Monthly Archives: February 2011

Rob Bell, Universalism And The Christian Blogosphere

Before reading on, may I invite you to watch this video teaser for Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins?

Now tell me how that proves Bell is a universalist? He may be, or he may not. This is far too ambiguous. This video raises the questions. It doesn’t give Bell’s answers. To be precise:

Unambiguously stating that Gandhi is in Hell does raise concerns. If you are an exclusivist (only those who have personal faith in Christ will be saved) you might well say that. But if you believe the biblical evidence leads in another direction, you will be bothered by this. That doesn’t simply apply to universalism (all will be saved, regardless of faith in Christ); it also applies to inclusivism (God will deal justly and mercifully with those who never get the chance to respond to Christ). And there is plenty of evidence for inclusivism in the Bible: take Melchizedek the priest of Salem in Genesis, for example. Take Job, possibly. And besides, Bell at very least may only be raising the questions our culture asks and which need answering.

Likewise, Bell’s portrayal of the Gospel as preached by some that a loving Jesus rescues us from an angry God. What kind of Trinity is that, where Christ is love but the Father isn’t? That certainly should be up for debate.

And as for the slogan ‘Love Wins’? Well, if Christians don’t believe that in some form or another, we’re in big trouble. There is something deeply troubling about a brand of Christianity that is more certain about who is going to Hell than who is going to Heaven – after all, Calvinism has always had a problem with knowing how you are one of the elect.

Oh, and by the way, the publisher’s blurb is correct: eternal life does start now. Read John’s Gospel, especially chapter 17 verse 3: ‘eternal life is knowing you’ (emphasis mine).

As I say, it is possible that Bell might be a universalist. But there is nothing in these two minutes and fifty eight seconds to establish that with any certainty. Therefore it is pretty unworthy for the new Calvinist militants to go after him like this. I say this as one who takes doctrine very seriously – this shouldn’t be the way a Christian theme ends up in the top ten trending topics on Twitter, as this did on Saturday.

I guess someone who commented on Christianity Today’s blog about the controversy got it about right:

Kudos to HarperOne’s marketing team. Job well done. I’d imagine this kind of buzz before the book’s release can only improve sales.

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A Collaborative World?

 

Apparently, the revolution will be tweeted,

says Jason Gardner in an article which begins by reflecting on the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter in recent people movements in North Africa. You may have read about the Egyptian who called his newborn child ‘Facebook’ in tribute to the way that site was used to spark potential social change.

So Gardner asks us to pay attention to Web 2.0, which

is about customisation and collaboration … That means that the story of the world is no longer dictated to us: we write it together.

Even powerful dictators’ efforts to use kill switches on the Internet have run into trouble as international people movements such as Avaaz have solicited funds from tens of thousands of people around the world to provide satellite links and other means for the previously disempowered citizens to keep communicating with each other and the outside world.

When I have written about this before, I have quoted Rex Miller‘s maxim that it isn’t that the medium is the message; rather, the medium is the worldview. Collaborative media mean collaborative approaches to life. And Gardner rightly says the church needs to take heed.

His particular application is in involving youth, and he makes the point that God is involving us collaboratively in his kingdom.

However, it’s worth thinking about for the whole church. While we have a long way to go, it gives me great pleasure to be involved in leading a church that already has signs of taking this seriously. I have a Leadership Team that meets weekly at Knaphill, and although I’m seen as the overall leader we take counsel together.

Or for another example, you’ll notice this is one of those weekends when there is no new sermon on the blog. That’s because it’s All Age Worship Sunday, and we have a team that plans these services. While I might bring a general overarching theme or message, I couldn’t possibly put together the services we lead. The creative gifts present among the team are amazing, and the worship is all the richer for it.

OK, if I get round to it, I might put up the short PowerPoint presentation that accompanies my brief talk on a site like Slideshare, but it isn’t a conventional sermon. It’s a talk on the theme of ‘belonging’, because we’ve just had Founders’ Day for the Scouts and Thinking Day for the Guides. And actually, did I come up with the theme this time? No. I couldn’t make the planning meeting, due to an emergency. Two other people prayed and set the theme, and I have attempted to fit in.

Of course, we need to go much further, but one thing is for sure. However much I am set aside to pray and discern, there is no going back to the world where an Anglican rector friend of mine saw his calling as to come down from the mountain with the tablets of stone, and for the people simply to accept his word to that effect.

Community Feasting

A press release from the Methodist Church reports that only 17% of people would invite neighbours to share a meal if they had spare food. If anything were a sign that we’ve reduced Shrove Tuesday to Pancake Day, this is it.

All we seem to do on that date (8th March this year) is eat pancakes. It’s another festival where we’ve lost sight of the meaning. Families used to use up spare food and have communal activities (hence even today Mardi Gras) on the day before the sombre fasting of Lent began. Although let us remember that even in Lent the Sundays are still feast days – otherwise you’ll get confused in counting the forty days!

Hence the unwillingness (if it is that) to invite neighbours to a community feast is another tragic loss of our inheritance. It is both a sign of the loss of a Christian value, and a loss of community.

So all praise for the way the Methodist Relief and Development Fund wants to reclaim Shrove Tuesday as not only a community feast, but one that promotes Fair Trade. Their Fair Feast project, endorsed by celebrity chef Gary Rhodes, who has supplied a recipé for pancakes with wild mushroom sauce, is well worth looking at. You can even dovetail Bible study in with a local Mardi Gras event.

How are you going to celebrate Pancake Day Shrove Tuesday this year?

Organisational Barriers To Spiritual Transformation

Renewal is never merely private and personal, says Ruth Haley Barton in this taster of her forthcoming book on leadership discernment. The culture / ethos / ‘spirit’ / assumptions, both named and tacit of the organisation in which we function has an effect upon us, and it can be negative. The leadership group of the organisation needs to work on transforming the group from the inside out.

What do you think?

Courageous Leadership

Read this: Lessons About Courage From A Former High Diver. Follow the link to Jennifer’s newsletter about courage for the full article. Not an overtly ‘spiritual’ piece, but plenty of application for church and church leaders.

Sermon: Love Your Neighbour As Yourself

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

I wonder whether you have heard the story of the churchgoer who wanted to abolish the Old Testament. His argument was that Jesus said, “Hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Well, Jesus did say, “Hang all the Law and the Prophets”, but the problem with the argument was that the man quoted Jesus out of context. Jesus says these words when he is asked what the greatest commandment is, and his reply goes like this:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is, you shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. [Emphasis added]

You can’t abolish the Old Testament, then. Jesus said it contained the two greatest commandments.

And today’s Lectionary takes us to the second of these commandments: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

So, for only the second time in over thirty years of preaching, I find myself preaching on a text from Leviticus! It might not be a book we would rush to preach from usually, but whatever its reputation for obscure Jewish dietary laws and the like, it also contains this commandment and a host of other commandments that enshrine God’s commitment to compassion and justice. And it all gets summed up at the end of our first reading with these words: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (verse 18).

How, then, do we explore these famous words? I suggest that if the basis of loving our neighbour is the way we love ourselves, then I’m going to start with what it means in biblical terms to love ourselves and work back to loving our neighbour from there.

First of all, then, loving ourselves. It seems to me there are two equal and opposite errors into which we can fall in appreciating the assumption that we love ourselves. One is the assumption often made in our society today, and perhaps encapsulated by that dreadful series of adverts from the world’s largest cosmetics company, L’Oreal. Beginning with famous actresses closing the ads with the words, “Because I’m worth it”, they changed it in the middle of the last decade to “Because you’re worth it.” Then in 2009 they modified it again to “Because we’re worth it.”

You get the message? I am so good and so deserving that I should have the very best. It’s something that in a different way politicians have picked up on. They talk about welfare benefits as something that the right people deserve. It makes me out to be so good and perfect that the last thing you would dare to do is criticise me. The Christian notion of sin is entirely absent. There is nothing about responsibility, it is all about rights. As such, it’s unreliable as a gauge for understanding how God loves us, and we can only base love for ourselves on the way God loves us.

The opposite error takes this to the other extreme. It is what some people have called ‘worm theology’. It is the approach that says, “Lord, I am worth no more than a worm, because I am only a terrible sinner.” It is an attitude to life that leads to low self-esteem and even self-hatred, quite the opposite of ‘Because I’m worth it.’

At first glance this might seem to take seriously the Christian doctrine of sin, but it actually distorts the Christian view of God’s love for people. It makes it sound like the Cross of Christ is no more than the appeasing of an angry God, and not an expression of God’s sacrificial love in Christ.

So – loving ourselves can neither be based on “I’m wonderful”, nor on “I’m terrible.” What can it rest on, then? I believe it requires a big picture of the way God views us, and when we appreciate that, we shall be free to love ourselves healthily.

I believe it goes something like this. It begins not with sin, but with the fact that God made human beings in his image. Now whatever it means to be made in the image of God, and I’m not going to touch that this morning, what is clear is that it means that God accords human beings a special, indeed unique, dignity. It speaks of the amazing value that God puts on us.

Yes, we go on from there to speak about sin and the rupture it causes in our relationship with a holy God. But we also bring into play the fact that this holy God sets out on the journey of redemption, because his love is not incompatible with his holiness. He even gives up his only begotten Son for us. He draws us to himself by his Holy Spirit, and when we respond in faith to him through Jesus Christ, that Spirit comes to dwell within our lives.

All in all, it’s very Trinitarian: we are loved by the Father, redeemed by the Son and indwelt by the Spirit. This is the measure of God’s love for us.

Now when we know we are deeply loved, what does that do for us? A friend of mine who has suffered for much of her life with depression once told me that nothing boosted her sense of self-worth more than remembering that her husband had wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. In the midst of her illness, that knowledge gave her dignity.

So it is with the love of God. Because we are so wonderfully loved by God – extravagantly and sacrificially – we may love ourselves. It isn’t that self-love becomes self-indulgence, for then it would stand contrary to the love of God. But it is that we have an amazing sense of wonder and value. It is a firm foundation for life. We can begin to achieve a balance of taking proper care of ourselves, but also being ready to show that same sacrificial love of God to others.

All of which leads to the second part of our thinking, the part where the rubber hits the road – loving our neighbours. Now I don’t know about you, but when we are faced with something as stark and absolute in the Scriptures as ‘love your neighbour’, this is probably the time I want to start wriggling about the meaning. We know that some of the rabbis set complicated definitions about who was a neighbour and who wasn’t. In today’s Gospel passage Jesus is clearly aware of people who want to distort the plain meaning of Leviticus. He talks about those who twist the verse to say, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’ (Matthew 5:43), thus adding something to Holy Writ in order to undermine its meaning. We know, too, that this wasn’t the only time he faced this issue, since the lawyer who heard him proclaim the need to love one’s neighbour then wanted to justify himself by asking, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and in response he tells that most shocking of parables about the Good Samaritan. Leviticus puts it bluntly, and Jesus won’t let anybody get out of the implications.

Why should it be that Leviticus and Jesus allow no limitations or exceptions on the definition of ‘neighbour’? Could it be ultimately that the same things which apply to us about God’s love for us also apply to every single human being? I think so.

In other words, it is not just me who is made in the image of God. You are, and everyone is, even our enemies, whoever they may be. All people are offered redemption in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is wooing all people to find faith in Jesus and follow him. Everyone has the same extraordinary dignity in the sight of God.

And that means anybody in need is our neighbour when it comes to the command to love. We can’t pick and choose simply the people who appeal to us, or who are like us. It includes the people we are ambivalent about, and even those we actively dislike. Our neighbours include our enemies.

However, that is not to say that we should be glib about the question of offering neighbour love to enemies. I receive a weekly devotional email from an American pastor called Brian Jones. In this week’s email, he talked about this very issue. He described the problem of reconciling all the Psalms that display anger and ask God to wreak vengeance on enemies with Jesus’ command to love our enemies. He talked of an occasion when he preached a sermon about it, one of his best, he thought, in showing how in his opinion the words of Jesus trumped the angry words of the Psalms.

After the service, though, he was brought down to earth with heavy bruising. A man spoke to him and said, ‘What would you say to me, then? This week I have pressed charges against a man who molested my son.’

Brian Jones said he realised that sometimes we can only get through to that point of loving even our enemies when we have fully felt our anger first.

You may consider this ‘love of enemies’ talk a bit of a detour from the basic ‘love your neighbour’ theme, but in fact it’s like what some people call the ‘worst case scenario’. It’s the hardest variation on love of neighbour. If we can work on this, other aspects of loving our neighbours will fall into place.

What all this talk of loving our neighbour as ourselves comes down to in the end is about being Christlike. Loving our neighbour as ourselves is about seeing people as Christ sees them. It is about having Christ’s heart for them. It is about thinking and acting like Christ. The plastic bracelets with the initials ‘WWJD’ – ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ – may have seemed cheesy, but they make a point.

So if we want to know what love of neighbour looks like, then view Jesus healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Or see him crossing boundaries to talk to a Samaritan woman or heal a Roman centurion’s servant.

If we want to know what neighbour love looks like, go more than anywhere else to the Cross. See him caring for his mother and the disciple he loved, while dying. See him forgiving the penitent thief. See him asking the Father to forgive those who put him on the Cross – and all the while dying for their sins, for your sins and for mine.

Yes, Jesus looks on people as made in God’s image. He sees the damage caused by sin and by being sinned against and sets out on his mission of redeeming love. When he returns to heaven from that mission, he bestows the gift of the Holy Spirit on those who put their faith in him and follow him.

He has the right, then, to tell us not to resist evildoers, to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. He had the right to remind us not only to greet only our own brothers and sisters.

Walking this way may seem uncongenial and even impossible. But Jesus gives us the power to do so through the gift of the Holy Spirit. And he gives us motivation to love neighbours, even our enemies, when we consider how much he loves us and how much he has forgiven us.

Thus may we have the grace to live differently in our world.

Sermon: Money And Possessions

Sorry it’s been a while since I posted. Three major things have been going on. Firstly, there has been a major pastoral situation. Although it eventually became public, it would not be good for me to allude in any way to its nature here. Furthermore, some of the decisions I had to take in relation to this matter led to me leading worship but not preaching, in order to be free to take particular essential courses of action. Hence there were no new sermons anyway for a couple of weeks.

Secondly, around the same time we had a major gas leak at the church, at one time with gas levels high enough for us to be at the risk of an explosion. That entailed several days of having to drop everything at short notice to sort things out with the engineers.

Thirdly, as you will gather below, I also suddenly lost the use of my car. I was driving at 70 mph on the M25 when the cam belt malfunctioned. Repair of the consequent damage would have cost more than the value of the old car. So I was then thrust into an urgent search for a new car.

However, I can now belatedly bring you the sermon I preached this morning. I hope you find it helpful.

Matthew 6:19-34

Peter used to sort the post and bring it to everyone’s desks in the office where I used to work. A bit of a lad, you wouldn’t have marked him down as the most likely to become interested in God and religion.

Not until his girlfriend became a Christian. She enthusiastically joined a local evangelical church, and Peter started going with her to the church young adults’ group. They went to the Greenbelt Festival together, and he began attending the Sunday evening youth fellowship with her.

It was one Monday morning at the office after he had been to the youth group the previous night that he started a conversation about how uneasy he had been about the youth group leader. This man had invited everyone to his home for the meeting. Peter said that the man couldn’t stop going on about all his lovely furniture and other household comforts.

“That’s not what you Christians are supposed to be like, is it?” he asked me.

Peter was right. Jesus says far more about topics such as money and possessions than he does about some of the issues that frequently obsess the church. Which is not to say I don’t believe matters such as sexual ethics are – they touch on who we are at the deepest level, and I hold fairly traditional views on them. But Jesus also knew that the way we handle material things would be critical if we aim to be the whole-hearted disciples he wants us to be.

So we come to this week’s section in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus puts this question up front and centre, even when teaching a group of people in a culture full of peasants living at subsistence level. How much more relevant is it to us, in a society that depends upon us buying plenty of ‘stuff’? Indeed, much of our culture is defined by an addiction to consumer goods.

Let’s dive in, then, and see whether by following Jesus’ teaching here we can offer a distinctive witness to him in our world.

Firstly, let’s recognise that our attitude to money and possessions is a matter of the heart: ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (verse 21). But what does this mean?

On Monday, people’s lives will be flooded with hearts – on cards, on balloons, chocolate-shaped ones, and so on. The heart will be the visual logo for Valentine’s Day. In our culture, we take the heart to be symbolic of the emotions and the affections.

But it would be dangerous to transfer our use of the word ‘heart’ to the world of the Bible. For Jewish people, if you wanted to talk about the emotions, the body part you symbolically used was … the bowels. When Jewish people referred to the heart, they meant something far deeper than we do: the heart represented the very core of a person’s being. So when Jesus says your treasure is where your heart is, he isn’t merely referring to the emotional pull of certain things, he’s talking about giving complete allegiance to them.

And to take that further, if Jesus is telling us that our treasure needs to be ‘treasures in heaven’, he is calling us to an undiluted commitment to him. Those who treasure money and possessions are those who devote their lives to them. Our devotion is to Jesus and his kingdom.

How do we work this out in the life of faith? One thing I recommend is that we ensure we do not simply make assumptions about our spending habits and our lifestyle decisions. We can do that by submitting every major decision about finances or possessions to God in prayer. And when I say ‘submitting’ I do so deliberately, because we must be willing for God to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the plans we propose.

So it came as an encouragement last week when my old car suddenly gave up the ghost that Debbie and I had separately come to the same conclusion about the budget we should set for a replacement. We kept within that budget – the car I chose was £25 under the budget, and fits well what I need for ministry.

This, then, is Jesus’ first command about money and possessions. Ensure you are wholeheartedly committed to his cause, and judge everything in the light of that.

Secondly, Jesus sees our attitude to riches as a test of our spiritual health. Why on earth does he suddenly start going on about healthy and unhealthy eyes (verses 22-23)? I mean, obviously a healthy eye means good sight and a diseased eye causes poor sight, but why on earth does that suddenly appear in the middle of teaching about wealth rather than health?

There is a simple explanation, and the footnotes in some Bibles point you towards it. When Jesus refers to healthy eyes, the word translated ‘healthy’ can also be translated ‘generous’. Does it begin to make sense now? A healthy attitude is a generous attitude. Generosity is a hallmark of a disciple.

And how important that is today. The other day I found myself in a conversation with a young man just in from work who glibly talked about the way he spent £30 to £40 a day on himself, and how he was partly funding that from an additional job that paid ‘cash in hand’. His approach may be crude, but it is more typical than we might like to think.

But Jesus says that the symptoms of true health are not acquisition, but generosity, not getting but giving. It is more blessèd to give than to receive. If you want to see like Jesus sees, then let him open your eyes to the needs you can meet by generous giving on your part. And yes, as well as your finances and your material possessions, consider too generosity in the giving of your time, skills and most of all your love.

Of course you will need discernment, because while the need constitutes the call, the need may not constitute your call. But those with generous eyes are open to what God directs them to see.

So far, then, we’ve seen that our attitude to wealth and property is about our allegiance to Christ and our willingness to be generous is a measure of our spiritual health. The third thing Jesus says is very similar. In fact, you could say Jesus repeats himself from a different angle. The way we treat material possessions says something about what we worship. We cannot serve two masters, he tells us. We either worship God or we worship Mammon (which is more than just money: it seems to be the spiritual force behind the love of money).

The point Jesus is making is this: God believes in monogamy. Not just in marriage, but in the life of the spirit, too. Only one can hold our adoration. Whatever commands our worship requires so much of us that we cannot possibly have anything left over for anything or anyone else in the same way. However much we attempt a spiritual version of bigamy by trying to retain an allegiance to money alongside devotion to God (rather like the youth group leader I mentioned in the introduction), in the end it just won’t work. We’ll have to choose.

Yet at the same time, we need money and material things for life. How do we decide what to do? What is an acceptable standard of living? Is it the same for everyone? Didn’t God make the material world good? How do we know when we’ve crossed the line from using something good as a servant into adoring it as an idol?

Here is where I return to the point I made in the first section about prayer. If prayer helps tease out issues of undiluted commitment, it will help here in distinguishing whether we are using something responsibly while retaining our devotion to God or trespassing in the land of idolatry.

As you know, I enjoy gadgets, and this can be a particular temptation for me. Some years ago, I was wondering whether to replace the computer I had. The one I had was getting old, and there was a good case for a new one. However, I was wary, because I knew I could deceive myself and come up with all sorts of reasons to buy a new PC, when really I might just have been lusting after the latest technological advances. So I prayed, and I left it with God.

What I didn’t know was the way one of my church members was praying for me at the time. One Saturday, she went down to the church building and prayed everywhere around it. while praying for me there, she distinctly heard the Holy Spirit speak to her and say, “Tell Dave he can have what he wants.” She relayed this message to me a day or two later. She had no idea I was thinking of buying a new computer: I had told nobody.

So I underline the point again: make it a habit to commit your financial and lifestyle decisions to God in prayer. Be willing to hear him say, ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘Wait’. If your worship is for Christ, you will want to do this.

The fourth and final aspect that Jesus addresses here is a practical one. He realises that some of his listeners will be thinking, “It’s all very well calling me to undiluted commitment, to generosity and to ensuring that I only worship God, but that all sounds expensive. How will I ever have enough to live on?” Jesus knows he needs to address the question of worry.

Sure enough, he reassures us about God’s special love and care for us. As human beings made in the image of God (unlike the rest of creation), we are worth more than ‘the birds of the air’ or ‘the flowers of the field’.

After that, you would expect the punch line to be about chilling out and trusting God. Jesus wants us to have faith, doesn’t he?

But it isn’t what he says. Or at least the kind of faith and trust Jesus calls us to is not of the quiet, serene, ‘let go and let God’ variety. His application is different: ‘seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (verse 33). Sure, don’t worry and obsess about your basic needs, because your heavenly Father will look after you. But neither should you just sit back: God is looking for those who are radically committed to his kingdom. The kingdom comes first, says Jesus. Concentrate on the great purposes of God. Yes, he will take care of us, but he isn’t our sugar daddy, he’s our Lord. We owe him our prime allegiance.

To return to the subject of my car: when my old car dramatically gave up the ghost last weekend – at 70 mph on the M25, near the Heathrow exit – it came at a bad time for us. We are still adjusting to the shock of the cost of living in Surrey. So many things are more expensive here, from DVD lending fees in the library to swimming lessons for the children. We are having to trim our spending, regardless of the recession. For the car to give up at this juncture was not the kind of timing we would have preferred.

Part of our praying, then, was not only about how much to spend. Even before that, it was about our desire to fulfil the will of the God who had led us here. Did I need a car to fulfil that will? Yes. What kind of car? A small one would be fine. Even within those parameters, we were still looking at spending more than we were keen to do. Yet God worked through various people who heard of our need and gave us gifts that considerably mitigated the negative effect upon our finances. He honoured our desire to be about his kingdom business.

I could tell you plenty of other stories. CAMEO heard on Wednesday an account of how God provided my funds to go to theological college. But I don’t have time to repeat that this morning, or to give other testimonies.

I do have time to say to you that it makes Jesus sense to put God at the centre of our lives. It makes Jesus sense to be generous givers, rather than mean takers. It makes Jesus sense to worship God rather than consumerism. And it makes Jesus sense to follow the kingdom passionately while we entrust the provision of our needs to our heavenly Father.

So why not live like this? We know it makes sense. Jesus sense.

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