people have been troubled by today’s goings on.
One of the well-documented advantages of the Internet is the opportunity to buy goods at reduced prices. Not only are items frequently cheaper, there are websites and other tools that enable you to compare prices and find the best bargain. Perhaps after this last week’s Emergency Budget, with all its cuts and the forthcoming VAT rise, these things will become even more popular. We all want to reduce our costs.
And Jesus knows there is another area where we want to reduce the cost. Many want to reduce the cost of following him. In our reading, three different characters are interested in following Jesus. The first and third approach him; Jesus calls the second. But what is common to all three is their desire to reduce the cost of discipleship.
How so? When we examine the background to what they say and Jesus says, we’ll see how they are trying to lower the cost of commitment[i]. But we’ll also recognise that some of their reasons for trimming the cost are similar to ours. This being so, we shall gain a picture of what real Christian discipleship involves.
Let us listen to the first conversation Jesus has:
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Verses 57-58)
I suppose we are used to seeing this dialogue as being one that illustrates the poverty Jesus embraced as part of his mission. He is effectively homeless. (Although there are some Gospel texts that may imply he had his own house – see Mark 9:33 and Luke 5:18.)
Being willing to give up so much is challenging enough. Yet this conversation may be about more than what lifestyle preferences we might give up in order to follow Jesus. It seems to be a dialogue about rejection. The references to foxes and birds of the air may have political overtones. ‘Foxes’ was the name Jews gave to the Ammonites, a racially similar group who were their political enemies. It’s perhaps significant that four chapters later in Luke, Jesus calls the ruler Herod Antipas ‘that fox’. He was a despised ruler from a mixed race family. ‘Foxes have holes’ might therefore be a reference to the comfort that enemies have.
Similarly, the birds of the air. In the time between the Testaments, they were a symbol of the gentile nations, and so here Jesus may be referring to the occupying Romans who are, so to speak, feathering their nests.
Put all this together and Jesus may well be saying that those who oppose the will of God will often have a comfortable life, but those who come his way will have to get used to discomfort and rejection.
How do we receive a word like that? If you grew up in a generation where Christianity was respected – even if sometimes it was only honoured in the breach – then the idea of rejection will be strange to you. More likely you will witness certain changes in our nation and protest, “But this is a Christian country!” I’m not sure what a Christian country is, or even whether such a thing can exist, but I am sure of one thing: this nation isn’t.
We have to get used to the fact that we are a minority faith in a world where faith matters very little. Read the latest edition of Radio Times and you will see an article by Alison Graham about swearing on TV. She refers to an OFCOM report, based on focus group research. While the ‘f’ word and the ‘c’ word are still kept after the watershed, ‘Jesus Christ’ is OK before 9 pm. While she rightly says we should be concerned about images of violence against women on television, it’s clear that people just don’t understand (or care?) about insulting our Lord and Saviour.
Furthermore, while many people will be willing to do things for others, a lot will be offended by the Christian insistence on resolutely putting others first – that saying ‘charity begins at home’ is really an excuse for selfishness.
So just as Jesus prepared that person who claimed they would follow him wherever he went for the likelihood of rejection, so he prepares us for a similar fate. Even if we go to a society that is sympathetic to faith, it will always be the case that if we are serious about following Jesus, that will lead to us embracing a lifestyle and values that conflict with the prevailing ones in that culture.
If you want to follow Jesus, pull out of the popularity contests.
Now let’s hear again the second conversation:
To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Verses 59-60)
To our ears, this sounds unbearably cruel. Would Jesus really expect a son to leave his family in the middle of mourning a belovèd father? Where is the compassion of Jesus here?
However, everything changes when we consider the Middle Eastern background. We are used to there being a gap of one to two weeks between a death and the committal at the crematorium. That didn’t happen in Palestine, and it still doesn’t in the Middle East, nor in Jewish or Muslim traditions elsewhere, as a result. The hot climate meant it was imperative to bury the body as quickly as possible. If this man’s father had just died, the son would either be keeping vigil over the body or participating in the funeral. That he wasn’t tells you that his father isn’t dead.
No: he wants to stay living at home until his parents have died, and only then follow Jesus. Now it was the normal custom to do this. It was an expression of respect for parental authority that you did so. That gives a different twist to Jesus’ challenge here: he is saying that following him ranks higher in importance than the demands of family and the customs of the community. Therefore this second dialogue is about authority.
What might that mean for us today, in our very different culture? Perhaps peer pressure is an expression of social expectations today. We know how strong peer pressure is for children and teenagers at school: you have to appear ‘cool’, and in with the right people. It isn’t that much different for adults. There are certain expectations, not all of which sit with the call of Jesus. There are certain things we are expected to say or do at work. There are particular ‘right’ opinions to hold in an office conversation around the water cooler. Given that most of us have a desire to feel accepted, there is considerable pressure upon us to go with the flow of peer pressure, even on the occasions when it is not being applied heavily.
We may not want to pay the price of being left out of the gang, or the mockery. Yet the question for us as Christians is about remembering the price Jesus paid for us. Often he is asking us to pay a much lower price than he did. Yes, for some Christians it will end up being the same terrible cost – the price of a life – but in the ordinary turns of daily life, can we not, with the help of the Holy Spirit, choose to follow him when it is to our disadvantage, and be honoured that he has asked us to do that for him?
Finally, let’s turn to the third conversation:
Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Verses 61-62)
Again, to our ears, Jesus sounds like he’s being unreasonable. Surely you should be able to say goodbye before venturing off, who knows where, following him? It made me think about someone I know whose brother is giving up his job, house and possessions to become a Franciscan monk. He has taken great trouble to spend time with his relatives and friends before entering the monastery permanently. Would Jesus condemn him for half-heartedness?
But rather than ‘say farewell to those at my home’, a better translation might be ‘take my leave of those at my home’. The distinction is important. When you take your leave of someone, you ask their permission for you to go. Even today in the Middle East, middle-aged professionals ask their parents’ permission to make major life decisions. The man in the story here is not saying, “Let me just nip home to say goodbye before I join you,” he is saying, “I will follow you – if my parents give me permission!”
In response to this, Jesus claims higher authority than the man’s parents. He responds with the image of ploughing a field. To use a first century Palestinian plough required full concentration as you co-ordinated the use of hands and eyes. Failing to give the task your undivided attention led to crooked furrows, and depending on what part of the process you were involved in, you could ruin the drainage of water or the covering of the seed.
What does this say to us? Parental authority is much diminished in our culture. However, there are plenty of other replacements. Perhaps most notable is the idea that I am my own highest authority. What I want, goes. But if we exalt ourselves, Jesus says, you can only come with me if you accept that I have supreme authority. Whatever we elevate to the highest position in our lives has to bow before Jesus. Nothing else is true discipleship.
Why? Because Jesus wants our undivided attention. Tilling the soil of God’s kingdom involves concentrated effort, even if we do undertake it in the power of the Holy Spirit. One of the unfortunate misunderstandings in our society is the idea that the church is a ‘voluntary society’. People can opt in or opt out, depending on their mood and whether or not they like what’s going on. As I’ve often observed, if there are religious advertisements in a local newspaper, they will usually be found in the leisure section.
Jesus is here to tell us that following him is not a leisure activity. The illustration I often use of this is one I borrowed from the late John Wimber. In one of his books, he described the expectations of some Christians as like turning up at the docks to board a ship. Arriving at the quayside expecting to find a luxury cruise liner, we discover instead that rather than boarding a sleek, white boat, ours is gun-metal grey. It is a battleship.
You may or may not like the military image, but the point is clear. Signing up with Jesus is not about taking up a hobby or joining a club – even if some churchgoers do treat church as a club. We have committed ourselves unreservedly to the cause of building for his kingdom. That means unswerving dedication, not opting in and out as the mood suits us. It means we don’t accept our society’s assessment of where true authority lies – because our fundamental allegiance is to Jesus. It means we will resist peer pressure, even if that means reduced popularity, or even rejection.
Why? Jesus, whom we follow, ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’ (verse 51), where he knew what he would face. His total dedication to the will of the Father, even at the cost of ultimate human rejection – the Cross – is our model. In normal terms, it may not be an attractive model. But it is the way God extends the kingdom. May the Holy Spirit help us when we need to walk the narrow way.
[i] What follows is based on Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, pp22-32.
Last night, I went to see a performance at Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford, of From Eden To Eternity, a play by Saltmine Trust in support of Wycliffe Bible Translators, whose Bible translation work in Nigeria was movingly featured. It is on a national tour, but played locally as part of this year’s Chelmsford Christian Festival. The acting was first class, and the script was full of humour, pathos and pain – just as an attempt to retell the highlights of the whole Bible should be. For me, the scene depicting Abraham’s call to sacrifice Isaac almost matched the agony of the crucifixion: it ripped my heart open.
Covering the main themes of the Bible is, of course, an ambitious aim, and it must have been a near impossible task for the playwright to decide what to include and what to omit. Whatever choices s/he made, not everyone would agree. (It might as well have been Fabio Capello choosing an England football team.)
What interested me was that the choices seemed to follow standard traditional evangelical priorities. We got a fairly literal Adam and Eve. There was no exile and return (Tom Wright, where are you when we need you?). There was little or no obvious connection between the Old Testament before the interval and the New Testament afterwards. We had no Incarnation (maybe Christmas is just a necessary prelude to Easter).
Having said that, what would I have dropped in order to make space for what I consider to be other important themes? I wouldn’t have liked to have faced that question. Maybe the extended dialogues between Simon Peter and Andrew could have been cut, but I’m sure they were in to bring some important connections between biblical characters and ordinary twenty-first century people.
So – two questions:
1. Has anyone else seen this production, or are you planning to? If you have seen it, what particularly struck you?
2. If you had the unenviable task of the playwright, what would you have included or excluded, and why? (Sorry if that sounds like an exam question! But I’m interested in your thoughts.)
Meanwhile, here’s a video trailer:
Here’s some music for a Monday morning. Ardent Methodists will be surprised to see famed nineteenth century Cornish revival preacher Billy Bray get coverage in the world of contemporary music, but he has. The Devon folk singer Seth Lakeman, who has the ear of the rock fraternity, has recorded a song called ‘Preacher’s Ghost’ about Bray on his recent release ‘Hearts and Minds’. Lakeman explains in an interview how it was inspired by his grandfather, a Methodist preacher, handing him a book called ‘King’s Own Song’.
I’ve tried quick web searches for the lyrics without success, to see what Lakeman’s take on Bray’s story is. Instead, I’ll just have to post below one of the numerous cameraphone videos of Lakeman performing the song live that you can find on YouTube.
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight.
The famous words from C S Lewis’ introduction to The Screwtape Letters, and words well worth bearing in mind as we read today’s Lectionary Gospel reading about Jesus and the man infested with a legion of demons. For those who get obsessed with demons, Lewis reminds us not to put them in the limelight; for those who say you can’t believe in them, the story reminds us that if we call Jesus ‘Lord’, then we cannot say he was wrong about this.
Either way, the important factor in considering this story is to see Jesus as the central character. This whole account revolves around Jesus. So I want us to reflect on this famous Gospel story by relating everyone and everything to Jesus.
Firstly, Jesus and the demons. Let’s tackle the most difficult part of the story first, but it is one that tells us a lot about how we may regard evil in the light of Christian faith. What the demons do to the man is characteristic of evil in general. In what ways?
The man is ‘of the city’ yet he lives ‘not … in a house but in the tombs’ (verse 27). At very least, this illustrates the social breakdown caused by evil. Sin and evil break up societies and families. Given that it was highly unusual for adults not to marry (Jesus was quite an exception), there may well be a fractured family as a result of the demonic activity. Think of the similar way in which drug abuse shatters families, and you have a comparison with what has happened here.
He wears ‘no clothes’ (verse 27) – again, he is an outcast from society. Such is the force of evil that his behaviour means he cannot fit in anymore. Moreover,
To stay overnight among tombs is a mark of madness in Jewish tradition.
Furthermore, this evil brought by the demons results in the man having unusual strength, such that normal human constraints cannot contain it:
For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds. (Verse 29)
Family and social breakdown; madness; and human inability to contain the strength of evil. No wonder this man was isolated. Imagine the fear in the city. The only way to protect people from him was to ensure he kept at a safe distance. It’s rather like the way we cry for dangerous criminals to be locked up for life, or we protest when proposals are made to house mentally ill people in the community. A naked man meets naked fear.
But Jesus is not afraid. Not one bit. Why is he not afraid of the damaging evil caused by the demons? Simple. He knows he carries divine authority. He has the right as Son of God to command the expulsion of evil spirits. Good and evil are not equal and opposite powers. God reigns, evil must ultimately submit.
He also knows that in his hands lie the ultimate defeat of evil in every form. Not that he will do so in the conventional form of aggressive, violent warfare, but rather by suffering and passivity. He will conquer the principalities and powers of evil by his death on the Cross, and by being raised from the dead.
What does this mean for us? It gives us confidence and faith in the presence of wickedness in any form. Even if it does not submit to Christ now, one day it will. We may even be part of conquering it, as we act in the name of Jesus – that is, with his authority. However, he may call us to conquer evil through our own suffering.
Secondly, let us consider Jesus and the man. As I’ve already said, such was the state of this man that ordinary society had ostracised him. So much is he at an arm’s distance that you wonder how he even obtains the basic necessities of life, such as food and drink. Perhaps he scavenges like an animal. Maybe he uses society’s fear of him to terrify people into giving him what he wants, rather like a bank robber with a gun. Either way, his contact with the rest of humanity is minimal. No-one can change him for the better, so people take what steps they can to protect themselves from him. They warn their children not to go near him. The local equivalent of the Daily Mail runs a campaign against him. Every action can be summed up in one word: fear.
But fear and impotence are not in Jesus’ repertoire. Love means he approaches the man and commands the demons to leave, whereas fear has made others retreat and put up barriers. He knows he has what the man needs in order to be healed and restored. He does not need to put the man in permanent quarantine. Rather, when he has exercised his divine authority, the local people come and find the man
sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. (Verse 35)
In the face of powerful evil, Jesus brings healing. The madness is gone. The man is sitting at Jesus’ feet – the posture of a disciple. And we see the discipleship in the man’s desire to ‘be with [Jesus]’ (verse 38), which Jesus redirects into another expression of discipleship:
“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. (Verse 39)
What do we learn from Jesus here? Surely that we have nothing to fear from evil and everything to gain for the kingdom of God if we face evil with the love of God and the authority of Jesus Christ. If we refuse to run away from evil in the way the world does, but instead remember that evil, even demonised people are still people who need the love of God in Christ, then situations and people can be transformed.
I am not suggesting that we all rush to become exorcists – most churches rightly put policies and restrictions around that, because there are too many loose cannons around who fancy themselves as spiritual superheroes and who cause great damage. However, every one of us at some time or another still comes face to face with manifestations of evil in one form or another. Those are the times to believe that Jesus has given us authority to act in his Name, and if we do so from a heart of Christian love, empowered by the Holy Spirit, then healing will come, and even new disciples for Christ.
More than that, when society is troubled by fear and reduced to reactions and policies based on fear, it’s time for Christians to be confident about the power of the Gospel. And by that I don’t just mean the message of forgiveness, I also mean what follows on from that, with changed lives. Jesus Christ is the world’s hope in the face of evil. Let’s not be shy or embarrassed about that.
Thirdly and finally, Jesus and the local people. What Jesus does here should be good news, shouldn’t it? But fearful people are confirmed in their fear, even when faced with the evidence of Jesus’ saving power. When the herdsmen see the man ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind’, we read, ‘they were afraid’ (verse 35). When they give an eyewitness account of what they saw happen (verse 36), the local population comes to a consensus:
Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. (Verse 37)
All they can see is that Jesus is the culprit in the destruction of their pig herd. His salvation of the man has had a detrimental economic effect upon them. And admittedly we find his willingness to let the demons enter the pigs difficult to understand. All we might guess is that Jesus acknowledges that the time for the final judgement against evil is not yet. But we are not the people suffering economic loss here. So no wonder they don’t want him around.
Yet maybe that is the choice with which Jesus faces them. To accept his ways will sometimes mean we are less well-off financially. Being his disciple involves sacrifice, especially for the well-being of others. You know I won’t have anything to do with the ‘Jesus wants you rich’ brigade, but there is a subtle variation that seduces many Christians. It’s more along the lines of ‘Jesus wants you comfortable’. We have similar lifestyle aspirations to people who have little interest in God and faith. Christianity becomes the ‘redemption and lift’ phenomenon that Wesley and others observed, where converts give up certain habits and practices, and the money saved leads to a higher standard of living – at least, in economic terms.
We know our nation is in for a bout of protracted hardship as we begin to reduce our massive national debt. We shall get a flavour of that this coming week with the Emergency Budget. I wish hardship on nobody, especially on the poorest and most vulnerable. But times of financial deprivation are occasions when Jesus may well ask us how serious we are about following him. Will we do that, even if we feel the pinch? Even if our Christian ethics prohibit some personal economic short-cuts that would alleviate the difficulties for us? Even if strictures for us meant benefits for others?
The thing is, we have incredibly good news in Jesus Christ to celebrate and to share. It gives us confidence of victory over evil. It makes new the most broken in society. But it comes with a challenge and a cost. Because as Jesus makes all things new, he will conflict with vested interests. It is then a gospel matter whether we send him away in fear or embrace him and pay the price.
Which will we do?
 John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, p407.
I use that title for this blog post, being a version of what we in the free churches sometimes label ‘Anglican imperialism’. It is that unequal relationship which the Church of England maintains with us, despite protestations to the contrary.
Recently, their vicar retired, but before he stepped down he booked me to preach a farewell sermon there prior to our looming departure. It was fixed for last Sunday. Here’s the thing: when Methodist and Anglican churches are in formal LEPs (Local Ecumenical Partnerships) I can preside at a communion service. When we are only in covenants, I cannot. So I was expecting that a visiting Anglican priest would preside at the sacrament while I preached.
In fact, no priest was available for that 10:30 am service, so the church wardens had to ask the visiting priest at the 8 am communion to consecrate enough bread and wine for the later service, too. The Reader who led the service with me had to use a newly authorised liturgy called Public Worship with Communion by Extension. (And every time this comes up, she has to apply for permission to use it. Imagine how often that will be during a vacancy.) Strictly no-one must stand behind the communion table.
My Anglican friends were upset that I was not allowed to preside. Their support was touching, and came through very Anglican lenses. “Why can’t you exercise your priestly ministry with us?” Er – because I’m not a priest? The C of E would say I’m not a priest, because I haven’t had hands laid on me by a bishop who is part of that theological fiction known as the ‘historic succession’. (However, we did smuggle into the service me pronouncing what I would call ‘assurance of forgiveness’ and my Anglican friends with their priestly language would call ‘absolution’. And yes, I do normally use ‘you’ language rather than ‘us’ language in those prayers - not for ‘priestly’ reasons, but because people need to hear ‘you are forgiven’.)
Methodism would say I’m a priest in the same way that every Christian is a priest, and that I am not ordained to a separate priesthood. It still smuggles ordained presidency at the sacraments into our practice as the norm, on the grounds that good order should be kept at Holy Communion. And of course, I agree that the Lord’s Table is a place for good order, I just point to 1 Corinthians 11 where there is a massive problem of disorder at the Lord’s Supper, which Paul solves not with trained clergy but apostolic teaching.
So I’m not about to want to claim a separate priesthood for myself – I believe that is contrary to the New Testament. But Sunday’s experience reminded me of the institutional inequality between our traditions, and the way in which the grassroots are often ahead of the hierarchy in Christian work. I get angry at the legacy of Anglo-Catholic domination in past centuries that has led to this institutionalisation of inequality, where some are more equal than others. I recall an article in the Church Times in the late 1980s which pointed out that a nominal Catholic who finds living faith in Christ in an Anglican church can be received by transfer, because his or her Catholic confirmation is regarded as valid, since it has been administered by a bishop in the ‘historic succession’. However, should a free church Christian with an existing live faith who joins the Church of England must be confirmed as if they had never been received into the Christian church at all. Their prior Christian experience is effectively trashed in the so-called name of church order.
Anglicans refer to a triad of sources in determining Christian truth: Scripture, tradition and reason. Methodists add a fourth to make a quadrilateral: experience. To me, this is one area where adding that fourth source makes the difference. It exposes the ‘historic succession’ for the theological sham that it is. People’s experience of Christ must be allowed as a valid contribution to understanding Christian life and doctrine, just as in Acts 10 the Gentile reception of the Holy Spirit changed the church, as when Peter cited it at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. Experience cannot trump everything else, but it must be allowed a place at the table. For too long, the rigid insistence on the ‘historic succession’ (and yes, I continue to put it in quote marks because I don’t accept its reality) has caused pastoral and ecumenical damage.
Not that I think there is any hope of the Church of England listening, mind you.
Here in Chelmsford, many Christians are pleased to support a charity set up by the local churches called Chelmsford CHESS, which supports homeless people, not only with night shelters but also with long term help. About 25% of their funding comes from Government grants administered by Essex County Council. They have recently learned that their funding application to accommodate rough sleepers in the colder winter months has been declined. Even right now in June, the charity knows of fourteen people sleeping rough in the town.
Of course, we all understand the need for austerity in these straitened times. And especially Essex County Council, who – in the spirit of self-discipline – have just awarded themselves a 41% increase in councillors’ allowances. I mean, you can’t afford to risk running out of biscuits at council meetings, can you?
I don’t think I’m going to preach a brand new sermon this week. The Lectionary Gospel and Epistle are both fascinating: both Luke 7:36-8:3 amd Galatians 2:15-21 (especially if you take the latter in its context from verse 11 onwards) raise the question of table fellowship being used as a sign of who is included in or excluded from the people of God. In the case of the Luke reading, I don’t think I can yet improve on a sermon I preached three years ago on it, despite yesterday reading the chapter on the incident in Michael Frost‘s recently reissued expanded edition of Jesus The Fool. (Highly recommended, BTW.) When it came to Galatians, I again dug out Tom Wright‘s book from last year, Justification, which inspired my recent sermon about justification based on Romans 5:1-11. However, this time, much as Wright enlightened my understanding of the text, I didn’t come away feeling I had something to share with a congregation in a sermon.
So I thought I’d point you to something else on the web. Someone else, actually. Last year while I was on sabbatical, I blogged about my encounters with the extraordinary George Kovoor, current Principal of Trinity College, Bristol. Well, George has just launched his own website, Kairos Global, and I commend it to you. At this stage it’s rather sparse, but you can start to gain a feel for the ministry of this remarkable man. The lead article that begins on the home page will certainly give you a flavour. There are also a couple of videos, showing five-minute extracts from longer presentations. One is also available on YouTube, so by the magic of WordPress I reproduce it below:
I can’t say I can work out what he’s doing broadcasting on TBN Europe in the company of the Creflo Dollars of this world, but Jesus didn’t worry who he mixed with (any more than the late Rob Frost worried about broadcasting on God TV) and at least it gets some sound teaching out there.
I think George’s site will be well worth watching, especially if it is updated frequently. If his admin can put on some of his talks, whether text, audio or video, in full, it will be invaluable for all of us who care about the evangelisation of the West – and, indeed, the entire world.
Oh, and for something lighter, you can always join the Facebook group George Kovoor Is Mad.